Tim Lilburn

This Side of West Interviews Tim Lilburn

Interviewed by 2022-2023 Poetry Editors, Jesse Norman and Irena Datcu-Romano

Tim Lilburn lives in the Bowker Creek watershed in W̱SÁNEĆ territory on Vancouver Island.  He is the author of twelve books of poetry, including Harmonia Mundi, The House of Charlemagne, Assiniboia, Orphic Politics, Kill-site, and To the River. His work has received the Governor General’s Award, The Canadian Authors’ Association Award, the European Medal of Poetry and Art (the Homer Prize) and the Saskatchewan Book of the Year Award, among other prizes. His poetry has been translated widely. Lilburn is also the author of three essay collections, Living in the World as if It Were Home, Going Home and The Larger Conversation: Contemplation and Place, and editor of two other influential books on poetics. A new essay collection, Numinous Seditions: Interiority and Climate Change, will appear from the University of Alberta Press in September, 2023. He has taught at the University of Victoria, the University of Saskatchewan and Middlebury College and worked with the dance troupe New Dance Horizons as a writer and performer.

Jesse Norman: Tim, I’m reminded of your visit to my Writing 100 class: you talked about how you would spend weeks mulling over a verb or adjective, deciding whether it was the right fit for a piece.

Tim Lilburn: When you’re playing around, you can have an excellent verb—it’s muscular and has speed—but it’s not sitting well with the mood or intent of the poem. I try to pull the rest of the poem around that, experimenting, trying this and that. It just feels like flipping pancakes, you know… I’m going to toast a little bit, then do a little bit on this side. Once you get to the collection stage, you must make poems move with one another; that’s something that I found with workshops over the years: they’re not set up to help students navigate that. You write and talk about individual poems. When I was teaching at UVic, I was telling people to think in terms of a manuscript. See your poems, at least part of the time, as an artistic whole.

JN: I remember in my third-year workshop with you, you were heading in that direction, encouraging us to think of thematic throughlines. You would often encourage people to write suites. You spoke, too, about allowing ourselves to compose within the space of collection.

TL: You can solve a problem in one poem with something you do in another poem. I really like hearing echoes in a manuscript—parts of poems speaking to other poems later. Each poem would have a gap or a dock where another poem could connect, and another poem would fit in on the other side. Then you have action, things are moving around, flowing into one another. There is not that big silence framing the individual poem. Another thing: I believe in obsession. If I see it emerging in someone’s work, that’s what I edit towards. I clear the way for that deep desire, or a sense of responsibility. If you’re writing, you are obsessed. Otherwise, you’d be in law school. I tell writers: “don’t be nervous if you think you’re repeating yourself”. To an outsider what you are doing mays eem like a continuing tone. When I look at a writer like Louise Halfe, she’s bringing forward her tradition from multiple angles. That’s what makes her body of work a mountain. Once someone’s latched on to their obsession, you just have to let them go, and support them.

Irena Datcu-Romano: Right now in workshops, we’re looking at the unit of one poem. When you talk of “obsession”, do you mean a theme?

TL: An obsession, or persistent preoccupation, could look like a theme, but it’s experienced often as a kind of pushing from within. You might find yourself moving around, around, and around. It could be your family; lots of first books are about family.

IDR: Do you have an obsession right now?

TL: Yes, I have a preoccupation of the moment. Because of COVID, I’ve spent a lot of time at home, and I find myself slowed down in what’s immediately around me. I live on the western slope of S Ṉ, AḴE, which means Snow Mountain in SENĆOŦEN. I love how the mountain never ceases being quiet; it slowly adds layers of quiet. That’s what I am looking at mostly now.

IDR: In the context of careful observation, did you feel there was something UVic Writing students were good at observing? Or quite easily missed?

TL: A lot of students were preoccupied by their early family life. They want to document, mourn, or celebrate it. No one else knows that life as well as you do. As for something they missed, I was interested in students developing a sense of place. Every form of writing needs some sort of physical context, a place. Specific places: individual trees, land forms. The medieval philosopher John Duns Scotus writes of ‘thisness’: a quality not shared by anything else. To capture “thisness” in a character, a tree, an era: this is important to writing. It’s also politically important. This identification elongates the self: you are your self and some locale you’ve identified with.

JN: In Harmonia Mundi, you talked about the concept of “conatus,” by philosopher Spinoza. What is that?

TL: Conatus: a sentience in things we imagine are not sentient: cliff faces, camas, Garry oak.

IDR: Ecologically speaking, if you’re looking at trees and the plants around you, is it hard to watch them change?

TL: There’s a big change in everything as a result of global warming. Looking closely at things fosters kinship. I’ve been working with a group of five writers writing about our present ecological moment. Our sessions are called Writing into Climate Change, a Colloquium and it’s aimed at writers of CNF and poetry. The writers this winter say being open is good, but this state also leaves you vulnerable. We’ve talked about ways you can be permeable but maybe not so vulnerable. In your state of feeling lost, you have other allies standing with you. Ecological loss is pandemic—actual loss, or an anticipatory dread of loss.

