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High Wire Melodies

High Wire Melodies

Two poets celebrate Michael Harris' new "carnivalesque" poetry collection, Circus





Nyla Matuk's first full-length collection of poems, Sumptuary Laws, is forthcoming from Signal Editions. She lives in Toronto.

Jeff Latosik's  first book of poems is Tiny, Frantic, Stronger (Insomniac Press, 2010). He lives in Toronto. 

Michael Harris is a two-time winner of the CBC Literary Competition, he also has edited poetry books and anthologies and, in 1988, translated the complete poetry of Marie-Claire Blais (Veiled Countries/Lives). His collections include In Transit (1985) and New and Selected Poems (1992). Harris lives in Montreal where runs Montreal Books, a rare and used Internet bookshop. His new book is Circus (Signal Editions, 2010).   

Nyla Matuk: I've always associated circuses with something sad, and there is sadness in Michael Harris' new collection. But really, it's as entertaining to read this book as it would be to be at the circus. If I had to put a genre on it, I'd call it the "demonstrative grotesque." Especially that guillotine poem.

Jeff Latosik: Nice. I want to say something like "high wire melodies" but that's not really a genre. "Genre" is an interesting word to use though as the book seems to effortlessly blend what might conventionally be considered "high" and "low" culture in a way that makes me think of Rabelais or Chaucer -- something classic. The "low" here, that is, seems to mean of the body or (as you say) grotesque.

I'm wondering about this collision of the grotesque, violent and the entertaining, I guess. Because, as you say, this is a highly entertaining, and often very funny, collection. And the circus is one of the only places we see the kinds of collisions in this book: the bawdy, virtuosic, strange, and bombastic.

I guess my question is when we get to "The House of Horrors," certainly one of the best poems of the book (and, to my eye, the year), are we still in the circus or are we somewhere else? What was your feeling towards the book's treatment of atrocity and how that linked to the central conceit (if such a thing could be said of the book) of the circus?  

NM: Yes, there are very Rabelaisian and Chaucerian moments...the bawdiness and the grotesque imagery. In the poem "Hoodiddit" for example, you have the detail of the creature's eyes whose shine resembles the gleam on a full cuspidor. Disgusting!! This creature is like some evil clown Dr. Seuss could never invent.

I had a recurrent image in my mind while reading. It was a slightly nightmarish view of the circus tents set up on the edge of a town where something malicious has already taken place. There is a purple, angry sky...there are untrustworthy and perhaps cruel people working at the circus. And this scene is most prominent in "The House of Horrors." You have intimations of southern slavery and the Holocaust, and it is expressed as a long line up. Atrocity is not new to those who attend the circus, which is all of us. The full house of horrors--either it is our victimization or our sadism. In this book, I think it's both. The world, too, is a horror show.

But what do you think about the way beauty is handled? My favourite is "Molivos"--the dreamlike survey of the town, the water. And Ray Liotta as a sort of psychoanalyst-guide. I'm almost certain I've had dreams about Ray Liotta.  

JL: Well certainly beauty is everywhere in Circus. And it doesn't matter that we're not in Hollywood exactly: as a narrator says in "Hang in There": "there is an art to falling down." And Harris has perfectly captured that arc to the stress and burst of being alive, I think. And though the collection is formally dextrous, it never feels stuffy or too self-contained. These are definitely beautiful contortions, and you can feel the pressure working to derail them, for the quality to drop, but alas Harris makes it to the other side unharmed.

Was Molivos a beautiful poem for you? There's a lot going on there, to be sure. There was, to me, a whif of Whitman in its comprehensive, jubilant cataloguing. I'm interested, though, in how you understood beauty in Circus? I feel as though my explanation was too couched in bumf-speak. Certainly, you could help me here.  

NM: I think beauty straddles a position between the carnivalesque and the sensual. Candy floss is "gossamer meat" and the girl on the pony has "jiggly bits." I love the tactility of these details as much as the verdigris, amber, rubies and eye-aching gold of the Castle in Molivos.   What the book captures above all is a quality of omnivorousness--while the Ringmaster in the poem of that name commands all manner of dazzling spectacle, he is also aware (as P.T. Barnum was) that nobody ever lost money underestimating the American public. In other words, you have theatricality and cynicism sitting side by side. There is a kind of beauty to that---the beauty of mendacity. Illusions are the surest route by which fools are parted from their money!

But how about disillusionment? The figure of the poet in this book is none other than the custodian--the poem "Custodian" shows us the poet as a janitor. Is this what's in store for poets who join the circus? Would you do that job?  

JL: I'm glad you've brought up "Custodian," a poem that reminded me very much of Margaret Atwood's "Footnote to the Amnesty..." or the narrator in Rawi Hage's excellent "Cockroach."

It strikes me that the narrator is meant as some consummate outsider--not a poet necessarily, but surely the overlap works well. What I think is interesting in this poem is how this custodial position is contrasted with college teaching as a way of making a living but also as a kind of pedagogical model. The custodian also acquires and dispenses knowledge but is freer. In this way, I think the poem is hopeful, optimistic even, in the possibility of truly being one's own person. If we're nudged to interpreting the custodian as poet, well, perhaps it is enough simply to be on the outside of the vertiginous everyday goings-on. There one can see a thing for what it is.

As to whether I would do the job -- well, I'd considered it. There's always that temptation, isn't there, to run away and join the circus; to work at the gas station -- to be, as the custodian concludes, free? I guess while we're on teaching I might ask what you made of the last poem in the book. Another strong one to be sure, but certainly a different end than one might expect. Again -- we begin at the circus but we don't stay there exactly. I guess I would have the follow-up question as to whether you consider this a themed collection or not. Is that question even fair?  

NM: I think it's a fair question because the book starts out with several specifically circus-located poems. I thought the whole book would be that way. I like the inclusion of poems which, while not located at the circus per se, are nonetheless carnivalesque and ornery in their use of language. So they belong in a book mostly about the circus.

It would come across as one of those overproduced record albums of 70s rock if the whole book took place at the circus. So I see the book being both about the circus and using the spectacularity of the circus as a metaphor for people such as the examiner, in the last poem, "The Examiner."

I must admit it's puzzling to me though--I don't know how it relates, or, as you say, if we need to bother thematizing at all. The examiner is definitely putting the examinee on the spot--as if the ringmaster suddenly turns to the audience, and says, ok, here's a test for you--you're the ones who are now stage.  

JL: I asked the question because we do seem to be talking about this idea of themed vs. non-themed collections in Canadian poetry quite a bit. As a closing note, I'll say that I liked how the book was one section. I felt that lent some very interesting thematic over-lapping that might not have existed otherwise (as you astutely point out in regards to "The Examiner") and most likely contributed to the uniform strength of the collection. Thanks for your insights into this great poetry book Nyla.

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