Interview: Karen Houle

Karen Houle is a philosopher and poet whose work in both disciplines circulates around ethics and the environment. The author of two previous poetry collections, Ballast (1995) and During (2000), her new book, The Grand River Watershed: A Folk Ecology, uses an eclectic array of interconnected strategies to contemplate the complexities of the Grand River watershed in southern Ontario. Since the book is so much about place, I decided to read it in Stanley Park, right on the Grand River. Karen was generous enough to answer the questions that came out of that afternoon in the sunshine.

Jeremy Luke Hill: Your book is sub-titled, “A Folk Ecology”, and the back blurb describes it as “natural history”. What inspired you to write the ecology and natural history of a watershed through poetry? What does poetry have to add to those kinds of researches?

Karen Houle: I made up that term, “folk ecology”, riffing on folk psychology which is often denigrated in contemporary “evidence-based” consciousness studies and brain medicine and yet, at the same time, is implied by scientists when they use terms like “mind” or “person”, or is even defaulted to for an explanatory framework when there’s no data. It’s fascinating to me how “sentimental” or “folksy” or “spiritual” ways of knowing (poetics, dream analysis, journalling, recipes, dance) enjoy a sort of epistemic schizophrenia: they are allowed to be both deep wisdoms and flaky nothings.

This book is running those two epistemic registers together (the folksy and the scientific)  because they are both “there”, and when together (joined, careful joinery) in poetics, can give us a “feeling” for the watershed, in both content and kinetics. I wanted to frame my “researches” of inhabiting the Grand Watershed with that same double-episteme, but this time, inserting low-fi knowings and dubious facts and imaginings into the fabric of scientized ecological discourse, letting the “folk insights” plug some of the big holes in an empirical version of life and living. I want the book to enact a watershed flood-plain of ideas with different qualities of truth for “footing”; firm footing or soft mush making their topographical contours.

What inspired me to write the ecological and natural history of a watershed via poetry? Easy: poetry works as excellent glue. You can put very different ideas and registers “together” using the special capacities (formal, informal, semiotic, cadence) of poetry. You can have two or three refrains being elicited in the reader at the same time because of the capaciousness of metaphor and the unsingle-meaningness of any single word.

For example: an ash is a kind of tree (which grows in the Grand River Watershed, and happens to be currently in decline because of an invasive bug); and it’s also what is left after the burning of wood and paper; and it also pulls up in the mind Ash Wednesday (so sin and salvation); and it’s also fertilizer for plants (like blueberries up on the French River, which were apparently amazing this year but last year the whole area was on fire). The layers of research and data and anecdotes and idioms that are at play in the “history” of the Grand River watershed needed poetry as the vehicle to hold all these resonances together and keep all possible understandings alive through the whole run of the text.

JLH: The poems draw part of their structure from the textual apparatus of academic writing, most obviously through footnotes to scientific and historical sources, and through marginal notes that provide information like the latin names for the plants and animals the poems reference. What relationship are you invoking here between poetry and science?

KH: In academic contexts (philosophy, science) there are norms and legalities around citation (i.e. the use of other people’s material, ideas, words). This practice of citation is entirely in line with the part of our history that has the rule of law. So, when I cite scientific articles published based on research in my poems, or when I footnote a quotation properly, I’m doing something poetic with the words, but I’m also evoking, manifesting, re-gesturing, very self-consciously, that part of our collective history that made laws and kept laws. Citations just happen to be one of the main ways that discourse and its practices appears and operates now in “academia”. However, it is also the case that the history of this land (and thus academia which operates on this same land) involves theft and disregard, total disregard, for the law and the rule of law. This fact is as true as the former.

The histories of the Grand River watershed are filled with this same contradiction. It is the case that land was stolen. It is also the case that land was sold in above-board respect for contracts and property law. Both happened. It makes me crazy to hear people saying only: “White people stole Indian land!” True, but not only true. It makes me just as crazy to hear other people saying only: “Land was allotted justly among Canadians according to the highest legal standards.” Nope, not that either. So, it’s both. We are always both. We both take things that are not ours (consciously or unconsciously), and we also properly ask for things that are not ours from their “rightful” owner, and pay for them, fair and square.

