Garth Martens was Swoon’s featured reader in April, when he read from his debut collection of poetry, Prologue for the Age of Consequence. Ruth Daniell caught up with Garth to find out a little bit more about how the book came to be and to discover more about Garth’s passion for flamenco.
RD: Congratulations on the book, Garth, and thanks again for reading at Swoon. We were delighted to feature you. Prologue for the Age of Consequence is a gorgeous book. Could you tell me a little bit about the book? Was there a moment when you stopped writing individual poems and began to consciously write poems towards a collection?
GM: The book concerns a crew of tradespeople in northern Alberta. Under the direction of two foremen, an ambitious superintendent, they build a tower. The poems feature their ordinary lives – bereavement, desire, addiction, hierarchy, divorce, a mental compaction that results from working eighty-six hours a week – as well as corresponding mythological realities. Some characters approach the other world through their dreaming or their injury. One of these through epileptic seizure. This dream is inflected by the tower they build, a multi-storeyed shadow. This architecture’s laid in allegiance with Fort MacMurray and the Athabasca tar sands, an industrial project viewable from space, and with more subtle insinuations of a system we’ve invented that both poisons us and draws our collective worship.
The first of the poems I wrote for the book was “Drill / Screw”. Very soon the topography of a larger project was obvious.
RD: In “The Cleaning Girl,” the speaker of that poem talks about his fellow crewmen trading “doubtful tales of this or that girl,” and then he comments “What mattered was polish. Sweep in the telling.” Do you think those words could be used to describe the book? It strikes me that the poems are both incredibly polished but also have this tilting momentum to them, an energy like a “sweep in the telling.”
GM: I’m not sure. That’s not for me to say. I suppose polish is contrary to the energy you describe. There is the precision that designs and assembles, rivets, and steers, a large plane. There is also the tumult of a world that will bear upon that object. In less adversarial wording, this polish is crystal, this tilt is the wine.
RD: Of course, I suppose it’s always a bit unfair to ask an author to describe their own work—thank you for commenting though, on that energy. The energy seems to me to be a kind of longing, a desire—one reason you were such a great fit for Swoon—and I loved hearing your work out loud. How much are you aware of how a poem “should” sound, when you’re writing? Do you read your poems out loud while composing?
GM: There’s an aural support I work toward. The poem becomes, line after line, a parapet or a deck. I’d like to think I could walk on it. When editing I reinforce that music, button it down, batten the form so the wind won’t rip it apart. I like the feeling very much. Hopefully there’s also a sinousness, a ligamental give. In prose, the sentence is a dominant musical unit, and it can throw out or reel in, with lesser or greater density. I do read my poems out loud as I’m writing, sometimes almost silently, just to feel the muscles move in the face. They’re blueprints, aural documents.
RD: Oh! To be able walk on a poem! A new aspiration for me. To speak more about the structure of poems…The book moves from lined verse to prose poems, back and forth, some are long poems (“Arial,” “Seizures”) and some are shorter (“Leathering, “Tailings”). What kind of relationship do you see between form and content? What comes first for you? Do you know when a poem is going to be a long one, or a prose poem? Are you more comfortable in one form over another? (I’m terrified of writing prose poems, but you handle them so artfully!) Do your poems begin as a rhythm, an image, an idea…?
GM: I don’t know which comes first, form or content, but so much depends on the gesture the poem’s making, right? What does it need? I used to write anemic gurney-strapped poems and in this book I broke out of that stricture. The poems are informed by on-the-ground site-specific language. So I take notes: phrases of speech, anecdotes, objects. Some of these naturally pull together, an aggregate for a poem. Like cream on a fresh slab of concrete, an image or a metaphor will sweat to the surface. Music’s an early and active ingredient. Is this a voiced piece. Is it all-seeing from an iron perch. Does it have more air in it.
RD: It’s lovely how much you attend to music—a not-so-secret ingredient. I know that you are involved with flamenco—how has the music and movement of flamenco, specifically, influenced Prologue, or your writing as a whole?
