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Off the shelf: So what does a former poet laureate like to read anyway?

In his ongoing exploration of the reading habits of Sudburians, Hugh Kruzel sits down for a chat with author, poet, professor and former poet laureate (and sometime actor), Roger Nash
Roger Nash was Greater Sudbury’s first poet laureate. (Supplied)

In past articles in the series, we have had readers who read; this time we have a reader who also writes. This results in quite a different set of answers to several questions that have become routine or standard.

Roger Nash has been busy: well over 400 poems and about 70 journal contributions. Not just poetry, but philosophy, and short fiction. He was adamant that quality over quantity is the key.  

“I don't keep count … but, after a bit of mathematical recollection: my 20th book launches this fall.”

Roger Nash is a professor emeritus in the Department of Philosophy at Laurentian University, served as chair of the Department of Philosophy, director of the Interdisciplinary Humanities M.A. programme  and was a founding member of the graduate diploma in Science Communication offered by Laurentian University and Science North. 

He was also the first poet laureate of the City of Greater Sudbury.

Off The Shelf was fortunate in having him agree to answer the following questions:

What are you reading now and why these titles? 

I’m often reading more than one or two books at a time. Usually for more than one “why” And new “whys” pop up during a reading, replacing some of their (perhaps misconceived) precursors. 

At the moment, I’m reading Samuel Butler’s (1835-1902) The Way of All Flesh. One “why” here is to widen my sense of very different ways in which you can try to write close to everyday speech, avoiding literary-sounding talk. Wordsworth set this as a goal. Wordsworth’s result: an almost High Anglican ethical tone. 

Butler is closer to rebel’s street-talk of his time: anti-religion, anti-family, anti-marriage, anti-Victoriana, full of irony, satire and paradox; and with a firm underlying sense of justice. I often read in part to accumulate tools for how I myself can write. Butler’s toolkit beckons. 
I’m also reading (in translation) the poems of Li Ho (791-817), one of the most brilliant poets of the T’ang dynasty, which was itself, arguably, the finest era of Chinese poetry. One “why” is to deepen my sense of the length of Chinese poetic and cultural traditions. I grew up for a few years in Chinese culture. Li Ho was writing at the same time as Old English poets from whom I’ve learned a lot – and I’ve published translations of some of them. 

How do you draw from the riches of a long tradition without repeating it? And write in a way that can still sound almost contemporaneous with concerns of ages to come? Li Ho, in Frodsham’s translations, has a strikingly “modern” sensibility. Though I write and read mainly in English, I try to do so in the context of world literature.

Has what you read changed over the seasons of your life? 

My reading changes as different roles in life become predominant. Children’s books as a father/grandfather; philosophical books as a teacher in philosophy (special interests in the philosophy of science and mathematics); books in the Abrahamic religions, as a resource-person in a synagogue community; books on the science and technologies of baking, as a baker (a great-uncle baked for a whole town) ... These roles don’t supersede and completely replace each other, they just move up and down in my life. Reading – and writing – poetry has consistently been high up.

If you had to restrict all recommendations to just five books, what titles would you offer?

I won’t offer general recommendations at all. I’d rather talk with individuals, sometimes to help them clarify what looms large for them in life, sometimes to hear what books they’ve really liked. After that, I might suggest a title or two – or not. Five titles I’ve found important in my life are:

  • Torah (Hebrew Bible)
  • Lao Tsu, Tao Te Ching
  • Buddha, The Diamond Sutra
  • Homer, The Odyssey
  • Plato, The Symposium

Have you seen a growing trend in reading and writing poetry in Sudbury? Across the North?

I’ve always found the poetic scene in Sudbury and across the North very lively. A number of major literary awards have been won by northerners. Trends can blip up and down, temporarily, but there’s an underlying growing core of high activity.

That’s marked, by our having northern publishing houses of poetry (Scrivener, Latitude46...), and a Sudbury poet laureate position; and by Sudbury’s self-image changing, slowly, from mining town only to be endured – if you can’t leave it – to a human community creative in so many directions. Many more students in high schools now realize you can take a lead in the arts in Canada, without having to leave for Yonge Street in Toronto.

How do we encourage more people — of all ages — to embrace poems as part of their reading repertoire?

Poetry has its full being only when lifted off the page into performance. Just as music needs to be played from its score. We need to help people discover the moving nature of listening to poetry well-performed, the moving nature of performing it yourself; and to develop a culture in which performance-skills can be modeled and learned – in schools, the Y, literary festivals...  For me, reading poetry is pointless unless related to this.

Where do you find your inspiration for writing what you write?

From the joys and the sorrows of life around us. A poet serves as a witness to these.  

Roger Nash’s 20th book launches during Sudbury's 2019 Culture days, at the McKenzie Street library's auditorium, Sept 28, 1-3:15 p.m.

Hugh Kruzel is a freelance writer in Greater Sudbury.