Fantasy unbound, then the hard work

June 2, 2014 by Diana Kuprel - A&S Office of Advancement

Ricardo Sternberg is a scholar of Brazilian and Portuguese literature at U of T’s Department of Spanish and Portuguese and Centre for Comparative Literature. He is also a poet, whose work has appeared in such magazines as The Paris Review, Descant, Poetry (Chicago), The Nation, Maisonneuve and The Walrus. His collections, The Invention of Honey, Map of Dreams, Bamboo Church and just-released Some Dance, have garnered critical acclaim and earned him a reputation as “one of the absolute best poets in this country.” Diana Kuprel spoke with Sternberg on the publication of the at-turns surprising, humorous, unsettling and bittersweet Some Dance (McGill Queen’s University Press).

Your poetry has always had a strong narrative structure — take, for instance, your second collection, Map of Dreams, which goes from dreamt departure to awakening. From where do you draw your inspiration?

Map of Dreams was my first attempt to sew individual poems together into a longer narrative. A poem placed now towards the end of that sequence — “The Indies? No/we never found them/but none of us/has ceased to believe” — was written perhaps 20 years before the book came out. It seemed like a part of something larger, but what that larger thing was remained unclear for that many years.

Meanwhile, I’ve always had an interest in the journals and letters of the discoverers — Columbus, Cortes, Caminha, to stay only with the Cs. During a sabbatical, I immersed myself in those texts. I think of those men as being, on the one hand, a little crazy taking to the ocean, sailing into the unknown, in search of what? El Dorado, the Kingdom of Prester John, the fountain of youth? On the other hand, obviously hard-nosed, sensible, no-nonsense men who could convince tightfisted kings and bankers to finance their enterprise. This has always struck me as analogous to what poets do: fantasy then hard work.

The poem grew, but I still thought of it as a longer poem that would take its place within a book. Michael Harris, then editor of Signal Edition, pointed out how much more I could do with it. It was great fun to write; I felt as if I could throw anything into it.

I needed a storm and near shipwreck and I remember reading narratives of shipwrecks, the Portuguese História trágico-marítima (Tragic History of the Sea), a famous compilation of 16th-century wrecks of several Portuguese ships. Some are incredibly dramatic. I filled myself up with wrecks, drownings, etc., and eventually the storm sequence was written. I gave a reading in Ottawa after the book came out, and someone came up to me and said, you obviously are a very experienced sailor. In truth, I love the idea of sailing but my body does not. I get seasick just looking at boats.

Or I wanted some gore and went around for months trying to figure out what could happen. Something festering. Eventually I drew from an incident remembered from when I was a child in Brazil. An uncle had borrowed my father’s spear gun and stayed in the water so long he could no longer feel his feet and when he went to cock the gun, usually done against a rock, he pierced his foot. And, of course, those spears are made so the fish can’t wiggle out. Thus:

A barbed, rusty hook
some fool left on deck
was waiting for him
when he stepped up
to his midnight watch.

It went through his foot
and would not come out
until they hammered the barbs
flush with the stem.

Some Dance likewise draws inspiration from stories and storytelling. Foundational narratives, from The Bible to The Odyssey to fairy tales, collide gleefully with pop cultural narratives and then are fractured and transmuted through personal mythologies. What is it about this collision that appeals to you?

At the time I began the long poem in Some Dance, I was both reading The Odyssey — out loud this time — and — not at the same time, mind you — watching Mexican soaps. There is something about how narration at both classical and trashy levels allows or even invites one to take “one more kick at the can.”

In what sense?

“Stories need never end” — take The Odyssey, for example. Homer left Odysseus happy in the bosom of his family. Centuries later, along comes Tennyson and kicks the can one more time and off to further adventures sails Odysseus. Some of that dynamic structured the narration in Some Dance. Things happen and other things follow. At one time the book was going to be called First One Thing and Then Another. Leaving aside the “An Invocation of Sorts,” the sequence is bracketed between two poems both called “The Bench,” as if all that happens in between those two poems happened in an instant.

The sequence also follows the premise established in the second poem, of someone “scrambling events from his life/with fiction and the T.V. soaps”. And I’ve tried to leave all that a bit scrambled — against my instinct which is to smooth things out. So the operation in Mexico, in “As Patient of Doctor Ramon,” appears to be part of life; but then the doctor seems to take off into the realm of soaps.

