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Full Globe and Mail Review

Since literature is a long conversation, it's not surprising that poets talk to poets. Edmonton poet and novelist Tim Bowling solemnly tells us that the 17 collaboratively crafted interviews in Where the Words Come From pair "younger and/or less well-known poets with some of our country's most celebrated practitioners of the art."

Though Bowling hopes the collection will start a stampede to read the poets' work, it likely won't. But it has points of interest. One surprise is how much religion pervades the questions and answers, even though Margaret Avison and her interviewer, Sally Ito, are the only declared believers.

Few if any respondents can tell us where their words come from, but most dwell on ontology. Don Domanski says, "We are seeing into existence, which has neither joy nor despair, no ambiguity, no discordant longings, just an abounding hereness that takes the present moment and a universe to produce." P. K. Page argues that poetry is "a holy thing." Tim Lilburn, interviewed by Shawna Lemay, is downright mystical, and others resemble what Domanski terms himself: "a spiritual free-range chicken." It's also remarkable how often the names Rainer Maria Rilke and-Paul Celan recur.

Bowling shrewdly starts with Page's earthy, sensible exchange with Christine Wiesenthal, and Domanski's eloquent conversation with Sherry Johnson at the end. In between are spotty but real pleasures. Tim Lilburn quotes Samuel Beckett, "Try again. Fail again. Fail better." Eric Ormsby tells Carmine Starnino that "poetry comes out of one's connection to the dead." Michael Ondaatje tells David O'Meara, "When you are writing prose you are in the mud, you know, you are constantly in the mud."

Which may be why Roo Borson tells Julie Bruck that fiction-writing is "an impulse I don't have." Sharon Thesen fondly recalls for Helen Humphreys a time "when just about all published poets were more or less equally infamous. They could behave badly, get into fistfights over poetics, drink too much, divorce too often, live in poverty, not teach creative writing." Stephanie Bolster asks Don Coles whether a poet has "a responsibility to he unhappy," and Coles answers, "We don't have to enact everything with our bodies."

Concerning enactment, MiriamWaddington tells Barbara Nickel, "At readings, male poets are usually arrogant and proud of themselves and busy being peacocks and show-offs." Men have much to answer for. Jan Zwicky tells Anne Simpson; "A few alpha males, with their eye on the patriarchal prize can turn ostracism into an affirmation of their own powerful individuality, but most of us can't." Dennis Lee tells Brian Bartlett that being a judge for the Griffin Prize meant "observing a certain malign ratio emerging across hundreds of books: the worse the poetry, the more extravagant the jacket blurbs." Phyllis Webb wearily remarks to Jay Ruzesky, "Every now and then I come across a poet and realize that this person has seven books! I've never heard of them and I wonder why."

Among interviewers, David O'Meara is the most loquacious: His word-count nearly equals that of his interlocutor, Michael Ondaatje. Brian Bartlett's interview with Dennis Lee is the most technical (much discussion of line breaks) and Ken Babstock's with Don- McKay (delightfully entitled "The Appropriate Gesture, or Regular Dumb-Ass Guy Looks at Bird") is the most playful.

"KB: Your partner, Jan Zwicky is also a poet and a professor of philosophy, what would we overhear at the breakfast table? You losing?"

"DM: 'How about another bagel?'"

Waddington's replies are the snappiest. When Nickel asks her why she hasn't submitted poems for publication since 1992, she says, "No time, no energy. There's a lot involved in sending out. I have enough to worry about keeping track of my pills."

Most of the poets have much good to say about each other, and little ill, but Patrick Lane avers to Russell Thornton that the novels of Michael Ondaatje and Margaret Atwood (interviewed by Norm Sacuta) "are crammed with poor writing. They're among our best writers, but I'd rather they, like all the rest of the novelists, spent more time getting it right." Though P. K. Page considers reviews to have been helpful; and Eric Ormsby says that his have "almost all been intelligent," most respondents regard reviews as, at best, irrelevant or even, so Lane claims, destructive.

Dissonance tends to be sounded by or imputed to Eric Ormsby or Carmine Starnino. Lorna Crozier tells Elizabeth Philips that Starnino's National Post reviews "are full of the vitriol that can only come from jealousy and bitterness." Ormsby tells Starnino, a fellow Montrealer, that the work of Charles Olson, bp Nichol and the Black Mountain poets is "amazingly forgettable," and that he's unimpressed by Lane and Crozier. Prairie poets and Al Purdy "don't strike me as unmistakably Canadian," he says. "There's a generic quality to their work."

This last comment is either courageous or tactless. Bowling conceived his book as homage to Purdy, and its title comes from a Purdy poem called "The Dead Poet."

Fraser Sutherland's most recent poetry collection is Peace and War (with Goran Simic).