Interview with Michael Schmidt


Michael Schmidt, O.B.E, F.R.S.L., was born in Mexico in 1947. He studied at Harvard and at Wadham College, Oxford. He is Professor of Poetry at Glasgow University, where he is convenor of the Creative Writing programme. Founder (1969) and editorial and managing director of Carcanet Press Limited, and a founder (1972) and general editor of the literary journal PN Review, he has written poetry, fiction and literary history, and is a translator and anthologist. In 1998, he published Lives of the Poets, an epic study which connects the lives and works of over three hundred English-language poets of the last seven-hundred years. The book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism in the US. Its notoriety in Canada stems from the fact that Canadian poetry is given very little space in its nine-hundred plus pages, and is dismissed at one point as a ‘short street’ (repeatedly misquoted in Canadian journals recently as ‘a short street not worth going down’). Here’s the damning passage in full:

Standing at Seven Dials, we could make forays down streets called Australia, Canada (a short street, that), New Zealand, India, Ireland, South Africa, the Caribbean, the United States or Great Britain. But English poetry is different from New Zealand or Caribbean poetry. New Zealand poetry may mean a great deal to the domestic readership but does not export. What interests us is poetry that is New Zealand poetry and English poetry. To follow national streets would go against the grain of this history.

For this interview, I asked Schmidt if he would like to come back to his earlier criticism, discuss whether he has changed his mind, and talk a little about how he sees Canada fitting into his new work, Lives of the Novelists.

This interview was conducted by e-mail between 28 May and 20 July, the correspondents across town from each other in Manchester, UK.

E.J.: We’d better start with the ‘short street.’

M.S.: I’m afraid that when you are doing an international historical survey a lot of local darlings get neglected because in that context they are invisible. Lives of the Poets started from a hypothesis of continuities, between poems and between poets, between seemingly discrete literatures. There are major poets who work well beyond borders, and there are those who don’t. Ashbery versus Ammons, for example, or Larkin versus Betjeman. This doesn’t mean that a local or national poetry is necessarily enervated or lacking in shape and even distinction; but the absence of substantial figures to appeal to a visiting reader (I was not the first to stand at Seven Dials and reach such a conclusion) with a very large wave of poetry carrying me forward from the fourteenth century, is what I was experiencing. Much as I admired Margaret Atwood as a wry presence and novelist, her poetry did not seem very good to me. Anne Carson was not at that time where she is today. Mark Strand and Elizabeth Bishop had shaken the dust of Canada off their feet. Earle Birney seemed a colossal joke, a product of Arts Council policy. I have long admired Klein, as you know.

So I was a traveller from an antique land and I was looking for mountains or monuments or at least enormous feet of stone.

When you and Todd Swift put together your specifically Canadian anthology, I became a reader. Your anthology did not, like my critical book, come with the worlds and histories of English-language poetry at its back. Indeed in a sense it was about resistances to those histories and to neighbouring America (as a Mexican I understand that) and also the alternative history of Canadian poetry that excluded the poets whose work you admired. When you focus on a limited sample of poetry from a country, with generational frames, things look different. In a room with twenty poets, some will obviously be better than others. If the judgement stays in that room and in those frames, the hills are higher, the vales are deeper. You and Todd Swift omitted a range of poets whose work I might have expected to see, poets with more greenery about them, mud on their boots, grizzlies at their backs, trailing roots and attended by livestock. But your anthology has a strangely urban and deracinated feel which I enjoy. Judging from the reviews the book has had, Canadian poetry is even more riven by factions than British, more acrimonious and ungenerous. But the anthologist, like the critic, can never expect gratitude, even from the poets included.

Much seems to begin in Canada and get absorbed into the States. That’s another problem, of resource, of population and therefore artistic density.

In any case, I enjoyed your anthology and learned from it and yet, looking at Baxter and Curnow and Manhire in New Zealand, for instance, or Wright, Harwood, Hope and Murray in Australia, I get a sense of more seismic activity, less factionalism and factional obedience, in those literatures than in yours.

E.J.: Can you say a bit more about Birney?

