The Music In Between Words and Werewolves
Jeramy Dodds, Canadian poet and sometime archaeologist, released his first poetry collection, Crabwise to the Hounds, to much fanfare in 2008. Poetry Foundation hailed the book as ‘the year’s most exciting Canadian debut, hands down.’ Crabwise to the Hounds went on to win the Trillium Book Award for Poetry and was short-listed for the 2009 Griffin Prize alongside old hands Kevin Connelly, Mick Imlah, and Derek Mahon.
Dodds’ wasabi-infused free verse is sprinkled with its own odd Cat in the Hat magic, twisting familiar idioms into unexpected meditations while exploring the sublime potential of myth, metaphor, and the English language. Reading Dodds’ poetry, one is first struck by a sense of familiar smells, distilled universal moments; yet, his language stretches to the very edge of consciousness. At times, you’re being led up a familiar garden path, then, all of a sudden you find yourself bird-perched on a wire staring down the end of a blaring tuba. Likened to a meeting of Kipling, Ashbery and Blake, Dodds leans towards the controlled avant-garde, the amusingly absurd and the enigmatically musical.
Currently based out of Iceland, Dodds is hard at work on his newest balancing act: translations of the 13th Century Poetic Edda. I caught up with him one foggy evening in the Icelandic countryside where we broke bread and sliced words.
In a sense, Crabwise to the Hounds, is a bric-a-brac dealer’s collection—an assemblage of the lost, missing and bruised. (I have a feeling this has something to do with your previous incarnation as an archaeologist.) So what was the most interesting dig you ever worked on? and was there any particular find that, er—crabbed its way into Crabwise?
I’ve worked on a number of excavations from Paleo-Indian to Post-contact in southern Ontario, as well as a number of “property assessments,” where we try to establish the archaeological potential of lands doomed to be developed. This has affected me in many ways, I’m sure, although I don’t consciously write about this type of work. In fact, I try to steer clear of it. I’m sure it will rear its head at some point, but for now its influence is circumstantial.
Ah, yes, your poem “Crown Lands” has a certain whiff of property assessments.
“Crown Lands” is a sketch of a hillock at my parents’ farm in Orono, Ontario, where I grew up. These types of poems work in reverse to archaeology for me. I wasn’t taking pieces of a material past and trying to re-assemble them into a narrative. I was taking an idea of my own past and those of an invented narrative, shattering the narrative, and sowing the shards in myth, image and metaphor.
At times it does almost seem as if you are purposely mystifying the language.
I can see it coming across that way. Poets are often “making strange” to flush out some sort of essence. It doesn’t always work though. Evidently it is not a pristine process, scraps of subconscious get caught in the mill, and it is an experiment — poetry is an experiment — and it so often fails. But I’d like to think of some types of poetry as being about re-discovering a future. Nudging the reader towards an intellectual engagement that may or may not influence the way they produce texts, see the world, or self-mythologize.
You’ve said before that for you writing poetry was motivated by the challenge of creating alchemy through language. What exactly does that mean? Have you experienced this alchemical moment while reading other poets?
I don’t really want to make “gold,” I really have no idea what “gold” as a poem looks like. I know I’ve seen it a number of times, there are tons of brilliant poems out there, but my cognition of “gold” gets shifted so easily. I’ve enjoyed a lot of French symbolic poetry at various times, Gustave Kahn and Stéphane Mallarmé are among my favorites, but I haven’t gone back to them for a while now. I’m sure I will again, and they may seem equally as brilliant, or not. I like the idea of poetic alchemy making a type of gold that turns into lead if it comes into contact with water, or failing to make gold but coming up with bathtubs of decent champagne.
So are you saying that the moment is an accident? a coincidence? or, something like the divine spark?
I like to think of it as a divine spark but I realise it’s predominantly a mishap, or the result of a masterfully trained eye and ear capable of a process beyond our understanding. But it all comes down to the reader, critic or metallurgist at the end. Being an alchemist would certainly imply certain complimentary abilities as a metallurgist; presumably, you’d have to be able to identify your product. I’m not interested in the metallurgic aspects, just the maze of beakers and Bunsen burners, the potential and the brief glimpses of something that might be gold.
