The Chat with Governor General's Award for Poetry Winner Richard Harrison

Three 49th Shelf members will receive the winning books in the English-language categories for the 2017 Governor General's Awards!

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We kick off our conversation with this year’s English-language Governor General’s Award winners in conversation with Richard Harrison. His collection On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood (Buckrider Books/Wolsak and Wynn) is the 2017 GG's winner for English-language poetry.

Of the collection, the jury said, "In these moving poems about the father/son relationship set against the Alberta flood of 2013, Richard Harrison’s intimate yet open voice deftly explores subjects as wide-ranging as childhood, middle-age anxiety, dementia and loss with wonder, humour and resilience."

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TheChat-GGs-2017

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Trevor Corkum: How did this particular collection come to be?
 

Richard Harrison: This book arrived in stages. I started with the idea that I’d write a book of poetry with poems themselves as the launching points, in much the same way as I wrote Hero of the Play with different hockey players and events in the game as the starting points for the poems. So in this book, there are poems from that level called “Spoken Word” or “Haiku” (the longest poem in the book), or “Epic” (the shortest).

But poetry is inquiry as well, and one of the great puzzles of my life has always been my relationship with first my father and then my own fatherhood. Dad suffered from vascular dementia in his last decade, but in the slow fade that we shared, a lot of truth came out, and so a lot of poetry. My love of poetry started with him reciting it to me when I was growing up, so I learned a lot about poetry from those last years with him, too, because the memorized poetry was the last to leave his mind.

Dad suffered from vascular dementia in his last decade, but in the slow fade that we shared, a lot of truth came out, and so a lot of poetry.

Finally, the Alberta Flood of 2013 swept through my house, took some things away, left others damaged, left others untouched. And in turning my life upside down that way, it made me reshape the book to let more of the world in. So On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood is a conversation among those three ways of making poems — according to an idea, according to a family story, and in answer to what we can’t control.

TC: What moves or inspires you most as a poet?
 
RH: On one level, I guess I’ve just found that out: ideas, my family story, and finding an answer to what we cannot control. On another level, though, there has to be the joy of finding words for those things.

Not everything that falls into those categories ends up being the inspiration for a poem; those things that do are all those that the words for are interesting and fun and compelling to work with. I have to like the sound of the sentence or phrase that carries the flood or my father’s death, or my daughter’s birth to you. Otherwise I’m not as interested as you need to be to live with a poem long enough to create it.
 
TC: What’s your own litmus test for great poetry?
 
RH: How would it sound if my father read it out loud.

TC: What does winning a Governor General’s Award mean at this point in your career?
 
I’ve been asked this a lot in the last few days, and at this point, because I don’t fully know, I’ve given several answers, and I’m eager to see how it all turns out, what it lets me do now in the life I’ve chosen. I think there’ll be an essay in a year when I am closer to knowing.

But I’ll share this one. When I was asked how it felt yesterday at a lunch I was a guest at, I answered that the Governor General’s Award was Canadian literature’s Stanley Cup: it was a gift of the Governor-General, it was designed to encourage the qualities that make one part of the national identity and character not just possible but thrive. Many of the heroes I grew up admiring had won or been nominated, or been to my town to read because of it. So in that light, my name’s on The Cup. I think it proves that gifts of the Governors-General did their work because everyone at the table toasted me then.

When I was asked how it felt yesterday at a lunch I was a guest at, I answered that the Governor General’s Award was Canadian literature’s Stanley Cup ...

TC: 49th Shelf is built around a large community of readers and fans who love great CanLit. What Canadian authors are you reading these days? Any recommendations?
 
Speaking of Governor-General’s Award winners, I’ve just finished Michael Harris’s The End of Absence, a beautiful book-length essay on what we’ve lost with what we’ve gained in the age of continuous connectivity. One point re-orients the world for me (and all like me): if you were born before 1985, you are part of the last generation that knows what the world was before the Internet.

If you were born before 1985, you are part of the last generation that knows what the world was before the Internet.

