Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1939, George McWhirter received a B.A. and his Diploma in Education from Queens’ University Belfast, and his M.A. from the University of British Columbia. He has taught in Ireland, Spain and British Columbia. In 1966, he came to Canada, and since 1968 has lived in Vancouver with frequent sojourns in Mexico and Spain. George McWhirter taught at the University of British Columbia from 1970 to 2005 and is now Professor Emeritus. During that time he was associated with PRISM international magazine.
McWhirter was appointed the first Poet Laureate of Vancouver in March 2007. He has over ten books of poetry, and his poems have appeared in anthologies in Canada, the United States, Mexico and Ireland. His poetry has been translated into Spanish.
Currently George McWhirter writes full-time and occasionally gives poetry and literary translation workshops.
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
There was no specific age or moment in time that I started writing poetry, just long years of rote learning until the poetry I knew by heart from the age five—The Bible included, verse by verse for day and Sunday school—took possession of my head and the way words worked, sounded, and arranged themselves inside it. At school, I thought in the rhythms of old poetry while learning (trying) to write understandable 1940ies and 50ies English prose. My essays’ phrases and sentences were mangled echoes of lines in poetry I had learned. This got so bad that my English tutor at Queen’s University Belfast, Larry Lerner (also a poet and novelist) told me when he read my poetry appreciations of a John Dunne, “George, you’re not supposed to write a poem on a poem.” Fifty years later I finally got to do just that for John Pass’ High Ground Press “Companion” series by writing one to accompany Dunne’s “Good Friday, Riding Westward.”
An eye for an eye, a poem with a poem—so it was with me. When asked to produce a poetry appreciation party piece to show how intelligent a reader, literary observer and commentator I was. I performed became a poetry parrot, adding a new and possibly disgusting, certainly unacceptable twist of my own to the poem for discussion.
Then, another form of parroting with imitation and mutation—you might say—took hold of me: Literary Translation, specifically from Spanish. This started at the age of thirteen or fourteen and intensified by sixteen, when in Upper Sixth form at Grosvenor High School in Belfast, I was given the verses by modern Spanish poets in the new edition, Oxford Book of Spanish Verse, to render into English: Machado, Lorca, Guillén, Alberti, not to mention Luis de Góngora and Rubén Darío, who influenced the aforementioned contemporary, lately dead or murdered Spanish poets. A decade and a half later I would be translating Mexican poets of my own age, whose literary upbringing had been with those same poets. I simply fell in love with the Spanish poets and translating their poems changed from class exercises into a “spontaneous routine”—as J. Michael Yates calls it—by the time I was seventeen.
Still, this was rote or word-for-word response which, when I tried to link to my own immediate life with lines and quit writing an unpublished poem to a published poem, it didn’t work. I was stuck in Lit for Lit activity, poetry tit got pure tat from me! Poems all came out as though written by someone else’s before me. It wasn’t until overlabouring in my verse-crossed way, between my verse responses to published poems, my English versions of Spanish poems at Queen’s in my second year, that my battery ran down completely, coming home on a Waterworks bus. I was flat, not a spark, no charge left in me.
I tried to restart the two by fixing my standard jumper cables to the positive (real original poetry) and negative (George’s versions of) nodes, the way I usually did, looking through the window at things outside, burrowing through the echoes in my head within. How the cables connecting me to the immediate world outside the window of the bus slipped or clamped on with too heavy a charge, I don’t know? There was a fzzzzzzz as you get with batteries, when one or other node, or both are misconnected and the electrical unit for production of power undergoes electrolysis—a nodal melt down of the modal, in my pathetic case
It was Spring and I was nineteen on the Waterworks bus. It was rounding a long slow uphill curve, I was on the top deck looking down on the street lights and the image of lights circling like a crown of thorns on the head of Christ hit me.
