Interview with Carolyn Zonailo,
by Juliet McLaren, Ph.D., Canadian Literature
JM: Sounds like you're
connecting, perhaps unconsciously, to all that mythic background.
But your garden, as I said, is not simply an Edenic garden. It's
more mysterious and I think more complex than that. Your garden
does not seem to partake simply of the roses and dreamland of
so many poetic gardens, particularly in the Romantic tradition.
CZ: Well, I think it's not an Edenic garden
because it's a garden of passion; it's a garden of earthly passion.
It's a romantic garden but the traditional Romantic rose garden
has a certain chastity that my garden doesn't have. From the beginning,
it was a garden of passion and specifically of female erotic love.
JM: Let's go on to
your long poem, "The Journey to the Sibyl." This again
includes flower imagery but in a very different way, and I am
fascinated by your use of the bird image and by your re-making
of the mythology. How did you come to write this poem?
CZ: I came to write "Journey to the Sibyl"
out of my work with longer poems. At the end of Split Rock
I wrote "The Dreamkeeper", and that poem really opened
up for me a longer form. It was a very exciting poem to write
and made available areas which I wanted to keep exploring. The
birds, the bird-woman, the sibyl, all these images surfaced as
part of the poem. I went up the coast one weekend, and as I do
there, I looked at a lot of rocks... We went by boat into a cove
that was very beautiful. It was one of the first hot days in May.
It was on my son's birthday weekend, and we had seven or eight
other children with us, when we went into this very beautiful
and secluded bay. We walked there, and that's where the poem started.
JM: So you are once
again very strongly connected to the landscape, particularly the
coast landscape, in this poem?
CZ: Oh, I think so, and I think it's maybe my
first mature look at the coast, if that makes sense. Because at
this point, after writing Split Rock, and after going
through a lot of personal changes and growth, suddenly the coast
appeared new to me again. Or my relationship to it appeared new.
And so it seems to me a mature kind of entry into that landscape.
JM: That's a good
choice of word: entry. Because it seems to me that thinking about
your use of landscape in earlier poems it is more descriptive
(that is, landscape itself) and in this poem it is participatory
in a way that is different from some of your earlier work.
CZ: When I said that it was a mature look, I
meant that mortality enters into it. To me the Sibyl, as the dominant
persona in the poem, is an image of an aging, aged, and ageless
female. The spiritual wisdom she embodies, from her on-going process
of aging and from her approaching mortality, interests me. George
Bowering, in one of his prefaces, said that around age 30 you
become mortal. Up until that point you don't feel that you are
mortal. Well, when I say it's a mature look it's because I had
hit that stage when I had become mortal.
JM: I want to ask
about the "Annunciation, the Angel" poem. With all your
interest in classical mythological figures, where do you see the
Virgin Mary coming from as a figure that matters to you—personally
CZ: I've always had a thing for the Virgin Mary...
JM: But surely you
think of the Virgin Mary as someone particularly idealized by
men, in our culture?
CZ: Yes, but if you say that the basic culture
we were raised in was a Christian one—or it was, at least
when I was growing up—then she's the only female deity my
culture gave me. She is what was available to me as part of my
emotional and religious upbringing. I wrote an earlier Annunciation
poem, called “Prayer”, that was in auto-da-fe.
I wrote an even earlier poem, "Feast for the Mother of Immaculate
Conception" that was never published. I've always been intrigued
by Mary. Psychologically she's a very problematical female myth-figure,
and so of course she's an interesting one.
JM: This seems to
be a good place to go to the question of influence and relationship.
In so many contemporary poets, particularly in B.C., when they
try to describe their own poetic it is often in terms of language
itself. Where do you see yourself in relation to that kind of
CZ: Well, I have a lot of trouble with the notion
of language as poetry. The language is part of the poem, but poetry
isn’t just language. Poetry, to me, has to contain truth—and
if you want to you can put quotation marks around "truth,"
or give it a capital T. Maybe a more contemporary word would be
the "real." But, language is part of the poem but it
isn’t the poem. I think trying to get close to what is real
is part of the poem, too, and for me both have to be there in
a poem I write or a poem I read, for the poem to work for me.
That's not to say I'm not concerned with or interested in language
but it's like saying that my personality is part of who I am.
But to say that I'm just my personality... What is real, and the
language which expresses it, they are components and together
they make up the poem. The reality, the vision, the language and
the craft: together, these make the poem.
JM: So then you would
not consider yourself in the same place as those poets writing
now who are really obsessed with the word as some kind of poetic
CZ: It's not that I wouldn't consider myself
in the same place; I consider myself going someplace different.
There are a number of writers, locally and contemporarily, who
have, I think, divorced language from poetry. It goes back to
saying that I'm writing a poem, I'm not simply 'doing something
with language.' I'm not simply saying something off the page,
either—I'm writing poetry and giving the poem its literary