with Deborah Panko
book, Somewhat Elsewhere, reveals a wonderful view
of Deborah Panko, poet, humanist, environmentalist, dreamer,
feminist, critic, carding daughter, nature lover, loving
wife, a supberb wordsmith. How would you describe your poetry?
like I'm getting to know myself when I write poems, finding
clarity around things that are vague or obscure or just
coming to terms with the emotions attached to them. Labels
to describe my poetry don't concern me so much as the process
of writing them. Since every poem is different, I'll explain
the process of writing Northumberland's Highway of Heroes
( poem above ) at the end of this interview. It's fairly
detailed but might be of interest to anyone wondering about
the poem's content or how/why I crafted the poem itself.
were recently published in a collection of poetry, Not
A Muse, by women from all around the world.
It was exciting to have three poems published in an anthology
of women poets from around the world. The editor, Kate Rogers,
tells me that the book has gone into reprint to accommodate
the U.S. market which was nice to hear. The book was first
published in Hong Kong where Kate lives and works.
and a new collaboration coming out soon?
From O to Snow is a collaboration between me, Kate
Marshall-Flaherty and Donna Langevin (both from Toronto).
I met Donna in 2007 in Cuba doing readings with the Canada
Cuba Literary Alliance and Katie later at one of the Artbar
workshops. Richard Grove at Hidden Brook Press heard us
read together at 66 King in Cobourg in the summer of 2009
celebrating the publication of Not a Muse and decided
to do a book for us which is coming out early December (fingers
crossed). We have a launch date at the Black Swan in Toronto
on December 5th and here in Cobourg on December 9th and
a radio spot on HOWL, CUIT, November 23rd, 10 p.m. As Donna
said, our subject matter and styles are very different but
we each share a commitment to poetry, which brings our work
back to the beginning ... how did sitting down for the first
time and writing a poem happen?
I pursued a lot of different therapies in my lifetime, much
of it in attempting to learn how to be with a schizophrenic
mother without being overwhelmed by her. Because I kept
dream journals, there was lots of material that seemed artful,
a canvas of images that implied meaning but needed a form,
hence poetry writing ... not surprising having spent so
many years teaching English.
your poem Index, you describe yourself In the beginning/a
cynic.Care to elaborate?
I was cynical when I was younger, expecting the worse, which
was what I was taught to do by fearful parents. But life
has been generous to me as well so I think I've come to
see myself more as an investigator than a cynic but with
skepticism still as a strong motivator.
are great for investigating especially for the origins of
a word, these little worlds unto themselves that have evolved
from often surprising beginnings. For example, 'spirit'
comes from the Latin word 'breath'. If a person says he
is spiritual, it essentially means he's alive and breathing.
So I ask myself, what is it exactly that this person believes
about himself? That's where I'm skeptical. I try to avoid
abstracts in my writing unless I'm intentionally trying
to discover how an abstract word has been used and manipulated
by us. Recognizing the degree to how we are manipulated
by words, especially the Godword, is at the core of my skepticism.
would you describe yourself today?
Personally, I'm busy with things I love doing and with people
I enjoy doing them with. I'm contented, grateful for the
beauty that's still out there even though we seem to be
doing our best to destroy it.
When you read in front of an audfience, you have a very
distinctive style, a very intimate relationship with the
audience. When you create a poem do you consciously write
it to be heard, or to be read on the page?
feel for the rightness of a poem for me lies in how it sounds.
But then there's the problem of how another person will
read it. There are some external things you can't control
in a poem. If it hangs together tightly enough though, it
should stay intact whether on the page or read aloud by
days it seems poetry has no boundaries ... Slam, performance,
prose, as well as the more traditional writing. Your thoughts?
Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time calls
the universe a self-contained infinity. So is poetry. It
has no boundaries but there's somehow a centripetal force
that holds it together if it's to be called a poem. The
'what' and the 'how' are inseparable. They contain each
other. Some poets turn that around into a centrifugal force,
more a scattering of images. I prefer the former.
So what is poetry in 2010?
in 2010 is whatever you want it to be, the same as it has
been throughout time ... people playing with words, evolving
patterns. It's the person who has to carve the poem out,
a person who exists at a particular time within a particular
context and culture, with a very particular character and
background and who has taken up the challenge to articulate
what that's like, given whatever tools are available. I
said poetry writing is a process but the poem is a thing
unto itself that one crafts ... like what a person needs
to do in finding his way of being in this world ... how
he talks, moves, enjoys himself and comes to understand
what moves him. The poem also has to do what it needs to
do in order to exist even if you're following a traditional
literary format. So it doesn't just fall onto the page,
at least for me it doesn't. It's too precise for that.