I woke up 12 hours later, in bed, still flat as old porter, which I might have drinking to end my literary labours on the night before. I can’t remember about the night before except for that one thing on the bus, going up the curve of Albert Street, and when I started to think the next day I thought in images. In a heightened two-ness. Real things, every thing was itself and something else at the same time. The night was not like coal, it was coal in the sky. Parts were chipped off and burning in our fire on that transformed morning.
I would use “like,” the simile’s comparative word to link up the two-ness. It took several years after that to find my own idiom to carry the images and make the proper fusion. A decade, let’s say. Some would call the “idiom” voice. I had already had the knock-out vision. These two make the complete circuit of poetry: voice and vision. They are its anode and cathode.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
What is inspiring me today? Any thing I look at, anything I read about in a paper or magazine-not just the literary. I want to catch anything that catches my attention. I still respond to everything with a verse. In my book before last, The Incorrection (Oolihcan Books), I have poems written in response to Economist articles over the last dozen years. Margaret Atwood reads and now that she has outed herself on that and money matters, a lot more poets will own up. I don’t know how many respond with poems to its subject-matters.
Okay, enough with The Economist. I’m reading this week’ issue, my wife is sitting beside me, eating an apple on her bar stool at the big kitchen counter. I hear her. She claims to eat silently, but I hear her and my lines go immediately to what’s in her mouth, in order to make some smart remark, but the remark remakes itself into the two things I see at once in her face:
As the apple
In her mouth
In the chapel
Of her cheek,
Under the domed
Then, the same two-ness happens in my mouth:
In the jam’s
From this, and what I’ve said before, you’ll conclude that I have a religious relationship with things. True, but if you consider that some say money is our modern religion and the banks our churches, the businesses and industries our holy orders, then The Economist could be said to be some branch of sacred literature. But enough of that.
I do have a religious relationship with what’s around me, things to me are sacred. Holy objects and every action an observance. ‘God so loved the world he gave his only begotten Son’ was one of the lines I learned that never leaves me.
What is your writing process?
By going to the lines on what’s in my wife’s mouth and mine I’ve begun to describe my writing process. After the opening line for the apple making cider in her mouth hits me, I go into the other room and write the lines in my notebook. I bring my piece of bread with gooseberry jam on a plate and my coffee into the room with me. That’s when I get the second set of lines about what’s in my mouth.
What is your revision/editing process?
Okay, I read what I’ve written back to myself, and it seems better than usual. Not an incomprehensible garble of picture phrases, it makes more sensory sense than nonsense. I tell myself I could leave it here, finish at the rosary, call the piece, “Morning Prayer.”
But I don’t, I respond to this what-looks-to-be complete little poem with my bad habit, another poem of mine that asks what is the prayer about, who is it to? This is where I get into trouble, that very inappropriate parrot’s interjection, which can be a curse.
I enter a new dialogue with the apple eating, gooseberry jam piece poem. I ask the question about who the morning prayer is to, what kind of prayer do a man and woman eating breakfast make?
The answers to both comes. It’s a “rosary/
Of love and contiguity in our Morning
(Pause, on my part, to think)
(Pause for a line break, a double line break, to double think)
Prayer to (who else, but) juicy Jesus and his gravid mother,
(At this point one of the other members of the Trinity pops up in the guise of the season of greatest fruit, which goes together with the season of the greatest eating… and then a pun/double-entendre, I can’t resist comes… “gorge”). The opposite notion of separation, gap (first “gorge”) comes in along with stuffing as at a feast (second “gorge”)…. why? I don’t know why at this point, except that I like the word “gorge,” me being called George and having been rhymed and my name made ridiculous by my mates in the street because of it. Anyway… the lines for season of greatest fruit and eating arrange themselves.)
