Debut poetry collection explores working class masculinity

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November 8, 2014

Garth Martens’ debut poetry collection, Prologue for the Age of Consequence, is a finalist for the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Awards, to be announced on Nov. 18. While working class masculinity has been a throughline of Canadian poetry in the work of poets like Patrick Lane, Martens’ poems, eloquent and brutal, are probably the most merciless – yet starkly compassionate – portrait of a group of working men in Canadian poetry. In this interview with Julian Gunn, Martens takes some of his metaphors from flamenco. He has studied flamenco dance, cante (singing), and palmas (percussion) for seven years at Alma de Espana. He wrote the libretto for a major international flamenco production, Pasajes, staged at the Royal Theatre in July 2014.

The poems in Prologue for the Age of Consequence travel between portrait and myth. Where does the mythological impulse come from, and why this shifting back and forth in scale from microcosm to macrocosm?

Large forces act on us. We promote them through a passive agreement, fingers on the planchette of a Ouija board. If the ordinary lives of tradespeople need no embellishment, still, there’s a corresponding experience. The worker asleep. We’re faced with a lot of numbers, the death rate in construction, or an amount, in metric tonnes, of land disrupted through machinery for bitumen. Portraiture allows a coarser engagement. Immensity, intimacy—we live each of these. So I’m interested in character, loaded voices. I’m also in love with an everything diction. Shifts in scale, hybridized registers, these were right for the telling.

The voice of a poem like “The Bolt that Cracked” moves between collective and individual identity, and between first and third person. Were you exploring how a sense of self works under extreme circumstances? What did you want your readers to experience through this instability?

Halfway through the first draft of “The Bolt That Cracked,” I discovered I had changed from first to third person, accidentally, and I was annoyed, but then I liked the effect. I thought about why I had done that, why I had slipped: an attempt to avert the gaze, disassociate, move left. I like your word “instability” here. The shifts begin when the speaker’s in the hospital observing other patients, their injuries, until returning to himself: “and here, now, this one, hovering / in spacious anaesthetic.” We don’t, sometimes, want to speak “I”. We can’t place ourselves. There are two wounds in that poem, and one of them is much simpler than the other and given more attention. So yes, extreme circumstances, which in fact are commonplace: the self exerted on, the departures, by choice or death, of those we love. The characters in Prologue have their individual identity and their collective identity, and both of these are under assault.

Formally, the poems in Prologue tend to present themselves as prose poems or as long-lined free verse, yet they seem to me to have a subterranean structurefor example, of alliteration and especially assonance. Occasionally, passages of meter break through the surface, as in “Mythologies of Men”: “He built a motorbike from scrap, / he built a stair-rail ramp, he built a fire”these bursts feel almost incantatory. Were there models you had in mind, and was there a conceptual purpose behind this tension between the form on the page and the sound of speech?

When I read “Mythologies of Men” out loud, I do it naturally, but toward the accent, which is how flamenco dancers work, and ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry. Line length is immaterial. Every syllable, when musically positioned, will read variably according to the hierarchy of accent, in triplets or dobles, a pounding of iambs, but also in a sinuous inflection, the language as spoken, which is richly idiosyncratic. Some of these poems have compact rhythm and others oxygenated rhythm. The bursts you refer to—these aren’t, you know, singularities—they’re in a musical context. See: “Myths, Metres, Rhythms,” from Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, Ted Hughes.

As I read, I began to think of the language in this collection as stubbornI don’t know if that resonates with youit is dense, and it often turns aside from an expected word and chooses one near it, or suddenly knots syntax in a surprising way. It seemed to me that you wanted the reading process to reflect the physical labour of constructionthe poems must be built in the mind, they don’t just drop easily in. Does that reflect your intention, or is it a more general strategy in your work? You’ve said that you don’t want to be “strafing the world with perfume.”

So much of the process is intuitive and appropriate to who I am in the world, and so I wrote these poems and I wrote them in this way, and I have at moments a myopic attention, an obsessiveness. My editor referred to the language in Prologue as, at times, baroque. “A tortuous vasculature,” my optometrist said, after a retinal scan. My comment on “strafing the world with perfume” was said with respect to rendering the world of construction workers, writing as resident and not tourist, neither gloving an ugliness nor ignoring a darkness.

As for stubbornness, I don’t disagree. Still, no one says flamenco music is stubborn, though it is complex.

This is a world composed almost entirely of men. Is the collection exploring ideas about gender, particularly masculinity? What does it excavate?

There is an odious masculinity on stage throughout Prologue. There aren’t many women, as on job sites. Apart from the cleaner, and the present absence of girlfriends or ex-wives, there is the mother figure in “Everything That’s Yours”. The men in Prologue regulate one another toward faces that are cruder but approved. I hope that, beneath a stereotype, complexities agitate.

I tried to write a poem from the perspective of a childhood friend. She was a bank teller in Kelowna who became an apprentice electrician, and went to work in Fort Mac, among three hundred men in camp. I tried, with her permission, but I couldn’t get it right. I was getting it wrong. And there wasn’t time to improve it. I wish there had been.

Garth Martens will be reading today Nov. 8, at 11.15 a.m., as a part of the Victoria Writers Festival, on a panel called called “Grit Lit: Writing the Rural” at Oak Bay United Church (1355 Mitchell Street). 

On Nov. 14, Martens will be a featured poet at Planet Earth Poetry. Open Mic begins at 7:30 p.m. Featured poets Garth Martens and Erina Harris begin at 8 p.m. 

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Dorthy November 8, 2014 at 6:25 pm

good luck. Excellent work!

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