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John Steffler: brutal mechanics and newfoundland poetics.

Maria Jesus Hernaez Lerena: How does a sense of place filter into who you are as a writer?

John Steffler: One of my main interests is in the interaction of the human and the non-human, especially the way in which humans deal with the fundamental "givens" in the world around them and within them. I see culture as a human effort to control or gain some freedom from the powerful realities of the natural world or at least to enter into a graceful, orderly relationship with them. Place is one of the fundamental givens that shapes who we are and offers special opportunities and obstacles. At its most basic, place is a kind of geographical stage or matrix upon which or within which people conduct their lives. The longer people have lived in a place (and the more amenable it is to their influence), the more the accumulated traces of human culture and human history become part of the place's influential character. In much of Europe--in the Old World--the land has been shaped by human use, and place is very much a cultural matrix. In much of North America, especially in a region such as Newfoundland, in spite of the smash-and-grab methods of resource-extracting industries like mining and logging, place has been barely scratched by people; it reverts to its original wilderness as soon as they leave. So, people's relationship with place in Newfoundland has always been a tortured, dramatic one: heroic, tragic.

People were never able to extend their holdings very far. The sea and rock and harsh weather would smash everything--all your wishes and constructions--except for what you and your family and friends could hold together close by. In a sense it was both crazy and grand to try to live in such a place. It was bound to be heartbreaking. The violent, dangerous dance with nature made people fatalistic and humble in a sense but also-interestingly-resourceful, clever, extravagant and reckless. Moving to Newfoundland, living in Newfoundland completely absorbed me. I was caught up in my own violent dance with the place, and it permanently changed me.

MH: Why did you choose to live in Newfoundland?

JS: I grew up in a rural area just outside Toronto, an area oddly untouched by the modern world and the nearby city into the late 1950s. I went to a one-room school-one teacher for eight grades, no telephone, a pendulum clock, a few books on a shelf, desks all connected in rows, heat from a cellar coal furnace that the grade-eight boys kept stoked in the winter. Then, overnight, the township changed its zoning regulations and a tsunami of highways, factories, subdivisions and strip malls poured out of Toronto. There was nothing in this new world I could identify with. It seemed to be based on a concocted (probably American) lifestyle image or on the dictates of commerce and careers. It had nothing to do with the immediate place or its history. I couldn't understand what the lives of the thousands of new people crowding the new roads were rooted in. My parents moved away, everyone I knew in the neighbourhood moved away, and I went looking for a new home.

In truth, I would have gone looking for a new home anyway. I wanted to travel. I was drawn to the sea. In 1966, when I was eighteen, I worked my way to Europe as a deckhand on a German freighter and spent a year hitchhiking all around. In 1971, after getting a B.A. from the University of Toronto, I spent another year in Europe. I loved the texture of European cultures, their rootedness in the local, their openness to sensual pleasure, art and intellect-all quite different from the culture in which I had grown up. Back in Canada, when I had a chance to spend the summer of 1974 in St. John's, teaching a couple of courses at the university, I fell in love with the place. For one thing, it seemed somehow more European than the rest of English Canada. This was partly because up until 1949 it had been a country in its own right. In St. John's all the elements of an old national capital were compressed into a small space-the politicians and journalists and business people and layabouts and clerics and gossiping cabbies. In Toronto you could encounter only one chunk, one stratum of the culture at a time. Everything was enlarged there, spread out and monotonous like swaths of monoculture in farming-hundreds of acres of commuters in one place, hundreds of acres of civil servants or shoppers or students in other areas. In St. John's, the culture as a whole seemed to be more immediately alive, more present and intimate.

MH: What is the position of "come-from-away" readers when reading Newfoundland or Labrador literature? Are they inevitably tourists? There seems to be, in Newfoundland criticism, a belief that there are two kinds of readers of Newfoundland literature, outsiders and insiders. And that outsiders tend to contemplate Newfoundland as "a quaint cultural backwater offering old-time folky charms." (1) Is such a separation between local and non-local readers necessary?

JS: In the past, with a few exceptions [such as E. J. Pratt), most Newfoundland writers were not much read outside Newfoundland. Perhaps this was unavoidable. For one thing, there wasn't an abundance of writing from Newfoundland, and (again with some exceptions) much of the writing was self-contained in character-written about local issues for a local audience. Outsiders probably didn't feel it spoke to them. An interesting exception has been the writing of songs. Although rising from deep within the culture, the old songs of Newfoundland capture human experience in powerful, universal terms that have long appealed to a wide range of people outside of Newfoundland.

