Robert Kroetsch – Imagining Alberta
One of Canada’s most accomplished authors, Robert Kroetsch was born in Heisler, Alberta in 1927. Kroetsch’s contribution to Canadian literature includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. His first novel, But We Are Exiles was published in 1965, and in 1969 his novel The Studhorse Man won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. His most recent book is the long poem The Hornbooks of Rita K. He lives in Winnipeg. filling Station spoke with Robert Kroetsch during his Markin-Flanagan’s 2002 Distinguished Visiting Writer Residency at the University of Calgary.
Robert Kroetsch: I grew up in rural central Alberta on a big farm. It was before the Second World War. This farm was independent: you grew a lot of your own food and exchanged labour with your neighbours. It was not yet a totally cash economy. It was a community-oriented thing.
paulo da costa: What was the impact of those formative years on you as a writer?
Robert Kroetsch: The most important aspect for me was the landscape itself, living in almost prairie with a few groves of poplars. I was the only son, so I was often out there by myself in the landscape. I think it was a world that I inhabited with my imagination. It was a landscape that stimulated my imagination. I made up stories.
pdc: What impact did leaving Canada have on your life as a writer?
RK: I lived in the United States for twenty years. I think it probably gave me a distance that contributed to my comic vision. When you stand back from things you might be more inclined to be humorous about it and also to be positive about it, in the sense that the comic vision is a vision of hope. And of course the eastern United States was a highly charged intellectual world. There were so many colleges: I think there were two hundred colleges you could drive to in a day if you wanted. That sense of intellectual exchange. But my imagination remained where I had grown up, so there was a strange dichotomy between my place of the imagination and my place of intellectual life.
pdc: What is it about the Alberta landscape and the Alberta experience that in your writing has sustained your interest and your engagement through those separations and those years?
RK: It was partly the feeling that the Alberta landscape was an untold story, that I had a whole map to fill in, a world to populate. It was not a named world, in a certain way, and writing is a type of naming, so I had this great freedom to name my experience.
pdc: How did you see the Alberta writing community and Alberta writing itself when you first began writing and how do you see it now?
RK: It’s a huge difference. Back in, say, the 1940s or 50s I had a strong sense of isolation, of working alone at something that was almost forbidden. And that changed while I was gone, actually, while I was in the States. So I came back to a world that was a world of community instead of isolation, the strong sense of a community of writers, as in Calgary and in Edmonton. The notion of a shared endeavour rather than a solitary endeavor. It’s a huge difference. It’s come from a romantic vision, to a post-romantic vision.
pdc: Do you feel the sense of community among writers still strengthening today?
RK: I don’t think it’s good for a writer to work in too much isolation. As we look at the history of writing groups, it turns out a lot of writers knew each other. They were friends in the Romantic period, in the Modernist period, and the eighteenth century. Looking back, you might have a sense of solitary figures, but in fact, they were often part of a community, on a first name basis.
pdc: You mentioned the naming and the populating of this landscape and imagination, and despite that, it seems that the writing that’s coming out of this community and this geography is still largely invisible to the rest of Canada. What might be the reason for this?
RK: It’s partly a political question. Because Canada is a country of regions, five regions or whatever. The place with the most people and the most power gets the most attention. But that’s changing rapidly as the power shifts west into Alberta and British Columbia. Probably the strongest writing schools are in the West now. In Calgary and the University of British Columbia. That’s interesting because it was the opposite not long ago, twenty years ago.
pdc: So the shift is happening?
RK: Oh yeah, I think so. I think Canada is by nature a regional country, because we have pockets of populations separated by blank space. Vancouver’s a big centre, the Edmonton–Calgary axis is a big centre, then the next one is Toronto.
pdc: Is there any particular loss in your life that has marked you in your writing?
RK: Loss. I wouldn’t call it a loss so much as a recognition of silence: growing up, reading a lot, not having my world reflected in the books I read as a child. You’re confronted by your own absence.
pdc: When do you first remember someone sentencing you to a life of writing by naming your gift for language and suggesting that you should consider being a writer?
