For this week's writer feature we're proud to introduce Geoffrey Morrison: poet and recent finalist in Lemon Hound's Poetry Prize!
from "Lyric Guy"
Lyric Guy V
Yesterday some ghosts whooped out of my tankard.
I whooped them back in with my McEnroe bellows. But for how long?
Ghosts suck. This is because you can’t crunch them.
Next year, in Dianapolis, we will hatch a man,
And he will eat all specters. I nominate McMenamin.
Q: Who is? A: He said “fuckpants” on the piano.
Lyric Guy VII
Marshia Crangular is extremely pensive.
She says, “I puzzle about dents, solars – gaps and voids in the sky.”
In her latest bluebook, she wonders if we live in a mouth.
I agree with that wonder. She says what we’ve all been thinking.
Exception of course is the barbers, who glory in hair.
They strongly dispute that any it could be even different.
Hi Geoffrey! Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
I grew up in White Rock, which is more or less the southwesternmost corner of the Canadian mainland. There I enjoyed standing on piers and looking out at the sea with a plaintive expression, probably because I couldn't swim very well. I did my undergraduate degree in English literature at Simon Fraser, where I spent my time alternately falling headlong into antiquity and trying to read the names on the hulls of distant cargo ships. Right now I’m finishing up my MA, also in English, at the University of Western Ontario, and in September I’ll be starting my PhD at the University of Toronto in the same discipline. I like gas-station food, Gregorio Allegri, and wool.
Do you think your academic pursuits have a deep influence on your writing, and if so, in what ways? How do you balance both kinds of work?
I’m not sure I could do one without the other. Well, no, I could write poetry without scholarship, but it would be a different kind; I don’t think I could be a scholar without poetry. I think a great deal about history, and have been curious about it since I was very small. But I realized sometime in my late teens that history mattered to me less for its own sake and more for its ability to stimulate my imagination, to encourage me to imagine untruths or not-yet-truths. This is probably why you’ll see, in my poems, historical names and places set quite amiably alongside things that are resolutely of my own time and place. My scholarly work, which focuses on the English Renaissance, usually tries to attend to both the historical and the aesthetic – I write about the history of poetic making, and because I think that poetry gathers its materials from the world this means that my histories of poetry are also histories of odd little things in the world. An example: yesterday I had to learn what people in the Renaissance thought that earwax was for in order to understand a complicated conceit of George Chapman’s. As it happens, they knew it keeps the bugs out.
Having the patience to untangle windy Ciceronian sentences, flat-out-wrong cosmologies, and learned jokes about angelic digestion has helped me to be a sufficiently weird poet. Weirdness is always, always, always my goal.
I've seen your work appear before in ditch and more recently you were short-listed for Lemon Hound's 2013 poetry prize for a Sestina entitled "Lungfish." Could you tell us a bit about the composition of the poem, and perhaps more generally about how you think about poetic form in relation to content?
It was September, 2012, and I was living in Burnaby, B.C., in an uncanny little pocket sandwiched between two highways, two lakes, a cemetery, and a bunch of those overflow municipal office buildings that always have their lights on but nevertheless look mostly empty. I was prone to going on long walks. The basketball court behind the cemetery was very real – right down to the ditch and the leaves. I even took pictures. It stank of wet death and I wondered if anybody ever actually used it. At the same time, I’d been reading W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn, and acquainting myself a bit with Ficino and Renaissance Neoplatonism in preparation for a grant application (which further helps to answer your previous question). Know, too, that when I was a kid I loved basketball, and I still have a fairly good memory for the rules. So these disparate strands were all bouncing around in my head, mostly while I was staring at trees on the Skytrain. When my fantastic creative writing instructor at SFU, Broc Rossell, prompted the class to write a poem containing “mountains of silence,” they cohered very fast. How else could I convey the mute, melancholy accretion of stuff but with a sestina? But then the sestina imposes its own progression and its own story, and that is where the real magic happens. I don’t think it’s wrong or dismissive of this particular form to say that it writes itself.
The simplest way I can address how I think form and content interrelate is that I want to make a reader feel so that they might know. What might they know? Maybe how to feel. I want to write poems in response to “I don’t know how to feel.” This is why I value form so much, and why I want my contents to come out of it, rather than for my form to reaffirm content.
Reading your poems, I'm really interested in the texture of your language, the baroque diction, and sense of play. Lines like, "A kettle of lungs and cinder-blackened salamanders," and "Gargoyle-grotto of a garbage can, a basketball court," are really inventive. Yet, you're also drawing on some very traditional tropes (the medieval-bestiary descriptions of salamanders in the first line) and devices (the Anglo-Saxon alliteration and masculine caesura bisecting the second line). Can you tell us a little bit about what sort of influences you've assimilated, what sort of ideas your current work engages with?
I don’t read very much Seamus Heaney but his “Tollund Man” taught me how to reconcile ancient and modern, and how this reconciliation is political: the Iron Age bog body comes out from under the ground perfectly preserved and resembles, reminds us, of other ones. In an entirely different vein – one which I think speaks to your comment about play – Donald Barthelme. Most of the poems I’ve written since I’ve come to Ontario have been, for want of a better word, goofy, and I learned this from Barthelme’s ridiculous deadpan pronouncements. He is probably the single greatest influence on my latest year of writing. John Berryman’s Dream Songs and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake showed me some other paths to goofitude through play with syntax. The alliteration is Berryman, a little bit, but naturally also Old English verse and especially Gerard Manley Hopkins. I have a lot of admiration for people who write “experimental” or “conceptual” poems but can also attend to word-by-word craft; Inger Christensen is a genius at this, and Srikanth Reddy’s Voyager is another good example.
Maybe because I never really got over Lucretius, I am some kind of a materialist – my poems are usually about things (as opposed to ideas, or themselves, or nothing). Things occupy palpable space in the world and in the lived experiences of people. If you stare at them for long enough – if, for instance, you are working in a store and your field of vision for six or eight hours is pretty much this bag, that register – they can acquire an animus, crash the party where all the ideas are, sneak into your dreams. I consequently try to write poems that are things, in the hope that they snag a passing ghost (ie a feeling, a nebulous content) on their prickly surfaces. Making a prickly, thingy poem means close attention to form, sound, and texture. I want a poem to be the flesh made word.
What do my ghosts usually look like? When they aren’t total goofs, they often have something to do with history, social class, geography, or empire. Although lately I’ve been finding theology very interesting, and Jan Zwicky’s Lyric Philosophy is teaching me to be a little less afraid of ideas.
Where will see your work next? And writers for whom we should keep an eye out?
Because it’s MA research crunch-time, I’m not sure where my poems will next appear; this addresses the question of academic/writerly balance from a more practical perspective. Look for the writers I worked with in a creative-writing group at UWO – John Nyman, Nathan Tebokkel, Brittany Harnum, and Derek Shank. They’re all very different from one another and all interesting.
Geoffrey Morrison is from White Rock, British Columbia. He has studied English literature at Simon Fraser University (BA) and the University of Western Ontario (MA), and will begin his PhD at the University of Toronto in September, 2014. His poems can be found in ditch, and at Lemon Hound.