In Conversation with Patrick Woodcock, Part II

Patrick Woodcock uses poetry to document the suffering of humanity in war-torn countries? a kind of poetic nonfiction. (See Voice review of Echo Gods and Silent Mountains: Poems, his book of poems based on his time in Iraqi Kurdistan.) Recently he took the time to answer Wanda Waterman’s questions about literary forms, his childhood, and the conditions that enabled him to embark on so many remarkable adventures. (You can read the first part of this article here.)

A Blessed Childhood
Patrick credits his parents for preparing him for the unusual life he’s lived so far?his mother for creating a nurturing environment for artistic development and teaching him patience and tolerance, and his father for setting a creative example and teaching how to treat law enforcers.

?I was incredibly lucky to have the childhood I did. We moved to Oakville when I was three, into a lovely townhouse that backed onto Lake Ontario. I was exposed to a lot of art?my mother was a ballet teacher, and our house was constantly full of music. My brother was a professional violinist and I sang in a choir and musicals. My father would leave silly or sick little poems and limericks for us almost every day before he left for work.

?But there were also a lot of little things they did whose affect on me I am only beginning to understand now. For example, there was a French-Canadian pianist called Andre Gagnon. When I was six or seven I would put on his albums and just rock on the couch and stare at the lake for hours. My parents never said a word to me about going outside or playing with other children?they saw that I was happy and left me to daydream for hours.

?I’m still like that today, only the soundtrack has changed. I also learned a great deal about patience and acceptance from my mother and this has helped me a lot in regard to travelling. You can’t do what I do if you panic easily or get upset when things don’t initially go your way. If I had been raised to be loud, confrontational, and arrogant I would have been severely hurt or killed years ago. I have a good ability to blend in and slip away when the shit hits the fan. And the fact that my father was a policeman in Northern Ireland and then Canada has helped me manage?and even befriend?otherwise unfriendly and unhelpful policemen.

Fitting Form to Subject
Patrick reveals that the poetic forms he used in Echo Gods were dictated by the subjects he was writing about, emerging organically from a wish to write as sincerely as possible about the often painful circumstances he encountered in Iraq.

“As the book began to take shape I realised I’d have to adopt a wide variety of styles to express all the information I wanted to. Some of the forms I used were directly shaped by the subject. ?The Disillusioned Exchange Student? is a sonnet because the woman I wrote about asked me to use that form.

??Mariama Sits? is about a man I worked for, who I would have gladly killed. After working for him for a few months I learned that he had raped women in the school where I was living and teaching, so I ended up quitting (after he confronted me with a bodyguard who sat quietly while pointing a Kalashnikov at my face). He liked to pretend he was a gentle and cultured family man, so I used a form of poetry that he liked?the rondel?to call him out for what he truly was.

?There’s a very violent villanelle about him in my new book, which a friend is going to deliver to his front door for me.

?The three poems ?My Blood,? ?Sina and Shekdre,? and ?The Prince and the Price One Pays? have a childlike tone and rhyme scheme because the men I was interviewing while writing these three knew very little English. Although we were talking about very serious subjects we had to use rather simple drawings, gestures, and an almost infantile vocabulary to communicate; I wanted the poems to reflect this.

?The poem ?White Boots? was supposed to mirror the panic attack I experienced in Halabja. The museum I went to didn’t mollify its depictions of the gas attack, so I kept walking away from my translator and moving quickly from one room to another while literally gasping for air.

“I wanted the poem to have a kind of strobe-light or snapshot appearance to it on the page. At first I tried to write the poem in haikus, but I could never get it to work. Then one day I changed the 5-7-5 sections to 7-5-7 and everything fell into place.”

Bursting the Bonds of Poetic Form
“But in poems like ?Mariama,? ?Mama Najat,? and the section ?Silent Mountains? I had so much to convey that I had to abandon formal poetry and use a poetic form of journalism. At that point I didn’t really need to write poetry or elevate the language or moment? what I was seeing or experiencing ?was? the poetry. I just had to record it as honestly as possible.”

Sympathy for the Editor
?I feel sorry for those who helped edit this work at ECW Press. It wasn’t easy and they were really patient with me. For example, in the simpler pieces I’d grown frustrated at how fast a person would read them. To address this problem?in pieces like ?The Blackout,? for example?I decided to stop using punctuation and to use spaces instead; I hoped this would slow down the reader, forcing them to pause for a moment and search for the correct rhythm.

?I didn’t place these pauses at the grammatically correct parts of the line?I broke up clauses, complements, and adverbials to place barriers before the quick reader. Unfortunately nothing seemed to work.?

(Patrick Woodcock’s Tumblr page. Echo Gods and Silent Mountains can also be found here on Facebook:

(to be continued)