Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Keith Garebian

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TTQ's Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series: Keith Garebian

Interviewed by Darryl Salach (The Toronto Quarterly)

The Toronto Poets — 5 Questions Series is a new series initiated by The Toronto Quarterly that is geared to providing the talented poets living and writing in the city of Toronto with a bit of a broader platform in which to explain who they are as poets and what they're writing about these days. The hope is to provide this information to not only lovers of poetry residing in the city but to the casual reader of poetry who might not be aware of some of the names being featured in the five questions series. Ultimately, the hope of this series is to inform Torontonians that poetry is indeed vibrant, alive and kicking ass in our city.

Keith Garebian resides in Mississauga and was born to an Armenian father and an Anglo-Indian mother. A widely published and award-winning author, he holds a doctorate in Canadian and Commonwealth Literature from Queen’s University. He has published over 1200 reviews, interviews and features in over 80 newspapers, journals and magazines. He made his literary reputation in non-fiction with 13 books, including groundbreaking studies of Hugh Hood, Leon Rooke, William Hutt, Christopher Newton and Shavian theatre, and production histories of classic Broadway musicals. While living in Montreal, where he taught part-time at McGill and Concordia Universities, he became friends with Irving Layton, who encouraged him to write more poetry.

Garebian eventually took Layton’s advice to heart, and has now produced four books of poetry — the latest being Children of Ararat (Frontenac House, 2010). He was longlisted for the Re-Lit Award for Frida: Paint Me As A Volcano (Buschek, 2004) and for the LAMDA Award for Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems (Signature Books, 2008). Among his many awards are the Canadian Authors Association (Niagara Branch) Poetry Award (2009), the Naji Naaman Literary Honour Prize (Lebanon) (2009), the Mississauga Arts Award (2000 and 2008) and the Dan Sullivan Memorial Poetry Award (2006). One of the poems from his most recent book was selected Poem of the Month by the Parliamentary Poet Laureate in 2009. His second edition of The Making of ‘Cabaret’ is forthcoming from Oxford University Press (New York) in 2011, and he has begun a biography of William Hutt. Visit his website at


TTQ- Your most recently published book of poetry, Children of Ararat (Frontenac House, 2010) is a collection depicting the atrocities and abuses inflicted on thousands of people during the Armenian genocide of 1915 at the hands of the Ottoman Empire (now the Republic of Turkey). Why did you decide to write about such a dark period in history, and how personal is your attachment to the events that occurred on April 24, 1915?

KG- My father was an Armenian who was born in 1909 in Armenia. He was orphaned at less than five and a half years of age, along with three sisters — one older, two younger. His father was slain by Turkish soldiers and his body dumped somewhere unknown. My father could remember only his name, not his face. Nor could he remember the names or faces of his grandparents who were also slaughtered. His mother died of a broken heart, as much as from starvation, as they were making a hellish journey through the desert. Only he and his slightly elder sister survived the genocide. (By the way, it was not just thousands of Armenians who were massacred by the Ottoman Turks; the figure is approximately 1.5 million. In some cases, the entire population of a village or town was wiped out by some of the most barbaric means known to man, so there is no way of objectively denying the fact of a genocide.)

I heard my father repeatedly relate some of the obscene horrors of the genocide, and though he and I never had a good relationship for almost all our time together, I felt a natural empathy with him and his people. To this day, I know of no other Garebian anywhere in the world (apart from my son), so it is very possible that none of my father’s uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces or nephews survived the genocide. Besides, the Turks went to the trouble of destroying documents so that it is almost impossible to trace ancestors or even places of their birth and existence.

I have deep revulsion for the governments of the United States, Britain, Germany and Israel (though not their people in general) for their denial of this genocide for political reasons (trade, military bases, geopolitical agendas, special status (for the Jewish holocaust), etc), as well as a deep-rooted passion for justice for all persecuted peoples — but especially for the Armenians of that era — that I could stay silent no longer. There is an Armenian proverb (and, by the way, I speak nor read no Armenian) that says (in a rough paraphrase) that the past is best left in the past, but I disagree vehemently. All crimes against humanity need to be acknowledged in an official way; all crimes need to be repented and reasonable reparation made to the aggrieved. Nothing, of course, can bring back the dead or create closure (a mythical term), and the trauma of genocide crosses generations and cultures, so it must be addressed.

