Excerpts from “Listening with Courtesy: A Conversation with Tim Lilburn.”
Interview by Darryl Whetter. [Studies in Canadian Literature, Fall 1997]
Tim Lilburn: First of all, I don’t think of myself as chiefly a writer. That strikes me as an empty category, it’s an unfilled room—“writer.” I think of myself as someone who looks, or someone who engages in various contemplative acts. That’s my work. The writing is the sort of wake thrown by that ocular and contemplative momentum... How does seeing what I do that way affect my work? The work has no shape before the look. The work is shaped by the contemplative exercise.”
Darryl Whetter: What about your attitude toward metaphor then? Let’s consider that through the issue of rewriting: what happens there? You’ve had the contemplative response, it’s announced a shape to you; in rewriting, are you perfecting that shape?
Tim Lilburn: Lately I’ve been thinking of writing as truth-telling. So what is this thing that I’m trying to talk about in truth, what is the truest thing I can say about it? I find myself trying to think of the interiority of the thing. In January in Saskatchewan, for instance, in creek areas and swamp areas, the red of the red willow changes, takes on a kind of shynessor faintness. Well what is that like? I suggested to myself that the willow "goes in to the small room of its redness where there is no book."
Darryl Whetter: You already started with a description of the redness as shyness and then moved to this image of the room. Is that movement part of the seeing gesture for you?
Tim Lilburn: Well, maybe. I was also thinking of this redness as dropping its eyes when you look at it. It is an anthropomorphizing of the tree, though it’s not an acquisition, or a wrenching, but a touching, or grasping, and a release. There’s also something comical to me in that metaphor, there’s a kind of hilarity. And somehow this hilarity feels like walking beside the thing.
Tim Lilburn: [A]pproaching it -- the river, the hills, the deer, anything -- you are tempted to simply give up in front of it. But if you don’t give up, can’t do this, say, the thing has about it a kind of distance. Its sheer distance is a kind of violence; it thwarts what you pride most in yourself, your ability to comprehend, your ability to draw things toward you through language. All of these powers are humiliated as you approach the differentiated thing. And out of this humiliation comes courtesy. You are forced to give the thing back to itself and your ability to encase, hold, draw toward you, domesticate, is shaped; it is bent back on itself.
Tim Lilburn: I don’t think the shining world of union is achievable. A couple of the features of desire are that it’s protean and never satisfied. This is the whole point -- desire is never satisfied. To somehow note the shape of the desire is to come as close to the object of the desire as you will ever come. Gregory of Nyssa, a church-father writing in the fourth century, speaks of epektatis, which is the unsatisfiability of elemental desire. He says, and I quote this at the back of Moosewood Sandhills, “the desire to see God is the vision of God.” Nyssa also says that even in eternity the desire to see God will not be satisfied. This desire that we’re talking about, whatever its term is (and it even seems presumptuous to name it, but let’s propose some names: Paradise, God, Wholeness, Living In The World As If It Were Home) the satisfaction of this desire, its shape, is somehow the failure to ever satisfy this desire. That is what the satisfaction of the desire is. One of the products of this desire’s inability to satisfy itself in the way it anticipates satisfaction is this business of humiliation, of being altered, brought to virtue. This thing that starts out as a desire to know and a desire to have transmogrifies in its development simply into courtesy or decorum. The project to know resolves itself into a stance that is always craning, always epektatic, reaching, reaching, reaching, but decorous and courteous because it is aware it has so little.
Darryl Whetter: Where does the poem enter that reach?
Tim Lilburn: It’s the wake. It’s also a way to be courteous. Often I see poems as the tip of delight. What we’re talking about here is ravishment. The excitement of delight sometimes goes immediately into language; it’s a cheering, or a praising, just happiness. Or else it’s a kind of touching of the thing.
[p.137 - 138]
Darryl Whetter: You refer to feeling shapes when you speak of metaphor. Do you have a stable metaphor or idea of the shape of a poem?
Tim Lilburn: I’ve made big changes in form over the different books. There was a big change in form from the book which preceded this one, Tourist To Ecstasy, and Moosewood Sandhills, and there’s been an other formal change involved in the project I’m working on now. Twice it’s happened as a sort of formal premonition, just a trace. Before Moosewood Sandhills I had an idea, “Wouldn’t it be something to write more simply?” That wasn’t a plan, it was more like a dream. Then I discovered my work, against my will (because I wasn’t really interested in simplification), turning toward fulfilling the shape that this premonition suggested. I was fighting it all along because I thought writing this way was the failure of writing or was what writing no longer felt like for me. A couple of years ago I thought of writing a truly long-breath poem, a poem that would take days to recite, that had an endlessness to it, and then I’ve felt my work bend ing lately towards this. You might want to write one way but the work bends another and you think, “Well if I don’t go with it I won’t write at all.” With Moosewood Sandhills it first felt like, "This is what not being able to write feels like." My original thought for this book was to make a box for the typescript and bury it in the land. I thought it was a failure, an embarrassing failure. It was only after showing it to some people and their really liking it that I thought of it as a book.
Darryl Whetter: In your essay “How To Be Here,” you use the idea of haecceity. Does haecceitas announce a specific form or image? In the "creation" of a metaphor, are you recovering or achieving or finding something of that haecceitas?
