Choosing to Not Cry: An Interview with Jane Munro
Interviews • April 4, 2023 • Rob Taylor
The following interview is part four of an eight part series of conversations with BC poets. All interviews were conducted by Rob Taylor.
I cleared a shelf close to its flow
left hemlock cones, smoothed stones
heard the water’s poem
as water knows
swayed on vine maple trunks
arched over pools and rapids
felt safe in a place where I had nothing
to achieve, no one to please
the creek withheld nothing from me
Reprinted with permission from False Creek
(Harbour Publishing, 2022)
Rob Taylor: I wanted to open this interview with your poem “MacKay Creek” because to me it stands in stark contrast with the titular creek in your new poetry collection, False Creek. Unlike North Vancouver’s MacKay Creek, downtown Vancouver’s False Creek doesn’t flow like a creek at all, and its history—especially its pre-colonial history—was withheld from you. Could you talk a little about False Creek? How did you come to see it as a focal point for the various concerns you explore in the book?
Jane Munro: False Creek came first. I walked around this strange but fascinating element of the city I’d come back to, my home city. Like so much in my relationship with this place, False Creek epitomized contradictions.
As a child I’d followed MacKay Creek as far up and down its flow as I could go. That creek was a real creek—one with fresh water (though maybe not potable) and traversed by bears. I played there, felt safe there, prayed there: left gifts, arranged offerings. I didn’t have the same reverence for False Creek. I studied what I could learn about its life and history trying to understand what had happened to this inlet, to the heart and values of Vancouver. The city exploits land and water ways, corrupts, and reduces the natural environment. For me, False Creek was a naked image, something odd and plain—a kind of haiku of Vancouver. My home.
In your 2021 memoir Open Every Window, which describes your struggle with your husband’s Alzheimer’s, you write, “We live in a time of dementia: its tsunami hitting persons we know, society’s forgetfulness, even the earth losing mind with the extinction of species.” In many ways, False Creek feels like an attempt to directly address “society’s forgetfulness”—a repudiation of dementia and unlearning in all their forms. Would you say that’s true?
I am part of society; I am forgetful and ignorant. Going through Bob’s battle with dementia was anguishing. I project my “keel of grief” onto Vancouver by saying False Creek is Vancouver’s keel of grief. But a keel keeps a vessel upright. A keel allows one to steer—stay on course.
Did experiencing Bob’s Alzheimer’s make you hungry for new learning?
I’ve always been curious about life, our co-species, our relationships—the vastness of everything I do not know. So, yes, new learning feels urgently necessary as we face the increasingly cataclysmic impacts of our ignorance and forgetfulness. My years face-to-face with Alzheimer’s sharpened my craving, but it wasn’t a new hunger.
You take on those cataclysmic impacts directly in False Creek, which feels like your most bluntly political book to date. It’s notable, then, that it comes on the heels of a book called Open Every Window, which itself felt like a straightforward response to your more delicate approach to Bob’s Alzheimers in Blue Sonoma (described on the back of that book as “render[ing] difficult conditions with the lightest of touches”). Do you feel that “opening every window” in your memoir opened you up to new ways of writing the poems in False Creek?
That’s an astute question. Yes, it probably did. I’ve always felt compelled to be as honest and accurate as possible in my writing. The tricky part is not knowing how someone else will take what I say. It took time to work through my delicacy about things I say in Open Every Window. I wanted to make the best art I could make. I wanted to write a book only I could write. I wanted to give others a clear sense of my experiences as a particular person living in a particular place and time.
I had changed. My story had changed. The times had changed. Our crises are extreme. What I had to write had changed.
For at least the past fifty years I’ve felt we, as adults, need to change—we are in crisis. It’s too late to educate children and trust that coming generations will remedy the past. That need was my motivation for doing a doctorate in Adult Education. I wanted to learn how to facilitate transformative learning—in myself, for starters. Art was crucial—a gateway to heart and imagination—essential for transformative learning. So was story. How to change the story in our minds, in our hearts. How to open us to new ways of thinking/feeling/relating/acting. So, yes, Open Every Window laid the groundwork for False Creek though I hadn’t thought of it in those terms before. I had changed. My story had changed. The times had changed. Our crises are extreme. What I had to write had changed.
What you had to write didn’t just change, it seems to me it expanded. For a book titled after a single location, False Creek ranges widely. This is attested to in the “Notes” section of the book, where facts on black holes press up against information about Aboriginal art, the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Squamish and Hebrew languages, and more. The book’s opening poem, similarly, begins in Pompeii and Herculaneum before ending in Vancouver. To what extent was this wide lens a choice you made, as opposed to simply what happens when you sit down to write, the whole world rushing in behind the single image?
