News and Interviews

"Mysteries and Tensions and Splinters of Awe" Poet Michael Lithgow on Craft, Inspiration, & Great Reads

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Behind the facade of comfort or beauty lurk questions and uncertainties — the things we're not only unsure if we know, but if we want to know. Such is the tension of Michael Lithgow's haunting second collection of poems, Who We Thought We Were As We Fell (Cormorant Books).

In thoughtful, unsettling poems, the cozy family life of the suburbs, or the beauty of nature, loom over the complexities those tableaux conceal: grief, loss, violence, history, and more. The quotidian rubs agains the unnamed and extraordinary in language that is at once finely honed and meditative. Concerned as the collection is with the strangeness that exists between surface and depth, there is an element of the surreal that makes Lithgow's writing particularly memorable. 

We're excited to welcome Michael to Open Book to talk about the writing journey that led him to Who We Thought We Were As We Fell, as part of our Poets in Profile series. 

He tells us about the classic poem that first opened "a little door... in my head", why all good poems have an element of surprise, and the story of one long, surreal night in Poland that led to a beautiful observation. 

Open Book:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

Michael Lithgow:

The Red Wheelbarrow, by William Carlos Williams. In grade 9, I think, or maybe grade 10. We read the poem – I don’t remember the context, probably American modernist poetry which, in hindsight, seems a little amazing for a grade 10 English class – and a little door blew open in my head. It was just like that, and it probably sounds corny. The work of WC Williams was my first great love in poetry, his clean lines, his poetic sensibility aimed and trained on his sensory world, and the tension Williams wrought from language. It was exhilarating. A kind of tension I strive for still in my own work and that draws me to the work of others. That language can come alive like that on a page is for me one of the great pleasures of poetry. The Red Wheelbarrow – despite the cliché it has become – captured something so essential to my relationship with poetry: that in a poem, I can draw with words, create meaning and significance for, and see reflected back the often intangible mysteries and tensions and splinters of awe and all the other barely containable feelings underlying the palimpsest of banality we so often experience in our day to day lives.  


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


In my most recent collection (Who We Thought We Were As We Fell, Cormorant Books 2021), there are a number of unlikely inspirations. In a way, I think all good poems have an element of surprise – a sense of journey and unexpected arrival. Most of my poems – all of them, really – emerge from a moment in time: a place, a feeling, and an incident or idea. Inspiration for me tends to be a conflagration of these three elements in a crisis, of sorts. It was Canadian poet Russel Thornton, who I first heard suggest that poetry emerges from crisis, at least some kinds of poetry do, which of course is exhausting, existentially and even physical, eventually; and which would demand (or perhaps reveal) a certain kind of instability. This kind of “high stakes” living, so to speak, is not always convenient, or manageable or sustainable.

The poem ‘The space between’ was inspired in the first instance by the sound of leaves in a great giant of a tree in the alley behind my apartment where I lived in Montreal. It was an old apartment, in an old neighbourhood in the east End of the Plateau, surrounded by old trees. Something in the sound filled me with longing. Of course, it doesn’t really make sense; it was just a sound – a pretty sound – but a common sound. But on that afternoon, in that place it evoked something from me, and when I followed the evocation it led me down the path that became the poem, about a raving man I’d seen a few days before near a busy playground, about a very dear friend who became a lover and who was no longer in my life, and about how meaning somehow exists in the space between the places where its needed.

Another unlikely inspiration was for the poem ‘What revolutions I have left to live’. A few springs ago, I spent a couple of hours hacking away at an underlayer of ice - a few inches thick – under the snow in my backyard, at a low spot I worried might collect too much water and cause flooding in the basement. It was hard labour, not rewarding at all, with great hunks of sod and dirt strewn across the snow leaving an ugly, unsatisfying mess and no sense at all that what I was doing would make any difference. This was the first house I had ever owned, and I was worried about flooding and so many other things - all that can go wrong. And I was marvelling in an unflattering way at the distance between my young, activist “revolutionary” beliefs in upsetting the systems of domination in Canada, and my afternoon spent fussing over ice-melt on my lawn, seemingly a world apart. And then, through tracing in the poem all the strange details of a dying afternoon in early spring spent chopping at melting snow, a new awareness of what tearing something down might mean, of how futile it had felt in my heady activist days, and what might truly be worth fighting for – a reconciliation with then and now and the missing pieces of a puzzle at both ends of the moment.

A last unlikely inspiration was for the title poem in the final section of the book: What remains. This was a poem I struggled with for a long time. The impetus was to make sense of a ridiculous in many ways evening I had in Kracow with a colleague, a filmmaker from Ireland, that stretched into a Leopold Bloomesque wandering of the streets of Kracow alone until dawn. The first draft of the poem was written the next day, sick in bed from food poisoning and excess, my wallet lost, and having to catch a flight to London that evening. It was the feeling of being an ass, an idiot, of being existentially overextended in my rudimentary attempts to understand some thread of the legacy of the Holocaust, my life now tied to the Jewish community by marriage and my Jewish daughter. Eventually coming to understand that legacies endure in the breaths of the living.