Recently, the distinction between local and outside readers of Newfoundland literature has broken down, for a couple of reasons. First of all there is a new generation of Newfoundland writers who are capable of writing about the intricacies of life in Newfoundland-its culture and history-in universal terms. They are able to see the place from both the inside and the outside and to depict it with a confidence and an energy that are new. And, interestingly, they've been able to tackle their culture in new ways and attract a wide outside audience partly by breaking free from traditional literary forms and experimenting, trusting their own voices and impulses. This has drawn the attention of outside readers who in turn have taken an unprecedented interest in Newfoundland and are now more willing and able to read even older Newfoundland writing with a greater sense that it has a universal message.

MH: Have you felt like a come-from-away writer? That you had to overcome your foreignness when writing about Newfoundland?

JS: At first I certainly felt like a come-from-away writer. I was a come-from-away writer. But I was young, not completely set in a particular identity, and I had an appetite for learning. I set out to learn about Newfoundland firsthand and write about my experience without pretending to be a born-and-bred Newfoundlander. At first I sensed that local people didn't get much from my vision of the place-it was an outsider's perspective, foreign, lacking in the nostalgia, the warmth, the familiar accent, the pains, angers and pleasures, the many emotional triggers embedded in the shared local culture and sought by many readers. But I persisted, and I'm pleased that I came to be accepted as part of the culture. In recent years, for example, people who were born on the Grey Islands have told me that my book recalls the place to them as they remember it. One man even told me that he personally knew a character I had invented.

I think Newfoundlanders have become less defensive. They used to turn to their literature as a kind of refuge in a larger world that they felt did not understand or respect them. They wanted their literature to be self-affirming, tribal, rooted in shared reminiscences and familiar traditions. Now Newfoundland readers are more open to self-criticism and to seeing themselves reflected through strangers' eyes.

MH: The Grey Islands (2) is full of the pain of confronting certain landscapes and truths so purely and barely exposed. "The brutal mechanics of having a wish come true," as you write. The desolation of a harsh place where no one lives any more, the intuitions of lives gone long ago, the ruined disarray of the few objects left behind, and the brutal separation from the warmth, the touch, and the routine of one's family. Why would a person, a poet, want to put him- or herself through so much desolation?

JS: After moving to Newfoundland in 1975 I became aware that a lot of people there were in a state of deep cultural shock and upheaval. Confederation with Canada in itself had shifted how they saw themselves and the world. They'd gone from living at the centre of their own world and feeling proud and self-reliant-even if poor-to feeling peripheral, inferior and dependent. Their whole enterprise seemed to have failed or been wrecked. What had really intensified the culture shock, however, was the provincial government's so-called resettlement program whereby people living in the countless, tiny, scattered out-port communities were encouraged to abandon their homes and move to "growth centres" in which, the idea was, they would be provided with up-to-date schools, medical facilities and jobs, and enjoy modern amenities such as roads and electricity. It was impossible, otherwise, to provide those things to a population thinly scattered across the small islands and coves of the vast province.

People heeded the call, accepted the meagre compensation, and left behind the homes where their families had lived for generations. But in the new growth centres the promised jobs failed to materialize, and people felt cheated, lost, useless, humiliated, bored, angry, resentful--living on social assistance, ridiculed by the rest of Canada.

This sense of loss was apparent in the culture as a whole, and many people--such as my friend the poet Al Pittman and his parents--explained and expressed it to me articulately, but as a newcomer I couldn't really share in the feeling or pretend to understand it from inside. I wanted to participate somehow, do something that would make their sense of loss more immediate and palpable for me. I decided to go to an abandoned outport and stay there among the derelict houses to let the ghosts of the old Newfoundland world speak to me, if they would. In a sense I wanted to go through an ordeal of initiation and earn the fight to be a poet in Newfoundland. I wanted to get out of my study and participate in the place physically. I wanted to get as close as I could to travelling in time--go into the past--by going to a place where human activity had ceased and human time had stopped. So I went to the Grey Islands, and I got what I went for. It was powerful, at times terrifying.

Also, I wanted the isolation and solitude, in part, for personal reasons: to shock my voice into clarity.

MH: Has this impression of helplessness in the face of wilderness been effectively counteracted by the way Newfoundlanders have lived? In The Grey Islands you mention a couple of times that they carry in their minds the locations of houses no longer there.

JS: Newfoundlanders, traditionally, developed a culture that enabled them to survive and even flourish in certain ways in this environment. It was a culture that featured fellowship and social networks. It took groups of people acting together to maintain the physical and cultural systems necessary for survival. In some respects the culture was like that of a nomadic people. It was essentially an oral culture that featured light-weight and portable possessions: stories, songs, inventive language, family ties, belief systems, honour, skills, ceremony, sacrifice, loyalty--largely immaterial things. Placing too much store in physical property was futile in a place where physical things were so vulnerable to the environment. The ocean very quickly breaks down everything it encounters. You can't fence the ocean and patrol its acres like a wheat field. The rocky, scrubby land wasn't worth fencing, hoarding and guarding, either. People learned to live lightly and cleverly in this kind of world. The solid, stable elements were in people's minds, in their memories and knowledge, their courage, generosity and resilience. A kind of jaunty pluck, a seeming recklessness and daring were some of the most valuable qualities in their culture.

