On Influence

"A Calm Conversation" (photo by Shawna Lemay)

(photo by Shawna Lemay)

I’m going to be part of a poetry reading and panel discussion on “poetic influence” tomorrow. If you’re in Edmonton, this will be a great chance to listen to local poets read from their own work and discuss influences.

A Calm Conversation–Poetry Reading and Panel on Poetic Influences

Edmonton poets – Bert Almon, Douglas Barbour, Jenna Butler, Olga Costopoulos, Alice Major, Lisa Martin-DeMoor and Iman Mersal – read from their own work, and also read and talk about the work of another poet who influenced them and with whom they have entered into a ‘calm conversation.’

Tuesday, April 3, 7pm, Woodcroft Library (13420 114 Ave NW), Edmonton, AB

The event is billed as “A Calm Conversation” after the line from Adam Zagajewski’s poem, “Another Beauty.”

How to prepare for a conversation like this, with so many possibilities (and, how to do so having not slept through the night since July?!). I committed to doing this some time ago but have been occupied by my children so much in the last couple of weeks (my partner has been out in the woods up north listening for owls) that I’ve had little time to consider my own contribution to the discussion. But I’ve settled on a poet to read from, and a poem of my own to read. Still, how much easier it would be if I could just invite my imaginary reader to my house, to say, look, this is what I see every day. I’d take her into the backyard, to see the sandbox beneath the crabapple tree. And, of course, for a walk in the valley. A day like today, at the turn of the seasons, would be just right for such a walk. I’d point out my favourite spot, where the first flush of spring will, one of these weeks, hit the aspens. And I’d have my partner roll his eyes good-naturedly when I mention it’s my favourite spot. “Oh yeah?” he’d say. “You’ve never mentioned.”

And, while I’m at it, I’d take this reader of mine to another sandbox in another yard, say in 1984. I’d show her a different man with a good-natured smile. I’d say, in an even, omniscient tone, “Now love this man with your whole heart. Because he is about to die.”

Throw in a few decades of prairie sky, the Pacific Ocean, a King James Bible, some Leonard Cohen, a Best American Poetry anthology my mom gave me in high school–especially the poems by W.H. Auden), and, later, my mom with three tumours in her brain. And really, all the poets I’ve read, and continue to read, how can they touch this, what happened (most of it) long before they had arrived on the scene? Yes, every great poem I read educates and expands my sense of the possible; every good poem provides some comfort, beauty (however strange), as Zagajewski says. But where does it really come from, the way we use words? I hear my own phrases in my daughter’s mouth all the time–how funny they sound, coming from a three year old.  When I was eight months pregnant with her brother, J. used to walk around the house with her hands on her hips, saying “I really have to get off my feet.” And, last month at a conference, a researcher from Ireland told my sister she had a 5% Irish accent. How lovely to imagine our dad’s voice permeating twenty-four years of separation to linger in the slight accent of her syllables. Influence: what flows in. It’s so hard to say, whether we’re poets or not, what we’re permeated by, what the sources are of that great river at the core of us. Who is to say what is flowing in, even now?

To say nothing of how we influence, of what is flowing out. The other day a dear friend wrote to say her partner, the poet, still thinks of my hummus these seven years later. P.S., your poems, too, she wrote.

I’m looking forward to listening tomorrow night, to allowing the voices of friends I admire, poets I admire, to flow in. And, though right now I would rather just listen–like my partner owling in the silence and darkness of a northern night, waiting for who who whowho-who who, or else nothing–though I feel I have given all I have right now in another realm entirely, to little children who frankly I influence far more every day than I will ever influence anyone with a mere poem–nevertheless, I too will go with a poem. I will give the words voice, allow what will to flow out.

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