An Interview with Jane Munro

By Kasia Wotherspoon

Jane Munro, author of Active Pass (Pedlar Press, 2010), Point No Point (McClelland & Stewart, 2006), and Grief Notes & Animal Dreams (Brick Books, 1995) has recently added a sixth poetry collection to her list with Blue Sonoma (Brick Books, 2014). Munro has made the West Coast of Canada her long-time home but her love for Eastern styles of poetry keeps part of her tethered elsewhere. She is an avid practitioner of Iyengar Yoga and travels to India to study. In her writing, she blends influences from both Eastern and Western traditions. Recently, she has started experimenting with multi-voiced performances of poems—doing readings using two or more speakers. Munro’s success at complementing one idea or technique through juxtaposition with another flourishes alongside her openness to spirituality and the dream, which sets the sombre and intricate tone she ties intimately to the subject matter of a loved one’s loss in Blue Sonoma.

Your poetry style marries both Eastern and Western traditions. How do you balance these two styles within your work?

There’s been back-and-forth between Eastern and Western poetry for a long time, probably much longer than we might imagine.

In the twentieth century, much of what we see as imagist or modern western poetry has been influenced by readings of Japanese and Chinese poetry. I remember doing detailed analyses of Pound’s Cantos—including some of the poems with Chinese characters mixed in with chunks of French, German, and American slang—in a course Robin Blaser taught on contemporary American poetry. We were focusing on poets of the San Francisco Renaissance, but Robin wanted us to see how Pound was foundational for them and for much of the poetry being written in North America.

Since 2006, I’ve worked with a poetry group, Yoko’s Dogs, on learning about and composing poems that are influenced by some of the traditions found in Japanese collaborative linked verse. This poetry doesn’t employ metaphor or narrative; Bashō and other sixteenth and seventeenth century Japanese poets in the haiku or renga tradition work with what I think of as direct images. Their key technique for building a poem is “link and shift.” Yoko’s Dogs doesn’t attempt to adhere to all the complex rules of renga writing, but I’ve found this a fascinating and useful discipline.

Progressing by link and shift feels akin to the oblique or clandestine movement from couplet to couplet in a ghazal—another form with which I’ve experimented, especially in Active Pass. The title section of that book, “Active Pass,” is a long poem in twenty-one sections, each of which is composed in ghazal-like couplets. Overall, it tells the story of “a scenic but dangerous strait where visibility is limited, currents vigorous, and vessels alter course.” This strait comes to represent a time of major changes in my own life.

You ask about balancing different traditions in my work. I think the governing factor is the organic relationship between content and form. For instance, in the second section of Active Pass, I think of the Mary Pratt sequence as sonnets. What I could do with a sonnet (that is, a loose sonnet!) seemed to match what I sensed in Pratt’s paintings. I didn’t start by thinking “oh, I’d like to work with sonnets.” I started by falling in love with Pratt’s paintings and then, as I worked on the poems, they began to emerge as sonnets. They aren’t conventional sonnets but they do have fourteen lines, voltas, and what I think of as a sonnet-like structure to their argument.

In Blue Sonoma, there’s a sequence of vacanas—“Old Man Vacanas.” Again, these are contemporary approximations of an ancient poetic tradition. In the original Kannada [a language spoken predominantly in the Indian state of Karnataka], vacana means “saying; thing said.” Vacanas are colloquial prayer poems using natural and domestic imagery along with ordinary diction to voice—often, complain about as well—family, village, spiritual, and philosophical issues.

Because I’m writing in English in this time and place, it feels appropriate to adapt and play with (rather than adopt and rigorously replicate) forms that originate in other eras and languages. I want the poem’s voice to engage with its present-day environment.

But some formal restrictions spur the imagination. I’m reminded of a fabric artist who made extraordinary, multi-storey weavings that hung in entry halls and other public places. He told me, “I have to weave each sculpture entirely on the loom; I can’t sew anything together.” Without that rule, he felt there were too many possibilities—he couldn’t come up with a design.

Your collections contain passages of prose mixed throughout your poetry. In some poems, such as “Tulips,” both literary styles are used together in the same piece. How do you, as a poet, decide what ideas will become prose pieces as opposed to poems?

Basically, I listen to the poem. I want the poem on the page to serve as a notation for reading the poem aloud.

The pieces in Point No Point that don’t have line breaks sound to me like prose poetry. They don’t counter-point the end of each line against grammatical structure and other kinds of musical devices within the poem.

Conventionally, prose poems are written with right justified margins so they look like blocks of text. But, theoretically, they could be written to any line length. I’m interested in how this accommodates both the composition and the reading of poetry on digital screens. A small part of what I was thinking about in Point No Point, and also in Active Pass, was how these poems were shaped by the technology I was using.

On a larger scale, while I was composing Point No Point, I was playing with the contrast between open-form (or through-composed poems) and prose poems. In “Tulips,” some of the poem is written as prose and some has line breaks because that was how I heard that poem.

