Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ten Questions, with Rob Winger

Share |
Ten Questions, with Rob Winger

Rob Winger talks to Open Book about the ghazal — its history, its evolution, even the last word on its pronunciation — and his new book of poems, The Chimney Stone (Nightwood Editions).

The Chimney Stone launches at Supermarket in Toronto on Wednesday, November 3. See our Events Page for details.

Open Book:

The Chimney Stone is a collection of ghazals that takes on subjects ranging from pop culture to love to human atrocities — and that's just a start. Can you give us your definition of the ghazal and tell us how it shapes the poems in this book?

Rob Winger:

The ghazal is a short love lyric that jumps topics, tone, etc., from couplet to couplet so that the "sense" you can make of it is less narrative or rational than intuitive. John Thompson — Canada’s first ghazal maker — called these jumps "imaginative leaps." The ghazal was the most common poetic form in both 19th century Urdu in India and ancient Persia and, back then, the form had strict conventions: set metre, a refrain, an internal rhyme, specific imagistic content, the inclusion of a pen-name — and the list goes on. It also required a simultaneous address to both an unrequited lover and an Islamic god, and listeners were never sure which was which. When the form was first translated into contemporary North American English, contemporary poets and linguists got rid of the form’s original, stringent rules (which made sense since they were culturally specific and historically determined). Adrienne Rich, John Thompson and Phyllis Webb — the three most important poets in the ghazal’s free-verse evolution — made some central contributions to the form: they collectively replaced the Islamic “god” with ethics or feminism (or, in Thompson's case, a high Anglicanism); they replaced the form's public banks of imagery with individual images that accrete as their sequences progress; and they replaced the form's conventional rules with a free-verse sensibility. My book tries to riff off of both the original requirements and the newer evolutions in the form. So, it has free-verse ghazals, anti-ghazals (a name coined by Webb) and traditional ghazals. My sense is that the form — like all healthy forms — will continue to evolve so long as we understand its history and break its rules in the right ways.

OB:

You wrote this book while writing a dissertation on the roots of the Canadian free-verse ghazal — so you were basically eating, sleeping and breathing the form. Why did you decide to turn your creative as well as academic attentions to the ghazal?

RW:

That’s right; it was all ghazals all the time for a few years there! I found the best way to understand what a poet like Thompson was doing was to try to write these things myself. Talk about a humbling experience! I quickly realized two things: I needed to read more widely to understand where these kinds of poem had come from; and I needed to reject imitation, since nobody can step in and just emulate what Thompson or Rich or Webb or Ghalib does with the form. What Webb once said about Thompson being a powerful influence when she did her own ghazal sequences has stuck with me: she called this dynamic "the influence of anxiety," inverting Harold Bloom's old, crusty concept that she identifies as "devastatingly masculine." That's part of what I was doing by combining the so-called "academic" and "creative" writing: using the influence of historical literary precedents to try to break through into my own ways of working.

OB:

The Chimney Stone is divided into four sections: "Iron John," "Bloody Mary," "Idiot Wind" and "Blind Date." How did this structure evolve, and why did you decide to organize the collection this way?

RW:

Great questions! When I combed through my manuscript, I found distinct threads in the poems and then reworked and rewrote to meet the kind of subterranean narratives they were implying. The "John" and "Mary" sections take on clichés of masculinity, the first trying to understand how I fit into and can resist them, and the second recognizing the need to continue to promote a political and active feminism in our culture. Once boy meets girl in my book, then, there's me: what I'm doing in and with these poems, where I see my own biases in them, etc. That kind of concern is at the heart of the "Idiot Wind" section, which tries to question the whole enterprise of writing at all, especially when using your own experiences as cannon fodder for supposed moments of inspiration. Finally, the last section looks at all this he/she subjectivity with a wider lens, using specific instances of history to question the idea that we can ever precisely chart origins or statistics or the like without paying strict, close attention to both old, tired romantic ideals like heart and beauty and influence and the clinical facts of cultural production.

OB:

Your poems engage in dialogue with other texts and also enact conversations between different speakers. What is it about the ghazal that lends itself to these sorts of dialogues, and how are the exchanges amplified by the ghazal form?

RW:

There's a lot of that kind of dialogue in the ancient forms, but it’s also very pronounced in the newer ones. Thompson's doppelganger in Stilt Jack is Yeats; Webb's is Ghalib; Adrienne Rich's is the American poet Amiri Baraka (aka LeRoi Jones), who had, by the time in the civil rights movement when Rich was writing, adopted an anti-Jewish, Black nationalism that she finds troubling. Each of these poets needs to not just get over these examples of their biggest influences — like Harold Bloom thinks they do — but also to dialogue with them, to learn how to live with them by getting beyond their influences not in a death-match with the poets they admire, but via some sort of dialogical diplomacy that allows their influences to co-exist with their originality. My poems try to do the same by extending the idea of a literary classic from Whitman or Wordsworth to folks like Joe Strummer or David Byrne. These are the lyricists that introduced me to the whole idea of poems, after all, and they deserve as much acknowledgement in my own, personal canon as the old tired guards of the Norton anthologies get in academia; including them is a way to try to push that idea of a "classic" writer from the canonical academy into the punk-rock record shop.

