“You sit/awake tonight, your fingers/over the pages scattered out before you,/listening too through your hands.”– Harold Rhenisch*
Allow your head to spin with ideas! If the mind is a wooden red door with frosted or cracked panes then Editor Harold Rhenisch opened several windows for me! That’s my view of a worthy editor or mentor. He opened and closed doors and windows until I felt unhinged and accepted new possibilities: a stronger voice (or voices) and an infinite imagination ‘summer’-saulting like tumbleweeds across a silent and vacant field.
If you are an editor and/or a writer who has worked with an editor, you may disagree. You may even slam the door on my fingers and tell me my observations are wrong. C’est la vie!
What I have learned is that in the literary world there are no clear paths. Writing begins as a solitary journey and it meanders and can transport you to places and people you never expected or imagined before. Each experience whether negative or positive becomes a lesson for growth.
When local mentor Canadian author Peggy Fletcher passed away in January 2012, I lost my steering wheel and felt lost. I missed the way she would close her eyes during a writers’ workshop, listen intently to a poem, and immediately pinpoint a misplaced beat or word. No one could ever replace this nature-loving writer and over time I just gave up looking.
In 2015, on a whim, I joined the Niagara Branch of the Canadian Authors Association (CAA) and two years later I decided to tap into its electronic writer in residence program. I had heard about Harold Rhenisch and wondered if his keen interest in the Earth would be the right fit for a manuscript I was working on.
The initial on-line meeting with Harold was brief but I felt an instant connection with his zen-like approach to writing and editing. We were both raised in rural environments and for some unknown reason that was important to me. His deep thinking and extensive knowledge base impressed me and I trusted him to navigate my thoughts through my storm of uncertainty. He had also lost his mentor. We agreed to work for a longer period.
For three months, he offered suggestions, taught me to let go, to dig deep, but to also play. He stretched my own knowledge base and nudged me into further research. He made my head spin! What a wonderful experience!
Keith Inman, a Canadian Author’s Association member and author of The War Poems: Screaming at Heaven (Black Moss Press 2014) and SEAsia (Black Moss Press 2017) also enjoyed working with Harold.
He wrote: “Harold has a magical way of suggesting changes to your work, like filtered light, while at the same time, instilling confidence. He might suggest a few options for a line that isn’t quite working effectively, then add, “But, perhaps, your original line was better.” He can also zero-in on the overwritten, “Well, you’ve worked the poetry right out of that one.” For me, his voice still echoes in my head when I’m editing…a spritely cheer along a shaded forest trail.”
Today, I still haven’t met Harold Rhenisch in person. We live thousands of kilometers apart but last week via e-mail, we chatted about mentors, the importance of editing, and his plans for the future.
Hi Harold, thank you for agreeing to share your thoughts. Let’s start at the beginning. When did you first decide you wanted to be a writer? Describe that scene for me in a few lines.
I was going to be an entomologist and a consulting horticulturalist in the orchard industry. I took a creative writing course in Grade 11, in 1973. In 1974, I acted in a summer Shakespeare program at UVic, with the support of my writing teacher. I followed up with acting and writing in Grade 12, and played Puck at UVic in the summer of 1975. Playwriting was my first love, but as my speech coach noted, “You really like the poetic speeches, don’t you?” Indeed, I did. The Puck part was type casting. I have been playing the role ever since.
In your introduction to your 11th poetry book The Spoken World, you mentioned that your earlier role models were Rainer Maria Rilke, Ezra Pound, J. Michael Yates, and Al Purdy. In a couple of sentences, what did each of these poets teach you?
Rilke showed that a conversation across metaphysical boundaries was possible, and gave some models of how to do it. I was reading Rilke in translation, which is a very bad idea. What I really got out of it was the American transcendentalism it was translated into, but that was a start. I wound up at Rilke’s grave in Switzerland in 2013. By that time, I was the age he was when he died. It was profoundly moving.Pound showed that it was possible to speak of old things in new ways and to orient writing around moments of vision. There is expansiveness to that available nowhere else. Like Robert Graves, he had the ability to speak of a world of poetic certainty with deep cultural roots, quite different from the social positioning that poetry is often used for. I learned Classical Greek because of Pound’s model. My translations of Iamblichus which resulted were my real education in both old worlds and poetic form. I doubt anyone else has had this education in such old, old cultural roots, from before the time of the pharaohs.
Yates wrote exquisite, highly-shaped intellectual objects which spoke of the country I knew outside of the cities, at an intersection of European and existential experience. What’s more, they were witty and clever and complex and musical. That appealed to me a lot. His Esox Nobilior Non Esox Lucius was a masterpiece of controlled randomness. I still don’t think it was random. I still think it was a high point worth emulating.
Purdy wrote about my Canada, and with a sense of loss I felt as well, in simple, clear speech, without setting aside rigour. “The Country North of Belleville,” that was a poem for me: wisdom, irony, beauty, history, humanity and its feet on the ground.