So really you’re talking about the use of metaphor?
Definitely. In particular metaphor’s ability to let us in on the sublime; when the transmuted aspects of metaphor really do their job, when the language strains, and the reader and/or writer just sit there wondering how they can insight an encore.
Your homespun neologisms and idioms take us from the familiar down unexpected side-alleys, bizarre landscapes. Was there an intention to hold the reader close, but, inevitably, take them on a pyrotechnic joy ride?
I tend to write poems I myself would read, I want to be surprised as well. I’m easily surprised by language, so I’m sure some of this comes across as the “joy” rides. The neologisms are primarily of the bait-and-switch variety; starting us on a trail we’ve been down before but detouring us before we get too comfortable. I don’t think this always works, but that’s the idea.
Your poems are crammed full of enjambment, leading the reader into a maze that would sit quite comfortably at 17th Century Versailles (I noted the brilliant Bonaparte photo in CV2); a strategy that you work to great effect in “The Epileptic Acupuncturist”. This poem truly sparkles when you read it live. Can you tell me a little about how it came into being?
“The Epileptic Acupuncturist” is an “object lesson” in the old bait and switch. Mixing the metaphors and clichés, gently. One pulse of the blender. It started with the first line, “People that get their rocks off in glass houses…” and snowballed from there.
Well, maybe that’s not completely accurate. It took a while to get this poem into its semi-functional state. A really slow snowball, perhaps, as if the blender was set on “glacial.” I must have had it sitting around for a couple of years, adding to it here and there. Poems like these can go on forever, you could easily keep adding to them every ten weeks or so.
Have you ever been subjected to the acupuncturist’s needle?
Do you have a concept or an image of a final piece in mind when you approach them?
Tonally perhaps, but generally, no. I don’t really have a set pattern when it comes to subject. Often the subject appears when I have been working on a number of pieces at once. If it does at all. And as these pieces get further along, as each line influences its predecessor, and visa versa, I might try to corral them towards being “about” something, but if they don’t want to go I don’t force the issue.
So does this have something to do with the subconscious working its own thing out?
I don’t think it’s primarily the subconscious. Maybe it is omnipresent in the initial “writing” stage, but I edit over such a long period that the subconscious’ hold might diminish somewhat. Who knows what’s really getting the upper hand? I can’t say I feel all that obliged to find out.
So if some acclaimed lit mag were to accost you to write a poem, say on Nixon and the Watergate scandal, would you feel comfortable with that?
Definitely not. I’d tell them to beg off. Why? Has The New Yorker asked you to get a hold of me?
Your language is cocksure, at times self-conscious, yet it digs deep, conjuring flashbacks, reviving olfactory sensations; it appears, indeed, that you have managed to strafe these alchemical moments you talk about. What poem do you consider the closest you have come so far?
I haven’t come close enough to make any claims. The crux of it all is that maybe language isn’t even the way to get there. Language can be an awfully clunky tool that often seems to be made of nothing more than potential. But yes, there are moments out there.
And then, there is something of Milton’s Paradise Lost in Crabwise.
Yes, one of my favourites. I enjoy the feral description of Hell, the Angels on both sides, and Eve’s chat with Satan. A big part of what pushes Eve to eat the infamous apple is not only that it was after noon and she was beginning to get hungry, but also that she envied the beasts so much. After all, one of them (a speaking snake no less) had eaten an apple and no harm had come to him. Did God love beasts more?
Aha, here we have those wild creatures again.
I’m a big fan of the “beasts.” I was trying to capture some of Milton’s trope, but also to make animals into more than allegories, metaphoric catch alls, or “our others,” but participants in narratives alongside us. Our relationship with animals is predominately violent, so it’s easy to prey on them poetically, but I hope I stray from an anthropomorphic standard.
Carrying with this train of thought: I find allusions to Aesop’s fables, Brother’s Grimm, Doctor Seuss and Lewis Carroll in Crabwise (obviously an inspiration for the poem “Rabbit”). Can you tell me about your relationship with folklore, fairytales, myth building, and how they wheedle their way into your work?
