Staring Attentively at the Blank Page: A Conversation with George Amabile


By Victor Enns

Editor’s note: George Amabile is the éminence gris of Manitoba poetry and indeed is an eminent figure in North American poetry, having published in many of the most prestigious journals and anthologies in the English-speaking world, including The New Yorker, The New Yorker Book of Poems, Poetry (Chicago), Harper’s Magazine, and Poetry Australia. Originally from New Jersey, Amabile spent most of his career as a teacher of creative writing at the University of Manitoba, and made his debut with the book Blood Ties in 1972. At the university he edited two pioneering literary journals in this region, The Far Point and Northern Light, gaining a reputation as a discerning editor of catholic sensibility. In all Amabile has published eight books of poems, and a new and selected volume in 2001 called Tasting the Dark (Muses’ Company). Catherine Hunter edited an extraordinary special issue of Prairie Fire magazine in spring 2000 (Vol. 21, No. 1) that included contributions from D.G. Jones, Patrick Friesen, Guy Gavriel Kay, Roo Borson, and many other notable writers.

Victor Enns: I remember one night when you and George Morrisette stayed over at my place in the old Riverview Mansions, listening to Charles Mingus after all the party guests had gone. I think you lived around the corner on the block close to Balmoral Hall’s entrance gate on Westminster Avenue. This place in Winnipeg, and some time as a bachelor there, figures in your new collection Dancing, With Mirrors (Porcupine’s Quill, 2011). So two questions:

How much has jazz influenced your writing?

I’ve never been able to discover or invent a methodology for accurately measuring the influence of anything, including other poems and poets, on my writing, or anyone’s writing. What I can say is that I began listening to jazz while I was still attending Princeton High School. Even after I left for college, gangs of us would go up to New York during the summer or spring break, and hit the clubs, the Five Spot, Birdland, the Blue Note, the Metronome, and half a dozen dives where jazz players would come in very late, after their paid gigs, to drink and jam.

This was in the fifties, Kay and Jay, Parker, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Cozy Cole, Mingus, Rollins, the MJQ, Brubeck and Stan Getz, Gillespie, Adderley and one night in some dive or other, we saw Thelonious Monk sit down and hammer out his Quadratics. We got very pumped about this. Then in comes Coltrane and sits in. It went on and on, like they had tapped into some inexhaustible resource deep in the earth or the sea or the night sky – breathtaking, and one of the things it taught me was the way maybe the best of jazz or poetry, or anything else, precipitates like that, so perfectly, out of the flux, out of unpredictable energies that come together and vibrate with such colour and clarity it seems their intensities are accessible anywhere, anytime, and just as you think that, the music fades, as if whatever brought such magic together also burned it away.

Much later, when I lived in New York during the summer of ’69, my cold water walk up was around the corner from the Half Note, where I’d nurse an expensive drink and listen very carefully, there and at the Village Vanguard (not only jazz, but Fred Neil, Van Morrison), until I could see what I heard in a kind of moving mobile structure of notes and harmonies. It was exhilarating, but I don’t remember ever consciously using or attempting to use anything like the typical structure of a jazz performance, the statement of a standard melody, say, then the improvised variations on that, though I have seen other poets do something like it, whether intentional or not. Even a poet as seemingly distant from the jazz milieu as Wallace Stevens has a remarkable poem in which each stanza is a subtle variation on the first (“Sea Surface Full of Clouds”), and Linda Frank has just published a book of poems called Insomnie Blues in which a loose narrative that centres around insomnia follows the structure of the twelve bar blues.

But although I don’t see and can’t claim any explicit or demonstrable influence of jazz in my poems, I do think that jazz, along with the classical music I listened closely to and performed when I joined the Amherst College Glee Club (the Bach B minor Mass with Bruno Walter and the Boston Symphony, the Beethoven Mass in C major with Howard Mitchell and the National Symphony at Constitution Hall in DC, Handel with Smith College for the Easter Dawn Service at Radio City Music Hall and the Mozart Vespers in St. Thomas Cathedral among others) trained my ears so diligently that I can’t write anything without listening intently to the sound and the rhythmic movement of language and making endless adjustments, fine tuning it, as a fundamental element in the composition that is an integrated dimension of its experiential meaning. Note. I just remembered a sonnet “Variation on a Line by Stevens” which does theme and variation, and “A Splintered Garland for the Seer” an homage to Hart Crane, which uses the jazz (and literary and classical music) technique of “quoting” snippets and lines from his work. So I guess there is some explicit influence after all, however unrecognized or unintended.

How much has Winnipeg – the place – figured in your writing, most particularly in your new collection? 

Well this is a lot easier to measure, but unfortunately I don’t have a copy of the book with me here in Belize so I can’t count pages, or even lines, and give you an accurate percentage. Winnipeg, the city, figures in many of the cantos, notably “Tangents and Vectors,” “Power Failure,” “Bachelor Suite” and “First Light” while the surrounding landscape, the flatland bed of the inland sea, figures prominently in “Road to the Sky.” So I’d have to say that it’s one of the major centres of activity and sources of imagery which becomes metaphorically significant. There’s a lot of recognizable sky and weather in the book, but there’s also a lot of Mexico, Europe and the USA. Hope that at least gives a rough approximation, say forty percent, of the space devoted to setting, place, landscape.