M.S.: I think I heard him at a Poetry International back in the 1960s or early 1970s. He was the Canadian poet everyone had heard of, the one Canada promoted as the Voice of the Nation. It is possible that I enjoyed his reading. Someone, a publisher or the Canada Council, sent me a very heavy and substantial two volume edition of his poems, hardback and boxed like a Folio Society classic. There was his ‘David’, carried away by its sounds. The problem is that they are, many of them, especially the thick alliterations and assonances, overdone. The effect is achieved and then overwritten again and again. In this case Poe’s prescription is right about the extent of poems, and the treachery of narrative when the impulse is, as I take it to be here, essentially lyrical-elegiac. There were also many poems about his travels for representing Canada. Poetry as diplomacy, poetry as outreach, poetry not as journalism – it did not have that kind of precision – but as enthusiasm, with descriptions of things or of how things affected the travelling bard. My sense was that the whole thing was too easy: the writing, the editing, the publishing, the binding, the privileging. The man was a living monument, but not like A.D. Hope a poet of formal and thematic substance, or like James K. Baxter a volatile genius. It didn’t seem serious.

E.J.: I remember hearing Bill Manhire say, roughly, that when British influence set sail never to return, New Zealand poets moved towards the Americans. In a way, Canada hasn’t had that luxury. And the anti-American sentiment is as much America’s fault as it is Canada’s. So many draft-dodgers, like Norm Sibum, brought with them and maintain negative feeling for their birthland. To whom can Canadians turn but themselves?

M.S.: This is a funny argument. I wonder which precise British influence Bill was shaking off by going to the Americans, and once there, which America he adopted? This sort of language might have made sense when traditions were hegemonic, even when Bill and I were young(er), but didn’t Pound and Eliot and Joyce and Lawrence rather blur these borders on maps? Canada should see America and Mexico as cultural resources: it can approach them with irony, surely, so as not to get its hands too dirty. Margaret Atwood had that wonderful open letter some time ago in which she defines, reluctantly, a distance. She does not reject but steps back. And Canada itself is hardly a hegemony. You proved that with your anthology . . .

I do understand the feeling a Canadian might have with so substantial and disproportionately influential a political and civic neighbour overshadowing. We Mexicans are gradually retaking the United States by means of energetic reproduction. Soon Canada, if it remains in a resistant mode, will be resisting a Greater Mexico, at which point you will experience an acute nostalgia for the days when you could claim a bit of Bellow, a bit of Bishop, a bit of Strand . . . and when those who weren’t snared in the net of French spoke English. Spanish will be wafting across that border like fog off the Great Lakes, or the cook-fires of the taco vendors . . .

Seriously, the demographics of Canada and the United States are now such that these arguments about unitary cultures are even more invalid than they once were . . . and contemporary poets seldom (pace Birney) subscribe to the establishment, except when it is giving them prizes and grants.

E.J.: At the same time, a unitary culture – as vague and ill-defined as these things often are – can also be the defense against the overshadowing neighbour. Perhaps I’ll take this opportunity to turn the conversation to Anne Carson, who for many years used a one-line bio note: ‘Anne Carson lives in Canada’ in her American-published books. I’ve always read this with a touch of humility that suits Carson’s humour (others see it as a ploy or perhaps cloying, which doesn’t seem like her at all). But she long-since abandoned it. What do you think? And where would Carson have fit in LotP?

M.S.: I expect she said that because it meant next to nothing to her main (American) readership, to whom being a resident of Canada suggests the wilds, bears, salmon, mountains, Mounties. She wanted people to read the poems which are cosmopolitan and culturally centred, and rethink the peripheries and the stereotypes. A paradox, then. I remember seeing a working girl’s card in a London telephone box that made me laugh: ‘Fresh country girl for kinky sex.’ I am not comparing Anne Carson’s biographical note to this, exactly, but, contrariwise, there is something odd in so complex, sophisticated and wonderful a poet living among grizzly bears. When I was in Toronto I was disappointed not to meet any grizzly bears and I suspect Anne Carson may never have met one either. She is merely saying, ‘Rethink Canada.’

In LotP she would go with Moore and (somewhat less) that other Canadian, Bishop, rather than Plath or Sexton, rather than Levertov, or perhaps even more with Niedecker and maybe even Mina Loy. Certainly the work by her I most admire is clear-edged and classical without the enervation of HD.