Visiting the old settlements, whether abandoned or still occupied, and seeing the old burial places so exposed to the elements--the graves in beach gravel a few metres from the sea, or the shallow tuff graves on rocky headlands--and walking among the tiny homes where people lived, it would seem natural to be gloomy and fatalistic in such a world; and those feeling were strong in the culture too. Fatalistic gloom is a kind of shadow that underlies and is rejected by the fast jigs and reels that champion the energy for getting on with things in spite of the obvious reasons not to.

MH: Do you think Newfoundland has been misunderstood by most Canadians?

JS: Yes, Newfoundland was misunderstood by most Canadians, who had no idea how different the place was in terms of it geography, economy, history and culture. Most Canadians settled for mindless prejudice and lacked imagination and intelligence in their thinking about Newfoundland, if they thought about it at all. Newfoundland was the part of Canada--poor, remote, old-fashioned, a late arrival in Confederation--that was known mainly as the butt of jokes. Most Canadians had no idea of how rich and sophisticated Newfoundland culture was. What struck me in Newfoundland in the mid-1970s was how much wiser and bolder, how much more expressive, imaginative and, in a sense, worldly the people there were compared to ordinary central Canadians, whose general character seemed to me to be marked by self-concealing inarticulateness, dull platitudes, and conformist consumerism. It seemed to me that most Canadians were incredibly wrong about Newfoundland. They dismissed the richness of its culture, blamed it for its misfortunes and were ignorant of its history and beauty. I couldn't move there fast enough.

MH: Alexander MacLeod, writing about The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, suggests that Newfoundland is "a brutal topography which holds a deterministic power over its inhabitants." (3)

JS: In a sense, yes. Many Newfoundland artists, such as E. J. Pratt, David Blackwood and Gerry Squires, have focussed on how the harsh environment has shaped people's lives and swallowed their hopes and labours. You can't own or fence the sea. It smashes everything it touches. The best you can do is balance on it, dodge it and snatch a precarious living from it. Newfoundland has never had the kind of manufacturing economy or urban society that deludes itself into feeling detached from the surrounding topography. Even as Newfoundland's population has grown, it has not been able to support all the people born there. Some have always had to emigrate to find work. It used to be said that there were more Newfoundlanders in Boston than in St. John's.

Topography and nature have clearly narrowed the ways in which Newfoundland could develop, but so have the forces of empire, commerce and politics. The fishery was lucrative for a time, but the profits didn't stay in Newfoundland or trickle back down to the outport fishing people. Newfoundland has been both ignored and exploited by the greater powers around it.

MH: Are you back now to being an Ontarian?

JS: No. I'm back in Ontario, but, although I sound more or less like other people here and therefore fit in with a kind of invisibility, I don't really feel at home. The foundation to reality is quite different here. It's blander, more withheld and perhaps slower and more ancient, more remote. It's certainly been more overlaid by human occupation and construction, but I'm not sure what all the occupation and construct are connected to underneath. I miss the dramatic clashing so close to the surface in Newfoundland--the sea, obviously, the theatrical weather, the emotional light and how all those things show up in people. But I'll work on being a foreigner here--for now anyway. I'm still in a cold, rocky place. I love the hardwood trees here. I always missed oak, black walnut, beech and hickory trees in Newfoundland.


MH: "A way to corner myself is what I want," you write in The Grey Islands; "Some blunt space I can't go beyond." I'm interested in the attraction to manifestations of nature at odds with language itself and also at odds with a sense of purpose. Was there, in that early book, the impulse to get close to that which cannot be articulated, the impulse to put yourself into the unknown or unmanageable?

JS: Yes, all of that. The narrator wanted-and I also wanted, for slightly different but parallel reasons--to force himself to some honesty, wring out of himself some fundamental truths. He feels he has been hiding from himself to an extent, living with contradictions, mixed feelings, lies and denials. He wants to strip himself down to bare essentials, to some core of being.

He also wants to get as far as possible from human culture and human society in order to feel the real meaning of words in a wordless universe. I did have this experience. I had with me a battery-powered radio that was able to pick up only one station--the CBC--only intermittently. (I had no telephone, no way of getting in touch with anyone.) I remember lying in bed one cold, windy night fiddling with the crackling radio in the dark and for one lucky stretch of ten or fifteen minutes picking up quite clearly a performance of a Mozart piano sonata. It was honestly like hearing it in remote outer space. All of the distant human world, all of human personality and human history were contained in that music. I heard each note, each interval, each shift in tempo and emphasis with incredibly concrete clarity. It was as though I was witnessing the essence of the human spirit, its impulse to speak, to express sequences and structures of feeling and intent. I guess it was a classic desert-island experience.

