DAVID ZIEROTH IS A GOVERNOR General’s Award winning poet and memoirist. His writing career began in the 1970s with his first publication, Clearing: Poems from a Journey, which was nominated for a Governor General’s Award. He won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize in 1999 for How I Joined Humanity at Last, and the Governor General’s Award for English language poetry in 2009 for The Fly in Autumn. After a 25-year career as a creative writing instructor at Douglas College, in New Westminster, BC, Zieroth has retired to write full time.
I met David in 1999 at Douglas College. We’ve remained in touch largely through a mutual friend and enjoy comparing our reading lists. Once every summer I look forward to discussing literature with David over a glass of wine on a brick patio overlooking Shoal Channel in Gibsons, BC. He’s broadly read, has an incisive mind, tells traveller’s tales with aplomb and loves to laugh at his own failings.
In the 1990’s David reclaimed his first name, leaving Dale Zieroth behind, a moniker attached to him by a first grade teacher with two Davids in her class. Since, he’s come into his own as a force in Canadian literature working in a variety of forms: poetry, memoir, and creative non-fiction. He has been praised for his “intelligence that sometimes moves with staggering speed.”–—Brian Bartlett, Fiddlehead. The Governor General’s Award winning The Fly in Autumn received this citation from the jury: “In The Fly in Autumn, David Zieroth addresses our common and defining human fate—the loneliness that is a rehearsal for death—with a tenderness and buoyancy that shows the reader ‘how to walk in the dark with flowers.’ The intricacy and exuberance of rhyme and the breadth of vision are stunning.”
On an unusually bright November day, I met Zieroth at his favourite coffee shop in North Vancouver. We sat down with cups of coffee in the busy café, and immediately we both broke out bags of books.
KP (Kathryn Para): I first knew you as a creative writing instructor at Douglas College, and you were a bit sharp and very intimidating. I think it was late in your tenure and you were tired of teaching, and yet I remember worlds opening in that class. In The November Optimist your protagonist calls himself a “Conscious Curmudgeon.” Is curmudgeonness difficult to keep out of your work, or do you naturally gravitate to the generosity particularly apparent in The November Optimist?
DZ (David Zieroth): When I start writing, there’s a certain necessary lack of editing, and sometimes that curmudgeon is strong. There’s less of him than there used to be, because, of course, it’s my job as a human being to refine that curmudgeon a little bit, to balance him. I used to be more aware that he was there – and his perspective is valid – but I’m less bothered by his presence now.
No one wants to read a curmudgeon’s writing. Unless it’s that of Thomas Bernhard, the great Austrian writer. His work is so acid it’s almost unbearable, but you can’t help but love it because of the incisive skewering.
KP: What are you reading now?
DZ: I’ve got five books with me: On Being Blue: a Philosophical Inquiry, by William H. Gass; 1913: The Year Before the Storm, by Florian Illies, which is about writers and artists of that time, about Rilke having a cold and Kafka writing his endless marriage proposal; Let Me Go, a holocaust memoir by Helga Schneider; Heinrich Böll’s Irish Journal; and The Hundred Lives, by Russell Thornton, a remarkable poet who lives right here on the North Shore.
I spend quite a lot of time in second-hand book stores because it seems I’m more interested in books that I’ve missed than in books that are coming. Perhaps that’s ironic or paradoxical, or perverse or worse, for a writer to say. I said once that I was going to read new books until I was 65 and then reread, but it hasn’t worked out that way.
KP: How did Marcus Aurelius’s work come to your attention, and why is it important to you?
DZ: It must have been in university, a long time ago. He went away and then came back decades later. I was reading him when I was writing The Fly in Autumn. And he appears in “Vindobona,” a poem in Albrecht Dürer and me. What I like about Marcus Aurelius is that I can hear his calming voice from across the 2000 years. Plus he has a strong moral vision that appeals to me.
KP: The Education of Mr. Whippoorwill: a Country Boyhood is an autobiographical work, and personally, my favourite piece by you, partly because it’s so familiar—I grew up on a farm—and because I love the tone: the recognition of a hard life, and the compassion completely free of sentimentality. How did growing up on a farm help develop that sense of compassion?
DZ: I did see that animals suffer: they were tired, cold, thirsty. The cows came in from the field, and they rushed to the water trough. Also, there were people worse off than my family: those passing through, those who were poor – poorer than we were – and those who were just unhappy. My parents were stable, decent folks, aware of the strange people and the people who might not make it through the winter. You learn from the sense of community that surrounds you.
KP: In Crows Do Not Have Retirement, in the poem “Question,” you write: “when I was afraid to say/ I had a soul…” Were you afraid? Why? What is the concept of soul to you now?
