Interview with Randy Lundy
Interview conducted by Kevin Andrew Heslop
Kevin Andrew Heslop: Patrick Lane, whom you credit as “teacher” in the epigraph to “A Slight Wrinkle on the Pond” (from Field Notes for the Self) and who edited your first book of poems, Under the Night Sun, stated, in response to Blackbird Song, your third collection, that you had “entered the place where the masters reside.”
First, I want to offer my condolences for the loss of that great poet and teacher of so many.
And whether or not you agree with his assessment, I wonder: what characterizes the place where the masters reside, in your view––or, what does masterful poetry do, look and feel like? Do any examples of masterful poetry come readily to mind?
And relatedly, what was Patrick like as a teacher?
(I often think of a one-sentence poem of his, “Cowichan Valley Poem” from Washita, which reads, in its entirety, “The heron has only one leg / and he stands on both of them.”)
Randy Lundy: Well, Patrick’s words about Blackbird Song are generous. Whether or not they are accurate, I’ll leave to others to decide. Of course, I was thrilled to read them, and while my reaction is still that there’s a bit of hyperbole present, I also cannot dismiss them because I have tremendous respect for the work of the man who wrote them. So, there’s certainly some tension there in my own reaction. But that’s my personal reaction, and readers can decide for themselves on the accuracy. Anecdotally, at the time the publisher was looking for endorsements for the book, we knew Patrick wasn’t well, so we didn’t approach him. We did, however, ask Lorna Crozier for an endorsement. Apparently, she shared the poems with Patrick and his words then came to me unsolicited and privately (our request to use them publicly followed). There’s something very gratifying in that.
And that term generous comes to mind when I think of him as a teacher. Kind. Demanding, too. My sense is he likely didn’t have much patience for those who didn’t genuinely want to learn. Yes, he edited my first book, Under the Night Sun (I also took a Canadian Literature class with him at the University of Saskatchewan back in the late-80’s. I remember him pacing, smoking the whole while, and just talking, occasionally reading a passage from whatever text was on the agenda. It was fascinating to watch and listen to him thinking.) In editing that first book, I remember him writing to me at one point and simply stating, “The poem is what matters, Randy. This isn’t about me, and it isn’t about you. It’s about the poem and making it the best poem it can be.” Best instruction one could offer a beginner.
I sent him a note once and thanked him for the work he had done bringing forward the voices of Indigenous poets, pointing to his editing first books by Louise Halfe, Greg Scofield, Heather McLeod, and then my own. He said something to the effect that he didn’t realise anyone knew or had noticed and then thanked me, and he was so humble about it. So, I’ll add humble to the list of descriptors.
Masterful poetry? I was reading something on Facebook the other day, a conversation between two poets who were largely in agreement, and it went something like this: “Poetry isn’t about emotion. There’s nothing about your emotions that will be unique. It’s about language. Maybe you can do something with language that will be unique.” True, and not true. It seems to me you need both. The emotional content of the poem will make it human and invite readers in, and then there’s the opportunity to show them something new, different, or unique. Personally, I’m not really interested in excessively clever (often ironic) poems that are largely about language and little else. Others might be, and good for them. Let them have at it. Not interesting to me.
If you consider some of the tools of poetry—line, image, rhythm, sound, density—then I think you want all those things working and ideally working together or at least in conversation, even if discord is part of the conversation. When I think of density, it includes intellectual, connotative, and emotional elements. There’s a kind of wholeness there, unless, of course, the strategy is to point out fracturedness. Fair enough. But just shouting “Fracturedness!” over and again, as if language was its own thing and unrelated to the rest of the world, including individual human emotions, that seems to me rather lifeless. Let’s always value the intellect over emotion, rather than having those human qualities in dialogue as they need to be in the real world, the world in which we actually live. Let’s divorce language and intellect from everything else that makes the world go around. Seems to me we’ve tried that long enough, and it’s got us nowhere good. Same’s true of emotion unbalanced by other faculties.
Randy, I once had the opportunity to ask a question of Jane Hirshfield, who has said you are “a poet of whom one say say—quietly, simply, with gratitude—that highest of praises: the real thing.”
