Five Questions with Gil McElroy

My wife and I have been fans of Gil McElroy’s poetry for about a decade, since we first read a couple of anthologized poems from his Julian Days series. We have a binder at home in which we keep copies of our favourite works. His two poems have long held a prominent place among these. So, when rob mclennan asked me if I’d like to conduct an interview with Gil, I welcomed the opportunity.

Gil was extremely warm and open with me in our email exchanges, and was kind enough to send me some of his books and chapbooks – to add to those already on our bookshelves – all of which I read more than once. I even took a few along on our vacation to Cuba, to read on the beach there.

My goal in this interview was not to follow any particular pre-set series of questions, but instead to explore, as honestly as I could, the real curiosities and engagements I’d felt vis-à-vis Gil’s poetry. And so, some of the questions might be a little unorthodox, but they do try to get at the core of what I found meaningful and well-crafted in Gil’s works.

Julian Day 2449146

A motor approaches
at miles-per-phenomenon.

Somewhere else,
glass acts.

Romance & broken hope
healed by fresh injuries
dream of a convenience,
like youth.

This is not the medicine.

This is the garden around you.

Every day ceases & what exists
starts again from zero.

The nothingness of the gift.

(from Written in the Skin, Insomniac Press, 1998)

Question 1

Roland – Looking at your poetry, for example from your ongoing Julian Days series, as well as in your recent chapbook Doxologies (2014 above/ground) and your most recent book Ordinary Time (2011, Talonbooks), one can’t help but notice a characteristic (even signature) flexibility and a creative elasticity in your use of grammar and/or language. What can you tell us about the considerations that inform you, or the intent(s) that move(s) you, regarding this usage?

Gil – Language is so vast, so fecund, that to be narrow in it is a bit of a crying shame. It’s like a form of fundamentalism – a bit puritanical, even. Not the choicest of similies, but there you are. I hope I can be somewhat elastic in how I use language. I know that in my critical writing – and even in my memoir about my father and growing up a military brat, Cold Comfort – I can have a bit of a predilection for long, loopy sentences.

But there should be a place for long, loopy sentences, and for aesthetically messing about with language and how we express ourselves. In my particular case, a lot of times that “decision” is related to a work at hand. When I wrote the poem sequence Chain Home which appeared in Ordinary Time (and which rob mclennan had previously included in an issue of 17 seconds), lines came out clipped and repressed; sentences were incomplete. It was so from the moment I began the sequence (which I wrote rather quickly), and had nothing to do with a conscious decision beforehand as to how it would come out. It just began that way, and only later did I consciously realize that it was reflective of the unknowingness that was thematically central to the sequence as a whole.

Much of the ongoing work Ordinary Time (The Propers) also has that clipped, terse, repressed quality. The sub-sequence The Merton Lake Propers, on the other hand, is richer, lusher, fuller, in its expressive language.

And if I go back far enough, to my work of the 1970s, I was hell-bent on paring down the poem to what I thought were its absolute essentials. My poems of the period were terse almost to the point of nothingness. Looking back at them, I seem determined to eliminate as much as I possibly could. The next step, I suppose, would have been eliminating myself, retreating into some kind of silent conceptualism. I was glad to break free of that inclination, but I did learn that minimalism has its place. It can be usefully expressive.

Question 2

Roland – You state that in writing the poem sequence Chain Home you did not make a conscious decision beforehand regarding “how it would come out”. Do you find that you prefer starting out a work using this kind of intuitive approach, or does that too differ from work to work? In other words, when you start, how often do you consciously know in advance what form or even content the poem’s going to take? And what makes it proceed in this explorative way, when you do?

Gil – I do prefer working in a more intuitive way now, and I have great difficulty with poetry when I do not. My work from the late 1970s was anything but intuitive. I was driven by a need to contain myself emotionally, to wall that part of myself away, and my poems of the time are hugely reflective of that personal nonsense. The poems were, and I guess still are, better than the person I was at the time, but they are enormously reflective of who – or what – I was trying to be. And they are indeed anything but intuitive. They’re laboured, and by that I mean that they’re worked and distilled to what I thought was an absolute poetic essence. I tried to beat language into submission, and aimed at an almost extreme sort of minimalism.

