Friday, November 06, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Barry Dempster

Barry Dempster is the author of fourteen books, including a novel, a children’s book, two volumes of short stories and ten collections of poetry. He has been nominated for the Governor General’s Award twice and has won a Petra Kenney Award, a Confederation Poets’ Prize, a Prairie Fire Poetry Contest and the Canadian Authors’ Association Chalmers Award for Poetry for his 2005 collection, The Burning Alphabet. In 2009, he published two new books of poetry: Love Outlandish, published by Brick Books in April, and Ivan’s Birches, with Pedlar Press, in September. Barry is senior editor at Brick Books. Also over this past year, he was a Wired Writing mentor at the Banff Centre as well as facilitator of a two week poetry workshop in Santiago, Chile.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for my first book of poetry. I was so green that I actually didn’t know that there was a GG Award for Poetry. It gave me a shock to realize that people were reading my work outside of friends and family.

My most recent book, Ivan’s Birches, arises more from the subtle undertones of experience than my previous collection, Love Outlandish, where both my heart and my nervous system are worn on my sleeve. One shimmers, the other seethes.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

Poetry was where my adolescent self felt most embraced. Growing up in the shadows of Christian fundamentalism and its use of volatile, life-changing language gave me a strong sense of compression and focus. And in the beginning there was poetry.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

How things start depends on how much “unconscious” time I get, time to dream and ponder and play. There are often false starts, projects where my will gets in the way. Once I immerse myself in writing, pace has nothing to do with it. I work steadily which is not the same thing as fast. My first drafts are rough little creatures, but they feel enough like promises to keep me going through a revision process that can add up to so many drafts I eventually lose track.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

A poem almost always begins with a line containing enough music to haunt me. Then and only then do I start opening myself up to content. I often think that I’m writing piece by piece without a particular goal in sight, but somewhere along the way I start to see a pattern. That point where a random blizzard starts to resemble a solvable puzzle is always a great relief.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I used to dread public readings. It felt like I was peeling a grape from the inside out. But then I started learning to let the language lead me, to just stand back and celebrate the harmony and dissonance of words. Now I sometimes enjoy myself up there breathing into a microphone.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

I’m fascinated by the various levels of meaning that make language such a finely tuned system of truth and dare. I love undoing words and putting them together again in new relationships. It’s like building new mathematical equations with every fresh line, knowing that deep communication is both impossible and essential.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

The writer, especially the poet, is the representative of language. We owe it to readers to honour the vagaries of communication, to stretch the limits of the lyric, to face up to beauty or horror or balance in whatever ways they demand. At the most intrinsic level, everything we do affects the world. It’s important to live with that knowledge, to accept that we make a difference whatever it is we do or don’t do.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’ve been exceedingly lucky to have worked with Don McKay several times. He asks questions that I might never think of on my own. He both broadens my work and helps me make myself small enough to get out of the way of the music. Becoming a stranger to your own work can be a marvelous gift.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

Paul Eluard’s “I must not mistake reality for being like myself,” which I like to paraphrase as “Get your head out of your own ass.” It’s good to be reminded that I’m just a cog in the big machine, but that being a cog can also take a monumental effort and can sometimes feel like a religious experience. Very little to do with the ego, though. On a scale of one to ten, egos, like belly buttons and appendixes, don’t amount to much.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I believe in giving the muse office hours, otherwise my life just sweeps me up in a swirl of lost minutes. An ideal day is where I sit down with the blank page after exercising for half an hour and stay there until I feel I’m done.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I turn to other poets. I turn to nature. I go for a walk to remind myself that I’m just one of a myriad of phenomena, that the world will open up to me when I give it the space it deserves.

12 - What do you really want?

Besides immortality and world peace? I want to write a better poem than the poem I wrote yesterday.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

Definitely nature. It’s where the scheme of things begins and ends. It’s science and holiness and challenge. I’m also very open to other art forms, to film and music and painting. To see the world through someone else’s eyes is a huge boost and privilege.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Different writers at different times, but I find myself most often returning to Neruda, Rilke and Eliot, the ways in which they first got me thinking and feeling and trying to go beyond the insignificance of myself. Sometimes the best thing is to pick up a book at random and to discover another way of speaking and singing. No agenda, other than to leave yourself open to discover something new.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to travel more. To take wiser, yet wilder leaps. I’d like not to feel so locked up inside myself.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I would have been a full-time teacher or a psychotherapist had I not fallen into poetry. What I would like to be able to do is to sing like Otis Redding, act like Sean Penn, and paint like Mark Rothko.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

Writing best suited both the most isolated and the most daring parts of myself.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read was Marilynne Robinson’s novel, Gilead. The last great films were Agnes Varda’s The Beaches of Agnes and the new Jon Amiel film, Creation, about Charles Darwin coming to terms with loss and change.

19 - What are you currently working on?

I’m working on several manuscripts at once. I’ve been writing feverishly these last few years, a combination of facing mortality and finally accepting the fact that poetry deserves the most dedicated of disciples.

12 or 20 questions (second series);

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