IDR: Do you have strategies for how to approach that?

TL: I have a new book coming out in the fall called Numinous Seditions: Interiority and Climate Change. It talks about strategies available to us in these days. A text we use in Writing into Climate Change is called Mourning Nature: Hope at the Heart of Ecological Loss & Grief, edited by Ashlee Cunsolo and Karen Landman. Ashlee Cunsolo speaks of activist mourning—mourning as a form of justice. Not just human bodies, she argues, are grievable.

IDR: Do you have advice for people looking to be lifelong writers?

TL: It’s important to have a community of other writers who get what you’re doing. I’m thinking of one that graduated about a decade ago. There’s four of them. There now are six books among them. They continue to write. They continue to get together. They didn’t live in the same city for a while, and then they all moved back to one city. Two, by the way, were nominated for the Governor General’s Award for their first books. You will know their work – Melanie Siebert, Ali Blythe, Garth Martens and Anne-Marie Turza.

IDR: I have a writing partner; we get together on Wednesday nights and do timed writings. It’s sweet they moved to the same city to be close to each other.

JN: This is a question that I’m really grappling with these days, being on the cusp of graduation. When you describe these four people that moved away from each other for a time and then came back together in the same city, my heart turns into a sheepdog leaping through hoops. It impresses upon me a surety—it can’t be any other way.

TL: There are non-university connected writing programs like the Sage Hill and Banff. Go there. Take your writing there. You want to get out of the town where you live. You want people across the country reading you. Both places bring in good editors. Google them so you can know what their interest is. I’d recommend going to a place like Sage Hill especially when you have a manuscript on the way. When you have a manuscript that is taking shape, believe it. Be open to advice, read widely. What you have going will stretch and reconfigure. It’s not just a theme or an obsession. It’s like music. Trust that too. That was one thing I really tried to do in my classes—back up people’s music.

IDR: How do you know when it’s music?

TL: You’ll see that it’s distinctive. Do you know the work of Kayla Czaga? I remember when Kayla was in 3rd or 4 th year. She had this long poem about going to Vancouver with her father. As soon as I saw it, I was spellbound. The music of thinking, the music of speaking.

JN: That’s so cool you worked with Kayla. I love her work. Just tore through her second book, Dunk Tank.

IDR: The way you’re describing writing groups makes it sound legendary. It’s sweet to think that my peers and I could be that in the future.

TL: In the third year, you’re slowly becoming the show. So many books have come out of the program where many of the poems I saw first in a 4th year workshop. Poems people were working on in 3rd and 4th years turned up in their first books.

JN: How do you feel you came to teaching and developing pedagogy that made folks feel enlivened, inspired, and safe?

TL: Well, I had no idea that it had that effect. If I heard the music in a particular student’s work, my job was to clear a way for that. That’s what I was looking and listening for, that emergent, distinctive sound. Sometimes I would even propose a route. Look at Cesar Vallejo. I encourage you to read this late career Vallejo. Or Bejan Matur, Ted Blodgett. Erin Moure. These other writers were openings, so that the music could move out. I read a lot of Plato when I was going to school and he speaks through Socrates of a kind of foundational eros or elemental desire. I am very alert to its appearance as an editor. There it is. It might not last for more than a suite of poems. Might not last beyond the first book. Eros is what carries you, I think, to the desk, day after day. You’re blown there, you know? This persistence is not will and ego directed. Although at a certain point, there is editing to be done and sticking with it when you don’t believe in the work. Some days you look at your work and think, oh, that’s crap. Labouring through these ups and downs. Writing groups are good supports for protecting your commitment.

JN: It makes me think of something you said in an interview after Moosewood Sandhills came out. You said something along the lines of the self should follow desire and stumble forward, almost stupidly, towards the lure and treat this obsession utterly seriously.

TL: Just respect it. Or minimally, don’t bury it. Sometimes that’s what editing is. Talking someone out of burying what is uniquely coming to them.

JN: Believe in yourself enough not to bury it.

TL: You will work it out on your own. It takes a long time to bring together a book. Four, five, six years.

IDR: How do you do that for six years? Are you at the desk for 8 hours a day?

TL: No. I find three to five hours is good. Maybe not every day. For years I have been getting up very early in the morning—middle of the night kind of thing. That’s when I like to work. By the time 11:00 o’clock comes by, I go for a walk, eat lunch.

IDR: I studied Christian monasticism over the summer and waking up in the middle of the night rings a lot of bells for me. It reminded me of keeping vigil.

TL: You know the poet, Don Domanski? One of Canada’s great poets. He used to work through the night. And then he would sleep. You didn’t want to call Don before 2:00 o’clock in the afternoon in Halifax. Sufis like Ibn ‘Arabi speak of the Night Journey. Everybody finds their own time.

JN: Reading Moosewood Sandhills, I found desire was laden all through that book. Sticking yourself out there on the land. The slouch jog of the coyotes and the deer touching hooves—an intimate eye. In what ways do you feel desire was at play within the creation of Harmonia Mundi and those poems?

