An interview with Jeramy Dodds

This interview is excerpted from a longer piece published in CV2.

Clarise Foster: Congratulations on your recent nominations for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Griffin Prize and on winning the Trillium Prize for poetry — those are huge accolades for a first book. How does it feel now that there is a bit of distance between you and the adrenaline that goes with awards? Have your feelings about your writing changed at all by these experiences? Do big awards create huge expectations?

Jeramy Dodds: Thank you for your congratulations, Clarise. At first I alternated between feeling that the committees had made horrific mistakes and maybe they were on horse tranquilizers or worse, glue, and then the feeling that now I’ve really got to live up to these accolades. At this point, though, I don’t think I’ve taken much of it too seriously — I felt very honoured, of course, but I knew that I had to get back to business. I’m a few years into a multi-year project, so it was easy to concentrate on that. Juries have ignored some great books in the past, while not so great ones were championed. It’s all so tentative, and based primarily on the aesthetic preferences of the jury in question, and how each jury works together as a team. It’s nice to be noticed, but I can’t really say that it’s been a goal, so it was easy to come away from those experiences and just be happy that my parents had a good time.

CF: Crabwise to the Hounds is a phenomenal collection of writing, with eclectic imagery, odd yet fascinating historical references and the gut punch surprise of unexpected revelation — it is quite a package. For instance, in “Second Glance at Corrag,” the dog comes into the reader’s view looking “like a reconstructed grenade,” and from there the poem becomes this fantastic creature unraveled in relentless detail that is like no dog I have ever seen, but so cur-like — familiar — in nature and presence. It is almost magic what you do. But how or where might a poem like this begin?

JD: Corrag was an Alsatian that I cared for during a two-year stint as a sentry/grounds-keeper/militaristic flaneur on a large estate in Southern Ontario. I had always wanted to write about him, but it took me a long time to chisel out the blueprints for this poem. This type of ode has been done a trillion times over, so I wanted the metaphors to reveal my emotions regarding this grand animal and not just reiterate stock animals-as-allegories or god-I-miss-my-pet-type strophes. The descriptors and metaphors may seem a little disjunctive because I’ve attempted to remove myself from the picture, but, of course, in that I’m giving Corrag a supernatural presence, I hope to indirectly communicate my feelings about him. I’m aware of the dangers of the maieutic or indirect communication to which metaphor can subscribe, but sometimes, if you play along, and trust the writer, the communication between writer and reader can move much more succinctly. Of course, this fails regularly, but that is the most joyous part, the gamble. I don’t know if the poem turned out, but I did everything I could. It began in a form that copied Ted Hughes’ “Second Glance at a Jaguar,” in word count, line count and syllable count per line. That quickly blew up in my face when the metaphors rolled into town and I was able to, in my mind at least, create a photo-realistic image of Corrag, each metaphor a pixel, or a grain of pigment, in a too-close-for-comfort close-up.

CF: I understand you have a yen for translation in a more traditional sense, but I found your ability (or should I say, audacity) to “translate” Gould’s recording of Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy in D-minor” or CIA tapes that you bought over the internet to be both wildly eccentric and extremely effective, revealing that there is more to both language and music than most of us listen for. It often strikes me that there is a place in speech and music that is like a hidden chamber that poets often feel exists but can’t quite grasp. And yet, you barrel right in there. What hooked you into attempting to “translate” your experience of these two very different recordings? How long did you work on these pieces? What made you feel you’d made the poems you wanted?

JD: The two longer Gould poems are perhaps the most personal in the book. “The Easiest Way to Empty a Seashell is to Place it on an Anthill” was written listening to Gould’s recording of the Brahms piece over and over again until a filmstrip of images developed. I put them down in the left/right-hand pattern according to where I felt they occurred in the recording. I proceeded to spend some time editing the piece until the sub-narrative became apparent. “Glenn Gould Negotiates the Danube in the Company of a Raven” was a much different process that involved a ton of Bristol board and markers. I slowed down Gould’s recording of Bach’s “Chromatic Fantasy in D-minor” using an audio program on my computer. I proceeded to map the recording on the Bristol board using an overly simplistic set of symbols. Each symbol eventually grew written footnotes and other more elaborate symbols each time I listened to the piece. I listened to the piece too many times at varying speeds, attempting to get between the notes, until I had this poem spread out like a historic timeline poster, but a timeline of Gould’s recording.

The Ho Chi Minh piece started as an exercise to hone the transference of recorded cadences to written English. The cassette tapes were of a single recorded voice — they were only one side of a phone conversation — and so were quite different from the complexity of Gould’s Bach recording. I didn’t need to slow the voice down; I would just listen to it as I drove to and from work each day. “The Official Recording of Ho Chi Minh’s 1966 Telephone Call” was one of the first poems I wrote for the book almost eight years ago, and I still don’t know if it’s really Ho Chi Minh on the tapes. I see now that I was using this exercise to work up to “Glenn Gould Negotiates the Danube in the Company of a Raven.”

I was nervous to use Gould; I knew nothing of his biography, other than that he was an eccentric genius. So I decided very early to stay away from his biography and see if I could extract something of him through concentrating on the recordings. I feel that these transliterative poems pay their dividends to the original works, but they also fail, in that they cannot be the original and so have to live with themselves in their current state of poem.

In Paul Muldoon’s sonnet sequence, “The Old Country,” he repeats clichés that refract and contort and absorb what came before them. And even if the cliché that came before is somewhat extinguished by what proceeds it, we still have to deal with its traces. So it’s Muldoon’s line from “Old Country,” “Every point was a point of no return / where to make a mark was to overstep the mark” that I’m quite attached to in these pieces. These poems do fail, in a strict transliterative sense, but I’m not just covering my ass when I say I made them fail on purpose. I worked hard to use these oversteps to create amalgams of metaphors that would communicate my responses to the music, and in the case of the Ho Chi Minh piece, his voice. The metaphors are meant to overstep the mark, to pile up, to become overwhelming at times — but there’s an emotionality inherent in such a barrage that I’d like to think is true to reactions we have to some of Gould’s recordings. Or, at least, to reactions I’ve had while listening to Gould and to a man that may or may not be Ho Chi Minh.

Published online September 01 2009.

The Open Issue cover image

This piece was published in ‘The Open Issue,’ the Fall 2009 issue of CV2.

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