When I became human again, the poems I began to write were reflective of that process as well. They were looser, less constipated and repressed, and I began to follow the poem, where it wanted to go, rather that trying to bend it to my will. I stopped being so self-conscious, and let language lead me.

I never know where a poem is going to go when I start, and if I’m too insistent that it go a certain way, if I attempt to insert myself into the process, it typically turns into utter crap. So I guess in a sense my poetics is that of abandonment, of a kind of following rather than consciously leading (or trying to lead).

In terms of content, I know very generally the shape of the realm. I keep coming back to the poem sequence Chain Home. What I consciously knew at the time was that I was fascinated by the code names given military projects – “White Alice,” “Yellow Beetle,” “Cobra Judy,” etc. – names that in no way described the function or purpose of that military pursuit. And some of it was personal; my father had served at “Yellow Beetle,” an RCAF/USAF radio navigation site set up in the Arctic after the end of WWII to try and figure out how to provide navigation for aircraft in the region. It was an enigmatic caption on a photograph he took when he was posted there that led me into learning something about his life and military career, resulting in the book Cold Comfort: Growing Up Cold War.

So Chain Home began with some military code names which became titles of individual poems, and that was about the extent of any self-conscious thought about how the sequence worked. I just sat down, and these clipped, incomplete lines came out that, in retrospect, had everything to do with unknowing – unknowing about secret military projects, and unknowing about the person who was my father and who had had some real relationship and involvement with some of them.

I don’t look very hard at what I’m doing at the time that I’m doing it. I guess in some ways I don’t want to know. I tend to overthink an awful lot about my life, and it’s usually not for the better. I’ve managed the last few decades to avoid overthinking my poems. I tend to let them be what they are. I wish I were more capable of being like that in the real world.

Question 3

RolandIn an online interview published at Open Book Ontario in April 2012 and conducted by rob mclennan, you state in passing that you had “long been quite partial to philosopher Gregory Bateson’s concept of the ‘pattern that connects.'” I wonder how much this concept – and other philosophical considerations you might hold – inform, influence or interact with your poetry? Also, given that you “prefer to work in an intuitive way”, as you put it in your previous answer, the inverse question surfaces: how might your writing shape, sculpt or tweak your philosophy in return, if at all.

Gil – Like just about everyone else on this planet, I suppose, I have a hard time letting go. Control, power, seem intrinsic to the human condition, and I’m certainly human, despite earlier attempts to be entirely otherwise. My absolute favourite lines of poetry are from the French surrealist poet Paul Eluard’s “Poetry Ought to Have a Practical Purpose”:

With one step of my heart I shall lead you
I’ve lived without power for a long time it’s the way I live now
But I’m amazed to hear you say I speak to you just to delight you
When I would free you to unite you
As much as with algae and the reeds of the dawn
As with our other brothers [sic] creating their own daylight.

I still shiver when I read that, or quote it. The dichotomy between power/powerlessness, between control and letting go … I struggle mightily in my personal life not to be a total jackass, a control-freak, and don’t always succeed. My experiences many years ago dropping acid were horrible; abdicating control in light of what the drug would do was not something I was good at, nor indeed wanted at all. My only success in abdication has been with my poetry. I sure hope it might also be a part of my death.

All of which may or may not relate to my interest in the work of Gregory Bateson, which I encountered first in the mid-1980s. Naven, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity, and Angels Fear: Toward an Epistemology of the Sacred (co-written with his daughter Mary Catherine Bateson) were and are hugely important to me. Bateson stressed the importance of relationship, the “pattern that connects,” and I hope that maybe, just maybe, I might be doing something similar with my writing — laying out relationships, perhaps elucidating patterns. That’s where the latter part of Eluard’s text comes in, here. I know that sounds like aspects of me trying to be in control, but I hope that it is text – language – doing that itself, and that I’m just the instrument through which it operates. Something akin to what Jack Spicer had been arguing in his lectures. Bateson’s thinking has in so many ways shaped my thinking, but I do not want to be wilful about it; I try not to consciously step into the stream of words and clumsily divert them to where I think they should go consciously based on any philosophic or poetic precept I might adhere to. Again, it’s that Spicer thing where he talks about the knowledge you have as just being the furniture in the room. The poems comprising Doxologies, the work in my latest chapbook from above/ground press, were decidedly unwilful, even unwanted. I desperately did not want to be writing them; they came during a time of enormous personal stress and vast unhappiness; the furniture was a real mess. The poems began showing up, and then they stopped. I hope there’s a pattern that connects within them or to something larger than themselves, but, boy, I don’t really know if I want to know. They hurt to look at.