It’s hard to imagine any one location without including its relationships with other places and times. False Creek (as we name it now) calls up a range of other places and times—geologically and historically. The poems in the book range widely but when I was writing these poems, I did too. As the embedded point of view, I felt it only fair to sketch my own changes of location—where I go to, come from, bring to mind—in relationship with False Creek today.
The title, False Creek, appeals to me for its irony and contradictions. “False” is a loaded word these days. We have “false news,” the politics of what is “true” to one person may not be “true” to another. I feel irony and contradiction are part of the book even when the content is not focused tightly on the inlet in the heart of Vancouver.
False Creek is full of information about Vancouver and its history, both the kind of knowledge we learn from books and the kind we gather through experience (in your case, often from walking through the city). Could you talk a little about how those two types of learning informed or fueled one another? Does one usually come first (a fact altering how you navigate the world; a lived experience motivating research)?
An interesting question. Walking around what we now call False Creek led to studying old maps, reading books and online articles, going to the Beattie Biodiversity Museum, other museums, libraries, galleries. I awakened, through these experiences, to the fact that I’d grown up here not knowing, grasping, or taking to heart the ongoing violence of colonial abuse. This led me to the Decolonial Aesthetics course at ECUA+D. It was mind-opening. Reading and listening and thinking about all this happened as slowly and incrementally as walking around False Creek and composing the poems. Book learning and walking the seawall and the poems inhabited me and informed one another.
This kind of information has helped to ground me, to stand me on something closer to a more accurate understanding of what I’m doing, where I am, what I’m part of, and how I might improve the situation. Learning what I can with the resources I can access and am capable of using—curiosity and my love of learning—continue to activate me.
I learned on my last trip to India that this is a privilege. Even in my financially difficult years, I was the lucky woman: happy and safe enough to be curious about things not related to securing my basic needs. Highly intelligent people who lack food, water, shelter, or safety, focus their attention on survival. My curiosity is a luxury.
That’s an important point—how fortunate we are when we have the time and ability to indulge our curiosity. In Open Every Window, you write about an earthquake in 1946, when you were three-and-a-half, which spurred your interest in the earth and stars: “My father moved an orange around a grapefruit on the table to explain how the earth circled the sun. My mother got a book from the library with pictures of volcanoes.” Bless your parents! In some ways it feels like they planted the seeds of this new book that day in 1946. Do you see a straight, or crooked, path between that event and this book?
It’s a continuous path, but wending. A climb. Switchbacks. Tricky rock ledges. Long days wandering in forests, trudging beaches.
When did poetry become a part of that wending?
It’s hard to say. I loved and memorized nursery rhymes. My mother read my brother and me poems from an anthology called Silver Pennies. I remember her reading one of my favourite poems from it (“The Moon’s the North Wind’s Cookie”) at lunch while we were sucking up canned spaghetti, both of us taking turns choosing poems to hear and urging her to read more. By the time I was six, the children’s librarian told my mother I’d checked out (and read) more books than any other child user of the Vancouver Public Library. That was the old Carnegie library downtown at Main and Hastings.
My first memory: waking up from a nap in my cot with sun baking my belly and hearing my mother talking with a friend around the corner in the living room. I realized that I was awake and my mother did not know. I understood then that we were not the same person, and that I had to cry if I wanted her to know I was awake. I remember choosing to not cry. Lying there, magnificently bathed in warm late afternoon sunlight coming in through the kitchen windows. It had to be winter in my first year of life because we moved out of that house before I turned one. I think it was before I could sit up or roll over because I wasn’t thinking about moving myself.
Talking, and then writing, were ways I could attempt to give my experiences to someone else. Words were more effective than crying, and they interested me. Plus, poems were words that could dance. I liked to dance. My mother saved a poem I composed and printed out in a little notebook when I was five. She carried it around in her purse. I think of it as my first poem.
In your memoir you describe how in your childhood you were allowed to “disappear” for the day to “explore the North Shore from ski cabins to the ocean.” In some ways, False Creek‘s poems drawn from your walks around the city feel like a return to your roots. Though there are of course major differences between 1950s North Shore and 2020s downtown, do you see parallels between these two places? Between the two people who explored them?
