Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

COMPRESSION

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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.

After a few years of my own version of pyromania, I began feeling drawn to the complete opposite: lines that had been stitched and puckered, words put under so much pressure they snapped. I loved how Michael Ondaatje pared narrative down to essence in “The Collected Works of Billy the Kid.” Phyllis Webb’s “Naked Poems” gave me chills as they barely settled on the page; one quick shake and they might have rearranged themselves into entirely different poems. I was mesmerized by how Gwendolyn MacEwan set the table so richly and then would zero in on the glint of one particular spoon or a magic crumb that held all crumbs in its weight.

It’s why I’m so partial to stand-up comedians, how they startle us with exactly the right word at the right time. Steven Wright, for example: “I was reading the dictionary. I thought it was a poem about everything.”

I know it’s a great poem when I start to feel the joists crack and the floor shrink just enough to toss me off balance for a second. That words alone can create such pressure makes me feel that language is alive and muscular, that it can lift off an entire roof with just a shrug of its amazing shoulders.

1 comment

I'm delighted by how you talk about how Ondaatje "pared narrative down to essence." That book has been one of my go-to books my entire career, and I return to it often. I teach it whenever I get the chance, as well. You've articulated one of the most exciting aspects of that text, and one that I've tried to work with in my own poetry: the idea that narrative can be an element of poetry, particularly the long poem form, while still keeping the compression that helps define poetry. I've been trying to write that book for two decades. Still am.

KB

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.

Barry Dempster

Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, is the author of fourteen poetry collections, two novels, two volumes of short stories and a children’s book.

Go to Barry Dempster’s Author Page