Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

"let words be words": in Conversation with Matt Rader, author of A Doctor Pedalled her Bicycle over the River Arno

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"let words be words": in Conversation with Matt Rader, author of A Doctor Pedalled her Bicycle over the River Arno

Matt Rader is author of Miraculous Hours (Nightwood Editions, 2005) which was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and longlisted for the ReLit Award; Living Things (Nightwood Editions, 2008) and most recently A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno (Anansi Press, 2011). He’s been nominated for the Journey Prize, two Pushcart Prizes and National Magazine Awards for both fiction and poetry. His work was featured in the Best Canadian Poetry 2008 and 2009. He is author of the chapbooks Reservations and Customs. He holds an MFA degree from University of Oregon. He will be reading at the Locke Branch of the Toronto Public Library 3083 Younge Street with Ken Babstock and Sharon Thesen on April 27 at 7pm and will be appearing at the Anansi Poetry Bash the following night at LeVack Block 88 Ossington Ave, 8pm

AH: "I acknowledge" is one of my favourite poems in the collection. When looking through the index, I was drawn to it first. Structurally, the repetition of "I acknowledge" is arresting and yet, the lines in the poem could work syntactically without the repeated phrase. The mixture of personal, local and historical details work together to heighten one another. The spouse, the recycling and Tribal land rights. The potential contradictions: "I do not believe in property/ I believe in propriety" create a sense of intimacy and irony. Could you talk about the balance of personal, local and historic in this poem and the book as a whole and the balancing of intimacy and irony?

MR: This is a poem about banalities--banalities of history, of locality, of politics, of language. Banality is in some ways a product of intimacy, or at least familiarity. And irony is embedded in all intimacies, I think: what we are most familiar with is what we often have the most difficulty acknowledging to ourselves. This is the case for me anyway. To put it in a more positive sense, perhaps intimacy is a process of ironizing. Perhaps to see something fully--to become deeply intimate with it--requires us to see both the thing itself and its necessary opposite (the opposite against which the thing becomes itself).

Anyway, the bulk of this book I began for my master’s thesis at the University of Oregon. At the time I had a very clear idea of what I was interested in (which I say more about below with respect to “Reservations” and Living Things). But by the time the book was accepted at Anansi I was deep into what has turned out to be an extended liminal phase for me personally and creatively. “I acknowledge” was the last poem I included in the manuscript. I included it out of trust in my editor with the reasoning that since I didn’t know what I did want in the book, I also didn’t know what I didn’t want. Which is all just to say that I have mixed feelings about that poem.

AH: In interview, Billy Collins has described poems as modes of travel that transport readers to other places; Mary Oliver has described the poet's role as being like a reporter's. Would you agree with either of these comparisons? Could you discuss them in relation to your practice?

MR: A critic once described the poet Michael Longley as “an Odysseus for whom every landfall is a homecoming.” It’s a description that makes a lot of sense for me in terms of how I experience poems. For me, most of my traveling in poems is as much about defining where I am and where I am from. I see myself and my place (the Comox Valley on Vancouver Island) as being products of our interactions with other places. Something like what I was saying about intimacy and opposites above. If the other places are other places within the self (leaving aside the question of what the self is) then this would describe my
experience as a reader and my experience as a writer.

I’m not really sure what a reporter’s role is to be honest. It seems a little bit witness, a little bit passive observer, a little bit passive aggressive, a little bit truth teller, a little bit liar, a little bit dramatist. So yeah, I guess I can get with Oliver on this one.

AH: Doctor is your third collection of poetry. How are its differences and similarities to your first book, Miraculous Hours, unexpected?

MR: This is a really good and difficult question. I am somewhat surprised that I now live in the same valley where the poems for Miraculous Hours began to take shape after ten years away. But that doesn’t speak to the book itself. I think the most surprising similarity between this book and Miraculous Hours is a return to narrative. Living Things was exclusively lyric. I remember writing “The Latin for Hunger,” the second poem in Doctor, and thinking that this was a poem that might have been in Miraculous Hours.

The most surprising difference is my lack of certainty about the poems in Doctor. Writing the poems in the first book brought me easy joy: each small victory was a first victory and I cherished them. The poems in Doctor are much more technically and morally sophisticated, I think, but I guess I see their flaws more clearly too. If I follow my own reasoning, perhaps this is because I am more intimate with Doctor: I know how to be more intimate now. But I don’t know if that is true.

I have the sense that in some way Doctor is the same book as Miraculous Hours, that I’m rehabilitating that book for a more current version of my aesthetic preferences. But I don’t know if that is true either.

