Keith Garebian [photo credit: Elisabeth Feryn] of Mississauga holds a Doctorate in Canadian and Commonwealth Literature from Queen’s University, and has published 26 books to date, 8 of poetry. He was shortlisted for the 2014 Freefall Poetry Award, the 2015 GritLit Poetry Award, and the 2015 Gwendolyn MacEwen-Exile Poetry Award for the Best Single Poem from a suite. In 2013, he was a judge for the Gerald Lampert Poetry Award. His eighth poetry collection, Against Forgetting, was published by Frontenac in September 2019.
How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My first book was a critical introduction to the writing of Hugh Hood. It was published by Twayne in 1983 when I was teaching high school and between stints of part-time university teaching (at McGill, Concordia, and Trent), so it was my entrée, as it were, into academic writing, though, of course, I had already published numerous essays and pieces of literary criticism in journals and newspapers. It gave me some status as a freelance literary critic and as a university lecturer. It wasn’t till twenty years later that I brought out my first book of poetry (Reservoir of Ancestors), which was very much a beginner’s collection, with some fine poems among others that had far less technical sophistication. But even that book showed some of the predominant themes in my poetic oeuvre: historical and personal trauma, generational conflict, the outsider, poetry of voice.
How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
As a child, one is not totally aware of the distinction between these genres, but on a more serious note, I did not come to poetry first, as my previous answer outlines. Of course, as a teenager and undergraduate student, I wrote execrable stuff, thinking that it was poetry, but it wasn’t till my post-modern memoir, Pain: Journeys Around My Parents (2000), that contained some prose poems in a field of diverse forms (epigram, anecdote, documentary history, autobiographical narrative, meditative sections) which many readers liked, that the possibility of poetry as a vocation took root in me. Irving Layton, whom I had befriended in Montreal (where I lived for 21 years before moving to Ontario), had liked a couple of free verse poems I showed him and told me I should write more poetry, over my objections that I was primarily a non-fiction writer (chiefly of theatre and literary criticism). I wondered what he knew about my writing that I hadn’t known myself. This led to my extensive reading of other poets and the production of several poetry collections.
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?
The initial impulse to begin a project varies from project to project. Once I have decided on an overall subject, my poems come quickly, in general. This has been true, as well, of my non-fiction. Even in school, I was very quick with essays, sometimes to the shock of my teachers, but there have been cases where the first draft has had to undergo major alterations. And, again, depending on my overall subject, sometimes I keep copious notes: for instance, when I was doing my collections on Frida Kahlo, Derek Jarman, and Georgia O’Keeffe/Alfred Stieglitz, I did an enormous amount of background reading, so I needed to make copious notes and not write everything off the top of my head.
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?
Once again, my answer would be on a case-to-case basis. A poem can be inspired by a painting or a film or a piece of music or by another fine poem by another poet. Usually, I compose books as a large project, rather than as a collection of short, disparate poems. In fact, as a serious reader, I am more drawn to books with an over-arching subject or theme.
Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I treat public readings as a high definition performance, which is what any art (especially one that relies on sound, rhythm, cadence) should be. As a poet, I believe very strongly in public readings, because communication is an essential role. A poet who can read his own work well has a distinct advantage over a poet who reads badly. As I mentioned earlier, my professional freelance writing career began with non-fiction, primarily theatre studies, and because of some acting experience, I know how to do a reading. After seven more poetry collections since, my work has certainly evolved technically, without ever renouncing or lessening its emphasis on voice as a mask and medium of expression. To say this is to cling to the idea of poetry as fundamentally an oral/aural medium because, as the long history of poetry shows, the genre began as song (from scop to troubadour and balladeer) and shares many qualities with music. Basil Bunting has remarked: “Poetry, like music, is to be heard. It deals in sound—long sounds and short sounds, heavy beats and light beats, the tone relations of vowels, the relations of consonants to one another which are like instrumental colour in music. Poetry lies dead on the page, until some voice brings it to life, just as music, on the stave, is no more than instructions to the player. A skilled musician can imagine the sound, more or less, and a skilled reader can try to hear, mentally, what his eyes see in print: but nothing will satisfy either of them till his ears hear it as real sound in the air. Poetry must be read aloud.”
