Poetry Muse: Keith Garebian + In the Bowl of My Eye
An interview with Keith Garebian
1. Who or what is your muse?
The notion of a muse is dangerously problematic. I don’t even know who or what a muse is, apart from the classical ideas of muses. A poem is an artifice of language, though I do not mean to suggest something purely intellectual. At its heart is language, but the strongest poems have a lyrical urgency, and in my case, my best poems are often a brooding upon their subjects.
2. What inspired you when you started writing your poetry collection? And what is your creative process when you begin writing?
After my witness tetralogy (the prose memoir Pain: Journeys Around My Parents, and three poetry collections Children of Ararat, Poetry is Blood, and Against Forgetting), I felt I had covered a lot of vital ground about my mixed heritage, cross-generational trauma as the son of an Armenian genocide survivor, and the problems of being a “resident alien” in Canada. It was time to take a close look at my immediate environment — Mississauga/Lakeshore suburbia — but not write just a collection of nature poetry, but something that would interrogate or examine geography, sociology, a sense of time, and my relation to these themes.
I have no fixed creative process. All my writing (even my non-fiction) is eclectic because I am a voracious reader, and am hugely fond of movies, plays, music, painting, dance, etc. I leave myself open to stimuli from various genres and performing arts. In the case of In the Bowl of My Eye, I first turned to what I saw outside my condo apartment window on Lakeshore Road East — the lake, the park, the road — and then focused on neighbours and strangers I encountered in daily life. I tend to write towards a collection — not just disparate poems — and my poems can be generated from various things: another poem by another poet; a piece of music; a painting; a film; a real-life anecdote, etc. I happen to be a quick writer — have always been so, going back to my high school days. But I can only write a poem when an image or a rhythm and a compulsion take hold. I sometimes write a few lines longhand on paper, but usually directly at my computer. And often I write several poems before deciding to revise or throw out some. I have no fixed time for writing: I could write early in the morning, in an afternoon, an evening, or very late at night. It depends how strongly or deeply I am held by the excitement of an inspiration. But while I am working towards a particular collection, I never stop reading other poets because you never know what unexpected discoveries, insights, styles you will experience that could enrichen your own.
3. When did you start writing poetry and why did you choose to write poetry over other forms of literature?
Like many others, I wrote poems when I was still in high school, but they were awful because though I had to study the usual literary suspects — mainly British — I wrote what I would call diaristic or flabby prosaic things without any real literary merit. However, when I was doing my Ph.D. at Queen’s, I started to be more serious, though, again, I was always an occasional poet, that is, one who wrote only on occasion and not in any rigorous fashion and certainly not frequently. However, there were a few not-so-bad poems that did get published in journals, so I felt I could write more poetry. When I became a freelance reviewer in Montreal, I wrote more poems, and I shared very shyly two or three with Irving Layton (including one about a character in a Patrick White novel) who had sent me a letter of praise about a book review I had done for (I think) The Montreal Star, and to my surprise he liked them enough to share them with his ex-wife Aviva and to encourage me to write more. Then when my prose memoir Pain appeared in 2000, and I received many compliments for the prose poems in that book, I realized that, perhaps, I should start concentrating more on poetry. I always knew I was sensitive to language and to the musicality of language, and having been a student actor at university, and then in community theatre, and, of course, when I became a theatre critic and scholar, I grew increasingly interested in personae or masks.
I wanted to test my literary versatility with a shorter form, and poetry was that for me. When I say a shorter form, I am not in any way diminishing the value or scope of poetry. But we all know that a short story or novel or a book about theatre requires a more expansive physical focus and exploration, as well as a work time than a lyric poem. However, good poetry, like the other longer prose forms, is always consciousness-raising, as Phyllis Webb maintained.
4. How would you describe your poetry collection?
The new collection pays attention to inner and outer realities of place and psyche, turning conventional landscape poetry inside-out. Focusing on the Lakeshore Road area of Mississauga/Etobicoke, I explore small and large things, creating a space in which inner and outer landscapes connect, thereby resulting in a poetic vessel of cognition, perception, and sensitivity. Meditatively alert, these poems open up perceptions of a sentient world within a specific geography, history, and sociology, while providing insights into suburbia and some of its characters, including the poet and his own personal life. The world of lake, park, and road is conjoined with a suburban world of apartment, shopping mall, immigrants, and fraught lives with passionate vividness and through language that has a deep-rooted sense of mood, tone, and melody.
5. What advice would you give to aspiring poets?
Read as many poets — Canadian and international — as you can in order to learn from your betters or the masters in that genre. Any serious poet should pay attention to technique, but, of course, the first thing is to pay attention to your world outside yourself but also the one within yourself. Don Domanski, a master poet, pointed out that a poet is not an instance of a single hand holding a pen or moving across a page, but is someone who has a sense of connectiveness. In other words, a poem has something of the poet in it, as well as far more of the world, which includes other poets.
Second, never worry about trying to have a single signature as a writer. I believe in versatility, for isn’t all creation by nature an act of becoming? And becoming implies change, modification, development.
6. Are there any poets or poetry collections that you admire?
Too many to list in full here, but most recently I read with immense pleasure The Untranslatable I by Roxanna Bennett, Resurrection Fail by John Wall Barger, The Bad Wife by Micheline Maylor, Blue Suitcase by Jim Nason, Shape Taking by Elana Wolff, The Land of Bliss by Cathy Song, Our Bodies’ Unanswered Questions by Wendy Donawa, No Sign by Peter Balakian, Strangers by Rob Taylor, Answer to Blue by Russell Thornton, Who We Thought We Were as We Fell by Michael Lithgow, The Lost Time Accidents by Sile Englert, and a mammoth collection, Darkness Spoken by Ingeborg Bachmann that I have not finished. I could easily add another dozen or more poets/collections here that deserve a second or third reading, and some of these are by friends or colleagues who probably know how highly I think of them. I am not one who is reticent about offering praise when it is richly deserved. I should add that I am particularly pleased to read our best First Nations, gay/lesbian/transgender, Black, and Asian poets.
Two poems from In the Bowl of My Eye: "Study of Lake 1" & "2"
Study of Lake (I)
Stretch of blue mind
floating past different cities.
Nothing holds you.
Light on the opposite shore,
repetitive yachts, forming wake
churning on to fat salmon
for the great hunt in July.
Gulls peck rubbish on the thin beach,
high above the water line,
curious traffic in the park
where leaves, bruised by sunlight,
tell me what they are going through.
Lake, object of ardour
as lovers cling to each other,
above their shadows,
always returning to you.
Ears filled with sound,
shells waiting to hear
blue or silver clarities,
veils of water opening like air.
Study of Lake (2)
The best way to see the lake
is being far enough from it
so as not to disturb it
by close-up eyes.
No corner in it for my heart.
No heart but its own.
A creature enclosed in itself,
defined by itself, without conditionals.
Diamonds of light within
its lustrous water.
Sun polished, newly washed.
A mirror for natural nakedness.
Entire emptiness endless.
Or so it seems
to the naked eye.
Lake it somehow a void.
Yet altogether a place.
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Keith Garebian (Armenian father and Anglo-Indian mother) was born in Bombay, India, and immigrated to Canada in 1961. Following his PhD in Canadian and Commonwealth Literature from Queen’s University, he began his freelance career as literary and theatre critic, producing over two dozen books, two chapbooks, and hundreds of articles, features, interviews, and reviews. A resident of Mississauga, he has won numerous nominations and awards, including the William Saroyan Medal (Armenia) and four Mississauga Arts Awards.
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