TL: It was at play big time. All of us have been hearing about global warming for years, it’s no big surprise, but I had an experience where I was pierced by it. I suspect many of us have had an experience like this. It’s a different awareness. I had this moment in 2016 or 2017. I was at a conference with climate scientists, visual artists, and poets. The scientists had the morning, and they talked about their discoveries in shell formation in crustaceans and the physics of ice sheet loss in Greenland and much else. I thought, oh wow. I was flattened. I started looking for other times when whole worlds appeared to be lost. That’s what took me to Damascius and the suppression of Plato’s Academy in 529 by the anti-Neoplatonist emperor Justinian. A whole worldview was gone. What did they do? Damascius was essentially taking the Academy to the tyrant of Persia, Khusrau. I wanted to write about that breakdown. Fascism is a climate change effect. Harmonia Mundi is not a Donald Trump poem, but it’s coming at that through another gateway. The abolition of the Academy and the transfer of that thought-world to the court of a capricious tyrant. They packed up their stuff and carted it across multiple deserts from Athens. Think of the sadness of the six of them. That was the desire of the first part of the book, to write about this unparalleled sadness and loss, and the second part was about personal loss. Climate change changes everything.

JN: I find it fascinating that you’ve drawn this connection between fascism and climate change. That’s startling and scary. Earlier you commented about the palpable sense of dread that is bound up in climate change, mourning and approaching the colossal issue. That dread is really felt in that long poem about bringing the Academy to Khusrau and especially when Khusrau starts to calm. I was so unnerved.

TL: When folks like that start to calm down, they get deeply spooky.

TL: I wanted the end of that poem, the long poem, to be almost completely insane but holding together on the surface. These people are lost. How do they get out of this? Eventually they end up in the ancient city of Harran. It’s one of the few places in the Roman Empire where there’s intellectual freedom. What could have happened there I wonder? That’s what I’m trying to write now, but with another figure, a Christian monastic figure, pseudo-Dionysius, in mind. This mysterious person was based in the ancient city of Antioch, not that far from Harran when Damascius was there. What did they have to do with one another, what influence if any passed between them?

JN: Two poems really struck me: “Deliverance from Error”. When you set up this scene with Orpheus and these other ancient Samarian gods and goddesses in battle with the combine.

TL: That poem is talking about the descent of the Middle Eastern gods into North America. They’re going right into the ground like javelins. At the end, the poem says send more, send this guy Suhrawardi, send al-Ghazali. I find our culture fatigue-inducing. There are not enough layers, not enough that has been brought from the past. “Deliverance from Error” imagines those gods and philosophers falling from the air, ultimately enriching North America’s cultural soil.

JN: There’s something uplifting and hopeful about them doing battle with this agro-industrial image.

IDR: I’m a first-generation child of an immigrant family on these lands. I’ve been thinking about home a lot. In the context of the question, how to be here? How important is it for a writer to know what their home is?

TL: This question “how to be here” came to me with real intensity around the time I was writing Moosewood Sandhills. The book comes out of that question. I was brought back to Saskatchewan by circumstances more or less beyond my control. It occurred to me once I was on the acreage outside Saskatoon that I didn’t know how to be where I was. Which surprised me because this is where I was from. I tasted my own ignorance at that time. I didn’t know the names for any of the plants. I realized this was a deeper question having to do with colonization. Most of my work has been around this question—it takes one toward truth and reconciliation. It also could take one toward learning the language of one’s place. I have been a student (not a gifted student) of SENĆOŦEN, studying with Philip Kevin Paul. With W̱SÁNEĆ linguistic philosophy, language is not a human artifact, but it comes from the place, which is the merciful land.

IDR: I had a CNF personal essay, so I wrote about if I had a home, and if so, what would that be and where? I thought about my family’s land in Romania. My grandfather came from a rural village in Romania, where you get water from wells and there are chickens in the yard. And I remember visiting when I was sixteen and thinking, is this me? Is this what I am? I know for sure that this land here requires a degree of separation because I’m a settler. What is it like to speak and write in English, if English does not “arise” out of this land?

TL: There is an incapacity and an incompetence in English, that comes from many years of the language masking stuff that was horrific. I think of Paul Celan, a Holocaust survivor, and his relationship to German. He had to use the German he had as a mother tongue and mangle it.

IDR: What do you mean by mangled?

TL: If you’ve read my work, you can see there’s a certain amount of mangling going on. There’s stretching, desertion, pummeling. I’m suspicious of English. It’s my language, but I’m suspicious of English and fear its flattening powers.

IDR: The idea of being suspicious of one’s own language is interesting because that’s something you can’t escape easily.

TL: You discover the language is elastic. You can make it do things that it’s normally not going to do. That releases an explosiveness in it.

JN: I like this idea of mangling language. In one of my favorite rap lyrics, essentially the artist, ELUCID, says one must upset language to get at the core of what’s really happening. To mangle language is to mangle self as well. That’s fruitful—when the self is mangled along the way. There’s something in losing oneself in this mangling, seeing what stays after that process is finished, then picking up the pieces and going forward.

Jesse Norman and Irena Datcu-Romano