I’ve an on-going love for the Greek and Roman myths, obviously a fodder store of epic proportions for a whole host of writers. Using mythopoeia as a replacement for one’s own experiences is an obvious way to move beyond the individual and the idiosyncratic. Couching thoughts and experiences in this sort of structure can open them up beyond the purely private. I tend to use it to outwardly project my more lyrical concerns, enacting and embodying them in mythopoeias. Nothing new, I know – but there you go.
And what about that wobbly zaniness?
Actually, one of the things I enjoy about your poetry is your sense of irony and humour. It seems to me that too many poets take themselves way too seriously.
As Werner Herzog pointed out, while eating one of his shoes, working with the immaterial, such as filmmakers and poets do, makes us all into clowns at some point, regardless of how seriously we want to be taken. After all, it’s illusionary work. He goes on to talk about the world being in danger due to a lack of adequate images. That we need to develop images in order to better deal with the world deteriorating around us; create a ‘new’ grammar of images, in order to respond precisely. I take it that some of these images must include the absurd. A successful comic piece is equally as hard to pull off as a serious, deeply lyrical meditation.
I imagine it is because we are scared of humour’s hotline to infallible honesty. But the great thing about this type of discussion is that we can easily say that art is capable of doing both at the same time, that there is room for all aesthetics. And there is.
Critics have likened Crabwise to Christian Bök’s Eunoia, in particular your experimental approach to rediscovering language. How do you see you see your collection alongside Bök’s?
Honestly, I don’t think there is much of a comparison here. Bök is doing things I can only hope to. We’re both interested in experimentation, but we go about it quite differently. I’m flattered by the comparison though.
Tell me a little about how you approached your transliteration of the Ho Chi Minh CIA tapes when everything was in Vietnamese and you don’t speak a word of it; and later, how did this experiment unfold in your poetic interpretations of Glenn Gould.
I bought a shoebox of cassette tapes from Ebay, which were advertised as CIA wiretaps of Ho Chi Minh from the Sixties. They were only one side of a conversation. So I listened to the rhythms, the cadences and tones, over and over again as I drove to and from work, and then started matching some of the phrasings to English phrasings.
With the two longer Glenn Gould transliterations, “The Easiest Way to Empty a Seashell is to Place it on an Anthill,” and “Glenn Gould Negotiates the Danube in the Company of a Raven,” some of the process was similar. I wanted them to be the poetic equivalent of a musical score, but with all the sense stimulation of a live performance. With “Glenn Gould Negotiates the Danube in the Company of a Raven,” I went so far as to slow down the recording of Gould playing the Bach Chromatic Fantasy in D Minor (BWV 903) on my computer so that I could chart it through a symbolic system of emotive tablature. I later expanded this into word choices (for instance, something like a star with a circle around it stood for an adjective, a shaded pyramid was a verb and so on). This was interrupted by listening to the recording, at various speeds, for auditory ballast. And somehow lines started to appear. These lines were later edited, so the poem shifted slightly, but its backbone is Bach by Gould.
It would be interesting to find out if any of your Vietnamese interpretations stand up to the CIA’s. Have you ever checked them out?
No. It’s obvious to me that they are extremely accurate translations. But I hope nobody tests me on that.
Chao ban. Bang koa kwueh khum?
You’ve said before that with the Crabwise poems you wanted to push to the edge of the imaginative connection, challenging how far you can get without it becoming absurd. It’s a fine line to tread—or swing. Do you feel that there is a risk, when cooking-up language to the extent you have, that the whole thing can start to loose its flavour? Tell me about that trapeze act — how far it took you, and what it cost.
The cost is the alienation of some readers. That’s to be expected. But I don’t really think there has been a cost, at least nothing I’ve been billed for, yet. I never felt like I was on a trapeze, though I did have a lot of fun writing the poems in Crabwise. I enjoy sitting in front of a page. It’s my favourite part of the day.
For me Crabwise to the Hounds has a clear message: It’s a dare, if you will; a dare to take the plunge together with Jeramy Dodds. Wasn’t it you who said you consider yourself the poet’s equivalent of a short-sighted and washed-up Evel Kinevel?
The more exciting moments of composition and editing do carry this sort of wonder for me: the thrill of vaulting double-decker buses with “English” as my main squeeze, waiting by a crowd-less podium with a bathtub of champagne.