I still love to “disappear” and “explore” the world around me, off on my own without an agenda, free to attend to whatever interests me for as long or as short a time as feels right to me for that exploration. My parents assumed—early on—that I could look after myself wherever I might be. My father gave me instructions in bushcraft: choose your way down when you’re going up; if you’re lost, follow water. My mother made sure I knew which buses to take and where they stopped.
My wandering and exploring as a child in North Vancouver was in places where I would rarely meet other people. Walking in the city, I’m almost always around people, watching and listening to them, learning in that way more about where I live and with whom I share life. That child had an innate sense of being able to cope—of trusting herself wherever she was. I think I still do trust that I can cope.
There is a draining of the body when a lover goes and will not be replaced. I am hugely grateful for the fullness of life I have been given. But now solitude is to my soul what food is to my body.
In False Creek you write of breaking your foot and despite this still walking around False Creek in a walking boot (through Leg-in-Boot Square, no less!). Did that shift in your walking rhythm affect the nature or volume of your writing?
My writing mind dwells in my body and arises as surprises from an unconscious—often actually dreaming—mind. The words come through me. The gestation period of revising and finishing writing is held in me but it starts as a mysterious gift.
Walking daily refreshes my mind, stocks my body with details and experiences, feeds my creativity. I give myself over to whatever is there. I’m curious, relaxed, active, trusting. Walking in a boot was sometimes clumsier than walking without a boot, but I adapted. It gave different imagery, new happenstance, more learning. How slowly, incrementally, bone heals and we repair our bodies. So, you can’t rush it. You can’t rush reconciliation. Step by step, day by day, a little by a little, we can heal. That’s what bodies can do.
Vancouver’s neighbourhoods have been the subject of a surprising number of poetry books: George Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies, Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston, Michael Turner’s Kingsway, and Bren Simmers’ Hastings-Sunrise all spring to mind (and those are just books which, like yours, have neighbourhoods in their titles!). Did particular books on the city inspire or inform you in writing your own?
I’ve loved Daphne Marlatt’s Steveston ever since she wrote it and, yes, it no doubt influenced False Creek, at least obliquely. Her poems flow across the page, influenced more than mine by the poetics of field composition articulated and practiced by Black Mountain poets such as Charles Olson and Robert Duncan. The deep, wide flow of her poems embodies the Fraser River at its mouth, meeting ocean and its tides—a confluence shaping Steveston. False Creek is not a river—not even a creek—it’s an inlet of ocean in the heart of Vancouver. It’s tidal. My poems, like Daphne’s, are shaped by breath, but my lines are shorter. The music is different.
In Open Every Window, and also in your 2020 collection Glass Float, you write extensively about the vital role yoga has played in your life, providing a place of centering, rest, and rejuvenation. By comparison, the importance of writing and reading in your life is less emphasized. Did you make a conscious choice to downplay the role of writing in the memoir?
It felt self-conscious to address, when writing, how central writing is to me, and how my practice as a writer has evolved. Perhaps I have a similar reticence about yoga; I’ve never wanted to become a yoga teacher. But I have written about yoga.
Do the two practices—yoga and writing—affect your life in similar ways, or do you find they work quite differently?
BKS Iyengar said he wanted to bring intelligence to every cell of his body in his yoga practice. This parallels my writing practice where I want to bring intelligence to each element of my writing: each word, phrase, punctuation, space, each image, each thought. I want to unite them (another yoga principle) and make them intelligible. I think of Patanjali’s yoga sutra 2:46 sthira sukham asanam (“Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence, and benevolence of spirit”) and want my writing to be like that: the flow of it as keenly surprising and engaging as the flow of a good yoga practice.
I might not do a daily yoga practice if I didn’t need it to keep me pain-free and calm enough to do the writing. Writing takes me a long time so I need stamina and patience. Both writing and yoga build on layers of insights and clarities from the unconscious as well as the conscious mind. They both engage my whole body—my full self.
You’ve been a member of the writing collective Yoko’s Dogs for many years, writing the Japanese collaborative poetic form renga with poets Jan Conn, Mary di Michele and Susan Gillis. Often enough in reading False Creek, poems opened in a way that felt similar to the hokku opening of a renga (the “hokku,” separated from its longer poem, being what we now call a haiku). In one such example, the poem “Moving Water Does Not Hold” opens with “the leaf it carries / moon / now gibbous.” How has your work with Yoko’s Dogs and renga shaped how you think about a poem, both its nature and the nature of its composition?