E.J.: The two Canadians who do appear in LotP, Marius Kociejowski and Norm Sibum, you connect to F.T. Prince, to wisdom as opposed to play, to the spirit. In Canada, the ‘wise’ poets tend to connect to landscape and environment, rather than myth and history (Robert Bringhurst perhaps the sole exception who attempts to connect them all). The former haven’t made much of an impact outside of Canada, perhaps because landscape and environment are always local, whereas myth and history are more worldly. Carson fits in here, too, and perhaps Daryl Hine. Can you say something about this? And about Kociejowski and Sibum’s connection to it?

M.S.: Among the Australians A.D. Hope was among the first to make a big impact outside Australia, and he is mythical and legendary, though there is a huge amount of Australia in his writing. (It’s probably relevant to mention that he is a superb formalist also, and that tends to travel more easily than free verse.) So too with that most wonderful poet Judith Wright, whose geographies and landscapes are more and more particularly Australian until the miracle of the Ghazals, and with the abundant Les Murray for whom the visible world – and I mean world – exists. Gwen Harwood is more your playful poet, but she too found her way at least to Britain if not to North America, because of the quality of her playfulness.

I loved Marius Kociejowski’s poetry not because it was Canadian but because of his quite remarkable ear. Line by line it does amazing things, and he feels and thinks deeply and draws in the wake of his poems a huge amount of material rather than a birdless silence. Norm Sibum’s work I loved not because he was Canadian, which in a sense he isn’t, but because he wrote the kinds of poems I always wanted to be able to write with big narratives, differentiated voices, that were rooted in things I valued and attitudes I valued. He and I had a similar leaping off point thanks to Vietnam; he went his way and I went – another. It seldom weighed with me where poets were from, perhaps because it did not seem to weigh with them.

I think the theory that myth and legend travel further than particularity is flawed, though. The examples of Murray and Wright, or from New Zealand of Baxter, prove that it is probably the poets with the most world in them that travel best in a westward direction, to Britain and America. Walcott over Brathwaite, for example, because Walcott is full of World and Brathwaite is full of ideology and indignation. Or Ammons who never crossed the ocean as against Ashbery who swims comfortably to and fro and belongs here with Prince and Donne and Clare as much as he belongs over there.

Canada and landscape is a bit of a problem. Canada is like the United States a continental country, with everything except a tropics. The poet of Saskatoon and the poet of St John’s occupy very different landscapes and one is tempted to say very different worlds.

E.J.: What you say connects I think to the history I’m wondering about: Carson and Hine are classicists, Kociejowski a Londoner, a travel-writer and antiquarian book-seller, Sibum would prefer to be a Roman. And then there is Eric Ormsby, a professor of Islamic thought. You’ve recently published The Baboons of Hada, a selection of Ormsby’s poems. Where do you see him as fitting into this discussion? And can you say a bit more about being ‘full of world’?

M.S.: I regarded Eric Ormsby as, like me, a citizen of the language. Some years ago I met him in Ireland where I was judging a poetry competition and I was persuaded he was an American. He got second prize. I am now persuaded he is a Greater American, like me, a NAFTA poet. We are, you will agree, talking largely about Canadian emanations. Is Sibum embraced as a Canadian? He’s sort of elbowy and even prickly. How about those poets who go to rather than come from Canada and are regarded – I am thinking of Ondaatje, for example – as Canadian because they are successful. Are claimed as Canadians. Michael Ondaatje came through the Suez Canal from Sri Lanka en route to Britain, and then travelled on to Canada. Looking at him as a Canadian, I wonder what he has in common with Atwood, for example: they are friends, of course. They are both great travellers. I am not sure how deep in a single place their roots go, though it is hard to think of Toronto without thinking of In the Skin of a Lion; but could he have written that novel had he never been outside Canada, outside English? Could he have been there if he hadn’t been not there? I’d even say the same of – you.

Ormsby is free, Sibum too, and Kociejowski, partly because they don’t identify with the Canada that Canada theorists construct. They have perhaps a personal rather than an ideological Canada (personal is ideological, you will say, to which the answer is yes, and no: it is specific to one and non-transferable).