Right now you’re hard at work translating the Icelandic Poetic Edda. Does it have something to do with digging for the roots of language? Do you find it useful to be in Iceland to work on them?
I’m not that interested in the roots of language. But it did seem like a good way to try and shake any habits I had developed in Crabwise. I want to be true to the Old Icelandic but my focus is on contemporary English.
It does help to be in Iceland and to hear the language that has only shifted slightly since the poems were written down. I’m trying to use modern Icelandic readings of the poems to imbed some musicality into the translations. It also helps to be within reach of the Codex Regius (the 13th century manuscript by an anonymous writer or writers where the poems are housed). Not that I get to touch it, but it’s here in a vault, somewhere.
Why specifically the Edda, is it a Nordic thing?
It is largely a Nordic thing. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in Scandinavia. But after being in Iceland for a year in 2001, I started to think seriously about translating the Edda. I wanted to try my hand at a long project in a language I could barely read. Not only to continue my experimentation with translation, and learn a new language, but also to force me into a new way of organizing my thoughts. I want to see what this does to my poetic practise. Good or bad.
How do you relate to this medieval body of work compared to what you were creating in Crabwise to the Hounds?
They are distinctively different. The Edda is much more involved with character dialogue and narrative, not to mention aphorisms. I don’t have to worry about the plots or narrations, it’s been taken care of, so I can just make sure the tint and tone and the subtle music of the work gets through. I sense a link between the two works may be some mythological aspects, but I think that’s stretching it a bit.
When do you expect a collection of your translations of the Poetic Edda to be released?
It looks like it will be a year or so from now.
In an interview with Alex Boyd of the Northern Poetry Review, you said that even as Crabwise was coming out you were already trying to sabotage your style and come up with something entirely different. Have you found your newest mutation already?
I haven’t. There is a danger of talking like this, that nothing noticeable will happen, that there is no escaping one’s style. And then you just look foolish. I’m still working this out.
But are you set on being a poet?
Practising poetry is akin to practising medicine. The reader is the one that will decide if and when my license is revoked.
Could you be a fiction writer or a dramatist?
Not at this point.
What changes in thought, tone, language, approach, do you notice in your poetry now compared to your earlier work – say ten years ago?
I’m more relaxed around the act of composition. I let each word decide what word sits next to it. I like to think that I’m better at writing poems but I doubt it. I’ve accepted that my teeth have sunk in too far to let go.
You’ve spent sojourns writing in Sweden, India, Greece, and now Iceland. Do you find you absorb different things from these environments that reflect somehow in your writing?
No doubt these countries have infiltrated my work. I can look at a number of poems I’ve done and remember where and when the impetus for each line broke through. Why the cohesion started to occur. Quite a few lines are from my time in these countries.
You appeared almost out of nowhere, won numerous smaller awards, the Trillium Prize, then were shortlisted for the Griffin. Poetry Foundation hailed Crabwise to the Hounds as the most exciting Canadian debut of the year. Last year CBC News named you as one of the ten best English-language poets in Canada, alongside Don McKay, Ken Babstock and Don Domanski. How do you feel about all the accolades and laurels?
I’m grateful. Funny, but it does feel like it happened to someone else. I realise these were just moments; attention has of course moved on or changed its mind. It’s extremely nice to be recognized, but you’d have to be a lunatic to expect it.
You see very few accomplished poets now who are not in the academic world. There is a danger that the many are writing for the few, i.e., poets are the only readers of poets. Do you believe that modern poetry has suffered because of this?
I don’t believe for a moment that poetry is suffering because of anything poetry has done. Modern audiences have become less engaged. This could be due to the pretentious connotations attached to poetry after years of appropriation by the academy. Or it could be, for the moment at least, an unfashionable or poor method of communication. The investment needed to enjoy poetry isn’t that substantial, so perhaps after all these thousands of years, people are just plain bored of it. I don’t see a correlation between the amount of people reading poetry and its worth. Nor do I think poetry is in any danger of disappearing, it’s too parasitic. As long as we’re here, it will be here.
Could you name me three lesser-known poets who we should be looking out for?