One of the first and fiercest things working with Yoko’s Dogs taught me is that just because something seems clear to me does not mean it’s clear to another reader. Our collaborative practice has motivated me to strive for clarity. Yoko’s Dogs has led me to appreciate what I think of as “the naked image.” Renga and haiku do not employ metaphor or narrative and use few modifiers. Matsuo Bashō said the bones of haiku are plainness and oddness. At least, that’s the usual translation of what he said. I’ve learned how incredibly challenging it is to create poems that are plain (clear to the reader) and odd (memorable, resonant, fresh).
I’ve come to see poetry as architecture for the imagination. My job as poet is to create space for the reader’s imagination—a habitable apartment they can furnish with memories, thoughts, and feelings. Ideally, my poem will invite them to refresh their habitual relationships to stuff they carry around. And hopefully it will stay standing long enough to serve other readers as well.
Speaking of Bashō, in the very moving closing poem of Blue Sonoma you draw a comparison between your parting from your husband Bob and Bashō’s parting from his traveling companion, Sora, on his famous journey in Narrow Road to the Interior. Sora was forced to abandon the trip due to illness. Of their parting, Bashō wrote, “He carries his pain as he goes, leaving me empty. Like paired geese parting in the clouds.”
Bob wasn’t only your life partner, but also your writing companion (you thank his “fine editorial eye and faith in my writing” in the acknowledgments of Point No Point). The effect of losing Bob from your life is well documented in Open Every Window, but how did losing that editorial eye, and that faith, affect your writing?
Thank you for that quote from Bashō. I’m missing Bob’s editorial eye now since I am wrestling with a novel. He edited and published many novels. He read. And read. With intelligence, passion, compassion. I might ask him for feedback on something I was struggling with or discuss what I was dithering over, but mostly he read what got published. I rarely shared drafts with him, at least not until I was ready to send them out.
As Alzheimer’s destroyed Bob’s capacities, more and more of the tasks of domestic life fell to me as well as earning income, commuting, and caregiving for him as his health declined. He wanted me to be around more, had difficulty understanding, and hated being dependent.
There is a draining of the body when a lover goes and will not be replaced. I am hugely grateful for the fullness of life I have been given. But now solitude is to my soul what food is to my body. I feel a profound need, and gratitude, for the solitude that has come lately into my life, giving me time and space to write.
Two writers who played prominent roles in helping you develop this book—one as an early reader, the other as your editor—are Roo Borson and Jan Zwicky. If only every poet could be so lucky! Could you talk a little about how each of these poets has influenced your writing life over the years?
Impossible to count the ways! I feel extremely lucky.
Roo and I met in George McWhirter’s graduate student poetry workshop at UBC fifty years ago. That’s where Roo and Kim Maltman met, too. I had three small children, mothering full-tilt—faculty wife with a home in West Van. I wanted to write and was juggling it all. I liked Roo immediately, but I wasn’t sure how she felt about older-and-more-tied-down me. One afternoon, I summoned my courage and asked her formally if she would be my friend. Annie, my then two-year old youngest child was with us. To my delight, Roo said yes and we’ve been close ever since.
Jan arrived in my life as the editor, at Brick Books, for Grief Notes & Animal Dreams. Doing that editing involved considerable back and forth, mostly by email. Then Jan and Don McKay moved to Victoria and they both became my close friends. I wanted Jan to edit False Creek when Harbour accepted it because I knew she would rigorously challenge my thinking and be acutely sensitive to the political aspects of those poems.
I trust both Roo and Jan to be honest and straightforward with me. They take my concerns seriously, respect my feelings, and trust me to do the same for them. They’re both highly intelligent, wonderful poets, and long-time close friends. We’ve seen one another through thick and thin over many years. I am enormously grateful for the gift of these friendships.
People might wonder how you wrote so much during the difficult years of your husband’s Alzheimer’s. My sense is part of the answer might lie in the consistency of some elements of your writing practice: your regular return to a writing retreat at St. Peter’s Abbey, your long-term writing and editorial relationships with Yoko’s Dogs, Borson, Zwicky, etc. All these things feel like steadying forces in a turbulent time in your life. Do you see them as such? What has that consistency allowed you to do that might not have otherwise been possible?
You are right. There has been consistency: Yoko’s Dogs, close friendships with other writers, twenty-five years of writing retreats at St. Peter’s Abbey, other writing or yoga retreats, supportive friends and family, a daily yoga practice. But I think the unspoken and essential thing is that I feel most fully myself when writing. I desperately needed to write in those difficult years.
