Michael Ondaatje: The decision to be a poet was that I thought it would save my life. I was 18. I was in a new country. I was in Canada. I had a great teacher and I didn’t know who I was really. I was meeting poets my age. When I was in England the idea of becoming a writer seemed ludicrous and presumptuous. I wrote poetry for six or seven years, and gradually became interested in prose. I wrote The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, and began this odd monster of poems and weird photographs and prose, and the next book was Coming Through Slaughter, and I wanted to take whatever there was I loved in poetry into prose, which was essentially not saying everything. You put 70% down and then leave a lot of space for the reader to participate, and I wanted to have that sense in a novel as well.
So afler almost a year and a half in India, what did you find there that you had not found in the West?
Allen Ginsberg: A more intimate awareness of the relation between people and God. Just the very notion of Ganesh with a noose in one hand and a rasgoolla in the other, and his trunk in the rasgoolla, riding a mouse…. Such an idea of a god, such a sophisticated, quixotic, paradoxical combination of the human and the divine, the metaphysical and the psychological! You don’t often get that in Christianity, except maybe in some esoteric Christianity. The idea of an entire culture suffused with respect for that mythology, that religion and its practices, that poor people could under- stand its sophistication and grant things that hard-headed West- erners are still trying to kill each other over. That was a revelation: how deeply the sense of a spiritual existence could penetrate everyday relations, the streets and street signs . . . Naga sadhus walking around naked—people who would have been arrested in America . . . or for that matter—I remember writing to Kerouac—everybody walking around in their underwear, in striped boxer shorts. What would seem outrageous or strange to Americans was just normal—it was hot and people wore very light cotton—it seemed so obvious. That showed me the absurd artificiality of some American customs. . . . And then just the notion of somebody being a businessman and then renouncing the world and being a sannyasi and going around with an intel- ligent expression looking for moksha, that was such a switch from the American notion of business, such a good model, but it doesn’t work for even Indians now. . . . A n d then the availability of ganja and its use in religious festivals and ceremonies was a great source of release for an American used to government dictatorship of all psychedelic drugs (even marijuana), to prohi- bitions, murders, beatings, corruption.8 At least in India there was some familiarity with what it was.
Rogers: But I think in some of the songs that you’ve written there’s such a close relationship with poetry obviously, but form too. There’s a soundtrack to Night Magic where you wrote the lyrics in Spenserian ode form.
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Cohen: I’ve always been interested in form, maybe because I don’t trust my own spontaneous nature to come up with anything interesting, and form imposes a certain opportunity to get deeper than your first thought. There’s a school of poetry that believes first thought, best thought. That would have condemned me to an inauspicious superficiality if I had followed that, because I don’t have any ideas. Irving Layton once said to me, “Leonard is free from ideas.” I don’t have an idea and I don’t trust my opinions. I think my opinions are second-rate, but when you submit yourself to a form, then something happens and you’re invited to dig deeper into the language and to discard the slogans by which you live, the easy alibis of language and of opinion. And if you’re looking in the Spenserian stanza, for instance—which is a very, very intricate verse form—you have to come up with many rhymes of the same sound; you’re invited to explore realms that you usually don’t get to in ordinary, easy thought. I’ve considered my thought stream extremely uninteresting, and it’s only when I can discard it that I find I can say something that I can get behind.
Q: Have any of your poems not been written from the state of exile? Is not the state of exile a realistic parallel to the state of a poet–every poet in the world– between homeland and exile?
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Darwish :It is possible to describe everything that I’ve written as the poetry of an exile. I was born an exile. Exile is a very broad concept and very relative. There is exile in society, exile in family, exile in love, exile within yourself. All poetry is an expression of exile or otherness. And when it parallels experience in reality, then it is a concentrated, compressed exile. I find it in every word that I search for in my dictionary. I am not complaining. Despite everything, exile has contributed greatly to the development of my writing. It allowed me to manage a journey between cultures, between peoples, between cities, between colors.
What is the relationship between your politics and your poetry?
First of all, whoever reads my poetry could never arrive at fundamentalist, absolutist thinking. If someone is attracted to my poetry, he or she is attracted to all of the metaphoric background that I throw up against violence. Dealing with political realities is part of what we need to do to survive as normal human beings. You have to acknowledge political realties as they are. There’s an old Jewish saying: if you meet the devil, take him with you into the synagogue. Try to take the evil of politics into yourself, to influence it imaginatively—to give it human shape. This is my attitude toward politics. I’ve often said that all poetry is political. This is because real poems deal with a human response to reality and politics is part of reality, history in the making. Even if a poet writes about sitting in a glass house drinking tea it reflects politics.
So for you freedom of speech is more than the right to speak your mind?
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Absolutely. Ever since I was an adolescent I’ve been intrigued by the mystery of freedom. Because it is a mystery. Freedom depends on the very thing that limits or denies it, fate, God, biological, or social determinism, whatever. To carry out its mission, fate counts on the complicity of our freedom, and to be free, we must overcome fate. The dialectics of freedom and fate is the theme of Greek tragedy and Shakespeare, although in Shakespeare fate appears as passion (love, jealousy, ambition, envy) and as chance. In Spanish theater—especially in Calderón and Tirso de Molina—the mystery of freedom expresses itself in the language of Christian theology: divine providence and free will. The idea of conditional freedom implies the notion of personal responsibility. Each of us, literally, either creates or destroys his own freedom. A freedom that is always precarious. And that brings up the title’s poetic or aesthetic meaning: the poem, freedom, stands above an order, language.
Q: Your latest book is about your mother. What did you learn from her?
Maya: To develop courage. And she taught me by being courageous herself. I realized that one isn’t born with courage. One develops it by doing small courageous things—in the way that if one sets out to pick up a 100-pound bag of rice, one would be advised to start with a five-pound bag, then 10 pounds, then 20 pounds, and so forth, until one builds up enough muscle to lift the 100-pound bag. It’s the same way with courage. You do small courageous things that require some mental and spiritual exertion.