P.W. Bridgman (a pen name) is a Canadian writer whose first book of poetry—A Lamb—was published in September, 2018, by the long-established Canadian literary publisher, Ekstasis Editions. A selection of his short stories and flash fiction called Standing at an Angle to My Age was released in 2013 by Libros Libertad Publishing. Bridgman’s pen name gestures toward ways in which his poetry and fiction reach across a continent and an ocean and take on shade, light and texture from his English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish ancestry. Irish characters, settings and situations in particular come up frequently in his work. Unusually for a Canadian writer, Bridgman’s poems and stories have tended to appear almost as often in publications such as The Honest Ulsterman, The Moth, The Bangor Literary Journal, A New Ulster, Litro, London Grip and The Glasgow Review of Books as in North American journals. The pull of Celtic cultures on his imagination brings Bridgman frequently to the UK and Northern Ireland on literary quests. Recent destinations include South Derry and other places associated with Seamus Heaney’s life and poems. Bridgman also finds stories and inspiration in Belfast, among its gregarious people, its eclectic literary and arts scene and its storied pubs. (You might find him with his Italian-Canadian wife, and with his astute ear and eye cocked, at The Crown Bar, The John Hewitt, The Duke of York or Kelly’s Cellars.) He was most recently in Northern Ireland in July 2018, a participant in the intensive writing summer school program at the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry at Queen’s University, Belfast. That, he says, has been a defining experience in his writing life.
Bridgman is a prodigious and discerning reader and finds pleasure and inspiration in the writings of the modern Northern Irish poets, including Heaney (of course), but also Louis MacNeice, Ciaran Carson, Derek Mahon, Doireann Ní Ghríofa, Leontia Flynn, Martin Mooney, Frank Ormsby, Gerald Dawe, Paul Muldoon, Sinéad Morrissey, Tom Paulin, Stephen Sexton and Roy McFadden (to mention only a few).
Anne E. Giardini: Hi, Tom. I hope you won’t mind if I sail right past the “P.W.” and call you “Tom.” You’ve been “Tom” for the 30+ years I’ve known you.
P.W. Bridgman: No worries, Anne. I don’t think calling me “Tom” will blow my cover.
AEG: Perhaps you should comment briefly about your “cover”. Why the secrecy?
PWB: Well. Let’s just say that in my professional life in the law I have a somewhat public persona and it has always seemed sensible that I keep my writerly alter ego separate from that. People do, of course, sometimes recognise me at readings and literary events. And that’s fine. But I do strive to keep my two personae as separate as possible and I never actively associate one with the other.
AEG: All right. So, with that out of the way, let’s begin with your fascination with the culture and literature of the UK, and especially Northern Ireland. Anyone reading your stories and poems will quickly encounter signs of that. What is it about these parts of the world that provides you with words and ideas?
PWB: While much of what I write deals with Canadian subject matter, it’s true that I often also turn to England and Ireland—Northern Ireland in particular—when writing a poem or a story. My forebears can be traced to all corners of the UK, and to the Republic. I grew up having an early sense of my family’s origins across the Atlantic and I quickly became captivated by those origins. One part of the story, however, was shrouded in mystery. It still is, in fact. My maternal great-great-grandmother was a Catholic from Tralee, Co. Kerry. Though she was the daughter of a prosperous veterinarian and his wife, she was for some unexplained reason adopted by an English uncle and taken with him to live in England. There she stayed and was then raised as a Church of England Protestant. Ultimately, in Bradford, Yorks., she married a Welshman called “Birt.” “Birt” is, thus, my mother’s maiden name. It has been said that the Birt family may perhaps have originated in South Derry and, years and years ago, may have been a Catholic family too. So, looking back, we see two Irish strands of the family reuniting, generations ago, as Protestants but each traceable to earlier Catholic origins. How confusing! And yet, how incredibly interesting. Ultimately, my great-great-grandmother and her husband emigrated to Canada, specifically to Winnipeg. Most of the Birts in Canada (and there aren’t many) seem to have sprung from that branch of the family.
AEG: Say just a little more about this aspect of your family history being “shrouded in mystery.”
