an unwieldy confinement - Mark Lavorato's Wayworn Wooden Floors

A Crab on Vargas Island - Mark Lavorato

Sitting around the fire you asked me
   what I was thinking        I said nothing
       which wasn’t true
    On my walk before dark I noticed something
wriggling between two corrugations in the strand
     an orphan on the tarmac of wave-shattered shells 
          It was lying on its back, legs kicking in a slowing 
       battle to right its white belly
   globule eyes staring up into the sand
         Pinching one of its legs I hurled it 
out at the surf where it thumped onto the receding 
   waterline   upside-down again       and left it there, tiny
      treadmilling the air in the dull sheet-metal light
   another waylaid error for the tide to make right
sweep its sable-slate clean
        Yet it was just big enough 
    to be something else 
I wouldn’t mention
from Wayworn Wooden Floors
(Porcupine's Quill, 2012).
Reprinted with permission.

As regular silaron readers will know, for the last year or so I've been running an occasional interview series featuring poets who are about to launch their new books in Vancouver. You'll also know that I am not currently in Vancouver, and returning home would... well... take a while. In other words, I wouldn't qualify for my own interview series. This just won't do.

So with this interview, with Montreal poet and author Mark Lavorato, I'm shaking off my geographic requirements. A little. I'm still keeping things Canadian, lest the CanConPolice slap me with some CanConDemerits. Mark's even lived at times in British Columbia, as "A Crab on Vargas Island" demonstrates. The truth is he's lived just about everywhere, and doesn't seem to particularly like staying put, as a perusal of his biography quickly makes evident.

Mark, not staying put

One such trip, a pilgrimage along Spain's Camino de Santiago, inspired much of Mark's first poetry collection, Wayworn Wooden Floors (Porcupine's Quill, 2012). I say "first poetry collection" and not "first book" because Mark is already an accomplished novelist, with his third novel, Burning-In, forthcoming from House of Anansi.

Mark and I sat down for a much drawn-out, transcontinental e-chat on his travels, his inspirations, his editing process, and cattle-prodding. Sadly, we did not discuss that his book has its own cheese plate. What can I say, I'm clearly off my game...

The Cheese Plate: CanPo's Cristal

Despite this grave oversight, I hope you enjoy the interview:

Rob: Vargas Island is located off Vancouver Island, near Tofino. For a year during my childhood I lived on nearby Flores Island, and we'd pass Vargas on our frequent commutes to and from Tofino. I can't say I've read too many poems about Vargas, though. Can you speak about what took you there, and how your poem took shape?

Mark: To support my writing addiction, I used to house sit in Europe over the winter and run expeditions for Outward Bound Canada in the summer months, saving every penny I could. Mostly I ran mountaineering expeditions, but for two seasons, I ran courses that were half mountaineering and half sea kayaking, all of which was done on Vancouver Island. The sea kayaking portion ran out of Tofino, and over the summer I got to intimately know, and love, the islands just north of it. One year, there were staffing issues, which didn't make for a fantastic working environment, and I remember there being this constant weight on my shoulders. That weight turned me inward and frustrated, and I think it's that emotional state more than anything that inspired the poem.

But as an interesting aside connected to those islands, as I was leaving them, I knew I'd come to love them too much for just a single poem to come out of them, and so I incorporated the area and its beauty into my second novel, Believing Cedric (Brindle & Glass, 2011). In the novel, one of the main characters goes to Tofino for a summer job, and becomes similarly introspective, working at the campground on McKenzie Beach. A small excerpt: "Sometimes, falling asleep to the swelling rumble of the surf, she would think about the waves on McKenzie Beach, the campground’s own, about the way they rolled in so consistently, insistently, unyielding, undying. She would lie in her tiny room that smelled of particleboard and new paint (which was already losing the battle against the mildew) and consider how long these waves had been rolling in for, in exactly the way they were then. And exactly as they are now. Right now. Rolling onto the sand, turning over in the sun, in the dark. Like they have for millennia. Like they will for millennia. Whatever way you stood beside it, the sea had a way of reshaping, of eroding, your humility."

Rob: Keeping on the travel theme, the summary at the back of your book describes a "thousand-kilometre trek" that you undertook, during which you wrote much of this book. Can you speak a little about that trip? What inspired it? Where did you go? And what was your day-to-day writing process like?