DZ: Years back, the notion of having a soul—I had trouble with that idea. Do I have a soul? The poem brought that up. Now, instead of asking if I have a soul, it seems obvious that I am a soul. That’s a different perspective. The soul has these things it has to do, and some things are hard and some things are easy, some things it loses control of and some things it tries out anew, and it’s all the work of being human.
KP: November is a grey month, but particularly so here in Vancouver. I dread the loss of light and the short days, but here we sit in an unusual arctic chill and bright sun. I made it through last winter on such a long bright chill. Does the light make a difference to you? If so, why stay here and not return to the prairies where the sun shines on a regular basis?
DZ: I’ve lived in North Van since the seventies, so almost by accident it’s become home. In July, August and September it’s paradise, so the secret is to get away in January. And it doesn’t have to be Mexico. I don’t mind the cold, I don’t mind the snow, it just has to be light. I suffer from SAD, and it can be startling what a difference light makes. It’s hard to articulate that to people who don’t have it. It’s not the rain, it’s the cloud cover you’re wearing like a heavy, huge hat! I like the prairies, I have friends there, family there, but… And the best thing about Vancouver is: no bugs.
KP: In The Fly in Autumn, the poem “All of Life We Practice Dying,” you write: “slowly he unearths that asking why/ is a way to prayer, to soften and/enter the quietus after rage.” Is there prayer for you? Does it offer peace?
DZ: No, but I take the question to mean, do I have a spiritual practice of some sort. There are so many different ways of praying. For me the practice is writing. Not that what I’m writing is necessarily prayer-related, but the practice of writing is a way of centering, of clarifying and creating, and no matter what the poem is about, just the actuality of writing it, creating it and making it right is a jubilation. I can’t imagine not writing. It’s very healthy, it’s who I am, and not to do it would exact a tremendous cost. The peace that comes from writing is the peace of satisfaction, of fulfillment, even of surprise, because of course in writing there are always those moments that make you think, Where did that come from? You’re inside something going on inside you.
KP: In How I Joined Humanity at Last, which was the first volume by you that I had read, you wrote a poem called “Foot Rub,” which is the poem I recall first. I couldn’t get over its intimacy, and the strength of the image has remained, the father holding the daughter’s foot. How do you survive the intimacy of publication?
DZ: The old chestnut is, “Poetry is what you say to yourself, and prose is what you say to other people.” There has to be an element of heart in the poem, and because you’re talking with yourself, you explore the images and ideas that come to you, and intimacy is natural. The kind of writing I’m doing needs to touch other people; it’s not dazzling in its language, it’s not formally a masterpiece, so it has to have an element that will reach across to the other. As for publication, I don’t think about it too much, but, yes, there is a vulnerability involved.
KP: The November Optimist reads like an ode to loneliness. It’s so intimate and the device of including the reader with the “you” construction gives such a personal focus for the desire of the narrator. It was very easy to put myself in that place. I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that the object of desire is not achieved, and the narrator returns to books as the more real or satisfying experience—“the return to the pages’ dream” (page 88). How is the intimacy offered by literature, poetry or prose, a replacement for love?
DZ: Anybody who’s been in love knows that there’s no comparison, there just isn’t. There’s nothing like love. But having said that, if there isn’t love, what’s lovely about books is that they’re such good company, in a wide range of voices, and they offer intimacy. All the books I’m reading now offer that quality, where you can hear a person thinking, feeling, mulling. And it’s not just feeling, you’re also privy to their technique, their art. Books are no replacement for people, but they’re an excellent second best.
KP: As the winner of Canada’s most prestigious literary prize, what can you say about the value of prizes?
DZ: The value of the prize was very personal. The best thing about it was how happy my friends were. In some ways they were more excited than I was. People would say heartwarming words to me, and it was gratifying to see that I lived in a community of people who were so supportive.
The money meant I could fix my teeth, pay off my debts, and I could travel. Our country recognizes the importance of writing by placing money in the jury’s hands. The validation meant that my other books might get read a bit more. I didn’t need the validation – though I might have needed it two or three books before.
The larger question? Awards acknowledge achievement, but they also create losers. Think of all the writers who didn’t win the award. And I think it’s hard on writers who win an award too soon. That kind of attention can cripple them. They have this perception that a lot of people are waiting for the next book, and they’re not able to get back to that necessary solitude of the self without thinking of all these people waiting. Is this what they want? Is this what I should be doing?
Earle Birney said, you always want to discourage writers, because the real writers will continue anyway. I don’t know if he actually said that, but there’s some truth to it.
KP: How does the Alfred Gustav Press fit into the new world of publishing?
DZ: I wanted to work with paper and with poets and coloured pencils. I’m in production right now. I draw every cover, and there’s a temptation to go quickly, but I have to slow down and be patient. There’s a value in working closely and carefully, with every cover different because each is hand done, and a physical pleasure in collating pages and stapling them together.
