Interview with David White
Interview conducted by Kevin Heslop
This conversation, here faithfully transcribed, took place at The Church Key Bistro-Pub in London, Ontario, December 1, 2017. Poems from The Lark Ascending (Pedlar Press, 2017) were woven in after the transcript was completed. Thank you to David White for his participation, and for sharing his work and life.
OK. So, when last we spoke, you mentioned that this book was in excess of perhaps twenty years in the making.
So I had to live it, I guess *laughs.*
And it feels really sort of journalistic in its nature, documenting travel, especially with Shen and Judy. And I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the process of composition, whether you kind of embarked upon particular experiences in order to document them, or if the poems kind of came as an afterthought, inspired.
No. I mean, I tend to be a bit of a fatalist, so that I don’t—I just wait for things to come along.
I think of the book as just what happened on my way; I didn’t seek anything specific, other than that we had decided to take Shen back to China. I mean, the very first poem, I wasn’t even sure that that was a poem when I started it, because my friend Linda, who is Judy’s sister, and I, in the spring of the same year that Shen came, Linda and I sat down with her mother, Betty, and took an oral history of her, of her life—from when she was born up until when she returned home after the Second World War. So I had all these notes and things from it, and was sort of pulling it together, and the first draft of it—like I said, “Matrilineal,” was that. I didn’t have any sense of what the form was going to be like. So that was a sort of groping towards it. I didn’t know at that point—in fact, I was so inscrutable. I mean, I do tend to share poems with people, but that was was—I didn’t show anyone for the longest time. And I think I needed to write a few more things before—to see how it fit in. Beyond that, the first attempts to write the book, the first poems in the volume, were reimagining the act of abandonment—
—of my daughter. Because the orphans who are abandoned, of course, their births are never registered, so they don’t have a birth certificate. All they have is a “Certificate of Abandonment.”
There’s a poem with that title.
Certificate of Abandonment
(Anhui Province, China, 1996)
Whatever else, my daughter,
it can’t have been easy
to leave you lying all alone,
set you down before the door
and quickly walk away;
whatever else, you will not
have been lightly placed
upon steps still wet with dew,
but held within young protective arms,
until the cool of April passed,
the weather warm enough to sing
around your tears, my dear determined one,
a lullaby, oh blossom of my heart.
Perhaps a long train carried you
through distant provinces;
perhaps before your birth
she left the only place she’d ever known,
was unremarked when you arrived,
another petal on the wet bough of the crowd.
Perhaps she watched for opportunities,
searched out the routine spaces
each city offers up
to those who give away the light
that dances in their daughter’s eyes,
repeating to herself, hearing
you cry as she withdrew,
it won’t be long, not long at all
until you’re found.
Yeah. Yeah, so that’s the first time I imagined what it would be like to abandon a child. And she wasn’t a newborn when she was abandoned. She was more like six weeks, but I think I said three. Then again, when we get to Hefei, when we went to see the site where she was abandoned, it didn’t seem at all like I had imagined. So I imagined it again in that poem.
It was at the steps of the University Hospital, right?
Yeah, but it was very busy. I mean, on one side it was under construction, and there was nobody there. And our tour guide said, “No, there’s not enough people here— .” And I thought, Oh. I was imagining people abandoning them out in fields, and there are some cities where that happens.
But this would have been—you know, it was so busy nobody would have noticed you putting a baby down.
And then walking away.
So. I think that said something, to an extent, that even in this act that we sort of held on to for a long time, that there was no certainty—maybe it was here, maybe it was there. It was sort of translated for us, where she was found. So, I was imagining it for my daughter’s sake. And then the rest of [the book] —much of it just came as it happened. As I said, it just sort of, it happened. And I wrote about what happened along the way.
Some of the more research-oriented stuff was intentional. Like seeking out certain….
Factoids about the Terracotta Army, for example.
Yeah, well that—by the time I got to China and started writing, I kept a journal—and I rarely keep a journal—so I started writing things down, and we had a week where, at the end, we were visiting friends in Shanghai. But they were in the process, international teachers, schoolteachers, of coming home for the summer--
Server: “Have you decided on something to eat?”
