Issue 8

Don Coles
Interview with Don Coles

This interview was conducted via e-mail between 24 September and 4 November, the interviewer Evan Jones was in Manchester, UK, Don Coles was in Toronto, Canada.

EJ: I want to begin by asking about time in your poems, specifically in ‘Someone Has Stayed in Stockholm’, which seems to me a speculative poem, describing in detail an alternate universe.

DC: I don’t think there’s a single poem (mine or others’) among those I know best and reread most often that doesn’t owe at least half of its core-appeal to time. Whatever else is at play will lead towards a last-line or last-stanza or simply a gathering cumulative awareness that all the images, all the words, all the faces and places that initially, when first met, may have seemed almost randomly offered, may have seemed to have lived out their brief stand-alone existence and then to have fallen off the page – that all these are at poem’s-end now returned, they’re rising up in my (and surely, I will then feel, every other reader’s) mind as richly and as deeply and, because they have returned out of what seemed to be lost time, even more intensely than they can ever have been felt to be before.

It’s a wonderful moment, or feeling, and one can be as grateful to whoever has put it before one’s eyes as one can be for anything.

Right now, speaking as one who has been identified, in reviews, as a poet who’s concerned with time, I may as well say that it’s something I know needs to be there in anything I’m at work on. It will always be there, whether I go looking for it or not, that’s obvious; but ‘looking for it’ is likely to be good idea.

The poem ‘Someone Has Stayed in Stockholm’, which as you have suggested could also be related to the idea of an ‘alternate universe’, immerses itself in a place which is other than its author’s usual habitat (although in this case it’s a place I did, for a few years, inhabit), an immersion which wouldn’t do much for anybody if it didn’t, however, come through with an easy, an uninsistent (as it hopes) but functioning net of detail. Detail such as, in this poem, the “kids” with their “stipendium-years in Paris”, a pattern which is a familiar one in Stockholm, as it is in other Scandinavian towns; the “bigtime tennis in Båstad”, a noticeable July event in those parts; Strandvägen, the indeed-elegant street with its facades and its mostly-white sailboats and yachts, all of them pointed towards the summer islands; these and more.

That’s part of it, of what I think makes the poem work. The other part is what I started with up at the top of the page: the felt presence of time. This gets to wherever it gets through its details, but now it’s the detailed admissions of memory, literature’s primal hoard, having to do, here, with its own (as it surely knows it must be, or it’s done for) cache of images, viz., roads-not-brought-into-headlights, milky-skinned redheads and glimpses on escalators, also unobserved seasons and “necessary” but unspoken sentences, all from the same shared-by-billions instinct but each appearance of it, here, as it intends, signalling in its newness, towards lost time.

EJ: What you say about the ‘detailed admissions of memory’ is interesting. How does that follow through in a poem like, ‘Photograph in a Stockholm Newspaper for March 13, 1910’?

DC: Good question, and one which brings home to me that it's a good thing I didn't claim that every one of my poems had any obvious relationship at all to memory – only the unavoidable, off-stage, unconfessed relationship that memory has to everything we do. (A few years ago my son met, for a few minutes in Saigon, an elderly guy whose usual address was the same small town in Western Ontario where a great-uncle of that son had spent his life; learning my son's surname this man told him that he had noticed his walk to be identical with that of the deceased uncle. Was that just bone-alignment? Or could it have been a case of much-younger son watching admired ex-athlete uncle move and building this into memory? Vem vet: svensk for 'who knows')?

Back to your question's bigger point. That poem's origin was, as it says, seeing a newspaper's archival photo of a working-class, probably, family standing in a courtyard in an early 1900s moment. There's no personal memory for me in that courtyard at all, it had taken me fifty years to even arrive in the same town, half the family dead by then and the courtyard probably obliterated. What it was was a feeling I can have at any time concerning a life that apparently lived itself out modestly, unnoticeably, all its motions and words gone tracelessly, a feeling that no doubt can misjudge much and be thought to romanticize shamelessly, but which just surges up in me pretty often and sometimes ends up where its subject never was and perhaps never wished to be, in print, put there as if it needed attention to be paid. Shades of Gray's plowman and Miller's salesman all in one sentence.

EJ: That feeling you describe, is it the same as the ‘felt presence of time’ you mentioned earlier? Can you define it a bit more? Is this inspiration, if you had to give it such a name?