She had been discussing birds, which appear very often in your work; and I asked what a poet can learn from birds. Her response was, “When morning comes, sing something.”
I also think of something Maya Angelou—“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song”—and of Robert Hass, whose MA thesis advisor handed him a pair of birding binoculars and Aristotle’s taxonomy.
And I wonder whether you would say a few words about birds, your (if I perceive correctly) affinity with them, and what birds and poets have in common.
Lane’s words made me cry; Hirshfield’s made me blush. Still, that phrase, “the real thing” reminds me of the Coca Cola campaign because I am that old. Now that I got that out of the way. Birds. Yes, Hirshfield in spot on, as she usually is. The Hirshfield strikes me as slightly more pragmatic, while the Angelou seems just slightly more abstract and even a bit romantic. Birds sing, poets sing. Yes, I suppose. My pragmatic response is that my paternal grandmother lived about two stone throws away for a long period when I was growing up, and she had a feeder out every winter. That’s always stuck with me, in particular the pine grosbeaks. This was in Hudson Bay, in east central Saskatchewan, in the boreal forest. It’s just something from childhood that’s always stuck with me—the coming and going, the feeding in the midst of winter—that hard, dark season—and the colours and sounds of the birds. As an adult I learned that if you sit alone and quietly, the birds will come and get about their business. And the thing is, they always have business, they’re always working, sometimes fighting, and occasionally playing. And it seems they sometimes sing just for the pure pleasure of it, just because it’s morning, but other times and likely more often they sing for very good reasons—to attract mates, warn others away, communicate various things. I’m sure I tend to romanticise birds at times, but I try to remember the pragmatic aspects of their singing too. They have their reasons, just as people do when writing poems.
It's the activity, their constant busyness, striving for survival, along with the sound and colour, the startling variety, and exquisite beauty, and, of course, if we pay close and careful attention to birds (and other beings), then we are not focused on ourselves, we are drawn out of our habitually human myopic self-centeredness. This is a great gift.
a dance of bird’s feet
across wind-smoothed snow
your flesh snows no sign
no hieroglyph of descended flight
but the occasional stain of blood
betrays the path of mouth or hand
as if spring had awakened
in some lazy neighbourhood cat
a sudden new awareness
of teeth and claws
During the Q&A after a reading for Poet’s Corner on February 16th 2022, you described metaphor not creating connection between unlike things but revealing a pre-existing interconnection between ostensibly unlike things.
And I wonder whether you’d offer a few more words about that.
What does metaphor do? And what can metaphor teach us about the essence of reality, of nature, of experience?
Well, this seems to me both a simple and an intricately difficult question. So, let’s see. When I think about it, I think about a Cree / nehiyaw concept: wahkotowin. In the limited way I understand it, it refers to the interconnected nature of all beings, the kinship that exists in this world. So, we begin with an understanding of wholeness, of oneness, rather than the reverse. I think much ecological theory or understanding is something similar to this. Hence, language and the ways in which we use it reflect that interconnected nature of all things, rather than creating such connections. It’s just a different starting point. So, the Cree concept is an ontological assertion about the nature of being, and hence an epistemology follows. Our use of language, then, points to that already existing kinship, rather than creating anything new on that front. It’s kind of humbling really, I think, because it places the world back at the center rather than language and human ingenuity. (I am sure the post-structuralists and post-modernists would hate this! And be happy to explain why I am wrong.)
It's not this is that, of course, but this participates in the being of that and vice versa, and, in fact, the being of the whole begins to fall apart if individual parts fall apart. Think spider’s web—you pull on this part, there is an effect on that part. Another expression is Indra’s net from Hinduism which is meant to teach interpenetration. It’s something the Daoists knew and from there found it’s way into Chan, Chinese Buddhism. Metaphor then can still startle, not because it creates but because it reveals and / or reminds us of what is true about the nature of reality, existence. The existence of individual kinds of beings only makes sense in relationship to all the others. It’s a fundamentally relational understanding of reality.
Speaking of metaphor, I notice one of the epigraphs to The Gift of the Hawk from Pat Lowther’s “Coast Range”—“The land is what’s left after the failure of every kind of metaphor.”
