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Interview With Evan Jones

Interview With Evan Jones

The author of Paralogues talks about ghosts, false gods and cannonballs.

Evan Jones is something of a wanderer. Born in Toronto, a dual citizen of Canada and Greece, he moved to the United Kingdom in 2005. In addition to his work as a poet, critic, editor, translator, and anthologist, Jones has a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Manchester and has taught at universities in Canada and the UK. He is currently a Teaching Fellow in Creative Writing at Leeds University.

Past and present create a pressure in Jones' new book Paralogues (Carcanet), published earlier  this year. What emerges, however, aren't lessons, but remarkably sensuous questions about our sense of priority and progress. Here we find Byzantine emperors and Saints, defunct literary magazines, Baudelaire and hundred eye gods—and all of it held together not by a longing for better days, but for what is vital in any era: a setting moon, someone asleep in your bed, the smell of pine trees everywhere.

Nothing Fell Today But Rain (Fitzhenry & Whiteside), Jones' first collection, published in 2003, was a finalist for the Governor General's Literary Award for Poetry. Jones co-edited the anthology Modern Canadian Poets (Carcanet), published in 2010. He is working on a new translation of Cavafy for Carcanet and a book of interviews with Canadian poets for Véhicule.

Chad Campbell: It seems that in order to cover great distances in their books, writers require extended periods of sitting. I've heard of scarves used to tie legs to chairs, exact rations of coffee and cigarettes to prevent movement between rooms, and meticulously arranged studies abandoned in favour of cramped tables. How have you coped with all the sitting?

Evan Jones: My family have been teasing me for years about my sedentary lifestyle. I come from a restaurant background—my sisters and I were brought in young as dishwashers, busboys/coatcheck girls. Our father spent ten to twelve hours a day on his feet, six days a week, and if it wasn't a schoolnight we were working. In this way, we got to spend time with him. All this sitting is a strange thing, and my father and the rest of my immediate family have admitted they don't understand what I do all day—"A little of this," says one sister, tapping her fingers on an imaginary typewriter in the air, "a little of this," says the other, speaking into an imaginary phone, "and a little of this," says the first holding open an imaginary book and pretending to read with one finger on her lip. Real books appear after awhile, and articles, and poems in magazines, and even a PhD thesis. One thing about my poems: they never sit down. Instead, they follow me around, leave the flat with me, and sort of ruin me for any other activity. I tend to get obsessed with subjects and can think of little else.

CC: Canadian poets, you once wrote, can be "sidelined within the discussion of Canadian poetry, because they look and reach outward". Looking and reaching outward in your book—geographically, historically, formally—did you feel a certain amount of risk at being sidelined yourself?

EJ: No, I didn't consciously worry about the risks the book was taking as regards Canadian poetry. I've never felt part of such a thing—as if it was commodifiable, a gang, a league ... Anyway, the sideline is a place of honour. All of the Canadian poets I admire most go unanthologised, are passed over for awards, are left out of Canadian poetry as it's defined in the academies and daily broadsheets. Both the former and the latter are to blame for too many bad poets coming to the fore—and it's still going on.

All of which is not to say my poems don't draw on Canadian poets—Richard Outram's Benedict Abroad is very important to a poem like "Constantine and Arete." I owe Outram an understanding of the long poem, of its possibilities, of voices, of a narrative progression which does not take over as it does in fiction. But then Outram likely learned that from Geoffrey Hill. And Hill perhaps from Eliot.

But your question, I think, is about audience and that's a funny thing. I always have a reader in mind and I make decisions based on what I think that reader will appreciate. Sometimes he is Canadian. But then I think of another reader and try to appeal to her, as well, and suddenly there's a whole school of readers that I'm trying to imagine reading my poem and where does it end? Sam Hamill quotes Odysseas Elytis: "A real poet needs an audience of three. Since any poet worth his salt has two intelligent friends, he spends his whole life searching for the third reader." Like Elytis, I write poems for my intelligent friends, as Ovid did, as well as Wyatt, and Donne. At the same time, I'm in search of some imagined/unimaginable reader. This reader may be out in the public somewhere, or she may not yet be born. She may be God.