DC: No, I don’t think it’s the same as the generic business of Time. It’s an unwillingness to go along with what can, when you step back from it and take a hard, fresh look at it, be seen as a brutal primaeval agreement (what sort of halfway-sensitive creature could have put, on behalf of all of us, his or her signature to this?) that this is the rhythm the world is going to move to: things will be seen and then will be lost to sight, words will be spoken but at once succumb to silence, beings will be born and die, light will grow and then fade, all these will go, they’re already gone, just now they were here but no more. Why should this be? Listing all these and trying not to flop into bathos, trying to keep a little freshness at the list’s edges, what’s in play here includes, well, everything, e.g. a sentence that some cared-about person spoke years ago that one should have paused longer at, one was just realizing the need for this when, look, it’s only just now that it was being said but nothing’s being done about it, and now, don’t even look, it’s gone forever. Or it could be something visual, a scene glimpsed in its waiting stillness, how perfect, how long had it been waiting, you’d had no preparation for this, and when you went back it was not the same. Or it’s a turn of a head, a glance that was offered and may have been huge with unrecoverable portent. Who can bear this? Everyone. Verweile doch, Du bist so schön. We cope with this as best we can. Cope via diaries and scrapbooks and toys in the attic. Making art.

EJ: In your poems, in way that’s related to what you’ve just said, it occurs to me that it’s the work of art – material culture and the object in itself – that is central. This brings to mind, ‘The Prinzhorn Collection’ – a collection not easily canonised – or even ‘My Death as the Wren Library’.

DC: I think it's an interesting matter to raise. I also think it's being much done these days, this insertion into a poem or into any other art-piece of substantial material from elsewhere; sometimes well-managed, often not. I think ‘Prinzhorn’ is a fringe member of this sort of assembly. There's a lot of lines directly presented, in that poem, in their original German, in the written words of the man locked into that asylum for all those years, and it’s important that these words are there, that they’re in the poem in their unchanged form, just as he wrote them in those letters which his keepers never mailed, which his family never saw. It was important to me, to have them among the words I was adding to them, that I was locating them among. Making it at least possible that now, finally, a few people would read them. They had led me to my poem and they resonate, I believe, inside the poem, they convince me the poem can dare to matter.

'Wren' relates rather less to this, I'd think. That poem came directly, some of it came word-for-word, from a dream, during a sabbatical year in Cambridge where I was writing every weekday from 9 a.m. (after I'd walked my small son to school) to about 3 in the afternoon, six hours a day unlunched. I'm convinced that it was this near-total immersion in poem-writing that permitted, facilitated, this dream, where I dreamed in near-stanza form and woke one morning at 3 or 4 o’clock and had the good sense to write the dreamed images down and even to be given, by my dream, the lineation for some of those words. So there’s a borrowing and a putting-to-use not unrelated to your thought of the 'solid work of art': in this case I'm not borrowing from another person's work of art, I'm borrowing from a source which I never did attribute to my own skill or hard work but simply to this gift from a dream. I could never – never – have come up with the thought of my ‘death' turning 'me' into 'the Wren library in Trinity's Neville's court'; let alone my dream-friend's immortal (to me) line 'oh my little bicycle', which more than one correspondent has told me is a line she (two women, in fact) loves above all. I like it too but I have only a tangential right to it.

EJ: Any thoughts as to why so many of your poems take up from others’ work? Can we call this inspiration? Ekphrasis?

DC: When I run over a number of such poems or poem-moments (I haven't thought how many there might be) I decide that it has very often happened (and often happened with no poem-follow-up, no traceable echo) that a writer I'm reading (or often, though less so than in that first case, a piece of visual art; and even more rarely – though now and then – a piece of music (á la Proust's petit phrase) – touches me in a way that takes me deeper into myself than anything in the most recent weeks of my everyday life has taken me. And may then lead to a poem of my own. The most recent event along this line (though it hasn't led anywhere in my own writing and may never) was rereading a passage in W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, which I'd read years ago and liked, but initially liked less than his The Emigrants (I was sent back to The Rings by James Wood's Sebald-essay) and finding a passage of such beauty (it felt unrivalled by anything I'd read or written for years – maybe this was an over-reaction, maybe it will find a more sober place in a while; though maybe not). This kind of thing doesn't invite emulation in any content-sense, but it does starkly remind one of a level of aim, of ambition, that one should remember and demand of oneself, whether one ever gets there or not isn't the point, but the knowledge that it exists, that it has been humanly achieved, and not too long ago either, not merely in ancient time in an Urn Burial or a seldom-thought-on Shakespeare History-play.

This sort of thing has led to a Beckett-related poem which you'll know of; and there's Keats, and I'm not sure how many more.

EJ: The influences and interests you describe in A Dropped Glove in Regent Street are mostly European (Borges perhaps being the great exception). At one point you write, ‘a great many writers from this country [Canada] or the one to the south of us, spend half of every year in Europe’. Can you say a bit more about your connection to Europe?