That sense of mystery I am always reaching for lurks behind everything, I’m certain. But I’m not always able to live in the conditions that allow me to share in the overpowering beauty and tragedy and strangeness and mystery of life. So inspirations can erupt in the queerest of ways from the most unlikely of places, if I’m open to them.


Do you write poems individually and begin assembling collections from stand-alone pieces, or do you write with a view to putting together a collection from the beginning?


My two books of poetry have been “collections” in every sense of the word – no intentionality in the sense of creating poems on a theme, but rather pieces of writing collected over stretches of time that I curate into a manuscript. But themes do emerge that tie the poems together. In my new collection, the poems are divided into four sections. These themes reflect key motifs occupying my mind over the years the poems were written and, in an important way, became integral to the work as a whole. The first section is called ‘An Almost Simple Plan” These poems reflect the sense one has sometimes of just living a life, the day to day routines that dominate and the sometimes curious ruptures in those days, glimpses into the sublime.

The second section is called ‘Pioneer in Late Capitalism’. These poems all emerged from rural and woodsy places and seem caught (like a sweater on a nail) on the tension between the open energies of wilderness and the constricted energies of urban living, enmeshed in the tight weaves of economic and political relations. Of course, I’m not a pioneer at all. But feeling those wild places sometimes brings to mind the great juxtaposition of human life v. non-human life. Why it should be a juxtaposition at all seems like something that needs to be blamed on someone, on something ..

The third section is titled ‘A Terrible Incident’. This title is tongue in cheek, really, poking fun at the way poems can sometimes be terribly self-involved. These poems emerge from deeply private spaces, almost embarrassingly private, the kind of self-inspection hardly tolerable in today’s busy outwardly oriented cultural landscapes. It’s terrible sometimes when people overshare...

The fourth section is called ‘What remains’, a reconciling with death, what we leave behind, legacies, and new beginnings, inklings of our places– of my place – in the miasma of time on this mystery ball of earth hurtling through the universe shrouded in minutes and millenia. How to make sense of loss among the living …


What's more important in your opinion: the way a poem opens or the way it ends?


It’s a funny question. What’s more important your mouth or your anus? They are both important, of course. Take either away and, gosh, what a mess. Great poems thrive in both places. But I suppose endings come to cast a larger shadow in the end – whether or not the poet has encountered something unexpected, something grubbing around in the poet’s vulnerabilities, something the poet is still willing to share. Not all poetry is like that, but the poems that move me most often are... squirming in the shadows of their unexpected (vulnerable, courageous, generous) endings. And beginnings.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


Cvetka Lipuš’ What We Are When We Are (Athabasca University Press, 2018). Lipuš is one of Slovenia’s greatest living poets, but this is the first collection of hers to be translated into English. Lipuš reveals and creates a kind of dream-inflected, mythological web of sense from the mundane matter in her life – subway tokens “good for one fare” become talismans for life/death, removing her shoes at airport security like deep sea diving, her body “a vowel with a foreign accent”, on the subject of employment ads: “Are you ambitious, did you ever put fireflies into jars, and are you unafraid of heights? Address your application to the heavens with the subject line “cloud.” And on and on. The ways sense is woven with images in her work, sense about humble human things, is arresting at every turn, and her poetry’s original perceptions share with the reader the visceral thrill of seeing the new. This work inspired me to complete my current collection.


Michael Lithgow’s first collection of poetry, Waking in the Tree House, was shortlisted for the Quebec Writers Federation First Book Award. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous literary and academic journals and in Best Canadian Poetry (2012). Born in Ottawa, he changed cities frequently in his early years and moved to Vancouver in the mid-1980s, working as an activist journalist in community-based media and as a paralegal, before attending graduate school in Montreal and Ottawa to complete a PhD in Communication Studies. He currently lives in Edmonton with his wife and daughter, and teaches at Athabasca University.

Buy the Book

Who We Thought We Were As We Fell

In this second poetry collection by Michael Lithgow, intimations of something numinous and larger than life jostle with the material demands of the everyday, sparking an uncertainty about what lurks at the edges of things, if anything at all. The poems drift in the tension between a pleasing suburban life simply lived and unsettling moments that pull against it, intrusions of the surreal.

Civic uncertainty in the wilderness gives way to more intimate modes of circumspection, a working-through of different kinds of grieving — for a parent who withers from cancer, for family members murdered in war, for the platforms of death on which common conveniences like grocery stores depend.

The poems weigh harsh realities against promises of life and renewal, struggling to put into words something that would rather not be named. They are a thought-provoking meditation on being haunted by darker and more beautiful shadows than are apparent on a life's face level.