I think we’re OK with, uh, liquid.
OK right now.
Not bad. Not bad. Strong flavour. But uh….
Well, on this point of the Certificate of Abandonment, in a way the book feels like a kind of certificate of abandonment in the sense that it seems to offer to Shen her history through the eyes and the heart of someone who loves her, you know?
Yeah. And culture, too. ‘Cause, I mean, one of the things that Judy had to sign, along with the adoption papers, was that she would teach the child about Chinese culture.
Right. Which is just a box that you would check.
Right. A box that you would check and I think, well, I kind of took it seriously.
I mean, I had a PhD, I thought, Wow: this is another research project I can take a look into, explore, and examine. In a grad course I had done this essay on, you know, the ideogrammatic method in Ezra Pound’s Cantos, and the influence of Chinese poetry. So that’s about all I knew about Chinese culture at that point.
And stuff like that, so. Just reading whatever came along. And the year that the Olympics came out, a lot of stuff was available in bookstores and stuff. Books were coming out, fiction, novels….
It was a tourism boom.
Yeah, a tourism boom of China. So, any time I saw a book about China I just bought it, and would eventually try and get to it. There were a lot of interesting novels. And I did look into the whole of China’s poetry, had read a lot of Chinese poetry, the whole tradition of….
Li Po comes up in—
Yeah. Yeah, we’re in Lao Yang, where he lived for a while. So that was my story about him, launching his poems on the water…
A perfect poem. And that one just sort of came.
The Perfection of Li Po
Li Po sits with his wine bottle
launching perfect poems on the water,
watching them float downstream,
a gift for the ocean only.
Each perfect utterance could overwhelm
the wells of human longing;
better set them adrift on the stream
than shatter the civilized world.
It was fully formed.
Fully formed, yeah, and I was just sort of writing it down.
So there are a couple poems like that that seemed, in your phrase from when we spoke last, sort of inevitable. That they—I imagine them being fully formed in your mind before you wrote them down—completely encapsulated, especially their final lines. There are a couple of examples here. One was in “Chicken Pox.” You’re sort of seeing Shen in this sort of gorgeous spring scene and she accidentally steps on a plant, on a flower, and you have to console her because she’s crying in response to it, and she’s got chicken pox all the while, and….
We return to the lawn,
you and I, to loafe
(like Whitman) along its edges,
to linger back into ease once more,
in spite of the aggravations of illness,
despite the inescapable mortality of flowers.
This final line both encapsulates the sort of narrative propulsion of this young girl stepping on a flower and herself being ill, being inescapably mortal. It felt completely—
Yeah, but it doesn’t start out that way. For the most—even that, it’s always: any time I start something, I have no idea what’s going to happen in it or where it’s going; I just sort of follow it, OK? ‘Cause I think poetry, one of the interesting things about poetry generally, is: you get a glimpse into the way the poet’s mind works--
—in response to things. Being, essentially, an introvert, I look and watch a lot rather than participate so much.
Perhaps to, um, with respect to your background in academia, there’s a sense in which you sort of begin with a kind of hypothesis—
—then move through the body of an argument, and then you have this wonderful gift for the encapsulatory summary or conclusion towards the end of the—and in that sense the poems feel almost like essays. Would you buy that?
I don’t know that I would necessarily think of them as essays.
Not as essays, no. As observations.
One of the poems in the book, one of my favourites, that feels almost in some ways the kind of quintessence of the book in the sense that it encapsulates many of the themes in the book, “The Backyard on Euclid Ave.”
The Backyard on Euclid Ave.
We were living on Euclid at the time,
trying to transform the backyard’s randomness
into a blueprint for Eden.
Little more than a parking lot,
its mud had already swallowed three loads of gravel,
but still lay bare and swampy every spring.
Swaths of weeds along the rotting fence
punctuated by Solomon’s Seal,
arc of stems, with pendant strings of flower
regularly backed into by the car.
Next to our neighbour’s patient lawn,
ours hallucinated wilderness.
