Interviews

What Matters is the Song:
Melanie Godel in Conversation with
Patrick Friesen

Patrick FriesenPatrick Friesen talks with Malahat intern Melanie Godel about "storm windows" (#174, Spring 2011), winner of our 2012 P. K. Page Founders' Award.

I’ve read that you tend to shy away from form and rules in your writing because you were inundated with these things in your upbringing. In “storm windows,” as well as in much of your other poetry, you don’t use punctuation except for two question marks in the final stanza. Is this an extension of your move away from the restraining aspects of formal prosody?

Yes, I have trouble with forms of any kind. In banks, or when I used to run the readings program at Kwantlen College, I resisted filling in forms. I don’t know the exact cause of this “phobia,” but I’ve speculated different possibilities. I dropped punctuation a couple of decades ago. What I remember is that I was trying to work out the relationship of the poems on the page to what they sounded like in the ear. For me, rhythm is of utmost importance, and I mean a rhythm that moves from phrase to phrase and doesn’t fit neatly into a metrical approach. I was not interested in the kind of rhythm that you can instantly hear, that the poet could easily be conducting with his hand; I wanted a more fluid, slyer kind of rhythm, and one aspect of this is that I dropped punctuation. I hear pauses and emphasis in conversation, but there is no punctuation, nothing that arbitrary.

Your narrator is retrieving storm windows from the shed. The setting is calm. Then, “a hand clap a sudden thunder.” He is startled. What happens here?

The hand clap comes from behind the speaker/voice, at the door. That moment of another presence, that moment of sudden focus, of an alternate consciousness. Just for a moment. And during that moment, who is who?  And where are you going?

In the three stanzas, you move from concrete sensory images to fluid and repetitive psychological questioning. How do you relate physical setting to the “place where you will meet yourself”?

All we know for sure is the material world, that is if we fully trust whatever senses we have. How else to orient oneself?  How else not to float away?  And, yet, that instinct of “somewhere else,” another world, another place. And we create small rituals that intercede, rituals that briefly make a connection between worlds. And sometimes I meet the other “I,” the “I” that is in another world. The child lives fully in both worlds, not conscious of it, just living. We are “educated” away. We put on bifocals. The child knows the rituals instinctively.

Music, dance, and performance all seem to find their way into your craft. How do you find the extraverted nature of performance relates to the introspective nature of poems like “storm windows”?

When I write my poems I read them aloud as I write. I imagine most writers do that. For me the sound of them is as important as any possible meaning I’m working with. In a way, the sound is more important. It’s kind of like a singer singing in another language, a language that has been memorized. What matters is the song. In that sense, for me all my work is “performance.” Dance and music infuse my work. Manipulating words, especially aloud, is working with code, and I think dance does this as well, only with the body. Certain motions are chosen, and they represent something when they’re well danced, and when the motions relate to each other. Like a poem. Phrase to phrase. It’s all motion.

Part of your current writing philosophy involves “the motion of thought” that is facilitated through the immediacy of poetry. How do you feel your philosophy has changed from your earlier writing?

I don’t think my philosophy has changed, if I have a philosophy. My perception of what I do, and what I need to do, has changed. My mind has always worked a certain way. But, at the beginning, I wrote the way other poets wrote, the ones we studied in school. That was the way to write. But it never felt comfortable, and it took me many years to figure out why. I had to find a way of writing that replicated my own thinking process. And when I say “thinking,” I’m not talking of rational thought, or not simply rational thought; I mean how my mind works, with its imagery and with its motion from image to image, image to idea, idea to cadence, and so on. To write the way another poet writes is to try to squeeze my foot into a small boot, or put on a larger boot and clomp awkwardly around. Why do that?  What authority says I have to do that?  I don’t do “still moment” thinking terribly well. Just when I think I’ve got a grasp on something, it moves. I admire poems that are these perfect gems, or contain them at any rate; I can’t write that way because I don’t think that way.

Melanie Godel

Melanie Godel

 

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