‘You may wish to go beyond the acceptable’

Award-winning poet Albert Moritz talks about his craft, his career and the town that inspires him

Albert Moritz won the Griffin Prize for Poetry, given to the best book of poetry by a Canadian in June of last year for his work The Sentinel.
Albert Moritz won the Griffin Prize for Poetry, given to the best book of poetry by a Canadian in June of last year for his work The Sentinel.
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Born in Niles—a small industrial town in northeastern Ohio—Albert Frank Moritz, poet and Griffin Poetry Prize winner, said he spent a Huckleberry Finn-esque childhood along the banks of Mosquito Creek and its surrounding woods.

“I write about Niles obsessively,” he said. “It certainly influences my poetry.”

The Griffin Poetry Prize was established in 2000 by Scott Griffin and is administered by literary scholars such as Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje. The award is worth $50,000.

Mortiz, who will be reading at Queen’s on Mar. 15, has written more than 15 books of poetry, received the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Award in Literature of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the Ingram Merrill Fellowship and has been a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award.

He has also translated seven books of poetry and a novel from Spanish and French, and in collaboration with wife Theresa Moritz has written multiple biographies and The Oxford Literary Guide to Canada.

Moritz received his BA (1969), MA (1971) and PhD (1975) from Marquette University in Wisconsin and holds a doctorate in 18th and 19th-century British poetry. He currently teaches at Victoria College at the University of Toronto as a special lecturer of creative writing.

In an e-mail to the Journal, Moritz said his poetry was strongly influenced by his hometown, having written an entire book, called Mahoning, on Niles, depicting it as an incarnation of universal nature.

The town also influenced his love of poetry, but there wasn’t much sympathy for poetry in Niles, he said, adding that he didn’t feel encouraged to write poetry in his hometown.

Despite this, Moritz said, poetry influenced him at a young age.

“For whatever reason, I was very aware, as a very young child, of the liturgy of the Mass,” he said. “So from that I absorbed very ancient, very great poetry.”

Even more importantly, Moritz said, he began to become absorbed in poetry before he could read.

“I had a real experience of ‘primitive’ poetry, poetry as a voice passed from mouth to much, a spray of images always vanishing and reappearing ... Poetry as the first people would have experienced it, before writing.”

Moritz said everyone experiences words before writing and training, but not everyone continues to use this experience.

“Who knows why, few seem to retain it, or honour it insofar as they recall it,” he said. “I do.”

Although Moritz said he wasn’t a precocious reader in the sense of reading before school, he learned to read suddenly, within the first two or three weeks of Grade 1, at a more or less adult level.

“Reading became a beloved activity with me, part of my life in nature,” he said. “Through the first, second and third grades I was reading mainly long prose works of the romance type, especially the tales of Troy and of King Arthur.”

One day in Grade 3, Moritz’s parents dropped him off for a Cub Scouts meeting at school, but as soon as his parents’ car was out of sight, he headed for the library across the street instead of the meeting.

“I wanted to see if I could get a volume of [Edgar Allan] Poe stories with more in it than the eight in the child’s book I’d gotten as a gift,” he said. “I found Poe ... I was transfixed. I wanted to be a poet, and I’ve kept on wanting to be a poet with the same astonished hunger every day since then.”

Moritz said childhood influenced his conception of poetry as entirely open to the world, people and nature and to things “just going around.”

“It’s a matter of constant interchange with and the intensification of life,” he said. “It’s the least walled-off of the arts, by far.”

Poetry, Moritz said, is the fifth element.

“The human one, that completes physics. It’s a part of the air, the light, the wind, and the things and people encountered in them,” he said.

Although Moritz has written extensively on many subjects, he said there are others he’d like to explore.

“Each poem about a subject discloses further subjects,” he said.

For example, Moritz said there are aspects of Niles he hasn’t written about yet, such as parts of the town’s social life, history and appearance.

“Beyond this, I keep getting ideas of its significance in general which I hadn’t seen before.”

