Kate Braid has written eleven books of poetry and non-fiction, the most recent being Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World, a memoir of her 15 years as a construction carpenter, and Rough Ground Revisited, a new edition of her book of construction poetry. www.katebraid.com
I’m going to talk from a personal perspective about the process of writing four long poems including two books of persona poems, but first I’d like to thank Robert Kroetsch, may he rest in peace. Before Kroetsch, I’d never heard of the long, or serial, poem. I’d written two of them but had no idea there was a name; I thought of them as simply obsessions. It was stumbling across Kroetsch’s long poem, “Seed Catalogue,” that entirely changed my understanding of what I was doing.
Robin Skelton once said to Susan Musgrave when she was young and distraught, “You’re not crazy; you’re a poet.” That’s how I felt when I found “Seed Catalogue.” Other people were obsessive too! There’s a name for this! Robert Kroetsch gave me permission to carry on.
I’m defining the long poem as a series of short poems (if not one very long one) on a single theme. And what else holds them together? As Michael Ondaatje said in his introduction to the first Long Poem Anthology, “These poems expect you to fill in the silences.”1
Long poems—extended meditations on a single character or theme—feel most coherent to me. Individual lyric moments can feel unanchored, insecure and ungrounded. I trust the long poem. Perhaps its element of story is also why I write creative nonfiction; with a beginning, a middle and an end, I know where I am.
Each long poem I wrote started with a seed event.
The first and latest books focussed on my fifteen years in construction. In hindsight it’s easy to understand why I needed to explore that experience. Only now—after five books about it, including a memoir and numerous essays—do I begin to feel I (sort of) understand the complexities of being both utterly isolated in, and utterly a part of the world of construction I loved.
For the second book, I’d been in construction for almost three years when I saw an Emily Carr painting that cut me off at the knees. I had to actually sit down. I’d spent the past few years living alone in a cabin in the woods on an island off the coast. It had wood heat so I spent a lot of time foraging for firewood, and for most of that time I’d been working in construction. I lived immersed in the textures and sounds and smells of wood.
What hit me on that day was that Emily Carr knew trees. I immediately wrote a poem that included the line, “Now I know who you are / another woman who knows wood.”2 Another poem, then another….
Jack Spicer once said, “You have to go into a serial poem not knowing what the hell you’re doing.”3 Check.
“You have to be tricked into it,” he said, “it has to be some path that you’ve never seen on a map before.”4 Check.
Michael Ondaatje thinks it is “this uncertainty, this lack of professional intent” that allows poets “to go deep.”5 I didn’t know why I was writing these poems, but I knew I had to. Obsession. I had to know more about this woman, Emily Carr. I began to read all her books and to hang out at the Vancouver Art Gallery on my days off. As I sat in front of the paintings I put myself into Emily’s brush, Emily’s mind. What had made her paint like that? What did she see, and how? I didn’t write in Carr’s voice—she’d written too much in her own—but I wanted to know what she knew by closely examining her work.
To my surprise, then-publisher Michelle Benjamin included those early Carr poems in my first book about construction. I didn’t see it at the time—I couldn’t see the larger map—but of course they were related. Emily Carr defied her Victorian society’s norms of what “Nice Girls” do, in order to do what she most passionately wanted—to paint. In my case, it was to build.
An extended version of responses to her paintings became my second long poem book.6
When I read somewhere that Emily once met my other favourite painter, Georgia O’Keeffe, I was off again. In fact, nothing came of their actual visit but I was electrified. What if these two amazing women had become friends? What would they have done? Well, of course they’d first want to show each other the landscapes that shaped them—O’Keeffe’s dessert, Carr’s rain forest. And they were off; within a week I had seven poems, this time in the voice of Georgia O’Keeffe.
The fourth book-length poem happened differently. Again there was a seed event: in this case, a CBC radio celebration of pianist Glenn Gould’s birthday. I was driving at the time, and idly listened to him play Bach and talk about music. Then I forgot about it—until a week later when my partner and I were watching a film on Cuban jazz and the line came into my head, “I prefer the classical to jazz.”
By then I knew a line of poetry when I heard one, so I wrote it down and went back to the film. I got another line, and another, until by the end of it I had a poem—but in a voice clearly not my own. With a bit of a shock, I knew it was the voice of Glenn Gould.
Those poems were harder than either the Carr or O’Keeffe. I’d always loved art, and deeply sympathized with the issues women face. But classical music? I not only knew nothing about it, but if there was one classical musician who irked me most, it was J.S. Bach. And I’d never heard of Glenn Gould before that radio program. Still, I was curious, and I started listening to Glenn Gould play Bach. I listened for the next four years. Still am.
I did extensive research for all these books (except the construction ones, for which I guess you could say I’d done 15 years of research, keeping daily journals.) I always started with the artists themselves—listening to or looking at their work, reading what they wrote about their own process until their voices became clear. I guess you could say I fed my obsession. I read no secondary sources, nothing anyone else had written about them until I felt that first flush of obsession ease.