DC: My sense of a close relationship to Europe is a secure one, and I don’t find this (apart from those odd hours which contain an unscheduled stab of longing for, say, Covent Garden and the usually empty Inigo Jones’ church so close by, or, in Cambridge, the path beside a very small stream running alongside Trinity’s tennis courts, or a high-up flat over the Malar-sea in Stockholm or… like that) anything other than a plus in my life. Two excuses for this, one of which I’ve just indicated: I spent my 20s and half of my 30s in one or other European cities, and these are years when, if the world is ever going to open its arms to you these will be the right ones, and for me it did and they were. Nothing new about that, although stuff lingers.

And then there’s art, both visual and literary. The former category points, for me, at Edvard Munch in Norway and Masaccio’s Expulsion from the Garden in Florence and the endless high-ceilinged walkway of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna; and points also at the twenty or thirty mornings I spent, miraculously and with minimal talent, at the St. Martin’s School of Art on Charing Cross Road in a life-drawing class of a dozen girls or women and three boys or men, seven of whom, this is the mentioned miracle, almost at once entered one another’s lives with a vitality and a kind of serious promise which I, so time-confused now when I recall them in their abiding youth that I really shouldn’t be permitted to remember them at all, nevertheless remember and, it seems, love. Love more awarely than I did way back then.

And yes, books. ‘I think that Heaven’, Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary, ‘will be composed of endless and untiring reading’, and although I once found her ‘untiring’ incomprehensible (who needed heavenly help to read tirelessly?), that was when I could read all day and half the night, happy with what I was up to and, I suppose, content to know that the rest of the world was falling into what another great writer, Nabokov, called ‘the moronic fraternity of sleep’. That was then and this is now, but reading remains my sine qua non; every bit as good and far more reliable than even a decent-level two-out-of-three sets of tennis doubles (much as I have cared for those several-thousand sets ). And this has just about always meant, for me, the reading of European writers, with regard to whom I take the author of Hamlet as nonpareil and then recommence our conversation with Tolstoy, who has very recently survived, no problem, my sixth immersion in the two masterpieces, and who for me obliterates every other fiction-writer to a degree that I wish he would not (though there’ve been dozens of others of great worth, some of them predictable -- George Eliot, Samuel Beckett, Chekhov, Turgenev, Thomas Mann -- and others perhaps less obvious -- Heinrich Böll, all of his touching and simple novels read in German, and individual wonderfulnesses such as Constant’s Adolphe and Flaubert’s Un Coeur Simple and sideshelves of shaky but fondly-browsed-in add-ons like Cyril Connolly’s The Unquiet Grave. And the poetry of Rilke and Keats and Housman and Milton and Edward Thomas and Larkin. And about forty volumes of literary biography by people like Tomalin and Holmes and Maddox and MacCarthy.

Gertrude Stein writes in a journal that “America will be a good place for writers sometime, but not yet”, and I’m not in the mood to amplify or justify this but will only nod my sixty-years-later head in agreement.

OK, I’ll add just this much. Having a thousand and more years of invoked memory available to you on a walk through any familiar wood, or down (not all, admittedly, but many) centuries’-trodden streets, gazing across battle-history’d fields or waters or the silhouette of a medieval town, turning pages in a book which has endured the touch of Gibbon or Goethe, matters. It can deepen a day’s thoughts.

EJ: Following up on all the talk about your connection to Europe: how do see your interests and influences fitting into Canadian poetry? Are you a Europhile Canadian?

DC: ‘Europhile’ sounds a bit tidy, though there’s no question I read more European writers than Canadian, ratio a lot to one. I’m pretty sure many Canadian writers do the same. I read The Guardian every Saturday and have more pleasure and lasting worth from one of those than from a month of anything close to home. I’ve never traveled to or in any continent other than Europe, which I’m sure is my loss but I can live with it. On the slightly-other hand, I’ve never wished to have been born anywhere but Woodstock, Ontario, to have had parents other than the two remarkable ones I had, or to have had teachers, at the college level, other than Northrop Frye and Marshall McLuhan in Toronto, both of whom I had lots of hours with and never found their equal in, say, Cambridge. Nobody even close.

With regard to your first question up there, one kind of answer might be that I’ve directed many, many creative-writing groups at York University and in assorted other places and colleges and high schools, and given readings in almost every province of my country; and I did those six-week sessions at Banff for those ten years, meeting many youngish Canadian writers and working with them on their poetry and once in a while on their prose, and enjoying almost every minute of all of those times. And I suppose ‘interests and influences’ might be involved here. This may not be a subtle response, on the other hand perhaps it at least shows a degree of modesty, and about time, too.