Tim Lilburn: John Duns Scotus, from whom this phrase and notion comes, says that the thisness of a thing is unknowable (given the mind as it is now), but there. It’s the highest expression of the thing, but it can’t be known with precision or named.
Darryl Whetter: In “From an Anchorage,” you use the phrase “the necessary apology,” and throughout the book there are frequent invocations of the concept of sacrifice. Is an apology necessary to the world? And if so how can it be made?
Tim Lilburn: Yes. If you listen to a piece of music several times, part of your hearing is a sense of what will come next; so the shape, you are sure, to fulfill itself, will move in this direction. I think a lot of people feel that the shape, or spirit of the age we’re living in, will next move to here: to compunction, to apology, tears, sorrow. This is what we’re bending towards.
Darryl Whetter: For what are we apologizing?
Tim Lilburn: All of these imperialisms that we’ve engaged in. This foolish sense that we were and are entitled in an unlimited way.
Darryl Whetter: Is the prolonged writing of poetry a naming and renaming of yourself for yourself? Is naming your desires a way to you?
Tim Lilburn: I sometimes think it’s as if there’s a singing in things that I am so far from being able to know that I’m only guessing that I can call it “singing.” What I would very much like to do (why? I have no idea) is to come alongside that and sing with it. In a sense that’s what I think I’m doing, singing alongside this unsingable, perhaps-not-even-song. One seems to know this in different ways at different points in one’s life. My singing doesn’t have to make any sense, or be beautiful, or publishable. When you think of writing as a business, going to stores and buying it, this image of singing alongside something seems ludicrous. The whole issue of audience is not as important to me as it is to other poets. The important relationship is between the singing you are able to do and this sub-terranean singing, or flux, that eros keeps wanting to know like a setter that keeps pointing. That’s where you have to be immaculate; that’s where integrity is demanded. If you screw around there, forget it, you’re disqualified. That’s what’s important, what ever happens after that, publication, awards, reviews, is completely incidental. Who cares what happens. This thing, that’s important. People who start writing by thinking about publication are, I think, grabbing the stick by the wrong end; the task, it seems to me, is just to move up close to whatever it is that you will speak. Everything else will solve itself, even if it solves itself in ways that don’t look like solutions.
Darryl Whetter: In “Contemplation is Mourning,” there is a suggestion that “You will be shaved and narrowed by the barren strangeness of the / deer, the wastes of her oddness.” Is it important for us to be so shaved?
Tim Lilburn: No. That’s coming at it the wrong way; you just are shaved if you look long and deeply without presumption. That’s a large part of what looking is, the refusal of presumption or cari cature. Otherwise what you’re seeing is simply yourself; you’re looking in the mirror everywhere. Being shaved is just the realization that all of your notions of power and centrality are stolen or made-up, it’s stolen fire. Hard looking can relieve you of this.
Darryl Whetter: In Moosewood Sandhills there are references to the “bones of the land” and the boniness of things. Is there a distinction to you between the otherness of a thing and an animal?
Tim Lilburn: No there isn’t, all things strike me as distant and unlike. Augustine speaks of that world one enters when one prays as “the land or region of unlikeness.” I think everything is the region of unlikeness. Everything is distant, far, discrete, itself, non-representative, ultimately non-colonizable, wild. In its wildness it also feels like infinity, it has the unspeakability of infinity. When you encounter that you’re left with courtesy; you can’t name it so you bow to it, give it regard. Regard replaces language.
Darryl Whetter: Is to not treat the world with courtesy a moral wrong?
Tim Lilburn: Yes, it’s immoral, it’s unwise and it’s unattractive.
An Excerpt from the Great Victoria Public Library Website
Read the complete article from Capital Verse
Interviewer: Do you have any words of wisdom for the rookie poetry reader?
Tim Lilburn: I think the best advice for someone reading poetry is this: just trust the poet and let yourself go. Reading poetry is like dreaming: you can’t control how the story is told; stop, then, trying to work things out and simply let yourself be surprised. Reading poetry can be like falling through the air, exhilarating, terrifying.
Interviewer: Why poetry?
Tim Lilburn: I am interested in poetry because I believe that only in it can a person think and feel as deeply and as flexibly and as surprisingly as is humanly possible. This extreme, unexpected thinking and feeling is not only great fun, but is important now, in ways a little hard to fully explain, for us as a species. The strange metaphorical and contemplative thinking that goes on in poetry might just serve as a basis of a new politics that knits the human world with the natural world. It would likely take a whole book to work out this new politics.
An Excerpt from CBC’s Words at Large
Interviewer: How can language act as a bridge between people and the natural world?
Tim Lilburn: Language might be a wall between the human and non-human worlds, our way of stepping back, storing the present to savour it later, our way of not really being at the party. The name is more cherished than the thing; it cleanly designates essence, while trees and rocks drag around a mess of individual traits. Language, wielded in a particular way, could be a type of inattention, particularly difficult to correct because it supposes it supplies the forms into which true attention is poured. But there’s another way to think of this: language is nature. Then it just lies down in the grass like everything else, or works a course, or moves about at night. But then it would need to be as free of programmatic control as possible, and so a little frightening in its shape-changing autonomy.
Interviewer: What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of writing poetry?
Tim Lilburn: Music first, speed and music. Then image, leaping audacious yolking. Finally story: but not story as a girder arrangement or frame—music should provide this—but as embellishment, decoration.