Several poets in this series of conversations have spoken of the importance of witness, the personal as political (and vice versa), and the aim to write about, or from, our times. Here, Tim Lilburn takes the poetry conversation for a walk through a landscape of history, identity and politics.
SUSAN GILLIS: What first brought you to poetry? Or, if you prefer, what first brought poetry to you?
TIM LILBURN: Tomaz Salamun, the Slovenian poet, and I were part of a large reading at the National Library in Beijing in 2008. I think the conference was called “China and the World,” something like that, so sinologists from all over the globe and Chinese academics were there, giving talks and glad-handing in the massive, Russian-designed, Soviet-era hall. The poets weren’t part of that conference – we had been doing something rather different, discussing poetics and poetry’s relation to a broadly understood politics, in a rural hotel in Anhui Province, a gathering Xi Chuan had put together – but the Beijing conference organizers had invited the poets to come and close their event with a reading. There were about ten of us from Europe, North America and, of course, the Chinese mainland. Tomaz read before me and after I read, he leaned over to me and asked if poetry had saved my life. This didn’t sound quite right to me, but my sense was that it had saved his. Clearly poetry is important to me, but Salamun’s formulation hadn’t quite caught the nature of this significance.
So how would I put it? Poetry has taught me how to think, how to be in the world, how to walk alongside things, how to love things. That it might have this power and gift has dawned on me slowly since my early thirties, from the time when I started to branch a little from (without giving it up) the formal academic study of philosophy. I’ve been writing poems since my pre-teen years but things really started to take off later.
SG: You’ve been listening closely for some 20 years to a number of Chinese poets, including Xi Chuan and Zhai Yongming, whose work you write about eloquently in “A Mandelstamian Generation in China” (Brick 92). In your essay, there emerges the sense that these poet’s poetics, or styles, arise from their being alive in a particular time and place, and that this shared experience unites them in some way. I am interested here in the interplay between I and we, and what we might call (whoever we are, wherever we are) our times. How has your engagement with this generation of Chinese poets influenced the poetry you write of, or from, your time and place?
TL: First of all, as I say in the Brick piece, I believe Xi Chuan and Zhai Yongming, along with a handful of others like Ouyang Jianghe, Wang Jiaxin, Duo Duo, Bei Dao and Lan Lan, make up a truly great poetic generation, comparable to the pre-revolutionary Acmeists in Russia (Mandelstam, Akhamatova, etc.), the Milosz-Herbert-Watt group in Poland after World War II and the Spanish speaking poets like Lorca, Vallejo, Jimenez, Neruda who sprang up around the upheaval of Republican Spain. I couldn’t believe my good luck when I met them in the mid-Nineties in Beijing, and of course I was all ears around them. We stayed up night after night, talking. All of the Chinese poets I mentioned grew up during the Cultural Revolution and witnessed, in some way or other, the Tiananmen massacre – after a sufficient number of beers more than a few of them took out what looked to be police photos of crowds in the square, pointing themselves out to me. Now they behold the current period of staggering economic expansion. Xi Chuan says somewhere that he doesn’t so much pursue a style but hopes that his times, with their convulsion, speed and violence, will shape the form of his writing. He pretty well vanished as a writer after the events of 1989, reappearing later with a commitment to “bad poetry.” The implication, in his case, is that gorgeous, craft-rich, largely Romantic work would be an assist to the regime, a tip of the hat to the status quo, tamed and useful. Like the Chilean generals trying to make Neruda into Theocritus.
What would it be to write in a way that was symmetrical and permeable to our times here in Canada? Everyone will answer this for herself or himself, or dismiss the matter as ludicrous, but for me it involves an alertness to First Nations’ efforts at self-determination; a re-examination of settler culture’s cheery narrative of continuous development; and the marooned helplessness of objects made weightless, insubstantial, by utilitarian rationality. I am not saying work must be topical but why wouldn’t you want it to be available to a deeper form of the zeitgeist, that huge energy source?
SG: Besides things literary, what is inspiring you these days?
TL: We live in a dark time – climate change, Harperism’s suspicion of the intellectual life and the rule of law; a tendency to place aggressive promotion of one’s group or style where thinking usually is. Not a great deal frankly, either within literary culture or outside it, in Canada now inspires me. I am amazed, though by the regeneration of some First Nations’ languages; I am braced by how writers like Ouyang Jianghe or Poland’s Tomasz Rozycki try to lift up the hurt and ill-definition of their cultures, to let those forces speak through their work. Here is genuine depth and generous imagination. I am also interested in what visual artists like Sandra Meigs (in her basement panorama series), Kent Monkman, Marlene Creates and Heather Benning now are doing. There seems so much more ambition, risk and reach in their work than in most of the North American writing I read.
Tim Lilburn's work has been translated into French, Chinese, Serbian, and Polish. In addition to the Governor General’s Award, his work has received the Canadian Authors Association Award, the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award, and the Saskatchewan Nonfiction Award. His most recent book of poetry is Assiniboia (M&S, 2012).