On the Beetle at Work: Vincent Colistro in Conversation with John Pass

John Pass

Toronto poet Vincent Colistro talks with John Pass, winner of the 2016 Open Season Award for Poetry with his poem, “Margined Burying Beetle.” The two discuss Pass' influences, unique contradictions in his winning poem, and life on the Sunshine Coast.


Read what Open Season poetry judge Russell Thornton had to say about Pass' winning poem.

Reading “Margined Burying Beetle,” with its braiding of nature and eschatology, its snappy, exuberant diction, I was reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins. I was wondering who you might say were your influences in writing this poem?

I can’t say that I’m aware of any direct influences in the composition of the poem. There are touchstones of course; looking at it as a finished thing I guess it is illustrative of directives I took to heart years ago; Pound’s “the natural object is always the adequate symbol” comes to mind. I’m flattered by the Hopkins association, and perhaps the poem does have some of his quick shimmer. It certainly shares his sense of nature’s marvelous complexity and variation, and our sometimes wondrous experience of it.

What makes this poem such an effective eulogy is that it contains a unique contradiction: it deals with the transience of life and experience, while reaffirming through its use of classical diction the permanence of art. Do you see these two things as reconcilable? Or, do you even see them as contradictory?

As much as I appreciate the significance you’re granting the poem I don’t feel it to be so philosophically explicit as to warrant terms like “eschatology” or the “permanence of art”.  Are the deaths DEATH writ large? They’re very specific: my mother’s, a mouse’s. And any “end times” aura cast by the oblique allusion to species loss was, in composition, a more “in time” tidal effect, the ebb and flow of the manifestations of DNA, its seasonal appearances in life forms. If there is a permanence suggested I think it’s there, in those manifestations through time, rather than in human activity. The primary “writer” in the piece is the beetle. Well, sure, that’s a conceit. . . but it is simply and profoundly true that the poem could not have been written without its appearance and presence. And true that any “future” for us depends upon our openness to such appearances, to reading in that sense, as much as it does upon other human capacities. The central paradox in the poem for me is between individual articulation, specificity, and the incomprehensibly complex density and shiftiness of reality. We live always on that cusp. (DNA is its best, embodied, metaphor.)

My puny strategy is concision in language attentive to the most striking appearances. It sometimes offers up remarkable gifts, in this instance my astonished experience of the beetle at work, the further fortuitous discovery of its perfect name, then the lucky/sad affinity of its activity to mine with my mother’s ashes. . .  and on into the poem towards whomever it might speak to. On the one hand there’s little mystery to a succinct articulation of the received sensory data, the particular facts. On the other their liaisons via individual experience(s) in and across time, across species, in mind(s), are utterly mysterious. Being an unrepentant (albeit passionate) materialist, I’m happy to live with the paradox, and to let the vast raft of spiritual utterance it might tempt one onto nudge up a little (enraptured, resurrection) but then drift by without me, beyond the poem.

How do you think living on the Sunshine Coast (as opposed to, say, Vancouver) has affected your writing?

I like to visit cities.  I would hate to have to live in one. They are rife with stupendous distraction. It’s hard enough to write confronted by forest. Harder where everything outside is all about us, all our doing.  

You recently published Forecast, a book of selected early poems from 1970 to 1990. What effect, if any, did that retrospective process have on the way you view poetry now? Do you feel your work has taken a “career arc”?

I wanted to give those early poems new life. It seemed to be the right time too. My last couple of books had done well, winning a GG and a Dorothy Livesay Award, and I was between books with new work. If the retrospection had any effect upon present practice it might be that I am reminded to keep things simple, to hold in some degree to the straightforward lyric directness of the early work. Of course the lyric mode I’m speaking of would ideally meet W. C. Williams’ criterion of a “deceptive simplicity”. Good lyric is as complicated in its guts and at its edges as any writing. 

Career arc to someone my age sounds ominously retrograde, as in descent. But if there’s an ark, I’m onboard!

Finally, it might be gauche to ask, but I’m going to ask anyways: have you  earmarked that sweet Open Season prize money for anything in particular? 

I’ve no particular plans for the welcome dollars. At some point a good bottle will be opened (I got a nice BC blackberry port for Christmas) and a glass lifted to The Malahat Review and to my Mum, maybe when the crabapple blooms, with maybe a little dribbled on the ground across the driveway where that beetle was busy.

Vincent Colistro

Vincent Colistro

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