PWB: As I mentioned, from a very early age I had what I think is a natural fascination with the idea that my forebears had come from places a continent and an ocean away. From places with rich and interesting histories. But when I pressed my mother and other relatives for information about some aspects of the family story, my questions were gently but firmly deflected. They did not seem to want to get into the subject of my great-great-grandmother particularly. Clearly there was discomfort about how it had come to pass that she was removed from her family in Tralee and taken by an uncle to England to live with him, apparently with her family’s concurrence. I don’t know what my mother knew about that, but whatever it was she wasn’t keen to share it. And there was clearly evident discomfort and awkwardness about the shifts from Catholicism to Protestantism, and how those had come about. Again, despite some rather persistent efforts, I could get almost no information on any of those aspects. This, naturally, served only to enlarge my interest in those secret corners of my family’s history. There was one elderly relative—my mother’s second cousin who we all thought of as an aunt—who, as I grew older, proved more willing than anyone else to share what she knew. She had a framed group photograph that my family had as well in which my great-great-grandmother appears. Notes in an ancient, crabbed hand on the back of my family’s copy of that photo state that it was taken in France; my aunt, on the other hand, was adamant based on what she knew that it was taken in Ireland. Most of what I now know came from that aunt, and from some papers left behind by her elder brother. But even she was very circumspect and hesitant to get too deeply into the more mysterious corners of the family story. She died, alas, before I could winkle out more information. Thus, until I get down to some serious genealogical research of my own, I won’t even begin get to the bottom of it all.
AEG: Religious allusions are certainly evident in your writing. Do they tie in at all to what you know about the disruptions you’ve referred to in the religious up-bringing of your forebears? And do those disruptions, in turn, play at all into your own religious life (if, indeed, you have a religious life)?
PWB: Yes, I think so, on both counts. As I mentioned, I was particularly struck by the reticence of anyone in the family to shed any appreciable light on my great-great-grandmother’s relocation from Ireland to England to live with an uncle and her simultaneous conversion from Roman Catholicism to Church of England Protestantism—seismic changes that seem not to have been opposed by her own family. The Birts thereafter, down the line of succession, were staunchly Protestant and those in Canada at least remain so. I was raised as a Protestant but as a middle-aged adult, after rather careful study and inquiry, I converted to Roman Catholicism. Doubtless that trajectory can be traced, in part, to a fascination with Catholicism that was ignited early on by knowing that Catholicism was lurking in the shadows of my own family history. That fascination was quickened, in turn, by the reluctance of anyone to say much of anything about Catholicism’s place in our collective past. I am today, to be sure, a practising but querulous, questioning and somewhat unruly Roman Catholic (a pain in the ass to priests at times). And I do struggle mightily with the Church’s positions on many issues, such as gay marriage, female ordination, &c. But that’s another story.
AEG: I was an adult Catholic convert too, but it didn’t take, I think to everyone’s relief. Knowing your religious history does inform the way one reads your work. And one can see plenty of evidence too of the growing Canadian boy facing iconically Canadian challenges in recognizably Canadian situations.
PWB: I would say, unreservedly, that I am a Canadian, born and bred, and that that proud fact asserts itself repeatedly in what I write. But, since I was a small bookish boy my imagination has been especially nomadic and, partly because of the mysterious features of our family history, my reading and imaginings have often tended to touch down in the UK and, most particularly, on Irish soil. Ireland’s allure surely has something to do with the way the curtain descended on that part of our past whenever I raised the topic. That captivation has continued to be guided, in part, by my reading throughout my adult life. When looking beyond the bounteous offerings available from Canada’s own vibrant poets and prose writers for something different to read, I have always been strongly attracted by the works of the poets, short story writers and novelists of the UK (particularly Northern Ireland) and the Republic. For the same reasons, I think, I have also always found myself responding in a somewhat primal way to Irish traditional music. I bought my first Bothy Band LP in about 1977! It’s called Old Hag You Have Killed Me and it stirs my blood still. Hence, no visit to Belfast is complete without a stop to hear the trad on offer at the John Hewitt Bar in Cathedral Quarter (just as no visit to Dublin is complete without a visit to the Cobblestone in Smithfield.) I vividly recall the first time I visited South Derry and saw my mother’s maiden name “Birt” here, there and everywhere—on commercial signs, in telephone books… It felt like some kind of numinous homecoming, some kind of metaphysical affirmation of my family’s beginnings. I know. That sounds a little Twilight Zone-like, especially coming from me. But I do, at such times, feel something ineffable in my bones. So it is natural, I suppose, that such primal content should percolate up into my poems and stories in some way. I chose an excerpt from Seamus Heaney’s poem, “Postscript,” as one of the epigraphs for A Lamb. It reads, “You are neither here nor there,/A hurry through which known and strange things pass…” While I carry a Canadian passport, and I carry it proudly, in my imagination I am, if not a stateless wanderer, then at least one who feels strong and primal affinities to multiple places—an itinerant observer and listener who, in the end, cannot be pinned down; who is “neither here nor there.”
