Emily Cann (EC): In the poem “Before the Glass” you write: “a thing once happened is a thing that’s happening still,” and this collection is evidence of the truth in that phrase. The poems in this collection feel contemporary yet are anchored in family history. What challenges did you encounter while unearthing and reconstructing these family stories? How did you keep this history feeling as though it’s “happening still”?
Keagan Hawthorne (KH): Several years ago, I had what I knew was likely my last opportunity to spend a harvest season on my family’s disappearing farm in Central Alberta. Not because the farm was being sold – my two uncles still run the operation, well into their 70s – but because my own life was in a period of transition and upheaval. For several months I lived in the old farmhouse, abandoned after my grandmother died and my uncles moved into town and drove a big machine for ten solitary hours a day. It was actually a really lonely experience. In the evenings I wandered around in the decaying barns where my mother grew up, and where I spent most of my childhood summers, thinking about the fact that there was never going to be another generation of children running around here. When my uncles finally retire that’s it, there’s nobody left to take over. And yet, and yet – here I was, sleeping in the bed that my mother slept in as a child, cooking my meals at the stove where my grandmother cooked meals for the hired hands for years and years. Despite all the changes, it felt as though some things never changed.
My academic training is in Folklore, and I have an instinct for collecting scraps of story and history, so whenever I got the chance I “interviewed” my uncles, second cousins, great aunts…anybody who could shed light on what life was like when my mother was a child, and when her mother (my grandmother) was a child.
I knew at the time that I wanted to try to make sense of these stories in poetry, somehow, and many of the poems in the collection were started on scraps of seed catalogue and fuel bills at my grandmother’s kitchen table. The sense that my family’s history was still alive – was being (re)animated by my presence there – was palpable. I’m glad that some of this feeling made itself felt in the finished poems.
EC: This collection makes use of repetition in several ways: repeated lines (as in “Song of the Self-Growing Seed”), repeated words (as in “Snow Falling”), repeated titles (as in the “Creature” poems), as well as repeated themes and characters. Yet, every repeated word, phrase, or idea seems to offer the reader something new. What is the role of repetition in this work for you? How do you keep each repetition feeling fresh?
KH: My taste in poetry – both reading it and writing it – inclines towards the more formal, with all of the repetition that that implies. The repetition of structure, the repetition of sound, the repetition of image and preoccupation. Some of the repetition in the book comes out of this formal preoccupation – there are only so many forms I’m conversant in. Hence the repetition.
But the idea of repetition is pretty germane to the subject matter of the book, which is farming in both its biological and cultural manifestations. I take “form” to mean structure imposed upon (or given to) an activity, and farming is a very formal activity. There are the visually formal grids of the prairie section roads, the formal repetition of the seasons, the rigidly repeating requirements of mechanics and accountants and financing payments for the expensive machinery. All of life is bound to repeat formal constraints: you plant a seed and that life energy will inevitably take the form of a wheat stalk, a head of barley, or a splayed fist of oats.
This repetition is also true of human communities. My grandmother’s life was constrained by the formal realities of being a farm wife in the middle of the 20th century, as much as she would rather have gone to university and travelled more widely than she was able to. This is a constraint that was repeated from her mother, and her mother’s mother. My mother broke that repetition, but it continues in the lives of my uncles and my cousins. A repetition that echoes down through many many generations. I suppose that part of the impetus for me in reliving the farm life and writing a book about it is to assuage some of the grief and guilt that surrounds the fact that my life hasn’t repeated these forms. Repetition was all around me, and yet I was standing off to one side; perhaps this project was an attempt to insert myself into that structure.
EC: In the Acknowledgements, you note that the Anglican Book of Common Prayer served as a foundation for several of the poems in this collection. What in the language and style of prayer speaks to/inspires you? What is your process like for working with the rhythm and/or structure of a poem?
KH: The poems that take as their starting point the BCP (collectively I’ve called them the Barnyard Book of Common Prayer, though they are spread out throughout the collection) had their origin in the desire to see the milieu of the farmyard from the perspective of certain animals – an old draft horse, a goose, a flock of chickens, a herd of cows. I wondered how barnyard creatures might view the human beings who must seem to hover around the edges of their world, intervening in mysterious ways, beneficent and terrible by turns. The beautiful King James language and style of the Anglican liturgy enacts a similarly mysterious, not-quite-comprehensible relationship between human beings and one conception of what “God” might mean. It seemed like a fitting imaginative exercise, then, to re-write certain prayers as though they were spoken by those animals.
