April 07th, 2008
PATRICK LANE was born in Nelson, BC in 1939. He grew up in the Okanagan region of the BC interior primarily in Vernon. He came to Vancouver and co-founded a small press, Very Stone House, with bill bissett and Seymour Mayne. He then drifted extensively throughout South America and North America. He won the Governor General's Award for poetry in 1979 for Poems New and Selected and published his Selected Poems in 1987, for which he received the 1988 Canadian Authors Association poetry award. Patrick Lane lives in Saskatoon. He was interviewed in 1988.
T: How much do you see yourself as a product of BC?
LANE: Quite a lot. I grew up in British Columbia in the post-war years. This was before the industrialization of the late fifties when this province was transformed by Macmillan Bloedel and Weyerhaeuser and other large companies. Before that, the little towns where I grew up were tiny communities, self-contained universes all of their own. There was no television. The global village hadn't happened yet. We were a quasi industrialized collection of serfs and masters.
If somebody got injured or hurt, that was just too bad. There was no compensation to speak of. The IW A had organized only a few of the bigger mills. In fact, I hated unions when I was a kid. I thought unions were a sign of weakness. The real working class wouldn't belong to a union. I think if I remain true to anything I remain true to that world I came out of, and to the people I knew intimately. In that pure intuitive sense you understand the class you come out of.
T: Were you aware of your particular "class" at the time?
LANE: Oh, totally. Totally. Completely class-conscious. I hated the rich. And I was envious. I wanted that for myself. I used to go with a knife up to the neighborhood in Vernon where the rich people lived. I'd go down the blocks and the alleys and I'd slash the tires of the all the rich kids' bikes. I did that one September, every night. The Phantom Bike Tire Slasher. I was enraged and I hated these rich kids. They had everything. There was a profound hatred and I desperately wanted to be there in their world of privilege.
T: Was there any shame in being a tire slasher?
LANE: Oh, no. There was elation, triumph. A feeling of complete omnipotence. Of power. The lonely tire-slasher. I felt no guilt or social responsibility. I felt they deserved what they were getting.
By the time I was getting out of high school in the late fifties my father did move into the middle class. He got a good job and a brand new car every year. Suddenly the world changed. I had nice clothes. We had a big house. But then I left school and I plunged right back down into the working class again. There was no way to transfer that middle class onto me. I got married and I went to work in the sawmills. And it was horrifying. Living in "picker" shacks with the wife and kids. I became a first aid man. I was a first aid man for years because it paid fifteen cents more an hour. Instead of making $1.50 an hour I made a $1.65. That meant I could buy one case of beer a month. I'd pretend to get whacko drunk on that one case of beer, then I'd wait twenty-nine days until I could do it again.
T: You once said that you "wrote yourself out of poverty."
LANE: When I say I wrote myself out of poverty I mean I found an excuse not to have to live the way I was living anymore. Writing, for me, became a way of life. A lifestyle. I delighted in the activity. It allowed me to leave my marriage. That particular wife went off and married a millionaire. I didn't have to pay alimony. I disappeared off the face of the earth for five years. I left Vancouver. I went on the road. I bummed around South America, New York, Toronto, San Francisco, New Orleans.
In a sense I wrote myself out of the poverty that's created in dependencies in relationships. And I wrote myself into the poverty of being completely isolated and alone, which I much preferred.
T: Looking back, can you see why you became a writer?
LANE: I was a bizarre child paranoid wandering through the world with a malevolent view of how the social system worked. My brother and I would read all these books, from Socrates on. I remember reading Nietzsche when I was fifteen years old. And Thomas Mann. We made long lists. There was an intellectual system here and we wanted to figure it out. My brother and I read these things and then we'd compare notes. It wasn't for personal enlightenment. We just wanted to know how the enemy thought.
While we were doing B&Es, I was also leading this other imaginary, intellectual life, or aesthetic life. I always saw that as a way of escaping. I wasn't going to go to the penitentiary. I decided that when I was six years old. Those people my brothers and I hung out with, they're either all dead or in jail. There's not one of them "out." I know five guys right now who are still doing time. The others are dead from heroin or suicide or murder.
So writing became a way out of that. And there was also a desire to create a testament. I remember reading the testament of Francois Villon when I was about thirteen. I remember thinking, "Pat Lane will write a great testament."
T: Your older brother, Red, also became a writer. And so did another brother, John.
LANE: Yes, I don't know too many situations in literary history where three brothers all became writers.
T: Were you competitive?