Of course, I am quite aware of objections to the primacy of orality. I, too, object to the notion of all voice and nothing else (vox et praetera nihil). As Robert Graves once put it: “Though the poet ought to write as if his work were intended to be read aloud, in practice the reading aloud of a poem distracts attention from its subtler properties by emphasising the more obvious properties. The outward ear is easily deceived. A beautiful voice can make magic even with bad or fraudulent poetry which the eye, as the most sophisticated organ of sense, would reject at once.” I don’t subscribe to his notion that a beautiful voice can camouflage a bad poem. A Rupi Kaur could never fool me into thinking that her shtick is poetry, any more than the late Gielgud or Olivier could turn a telephone directory into a long poem. Whoever invented the canard that good public readings or performances are usually camouflages of weak poems must have suffered from terminal oral envy. Would they have laid the same charge against Earle Birney, Irving Layton, Milton Acorn, Sylvia Plath, et cetera?
Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you think the current questions are?
Theory is for academics. When I read Shakespeare or Chaucer, Derek Walcott, or Ocean Vuong, theory is the farthest thing from my mind. I grapple with real existential questions, not hypothetical ones. Issues of personal and tribal identity, cross-generational/cross-cultural trauma, culture shock, guilt, the outsider, the interplay of life and art: these are my leading subjects. Could any poet or layman reasonably argue that these subjects are not of current concern?
Of course, if you change directions, and speak about artistic experiment, then some theory is relevant, if only as a guide to practising and furthering the particular experiment. What I loathe about end-of-year reviews of poetry books is the academic tendency to force disparate books into a narrow “system” or organization of genre or sub-genre. This tendency betrays an ignorance of the fact that a good or worthy poet writes a book, not necessarily in relation to other books in the same genre, but for other reasons or purposes or compulsions. I believe the poet writes first and foremost for himself/herself. He may be his own ideal reader. He cannot hypothesize the average reader. Every book is an experiment of some type, however good or mediocre the result. Every work of art or attempted art needs to be considered on its own terms and then, perhaps, in relation to a much broader class.
What do you see the current role of the writer being in a larger culture? Does he/she even have one?
Wallace Stevens contended that “poetry is a response to the daily necessity of getting the world right.” Now, I am not promoting Shelley’s idea of the poet as an unacknowledged legislator of the world. A poem is not a manifesto, but its energies should be adequate to the experiences beyond it.
Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential or both?
No writer should ever be completely on his own. Every writer needs at least a third eye, as it were, a cold eye that can spot deficiencies or weaknesses. So, I like proficient editors, but there is a special value in having an editor who has more than a passing familiarity with the books or poems I have done over time. But an editor who has not known my poetry previously can also be very helpful, because he or she could treat the new work with scrupulous clarity and critical rigour. But more often than not, house editors seem shackled to their publisher’s grid or overall biases about what good poetry is. In those cases, I simply shrug, though I always consider their comments because a writer should take negative comments as seriously as he does positive ones, without giving up believing in his own work.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard?
I am too eclectic a reader and writer to boil down pieces of advice or wisdom to a single thing.
What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep?
I never have a writing routine. I have written poems late at night, early in the morning, during periods of great emotional or physical distress, or during periods of calm. I sometimes have written flat out for long stretches, and sometimes only for brief spans. I am disciplined and I adhere to deadlines, but in poetry there is not usually a deadline. A poem usually tells you when it is ready or complete. If it doesn’t, then you need to keep refining it.
When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for inspiration?
I know there is no point in trying to force a poem into being or to completion. I recall Auden saying that “the writing of poetry is not, like carpentry, simply a craft; a carpenter can decide to build a table according to certain specifications and know before he begins that the result will be exactly what he intended, but no poet can know what his poem is going to be like until he has written it.” When I am really stalled—and not simply fatigued—I turn to other poets for inspiration. Or to art, movies, music, theatre. I have a huge library in my condo apartment, and I read everything from Canadian and American poetry to European, Asian, and South American poetry—all in English, of course. I read (without necessarily enjoying) the more experimental, esoteric poets (if simply to stay in touch with or to know what the post-modernist experimentalists are doing) as well as what are considered the more conventional poets. But, again, every poem can be considered experimental.
What fragrance reminds you of home?
