Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Garry Thomas Morse

Share |
The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Garry Thomas Morse

This spring, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer's Craft class conducted interviews with Canadian poets as part of a class project. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book throughout June. In this interview, Malvern Collegiate students Connor and Matt speak with poet Garry Thomas Morse (Rogue Cells / Carbon Harbour, Talonbooks, 2013).

Connor & Matt:

Hey, we are Connor and Matt, two Writers Craft students from Toronto who are lucky enough to have the chance to interview you. You have opened us to a new side of poetry and we look forward to working with you!

Garry Thomas Morse:

Hey Connor and Matt! Thanks for your kind words and excellent questions.

C & M:

Your book, After Jack, brings up your “homage” and “tribute” to the author Jack Spicer, a 1950s poet who revolutionized the serial type poem. You also bring up Lorca in your description, and I wonder if you were paying tribute to Spicer paying tribute to Lorca, as Spicer had his own tribute, After Lorca. In writing like these poets, are you trying to bring back the serial style and crediting Lorca and Spicer?


Indeed, Jack Spicer felt that he had created not translations of Lorca’s poems in Spanish but “transformations.” A good example before Spicer is Ezra Pound’s Homage to Sextus Propertius, which has selected “transformations” of Latin elegies by the Roman poet Sextus Propertius. This is sometimes how poetry is, a correspondence between poets living or dead that can transcend centuries.

The point is that rather than writing his “Hey Mr. President I don’t like your war” poem like everybody else, Pound chose to unearth this critical voice from Propertius, a poet in another distant time, thus creating a particular link between the past and his present. Spicer thought that the poet was a time mechanic, and maybe that is what he was getting at. As for writing After Lorca, I think it enabled Spicer to find a unique emotional and aesthetic plane in which he could express himself, even if it meant wearing a Lorca mask to do so.

It may be topical to add that my first book Transversals for Orpheus included these kind of “transformations” of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus, which took many semantic swerves (loose interpretation of meaning) to try and echo some of the Germanic sonics in the original text that still exist upon a transversal (sure, why not?) in the roots of English.

Canadian poetry has many great examples of serial poetry, and one of my favourite works is Roy Kiyooka’s Pear Tree Pomes. If I was trying to do anything with After Jack, it was to bring some more attention to Spicer’s aesthetic approach. Also, I was simply trying to keep this kind of thing going, to carry on this serial chain letter of the dead, just as someone is one day going to feel an uncontrollable (and likely uncomfortable) compulsion to write a homage to me called Re:Morse and let’s hope I’m long gone by then!

Also, you should check out Dina Del Bucchia’s Coping with Emotions and Otters, which reminds me a bit of Spicer’s absurdist kind of humour, also mostly in serial form.

C & M:

In your poetry book, Discovery Passages, while reading your poem “500 Lines,” we were intrigued by your repetition in the line “I will not speak Kwak’wala.” We researched about the language and found there are only 200 fluent speakers of the language, are you fluent in Kwak’wala? If so how does this influence your work?


Yes, in this “Nation” we call Canada, so many Native kids were forbidden to speak their language in school. As punishment, they had to write out that sentence five hundred times. I am not fluent in Kwak’wala (I have only an infinitely small vocabulary) and it is not commonly spoken off reserve or small community sites. I’ve been involved in more than one Native language initiative but for one reason or another, these projects never seem to get anywhere. I’ve been in touch with teachers of Kwak’wala in Port Hardy, BC (territory acknowledgement pending…) and they predict that the language will die off in only a few years. There’s also a lot of tension, even over younger generations teaching Kwak’wala off-reserve on the mainland. However, right now there’s a young lady about your age who works at her family’s sushi restaurant in Port Hardy who’s learning Kwak’wala and she may be the only hope for the language. Wow, sounds kind of like The Hunger Games, huh?

C & M:

After reading Discovery Passages and discovering that it was your way of portraying “the appropriated, stolen, and scattered world” I began to wonder if you find yourself well connected with the heritage of your ancestors; if so, how does this affect all of your poetry?


I tend to feel my connection with my Kwakwaka’wakw ancestors is a process of discovery, and that process is ever ongoing. At the Campbell River Writers Festival, after a reading, author Jeanette Taylor told me that I reminded her of my great-grandfather Chief Billy Assu, a notable First Nations leader, and that added to this sense of collective memory. There is something of a colonial interruption and then there is also a bit of shying away from a deeper more intense pre-colonial history, whether it is touches of the shamanic that so many poets have loved, or more the “theatrical madness” inherent in certain sacred rituals that bear comparison to the idea of the “catharsis” in Ancient Greek theatre.

During seasonal shifts at certain times of year, when the variations of light are particularly intense, there is an overwhelming force that makes me almost like a crazy person — certainly crazy to all the nice sane people in an office with no light but blue light and freezing air conditioning — but this restlessness, this atavistic impetus to do something, to change location, to keep moving, to collect things and create art for winter Hamat’sa ceremonies — this is something I cannot shy away from.

The Kwakwaka’wakw are wary of being too inactive and being in any state that seems too close to death. Perhaps the equivalent is modern city life. They also believe in a kind of spiritual intuition and I take this fairly seriously. I am learning that I need to pay more attention to this instinct, to follow it as much as possible. This can be tricky, as in a cultural, familial, or aesthetic sense, I suddenly find myself in a strange territory of sheer inventiveness that has no direct trade language with the “Nation” called Canada.