The topic of prayer is a big one, and it’s certainly fraught in our current political and cultural climate. I’ll just say that as a poet I (of course!) believe in the power of spoken words to change the world, and I believe in the power of repeated words to change the heart and mind of the one who is doing the repeating. What is prayer, if not this? What is poetry, if not prayer?
EC: What books were you reading when you wrote this? Are there any books that you had to keep visiting for inspiration when writing this book? With what other book will this work make a good comparison?
KH: The work of Jan Zwicky has been important to me for the whole of my adult reading life, both her philosophy and her poetry. I didn’t take very many books to the farm with me when I went to work that season, but her Songs for Relinquishing the Earth and Robinson’s Crossing were two that kept me company. Her depictions of landscape – physical and cultural – and her unflinching examination of family, the struggle to find one’s place in a complicated web of relations, taught me a lot about how I might approach those vexations myself. Her main preoccupation is “clarity”, clarity of thought, and clarity of insight, and that is the standard by which I try to evaluate my own: have I been precise in my imagery and language, have I avoided muddy thinking? Northrop Frye said that every poet should take on a previous poet as a kind of “spiritual preceptor,” and I suppose that Jan Zwicky would be that, for me.
EC: How long did the first draft take for you to write? What was the core of the developmental process between drafts, were you working on the structure or the story world or aspects of style and language or something else? In terms of sheer length, what did the book look like after the first draft? Did the length change?
KH: It took a long time for the scraps I scribbled at my grandmother’s table to condense into the manuscript in its present form, about four years, and all of the poems in the book were written with this collection in mind. I was trying to grapple with some fundamental questions: What’s the harvest of a person’s lifetime? What happens to a way of life when all that’s left are the stories we tell? There were a lot of different approaches I tried, from narrative to lyric to formal linguistic “play.” I wanted the reader to enter into a fully developed world with this book, and I wanted this world to emerge from a variety of different facets or modes of expression.
Not all of the modes I tried made it into the final book, and the structure evolved a lot between drafts. Ordering was a big challenge for me, and I spent a lot of time with the manuscript laid out on the floor, shuffling the pages about. There were originally three different self-contained sections, then seven, then just one section.
The poet Richard Outram once said that part of the delight in working with language comes from a preoccupation in the first place with what you are trying to do, as much as with what you are trying to say. For me, doing in language, that is, making poems, is often about taking a monkey wrench to grammatical structures, verbs, clauses, etc., to see how they operate, and what they can be made to do. Like Valéry said, a poem is a small machine for making meaning happen and writing poems can be a little like souping up an old farm truck to see how fast it can go. This kind of linguistic play is a major part of the pleasure of writing, and I hope that the pleasure I got from writing the book carries across.
EC: How did you arrive at the form/structure of the work? Did you have a form/ structure in mind when you started?
KH: I tried to fashion this book more along the lines of a permacultural garden than the vast monocultural factory of the industrial farm: there are many different kinds of poems all nestled in together, growing alongside one another and – I hope – nourishing each other, strengthening the ecosystem that is the book as a whole.
EC: Are any aspects of the book that is autobiographical? How did you consciously deal with your intimate material (i.e., experiences – emotional and physical) in a way that avoids the dangers of straight autobiography?
KH: Most of the book is in some sense autobiographical, in that it’s based loosely on the stories and legends surrounding my real family’s real farm. What was most important for me was to write about a disappearing way of life without falling into cliche or nostalgia. Nostalgia implies the fetishization of an idealized past, and there’s nothing ideal about life on a farm, neither in some mythical bucolic past nor in the industrialized present. Farming is a job, and it’s a hard job. In many ways, it was harder for my mother’s and grandmother’s generations than it is for the few cousins of my generation who have chosen that life. To write honestly about it meant being clear-eyed about those hardships.
But there’s a difference between honesty and the truth; you can still be honest when you’re telling a lie. While these poems were written when I was steeped in the atmosphere and stories of my family’s farm, strictly speaking much of the book is actually fictional – I felt free to invent details and characters to get at the emotional truths I was after.
Keagan Hawthorne lives in Mi’kma’ki with his partner and daughter and works at the Mount Allison University Library. He is the proprietor of The Hardscrabble Press, which publishes letterpress books and chapbooks. After the Harvest is his first poetry collection.