After re-reading some Pablo Neruda poems, Moritz said he was struck forcibly by Neruda’s description of his childhood places—Parral and Temuco in Chile.

Moritz said Neruda’s poem “Superstitions,” which describes Neruda’s uncle, a forestry and mining veteran who told ghost stories and described workers’ sightings of the devil in the lonely jungles and the mountains, made him realize he had similar characters and stories from his own childhood.

“The experience of Neruda’s poem was not simply an ‘object lesson’ in the fact that I too could write on this subject and now could go to my desk and ploddingly do so,” he said. “It was like a lightning flash: it opened up to me in a sudden vision, a sudden access of memory and emotion, a real ‘inspiration,’ the presence of a previous buried reality in me.”

Moritz said he currently has a half dozen or so book projects in various stages of completion and others on the go in the form of ideas, plans, scattered notes and drafts.

Moritz said he does his best to make use of his skills as a poet in accordance with his teaching.

“With my theorist’s or philosopher’s hat on, I’d say that poetry is an indispensible mode of knowledge.”

But poetry isn’t just a mode of knowledge, Moritz said. It’s also a building of something palpable.

“Poetry is a source of knowledge in itself,” he said. “It can be subject matter, such as the subject matter of a course, but primarily it’s the source of illumination of the subject matter.”

As one of the most ancient arts, Moritz said poetry has evolved over time.

Moritz said although the digital age has changed the publishing world and increased the amount of text out there, he doesn’t think the change has been that radical.

“Everybody is fighting for a piece of the pie and there are fewer pieces to go round,” he said. “Poetry is subsisting despite whatever modern technology’s affect on the medium of the book.”

With the hype surrounding the art of verse in popular songs, rap and hip hop, Moritz said there’s been an explosion in new versions of poetry.

“It can all be called poetry in one degree or another,” he said. “It doesn’t require the book or any kind of technology of writing to survive.”

Moritz said the poetry he writes, such as poems one would find in the Norton Anthology, is flourishing too.

“It’s marginalized, which is a popular word today to describe it,” he said. “I don’t know if its popularity fluctuates ... this poetry that permeates society is specifically done and appreciated by relatively few, but that doesn’t mean it has no effect or place.”

It’s all a matter of taste, Moritz said.

“People still circulate poetry by the book and magazine,” he said. “The online magazine is coming into prominence, such as Kindle and other types of equipment ... if you enjoy looking at it on the screen, it’s a book, if you don’t, then it’s not a book.”

For aspiring writers, Moritz said it’s important to read as much as possible.

“The reason people don’t write good modern poetry, contemporary poetry, is because they don’t have a wide or exact knowledge of this time period,” he said. “Even if your modern way is quite revolutionary, it has to be responding to its time.”

Moritz said there’s no way to be original by ignoring contemporary writers.

“You may wish to go beyond the acceptable, but unless you know what you’re rebelling against ... in terms of form, style and subject matter, you can’t really write in a good way.”

Moritz said some people spend all their time with filmed entertainment and end up writing narratives that are better suited for movies or television.

“You know you’re a writer when, out of passion, attraction and not duty, you read more than you go out to clubs or watch TV,” he said. “You need to put your money where your mouth is ... you need to read poetry, or you’re not going to be a good poet.”

Moritz said he only began to understand the number of opportunities in publishing in Canada last year, when he won the Griffin Poetry Prize.

“There are so many ways of getting your work before people and ways of getting it known,” he said. “There’s a certain merit to being a hermit to your own poetry, but there’s some knowledge and reference to the living society of poetry, prizes, distinctions and what magazines to publish in.”

To encourage young writers, Moritz said universities should make creative writing available to all students, not just language or literature majors.

“Many people in the curriculum who quite validly don’t want to take an English course of a typical kind should be able to indulge their own creativity,” he said. “This would be a great way of allowing students to continue their engagement with literature.”
Albert Moritz will be reading in Watson Hall, Room 517, on Monday from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

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