Mark: I've heard it said that there are two kinds of writers: those who have enough money but no time, and those who have tons of time but no money. I have to say, I've always been securely in the latter camp, and I'd heard of the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain, a Christian pilgrimage with almost no Christians on it, where you could walk through beautiful countryside and stay in refuges for incredibly cheap, or even for free. I wanted to travel, walk, and write, but had very little money, so it seemed a perfect match. I hiked the "Norte" and "Primitivo" sections of the trail to have as little traffic as possible, and walked for about two months. I brought only books of my favourite poetry, and a tiny PDA thing that I used as a word processor. I would walk during the day and think about the poems I was writing, or the poems I loved and why I loved them, and would often feel so inspired to write that I would stop and start typing at some point during the day. If not, I would write in cafes in the evening, or in my tent (which I brought along for when the writing took over and I couldn't make it to a refuge), or I would just sit out in the fresh air with a view of the mountains, or the ocean, or both. I'd highly recommend it!

Rob: In relation to your trek, and the poems that caused you to miss the refuges, I wonder about your series of "Abandoned" poems, in which different abandoned things (Graves, Resorts, Toys, etc.) are explored. That seems particularly like a series of "traveling poems" - in which you must abandon the subjects (by moving on to the next town) as much as they have been abandoned by their owners. How did the series come about? Was it written during your trek, or otherwise somehow inspired by it?

Mark: You're absolutely right. Many of the poems in the Abandoned series come out of my experiences on the hike. What I think strikes us about abandoned things is that they're so rare. We're a recycling species, and when there is something someone has left behind that we can find a use for, we take it, appropriate it, modify it for our own needs. So to find something abandoned is to find a story on both ends of the object. One for what brought about its being left behind; and another about why it was never picked up again. The more I thought of it, the more it fascinated me, until I knew I would have to explore it in a series of poems. And lucky for me, there were plenty of abandoned things in the Spanish countryside for fodder.

Rob: Moving beyond the "Abandoned" series, how do you think the greater shape of the book was altered by the trek? What kind of a book would you have produced if you hadn't made that journey?

Mark: I recently completed my second collection of poetry, Blowing Grass Empire, and in looking the pages over, I realize that it is quite a bit less florid, less ecstatic at the world and its contradictions. I wrote the entire collection from the same desk, looking out the same window. The differences between the collections in the voices used, and experiments delved into, is clear to me, though may not be clear to other readers. Either way, I think writing while on the move acts as both a fuel and a vehicle. I definitely have plans to write another poetry collection while trekking, though this time through the Pyrenees Mountains.

Rob: Your third book of poems, perhaps? I look forward to it. But enough talk about travelling outside Canada. I have a CanCon quota to meet!

You dedicate this book to Alden Nowlan. How did Nowlan influence your writing, and why did you choose to honour him in this way?

Mark: Out of all the Canadian poets I've read (which is only a fraction as there are so many worthy new voices out there) [Editor's note: That line earns you three bonus CanConPoints, Mark!], Alden Nowlan hits closest to the mark of what I think excellent poetry is. His poetry is quiet and powerful, minimal and clean, and there is an undeniably authentic emotional core and impetus to his writing. He has a few poems (like "Weakness") that are perfect in every way. I think I dedicated the collection, not so much to Alden Nowlan, but to the ideal he was capable of, which I hold up while trying to write a perfect poem as well. It may take years, and many collections, but I think it's an interesting goal to strive for.

Rob: On your website you note that your editor for Wayworn Wooden Floors, Wayne Clifford, "electric-prodded [you] in directions [you'd] never thought to wander". Can you map out one or two examples in the book where Clifford sent you off your assigned course?

Mark: It was wonderful to be edited by such a sharp, avid eye. Wayne Clifford is an excellent modern poet, but he's also an accomplished formalist. My collection was originally almost exclusively in free verse, but Wayne would push me to explore internal rhyme, slant rhyme, counting each foot and looking for music within that the human ear is so eager to pick up on. A perfect example would be the poem about my hometown, called "Ninth Street North". Wayne thought it was a very weak poem, though it had some potential in terms of imagery. He encouraged me to completely rewrite it, focusing on more formal conventions, and by that I mean any convention that the poem was pulling towards. To be honest, I had always seen structure as an unwieldy confinement, but I came to realize that it can at times be quite liberating. I treated his feedback as a crash course in dissecting poetry as form, which I'd never done before. And in the end, this particular poem (he was quite right) came out much stronger with this new (for me), more formal, approach.

You can pick up a copy of Wayworn Wooden Floors at your local bookstore, or on Amazon for all you crazy international kids.

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