Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Elemental Flux: Editing "The Essential D.G. Jones" (A Conversation with Jim Johnstone)

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Elemental Flux: Editing "The Essential D.G. Jones"  (A Conversation with Jim Johnstone)

In 2014, Jim Johnstone published a selection of Earle Birney’s work as part of The Porcupine’s Quill’s Essential Poets series. Though he currently holds editorial positions at Palimpsest Press, Representative Poetry Online, and Anstruther Press, Johnstone recently committed to a second entry in the series, and is readying The Essential D.G. Jones for Fall 2016. I caught up with him as he was writing a critical introduction on the former Governor General’s Award winner’s work.
BT: I’d like to talk about editing The Essential D.G. Jones. First off, can you tell me a little bit about The Essential Poets series?
JJ: The Porcupine’s Quill began the Essential Poets series in 2007 with the publication of The Essential George Johnston. Since then there have been 12 more entries, including Don Coles, Margaret Avison, P.K. Page, and Darryl Hine. The goal of the series is to “present the work of Canada’s most celebrated poets in packaging that is beautiful, accessible, and affordable,” and I think it does that. But it also allows for reevaluation. Each volume features a critical introduction, and at 64 pages, they’re short enough to be mandatory reading.
Randall Jarrell famously claimed that “A poet is a man who manages, in a lifetime of standing out in thunderstorms, to be struck by lightning five or six times.” The Essential Poets series channels that lightning for readers who are looking for an entrance into a poet’s oeuvre.
BT: With the canonizing power of such selections in mind, have any of the essential poets surprised you?
JJ: I just finished reading the most recent entry in the series: M. Travis Lane, edited by Shane Neilson. Though Ms. Lane is still a practicing poet, the volume only covers the first 20 years of her career (1969-1988), which I found surprising at first. None of the other selections in the series zoom-in as telescopically on a particular time period, making Neilson’s take unique. It also makes sense, considering that Lane’s early poems are largely forgotten, and long out of print.
More impressively, Neilson builds a convincing narrative out of Lane’s neglect. In his introduction he forms an extended hypothesis to elucidate why Lane wasn’t anthologized alongside Atwood, McEwan, and Purdy in the 1970s, and then makes a case for her reassessment. The proof is in the poems though, which are remarkably contemporary for work that is, in some cases, nearly 50 years old. Take these lines from “Spring Break-up:”
In truck-loads to the truck-land mind,

sacked wives and kids with greasy eyes
wallow to St. Ives; the people is—
grass, is grass, like asses’ ears,
like river reeds, the golden touch…
but Fox went on in the gentle way,
lighting the candle, the basket shine.

If I didn’t know better, I could imagine these lines being written by someone like Ken Babstock. The sound patterning, linguistic play, and nearly hypnotic suggestion (notice how “land mind” blurs into “landmine”?) are all qualities prized in Canadian poetry in 2015.
BT: The Essential D.G. Jones is the second collection that you’ve edited for The Porcupine’s Quill. What compelled you to choose Jones?
JJ: I had a great experience working with The Porcupine’s Quill on The Essential Earle Birney. I’ve always admired the publishers, Tim and Elke Inkster, but working with them directly was particularly rewarding. I found their passion for bookmaking infectious, and it was their enthusiasm, along with my near lifelong admiration of D.G. Jones, that spurred the project forward.
When I was a student studying Human Biology at the University of Toronto, I used to set up camp on the 13th floor of Robarts Library. At the expense of whatever I was learning at the time, I’d sit and read poetry well into the night, and D.G. Jones was one of my mainstays. Robarts is great because they have everything, and everything is in its original state (apart from the book bindings). That meant that as I was falling in love with poetry, I was also falling in love with the feel and shape and smell of old books at the same time.
Jones’s poetry suited my experience. His writing is elemental, and by mid-career exudes a confidence that knifes the page. That combination made him seem like an archetypal poet long before I knew anything about poetry.
BT: With an author like D.G. Jones who has such an extensive body of work, how do you begin paring down your selection? Do you start chronologically and simply pull out what you consider to be the best poems, or is there a more nuanced strategy? How important is diversity and range when you select a best of collection?
JJ: Balancing chronology, quality, and diversity are all important when considering what to include in a volume of selected poetry. I like to start with a period of immersion that involves reading all of an author’s books—in Jones’s case this took into account his criticism and translations, which are crucial to understanding his evolution as a poet. I’d read Jones for years, of course, but never felt like I was finished. My urge to go back to him was one of the reasons I chose to take on the project for The Porcupine’s Quill.
The finer details of the selection were more impressionistic. The first step was assembling a long-list of poems I wanted to include in the book. Unfortunately the pre-set length of the collection did part of that job for me, since I didn’t have room for any of Jones’s longer sequences. This prompted me to concentrate on short lyrics like “Portrait of Anne Hébert,” “The Perishing Bird,” “The Path,” and “The Pioneer as Man of Letters,” which form the core of Jones’s poetic legacy. From there I tried to make a diverse selection, both formally and thematically, that traces Jones’s evolution from the early-1950s (when Modernism was still very much in fashion) to the late-1990s.
BT: D.G. Jones has published over ten books of poetry, several books of translations, a book of criticism, and he’s won several awards including the Governor General Award twice. If you were going to recommend one book outside of your selection to start with for someone who has never read any of his work, what would it be?
JJ: I’d choose Under the Thunder the Flowers Light Up the Earth. It’s probably Jones’s most recognized collection of poems (it won the Governor General’s Award in 1978), and marks the peak of his mature style. Jones’s work from this period is loose and conversational, and covers a diverse range of emotions. This is exemplified by the anger in a poem like “That’s It,” below:

That’s it, walk around
in your black bra and your half-slip
half way to morning
tell me I don’t understand
the weather, autumn hills, cold
mist on the water
lightning that broke through the house
and left me
sweeping up glass, all an illusion
go on shedding your clothes
like leaves of the calendar, hands
dispensing with seconds

are you trying to tell me that fall
comes before summer, bedtime’s
a white dawn

BT: D.G. Jones is still alive, and lives in North Hatley, QC. Will there be any new work in the new book?
JJ: There will. Jones was kind enough to send along a handful of new poems that he’d written since his last publication, Standard Pose (above ground press, 2002), and I chose 3 new poems from the pile—“Goldfinchen,” “The Docks Have Been Hauled Out,” and “Suddenly.” They’re among my favorite pieces in the book, and provide a fitting coda to his career.
BT: You have many full-length poetry collections and chapbooks under your belt, and you’re currently an editor at Palimpsest Press and the Editor-in-Chief at Anstruther Press. What’s next for you?
JJ: My next major editorial project is an anthology of emerging Canadian poets that will be published by Palimpsest Press in 2018. I don’t want to give away too much, but the anthology will feature authors who have written between 1 and 3 books, and have been publishing since the millennium. It’s titled The Second Wave.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.