Question 4

Roland – There seem to be many examples, in your texts, suggesting that there’s perhaps a necessary vulnerability one must be willing to endure, in order to keep important channels of awareness open.

Was developed. Was upgraged (including
all of the heart &
its audible past.)

(from “Cobra Dane” by Gil McElroy, Ordinary Time, Talon Books, 2011) 

Splashed with mud, my Desmos shivers at the dawn.

My Desmos insists on a heart in all its form.

(from “Desmos” by Gil McElroy, Twentieth, above/ground press, 2013)

But when what to say, & where? Learn to write for the telling. I am rushing at one, words to be with it. More than I can take it. Relief without shame. Fie upon me! It’s all beginning to leak out. It does not couple into the new. Everything more so. Worst, who knew? I may refuse my smallness. Must, I.

(from “Prosper 21 / M” by Gil McElroy, Ordinary Time: The Merton Lake Propers, baselinepress, 2013)

In your poems, this vulnerability appears to potentially cause even more injuries, and yet at the same time, this seems paired with some kind of a belief or faith that this wide-field openness helps metabolize some of life’s damages. I’m wondering if you see anything of the kind in your texts? Or otherwise, what can you say about the place of suffering, or life’s indigestible challenges, in your poetry?

Gil – I hate vulnerability. I would assume – because I’m certainly not the most astute person around – that that’s a generally shared feeling. Vulnerability is hard. And it’s costly. I’d mentioned before my attempt in the late 1970s to shed my humanity, to repeal and repel vulnerability. I didn’t want to feel, didn’t want to hurt. I was tired of hurting; never seemed to get better. So I figured that dispensing with nasty things like human vulnerability would be just the ticket.

Okay, I was young and really stupid. But I tried very hard to become a closed system, and of course that never works. Took me a while to figure that out, though; took me a while to rediscover my heart, my humanity, to let things seep back in again, to rejoin the living. And of course central to the human condition is the quality of vulnerability, of risking oneself at emotional and psychological levels.

And all of that, of course, feeds into the poetry. My efforts to wall myself off from feeling resulted in some truly repressed, retentive poetry. I’m mixing some metaphors here, but my writing was arid. Closed systems have nowhere to go, never progress, never evolve. They inevitably die. I finally risked emotional and psychological change and openness, and of course the poetry followed suit.

There’s nothing profound in any of this: just my personal realization of what most people perhaps intuitively understood already but which I’d been really rather slow to catch on to. So in the early 1980s I risked becoming human, and my poetry opened up onto new things, new sensations, new aesthetic approaches I could never have encountered in my walled-up world. I had played with things intellectually, experimented with stuff. But nothing of significance could come of it. It was just an exercise. Not terribly meaningful. Rather masturbatory.

So vulnerability of course means embracing – willingly or not – suffering. Again, not a profound realization or anything – spiritual practitioners had known this for a very long time – but in my mid-twenties it was all new to me, anyway. And suffering of course enters into the poetry, in some ways becomes absolutely central. So much orbits around it. It’s implied, really, so fundamental as to not really need constant explication. It just is.

So suffering is there in my work. It has to be. I’m of course not trying to suggest that my poetry is depressing (I don’t think it is; maybe I’m wrong). Just that there is a deep-rooted cognizance of the pillar of suffering that informs and shapes the text (mixing metaphors again). Nothing terribly deep and groundbreaking to see here, so keep moving along. The poem leads me, not the other way ’round, but it’s still ultimately a human artefact, a bunch of fancy, gussied-up growls and roars and cries, laughter and anguish, pleasures and pains.

