Bruce Whiteman was born near Toronto in 1952 and was educated at the University of Toronto, Trent University, and UCLA. He has degrees in English literature, library science, and musicology, and until 2010 worked as a rare book specialist at McMaster University, McGill University, and UCLA.
He has published many books of poetry, including a long poem in several books entitled The Invisible World Is in Decline (1984, 1989, 2000, and 2006, with Book VII, Intimate Letters, just out in the fall of 2014 from ECW Press). A collection of shorter poems entitled Tablature is due from McGill-Queen's University Press in the spring of 2015. Whiteman has also published widely as a book reviewer in both Canada and the United States.
His other books include a study of English publishing in Quebec, a book on Group of Seven artist J.E.H. MacDonald, a descriptive bibliography of poet Raymond Souster, and editions of letters of the poets Ralph Gustafson and W.W.E. Ross and of critic and poet John Sutherland, as well as a major exhibition catalogue entitled The World From Here: Treasures of the Great Libraries of Los Angeles.
In addition to his own poetry, Whiteman has published translations from French (Québecois poet François Charron) and Latin (Tiberianus’ poem Pervigilium Veneris).
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I cannot say that it really changed my life, although it was exciting to have in the world. I did two tiny self-produced chapbooks with a friend in the mid-70s, but I pretty much disown them now. My next two were small-scale affairs as well, but they feel more like my real first books. Cary Fagan did one in an edition of 300 copies, and the other I co-produced with my painter friend Milt Jewell in a larger edition, 500 I think. Those contain the first poems I acknowledge and am not ashamed of forty-some-odd years later.
As for how those poems relate to what I do now, there's very little connection, really. I gave up on the lyric poem in 1980, so the earlier work sounds quite foreign to me now, despite a recent reversion to traditional lineated poetry that Ken Norris fomented a few years ago when I was in a very difficult situation emotionally. The poet who writes The Invisible World Is in Decline has a tough time relating to the poet who in his twenties wrote pretty directly about the usual lyric concerns. Things like love and death are intergeneric, obviously, but my heart is in a different world from the one it inhabited in 1978.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I was certainly reading in all three forms in high school. I was crazy about Joyce and Virginia Woolf, for example. But an older brother introduced me to Eliot's The Waste Land when I was around fifteen, and I was hooked immediately. Its range of reference and intelligence was impressive, but its emotional range was striking too, even if now I see its emotional assumptions as dark and unattractive, dangerous even. Poetry also seemed more accessible for the expression of teenage experiences like unrequited love, family divorce, and so on. Essays were what one wrote in school.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It depends on what I am working with. The long poem is always there, asleep or dozing on my desk, and when I am ready to go on with it, it's more available than other writing because I am not forever starting from nothing, from scratch. That doesn't mean that individual poems can't be hard or problematic; but at least the greater context doesn't have to be invented each time. With every poem, it's always the opening line that is the hardest. Something has to occur, with possibility. Sometimes it does, more often than not it doesn't or gets written with extreme difficulty. But usually, with the first line on the page, the rest of the poem is not so exigent. The ending, again, can be confounding, hard to listen for.
I don't write a lot of drafts. I'm constantly correcting, adding, subtracting as I go along, re-reading what's there, editing on the fly. So usually, when I finish, while the poem may not be perfect, it's pretty close to what I want. I pay very, very close attention to poetic music, and as long as the music is in the poem, it will be close to right the first time.
Poetry rarely comes out of notes for me. It's grabbed out of what Yeats, I think, called "the live air."
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
Well again, with the long poem it's always a book from the beginning. It will not be pre-planned for the most part, not designed architectonically or anything, because I want the work itself to lead, not to follow. With the sequence that begins Book VIII that I am writing thee days, I did decide on a context, that the poems would engage with the Ovidian text Tristia, which he wrote after Augustus Caesar banished him to present-day Romania, because I needed to explore the idea of emotional exile. I even quite doggedly read the Ovid in Latin and did, for once, make a few notes, recorded a few phrases I wanted to invoke.
