All Lit Up: Tell us about your collection.
Patrick Friesen: Songen is a collection of poems that emerged out of several sources. For some reason, in beginning a new poem with a comma after the first word, my attention was caught by the look of the comma, and by its various possible uses. I began playing around with an excessive use of them, seeing what effect they had, on rhythm for example. At the same time I had been re-reading Chaucer and thinking of the fact that my first language/dialect, Low German, was a Saxon language, the same as English. While one language became one of the most important languages in the world, the other remained a dialect until the 1970s used by a fairly small group of people. A lot of Middle English sounds like Low German to me, so I began exploring how Middle English, Low German, High German, etc. could work in poems written in contemporary English. I also decided that each poem would be one sentence, though the sentences were usually not grammatically correct, but then what we see as correct grammar is just one of many grammars, one that has been agreed upon. Poems ended up being between 8 and 14 lines. Each sentence was one unit of a “thinking process,” broken or joined by commas. That is how this collection began.
ALU: Do you have any steadfast writing rituals?
PF: Yes, I do have consistent writing rituals. Though I typically write at various times during the day as well, the bulk of my writing happens between 11pm and 2am. Partly, it’s the feeling of being the only person alive on earth. The sounds of the world have largely faded away. For me, night brings something out, something I can’t name, a more direct access to the unconscious, perhaps. I usually put on some music as I write, choosing what fits my “mood” at the time, but it’s often jazz or classical. I print all my work on blue paper, something I’ve done for 40 years ever since the day I couldn’t find white paper at the job I had and used blue; I liked the feel of words on the blue surface. I don’t make many edits without printing first. I will edit with pencil on the hard copy of the poem, then transfer those edits to the screen. Of course, sometimes the edits come immediately, before I’ve printed out a copy of the poem, but I like to have hard copy to see what the poem was, and what I’ve done with it, what I’m doing with it.
ALU: What books are you currently reading?
PF: Recently I’ve been rereading a lot. Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by Joyce, for example, for the music of the language. Right now I’m re-reading Heart of Darkness by Conrad, I think for the imagery. At the same time I’m dipping into Dreamtime by John Moriarty, who taught at the University of Manitoba during the time I attended in the late 60s. It’s a difficult book that seems to be trying to weave together as many world mythologies as possible, and it’s wonderful for nudging me into writing; there are so many resonances on each page. I read the biography of Leonardo Da Vinci by Walter Isaacson not long ago as well. And more re-reading, the poetry of Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva and George Amabile’s Tasting the Dark, his selected and new poems of a few years ago.
ALU: What, outside of other books/writers, inspires your writing?
PF: My primary inspiration is music. There are specific composers/musicians I tend to listen to a lot, Arvo Pärt, Mozart, Loreena McKennitt, Strauss’s Four Last Songs, Bill Evans, Schubert, various Russian Orthodox liturgical music, some Celtic music, Van Morrison, The Band, as examples. There are many more. I’ll listen to someone every day for a period of time, then maybe not for months or years. Music has a deep effect on my writing; the images created by sound and, especially voice, the rhythms of musical lines, etc. At one time, years ago, Bill Evans’ long flowing improvisational lines had an impact on how I constructed my own long lines. Music is a fundamental language for me. My great-grandmother Anna, my grandfather Jacob, and my mother Margaret are all inspirations to me. They each carried mischief, curiosity and compassion. I’m also inspired by the lives of some of the artists I’ve known, some who achieved “success,” as it’s usually defined, and some who didn’t, but artists who are/were authentic in their work, doing their work for the sake of that work. Some of them are gone now, but their gifts, the conversations I had with them, these I remember.
thrilling, in the early morning light
thrilling, in the early morning light, a cool
june sky, and you, with your blackbird dna,
sitting on the grassy shoulder of a gravel road,
listening to the marsh, songers riding
cattails, unchapeled, flitting and trilling
a capella sparks, you have legged it this far,
and no further, you have paused at your
house, your found place, but you will forget
and be caught in the world and possessed,
you will stand at intersections, in museums,
until, again, the moment arrives, unbidden,
for you to go lost, walking down an empty
street, careless along a country road, and
them birds still trilling like it’s the fifth of
july, and you just born.
–From Songen by Patrick Friesen (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2018)
Patrick Friesen, formerly of Winnipeg, now lives in Victoria. He writes poetry, essays, drama, song lyrics and text for dance and music; he has also co-translated several Danish poetry books with P. K. Brask. He has collaborated with various musicians, choreographers and dancers and has recorded CDs of text and improv music with Marilyn Lerner, Peggy Lee and Niko Friesen. He was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in 1997, the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in BC in 1998 and 2003, the Griffin Poetry Prize (a co-translation with Per Brask of Frayed Opus For Strings & Wind Instruments by Danish poet Ulrikka Gernes) in 2016, and the Fred Cogswell Award For Excellence in Poetry in 2016. He received the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award in Manitoba in 1996 and the ReLit Award for poetry in 2012. In 2018 his play A Short History of Crazy Bone was staged by Theatre Projects Manitoba in March.
Photo credit: Xan Shian