For your first full summer
at home in Canada
(after two in the orphanage)
I tried to reclaim a quarter of ground,
overturning the dirt, uncovering
the nuts and bolts—quite literally--
of earlier inhabitants,
bits of die-cast metal bursting
out of the dubious earth.
And in the dampest corner of the yard,
shiny numbers made of brittle plastic
covered in a chrome that flecked at the touch
emerged from underground,
all mounted on screws for god knows
what kind of shady mathematics.
It never turned out very well.
We could never really turn that wilderness
into a place of play, would move again
the following summer.
But sitting on the stoop for a moment
admiring the progress of the lot,
parental, we watch you play.
And with smiles and words and gestures
you come up to the step, sit between us, then
turn and pull up one maternal arm,
turn and pull up the paternal arm as well,
draping each around the other shoulder,
admire your work and sit down
happily beneath the art while we
shift awkwardly, maintaining the connection.
Slightly embarrassed, we want to say
this isn’t who we are, partners in this parenting, but friends
not intimate beyond the day to day.
Afterwards your mother, always
the social worker, ever reading
the subtext of behaviour, speculates
that you want to spread the warmth
of hugs and kisses over all
members of our home.
But I suspect you’re only trying to fathom,
in ways that will grow
ever more original with time,
the queer geometry of your family.
Again, you have this encapsulatory final line about understanding “the queer geometry of the family.” And I was wondering if that poem came through that line, or if—
—you imagined that line beforehand.
Oh, no. No. It’s just, by the time I got there, I thought, Oh, so this is how it’s going to end. It doesn’t work that way.
Although, and my cousin talked about my way of, as you say, encapsulating pretty much the entire poem in the last line in a way that’s, Oh! And that’s, in part, what I mean about the inevitable. Because it couldn’t have any other ending, but I didn’t know that. We lived on Euclid Ave. And that moment happened. We had been working on this lousy backyard, and after my daughter came and draped both of our arms around each other, but that’s not the nature of our relationship, though we were quite comfortable. And after working my way to that point, it was like: well, the poem couldn’t end any other way. But I didn’t know it was going to end like that. I don’t know how any of them are going to end, or where they’re going to go. They’re weird meanderings, and--
Are they in that sense like a kind of act of faith or self-trust that you’ll find a resolution that will suffice?
I…. That’s a thought. I think…. Here’s what I’ll compare it to, in terms of, you know, experience: I used to, when I was an undergraduate, there were no personal computers, and--
That’s what I hear.
What was that like?
And I used to, especially by the time I got to grad school—I mean, I didn’t do a rough draft of anything. You’re supposed to, right? Rough drafts and having outlines and stuff.
But even when I did my PhD thesis, I did very limited outlines. So, it’s just the way it happens. And part of it is that I procrastinate a lot, especially with academic writing. But there comes a point when it has to happen now. Start. Go. And I can do it really quickly. Like, an unpublished novel that was done back in the last century was done in a couple of weeks. Mainly ‘cause I didn’t know where it was going, and I wanted to know how it ended, so I had to write it to find that out. So, the poems are like that too.
Well, on this point of procrastination, I remember hearing Aaron Sorkin discuss a substantial part of his writing process as looking to a layman observer like watching Sportsnet or SportsCenter, watching highlights and stuff. And, in a way, I think that’s a kind of clever response, saying he’s not taking himself too seriously as a writer; but at the same time, that sense of procrastination is also a kind of subconscious simmering, the flavours are coalescing.
Yeah, I would agree with that. That’s it, that’s it. It becomes painful not to begin writing at a certain point. You have to do it.
Sort of gravity—
Right. Well, the pressures that have built up, of anxiety. You’ve been assembling things, and thinking about things. And I’d never recommend it as a way to proceed as a writer, I believe, in writing courses. In terms of The Lark, it wasn’t really until we went to China and started writing poems about China that I realized, This is a book. And by the time I realized that, I realized, Well I have to wait until the ending happens. And I didn’t know when that was going to be. And so, the last poem, which is the title poem of the collection--
—after I wrote it: Oh, this is the last poem.
