Register Saturday | July 13 | 2024

Interview with Zach Wells

The Halifax-based poet and editor discusses his new book of poems, his populist streak, and his psychomachia disorder.

Writer and editor Zachariah Wells is the author of the poetry collection Unsettled; co-author of the children’s book Anything But Hank!; and editor of the anthology Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets. He lives in Halifax, where he works sporadically as an onboard attendant for Via Rail. Visit him online at or read his popular blog: Career Limiting Moves.

His new collection of poetry is
Track & Trace (Biblioasis, 2010)

Alessandro Porco: Can you talk a little about the new book’s title and central concerns?

Zach Wells: I think I first came up with the title after reading a passage in a story by Ivan Klíma (tr. Ewald Osers) in his book My First Loves. That passage is now the epigraph of the book. But I might have had the title in mind already, then read the passage, not sure. The title is kind of a key. As with the title of Unsettled, it doesn’t refer to a specific phrase or poem, but is something that links the poems, that accounts for these particular pieces being in this particular book. The poems, which I wrote over a period of ten or eleven years—during which time I was moving all over the place, Halifax, PEI, Iqaluit, Montreal, Resolute Bay, Vancouver—are mostly concerned with place and displacement, roots and rootlessness, flux and fixity. I don’t tend to think of them in such terms—I’m generally more focused on how a given poem is working word to word, line to line, than in how it relates to other poems or thematic concerns—but when it came time to put them together, those seemed to be the main things all of these poems had in common. They’re more or less the same preoccupations as the poems in Unsettled, I guess, but differently focused.

AP: Why differently? 

ZW: I’d say that, generally, Unsettled is a more civic book and T&T a more lyric book.  I’d also say that T&T is a more refined book. Unsettled had over 80 poems in it, many of them quite rough and raw, some of which I’d disown now if I could. I held on to the manuscript of T&T for quite a while because I wanted to have a book in which I was quite confident that each poem justified its own existence. It only has 34 poems in it and I don’t think I’ll feel as negative about any of them in five years as I do about some of the poems in Unsettled. T&T also reflects my growing interest in metrics and stanzaic structures. There are some rhymed and metred poems in Unsettled, but those things are foregrounded more in T&T. Another difference is that Unsettled, being focused on the eastern Arctic, is more geographically unified than T&T, in which the poems take place on all three coasts, points in between and even in Orkney, Scotland. 

AP: Reading the collection, two questions immediately came to mind: first, what does it mean for you to be, at times, a “nature” poet?

ZW: Well, now that I’ve been published in an anthology of nature poems, I guess I can’t dodge this one. “Nature,” like just about any modifier for the term “poet,”—to say nothing of the term “poet” itself for that matter—is nettlesome. I grew up in the country, in a valley an eighth of a mile from a dirt road in the middle of Prince Edward Island. “Nature” there is not the wilderness of northern Ontario, Quebec, BC, Nunavut, etc. Milton Acorn said, very memorably, of the Island, “Since I’m Island-born home’s as precise / as if a mumbly old carpenter, / shoulder-straps crossed wrong, / laid it out, / refigured to the last three-eighths of shingle.” There’s nothing in that landscape untouched by human hands. But this too is natural. I’m super leery of binary thinking about man-n-nature, I just don’t buy it. Plastic is natural. And dogs themselves are the product of human interventions—selective breeding—which are no less natural than willy-nilly fucking in a snowstorm. We tend to talk about human beings as tho they’re somehow apart from nature and we tend to forget that we’re not the only species capable of destruction and random acts of violence. The damming of a creek by a human with a machine is no more “artificial” than if it had been done by a beaver. I remember a beaver once wandering down our stream, only to encounter the dozer-built dam at the end. He turned around; guess he figured someone had beaten him to the punch, so he’d best look elsewhere.

AP: Second, and by extension, there are poems in the collection that seem to be thinking through the act of man’s intervention into nature or into natural action: for example, “Leg-in-Boot Square,” where the acts of intervention result in a “maiming.” Can you discuss that poem?

