Speaking in tongues
After a peripatetic youth and an acclaimed career in journalism, Mark Abley's latest work, both non-fiction and poetry, has been zeroing in on the very essence of imagination and literature: language itself.
By Ian McGillis
In a recent mRb, you named Leonard Cohen's Stranger Music as your favourite Montreal book, saying how you first encountered Cohen when you were "suffering high school." "In Saskatoon the Ghosts," a poem from your newest collection The Silver Palace Restaurant, tells of a young man "reading tales of places he meant to discover." How much of your ambition to write was a function of wanting to leave Saskatchewan? How do you feel about your teenage home now?
I would probably have had a miserable time in high school anywhere, and I will always love Saskatchewan. I still miss the intensity of prairie light, the majesty of the South Saskatchewan River, the constant awareness of nature - and the solidarity among artists and writers, too. In my first book, Beyond Forget: Rediscovering the Prairies, I tried to explore why I'd been so hungry to leave the place as a teenager. The main reason may simply have been my own desire for growth and discovery. Wanting to measure myself on a larger scale than Saskatoon could offer. I took it for granted in an almost unthinking way that I would have to leave.
Can you describe how Oxford, during your time there as a Rhodes Scholar, and then Montreal, contributed to your awakening and growth, literary and otherwise?
I was at Oxford between 1975 and 1978, studying English literature, and it was a fabulous experience. My parents came from Britain, so I arrived there with enough cultural references not to feel hopelessly out of place. The quality of cultural and social life was amazing. When I moved to Montreal, in 1983, I'd already been working as a freelance writer in Toronto and London. So I never had the pleasure of being a student in Montreal. The awakening, if you like, was more on a linguistic level. All my previous homes had been largely monolingual. But here, living at first in Outremont and Mile End, I was surrounded by Portuguese, Greek, Yiddish, Italian, Spanish - and above all, French. That sudden consciousness of post-Babel joy is what made Spoken Here possible.
Has your career in journalism fed into your poetry, or do you see the two as separate tracks?
A fair number of my poems were written during and after trips I made as a journalist. It's thanks to my years at The Gazette that I've written poems set in Hong Kong, Croatia, and Djibouti. I hope too that my poetry sometimes has the virtue of clarity - this is a virtue you learn to respect in journalism. It takes some pretty ridiculous theorizing to make murkiness a goal. That said, I also think my career in prose has damaged my work as a poet. For many years, I was juggling the demands of newspaper work with the responsibilities of parenthood; there wasn't much left over for poetry. And while I've been amazingly lucky with the response to my non-fiction book Spoken Here, I suspect that my reputation as a journalist has made it hard for me to be taken seriously as a poet. People don't expect journalists to produce work that might last. I'm not affiliated with any university department, literary magazine, or poetic clique, and while my three poetry collections have each been shortlisted for an award, they've collectively had no more than five or six reviews. In total. Ever. I don't think it's because the poetry has been deemed atrocious; it's because the author has been deemed a dilettante.
Early in Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages, you ask the question: "In the end, should anybody care that thousands of languages are at risk?" I sense that for you the answer is yes. Can you briefly say why?
It's difficult to compress 320 pages into a paragraph, but here goes: Languages are not interchangeable. German has a single word meaning "properties based on the manner of overcoming an obstruction"; in Huron, a language that's now extinct, the verb for calm meant "to make the mind like a field prepared for planting"; and if you speak an Asian language called Boro, you know a word that means "to be about to speak, and about not to speak." I could give you a hundred examples like this! Language is both the seedbed and the blossom of the human imagination. And just as I don't want to live in a biologically impoverished world of rats and crows and pigeons, likewise I don't want to live in a culturally impoverished world that's limited to English and Chinese. As the great linguist Ken Hale once said, "Languages embody the intellectual wealth of the people that speak them. Losing any one of them is like dropping a bomb on the Louvre."
Several poems in The Silver Palace Restaurant seem to mirror a theme from Spoken Here: a concern that valuable but fragile things - traditional cultures, ecosystems, life forms - are being crushed by malign and indifferent forces. Is that a fair parallel to draw? And if so, do you see poetry itself as one of those things under threat? Does it have a vitality, or is as vulnerable as the salamander in Honey Creek Cave that you write about in "Eurycea Tridentifera"?
That's an absolutely fair parallel. Indeed, that's my "shtick." Poetry in this country is vulnerable to all sorts of pressures, but it's also remarkably tenacious. It will survive, in one form or another, as long as people survive. I'm a pessimist about many things, and I'm dismayed by what passes for a poetry "scene" in this country, but I'm neither pessimistic nor dismayed about poetry itself. As Auden said, "It survives, a way of happening, a mouth."
Can you comment on the choice of cover image for The Silver Palace Restaurant?
I asked McGill-Queen's if they could come up with a realistic image with some relation to food - I didn't want anything abstract or cartoonish. The result was a delight. I love it.
In "Edgewise," you lament the process by which the younger artistic voice increasingly "chokes on information." Is that an inevitable result of growing older? Is it a specifically contemporary condition, a downside of new information technology? Are there ways to combat it?
The rueful tone of that line arises in part from my work in journalism and non-fiction. You feel you have to "keep up." And at what cost? I'm not sure it's really a question of age vs. youth. But I wonder if men are especially prone to this kind of mental suffocation. Many of us are constantly checking websites and news channels and radio bulletins - and why? We worry so much about being left behind, yet we don't think enough about what the perpetual buzz of updates is doing to our deeper selves. There are always people who find ways to resist. When I was a teenager, my great mentor was the Saskatoon poet Anne Szumigalski - I'm her literary executor, and I've edited a posthumous book of her poems that Brick Books is bringing out this fall - and while Anne had all sorts of arcane knowledge, she never choked on information. I strongly suspect that she never watched CNN in her life.
What do you like most about living in Montreal, especially as it pertains to being a writer?
The unpredictability. The edginess. The way that cultures bounce off each other. The way you can never take too much for granted about anyone you meet. And the nonchalant, confident sense that in Montreal, the arts matter. Artists in most of English Canada often suffer from a sneaking suspicion that they're completely irrelevant. Artists in Quebec have other anxieties, but not that one.
The young Bob Dylan, asked if he considered himself a poet, replied, "A poet is anybody who doesn't call himself a poet." How do you feel about that? Do you call yourself a poet?
No, I call myself a tambourine man.
Seriously - I've been known to use the p-word. But I try to do so with care. When writers identify themselves as Poets, what they tend to mean is "I want a grant, I want a publisher, I want an award, and I want a lover!" I would never identify myself as "one of the leading Canadian poets of this generation." You'd be surprised how many poets do exactly that. Or maybe you wouldn't. But the ego is shameless and needy, and the material rewards for poetry are few.
How much can you tell us about your upcoming book on the future of language?
I'm contracted to deliver a complete manuscript to publishers in Canada, the US, and the UK by early next year. It's kind of a follow-up to Spoken Here. The topic is a huge one - how English and the other major languages of the world are changing, and what the future might hold for the way we speak and write. I'm not a futurist by nature: I'm much happier roaming around in the past. So this book goes a little against the grain for me. It's forcing me to learn about all kinds of things I'd happily ignored till now - hip-hop, for example. If the book works, it will be read by more people than anything I've ever written. If it doesn't work, I'll be wiping egg off my face for years to come.
The Silver Palace Restaurant
By Mark Abley
McGill-Queen's University Press