Question 5

Roland – There are also recurring references that one might interpret roughly as ‘the value or importance of engaging with, accepting, even sometimes welcoming, the chaotic or unknowable aspects of life.’ What can you tell us about the place of this attitude in your poetry?

Gil – I grew up a military brat, which essentially involved being on the physical move every few years as we – my family – would be transferred from one military posting to another. I would’ve given much, at the time, not to have lived thusly. It was always nerve-wracking – where the hell were we going now? – and causal of much desperate unhappiness and anxiety as I started school after everyone else, for instance, or had to give away what little I had personally accumulated as we made a move, had to constantly re-learn relationships with others … I hated it – at the time.

Now, I’m grateful for the experiences and lessons, as tough as they often were as they occurred, of chance, chaos, and the unknowable. I learned early on (though was never able to articulate it at the time) that change was the only real constant, that, as some saying goes, life is a bridge, and I should really build no house upon it.

And then in the early 1980s I encountered the work of French scientist (and true hero of the French Resistance during the Nazi Occupation of France, I’ve since learned) Jacques Monod, his book Chance & Necessity, and found a hugely powerful scientific basis for the truly fecund possibilities of chance, of randomness. Monod’s argument was that “chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution …” (wow, I still get goosebumps reading that). I recognized (and this is not an original thought by any means) that it is too the source of the aesthetically creative, the well from which we ultimately all drink. The accidents of the page, of the canvas …

At the time, I’d been playing around for a while with Burroughesque cut-ups and the like, exploring accident at an aesthetic level, but reading Monod made me take it all far more seriously, and I realized (eventually) that my childhood on the move had exposed me to so much that I would never otherwise have encountered had I been rooted as I longed to be at the time. Chance encounters.

I’m not disparaging rootedness – I still long for it at multiple levels (especially emotionally) – but I had been offered a gift early on (quite by accident, mind, and one of little to no comfort) that I’d have been a total ass not to respond to, embrace, even. And so I did, with a vengeance. I let go of the notion that I had aesthetic control. A poem begins with an image or a line, randomly encountered, that abuts upon, generates, stimulates, another line, and the poem takes me where it wants to go. As I’ve already said (and again, this is by no means original thinking), if I try to wrest control away from the poem, make it go where I think it should go, I inevitably kill it. I’ve lots of casualties to show for it, lots of dead poems.

There’s little comfort in randomness, in accident, in chaos – except the knowledge of their certainty, I guess. But I know them as a way forward – at least aesthetically. It’s a form of abandonment, an abdication of the control we all think we have over our lives but which is ultimately the true false idol.

Roland – (post interview) Thanks very much, Gil, for the insights into your poetry that you provided with your answers to these questions. It has been a genuine and memorable pleasure, these past months, to share this long, slow conversation with you.

Gil McElroy [photo credit: Barbara Horscroft] is a poet, independent curator, and visual arts critic. He is the author of four books of poetry, a non-fiction memoir, and a collection of essays on visual art, as well as a handful of chapbooks. In 2013, he was co-winner of the bpNichol Chapbook Award. McElroy currently lives in Colborne, Ontario.
Roland Prevost’s first trade poetry publication Singular Plurals (Chaudiere Books, 2014) came out last fall. He has been published by Arc Poetry Magazine, Descant,The Toronto Quarterly, ottawater, experiment-o, Ottawa Arts Review, The Steel Chisel, The Peter F. Yacht Club, among many others. He is the author of five chapbooks: Metafizz (Bywords, 2007), Dragon Verses (Dusty Owl, 2009), Our/ Are Carried Invisibles (above/ground press, 2009), Parapagus (above/ground press, 2012) and Culls (above/ground press, 2015), and has also been published in three poetry collections by Angel House Press. Roland won the 2006 John Newlove Poetry Award, judged that year by Erín Moure. He was managing editor of, and founding managing editor of seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics. He lives and writes in Ottawa.

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