The Lark Ascending
while listening to Vaughan Williams
The cross growing warm in my hand,
tangible—tangential to the moment
of remembering the one who is not here
—as if touch were ever enough
to hold you safely, child of mine,
but never mine,
remembering the absent one
slowly soaring from my (sad) release,
but up into what will become
your happiness, my little one,
dove or lark-like, to see you soaring up
into the song of your life,
once held by my hands like this cross,
talisman of your becoming,
a dream released by my letting you go
to wherever you fly on your own.
I hold my gift,
Taizé cross, this dove
from your first pilgrimage.
Your life is not sunlight shining on feathers
while I hold my Taizé cross
warm in my hand,
knowing you are still safe,
That’s the last poem.
I didn’t intend it to be. I wasn’t thinking that it would be, but when it was written, I thought, Well, this is it. It’s over. The book is done.
So the dumb question would be: Obviously, this book’s poems appear in the order in which they’re produced. It’s chronological, more or less.
Pretty much. I mean, within sections and stuff.
I went through the editorial process with Stan [Dragland]. I mean, the long train-ride poem in the China section, where I’m just sort of sitting and observing the landscape and I’ve got a copy of Pain Not Bread’s Introduction to The Introduction To Wang Wei, which is the collection with Roo Borson, Kim Maltman, and Andy Patton—I took that book specifically because it was some Canada to bring with me, and I knew I’d have time to read. But anyways, so it was just all the observations, and a lot of them made it into the journal I was keeping, and Stan said to me in one of his editorial queries, “You know, this poem, this book is mainly about Shen, and she disappears from it in this long poem. Is there any way you could bring her back into it?” And so, I wrote what had happened—
—into it, just when we were doing the editorial stuff, you know, when Shen jumps across the aisle and says, I’m bored, as any child—
Right. Let’s do something.
—any twelve-year-old. Let’s do something. So that was included. I’m happy it is, because it makes it a better poem?
As a long poem. And it’s surprising, and it does bring her back into the stuff, and so….
from The Train from Xian to Luoyang
(while reading Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei)
you lunge into my lap
from your seat across the aisle.
“Can we do something?”
I put book down and we walk
the length of the train, almost running
slowing down only when we cross couplings
between cars, meeting the same stares
we’ve seen everywhere,
like those women in the bathroom of the Xian Station, asking
are these Causasian people minding you?
although they already know the answer:
it’s a common story.
Not understanding a word of Mandarin,
you were baffled then
until a woman who spoke English entered,
providing a translation so you could answer
Walking in the direction
the train is moving, we seem
to hurtle along so much faster.
in the opposite direction.
on one side: city
on the other: landscape,
the train between.
on the far-side platform
where there is no train,
a basket of plums.
On our side: vendors with carts,
bottled water, juices
and net bags filled with fruit.
a Ukrainian woman
gets off the train,
briefly, for a smoke;
behind me a speaker plays
Chinese pop music
just as cheesy as Western pop.
elevator music through the mountains,
then the Spice Girls telling me
what they really, really want
out here on the Silk Road.
In terms of form, you mentioned that “Matrilineal,” the first poem of the collection, is sort of a longer narrative, and I think there are four or perhaps five instances of that same form—a several-section long poem. Um, and the forms oscillate between that and the shorter, almost Li Po-esque kind of form. And I guess the obvious question would be: Beginning those poems, are you sure how long they’re going to be, or what the form will finally be, or do they kind of happen as they happen?
Well, yes and no would be the answer. But some of the shorter ones that are similar to Li Po—that are, like I said, in Shanghai describing places, I intentionally thought of them as being fourteen lines long, same length as a sonnet, not rhymed—
--but thinking of them as the sonnet room, as a container for the poem. So those poems that are fourteen lines were always going to be fourteen lines. I didn’t know what the fourteen lines were going to be. The narratives—I was thinking about this a while ago—the narrative of “Matrilineal” and again the narrative of the very first poem in the China section, which is set in Tiananmen Square, one of the things they have in common—and it’s the same with some of the poems in the last section too—is that they’re a long history of the—I think in most of them, there’s indication of a long history of an individual. In the case of the grandmothers that Shen would never meet because they were dead, and also her genetic grandparents that she would never meet, and all that kind of stuff. But they connect also to world events, right? To the First World War--
—and the Second World War. Even though they’re individual lives, they’re connected to big events. And in the Tiananmen Square poem, you know, we’re there and we’re stopped, because the people who are pushing Judy’s wheelchair didn’t have a license to be on the square.