LANE: Oh, it was really brutal, but I was a tough competitor. I had to be. When I was really a little kid, my older brother, Dick, grabbed me and held me down and spat in my face and I said, "You can do this all day, if you want. But when you let me up, I'll kill you." He got scared and let me up. I went and got a two-by-four and waited for him at the corner of the house.
When he came around the corner of the house I hit with the two-by-four on the back of the head and he never held me down again. To me that was very simple and straightforward: this is how we're going to operate, older brother, you and I. So he left me alone.
T: So you hit him with the two-by four not emotionally, but totally rationally.
LANE: It was a completely rational act.
T: It's that unusual cold-mindedness that people respond to when you're describing violence in your poetry.
LANE: They're expecting compassion and sentiment and involvement of feeling, and that is there in the poems but they don't always recognize it. I'm saying, "Look, there's this guy sitting at the bar and he's driving pins into his hand with a beer glass and everybody's sitting there watching him do it. This is what he does. This is his thing in life: to put pins in his hands." This man will sticks pins in his arm forever in this poem. There's no relief from that knowledge. For me that was crucial to most of my poetry for fifteen years. To elicit response. And to record with an absolute, cold, clear eye. It evolved into a kind of Patrick Lane poem. Violence and a situational anecdote: life is hell. I got really good at that. I could have gone on writing a Pat Lane poem forever. But there was no growth.
T: Your later poems are more philosophical, more concerned with history and asking questions. Do you look back at your work and see the highlights where you changed?
LANE: Well, there's a poem I wrote while I was in South America called "Unborn Things" in which I said compassion is only the beginning of suffering. I think the poem personified a moment of change in my life. I began to explore the idea of compassion and the kinds of responsibilities a writer has towards the characters he creates. That's the period where I really learned how to write. Prior to that I was just another one of the hundreds and hundreds of people who were throwing words down on a page.
Then in the late seventies my writing changed again. At the end of all those books I had nothing left. It was like I was a musician looking around to make a new piece of music. A new symphony. God, what'll I do? I explored for four or five years. Now I'm working on a group of short stories. And I'm working on a long sequences of poems which are very different. And I'm living reasonably quietly and happily, which is what I think most of us try to do.
T: I'd say the poems from your "middle period" are the most effective. The newer work has more references to other poets. I don't have the energy to figure out what it all means because I don't really care enough.
LANE: Perhaps I've become more obscure. I don't know. I don't even think that I'm writing for an audience any more. I don't expect the great mass of humanity to pick up my book and get excited about it. Did the mass audience get excited about Dylan Thomas or Robert Lowell or Irving Layton? If I write at all, I'm writing for those people who really are interested in the kind of density that poetry can offer.
T: So does poetry necessarily evolve into an elitist pursuit?
LANE: What elite? What poets do you know that belong to an elite? Some novelists might belong, but not the poets. Nobody supports themselves as a poet. And frankly, I don't blame people if they don't read poetry. It takes a lot of work to read poetry well and people have enough going on in their lives. A good writer needs readers who have as much time as the writer does.
T: So do you qualify as a good reader?
LANE: I hope so. I find myself going back now to texts that I've always delighted in. Writers that I've always loved. I go back to Alden Nowlan and John Newlove. Or Kenneth Rexroth. Or Cavafy. Or some of the Chinese anthologies. It's like listening to old friends. It's like listening to music.
T: Now that you're living in Saskatchewan you've gone from living in the interior of BC to living in the interior of Canada.
LANE: That's right. One of the reasons I moved to the prairie is that the people of Saskatchewan are very similar to the people I remember from the interior of BC. They have a sense of community and solidarity and identity. The Saskatchewan Writers Guild has a membership of fifteen hundred writers. Everybody cooperates. There's none of the backbiting and viciousness and ambition that I used to see in Vancouver. Back in the old days, all the poets would gather at the Cecil Hotel. People would literally walk out bereft and crying because they weren't included in the latest clique or claque or whatever. It was just awful. The terrible cruelties that occurred.
T: Out of that has sprung what George Bowering calls the Poetry Wars.
LANE: That's right. The writers around George don't read my writing at all. Never did. And the writers that I know don't read George. He writes for the world of post-modernism and deconstructionism. The new intellectual wave in poetry. More power to them. But it's a small dance step on the side. I do think that Bowering's Kerrisdale Elegies is an absolutely wonderful book, the best thing George has written since, god, 1968. But our relationship has much more to do with his relationship with my brother than with our writing.
T: There were three of you connected to the Okanagan and each other. Red Lane, Pat Lane and George Bowering. With your brother in the middle.
