Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Anne Compton

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Anne Compton

Open Book is celebrating National Poetry Month with daily profiles of today's "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Find out what inspires, confounds and delights the poets behind this spring's new releases by following our series.

Anne Compton, the Maritime writer who won the 2005 Governor General's Award for Poetry for her collection Processional (Fitzhenry & Whiteside), could guide us through this morning's fog with the quiet attention and piercing intuition of the finest of poets. The comments of the Governor General's jury that year described Processional as "both a still-life and a tableau, with moments of perfect stillness and of passionate arrival. This book skillfully marries history to the present, and pulls the everyday into light."

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Anne Compton:

What contributed to my becoming a poet was not so much an experience as an attitude. In the household that I grew up in, there was an attitude of awe in regard to the poetry of the psalms. It wasn’t so much the religious content of the psalms that made my father’s face radiant when he referred to them. In fact, he never talked about their content, but when he used that phrase “the poetry of the psalms,” I understood, from his voice and look, that there was something about poetry that set it apart from other kinds of writing.

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

AC:

The literary work that made me want me to be a writer was Elizabeth Madox Roberts’ novel The Time of Man, but as to poetry, I was affected, as I’m sure all school children were at that time, by having to memorize large swathes of poetry.

I remember in particular memorizing John Keats’ sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.” I loved stomping around the fields and noisily shouting out Keats’ lines or Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” another poem about travelling. I wanted to be able to say, like Keats’ speaker, “Much have I traveled in the realms of gold…” It must have been the sound of Keats’ sonnet, the iambic pentameter and words like “fealty” and “surmise” that affected me so much though, probably, I didn’t know what those words meant.

OB:

What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?

AC:

Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a certain Slant of light, / Winter Afternoons…” for its brilliant economy and psychological truth.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

AC:

Back in the late 1990s, I saw an advertisement in the Kennebecasis Valley Viewer, a local weekly. The ad read, “Senior Citizen widower requires woman to cook and clean house. Willing to dig worms and cut bait. Must own boat and motor. Please send photo of boat.” I knew I would have to invent the voice that responded to that ad because it absolutely demanded a response. It became the poem “Features” in Opening the Island.

OB:

What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?

AC:

I abandon it, of course. The poem knows more than I do, and if it’s feeling awkward, why should I force it into some sort of shape that it is naturally resisting?

OB:

What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?

AC:

Michael Symmons Roberts’ Corpus (Jonathan Cape, 2004).

OB:

What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?

AC:

The best thing about being a poet is the change it makes in the brain so that you become daily alert and noticing, wide awake to what your senses are picking up — the sights and sounds of everything around you. The feel of things. In terms of the senses, writing makes you greedy. Even if I were never to write another poem, I’ll always be grateful that poetry, and the note-scribbling that precedes it, came along and revved up my attentiveness.

Worst thing? Poetry now lives in the shadow of the novel. The literary form that was once pre-eminent — poetry — has become one that fewer and fewer readers turn to because the novel, they say, is more accessible, more familiar to them through the worlds that it creates. At the Lorenzo Reading Series (UNB Saint John), where I am director, we get an audience of 100 to 200 for a fiction evening. Maybe 30 for a poet. Sad thing, that eclipse of the poem by the novel.

Anne Compton was awarded the 2006 Governor General's Award for Poetry for Processional, which also won the Atlantic Poetry Prize. Her first collection, Opening the Island, won the 2004 Atlantic Poetry Prize and was shortlisted for the Margaret and John Savage First Book Award. More recently she was awarded the Alden Nowlan Award for excellence in English language literary arts, presented by the New Brunswick Arts Board. Her most recent collection is Asking Questions Indoors and Out, published by Fitzhenry and Whiteside in 2009.

Anne is author of A.J.M. Smith: Canadian Metaphysical and Meetings with Maritime Poets: Interviews, editor of The Edge of Home: Milton Acorn from the Island, and co-editor of Coastlines: The Poetry of Atlantic Canada. She teaches at the University of New Brunswick at Saint John.

For more information about Processional and Asking Questions Indoors and Out please visit the Fitzhenry & Whiteside website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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