Peter Norman Interview @ The Torontoist
My interview with newly-relocated-to-Toronto poet Peter Norman is now up at the Books.Torontoist website, as part of our continuing “Critical Interview” series. Peter’s book is called At the Gates of the Theme Park, is from Mansfield Press, and is really great. I feel like this has been a somewhat muted year for Canadian poetry so far (there just haven’t been that many books that I L-O-V-E-D), but it’s been given a regular series of awakenings by a bumper crop of excellent first collections. There. That’s my unofficial, non-voting, Lampert Award ballot for next year. Right there at the end of that sentence. Anyway, the interview is long, and goes into lots of cool, unexpected places. Here’s a taste, but here’s the whole meal.
JMM: I wonder where your musical decisions come from at the “writing stage.” Do you think certain ideas have essential music that the poem’s then tasked with finding out? Does sound ever lead sense, or is it always about adorning the idea (the trellis) with as interesting a musical score as you can make for it? To me, it seems like a worryingly secondary role for sound to play, that of the sugar to sense’s medicine. Is it always like you’ve described, the sound weaving around the structure?
PN: Yeah, maybe I should take back the trellis analogy. Like you, I’d find it worrisome to cast sound as the plant that has to yield when it strikes the sterner wood. So here’s another analogy. On those occasions when an idea prompts a poem, the idea is not a trellis, it’s a springboard. It helps the gymnast off the ground, but the good stuff comes afterward—the flips and contortions, the actual athletics. This is not a metaphor of staggering originality (neither was the trellis), but it is a better fit.
I’m happy to let sound lead sense—or, more accurately, lead me to sense—but I do want to reach sense in the end. Not sure why. I enjoy lots of poetry that dumps meaning in favour of pure music, but I do want my own stuff to make “sense,” at least at the grammatical level. Recognizing, of course, that ideas like “sense” and “grammar” are slippery.
Do certain ideas have an essential music? Probably not. A poet grappling with a subject seeks out her music for it, the music that embodies her approach to it. Poets make music about the world; I doubt they uncover a music already there.
But I may have missed your point: you’re asking about ideas, not the exterior world. An idea comes from a mind, and the mind probably knows the most suitable music with which to express its idea. The best poems embody their content so thoroughly that the idea becomes inextricable from its wording. The medium perfects the message. If a message won’t benefit from the medium of poetry, it should be stated artlessly and sent right away. When you have to call 911, don’t bother crafting a poem of it.
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