And it—I was so scared when that happened, because there were these vans, these three-wheeled vans, that are motorized, and they swarmed us. And I remember, you know, I remember what happened in Tiananmen Square--
—and I remember where I was when I first heard about it because it was part of the Act Up! demonstration in Montréal. So even that event of just crossing the square connected to big events. It’s not our event, but we’re sort of connected to it.
So the experience made sort of perfect fodder for a poem that felt in some ways like it was doing justice to the history of the place? I mean—
Yeah, I think so. I think that’s right. And I think there is a sense of history behind a lot of the book. That sense of connection between the individual’s history and the bigger events, it’s in there, but I don’t necessarily draw attention to it, I don’t put lights around it. But it’s just, again: I think it’s something to do with how my mind works. I mean I teach theatre history.
Yeah, I was gonna ask whether that sense of history was more with you than it was perhaps—you know, as a tourist, and as an academic, and as someone who is innately curious and sort of hyper-observant, I suppose—whether that sense of history was more with you than it was with the inhabitants of that place? Or did you feel that it was in every face in the street?
Well, I wouldn’t necessarily…. Well--
You know what I mean? It would be another day in the Square for many of the people who had to go through to the marketplace and so forth.
I think it’s very much more my awareness of that partly as an outsider and not—I’m kind of just fascinated with, you know, a culture that—a continuous culture—that goes back thousands of years. I mean, their culture stretches back before--
—the Greeks. They can trace it back and it’s continuous. I remember there was a pagoda in Hefei and I talked to our guide and said, Oo, a pagoda! And he said, “Yeah, that’s just new; they put that in like ten years ago.” But everything looks the same--
—because they still know the same methods of construction. They still use the same techniques for all kinds of things. They didn’t fall into disuse.
Here’s a question for you. I recently watched a documentary through Al Jazeera about, like, the popularity and proliferation of, among young people, of webstreams, of live video chats where celebrities will get in front of their laptops and perform for a couple of hours and receive donations. That sense of hyper-immediacy and instant gratification and entertainment as a form of reassurance as opposed to some kind of cultural dialogue or encounter feels in opposition to the sense of history that you’re talking about. And I was wondering if there’s a conflict between that history as “When was that bush planted? Oh, it’s new, it was planted ten years ago” and the sort of hyper-modernity that can be practiced there, especially among younger generations?
“Is the history being lost” is, I guess, another way to say it.
Well, it’s hard to say. Certainly, in terms of, you know, I was a tourist, so that’s sort of what I got.
That’s what I was looking for.
So, as a way of getting around that, for example: in Canada, something’s an antique if it’s a hundred years old.
In China, it’s not an antique if it’s a hundred years old. It has to be at least two hundred years old before they’ll even consider it as an antique.
So, at that level, that sense of, of, like: “A hundred years ago? That’s nothing.”
So, um. They’re very—I mean, I don’t know, I got the tour-guide view of things, but there’s certainly a sense from tour guides of holding their past—their real, serious past--in a kind of respect and a kind of veneration in the way you would venerate you ancestors—‘cause they do, they do practice ancestor worship.
And ancestors go back as long as people can remember them. So, I think yes, the modernity, the instant now—Shanghai is fascinating because they’re busy tearing everything down. We went up to the Jin Mao Tower, and we’re standing at the top of this building in Shanghai, and it was standing beside the building that used to be the tallest building in Shanghai before that tower was built. And standing beside it is a tower that’s even higher than the next one. And it has a square in the middle of it—there are a lot of towers in Shanghai that have holes in the center of them—and that’s so the dragons can make it to the sea, so it’s not blocking them. When they do that, they acknowledge that this is the path that the dragons come on. If we put a building here, they’re going to crash into it. So, we build a hole, a square in the middle of it, so they can get to the sea. That’s an example of respecting the past in building these amazing, modern buildings. And no two skyscrapers are alike; they’re all different; they’re all exploiting the modern. When we were there, in Beijing, of course we had to see the buildings for the Olympics even though we were there for Shen. They were kind of showing off what they could do. China was reaffirming itself as--
One of the superpowers.
