Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Barry Dempster

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Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, is the author of fourteen poetry collections, two novels, The Ascension of Jesse Rapture and The Outside World, two volumes of short stories and a children’s book. His collection The Burning Alphabet won the Canadian Authors’ Association Chalmers Award for Poetry in 2005. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Ontario Premiers Award for Excellence in the Arts. He is also Acquisitions Editor for Brick Books.

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The Proust Questionnaire, with Barry Dempster

The Proust Questionnaire was not invented by Marcel Proust, but it was a much loved game by the French author and many of his contemporaries. The idea behind the questionnaire is that the answers are supposed to reveal the respondent's "true" nature.
What is your dream of happiness? 
To be able to accept how arbitrarily it comes and goes. What is your idea of misery? 
 To feel the need to be happy all the time. Where would you like to live? 

New York City for a year with a free pass to all theatres, art galleries and jazz clubs. What qualities do you admire most in a man? 

 The strength to express feelings and be vulnerable, honest and compassionate.

Invisible Dogs

By Barry Dempster

From Brick Books:

Invisible Dogs, Dempster’s fourteenth collection, is a complex but deeply coherent hymn to the difficult business of staying alive. This is a book for when it hurts so bad you hope you’ll die and are afraid you won’t—not because it offers consolation or the promise of a new dawn, but because it so compellingly documents the plain, hard, ungraceful, stumbling grief of the matter, and meets it with rare self-knowledge, wry humour, and an unornamented determination to go on living.

Dempster’s metaphors are like hairpin turns taken at breakneck speed. He has nerves of steel when it comes to self-examination, and it’s this relentless honesty and the emotional torque it induces that keep the voice on the road.

Recent Writer In Residence Posts


Over the course of the WIR experience, I’ve often used my morning writing time to work on that day’s blog. This is sacred time when I shut the door on all distractions, from phone calls to my cat Iris Belle’s whimpers. I need this time to find my focus; it has to be retrieved each morning. Everyday life might look, on the surface, fairly quiet, living in a small town, just my wife and I, but it ends up most days being fraught with freelance jobs, editorial work, classes to prepare, other people’s poems to find a way into and out of again. Then there are emails, bills to pay, housework, errands. I can only think as far as the next responsibility once I’ve left the holy space of my office. I cease being a poet and become a house owner, husband, citizen, editor, teacher, performer, etc.


Is enjambment supposed to be pronounced with a French accent?

What do you do when you unpack a line and can’t figure out where you thought you were going in the first place?

Is a metaphor just a simile with the “like” or “as” taken out?

Is it true that some great poems were written in ten minutes?

How many times have I used the words ”wrists” and “shimmer” over the course of the last 40 years?

Didn’t I already write this a month ago?

Should you really keep reminding well-meaning friends that they’re called stanzas, not paragraphs?

If everything is a metaphor, then what’s a poem a metaphor for?

Why do words like “bucolic” and “trenchant” always blow their own tone?

How come a good poem sprouts flaws the minute you read it loud to someone else?


Range is something to aim for – a poet’s ability to go multiple, whistle one minute, moan the next. Sound like a basset hound, then go for a high-pitched squawk of geese. Try tender, then bold; try nothing at all, the void in all its glory. Find your own voice, by all means, but take Louise Gluck’s advice: once you’ve got it down pat, shake it up, try something new. Get rid of the tics and tricks. Take chances on being oblique. It’s not a bad thing to get lost every now and again.


Someone asks me what’s the most important skill a poet can have and I start to say the power of observation. The world awaits us with all sorts of small truths that can’t easily be seen. When I lose touch with the details around me, I have a devil of a time expressing myself. I don’t mean facts here; facts aren’t always sacred. But the various ways that life identifies itself, shakes its tail feathers, empties its pockets of coins and stones, bathes in vats of light.


I came across a cat writing contest on the internet. At first I thought that the poems had to be written by cats and was sure that my Iris Belle had a stanza or two inside her just waiting to creep out on four velvety paws. But it turned out to be a human poet writing about his or her cat. I could imagine a plethora of “darting tails” and “whiskers that tickle.” But why was I being so cynical?


Tell a classroom of wannabe writers to try their hands at a poem and the stilted, strangely wrought language that ensues can be alarming. It’s like they’re being told to write in some World War II secret code at gunpoint. How else to explain that something as simple as “This morning” can become “As dawn crept its blood-dyed fingers towards the undeniable throat of a new universe” or “Sunburst hollow toots of chimeras in love with themselves.” Yikes! Or else a sales conference of clichés, everything from “that golden orb” to “The sun smiles in my bedroom window.” Poetic in the worst sense: self-conscious, purple, words skinned of all common sense.


