Pamela Porter is now a sessional instructor at the University of Victoria and lives on Vancouver Island with her husband, children and a menagerie of rescued animals.
BCP: Why poetry?
PP: As an amateur musician as well as a writer, I find poetry is the sublime mix of language and music, of the music inherent in language.
BCP: What is your process?
PP: Often I first feel a restlessness, a dis-ease inside me. I begin to wonder, what is the poem that wants to be born, and where will I find it? If it’s morning, I go out and feed the horses and take the dog for a run, and sometimes the poem will well up at those times. If it’s evening, I clean up the kitchen, then sneak off to my desk, and hope the rest of my family will forget about me. I read other poets’ poems until my poem begins to show itself. Then I begin to write by hand in a little book. When the draft in the book becomes too messy to read from additions and crossed-out lines, I go to the computer. From that point on, the poem stays up on my computer screen until it’s finished. Sometimes the poem lives on my screen for weeks. By that time, other poems will have joined it. It’s a continuous process.
BCP: How long have you been writing poetry?
PP: I started writing poetry when I was fifteen. You can imagine how awful my poems were at that age.
BCP: Who are your influences?
PP: My first influence was really the Bible. My family were stalwart Presbyterians who considered it their duty to be in church, and to be seen in church. My earliest memories are of hearing the King James Bible read aloud. I learned to read at age five when my father held the hymn book down to my level and ran his finger under each word of the hymns which must have produced in me a rather odd vocabulary for my young age. My second influence was Robert Frost. The Complete Poems of Robert Frost was the only book of poetry in our house. My mother had received it as a gift. It sat on a high shelf, and no one touched it. One day, when no one else was home, I stood on a chair and pulled the book down, took it into my room and began to read it. Now my influences are many and varied, but I lean toward those poets who make effortless music with language while still holding their humanity close. Two who immediately come to mind are Li-young Lee and Lorna Crozier.
BCP: Your poetry digs deep and literally takes readers to places they have probably not been to: Angola, Guatemala, Argentina and many others. What do you try to convey to your readers?
PP: I think the poet’s vision is to see the world again for the first time, and I try to help the reader see something, no matter small or large, as utterly new, as though we have all reverted back to childhood where everything holds the shock of the new.
BCP: There are several hints to Christianity in your poems. Does your spirituality play a part in your writing?
PP: Yes. The mysterious, the “evidence of things unseen,” fascinates me.
BCP: Do you see poetry as a form of prayer?
PP: Absolutely. Call it what you like – prayer, meditation, focused attention—poetry is the close study and contemplation of the animate and inanimate that lives around us, and through poetry we examine our place in this world. Poetry, like prayer, meditation, attention, changes us.
BCP: You received rejections for many years. What kept you going?
PP: I realized I couldn’t imagine trying to live the rest of my life without poetry, and somewhere deep down, I think I believed fundamentally in my ability to be a poet. I now understand how critical it is to believe in yourself at some level, however hidden, whether or not anyone else believes in you.
BCP: After 31 years of putting pen to pad you won the Governor Generals Award. Was that the ultimate reward to years of reading, writing, submitting, and being rejected? Did you have the feeling of “I finally made it”? Or was having your first book published the most important time in your writing career? Is there a most important time?
PP: Winning a GG did feel like the ultimate reward, especially since the other laureates were people who had received other awards which were stepping stones for them on the way to the GG. My stepping stones to the GG were the days spent in a library, writing alone on my one writing day a week because I had children to raise and horses to feed and dinner to cook, except for that one day when my family excused me to go chip away at this impossible dream of mine. For that they should take some credit for my winning a GG.
BCP: As a Governor General Award Winner do you feel lots of pressure to live up to that title?
PP: Actually I often get the kind of awed attention warranted to persons of some importance, and I rarely know what to do with that.
BCP: You earned an MFA in poetry and you have taught writing at different institutions. MFA programs are hot at the moment. Eight-hundred and sixty-three MFA in Creative Writing programs exist in the U.S which has led to much criticism in magazines such as Harper’s and The New Yorker. Why did you pursue an MFA? Why have you chosen to teach creative writing?
PP: I pursued an MFA because I wanted to get away from my suffocating parents, go as far away as possible and have some structured, instructive time to hone my writing skills. It was a positive experience for me. I think it’s odd that writing programs tend to be the butt of criticism when art and music programs are not. It is widely accepted that if a young person has talent in visual art, or in piano or violin or voice, she or he should get to a good school to nourish that talent. In my view, writing programs are no different. Even if every writing student doesn’t become an award-winning writer, the programs nurture an appreciation for the art and the development of sophisticated readers. It’s not considered a waste if one’s child studies piano for five years and becomes a moderately competent musician who then holds a deeper appreciation for classical music. We would do better for ourselves if we conceded that writing programs also produce astute readers for those who do succeed in the art.
BCP: The poetry in Cathedral has lots on death and despair. Is a lot of your poetry like that?
PP: Yep. My husband tells someone I have a new book out. S/he asks, “How dark is it?” “Really dark,” he says. It’s a running joke between us, but I do believe that for anyone who is a serious student of living, there is a deep joy we feel when someone has articulated for us a nugget of the truth of our being, of our experience as humans on this earth. There is darkness and despair in all our lives, but in looking straight at it, unflinching, one experiences a kind of freedom.
BCP: Do you see poetry as a form of activism?
PP: Yes, speaking the truth is always political in some sense. That’s why poets are jailed in some places. Here they are just ignored.
BCP: You attend weekly readings at your local coffee shop. Why do you attend so faithfully? What do you get out of attending readings on a weekly basis?
PP: For many years we lived in remote places – on the top of a mountain at an observatory, on a ranch miles from town, and I continued to work at my poetry in those places, though I had no one to talk with, no one who was interested at all in my poems. I go to the readings to remind myself I’m no longer alone in this pursuit of my art, and to be with others who are also, like me, mysteriously tethered to this holy, solitary practice.
BCP: What are you working on now?
PP: I am writing poems about Father – the fathers in my life, absent, present, surrogate. I seem to have a lot to say about them, as the poems are still coming.
BCP: When do you expect to have your third collection of poetry published?
PP: My next collection, No Ordinary Place, will be released in Spring 2012 by Ronsdale Press.
BCP: What advice do you have for other writers out there who are having difficulties with their writing, or who have yet to see their work in print, or who are afraid to perform their poetry?
PP: My advice is never, never give up. The novelist Harriet Doerr first published her wonderful work when she was in her seventies. Believe in yourself whether or not everyone thinks you’re crazy. If you’re nervous about reading in front of a group, go for walks and recite your poems to yourself. Then go read a poem to a gathering, constantly reminding yourself that you have just as much business taking up time at the microphone as anyone else. Poetry is free as the fresh air, and like the air, it belongs to everyone.
Tune in to Black Coffee Poet Friday April 8, 2011 for a video of Pamela Porter reading her poetry.