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Interview # 3: Ron Price
Interview # 3: Ron Price
Interview # 3: Ron Price
Interview # 3: Ron Price
Interview # 3: Ron Price
Interview # 3: Ron Price
Interview # 3: Ron Price
Interview # 3: Ron Price
Interview # 3: Ron Price
Interview # 3: Ron Price
Interview # 3: Ron Price
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Interview # 3: Ron Price

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INTERVIEW NO. 3 WITH RON PRICE …

INTERVIEW NO. 3 WITH RON PRICE

Preamble:

This is the third interview in the year 1996 with the Australian-Canadian poet Ron Price. This interview continues to explore some of the same questions, examine similar issues and talk about poetry, reading and writing as the first two interviews did earlier in 1996. He has also added material in the years after 1996 and up to 2012.

Questioner(Q): We have talked before about your first poem, or poems. Could you tell us more about how you got started in the poetry business?

Price(P): The first poem I wrote and kept in my files was two to three months after I started taking lithium carbonate, a mood stabilizer, for my bipolar 1 disorder. I wrote some forty poems in the six years: 1981 to 1987 and another one hundred and thirty from 1988 to 1991. I have come to see this period of some 11 years as my ‘first poems’. There was an emotional stability in my life that I had not had before as a young adult or middle-aged man, indeed, since I was in my mid-teens, since about 1959. I have talked about lithium before and I don’t want to belabor the point here, but I think it has been crucial to my balance and well-being. In the ‘80s I had several some major battle-zones in my life: in my employment, and in my fight for compliance on the medication. I worked in Zeehan, Tasmania; Katherine, Northern Territory; Port Headland and Perth in Western Australia--all in the same decade. In addition, my wife was sick much of the time in that decade---and on and on goes the litany of troubles. I think this zone of troubles kept my production limited, although I did write many essays.

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  • 1. INTERVIEW NO. 3 WITH RON PRICE Preamble: This is the third interview in the year 1996 with the Australian-Canadian poet Ron Price. This interview continues to explore some of the same questions, examine similar issues and talk about poetry, reading and writing as the first two interviews did earlier in 1996. He has also added material in the years after 1996 and up to 2012. Questioner(Q): We have talked before about your first poem, or poems. Could you tell us more about how you got started in the poetry business? Price(P): The first poem I wrote and kept in my files was two to three months after I started taking lithium carbonate, a mood stabilizer, for my bipolar 1 disorder. I wrote some forty poems in the six years: 1981 to 1987 and another one hundred and thirty from 1988 to 1991. I have come to see this period of some 11 years as my ‘first poems’. There was an emotional stability in my life that I had not had before as a young adult or middle-aged man, indeed, since I was in my mid-teens, since about 1959. I have talked about lithium before and I don’t want to belabor the point here, but I think it has been crucial to my balance and well-being. In the ‘80s I had several some major battle-zones in my life: in my employment, and in my fight for compliance on the medication. I worked in Zeehan, Tasmania; Katherine, Northern Territory; Port Headland and Perth in Western Australia--all in the same decade. In addition, my wife was sick much of the time in that decade--- and on and on goes the litany of troubles. I think this zone of troubles kept my production limited, although I did write many essays. The whole idea of taking poetry seriously did not really dawn on me until 1992/93. That’s a story I have already commented on to some extent in an earlier interview, so I won’t say anything more here. In addition, I wrote poems before 1980, but I never kept any of them. I think my first poems were written to and with Cathy Saxe when I was about eighteen. She was a Baha’i youth who lived in Georgetown Ontario while I was living in Dundas Ontario. My memories of this time are vague and unreliable, though, and it may just be that she and I wrote no poems to each other at all. I have not seen her in thirty years. Q: Could you tell us more about what you think regarding the teaching of poetry and how you learn to write it?
