Barbara Klar’s Cypress (Brick, 2008 ), takes the reader on a spiritual/meditative journey into memory and the landscape of Cypress Hills. Personal and collective memory of place is explored through tensions of the modern world, of people/nature, and by framing the physical/spiritual journey within elements of fire, water, air, and earth. The poems narrow the distance between nature and people, yet widen the deeper connections that can be found within the imagination and the landscape.
Excerpt from “Nine Inches of Rain”
In the valley of missing I write toward stone from the third
night of weather. The tent walls weep, sleeping bag a misery-
fuse wicking up rain and my hands will not stop drowning,
they hold the rippled paper like a white raft, they pray for a
messenger, a rock slide, wind, a bottle crossing water.
1. Your poems deal with a journey, and this, of course, reminds me of The Odyssey, a return to place, both spiritual and physical. How important is tradition/spirituality in your writing?
I don’t feel I was consciously following any sort of literary tradition with this book. I decided to write Cypress long before I’d read any of the works that focus on place or pilgrimage. Place is inherently important to all humans. It’s one of our mirrors, a presence that makes us examine and define ourselves. It can also be one of our spiritual anchors, and particular places speak to particular people. Occasionally, I’ve been told that the “pilgrimage” experience behind this book was somehow brave or heroic, and that reaction always baffles me. Spending time alone in a remote part of the wilderness seemed a very natural, even necessary, thing to be doing.
Spirituality is, of course, very important to my work. Writing itself is a spiritual act. So is walking and being in nature. The book changed me; I experienced an immense spiritual deepening while living and writing Cypress. A human can’t spend extended periods alone in nature and not experience a deepening, if he or she is paying attention at all. My relationship with the wilderness became central to my life, became the main force that flows into art.
2. Do you see the idea of “return” as cathartic? Why or why not?
“Return” is certainly one of the major threads of Cypress. I spent 15 years returning to a particular, remote corner of the Cypress Hills; I returned to specific places in the forest at various times of year, in various types of weather, in various frames of mind. In my early days of going there, I did hope, naively, for some sort of catharsis or epiphany, for the hills to answer some great question I couldn’t even formulate. But the place simply was. The more I returned, the more mysterious it became. Being there required a humility. When I finally let go of my ego and my expectations, I could see and hear the place much more fully. So “return” was not cathartic, but it did involve a shift in my relationship with the hills. Eventually I began to see myself as part of the place, just another creature moving through the woods, as it were, and from that shift grew the intimacy that I think allowed me to write this book. In the end, I felt I belonged there, but the hills did not “explain” themselves. Nothing was solved or emptied. I don’t feel an experience with a place can ever fully do that. Perhaps a respect for a place’s strangeness is the deepest connection we can achieve.
3. Do you find that nature provides many moments of introspection for you, and that we can learn from nature?
Nature can lead us deeper into our own fears and insecurities, and ultimately to an understanding of ourselves. It demands honesty. It’s difficult to be artificial when you are part of nature. All the games we play in the economy-based human world are of no use in the wilderness. Nature can teach us most of the fundamental things we need to know about being here. It can also lead to a better understanding of the world as a whole, of human history, of our interconnectedness with the systems that surround us and with the cultures that came before us. It surprises me when people sometimes speak of nature as if it is somehow separate from us when, in fact, it is what we are and where we come from – and, of course, what we will return to when our bodies or our ashes finally rest in the earth. Technology does its best to separate us from nature, or at least allow us to conquer it, but it can’t prevent death, that most natural of processes.
4. The role of memory in the poems is important to the meditative quality about them. Did you find that the collective memory of place was as important as your own memory to the writing of these poems?
Most definitely. It became obvious to me very early on that landscape has a memory. On one level, Cypress is a meditation on what the place itself remembers – the Cypress Hills are steeped in history and memory. They have been sacred to First Nations peoples for perhaps 10,000 years. They were rich hunting grounds. The young roamed there on vision quests. The sap and timber of the lodgepole pines were prized for medicinal and practical uses. When Americans and Euro-Canadians began to use the Hills, around 1870 or so, the place quickly lost its sense of refuge, and became the backdrop for some of the last events of the Wild West, including the Cypress Hills Massacre. But the hills, even today, retain a feeling of sanctuary, otherness, and sacredness which was almost overwhelming at times. Walking that ground was a sacred experience, and an immense privilege. It also made me think about my own biological memory, about my European peasant ancestors, to whom the wilderness was very important. They were walkers too – walking was not only their main form of transportation, but also a daily meditation. In some ways, covering the vast distances of the Cypress Hills on foot was a way of remembering them, too.
