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NB: I want to ask you first about your new book, The Tree of Meaning. I understand that it is a collection of your essays about language and oral traditions in North America…
RB: Well, the library cataloguers seemed to have a hell of a time figuring out what it was, but then they don’t read books, they just weigh them on a scale or something. I started out years ago thinking I would like to bundle up some essays and lectures and I thought there were enough of them to make a book. And I put them together and there were more than enough to make a book – there were enough to make two books – but the book had no shape whatsoever. And I kicked it around for a long time.
I almost stopped writing essays quite a while ago and began writing lectures instead because you get can paid for giving a lecture, but it’s very hard to get paid for writing an essay in my world. And I found that I preferred [writing lectures], that it had a beneficial effect on my prose style. The only disadvantage was that I was always giving these lectures to different people. And while I have maintained an iron rule of never giving the same lecture twice, I did end up repeating myself a good deal because there were certain favourite examples or quotations or themes or ideas that I would have to reintroduce because I was always talking to a different group of people who didn’t hear the lecture before, or the one before that.
So when I put this collection together in draft, it was filled with repetitions which I hadn’t actually expected to find there. And because a lot of them were lectures on oral literature, I wanted to keep the oral style. I wanted not to do what people always do when they put their lectures into a book: take out all the local references and make them look as if they were never intended to be spoken to anybody. But in order to remove these repetitions, I had to rewrite parts of many of these lectures.
It turned out they were fairly modular, so I could unplug a piece and make a different piece and plug it into the same hole. But it was a hell of a lot more work than I had thought – I had thought you just scrape them together and you toss out the bad ones and you wrap up whatever was left and you send it off. But it took me years to scrape this together.
So it’s thirteen “talks,” I call them. There’s a lot of reference to Haida and other Native American material in there, a lot of references to poetry. Some of them were lectures with set themes. One of them was the Pratt Lecture from Memorial University in Newfoundland, which is supposed to have something to do with poetry. One was the Gustafson lecture from Malaspina.