‘I know I’m from here’: An interview with Anne Compton
by Evan Jones
Anne Compton was born in Bangor, Prince Edward Island. A two-time winner of the Atlantic Poetry Prize, she won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for Processional, her second collection; and the Raymond Souster Award for Alongside, her fourth. In 2008, she was awarded the Alden Nowlan Award for Excellence in English Language Literary Arts; and the Lieutenant-Governor’s Award for High Achievement in English Language Literary Arts in 2014. A former teacher and writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick at Saint John, her most recent prose book, Afterwork: Essays on Literature and Beauty, appeared in 2017. Her fifth collection, Smallholding, was published in April 2019.
This interview was begun in January 2018, and conducted by email, the interviewer in Manchester, UK, and the interviewee in Rothesay, NB.
EJ: There are many poets who travel out and write back to their homes. It seems to me that you’ve always written out from the home (whether that’s PEI or Rothesay). Can you say something about this?
AC: As I have written elsewhere, I assume that every poet, to a greater or lesser degree, writes out of a sense of place, and that “out of” refers not only to the cache of images that “landscapes” his or her mind but also to the need to go beyond, out of, the originating place – a writing away from. The sense of place, moreover, is never synonymous with an actual first place, which, in my case, was Prince Edward Island. For me the Island is both actual and a source of metaphor. Surrounded by water, and thus an endless horizon, an island necessarily gives an islander a lot to think about in terms of space and time – all that endlessness.
I live, and have lived for almost 40 years, however, in rural Rothesay, in a house that overlooks a river with a further shore in sight – wooded, unpopulated – a landscape that because of changeable, dramatic Bay of Fundy weather seems a bit different day to day. Almost everything I’ve published has been written within sight of that river landscape, and every day begins with noting the shifts that have occurred overnight in the look of it due to – depending on the season – the drape of fog or its ice and snow transformations. So, yes, I am embedded in place. Places are starting points for the mind’s roaming.
EJ: This outwardness I’m thinking of. It seems to me the opposite of a welcoming gesture, yet it it.
AC: I like that word “outward.” I thought there for a moment that I was being boxed into the identity of Maritime poet obsessed with past and family. Many of my poems do begin from the house, which is not the same thing as home, with its reverberations of the past. But the thing that bothers me is this: When women poets write about the house, or household doings, reviewers label them “domestic.” This doesn’t seem to happen with male poets: Writing a sonnet about peeling potatoes with his mother, Seamus Heaney is not thereafter referred to as a “domestic” poet. In recent poems, I’ve been interested in showing all that the house opens onto.
EJ: ‘Unfinished’, a newer poem, is very much about the containment of history in the house – and yet again it moves outward.
AC: First of all I should say that the house in that prose poem is actual; it’s a house built around what had once been the workshop of an aeronautical engineer, the inventor of the variable-pitch propeller. Whereas the workshop-turned-room is unlocked, the rest of the house remains unfinished, secured with locks. The room retains its industrial look and its tin ceiling, stencilled in stars, but oddly it’s been fitted out with a half-dozen gauzy, cloud-looking curtains that sway in the wind entering by way of a pair of propped-open, heavy-duty doors. The speaker wanders in that room, wonders about it, is perplexed by the furnishings, especially the draughting stool pulled up close to a meridian lounge chair, what we would call a day bed – you know the kind of couch that you might see in a psychoanalyst’s office. These two furnishings, so close together, suggest an intimacy, tender or otherwise. Or perhaps they are arranged that way as a kind of memorial. The room is vacant. There’s never anyone there. The history of its complex decor is unknown to her, yet familiarly haunts her. The poem is exploring the link between house interiors and the mind’s interior – the unconscious. A single room can be, for a writer, the beginning of an outward movement, the contemplation of things that go way beyond the domestic, but a room can also lead inward – to “what we know but shouldn’t know,” as the poem says. In the last paragraph of the poem, the speaker is shown into (so to speak) the unfinished, locked-up house.
