Saturday, April 1, 2023




Talking With Poet

Bob Mackenzie

April 2023

NILAVRONILL: Why do literature and poetry in particular interest you so much? Please give us some idea about your own perception of literature or poetry in general.


BOB MACKENZIE: For me, poetry and prose fiction are simply media within which one might tell a story.  More broadly, this applies to all literary forms and to The Arts in general.  Whether I may write prose or poetry, make photographs or other visual art, or create live or recorded performance works, what’s always important is the story being told.  Every work of art has a story to tell.  My particular interest in literature and especially poetry comes from the fact that the written or spoken word is perhaps the most effective tool we can use to tell a story.


NILAVRONILL: How do you relate your own self existence with your literary life in one hand, and the time around you, in the other.


BOB MACKENZIE: I am one with the world in which I live.  There’s no escaping that.  There’s a natural flow through time as the world evolves and changes.  This is not to say that events, even major events, will necessarily affect the stories I tell or the points they may make.  It’s true that events may sometimes draw me in and what I experience will influence directions I would like my story to take.  Sometimes as well, the story will take on a life of its own and go to places I had never intended.  This is one of the exciting aspects of communicating through such a fluid medium as language.  The storytelling can become a dialogue between a writer and events as they happen.  The wonder of that interaction is then passed along to the reader or listener.


NILAVRONILL: Do you believe creative souls flourish more in turmoil than in peace?


BOB MACKENZIE: In this class of “creative souls” I include all of humanity, though each individual may be creative in his or her own way.  Among this mass of human creatives, artists stand out because above all they are the tellers of our stories.  They watch and listen, feel and respond, then tell the tale to those who will listen. It’s only natural that these “empaths” if you will may be more affected by turmoil than the average person.  However, they may equally be as affected by the peaceful ripple of a stream flowing through the woods, or birdsong on a spring morning.  They will surely be affected by the calm that comes with love of family, of another person, or even of a favourite pet.  At times the peace of being alone with oneself, of contemplation may bring a sense of the divine.  In all of these environments, a creative soul may flourish and even excel.  I believe it’s possible for such a person to flourish equally in peace or turmoil, whenever the world and the person make a connection.



NILAVRONILL: Do you think in this age of information and technology the dimensions of literature have been largely extended beyond our preconceived ideas about literature in general?


BOB MACKENZIE: What we call literature is a codified representation of the spoken art of story which had existed for eons before there was written or printed word.  Those are both relatively recent developments that have in some ways boxed in and restricted the full potential of story.  The digital information technology of our era has released story from the bonds with which the literary establishment has tied and controlled it.  As soon as humans created languages, information was spread by mouth from person to person, tribe to tribe.  Travelling poets and troubadours went from community to community telling the news of the day.  For longer than memory, this was the only way humans shared information.  In those days of spoken-word communication, legends were created, stories of gods and heroes made and told, and even extended communities were built, all by word-of mouth.  The creation of writing placed some limits on the formulation of stories, but written word and word-of-mouth appear to have lived side by side for many generations. The innovation represented by the printing press changed all that and the concept that story was to be encoded as literature, the written word, locked the doors.  The new technology of our century, and social media in particular, have burst the doors open, and the tyranny of academic literature no longer holds sway over the power of story.  Social media, personal communication by email and other online means, digital creation and telling of story in both page and spoken form, live-stream spoken word, and other advances have expanded the sharing of story as art and communication to the universality it had in the beginning, but with an infinitely broader reach.


NILAVRONILL: Now, in this changing scenario we would like to know from your own life experiences as a poet, writer and a creative soul: How do you respond to this present time?


BOB MACKENZIE:  I’m not sure how to answer this.  Many seem to feel this is a new and different era with its own challenges, advances, and dangers.  There’s a sense that many things have changed and we live in an entirely different world.  From what I’ve observed this is not a true picture of the time in which we live.  This view presents a fantasy in which one may feel a sense of newborn stability and so safety whatever may happen, good or bad.  But that’s all it is, a fantasy which separates us from memory of the past and to some degree from the future that is sure to come.  At times, I wonder if I may have become numb, inured to the joys and tragedy of this new world.  I feel no different in this time than I have in any other.  Then I realize that’s the point.  This present time is no different than any other.  There are wars ongoing.  There is prejudice and hatred.  Evil and often terrifying things happen.  Now as then, we must live through and cope with these things.  But there is also love, and periods of peace filled with optimism and the will to change.  As the American poet Max Ehrmann wrote a century ago, “no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”  Rather than be numb to it, I simply accept this present time for what it is, in all of its sometimes fearsome and sometimes glorious variety.


NILAVRONILL: Do you believe that all writers are by and large the product of their nationality? And is this an incentive for or an obstacle against becoming a truly international writer?


