Q&A with Don McKay
By Kristine Power
Don McKay is a two-time Governor General's Award winner for poetry. He has written numerous books of poetry and essays, and is the co-editor and co-publisher of the publishing house Brick Books. Downhome caught up with him in a St. John's café just days before he finished his residency at Memorial and left the province. Originally from Owen Sound, Ontario, McKay is so inspired by the natural beauty of Newfoundland that he plans on moving here permanently in the spring. Within moments of sitting down with McKay it became apparent that he breaks the aloof, slightly mad poet stereotype. Rather, he is warm, engaging, down to earth, and passionate about the role poetry can play in all our lives.
Downhome: Where does the need to write poetry come from?
DM: It is a testimony. It comes from the ground up. A lot of people are writing poetry, but they are not writing poetry professionally, or to get known, or to make a name for themselves. It's ingrained in their life
it's something that comes from people paying close attention to what's around them
Poetry makes you stop and look - and it values that experience.
Downhome: What does the practice of writing down an experience do for a person?
DM: I think it gives you a way of remembering something in a way that photography or painting doesn't do. We're a hyper-linguistic species and we use language all the time to do all kinds of work, to organize and symbolize. Language is so intimate to us that we want language to pay attention to things in a deeper way, and for it to pay homage to life itself in different ways, like what's important, or tragic or funny. I have relatives who aren't into poetry and they think I am kind of weird, but if someone gets married or someone dies, they turn to me, they turn to poetry.
Downhome: Do you think poetry is undervalued or that people have misconceptions about poetry and poets?
DM: I think that we tend to present it as something hugely elegant, important and written by dead people, all in this reverential sort of mode. When it's taught well it helps people engage with their lives. It helps them pay attention to their own lives in a stronger and more intense way. What's interesting to me is that yes it does have a minimal place in the culture in some ways, but, I can say this as a publisher of it, poetry will never ever die. It doesn't need to be rescued because it is so close and crucial to the heart of being human. There is something in our makeup that wants language to be musical and be commemorative and to render homage.
Downhome: Where do you find your poetic inspiration?
DM: Personally, I get a lot of inspiration in the natural world. First of all, back in the seventies and eighties it was birds. So for a while I was sort of riveted by birds. I wrote a book called Birding, or Desire... I got into rocks in B.C. but of course it persisted when I came here. I have been all over the Avalon but I also got over the West Coast looking at geological sites because that's become my current obsession. That's the way it goes with poetry for me - you go from one obsession to another.
Downhome: How has being an editor influenced your approach to writing?
DM: I get a lot out of editing because it's great ear training - when you're editing you are listening to somebody else's music. You are listening inside the ear of the other person. It's not like teaching grammar where there is a right and a wrong. If you were writing poetry, I would be trying to give advice that was in keeping with your voice. I get enormous benefit from that, from getting stretched in all different ways. A lot of what I did here (in Newfoundland) has been that - consulting. People give me work and we talk. And it's always fascinating.
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