RK: I was in grade twelve and my high school teacher said, you’re always writing, did you ever consider being a writer, and I had honestly never thought you could make a career writing, up until that moment. What she said is that there’s no turning back. I lost my innocence. I have fallen.
pdc: What did you do with that moment?
RK: It changed my educational plans. I decided to go into arts, and I became more interested in the idea of subject matter, what do you write about. And I became conscious of willfully seeking experience, so I went into the Canadian North, and worked on riverboats, things like that, thinking that the key was experience, slowly learning that you had to know a lot about writing. Experience isn’t literature; you have to learn how to transform it. So for me it was a long slow process.
pdc: What place has gardening occupied in your life?
RK: I grew up on a farm, but I was allergic to wheat and grasses, so the job I could do was to garden. I began to help with the garden when I was ten years old. I like the solitude: it’s one of the traditional virtues of the garden. The sense of solitude, the sense of creation and the sense of weather, especially on the prairies, your garden was so much at the mercy of changes in the weather. So a garden became a central trope, a metaphor, also the notion of cultivation as opposed to the natural world that surrounds the garden, that kind of basic binary that might not be as available to places where it is warm as it would be in Canada.
pdc: Did you always have a garden when you left Alberta?
RK: Not always, no. For years I was up north which was pure wilderness in a certain way. From there I went to being a graduate student in the States, so it was a big hiatus until I got my first job as a professor and I finally had a garden again.
pdc: Paraphrasing you: How do you grow a poet?
RK: That’s a tough question. I should be asking you that. I suppose there are many different ways, but for me it’s obviously a garden metaphor. You might choose other verbs: how do you construct, how do you discover, but I chose how do you grow.
pdc: What is an unusual circumstance in which you found yourself writing a poem?
RK: It was unusual for me to find myself writing poems, because I started out writing fiction. I wrote short stories, briefly, and then I wrote novels. Then I found myself, against my better judgement, writing poems in my thirties, which is somewhat unnatural. I think most people who write poems start rather early.
pdc: You are attracted to the boundaries, the edges, the frontier of genres. You also seem to be attracted to the mythical land frontiers, such as the great North. What are you seeking when you leave the well-mapped and treaded regions of the land as well as the text?
RK: Escaping bounds of order, hierarchy. Also I think one is looking for creative space. I don’t like pure wilderness; I like the boundaries in a sense, where civilization and wilderness meet. Again, to take a metaphor from nature, a seashore is an active place, where land and water come together; I think that for me a boundary is comparable because you have a variety of micro-climates where different possibilities can evolve.
pdc: Do you believe that an autobiographical act is futile?
RK: No, I don’t think it’s futile. I think it’s naïve to think that you can give a literal and complete narrative of your life, because I suspect that today we’ve already begun to rewrite yesterday. So when you engage in an autobiographical act, you have to somehow acknowledge the fictive nature of what you’re doing at the same time. The great fiction you create might be illuminating, perhaps more illuminating than the so-called facts. As you know, I’m distrustful of a continuous narrative of one’s life. I think there are whole years which I cannot remember, and other days or moments which I can remember intensely, so I want an autobiographical method that lets me acknowledge that sense of disproportion or rupture, of revision.
pdc: Has feminist theory had an effect on your writing?
RK: Yes, it had a big impact in the Sixties, because my wife, the mother of my children, was in that first generation of feminists, and she would tell me about what she was reading. And I suppose I liked it, because I had grown up in a female world, I had four sisters, so it explained things to me, the theory made me understand some of my own misgivings about the culture I grew up in. On the prairies gender was very rigid, even to be a gardener was to break the bounds in a certain way; that was supposed to be women’s work.
pdc: Have you seen any changes to the Canadian male writing voice over the last few decades?
RK: Yeah, I would hope so. I think it’s much less monological, even in the individual author, that notion of a single voice. I think writers have become more aware that each of us is a number of voices. In my Hornbooks of Rita K. I play with male and female, poet and reader, and a number of other possibilities, so the reader has a voice in the poem. I think a lot of writers would agree with that. It’s post-patriarchal.
pdc: Do you believe we have gone over that threshold of the patriarchal?