BOB MACKENZIE: Long ago I learned that nations are defined simply by lines drawn on a map.  If nations are such an artificial construct then so is nationality, mutable over time and by the whims of politicians and despots.  In my life alone, the maps of Europe, Africa, Asia, and the rest of the world have been redrawn many times.  Some nations have changed their shape and name so often it’s near impossible to remember all the variations.


While it may be true that a minority of writers are products of their nationality, whatever that may be at the time, the work of most draws on something deeper and perhaps even genetically ingrained.  That is the culture into which they are born and raised.  The primary inclination of humanity is tribal.  If one looks, for example, at the continent of Europe over its long history as far back as humans have lived there, it will be seen to be nothing more or less than an aggregation of tribes.  In the context of that long history, the concept of nationhood is very new.  A closer look reveals that any nation is a collaboration of tribes, often aggregated against their collective will.  And over time, nations will expand or shrink, vanish and appear with lines on the map redrawn by war or intrigue and political bargaining.  Through all of this, the tribes and their cultures remain and shall remain.  It’s of these many and varied cultures that writers and all artists are the products.


While it’s true that such a fragmented world may be an obstacle for some writers, or at least constrain them to their own ethnic culture, writers are a curious sort.  Seeing all there is in the world that they haven’t yet discovered, many and perhaps most writers may see this variety as a challenge to expand their horizons.  This presents an incentive to discover new worlds from which to draw inspiration.


NILAVRONILL: Now, if we try to understand the tradition and modernism, do you think literature can play a pivotal role in it?  If so, how? Again, how can an individual writer relate himself or herself to the tradition and to modernism?


BOB MACKENZIE:  It’s unclear whether this question refers to modernism itself as a tradition or asks for a comparison between modernism as a literary philosophy and the philosophy or tradition that had existed before the modernist movement.  While these two interpretations may seem quite dissimilar, I believe they are more closely related than we may imagine.  So the main question is what role does literature play in the modernism of our times. The modernism that arose throughout western civilization in the late 19th Century had been a reaction to the strictures of tradition, especially during the Victorian era.  It especially blossomed and grew following the First World War.  By mid-century, though, modernism had begun to become a tradition of its own as stultifying as the one it had replaced.  This history holds true throughout all disciplines of the arts, but especially literature. 


In this new era, too many writers cling to a “modernism” which is no longer truly modern or innovative. For example, many and perhaps most of the poets who had become prominent in the sixties of the 20th Century and their adherents hew to the tenets of this new tradition and have modelled their art on the American artists of that era.  Over the past few decades, I’ve been pleased to see the rise of new, younger writers, especially poets, who are exploring new ground beyond modernism or the traditions that had come before yet incorporating in new ways much of what had gone before.  This direction can both relate to and move into the future.


NILAVRONILL: Do you think literary criticism has much to do with the development of a poet and the true understanding of his or her poetry?


BOB MACKENZIE: I believe that the best literary criticism can have a great deal of influence on how the beginning poet and even the more experienced may develop and grow.  This is literary criticism which delves deep into a writer’s work, thoughtfully analyzes the art and craft that has gone into the poetry, and clearly advises the poet on what has been discovered in this process.  This is a partnership though, in which the poet must also fully participate.  The poet must take seriously what he or she has been told and carefully consider what to take from it and apply.  The advice given, no matter how erudite, is in the end only one person’s opinion.  The poet should utilize what is most helpful, take  some suggestions under advisement for later consideration, and shelve the rest in some back closet of the mind as not applicable.


NILAVRONILL: Do you think society as a whole is the key factor in shaping you up as a poet, or your poetry altogether?


BOB MACKENZIE:  I don’t believe “society as a whole” can be much of a factor in shaping a poet or the poet’s poetry.  Such a concept is too large and flexible.  More important influences are the smaller elements: the family, the community, faith or religion, the immediate culture in which the poet lives.  Each of these or the lack of any of them can have an enormous influence on the poet as a person and as an artist.  Even the smallest thing may sometimes mark the poet for life.  Early influences from family, friends, and the immediate community and culture are the key factors to shape a person’s outlook and so the shape of the poet to be.  I know this to have been true in my life and my development as an artist.  Without the family and culture in which I had the privilege to develop as a person, I wouldn’t be the poet and artist I’ve become.


NILAVRONILL: Do you think people in general actually bother about literature?  Do you think this consumerist world is turning the average man away from serious literature?


BOB MACKENZIE:  I don’t believe the general mass of people have ever been concerned with literature or any fine art as curated and defined by academics and other such establishments.  It’s doubtful consumerism or the environment it creates have any impact on this relationship between common people and the high arts.  This level of the arts is formalized by the elites as one wall against the barbarians without.  However, art in its various forms has always been with us and always shall be.  The making of art as communication is foundational to the human condition.  Art exists at the street level that, while perhaps dismissed by elite arbiters, touches the hearts of those who live in towns, cities, and the countryside.  This people’s art drives progress and revolution, makes history where high art never can.  This is the art of the Bohemians, Beats, Hippies and of the workers often far removed from formal academics.  If the average man may appear to have turned away from “serious” literature, it’s because he has never turned to it for succor or simple enjoyment in the first place.


