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Description and Excess

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Section: Arts Topics: poetry

January 26, 2005

Description and Excess

An interview with Carmine Starnino

by Linda Besner

starnino.jpg
Carmine Starnino. Photo: Terence Byrnes, Véhicule Press

Carmine Starnino's third poetry collection, With English Subtitles, was published by Gaspereau Press in 2004, winning the A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry from the Quebec Writers' Federation in November. Starnino, resident of Montreal, is an associate editor of Magazine Maisonneuve. His new book on criticism of Canadian poetry, Lover's Quarrel, will be released this year. Here, Dominion Review Editor Linda Besner discusses love, descriptions, and the nature of Canadian poetry from With English Subtitles.

Linda Besner: I'm going to start by talking about Yukon Postcards; there's a quote in there that says,

if description is an act of love
I record for you fern-roofed orchestras
of white mountain heather with their tiny
woodwind flowers."

So, where does this idea of description come from?

Carmine Starnino: It's an old idea in love poetry, the idea of investing the intensity of emotion in a poem through the accuracy of the description. It's not as old as you would think, but certainly since the 19th century it's been very important for poets to see things clearly.
In writing that particular poem I was feeling that there's been an awful lot of editorializing when it comes to love poetry and that maybe the best way I could show feelings for the woman the poem was meant for, and maybe to show the shock-- the visual shock--of being in the Yukon, was to communicate what I was seeing as succinctly as possible and hope that the emotion would seep in. It was a little zen in the sense that I thought if I could see something clearly and try to express that as clearly as possible then the language would take care of what I wasn't exactly saying, which was I miss you I love you I wish you were here.

LB: I was wondering where descriptive language comes from-- whether it's something that stems from the object or whether it's something coming from you, that's imposed onto that object.

CS: There've been studies done of how descriptive language is actually sort of recent in terms of the tradition; certainly when you look at Shakespeare-- and he's often celebrated and justly so for the genius of his wordplay--he wasn't very interested in actually seeing things clearly. There are lots of new words being coined and there's lots of very bold metaphorical play, but he's not interested in making sure that what he was seeing could be communicated clearly like a photograph.

That photographic accuracy is more recent-- since Ruskin certainly-- and it's a tradition I've never completely understood. The French tradition, for example, is much more abstract than the English tradition, one that lives in the head. The English tradition especially since the 19th century, late 18th, is one that lives in its senses. It tries to create drama in the theater of the senses.

So the idea for me in "Yukon Postcards," and the book as a whole, is finding the ways in which the world gives you the words it needs to utter itself. My greatest fear was misappellation-- not finding the right word. The mot juste for me was often a very descriptive word which often forced me to turn to a part of the language that was a bit high octane. I had to be a bit careful not to overdo it and I think I may have overdone it in some places but you know, as Beckett says, "fail again, fail better."

LB: When you talk about using too many words, in the search for the right word, one thing I wonder about in the collection is that it seems very adjective heavy, very alliterative. I'm wondering how you walked the line between using words judiciously and veering over into what could be considered ornamental.

CS: Well, I think that's the risk in writing this kind of poetry, that ornament is always a danger. I just felt that, previous to the collection, I had been writing poems I didn't enjoy reading. For this book I wanted to go back to the pleasures that drove me to poetry in the first place--language, wordplay, melody. Music. I do find that in a tradition like ours in terms of Canadian poetry that we are used to less, and so when someone comes along who tries to do a bit more our ears hear it as messy. I think the fear of offending that neatness sensibility is one that keeps people from taking the kind of risks that might be interesting.

There's a critic, James Wood, who says that a writer's dream is to touch every word in the language once. That's not a particularly Canadian dream; the Canadian dream is to touch as few of them as possible. I thought it would be interesting if you took Wood's idea seriously--what if you did touch every word in the language once? I think we forget that a need for excess drove poets to write. It wasn't a need to pare down, it was a need to add to.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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