If I were a French Canadian I think I would need, profoundly, what the proponents of and apologists for Anglophone Canadian literature do not in fact need. If I were an Anglophone Canadian I would be happy in my wide, privileged franchise. I would be concerned for the large Francophone, the Chinese, Korean, Asian and Hispanic minorities. There is a colonial situation, but it’s hard to assign conventional tags to it, not least because Britain is at best a ghostly presence, a shadow to the great United States curled up alongside.

E.J.: About the Anglophone concern for ‘the large Francophone, the Chinese, Korean, Asian and Hispanic minorities’: there’s been discussion recently about the movement towards pluralism in anthologies, for instance. And perhaps in literature in general. Is this connected?

M.S.: The French minority in Canada has, I believe, a developed identity which, like that of the Finnish Swedes (as before of the Finnish Finns when Swedish was the privileged language in Finland) exists in a fruitfully contra-position. It also has a real literature which rejoices in its French origins while also celebrating its differences. When I was in Toronto it surprised me to see how enormous the other immigrant communities were, and they have grown in the twenty years since. I should mention the Caribbean minorities too, because Canada is by extension a Caribbean island, especially where poetry is concerned.

One way of getting away from an obsession with powerful neighbours and colonial antecedents is to acknowledge and resist the potentially colonial relationship between Canadian English and the older and newer literatures in other languages that coexist with it, and to make sure that colonial patterns are not repeated. Not an easy task, I appreciate, but a formal and thematic curiosity enriches Canadian writing. I think an excellent non-Canadian example is the Australian poet Judith Wright who, towards the end of her poetry-producing life, realised she was not European and started learning lessons from Basho and from the Persian poets and produced her greatest poems by extending in those directions.

The more critically open readers become to the poetries in other languages that exist in Canada, the more critically open they will be to the diversity of Anglophone poetries that are there.

E.J.: What you’re arguing here reminds me of something the authors of The Empire Writes Back put forward back in 1989 – that the Canadian cultural mosaic could generate discourses of literary hybridity to replace nationalism – which at the time wasn’t the case. But in many ways Canada is now defined by the post-colonial: Rohinton Mistry, Shyam Selvadurai, Dionne Brand; even Ondaatje, who spent most of the 70s convincing everyone he is an anglophone rather than post-colonial writer, has changed his tune.

But, as regards poetry, I was thinking of the pluralism William Wootten defined in the TLS a few months back (April 27 2012), the way anthologies now are bigger, the way there is less a sense of one or two poets that we should all rally behind or battle against than a movement/moment we should all try and be part of. Wootten was writing about the difference between the Penguin Poets anthologies and Roddy Lumsden’s Identity Parade (Bloodaxe 2010), but we might also apply this to Carmine Starnino’s The New Canon (Vehicule Press, 2006), which contains the work of fifty Canadian poets born between 1955 and 1975.

M.S.: It’s strange to think that before the Mexican Revolution of 1910-21 there was some poetry in Mexico, epitomised in the work of Ramon Lopez Velarde, for example, which had much in common with Laforgue’s poetry, and Guido Gozzano’s, and early Eliot’s – and was no less Mexican in inflection for that. All these poets, from different parts of the world, were participating in a ‘moment’. It didn’t last, but while it did Velarde was aware of Europe, especially of France and what was going on there, an awareness not imitative but resourceful. Mexican in inflection does not mean Mexican by design, that is, Lopez Velarde was not affirming anything, Zacatecas happened to be in Mexico and its air he breathed. Hybridity nowadays is deliberate, a matter of choice and design, treating the genetic chain like rosary beads. Formal choices seem often to be preceded by political calculations. Nationalism is not a necessity. It emerges at times of revolution and struggled-for independence. If there has not been a physical struggle it can be much harder to get it off the ground. After the Revolution in Mexico, people started writing Mexican Poetry and for a time stopped writing poetry. In Dublin as a young man Joyce was momentously exposed to Ibsen’s plays in performance; after Irish independence Ibsen was out of bounds for decades while an Irish theatre emerged. Gains – and losses. Making literature instrumental, whatever the gains, from my perspective always entails a profound and durable loss, unless the poet is Whitman, say, but there is only Whitman, and the instrumentality there was prophetic and visionary, broadening and eventually inclusive.