RK: I don’t know that we’ve gone over, but at least we’ve come to question, to write our doubts. We write the doubts, incorporate them into the text.
pdc: Do you envision a direction to that new male writing?
RK: I’d be hard pressed to guess. I think your generation is already ahead of mine. Where we question, you’ve already comes to terms with this kind of multiple world of multiple possibilities.
pdc: Through your writing life, you have dedicated time to the old-fashioned long poem. What is it about the long poem that interests you?
RK: I suppose a number of things. Historically the long poem was a test of the poet: you could write short poems, but one day you had to tackle a long one, if you were Tennyson, and then all the way into the twentieth century, with Pound and Williams.
There was a sense that you finally had to engage that form. Because I came from the novel to the poem, I was more at ease with the long form. I never felt lyric, I felt that a long poem is highly contextualized. It’s not just about the speaker. So there’d be a number of reasons why I would turn to the long poem. I missed the formative lyric time.
pdc: What might explain the disinterest of poets in general for the long poem?
RK: A couple of things. Little magazines don’t like to give you twenty pages. They would prefer to give you two pages with two poems. And I think the poets were partly responsible, I think they backed off from the big subjects. Pound and Eliot would tackle them, or Williams, but most poets began to look at the anecdotal, the moment that was inclined toward the epiphany, the recognition. And then readers played a part in it. If you want to look at something long, why not look at a movie, turn on the TV. A short poem is still quite different from a television program, but a long poem in a certain way has to compete – would you give it an hour, when you could give an hour to a nature program on the Discovery channel?
pdc: A long poem requires more commitment…
RK: I think so, and that’s another thing. I think that’s true. The short poem is that kind of momentary engagement that we take as a variety of relief from the world instead of an engagement.
pdc: Do you feel trapped in the stable set of inherited meanings in our mythologies?
RK: I would say I’m a little bit wary of them: they offer explanations, when I think questions might be more important than explanations. And the set of explanations has become so monotonous and engulfing, so perhaps the task of the poet is to write questions about it in some way.
pdc: Some poets tend to reinforce the meanings of those mythologies; others tend to destabilize them. What made you a destabilizer?
RK: That was my impulse early as a poet. I don’t know why. When I finally read the theory, the theory reinforced and named what I was already doing. I suppose growing up on the frontier, and believing in the frontier, you’re distrustful of the centre.
pdc: Instead of homesteading a text and erecting fences around its borders, you wander over its territory as a nomadic presence. You move on before becoming too comfortable. What is the reason for this?
RK: I suppose the nomadic plays a big part in territory writing, including your own story. We become nomads because we don’t want to fall off the edge of the earth. So there’s kind of a debate going on with the fence, so to speak. You want to crawl out of the fence, or crawl over it, but in a certain way, you don’t want the fence to disappear. When you come here, you’re still aware of Portugal; there’s a fence that’s highly defined. And I find it interesting that you’re publishing as a nomad and as a settled person. And maybe your life becomes emblematic at that point, it’s where a lot of writers are. And of course we get all the versions nowadays from displaced people to refugees.
pdc: What is it about the manner that a story is told that interests you as much as the story itself?
RK: I’ve always believed in a true telling. When I was a student we used to talk about the narrator being unreliable, well, we’re all unreliable narrators. I say thank heaven. If there was a reliable narrator in the world, it would be a dull world, wouldn’t it? So the way each narrator tells is a limit, a limitation, and a place of discovery, an opening up. And I suppose that’s why the long poem can have multiple narrators, and each person tells from a certain perspective and tells in a certain way.
pdc: And that gives us a richer mythology…
RK: Yes, very much richer. You look at Greek mythology, the interesting thing is that a major playwright would tell a story that everybody knew, but he would tell it in a different way, and that was part of the pleasure for the audience, to be able to recognize the story and see it revised. We still want the reader to have that double experience.
pdc: Factual accuracy in a harsh physical environment is often equated with the necessity and the ability to survive in one’s world and also to lead to a pragmatic and realistic view of that world. Realistic writing in the prairies is often linked to such experience, yet if I look at First Nations stories, their mythologies, I find that the narratives contain rich, colourful, imaginative leaps not found in the stories of the settlers’ myth-makers. Has the time come for the new settlers and their successors to finally feel at home in this landscape, such a time when the land is not to be dominated and disciplined, will we feel at home and relaxed and begin to engage with the land and the world around us in a more playful and imaginative way, and by extension, will we begin to play with language much more?