If by “home” you mean my present place of domicile, I would say the smell of paper—because of the vast collection of books I own. Second, the smell of trees and the lake because I live in a suburban community directly opposite Lake Ontario.
David W. McFadden once said that books come from other books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
All of the above—as my earlier answers have shown. I have written ekphrastic poems, glosas, sonnets, elegies, prose poems, monologues, et cetera and all of these owe different things to various other art forms.
What other writers or writing are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
This depends on what sort of book I am working on. When I was writing about Frida Kahlo, I devoured all the best biographies of her I could find, studies of her paintings, her letters and diaries, and poems by others about her. When I worked on my Derek Jarman poems, I read Jarman first and foremost, then biographies of him, and critical studies of his films. There weren’t many other poets who wrote poems about him. When I wrote of the Armenian genocide, and Armenian culture and trauma in Children of Ararat and Poetry is Blood, I read the Armenian classical poets in translation (Sayat Nova, Komitas, Siamanto, Yeghishe Charents, and others) and, best of all, the Armenian American Peter Balakian (who specializes in the collage form), as well as international poets (such as Charles Simic, Lorca, Layton, et cetera), and anthologies of poetry of witness, especially Carolyn Forche’s Against Forgetting, whose title I have stolen for my 8th poetry collection). When I was composing my 9th (as yet unpublished) poetry collection, In the Bowl of My Eye, which is about outer and inner landscapes and suburbia, I read mainly poets such as Wendell Berry, Whitman, Gluck, Doty, Pinsky, Anne Carson, Gertrude Stein, Jim Morrison (rock poet), John Ashbery, A.F. Moritz, Jorie Graham, et cetera.
I do not separate writers on the basis of those important to my work or who are outside it. All writers I like are important to me for diverse reasons.
What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?
Two things: complete a 10th poetry collection about my experience with cancer that will incorporate not only that subject but other autobiographical subjects as well, without advocating victim poetry; and a selection of poems from all my other books that may include poems that have been published only in journals or other anthologies.
What do you think you could have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I have no idea. Poetry is a calling that (as Wallace Stevens once observed) “increases the feeling for reality.” Of course, it has only been the last 19 years when I have been writing full time. Prior to this, I wrote only part time as a freelancer while teaching school, and part time at college and university. My freelance career began in July 1975; my first book (non-fiction) was published in 1983; my first poetry collection in 2003; my 8th poetry collection in 2019; and my 27th book (non-fiction) will appear in the fall of 2020. Evidently, I was a late starter, as far as book-writing is concerned, but I have certainly made up for lost time.
What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Words, words, words. The sounds of them, the rhythms they could create, the tones, and moods of language. Their power, their versatility to create various forms of writing. I guess, if I were asked to go back to my greatest inspiration, it would have to be Shakespeare and his dramatic poetry. I know this sounds cliched, but it is true. I re-read him multiple times, and I always discover something new.
What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Again, it is difficult to narrow my choice down to a single book because I am a voracious reader, and “great” is a dangerous, difficult adjective to define. However, I do not separate emotional power from artistic craft, so I would have to say that in terms of poetry, it was probably Billy-Ray Belcourt’s This Wound is a World, which would also be the first time I have agreed with the Griffin and Governor-General’s juries for poetry (2017-18) in the same year. I was familiar with Gregory Scofield’s, Jordan Abel’s, Armand Garnet Ruffo’s, Richard Wagamese’s, and others’ but Belcourt’s voice was a fresh, original, gay aboriginal one for me. His book plays with form, decolonializing it in a strong way, and the voice comes directly from
As for film, the last great film I saw was Roma by Alfonso Cuaron, a marvellous black and white creation that shows how film can put together a story seamlessly while collecting disparate pieces of domestic, social, and political life. Every shot seemed to be a perfect artistic one that captured reality, often expanding it in my imagination, and reaching down to my heart.
In both cases of Belcourt’s book and Cuaron’s film, you may notice how important passion is to me as a writer. Neither work is cold; both throb with passionate sincerity wedded to technique, their respective techniques fulfilling Pound’s dictum that technique is a test of sincerity.
What are you currently working on?
A collection about illness and other subjects dear to my heart. At its core will be my bout with cancer.
12 or 20 (second series) questions;