Like the Star-Nosed Mole:
John Barton in Conversation with Mary Dalton on Her Cento Variations

Mary Dalton

Malahat editor John Barton interviews St. John’s poet Mary Dalton about her contemporary use of the cento, an ancient poetic form. Three of Mary’s centos, “Netted,” “Appliqué,” and “Invitation Cards” are a highlight of Essential East Coast Writing, The Malahat Review’s Autumn 2012 issue. A list of the source texts she drew from to assemble these poems is found on the Malahat website.

Can you define what a cento is classically and then explain how you’ve modified the rules—or broken them—and for what purpose?

In writing seminars I’ve told my students that you don’t work in a form by accident, yet in a sense that’s what happened with me and the cento. I had made several of these collage pieces before I learned that I was working variations on a form that had ancient antecedents.

The cento, according to the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics, is a poetic creation made of passages taken from some major poet of the past, such as Homer or Virgil, and woven together as a form of tribute. In the 4th century A.D., Ausonius, himself a maker of centos, laid out some rules. He stated that the passages could be from the same poet or many. Among poets whose works have been paid tribute to through centos are: Euripides, Ovid, Petrarch, Shakespeare, and Goethe. In recent centuries there have been humorous centos. R. S. Gwynn wrote a rather lugubrious one about his own aging, entitled “Approaching a Significant Birthday, He Peruses The Norton Anthology of Poetry.” Online, I discovered something called CentoBingo and some rather underwhelming constructions called “Cento Mash-Ups.” I found out that the Empress Eudocia, the wife of Byzantine Emperor Theodosius II and an influential Christian in the 5th century A.D., had constructed a 2500-line cento out of Homeric passages in order to tell Biblical stories. The cento began to have a whiff of the circus about it for me.

But I was already well immersed in my form of this collage before I knew any of this. I was excising individual lines rather than passages from poems, and I was drawing from many poets, not one. As well, I was also working with an additional simple aleatory constraint. Each piece was constructed from the same point in the line sequence of each poem I was incorporating into the collage, e.g., “Invitation Cards,” one of the poems appearing in The Malahat Review, is made of the second line of each of the twenty-four poems quoted from.

There were a few reasons for my adopting this strategy. They are likely to emerge as we continue.

What makes the cento attractive to you as a poet? How long have you been working with this form and approximately how many have you written thus far? Are these the poems which will appear in your forthcoming book, Hooking? Tell us a little about it.

I mentioned earlier that I more or less bumped into this form. Sometime in late 2007 I had an invitation from Anita Lahey, then-editor of Arc, to send something for Arc 60, the magazine’s thirtieth-anniversary issue, which appeared in the summer of 2008. I was happy to be invited to the celebration of Arc, and I promptly said that, yes, I would send something. Then I began to wonder what I’d gotten myself into, as I contemplated the theme the editors had chosen for the issue: the number thirty. What could I do? Certainly nothing autobiographical: that year had been one of the worst of my life. I made a little piece called “Rose Makes Her Numbers,” about a small child’s view of the shape of the number, but I wanted to send something more. It was getting very near the deadline and I was beginning to worry, when one morning I woke up with an idea formed: I would make a piece of thirty lines composed of the thirtieth line of thirty poems by thirty poets. The collage would itself be an anthology of sorts, as a journal is, and it would, through its form, celebrate thirtiness. Arc published “Rose Makes Her Numbers” and “Thirty (a collage).” That was the beginning.

In making “Thirty” I discovered that I enjoyed the process of working with cadence and syntax in the ways needed to create such pieces. I came to think of the excising of lines from various poems and hooking them together into something new as, in some ways, parallel to the process of a traditional craft called, in Newfoundland, mat-hooking and engaged in mainly by women. Worn-out clothes and bedding—indeed any sort of fabric that could be come by—were cut into strips. A pattern was drawn on burlap and these strips of various colours were hooked through the burlap to make a mat with some sort of image on it, limited only by the maker’s imagination and draughtsmanship.

In making these collages, then, I felt connected to the activity my mother and aunts had engaged in in their childhood and young womanhood, when goods and money were scarce and chilly floors needed warm mats. But there were, of course, other motives, other satisfactions. It seemed to me that the cento, as I came to know the form, was one way to respond to what often appeared to be drearily earnest and misguided pronouncements about appropriation and originality. There, says the cento, what do you think of me? There is not a single original line in me, yet can you deny that I am something new? Still other questions about the nature of literary art arise from the cento form—they will come up as we go on, perhaps.

These centos will appear as the book called Hooking, being released under the Signal Editions imprint of Véhicule Press in Montreal in the spring of 2013. I can’t say now how many will be in the book, as my editor and I have yet to make a firm decision about that. There are a great many in various stages at the moment, maybe fifty or so, and I’m hoping most of them will find their way into the collection. There may be others yet, of course.

Given that each of your poems is composed of lines “lifted” or “borrowed” from poems by others, have you come to consider them yours through the act of selection or curatorship? Or does the claim of authorship stem from how you’ve arranged them?

I think of the lines I’ve excised from poems as material, as strips of words. Each line, the hooking of these words into this particular sequence on a line, is the creation of its individual author; the sum of the lines in each cento, the way in which these syntactical fragments have been hooked together, is my creation. These pieces are at once mine and not mine. They give rise to the question, where does originality lie? And they are the ultimate proclaiming of the intertextual nature of literary making.

How do you go about selecting lines? Did you begin by compiling a single eclectic list from which you then extract multiple lines? Or did you have particular themes in mind and compile separate lists accordingly?

