The poet Daniela Elza has generously invited me to continue a conversation about books, called “The Next Big Thing.” Her opener is here. As this book is a collection of long poems, I hope it can join the conversation. The conversation takes the form of an interview by a text of a human talking about a text as if the human wrote it.
What is the working title of your next book?
Northwest. Here’s one of my co-writers …
A Buck Swims the Hanford Reach…
…towards the reactors.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
I was at the League of Canadian Poets convention in the Canadian city of Vancouver in 2008. The Canadian poet Nancy Holmes admonished all present to learn what she called “your history.” She went on to quote a long list of important, historical Canadian poets. I realized that I was in the wrong room, as “my history” and my land (the Okanagan, Okanogan, Sinlahekin and other valleys and deserts that make up the Northern half of the Columbia Plateau) is part of the Northwest. It belongs more to Oregon and Washington and Idaho than to Vancouver or Canada. I also realized that my poetic traditions predate the arrival of Canlit in British Columbia in the late 1970s. Even seminal “Canadian” events like the War of 1812 entered my country through the U.S.A., rather than from Ontario or Quebec, through the filter of refugees from such battles as the Cayuse War, the Yakima War, and the Nez Perce War. I left the conference, drove down to Astoria, Oregon, and followed my river, the Columbia, home from the sea, like a salmon. The book came quickly after that.
Almost Home …
The Similkameen, near Nighthawk, Washington. The sacred peaks, Hurley Peak and Chopaka, are in the background.
What genre does your book fall under?
I dried to drop it, but it flew. It’s the kind of book built out of words. The words are poetry. The lines are long. The language is oral, in both Chinook trade jargon and English. The book sings. It chants. It howls. It speaks the real names of this place. It praises, above all. It is about the salmon coming home. It is about living in one country without borders. If it has a genre, it’s a Northwest book of Shanties, to use the Chinook word for songs.
What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Yellow Wolf and Joseph of the Nez Perce, even if they have to show up only in spirit. Ian McKellen. Adam Beach. Evan Adams. Irene Bedard. The sound track would be Tsinuk drumming tracks, worked into a score by Michael Nyman.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
After thirty-five years, a poet and his friend Coyote follow the salmon home to write the book that Pound might have written had he gone to the Northwest and done the real work.
Ancestor, Okanagan Falls
The Okanagan Salmon are barred from the valley at the dam at the bottom of Dog Lake, just a kilometre south of this point.
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It will be published by Ronsdale Press.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
Thirty-five years. 16,000 years. A lifetime. Every poet tries and tries to write one poem. This is my poem.
Early Draft of Northwest
Then it found its words.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
The ancient stories of the Northwest. The Cantos, by Ezra Pound. Zone Journals, by Charles Wright. Voice, My Shaman, by Charles Lillard. Deathwatch on Skidegate Narrows, by Sean Virgo. Axion Esti, by Odysseus Elytis. The stories of Harry Robinson.
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
That’s a better question. Sherman Alexie’s The Pow-Wow at the End of the World. The writing of Motherstone: British Columbia’s Volcanic Plateau, in which I found the bones of this land. My old walking buddy, Coyote. The Sugarcane Father’s Day Pow-Wow of 2007, which brought me a second place prize in the CBC Literary competition (which is in this book). On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, by Iamblichus, a revised translation of which won the Malahat Long Poem Prize (large sections of it are in this book as well), before I was barred from entering the contest for winning twice. With no more outlet for long poetry, I wrote this book of long pieces instead. The University of British Columbia, for presenting a view of poetry as a personal, lyrical, global project, drawing exclusively on North American English speaking traditions, that drove me to write instead what I knew: a land and its people across time and space. Janice Frank, for welcoming me into her Secwepemc language class (for two years) in 100 Mile House and showing me the true meaning of respect. Ultimately, Charles Lillard, who showed us the way but died too young, before he finished, and Robin Skelton who worked with him on the Northwest Renaissance project. This is a part of that project, a few decades after Canadian Literature took over the helm in this place. Pound, always. The Columbia Plateau. St. Mary’s Mission in Colville, Washington, and the Kettle Falls that are no more. The ecologist Ordell Steen, for taking me out to the Junction Sheep Range and showing me the story I already knew, about the grass, and finding words for it, together, in Spirit in the Grass. Long talks with Van Egan, Roderick Haig-Brown’s friend in Campbell River, about becoming the river, which became the text of the first Roderick Haig-Brown Memorial Lecture. The Last Great Sea, by Terry Glavin. The Earth. All the ancestors.
What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?
The discussion is set up as a game of tag, in which each human gets to tag another human to be interviewed by the text. I’m going to use the opportunity to tag five other books. Rather than having them interview humans, I will interview them instead. These are:
The Art of Haying, about the world past the age of the book. Meditations. and An Expedition to Iceland, about Old Norse and English. Poems.
The Book and the Goat, platonic dialogues between a book and its critic. Philosophy.
White Noise, a pilgrimage on the Camino through East Germany. The third volume in the Faust trilogy. The other two were written by Goethe. At the middle lies Buchenwald, which was built to imprison Goethe. Really.
Atomic Okanagan, or Back to the Interior, a memoir built around the effects of the Manhattan Project of the Central Columbia on the Okanagan Valley (in territory claimed by Canada).
Planet of the Sun, a book of environmental science and writing, built around the explorations here, and its companion, The Terroir of Riesling, part of a project of transforming literature into agro-ecological writing.
I know that to follow the rules of this game I should be tagging poets from my country and my culture, who are going to be the Next Big Thing. I would love to meet such poets. As for the Next Big Thing, I lost my identity in East Germany and have spent four years now building a new one. It doesn’t include the ability to turn myself into an article of commerce anymore. My trip became a pilgrimage, not through identity but through the world, deeply immersed in the communist-post-communist-and-capitalist nuances of the fall of East Germany. I found my way home in No Man’s Land between them, but it was touch and go. Each of the books above has been written by a different person. I am none of them. So it is in my country. I hope it will do, Daniela. Blessings.