  • 2. P: Perhaps the most interesting thing about poetry is actually who writes it, not who teaches it or how it should be taught. Teaching poetry has little to no significance to most people who write poetry, except in an indirect way by reading the poetry of others and reading about their poetry. By the 1990s I had been teaching poetry to: primary school, high school and adults in the adult education field. I’m influenced by what I read and experience. I teach myself. I read about poets and, if I like a poet, which I rarely do, I read a great deal of his or her poetry and the commentaries about it. Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Wordsworth’s poetry, T.S. Eliot’s poetry, Roger White’s and a few others are examples where this process was applied. For the great majority of poets whom I don’t enjoy reading, I read about some of them and how they work; I do this partly in the hope that I may get awakened and partly just to widen my own knowledge of poets and poetry. There is a vast tradition here going back to the Greeks and the Hebrews in the West and other traditions as well, enough to keep you busy for the rest of your life becoming familiar with these literary traditions. I’ll give you an example here from last night. I got a six hundred page biography of Robert Graves. It was simply massive, but a freshly minted 1995 publication with a beautiful hard-cover. I read about thirty pages of Graves’ philosophy of writing poetry. The rest of the book had little interest to me. Q: Tolstoy thought that the definition of religion was to renew because no matter what one did life went on and renewal was essential to our continuity. Does poetry do this, too? P: Yes, it certainly does for me; it has, like religion, a deep-seated relationship with life. It enables, helps, me to go on living with a freshness and vitality. Q: Obviously there are many things that influence your poetry. What specific poets have clearly had an effect on your style? P: Roger White writes humorously and kindly as did the Roman poet Horace. This is a tradition I would like to emulate, but I find it very difficult to achieve. My poetry usually does not come out in a humorous mode. I think on the whole my writing is kindly, if not humorous. I have studied Shakespeare’s Sonnets a great deal and I like to think his poetry has influenced mine, but I’m not sure how; this is also true of many other poets I have read to a lesser extent.
  • 3. Q: James Wright, an American poet, says that poetry helps you endure because it helps you sing about life. Do you think this is true? P: Yes, again, I think it’s like religion. It deals with such basic forces: attitudes, beliefs, values. It gives you a reason to sing, or simply to put into words what you think. Generally, I think the ability to put life into words is a source of pleasure and makes life a little easier for the person who can do this. But there is also much work in writing poetry, at least for me. So, in a way, I pay for my pleasure. For, say, Robert Penn Warren, before 1958 poetry helped him endure his sense of despair and alienation. I’m sure it helped Ezra Pound while he was in a mental hospital. For me, meaning unfolds as I write and this gives me satisfaction; it helps me endure some of the more unpleasant things in life. I love writing poetry. I seem to need to do it. Just how good it is is difficult to say; partly, I don’t care because I find that, in spite of the work involved, writing poetry is a most enjoyable way of spending time. Q: Robert Penn Warren says that writing a poem is like stalking a beast for a single shot. Is that analogy a good one from your point of view? P: It’s excellent. Sometimes something emerges when you write a poem. It’s something extra, a plus that makes you feel you’ve scored a goal, hit a home run, shot the bear, caught the fish, made a sale. I suppose the analogies are infinite. Social scientists use the term synergy: the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Some poems possess a special synergy for me. Others seem empty, less than the sum of their parts. Q: William Stafford, another American poet, says that wherever liveliness of emotion and intellect are happening, poetry is near. This is an interesting juxtaposition. Do you agree? P: I used to feel comfortable in the presence of alot of emotion but, after twenty- five years in Australia and perhaps just getting older, I’ve become suspicious of emotion in group contexts. I’ve also found Australians possess a certain embarrassment when intellectual ideas are on the floor. When I can act as facilitator, which I often have over the years as a classroom lecturer/teacher, I find the process is like keeping a lid on a very volatile mix. Humor has become for me, as it has for Australian culture, the great integrating mechanism. In poetry readings I go to and read at, humor takes the emotion and intellect and neutralizes them; otherwise the tension would be insufferable. Freud said the intellect spoke with a
  • 4. soft voice. That is my preference, although I think Aussies are onto something with their use of humor when emotion and intellect are present. I rather like some of the thoughts of the English essayist William Hazlitt whom I have quoted before. He writes in his essay On Poetry that: “Neither a mere description of natural objects, nor a mere delineation of natural feelings, however distinct or forcible, constitutes the ultimate end and aim of poetry, without the heightening of the imagination. The light of poetry is not only a direct but also a reflected light, that while it shows us the object, throws a sparkling radiance on all around it: the flame of the passions, communicated to the imagination, reveals to us, as with a flash of lightning, the inmost recesses of thought, and penetrates our whole being. Poetry represents forms chiefly as they suggest other forms; feelings, as they suggest forms or other feelings. Poetry puts a spirit of life and motion into the