I want to pick up on this notion of “scrambling events.” You were born in Brazil, educated in the States and you teach in Toronto. You allude to these episodes in Some Dance. How do the biographical and the poetic collude in your work?

There is a question of geography but also one of time passing. In Brazil, I went from 0-15, in the States from 15-30 and I’m not getting any younger in Canada. So for me those phases have a greater impact on what I am writing than place itself. For the writer, for the poet, the question, as soon as he or she finishes the novel or the poem, is: now what? What keeps me writing without repeating? I think my poems have changed over the four books because that is the only way I could keep on writing. The Invention of Honey, my first book, is marked by many poems about my family in Brazil as well as by poems close to myth and/or fairy tales. Even though I was 42 when I published it, it is a young man’s book. Every subsequent book is a different answer to the “now what” question.

In Map of Dreams, I wanted to gesture as well towards my Portuguese, Irish and German background — all reflected, by the way, in my full name, Ricardo da Silveira Lobo O’Reilly Sternberg. The poem begins with a ploughboy in Ireland dreaming of sailing, the voyage begins in Portugal, the prowhead was made in Germany, and Brazil is referred to throughout the poem, including the Irish myth of an island floating off the shore and called, in some versions, Hy-Brasil.

So, who is the ‘he’ on the bench staring out over the ocean in “The Bench,” the poems which bracket Some Dance?

Not me, though there might be some overlap in age. At some point, the sequence was going to be called “Jack.” You always end up drawing from your own experience. But not just experience: daydreams, dreams, films you’ve seen, novels you’ve read, etc. — such a complicated relationship between biographical self and poems. My father hated “The Pelican in the Wilderness” because he thought people would think he was the Lithuanian father, who is a drunk in the poem. The Lithuanian man was in fact my landlord in Los Angeles — absolutely not a drunk and, as far as I know, did not have the son who is speaking the poem. Fernando Pessoa has a wonderful poem called “Autopsychography” where he writes:

The poet is a faker
Who’s so good at his act
He even fakes the pain
Of pain he feels in fact.

Some Dance seems to be a meditation on what makes us more human.

It marks a shift in my work away from myth into the human or, more prosaically, trying to mine the poetry of the quotidian: the passage of time, the lack of certainty, the poetry of the humdrum or the quotidian. I saw a German film at TIFF some years ago that I thought tried to do the same thing as far as the quotidian, “The Strange Little Cat.” The camera, as I recall, hardly moves. A lot of the action takes place in the kitchen; but the action is not dramatic; it is just daily living.

Well, I’d say “The Soaps,” in which the wife, increasingly irritated by her seemingly bent-on-self-slaughter husband, goes at him with a kitchen knife, plays the mundane pretty dramatically. So, do you believe that “to name is to tame”? Do you think poetry today can still wield a kind of power?

Sometimes I do. At other times, it seems a shame how inadequate words can be in some situations. But in that particular poem, I think if you name what ails you, if you can wrestle free-ranging, unattached anxiety and tether it to something solid, a fact, a name, ah there is comfort. And writing a poem mitigates and compensates for whatever painful experience preceded it: “to distill from the thorn of grievance, the sweetest honey.”

You give voice to that vulnerability in Some Dance with exquisite sensitivity — characters go along with the flow with “no playbook, script or set of directions”, a kind of que sera, sera. Narrative takes on the role of a relentless force that propels one forward towards the end, and yet “abruptly the story ends/before all the narrative strands,/ the plots that led to this plot/were gathered together into a whole.” Is there an unresolvable tension here?

I go back to what I said about the power of narration — how it wants to continue on rolling; there is momentum even if not necessarily control or set directions. I do think the degree of serendipity in life is much higher than we admit. In that poem, “Biography,” “things happened/to happen, others followed/willy-nilly and he went along/for what he thought of as the ride.” Or in “The Bench,” “he merely did what needed done.”

Several poems talk about inspiration as a great gush that is slowed, clogged, congealed. You bring divine inspiration back to the human level. What is the creative process like for you now?

That is true of any art: you try to ride the wave but you or it will often falter. The poem that is more or less there on a first or second draft disappeared fairly early in my career. I think one great step between someone beginning to write and someone who has kept on writing is the ability to pick up unfinished business and return to or regain the original pitch of inspiration: to ride that original wave and to make the suturing invisible. Okay: you can’t dip into the same river twice, but you have to surf the same wave again!