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globe 100 conversations

The Globe 100 books of 2020 will be out Friday, Dec. 4. We’ve been publishing conversations between authors about the different genres on the list, including Ann Cleeves and Louise Penny talking about mysteries, Cherie Dimaline and Eden Robinson exploring science fiction and fantasy, and Marissa Stapley and Jennifer Robson escaping with some good fiction.

The Globe Up Close podcast episode about the Globe 100 is now available. The Globe’s Western arts correspondent Marsha Lederman, features editor Dawn Calleja, writer and critic Emily Donaldson and books editor Judith Pereira shared details of their conversations with some of the country’s leading authors about the books that got them through 2020, how the pandemic will shape the literary world and their thoughts about genre.

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Authors Margaret Atwood and Ian Williams.Salini Perera/The Globe and Mail

They gave us their poetry first. Margaret Atwood had published several books of poetry – beginning with a pamphlet, Double Persephone, in 1961 – before her debut novel, The Edible Woman, came out in 1969. Ian Williams, born in 1979, was a Griffin Prize-nominated poet (for Personals) before publishing his debut novel, Reproduction, which won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Both have new books of poetry out this fall – Atwood’s Dearly, and Williams’ Word Problems. The Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman talked with them.

ML: Do you remember your early exposures to poetry? Margaret, I think I read that you said Edgar Allan Poe was an early influence?

MA: Oh, that was way late. I think the earliest exposure was something like Mother Goose.

ML: Ian, what about you?

IW: I’m not sure what to count as poetry. My first memories of it: I was in middle school and I would read my mother’s university anthologies and read the Sylvia Plath sections.

MA: Oh, Ian, that’s pretty heavy.

ML: Do you remember composing your first poems?

MA: Oh about age 6, 7. Of a very juvenile kind.

IW: It was called A Crystal Tear. When I was 10 or 11. Super melodramatic, as the title suggests.

ML: Ian, you have famously said that [Margaret Atwood’s poetry collection] The Circle Game was an important book for you. Can you tell us about that?

IW: First book I bought with my money; this was at a bookstore in Brampton when I was about 14 or so. And actually I did read Atwood in my mom’s anthologies. But … the first full-length collection that I bought and read was [the edition of The Circle Game with] the pink cover, the oval in the cover. And I read it to shreds. It’s all held together by an elastic now.

MA: I think that was the cover that terrified my child; I remember her being terrified of the cover of my book of poetry at probably [age] 3 or 5. Because it looked sort of like me, but it didn’t look like me. So it was the uncanny valley. She took one look at it and shrieked.

ML: In 1978, Margaret, you told Joyce Carol Oates in a New York Times interview that you found poetry to be the most joyful form. Do you still feel this way?

MA: Who even knows what I was saying? I think it’s possibly joyful because it’s short. Well, Ian, you’ve written a novel – how much time did that take? And how much pain was that?

IW: The first one is difficult, right? Seven years for Reproduction.

MA: Seven years is a long time of pain and agony. Whereas with a poem, it is a much shorter sprint and if it’s really not working, you can throw it out a lot more easily. So let’s think of it in those terms – a short sprint rather than a long-distance run.

ML: Here’s something I’m embarrassed to say to both of you, but I’ll say it anyway: I find it very difficult not to think of poetry as being autobiographical when I read it. For instance, Ian, when I read [Word Problems], I pictured you being not approached by the credit-card hawkers at the airport or being asked to move from the empty airport lounge. Is that a trap a lot of readers fall into? Or is poetry more autobiographical than fiction?

IW: It’s a seduction, whether the reader is seduced or not. The trick for me is when does something stop being true? How many elements have to be untrue for it to no longer be true generally; is it one fly in the ointment kind of thing or is it some kind of threshold that you have to cross? And so of course there are parts that are true in fiction and poetry that are pretty autobiographical. But could you pin it all to your life exactly? No. So [there’s] the illusion of truth or autobiography, but I can’t say over all that’s my intention.

MA: I think it doesn’t matter. I think what matters is: Is it an experience that other people may have had or that other people may have had closely enough because what you’re really doing is evoking something from the reader, not transferring your own experience in some way. So, for instance, did Agatha Christie really murder 100 people? One likes to think so, but I don’t think it’s true. Was she a Belgian detective really with a little waxed moustache?

ML: But it is different with poetry, don’t you think? It’s so hard for me to read your words in Dearly and not picture those experiences being yours. I mean, other than the zombies and the aliens, etc.

MA: Why are you making the exception for the werewolves? I’m kind of stuck on the werewolves myself.

ML: I did love the werewolf [poetry] so much.

MA: So that tells me something about you, Marsha, and about your inner werewolf. Sure, of course some things are autobiographical, but the only person who will ever really know which things those are is the person who wrote it. And it also depends what kind of poetry it is. So we’re talking here about short lyrics; we’re not talking about long narrative sequences, such as Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. No, Tennyson was not King Arthur.

IW: The other thing with autobiography: [The question] tends to focus on the event. Did this thing actually happen in external reality? And I think poetry is at its best when it’s revealing interiority, and whether something is true on the inside is a lot harder to be certain of. The interior life doesn’t get crafted as an autobiographical thing, but the events that I’ve done or been through – that’s what people try to sort of nail down: Did this happen to you?