And given the centrality of land to your poetry, which has metaphor at its centre, I wonder whether you might say a few more words about land as “what’s left after the failure of every kind of metaphor.”
It seems these questions are coming together in the kind of relational way I was just talking about. (Chuckles). So, I am not sure I have much more to add. Because of the nature and function of metaphor in the context I was speaking about above, we speak and speak and speak, and at the end of the speaking, we are returned to the fundamental about which we have been speaking. That, of course, is the land. In my writing, I mean. In this context, metaphor can only really fail when it forgets the relational nature of existence. Another way of saying it then might be “The land is what’s left after the speaking comes to an end and we return to silence.” And that returns to something I was saying earlier about birds, and birds are just an example here, but if we want to see them, we have to shut up, be still and be silent for a time. Then we can look, we can see, and only then can we begin to speak. Otherwise, whatever we have to say will just be the noise of our own minds rushing off on their own pursuits that often have little to no connection to the rest of the living world that surrounds us and upon which our continued existence depends.
It's common to hear the phrase “mother earth,” and sometimes I like to think of that literally—our bodies are water and minerals involved in complex kinship and the water and minerals are earth, are literally from the earth, and hence the earth is literally a parent to our being.
I notice that your poems “On Name: Or, On the Emptiness of Mind” and “Three-Toed Woodpecker” (2020) feel like haibun, prose poem followed by haiku, rendered in triptych.
also think of these gorgeous lines from “Insomnia” (2018):
There is a trapezoid of moonlight on the square, white kitchen tiles, and you wish geometry could save you. While you puzzle, nothing––neither a greater, nor a lesser god—is somewhere else, but nearby, doing what it is that nothing does.
And I think about how the Buddhist might say that the world is one, and that the Hindu might say that the world is so interconnected that it might as well be, both of which positions resonate with the dense interconnectedness you mentioned earlier.
And I wonder whether you would offer a few words about your relationship to Zen Buddhism, to the Japanese forms and poets and their fidelity to the land and seasons—thinking now of your “Moon-songs” sequence from Under the Night Sun—and how these practices relate to your work as a poet.
(I also note the final couplet of “The Long Walk” (2018): “You might say any of these things. / Or, you might just sit.”)
I am going to start with the last bit, the quotation from “The Long Walk.” That arises from a walk I took with a friend one afternoon. At one point mid-way through the walk I suggested we stop and sit for a while. My companion was confused: we were out for a walk, so we should walk. Why would we want to sit? But they agreed. What did we notice? Well there was a slight breeze moving around us and causing the thin branches and the leaves of the willows lining the walking path to bow and dip and sway; the small birds—the sparrows, chickadees, a few wrens—came in closer than they would have otherwise; we could hear the near buzzing of the insects; and the sun felt closer on our skins once we stopped moving. My friend thought afterward that stopping to sit for a short time was a good idea—the sitting had become part of the walk. Everything around us moved in closer, became something to be with, rather than just a landscape to move through.
My relationship is with Chan Buddhism more so than Zen. The former is the Chinese version and the latter the Japanese, of course. I draw the distinction simply because my relationship, largely a relationship of reading texts, comes in good part from the translations of David Hinton. I am not a purist or originalist or anything like that because looking for origins is a bit of a fool’s errand if everything is in constant transformation. However, my reading tells me Chan developed to some extent from the mingling of Indian Buddhism and Chinese Daoism. So that’s the nexus that really pulls on me. The Daoists were really interested in both the oneness of all, that oneness you’ve mentioned, and they were attentive to the so-called “natural” world, as well. Hinton has translated major texts of Chinese philosophical thinking but also quite a lot of Chinese poetry. I am no expert, and my reading tends to be eclectic and non-historical, but that’s some of my sense of the broad picture. I am pulled too by my understanding of these traditions as non-theistic and the cosmos in which the creative principle is simply an in-dwelling activity of what is.
Our minds divide the world up into concepts and it’s not that these aren’t real, but they are not the ultimate reality, which is the oneness or wholeness we have been talking about. Conceptual knowledge is powerful and allows us to do much in the world, but it also separates, or appears to separate us from the world in ways which are conceptual rather than representative of the nature of reality at its most fundamental.