Yes, I compile masses of lines excised from poems—notebooks filled with the third lines of poems, say, which will then yield up the lines for one cento. It isn’t usual for me to begin with a theme, whether writing a cento or any other kind of poem. My totem creature in these matters is the star-nosed mole.

How long does it take to have enough lines to choose from for a single poem and how long does it take to complete one?

There is no clear answer to these questions. The time varies, both for the gathering and for the assembling. Indeed, it may be that an important element in the making of these pieces is an inattention to any of these matters and a kind of tranced absorption in each of the various stages of the process. That said, gathering the materials is the more time-consuming of the two activities; a thousand lines, culled from a still larger number considered, may in the end yield a twenty-line cento.

What strikes me about the three poems in The Malahat Review is their consistency of tone from beginning to end. Their consistency is maintained despite each poem’s being constructed from lines by authors who are as unlike one another as, for example, Leonard Cohen and Lisa Robertson. What sort of challenge is it to match or collage lines in order to create such cohesiveness?

Your observation about the consistency of tone touches on one feature of these pieces. When I began making them I had been thinking a good deal about Christian Bök’s brilliant poem “Eunoia” and his (most eloquent) insistence that the constraints he operated under were such that the poem was devoid of subjectivity. It isn’t ever the case that subjectivity is absent when a human subject is working with language. I would argue that the magnificence of “Eunoia” arises from the poet’s subjectivity, from that subjectivity manifesting itself through technical strategies. While my constraints are far simpler than Bők’s, there is also an arbitrariness to these creations, an Oulipan element. Nonetheless, the consciousness of the maker manifests itself to you as a reader insofar as you’re hearing a consistency of tone.

You ask about the challenge of linking lines to create tone. Once again I want to invoke the star-nosed mole. Or maybe those boys I used to watch at lunch time during spring school days.

Small pans of ice would drift into the harbour, and the boys who lived too far from school to walk home for lunch would spend the hour jumping from ice pan to ice pan, a dangerous and forbidden practice, since the ice was constantly shifting and a boy might fall in, or a boy might be carried out to open sea. While linking the lines of a cento I’m thinking about a set of technical questions, not least among them syntactical. I’m leaping, and I’m letting other regions of my brain look after the tone.

These analogies are themselves a bit like an ice pan; you don’t want to stay too long, put too much weight on one.

Your description of leaping from ice pan to ice pan and from line to line makes me think of Robert Bly and leaping poetry. In the introduction to his anthology, Leaping Poetry, he states that in many poems “we notice a long floating leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.” Had a link to Bly ever occurred to you and does his explanation of how leaping poetry works seem like a reasonable characterization of your practice?

The notion of the leap as the mind’s characteristic motion in poem-making is, I think, a fruitful one. I haven’t read Bly’s anthology—the title alone makes me want to—but Paul Muldoon articulates something similar in his poem “Something Else,” in Meeting the British. In it he records how the sight of a lobster being weighed makes him think of “woad, / of madders, of fugitive, indigo inks,” then of Nerval walking his lobster, then of Nerval hanging himself from a lamppost. That thought, he writes, “made me think // of something else, then something else again.” I loved that poem when I first read it, because it embodies this idea about the mind’s leaping in such a seemingly off-hand yet elegant way.

You know, my mind freezes up when you ask me to characterize my own practice. I’d much prefer that others do any characterizing.

Excluding the punctuation—or even including it— have you ever modified a line to make a poem work? Have you never changed a line? If you haven’t, how do you manage to fight off the urge any poet would have to “tamper with” or “improve on” someone else’s words?

Now that question surprises me. It hasn’t ever occurred to me to consider altering a line: I consider each one as its own little inviolable strip, to be written as is. I think that if someone were tempted to change bits of the line, she would be working with another set of principles, entering into some other sort of relation with the original poem and the author—editorial maybe. One of the constraints I’ve chosen is that I’m working with individual lines exactly as they come from their original poems. That’s not the case with the punctuation and capitalization. I ignore them, and do what I need for the movement and syntax of the line.

Robin Skelton once said to me that writing in set forms presented him with themes he might not have contemplated had he chosen to write in free verse. In constructing your centos has anything about their preoccupations surprised you?

Submitting to constraints will of necessity lead to the generating of work that wouldn’t otherwise materialize. And in these pieces I do hear a certain sort of music, recognize certain recurring motifs that might not have presented themselves under other writing circumstances. Readers will make their own discoveries, I hope.

Several poets recur regularly in your source lists, which made me wonder if any one of them might be considered a key to the voice or cosmology of these poems? If so, who is it and why?

No, I’ve not intended to foreground certain poets’ voices in that way. On occasion, I’ve incorporated lines from one poet in more than one poem just because, at the line-cutting stage, those lines seemed promising and then, at the hooking stage, those lines seemed to work (play?) well within the composition that was coming into being.

Your source list for the lines in these poems strikes me as a key to your reading: an interesting mix of contemporary and twentieth-century poems; men and women; Canadian, American, English and Irish. Would it be fair to say that the cento is as much a celebration of reading as it is of writing? Is that what inspired you in the first place?

That’s a good point. The cento is on one level a little anthology. One dimension of these pieces is that they gesture toward the original poems and their creators (also, in other centos not yet published, poets of Australia and New Zealand, and translations of poems from Gaelic and many other languages) through the individual lines. Each cento draws the poets together into one company with each other, and with the reader.

John Barton

John Barton

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