It is a convenient fashion to be post-colonial. Even a major writer like Wole Soyinka at Poetry Parnassus this month was talking about how he uses certain terms and themes because they are understood, not because they are endemic or necessary to him.

You mention anthologies, a subject dear to my heart. Anthologies of poetry needn’t be indiscriminate. They may be bigger because the anthologist rebels against the Golden Treasury approach and feels that if a poet is worth including s/he is worth reading in extenso. For my part, I subscribe as a reader and as an editor to Thom Gunn’s ‘spectrum’ argument which he proposed eloquently in an essay in PN Review, demonstrating a continuity in American poetry from the work of Edgar Bowers at one extreme to that of Michael Palmer at the other, with gradations between. It is this sense not of oppositions, cliques, encampments or interest groups, but of contiguous and interdependent strata. It’s the sort of approach that leads to Starnino’s kind of anthology (which I do find a little too optimistic in its harvest of fifty poets from two decades, but still compelling in its intelligence), but not to Lumsden’s. There are borders, of course, but they are permeable. Note that Starnino’s title proposes a canon, which implies the creation of a diverse, common and authoritative poetry; Lumsden’s proposes a triumphal parade of discreet identities, marching obediently forward. A generational victory parade.

E.J.: Big question before we move onto Lives of the Novelists: almost fifteen years after LotP, do you think Canada has moved beyond the short street? Would you change your assessment in an update? Which poets might you add?

M.S.: I would add Anne Carson for sure, and Klein. I enjoy P.K. Page: your anthology brought her and others into focus for me; Richard Outram, Eric Ormsby who has strayed onto the Carcanet list, Dionne Brand whose work you and Kei Miller, from very different geographies, brought to my attention (and the fact that she cannot be appropriated is to her credit: A.F. Moritz, Elise Partridge, Marius Kociejowski, Robyn Sarah, Norm Sibum and quite a few others in your book are in a similarly ambiguous position). Many of the poets in your anthology are arresting. If I was to be revising LotP, of course, I would be under various constraints, not least that of space, and I am not sure how long the comparative street would be, or how Canadian with a Capital C it could be given that so many Canadian poets are Canadian more because of the deliberate erasure of another nationality, or by nurture not nature . . . I wonder how many Canadian poets insist on Canadianness, and how many are marshalled into that category by those who want to consolidate the notion of a distinctive and definable Canadian poetry?

E.J.: Certainly there was a generation who insisted on Canadianness, on defining and identifying it against at times both the American and the British. You won’t find any of those poets in our anthology. But then Al Moritz has admitted to me that his leaving the US had to do with a revulsion towards American politics in the early 70s – though never its literature and art. So he walked away from one side of America. That revulsion was the spirit of a Canadian age in many ways. But that age is on its way out. Perhaps what happened had to happen. But we are no longer the polite, radical liberals with a socialist agenda that American comedians mock us as. Our current conservative leader is in the Guardian just today (9 July) making a mess of the environmental sciences, having already pulled Canada out of the Kyoto Accord. Canada’s braggadocio, its success, its ripe resources in an age of depletion, is dangerous. It is ballsiness and egocentricity. It is the Griffin Prize. Look what we can do with our money (don’t forget we’re Canadian)! Will you share your thoughts on prize culture? And the Griffin?

M.S.: The Griffin Prize always seemed to me a great and good award. It acknowledged the international and placed a Canadian each year on the big stage. One is always innocent about awards, and this year was a disappointment. Exploring the work of Ken Babstock, it seems to me he unaccountably, or too accountably, won the prize. I drew attention to Babstock’s win on my Facebook page and some of the responses said, ‘Yes, well, this sort of thing happens.’ How it can happen in broad daylight I don’t know, and why it was not taken up by the media in Canada and elsewhere I don’t know. Not a very big story, I guess, outside the virulent poetry world we inhabit. In principle the Griffin Prize is important because it insists on Canada and it insists on the world. Now, it seems, it can insist on what I guess are ‘local interests’. It’s not impossible that those interests are performed without forethought or deliberation.