You can say the patterns of grammar and line or stanza breaks in a poem shape the breath and thus the voice floating on the breath. If you equate breath with life energy, then modulation of breath (and voice) shapes the life energy of the poem. 

Your work has a very conversational feel, occasionally including dialogue. How do you decide when dialogue works as a writing device for a piece or not?

Again, I listen. I think of dialogue as a kind of image—not a visual image, as a photograph, but an aural image: a sound snapshot. So, why not include dialogue? Just as in prose narrative, I want a piece of dialogue to work hard in a poem. It has to reveal character and move meaning (or story) to someplace new. Dialogue can introduce irony, subtle humour, or pathos in an economical way. Ideally, it’s memorable—the kind of snippet that might stick in your mind.

Conventional gender roles seem to be challenged within much of your work, especially when writing of your childhood and your father. Can you speak a bit on your strategies for writing powerful female speakers? 

I’m glad you hear these female speakers as powerful! I’m not sure I have any strategies—or specific intentions—about making this happen. Poems I tend to stay with and finish are those that move me, and these often take me to painful places: memories of inadequacy, failure, regret, loss—places where we’re powerless. I try to make them accurate, clear, candid, and succinct in the hope that they’ll have emotional resonance with a reader. I see a poem as an architecture for the imagination—a structure others could dwell in and furnish with their personal experience.

In the Canadian Literature interview you did in 2010, you mention that you take a lot of inspiration from your personal diaries. How much time do you typically allow yourself before you are able to go back and write poetry around an emotionally charged entry or event? 

As long as it takes? It can vary.

My use of personal diaries is once again in flux. This has happened a number of times in the past. I’m not sure what’s going to emerge as a new pattern.

For much of the last decade, my practice was to review my notebooks once or twice a year and mark or tag “proto-poems” in them that struck me a having potential. During those years, I typically recorded my dreams and drafted a “proto-poem” as a daily exercise. By the time I went back through the journals—a task that could be boring and inevitably revealing: talk about my shadows!—I’d forgotten what was in them so could come on raw material with fresh eyes. That delay was important.

You are very deliberate in your live readings and even add voices and repeating lines that are not represented in the text format. How do you decide which poems from your collection to include in a reading? How do you decide how and when to adjust them for vocal renditions of your poetry? Is it planned, or spontaneous? 

Playing with the use of multiple voices is something new for me.

It began with Yoko’s Dogs (Susan Gillis, Mary di Michele, Jan Conn, and Jane Munro) and it’s definitely planned. When Yoko’s Dogs’ first book, Whisk, came out in 2013, we realized the poems—which were all written completely collaboratively—needed to be read as performance pieces by multiple voices. So, we’ve scored each poem in Whisk for two, three, and four voices. This has been a lot of fun and audiences say they want more. Performance is definitely a growing edge of our collaboration. The problem is that we’re geographically spread out—Massachusetts, Montreal, and Vancouver.

So, when Blue Sonoma came out, I thought it would be interesting to score a couple of the poems in it for two voices. In both cases, I’ve extended the poem from the way it appears on the page, employing repetitions. In the final poem, “Valley of the Moon,” there’s a reference to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, so I used a somewhat similar pattern of repetitions for the poem. I’ve scored them so it would be relatively easy for a second reader to perform with me without much practice.

In a Brick Books podcast, you first read the epigraph of Blue Sonoma in Sanskrit. How has the advantage of a second language influenced your writing?

I read that short epigraph in Sanskrit because of its sound pattern, which isn’t apparent in the English translation. However, my knowledge of Sanskrit is limited, mostly gained through yoga, and a lot of that has been oral learning: chanting sutras, learning the names of poses, and so on. Although I’ve studied several other languages, I’ve never become fluent in anything but English.

This is one of my regrets; I think those who grow up with another language—and I know people who, even as children, speak several—are truly fortunate. It’s especially valuable for writers. Even my far-from-adequate study of a few languages has deepened and expanded my understanding of English and suggested some of this language’s peculiarities and limitations.

Yoga is a very prominent and important aspect of your life, which is made clear by the series of poems you have associated with certain poses. Do you find your writing practice is intertwined with your yoga practices? And how so? 

Intertwined? Maybe.

B.K.S. Iyengar urges us to bring intelligence to dark areas of the body and the mind: to every cell of the body and each layer of consciousness. It’s a similar challenge in poetry.

Patanjali, the yogi-sage, says the disciplines of yoga are burning zeal in practice, self-study, and surrender. According to the Bhagavad Gita, we have the privilege of doing our work to the best of our abilities (with burning zeal, self-knowledge, and attention to wisdom), but then we must let go of the fruits of our labour. Surrender of outcomes is really hard, but the yogis tell us that’s what sets us free and lets us move on. It lets us stay in the flow, to use a writerly description.

I’m a perpetual beginner at yoga—not a teacher, only a student—and every time I step onto the mat, it’s with the expectation that I’ll learn something, encounter my limitations, maybe discover ways to work with those more effectively, but that I’ll also come away deeply refreshed and relaxed. Faeq Biria, one of the amazing yoga teachers I’ve worked with, says, “You cannot energize what is not relaxed.” I find this true for writing, too.