universe. It describes the flowing, not the fixed.” Hazlitt writes much more and I may add some of his words later in this interview if it seems relevant. Q: The twentieth century is riddled with example after example of poets with severe depression, alcoholism, mental illness, who have committed suicide, overdosed on drugs, had awful emotional troubles. Could you account for this? P: I had my own battle with depression and mental illness before I took up the poetic pen, so to speak. This was a battle I had with myself from my late teens and it has lasted until the present time as I revise this interview in 2012. It’s also a battle fought by millions of other people who never write a poem, or anything else, except a list of food items for the local grocery store. This century has seen vast change but then, as Robert Nisbet points out in his fascinating book about social change in the West since the Greeks, so have the last twenty-five centuries. Still, I think you do have a point. Poets tend to be marginal, lonely people in the wings. Whatever sense of insecurity and instability they may have is accentuated by a feeling of uselessness or, more importantly, by a philosophy of nihilism, a fever of living that burns in the brain, a cancerous materialism, the virtual uselessness of religious traditions, even truth, as W.B. Yeats would have put it. Hardy said life was a train of suffering punctuated by illusory moments of happiness. Dylan Thomas drank himself to death. There are a host of examples which Colin Wilson discusses in his book The Strength To Dream.(1976) Although the game went on into the twentieth century, Christianity had collapsed for most intellectuals as forces of secularization increased decade after decade. There was really little to put in its place, except some new religions which were
  • 5. emerging from obscurity and what the Greeks had, namely, reason and the senses. The Greek culture of the fifth century BC took hundreds of years to develop into that golden age. It was an age which burned out quickly, although it left its mark on western history. The secular humanism at the heart of that Greek culture tends to end in pessimism and one of the more popular twentieth century equivalents, a sense of absurdity. In Australia I think this is one of the more important sources, or underpinnings, of humor. Time will tell what will happen to these new religions. Toynbee mentions two in A Study of History, Vol. 7B(p.711). The architectural creation on Mount Carmel is a testimony to the development of one. In my own case, as I have indicated above, I got most of my own traumatic sufferings over with before I wrote any poetry, although I still had to deal with some problematic aspects of BPD. Loneliness has not been a problem for me, although it certainly was after my divorce in 1974. I cultivated a certain detachment and aloneness by the late 1990s, partly as a reaction to the excessive amount of talking and listening I had done in my role as a lecturer and in my role as a chairman or secretary of the local Baha’i community in Belmont. Probably everyone has some degree of instability or insecurity. I certainly know what the more extreme manifestations of depression and loneliness are like and, compared to these, I am now living in the land of tranquility. Q: Would you say your poetry is both descriptive like William Carlos Williams and philosophical-spiritual like Roethke or Wilbur? P: No, it’s much more of the latter. Descriptiveness in my poetry falls short of what for me is a certain impoverishment in Williams’ poetry. The imagination plays a big role, but not fantasy. Fantasy is present. As Rollo May says fantasy is a crucial part of the imaginative function, of creation. History plays an important role, too. Formalism has little to no role in my poetry as it does for the poet Wilbur. My density is predominantly colloquial. Q: This is the third interview now and I don’t think we have talked about your family, your adolescence, the influence of your father, your mother, your wife or, indeed, other significant individuals, except quite tangentially, somewhat serendipitously P: Yes, that’s true; I’ve mentioned several individuals thusfar but given them nothing like the sharp focus they deserve. And I have not talked about my own
  • 6. childhood or adolescence which, as we all know, are exceptionally formative influences on one’s life. Perhaps I’ll start with the latter factor. It is difficult to summarize what are, in effect, the first nineteen years of my life---to the end of adolescence. Even to pick several highlights for a short paragraph or two seems totally inadequate. But I’ll try. The influence of my grandfather in the first three years of my life, a time I have no memories of at all, is immeasurable. He was a man in his seventies who was himself retired. He read enormously. I get the impression that was about all he did beside visit with his family and very small circle of friends. Now, half a century later, I follow a similar pattern, although he drank port before retiring at night and smoked a pipe. These nights I just collapse from an enormous fatigue. My mother had manic-depressive illness, although not in an extreme form needing hospitalisation. She just had bad mood swings; she wrote poetry, read lots of books, worked as a secretary at a university before retiring, was interested in religion, painted a little in her final years, became a Baha’i in the mid-1950s and was very kind, gentle and loving to me for my entire youth. Her influence was immeasurable and she is the one person in life, beside my wife, that I feel the greatest connection with, the greatest influence. I have a small booklet of her poetry here in my study. She began writing poetry about the same time I did, around the age of fifty. My father had lived a lifetime before I was born. He was a Welshman: strong, energetic, sang in choirs, had a terrible temper, seemed to have a succession of losses in jobs, marriage