Special Feature: Maureen Hynes Interviews Carole Langille

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Carole Langille and Maureen Hynes

Carole Langille is the author of Church of the Exquisite Panic: The Ophelia Poems (Pedlar Press). Today, in a special interview feature, Maureen Hynes, poet and poetry editor of Our Times magazine, speaks with Carole about her writing process, a love for Nova Scotia, the possibility of a pregnant Ophelia and much more.

Here's a sample from Church of the Exquisite Panic :

Beneath its epic sprawl, does anyone
know Ophelia? Does anyone
know anyone at all?

(“The Movie,” p 34)

For this interview, Carole and Maureen had an email conversation, but they also had a chance to sit down and talk face to face before her Toronto launch of Church of the Exquisite Panic.

Maureen Hynes for Open Book:

What’s the genesis of this book, Carole? How and why Ophelia? For how long has she been a presence in your mind?

Carole Langille:

I began to write these poems after a long prose project, a year-long memoir writing project. That was a pivotal experience: I learned to write prose. Also, I wrote "through" the biographical work and after that I was able, a few years later, to write a book of short stories, When I Always Wanted Something.

However, after I finished the memoir, and before I wrote the short stories, I was so grateful to get back to poems again. And I think this excitement and relief was what made the poems come quickly. I thought, "Whose voice is this?" And then, "This could be Ophelia's voice." Once I framed the poems that way, they kept coming. I had a lot of fun with them. It is the only one of my poetry books that has a "theme," though not a rigid one.

Ophelia's voice was a great help to me. I was walking on Cleveland Beach, near my house in Black Point, and in front of the ocean is a swampy area of long yellow grass. In winter, after the snow blows away, this field feels like a wild animal, the ground is so alive. Hence "When He Crossed the Field," a poem that began on Cleveland Beach.

MH:

Yes, the sense of shoreline and landscape is very strong throughout the book, especially with the “gestures” of your first and last poems, which invoke the coast. I realized, as I read your poems, the bond between the Nova Scotian shoreline and the Danish Elsinore. Can you say more about the importance of place or landscape in your poetry?

CL:

Interesting you should say that. When a friend and poet I know was coming to visit, and I was excited at the thought of showing her Nova Scotia, I compared our coastline to the coastline in Babette’s Feast, the closest I have come to seeing Denmark. I am originally from New York, but that city was never a good fit for me. How many years did I wander the streets of Manhattan looking for… what, I am not really sure. The first time I came to Nova Scotia I felt as if I were returning home. The quiet, the expanse of ocean, the dark nights, the stars, the woods, these were very nourishing, and still are, and I guess this love of place finds its way into my poems.

MH:

And tell us about the “Church of the Exquisite Panic,” too — and what links you see between that “church” and Ophelia.

CL:

“Church of the Exquisite Panic” is a great phrase. It was coined by Robert Delford Brown, the performance artist who said, “Everything is art, everyone is an artist, there is no non-art.” Brown wrote a manifesto for the Church, in the hope “that its rituals and ikons would serve as an endless source of subject matter for my work as a painter and sculptor, and it would also help me to explain to myself a world that was totally overwhelming in its complexity and completely different from the world that had given birth to the established religions."

This all-embracing philosophy, this rebellion against exclusivity, as odd as it is, is the antithesis of Ophelia’s hierarchical world where everyone was assigned a rigid place and label. I guess the phrase is so charged because it encompasses the psychological, emotional, spiritual and the absurd.

My lovely friend Karin Cope said, ““Exquisite Panic” is at once ecstatic, a brief, liminal state and the only possible condition of any thoughtful person. Hamlet, who is Hamlet? We are all Ophelias now.” This describes so well the atmosphere I hope the poems evoke.

MH:

I was very moved, in reading The Ophelia Poems, by how you enter authentically Ophelia’s imagination, enliven her pallid and not-very-present Shakespearean character by giving her a more substantial speaking role, something your wonderful “Andy Warhol Paints Ophelia” poem confronts head-on. And your section on contemporary Ophelias takes a narrative turn that is equally moving. What is your sense of Ophelia, and in what form or forms is she present today?

CL:

Present-day Ophelias, women who have been denied their voice, are all around us. As Stephen Lewis said, “On the question of gender equality and violence against women, we’ve reached the breaking point … and if ever there was an issue requiring a global, multilateral response, it’s violence against women.” Of course, there are many forms of violence.

MH:

Some of the poems touch on pregnancy and childbirth, and I was surprised (though some may not be!) by your suggestion that Ophelia may have been pregnant when she died. What led you to hint at that?

CL:

My poem “To Break Away” wasn’t about Ophelia, but about a current “Ophelia,” a contemporary woman who, as I mentioned above, has been denied her voice. Section lV is about such women. I think the play reveals enough about Ophelia and the environment she was born into, for us to know that the world would not have offered her daughter much.

