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The Mechanic

Karen Solie, interviewed by Jana Prikryl

Karen Solie

Karen Solie

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our e-mail newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.

Poets are supposed to be expert at writing about mortality—the phrase “You had one job!” occurs to me, and that job is elegy—but it’s an almost impossible thing to get right, whatever the form. In Karen Solie’s recent essay about her father’s death and her past life as a singer-songwriter, she manages to bring contrary themes and elusive memories together into a moving and unexpected tribute. Perhaps most surprisingly, she finds a way to evoke her father by writing about a solitary trip of her own, one that sent her far from home.

Understatement is part of what makes the essay work, and understatement is one of the great features of Solie’s poetry. When her first book, Short Haul Engine, came out in 2001, I remember thinking it was a rarity: nothing in the language was reaching for effects, it all seemed true, which was almost more a matter of her voice than her choice of details. A few years ago in these pages Ange Mlinko noted that Solie’s early poems were “what a contemporary georgic sounds like: a tradition going back to Virgil now had Solie positioned at the frontier, describing farm machinery and fracking leases.” Her collections, Mlinko went on to say, were “among the most whiplashing in contemporary poetry,” characterized by a restlessness in trying to find new subjects, and to work in new ways, in successive books. I e-mailed Solie last week to ask about her musical taste and the difference between playing songs and writing poems.


Jana Prikryl: You note in your essay that “the subset of good song lyrics that are good poems—and vice versa—is vanishingly small.” But can you name a few successful crossovers?

Karen Solie: The English ballad form comes to mind, and I remember Richard Thompson’s work with Fairport Convention. I think also of the Delta blues. Most songs, most poems, though, taken out of their compositional and performative context, lose something essential. They have their own structures to satisfy. That a lyric doesn’t make a good poem doesn’t diminish its value in the least, and vice versa. I’m sure there are crossovers, even within my limited frame of reference of work in English. (I can almost hear voices yelling Leonard Cohen!) Plenty of examples from both genres come close to success in the other, and “success” is not a line in the sand. But there are also plenty of poems that come close to being good poems, song lyrics that come close to being good lyrics. As a poet, there’s a lot to be learned from good lyrics. If I start naming songwriters I envy and have learned from I’ll go on and on. I’m not so much concerned with who succeeds and fails as I am intrigued by how the genres diverge and overlap.

As for writers who can write, separately, both good song lyrics and good poems, David Berman comes to mind, and his book Actual Air. I like PJ Harvey’s book Orlam. Steven Heighton wrote both, as well as novels, essays, and memoir. A Patti Smith poem I like appeared years ago in Best American Poetry. A number of songwriters have published books of poems; but, you know, there’s marketing potential there.

I find this a wonderfully true sentence: “What I learned from studying songs is that technique and intuition develop together and can’t be separated.” Would you say the same of writing poems?

For me, yes. In the knowledge of meter I can find my natural cadence, consider pattern and variation, recognize when I’m slipping into rhythms purely out of habit. Thinking about punctuation allows me to hear and feel the different durations and tones of pauses, what they imply and invoke. And, of course, to exclude punctuation effectively requires knowing how it works, as its ghost will be there. Its absence is a technique, not the avoidance of technique. Studying cognitive linguistics and conceptual metaphor theory helps me to understand why images might be confusing or flat or unintentionally cringe, when an image is just words on the page and can’t be inhabited and experienced. The vocabulary of this theory isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time, but it interests me.

I like the term, and the analogy of, mechanics. I grew up around machines. When you understand how a machine operates you are able not only to diagnose its problems, you can intuit that there are problems. You develop an ear for when it doesn’t sound right, a feel for when it’s off-balance. It’s oft-given advice that writers need to read, and read outside our own inclinations; but there is so much to learn from other art, too, other disciplines. You absorb technique and it becomes your intuition. Your imagination for making something new expands. It’s difficult to know what the new means without knowing what the old is. Or without knowing what’s happening across iterations of the contemporary, for that matter.

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Reading about your shyness onstage, which seems inseparable from a real hunger to perform, I wonder if that early experience affected your writing for the page. To what degree do you think of writing poems as a performance?

Writing is a performance in that one attempts to get language to perform certain functions and produce certain effects. Art is artifice. But I’m closest during those attempts to what, and how, I think (for better and for worse), even when I’m writing in a voice off to the side of my own, that says things I don’t believe. But we do that, as writers, for reasons that are our own. I’m closest to my self, whatever that means, when absorbed in those attempts, because I can lose myself there. I wish I could write in cafés and whatnot the way some writers can, but I feel too creepy and exposed.

When the poem is ready(ish) to be read by others, when it comes time to send it away, some distance opens up. It’s necessary so that I can become a reader of my work in order to edit it, put my ear to the machine, determine if it makes sense outside my own head. But again, it’s not that intuition is at play at one stage of composition and technique at another.