They aren’t lesser known in Canada, but those who haven’t heard of them should check out David O’Meara, Michael Lista and Sachiko Murakami.
4 Poems by Jeramy Dodds
Despite all the amputations you know you could just go out
and dance to the rock and roll stations, and it was all right.
I’m on the pier with my back against
the wrecking machine. Cyclones of terns
turn atop prop-churned debris.
This morning I feel like the wheel
you fell asleep at. Godstruck by the flag
clotted on its pole like the skin of a starved
animal. The downcoast ferry’s
run out of hearing. A spaghetti-strap dress,
a trembling gin, as you shift weight
to your wooden leg.
Ear to a conch, I hear
acrobats in waiting rooms
flipping through magazines,
the gull squawk of the guitarist’s hand
going to chord, stunt men falling
through awning after awning.
The sea is a soliloquy
in a buried warehouse.
But March is the month of swollen doors.
Boots bark through checkerweaves of ice.
Lacking prophylactics, we pull apart
to watch our dead sons run along your one
good leg. Hitting the deck, they hoist dust
to their meniscus shoulders.
The sea, a surface unworn by our movement.
Our shore leave, a landscape painted
with a brush made
from the hair of the dog
of those storm-closed roads,
as though a gale had come to town
and left wearing pelicans.
Two Riders, Four Werewolves
Piebald sky. Pitch.
The other side
of the river.
Wet mares. Amok.
is just ahead.
A raze. Guncrash.
Jon, get up a tree…
The Easiest Way to Empty a Seashell is to Place it on an Anthill
Don’t be frightened. Mr. Gould is here, he will appear in a moment. I am not, as you know, in the habit of speaking on any concert except the Thursday night previews, but a curious situation has arisen which merits, I think, a word or two. We are about to hear a rather, shall we say, unorthodox performance of the Brahms D Minor Concerto, a performance distinctly different from any I’ve ever heard, or even dreamt of for that matter…
– Leonard Bernstein introducing Glenn Gould playing
the Brahms D Minor Concerto Op. 15, April 9, 1962, New York
At first his right and left hands hover over the keys
before falling to the ivory
like a luggage-bombed Boeing.
His right hand on the trebles moving
at the rate it takes to stitch shut
the eyes of a hawk.
Left hand low and slow, corking
scraps of breath in perfume bottles.
His right is a palace revolution,
the King’s own gave them the keys.
Left hand like an ancient fish that has come
to enjoy long walks on the beach.
His right, lucky as finding a duffle of porn
the day after his girlfriend left.
His left, like drilling rain
pocking the pond before resting
like a cowboy in a hip bath,
smoking a cigar in front of the fire.
Meanwhile, his right walks like a woman
entering a dry stone hut knuckled on a hill,
her wounded revolutionary lying inside. She
carries a basket of bread covered with a towel.
His left makes the rich nervous.
His right skis to the North Star, seeing-eye dog of explorers.
His left pivots at the star and stumbles in perfect harmony
like an actor playing the Bullet-Riddled Man.
His right is under oath.
His left’s careful as a cobweb in a dry sink.
His right practices the foolproof rhythm method.
His left starts a pan-pan, jumps a tiger pit, rolls when it lands.
His right pulls the blinds.
His left lets one rip.
His right touches the keys like fruit
checked for ripeness by a football team.
His left stops in its tracks and shivers,
having found a corpse in the hedge.
His right shakes its moneymaker
at a nun, while his left
is held above the keys like a tongue
sickened by the fur of unbrushed teeth.
His right blames its parents and slams the door.
His left goes off its rocker, lets out
like a soccer match, crushing people in the stands.
His right is read the riot act while
his left sugars the sheriff ’s tank.
His right is winter, a pinhole of light broken open.
His left is a centaur having his way with a harpy
on top of the Golden Fleece.
His right thinks the garburator has turned
the left into a rosebud stump.
His left is flung on the guardrail like a car wreck.
His right turns back the tide.
His left is a combine going against the grain in the corn rows.
His right loves what you’ve done with your hair.
His left is a shut-in living through the eye in his door.
His right’s limp as a severed gooseneck.
His left gives shelter to the poor, feels around
in the dark for someone it knows.
