Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

You must change your life

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I was 18 years old when I first met a living, breathing poet. A poet with a book. A poet who'd won an important prize. To quote W.S. Merwin's poem about John Berryman (a poem I love for the lesson at the end about how you can never know if anything you ever write is any good at all), this poet was "much older than I was he was in his thirties."

He was also gorgeous. He wore his shoulder-length hair in a ponytail (it was 1990 and this was totally acceptable). When I saw him read, he had on a James Dean–classic white T-shirt and a pair of black jeans (again, 1990). His poetry was lyrical and his back-story was stormy. He wrote erotic love poems to his wife. He was basically the Fabio of academic poetry. Okay, I'm overstating that for the laugh. It's probably better to compare him to a young Ted Hughes, who, by all accounts, was incredibly magnetic. (Let's not go deeper into his effect on specific women, let's just leave it as that dude had some mojo.) At any rate, I thought this young poet was pretty damn dreamy.

He'd given a reading at my college and had agreed to do some kind of workshop or lecture the following day. I was one of only five students who showed up for this, so we all sat outside on the grass — it was a beautiful, early-fall day — and talked about writing. He said he drank pots of coffee so that he could stay up all night waiting for the muse. He said he read five books a week so that he'd "be ready" for her when she showed up. He raved about Plath and British nineteenth century novelists. He gently scolded a grad student who admitted to aspiring to write Anne Tyler knock-offs. He talked about inspiration and beauty and art and I ate up every glittery, sugary word.

What stuck with me most — what still sticks with me now — was a story he told about a literary critic who had a revelatory experience involving Stephen Mitchell's translation of Rilke's "Archaic Torso of Apollo." I went out and looked up the poem the next day — without the aid of the internet, mind you — and it has been one of those poems that I have carried around with me ever since. Again and again, I have read it and heard, "Wake up and invest in your life!" Again and again, this has helped me.

Years after meeting this poet, an inevitable degree of disillusionment set in. I mentioned my appreciation of his work to a friend and coworker of mine who said, "Yeah, he's alright, but I always feel like he's taken too many poetry pills." I stopped and thought about it and I sort of saw his point. "Oh. Right." Another time, when I was telling a professor about how that meeting had affected me, I said, "And he was so in love with his wife, and I just thought that was the most romantic thing in the world." My professor replied with undisguised glee, "Yes, I knew him then, and he was very in love with his mistress, too." This would have devastated me when I was 18. In my thirties, it made me laugh. "Oh. Right."

And then, of course, my tastes shifted and, while I still admire this writer and am grateful for everything he represented to me — and I'm especially thankful for the gift of that Rilke translation — I found other models. But I think I've always had a thing for Byronic figures — it takes a lot of guts to chase after greatness like that, because you always risk being exposed as vain, pompous, or foolish. No matter how many people might line up to blow smoke up your ass, there will always be someone who rolls their eyes at your pretty little lines. It took me years to become comfortable with the idea that I wanted to be a poet. A poet! It's like saying you want to be a unicorn.

It's a dangerous business messing with the romantic, whether you're using a lower-case or a capital R. Every act of seduction leaves us feeling a bit foolish after we wake up and wonder what exactly went down last night. But I refuse to regret a single swoon. Because while so many of the things that have put a spell on me in the past have lost some of their power to blow my mind, so many other things have only deepened in their ability to knock me over. And so I change my life again and again. And I try to wake up every day.

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1 comment

Hi Damian,

In preparation for being the Open Book WIR for the month of December, I read a lot of blogs. And I wanted to tell you how much I loved reading yours. I hope we get to meet in person, since, through blogs such as the one above, I feel like I've already gotten to know you, at least a little.

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.

Damian Rogers

Damian Rogers lives in Toronto. Paper Radio (ECW Press) is her first book.

Go to Damian Rogers’s Author Page