AEG: And nor should anyone try to limit you or your interests or imagination to a single here or there – imagine what would be lost. Let’s turn to your new book. First, why A Lamb?
PWB: The lamb is a powerful symbol in many cultures. I am intrigued by the paradoxes and contradictions that attach to it. Both “son of God” and, to some, an emblem of the blind, unintelligent and unquestioning follower (and, thus, an object of scorn and derision). Imagine. Lambs were the subjects of both pagan and Christian sacrifices. In human experience they are an easy and frequent target for predation and, yet, the lamb was and is simultaneously invincible and the object of worship, symbolically, as the Great Redeemer in Christian doctrine: innocent and gentle but, in the end, all-powerful. The lamb has been the focus across the millennia of holy veneration—the “Lamb of God” as transmuted in the Eucharist—and, more prosaically, it is also something we sometimes order at restaurants when we venture out for dinner. What a complex, multi-faceted, potent, ambiguous and fertile cultural icon! Think about the depictions of lambs and sheep in the imagery of Marc Chagall. They are utterly exquisite. Chagall could certainly see that they are more than simple beasts. To ponder the lamb is to be taken in many fascinating, and sometimes irreconcilable, imaginative directions. When I take my four-year-old grandson to the petting farm, and we come eventually to the sheep and the lambs, I don’t know which of the two of us is more transported.
AEG: Let’s turn to what poetry represents for you. What has it been in your life? What is it now and what is it becoming?
PWB: Poetry has, over the years, overtaken prose in my reading. I still read both, but as I grow older I find myself drawn ever more to poetry. I suppose it would be fair to say that it is the poetic qualities of some of the finer prose writers that have attracted me to their work. I am thinking here of Canadians such as (of course) your mother, Carol Shields, as well as (for example) Alice Munro, Michael Ondaatje, Sandra Birdsell, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Nancy Richler, Cynthia Flood, Robertson Davies, Ethel Wilson and Malcolm Lowry (who I believe we can somewhat justly claim as a Canadian). Then, looking beyond Canada, there is Joyce (about whom no more need be said). David Mitchell, Seamus Deane, Julian Barnes and Zadie Smith. Umberto Eco, the sadly underappreciated Hans Fallada. Graham Greene, Bernard MacLaverty, Glenn Patterson, Colm Tóibín. Waugh, Maugham, Banville and the inimitable and deliciously obscure and shamefully under-celebrated Elizabeth Smart. Some of these writers of stories and novels are fine poets too. But, whatever they write, they write it poetically. The Canadian poets who particularly have my attention at the moment include Karen Solie, Sonnet L’Abbé, Robert Bringhurst, George McWhirter, Milton Acorn, Al Purdy, Pat Lowther, Daphne Marlatt, Ken Babstock, Kevin Spenst and Beth Goobie. Such great talent there. Outside Canada, I return again and again to Umberto Saba. And Leopardi. And Eliot, Auden, Armitage, Armantrout, Kleinzahler, Ginsberg, Patterson, Ferlinghetti, Ashbery and Olds. On the NI side of the ledger, we find Heaney (about whom, too, no more need be said), along with the long roll-call of names mentioned in the introduction to this interview, some of whom I had the privilege of studying with this past summer. There are so many others. Poetry hasn’t displaced poetic fictional writing in my reading habits but it has increasingly become a dominant source of aesthetic pleasure in my reading—so much so that, although principally a writer of fiction until a few years ago, I have finally begun trying my own hand at writing poetry. It will be a long apprenticeship, I know, but I have taken my first few steps and I now feel, rightly or wrongly, that I am beginning to find my footing. Whether the critics will agree, time will tell.
