Following the death of this father in 2008, Montreal poet, scholar, and songwriter Jason Camlot began two daily rituals: saying Kaddish for the departed and writing in a thick, newly-purchased notebook. Some of the entries were poems, he says, others were meditations on arcane pieces of Mishnah or Talmudic texts.
Later that year, his car was broken into and his book was taken. A local bar found it and contacted him, but “for a couple of days, I thought it was gone, and I went through this whole other phase of mourning. It was very strange. I was mourning the loss of the book almost as though it was another loss of my father.”
Camlot’s notebook was the foundation for his fourth collection of poetry, What the World Said (Mansfield Press, 2013). This latest effort examines the process of mourning through ritual, as well as the experience of loss and longing. He is also the author of The Animal Library, Attention All Typewriters and The Debaucher. His critical works include Language Acts (co-edited with Todd Swift) and Style and the Nineteenth-Century British Critic: Sincere Mannerisms. He works at Concordia University.
I spoke to him from his home in Montreal where he lives with his wife and two children.
Erica Ruth Kelly: The book broaches the theme of mourning from different angles, and since mourning is, to put it mildly, a chaotic time for most people, was it helpful for you to try to give it some order by focusing it into a poem?
Jason Camlot: A lot of the poems were, in a way, trying to make sense of things as I experienced that very rigid ritual of mourning in Judaism where you have to be at a particular place at the same time every day, where you go through the exact same set of morning or evening prayers, where you say the same mourning prayer, etc. So there was already a lot of structure to the mourning, but I didn’t have much understanding about what that structure meant. So it’s kinda funny to think about it, but rather than think about “What is the meaning of life and death?” I was sort of thinking about “What is the meaning of these rituals of mourning related to death?”
ERK: Throughout the process of mourning, did you, in some sense, develop a better understanding of your Jewish roots?
JC: Yeah, I suppose. It’s not quite going from zero to five, or to ten, because I was educated at a parochial Jewish school. I learned how to read Hebrew at a very young age and studied the Bible in Hebrew in grade school and high school. So it’s not as though this is all brand new to me. But in a way, I had learnt it up to a certain point, but I didn’t live it, you know? It wasn’t really a significant part of my daily practice. And I started reading about the origins of some of the prayers and practices and they go way back. I suppose I was comparing myself to someone centuries ago who might be mourning, saying the exact same prayers, but who actually believed in God. It’s less a sense of not knowing some of the rules or even the history behind some of the holidays and practices, but it’s more not knowing what it feels like to actually believe.
ERK: You mention Betty Goodwin a couple of times in the book. Her projects often look at transformation and mourning as well and I was wondering if that informed a lot of what you wrote for the book?
JC: I met Betty Goodwin through my father and my mother. (My parents) collect art together. They got to know Betty that way. And then my father became friends with her. My father sometimes supplied her with materials for her work, again through his profession, his work as a furrier. He had access to materials she found interesting, like pelts and things, and even narwhal tusks. But you’re right that her own work was pretty much obsessively focused on loss and mourning, partly out of her own personal experience of loss. But also, that’s what she saw in the world. There’s no denying that her work was relevant to me in ways that probably I’m not even aware of.
ERK: I noticed that there’s this preoccupation with adolescent angels. Where did your the interest in teen angels stem from?
JC: The interest in angels, in the broader sense, came out of thinking about where the person who’s gone goes. In the Jewish tradition, the concept of Gehenna, which I write about in a few of the poems, is sort of nether space in between the living world and the place where the soul is supposed to ascend to. And so I thought of angels in a similar way. I’m not the first to think of it this way; Walter Benjamin talks about angels this way in "Theses on the Philosophy of History." Or you can also think “Der Himmel über Berlin”/ “The Wings of Desire,” where angels are in this in-between space, between human and the celestial. And I think that’s what interested me: the in-between space in general. I think adolescence is that kind of space.
ERK: There are a couple of times in the book where you mention this idea of teaching children to laugh. What kinds of things did you find funny as a kid and what kinds of things do your kids find funny?
JC: I had a lot of working titles for this book before I finally settled on What the World Said and the one just before What the World Said was Laugh with Me. And I think that really came back to a core, sort of, visceral memory of my father. I think, when it comes down to it, what I learned from him was to see the absurdity of certain situations and enjoy them, even though they might sometimes be annoying or enraging or whatever. It’s partly affective mimicry, where he would respond to something and then look at you and invite you to respond in the same way. And you learn how to feel in a certain way, by responding to that affective invitation. My kids similarly find absurdities and improprieties funny. And I think that’s what I enjoy sharing with them too. Often I scold them for saying things they shouldn’t say to people. But I think a good part of the humour we share together also is transgressing in exactly those same areas. And, you know, you can never fail with a good fart joke. The license to be silly is the lesson I learned from my father and one I continue sharing with my children.
What the World Said is available online and wherever good books are sold.