ML: Ian, there’s a line in your poem Tu Me Manques: “Everything makes sense until you have to explain it.” And then, Margaret, I read a line in that 1978 interview that you get annoyed when students ask what is the poet “TRYING TO SAY?” Does poetry deconstructed lose something?

MA: How we were taught poetry in high school – and this was a very long time ago, because we’re talking about the 1950s – there was this structure of words and inside that, embedded in it somewhere, was a much shorter meaning. So you got the idea that there was this meaning and the poet had somehow messed up this really quite short meaning like love is great, war is hell, I hate you. A poem is not some little three-word meaning embedded into it; it is the experience of the poem.

IW: Exactly – I would echo that. Even now, students want to decode the poem: “What does it mean?” And early in class I say just let it sit with you; just let it be an experience that you pass through. You don’t have to understand it. Just let it wash over you. We can experience things without understanding them.

ML: Going back to zombies: Margaret, you begin your poem Zombie with a Rilke quote: “Poetry is the past that breaks out in our hearts.”

MA: Isn’t that chilling?

ML: Ian, do you think that’s a good description for it? Not to ask you if you want to contradict Rilke or anything.

MA: Go ahead. Go for it.

IW: Oh, that sounds very evocative. Sometimes when you’re on a trail that’s overgrown, you don’t even realize the path is there until you kind of put one foot in front of the other, and there’s something like that, too; it both clears a path and reveals something too that’s already there.

ML: Why do you think poetry is so intimidating for readers?

MA: It’s not always, Marsha.

ML: But it can be, and a lot of people approach it with trepidation.

IW: Maybe the early 20th century has something to do with it. British and American modernism. Obscurity happened all across the arts – this kind of separation that the average person felt to the art. So I feel like much of the last part of the 20th century has been recovery from that. And now, we’re at the place where the bestselling poet is a very accessible kind of poet. So we’ve swung way in the other direction.

ML: What do you two think of that sort of Instagram poetry that I think Ian is referring to?

MA: What do you mean by “think”?

IW: Rupi Kaur has her audience and it’s meant to be consumed differently from the poetry that we write. It’s very quick. She’s a brown girl from Brampton and she’s been responsible for bringing a lot of people to poetry who wouldn’t ordinarily read poetry, so I get that benefit.

MA: It’s like people saying to me, what do you think of Stephen King? You start reading at any level with what appeals to you and then you can either move on from that or not. But there’s no sense in dissing the entryway.

ML: I found myself turning to poetry in the early days of the pandemic – reading a lot more poetry than I have in a long time. What it is about poetry that has us turn to it in times of trouble?

MA: It’s short.

ML: Back to that.

MA: It’s short, it’s meditative. A lot of it, lyric poetry. And people are hoping for some form of glimmering lights amid the gloom, are they not? So, typically a 21st-century poem is going to say: It’s awful, but nonetheless.

IW: We can’t oversell just the importance of the shape and size of poetry, right? And especially as we get more and more pressed and occupied by the pace of life now. That is a real great charm for poetry – the tightness and concision of it. Also, in the pandemic – you know, like when sourdough bread became popular and people started knitting and doing all these things that felt a little bit dated at the start of the pandemic? I think people reached for poetry as something very different from how our lives have been structured. Enough with TV, enough with screens, enough with all of those things. What is a more interior space I could occupy right now? And I think poetry kind of spoke to that or made itself available in that vein. There’s something delightfully retro about it, about returning to yourself.

ML: Who are the poets the two of you turn to in difficult times?

MA: I’ve just been rearranging my poetry shelves. It’s interesting because among the other things that I was going through were a lot of little magazines of the sixties and seventies; there was a lot of poetry around in those days and particularly Canada in the sixties because it was a lot harder to get novels published in this country at that time. So the poets were pretty active and they were having newsletters churned out on mimeo machines and they were having little presses and they were having magazines that were largely poet-run, so that was interesting to revisit and to realize how hand-made a lot of that publication was. So, as you say, sourdough and knitting. People were actually making these things themselves or with groups of other poets.

IW: There’s something really comforting about that period in the sixties for me; it’s the generation above my own. So when I was in university, a friend and I would be up in the 13th floor of Robarts [Library at the University of Toronto], looking in the poetry stacks. Atwood and Gwendolyn MacEwen and Victor Coleman and bpNichol – those people that felt to us like the cool adults. I find comfort in that. There was something for every mood that we had in university, every taste and every sort of countercultural impulse. We found it in the sixties and seventies in Canada. And really happy that we could find what we needed in Canada, because so much of our curriculum was British and American.

ML: Is there anything else you want to say about poetry in general?

IW: I think there’s a resurgence happening right now where people have access to all sorts of poems and there’s no longer this national debate about, “Is there Canadian poetry?” We’re past that, to the point where we can just enjoy it.

MA: I will quote a film called Il Postino, in which the postman has been stealing Pablo Neruda’s poems in order to impress a girl. Neruda finds out and the postman says: Poetry does not belong to those who have written it; poetry belongs to those who need it. So that’s what poetry is for. It’s for those who need it. Help yourself.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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