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In Conversation: An Interview with Max Layton

In Conversation: Max Layton

Interviewed by Joan Shillington

Published in issue 26.2

 

BORN IN MONTREAL IN 1946, Max Layton now lives in Cheltenham, Ontario. A published novelist and short story writer, Max went legally blind a decade ago. During that difficult period, he recorded his first CD of original songs and began the series of linked poems which would become When The Rapture Comes (Guernica, 2012). When his eyesight restored thanks to the miracle of modern medicine, Max bounced back with the release of two more albums of songs and now, still going strong, his second book of poems In the Garden of I Am (Guernica, 2015).
 

See Layton’s poem, “Après Moi, Le Déluge


 

Joan Shillington: In the very first poem of When the Rapture Comes, “Remembering” (13), you delve into political and human disasters of the 20th and 21st centuries: Hitler, Stalin, Chairman Mao,“Vietnamese boat people who never made it / The victims of 9/11.” In the Garden of I Am, the politics are less prevalent, but still there: “I am the blood / You are the woman / Being stoned / In a burqa / In a stadium / In Afghanistan. What is the relationship between these political personalities, human disasters, your poetry, and yourself ?

Max Layton: Part of a poet’s job description is to speak on behalf of others. One of the ways I try to do this is by rooting my work in the world around me—in the social, political, economic issues of our time. Not in every poem, of course, but I would be ashamed if, having read one of my books, you could not tell what I thought about freedom or fascism. Poetry, at least English poetry from Chaucer to now, has always been on the side of the individual against the forces of conformity. I see myself as a warrior in that eternal battle. Especially after 9/11, many of the poems I’ve written have been intended as defiant proof that our culture is still very much alive—and that those who jumped to their deaths are not forgotten. That is why both books begin with “To Sing Another Villanelle”:

That sidewalk thump will sound our knell Unless, in art, that sound is nursed… Though words can never death dispel
Our spirits rise in verse un-hearsed
To sing another villanelle…

JS: I think the journey your poetry goes on in the years between When the Rapture Comes and In the Garden of I Am is fascinating. When the Rapture Comes begins in a place of political tension and often the poems ask for a type of vengeance as in “Catharsis” (47), “When the rapture comes / What we mostly want to see / Is poetic justice/ Divine retribution.” and in “Vengeance” (49) “When the rapture comes, there are / Some people I will need to get even with / that bitch who said my poems / were self-contradictory.” In the Garden of I Am the poems are contemplative, family orientated as in “I Am the Thoughtful Provider” (17), “I am the thoughtful provider / Who today bought a plot for two / At a local cemetery.” Tell us about that journey.

ML: I like the word “journey” because it implies I’ve made some mental or emotional progress. So I’m tempted to agree because it sounds flattering. Unfortunately, although Rapture was published first, it was actually written when Garden was almost finished. Triggered by the much-ballyhooed end of the Mayan calendar,the Rapture poems came in waves—three, four, five in a single day; some good poems lost because I was too exhausted to write them down. Then, just as suddenly, the fit was over and I went back to the joys of editing. Rather than a journey, I think what happened was a radical shift in perspective. Whereas Rapture looks at the world from the point of view of a God-like final judgement, Garden looks at the world from the point of view of the creatures being judged—insignificant creatures like “I Am The Fish,” “I Am The Mouse,” “I Am The Unfortunate Fork,” etc. Of course, numbered among these insignificant things are my memories, my family, my friends, and myself. But both books, I believe, speak for all of us with a sense of humour and with love—love even for “that bitch who said my poems were self-contradictory” because, obviously, she was right.

JS: You are also a musician, singer and songwriter with three CDs.You began taking guitar lessons at 13 but did not begin writing poetry until later in life. How do you feel your music has influenced your poetry? Was it through music that your poetic side was revealed to you?

ML: Between my father booming his own favourite lines at the breakfast table and Leonard Cohen teaching me to play guitar, I’ve been surrounded by songs and poems all my life. In fact, I wrote songs and published a few poems early on but it wasn’t until I went legally blind that I found my voice. Unable to read or even watch TV, I picked up my guitar and songs poured out. Then, my sight restored thanks to modern medicine, I found myself writing poems as well. There is a death-like finality about going blind which gave me the courage to confront my inhibitions—my fear that whatever talent I had would never be good enough. Now, grateful merely to see again, I don’t care. I know what I want to say and know I have a limited amount of time to say it. It is out of this hard-won honesty that my songs and poems come. To quote a couple of my own favourite lines from “I Am The Balding Old Guy”:

I am the balding old guy
Who gets a needle in the eye
Once a month
[And] learned how to
Look at death
Without blinking or flinching

JS: In both your books you use repetition as a tool, repeating the title of the book in each poem title or the first line of the poem. What impact would you like this rhetorical device to make in When the Rapture Comes and In the Garden of I Am?

ML: As everyone knows, music and poetry are intertwined. “Sonnet” means “little song” and the root of “lyric” is the lyre. By writing both songs and poems, what I have learned is this: the ear delights in predictable pattern whereas the mind delights in surprise. That is why songs have a chorus while poems do not. One could even argue that a defining characteristic of modern poetry is its struggle to free words from the tyranny of music. And yet a poem without some inner music collapses into prose. So, beginning each poem with the same first line sets up a pattern which, I hope, delights the ear while varying the line’s rhythm throughout the rest of the poem, or breaking from that rhythm unexpectedly, pleases the mind.

JS: What would you like your readers to take away with them from your two poetry books, When the Rapture Comes and In the Garden of I Am?

ML: I am an atheist but, to paraphrase Laplace, God is a metaphor I cannot do without. What I’d like readers of my work to take away with them, aside from a burning desire to buy my next book, is an almost religious sense of how miraculous this world is. Blinded by the ordinariness of our daily lives, I hope my readers, as happened to me, see again. As Joe Rosenblatt was kind enough to say: “Buy this volume. It is spiritually restorative…”


FreeFall Vol. XXVI Number 2 (2016).

FreeFall Vol. XXVI Number 2 (2016).

Joan Shillington is a Calgary poet who has been published in The Fiddlehead, Antigonish Review, Prairie Fire, Grain, FreeFall, Room of One’s Own, and three anthologies. She is also on the poetry collective at FreeFall.