EJ: Virginia Woolf wrote in her ‘Letter to a Young Poet’ that poetry ‘has never been used for the common purpose of life. Prose has taken all the dirty work onto her own shoulders.’ Do your domestic poems (and Heaney’s) suggest otherwise?
AC: I don’t know if Woolf indicates the “domestic” in her phrase “dirty work,” but I do know that when money was scarce and she had to choose between hiring a servant (a cook/cleaner) and the cost of plumbing, she chose the servant. More interesting is her separation of poetry and “the common purpose of life”: one of poetry’s jobs is, surely, to recognize the uncommon, even the extraordinary, within the common. The “domestic” is usually equated with the homely and the commonplace, consisting of those tasks done by drudges and dullards when, in fact, “domestic” routines can be approached as rituals. In Heaney’s sonnet, the speaker’s recalled boy-self chose the ritual of kitchen work with his mother instead of the ritual of the Mass with the rest of the family. Heaney’s poem aligns, while discriminating, different kinds of rituals.
There’s nothing wrong, and everything right, about household routines. It’s the delimiting use of the word “domestic” that I object to, as if “real” poetry can only be composed by people free of those jobs and tasks as Wordsworth was in hallowing the “real language of men.” In his poem “To My Sister,” inviting her to join him outdoors for the “blessed power” of nature, he says, “Now that our morning meal is done, / Make haste your morning task resign.” We know who was doing the washing-up there! But, wait, Dorothy Wordsworth was a poet. Her sentences made their way into his poetry. And Emily Dickinson wrote poems on scraps of paper that she stuffed into her apron while she cooked and cleaned. The “domestic” isn’t an impediment to poetry; it’s one of its environments, and as Heaney so rightly recognizes it may very well be the better ritual.
EJ: Connected to the question above is, in my mind, the way in which poetry and family intertwine in your work. I think of the father in ‘What Light Decays’, who could be your own father or a Virgil-like guide. Are there risks in poeticizing one’s family?
AC: There are no more risks in writing about family than there are in writing about lovers or mates, friends or acquaintances, characters you’ve come across in literature, or the figures in paintings. Prisoners of a single consciousness, we are endlessly interested in others’ minds, and we can only know about those minds from people’s behaviours, their responses to us, or by what they report of their thoughts and feelings. That interest in others’ minds always begins where life begins – with siblings and parents. I believe that you call that interest in another’s mind, to the extent that we can ever know it, being human. In my case, growing up in a household of ten siblings, I witnessed a vast array of behaviours, benefitted from the reported thoughts and feelings of some dozen people.
EJ: Can you say more about what you mean by ‘mind’?
AC: You’re asking me to define “mind!” Put five neuroscientists in a room and you’ll get five different definitions of “mind.” One will talk about the millions of neurons in the brain, its billions of synapses, another will talk about the inter-relationship of the lobes, and eventually all five will have a punch-out over the question “Does brain make mind?” In my response to your previous question, I meant mind in the everyday sense, you have a mind, I have one. But in spite of the fact that you are talking to me – revealing certain things about your mind through your questions – I don’t know, can’t ever really know, the thoughts and feelings occurring in your mind. I’m a bit obsessed, as you can see, by this idea that the mind makes solitaries of us all. Many creatures have mind, but humans have minds endowed with consciousness, and its consciousness that unites and separates us humans. Unites us because we have that possession in common (at least when we are awake) and because it enables us to be aware of, and report on, our thoughts and feelings, but it is a very limited report that we can give.
Lyric poets, you might think, put their consciousness on the page, but always when the poem’s done, there’s the feeling you’ve failed to convey your thoughts and feelings. Most poets would attribute that to the slippage between mind and word but, it’s more likely, it’s due to the fact that although we’re consciously aware of what’s passing in our minds, we can’t access the spontaneous unconscious emotions that exist beneath thoughts and feelings, and, second, after we’ve written the poem and go back to it in revision, we can’t get back to what passed in the mind – consciousness being so fluid – when we created the poem in the first place.