AH: There are so many voices in Doctor. To describe broadly, there is the more experimental, like "Present & Future", more formal like "Party Politics", and more intimate and lyrical like "Leave the Light On". What factors are at play (editing, ordering of the poems, so on?) in making all of the voices work together?

MR: I am mostly working with the grand tool of chance. The book is roughly
“braided” with three thematic strands that a friend helped me identify. But there were really no other plans. My editor did pressure me to include a poem that tested some of the formal limits of the book and a poem that took on a particular tonal character and reflective strategy. Both those poems are in the book and they likely contribute to the sense of variety. I’m very pleased you found a variety of voices in the book. It is much more difficult to see that variety from the inside. Or more accurately, it is more difficult to predict how
others will see it. For instance, often the most traditionally formal poems are the ones that feel like the biggest experiments when I am writing them and the poems that might be described as experimental are the ones that felt the most procedural and predictable during composition.

Train to Brisbane

On pause and alone in the languid pulse
    Of a passenger car, my eye-cogs
Re-pattern the gum groves and poulticed
    Pastures, the grey grainy smog

Of darkness and heat dawn-light dusts
    From the green mantle of Earth's
Southern room, into a distant Italian dusk
    Accruing like soot upon the hearth

Of a day before this latest war, our train
    Trembling like Attila's horses
Through Roman suburbs, the airplanes
    Departing Da Vinci on course

For London, Prague, Stuttgart, crucifixes
    Hoisted on night's worn shoulder-
Tell me, are you afflicted too, cursed by fits
    Of cross-traffic when one order

Suddenly overtakes another?- A tremor
    In the picture, a jab and udder
As the entire train whelms and now-or-
    Never lurches into near future

Where a scrim of smokestacks wheels on
    To the backstage of horizon,
And I am gathered again on a slow train
    In the lowlands west of Brisbane.

-from the collection A Doctor Pedalled Her Bicycle Over the River Arno (House of Anansi Press, 2011)

(note indents in even numbered lines may not appear in all browsers and any typo's are mine)

AH: Most of the poems in Doctor are set on the homefront, whether in the actual home/ domestic space or in British Columbia, with exceptions like "Train to Brisbane" (quoted above in its entirety). How important is location to your writing?

MR: When I wrote Living Things (my previous book) I was very concerned with the idea of entering my “place” into “the tradition.” For example, I wanted, as my friend Elise Partridge put it, to do for the trees of Vancouver Island what Hopkins had done for the Binsey Poplars. Later on I simply wanted to enter my place. To be in it. I have come to trust locality as a kind of lingua franca. Which might seem like a paradox but...It’s another form of specificity. Another
intimacy. As a reader, I respond to it forcefully. Not because it transports me to that place exactly, but because it rhymes with the intimacies of my own life and place and in that way delivers me home again. As a writer, my gamble is that other readers have a similar experience.

On the other hand, “Train to Brisbane” deals directly with the way in which impactful localities (in place and time) can interfere with experiences as they are happening. Of course, even though that poem takes place just outside Brisbane and in it the speaker recalls being on another train outside Rome, it is one that always makes me think of being out on Goose Spit at the mouth of Comox harbour.

All that said, the book includes poems set explicitly in California, Oregon, Ontario, Cuba, Germany, Israel, Italy, and Australia. So it does do its share of wandering, I’d say.

AH: The series "Reservations" is dispersed throughout Doctor and takes up various Canadian native reserves as their settings. What made the sonnet the appropriate form for the series "Reservations"? The formal constraint seems to me, in part, to reflect the physical constraint of a reservation, also to acknowledge a reservation as an inherited idea, an idea with a history.

MR: Yes, I think those are good reasons. I thought of those reasons as I went along and a few other things such as the role of customs such as sonnets and reservations to both oppress and preserve, do violence and to stand against violence. But as usual, the form was something that arose out of composition before it found it’s thematic resonance. I’ve worked with sonnet sequences for a while now and from a purely compositional standpoint what I like about the sonnet is that while extremely flexible it forces reflection and expression, both in the sense of actually saying something and in the sense of expressing
juice from a grape: there’s always all this stuff left over. And that starts the next sonnet, that stuff, the left-overs. With the sequence I have it both ways: the pressure of constraint but the room to say everything.

AH: Does the "Reservations" series continue outside of Doctor?

MR: That’s like asking what happens after the last page of the novel.

AH: Can you describe what you are working on next?

MR: Short term: Swimming in the river and the sea.
Long term: Being myself.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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