Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

On Writing, with John Reibetanz

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John Reibetanz

John Reibetanz is the author of Afloat (Brick Books), his eighth collection of poetry. Also a professor at Victoria College, University of Toronto, John has also published a book on King Lear and numerous essays. Governor General's Literary Award winner Rosemary Sullivan praised John and Afloat as "a wonderful poet, a wondrous book ... the poems make you thirsty."

We speak with John today as part of our On Writing series, and John tells us about how water awakens us, slimming down chubby poetics and writing outside of time.

For more from John, you can hear him read from Afloat by clicking here.

You can also catch John in person at the launch for Afloat this Thursday, March 14, 2013. For more information about the launch, click here.

Open Book:

Tell us about your book, Afloat.

John Reibetanz:

Afloat deals with the ways humanity defines itself and is defined by its relationship with the non-human environment. Its three sections move from a consideration of our varied kinds of involvement with water, through a sequence on the Three Gorges Dam and its cultural and environmental implications, to an affirmation of the importance — sometimes in the face of the most tragic experience — of our “floating” on air, through song and speech.

In their engagement with the physical environment and its inhabitants, these poems embody a conviction that the most compelling and significant features of human identity are not primarily found in solitude but rather evolve through interrelationships with other people and with the places that we inhabit and that inhabit us — interrelationships that have been threatened over the past half-century as never before. Working towards a view of nature based on reciprocity rather than exploitation, the poems attempt to evoke in the reader a fuller participation not just in their experiences but in the issues they raise.


What drew you to water as an inspiration? Why do you think we're fascinated with water?


Water is us — our bodies are sixty percent water, and water is the resource most necessary to sustain life — and yet water is also the formidable Other: immersion in it can kill us, and its destructive power is felt in such events as tsunamis or hurricanes. This ambivalent position makes water a natural symbol for the reciprocal relationship between humanity and the environment, a relationship that is all too easy to forget as we go about our twenty-first century lives enveloped in various technological cocoons. And when we forget that reciprocity, we do damage to both the natural world and our own potential as sensory beings. Water, whether splashed on the face or contemplated, awakens us to our connectedness with the natural world.


With many collections now under your belt, have you found your process changing over the years? Does anything feel different this time around?


Writing Afloat sent my poetics to school again, and (since having many collections under one’s belt might make one potbellied) slimmed them down. My masters were the classic Chinese poets, Tu Fu and Meng Chiao, and I worked to find equivalents to their challenging, subtly allusive, and participatory forms. I have tried here to develop a more muscular, flexible prosody, one that both allows the words to “float” between speech and song, and that also involves the reader as a more active participant in the poems’ experiences.


You bring together the ancient and the contemporary together in this collection, as well as fine arts and pop culture in your Three Gorges Dam piece. Does contrast appeal to you as a technique? Or do you see the divisions as more fluid?


“Fluid” is an apt term. As I immersed myself in the history of the Three Gorges, I kept marvelling at how many of the same issues that we confront (and for which we have coined terms like “ecology” or “alienation” or “exploitation”) troubled eighth- or ninth-century China. One may view this fluidity as depressing — we have yet to solve problems that are over a millennium old — but it is also encouraging: we are one with our ancestors, not alone, and perhaps some of their attempts at addressing these challenges can provide us with valuable starting points.


What would an ideal writing day look like for you if you could spend it however you liked?


In his tremendously interesting book, Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird, Tim Birkhead speculates on what it must be like to be a Madigascan greater vasa parrot, which has the most protracted copulation of any bird — up to one and a half hours. The writerly equivalent of the vasa parrot’s ecstasy would be to be so swept up in the process of writing that one lost all sense of time — that one existed purely in the poems, as Rilke seems to have done when he became a vehicle for the Orpheus sonnets and the Duino Elegies. But, like Frost in “Birches,” I’d like to come back to earth again before the day was over; as he writes, “Earth’s the right place for love.”


Are there other collections you read while working on Afloat? Do your reading habits change at all while you're writing?


To take the second question first, my reading and writing tend to work together in the way violin and piano do in a sonata — each instrument sometimes leads, sometimes follows. Something I write will send me searching for more knowledge in a new area (as I explored video games to see how they might have such an obsessive hold on the speaker of one of my poems), and that in turn will take my writing into new directions (the psychological effects of displacement on migrants). Ideally, writing and reading are constantly influencing one another, opening up further opportunities for discovery.

While I was working through the environmental issues of Afloat, so many of them centred on classic Chinese landscapes, I found myself inexplicably drawn to some of the writing that issued from World War Two — Holocaust narratives, Sebald’s writings on firebombing, the experiences of wartime refugees. Only later did I realize that I’d been searching for more contemporary parallels to the sense of being under siege, or on the run, that infused the life and works of such figures as Tu Fu or Li Bai — out, as the latter put it, “where the war drums keep throbbing.”

The poetry collections I was drawn to while writing Afloat represent a strong current in contemporary Canadian literature: work by such figures as Don McKay, Roo Borson, Maureen Scott Harris and Don Domanski. They offer, as McKay put it in an interview, a kind of “environmental thinking” where “poetry and an ethical revising of values go hand in hand.”


What are you working on now?


My writing tends to evolve in a chain-like manner, one group of poems suggesting another. Just as the concerns of Afloat seem in retrospect to have issued from what one poem in my previous collection described as “our debt to water” and its “insatiable soul,” so the poems I’ve been writing since Afloat pick up on the interrelationship of self and environment by exploring how specific places and their features (street scenes, childhood classrooms, articles of furniture) become part of our identities, how we carry them around with us and are shaped by their outlines even as we in turn make them over. Another kind of reciprocity, perhaps more intimate than those encountered in Afloat.

John Reibetanz lives in Toronto with his wife and near their three grown children. Author of seven previous collections of poetry, he teaches English and Creative Writing at Victoria College where he received the first Victoria University Teaching Award.

For more information about Afloat please visit the Brick Books website.

Buy this book directly from Brick Books or at your local independent bookstore.

Check out all the On Writing interviews in our archives.

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JF Robitaille: Minor Dedications


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