—a yeah, a leader of the modern world in terms of culture.
Which it succeeded in doing in your view?
I would say so. Yeah. I can’t—you know, the communist government has issues. Everybody’s government has issues. But for the most part, they’ve long had this phrase that comes up in books, that “The Emperor lives far away.”
Yeah, as when [peasants sketched in “The Train from Xian to Luoyang” are] farming—
—they’re burning down the stubble in the field.
from The Train from Xian to Luoyang
(while reading Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei)
farmers winnowing wheat on the rooftops,
burning stubble in the fields.
burning is against the law
but “the Emperor lives far away.”
a narrow stream cuts through the gorge,
catalpa and hollyhock growing wild.
the Emperor has always lived far away
and the farmers know what they’re doing:
the hay mow is perfectly steeped now
as a thousand years ago.
a road ends abruptly at the rail line.
there hollyhocks flourish.
bricks from the earth form homes,
bricks of old buildings crumble
and return to earth.
catalpa grows through the roof,
walls contain a field of corn:
abandoned homes still have uses.
Yeah, yeah, and they still believe that. The communist government, I would say, probably, is just another dynasty. I mean, there was the Ming dynasty and the Chin dynasty, and now there’s the communist dynasty. So, they sort of fit it into—And you know they’ve always been, they’ve never been a democratic society.
Right. And, like, it seems almost that whether the government was sort of imperial, or communistic, or democratic, or capitalistic, the farmers have been doing this for far longer--
—than the existence of most recent, um—
They just keep doing it the way they’ve been doing it--
—for thousands of years.
And you can see that, and feel that. I mean hay mow--
—Perfect, and it’s exactly as it was two thousand years ago. That’s the thing about building things and still using things—we can’t call them antiques: they still make things the way they’ve always made them.
Let’s see. Alright. Um, one of the questions that I wanted to ask is as follows: I couldn’t but feel faintly voyeuristic reading the book, in the sense that it is of an extremely personal nature, and yet the poems were so good that I didn’t allow myself—
—to embrace that potential feeling of embarrassment. And I was wondering whether because of the extremely personal nature of the book—which reads as a really tenderly, thoughtfully wrought heirloom for your adopted daughter—whether there was any sort of trepidation about the publication of the book, whether you ever wanted to say, I’m going to self-publish this and give it to her on her twenty-first birthday, and then that will be that.
Publication: let’s address that. Stan Dragland was here doing a reading from his book, his first book on Newfoundland literature and culture, and I went to him—Stan was my thesis supervisor—and I read the book, and there in the book was his address. And I just thought, Should I? Shouldn’t I? He’s always been very receptive and accepting and supportive, so I just mailed it to him, not knowing that it was also the Pedlar Press address because he’s married to Beth Follett who is Pedlar Press, right? So, when he finally read it, he passed it on to Beth. She had a lot of manuscripts to go through and this and that and everything, and it was after she read it that they made the offer of publication. So, when I sent it off, I wasn’t necessarily thinking, initially, that it was a couple of years. I should explain: a couple of years prior to sending it off, I had this health scare. High blood pressure. I was hospitalized for four days. And Shen came every day to do her homework. She was in grade twelve at the time.
And that’s in the book as well.
I think so, I’m not sure….
I’m certain that it is. She refuses to leave your side, and––
Oh, no that’s when I was having my gallbladder out. She’s just three years old in that one.
Oh, that’s right.
That’s the first poem, the connection between—so ‘cause I guess doing the writing interests me the most. Getting around to publishing it is a bit… of an annoyance. I’ve got tons of stuff that I should be sending off to journals, magazines, literary magazines and stuff like that. So, it’s something I should do. I mean, like, David Huebert, Andy Verboom, and Kevin Shaw, they’re good at doing that sort of stuff. I just don’t--
—I was thinking, I’ve got to get my act together, ‘cause I could die and all those scraps, some scraps—but they really want a digital copy of it, I’d have to enter into the digital thing, ‘cause--
Which would be an enormous undertaking to convert them.