On the whole, prize culture, like performance culture, seems to me a distorting thing. Many poets can’t perform and most poets don’t win prizes. The creation of a culture of plausibility becomes restrictive. The fruits are obedience, writers writing for toffee apples, as in fiction the presence of the big screen and its rewards actually impacted on the pacing and texturing of novels. Odd how many novelists, for two long generations, made some of their money from script writing, and the lucky ones from film deals.

Performance and prize culture are aspects of the commodification of poetry and the dumbing down, the decorum of relevance and accessibility.

E.J.: How does Canada fare in Lives of the Novelists?

M.S.: Now, that would be breaking an embargo! I can tell you that Saul Bellow is one of my cynosures. Is Malcolm Lowry Canadian, if Michael Ondaatje is, and Rohinton Mistry? Does mentioning Bellow help? There are an awful lot of novelists included in the book, and some of them are Canadian. I introduce the subject with a paragraph that runs something like, ‘Although each year Margaret Atwood is named as a contender, the emergence of Canadian literature has yet to be marked by the award of a Nobel Prize, unless we count Saul Bellow who was born in Lachine, Quebec but emigrated with his already emigrant parents to Chicago when he was nine. Canada’s proximity to the United States and its colonial British legacies, complicated by the French, make the post-colonial situation exasperating for Canadian writers keen to assert and theorise their otherness. The desire not to be rolled into American literature and at the same time to affirm the distance of an ocean from the colonial grandmamma survives. Canada possesses substantial, distinctive novelists, born and adoptive, and a literary scene as savage and political as any in the world.

There follows an account of Robertson Davies (your Victor Hugo) and Michael Ondaatje whose In the Skin of a Lion I thought most original in lots of ways, The Cat’s Table by miles the least. In a later chapter Margaret Atwood features. I was interested to see what an impact Frye had had on her, and perhaps through her on other Canadian writers, trying to establish difference. Her Survival: A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature laid Fryesque foundations, and Strange Things: The Malevolent North in Canadian Literature is a compelling reconception.

Frye was himself keen to define Canadian writing and in the end seemed to think, as Atwood did for a time, perhaps still, that it could be characterised in terms of its themes: a fear of nature, the history of colonisation and settlement (the majority voice as colonisers and settlers, and dispossessors), and a binding sense of community. For him these characteristics were not static and might develop. But in terms of forms, in terms of differentiations of language, not much, so that a lot of American – in the sense of United States – writing, especially perhaps from the South, is Canadian. The categories so far drawn are not in the end specific enough, maybe, to fit the baggy map?

There is a moment where something wonderful happens out of something dreadful. Atwood’s sense of the United States as a political, economic and above all cultural power came to a head in April 2003 when she published the long-meditated ‘A Letter to America’ defining, at the start of the Iraq War, the difference of the United States, rather than the difference of Canada. That was really radical. It felt to her that the United States was sliding down the incline towards the dystopian Republic of Gilead she created in The Handmaid’s Tale. So she begins, ‘Dear America: This is a difficult letter to write, because I’m no longer sure who you are.’ That ‘you’ had almost become a ‘we’ or a ‘me’, so much culture was shared; ‘you were the amazing trio, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner, who traced the dark labyrinths of your hidden heart. You were Sinclair Lewis and Arthur Miller, who, with their own American idealism, went after the sham in you, because they thought you could do better.’ And ‘you’ couldn’t. She lays out the evidence. ‘You put God on the money, though, even then. You had a way of thinking that the things of Caesar were the same as the things of God: that gave you self-confidence. You have always wanted to be a city upon a hill, a light to all nations, and for a while you were.’ The Canadians are the Romanised Gauls, looking over the wall at the real Romans. And what do they see? Apart from the invasion of Iraq, ‘You’re gutting the Constitution. […] You’re running up a record level of debt. […] You’re torching the American economy.’ The consequences are enumerated. She enjoins them to summon their sleeping patriots, ‘Summon them now, to stand with you, to inspire you, to defend the best in you. You need them.’ It is a boldly polemical sermon-letter. An oblique and decisive declaration of independence. The ‘I’ who speaks it, though, will Canada ever be that ‘I’?

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