Each of your books appears to be dealing with “acceptance”—whether it is of the self, growing old, or the inevitability of death. Would you say that your writing works as a tool for learning to accept these issues in your own life? And how so?

Jane Hirshfield says, “A good poem is a bit like a volcanic island. It creates new terrain for the soul.” In a volcano, the stuff coming up was previously hidden. Poems can make visible—and invite us to pay attention to—individual and social shadows. If Jung’s right and we need to agree to the whole experience to get a full life, then incorporating what was molten and unformed into a concentrated pattern of words gives us new ground—a place to explore, camp out, maybe even plant a garden. Oddly, though it may at first strike us as “new terrain,” we recognize and trust its reliability and continuity with the rest of our experience: now that it’s there, it’s there.

In my experience, Wordsworth was pretty much right about poetry beginning with “emotion recollected in tranquility.” For me, it’s not always tranquility—memories move me—but he’s right about the “recollected.” Time has passed. 

You play a lot with imagery of sleep and dreaming in Blue Sonoma. Would you speak a bit to your philosophy of dreams and the role they play in your poetry? 

A big topic!

I see dreams as gifts from my less conscious mind. Sometimes, I feel that we all share an unconscious reservoir of imagery and story. Not every dream comes from that level; many are just a recycling of a day’s debris. But some tap into that molten core of consciousness or at least draw up submerged images.

When a poem works, I feel it drops to the bottom of my mind and gleams among other artefacts in an ocean of memory. Or, to use Hirshfield’s metaphor, it surfaces stuff that forms a new terrain.

While I was writing Blue Sonoma, I was recording dreams. This kept me in a conversation with images from the less-conscious recesses of my mind. If I’m right that we share some of this material, then dream imagery may also connect with deeper layers of the reader’s consciousness.

You deal with some very personal topics in your collections, such as the death of your father. In Blue Sonoma, you address a similar sentiment of the loss of a loved one due to Alzheimer’s. You seem to find a perfect balance between raw emotion and literary style without overtly favouring one over the other. What techniques do you employ to keep your work so tight, focused, and engaging when faced with such personal subject matter?

Thank you, Kasia. I’m glad you find the balance works.

As for techniques—the big one is revision. These poems typically go through many drafts. I just kind of muddle along, not sure where the poem is going, until I can hear it more clearly, more completely. Places where something isn’t working become “hot spots” for my attention. I have to figure out what’s amiss and decide what to do about the problem, if it is a problem. I have to feel in my gut that the poem is how it needs to be. Eventually, there’s a visceral click.

This also happens when composing a book. Essentially, I work on a manuscript as if it were itself a poem.

Blue Sonoma touches on the concept of what is left after a person has passed. What messages do you hope to immortalize through your work?

What has duration?

I’m not sure. It’s a question with which philosophers and physicists, mystics and sages, historians, theologians, educators, psychologists, engineers, and artists wrestle.

If by observing something, we cause it to take on one of its potential forms, then just paying close attention to life helps create what we might consider “reality” or—more simply—what is now.

It seems worthwhile to give voice to what hasn’t been voiced in this time and place, in this particular way, if just voicing that gives it presence. This is the power of witnessing.

I want a poem to ring true: to be congruent with my experience and feel potentially resonant for others. This doesn’t have to be a big deal; truth can be light or slippery or funny. Ideally, the poem would ring true not just to me but also in other times and places, other cultures, in lives that differ in many ways from mine.

It seems to me we live in a time of scepticism and fear of catastrophe—of hunger for duration—of grief, which is often avoided, and of escalating busyness. It’s strangely both a time in which we have a deluge of interactions but little opportunity for reflection and intimacy. Despite all the ways in which we’re linked, many feel isolated and ill supported by structures they’d like to trust.

Yet, as a North American woman, I’m enormously grateful for the wealth of opportunities and the abundant gifts my life still provides. If it were possible, I’d wish all that to flow through me, through my work. That’s how it might stay fresh and alive, have some kind of duration. But this is not an outcome over which I have control. I can do the work and try to live in love, make an end of my sorrows, and get closer to being fully my self. The present moment is all we get, complete with its contradictions, mysteries, and impermanence. It is plenty amazing.


Photo by Marlis.

Jane Munro’s sixth poetry collection is Blue Sonoma (Brick Books, 2014). Her previous books include Active Pass (Pedlar Press, 2010), Point No Point (McClelland & Stewart, 2006) and Grief Notes & Animal Dreams (Brick Books, 1995). Her work has received the Bliss Carman Poetry Award, the Macmillan Prize for Poetry, been nominated for the Pat Lowther Award, and is included in The Best Canadian Poetry 2013. She is a member of the collaborative group Yoko’s Dogs whose first book, Whisk, was published by Pedlar Press in 2013. She lives in Vancouver.




Kasia Wotherspoon is currently enrolled at UBC’s Okanagan campus. She is working on completing her double major in developmental psychology and creative writing. Her main focus in creative writing is poetry and short fiction.

Published on June 27, 2014

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