Quatrain Questions: Alice Major

Alice Major discusses Knife on Snow's eco-poetics and playing with form in our latest Quatrain Questions interview.

In his December 2023 review of Knife on Snow, Richard Harrison writes that your “poetic eye on life, on death, has offered us the poetics of eco-tragedy” (https://albertaviews.ca/knife-on-snow/). How would you describe the poetic nuances of “eco-tragedy,” as a kind of subgenre of “ecopoetry,” based on your body of work (including Knife on Snow)?

I hadn’t encountered the term “eco-tragedy” before Richard Harrison’s review, so let me think this through….

“Ecopoetry” is really an extension of what poets have always done in lyric or pastoral poetry, to praise the wonders of nature. In Mary Oliver’s words, the natural world is the old river that runs through everything and poets will forever fish along its shores. However, the natural world has often been conceptualized as separate from the human one—as the realm of gods and nymphs, or as the sublime otherness of the Romantics. What distinguishes ecopoetry, I think, is that it is intensely aware of the interconnectedness of humans and the planet. To be human is to be part of the natural world and to affect it.

“Eco-tragedy” moves this up a notch. A tragedy is a drama in which characters bring about their own ruin through some fatal flaw, most notably hubris, an overweening, unthinking pride. This is how we’re feeling these days, as we come to realize how our human-centred assumptions about how Earth’s systems fit together are out of whack with reality, and that the consequences could be tragic.

I wasn’t consciously thinking of the word “tragedy” while working on Knife on Snow, but the term does resonate. For example,  the myth of Ragnarok became a thematic thread in the long poem “A Fate for Fire” because, essentially, Thor and company bring the fiery ruin on themselves. They are flawed gods. And the title poem is driven by what I feel is humanity’s ‘fatal flaw’, our built-in tendency to anger which propagates from generation to generation. We need anger sometimes, but we are so easily manipulated with it, which blocks our capacity to solve problems.

However,  I can’t claim to have been an eco-tragedian, or even an eco-poet, consistently over the past four decades. I wasn’t that far-sighted. For the most part, poets respond to the issues we find around us. My earlier books (like The Office Tower Tales and Some Bones and a Story) were more driven by thinking about the roles women play, or (like The Occupied World) by the urban environment I found here in Edmonton. However, the climate crisis is very much in front of us now, and poets can’t escape it any more than anyone else can.

Can you tell readers a bit about Anglo-Saxon verse form? Why was this an important feature for you to incorporate into the book’s first section, “A fate for fire,” and what were some of the challenges (and joys) of working with this format?

I’ve always loved the drive of that old alliterative form. It features two half-lines with a break between them, and in both half-lines you hear the same sound recurring at the beginning of stressed syllables. In the original form, there was a very specific count — you would have two stressed syllables beginning with the same sound in the first half; in the second half-line the same sound is heard at the beginning of at least one stressed syllable. That sets up a kind of beat. You can have varying numbers of unstressed syllables that don’t alliterate, but you still feel a one-two / three count.

So when the phrase “a fate for fire” popped up in my, that bit of alliteration caught my ear (poems almost always start that way for me), I thought of that verse form.  I didn’t observe the pattern all the way through — it’s really hard to do in modern English. But I tried to keep the spirit of it as much as I could.  (“Fire-breath blown      from boreal blazing” comes pretty close to the classic Anglo Saxon form.) Minimally I tried to make sure you can hear a conspicuous initial sound from the first half of the line repeated in the second.

Beyond the sound of it, I decided to use alliterative verse is because it’s a form rooted in the north, born in the Old Norse language. The boreal forest is a northern, circumpolar biome crossing continents.  It’s a way of forest life that links Canada, Scandinavia, Siberia and Alaska.

The alliterative verse form is also great for telling stories—like the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf and the mythology recorded in Old Norse. Those narratives have a kind of bleakness and a moral ambiguity—figures like Loki and Thor feel more like the figures in Indigenous mythology than the all-seeing god of Christianity. And the Jotnar (or giants) are not at all parallel to the Lucifers and demons who oppose heaven in Christianity. They are more like cosmic forces—sometimes helpful, but deeply dangerous when meddled with. All this offered me a framework and imagery I could use to write about the ecological dangers facing the boreal, and ourselves.

In spite of the subject matter, I really enjoyed writing in this form. It became an engine pulling me along. Actually, writing in any form can be strangely freeing—it forces you to make verbal leaps that you might not otherwise make, and those leaps often bring with them unexpected connections of ideas.

How did the experience of writing/collecting the poems in Knife on Snow differ from/build upon your previous collections?

I’ve always taken a certain amount of pride in not repeating myself—I don’t want to write the same book over and over. One Alice Major book about cosmology or female saints is enough, thank you. But thinking it over, I suppose there are a couple of threads that keep running through my work.

One is a perennial interest in science. I’m not qualified as a scientist in any way, but since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by explorations in so many different disciplines from physics to neuroscience. All these efforts to understand life, the universe, humanity, the planet—well the big ideas make me feel fizzy. And, specific to poetry, I’m always finding metaphors and vocabulary that I can use.

The other consistent thread is that I like writing long poems—or linked sequences—that give me room to explore ideas. It’s not that I only write long poems. I love the sonnet length too. (Though I doubt I’ll ever accomplish a really good haiku.) In fact, most of my books move back and forth between longer and shorter pieces. So my first book, Time Travels Light, has a long poem in the middle contemplating time as a dimension, while the other sections are personal lyrics about family and love life. And here I still am, 11 books later, where Knife on Snow has several long poems and sequences, with some short personal poems about growing older threading through them.

What do you see as the next step for your poetic practice?

Oh, help, I don’t know. I don’t have any big projects in mind, which feels a bit strange. For decades I have usually had some subject big enough to feel like it could be the core of a collection. It’s not that the world lacks subject matter these days, but I’m trying to find a place and a voice for it. Generically, I feel I want to talk about the interconnectedness of the universe and the importance of ‘here,’ but that’s too fuzzy.

I’d also like to find some form or structure that to explore. At the moment, all that’s sifting down onto the page consists of short pieces in free verse. Free verse is a perfectly good way to way to write poems, but I’d love to find something else to pull words along in interesting ways.

Occasionally, I poke around trying some madly experimental form—I admire poets who push the boundaries. But when I try, I feel like I’m pretending to be a ChatGPT program, shaking words around like a jar of marbles.  

I guess I’ll just have to keep practicing…

About Knife on Snow

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Alice Major's powerful new collection considers humanity's reckoning in a time of tremendous upheaval.

What portents must you divine when a knife falls from the sky into your snow covered yard? With Knife on Snow, Alice Major employs history, myth, and science to understand a world ablaze.

From the bitumen hills of Fort McMurray to the barren reaches of Iceland, Knife on Snow depicts an earth bathed in dragon’s breath, where, like the Norse gods bound to their fate, we stand transfixed by the consequences of our actions, both driver / and passenger— part-cause / part-witness of earth’s unwinding.

As you would expect in Alice Major’s expert hands this unwinding yields to an evolution, a discovery, an acceptance of struggles’ end and the possibility of a tomorrow unknown. All from Knife on Snow.

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