There were others: [Eugène] Guillevic, [Paul] Celan, W.S. Graham, [W.S.] Merwin, Kathleen Raine, and more. Raine for her mystical tradition, which I responded to.
Canadian poet Robin Skelton was a huge influence in your life. Not only did you edit his work posthumously into two poetry volumes, but you also wrote the book The Spoken World which blended the voices of you and Robin. In “Drawing Hands”, one of your tribute poems to Robin, you penned the line, “I want to draw hands that touch fire.” The poem ends with the epigraph that introduces this blog. I could feel the kinetic energy between the two of you. It reminded me of the hands in Michelangelo’s famous painting “The Creation of Adam” where the God-like figure transfers life and knowledge to a human being. What do you miss most about Robin and what was the best advice he shared with you?
Robin wore numerous rings on his hands, even several rings per finger. They were all symbolic and were part of his magical practice. The poem plays with that. They were also the hands of a healer.
Robin was one of those poets who was rebuilding the ancient northern traditions of writing (in his case out of Wiccan tradition) in the greater anglo-saxon-nordic world. For him, poetry was a real thing in a real world, with real effects. I miss that, but, of course, I miss his voice and his laughter and the way he would greet people at the door. When you were welcomed into his house, you were welcomed into Robin. The house was a recreation of the Modern Gallery in the Manchester Art Gallery, plus the John Rylands Library, also in Manchester. That was Robin’s secret. That story has not been told. One was, however, being ushered into something with great depth and great warmth.
He gave many pieces of advice. Three stand out. One was “the poetry does not matter, but how else are we going to teach our children how to think?” From that, I understood that poetry is a way of thinking, not of self-expression. Another was, “we all live in eternity but we live there alone.” This was shortly before he died in 1997. I understood this to mean that only on this Earth do we have a chance to love, touch each other, even hate and feel, then we are back to the elements. Very Nordic! The third came when I gave him a manuscript (that I am still straightening out, nearly 20 years later): “I can’t hear the music in it, and the music never lies. If I can’t hear the music in it, it is not finished.” A simplification of that message might be that the music of a poem tells the story, that poetry has plots quite different from prose, and that it’s not up to the poet to make the story but to hear it. Again, very Nordic.
How important are mentors and what do you see are their roles in fostering excellent writing?
What else is there? Creative writing workshops are not a substitute if you believe in long traditions and craft. A mentor can even be wrong. It doesn’t matter. One gains courage and then rises to fill it. For example, after I had written only three good poems, Robin made a point of seeking me out specifically at one of his famous Thursday Night Parties. His guests would be artists and writers from across the city, the country and the world, and any students who got the courage to show up.
Robin brought two glasses and a bottle of red wine, poured us both a sloshy glass, and in a passageway between the hall and the dining room raised his glass in a toast to The Goddess, and drank it down like blood. Shaken, I did the same, knowing that he had accepted me into a rather special brotherhood. It took me thirty years to rise to fill that moment. Sadly, by that time Robin was gone.
There comes a time at which one stops quoting one’s mentors, as one is the mentor oneself, or at least the message. “One is either the poetry or one talks about it,” Robin once wrote, or something close to that. Paraphrasing that, at some point one becomes the poetry. It’s not synonymous with literary writing. Poetry is a calling. I am saddened when writers write poetry as if it were fiction. I try to help them see the poetry itself as the message.
Maybe that’s the role of a mentor: to help people see with two minds at once by standing in that middle space. Poetry tells stories, of course, but not in the way of “fiction,” and not according to the same story-telling rules. In a literary world dominated by fiction, I keep silent about that.
Let’s chat a bit about editing. You’ve been the Electronic Writer in Residence with the Canadian Authors Association in Niagara for twenty years and this is the window through which I first met you. (More information about the program can be found its website. Please note you must be a member of the Niagara Branch to participate in this program.) What do you feel is the role of the editor in today’s literary community? Should writers personally hire an editor or should writers rely on the editorial services of a trade publisher? I have heard arguments from both sides. Please expand your answer.
An editor is a set of wise eyes with a sharp knife and a smile.
More specifically, when I was beginning, the role of an editor was to encourage a writer to fit into a national style. It fit poorly, but had to be done. Now there is only a global style and editors, in that sense, are redundant. However, the primary task remains: are you going to write poetry or be a poet? Not the same. An editor can guide you through that process.
But, more practically, few trade publishers offer editorial services and if they do they are likely reverting to a market-driven model, which is fine if you are writing as a social gesture and not in a conversation with eternity. Your choice.
What should a writer watch out for when hiring and/or working with an editor?
An editor should help you see what works and should admit when something doesn’t and use your response as a guide to find a better solution, drawing from tradition. If an editor just tells you to do something prescriptively, run. That’s just book learning.
As an editor, how would you define strong writing? What do you look for when helping a writer to polish his/her manuscript for publication?
