The Jacob Lee Bachinger interview

Earth-cool, and Dirty (Radiant Press) is a timely debut poetry collection by Jacob Lee Bachinger, a poet who calls Lethbridge, Alberta home. Full of wisdom, and beautiful reflections on the state of humanity. It is a call to pay careful attention to the earth, to nurture it in the same way we attend to the people we love. In “My Son Asleep, Age 4,” he observes: “What no one told me,/what I’ve had to learn for myself:/to love this much is painful.”Jacob Lee Bachinger lives and works in southern Alberta on the edge of coulees and the Oldman River. He teaches at the University of Lethbridge and has had his poems published in literary magazines across Canada. He is currently working on a book about his time in Labrador. Jacob lives in Lethbridge, Alberta.

This is your debut collection. When did you begin to write poetry and what were some poets who really impressed you from the start?

I began writing poetry seriously (though not successfully) in my early to mid-20s.  When I was in university, I took a course on 20th-century Canadian poetry and it opened up possibilities for me, introducing me to poets like Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Christopher Dewdney.  Later, in another course, I met the Modernists: Pound, H.D., Eliot, Marianne Moore, and, of course, William Carlos Williams.  Using these poets and their works as models, I began to write regularly, slowly, ploddingly figuring it out.  I hesitate to call these poets influences, but maybe I’m just in denial? What you learn to love when you’re young, you love all your life. 

Poets are natural observers who tend to get distracted in the tangle of their own thoughts. What advice would you give a young poet starting out, trying to get some poems published?

The tangle of our thoughts can be a wonderful and awful place all at once — so my sympathies for this young poet! As for advice: if the young poet wants to get some poems published, just send them out.  Simply send them out.  Don’t be discouraged if they all get rejected; just continue the practice of poetry, continue to write, and continue to send them out.  Persistence is likely the key to poetry; it’s certainly the key to getting published. 

Can you talk about the title of your book and its significance?

The book’s title, Earth-cool, and Dirty is also the title of the collection’s first poem.  The poem is an ars poetica statement, and perhaps even a philosophical statement, evoking my way of looking at the natural world: the earth is cool, dispassionate, even cruel, and yet also dirty, passionate, disorderly.  This duality echoes throughout the book and then culminates in one of the final poems, “The Green Man for Dinner,” in which an ordinary, unsuspecting family enjoys “an evening without apologies” due to a surprise visit from the legendary Green Man who is both cool and dirty all at once. 

In “The First Snowfall”, you write, ‘the sky will be featureless and ominous’ – it speaks of the impossibility of nature and the vastness of the world, sometimes referred to as ‘our world’. Did you write it during the winter? Can you talk about this piece?

I feel pretty sure that “The First Snowfall” was written in the early weeks of winter in northern Manitoba about 10 years ago.  And in northern Manitoba, the early days of winter can feel like the beginning of an ice age.  That said, I’ve always liked watching the winter set in; I’ve always liked witnessing that first snowfall of the season.  Perhaps the arrival of the first snow is a real Canadian motif?  It’s a truly northern recognition: that moment when, as I write in the poem,  you feel “silence/ all around you.” 

The images in “Poems” are terrific. ‘boys with rakish cigars and foaming steins.’ I love the idea that poems are like old picture postcards arriving in the mail. How do you approach the concept of nostalgia and memory and history in your work?

Nostalgia and memory are, for me, sources of anxiety.  My poems “Constellations” and “Grief” touch on this feeling of anxiety.  I suppose nostalgia and memory are closely tied to feelings of regret and the feeling that time, place, and people are slipping inexorably away.   In the back of my mind, I associate memory with subtraction (rather than addition).  Instead of enjoying a growing body of memories, I worry that it’s a signal I have less life ahead of me.  That’s a rather gloomy assessment, I admit, but it’s balanced by the desire to look at the here and now with care and reverence.

What poems are you looking forward to reading /performing from your new book?