the Holy Ghost
Of autumns across the gorge of Christmases
(Then, I come back to what this fruitful prayer is made with,)
with my mouth,
(Oh yes fruit, in autumn. Apples… the word for how they fall
“windfallen” comes to me, and how of the prayer in my mouth might make
it “fruit full” and the words “windfallen”)
As fruit full and windfallen
(At this point I see the connection to the gap/gorge/separation, the opposite to my wife and I sitting close by each other on stools, eating. A memory from the Mourne Mountains of South Down, where we lived when we were first married comes, and I write it as I remember it: an old farmer calling to his wife at the farm-house orchard from where he is fields and hedges away from her. He’s shouting as they do there, loudly, because there is wind and the distance of fields between one person and another. The wife has been picking apples. The farmer knows what she has been up to. Knows what succulent something might wait for him later. In her basket (and my memory) the apples take the shape of the richer green drumlinated landscape in North Down)
Slow as an old farmer of South down
Who shouts to his wife, her basket
Filled with the green drumlins of apples,
Across his hedges—still he shouts,
(At this point I understand the serial gaps of hedges and fields and why he shouts, and now I understand how that is linked to our closeness/contiguity, my wife’s and mine. The farmer shouts because he wants to keep in touch, his contact with his wife close and continuous even across the separation of fields and time, the passing of the seasons. So I make his shout passing over the fields and hedges into a similar of the seasons… oh, but there it is, that old “like”)
Across his hedges—still he shouts,
“Hello, hello, m’wee dumplin'”
because he knows each word
crosses, like a season, one tilled field
behind the word before, and
he wants to keep his calls
(How does he want these calls to be, as good as her dumplings later, as good and full as her basket and she is with the windfalls of the years and his calls of constant companionship across the gorge of autums.)
ripe together, one
gulder as gravid
as the one before.
“Sauce” is a pun/double entendre, of course, couldn’t resist it, but did I make it strong enough to end the poem. I don’t know yet. “Gulder” is the word there, in Ireland, for a loud shout. Great word.
Having come to the last thing, I always go back to the first thing… a title? Um, ah. Now that it has gone beyond “Morning Prayer,” or “Morning Prayers”… “Calls to prayer,” something to bring/that brings apples and affection together… “dumplings”… i.e. there being a pair of them here in the first setting/sitting and the second.
I will jiggle with the lines and phrases to get the staggered passage, passing at intervals of his voice and call over the hedges, across the fields, and have it fit into the sense of season and seasons passing between man and wife as they live. A sequential syntax, the physical rhetoric of portraying a scene through phrase and line as the action takes place
I’ll knock this around now in the computer for God knows how long…
What you find written here is the first time I’ve typed it out. Everything prior, including notes for what to write about my process and technique is written in mechanical pencil, with a big tube eraser on hand.
You have the somewhat finished poem at the opening.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
Jorge Luis Borges, the great, much-admired Argentinian writer, advised story writers to take an interest in railway timetables. Rail isn’t used so much nowadays, so bus schedules make a good substitute. Why did he give this advice because there is a built-in form and timing for any sequence of events on a bus or train journey. Every X no. of minutes the 99 B-Line bus comes on Broadway. At X o’clock it will be at Granville, at X o’clock, at MacDonald. Except when something goes wrong. What went wrong?
Suppose you’re writing a brief narrative poem about love on the 99 B-Line Express, then, the posted schedule gives one persona his or her timetable in the pursuit of love, and time out of ordinary time, on the bus. A stop a stanza. A crash at every unexpected couplet.
Your teachers and the wonderfully well-informed poets who have written for this series will have given many resources. Books, websites. I only remind you of the big book outside the window of the bus that isn’t yet in words. The book of things and events. The book of things you are attached to. Your skateboard. Don’t forget your skateboard and how it changes who you are. Your bicycle, your mother’s washing machine. My kids loved fans to the point when they grew up they couldn’t sleep without them blowing and humming to them. When Pablo Neruda had a huge crisis about what subjects he would write about in his poetry, he finally realized: things. Because there is no end of them. Socks and etceteras. He wrote his Elemental Odes from this starting point. So, write odes to your thigh high socks or warmers. Read Neruda’s Elemental Odes, of course. But think, did Neruda ever write an ode to a boogie board? Now’s your chance.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
Read what’s in the books of verse, relish and remember, but write what you have experienced that hasn’t yet made any rhyme or reason.