5. I know you live in a rural area of Saskatchewan, but would you consider yourself a prairie poet (okay, this is more my obsession, but humour me)?
Living in a rural environment has certainly deepened my relationship with wilderness, but no, I don’t consider myself a prairie poet. The term implies a sense of limitation, and it’s important to be writing from a broader view. However, I am a poet who has lived on the prairies all of my life, and who has certainly been influenced by the landscape and by the prairie experience. Perhaps that root is one of the things that fed my obsession with the Cypress Hills, a montane environment that rises almost miraculously from the surrounding plains, a rich mixture of both prairie and forest – the slopes at the higher elevations are covered with deep stands of lodgepole pine, which grow more typically in the mountains. And although I am a prairie person, I have always gravitated toward the darkness and mystery of the forest. My “story” of the Cypress Hills is a story of the woods, more than one of open space.
6. I notice that you have poems for Wallace Stegner and John Newlove, but who would you consider to be your influences in poetry right now? Which poets do you read on a regular basis?
Many poets have influenced my work, some who write primarily about the natural world: MacEwen, Szumigalski, Mary Oliver, Galway Kinnell, Seamus Heaney, Rilke, others in translation. Although I’m not a big reader of fiction, Guy Vanderhaegue’s historical novel The Englishman’s Boy was very significant to my understanding of the Cypress Hills Massacre, one of the deepest memories the hills exude. Increasingly, I find I am less concerned with subject than in a poet’s thinking and in how they push language. I also read a lot of non-fiction – natural history, field guides – it’s important to know about those names and the natural processes that are all part of metaphor.
7. I know you’ve said before that you’re a slow writer, and often take years between books, but could you describe a bit of your writing process? Do you seclude yourself to write, or do you prefer a noisy barn? Would you be able to write in a noisy city?
It’s true that my poems often take a long time to evolve, and I make no apologies for this. A handful of the poems in Cypress were finished within the second or third draft, but most of them revealed themselves after many, many reworkings, after I truly let go of any agenda and let metaphor take over – much like accepting humbleness in the woods. I try and go on several major hikes every year, and I walk a lot in the North Saskatchewan River valley near my home. I take notes, beginnings, and build on them over time. I put poems away for long periods and work on them again after I’ve learned something new. I’ve lived in a rural environment for so long that I’ve become very accustomed to seclusion and silence, but I can write almost anywhere with four walls around me. And I occasionally go away to write, especially when I’m in the crucial stages of a manuscript. Something about different territory makes the poems new again, and the clarity comes more easily.
8. How did you begin to write poetry? Did you have any mentors that helped you or that continue to provide you with ongoing support in your writing?
I began to write when I was 9. Writing seemed a soulful way to attempt to understand experience. I took a workshop at the Saskatchewan School of the Arts (Sage Hill’s predecessor) when I was 18. It was there that I decided to be a poet – the notions we develop at that age! I’ve had many teachers and mentors who have all taught me valuable things in both gentle and painful ways. My most important mentors now are some of the poets I read and know, who give me the courage to write and who make writing a less lonely act.
9. Do you see poetry as an organic experience? What do you hope the reader carries with themon the journey through your poetry?
Poetry grows from emotion and intellect, and is an integral part of the complex workings of the universe, utilizing one of the most complex gifts of nature, namely language. It is necessary to the human experience as a whole, and to other forms of art. What do I hope the reader carries through my poems? An open heart and mind. Ideally, a sense of engagement. But the poems aren’t mine anymore, and I have no control over how they are interpreted. Every reader will carry away something different. Some will connect with my work and others will not. I think the best we can hope for, as writers, is that our work moves or changes the reader in some small way, and is remembered. That’s the writer’s way of accepting death.
10. I know that in the past you’ve done a feature documentary for CBC about pigs. Do you have any future projects like the previous broadcast that you’re doing, or do you have any ideas for another project that you would like to do for CBC?
Yes, I prepared a documentary titled “Swine Before Pearls” for CBC Radio’s IDEAS, which ultimately explored our relationship with our food animals and with our own mortality. I do have a concept in mind for a possible future project, but a documentary is an incredible amount of work that ultimately takes time and energy away from the poetry, even if it feeds into it, so the time would have to be right.