Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

barrydempster's blog


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.

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