How does this show up in my work? Sometimes I cite fully and properly. Other times I just rip off entire phrases without citing at all. A work about the “histories” of the Grand River watershed has to do both of these, both in the sense of writing about these paradoxical and mixed, insanely interesting histories, and also in the sense of formal choices that express those same, those very same, contradictions.

I hope, I really do hope, that someone charges me with plagiarism. It might, it just might, turn out to be a person or an institution that, on another page, received my full and honourable and non-sarcastic citational deference.

JLH: To make things even more eclectic, the epigraph to your book (from Aristotle) and the epigraphs to many of the poems (from Gilles Deleuze, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Emmanuel Levinas, Maurice Merleau-Ponty) are from philosophy, which is your own disciplinary background. How did your role as philosopher inform the poems in this collection?

KH: My role as a philosopher, aside from the teaching aspect, involves trying to have new thoughts or good thoughts or important (ethical, political, ontological truth) thoughts. I have always done that through a combination of book-work (reading so carefully the writings of other philosophers that I can only go at a snail’s pace if any part of me is going to understand anything), and I always “research” by doing something very concrete that checks out how those ideas look and feel in the material social world. So, my book on ethical complexity and responsibility was research into the limits and inadequacies of the classical (liberal) concept of “responsibility”, and I “checked” its limits by testing it “on” the very personal very data-rich situation of unwanted pregnancy. (it could have been “checked” on any other complex moral event like Israel-Palestine or climate change, etc). Then with my head-hands “in the world”, so to speak, I can feel for how the ideas and thoughts work or don’t work well. It’s not unlike feeling whether a certain size of, say, allen key, will turn that screw or not. Or whether that “church key” (a Northern Ontario word) will open a bottle of beer. Adjust, adjust… sometimes even realize that such a tool does not even yet exist, so one forges one (mentally and then lets the eyes or ears try it out), creates concepts. That’s part of philosophy work, but for me, it only happens when I’m trying to “do” philosophy in the concrete (i.e. as an artist, or as an embodied female, or as someone with feet in Wellington County, or as someone writing “with” plants rather than just “about” plants.). When I’m doing that work, the natural, concrete, historically-resonant, social, smelly, oxygenated “real world” is one of my teachers.

The other teachers are the ones I have read, (and sometimes a person who taught me in a classroom,  musing aloud about space-time or consciousness or the nature of evil). These ones say things that open up my head a little. as if their ideas or their concepts were church keys and puncture very decisively and beautifully (with that little triangle-shaped pssssssfffffft) and sort of invite the world in, or invite my mind to go take a walk out through that small pointed opening and find out who or what is out there in the region of that idea.

The quotes that I inserted into Folk Ecology were of that sort, for me. I read Deleuze asserting (or hypothesizing? proposing as a thought-to-try-out) that time goes in both directions. Then there I am walking beside the Grand, and it seems to be flowing from north to south. And all the natural spaces seem to be domesticated and tamed. Just as I, in my 54th year, seem to be growing from young to old. And just as historical records seem only to be building middens of artifacts and data, rather than unbuilding those piles…. But then, with that hole-in-my-mind, I read five or six articles about “gene flow” in the Roseacea populations in that same landscape… where the facts show that, in fact, genes are flowing in two directions: the wild apples are being domesticated and the domesticated apples are being wilded. Then, Deleuze’s phrase is there, and starts to do more work on me… and then I see the river again, and I “know” that somehow it is also flowing back to the source west of the Caledon Hills, and I “know” that I’m also growing young as I age, and I “know” that history is being unwritten and lost even as we curate our past… and then I try to build those senses with words, as a poem.

JLH: The poems often mention very particular places and geographies (Eby Crest Park, for example, which was less than ten minutes walk from where I first read the book). Sometimes the marginal notes even give exact coordinates for these places. Can you talk a little bit about the poetry of place and proper name?