and eventually his health. He died two months before I turned 21. By then his temper had cooled off and I think of my father as the source of the great energy I’ve had in my life, the sine qua non, the foundation, of any achievement. I also inherited his temper, although I’ve learned to keep in under raps most of the time. He was a man I never really got to know and I look forward to eventually coming to know a man I’ve grown close to in the world of the spirit in the thirty years since his passing. Let me say one or two things about the stages of childhood and adolescence. One of the best things about adolescence is the intense male friendships, the camaraderie, the sheer fun of it all. It comes at a time when youth begin to become unstuck from their own families, when they are confronted by a surging sexual drive and the endless complexities of society. I have the fondest memories for a small circle of half a dozen boys whom I have not seen now in thirty years. Although I’ve come to know hundreds of men and women since and talked
  • 7. endlessly with them, these special relationships enjoy a place in my memory that is quite precious and treasured. My childhood, that period up to say twelve years old, is like a magic land inhabited by faint memories, a gossamer world, a place where I first kissed a girl, discovered pretty female nymphs and satyrs, a place where life began mysteriously bearing some semblance to reality, like a vapour in the desert which the thirsty dreams to be water. There is no pain for me here just an endless playground haunted at the edges by the strange realities of life. Q: You did not mention your wife. I believe you also had a first wife for seven or eight years as well. Price: Both these women were wonderful: practical, talented, long-suffering. I won’t dwell here on that first marriage, a relationship that helped propel me first into the Canadian Arctic and then overseas into the international pioneering field. I could say a great deal about my present wife, Chris. I could finish the interview talking about her and the value she has been to me. I will try and be brief. In some ways her relationship with me is a little like Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s relationship with Robert. She has been immensely encouraging. She is the only person who reads much of my poetry and so her reactions and understandings are crucial. She has a critical spirit and, if she does not like something, she will tell you. My poetry was the first of my writings that she reacted favourably toward. Chris is, too, my dark haired lady. The mysterious lady who occupies the last twenty-seven of Shakespeare’s Sonnets comes closest, in poetry, to this lady of my life. I’ll quote some lines from sonnet 141 to illustrate the profound significance of some of the poetry Shakespeare wrote to his ‘dark haired lady’: In faith, I do not love thee with mine eyes, For they in thee a thousand errors note; But ‘tis my heart that loves what they despise, Who in despite of view is pleased to dote. Chris’ health has not been good for nearly fifteen years. Living with someone like me who writes so much, has a high level of intensity and energy and has moved around so much over the years--has not been easy for her, especially since I have very little practical propensities and consequently little interest in gardening, fixing up the house, cooking, etc. She gives me lots of space and freedom and keeps the pressure off me most of the time. Although this is helpful to my writing it makes it difficult for her to get close to me. These are still my early days: four years of intense writing. Perhaps an interview in a few years may reveal another pattern in our evolving relationship.
  • 8. Q: I’d like to talk a little about sex. It has had an obsessive quality in the last half of this century. It also has a powerful conditioning force. Tell us something about your own experience of what has been a central motivation, goal, mysterium tremendum, for the mass of people in the last several generations at least since it got freed up in the 1920s. Price: Where should I begin? First, let me say that until about the age of fifty I found sex and its several relationships in my life: my first and second wife and, perhaps half a dozen other women in varying degrees of intimacy a source of great joy and seemingly endless frustration. In spite of all the freeing up of the passions, first in the 1920s and then again in the 1960s, my own experience of a sexual relationship has been fraught with difficulties. I would not even want to try to summarize them here. I’m still enormously attracted to women, but the great itch, the inner battle, has cooled and I can enjoy the feminine without getting itchy and scratchy. Unquestionably, though, part of the war I fought these past forty years, has been working out some balance with the erotic, some foothold on an erotic homeland. It has been an enormous battle. Q: How would you assess those last forty years in some overall social and political sense? Price: The years since Sputnik, since the Guardian died, for they occurred within a few weeks of each other, are impossible to characterise in a paragraph. I would encourage anyone interested in my answer to this question to read my poetry. In some ways that is what Pioneering Over Three Epochs is about. The other genres of this work, too, also say a great deal. I must have several million words now that come at this question in a thousand different ways. Let me make a comment though. The Guardian said, just before he died, that we were a society on the edge of extinction, annihilation, oblivion. That was literally true in the late fifties as the cold war brought us close to nuclear war several times. In 1967 the Universal House of Justice used the phrase ‘dark heart of the age of transition’. That reality has been at the core of the social and political fabric of society and my experience of it in a host of manifestations during all my years of maturity. W. H. Auden wrote that poetry makes little happen. In a certain sense what he says is very true. But there is much more to say on such a complex topic. I think artists and writers have a great deal to say in a non-partisan political sense. That is how I see myself. I think that writers and artists are often marginalized in a partisan- political sense. But there is much more to politics than the left-right dichotomy, liberal-labor, republican-democrat, et cetera. If you think about people who can't
