Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Roger Greenwald

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Roger Greenwald

Roger Greenwald knows poetry from all angles — both a poet himself and a multi-lingual translator of other poets' writing, he has created and shaped collections in both roles. Most recently, he translated Paal-Helge Haugen's Meditations on Georges de La Tour (BookThug) into English from Norwegian.

Today we speak with Roger about his experiences in poetry as part of our Poets in Profile series, where we aim to find out what inspires, confounds and delights today's Canadian poets.

In our discussion, Roger tells Open Book about buried treasure in public libraries, life as an "ear" poet and how many times he reads a book he's translating.

Open Book:

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

Roger Greenwald:

I can’t describe it, because it happened at an age few people can remember (two and a half). My father died. The loss of a parent at an early age is a remarkably common feature of writers’ biographies. That means it tells us little about any particular writer that distinguishes him or her from other writers. The distinctions are to be found in the work.

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

RG:

Oh, something in Dr Seuss, or maybe in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous anthology, A Child’s Garden of Verse. But I can’t recall particular pieces. I do recall reading parts of Leaves of Grass before I was ten, so the answer is probably “Song of Myself,” but the first verses I wrote, at age eight or so, were modeled on simpler, rhymed poems.

OB:

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

RG:

Only one?! “Simi” (named after the Greek island), by the Danish poet Henrik Nordbrandt. A translation into English by the late Alexander Taylor can be found in WRIT Magazine No. 14 (1983), which may be in a university library near you. Dig for buried treasure!

I find it hard to imagine a concept like happiness
but if I should imagine it
I could well picture myself in the role of a sponge diver
boatbuilder, pilot or merely a boozer
in the harbor in Simi. If you ever disembark there,
undoubtedly you’ll know what I mean:
. . . .

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

RG:

Film, I’d say. As an “ear” poet concerned with time and “the voice unrolling in time,” I’m much more often inspired by music. And “eye” poets more concerned with visual imagery and the poem as an object in space are often inspired by paintings or photographs, and sometimes even sculpture. (And we can suppose — and hope — that all poets are inspired by poems.) But film is a complex art form that in most cases involves narrative as well as visual images and sound, so perhaps it poses special challenges to poets. I haven’t seen many poems that take off from films (as distinct from film stars) or convey the experience of watching a film and the effects that it has on the viewer. (Film is the art form that seems to have dealt most often with film: think of Day for Night, Cinema Paradiso, Kings of the Road, The Projectionist.) But then, there are also remarkably few poems (or short stories) about an experience that is presumably of great importance to most writers: reading.

The first film that ever moved me to write a poem was — oddly enough — Claude Jutra’s early film À tout prendre (1964), in which Leonarrd Cohen appears briefly. “Oddly” because that was when I was still living in New York, and there could hardly have been anything more obscure there at the time than a grainy black-and-white film by a young Francophone director from Quebec. Since then I’ve written quite a few poems prompted by films. I’ve also written one poem in response to a modern dance piece — an even more unusual and difficult source of inspiration than film, though I can think of a few poets who have written about dance or dancers.

OB:

What do you do when a poem is not working?

RG:

Get critiques from others. Try to get some distance from it. Put it aside for a while. Wait till it calls me. Eventually either revise it satisfactorily, use pieces of it in another poem, or discard it.

OB:

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

RG:

Picture World, by Niels Frank (he’s Danish), published by BookThug in 2011. Over the course of two years or so, I read it probably ten times in Danish and then thirty times in English, because I was translating it. It’s a book-length poem in twenty-four parts, with many words and phrases that run through the whole book, and constant shifts in tone. As a lyric poet who writes one poem at a time, mainly poems of one or two pages, with occasional meditative ones that are longer, I find it hard to imagine (sound familiar?) how Frank even conceived of such a large structure, no less how he wrote twenty-four poems each of which works on its own but is much more resonant in the context of the whole book. Here is how Poem 14 starts:

I see that it’s 7:35 in the evening on Broadway.
How time flies. I miss you constantly
the face with the fateful signs seems to say.
Fateful: as if the clock were a wheel of fortune.
Fateful: constantly searching for truth
if you understand my slightly poetic language.
If.
It says: as far as the eye can see red masks are hanging
on metal racks all the way down Broadway.
Oh: traffic lights. Now you understand.
Traffic lights!
Well of course.
And what do the red lights say?
They say: MAY NOT PASS.
So I keep standing there firmly in the wind between the high-rises
with a fly on my shoulder. Brighter times
must be on the way for chrissake.


Roger Greenwald grew up in New York, where he attended The City College and the St. Mark's-in-the-Bouwerie Poetry Project workshop. His first book of poems, Connecting Flight, was published in 1993. He has received several major awards for his poetry, including the CBC Radio/Saturday Night Literary Award (1994). His translations from Norwegian, Swedish and Danish have earned prizes in the U.S. and Canada.

Paal-Helge Haugen has published sixteen volumes of poetry since 1967, including two volumes of selected poems and one of collected poems. His poetry has earned him five of the most prestigious awards in Norway as well as the Dobloug Prize, awarded by the Swedish Academy. His work has been translated into some twenty languages. Stone Fences, translated by William Mishler and Roger Greenwald, and Wintering with the Light, translated by Greenwald, are Haugen's two earlier books in English.

For more information about Meditations on Georges de La Tour please visit the BookThug website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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

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