I liked elements of performing music. It can be magic. Body memory can take over and that’s when you can roam around inside the piece. Interpretation, not simple repetition, happens then. While studying classical piano I participated in our annual Kiwanis Music Festival ordeal, and I remember the magic of body memory even there, in the community hall in Prelate, Saskatchewan, playing for the adjudicators seated at the long table, and the nervous mothers, and my enemies. But I’m not at home in performance the way some people are. I’ve known a few performers who seem to find themselves onstage. They find themselves by losing themselves in the performance, and then become ultra-critical in the process of producing a recording. I’ve also known amazing performers who are literally sick before going onstage.

My favorite thing was always practice. I suppose, in writing, it still is. Which immediately feels disingenuous as so often it’s frustrating and impossible.

Could you talk a bit about the kinds of songs you sang back in the 1990s—what ground did your sets cover? Is there a relationship between your taste in songs and in literature? Did your musical taste affect your approach to writing?

Within the range of our abilities we covered some ground. Sets depended on venue and group. I was in a group called the Laverne Hanover Blues Band. We assembled to play a festival in southern Alberta. Laverne Hanover was a racehorse that ended his life on three legs—as one of the guys remembered it—so that gives you some idea of how we felt about our proficiency in the genre. Songs at gigs with other groups ranged from Merle Travis’s great coal-mining song “Dark as a Dungeon” and a few, as I remember, by Ralph Stanley, to the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” and a thrashy cover of “Stepping Stone” inspired by the Cramps. In between was folk, classic country, alt-country, alt-rock—I could list a lot of the usual suspects. And we played some originals too. I can remember really good songs written by friends that are likely lost to the ages, performed before everybody was hysterically videoing everything. There might be cassette tapes in somebody’s basement.

The music we listened to and played back then probably does express something of my sensibility. Something North American, maybe, something of the rural west—although not all of the music came out of there—and an extension of what I heard growing up. But where reading and writing are concerned I’ve always liked things of every kind, of every genre and subgenre. As I’ve been exposed to more that’s expanded, of course. As a reader, I have a particular attraction to what is very different from what I’ve written so far—to experimental, nonsequential, fragmentary weirdness. I like mash-ups and hybrids and work one can’t confidently pin to a genre. That being said, I also love a good narrative poem, a good story song. Hearing Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” for the first time as a kid in the car with my family, driving at night through a snowstorm, might be one of the reasons I’m a writer. I was riveted. Dad turned the volume up and no one spoke.

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Given the importance of music and singing in your life, I’m almost surprised that your books so far have not considered music in a more focused way. Do you feel it’s always there in your methods, and do you think you might address it further in future?

Poems here and there have addressed it. And I titled a few poems in The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out after songs or albums because of some literal connection or because of mood. There are poems that act as structural divisions, titled “Songs,” in The Caiplie Caves whose lines I attempted to, as I think of it, score.

Music is ever-present in my methods. I often think about lines and poems in musical analogies—time signatures, tempo, rests. I think about a poem’s modulations and dynamics. Syllables in a line are like notes of varying duration. A five-beat line might be scored in quarter notes, eighths, sixteenths, have that variation built in and still achieve relative consistency. The momentum might be syllable-heavy—a tray of dishes falling down a flight of stairs—or it might be one long drop through space, and take the same amount of time. I’m in a love/hate relationship with the metronome in my brain. I want to know it’s there but not be tied to its tree.

The challenge is not only to enact on the page the music you hear in your mind, but to write something that has the flexibility of interpretation built in—that can be heard a bit differently by different readers and still be musical. “Music” doesn’t always mean consistency, either, or something analogous to melody. There are many different musical structures—atonal, syncopated, polyrhythmic. But the reader should hear something in the mind’s ear, have that physical experience of a poem. We talk about being “moved” by art. Those encounters remind us that the intellectual, emotional, and physical can’t be separated, and of the relationship between sound, sense, and feeling. Ideally, a poem should happen to the reader.

Writing about music faces all the challenges of the ekphrastic project. The music has already described itself. But a poem can inhabit and invoke the encounter. The only current plan I have in this direction is an interdisciplinary essayish enterprise about, among other things, the coincidence in my life of piano practice, a raging dental infection, lockdown in an Airbnb basement suite, and Trump’s advice in press conferences to mainline bleach and horse dewormer. It was a strange time.

Your recent essay presents such a tender yet unsentimental portrait of your father. I wonder how he responded to your books, once you started to publish, and whether that was a part of your life that you were able to share with him?

My Dad, Howard, and my Mom, Hilda, were always supportive, even when I quit a good job at The Lethbridge Herald to study English literature, of all things; even when I left the graduate program in Victoria to move to Toronto. He and Mom came to my readings when they were able, as they did to my music gigs, as they did when they could to whatever we were up to. Books and writing were a huge part of Dad’s life. He read everything: The Western Producer and the LRB, detective fiction and historical nonfiction, literary novels past and contemporary, and random pulp picked up on the used book rack at the Co-op. Poetry was a bit of a mystery to him, I think, but he told me he especially liked lines from one of the first poems in The Caiplie Caves: “The leisure class // commends the value of hard work / above all else.” Dad was a Tommy Douglas socialist, so this made sense. Our tastes enjoyed considerable overlap, and I loved considering what books to buy him. We would talk about books we’d both read, and I will, among many other things, miss that.

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