GM: Flamenco’s an astonishing collision of improvisation and craft. The rhythm structures are complex and ancient. They recall firelight and oral culture and early religious experience. The structure of that music is a subtle roll of signals, shifting accents and syncopations, circles within squares within circles. When I first heard a dancer’s drill of footwork, it triggered for me the same synapses as, say, Dylan Thomas’ Lament. Flamenco is a total commitment to rhythm. That is the law. You must not lose compás. Someone holds the rope around which all the swinging happens. Where flamenco differs from poetry is its reliance on the present moment in performance. Within the lens of the moment, the dancer is, we hope, subject to the Great Accident that meets her talent at a slant. The singer swallows a fly and cuts the letra short. What does she do. The singer extends the song inflecting it just so. What’s her response. Some asshole tosses a cobra onto the floorboards. Suddenly what she was planning doesn’t cut it and she’s left with exciting possibility for failure. Does poetry risk itself like this, in the frying pan of the instant? I was once in the studio with our teacher, a guitarist, a class of advanced students, and we were doing palmas in a ring as an exercise, marking rhythm with our hands. For more than thirty minutes we rode the rotation of bulería, which is the most elusive and protean of palos. I felt us enter a trancelike space where thinking was gone and rhythm was a shared and total currency. That’s the aspiration. For seven years I’ve studied and I do the work to be better prepared to receive these moments, which are true living, wakefulness. I don’t know how flamenco influences my writing, but it informs my life essentially.
RD: Wow. I do think that’s true, that performance hinges on the present moment in a different way than something on the printed page. I do think there’s risk in both, though. There’s definitely bravery in Prologue. And in your study of flamenco, too. Can you tell us what kind of accidents—great or small—led you to Pasajes? What is Pasajes all about? How did you come to be involved with the project, and what does it mean to you?
GM: Pasajes is an international flamenco show slated for July 12 at the Royal Theatre in Victoria, BC. It features several distinguished guest artists from Spain, dancers and musicians, as well as select local talent. Veronica Maguire, our Artistic Director, lost her husband four years ago, suddenly and unexpectedly. They were inseparatable. He was her lover, creative collaborator, and closest companion. They founded Alma de España, a flamenco school, twenty-three years ago. The loss, the grief, immoblized Veronica. Pasajes, which is Spanish for passages, is the story of that internal struggle and her return to movement: birth, death, and regeneration. I was invited to join the company as a poet first because poetry is at the centre of the tradition, in letras the cantaors have sung for centuries, and second because Veronica trusted that I’d be true to the aire of flamenco, that I understood artistically what was needed. I consider it an honour to be involved with her project and to work with Spanish and local artists of such calibre. The Spanish contingent includes Domingo Ortega, María Bermúdez, Jesús Álvarez, Coral de los Reyes, Luis de la Tota, and Miguel Rosendo. These are some of the best flamenco artists going. We’ll never have a show of such scale and spectacle again.
RD: It sounds like a very powerful and moving story. I’m so excited that you’re a part of it. What are some of your other favourite love stories? Love poems?
GM: Robert Bringhurst’s Sutra for the Heart. Seamus Heaney’s Scaffolding. Jan Zwicky’s Practising Bach. Adrienne Rich’s Twenty-One Love Poems, selections from Neruda’s One Hundred Love Sonnets. I’m very moved, also, by a kind of tragic parental love: Adam Trask in East of Eden, Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations, and Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.
RD: Finally, will you tell your fellow Swooners what is your favourite kind of chocolate? …And, for fun, tell us: if you could design a chocolate truffle, what would be its ingredients?
GM: Any hazelnut and chocolate combination has my attention. My truffle: a pearl of butterscotch coated in milk chocolate and dusted with roasted pecan.
RD: Sounds delicious! Maybe you’ll have to add chocolate-making to your many talents.
Swooners, please check out Pasajes and support it if you can! And if you haven’t already bought Garth’s book, you can order Prologue for the Age of Consequence directly through Anansi or through your local independent bookstore.
For more information about Pasajes:
Crowdfunding Campaign: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/pasajes-flamenco-theatre
To order Prologue for the Age of Consequence (Anansi, 2014):
(It says the paperback is “temporarily unavailable”. This isn’t true, just proceed to checkout.)
Garth Martens won the 2011 Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers. His work is published in Poetry Ireland Review, Hazlitt, This Magazine, Vallum, Prism International, The Fiddlehead, The Malahat Review, Grain Magazine, and The Times Colonist. His first book is Prologue for the Age of Consequence (Anansi, 2014.) He has written the libretto for an international flamenco production slated for July 12 in the Royal Theatre in Victoria, BC.
Ruth Daniell is the creator and co-host of Swoon. She is a writer, artist, and performer originally from Prince George, BC, who now lives in Vancouver, where she teaches speech arts and writing at the Bolton Academy of Spoken Arts. Her writing has been published or is forthcoming in The Malahat Review, Contemporary Verse 2, Echolocation, Room Magazine, and twice longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize. Most recently, her dramatic monologue “Ophelia, Attending a Garden on the Ground Floor of a Vancouver Apartment Building” was published as the winner of CBC’s Shakespeare Selfie Challenge.