EJ: I suppose I was wondering, a question back, about the way in which family is mythical in your poems rather than simply biographical. That is, Eliotic rather than Confessional.
AC: I’m surprised when juries and critics put poetry in the non-fiction category. Poetry fictionalizes as much as novels and short stories do, although poems begin – at least for me – in an autobiographically noticed or recalled sight or sound. An acute perceptual moment can send you off on a poem and send you anywhere. As for your comment about the mythical and family in my poems, yes, that’s so, but, then, the mythic nature of my family was something of a given because of its history, structure, and religious background. I’ve said little, and will be saying little, about my family backstory (the generations before my own). I’ve confined my attention to siblings and parents, but even there I’ve been a storyteller, aware of the mythic light cast upon them by those things.
EJ: Can we take this ‘mythic light’ back to your poem, ‘What Light Decays’? That is, can you say a bit about the father in that poem?
AC: In this ghost poem, the speaker, near to sleep, hears her dead father call, believes herself, of all the living, the chosen one. She makes her way to him, this boatman of the river, her fisherman father, who will tell her, she hopes, where he has come from. But, it seems, it’s this life he wants, gruffly asking about her mother’s whereabouts. Father and daughter are in an in-between place where time and foothold are unsteady. So, yes, it’s a mythic landscape, and the father, in his supposed other-world knowledge, is part Charon and, maybe, part Agamemnon. Re-reading the poem just now, the Agamemnon similarity struck me. The daughter has become a “What” to the father: “What are you?” And she fears she will be un-daughtered: will lose “the daughter to gain a guide.” But the Christian story is here too, a Calvinist one. She believes she is “chosen.” This, you understand, is all after-thought, this sourcing. A visual memory of my father, smoking a cigarette by his rowboat, took me into the poem. My father, who loved fishing, taught me how to remove the hook from the fish’s mouth, how to gut and cook it, and how to row a boat. Shouldn’t a father, even in death, have something further to tell?
EJ: Can we talk about form? I think of sonnets, glosas, the ghazals of Processional (2005). How does form begin as regards the writing of a poem?
AC: For me the first line or two of the poem – originating in something heard or seen or in an image recalled – will determine form. I take my cue from those first lines. Of the kinds you mention, the glosa is the one sort of poem that is form-led. Sometimes another poet’s lines will nag me in such a way that I am forced to think it through in verse. The glosa allows me to do that expansively, but in a controlled way. I have, however, a broad sense of form. Beyond the received forms, I believe that a poem that works out a metaphor, or a pattern of metaphors, in a taut, controlled way through the length of the poem is formal. Similarly, an idea introduced, returned to, threaded through the whole gives a poem a formal dimension. Above all – to speak of pattern now rather than form – a pattern of interlocking sounds is what gives a poem not only its coherence but also its force. When I’m reading poetry, it is the poet’s orchestration of sound that I find most affective. And when that sound pattern coincides with, and reinforces, the build of images or an evolving metaphor, you have a poem that enters your memory without your ever actively memorizing it. Pattern bestows memorability on a poem.
EJ: Following on from that, tell me about long lines. Why do you think this element has become so important in your work? Is it their capability to convey narrative?
AC: I like a loping syntax, but I also seem to create rather a lot of sentence fragments, and I love the relationship between the two, the way the former expands upon the fragmentary. It seems to me that mix is the way we speak to one another – short, quick responses followed by an elaboration so that the longer surprises us even as we are working it out, takes us unaware. My long-lined poems are an effect of those thinking-through sentences that emerge, or grow, from the fragments. But those long lines also indicate, as you suggest, my story-telling inclination. The individual lyric poem has a narrative spine, and often in reading someone’s poetry, you can find a narrative line – either a story line or a narrative of ideas – across the whole book. My long lines, though, are also connected to my tilt toward the auditory. Even though I am an endless note-taker of what is visibly around me, the auditory is most often my starting point. I ventriloquise people’s speech habits – their idioms and sayings, and of course that inclination to set down their speech patterns is connected to narrative, the larger story that lurks within how they speak, the way, for example, East Coast Canadians and Americans use the word “some” as a modifier, “some cold,” and other times use that word for “somewhat,” delaying its position in the sentence, as in “the day’s dark was like midnight, some.”