Who are your favourite poets?
have favourite poets - I just like good poetry. I suppose
I could start with Shakespeare or Proust who is a poet to
are you reading these days?
Apart from the Saturday Globe, I've started the Tale
of Gengi, ancient Japanese text and very, very long.
My book club keeps me busy with the classics.
your biographical sketch in Somewhat Elsewhere you
write of discovering other writers at the Cobourg Poetry
Workshop. Your thoughts on the Workshop.
The Cobourg Poetry Workshop is very different from when
I joined 5 years ago - more organized, more women, more
networking but still a place to try out your poems if you're
so inclined and for comradeship. The connections and the
energy from the group moved me towards pulling together
Somewhat Elsewhere in 2008.
'Highway of Heroes' and how it got written
that has stayed with me since the first soldiers were repatriated
from Afganistan was the newspaper photo of people standing
in the rain on the overpasses ... this war reported as news
event removed from the war as it is happening there (apparently
109,000 civilians have been killed so far). I wrote the
first three lines as what I thought was a haiku and thought
I had said what I wanted to say, but a friend who read it
said it needed more.
of Highway 401 cutting through beautiful Northumberland
with its rolling hills and lush vegetation, this linear
roadway becoming ever wider to accommodate more and more
traffic - the highway as this singular, uninterrupted symbol
of how we've constructed the modern world - totally dependent
on cars and oil. And we're all traveling down this same
road - the entire world having narrowed itself into one
vision that is inescapable - a country 'at war' despite
the lovely words we've used to name our towns. We're all
complicit. The tragedy here in Canada is the repatriated
soldiers being the inevitable outcome of a nation 'protecting
simple, concrete nouns for what I saw 'out there' until
the last stanza where the poem needed to round itself off
- where abstract nouns frame the state of mind I think we
must be in to continue down this highway we've constructed.
mistakenly used the pattern 7/5/7 for the first stanza,
not the 5/7/5 of a haiku, but it sounded right so I decided
to keep that pattern when I added more stanzas. What took
so long writing this poem was finding the exact words that
would fit this self-imposed pattern. Although tempted to
give it up and just go with free verse, I was determined
to see if I could make it work. It seemed important given
that the subject matter includes the military, a rigidly
constructed organization intent on following its own rules,
much like a religion or the lifestyle we have that has become
'non-negotiable', or the actual structure of a highway.
I persisted and ended up satisfied that it became what it
needed to be and there was nothing more I could add or wanted
stanza is an impression, not a statement - so after I had
written the stanzas, I decided to start each one with a
capital letter but use no end of line punctuation since
each impression is open-ended
last consideration was the ordering of what are basically
stand-alone stanzas. There was no narrative with a beginning,
middle, end that would determine the ordering but a certain
impression left from one stanza did seem to lead on to another.
I played around with those a bit - and went with what seemed
to be the strongest connectives
this poem because I feel misrepresented. (i.e. PM McGuinty
has erected a billboard on behalf of the province's citizens
that does not speak for me and I know I'm not alone in this).
Canada's repatriated soldiers are to be grieved. Packaging
that grief into what is essentially an advertisement is
distasteful. Advertising to make this war more palatable
is excessive. It creates a distortion because the intent
of an advertisement is to manipulate. It's what the word
'heroes' does. It glorifies, glamorizes and sells this war
which serves to perpetuate war. We may believe we are 'enlightened',
heroic, but advertising what we believe doesn't make it
the billboards are becoming more daring. I saw one the other
day, big bold letters in red and white as I was leaving
Toronto on the GO train. It asked if our military should
keep 'killing the bad ones to help the good ones'. If this
billboard was sponsored by our government, we're in serious
trouble - a soundbite targeting what our leaders must see
as a nation of four-year-old's, its morality reduced to
our seeing people as all good or all bad where we, apparently
the all good ones, have a right to kill the all bad ones.
Maybe it's aging or having walked with my husband, Ron,
to his death, but whatever anger or frustration I feel (and
these billboards make me angry) is more and more being overwhelmed
by sadness. We seem incapable of altering our self-destructiveness.