One Question Interview: Mark Callanan

Mark Callanan is the author of Scarecrow (Killick Press, 2003) and Sea Legend (Frog Hollow Press, 2010) shortlisted for the bpNichol Chapbook Poetry Award. Most recently, he has published Gift Horse with Signal Editions.
God is a definite presence in Gift Horse, though it’s hard to find swift justice here. God seems to have created the world and let it run away on its own, like a watchmaker who has nothing more to do with the final product. There are many fine moments, but I was particularly struck by “The wolf, as always, is just doing a job.” Could you elaborate on this?
I think that god is more of a palpable absence in the book than an actual presence—which, paradoxically, makes him omnipresent. I was raised in a devout Roman Catholic household (my father was—for years before his marriage and my subsequent birth—a priest), and so the idea of god as an active force in the world was central to my childhood. I’ve since broken faith with the church; I don’t believe in god. And yet—call it the product of indoctrination or of niggling doubt—on some level I wish I did believe because I see how faith in higher power gives strength to others in trying times; there’s great comfort in believing that, no matter what happens, a kind and benevolent force is looking down on you, one that will never desert you in your time of need. Being a combination of romantic and pragmatist, I’ve found that I’m constitutionally incapable of believing in god, but wish I did because it seems to me that life would be easier if I had faith. I don’t, and so the central conflict of my character is this opposition between reason and wishful thinking.
“The Meaning of Life” addresses this idea. The kite line figures as metaphorical connection to the divine, but in the end of the poem, I’m holding a line gone slack—the kite having crashed back to earth. In a related reference, the “Lord of St. Francis” from the poem “The Wolf of St. Francis” is “a tough bitch / of a wolf” who “Licked her lips / at Francis’ every faltering step / as her nostrils drank / the scent of blood inside him”—which is an inversion of our traditionally patriarchal and anthropomorphic conceptions of god. God, in that poem, is really just a hungry animal hunting weakened prey. The line about the wolf “just doing a job,” which you quoted from “Medieval Woodcut,” reinforces this notion: Despite our historic demonizing of wolves as bloodthirsty sadists, they’re really only responding to basic needs for survival, they’re answering to instinct. And we’re no different, despite our inflated sense of our own importance. We’re just animals (my three-year-old son is currently fascinated by this thought)—dominant because of our ability to generate adaptive technologies, but still animals that eat, shit, fuck, and die. This may seem like a bleak outlook, but I don’t consider it so. We’re part of something larger than ourselves, which is not god but the long and varied history of life on this planet. When we die, we’ll feed more life; we’re little pieces of the cosmos. There’s something beautiful in that.

3 Responses to “One Question Interview: Mark Callanan”

  1. Mark Callanan is one of the smartest, most eloquent poets going. Gift Horse is one of my best-books for 2011. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

  2. Fine question and a fine answer to it. Definitely a book worth the read.

  3. My guess is the church broke faith with him, not the other way around. Loss of faith is another thing entirely, something Graham Greene wrestled with, of course. But you’re right: Callanan is very smart and wonderfully articulate; far and away the best of the editors I interviewed on the subject of reviewing a few months ago.

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