During the process of writing, what slowed me was what we all deal with—doubt. With each book, I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going. No map. Writing friends were vital, reminding me to, “Just keep writing.” Once, when I began to seriously doubt what I was doing, I told a friend, “I have nothing but questions,” and her reply, “Honour the questions,” held me up a little longer.
I researched and wrote O’Keeffe poems for two years, Gould poems for four.
A good editor was vital. The Gould poems took a turn about a year after I thought it was “finished” when I showed the manuscript to Betsy Warland for some editorial advice. I’d written in two voices: that of Gould and of a fan who happened to be a carpenter. Betsy asked a few questions about the fan that made me suddenly conscious I’d come to the Gould poems immediately after I’d experienced sudden deafness, losing the hearing in my left ear. Isn’t it interesting, Betsy asked, that I’d come to the beauty of Gould’s music only after becoming half deaf? I went home and changed the fan to one who—like me—was coping with severe hearing loss.
In researching Gould, I’d come to believe the man was dealing with Asperger’s syndrome. People at this high end of the autism spectrum have a hard time with personal relationships, with touch, and so on. So A Well-Mannered Storm: The Glenn Gould Poems is not so much a conversation as a reflection of two people in touch with each other at a distance, each struggling. In hindsight, of course, my obsession—the map I was trying to make clear—was that of dealing with my own loss, through Gould.
Knowing when to stop a long poem was almost as big an issue as how to go on; with the Carr book, I never have stopped. Even now, when I sit in front of an Emily Carr painting I often write. As Sharon Thesen said in her introduction to The New Long Poem Anthology, “In some sense, all poets are composing the ‘long poem’ of their writing lives.”7
The end to the O’Keeffe book was pretty clean; I had little more to say. Gould was hardest. I had to cut myself off cold turkey because I was getting sick in the same ways he had once got sick. I’ll come back to this later.
5. The Wherefores
There is, in my experience, a seed event to every long poem but there is also the moment soon after when I have to decide consciously whether to accept the offer, to tend the garden where that seed has fallen and proceed—or not.
There are always issues of time and money. Luckily, Emily Carr was physically close to home for me, in Vancouver and Victoria, but research for O’Keeffe took me to New York, New Mexico and Tofino, and for Gould, to Ottawa. Both times I was lucky I had the support of the university-college where I was teaching.
There was also the issue of voice. Coming out of the fierce feminist discussions of appropriation of voice in the 1970s and ‘80s, I had to deal with this. What right did I have to “appropriate” the voice of another, of O’Keeffe and then Gould?
The best advice I got was from Rudy Wiebe: “You just better be sure to get it right,” he said.
I decided in the end I simply had to trust that my extensive reading and research and—not insignificantly—a heavy reliance on the genius of the Muse, would lead to a voice that was at least honest. It helped that Georgia O’Keeffe wrote very little so I felt easier about speaking “for” her. And when I set some of her written words as found poems beside mine, readers said yes, the voices were consistent and sounded “true.”
When it comes to publishing, I have a totally unscientific sense that many publishers like the idea of single-themed manuscripts: easier to blurb, to explain, perhaps even easier to sell. Certainly, there are plenty of long poems being published in Canada today.
Before I end, I want to go back to the issue I found most difficult to deal with in writing: that of getting close to the spirit—the voice—of another.
Robin Blaser said about the long poem, “You need to work without looking back and without thought of the previous poem, so that the poet [can] be led by what [is] composing.”8
So that the poet can be led by what is composing.
And that’s how it clearly felt as I wrote, that I was being led. Recently several of us got together in Vancouver to talk about The Muse and I was deeply relieved when the first person used the word “voices” and no one twitched. Because there is a feeling most artists know of becoming a conduit, being led, and of needing the courage and focus to follow. Often it involves following a trail of sudden “coincidences.” But toward the end of the Gould poems I lost focus, lost my own voice you might say, lost my one-foot-in-the-present, translator voice, and had to end the book because I got sick in exactly the same way Gould had been sick. I got lost inside my subject and had to stop for my own emotional and spiritual as well as physical health.
This is an issue writers rarely talk about but I think it’s important to acknowledge at least among ourselves. In the end, if we decide to follow the Muse—the obsession—She/He/It can lead us to magical places. But we need to be acrobats doing the seemingly impossible—keeping one foot on the ground of the present moment and with the other, to follow.
1. Michael Ondaatje, Introduction to The Long Poem Anthology. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1979, p. 17
2. Kate Braid, Covering Rough Ground. First published by Polestar Publishers, 1991. Republished as Rough Ground Revisited, Caitlin Press, 2015.
3. Jack Spicer quoted by Robin Blaser in Michael Ondaatje’s introduction to The Long Poem Anthology. p.3
4. Jack Spicer, Idem.
5. Michael Ondaatje, Introduction, The Long Poem Anthology. p.13.
6. Kate Braid, To This Cedar Fountain. First published by Polestar Publishers, 1991. Second edition by Caitlin Press, 2008.
7. Sharon Thesen, Introduction, The New Long Poem Anthology. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1991, p. 13.
8. Robin Blaser in Introduction, The Long Poem Anthology. p.3, cited from “the Practice of Outside” in The Collected Books of Jack Spicer.