When I lived in St. John’s, I was invited to read at a few literary kitchen parties — and those were a lot of fun.  But, for the most part, these poems were written and edited in silence.  Now I’m looking forward to reading any and all of the poems in my book.  I’m looking forward to rediscovering them when they are spoken aloud to an audience (whether that audience is online or in-person). I imagine that the presence of listeners will allow the poems to develop in interesting ways for me.  I’ll also soon record an audiobook of Earth-cool, and Dirty, which will be, outside of a handful of kitchens in Newfoundland, my first real attempt at performing them. 

“Those literary magazines were absolutely essential.  They helped build my confidence and helped provide credibility, which helped to ensure that a press like Radiant would look at my manuscript seriously when they received it.”

Lit mags continue to be a source of hope for debut poets. How valuable were publications in these magazines before you submitted your finished manuscript to Radiant Press?

Those literary magazines were absolutely essential.  They helped build my confidence and helped provide credibility, which helped to ensure that a press like Radiant would look at my manuscript seriously when they received it.  Every publication in every one of those magazines was a real occasion for me, but one moment I remember very clearly: going into the World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto and buying a couple of extra copies of The Fiddlehead magazine which featured one of my poems.  It was my first publication in one of the important Canadian journals.  I’d bought books by many of my favourite writers at World’s Biggest Bookstore; it was a real treat to be able to walk in there and buy myself, so to speak.  

What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?

One trip, almost a decade ago, to Ireland became something of a literary pilgrimage.  My wife, son, and I were in Dublin for Bloomsday and attended many Ulysses-themed events.  Later, we travelled to Sligo, and I saw the small island that inspired Yeats’ “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.”  We also visited Yeats’ grave, where my son, who was just under two years old, began cleaning the gravestone with a baby wipe.  We wanted a photo of the grave and decided to clear the dirt and bird droppings from it — so, according to my son, what better than a fresh, lavender-scented wipe?   We have photos of him scrubbing the Nobel prize winner’s tombstone.  Incidentally, I told this story to my friend Roger Bell, a poet from southern Ontario, who then wrote a poem about it.  Roger got more poetic grist out of the moment than I have, but I’m sure those Irish memories will find their way into future poems.  A poet can’t pass through Ireland without being touched by the country’s deep appreciation for poetry and language. 

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Normally, it energizes me.  To sit at my desk with a notepad and pen, with a cup of coffee or a glass of scotch, is wonderful.  It doesn’t feel like work at all.  However, that’s a rare luxury.  I’m a full-time university instructor and the father of a home-schooled child as well, so the days around my house are brimming for my wife and me.  Perhaps that’s one reason why I still respond strongly to William Carlos Williams’ poetry.  Like him, I know what it is to make a few hasty scratches on a pad, a few on-the-run drafts of a poem, telling myself that I’ll get back to it later.  If I had more time, if I could write full time, I expect my attitude would change and writing would just be a job. I might then, like so many other writers, begin to dread the sight of my desk.  I tell myself it’s better the way I have it now. 

If you could read a poem to anyone living or dead who would it be, which poem, and why?

Generally speaking, I’d prefer to read to the dead.  If they don’t like the poem, they’d have no way of letting on (unless of course, they rattle the daisies from below).  The living, on the other hand, can be more particular and vocal about their preferences.

However, if I could meet any poet from history, I’d pick Su Tung-p’o, who I write about in my collection.  Su Tung-p’o lived about a thousand years ago in China, so even if we could somehow meet, we’d have no way of communicating with one another.  We would have to be silent with one another, and, for poets caught in their tangle of their thoughts, caught in the net of words, such silence would be comforting.  If he were a guest in my house in southern Alberta, we’d take our bottles of wine (Su Tung-p’o often wrote lovingly about wine) and we’d head into the fields and coulees to watch the stars appear, watch the Oldman River flow, feel the dew fall, and stare deeply into the night. 

(Author Photo Credit: Shannon McAlorum)