I named the press after my father, a lover of winter reading; he was also the kind of person who could fix things with nothing, or so it seemed. I’m trying to create beautiful books in the way he repaired machinery on the farm. And of course it’s about the poetry, about the manuscripts that come to us, and about the way we decide on the ones we publish.
KP: Juggling the meanings of words in the series of poems, International Relations, reveals your delight in language, although as a poet, that seems a given. In, do me a favour, you leap from the literal translation of láskavosť or kindness into the figurative, then into abstraction, then turn gracefully to a concrete visual summary of the concept. What technical choices are you consciously making here?
DZ: I am not conscious of technique when I write, and the idea of paying attention to technique while writing is bewildering to me, and so I have very little to say. I don’t use that language.
I write intuitively: Do the words speak, do they catch at that something that is there that is more than words? I’m not thinking, or not just thinking, because of course I am assessing, weighing, accepting, rejecting words all the time (and certainly when I’m revising even if already the first joy of the thing is paling) but always in such a fashion that I’m open to what is wordless up until then.
All of which sounds different from the way it actually is, which is both lightning fast and dead slow. At any rate when I’m writing I’m not thinking about line breaks et al; rather I’m trying to grasp the whole experience engendered in the inspiration so that it can be more than me. And sometimes it works!
And sometimes I get in the way and block my own openness to whatever thought is singing through me, my own preconceptions taking over and stalling the growing poem. And sometimes I don’t hear enough in the first place. Then I go back to the couch and the novel. Or to such a travel book as D. H. Lawrence’s Etruscan Places: “The soul stirs, and makes an act of pure attention, and that is a discovery.”
KP: Your newest book of poetry is Albrecht Dürer and me. What can you tell me about it?
DZ: Travel was an opportunity the Canadian taxpayer gave me when I was awarded the Governor General’s Award. I wasn’t planning to travel, because I didn’t have money or time, and then my daughter married an Austrian and they live in Vienna, and gradually I began to travel, and now I can’t live without it.
So the book emerged as a surprise. I wasn’t thinking about writing a book of travel poems. The book is really about someone who is looking at what it’s like to live away from home and to rethink ideas about home and elsewhere. Travelling is both thrilling and confusing. On the back of the book it says, “these are poems that could only be discovered through dislocation.” And that’s true, the book’s about what one learns from dislocation but also from surprise, art, history, music and people. It’s a pilgrimage in a way: there are poems about James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, W.H. Auden, Gustav Mahler, Anton Bruckner. The audacity! Who am I to write about these famous people? But the Auden poem, for example: We borrowed a car and went to the Vienna woods one day, and Auden’s grave is there, and something about it spoke to me, and I asked myself, am I really going to write this poem? I resisted for a while; then I thought no, this wants to be done, so I’ll do it. It was very satisfying.
—David Zieroth & Kathryn Para
The following group of poems is new work inspired by an unexpected friendship that began with meeting a random stranger in a café, a visitor to North Vancouver from Slovakia. We ended up meeting regularly over a number of months, exchanging language lessons, sharing our fascination with each other’s language. I thought of calling these poems “International Relations.” —David Zieroth
means not important in Slovak
but as the word emerged in greater
context I heard it come closer
to BS, the way Miro tossed it
as we entered and left a store
a Bratislava citizen, he attempted
to tune my friends’ ears and mine
to the soft ‘l’ we could barely
hear, certainly not pronounce
just as he had trouble with the ‘v’
in Vancouver, which he managed
beautifully by the time his four months
ended and he flew home, leaving us
to wonder what else besides the
softness of a consonant we had missed
his self-containment we understood
a sportsman’s, blue-eyed focus
and the way old houses brought him
joy and awakened his village within—
a world before money
which rekindled my own child-self
climbing without fear into a wagon
to sit between two strange men
horses waddling ahead, tender
joking I understood as kindness
means rattled in Slovak, he said
the morning he told about
leaping back before a big car
ran him down, the white hand
untruly telling him he was safe
I said the sun must have blinded
the driver’s eyes, sun so rare
and you’re invisible, Miro
I joked, like all Slovaks here—
when last did we see a Slovak?