I went out of my way to look after myself. I can’t sing worth beans, but I took singing lessons and maintained a daily singing practice through some of the hardest years. It opened my chest, freed my voice, lifted my spirits. Served as a kind of meditation. I found an Alexander Technique practitioner and went to her for weekly massage treatments. I needed hands-on touch for stress relief. My “old ladies” group met once a month in one another’s homes to discuss a chosen topic. We spoke freely about things not talked about in most polite conversations. I was a subject in a study of Alzheimer’s spousal caregivers done by a psychologist at UVic. She was very worried about my level of acute grief but said I could give classes on how to look after yourself when caregiving.
My hard-won, hard-built, yoga practice taught me to value and work with a practice. That has allowed me to make routine my crutch. I keep daily to-do lists, record how I spend my time, am obsessive about getting steps, tracking dreams, drafting proto-poems, working on whatever writing projects I have going, keeping up with yoga, correspondence, deskwork, chores, and whatever else needs doing.
In False Creek you avoid using both punctuation and capitalization, which compliments the poems’ unvarnished nature well. Your previous books have also channeled particular forms, such as Glass Float‘s prose poems or Active Pass’s sonnets—forms you’ve rarely used outside those books. At what point in the creative process do you consider the form of your poems in a given book? Is the form part of the initial creative impulse, or do you find your way to it later, when you have a better sense of the nature of the content?
I listen. As the words come, their music is shapely. Olson’s dictum, Form = Content, makes total sense to me. The sonnets in Active Pass respond to Mary Pratt’s formal paintings. And to the inner arguments of their content. The presence of conflict in its apparent absence. There’s a contradiction in a sonnet—it shows you its other side. The prose poems in Glass Float are little poetic narratives. And False Creek’s tidal music ebbs and flows. It’s changing. I listen to each poem and it tells me how to punctuate and shape it: where the breaks come, what its pattern is. This does evolve. As the poem comes clear, I’ll get a stronger feel for what it’s saying, what it is—its form and its content.
That said, sometimes I’ve gotten interested in a form for how it shapes content. Renga do that. So do ghazals and sonnets. Working within limits hones imagination. A fabric artist I knew who made monumental sculptures told me he had a rule that he could never sew anything together. All his work, which had intersecting panels angled out, had to be something he could weave on a loom. He said, he needed that limitation to spur his imagination.
You can’t rush reconciliation. Step by step, day by day, a little by a little, we can heal. That’s what bodies can do.
As mentioned, Glass Float is composed almost entirely of prose poems, but the final ten poems are written in the style you employ in False Creek: short-lined, multi-stanza poems without capitalization or punctuation. I find there’s often a poem or two in one book of mine, written near the end of its composition, which hint at what’s to come: a testing out of a form before I fully dive in. Is that the case here? In that sense, do you think of your books as discrete entities, or as a long overlapping sequence?
Both. I deliberately shape a book, not only for links in content and between adjacent poems, but also for the overall shape and dramatic arc of the book. I think of the book as a poem. But I’m also thinking about the sequence.
Grief Notes and Animal Dreams has a lot of poems about my mother whose death in a house fire was central to that book. Point No Point focuses on my father, who, as it happened, died seven years to the day and hour after the house fire. Active Pass is more about my life, work, commuting, menopause, meditation—a lot of stuff but not specifically about my parents. Then Blue Sonoma returns to the theme of grief—in this case, caregiving for Bob as his Alzheimer’s disease and other health problems relentlessly erased his well-being and memory. After his death and the Griffin Prize win for Blue Sonoma, I found it difficult to write poetry and turned to prose.
Open Every Window took many years to complete, but it was in that period after I’d left Point No Point and moved back to Vancouver that it became my top writing priority. Glass Float’s prose poems, which I was also working on in those years, may be partly reflective of my immersion in the rhythms of prose. But Glass Float’s focus on yoga, retreats in India and in other parts of the world—which had been consistent parts of my life and of significance to my writing—makes it another discrete work that is part of the continuum.
Is there a hint, then, hidden away in the poems in False Creek, of what might come next?
Yes, funny you should ask. The poem “The Tongue, the Penis, the Brain” in False Creek is an unintentional direct hint at the novel I’m working on. Whether or not it comes next is an open question. I must finish it for starters, and then it has to find a publisher, and become a book. The whole poem could be seen as a hint but the ending is most directly:
in your hands, the weight of bone
what is left of a father
when you wash his armature
where to inter love