A lot of people I’ve been talking with lately have been hard at work to bring renewed attention to Alden Nowlan’s poetry, and his Collected Poems, edited by Brian Bartlett, was published about a month ago. Nowlan is a poet who has gone through the shadows that often fall on a writer’s work in the years following their deaths. Some never come out, but he’s one who deserves more public thought. I’ve always loved the profundity of his verse even when it’s about the tiniest thing. One of my favourites is “Chopping Onion” originally from I Might Not Tell Everybody This; it’s a poem that haunts me happily with how connected we are to all that have come before us, to all that will come after.
 
John Vaillant’s The Jaguar’s Children is an amazing book. I read it a year ago, so it’s still pretty fresh, but at a time when the dominant political narrative is fear of the immigrant Other, this is a book that takes the reader across the threshold of that fear into what’s really important—human sympathy for human suffering. More than that: it awakens the reader’s desire (it did mine) to do something to stop such suffering in real life that makes this fiction possible.

... at a time when the dominant political narrative is fear of the immigrant Other, this is a book that takes the reader across the threshold of that fear into what’s really important—human sympathy for human suffering.

Books that influenced me most as a poet: There are a lot of those, but I’ll list Patrick Lane’s 1978 New and Selected for Lane’s ability to keep the poem true to the horrific and the beautiful alike in beautiful language, (it’s so good to recommend books to people who will get them in the library because they’re still there long after they’ve disappeared from the bookstores); Pier Giorgio di Cicco’s Flying Deeper into the Century for its exuberant love of political and social commentary—and the rhythm of the lines—and Roo Borson’s The Whole Night, Coming Home which teaches you (like pretty well all of Borson’s work) how to read a whole book like a single poem, and each poem like a book. And Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogue. Again, it’s a book to use to demonstrate one of the magic tricks that poetry can do best: get you thinking like a philosopher when all you thought you were doing was being entertained.
 
Lastly, two books by di brandt: questions i asked my mother was her first, and it’s just been reprinted in a 25th Anniversary Edition. That book is just so clear and sophisticated both in terms of the play between the poems and in terms of the personal, religious, and political stakes that di raises from a child’s devastating point of view. Beautiful.

And it’s not her most recent, but Now You Care is a book that can make a reader feel about the terrible environmental future we are making for ourselves the way we feel about the loss of family members. We need that feeling because while death is inevitable, extinction is not. That feeling is clearly not as widespread as it needs to be; you can tell because political life and economic arguments don’t yet take it as a given that we can’t go on the way we are. This is book that I, and I know your readers, would love to have on hand when they walk by someone sitting in an idling car checking their cell phones. You could ask them to roll down the window, and say, Here. Read this.

 ... political life and economic arguments don’t yet take it as a given that we can’t go on the way we are.

And if the window’s still down, give them Michael’s book, too.

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Excerpt from On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood

Now is the Winter      

               
With the last ounces of his grace, my father
stands up from his wheelchair, turns toward
the bed as though the floor is ice;
he tilts his spine, knees bent, and waits to shift
his weight to mine; I lay him on the blanket
and kiss his lips. We talk of Shakespeare
who carried him line by line through tropic wars
to the final surgery on his failing hips.
Now is the winter of our discontent,
he recites from those pages of his brain
no disease has yet erased,
the words the prayer of one
who has no god to hear his cries, his powers spent.
When he asks, I promise to be with him when he dies,
and winter stirs in the broken fingers
of my hand that long ago healed winter cold
into mended bone. My father sleeps as the land sleeps –
and I am taught that nothing is immortal
and awake forever. Outside, the heroes, green,
and knowing only what they see,
take their sticks and pucks and
lean into their shots
while the mid-winter’s night
dreams water turned to stone beneath their feet.

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Richard Harrison's eight books include the Governor General's Award–finalist Big Breath of a Wish, and Hero of the Play, the first book of poetry launched at the Hockey Hall of Fame. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Calgary's Mount Royal University, a position he took up after being the Distinguished Writer-in-Residence at the University of Calgary in 1995. His work has been published, broadcast and displayed around the world, and his poems have been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese and Arabic. In On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood, Richard reflects on his father's death, the Alberta Flood and what poetry offers a life lived around it.

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“Now is the Winter” was excerpted from On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood. Copyright 2016 Richard Harrison. Published by Buckrider Books, an imprint of Wolsak and Wynn Publishers. Poems reproduced with the permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

November 8, 2017
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