rattled, because usually traffic
here is polite, unlike his city’s
where pedestrians have to cross
cautiously, cars are king
and walkers never smile, too long
under the realm of closed borders
some wary of what others say
their language owing a debt
to history, more Russian than
English available for curses
if over 30 you’d know Czech
and German and other fears
a nation the size of an island
surrounded by five larger ones
and far from the calming sea
means star in Slovak, and
that evening we thought
at first Venus was a plane
landing at YVR except
it didn’t move just brightened
above the city, the sky
behind deepening into black
Miro cooking his country’s
famous kapustnica soup
and when we ate our fill
I looked into the night sky
and heard myself wonder
that I might have been born
elsewhere, hours of air travel
away, perhaps where paprika
grew in a garden and wise
hands grated cabbage
into sauerkraut and added
salt and blessings—or where
men rode in war machines
stars on their shoulders—
instead, fortune found me
in good company, half dozing
(driemajúci), and distance
no more than a table length
means happy in Slovak but also
lucky, a good pairing of the near-
impossible, I said, and Miro
laughed, understanding jokes
a sign of his improving English
then he showed me how
to stretch the mouth sideways
to say the word: as one grins
with lips in a line, his language
using more mouth, less tongue
than mine—and slowly
I heard a door open
where he once had lived
amongst the days he owned
then, a boy whose father
whistled from a window
time now to come home
all the hours he played
so freely with his friends
in the gardens, on streets
I heard that door again
as we bent over sushi, a first
for him, when its freshness
made him speak of food
his mother made each day
means sad in Slovak, maybe
how the struck chest sags
how the twist in the valves
yields an arid song
we must turn our faces
away from friends when
such feeling builds, fearing
kindness will trigger
the up-rush of tears
when asked ‘What gives
strength?’ Miro looked away
said ‘Boyhood returning
before sleep,’ sweet warmth
he savoured, a nakedness
that gave for one moment
assurance to continue—and if
perturbing events prevailed
to je život—it is life—not
to diminish but to accept
that fullness extracted a price
he paid at evening
in order to arise next morning
reborn, the old smutný cloak
not to be worn at all that day
do me a favour…
…I said to Miro, please say
favour in Slovak— láskavosť—
which also means kindness!
my head tilting at their linking
as if I’d misheard…
then leaving favour behind
I leapt on to nuance instead
eager to explain that
yes, he was kind to his mother
but he was not her kindness
unless of course truly he was!
he the part in her that let her
love the world so that she left
cruelty behind when he was born
an only son, always a favour
from the gods few believed even
lived anymore, how at the instant
of their demise they kindly
cut us free before they themselves
dissolved: vapour, steam, heat rising
vanished, only present now
when a mother made soup
filled the house with vegetable
smells, the tug, animal:
umbilical, primal and always kind
pie in the sky…
…I explained as aspirations
beyond natural capability
a meaning that engaged us
much less than choices
we might make with mouths:
apple—jablko? I thought
of my mother’s raisin creation
brimming with dark sugar
and a crust of rising gold
I chomped through thoughtlessly
had such fare, surely not
a rare great expectation
from a naïve boy’s point of view
(even if famine in China
came in waves back then)
and prompted by time I asked
Miro for his impromptu sky-
target—a ticket to Bhutan!—
we both looked up as if to see
hovering in the heavens more
than sun, then instantly loved
its vastness we could not live
without, food for our light within
speak of the devil…
…I said, and Miro understood
said hovorit o čertovi back to me
his example classic: talking about
certain person X who just then
enters the room!—although
no horns on him, no black cape
flowing back into searing flames
no fork ready to pierce us even
though we’re not believers in either
this fellow or his angelic counterpart
later, on the street, we met
a deranged man—and I heard
my own mind thinking heedlessly
‘the devil take the hindmost’
but I intended the local madman
no further harm or worsening run
didn’t mention the phrase’s arrival
as we walked, deemed it puzzling
and worthless—until I thought
was not that the way the devil
worked, squeezing himself in
wherever he could?—and so many
entryways waiting! I was made fearful
but then breathed again, knowing
my friend, upright and near, would help
to save me from myself, if need be
David Zieroth’s latest publication is Albrecht Dürer And Me (2014), poems. The November Optimist, (Gaspereau 2013), is part memoir, part fiction and part poetry. The Fly in Autumn (Harbour, 2009) won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry in that year and was nominated for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and the Acorn-Plantos Award for People’s Poetry in 2010. He has also published The Village of Sliding Time (Harbour, 2006), a long poem; Crows Do Not Have Retirement (Harbour, 2001), poems; and The Education of Mr. Whippoorwill: A Country Boyhood (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 2002), a memoir. He won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize for How I Joined Humanity at Last (Harbour, 1998); his work has been shortlisted for a National Magazine Award, and his poems have appeared in over thirty-five anthologies, including A Matter of Spirit: Recovery of the Sacred in Contemporary Canadian Poetry (Ekstasis, 1998). He has also published five chapbooks: Hay Day Canticle (Leaf Press, 2010), The Tangled Bed (Reference West, 2000), Palominos and other poems (Gaspereau Press, 2000), Dust in the Brocade (The Alfred Gustav Press, 2008) and Berlin Album (Rubicon Press, 2009). He was born in Neepawa, Manitoba, and now lives in North Vancouver, B.C. www.davidzieroth.com