Walid Bitar has previously published three books of poetry: Maps with Moving Parts (1988), 2 Guys on Holy Land (1993), and Bastardi Puri (2005). He has also appeared in four anthologies, most recently The New Canon: An Anthology of Canadian Poetry (2005). He was born in Beirut, Lebanon, and lives in Toronto.
His newest book, The Empire's Missing Link, was released by Signal Editions/Vehicule in September 2008. The following conversation was conducted by e-mail.
CS: Some of your most fascinating effects in The Empire's Missing Links are created by compressions which draw on everyday colloquialisms and the slipperiness of spoken syntax. Can you explain what goes on when you try to write a poem?
WB: I’m a realist, so I deal with everyday speech. If animal species evolve and survive, then they’re fit for life; the same is true of ordinary words and phrases used in a very complicated variety of ways—to deceive ourselves, for example, or to deceive others. Occasionally, we even make stabs at the truth. “The speech we hear is an indication of that which we don’t hear,” says Harold Pinter. “It is a necessary avoidance, a violent, sly, anguished or mocking smoke screen which keeps the other in its place.” I’m not a playwright, but think of my poems as the square roots of dramatic monologues. I stop revising when a poem finally feels like an accident that was waiting to happen, as opposed to an accident that could have easily been avoided.
CS: Why the reliance, over your last two books, on the quatrain form?
WB: I’ve experimented with many forms, and I’ve discovered quatrains work for me. They remind me of Mediterranean vernacular architecture—practical, geometric, rigorous. The 32 pieces in The Empire’s Missing Links are all written in quatrains, and I experience each poem as an independent part of one long poem. There is, in many poets, a conquistador driven to conquer the Earth, destroy old forms, recreate everything in his/her image. I put my conquistador in quatrains. Are they cages? Is he drawn and quartered? I don’t think so. A quatrain is long enough to allow a substantial development, and short enough to demand ingenuity and concision—wit, if we’re lucky. Emily Dickinson and Buster Keaton are certainly two of the quatrain’s patron saints.
CS: What’s your sense of the relationship between poetry and politics?
WB: Poetry and politics are inseparable—impossible to separate the personal from the political or geopolitical. If a writer has beliefs that clash with those of the powers that be, he/she may face a wide range of punishments: death, prison, job loss, life under surveillance, and so on. From my experience, harassment made possible by illegal electronic surveillance is usually the most one has to fear in Canada, but the situation is bleaker in other parts of the world (including countries occupied by, or allied with, Western democracies). What is an “apolitical” poet? One who implicitly promises not to offend or oppose the powerful cliques in his/her society. No poet would take such a promise seriously.
CS: Toronto poet Kevin Connolly tells me you’re a fan of emperor penguins. True?
WB: We must have been drinking. But what’s not to like about emperor penguins?