ZW: When I was living on Leg-in-Boot Square, which is in Vancouver’s False Creek neighbourhood, I’d tell people my address and it would usually get a chuckle and the person would invariably say it was a cute name. But the name comes from an actual event that is far from fucking cute: the washing up on shore of a severed leg still in its boot (a kind of prefiguration of the recent rash of foot-in-sneaker discoveries). The maiming is therefore literal, but also has to do with people not knowing what’s behind the name, how “False Creek” used to be, not so long ago, one of the shadiest, shittiest places in a very rough-n-tumble logging town, which now constantly congratulates itself on being an affluent “world-class city” and is in the midst of trying to figure out how to hide its open sores (not so different as when Lowry wrote of “This place where chancres blossom like the rose”) when the world comes to visit for the Olympics—in preparation for which another stretch of False Creek’s industrial waterfront is undergoing a facelift. So me calling it “maimed” is really just observation, peeling back the strata of construction and language and looking underneath. I do a similar sort of thing in my poem “White Trash” in Unsettled, which is all about the “rejectamenta disbursed in blizzard-spaced layers.” (Carmine Starnino, who edited T&T, observed that I make a lot of poems, literally, out of garbage, which hadn’t really occurred to me, but it’s true.)  

AP: It seems you are critiquing here a sort of sentimentalism, i.e. “it was a cute name,” which tends to forget—willfully or not—the historical fact, as you say, of the “severed leg.” And in that poem you do connect this sort of thing to the impending tourist industry that is the “Olympics.” In fact, there are a couple poems in the book that seem to be suspicious of tourism as an industry insofar as its success depends upon the repressed fact of labor and a sentimental relation to place. Could you maybe talk a little more about these issues and how they play out in the book?

ZW: John MacKenzie, in his poem “Lobster Boats, PEI,” says “We have sold this Island so far into scenery / We have forgotten its landscape.” PEI has ever had an ambivalent relationship with tourism. On the one hand, without it, the local economy’d be in even worse shape than it is. On the other hand, the tourist industry begets a wazzload of kitsch and tourists themselves can be super irritating. I personally have spent a lot of time in the salt mines of tourism. As a teenager, I spent five summers working in Cavendish, the tourist mecca of PEI, slinging ice cream. And for the past five years, the job I’ve worked most frequently on board passenger trains has been “Learning Coordinator”—basically, a host/guide providing bytes of info in charming packages to tourists travelling in first class.   

Like you say, sculpting things to suit the tourists leads to a sentimentalizing of place and people; at best to a highly selective edited version of a place. You hear all about the picturesque farmers and fishers, not so much about the unemployed and minimum wage drudges. Altho I’ve done a lot of travelling myself, very little of it has been as a tourist and a lot of it has been on my own. It may well just be another brand of sentimentality, but I tend to favour the lone wanderer over the guided tour, as in “The Stranger,” my version of a Rilke poem. When people travel in a group, they tend to engage a lot less with their surroundings and a lot more with each other. 
AP: Your poems, which are clearly and purposely marked, at times, by taxonomic particularity and local colloquialisms. Why is diction so significant to you?

ZW: It’s the old question of the unity of structure and content. Too many poets, it seems to me, use the same register for every poem they write; having “found a voice” they become slaves to it and either write variants of the same poems over and over or try to shoehorn the same language into different subjects. I’m more of an equal-opportunity employer; I’m interested in finding the right words for the particular poems I’m writing. Sometimes, this involves, as you say, taxonomic paricularity; sometimes it involves mining veins of specialized jargon and sometimes it involves the incorporation of colloquialisms and/or profanity. It often involves switching gears mid-stream, mixing more “poetic” diction with earthier words, exploiting the tensions that result from such juxtapositions.

In “Orkney Report,” I used a lot of local diction because it paired nicely with the local references. So there’s “noust,” “broch” and “peedie,” for instance, which are words one’s unlikely to encounter outside of Orkney. It would be strange and affected to use them in a poem about PEI, but they fit the bill just right in the proper context. They might send readers “scurrying” to a dictionary, but so be it. I’ve always loved the line from Peter Van Toorn’s “Rune”: “Like a bronze pope, it salutes no one,” which I take to mean that a poem proudly—arrogantly, even—refuses to explain or apologize for its eccentricities. This use of local dialect is something I absolutely love in many of Jen Hadfield’s poems about Shetland, where she lives, and of course something I’m drawn to in the work of John Clare as well. I think I was first awakened to the possibilities of colloquial speech by Seamus Heaney’s essays in The Redress of Poetry, in which appears “John Clare’s Prog,” which was probably my introduction to Clare’s work.

So the short answer to your question is that I’m after authenticity in all its myriad manifestations.

AP: In your short essay, “Workshop Lessons” you worry that “It is altogether too easy, in the company of wordsmiths, to lose sight of things that matter to people other than writers and thereby produce texts that might appeal to writers but not much to other people.” Could you, perhaps, talk about what might be dubbed your “populist” propensity? What are the benefits or dangers, as you see them, of this position?

