Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Why I Read Poetry

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Why I Read Poetry

Poetry is a dense brew for the mind and eye. It kick-starts my mind and heart in the morning, as I sit with tea at my desk, cracking open the cover of something new, something borrowed, something blue.

The first author reading I attended was Irving Layton at the ROM- I was maybe sixteen and I went by myself, already fashioning the idea that I was a writer. I wore black and felt very self-conscious. Layton was exactly my idea of what a poet should be. He had the knack for that, the wild hair and off-colour language and overt sexuality.

I checked out a batch of poetry books from my high school library. This is a moment I recall: I set down the triple-score of Ray Souster/Alden Nowlan and Margaret Atwood on my desk at French class. My teacher stared at them and he scowled in distaste. ‘Why are you reading THAT?’ he asked. Such a comment served to make poetry even more enticing. I understood quickly that poetry was pretty marginal.

Soon after, I trotted off to the pimply Medical Arts building at the University of Toronto. Margaret Atwood was reading. Again, a huge crowd and up on stage Atwood was wearing a mini skirt and high leather boots. Image was important to me in those days. You feel part of something at a poetry reading. The tiniest bit cult-like, in a good way.

That same year, I read two of my own poems aloud at a public event (sparsely attended) to Gwendolyn MacEwen at the Jones Ave library – and I was trembling with excitement and nerves to read in front of a real live poet. She didn’t say much, no anointment that I likely dreamed-of (‘Finally...a true poet is found amongst us....’) but it hardly mattered; it was the process of reading aloud in front of a practitioner of the trade that felt like an announcement of intention that I was a writer.

My first publication was in Roy Lowther’s literary journal, a sort of mimeographed and stapled job, called Pegasus. Roy was a minor poet in Vancouver and was married to a more important poet, Pat Lowther. At the time I was living at the Vancouver Zen Centre and I vividly recall picking up the phone and hearing this man I’d heard of ask to publish my poems in his journal. He’d read my work in the University of British Columbia Creative Writing Department worksheets. Was I interested in being published?
‘Yes! Yes!’ I cried, and became instantly enlightened.

Soon after, Roy Lowther was arrested for murdering his wife.

Reading now: Red doc> by Anne Carson and The Small Nouns Crying Faith by Phil Hall. Both books are very new.

4 comments

Edward:
I remember Rune! And of course with Coach House doing the printing, you knew it would look great with that Zephyr paper you could rub your cheek against.

What an experience with McLuhan.I suspect today's students would be gobsmacked by the teensy size of your class.

Thanks for commenting,
ANN

Ann:

I enjoyed you post very much . . . these stories shape us and, at times, open doors as we find our way in writing, whatever the genre.

I came to poetry in my late teens, but for several years didn't attend many readings. In university, I started a literary periodical -- RUNE -- at UofT with a friend, and that seemed to suffice. Coach House did the printing, so we often ran into people like Michael Ondaatje or bpNichol, which also seemed to give us what was needed.

The really interesting encounter happened in fourth year when I took Modern Poetry from Marshall McLuhan. The class took place in the coach house that was part of St Michael's College. For the first few months Marshall didn't crack open a single poetry book, but rather we studied Ciceronian rhetoric. No one dared ask him why -- after all, this was McLuhan! -- so the class (maybe 8 or 9 of us) dutifully worked our lessons in the five parts of rhetoric. Finally, nearing December, Marshall arrived one day with several poems by Yeats. Our lesson was to examine their structure. What Marshall had been preparing us for was the discovery of those five parts of Ciceronian rhetoric as the main structural underpinning of poetry. We sat in stunned silence as we realized he had given us an incredible gift, a master key to the shape and shaping of poetry!

Edward Carson

Hello Susan:
Thanks for your comment and thoughts here. I'm interested in the MOOC course you took, and the fact that you stuck with it. I know most people start such free courses gung-ho, then do a slow fade. Perhaps when they discover there is work involved. I'm going to try and find that course with Al Fireis....

ANN

Ann, Thank you for this posting!

I think one of the first live poets I heard read was also Irving Layton. He read at Queen's University, where I was in my first year, in 1979, I think. I was blown away by his passion, verve, and confidence. A poet? A poet could be like this? And I even understood, or at least enjoyed, his poems. A lover of poetry was born that day!

I went on to switch to U of T where I majored in English, taking one or two wonderful poetry courses.

Now, this fall, decades later, I took a 16-week online MOOC course on modern poetry via Al Fireis. This outstanding American professor pushes his tutors to close read and discuss their understandings of words and lines, and then shares the video with his online students, all 30 000 of them. My earlier love for poetry reignited, I feel I can dip into post-1950 poetry and not only make some sense of it but get excited about it, get passionate about it, a rare gift!

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Ann Ireland

Ann Ireland is the author of A Certain Mr. Takahashi, The Instructor and Exile. Her most recent novel is The Blue Guitar. She lives in Toronto.

Go to Ann Ireland’s Author Page