AEG: Finding one’s footing in poetry is so apt. I always picture them running along on their little feet. What is the start of a poem, for you? That is, what instigates it?
PWB: It is difficult to answer this question with something other than a cliché. Like so many others who write poetry, I truly do overhear and retain in memory fragments of conversation that then serve as the trigger for a poem or a story. I am also often prompted by a line or two in the writings of others that strike me as particularly artful or evocative. This makes me a magpie kind of writer, certainly. There are also, of course, the inner ruminations—on the many manifestations and significations of the lamb, for example—that will set the poetic wheels turning.
AEG: And what about form. How important is it to you?
PWB: For a while I steered particularly around prescribed rhyme schemes, believing myself to be freer and less hemmed in in doing so. I was not, then, persuaded, by Robert Frost’s dictum that writing free verse is “like playing tennis without a net”. I still write some free verse, but I now also enjoy working within some formal constraints. I have written villanelles. And cinquains and dizains. I have written some sonnets. I have just finished a poem about a chimney sweep in Victorian England in terza rima. And, I have found, as many have before me, the discipline of writing to form can, somewhat counter-intuitively, be liberating. Sinéad Morrissey has said, somewhere, something similar about the importance of working within formal constraints to a poet’s overall development. As usual, she is right in that judgment, I think. So, to answer your question, form has become increasingly important to me. While they may generally begin with an idea or a naturally encountered prompt or trigger, my poems are almost never conceptually blocked out before I put metaphorical pen to paper. That is, they do not spring from my forehead fully formed as Athena apparently did from the forehead of Zeus. The verb I prefer to use is “unspool.” The thoughts and ideas tend to unspool as they land on the page, charting a path that was unknown and couldn’t have been known at the outset. Often when a rhyming convention requires the use of a particular word sound in a particular place, the search for something that will work will set me off on an entirely unexpected, and wonderfully fruitful, new pathway. To mix metaphors, I know. Thus, the apparent rigidity of a formal constraint does not always function as a limitation; sometimes it can conjure an unexpected narrative thread or image and change the entire course of what one is writing. None of which is to say that I have given up entirely on free verse. I haven’t. But I welcome the challenges and the surprises that prescribed forms can bring. They’re like unexpected gifts from an unexpected giver.
AEG: I notice in your poems that you leap in time, confidently, from incident to future reckoning. I think, by the way, that your readers will generally make that leap with you. Do you have this same confidence in your readers?
PWB: That is such an insightful question. How to answer it? I suppose I would say that life for most of us is full of reckonings of one kind or another, some trifling and some profound. And so when as readers we encounter them in poetry or fiction, we recognize them in the sense that they resonate with our own experience in the world. The reckonings that you will find in my writing seem, to me at least, to be faithful to human experience. This is not to say that they are always either fair or just reckonings. But they should at least be familiar and set echoes ringing in the hearts and minds of readers. In the end, though, I don’t truly know whether readers will make the leap from incident to reckoning with me. And some likely won’t. That’s part of the mystery and the beauty of it.
AEG: This is a bit of a follow-on from my last question. You often seem to view your characters through a loupe and see them in helpless miniature. Do you feel like God when doing so? Or a vivisectionist? Or something else? And if you do feel like God when doing so, are you a kind God?
