An Ongoing Immediacy: John Barton in Conversation with Jan Zwicky

Jan Zwicky

Malahat editor John Barton, to mark the publication of seven new poems by Jan Zwicky in the magazine’s Summer 2014 issue, asks her a few general questions about what—the processes?, the perspectives?—animates her writing.

In “Lyric Realism: Nature, Poetry, Silence, and Ontology,” an essay you published in the Green Imagination issue of The Malahat Review (Issue 165, Winter 2008), you say “When we pay attention, we can tell that the world is awake, that it means, hugely and richly, all the time.” What is required of a poet to be and remain attentive? How has attentiveness shaped your practice as a poet?

Let’s phrase the first question as “What is required of anyone to be and remain attentive?” If we had the answer to that, we could fix everything that’s wrong with the world. Simone Weil is correct when she says that concentrated attention is prayer. That is, the core of prayer is a wide receptivity, not the projection of personal need. How do you teach people to pray? I don’t know. Maybe by encouraging them to take note of things, gestures, events for which they feel gratitude. Perhaps the practice of attention begins with gratitude — though of course it can, and must, allow for awareness of evil.

I don’t have much in the way of habits or behaviours that could be called a poetic practice. When my attention becomes fragmented through overwork or too much social exposure, I’m useless, not just as a poet but as a musician, a gardener, and a friend as well. So I try to be alert to that fragmentation, to catch it before it becomes severe, and to find a way to breathe again. I’m not always successful. But it seems to me that attention is just what happens when we’re healthy. When it’s not happening, I know something is wrong.

What role does silence take in your work, both practically (freedom from distraction) and aesthetically (discursiveness versus restraint)? Is making space for or a voicing of silence (if that is in any way possible) somehow connected to a focusing away from the self and toward the world?

Silence is the aural counterpart of space. Becoming aware of it is one way of becoming aware of the outlines of aural gestures that occur within it. I hope my work is full of silence. It’s one of the things I’m trying to point to.

There are many different kinds of silence. Some are damaging. The silences I’m most interested in are those that allow a kind of blossoming — they allow us to perceive things on their own terms. But silence itself can also bloom. And there are silences within the self. Attention to those silences is sometimes a way through the self to the world.

It is my guess that an inclination, or even willingness, to articulate a sensibility singles out a great (by which I mean a lasting) thinker (artist, scientist, politician…) from the rest. I can pick up any work by Virginia Woolf, for example, and have a visceral sense of her internal dynamics and her consequent worldview. She breathes; she is sensate; I am of her time in my own time. How would you define sensibility? Is cultivating a sensibility a process, an end in itself, or simply a consequence of a thinking/feeling life?

What a toughie! The word ‘sensibility’ has had, for me, class overtones: it’s what distinguishes a woman who’s been to finishing school from one who hasn’t. But I see what you mean about Woolf: she has a distinctive way of interacting with the world. And it is powerful enough and pervasive enough to produce the effect you identify: “She breathes; she is sensate; I am of her time in my own time.” It’s a kind of directness, an absence of concern with appearance, an ongoing immediacy of engagement. A number of ancient Greek writers have the same effect on me. Is it possible to cultivate that kind of directness and immediacy? My guess is not. What makes the directness direct and the immediacy immediate is a lack of self-awareness; the attention is engaged by the world, not by thoughts of how one might engage it more immediately and directly.

So it would seem that your first question — how to develop and sustain attentiveness — underlies this one. Plunge in. Be. Breathe.

John Barton

John Barton

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