Poet Jan Zwicky sings a ‘Small Song’ at York

On Oct. 6, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented poet Jan Zwicky reading from her latest collection of poetry, Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.


What are you thinking, little violin?
What do your clear strings dream?
Brown rivers have gold depths. The sprightly
softness in the current of the bow.

What are you singing, my little violin?
Who are you calling now? Truths
the trees, my parents, taught me.
The sky above your childhood home.

  fromSmall Song”
   by Jan Zwicky

For Jan Zwicky, the life of an artist is all about the big questions. Appearing for the Canadian Writers in Person series, the philosopher-poet’s clear and measured voice carried the serene wonder of her poetry as she asked, “Why be an artist?”

Left: Jan Zwicky

Dressed simply in black and white, as if she embodied the text on the page, Zwicky elaborated on her own question: “If you’re an artist, you are drawn by questions about the good life. What is it to lead an excellent life? What is beauty and why do we pursue it?” Some, she argued, pursue it to be famous while others, like herself, are more interested in the what is. “You can do this by getting your hands dirty, by being a farmer or living alone in the bush, or you can choose to make art,” she said.

"What is" in her latest collection, Thirty-seven Small Songs & Thirteen Silences, are poems that use the simple language of concrete experience to explore these deeper ideas. Reading from pieces titled "Soup", "Nuthatch" and "In Praise of Baths", Zwicky illuminated the common things of life and nature in a way reminiscent of Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things

Another influence for Zwicky is the Spanish poet, dramatist and theatre director, Federico Garcia Lorca, who wrote poems like "Riddle of the Guitar" in the Spanish tradition of cante jando or "deep songs". A musician herself, it was only after considering the simpler resonance of the guitar that Zwicky was able to replicate this kind of poetry. Many of her poems contain words with no more than one or two syllables, simplicity speaking more deeply than complex words. In the poet’s words, "I am happy to make verbal music." 

Zwicky also discussed the value of live poetry readings in which the listener is an active participant, suggesting that “reading your work aloud is a kind of publication.” Unlike many writers, Zwicky was not always eager to be published in print. In addition to her concerns about the industry’s predominant use of non-recycled paper, she didn’t like the commercialist apologies (blurbs) it makes for poetry. Instead, when people asked for copies of her work, she copied, sewed and bound her own books with flax thread, beeswax and recycled paper. Fortunately, as demand for her work grew beyond her ability to keep up, Gaspereau Press offered to publish her poetry in a form that was pleasing both esthetically and ecologically.

When asked about the place of poetry in contemporary culture, Zwicky said that her work is a response to a sense of vacancy in the society around her. “In a culture dominated by virtual reality, consumerism and a military industrial complex, a life attempting to set these things aside is the one truly radical form of politics to engage in.” 

In an evening full of questions, Zwicky offered an answer to the oft-asked query of how one should begin writing: “Put everything away, turn everything off, go outside, lock the door, and walk until there are only non-mechanical beings. Walk there and poetry will speak to you.”

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. At 7pm on Nov. 3, in 206 Accolade West Building, Lien Chao will read from The Chinese Knot and Other Stories.