A friend confesses that he could spend the rest of his life revising a handful of the same poems. One change leads to another. It’s like a glassblower unsure whether to make a swan or a squirrel, the glass seething as if it were breathing in and out, the heat becoming unbearable, until he stops, lets it cave in, then starts all over again. I know what he means. My poems have multiple personality disorder. One minute I’m being seduced by the muse, the next I’m being slapped across the face. There’s the sweet voice, the monster, the forgotten self, and the one who talks with a foreign accent.


It was a minute-and-a-half since I finished toying with a poem that hadn’t been working for weeks; I had that submarine feeling that it was sinking out of sight. But I had no time to dither with the muse. I had a meeting with a young poet with whom I’d been dodging the question for weeks now of how to know when revision isn’t working and a poem should be tossed.


Some days I want to tear chunks off the alphabet, chop up syllables, sink my teeth into the gristle of grammar. I discovered a ferruginous hawk up a tree in my backyard the other day with the peeled pink of a dead rabbit in its talons. It stayed there for hours, tugging shreds of flesh, dropping them down its beak. Am I the hawk in this image, or the rabbit? Is writing an act of being devoured, or devouring?

There are times when everything I write feels horribly generic. It feels like the muse has been tied up, gagged and thrown into the trunk of a black car. Together, the muse and I roll forward when the car brakes, then roll back again when the gas pedal is gunned.

Truth Is...

I’ve been thinking about the difference between facts and details, how so many of us cling to something that isn’t quite working in our poems because it’s real, the way it actually happened. Changing blue eyes to brown in order to score a little assonance or sound echo feels like a betrayal to some new writers.


Am I writing the same poem over and over again? My books are teeming with the invisible and a state of loneliness that could be a one-man cold war. I never set out to revisit these themes, but they almost always find a way to express themselves in poem after poem. It’s like I’m the insect inside the amber.

I do my best to challenge the language, to shift the music of my approach from a steep blues to a thunderous symphony. No more disappearing acts. But faced down by a particularly dramatic verb, I somehow evaporate. The great unseen. The frame shatters and I crumble into a thousand pieces.


Kimmy Beach knows her way around pop culture. She’s written books about James Cagney, Paul McCartney and, most recently, “The Last Temptation of Bond” where she delves into the world’s favourite secret agent’s sexual magnetism. More fingers are slid inside more women than in a Henry Miller novel. But just in case you mistake this for some kind of girls’ circle jerk, Bond’s women ultimately have the last word. When I mention that this is one of my favourite poetry books from last year, some of the looks I’ve received have been a combination of confusion and condescension.


At the suggestion of a friend, I gave my students a Seamus Heaney poem, “A Personal Helicon,” cut up into a puzzle of words, running the gamut from eight “a’s” to one “you” and “your” apiece. Put together as Heaney had it, the poem told the story of a dry well discovered in childhood, ending with a dark metaphor that came equipped with a shiver. It’s such a clear, masterfully detailed poem that I didn’t have a clue how my students could make something new of it.


Sometimes I’m haunted by Coleridge’s nifty definition of a poem as the best words in their best order. If I try to say it quickly several times in a row, “order” starts to sound like “odour.” Sniff, sniff, this particular word stinks to high heavens, but that one smells like a rose after rain. A bit of fun, though the word “best” can become bothersome, the knowledge that somewhere out there looms the one and only word that will do. After awhile, you start not to trust language. “Seep” is a good word, for example, but isn’t “leach” even better. And what about “ooze?” Nothing is ever quite good enough. The possibility of a higher rung keeps me searching until I realize that I can’t get past the first word.


I keep a list of things I think I want to write about. Back when the list was a more manageable size, I’d tackle my ideas at enough of a distance for me to have processed the simple stuff, the details, and to be ready to make new discoveries. But as ideas are known to do, they began to multiply. It could be years before I actually get to an idea. Writing a poem about Lou Reed’s death, for example, might have to wait so long that, for a moment, I’m liable to forget, not Lou Reed, of course, but the connection to him that I’d wanted to explore when I first wrote down the idea.


I heard a few days ago that a colleague did a major job of editing that took the better part of a year to complete for a mere five-hundred dollars. I happen to mention this to a friend who works as a mechanic for the Board of Education and he was flabbergasted. How can anyone be so undervalued? Five-hundred dollars doesn’t even cover half of an average annual house insurance bill. “She must be crazy,” he diagnoses. I don’t dare tell him of the major judging job I took on last year for no money at all, although I got to keep the books.


