Russell Thornton’s books are The Fifth Window (Thistledown, 2000), A Tunisian Notebook (Seraphim, 2002), House Built of Rain (Harbour, 2003), which was shortlisted for the ReLit Poetry Award and the Dorothy Livesay Prize (BC Book Prizes), and The Human Shore (Harbour, 2006). He won First Prize in the League of Canadian Poets National Contest in 2000 and the Ralph Gustafson Prize for best poem in The Fiddlehead Contest, 2008. His discussion with Patrick Lane is featured in the collection of talks between the newer generation and the generation of long-established Canadian poets, Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Nightwood, 2002). His poems have appeared in several anthologies, including In Fine Form (Polestar, 2005), Rocksalt: Contemporary BC Poetry (Mother Tongue, 2008), Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems(Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2009), and A Verse Map of Vancouver (Anvil, 2009). For a number of years he divided his life between Vancouver and Aberystwyth, Wales, and then Salonica, Greece. He now lives where he was born and grew up, in North Vancouver. See: http://www.harbourpublishing.com/author/RussellThornton and
Questions & Answers
Is there a specific moment that inspired you to pursue poetry?
I made up poems and songs from an early age. Later, when I could read and write, I sometimes wrote the things down. Like most young children, I loved rhymes and metaphors and the music of words. As I grew up I didn’t lose that love (still haven’t). I’d keep the odd poem I wrote. But I didn’t see poem writing as something I wanted to pursue in any serious way. Then, when I was 19, that changed. I was a student at McGill University studying non-literature courses. At a friend’s place I picked up a book by the great Canadian poet, Irving Layton. That was it. I was hooked. I immediately read everything Layton had written and started saving most of my own poems and sending them out to literary magazines. In fits and starts and with lots of detours and distractions, I’ve continued pursuing poetry in a serious way from that exact point in time.
How/where do you find inspiration today?
I think the deepest inspiration for most people who write poems is words themselves—language itself. I mean, human language is a code with hypnotic, near-miraculous properties. Writing poems, I sometimes feel as if I’m being allowed to participate (in a miniscule way, of course) in the productions of a single, very ancient, immortal, anonymous poet—the author of language itself. But to try to elaborate on my individual, very limited nature as a writer of poems: My inspiration is my own particular psychic necessity. I write poems because I need to—though often enough that need is inexplicable to me. As for subject matter: I find I write about a number of subjects—my relations with other people, with places I’ve lived in and visited—but I can’t help but feel that it’s the setting of the North Vancouver area that, as a subject, works its way most significantly through whatever imagination I possess. It seems inevitable that in writing a poem, I’ll use details that originate in the local non-human environment. It’s an environment full of movement, quick change and pure vitality, and it incites transformative inner experience. For me, an authentic poem is a kind of stored vitality and, to paraphrase Robert Graves, a poem is stored magic. When I read illustrious poems I feel that they work inexhaustible magical effects. They deliver a controlled shock of pleasure and delight, summon up an alertness and, like the mountain, forest, mist, cloud, creek, river and rain energies of my locale, prompt transformation, over and over. The poetic high points of the language—those acts of supreme verbal music, thought and feeling—seem to me to be everlasting imaginative events. They call forth as in the instance of the psalmist writing, “Deep calleth unto deep…” They rouse us to attentiveness as when William Blake cries out to the “sleeper” to “awake! expand!” I think a poem can also allow human consciousness to join, at least fleetingly, in the natural world’s wider, multifarious, ongoing poem of the unfathomable.
What is your writing process?
I write by hand. I simply blacken pages. Later I look at what I perpetrated in notebooks and on loose pieces of papers that I keep in file folders. When I see I might have gotten a poem out whole on the page (though it may be very rough), I type it into my computer. When I see only a line or section of something I’ve written that I want to try to develop into a poem, I write it down on a new blank page and start again—and try to produce material that flows from that snippet and get out entire something resembling the genuine article.
What is your revision/editing process?
After I have a rough poem on the computer screen, with what I’ve written in front of me in Times New Roman or maybe Arial, I start tinkering. After a while I print up the piece. Then I read it and make changes, additions, deletions, etc. on the hard copy with a pen. Then I go back to the computer and make a new version on screen. Print the piece out again. Go away with it and read it again. Make more changes. Continue this process until I figure the poem’s done—or until I figure I have to abandon the thing. Then I forget about the poem until I feel like sending poems out to magazines and/or putting together a manuscript.
Did you write poetry in high school? If yes, how did you get started? If no, why not?
Yes, I wrote poetry often in high school. A phrase or a line would come to me, then more words would come to me, I wouldn’t be able to get the thing out of my head—and I’d end up writing the thing down. But, to be honest, I felt as if I was indulging in some sort of secret vice. I was a little embarrassed by it. I told no one. I showed my poems to no one.
Do you use any resources that a young poet would find useful (e.g. websites, text books, etc.)?
I don’t consult any websites or textbooks. I go to the master poems of the English language and of other languages in English translation. I also go the dictionary. Great poems and the dictionary—these are my two constant resources.
When you were high school aged, what would have been helpful/motivating to hear from a published poet?
Read, read, read. Write, write, write.