NILAVRONILL: We would like to know the factors and the peoples who have influenced you immensely in the growing phase of your literary life.


BOB MACKENZIE: This story begins long before I officially began my writing career.  It was my parents who first showed me the many forms that story can take, including the written word.  When I was unable to start school because I’d been born in January of the next year, my parents enrolled me in daycare.  This daycare in our small prairie town was unusual, teaching children the arts.  At five years old, I became a painter and sculptor as well as a teller of tales.  Even before that, my parents gave me a Brownie camera, which my photographer father and painter mother taught me to use.  When I was eight years old, my parents helped me make a 16 mm movie short which I produced, wrote, directed, and starred in.  My mother and father were well-educated for the time and literate. Our home was filled with talk of politics, world faiths, art and literature.  My father loved poetry, both literary works and the humour of writers like the American poet Ogden Nash.  My mother was a fan of popular music, sharing with my sister and me the salient points of excellent song lyrics.  And our lives growing up were filled with the strains of music in every genre and from every era, modern and going back for centuries.  This environment, which also included aunts and uncles and grandparents, put me on the road to my later career as an artist and remains perhaps my greatest influence. 


At 18 years old, I decided that writing was my calling and true profession.  But I was still growing.  I learned a lot from professionals I worked with in print and broadcast media and from working artists who were willing to talk with a beginner.  Right at the start, I was fortunate to be admitted to a writing workshop with successful writers many years older than myself who were a great influence on my approach to writing.  In my varied lifetime, I have met and learned, formally and informally, from many excellent artists in all disciplines.  Each of these contacts has certainly been a strong influence on me and my career.  Even now, I am still learning and growing.


NILAVRONILL: How would you evaluate your contemporaries and what are your aspirations for or expectation from the younger generation?


BOB MACKENZIE:  I’m not certain who I can call my contemporaries, so have no basis for evaluation.  Here in Canada, the poets of my generation have mostly drawn from different sources for their work than I have for mine.  Many, perhaps most, look back a short time for their forms and inspiration.  They are students of the Black Mountain movement and poets of other similar philosophies in American poetry.  In my opinion, these poets are trying to replicate in Canada a movement already past its time in the nation of its birth. Many of these same poets and others appear to look back at the modernists for inspiration and write a poetry that is even further past its time.  Writing that draws upon either of these philosophies can in some cases appear derivative or even cliché.  In this environment, I have been mostly the outlier.  While I’m sure there are many poets in Canada who may also be outliers for various reasons, we share no common point of meeting.  However, we are all growing old and it’s to the young we must look.  I see many wonderful young poets in Canada, ranging from absolute beginners to those already established or gaining a foothold.  More than a few of these poets are also becoming editors at established journals and small presses or establishing presses of their own.  The decisions these new editors make will make all the difference.  I’m not sure my aspirations for this new generation of poets in Canada matter, but my expectation is that they will excel and will revitalize our poetry.  As for the new generation of poets in the rest of the world, I don’t feel I know their work well enough to comment.


NILAVRONILL: Humanity has suffered immensely in the past, and is still suffering around the world. We all know it well. But are you hopeful about our future?


BOB MACKENZIE: There has always been suffering in the world, and always great joy.  This has only ever changed in degree as balance has been achieved then lost once more.  Yes, I am very hopeful for the future which is always ahead of us.  Humanity is incredibly resilient, whatever may come.


NILAVRONILL: What role can literature in general play to bring a better day for every human being?


BOB MACKENZIE:  The word, both written and spoken, can play a very positive role in the life of every single human being, or it can be very damaging.  This awesome power for good or evil lies in the hands of every person who writes or speaks any language.  Handle with care is the byword.  Early in their evolution, humans discovered that they could communicate with the sounds they make.  These inflected grunts and growls synthesized into words, and words inspired sharing and a higher order of thought.  Once even the simplest forms of writing were created, communication through words became widespread not only over distance but through time.  With the new technology now available to us, communication is enhanced beyond our wildest dreams, through words both spoken and on screens in print.  It’s through these media that the language of the street, the language of the people can and does gain an increasingly important role in everyday lives.  Each of us must handle the use of words with care and integrity and be always aware of the ways others may be using them.


BOB MACKENZIE: Raised in mid-century rural Alberta with artist parents, professional photographer and musician father and visual artist mother, Canadian poet Bob MacKenzie now lives and writes in Kingston, Ontario.  His poetry has appeared in nearly 500 journals internationally and his work's appeared in numerous anthologies.  Bob has published nineteen volumes of poetry and prose-fiction and has received numerous local and international awards for his writing, including an Ontario Arts Council grant for literature, a Canada Council Grant for performance, and a Fellowship to attend the Summer Literary Seminars in Tbilisi, Georgia.  The ensemble Poem de Terre has released six albums of Bob's poetry spoken and sung with original music.



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