Even though my poetry has that narrative ambition, I think it’s also important to say – I’m thinking now about the brain – that language in poetry functions differently from linear-driven fiction and from the logical, sequential argument of an essay. Language happens in the left brain hemisphere, but because of its musicality and because of its drive toward form and its visual image density, poetry requires the use of both hemispheres. Music and visual imagery and our spatial sense are located in the right hemisphere. Poetry, either making it or reading it, requires that we access and move between the two hemispheres. The poet’s use of metaphor which, as far as I’m concerned, is the very essence of poetry, is something I don’t understand with regard to the brain. How that lightning-strike bringing together of the “strange unlike” happens is a mystery to me.
EJ: Can you tell me a bit about the difference, then, not just in the writing but also the reading, between prose and poetry as you see it?
AC: I don’t know about you, but I have to read poetry first thing in the morning. I need my most wide-awake, flexible mind for poetry. I read fiction last thing at night. A novel – I’m speaking here in the most general terms – gives you, after you get your bearings in it, a populated world you can keep returning to and the momentum of a plot to keep you there. The novel, like the theatre – but without the apparatus of a film or stage theatre – darkens down your immediate surrounding and absorbs you into its world. And I don’t mean it’s escapist. One of the virtues of the novel is its creation of whole worlds – alternative, though recognizable, worlds, complete with cupboards and city streets or whatever. By contrast, the lyric poem is scrappy (both senses of the word). It’s partial – rigorously focused as opposed to broadly depictive. It makes you work harder, and is, therefore, less welcoming than the novel. The poem’s condensed, compact, yet home to multiple meanings, meanings that the reader has to keep in mind over the length of the poem, meanings that accrue not just by virtue of the metaphors and other tropes, but also because of sound patterns that execute connections line to line, and line breaks that can alter the reading of a preceding or following line. Nonetheless, a poem’s smallest unit of thought – a three-word phrase, a single line, the flare of an image – can short-circuit the tangled wiring of possible meanings and illumine the whole. If you think about what’s entered our talk and gets quoted in lectures, speeches, and everyday conversation, it’s most often lines of poetry not prose. A poem can be mind-altering and not just because of what it says, but because of how it says it: reading poetry trains us in mental agility. There are, of course, novels that have a similar effect. Virginia Woolf’s, for example. Still, what I want from both forms, novel and poem, is to be emotionally affected.
EJ: What’s the value of that: to be ‘emotionally affected’? Is it something people need in their lives, do you think? Or is it a more elite sensation?
AC: Oh, it’s a need and not at all elite. The sight of the father cardinal feeding his fledglings on the verandah rail is “emotionally affecting,” as is a great poem. We all need – wherever we can get it – what is complicatedly tender and touched by mortality and yet a source of hope. I do quite a bit of reading about the visual arts and I notice that one line of art criticism these days – perhaps the dominant one – approaches the artwork as a thought puzzle as Arthur C. Danto says, “What you’ve got to try to do is see the work, any work, as a piece of thought. As an art critic, very much like a philosopher, you’re concerned with the logical clarification of that thought ….” I don’t know if there is a parallel, and similar, priority given to “thought” in poetry criticism, but if there is I’d disagree with it. There’s no hierarchy: thought is not superior to feeling, and neither is it lower; it is not prior to feeling and it does not lag. In a poem, the intelligence communicates – manages, arranges, illumines – the emotional content through the word choices, the run of syntax, pattern and form, quickness and pause. A poem is not intelligent because it brings in, say, references to science or philosophical ideas; it’s intelligent in the way it works out what it has to say. Thought and feeling aren’t really separable, but I think that the emotional affect arrives first when you’re reading a poem. That has to do with cadence.