  • 9. write at all, who can't say at all what they would like to say, what they think, then the writer is in a position of some fortune. Indeed, writers are a very fortunate bunch. Of course, that does not mean that writers are happy and well-adjusted people—that’s a different question. Q: We have talked before about the writer withdrawing, being a hermit, being a self-ordained monk who must remain secluded from life for the sake of art. Let us talk about this theme a little more. Price: Philip Roth said in an interview in 1981 that art is life, solitude is life, meditation is life, language is life. It is all life. The dichotomy between the social and the solitary is false. The historic distinctions between “mysticism” and “practicality” really don’t exist any more, except in people’s minds. We can no longer separate the “active” and the “contemplative” facets of our lives. Bahiyyih Nakhjavani says this in an article about the seeker she once wrote for Baha’i Studies. This is not the issue, although emotionally we often struggle with it. The issue is a multifaceted series of questions: are we exulting in immortal thoughts? Are we circling around the great? For here our own greatness lies. Can we find the dancing lights held up against the glancing rays of His white words? ‘Abdu’l-Baha describes the gregarious and the quiet types in his classic Memorials of the Faithful. It is crystal clear that this is a Faith for all types: the solemn, the chirpy, the loner and the social, etc. etc. One’s basic proclivities are accepted here unless, of course, they are amoral and then one must battle with them oneself and with the help of society, if necessary. Q: What does Australia mean to you? Canada? The rest of the world’s countries? Price: We talked about this question of influences of place back in that first interview and again a little in the second. Let me say a few more things here. Each country has a certain psychology, you might call it a psycho-history. I think Ronald Conway, the Melbourne clinical psychologist, is for me the best analyst of the Australian psyche. He has four books out beginning with The Great Australian Stupor which came out the year I arrived in Australia, 1971. Canada, too, has its psychologists, sociologists, historians. I have lost touch with them over the years, although George Grant was always of some influence on me beginning when I had him as a professor in 1963-64 at McMaster University. In really answering this question properly I’d like to place my remarks in the context of their books. This would lead to prolixity. As far as other countries are concerned, I’ve never lived anywhere else, and I would have to work quite hard to attempt to discuss any influences that have come
  • 10. my way from the dozens of people I have known from many of these places. This question really needs a much more extended answer. Perhaps in a future interview. Q: Do you have any sense of power when you write poetry? Do you feel powerless as a poet? Price: This question is a little like that other question you asked me about poetry having any use. There are many answers to this historic question beginning with Plato who would have banned poets from his Republic. I don’t want to talk about the issues Plato’s policy raises other than to say the poet has a place in Baha’i society which, like the artist or sculptor, is encouraged. But I would like to talk about this question of power. Power is a difficult term to define in the social sciences, unlike ‘authority’ which is quite a specific term with a specific application or applications. Power is much more diffuse, difficult to define, to tie down. One can have a very strong sense of power when one writes poetry because one is tapping into a world and giving it form. Often the process is joyful, enriching, quite meaningful: there is clearly a sense of power, but it is not power over anyone; it is power to do something, power in the exercise of a talent. Whether the poet ever influences society or other people is difficult to say: perhaps a small handful. I’ve read arguments both for and against the influence of a poet and after all is said and done, I’m inclined to think the poet influences a coterie at best. This is even true of Shakespeare, Bach or Mozart but this does not make these men any less important. They enrich our culture beyond measure. Q: How would you describe yourself? Price: There are so many ways of answering this: by role-husband, father, teacher, writer; by temperament—manic-depressive with the sharp edges taken off; by habit and taste—someone who likes the quiet life reading and writing, all day if possible; style of participation in a group, like an LSA—synthesiser, unifier, efficient minutes taker. Perhaps you could have a look at my resume; it certainly tells a story; you could ask my analyst, he’d give you another; my family would give you one or two more; my students, most of them, would give you yet another perspective; the few students you never win over would give you yet another view. Other people’s views are essential to provide a balance with whatever view occupies the centre stage in your own life. Q: I think we’ll leave it at that for now and return at some future time, all being well. Price: It’s a pleasure; I look forward to a future examination of what must be an endless world of questions and possible answers.
  • 11. Ron Price 7 July 1996

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