A Path to Poetry When You Have No Words and Then Find Them

Icelandic is a beautiful language that rolls around in the mouth like pebbles in surf, but it is a little hard to absorb all at once. Let me show you the solution I found in my new book Landings, but first, so you can experience the dislocation of a language at once familiar and strange, here’s some Icelandic, complete with Microsoft’s error warnings:

And a photo to go with it, way off in the East Fjords, which is as far from Reykjavík as you can get before you start swimming to Scotland:

So, that’s nice, right?

Here’s the info in that wayward dialect of Icelandic now called English:

Microsoft is still coughing a little out in its Seattle suburb, but you get the drift. But what if you’re doing this up the next fjord, in a little room at the novelist Gunnar Gunnarsson’s house, a kind of stone novel on an old monastery site…

…where you’ve been alone with Icelandic books for weeks…

The Lower Shelf Shows the Abandoned Strategies of Previous Artists in Residence

…and have been wind-blown all day? What then? I was just too tired for words in any language, so I tried mathematics instead, on the principle that math is music:

So, wind at any rate! There were ravens.

There were always ravens.

In many countries, they are birds, but in Iceland ravens are Thought and Memory, the capacities of human consciousness that create Mind and Consciousness, except here they are out in the world, not within human selves alone.

Oðinn did that by throwing his eye into the pool at the bottom of the world and getting, surprise!, the ravens as a replacement.

So, what to do with that? What started as an experience with no words had become the experience of having no self, or having the Earth as one! How do you share that? Well, I gave it a go, using the poetic form of a quickly sketched compass, the same four-part shape that was used as an oral map of Iceland 1100 years ago (and today):

Ravens wheeling over the cliff faces

Well, that was fun, so I turned the page. After all, it had started snowing outside…

… with big wet flakes coming down sideways and swirling around any building that blocked it:

It went on like that for days, with the raven tracking me up the canyon in case a) I dropped a sandwich, b) slaughtered a sheep or c) lost my footing and became lunch…

… and exhausted at night, full of a language I could only understand peripherally, but which was taking over my mind and settling it out in a new shape. Eventually, it became a game of Where’s the Raven Now?

Raven Compass, Tricky-like

The answer was in plain sight, of course, but had to lead first to its natural conclusion through the path of self-negation. So, you guessed it, more math, like this:

I had moved on to a second notebook by this point.

And I left it like that. My time in Iceland had run out. Still, I came back three years later and this time, in my exhausted evenings, travelling around the country, I wrote poems in words (of all things!) at night and, look at that, essentially they were the same poem as the visual artifacts from the trip before, except my English had become closer to Icelandic, elemental, like this:

from “A Prayer Before You Wake” in Landings: Poems from Iceland

There’s more than one way to poetry. Some, like this, lead away from poetry to the world, and find their mind, and self, there. It’s a place almost wordless, as Icelandic began for me, but not quite. Physical things are words there, just always on the edge of understanding and quickly flying beyond it into presence, not just of those living today but of those who have woven Earth and words for a thousand years and more. Here’s how I first put after I came home, if one can even leave such a place to go to another:

Photographs can’t quite pull this weaving off, but poems can, because they’re written by reader, writer and Earth at the same time. The path we walk today, whether it’s across a mountain’s back or through a poem, stretches back generations.

Such is reading a poem, too, especially with poems like those in Landings, which are the Earth and a compass at the same time…

… waking together as an island and an eye.

Stone Raven With a Glass Eye on the Beach at Hellissandur

Until the New Year, if you buy a copy of Landings, I will throw in a free copy of my book of German travel poems, Taking the Breath Away, for $30, postage included in Canada. That’s a $48 value. As the poet Pat Lane said of Taking the Breath Away

Landings: $20 + Postage $14 + Taking the Breath Away $14 = $30.


Walking the Path of the World

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?

Raven sings.

raven Raven, Columbia Gorge


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.