It was only after the book was published that I learned there is a debate going on among scholars about whether Ophelia was pregnant. Some feel the text supports this view: "...there's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace o'Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference." The herb called rue is an abortive agent. I find this dispute fascinating precisely because the issue seems to me secondary. What interests me is as how she was treated, and how her child would have been treated. Not whether she was or was not about to have a child.

MH:

More than, I think, any other book of poetry I’ve read recently, you rely on questions within the text to move the poem forward, or to highlight a moment or an insight. Perhaps the questions mean to bring a kind of aliveness to Ophelia? Was it a conscious choice to make this a highly questioning book?

CL:

I do notice that questions are embedded in many of my poems. This is true of my last two books as well. It isn’t a planned strategy. I realize that, more and more, I read so I can learn about writing, but also to figure out how to live. I guess I write for that reason as well — hence the questions.

MH:

Another device that runs through your poems is a kind of preoccupation with virtues and vices, human qualities of balance and disequilibrium. The poem, “Four Agreements,” brings this sharply into focus where you write of anger, revenge, indecision and unhappiness. Is this something new for you or is it something suggested by the Shakespearean outlook?

CL:

I think I am preoccupied with virtues and balance! Balance is of interest because of my own history with mental health, which was rocky when I was in my early twenties. As for virtue, I was brought up by parents who were strict and unwavering atheists. But I have always been moved by religious texts, and certainly am a “believer” though not in the traditional sense. I have been told that my great-grandfather on my mother’s side of the family was a cantor or hazzan, so the religious experience is not very far removed. For me, virtue is connected with the deepest part of ourselves, which I equate with the spirit.

MH:

Could you say a little about your poetics, and what motivates you as a poet? Is there something that is primary for you in writing a poem, and what is that?

CL:

Thank you for this question. Mark Strand said, “Poetry is a valedictory of all our time spent on earth.” What to do with intense feelings and the knowledge when we are here so briefly? For me, the answer is poetry. When I read astonishing poems I am grateful and inspired, and spurred on to keep writing.

MH:

I came to know your work, first through Brick Book’s In Cannon Cave and then more directly through a political poem you sent to me as poetry editor at Our Times, one about refugees aboard the Maersk Dubai ship, and then later, “Kimberly Rogers,” which appears in The Church of Exquisite Panic. What thoughts do you have about the writing of “political” poetry?

CL:

I have written several political poems in the current group of poems I am working on. I ask my students to write a political poem as well, for one of their assignments. I give as an example “Occupation” by Eliza Griswold — a wonderful poem. So much is happening in the world that one wants to rail against. But how to write a political poem that isn’t strident or dogmatic or heavy-handed: this is the challenge.

MH:

Do you write daily? What is your poetic practice — and how does your teaching reinforce or interfere with it? Do you workshop your poems with peers?

CL:

I don’t write daily. But if a few days go by when I don’t write, something feels awry. Some days I work on prose. I am writing a collection of connected short stories. Some days I work on poems. But when an idea for a poem is yeasting and finally ready to be recorded, I try to clear space in my day and work on it. Someone once complained that poems don’t get finished, but the real loss is when poems don’t get started. I am not in a workshop now, but I know some wonderful poets, and every once in a while we get together and share work, or we share work through emails. I’m grateful for these friends. As for my students, I am always amazed and humbled when I teach. In every class there are some students who are terrifically talented. The future of poetry is in good hands.

MH:

Who helped you with editing Church of the Exquisite Panic: Ophelia Poems, and how was that experience for you?

CL:

Alayna Munce was my editor and she is brilliant. Her comments on individual poems were helpful and insightful. And she had a deep understanding of the shape of the book. May I be lucky enough to work again with her.

MH:

What writing projects are next for you?

CL:

Poems. And poems. And completing the manuscript of connected short stories, which I call Meeting E. M. Forster.


Carole Langille is originally from New York City, where she studied with poets John Ashbery and Carolyn Forché. Church of the Exquisite Panic: The Ophelia Poems, launched in December 2012 from Pedlar Press, is her fourth book of poetry; she has also published two children’s books and a book of short stories. Carole’s works have been nominated for the Governor General’s Award and the Atlantic Poetry Prize. She currently teaches Creative Writing: Poetry at Dalhousie University.

Maureen Hynes's book, Rough Skin, won the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry. Her second book of poetry, Harm’s Way, appeared in 2001. She is a past winner of the Petra Kenney Poetry Award (London, England); her work has been shortlisted for the CBC Literary Awards and appears in Best Canadian Poetry 2010. She also co-edited, with Ingrid MacDonald, we make the air: The Poetry of Lina Chartrand. Hynes is poetry editor for Our Times magazine.

For more information about Church of the Exquisite Panic: The Ophelia Poems please visit the Pedlar Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Amazon.

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