IN CONVERSATION: Zach Wells
In Between Is Where I Find Myself Most of the Time
Interview by Jacob Lee Bachinger
I met Zachariah Wells at the University of Ottawa’s Irving Layton Symposium in May of 2013 where he presented a paper on Layton’s association with the Black Mountain poets during the 1950s. At the time, not being familiar with Wells’ own poetry, I didn’t consider his discussion of a group of poets with whom he has little affinity to be odd. In his 2009 collection, Track & Trace, he steers clear of Black Mountain-type poetics, finding instead that his voice is best grounded in metre and rhyme, giving his poetry what Layton would call “rhythmic authority.” Formal structure also allows him to range freely in his poetic subjects: describing how a city comes back to life after a winter-bomb snowstorm, finding gruesomely large slugs in a garbage pile, or rethinking Heraclitus’ maxim about not stepping into the same river twice.
Wells’ most recent title is Career Limiting Moves (2013), a collection of essays, reviews and interviews. He has published one other book of poetry, Unsettled (2004), and has co-authored a children’s book with Rachel Lebowitz, Anything But Hank! (2008). He is also a Contributing Editor for Canadian Notes and Queries and has edited Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (2008) and The Essential Kenneth Leslie (2010).
HLR: Let’s begin with your most recent work, Career Limiting Moves. In the introduction, you claim that criticism “is not only a gesture of appreciation, but also a process of self-instruction.” What kind of instruction do you receive when reviewing other poets’ books?
ZW: Mostly, I've learned what not to do from reviewing, but reading anything closely, whether it's canonical work or contemporary, can yield insights into one's own processes and productions. Moreover, one develops an appreciation for the public dimension of poetry—the meeting of poem and reader. One learns not to take the audience for granted, nor to pretend they don't exist or matter.
HLR: Because of essays like “Strawman Dialectics” or “Soaked in a Heart of Sapphire, Delicate as an Origami Bird” from Career Limiting Moves, I’m tempted to think that you’re taking on the CanLit establishment (which your collection’s tongue-in-cheek title gestures towards). Is this the case?
ZW: Well, the League of Canadian Poets is hardly the establishment. Jan Zwicky (the antagonist of “Strawman Dialectics”) is certainly an establishment poet, but I was really only taking on what I saw as a remarkably shoddy argument. I have no particular interest in “taking on the establishment” for its own sake; I've written a good many praiseful reviews of some of our most respected and successful poets.
HLR: Let’s go back to your first collection, Unsettled, which was inspired by your years living and working in the eastern Arctic. How do you see your work fitting in to that very broad category of writing-about-the-north?
ZW: I don't think about it much, to be honest. I've read very few books about the north—though Barry Lopez's Arctic Dreams is a touchstone for me. I suspect my book is unusual, insofar as it deals a lot with the day-to-day social realities of turn-of-the-millennium Nunavut. It's not a book focussed on the majestic austerities of the Arctic wilderness or the history of colonial idiocy in the region (though both are present, to be sure). It's not a book of tourist poetry, like Purdy's North of Summer, but neither is it a book by a true Northerner. I guess it's an in-between kind of book. John Thompson, a northern journalist, reviewed Unsettled and praised it for its candor about the uglier aspects of northern life, which meant a lot to me.
HLR: In your second collection, Track & Trace, you revisit the poem “A Whiff of Mussel Mud” from Unsettled (which appears in two distinct versions in Unsettled), rewriting it yet again and retitling it simply as “Mussel Mud.” Clearly it’s an important poem for you.
ZW: Well, it's an in-between kind of poem (south and north, innocence and experience, childhood and adulthood). In-between is where I find myself most of the time. The fact that “Mussel Mud” exists in three published forms is an almost perfect reification of that limbo.
HLR: Based on previous interviews you’ve given, I know you have reservations about the appellation “nature poet.” But in poems like “Orkney Report” and “Water Works,” both from Track & Trace, you make it clear that non-human nature holds sway over human life. How would you characterize the role of nature in your poetry?
ZW: My poetry couldn't exist without nature, but neither could anything else. My main objection to the term “nature poet” is that if this is what you call yourself, it tells more about how you want to see yourself than it does about either nature or poetry. If someone else wants to call me a nature poet, I don't really care. But I prefer not to call myself a poet of any sort. I write poems. The question of whether or not I write poetry is not for me to answer.
HLR: Recently the composer Erik Ross set music to three of your poems and the pieces were performed at the Opéra National in Paris. You were there to witness the performance. What was that like?
ZW: It was tremendous. I was nine miles high. The audience response was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. My mother was with me, which was wonderful. All three artists (Phillip Addis, Erik Ross and pianist Emily Hamper) are, besides being enormously talented, lovely folks. It's hard to overstate how much the whole thing means to me. My most fervent hope is that my work finds an appreciative readership/audience outside of the closed circles of the poetry scene. Having my poems chosen for an adaptation like this, and having them then adapted so brilliantly, is the ultimate realization of that desire. It's all downhill from there!
Jacob Lee Bachinger has published work in Arc Poetry, The Fiddlehead, Newfoundland Quarterly and other print and online journals. He teaches English with University College of the North and lives in Norway House, MB.