—Yeah, so, I did think that I wanted it to be published. And I did give Shen a copy. I gave all of it to her when she came back from her auditions at York. She got in, and we were very excited, and I gave her a printout of most of the book as a way of saying how proud I was of her. And that’s when she said, I really like them, especially the ones I’m in! So, but so I didn’t think so much about that, but it was just prior to the book launch in February, and I walk into the Landon Library and there’s this big poster with my picture and Shen’s picture on it. I walk in and I turn around and walk out, and I just came home and sat down and just sort of thought, Oh my god, what have I done? So, there was that kind of sense of, It is becoming public. Not that there’s anything--
Which was a vulnerable position to be in.
Yeah. I think I tend to miss, I mean—concerning other poems that I have—I think I have a kind of knack for conveying intimacy.
And that’s just part of my writing, doing that.
And I think part of that comes from an acting background, in terms of, you know, as an actor, knowing what kind of emotion you want the audience to have, you do things that will stimulate that, and encourage that.
Well, I’m a little disappointed to hear that in the sense that, um, it’s—you seem less calculating as a writer than that, like—
No, it’s not—no, no….
—and it doesn’t seem like manipulating us into a sense of tenderness but rather that the poems are tender themselves. I may be misunderstanding.
No, no. Yeah, I don’t….
This is performative—does it feel performative, the book?
Well to a certain extent it’s a performance, but it’s a very intimate performance.
It’s not—I mean there’s nothing, nothing really invented.
It’s what happened, as part of the observations. The acting students at Fanshawe [College], for example, they’re told to try to find, when they’re doing a character, to find—not that they’re part of a method school or anything—but they’re told to find the truth of the character in themselves, without sort of passing judgment on the character.
Because there are a lot of actors who do that, who signal well, Oh, I don’t really like this character.
Which is death, for an actor.
Yeah, yeah. So that it—I mean, when I was acting, I always felt things very powerfully even though it wasn’t me, it was my character. So, there’s that sense of that, of—it’s performative in that it’s trying to present an inner truth in the course of the book that is intimate in nature. But basically, what I’m trying to say here, because we all know of course that I never know what I’m going to say when I start talking….
I’m excited to see how this ends.
*laughs* I wanted there to be emotion, to be an emotional response. Some books you read you go, Oh, I can see what it’s doing. But you’re not actually moved by it? So--
You didn’t want it to be an intellectual exercise.
No, I don’t want it to be an intellectual exercise.
Which it certainly isn’t.
And I wanted it to be moving. And I think, I guess I could characterize the book as… bittersweet, in a way. There’s a range of emotions: there’s all kinds of joyful and wonderful things going on, but there’s also an element of, a tinge of, sadness as well.
Right. So, on the back of the book there’s a response by Jacqueline Larson, who says that it seems as if you surprise yourself with your own joy. That perhaps you endeavour upon the road with a tinge of melancholy, but that at a certain point, or at a certain interval of the road, you feel the flush of your own happiness.
Yeah. I mean, I think that refers, in many ways, to the poem “Ensemble,” which is in the last section of the book and which is really about what is a very boring moment: you’re sitting there, in the convention center going through a tech rehearsal for the Chinese New Year celebration that’s going to go on, and just watching this little kid playing her harp as she’s rehearsing, and it’s just sort of—I remember the line is—you know, I’m actually surprised by the fact that I’m enjoying my life.
You know, as a sort of brooding twenty-year-old, thirty-year-old, or whatever, I didn’t necessarily intend for that to, you know, happen.
Well I suppose, like, like brooding, in addition to meaning sort of, like, melancholically ruminative, also has the sense of, like, egg-laying—
—Right? And now the brood has hatched—
—Has hatched, yeah--
—And, and that therein lies your joy?
Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
There are moments in poetry when the line wants to reach across the page
as if it were prose, moments
like this waste of time, sitting here in the Convention Centre in London, Ontario
waiting in the semi-dark while chaos rages all around, being challenged
by the tech rehearsal
for the Lunar New Year celebration
soon to be opened by her worship, the Mayor,
and important representatives
of the Asian community,
waiting as the acts hobble into place and the lights are set--
young children performing colourful dances,
an all-male dance troupe presenting a multi-armed Guanyin
in western dress pants, white shirts, and ties,
a solo Chinese hip-hop dancer, complete with at least one
“muthafucka” in the lyrics--
waiting for you to seat yourself in the spotlight at centre stage,
part of a nine-piece traditional instrument ensemble,
waiting, as I start to laugh,
more in revelation than revelry,
as it dawns on me that I am,
enjoying my life.
The realization has been slow in coming, in no way
anticipated thirty years ago as I wrote a paper on
“The Influence of Chinese Poetry on The Cantos of Ezra Pound.”
Who knew then that I was fumbling blindly towards happiness
one stubborn moment at a time?
I glimpsed it dimly a few weeks ago
when I dropped you off at my Alma mater,
for first ensemble rehearsal
on the third floor of the Middlesex College tower.
At ground level, about to leave, I heard you call from the open window:
In all my misspent academic youth,
it never occurred to me to open any of those windows.
All those years I spent swilling beer
in a bar in the basement of that selfsame College,
arguing Gwendolyn MacEwen or Michel Foucault,
never expecting to hear daddy!
Who knew that out of a quest for the truth about myself,
the struggle to accept
all the devices and desires of my heart,
my big Gay heart,
would come joy?
But here I am, firmly in the grip of middle age, more than halfway through,
waiting in the darkness
for you, my Chinese erhu-playing teenage daughter,
Two New Poems by David White
First published here
close to knowing,
knowing how your touch will
greet me with morning,
busy embracing the warmth
of the pale chest
against my quiet now,
because I’ve left my fear
draped over the back of a chair
folded not as neatly as my shirt,
because something in the air between us,
something in the air between us
takes away the words
to hide their poverty,
I did not write a word.
There’s no song to give you
this mid-winter morning.
the outline of late August on your thighs
has faded by this January dawn,
I will play like the light,
before you wake.
As You Came from the Holy Land
with apologies to Sir Walter Raleigh, and a side glance at John Ashbery
As you came from the Holy Land of Southwestern Ontario,
beach sand and peach pits in the pockets of your jeans,
temples wreathed in Pelee Island grape vines,
carrying a basket of Leamington tomatoes,
did you meet my one, my one true love
as he strolled along the Elora gorge,
hiked the Escarpment to Tobermory,
stopped to answer the phone in Brantford,
before eating knackwurst in Kitchener?
Did he offer you oil from Petrolia,
the chemical soup of Sarnia,
peaches and cream clothed in the husk
of a Thomas Brothers cob of corn?
Did he sing you the sweet songs of Stratford,
declaim the orations of Niagara-on-the-Lake?
Did you see my only, my one true love
as he rode his motorcycle through Port Dover?
Did he guide you through Huron County Pioneer Museum,
and show off the upscale galleries of Bayfield?
Did he sunbathe in a Speedo at Grand Bend;
dance, reverently, on the rocks of Kettle Point;
or bite into a Honey Crisp
in orchards near Port Stanley,
then stop, briefly, for a large Orangeade at Mackies?
He spans late summer’s fields
on this peninsular enclave of abundance.
Did you see him as he sailed the Chi Cheemaun
this autumn, northward, beyond the Holy Shores
of our O so sacred Souwesto?
Kevin Heslop is The /tƐmz/ Review’s resident interviewer. He organizes the London Poetry Open Mic and is the editor-in-chief of the London Arts Loop. His poetry has appeared in NOON: Journal of the Short Poem, Forget Magazine, and Baseline Press’s Translating Horses, and has won recent Poetry London and Occasus Literary Journal prizes. As an actor, he has appeared as Joseph Sweeney, Creon, Katherine Minola, and Jay Gatsby (forthcoming).