Patrick Lane was born in 1939 in Nelson, British Columbia. He has published twenty-two volumes of poetry over the past thirty years and has received a number of awards including The Governor-General Award. He recently co-edited with his partner, Lorna Crozier, the anthology of essays on addiction, Addicted: Notes From the Belly of the Beast (2001). He has three books forthcoming, What We are Is A Garden, a series of meditations on life, art, poetry and gardens, Go Leaving Strange, a new collection of poetry, and New & Selected Short Stories. Patrick has traveled widely and has had his work translated into more than twelve languages. He presently teaches at the University of Victoria, B.C and is considered by most writers and critics as one of the finest poets of his generation.
paulo da costa: “I am grown older than I imagined:/ the garden I dreamed does not exist/ and compassion is only the beginning/ of suffering. Everything deceives.” (“At the Edge of the Jungle”, PNS) You have experienced the sixties, the flower power movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. Again today we face the escalation of armed conflicts, the strengthening of police states alongside diminishing civil liberties and the erosion of workers’ rights. It seems that the gains of the sixties are in jeopardy. Were the promising and bright flowers of the sixties harvested too soon? Will their seeds take hold?
Patrick Lane: The strengthening of police states and the erosion of worker’s rights and civil liberties began in the post-war period between 1947 and 1963. The seeds of diminished freedom were the result of the two world wars and the rise and consolidation of American Capitalism. I’m not sure there were any significant gains made by the Sixties generation, the post-war Baby Boomers. The establishment of feminism is perhaps the only significant change and that is as much a result of market forces as from a political agenda. Women were seen to be the consumers, the ones who “bought” things. How better to increase the force of markets than by freeing them from patriarchal slavery?
The Sixties generation in North America was only a pale shadow of dissent and accomplishment compared to the same generation in Africa and South America. This reflects the need for the overthrow of totalitarian and elitist governments in those places. In America the ending of the Vietnam War and the liberation of Black America were accomplishments, but the former resulted in American isolationism and covert policies rather than overt ones. In the latter the struggle goes on but economic freedom prevails enough to make the goal of spiritual and physical freedom more clouded. The only comparable struggle to the blacks in Canada is that of Native rights and the Sixties generation here never confronted that issue in any way.
The Sixties concerns here were motivated by Nationalism in the face of American cultural domination. The exception was the Quebec struggle which was similar in its desire for a national identity separate from the larger State but its focus was internal and it foundered on economic terms rather than emotional terms. The remnants of dissent are ensconced in the Parti Quebecois, a mixture of artists, intellectuals and a small-town, countrified minority isolated outside the major city of Montreal. The flight of capital in the Sixties and Seventies struck a blow to the movement for freedom and independence. In English-Canada the struggle failed for similar reasons: the inability to accept the consequent poverty and isolation a true struggle would have resulted in had America shut our border down. Look at Cuba. The major voices of the Sixties generation here were middle-class. The rights of workers were alien to their experience. But all this is conjectural at best.
pdc: Why don’t we see more poets or other cultural creatives running for political office, becoming more directly and actively involved in the political process that is shaping our times?
PL We have no history of this, no previous models. Our culture deeply suspects the artist, equating them with intellectuals, people who have no connection to the struggle of ordinary people. Unlike Chile or Mexico, we have never seen the arts as political in nature. All art is political, of course, but here it has either been marginalized or co-opted by the marketplace, rock ‘n roll, etc. The poets are relegated to a place called “Literature,” a consciousness outside the concerns of the common folk.
My own poetry has been consistently political but has also been consistently criticized as aberrant, an art focussed on negative concerns, the plight of workers being seen as gratuitous grandstanding by myself. A poet such as Milton Acorn is not represented by the major canonical surveys and has been excluded from texts largely because of his concerns. Artists become co-opted very quickly through a system of rewards that have continued to marginalize them. Grants and positions in the academy have silenced most dissent-oriented writing. Minority complaints are diffused and scattered into isolation, the native writers, blacks, chinese, gay and lesbians, etc.
pdc: Over the past decades Canadians and Canadian culture have become increasingly blended with the USA. After September 11th, and in eyes of the world, we find ourselves indistinguishable from our US neighbours. Do poets fare any better? Do you see any noticeable differences between contemporary American and Canadian Poetry?