All writing is strong writing when it is aware of itself and refuses itself indulgences. No excuses. I look for a sense of language as an art form, a sense of play, and a sense of form. When I find explanation or argument, I skim very quickly until I find story again. When I travelled on the Camino through East Germany in 2010 and 2012, I learned how to follow a story not of my own making, relentlessly, along a burning line. That is the editor’s skill: just the story, please. In a poem, however, the story can be the radiance of the colour blue, for example. Delight helps.
Can an editor fix ‘bad’ writing? Why or why not?
There is no bad writing. There is writing that is poorly arranged or that bounces over the surface. So? I can do that myself. Blush. An editor can cut all that, without guilt, and at the same time encourage the writer to write more. These are skills one can learn from writing play scripts. Everything there is for the jugular.
As our population ages, do you feel that writers have an expiry or best before date? Why or why not?
Marie Louise Kaschnitz came into her own in the 1960s by writing beautiful but very reactionary prose in very revolutionary West Germany. There is absolutely no best before date. I have had many aging clients writing extraordinarily well. The only question is one of audience. The only answer is one of honesty. You can skip two or three generations with honesty. It is hard. The ego you need to push yourself forward is in the end not always your best friend. You might need an editor to stand at your side. The editor’s job might be to gain trust. At some point, both must accept the point they have arrived at together. And why not? It is a great journey, no matter how far it goes.
In 2017, your poem “Saying the Names Shanty” was short-listed for the CBC Poetry Prize. This is not the first time your work has been recognized. How important are contests (which are often judged subjectively) to helping or hindering a writer’s career? Can a writer have a successful writing career without winning or placing in any literary contest?
Anything that encourages a writer to go on in the echoing silence is great. Is the CBC contest important? It was for Gail Anderson Dargatz. For me, with two awards and multiple short-listings, no… except it kept me finishing works I would have otherwise felt there was no audience for… and that’s the thing: without audience it is very hard to write at all. Even an audience of one is a boon. It is the greatest gift to another person: to listen. Especially to listen deeply to what they find most important.
You’ve had a successful career as a writer and as an editor you’ve helped to polish several books by Canadian poets including Rove by Laurie D. Graham, shortlisted for the League of Canadian Poets 2014 Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. So far, I’ve read only a couple of your poetry books but I have loved both of them. You have an amazing sense of humour and a broad knowledge base and yet, you can connect with the reader emotionally and spiritually as well. What’s next for Harold Rhenisch? Where do you see yourself in the next five years?
Canada is becoming a country divided between various literary and creative writing elites. I hope to make a solid contribution that bridges indigenous and non-indigenous divides. More and more, I find the conceits of literature to be limiting, and am learning to read the land. This is not a new journey.
In 1994, I chose to present a workshop on mythology with Garry Gottfriedson rather than poetry. Garry went along willingly.
In 2009, I walked out of the League of Canadian Poets convention in Vancouver in great pain after being asked to take on Bliss Carman as my poetic ancestor, which was a profound colonial demand. I drove straight to the mouth of the Columbia and followed my river home, like a salmon coming back from the sea. I am still on that journey.
I hope, however, to publish a few of my essays on an alternative, old path through poetry. I think the world needs it. There is still much I want to say about Shakespeare, and Puck. Or, rather, that Puck wants to say by me, now that he has my voice.
This has been incredible sharing on your part! I could ask you questions all day, but time and space are limited. Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers? I feel like the conversation has only just begun.
I keep an apple tree called a Benvoulin, and she keeps me. I found her growing wild in a ditch in 1981. She tastes of Riesling wine when ripe and like fresh pineapple when almost over-ripe. Her flesh is white as snow. Our joined ancestry goes back 30,000 years, when bears chose her ancestors in Khazakstan. Robin gave me a poetic tradition as old as that. I think I have been brought to this conversation in order to pass it on. When I published my book Fusion in 2000, it was mocked for its pre-modern thinking. I am older now. I see now what Robin was looking for. Joy is certainly one word for it. Generosity is another.
Thanks Harold. You’ve been most generous with your time. My hope is that this conversation will inspire others to step outside their comfort zones, to walk down a path less travelled, and to listen in silence for the voices that can steer all of us toward some greater truth.
Harold Rhenisch has published 30 books of poetry, fiction, poetic nonfiction, translation, essays and environmental writing since 1982. He reviews history for The Ormsby Review and is an active book editor and mentor. He lives in Syilx territory in British Columbia.
Follow his blogs for more insight on his thought-provoking work:
Harold Rhenisch Online Home of the Canadian Poet, Writer and Editor.
Okanagan Okanogan Reclaiming the Art of Living on the Earth
A Farm in Iceland Writing With Gunnar Gunnarsson
Steam Punk City – Wituals
*Epigraph is from the poem “Drawing Hands – for Robin Skelton” by Harold Rhenisch published in the book return to open water: poems new & selected (Ronsdale Press, 2007) by Harold Rhenisch, page 65. Copyright 2007 Harold Rhenisch. Used with permission.