Garth Martens is a Kelowna poet whose debut collection Prologue for the Age of Consequence, was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award of English-language poetry. He now lives in Victoria, and is a graduate in creative writing from UVIC. The Jag’s Jiawen Chen and Jacki Zhang caught up with him while he was at SMUS to speak to the Creative Writing 12 class.
What did you take away most from your creative writing courses at UVIC?
My time at UVic helped to refine my skills as an editor of my work and others’. It pointed me toward a more active approach to reading, which is the greatest teacher of all. It also placed me within the circumference of practicing and emergent writers, many of whom became for me indispensable editors and friends after graduation.
Was it a conscious decision to write about the tar sands for your poetry collection?
I didn’t want to write about it at first. I worked gruelling shifts in large-scale commercial construction — twelve hour shifts, twenty days straight, for example — so I couldn’t help but dream about work. The last thing I wanted to do was give over to the job my creative attention. Yet it happened, when I was in a graduate workshop taught by Lorna Crozier. A small prose poem, in the voice of a tradesperson, started me down the road of writing more on the subject. Very soon I realized this was a larger project, a unified body of poems. I realized there was in this experience a charge, for me at least. It was an opening toward self-excavation I couldn’t ignore, a chance to ruminate on shadow material. Further, I was able to attend to the world of the tarsands and large-scale commercial construction, the lives of tradespeople, as well as a mythological echo of those places and those lives.
You relate your work to music often. What aspects of music do you think lend themselves best to poetic interpretation?
The first correspondences are rhythm and structure. There is a narrative — not necessarily of the Jack and the Bean Stalk variety — rather, a movement of some kind. You hear this complexity in classical or flamenco, a Cape Breton strathspey, and you hear it more simply in pop music. Do chords have correspondence in poetry? I think of the harmonized effect of diction and punctuation, ringing in minor maybe, of overlapping resonances through successive images. This is analogy, of course. This is metaphor. Poetry and music are not alike but they are also alike. To look at other categories of art is revelatory.
I must also tip my hat to the truth that poetry is a large circus tent. Some species of poetry are very removed from music as we know it.
What do you enjoy most about being a poet?
The moments where the writing’s going well, when I’m really digging in. These usually come about after periods of struggle. I also like giving readings. I’m always nervous, but it’s performance, and I make a point of doing it well.
Do you ever see yourself writing a novel, or short stories? Why or why not?
I plan to write a novel and a collection of short stories. As a poet, I love sentences, the way punctuation will let them glide, or leap, or pull them short. A short story is nearer to a poem than it is a novel: the heart of a clock. What attracts me to the novel is its capacity for narrative scale.
What’s the most important piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Put your ass in the chair. Treat your writing life like an office job, which is to say, write for eight hours at a time, if you can. If this isn’t possible, nevertheless, make a structure of it. Also: read, read, read.
Has writing always been a passion for you? When did you decide to pursue it?
Yes, always a passion. I wrote stories as a small boy. In Grade 8, I started writing poems because I was in love with a girl. This seemed to charm her, which was an obvious encouragement. I would say I became more committed at university. I can’t remember the moment. I was incrementally more aware that the practice of writing enriched my life.
What did the creation process of Prologue for the Age of Consequence look like?
I wrote the book over a period of five years — periods of intense concentration combined with periods in which I didn’t do much — and I read a lot. For months of the year I would work construction, and then take the next year to live on those savings and write. I would spend six to eight hours a day writing, four or five days a week. I had three or four relationships end during that period, and after each of these was too devastated to write for a while, and then compelled by devastation to write. When the book was accepted by House of Anansi, I was paired with an editor. She was exceptional. The editing process was very intense for about seven months. I had asked for an editor who’d be all up in my grill, and I got one. The book is much better for it.
What is your favourite book or author, and why?
I return often to Seamus Heaney’s Station Island and Ted Hughes’ Crow. These poets’ use of language deeply informed mine. Heaney’s Station Island is set in Ireland during the violent 60s, 70s, and 80s. The book is heavily influenced by Dante’s Divine Comedy. Ted Hughes Crow was written after the death of Hughes’ second wife. The poems are wild and mythological, studded with grief, anger, love, violence, and play.
By Jacki Zhang and Jiawen Chen
This interview appeared in the March edition of The Jag student newspaper. Click here to read the full edition.