With the lined poems, well, they are more occasional and in some sense accumulate rather than being written within a sequence. I have a book of these coming out from McGill-Queen's in the spring of 2015 entitled Tablature, and the construction of the collection is not just random, not at all; but the poems were written more as sighs and groans and out of high blood pressure, so to speak, than to any plan made in advance.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do like reading in public. In part it's because I think poetry needs to be vocalized in order properly to hear its music. But I also like the immediacy of reading to other people, especially to strangers. Feedback is always a good thing, and the questions that listeners come up with, while they can sometimes be banal or repetitive, can also be incredibly provocative. I was asked at a recent reading about melody, and I realized that I didn't really have a take on melody in poetry, despite my constant musical preoccupations. That was great. I'm thinking about it now.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
Theory. Well sure. I am never going to write an "Art poétique," but I do constantly think about what poetry is and what it does. I have a slightly dysfunctional relationship to the word "theory" because of its commandeering by the Academy over the last few decades in ways that, mostly, did not interest me much, or rather in ways that produced bad writing. My move from lyric poetry to the prose poem was definitely a theoretical alteration, undertaken because I wanted my poetry to stop witnessing little beyond my personal experiences and to come out of an engagement with the body, with light, with language as discovered rather than imposed.
But poems that try to answer questions, or that are self-consciously engaged with "the current questions" are usually drab and almost always sound fanées fast. That said, poets, bless them, are usually alive to whatever is of concern to the culture or the zeitgeist, to use an old-fashioned term, and inevitably their poems will engage with "the current questions" even when they are not specifically designed to doing so.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
Poets these days don't get much respect. The culture is quite adept at ignoring poetry. Just look at the book pages of the three Toronto newspapers: fiction reigneth supreme. I know it sounds dumb, but the role of the poet, really, is to write poems that are engaging and lasting. Poems that are passionate, musical, alive in their language.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
The editors I have worked with over the decades have always made my books better. I don't need to be told about comma splices and subject-verb agreement, but when poems are relatively fresh, it isn't always easy to hear them right. Another's perceptions are essential. I would never give a book to the world without having the benefit of an editor.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
I don't know about "advice," but I have always liked Basil Bunting's statement in the preface to his Collected Poems: "With sleights learned from others and an ear open to melodic analogies I have set down words as a musician pricks his score, not to be read in silence, but to trace in the air a pattern of sound that may sometimes, I hope, be pleasing." That's a very, very high aspiration for a poet. Hard work ensues.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose to children's poems to classical music writing)? What do you see as the appeal?
The genres fertilize each other really. My interest in classical music is older even than my recognitions in poetry, and I constantly listen to works, write about them sometimes, and let them train and shape my ear. That ear is the essential aspect of writing poetry in my view, so music and poems are forever in a conversation. I am interested in the neuroscience of hearing and recently talked to a poetry class about tone deafness, what scientists prefer to call a lack of pitch discrimination. It seems to be centered in the arcuate fasciculus and is bilateral. I also spent a day or two last month thinking about the possibility of writing a poem in a specific key. Can one write a poem in D-flat major? That may sound idiotic, but it's this sort of cross-fertilization that interests me.
Reviews come out of commissions mostly, but even reviews can be stimulating to the main work. It's good to read all kinds of writing. I recently reviewed Diane Ackerman's The Human Age for a newspaper, and was struck by how wonderfully she puts together sentences. Of course I am hardly the first person to notice that.
As for children's poems, they are a new thing for me, and grew out of wanting to write something that my four-year old twin boys could enjoy. I discovered that I have a talent, I think, for metre and rhyme, something I usually do not think about directly in my poems for grown-ups. It's awfully engaging to write poems that must be direct and comprehensible to children. Not easier, by any means! I go through more drafts of a kids' poem than I do for a piece intended to be part of my long poem, that's for sure.
I taught myself, late, how to write the lyric essay, or an extended version of it, by writing a 30,000-word memoir last fall. It won't ever be published, but it was a good experience in so many ways, not least because the writing itself fell into a genre I had not attempted before, and I learned the arc of a long prose form and how to tie it to lyric moments from a part of my life that was extremely painful. So, again, all kinds of writing feed each other, and moving among them is always a good thing.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;