It is at this point that the oneness, the wholeness begins to resonate with some contemporary ecological thinking and with my sense of much Indigenous, in my case Cree, understanding of what is human and its relationship to the rest of being—the ontology and epistemology. This is why I referred to so-called “nature” earlier. A conceptual separation of the world into “human” and “natural.”
As for the formal elements you notice, they seem largely unconscious to me, so I won’t say more, except to admire your perceptiveness.
Speaking of the land, and noticing the acknowledgement in Blackbird Song--“I am grateful as well for those ancestors and relations who are not human beings––the earth, sky, water, wind, animals, birds, plants, stars and planets. These have made these poems.”—I wonder whether I could ask you about agency.
Do poems feels written by or through you? Does that proportion vary from poem to poem? Does the process of writing poems feel like transcription followed by editing? And how does that sensation of being a conduit for the poems relate to ego and the Zen we discussed earlier?
Well, I am a fan of Jane Hirshfield. Her poetry, for sure, but also, I am a big fan of her book of essays Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry. She is a Buddhist practitioner and teacher. So, there’s that influence. No anxiety in admitting that. In her essays, she encourages us to get out of the way of the poems, to set ego aside. Typically, Buddhist. And again, it’s not as though the self, the ego isn’t. Of course, it is, and we have the evidence all around us and certainly everywhere within us. However, it is a conceptual thing, too. It is composed of bits and pieces and is in constant flux, which is not how we typically conceive of it, nor is it always a comfortable way in which to conceive of it.
To come to your point, when you ask, “Do the poems feel written by or through you?”, the answer is both and neither, and the proportions change from poem to poem. Perhaps the job of the poet is to sit, shut up, look, and listen. So, there is transcription and editing, and, of course, there are the appearance of ego and self. Maybe it’s unavoidable, but in some sense, I am watching all of this and then recording it, including those intrusions of self / ego. And agency is a tricky question: it seems to me the voices are there, are all around and within us, without and within are not separate. And it’s not agency so much that I find interesting. All the voices are there, they simply are, and they are constantly chattering with or without us, the ego / self, and we listen, or we don’t.
One of the chapters in the Hirshfield essays it titled something like “The World is Large and Full of Noises.” I might be misremembering, but it’s something like that.
And speaking of editing, you’ve worked with Patrick Lane (1999), Daniel David Moses (2005), and Jan Zwicky (2018 & 2020) in their capacity as editors (appreciating the years listed are dates of publication rather than those of production).
In brief, what has each of these editors done for you and for the work? And what does an ideal editor of poetry do, in your view?
As I’ve mentioned with Patrick, he gave me the best advice in telling me that the poem is what matters, a variation on some of what I’ve been saying here: self / ego is not the measuring stick. It’s the poem itself, it’s the words that matter and determine success or not.
Daniel David Moses noticed about the second book my rather unconscious drift toward prose poems. He thought they were the most affective and effective writing in the book. It seems a prescient observation to me now after having written so many more in the last few years.
Jan Zwicky is just so smart, so perceptive, and such an outstanding reader (and writer). Her own training and practice as a philosopher was helpful in forcing me to clarify my attempt to think on the page.
Oh gosh! An ideal editor of poetry? Well, here’s hoping they both comprehend what the poems want to do and be but also see the things the writer themselves haven’t noticed.
From the beginning, it seems, you’ve been dedicating a large proportion of your poems.
In Under the Night Sun, for instance, we have “for johnny c.”, “for shirley j.”, “for f.”, “for e.a.l.” and “for your wild hair”; in The Gift of the Hawk, we have “for Buryl”, “for Shelley Napope, Eva Taysup, & Calinda Waterhen”, and “for Susan G”; in Blackbird Song, “for Isadore Pelletier” and “for Francie”; and in Field Notes for the Self, “for James Oscar Lundy”, “for J.S.M.”, “for Charles Bukowski”, “for my father, Elmer A. Lundy”, and, as mentioned earlier, “for Patrick Lane, teacher”.
And I wonder whether you’d say a few words about dedication, what it affords you as a poet—or, if you prefer, what it affords the poem.
