Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Lesley Battler

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Lesley Battler

Lesley Battler's debut collection of poetry, Endangered Hydrocarbons (BookThug), tackles big subject matter with the confidence of a poet with countless collections under her belt. Using the language around the sometimes controversial process of oil extraction, Endangered Hydrocarbons cleverly draws on texts created by a multinational oil company. In addition, the poems incorporate found sources as diverse as video games and home decorating magazines. A witty, brainy take on the environmental, economic, and human impact of the process that provides our everyday lifestyle, the collection is a debut to be reckoned with.

We're starting our 2015 Poetry Month celebration one day early, with Lesley tackling our Poets in Profile series, where we talk to Canadian poets about their craft, their reading and how poetry first came into their lives.

Lesley tells Open Book about the iconic Canadian poet whose work impressed her (almost too much) as she was writing Endangered Hydrocarbons, how writing the collection was like drilling for oil and her favourite recent reads.

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Lesley Battler:

Writing was always something I just did; stories, fantasies, satirical pieces, comic books. Poetry was kind of a final frontier for me, however. I loved tinkering with language but my poems always came out as chopped-up prose. My poetry seemed to lag behind anything else — my corporate work was more varied and original. At one point I decided I simply wasn’t intelligent or deep enough to write poetry.

I think the drive to return to poetry came when I started working at a petrochemical multinational. I found the language of hydrocarbon extraction deeply invasive and archetypal and I wanted to tackle this language in a way I couldn’t as an employee or as a prose writer.

Eventually, I took a poetry workshop with Christian Bök at the University of Calgary. His exercises in aleatory writing made me realize I didn’t have to possess some kind of inner wisdom, insight, sensibility to write poetry. The more I hewed to the connections, associations and constraints of language, the more I was able to get over myself, and the more liberated I felt as a writer. Getting over myself, suppressing pre-conceived narrative patterns are lessons I have to keep learning but that challenge is what turned me into a poet.

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

LB:

Since we’re talking firsts, I’m going to own up to “The Highwayman” by Alfred Noyes, a piece I must have come across in some old British anthology, as being the first piece of writing I knew was a “poem.” I could see and feel the drama, the storm: “The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees / the moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas / the road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor.” Most of all, I was entranced by the inn-keeper’s dark-eyed daughter and the highwayman who kept “riding, riding, riding”.

OB:

What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?

LB:

Testament by Dennis Lee. Okay, I may be cheating a bit here but this work seems more like one sustained cri de coeur than a collection of individual poems. There’s also a personal reason for choosing it.

My new book, Endangered Hydrocarbons, originated from concerns that include environmental devastation, loss of individual agency and the relentless consumerism that fuels “Big Industry.” All the poems in EH are derived from texts generated by a multinational oil company, spliced with a variety of found material. I treated this found material as crude oil and excavated, drilled and mixed these texts to emulate extraction processes used by the industry.

I thought I was on to something; then I read Testament. I almost ditched my own project as I felt Lee had taken language to the brink and my work was irrelevant. I changed my mind, but damn I wish I had written (or could write) that book.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

LB:

I’m going to say that always having a day job and living in a city/province that still feels unheimlich are my most unlikely sources of inspiration. The tension, push-pull between my personal beliefs, time constraints, the work-a-day pragmatism of the city, an ancient sea bed covered in maps, gridlines, railway tracks, the eruption of the earth into an underworld of coulees, the way the sky, clouds and rolling hills turn into oceans are all incredible sources of subterranean energy.

My day job has given me something of a poetic mission. I think industry is a topic that needs to be explored in a discourse that goes beyond stock market price. Now that anyone who protests, or even questions, the hegemony of Big Oil is branded a terrorist, writers who question that power, or wrestle with issues of conscience versus livelihood might be worth hearing.

OB:

What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?

LB:

Sometimes I come up with a great concept but can’t find the right structure. Marvellous words that don’t spark. Other times, concept, language and structure sing together, but for some reason the poem doesn’t interest me. I’m not sure why that happens. I set these poems aside and save them for spare parts.

OB:

What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?

LB:

A recent book of poetry that rocked me was Paul Zits’s Massacre Street, which uses cut-up text to dissemble the colonial narrative of the Frog Lake Massacre on 1885. In The Place of Scraps, Jordan Abel made me see and feel the clouds and mist moving over text, redacting, erasing time, place, culture. Another book I found outstanding is Margaret Christakos’s Multitudes. She rewrites Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” using the language of social media to critique networked culture, somehow able to walk a high wire between the light-dark of new technology meeting old impulses. Natalie Simpson’s thrum really does create vibrations, soundwaves that crack the surface of the phenomenal world. If I could ever truly get to the point where I could work that closely and intuitively with language as these poets have done, I’d be a happy writer.

OB:

What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?

LB:

The best thing is feeling I’m working in a mad laboratory, mixing chemicals; the obsessive-compulsive wild joy when a few words or sounds come together, especially if it’s in a completely unexpected way. Never mind if I get coated in mercury during the process. To me, poetry is pure research-and-development, Bletchley Park, the dark ops of language.

That said, and it’s going to sound as if I’m completely contradicting myself, the worst thing about being a poet is lack of community. I’ve largely been occupied with career issues and haven’t made strong connections in the poetry community. My interest is in experimental poetry and being immersed in two seemingly opposed languages and viewpoints (evil oil magnate vs poetry unicorn) is a creative, dynamic and marginal position. In many ways I feel I’m developing my poetry on the Galapagos Islands, only vaguely aware of parallel developments on the mainland.


Born in Barrie, Ontario, Lesley Battler’s work has been published in Alberta Views, Arc, Contemporary Verse 2, dandelion, filling Station, Matrix, Other Voices, PRISM international and west coast line. She won the PRISM international Earle Birney Award (2012), and the University of Calgary Poem of the Season Award (2009) for a poem that became part of Endangered Hydrocarbons. Battler received an MA in English from Concordia University, and currently lives in Calgary, where she works in the petrochemical industry.

Check out all the Poets in Profile interviews in our archives.

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