In 2000 I published a post-modernist memoir of my parents called Pain: Journeys Around My Parents, in which I mixed prose, epigrams, poems, anecdotes, documentary evidence, meditation and the essay form. It was my first official act of memorializing the Armenian genocide, and when I received compliments for my poems, I later decided to use poetry as my medium for amplifying certain themes pertaining to that genocide and my father. I did a lot of background reading and was shocked to find not a single good anthology of poetry about any genocide. Of course, there were wonderful, even great poems by some international poets, but not a single book of consistently high poetic quality, so in part my book was a response to an artistic challenge. But most of all, it is payment of a spiritual debt to my father and his people. It is also a way of burying those Armenian dead and of assailing 95 years of systematic Turkish denial.

TTQ- What is your opinion concerning the events that occurred in the streets of Toronto during the G20 this past June? Do you feel it's only another example of government taking an iron fist approach to important socio-political issues that concern its citizenry, and do you find poets to be far too apathetic in confronting political abuses and hypocrisies?

KG- Well, I am usually left of centre politically, especially when it comes to North American politics. Canada is generally a decent country but it has ruinous politicians. I have already said in other forums that Canada is a huge country with a small mind. Stephen Harper and his party are proof of this, but I do not exempt the Liberals. There has never really been a Canadian Prime Minister (no, not even Pearson or Trudeau, much less Chretien, Martin, etc) who had a real vision for the country. All of them have traded in bromides, shallow platitudes and false assumptions, and have usually played one faction or province against another. There has also been an unfortunate shift to the right in Canada, under Harper, where he and his government (along with conservative commentators and journalists) seem to be auditioning, even pandering for U.S. approval.

Revolutions in thinking usually come late to Canada. I am referring specifically to politics, but it also applies in general to the arts, especially in painting, the novel, theatre, dance and opera. Harper could have chosen decent models for his style of government; instead, he seems to be aping Bush and Blair in certain ways. His handling of the G20 summit was a stunning example of his totalitarian approach to things when they don’t go his way or when they threaten in a real or imagined way his style of governing. Not to mention the outrageous waste of public money on security and that useless artificial lake. Harper and his ilk are truly the children of St. Paul in the worst sense. But whether he or any in his government understands the allusion, much less the connotation, is highly debatable.

As to the second part of your question, some Canadian poets are, of course, overly absorbed in navel-gazing; others like ramified word games or language games. A few really deal with our world as it is in its depth of crises and abuse and hypocrisy. We need another Layton, another Milton Acorn, another A.M. Klein or Louis Dudek to shake us out of our complacency with desiccated academic poetry. For this reason alone, I prefer American or English or Latin American poets to Canadian.

We have plenty of good poets, but few write on subjects that have much relevance in the world at large. They seem to be largely talking to themselves or to a small coterie who mimic one another. And the “leading” poetry critics (who are usually academic poets themselves) or editors of poetry presses save their biggest ammunition to demolish rivals rather than to write great or even first-rate poetry. Actually, most of them write mediocre or trivial stuff that I read and then forget quickly. But they make a lot of noise from their ivory towers or commissar headquarters and some even serve on juries that administer grants or awards. So they do a lot of patting of one another’s back.

TTQ- Tell us a little about your friendship with famous Canadian poet Irving Layton. To what degree was his influence on you in becoming a successful poet and writer of many books outside of the poetry genre?

KG- I admire Phyllis Webb, P.K. Page, Margaret Avison, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, John Newlove, Barry Dempster, John Barton and other younger or less well-known Canadian poets, but Irving Layton is, to my mind, the greatest Canadian poet. He damaged his own reputation by publishing too much bad or mediocre poetry and by his public persona. But there is no one else in Canada (apart from Leonard Cohen, that great balladeer) who had such strong, fluent lyricism. Of course, the critics sneer at Cohen for making money from his songs, and they sneer at Layton for being so “ethnic” or bad-tempered or sexual. But they, as well as many of our contemporary poets, forget that poetry is song and has, at the least, a strong oral aspect.

Poetry has a broad rubric, wide boundaries, and it can take many forms, so I am not excluding good cerebral poetry or post-modern experiments, but to me poetry has to have melody as well as metaphor, though the melody can be subtle. Layton certainly wrote poems to be read aloud, and he was a well-read man who kept abreast of agitations and upheavals the world over. He had a splendid reputation as a teacher in Montreal (where I lived from 1961-1982), and he was very encouraging to young poets.