CC: Translation has been a prominent feature of both your debut collection Nothing Today Fell But Rain and of Paralogues. In the introduction to your anthology Modern Canadian Poets you note the relative lack of translation work being done by Canadian poets. Is your translation work a way to address the silence that exists between the poetries of different countries, to call attention to those artists that may have been overlooked?

EJ: My parents tell me I could speak Greek as a child, but they realised I couldn't communicate with other children so gave that up. I started translating in my twenties as part of my re-introduction to Greek. I figured it would help me build vocabulary, keep me in the language even if I wasn't using it every day. I'd read Cavafy, Elytis, Ritsos and Seferis, studying how those figures had become English-language poets via translation. I also knew there were others important to that grouping: Andreas Embiricos, Nikos Engonopoulos, Miltos Sachtouris. So I went at their poems—first with a friend, later with a dictionary. It was pure discovery for me, part of my education. I really wasn't thinking of publication at the time.

The effect was surprising. Don Paterson writes about translation (or in his case "versioning") as trying on another voice, as one would try on a pair of shoes. Some shoes fit better than others, but the result, strangely, when it works, is that your feet change. Because translation is a dialogue between two languages, two cultures, there is a blending of sensibilities between translator and poet. It's for this reason no one understands a poet better than his translator: he must wring his subject's words and forms, turn them inside-out to get at their core.

CC: You spoke earlier of obsessions, and here the feeling of being inhabited and changed. Do you feel you have much choice in terms of yours obsessions?  

EJ: Yes and no. There is what a friend called "happy accidents" and what the surrealists called hasard objectif: to look for something and find it and yet still be surprised by what you've found. So there is a choice and there isn't.

An example: a couple of years ago I was reading the Penguin edition of Michael Psellus's Chronographia, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers. I was reading that because his name had come up in some histories I was enjoying at the time and I'd also just read Norm Sibum's poem, "The Emperor's Best Friend, Michael Psellus," in The November Propertius. I was teaching then at the University of Bolton, taking over from the poet Matthew Welton. Matt had moved to Nottingham and left a couple of books behind, one of which was Christopher Middleton's Two Horse Wagon Going By. So I started to read that book on the train between Manchester and Bolton and there I found another poem about Michael Psellus, "Mezzomephistophelean Scholion." A year or so later, in the introduction to an unrelated book of medieval Greek poetry, I found what became, "Lines Attributed to Michael Psellus Concerning the Deaths of Twelve Apostles", a translation of sorts. Perhaps the universe sent no message, but I received one anyway.

CC: Your book is deeply rooted in the past, territory that often calls up loss and lament. In the poem "Letter to Sophia", you write "And while it may occur to you / that I am writing about loss / I swear I'm not. I will wander / the Earth for as long as it takes you / to understand". Am I right in saying that if there is a lament in your book it is for the present, and that the past is something that you feel needs to be in some way returned to?

EJ: "Letter to Sofia" is about a recurring dream where I visit the city of Sofia, Bulgaria. A Calvino-ish title. In 2003, I lived in Salonica, Greece, for six months, and all of my friends were Bulgarians. They would say things like, "You must visit me in Sofia and you will stay with my family." Or, "The beaches in Greece are nice, but the world's finest beaches are in Varna, on the Black Sea." The country was preparing to enter the EU, and inflation was a serious issue. Many were worried about heating their homes through the coming winter.

There's something of Ferenc Karinthy's Metropole to the dream: a man steps off a bus in a city he doesn't know and where no one speaks the same language he does. I have never been to Sofia.

So "Letter to Sofia" is not about the past—to which there is no return—but the opportunity of the past, which we might yet recover through poetry. In a poem, I can re-visit history, return to it from a different vantage. It's only in a poem that I am free from the past and part of it. It is possibility without fantasy. We live in a culture that believes in progress, correction, growth. We make a new discovery, it improves an older idea, and our society is bettered. Poetry sees right through that ideology, because poetry is something older, something sought after and not delivered while you wait in the comfort of your home. Poetry cannot be improved or bettered, only engaged. It requires activity not passivity. It is a reminder that there is no progress, no point of correction, and growth is a numbers game.