LANE: And his history of my brother is so different from my history of my brother. We obviously knew totally different men. Now the writers connected with George remember my brother with great fondness. Dorothy Livesay thought he personified the great working class in a purely romantic way. It was just silly. He just came from the interior like I did. I remember him coming home from Vancouver and telling me what he thought of these guys. Frankly, he was mostly envious of them, and very frustrated. I don't think they liked his writing much at all. They mostly liked him because he was wild and crazy and he did bizarre things.
My brother was a walk on the wild side for a lot of those middle-class kids whose daddies were schoolteachers. He'd take them on journeys. They'd break into houses and buildings. He showed them the criminal element. Wild parties, gangsters with guns, prostitutes. They thought this was great. And the thing was, it wasn't great at all. It was awful.
T: In terms of the Poetry Wars, "The Weight" stands out as a statement from you.
LANE: It's an indictment of Western Canadian literature and the kind of people who have written about our history. I don't believe a lot of writers have loved their country in the way they should have. They've avoided confronting the kinds of honesties that were necessary. Without all the intellectual claptrap and game-playing.
The French philosophical systems and post-modernism and all this nonsense. Instead of real people with real problems. Hundreds and thousands and millions of people are suffering in absolute shit and these people are sitting in their little ivory boxes, dealing with people purely theoretically. They live and write in a middleclass vacuum where only mind matters.
T: Are there any writers who are confronting "your" realities?
LANE: The women. Unquestionably the women. From the cold objectivism of Atwood to someone like Lorna Crozier or Edna Alford or Alice Munro, I think women's writing in Canada has confronted the real social issues of our era. Very rarely do the men deal with how people relate to each other and how community is made and maintained. The best new young poets seem to be women.
T: So has living with a female writer helped you as a writer? Learning by osmosis?
LANE: Through Lorna I've confronted aspects of feminism and I've managed to meet a great number of remarkable writers, most of whom are women.
T: Have you become a good critic of yourself as a writer?
LANE: I hope so. I hope I don't suffer too many delusions about my work. I've seen too many writers who suffer delusions. I swore when I was younger that I wouldn't be like that. To have everybody sit back and say, "Well, it's okay. Pat Lane, he's an old guy. ..the early stuff was really good. Now be nice to him. What the hell, he's eighty. .." I would cut my throat rather than have that.
T: That's why Selected Poems is such a thin book.
LANE: I'd like it to be even thinner. I think there's about ten or twelve poems in there that are really good. You can't touch them. You can't take a word out or put a word in. The making of a beautiful thing. It's an act of great privilege. It's a great high for me.
T: There's a line in one of your poems that mentions "a terrible patience."
LANE: Yes. That's nice. That's very true. That's what it is. There's a terrible patience in writing. Just as there's a terrible patience in most human relationships. I used to worry. But I don't attack myself about it anymore. I'm willing to wait.
I've realized, for one thing, that so much of writing is physical. You have to get your body geared up for it. It's like setting yourself up for the Olympics, right? You've got five years to get your body tuned perfectly. Maybe you'll win a medal. Maybe you'll even get to cry. But it's really for the enlightening moment of the performance that you do it. If you're a skier you mostly like the feeling of going down the hill. It's perfect and you think, "Goddamn. Five years to get here." For me, poetry's the same thing.
T: Except at the Olympics there are millions of people watching the event. Whereas when a poet is going down the hill of his craft…
LANE: Yes, I see what you mean. There's a couple of thousand in Canada that follow it. And my country funds it. But that's the measure of an enlightened country. To invest in that kind of dreaming. You've got to invest in excellence otherwise you'll always remain colonial, a people who work for others, a people who dream another people's dreams. You've got to invest in R & D.
T: Poetry as Research and Development.
LANE: That's what it's always been about. That's how we measure civilization. The great plays and poetry of Greece were found on bits and pieces of parchments or a few discarded shards of goddamn goatskin. Our society will be measured the same way. Except much of the measurement is going to come from video and from film and from a variety of other testaments. I operate in an outmoded form. Poetry is less important to our mass culture now. But diplomats occasionally realize how important it is internationally. When Canada needs to ship out a cultural icon they sometimes ship out a poet. It's important. It's one of the ways cultures communicate with each other.'
T: Have you thought about what you could do, at age fifty, if you weren't a poet?
LANE: If I wasn't a poet, I'd be back in the mills, or building houses, or in the mines. It's what I was raised to do.
Essay Date: 1988