And also, given that dedications identify an intended audience to the poem, I wonder whether you’d say a few words about the audience for whom you intend poems which aren’t dedicated to anyone in particular.
Yes, dedications. I should probably cut that out. They are a bit of an indulgence. Some of the dedications were to people still living when they were written, and some were to people who were not. In some cases, the dedications are to people I knew would read the poems, and in some cases I knew it was almost certain the people, even if still living, would never read the poems. So, various functions: some to directly honor, to offer as gifts, some just as reminders to me, some as slight contextual evidence for readers. A bit of a mixed bag.
Audience is a tricky one. I don’t really give much thought to it when I am writing. People often ask who do you write for? Really, I write for whomever might have the interest to pick it up and read. Having said that, when not writing I think I’d like the poems to be accessible to any reasonably intelligent, reasonable educated reader, and I like to think of that broadly.
My dad had a grade eight education, my mom has absolutely no formal education, and most of my family—brothers and sisters, cousins, aunties and uncles, etc.—are not university educated, but I’d like any of them to be able to read a poem and at least see something they can identify with, that they can understand in their own ways, and carry away with them.
I know that in this country poetry is most often read by other poets, but I don’t want to write for that audience only. Even if they will be the majority of readers, I can still hope that the poems find their ways into the hands and hearts of some others.
One might notice the shift, in Under the Night Sun, from rendering poems and epigraphs in lower-case letters exclusively to your following the conventions of capitalization thereafter.
I recall an argument for lower-case letters which was that it’s more egalitarian—that a letter at the beginning of a sentence needn’t be arbitrarily promoted to take up more space than other letters doing the same work, so to speak. Does that resonate at all with you?
At any rate, I wonder whether that shift from lower- to conventional upper-case letters was significant for you and what it represented.
I don’t know that I take the point about “egalitarianism” all that seriously. I get the idea, the concept, but really does it make a bit of difference in the world? I doubt it. There are folks who argue any sort of standardization in language, including the most basic grammar, is oppressive, colonial, patriarchal, etc. Again, I get the point, and some choices are more troubling than others, but it can reach the point of oversimplification quickly. And if we want to ditch all the conventions, then I guess we arrive at sound poetry or something. Fair enough, but it’s not something I am interested in. If I want to hear sound poetry, I’ll just go outside and sit and listen. Or I’ll put on some good music.
I don’t know that the shift in my own writing is particularly significant to me. What I do know is that the avoidance of conventional capitalization and punctuation in the first book was to set a bit of a challenge for me as a writer. It’s something I talk about with students, too. When you take those markers, indicators away, I think it forces the writer to rely more heavily upon some of the other tools in the bag. Phrasing, line breaks, rhythm become much more central in guiding the reader through the poem and down the page. It enforces its own form of discipline. I think forcing myself to do that in the first book, although I don’t think it was consciously looking to future books, was very good practice in trying to refine the use of those other tools. I hope that it served me well when I began to write within the conventions of capitalization and punctuation, in longer sentences and prose-like paragraphs.
I think we do try to learn a little with each new undertaking, something we can bring forward into the new challenges with which a blank page always confronts us.
You mention the challenge of taking away conventional punctuation and capitalization as something you talk about with students to help them cultivate the tools of phrasing, line breaks, and rhythm. And I wonder: what else do you emphasize to students interested in the craft? Are there any particular lessons you hope, as a teacher, to impart—perhaps one rudimentary one and one more advanced?
And secondly, if a student had been present in the first class you taught, and then in every subsequent class, right up until the semester that just concluded, what most noticeable change in your manner or teaching style would that student identify? Or if you prefer, what do you do and know now as a teacher that you didn’t do and know when you began teaching?
Well, I’m not sure about the scale of rudimentary to advanced, but let’s see. I’ve taught courses ranging in levels from Introduction to Honours and Master’s. With students just beginning to write poems, I have found over the years that it is important to break bad habits and inherited misconceptions before beginning to rebuild. Sometimes one can spend much of a semester breaking and tearing down. By way of example, sound is one tool that can be a particular challenge. Stop rhyming! is something one often has to say. Stop with the rhyming couplets and hard end-rhymes everywhere. Getting students past that and constant alliteration can be a challenge. Sound is important, right? So, to them sound means those very things of which you, the teacher, are now trying to deprive them, and they feel lost. To get them practicing assonance, consonance, dissonance, euphony, and even cacophony when appropriate, is a challenge.