MH: The mental worlds we have historically constructed to admire nature seem to depend on the romantic gaze, when one is struck dumb by the inability to express sublimity. Your most recent book, Lookout, (4) seems to ignore the very mystique of this estrangement. The apparently inanimate elements in nature are very telling in your poems. You follow their intricate plots and discover intentionality in them: mineral and vegetal life pursue their own interests, they are never static. A seed "opens a trunk of its mother's letters," or branches are "so clearly meant to draw something / in from the light." The view is not one of remoteness, of the stark greatness of Newfoundland tourism advertisements, which you parody in some of your poems. Your poems enact much more acute experiences, states of perception that makes the observer oblivious to his identity. Precisely, the very notion of being human seems an alien notion in that part of the world, in contrast to the shapes and behaviour of nature's items, which deliver clear messages in specific detail.

JS: Humans, in the Western tradition especially, seem to conceive of themselves as infant gods in the process of becoming fully immortal and omnipotent. We assume we'll be able to decipher everything in the world and reconfigure it as a handy resource or plaything. We project our myths onto nature as though onto a movie screen without seeing what's actually there. We live in a technological fortress that is also a prison. We become more and more culturally inbred, sterile, artificial. We cut ourselves off from the real currents of energy that could bring meaning and power into our lives. Maybe we'd be better off living like ancient people who thought of the things we can't control--death, love, aging, weather, etc.-as gods. Maybe our gods ought to have animal heads, tree limbs, the faces of galaxies.

MH: There is another prejudice in landscape-gazing that your book overcomes: the idea of erasure, of the pastness of the past. You confront this approach with the assurance of solidity that items in nature themselves contain: time is not seen as dissolving but as reliably keeping and condensing the objects, "the sea" is "the god of accountants," gathering "the earth's broad fabric falling in folds and presses it into stone." Could your poems be seen as a kind of communication or language between nature and us--readers--that transforms paleontology and botany into lyric and philosophy?

JS: I don't think I can speak for "nature"--only for myself, and about the contortions we humans go through as part of nature, wrestling with nature, i.e., with everything we haven't made and are trying to control. As a person of this era, I've absorbed the scientific-materialist way of seeing the world. I try to re-imagine the science, blur the lines on our maps, enlarge my sense of the present, lived moment and reunite emotion and knowledge. I see language as our first, defining technology, the first virtual reality--an artificial cultural dwelling we could share as a people, a condensed portable model of the universe we could use for redesigning our environment. I think of poetry as a way of using the technology of language to break through the walls of our cultural dwelling to try to encounter what's actually around us and in us. This is quixotic. A crucially important but hopeless struggle. Poets try to use language to break out of language into a direct pre-linguistic relationship with the world.

MH: Your most recent book of poems, Lookout, makes us look closely at rock, its crevices, also at the soil, the moss, roots, tree trunks. They point at the alchemy of basic elements meshing into one another: blood into rock first, in "Book Rock," and in other poems, which so very minutely discover the metabolism of those apparently un-lyrical or un-epic spaces in a nature that contains very few objects, where life waits and revives. Rock is itself conceived of a text, time compressed in stories decipherable through stone and vegetation.

Have you felt, writing these poems, a different kind of approach to Newfoundland landscape from that of the bleak wilderness that surrounded you in The Grey Islands?

JS: In The Grey Islands I tried to imagine the impact the island's harsh landscape and climate had on the people who lived there. I thought of those people as courageous and venerably crazy, like people who had attempted to build homes in an uninhabitable element like fire or air. In the more recent work, in "The Limestone Barrens" section of Look-out, I suppose I'm approaching the stark landscape at the tip of Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula in more universal terms as an expression of the vast antiquity of life, a lesson in how life has always had to struggle, adapt, change, and relinquish itself. This involves an enlargement of perspective. Looking out from within the shelter of human culture--from within the technological construct of the city-we tend to see every human problem as something science or medicine ought to be able to solve. On the limestone barrens it's clear we're dancing with forces way beyond us in scope, forces we'll never control.

(1) Lawrence Mathews, "Report from the Country of No Country." Essays on Canadian Writing 82 (Spring 2004).

(2) McClelland Pc Stewart, 1985, and Brick Books, 2000.

(3) Alexander MacLeod, "History Versus Geography in Wayne Johnston's The Colony of Unrequited Dreams," Canadian Literature: The Literature of Atlantic Canada 189 (Summer 2006).

(4) McClelland & Stewart, 2010.
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Title Annotation:IN CONVERSATION
Author:Lerena, Maria Jesus Hernaez
Publication:ARC Poetry Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Geographic Code:1CNEW
Date:Dec 22, 2012
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