EJ: Throughout A Dropped Glove…, you also write of likeable, honourable men: Orwell, Chekov, Kafka, your father. Why is this so important?

DC: I don’t know that I have much more to say about this except that among the writers you list, all are exceptional in their art or sullen craft as well as likeable and honourable men. I’d put Samuel Beckett at or near the top of any such group, by the way – never mind Godot, if you read his letters, written in his twenties when he is for the first time travelling about the continent (of Europe!) and is commenting on the paintings, the galleries he’s been visiting, you’re bound to be moved by this very young man’s sophisticated judgments, the unself-conconscious daring of these, and ‘likeable’ and ‘honourable’, both those, suggest themselves to me all the way through. There are also, or there were, as of course you know, gifted writers of another persuasion, writers who exploited or betrayed anyone who strayed near them: Canetti for one, and there are more but passons; and then there are people like Proust and Rilke, who were, both of them, as close to genius as any except the above-hymned Tolstoy and Shakespeare, but neither of whom I’d much want to buddy-up with. Otherwise, and in general, my reasons for caring about ‘honourable’ men are without originality: one learns, I think, to care more about a word like this as one lives longer and learns how rarely it’s justified. Maybe I’m simply admiring my betters in both their art and their lives.

EJ: And your father?

DC: Fitting my father into a paragraph centering on honour, on what is honourable, is in some ways no problem. Thirty years after his death he is, for me and for starters, easy to be unambivalently fond of. He was I think not a complex man: he was sixteen years old in a small town in Ontario when WWI began and he was in the trenches near Arras when it ended, and although he marched through those small-town streets with the other vets on the anniversaries of Armistice Day when I was too young to know what was up, he never, even much later, had a lot to say about all that. Not about that and not about, I quite often felt, much else either. Words weren’t his thing. When both my brother and I became published academics, he knew how many books there were but other than that, not much; and he didn’t really want to be told. You didn’t talk about what you’d accomplished, that was bad form. It was a code. Sometimes this felt OK, it was so not the continual palaver, on the page or aloud, that you and your likes kept on with. Other times it felt boring. Basically it’s that last that oppressed me but here’s another story, a tennis story which my dad, a gifted athlete, naturally wouldn’t approve of me telling, a story which links him with, scarey partnership, the great Orientalist Edward Said. Said had a letter in the LRB years ago in which he pointed out that tennis nowadays was remote from what it had been in his own warmly-remembered tennis playing years; the millions of available dollars and the year-round cashing-in on those millions had moved it far from the real world, there was no longer the remotest connection between the game the Samprases were playing and the game old guys like my contemporary Edward Said had played, and this was a loss. I wrote to agree with him and told the story, which LRB readers also got to read, of the English Davis Cup team barnstorming in Ontario in the 1920s and, when they reached Jack Coles’s hometown, needing a replacement for one of their two singles contests. Jack Coles was the local #1, knew he would be outgunned, decided therefore to go for every line and hit every ball as hard as he could, got lucky and…won the match. There was no way, my letter concluded, that this could happen nowadays. This may strike you as having little to do with honour, but it’s part of my picture of this man, that he could do this Homeric, high-noon thing and tell the story only (at least in my hearing) once, a story I’d have amplified and told dozens of times if I’d had such news ready to go. Large-scale verb though it may be that’s coming next here, I honour him for the difference.

Oh, one more thing that he did. He admired my mother all the days of their life together. She deserved every day of it, which doesn’t make his awareness of it any less worth honouring.

EJ: You also quote Cyril Connolly: ‘For me to love the poem is to love the poet who wrote it and become his man’.

DC: Whether it’s a poet or some other kind of writer, it’s not a line I would sign my name to. It evokes, for me, a query I once put to myself in an idle moment – I asked myself how much it mattered to me that I had never met Albert Camus, never heard him read, never had the chance to tell him how, on my first reading of a remembered page of the first of his books (L’Etranger, a thin book which, for its clarity and its swiftness and also for its thinness was carried about in my back pocket for most of a Paris summer long ago, the first summer of the book’s life and the twentieth of mine), two sentences moved out of their paragraph and gave me a minute or so’s feeling of something I had no experience of and no definition for but knew was special, knew that the two sentences had halted the usual haphazard running of the film of my life and was now letting me know, or guess, or half-understand, with a sort of, possibly (the word I’m choosing to use next here could ruin all this, I know, but try not to let it do that), wonder, that two average-length sentences could do this, that I was now in an unusual mind-state which these sentences had, without a syllable of warning, effected, achieved, for me. I was, I think, startled that this was a thing you could do, that the little echoes that these words were mutually and perfectly offering and receiving inside their lines could do this. But that’s all it was. It was the words, the lines, the little thin book. It wasn’t the man, it was what he had in a special hour, or in twenty tries over two weeks, made.