How did this book come to you, and over what period was it written? Do you keep a journal or notes or was this book a reflection from memory?

I think it was around 1987 — I don’t pay enough attention to numbers, dates, (sometimes I miss my own birthday) and other quantified commodities, so if I were in Winnipeg and looked at my papers, I might find it was earlier or later, but the visual memory I have is of my office in the house I now live in which I moved to in that year. I had not published a book for five years or so and had been attempting to find a new direction, to move away from what I was doing in The Presence of Fire, in spite of its clear success, and had been writing risky little fragments that tested a bewildering variety of styles, from the purely imagistic to the philosophic to the surreal to the conversational ironic, and resisting the desire to force them into a shape that could be considered a finished poem. I wanted to keep the contextual field as open as possible, so I just put them in a box and went on writing.

At some point, months or years later, I pulled them out to rummage through as a warm-up for writing more and something happened, a jump-shift flash connection between two, then three of the pieces I had on my desk. I rearranged them and the relationship between them seemed to become stronger, more visible, but still not the result of logical argument, deixis or narrative chronology. I found this exciting and spent the next few months arranging and rearranging groups of these random pieces and writing more to fill the gaps or extend the line of development, both thematic and eidetic. That’s how it all started.

In 1990, Kenneth James Hughes wrote a brilliant analysis of the first canto I had completed and published it in Contemporary Manitoba Authors (Turnstone Press: Winnipeg, 1990). It was called “Amabile’s ‘First Light’: Decentering and Disruption” and was enormously helpful in placing what I had written into a postmodernist critical setting. I now felt I had a direction that was not only satisfying in itself, as, for instance, ghazals would be for many writers years later, but congruent with several areas of exploratory poetic activity by my peers.

One of the resources from which the various cantos emerged with their very different registers and tempos was, not surprisingly, my own store of remembered moments, many of which were still unresolved, unwritten, but significant both to me personally, and, I hoped, to others because so much of what I’ve experienced has been the experience of many. I have a vivid recollection of sitting around a table at the pub in the Cambridge Hotel with Kenneth Hughes and eight or ten writers, artists and academic colleagues. We were talking about a later version of the manuscript which I had asked several of them to read. Ken called it a lyrical epic, and a woman I hardly knew said, “It felt like I was reading my own life.” I could have hugged her. It was exactly the response I’d been hoping for since the project began.

I have kept journals, but like much else in my life and work, they are sporadic, scattered over dozens of scribblers, some with entries from two or three different years, though some are almost daily disquisitions on many topics and were written during my two or three month winter work breaks in Mexico. These journals do contain many conversations with myself about the manuscript that became Dancing, with Mirrors, but the actual writing was more and more the result of opening another blank page on my computer, or, during one of those Mexican retreats when my computer broke down, another page in the notebooks I bought and filled with blue or black ballpoint.

I didn’t want to work from a model or a theory, though I’m sure there are many that now fit what the book has become, so I trained myself to start from scratch each time, staring at the blank page and making my mind blank as well, and still, quiet, in a comfortable silence out of which something usually came, sometimes useful, sometimes not, and sometimes it would work as a section of a developing canto. Much was dropped out, became an individual poem and got published, or disappeared entirely, or migrated back in, or into a later or earlier canto as the book unfolded. There were a truly bewildering number of rearrangements of pieces, and shufflings of the cantos into different configurations.

In the year or so before publication alone, two cantos were abandoned because they just weren’t what I thought or hoped they could be, and “Transit in Absentia” was moved further back so the book could open with “Tangents and Vectors.” There were also many dozens of changes and minor deletions, re-phrasings, clarification of place and time, person and persona, and even after I had the page proofs there was one verse paragraph that had to be dropped because it just seemed wrong, awkwardly written, and unnecessary. I’d been working on the book for so long, this kind of renovation became something I had settled into, looked forward to, and was sorry to leave, though it was also a great relief to see the manuscript sit still for more than a week at a time.

You’ve travelled a lot and you’re in Belize right now, where I’m assuming you’ve been before and you stay months at a time. Why Belize, and are we going to be getting some hot poems from the warmer climates?

I was looking for a place to go during the winter, for my health, which is a lot better when I can play tennis and run rather than hibernate in the basement for six months; and for my work, which gets better when I can give it my full attention, day after day; and for a taste of stress-free serenity in a friendly place where I feel at home but also far away. I read an article in the International Living newsletter. The place sounded warm, the price modest, and the people very accommodating. I don’t expect I’ll write much, if at all, about Belize, in spite of theories about how poems are really composed by the landscape poets inhabit. I came here with specific projects and hope to finish them all.

How do your writing habits or processes change when you’re away from Manitoba?

I think the greatest change is that here they are continuous, almost without interruptions or time constraints. I feel no pressure to hurry or “get things done” and this is the state in which I work best.

You’ve retired from teaching at the University of Manitoba and have just finished a major undertaking with this new book. What’s next for you and your poetry?

A book I’ve been working on called Martial Music, poems about war and empire. Then I’ll probably go back to one of the novels I’ve been messing with for years. After that, I’m not sure – whatever comes swimming up while I stare attentively at the blank page. I’ve learned by now that something always does.

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Victor Enns

Victor Enns writes poetry, reads, and reviews fiction. His new book of poems is Afghanistan Confessions (Hagios, 2014).