It’s a risky thing to put a poem out of sight in order to let it germinate or steep, whatever the science of hope might call the process. Some poems only turn up posthumously and are declared masterpieces or strange mistakes. But I don’t really care about the pages that might outlive me. What really bugs me is how a poem can go from promising, even a touch prideful, to absolutely terrible by just sitting in a drawer. Something bizarrely chemical seems to be going on: metaphors staling with every passing minute, leaps of language collapsing, profound thoughts found out to be merely painted on with a coat of fool’s gold.


I’ve been running a writing workshop all winter and, once again, marveling at the courage that it takes to tackle the tricks and complexities of the English language. The writers are exposing themselves to the possibility of failure week after week, hefting the weight of expectation and the discipline to persevere. “Perfect” is a Calvinist hairball of a word and has created nothing but self-doubt and misery. Perfection is overrated.


Catching up on the frippery of “Downton Abbey,” I enjoyed Maggie Smith’s trenchant Dowager Countess of Grantham listening to her son wax a mite lyrically about land and history and then exclaiming that the last thing her family needed was a poet. Apparently, poets are contentious, indiscrete and unpredictable. “One needs look no further than Lord Byron,” she continued. “Need I say more.”

In Nicole Hofcener’s hit film, “Enough Said,” Catherine Keener plays a rather swishy character who Julia Louis-Dreyfus snorts at when she answers the question “What do you do?” with the statement, “I’m a poet.”


The other day, I agreed to read one of my own poems at a sixtieth wedding anniversary. There were fewer trees on the main street of the small town just north of Toronto than the last time I’d been there, reminding me of the ice storm we had back in December. Immediately, I wanted to stop the car and write some notes about the presence of such absence, how my own trees, further north where the damage was less, had glittered for days, making the street look luxurious when the sun came out. What I was doing was stalling. I was already ten minutes late. Despite the fact that the married couple were relatives of mine, I still felt like a hired entertainer.


In Stephanie Bolster’s “A Page from the Wonders of Life on Earth,” the writing is acutely compressed, each word standing in for what in another poet’s hands might take pages. There’s no room for sentimentality. These poems have been tightened like the lug nuts on a racecar.

Why is this so exciting for me? I grew up on the Bible’s repetitiousness, the “begats” flying. I gravitated towards poets like D.H. Lawrence, Purdy and Ginsberg who threw so many words on the bonfire that sparks flew everywhere.


I gave a public performance the other night. It was supposed to be a reading from my recent novel, “The Outside World,” but I thought I’d sneak in a few poems from my “Invisible Dogs” as well. I made a joke about the poems, giving audience members permission to hide beneath their seats if they had come solely for the fiction, if poetry made their teeth grind or sent sickly shivers up and down their spines. Why was I dissing poetry? Why didn’t I just announce that they were in for a real treat?



Patrick Friesen is a true lyric poet, open and honest, singing more often than talking. His poems are almost bodiless, his words slowly turning into rivers. In “Earth’s Crude Gravities,” language pours from the page with such shapeliness and depth that I often find myself reading a poem again and again until it sweeps all sense of being grounded out from under me.

Why isn’t a new Patrick Friesen book a major event? I didn’t even know “Earth’s Crude Gravities” existed until it tipped off the shelf in a secondhand bookstore and I caught it between my fingers.


Maureen McLane’s book, “My Poets,” goes beyond poetics and criticism into a kind of channeling of the poets themselves: her versions of their work, her obsessions with their obsessions. She not only enters the spirit of poets ranging from H.D. to Louise Gluck, but gets inside their larynxes as well.


I’ve been thinking about the poetics of place: Tim Lilburn’s Moosewood Sandhills; Don Domanski’s wilderness of a cosmos; Karen Solie’s truck stops and motels; Tim Bowling’s fishing boats. It’s not just splashing about in details, I tell my students, but precision (like piercing an atom with an invisible pin) and ruthlessness. You have to make sure that nostalgia doesn’t clot the muse’s arteries.

What vehicle do we choose to take us in and out of landscape? Regret? Jubilation? Fear? Misunderstanding? Is there really such a thing as purely being here? The minute that the second hand notices that it’s being observed, it tears a hole in time, the future leaking out. You have to focus on what the “now” is doing to the “then” and how this creates a much more complex “when.”

Welcome to National Poetry Month

I always feel a bit uncomfortable when Poetry Month commences. It’s like I’ve had a secret for the last eleven months, no one really interested in how I’ve spent my days, successfully managing to pass myself off as an ordinary guy. But then the first of April, a month dedicated to outing poets and poetry, pops up like those first splashes of colour in my garden – pink crocuses, purple grape hyacinths, blue forget-me-nots – and people start to ask questions, to poke around in the dirt.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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