With eight books, various awards, and decades of teaching behind him, one would think John Reibetanz would be used to the pattern of publishing, but he says every new collection makes him feel like a newbie. You’ll find that same modesty in this interview. Afloat, his latest collection, focuses on themes of identity and connection through water and environment. It’s sophisticated, beautiful, complex, and celebratory.
The collection uses water as a metaphor for connection. Why water?
In a primary physical sense, it is water that connects us with our environment. Our bodies are sixty percent water, and water is the resource most necessary to sustain life. It’s in every breath we take in or give out, and when we breathe we engage in a kind of silent dialogue with other breathers. As the poem “Soundings” puts it, “In this sea of breath, where does the soul of one breath-river end, and another begin?” And yet, just as the relationship between people can become oppositional as well as communal, so humanity’s relationship with water has this same ambiguity. Water can be the formidable Other: immersion in it can kill us, and its destructive power is felt in such events as tsunamis or hurricanes. So this ambivalent position makes water a natural metaphor for the reciprocal relationship between humanity and the environment. When we forget that reciprocity, we do damage to both the natural world and our own potential as sensory beings. Water, whether splashed on the face or contemplated, awakens us to our connectedness with the natural world.
Your poems show the reader that identity is multifaceted, and that it is influenced by various sources. Can you speak to that in regards to Afloat?
I suppose I’ve already spoken to it to some extent in answering the first question: water shows us how we are permeable membranes, open to influences – the very word comes from the Latin verb meaning “to flow into.” I’ve sometimes thought that Tennyson saw only half the picture when he had his much-traveled Ulysses say that he was a part of all that he had met; all that he had met was also a part of him. The poems of Afloat focus on many different characters, some real and some fictional, and each one has incorporated (another Latinate word, meaning to make a part of your body) something of the places and people they have encountered. The speaker of “Displacement” feels as if she lost an essential element of her being when the construction of the Three Gorges Dam forced her from her riverside home, and she wonders “how could she live, apart from the air that had danced with and married her breath, her unrivered heart withered thin.” The very hands of John Sanders (my real-life neighbour, who was one of the “hidden children” in wartime Amsterdam) remember “the hands of a loving stranger, soothing the blanket he hugged through unheated nights.” Gerda Taro, the photojournalist killed in the Spanish Civil War, is envisaged as “mere dazzle until Spain focuses her heart on other refugees, bodies hunkered in shelters and dugouts.” The self, like the heart, lives essentially through the opening of its doors.
Did you spend any research time abroad while writing this collection?
I think that the availability of other places to us – their sights, their sounds – in the twenty-first century means that we can be “abroad” even while at home; place, like self, has (thanks to the double-edged sword of technology) become a permeable concept. So while the short answer to this question is “no” – meaning that I didn’t travel outside Canada – the long answer involves taking account of Skype conversations, documentaries, photographs such as those of Edward Burtynsky, and recordings of oral accounts, all of which put hitherto-distant experiences at close range. Perhaps they might even make it easier for us to concentrate on those experiences, since we can view and hear them without the distractions of personal inconvenience that often accompany physical travel.
After eight books, what advice would you give the young, unpublished John Reibetanz?
After eight books, I still don’t feel in a position to offer advice to anybody. No previous book or poem prepares you for the challenges of the one that lies ahead. I think that to be a poet is always to be a neophyte, starting out afresh each time. It’s best to stay flexible, and not to be burdened by anyone else’s advice.
You’ve said that “the process of writing is entering into the otherness of what’s out there and making it a subjective utterance.” Can you speak to that a little more?
Although what is out there does become part of us, as I’ve said earlier, the fundamental uniqueness of each human being – cause for infinite astonishment, when you compare us with other species – can make each of us feel very alone. Writing assuages that sense of loneliness, because it can never be an isolated activity: language is a communal endeavour, and when you write you’re expressing yourself through words that have been used to convey the insights and understandings of other people. You link up with them, and then you translate their intonations into the unique tenor of your own voice.
After your long and continuous career, what has been one of the major highlights?
I suppose I regard writing as less a career than a vocation, one centred on attentiveness. The major highlights are those moments when I feel that the process of writing has allowed me to discover or understand something that might perhaps have eluded me without the lens of poetic attention. These are gifts that the poem presents to the writer when the writer allows the poem to take its own direction instead of trying to impose one on it. So, in Afloat, I’m grateful to “Shore House” for pushing me beyond the conventional metaphor of ‘house as self,’ and bringing me to the realization that we have more in common with the shifting, undulating shapes of the sea than with the stability of a fixed structure. Conversely, “Peaches” brought the sobering recognition that, no matter how many attributes we share with the natural world around us, it will always remain Other; as the poem puts it, nature offers “fruit you can live on no longer that you can breathe water.”
What books have you been reading lately?
The book that has most absorbed my attention over the past couple of years, as I’ve been reading and re-reading it, is David Abram’s Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. It’s all about the relationship between, as he puts it, “the body and the breathing earth,” and it has substantiated and extended some of the insights about that relationship that my poems in Afloat brought me to. My curiosity about the natural world has also been fed by Tim Birkhead’s Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird, which uses recent scientific research to bring the reader to a fuller understanding of this species with which humans identify so closely. I’ve also been dazzled by the essays of Durs Grünbein, the brilliant German writer, in The Bars of Atlantis. Those essays are more about the world of human culture than about the world of nature, and they have a range and depth that I haven’t encountered since reading the works of that other European cosmopolite, Joseph Brodsky. Grünbein has also written the most exciting German poetry since World War Two, and I’m trying to work up the courage to translate some of it into English.
Learn more about him here.