Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Lucky Seven Interview, with Max Layton

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Max Layton

When no less than Leonard Cohen declares a poetry collection to be "one hell of a book!", readers know they are in for a treat. In Max Layton's In the Garden Of I Am (Guernica Editions), each poem begins with the same opening line, but the similarities end there. Some poems will have you laughing, others are deeply moving. From the frankly personal to the political and philosophical, In the Garden Of I Am shows just how deep and wide "I am" can be.

Today we're talking to Max as part of our Lucky Seven series, a seven-question Q&A that gives readers a chance to hear about the writing processes of talented Canadian authors and gives authors a space to speak in depth about the thematic concerns of their newest books.

Max tells us about overcoming the traumatic experience of becoming legally blind, how Cohen's pithy praise holds a double meaning and his stance on still-born poems.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book.

Max Layton:

In The Garden Of I Am is my second book of poems. As in When the Rapture Comes (Guernica Editions, 2012), each poem begins with the same three words. The challenge then, from the point of view of the poet, is this: if you've begun with the same first line, how do you vary the rhyme, the rhythm, the voice, etc., in the lines that come after? How do you make each poem different? Well, it's a bit like a jazz musician riffing on a familiar tune. The result is a series of linked poems, each one of which is unique and can also stand alone...

As to how these poems came to be, that's a convoluted story. About a decade ago I went legally blind. For two long years I could not read or even watch television. My wife's beautiful face distorted — an eye where her chin ought to be, a mouth opening and closing in her hair. When I got my sight back, I felt I had died and been reborn. I felt I had been given a second chance. My blindness had forced me to look deeply into myself and now, for the first time in my life, I knew exactly what I wanted to say...

OB:

Is there a question that is central to your book, thematically? And if so, did you know the question when you started writing or did it emerge from the writing process?

ML:

I am not sure whether he intended it, but when Leonard Cohen emailed to say In The Garden Of I Am is "one hell of a book," I realised he had described its major theme in just five words. The "garden" of the title is, of course, the garden of this world which we find ourselves in. The thematic question of the book is: Why have we made such a mess of it? Why, instead of Eden, have we so often made our world a hell? I am not a religious person but, to paraphrase Laplace, God is a metaphor I cannot do without. Beginning with the great "I am that I am" of God Himself, the poems which follow (from "I Am The Earthling" to "I Am The Mouse") are the tiny "I am" cries of His astonishing creation...

OB:

Did the book change significantly from when you first starting working on it to the final version? How long did the project take from start to finish?

ML:

I remember writing four or five poems a day, sometimes stumbling out of bed exhausted because a voice inside my head was dictating lines for yet another poem and my job was to jot them down. Sometimes I simply did not have the strength and I suspect some of my best poems never saw the light of day because I had to shut "the machine" down in order to get some sleep. This level of intensity lasted several months. Then, inevitably, there followed a long period of cooling — a period of sober, second thought when ideas for new poems came fitfully and mostly I found myself pruning, reshaping, rewriting the work I had already done. Of the unknown number of poems I began with, In The Garden Of I Am represents what I consider to be the 50 best...

OB:

What do you need in order to write — in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?

ML:

In terms of space, a very high percentage of my poems have come to me while walking along the Bruce Trail which runs behind my home. I have no food or ritual needs but my iPad is a writing instrument I could not do without. In fact, it has directly influenced my style. To give one example: I use spacing instead of punctuation to mark the end of a line. But I only know where a line ends because the computer allows me to see the poem as a whole, as if it were already typeset....

OB:

What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?

ML:

This is where writing a poem is different from a huge project like writing a novel. Frankly, if I felt discouraged in the middle of a poem, I'd know its heart had stopped beating and that it was time to move on. Many, many poems are still-born...

OB:

What defines a great book, in your opinion? Tell us about one or two books you consider to be truly great books.

ML:

I do not know how to define a great book. There are so many ways up that mountain! But, if a great poem is the height of human creativity, then a telltale sign is this: In a great poem, one line follows another in a way which is simultaneously unpredictable and inevitable. Change one word of a great poem and you turn it into prose. There are truly great poems in the two books I'd like to mention: For My Brother Jesus, by my father, Irving Layton, and Reading The Bible Backwards, by my friend, Robert Priest. Unlike the navel-gazing and nail-biting of so many modern books of poetry, both of these are sustained, passionate meditations on profound and important themes...

OB:

What are you working on now?

ML:

Right now, I'm about half way through another book of linked poems which will probably be called Like. All I'm willing to say about it at the moment is that every poem contains the word "like" — and that I am trying my best to write in ways which are as unpredictable as they are inevitable!

Born in Montreal in 1946, Max Layton now lives in Cheltenham, Ontario. A published novelist and short story writer, Max went legally blind a decade ago. During that difficult period, he recorded his first CD of original songs and began the series of linked poems which would become When The Rapture Comes (Guernica, 2012). His eyesight restored thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, Max bounced back with the release of two more albums of songs and now, still going strong, another book of poems.

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