PWB: I think I need about two ounces of Jawbox gin on a little cracked ice before I even try to answer that one. Hmm. Well. Let me begin by saying that I have been fortunate in my life to have been surrounded, for the most part, by people of integrity whom I respect and some of whom I love and have been loved by in return. But, despite that good fortune, human failings—or, at least, what I consider to be human failings—have not escaped my notice. And it may be fair to say that those failings get more attention in my poems than perhaps they deserve. I have certainly not shrunk from noting them in my writing. The jacket copy for A Lamb alerts (warns?) the reader to expect, in addition to whimsy and beauty, “moments of crushing darkness and the occasional withering dismissal of the banal and corrosive ‘values’ which have migrated insidiously from the marketplace and taken hold in the politics and public discourse of our troubled times.” That is an entirely appropriate alert (warning?). While I am full of optimism about human nature and human behaviour, I am also a realist and I am troubled by our “troubled times.” Deeply so. Cherished institutions are beset. The notion of “truth” itself has become malleable and is under attack. Fear of “the other” is on the rise while the instinct to respond tangibly and with kindness to those in need is waning. The future of our shared earthly environment is subordinated to near-term, economic false imperatives. Absent the rule of law, humans—in the pursuit of self-interest—are capable of monstrous things. The challenge, of course, is to regulate human behaviour through a system of laws that constrains sufficiently but does not do so unduly. Where the balance should be struck has been the subject of lively debate across the span of history. These concerns animate me and my thinking. They also animate some of my writing. And so the reader of A Lamb will sense, in some poems more directly than others, what my gut is telling me about the larger implications are of what my characters are saying and doing. I created those characters and readers will discern, as I have said, what my views are about the situations they get themselves into and how they perform in those situations. So. God or vivisectionist? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Kindly? Sometimes. Fair. I certainly mean always to be. Okay? Bartender? I’ll have another Jawbox, please. After that question, Ms. Giardini must surely pick up the tab.
AEG: We’ll see about that. Let me ask you this: How much of the poetry in A Lamb is autobiographical?
PWB: I don’t think any writer, whether of poetry or fiction, who answers a question like that by saying that his or her work is entirely free of autobiographical content is being candid and truthful, either with him- or herself, or with the questioner. The poems in A Lamb are principally the product of the imagination, but here and there I will admit that there is content that is drawn from my own life experience and that of some people close to me. Not many of the poems address that content but some of them do. And I have altered and pared down and embellished and ornamented actual events, when I’ve called upon them, quite shamelessly. That’s my job, I think. Else I’d be writing journalistic copy, not poems.
AEG: The last couple of questions have brought us some tough sledding. Perhaps we should end on the happy subject of love. Let me start down that path by first observing that your poems are deeply funny. You are playful with scale, timelines, language, our shared distorted sense of importance, misdirection, misconception, and more. But you are not funny about love. With love you are earnest. First: why? Second: when can we expect a book of love poems?
PWB: Well. Thank you for those kind words. I am humbled to hear them. Ah, love. Yes, I’m earnest about love. Of course I am. It is what keeps me going. If I may be trite, in many ways, as John Lennon told us long ago, love is all we need. It shines upon us, through us and out of us. And it is the balm for every ill. I am so fortunate to have it in abundance in my life. And, yes, I have occasionally ventured, oh-so-gingerly, to write about love, but with great care and even greater hesitation. Love, like sex, presents the writer with extraordinary challenges. This is not the subject matter over which one wants to stumble. Or be banal. Or be derivative. The place in my life that love occupies is so unbounded and so all-powerful that my faltering words seldom come near to doing justice to that kind of subject matter. Writing about love is almost sacramental. The “inevitable word,” as Ethel Wilson put it—the word that is commensurate with this most sacred of subjects—so often seems to lie just beyond my grasp. But all of that said, I shall keep at it. And there will be more love poems. But not a book. No, not a book—but not for want of inspiration. No, no. Not for want of inspiration. For want of talent.
AEG: Perhaps that’s as good place as any for us to end but I don’t think the talent is wanting. I am waiting for that book
PWB: Thank you Anne.
AEG: Thank you, Tom.
PWB: And I take it back. I’ll pay for the drinks.
AEG: Yes, indeed you will.
You can read more about P.W. Bridgman by visiting his website at www.pwbridgman.ca. A Lamb (Victoria: Ekstasis Editions, 2018) ISBN 978-1-77171-273-6, may be purchased online, directly from the publisher, by clicking on this link.
Anne Giardini, O.C., O.B.C., Q.C., is a lawyer, director, chancellor of Simon Fraser University and the author of two novels: The Sad Truth About Happiness (Toronto: HarperCollins, 2005) and Advice for Italian Boys(Toronto: HarperCollins, 2009). She co-edited, with her son Nicholas, a collection of Carol Shields’ writings about writing, Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing (Toronto: Random House, 2016).