There’s a Poem for That: Sid Marty + Oldman’s River

Poet and musician Sid Marty regales us with his storied history living close to wild nature, and a poem from his new collection Oldman’s River (NeWest Press).


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There's a poem for that... NPM on All Lit Up.

An interview with poet Sid Marty

All Lit Up: Can you tell us a bit about Oldman’s River and how it came to be?

The cover of Oldman's River by Sid Marty.

Sid Marty: Oldman’s River: New and Collected Poems is a work fifty years in the making. It is a book strongly influenced by the landscapes of Alberta and British Columbia and a life lived close to wild nature. But the lens at first is more urban since it begins with the first poems I published in literary magazines beginning in about l966 while a student in Montreal. The focus moves to a more historical concern with the Alberta prairies where my ancestors tried to grow wheat in the desert sandhills. Then it “gains altitude” as I write about my life in the mountains where I worked as a national park warden for some years, and many of those themes are continued when our family moved to ranching country in the Alberta foothills. I suppose one motivation for this collection is the fact that given my age, I may or may not be around to produce another new book of poetry, though I continue to write both poetry and prose to this day. I also wanted to ensure that poems of mine which may be difficult to access given the decades having passed since they first appeared now have a chance to be discovered in the current era. 

ALU: What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

SM: One of my most unlikely sources of inspiration came about when I broke a leg while on avalanche control duty in Banff National Park where I worked as a national park warden, then tripped over a vacuum cleaner at home with the cast still on my leg. Another came about when I lost a duel with a recalcitrant washing machine as Writer-in-Residence at the Banff School of Fine Arts. One may note from this that humour, along with the occasional domestic appliance, is sometimes a real element in my poetry.   

ALU: What sparked your initial love of poetry?

SM: Oddly enough this probably came about from reading children’s books that were basically prose, but with poetic overtones. Wind in the Willows and Alice in Wonderland come to mind. “Jabberwocky” has stuck in my head ever since, a delightful bit of nonsense that somehow made sense: “Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/ Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;/ All mimsy were the borogoves,” And the mome raths outgrabe.” I was already gifted with a love of words, but examples like this as well as the classic rhymers of the English literary canon soon had me trying to write verse. Many snatches of verse from John Donne echo in my mind and I’m still going “[…] down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky” to find a tall ship with John Masefield or raging against the “dying of the light” with Dylan Thomas. I think I was nineteen when I discovered Cohen’s Spice Box of Earth, and that’s when the possibilities of free verse really opened my eye to what poetry in our own age could become. 

ALU: Can you discuss the significance of language and word choice in your collection? How did you land on which words to use?

SM: When I came to write poems about the mountains, I found that most of those who had come before me were writing from the tourist’s point of view, whereas I was living and working in the mountains. The language of the mountains that I heard was that used by the locals and especially by old-timers who had a much stronger sense of oral traditions. That was what I wanted to incorporate in my texts, writing from the inside looking out rather than the opposite. You will find some of that kind of language in Gary Snyder and a few other poets. In Snyder’s case it was often the view of the fire lookout, whereas mine is more about action and interaction rather than observation and contemplation. Therefore in my work you will find phrases like “throwing the diamond” (a reference to the hitch used on pack horse loads) or words like “shintangle,” “krummholz,” “widowmaker,” “crocked-up,” “ram-rodder,”and “siwashing” — many of which will have to be read in context to be defined for the reader. 

ALU: If you were to set your collection to a soundtrack, what song is at the top of the listing? 

SM: Can’t be just one song.  Probably Fred Neil, especially “Dolphins” and “Fools Are a Long Time Coming” a “Little Bit of Rain” and “I’ve Got A Secret.”  

There’s a poem for unplugging…
“High-Speed Internet” from Oldman’s River

You wanted the higher speed
to find the words, to find
facts, to wage
arguments faster
to save
the land; to save the mountain.

They put a tower on the mountain.

Look how a small steel tower
can shrink the pride
of the sublime.

But it sends the words you need.

Now so many words fall on your roof,
dying birds caught
in an acid rain.

This tower on the summit ridge
powers the data stream,
but not for long; the wild west wind
bends the solar panels
on their steel frame,

batteries run low,
back-up diesel kicking in
saves the day, except
bent panels funnel snow
right down the breather tube.

The wind packs it in;
diesel chokes, and dies.

Computers can’t make
electronic handshakes,

Gmail won’t deliver,
Twitter cannot tweet

Facebook blushes and fades to black
as the internet goes down.

Now we have time to think
about what we mean to save
and how to save it.

we have time to listen.

So let us listen, then,
if only for a day,
to what the mountain has to say.

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Author photo: Western Folklife Centre, Elko Nevada. Photograph by Jessica Brandi Lifland

Sid Marty is a poet, author and musician based near the communities of Pincher Creek and the Crowsnest Pass. He is the author of five books of poetry and five nonfiction works. Though best known as a nonfiction author,  he began his career as a poet. His first book, Headwaters (1973) was published to widespread national acclaim. Over the years, he has continued to publish poems in books, school texts, anthologies and magazines. Oldman’s River  is the culmination of all that dedication to the “crafte so longe to lerne.” A collection both published and new. 

* * *

Thanks to Marty for answering our questions, and to the folks at NeWest Press for the text of “High-Speed Internet” from Oldman’s River. which is available to order now (and get 15% off with the code THERESAPROMO4THAT until April 30!).

For more poetry month, catch up on our “there’s a poem for that” series here, and visit our poetry shop here.