PL Since the Sixties culture in Canada is less a response of a political agenda on the part of the artist than of economic security. The vast majority of the new, young writers in Canada have been trained in schools and universities. They have not risen spontaneously out of a class or economic struggle, but from a desire to imitate acceptable models in order to advance in the art world as having a “career” rather than as speakers of passionate dissent. Consent is the guiding principle now, not dissent.
The American model is a powerful one and it is aped universally here, largely because of what is seen here as having been successful in terms of money and power. What noticeable differences there were in the writing of Avison, Acorn, Purdy, Atwood, Page, Birney, etc, etc., have now been put through the electric blender of mock-American models. Young artists look to America for their voices, not to themselves. We are an American colony just as Mexico has become. It is not that America shows any interest whatsoever in what we write and express. Why would they? Our writers are mostly shadows of what has already been expressed in America. Post/9-11 we are even more co-opted. The vast majority of poetry and fiction I read today American in nature, its concerns in form and content, attitude and tone, American.
pdc: Are we losing the poet as an outlaw? Have poets given up witnessing and reflecting on the political process only to retreat to the landscape of the interior self?
PL The artist as outlaw is non-existent here. The search through the “interior self” for valid expression of art today reminds me of Chinese poetry during a thousand years of totalitarian dictatorship by the elite. They too searched for the “interior self,” at the expense of the concerns of the common people’s struggle.
pdc: What are your thoughts on the Treaty referendum in BC?
PL The result of the referendum is already known. The political agenda is already determined. Native rights are allowed as long as they bend to the will and desire of economic exploitation. The idea that the majority of Native peoples are spiritually pure in their desire for a return to ancient values is palpable nonsense. The majority of Natives are not much different than ourselves. They are governed by economic greed and power just as we are. Twenty drum dancers in a circle out on the prairie doesn’t change a single oil well being drilled, a fish species becoming extinct, or a forest being cut down. While I am sympathetic with Native spiritual concerns, they are enjoyed by the majority of Canadians as sentimental in nature, much the same as it has been for a century.
pdc: You have lived through an uncommonly number of tragic deaths in your family. Most recently you have also experienced the loss of two long time friends: Purdy and Gzowski. What does the language of poetry give you to face those deaths?
PL Poetry is there to express grief among many other things. I have tried to express it as best I can with the language I have and the artistic gifts I have been given.
pdc: You latest book, co-authored with Lorna Crozier, explores themes of addiction. Throughout your life and career what has been the relationship between your addictions and your creative process?
PL My addictions have resulted in a great deal of silence on my part, particularly in the past twenty years. I have published poetry, but larger projects in fiction and non-fiction have foundered at the foot of alcohol and other substances. My poetry itself became progressively weaker in the past fifteen years. Hopefully, it will return to its former strength. I have not got a lot of time left. I’m in my sixties now. I have perhaps another ten or so years left to write given the steady, natural decline I foresee in my physical and mental powers. Addiction to substances was a great weakness on my part, a desire not to feel anything, which is a contradiction for an artist, yes? The words “creative process” are essentially meaningless. What is a “process?” I am creative just as are all people. There is no process, only a moment, right now, to say what I feel. I repeat myself endlessly, one song over and over, just as do all artists of integrity who wish to tell what they can of their truth in words that reflect themselves and not as others.
pdc: It is my impression that too much of contemporary male poetry seems confused, unable to tap into an authentic self and an authentic voice. Would you agree with my assertion that much of today’s male poetry is lacking courage and honesty?