ZW: There’s a movement in Canada called “People’s Poetry.” If, as the truism has it, poets are only read by other poets, then I think it’s safe to say that people’s poets are only read by other people’s poets. As with all movements, most people who self-identify as members simply aren’t very good writers. People who want to read poems usually want to read well-written ones, regardless of what walk of life they come from. Despite having written a fair bit of verse on blue collar subjects, I’ve gone on record more than once saying I have no truck with the poetics of Tom Wayman, who values accessibility and political propaganda over formal concerns and ambiguity, or “difficulties or mysteries generated by tricks of language or poetic form,” as he would have it. To me, those difficulties or mysteries are more intrinsic to poetry than Wayman’s version of straight talk. 

Making something easily accessible is rarely the same as making something people love, something that gets better the more you read it. Larkin’s a pretty accessible poet, but that’s not why he’s so popular. If it was, then how on earth account for the continued popularity of Dylan Thomas, whose poems err on the side of density? Or Dickinson, who could be incredibly gnomic and obscure. 

What I was getting at in the essay is that, even if your only public seems to be fellow writers, it’s artistic suicide to write as if this was the case and following a fast-track from undergrad to grad to teaching is a pretty likely way to wind up writing that way.

If you’re conscious of your readership being wise to the tricks of the trade, then any sense of the possibility of magic, it seems to me, has to evaporate and expectations for what is possible between a poem and its reader have to diminish considerably. You can see this, I think, in how many books poets publish and how many poems they cram into their books; to me, this is the sort of self-indulgent behaviour one engages in—like masturbation—when one thinks no one is paying attention.

So much contemporary writing, from the mid 20th C on, sounds more to me like essays in poetics than like actual poems. Writers are interested in poetics. General readers usually aren’t. My first relationship with literature was as an untrained reader and the defining feature of that relationship was pleasure. I hope that at least a few readers experience my writing in a similar fashion. So I cherish inordinately the points of contact I make with a non-specialist audience. In many ways, my favourite review of Unsettled is the one written by a journalist, John Thompson, in the Nunatsiaq News, the Nunavut weekly. He said my poems “describe a Nunavut that's familiar to those who live here, which is rarely captured on the written page.” And that meant a great deal to me. While I knew that most of the people who’d be reading the book would be southern poets, I care more about how it’s perceived by northern non-poets. That’s the particular public I had to imagine for writing that book.

I also love talking and reading to high school students, because you can’t take their interest in what you have to say for granted. If they’re bored by you, you’ll probably know it; there’s no faked enthusiasm, no “good reading, man.” I have no illusions of there being some kind of potential mass audience for my writing, if only I could get more media play or if only people weren’t so opiated on TV, movies and games. That’s nonsense. The creation of a public happens in increments, and most poets, even if they’re very good and worthy of an audience, are only going to have a small public, even if it is drawn from a broad spectrum of people. It can seem futile most of the time, but then I’ll get an email or a non-generic comment after a reading that reminds me it’s not a completely Sisyphean task.

AP: Returning to Track & Trace, in “He Finds An Acceptable Way to Grieve” and “There is Something Intractable In Me,” you dramatize the way verse-structure (e.g. an acrostic, rhymed couplets) has a way of keeping “emotion” in check in a poem. So, in a sense, you are theorizing a poetics in your work at times. Would you agree?

ZW: I see what you mean, but I wouldn’t entirely agree, no. That dimension of those poems has more to do with my personality than it does with any thought-thru theories of how poems should be written. At times I have a near-autistic inability to understand people’s emotional reactions to certain things (e.g. writers who get upset by reviews of their books) and am generally deficient in the empathy department. So it’s no surprise if such qualities manifest themselves in my poems. Both of the poems you cite are indeed, as you say, dramatizations—specifically, they’re dramatizations of a psychomachia, an inner conflict, between my alpha reason and my beta emotions. Tension and conflict seem to be intrinsically interesting and generally I find them wanting in the sort of essay-poem I was talking about before, where theory and praxis are too cleanly in sync.

There’s a way in which just about any poem a person writes can be interpreted as a statement of poetics. Ideally, I think, that’s actually the way it should be: i.e. poems should be the means by which a person—whether poet or reader—arrives at poetics, as opposed to poetics being the way one arrives at poems. Some poems read like essays in poetics; the poem itself appears to be a programmatic extension of pre-formulated theoretical concepts. I write—and read—poems in large measure to work thru things I haven’t been able to figure out; insofar as the two poems named show a person in the process of working things out, sure, they’re statements of poetics, but they’re statements of poetics that I think apply to other realms. And they’re statements of a poetics in progress, not of any fixed dogmatic position. Rarely does a poem actually provide me with solutions to problems, but they often help me to ask better questions.

On that note, thanks for your excellent questions, Alex.