RK: I would hope so. But there’s always that force that’s taking language back to an idea of certainty, whether it’s a certain kind of journalism or a certain kind of teaching. Realism is not going to go away: in our misreading of a camera, we can still think that the camera is giving us realism. On one hand, the very introduction of the camera into our technology frees writers to use the imagination. Photography didn’t wipe out painters, in fact they became more extravagant after the camera. And I think the same should happen in writing. We don’t need a certain kind of realism so we’re free to indulge in fun and play. And play’s an important word, I think. It gives us back an audience so that book language and the narrative story can be liberated. I think the parallel of art is interesting. Do you think poets have done what artists have done?
pdc: No, I think somehow it is still too serious. To me it is as if we are not at home. If I’m at home and feel at home in a physical, psychological, and personal sense, my world, my language becomes relaxed and playful. I get the sense that the relationship we have to the land and to language in Canada, in Alberta, is still not playful and imaginative. Are we still not at home? Are we still not able to relax, to play around with our language, our mythologies?
RK: Yeah, I think we’re still documenting where we are, engaged in building and exploiting.
pdc: It is unusual to encounter a writer who is also a critic of his own work. What makes you comment on and examine your own work from that interpretive angle?
RK: I suppose the most obvious answer is that my interpretive comments might be an extension of the imaginative. I would suspect myself of that, that I’m contextualizing. Instead of closing off possibility, I might open it up further. I’m not a critic working from a particular point of view. I’m a shamelessly promiscuous critic: I can be a Freudian today and a deconstructionalist tomorrow.
pdc: To what might you attribute the lack of a literary critic culture in Canada, in comparison to say Europe?
RK: The old cliché is probably true: there is a distrust of intellectual life in a world that is still busy building highways and mining and so on. And beyond that, just to extend your notion of realism, the power of realism as a description of objects precluded certain kinds of intellectual speculation. And then even in the early nineteenth century, Emerson is saying, Let’s be playboy intellectuals, but his invitation is not always accepted. I don’t know; you’re probably in a better position to speculate because you’ve lived more intensely in the two worlds. It’s curious how we are so reluctant to theorize.
pdc: All kinds of definition, the self-imposed death of closure in the text, the silence at the end of the book are elements that you tend to avoid in your work. Should the individual text not eventually die in the same way that life dies? Shouldn’t everything eventually die, including the text, to renew life and to renew language?
RK: That’s a persuasive argument. I suppose the problem for me is that I believe more in continuing transformation, but maybe that’s just plain old fear of death. But I like theories of evolution, transformation, metamorphosis, and I prefer to think of an ending as a moment of metamorphosis. But maybe you’re saying that too. One of the problems is that we have made closure something comforting, and I think the notion of ending as something comforting is not fair to the text that precedes it, because the text is about complexity and contradiction and pain and joy, and you don’t want to erase that with an ending. And they lived happily ever after is a nice thought, but it sort of wipes out the text.
pdc: What do crows say about the future of the novel, the narrative?
RK: The novel certainly is alive and well in the popular imagination. On the other hand, I suppose economic pressures are making it less daring, so it’s still a tough route to navigate. Crows have adapted to the city, and I have a suspicion that the novel will adapt. We still like to sit down and enter that work.
pdc: Are you the writer you envisioned to be?
RK: I think you should have a notion of yourself as writer, but again, it transforms. As a young writer, I was much closer to realism than I am now, and I would be closer to traditional ways of telling a story. I had no intention of ever writing poems. When I first imagined myself as a writer, it was as a fiction writer. But also because I grew up in this world where the writer was such an isolated figure, I didn’t imagine some of the responsibilities of the writer, which I won’t get into… At some point the poem steps up to the poet and says, hey, stop talking, it’s my turn to sound off.