PL Yes. Artists drift toward what they see as success. Men have been largely co-opted by the feminist voice. It is not that feminism desired that result at all, but the feminist liberation of women’s voices and their concerns has been attractive to men as a model that can be imitated in the hope for an audience. Men’s concerns have been largely silenced and by themselves, not by women. The expression of a male self is looked down upon by the body politic and is seen as regressive, a return to old habits and ways of violence, domination, and power. Still, there are any number of male voices out there who speak openly and honestly of spiritual and physical concerns. Look at Tim Lilburn, Patrick Friesen, and others. They still articulate male values. They go largely unheard but that may be the result of men not listening to them and of women not listening either. There are male voices of great courage and honesty. They need to be paid attention to.
pdc: What do you feel when people accuse you of using violent images in your poems for mere gratuitous aesthetic effect?
PL I get tired of it largely because it is an attempt to silence me. I write of what I know, what I have experienced, what I feel. I write of the past and the present. We are surrounded by violence. I believe in a poetry of witness. I write about what I witness every day. As I write this a woman is being beaten, a child abused, a man drunk in a gutter. Welcome to my world.
pdc: Will poetry be able to break further away from its privileged class roots and its particular moral and aesthetic concerns and speak to wider audiences?
PL It will when it is needed again just as it always has. Samizdat writing in Russia and the Eastern Bloc was immensely popular during the totalitarian years of the Communist regimes. It still is in China. Great struggles create great voices of dissent. The fall of Russian communism resulted in a society that, overnight, stopped reading poetry. The act of writing anything was seen as dissent before the fall. Pop literature from the West instantly became popular. Where are Voznesensky and Yevtushenko now? The latter teaches in Texas, a pale shadow of himself, and the former says nothing at all. I’m unsure of the words “privileged class roots.” The elite in our society don’t write anything of value. The rest aspire to the same privileged silence.
pdc: We live in times where we are encouraged to pop a pill and forget, turn on the talking box and forget. Has poetry fallen asleep too? Can poetry resist?
PL It always has and always will resist. It is not asleep, it is merely ignored by a comfortable society.
pdc: What kind of light can poetry shed on the mystery of being and the mystery of life that sciences cannot?
PL The edges of science and poetry meld together in their desire to explain the unexplainable. The mystery of being is of mutual concern. Both are constantly being co-opted but it has always been that way. Still, the search continues for finding meaning is an otherwise meaningless existence. The gods never left us. Like Pound said, “See, they return.” And indeed they do. Over and over.
pdc: You once said that the poet must avoid the sanctuaries of security, church, state, business, the military, and the university. What are your present thoughts on this issue?
PL As one who has managed not to avoid some degree of economic security in spite of a life-long struggle to do so, I have little to say other than the spirit of struggle still reigns inside me. The outlaw is an inlaw with a costume on. To maintain a healthy and honest dissent is the only measure of the artist. The artist questions “things.” Security, by and large, is an illusion. I don’t want to return to the poverty of my younger years. It wasn’t much fun not having enough for my family to eat, proper dental and medical attention, etc. I teach now in order to help younger writers in their struggle to express what they fell in their “own” voices and not in borrowed ones.
pdc: When most of the poets publishing tomorrow will likely have graduated from creative writing programs in universities, what will be the impact on Canadian poetry?
PL The best will write well and the vast majority won’t. But the vast majority will know how to read well and that in itself is an accomplishment. I am optimistic still and think the voices of the people are never finally silenced. You can’t shut up a good writer. He or she may not be published but the answer for them is the question we faced in the Sixties. Our answer was to start new publishing ventures in order to have our voices heard. It will happen again.
pdc: “I read the books / and dream that words could change / the vision, make of man a perfect animal / and so transformed become immortal. (“Wild Birds,” PNS). What do you dream of for this country as well as for Canadian poetry?
PL I answered that statement by asking, “What else was there to dream? Not this beating against the wind.” The dream is animal. It is of the earth, the water, and the sky. We search for beauty. All artists do. But as I said in my poem, The Beauty,”
But still we sing.
That is beauty.
But it is not an answer
anymore than the antelope,
most slender of beasts,
will tell us why they go,
and going there
perfectly in the snow.