I met Layton after he wrote me a letter of high praise for a review I had published in The Montreal Star of a bad Vehicule anthology. He agreed with me, and wanted to meet me. So we did at a coffee shop in, if I remember correctly, Cote St. Luc, where I showed him a couple of poems I had just written. One was on Patrick White’s Voss, and another was a tribute to Michael Arlen via an elegy for Armenians. He liked both of them, showed the Voss poem to his ex-wife Aviva, who was Australian, and picked out a line from the second poem as “a great line.” He told me I should write more poetry because I was good. I demurred, saying that I was a critic and wrote poetry only sporadically. But after Pain was published to some of the best reviews I have ever had, people who admired some of the poems in it told me to write more poetry, and so Layton’s advice came back to me.

Alas, he is no longer around to see how my poetry has developed from book to book. I still consider myself primarily a theatre historian, critic and biographer, but I can confidently say that I am a poet of the melancholy lyric and the dramatic monologue, and that my special skill (apart from lyricism) is to adopt personae with conviction. People are usually astonished to discover that it was I, and not a woman, who created the portrait of Frida Kahlo in Frida: Paint Me As A Volcano or that I could empathize so strongly with Derek Jarman for Blue: The Derek Jarman Poems. I like to burrow inside a personality or culture or genre so as to give my poetry an inwardness that goes to the spirit of things. Moreover, voice is a strong feature in my poetry, and this returns to the subject of poetry as an oral medium.

TTQ- What words of advice would you give to young Canadian poets/writers of today, and what is your opinion of the current poetry scene in Toronto?

KG- The advice any writer should ever give to another young writer is to read widely across literary genres and cultures so as to learn from your betters, imitate, and then create anew. I often write only after I have been moved or excited by another writer or poet. A single line or image or mood can inspire me. I read even poets I dislike, just in case something in them can teach me either what to avoid or what to modify. I am also inspired by paintings or films. Hence Frida and Blue and Children of Ararat.

It is also very important for a young writer to get constructive comments from senior writers. I know that this is not always possible, however, but if the writer is aiming at producing a full-length book, then a good editor becomes de rigueur. I have been very fortunate so far. For Blue I had John Barton, and for Children of Ararat I had Mick Burrs, so those two fine poets helped me whip the poetry into shape.

Regarding the current poetry scene in Toronto, writers should be pleased to have Open Book Toronto online or Toronto Quarterly that is also online. I am heartened by such forums as the Art Bar, Hot Sauced Words or the now-expired Proust and Company. These are or were good places or series in which to meet new voices in poetry or to listen to older or more expert voices.

However, I have two complaints in general. First, too many poetry reading series are cliques that have the usual suspects running them or featured in them. You would think that with my long background in theatre writing and my strongly oral poetry that I would be invited to do more readings by more series, but this is not the case. Second, despite the fact that there are many good Canadian poets, most are terrible readers who do a disservice to the genre and themselves. I prefer staying home and reading their books rather than subjecting myself to their drawling or monotonous readings. And I am referring to some big name poets who, however, shall be nameless here. In fact, on hearing many of them, I wonder how they ever got their large reputations. All good poets should take lessons in public performance. It could only do them good.

TTQ- In your writing career you have written thousands of reviews about many different genres ranging from books to stage, theatre and sound. In your opinion, what constitutes a well-written review and why?

KG- This is a tough question because it assumes that all reviews are written in the same manner. This is patently false. A book review is structured quite differently from a theatre or dance review. It can circle its subject; start with an anecdote or quotation, etc. A theatre review should try and give a palpable sense of what transpired on stage at a given time. A dance review works differently because it deals with abstract things such as music or even interpretive movement. So each type of review has its own norms. However, any well-written review boils down to a few general principles or questions. First, what was experienced? Second, how was it experienced? Third, what was its effect on reader or viewer or listener? Fourth, was it worth experiencing and why? And sometimes a fifth can be added: How did this experience fit into the history of the form?
But a well-written review should also be a window into the sensibility of the reviewer — into his mind and heart. I usually cannot bear writing negative reviews, unless I feel that the writer, director, actor, dancer or choreographer was trying to pass off inferior work to an unsuspecting public. Then I go for the jugular. I would much rather write an enthusiastic review than a negative one. Hence, you will find that I usually delay posting bad reviews on my website in favour of promoting good work. I don’t see much point to giving space, time and effort to bad work. As for my book reviews for the Globe and Mail, it takes me longer to start a bad review (unless the matter is really hideous) than a good one.

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This interview was first published in The Toronto Quarterly blog.

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