KH: I was Writer-in-Residence at North House (the University of Waterloo School of Architecture “award-winning solar model” home) that sits near the Grand on the Blair Road just north of Cambridge. It’s a parcel of land that forms part of the rare Research Reserve. I lived there for about three months in the Fall. It was the first time I was a “Writer-in-Residence”, and it was only me, and it was very much a solo gig in that very particular house on that very particular location and in a very particular season (early Sept through to first deep snow, which, creepily, piled up high all around the glass house making it a bizarre igloo).

I went there without a manuscript-in-preparation that I could just twiddle away with inside that fantastic weird little solar house-box. I went there with a complete blank slate and an intention: to write pomes. Shit that’s hard! What is ones “material” if you don’t come equipped with a theme or a work-in-progress? I didn’t want to have something underway that would then give me professional permission to ignore the context (historical, geographical, actual material) where I suddenly found myself. I didn’t want to because, given the politically torqued history of colonial-indigenous juridical relations that involved that very stretch of land, I thought that if I “went there” and just used the beauty of the place and its quiet to prop me up to “be an artist”, it would be another gross colonialist posture.

But, if you refuse to do that (like I did), then you’re basically naked, empty, exposed, dumb-STRUCK. And all “there is” is where you are. Right down to the point of latitude and longitude. And how do you write from where you are (or even about where you are) without being a robot like the lady who talks to you from the GPS, or being nostalgic or romantic? I thought that maybe if I let the very specific signs (i.e. numbers and proper names – and the stutter of names that had been “given” to people and places like Joseph Brant and Brantford and Eby and Eby Crest Park and Theyendendagaya and Lake Huron and Blair Road and Pauline Johnston and the Jones Baseline) be the names still in circulation in the work (if totally untethered from their first uses), then readers would become very awake to the thereness of those poems. And maybe, maybe they’d realize that they too were “in” the place where all this happened and was still happening.

I think it’s a political move. It was intended first as a way to anchor myself in a sort of vortex of pretend-to-be-an-artist, but then as a way to also face histories, to use the proper name to cut hard against our ability to abstract away from history and the present, and thus our deep implications in it (even if just by virtue of the neutral casualness with which we say words like “Brantford” and “corn”).

JLH: When you consider all of these elements (poetry, science, history, philosophy, geography), and then add typographic ones (tables, sub-headings, caesura, italicized sections, varied text justifications, interpolated sections, asterisks, etcetera), the result is a book with a kind of eclectic and unruly energy. How deliberately were you cultivating that sensibility?

KH: Very. In every possible sense, I wanted the work itself to express the energy density and saturations of an ecological vitality, a system, a life-system. The work is to be taken as a whole. I built it as a system, with internal frets and referential tensions that are intended to scaffold the big force of the flow-through. I don’t know if it “holds”, but I am entirely answerable for cultivating an unruliness via language.

The publisher (Andrew Steeves) was sensitive to that, and really helpful with that exact point. He kept saying that the work was veering toward chaos (which he wanted to allow, but without actual chaos) and wanted to work with me to find ways of putting thresholds in place that would contain the LIVING energy flow into something productive rather than destructive. He was the one who came up with a formal system of right-and-left-justified and then the text blocks for the big “science excerpts” to offer a sort of span to keep the two banks in connection.

I keep thinking about weirs. In a river, weirs are formal constraints (but not blockages, not dams) to slow and tumble and thus oxygenate the waters at key locations and crucial moments in the seasons. The formal constrains in my work are intended to act like weirs in the tumble of ideas and words and principles.


Jeremy Luke Hill is the publisher at Gordon Hill Press, a literary publisher based in Guelph, Ontario. He is also the Managing Director of Vocamus Writers Community, a non-profit community organization that supports book culture in Guelph. He has written a collection of poetry, short prose, and photography called Island Pieces; four chapbooks of poetry called Poetry of Thought, CanCon, Trumped, and These My Streets; two poetry broadsheets called Grounded and Indexical; and an ongoing series of poetry broadsheets called Conversations with Viral Media. He also writes a semi-regular column on chapbooks for The Town Crier. His writing has appeared in The Bull Calf, CV2, EVENT Magazine, Filling Station, Free Fall, The Goose, HA&L, The Maynard, paperplates, Queen Mob’s Tea House, The Rusty Toque, The Town Crier, and The Windsor Review.

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