Best Canadian Poetry In English (Tightrope Books)

Me, Me, Me: Stray Thoughts on Selfdom

The collection is a unique glimpse at a diversity of poets, from Ottawa’s David O’Meara to Margaret Atwood to the revered P.K. Page.Cormac Rae, Ottawa Xpress

Poets will do just about anything to sell their books. Okay, I’ll do just about anything to sell my books; many others seem content to crank out tome after tome and pretend like it never happened. In 2006 I took my first book, Unsettled which is available from all major online retailers *cough, cough*) on a seven-week, 22-reading cross-country tour, during which I managed to hand-sell some 110 copies.[1] But besides concerted efforts at self-promotion, one of the most effective ways of getting my books in readers’ hands has been my mother’s booth at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market. My mom is a designer, spinner, knitter and weaver,[2] so my books are the only printed matter, besides knitting patterns, she sells. This is much better than a bookstore, where one’s little spine-out collection is surrounded by dozens of others AND it’s in the poetry section, where no one goes by accident.

The other benefit is that I get a report every time a book is sold. Or not. The other day I got an email from my mother. This is it:

At the market yesterday, someone picked up Track and Trace and asked, “Is Zachariah Wells a real person, or one of Seth’s characters?” I thought you might be amused. Maybe. —YLM

For anyone scratching their head over this, let me explain. My publisher is also interested in selling my books and one of the ways he attempts this improbable goal is by making them pleasant things to hold and behold. When it came to designing my second collection, Track & Trace (*cough, cough*), he hired renowned graphic artist Seth (who had previously designed the press’s runaway hit, The Idler’s Glossary) to do art and design work for the book’s cover and interior.

Which is awesome; I have been very lucky. My mom’s email made me realize for the first time that there might be a wee downside to having one’s book designed by someone more well-known than oneself. Have other people bought the book thinking I was a figment of Seth’s prolific imagination? Existential crises! As it happens, I did find it amusing and forwarded the email to Seth, who also got a kick out of it.

It’s actually not such a crazy question. See, my name’s not Zachariah. Not exactly. A few people have called me that over the years, but what appears on my birth certificate is Andrew Zachary Wells. Andrew’s my dad’s name, and it would have been my middle name, but my folks didn’t like the way Zachary Andrew Wells sounds. When I first started publishing poems, about twelve years ago, it was under A.Z. Wells. Perhaps I instinctively knew how bad those poems were and would eventually not want my name associated with them… At any rate, I eventually stopped using the initials, probably for the same reason Al Purdy ceased being A.W.: it was really friggin pretentious.

For a few years, I published nothing at all, but then in 2003 my manuscript was accepted by Insomniac Press, and I realized I had to decide what version of my name to use. Zachary? Hardly anyone calls me that. My mother, and usually only when exasperated. Zach? Too casual and I don’t like the spondaic bluntness of its combination with my surname. Besides, I knew how popular a name Zach had become and with a dirt-common family name like mine, I’d be sure to get lost in the crowd.[3] A.Z.? Cringe. Besides the pretentiousness factor, if you speak Canadian English, the consonantal elision of d and w makes my last name sound like dwells. If you speak American English, it just makes me sound easy. I settled on Zachariah because I liked how it scanned (natch) and because it was closer to the Hebrew root of my name.

But besides that, it gave this dimension of methe sliver of my prismatic self that reads poetry and tries to write its own identity. So Zachariah Wells isn’t a character of Seth’s invention, but he is indeed a persona of sorts.[4]

Questions of identity can’t help but obsess people who write lyric poems. (Cart? Horse? Yeah, yeah.) I was at an Erin Mouré reading in Vancouver a few years ago. After the reading, Mouré was talking about how the troubadour poets she was reading understood that the lyric I was a construct. At which I turned to my friend and said, Um, yeah, who doesn’t? Avant-garde devotees of such postmodern philosophers as Barthes and Foucault seem to think they’ve got the market cornered when it comes to ironic self-consciousness, but no (sane) lyricist actually worth reading has ever believed that the person speaking their poems was them, even in explicitly autobiographical poems.

Some are more explicit about this than others, like Fernando Pessoa, the 20th Century Portuguese poet who wrote under several distinct heteronyms. In Canada, David Solway published his own heteronymous collection, Saracen Island, under the name of Andreas Karavis, going so far as having his dentist, wearing a Greek sailor’s cap, pose for an author photo. Solway has gone on to publish three more persona-authored collections. And speaking of Erin Mouré, she published her Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person, a transelationTM of Fernando Pessoa/Alberto Caeiro’s O Guardador de Rebanhos,[5] under the name Eirin Moure. Holy layered subjectivity, Batwoman!

The dislocation of subjectivity has never been a particular project of mine, but the subject’s essential shiftiness is or should be, unavoidable for anyone writing lyric verse these days. It’s certainly at play none too subtly in my lyrebird sonnet, but the less said about that the better, he said, ducking out dodgily. I’m in the midst of an MA thesis which deals in varying degrees of obliquity with these questions of selfhood. I don’t think anyone can properly address them in 2011 without some familiarity with work going on at the frontiers of neuroscience. Sadly, English departments seem more intent on rehashing The Death of the Author than on swimming into the hostile waters of hard science, but I don’t think one can write meaningfully about self and soul without learning something about, e.g., neuroplasticity, temporal lobe trauma or the brain stem’s function in the formation of the core self.

Most of the scientists I’m reading on these subjects are very literate folks. I’m reading a fascinating book right now, Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain, by American neuroscientist Antonio Damasio. One of his epigraphs comes from guess who?Fernando Pessoa!

My soul is like a hidden orchestra; I do not know which instruments grind and play away inside of me, strings and harps, timbales and drums. I can only recognize myself as a symphony.

Any self is a multitude. Just ask Whitman. Oh and Seth? Not his real name.

[1] This is the retail equivalent of trying to live exclusively off celery, by the way.

[2] Wanna see a picture of me with hair? You know you do.

[3] As it turns out, one of my namesakes is a former professional soccer goalie with DC United. I got an email one day from a young woman in Washington inviting me out for a drink. Another namesake appears to be a parent in Texas, as I’ve received several emails from a schoolteacher in that state about my child’s behavioral issues.

[4] Saying which allows me to write blank cheques for all manner of assholery…

[5] Mouré’s Griffin-nominated book was a cagey subversion. At the time, the Canada Council did not fund literary translation, but by pretending that her book was something other than a straight translation, Mouré cleverly subverted the rules. When I read her book next to a straight translation of Caeiro, what struck me was not the eccentricity of Mouré’s take, but its orthodoxy.