OB:

Your first collection of poetry, Muybridge's Horse (Nightwood Editions, 2007), is quite different than The Chimney Stone in both form and content. How did your writing process differ for each of these books?

RW:

Muybridge was limited by what weird old Eadweard did in his life, and involved a lot of realism, research, logical analysis of the concept of history — that kind of thing. So it was plotted and intentional, very carefully planned in its overall shape, predicted, written to. The ghazals, thank god, were free, and I followed them where they led. This, of course, changed in rewrites and editing, but the spirit of the poems demanded this sort of liberty, for me at least. Unlike Thompson's ghazals, mine are focused by specific titles, launched out onto the page by bracketing a specific angle of experience, and then seeing where that kind of focus leads. If any poems in either book work, I think, it's probably because they try to bridge the gap between these kinds of working: planning but being open to surprise; staying open-ended but aware of the value of limits.

OB:

Who are your first readers, and how do they help you to refine your work?

RW:

My partner, Kristal, is essential at the earliest stages of a new poem, and she tells it like it is — something I appreciate and benefit from, especially since she has to suffer through so many awful early drafts, offering encouragement and well-considered critiques. Once the poem's a bit more developed, I pass it by a few close friends, all of whom are writers themselves. For this book, my friend Anita Lahey was a godsend: she spent a long time with the poems and really helped me shape them into something legible. In the end, there's also me, and, in this book in particular, I tried to be very hard on the poems to whittle them down to what I thought was needed.

OB:

Can you recommend a couple of books that have really knocked your socks off lately?

RW:

Sure! Ian Brown's memoir, The Boy in the Moon, should be read by everyone; I was in tears after the first three pages, and then laughing out loud. How often does that happen? George Murray's new book of aphorisms, Glimpse, is equally brilliant, and fun, too; both of these books let you see your daily grind in a brand new light and are well worth your time.

OB:

What is one poem that you wish you had been the one to write?

RW:

That's a tall order! Just one? "Song of Myself"? "Diving into the Wreck"? The Basho haiku that inspires all those frog matches? Ginsberg’s "America"? "The Red Wheel Barrow"? "The Circus Animals’ Desertion"? Naked Poems? (and these are just the first to come to mind; there are hundreds!)

OB:

What are you working on these days?

RW:

Both a poetry project and a prose one. The poetry one takes on the most common, most banal clichés we all see in poetic miscellanies — lost love, landscapes, crows, road-kill, travel, ancestral immigration, ekphrasis, etc. — and tries to write about them knowing full well that they're choc-a-bloc full of stumbling blocks and dead language; it also involves a section that looks at linguistic expertise. The prose one tries to reflect on some time I spent living in Asia in the 1990s. It's set within the Vietnam War era and starts with the "hawks and doves" phenomena, wherein the number of draft dodgers that took refuge in Canada — by most accounts — roughly equals the number of Canadians who volunteered to go to Vietnam, crossing the border and signing up to do so. I read just this week, in Dispatches, that "War stories aren't really anything more than stories about people anyway," so this book's most likely going to be character-driven; we’ll see.

OB:

Finally, the pronunciation of the word ghazal is a matter of considerable conflict. As a something of a ghazal scholar, can you clear up the debate once and for all?

RW:

Ha! I probably can't since I don't speak Urdu or Farsi. But I do know that the original pronunciation is closer to the word "puzzle" than it is to something like "gazelle" (there's a joke about that in my book, actually), but with a throaty "h" at the beginning, and stress placed squarely on the first syllable. Since the form's taken on a life of its own in English, however, I'm good with calling it a "guzzle." I know some writers (like Agha Shahid Ali, who was a champion of keeping alive the form's original rules) really go crazy when people call these things "gha-ZHALS"; that doesn’t bother me so much unless people are also talking about them with no sense of where the poems actually evolved from, but I do tend to think of that pronunciation as incorrect. So: if you’re linguistically adept: "(G)HU-zl"; if you’re an English-speaking North American: just plain old "GUh-zl."


Rob Winger grew up country in small-town Ontario before graduating to post-punk and new wave. His first book, Muybridge’s Horse, was named a Globe and Mail Best Book for 2007 and was shortlisted for the Governor General's Award, Ottawa Book Award and Trillium Book Award for Poetry. An active editor and teacher, Rob recently completed a PhD in literature and cultural studies in Ottawa. He and his family live in the folk-rock hills northeast of Toronto. The Chimney Stone is published by Nightwood Editions (2010). Visit his blog at www.robwinger.blogspot.com.

For more information about The Chimney Stone please visit the Nightwood Editions website.

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

Related item from our archives

JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications

Dundurn

Open Book App Ad