EJ: So many of your poems are driven by desire. Is that an important starting place for your writing? I think of the opening section of Alongside (2013), with its longing for mind and body of another poet.
AC: Yes, that section of Alongside lays bare what energized all the previous poems – an unrealizeable desire. But are there, you have to wonder, any other kinds? If hope is “the evidence of things unseen,” how much more is desire the “evidence” of things unachievable. Those poems are about a desire for a beloved, a desire that can never bring the pair into proximity, and that can never end. Didn’t Rilke say that the most we can do is guard one another’s solitude? Maybe that kind of long-lasting intellectual-erotic desire is a type for all other desires – the desire for the beautiful, the desire for something – an emotional aliveness – that supersedes our ordinary wants, and yet lifts those wants, and the actions that flow from them, beyond the commonplace, so that setting the table for supper or putting the spring seeds in the ground seems the most important thing that you could be doing. As one of those poems says, he was “A voice summoning me to the surface, to attention ….”
EJ: Where does that critical voice fit into all of this? You are that rare hybrid, poet-critic, and this is part of both your prose and poetry. Do the poet and critic get along? Or are they binaries?
AC: Poet and critic get along nicely, although the poet would be my first self and the critic my second. They are mutually supportive, even if the poet nourishes the critic more than the critic does the poet. The poet teaches the critic how to read – slowly, savouringly – and also teaches the critic to keep her voice tuned to everyday speech and avoid the high-falutin‘. There are differences and similarities between them. The critic, when she’s about, is selfish, taking all the attention and the mental energy. Second, the poet will just up and go away, leave for rather long periods, whereas the critic is always available. You can call on her at any time. Third, the critic has to assume a certain authority, look like she knows what she’s talking about; the poet can proceed in uncertainty. The truth, though, is that the critic, for all her pose as know-it-all, is also writing to find out. Nonetheless they’ve established something like a sibling satisfaction in one another’s company. The critic, not by what she writes but by what she reads in order to write, enlarges the poet’s way of thinking about things and introduces strange new metaphors.
EJ: Finally, I think we need to talk about “talk,” so central to your interviews, your essays, and your poems. In a new poem, “Talk Puts an End to Time,” you write about a speaker in empty hall, a number of buildings left behind, as the speaker steps out. And you conclude “On a day of steady rain, how to summon it back, be of it?”
AC: It’s ironic, isn’t it, I claim to be a recluse, or semi-recluse, yet I’ve spent so much of my life in “talk.” That poem looks at my earlier self: Podium-me, lecturer and conference-presenter. It’s about the vanity of the lecturer, the person who lives in the first-person, the “I’ who excludes the “we”; the “I” who wants to impress with her talk, talk, talk. In the first part of the poem, the lecturer realizes she’s talking to an empty room (the audience gone) and realizes as well that while she’s been holding forth, time has hidden the housefronts in overgrown hedges, emptied the warehouses on the waterfront. The world’s vacated, and she’s responsible for that. But then she remembers (part three of the poem) an occasion, years back, when an emptied building, a deserted barn, mysteriously retained the rustle of the animals that had once been there. Because of that memory, she knows that time keeps “Presence,” that, in spite of the fact her vanity has emptied the hall, emptied the world of “Presence,” she could get back to a peopled world – windows lit with their lives and busyness – if only she could figure out “how to summon it back.” The poem expresses my suspicion that public performances, and that includes poetry readings, are more about the ego of the performer and less about reaching out to an audience, a community. Public performance is, therefore, an oxymoron. Occasionally, you have the feeling you’ve led the wrong life. Maybe the poem is also suggesting that.
Sometimes, in the middle of a poetry reading, I have the feeling that I’m betraying the poems, turning them into performance, my physical voice overtopping, falsifying the poems. But that may be a different issue.