C & M:

Being part Kwakwaka’wakw and part Cockney, does one background influence your poetry more than the other? How do these influences differ?


Yes, I grew up around my grandmother, who was from a family of Cockney Jews in the “rag trade” and came to Canada as a warbride when she married an Irish Canadian soldier. Also, my grandfather Thomas Assu (whose middle name I have) married a woman who was aboriginal and Scottish, so there’s quite possibly a lot going on inside of me — no wonder I hate myself so! To put it mildly, there is the perpetual echo of outsiders that slips into all of my work, moving through countless moments in time, in thinking of Arthur Schnitzler’s or George Orwell’s exploration of anti-Semitism or Stephen Dedalus’ wish to wake up from the nightmare of history or even Rob Roy!

There are also many aboriginal works that have yet to be written on these complex subjects. As for poetry, Wanda John-Kehewin’s In the Dog House and Jordan Abel’s The Place of Scraps are books that will definitely impact First Nations literature, and that is just an understatement. Of course, the key theme would be the individual at the mercy of the group (or as Spicer called it, “the goop”), and this is everywhere and perhaps this IS the nightmare of history.

C & M:

Are you currently writing a new collection of poems? If so, how will these poems be different than your past work? Will you try to replicate similar styles as well?


I’ve been in a bit of a bind for the past few years, as Karl Siegler was my editor for Discovery Passages, and when he retired, I was asked to serve as poetry editor at Talonbooks and in my efforts to plan the poetry list, which I have already scheduled through 2015, I felt obliged to put off my own book of poetry indefinitely. At first I was going to submit my next book of poetry to another press but Talon expressed interest in it, and my work is most in alignment with this press, and always has been.

Anyway, you’ve certainly got the scoop, as I am presently leaving that post as Talonbooks poetry editor/online promotions person/factoidotum to more actively pursue my own writing life. This also involves moving out of Vancouver INSTANTER and checking out more of that “Nation” we keep imagining is Canada. So watch out, Toronto! Idle No Morse is on the march!

Actually my next book of poetry does engage some astonishing works in Canadian poetry but for me, it is vastly different from anything I’ve done before. Some of the things you have got me to talk about are there, but I would say it is different from all my other books and perhaps more innovative. I realize that a lot of writers see that something works and then they want to repeat it but I’m exactly the opposite. Discovery Passages continues to work and I am grateful for that, even if it is to me kind of what Beethoven’s “Moonlight” sonata was to him, it doesn’t mean people shouldn’t or won’t continue to enjoy it. Most of all, I’ve had the honour of connecting with a number of First Nations communities and also that of having the book taught and explored by uberbright writers I admire, such as Lorraine Weir and Sharon Thesen at UBC, Jenny Sampirisi at Ryerson and Rachel Zolf at the University of Calgary.

Hey, maybe I’ll just do everything in the next book about Beethoven and then Tomson Highway will read it! So awesome sauce.

C & M:

You have written novels and poetry books; have you ever considered channeling your ideas through a different style of writing, like becoming a screenwriter or non-fiction writer? If not, do you feel your work could be adapted into a screenplay?


I tend to think of myself as an “idea-man,” which is perhaps not so far from sandwich board man, but the question is really how those ideas are being put to use. Obviously, I didn’t start writing poetry for the big bucks, and while my experimental fiction does well enough, it is not made to meet any kind of mass market. I’ve been approached about these kinds of projects but only in such a way that they would seem to distort and reduce the potent complexity of these ideas. And for what, money, attention, being known? Stupidly, I have no idea why that’s not enough to sway me, and that’s probably why I’ve turned away so many beguiling offers, because such a purely imagistic medium may not be suitable to me or my work.

That said, it would be interesting to see a filmic interpretation of my novel series The Chaos! Quincunx. My next book that is part of this series includes two novels: Rogue Cells about celebrity terrorists who commit terrorist acts in an imaginary aboriginal territory on high alert called New Haudenosaunee and Carbon Harbour about an eco-dystopia overrun by oil-eating sea cucumbers called aquacukes and extra extra large composting worms that slip in and out of gamer’s pollution fantasies. However, the two books together put a kind of hyper-Plains patois in parallel with the language to be found in The Age of Aquarium. Some might even consider this poetic. Coming to a sandwich board near you!

Garry Thomas Morse is the author of four books of poetry, including Discovery Passages, finalist for the Governor General’s Award and the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. Along with his first collection of stories Death in Vancouver, his experimental fiction series The Chaos! Quincunx includes Minor Episodes / Major Ruckus and Rogue Cells / Carbon Harbour (Fall 2013), all available from Talonbooks.

Matthew. Born in the valley of Kelowna, this boy became a man in his travels of the world. Learning to hold a pencil, riding a bicycle and now becoming aware of how important it is to keep track of his life. A learned individual who is living in Toronto with a dream to create. His siblings and parents keep him company as his nimble mind distracts him from his work. This blonde Germanic human has had the pleasure of finishing his high school career at Malvern and is continuing his education in film at Concordia. He hopes to one day be famous in his own mind.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page