His right has nothing left to lose, so it brings home the bacon,
it spreads the threshold of your aorta while
the left is lowered by a long G chord
into the borehole of your heart.
BRYNHILD’S RIDE DOWN HEL-WAY
When Brynhild died, they piled two pyres. The first was stoked for Sigurd; on the second, Brynhild burned. Wound in gold-embossed cloth, she was cremated in her wagon. Some say she drove that wagon all the way to Hel. But on her way, she was stopped by a giantess standing atop a grave mound.
So the Giantess says:
Don’t saunter through my rock-hewn
houselands; you’d be better bound
to your weaving, not driving to evening
with another lady’s man.
You know well by now, you’ve waded to the wrists
in that man’s blood. Why are you here, in my
pebbled paradise – a gilded southern girl rambling
with half-a-rock rolling round her rattlebrain?
Don’t bother berating me crag-lady!
I’ve sacked whole coasts with the longboats;
I guarantee that anyone who probes
our pedigree will find me better born.
The Giantess says:
Yes, you are Budli’s daughter,
but you duped Giuki’s kin, doused their luminous
hearth-seats with your false fare-thee-wells.
Stupid sow, you must know the old news
by now, Giuki’s kin duped me, violated
their vow, starved me of love, me,
the talcumed lady of this ironwood wagon.
If you’d like a nip of truth, we were eight sisters
reclining under an oak when that clever king swiped
the wax sheen from our swan-robes; I was twelve
when I promised myself to a pre-pubescent prince.
That king kindly raised me in his regal court
with all the lavish pomp a girl should want]°
But in Hlymdale, those who really knew me
named me, War-wraith-in-a-wrought-iron-helm.
So, with a swift downthrust I dispatched that old
Goth-king, Helmet-Gunnar, all the way to Hel;
I gave Auda bragging rights for that blood bath.
And for this Odin was livid with me.
In Skata-grove he caught me in a cage of shields,
their red white rims domed me in; each
night he sent a man to shatter my sleep,
a man still virgin to all and every fear.
Fafnir’s gold-hoard was won by this one man,
the one who’d never ‘felt’ fear, he launched his horse
over the blaze Odin made of the brush, and with sacks
of gold, posed stock still at the gates of my south-hall.
That prince of Danes cantered his piebald mount,
Grani, through my foster-father’s endless halls,
dishing out his gold hoard – a crown-opal of a man,
a real Viking among a procession of shams.
Like chaste siblings we shared a thin cot.
For eight nights we shut-eyes beside each other
never going at one another, never tapping
our crush with an off-hand brush or touch.
Then I heard what I needn’t hear:
I’d won fearless Sigurd through sheer treason.
His wife, Gudrun, acted the cuckold, and accused
me, Giuki’s golden-gal, of writhing with him.
Most of the living live too long in catatonic lament,
but not Sigurd and I. No fissure shall be shucked apart
between us. I’ll not be kept from him a moment more.
So, Ogress, stand down and sink into your mound!
Marc Vincenz was born in Hong Kong, but has lived in England, the US, Spain, Switzerland, and worked for many years in Shanghai. Currently based out of Iceland, he writes a bi-weekly column on the paranormal for the Reykjavik Grapevine,
Iceland’s only English-language newspaper, and is a regular contributor to Australia’s Trespass Magazine.
His poetry has appeared, or is forthcoming in various journals and magazines including FRiGG, Poetry Scotland: Online, Poor Mojo’s Almanac(k), Prick of the Spindle, Rumble, Sein und Werden, Danse Macabre and Right Hand Pointing.
Recently he has been collaborating with the Icelandic artist, Inga Maria Brynjarsdottir on a multimedia project entitled “A Pocketful of Crickets: The Cultural Revolution of a Capitalist Soul,” based on his last collection of poems.
“Prosthetics,” “Two Riders, Four Werewolves,” and “The Easiest Way to Empty a Seashell is to Place if on an Anthill,” all received book publication in Crabwise to the Hounds (Coach House, 2008). “Brynhild’s Ride Down Hel-way” is a translation of an Old Icelandic poem found in the Poetic Edda, and first appeared in Riddle Fence, Winter 2009. Copyright 2008 Jeramy Dodds.