In light of the admission in this conversation that among my favourite readings are literary biographies, the above paragraph might seem a non sequitur. But I don’t think it is. Learning, and wanting to learn, details of the life and work-habits of the author of a book or books which one likes very much does not mean one is en route to liking or (tired-of-life word) loving that author. It doesn’t mean one is willing to ‘become his man’. There’s a plethora of reasons why this is so, it seems to me. Some other day.

EJ: Your most recent collection,Where We Might Have Been, is linked through many of the poems to A Dropped Glove in Regent Street. Some of your recollections in the latter become poems in the former. Do many of your poems develop this way, from prose?

DC: I’m sure I’ve done this a few times, don’t know how often. I’m not anxious to overdo the tactic, it can, I think, limit the freedom of movement of the coming poem, predetermine or inhibit its form, narrow or shape it in ways which the poem won’t benefit from. And I’m not just talking about format here, but about the effect of an existing piece of writing to which one is returning for, one hopes, a good reason (.e.g. because one feels that that prose piece’s theme or central image hasn’t been exploited as it ought, the investigation has halted before it should have done), on the writer’s imagination. It’s as if, in using that prose source, you don’t have the totally unblemished white page in front of you, the page bears traces or stains of an origin or map which is other than your best-case uncharted movement into a poem. But I’m straying from your question: the shortest and bluntest answer to ‘do many of your poems develop this way, from prose?’ would be, ‘not many, and I think I’ve never deliberately headed back towards my own published prose on a generalized hunt for a poem; when it’s happened, it’s emerged out of an unpremeditated browse’. It’s clear that the prose most likely to play this sort of role, i.e., prose that can seem profligate in this regard, littered with unwritten poems, will of course vary with whoever’s reading it. To mention one such writer, one who has mattered in this regard to me and also, a sure bet, to hundreds of others, poets and more, there’s the collected correspondence of Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the twentieth century’s finest poets but a man who also wrote thousands of letters, hundreds of which have been published in countless translations; and these are letters wherein you can not only find the stirrings of what would later become poems of Rilke’s own but other stirrings too, incipient thoughts which he lost interest in or simply failed to return to and here they now are, signalling to you of what’s kept so still so long. Writers who can function in this way for you or for me are unlikely to be of the same name for both of us, but with luck and the requisite thousands of hours of reading, there are trouvailles of this nature for us all.

EJ: Can I ask some about your process with a poem? You are known for reworking published poems. How do you see a poem after publication?

DC: I think there’s not a single poem of mine which, if its publisher advised me that they wanted a re-issue and offered me a chance to edit it, would ‘scape whipping. Even if it were only a line-ending or the replacing of a comma with a semi-colon, let alone the more inviting chance to go for one line in place of a stanza, or the even happier prospect of entirely omitting one or more poems from the collection...done deal. I know that not everyone thinks this a good or even a tolerable way to behave: reviewers have now and then regretted that Ur-versions of poems of mine didn’t really exist, Christopher Levenson, for instance, in a generally friendly review, contrasted a newly-arrived version of a poem with an earlier one he’d liked better. But I tend to have one copy of each of my books which has got pencilled improvements on every third or so page, and these altered versions maintain their position over the years. These pages of mine become even more cluttered as time passes but I think they never return to that first version. So, I’m not sentimental here, I don’t “see a poem after publication” as having achieved any status that puts it out of reach of whatever growth or change I may have undergone.

EJ: Before we end, what are your impressions of Tranströmer winning the Nobel Prize?

DC: Part of the problem (I’ve been reading more negative comments on his Nobel than the other sort, mostly about aged Swedish jurors and how the reporter had never heard of TT and seemed pleased to say so) is that TT doesn’t translate easily. His use of Swedish is exceptionally calm and understated and, in this quiet which is its own creation, immensely persuasive. I have, as you know but the critics I’ve read do not (know), published a book of my translations of a very late collection called ‘For the Living and the Dead’, a bilingual edition published by Buschekbooks in Ottawa (it won a prize for the best translation of its year in Canada, the first time that a non-French/English book had won), and I did this translation because I had been singularly moved by Tomas’s poems for decades. I don’t think there’s been a worthier Nobelist for a long while.