CC: The epigraph from the nineteenth-century English poet Arthur Hugh Clough that opens your book—"All the incongruous things of incompatible ages"—reminds me of Benjamin's Angel of History, forced to stare at a past he wants to make whole but can only see piling behind him. Did you find yourself writing towards or away from this quote?

EJ: I suppose Clough isn't much read in the US and Canada (I know for a fact he's not much read in the UK), but that quote is from the first canto of his Amours de Voyage, a novel in verse, first published in 1858. So it predates Benjamin. But the spirit is the same. The speaker, Claude, is a visitor to Rome, a tourist, and he can't put it all together in his mind. Because there's an arbitrariness to what history allows to survive and what it doesn't. Sometimes a cannonball, sometimes an earthquake, sometimes a bulldozer. And so things get piled on top of things and people try to make sense but there is no sense. You can take joy in the knowledge that anything has survived at all or you can question it, as Claude does, and even deny its authenticity.

This notion upsets some. Because it suggests the narrative they believe about the development of their civilisation is under attack. But theirs is just one narrative amid many. What Western Europe calls the Dark Ages, Eastern Europe calls the Byzantine Era. Depending on who you're reading, it is either a waste of space in the history books, quickly bypassed, or a period of joyous intellectual development and complex political achievement.

The twentieth century went back and forth so fast: there was Classicism and Futurism at the same time, Hardy and Apollinaire, Larkin and Benjamin Péret living only a channel away from each other. And there've been competing narratives at work as to which is more heroic—always to the detriment of the other. Some have even constructed narratives wherein the incompatible is made compatible, recognising the strengths and weaknesses of both (many of my favourite poets fall here). But allowing any one to exist without questioning it is a failure. Because in order to get to a version of the present, a version of the past has had to be eliminated. That's very much what Paralogues is about. I'm looking for the wealth in what has been decried as valueless.

CC: Do you feel as if you've made a break with the Canadian tradition of abiding within the physical, and often historical, boundaries of Canada?

EJ: I don't know if I've made a break so much as tried to increase the range, to extend the physical and historical boundaries—both of which are imaginary anyway. We suppose that the history of Western poetry begins in the Mediterranean. But I've read scholarship that suggests The Odyssey could just as easily have taken place in Scandinavia. (The seventeenth-century Swedish scientist Olaus Rudbeck believed that Sweden was Atlantis.) And why not? What I do break with are those poets whose imagination cannot extend beyond the local, beyond their own lifetimes, beyond their immediate surroundings.  

CC: Don Paterson once said that the trick is to stay in love with poetry so that it doesn't feel like work. Speaking to writers, though, this love often turns to exhaustion at the end of writing a collection, or, as one recently said to me, a feeling of "what have I wrought". How did finishing Paralogues feel?   

EJ: Every writer seems to have his or her own reaction to publication. Paralogues took it's sweet, slow time appearing. And between drafts of the manuscript there was the anthology, which was about two years in the making for my part. So, finishing the book at last back in March—I was editing right up until the final proofs—was pretty exciting. I spent the summer working on new poems. I mean, there is exhaustion, exhaustion of individual poems, but never for me exhaustion of poetry. But that's because I don't and can't write every day and any time I'm able to is exciting. I write very little, really, but I edit every chance I get. I'd still be editing Paralogues now ...

The joy for me is to be in the middle of writing a poem, which is a strange sort of joy, I know. There is no relief at the end—only the knowledge that I've got to start thinking about a new poem and all the worries that brings with it. When will it come? How will I recognise it? What if there isn't another poem? But then time passes and there is. Sometimes it's weeks, sometimes years. I'm not in a hurry. "Poetry isn't a horserace," Daryl Hine used to say to me.