A Londoner since 1967, John Tyndall has been published in several anthologies and many journals.
Reflecting an interest in family, love, religion and traditions, his two recent collections, one with poems about the birth and childhood of his son, the second (in 2006) with his family history as well as the illness and death of his mother, have been praised by the University of Toronto Quarterly for the use of "strange and iridescent language".
Tyndall also will be reading newer works, both found poems based on an obscure book from 1947 and narratives in various voices, including that of his late father.
How and why did you get started writing poetry?
I'd always enjoyed studying and memorizing poetry in school. When I started listening to folk, rock, and pop lyrics more closely, I wanted to write poetry myself. Then my father bought me a copy of Irving Layton's A Red Carpet for the Sun and I was off and stumbling.
There are some obvious commonalities in most of your more ‘normal’ poems (by which I mean those other than the ‘found’ poems which you have a special side interest in): You generally use clean, spare, simple wording, fairly short line lengths, and very little line-ending punctuation. Can you say something about how your poetic style evolved, and what you generally try to accomplish in your poetry?
At first, I wrote with very flowery language, but then Margaret Avison said to me (in her capacity as Writer in Residence at Western in the 1970s) that I needed to listen to people. So I reined in the extravagance and tried to be more direct in my language. I used to use complete punctuation and then gradually used less and less; now I only use punctuation in the middle of lines. I let the line breaks do most of the work. I am compelled to write poetry, although I've stopped on occasion. I like to tell stories and speak in images.
A few questions about the strong themes in ‘The Fee for Exaltation’: Has the importance of family in your life been a big part of your poetry from the beginning, or does its importance in this latest book reflect a newer interest in family history as well as the passing of your mother?
I first started writing about family in the late 1970s and early 1980s when I found out that one of my great-grandfathers was addicted to laudanum (opium in alcohol). Some of my relatives were very helpful and others were appalled that I was "stirring up cobwebs" with my work.
My book from 2001, Free Rein, had many poems about the infancy and childhood of my son. When my mother had a stroke in 1997, I wrote about her trials and my reactions to them as a way of coping with what was happening. When she suffered another stroke and died in 1999, the poems kept coming out.
Has your break with your family’s multi-generational membership in the militantly-Protestant Loyal Orange Lodge by marrying a Catholic woman intensified, or made more difficult for you emotionally, your interest in your family history?
My grandfather, Arthur Robert Tyndall, was the last Orangeman in the family. My father, Guy Tyndall, had nothing to do with the lodge so I was able to have some distance from its prejudices. Falling in love with a Catholic woman was easy; it made up for generations of misunderstanding and suspicion in both families.
Something which struck me very strongly in the book was your close encounter with the immense amount of thought, ideas, mental anguish, and social struggle that some of your ancestors lived through during their lives but which then all suddenly disappeared into the past when their bodies died.
Leaving you here now looking back at it in old books and manuscripts. Is this something that affected you as strongly as it did me reading about it?
If people are lucky enough to realize before dying that many of their cares and concerns were ultimately meaningless, they can leave this life in peace. Both my grandfather and my father were more relaxed in their lives when they reached old age, but my memories and the various printed stories reveal the journeys they took and the struggles they had to achieve that peace.
It seems like you must have tried to see an evolution of certain outlooks and ideas, moving forward along your family tree towards yourself, but at the same time had to realize that many of those had more to do with the other minds present around them in their particular times than with their ancestors and so died out when they did. This is one feeling I got from the book at any rate.
Did you see it happening this way?
I think every generation learns from the mistakes of the previous ones, whether the lessons come from family members or friends or contemporaries. I certainly hope that my son learns from the mistakes I have made.
A struggle with tradition and religion seems very common in your family history, right up through your own life. Has discovering this made you feel different about yourself than you would have felt otherwise?
Religion is a big factor in many people's lives. At the moment I am not religious although I wear a Celtic cross from the Winter Solstice to the Spring Equinox. I do this not only in memory of Jesus but also to remind me of my ancestors' injustices in Ontario and especially in Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries.
So many of the poems recall and depend on and complete details in previous poems that the book has the feeling of one big poem, versus being a collection. Did you write some of the poems with this in mind?
I wrote each of the four sections of The Fee for Exaltation in order. My mother suffered her first stroke so I wrote part one; after she recovered I visited her and my father at their condominium in Arizona so I wrote part two; a distant relative, Verna Douglas, sent me much genealogical information about the Tyndalls so I wrote part three, and then my mother died from a second stroke so I wrote part four. I made sure that each part echoed the others; my mother, for example, appearing in all of them.
In your poems, there are moments of beauty, revelation, and understanding that are not your own but those of your ancestors. Did your desire to want to somehow preserve, or keep alive, these ‘found’ thoughts have anything to do with your interest in ‘found’ poetry?
Some of those moments are found in the stories of my ancestors and others arise from my creative spirit. When I found out that my great-great-great-grandfather Joseph died at sea on the journey to Canada, I was compelled to write about it, however little I knew about the circumstances.
In your ‘found’ poems I’ve noticed three different versions, each giving you less creative freedom. First are those built of words and phrases taken from quite large historical texts, then there is the final, namesake poem of the book, the very beautiful ‘The Fee for Exaltation’, which takes words or phrases from each of the book’s poems.
Giving you the least freedom are poems built of words or phrases from each line of a different poem, usually someone else’s. It would seem that with less and less freedom, you would be more likely to find yourself taken in unexpected directions, so that you may learn as much from writing them as a reader might from carefully reading them? Am I on to something here?
There can be a great deal of creative freedom within tight boundaries or strictures. I believe that in some found poetry, the eye will find what the mind wants to see. In other cases, the eye will see what the mind needs to find. I have had some found poems turn out spookily beautiful and others boring or inane; the more interesting the source material, the easier it is to produce something worthwhile.
What can we expect from you next?
I am trying to produce a manuscript of narrative poems, for example, the ones in my father's voice about his experiences in the Depression and the Second World War. At the same time, I am trying to put together a double manuscript: found poems based on the obscure mid-twentieth-century poet from New York, Lucy Kent; and more experimental and playful poems about everything from Kate Bush to Pharaoh Pepi II to mangoes from the seventh dimension.