Another example, I think, is the question of “voice.” I once read somewhere that it’s not something early writers should concern themselves with, that you should practice the tools and then if you have a voice, it is something that will emerge from the writing, from the practice, and that’s an approach I like. We might have intimations of what our voice is, but really, it’s something that we discover in the process and practice of actually writing poems.
And that leads me into the second part of your question here. Again, with beginning students, they seem to come to the classroom with the (mis)conception that writing poems is all about self-expression. To tell them otherwise is to leave them, once more, lost. They have to come to understand that they must get lost before they can even begin to find a path. What I am on about here comes back to Patrick’s words to me I cited earlier and to Jane Hirshfield’s Buddhist approach. How to convince them to set aside the notion of self-expression, which is often their sole motivation and guiding star? How to convince them that “The poem is what matters” and that the practice and process is really more about discovery than expression, or a tenuous and provisional relationship between the two? It’s about self-discovery broadly understood as discovering the self, the world, the self’s place in that world and all its relationships to that broader world. This is an alien notion to them.
Again, set aside self-expression, ego, voice, and see what you have to learn in the process and practice. See what those things turn out to be. This is related to the second part of your question in that I was thrown into teaching post-secondary creative writing classes after publishing my first book. It was a bit of trial by fire, learning on the go, on the job. But, at that time, I thought I had some clear idea about what I was doing when it came to writing poems. Like many things in life, however, the longer I’ve done it the more I have come to realise how little I know. While some of what I’ve said here might sound somewhat prescriptive, I don’t think it is. When you set aside what you think you know and focus on practicing writing and using the available tools, you don’t know what’s going to happen—you practice, you discover. Its unpredictable, and if you think you are going to locate the particle and pin it to a display board like a butterfly specimen, you come to find the particle doesn’t appear where you think it will and should. Perhaps there’s not even a particle there at all.
So, Margaret Atwood has said that written language began with the interpretation of animal tracks; Cormac McCarthy has written on the Kekulé problem, proposing that the unconscious and its dream-language is at the root of language; and we can also look to the cracks of oracle bones as early arithmetical and linguistic devices.
I also think of the epigraph from Denise Levertov to the opening section of your Under the Night Sun, “Bone-roots”:
… as no tree listens I listened, and language
came into my roots
out of the earth
into my bark
out of the air,
into the pores of my green shoots
gently as dew …
And I think of a line from your “The Beginning of Understanding”, which reads, “The gaze of a whitetail doe naming you in a language you are still trying to learn.”
And I wonder: where you come down on this question of the beginnings of written or spoken language? Who or what teachings do you look to when considering the origin(s) of language?
Wow. The beginnings of written language. Far too big a question for me to attempt a cogent answer. Still, the idea of monogenesis and cultural diffusion from a single source seems easily and rightfully dismissed, in this case as in most others. The theories you cite are likely all true or parts of the truth, at least. And I think of the cave and rock art from all around the world. Likely written language began in large part with people drawing things they saw and thought important for whatever reason to record. Spoken language likely began with some form of signing. I am just speculating. Interesting to think though that speaking and writing begin with singing and drawing / painting.
The Levertov epigraph is interesting to me because it relates to the emergence of language, an emergence from the world, as something that grows up and out and into the world, from the land itself. It brings us back to something I mentioned earlier. Language and writing are intimately related to and immersed in the world. They are not something separate, alien, some conceptual construct that at some point take their leave from the rest of being. If they do, if we get to that point, then we are in great danger. Seems our species and all our relations are in great danger, at our hands, so maybe we’ve gotten there.
Is there any question that you haven’t been asked but which you would like to be asked; and if so, what is it and how would you answer?
Q: Does poetry have a place, a role or function in the contemporary world?
A: In this country it’s fair to wonder, perhaps even doubt, if it has. It seems that choice is up to us. What I know is that I’d rather live in a world in which there is poetry, rather than one in which there is not.
kinanaskomitin / Thank you, for the opportunity to chat, Kevin!