Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

My Next Book: Time Slip

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My Next Book: Time Slip


Sometime this May, my fifth collection of poetry will be launched by Guernica Editions in Toronto. Called Time Slip after its longest poem (900+ lines), this is a “new and selected” compilation, whose earliest works date back 40 years. There are selections from each of my previous books, plus previously unpublished work written over the last decade. Contents include love poems, linguistic trickery, nature lyrics, elegies, political satire, work responding to visual art, texts based on dreams, and part of my poetic biography of Mata Hari (still my favourite book).
At this point in a writer's life, it's appropriate to have a realistic idea of your standing in literature. Since whatever potential you have should be realized by now, you should no longer maintain illusions about becoming the next Rimbaud. So, with five books almost under my belt, I feel safe in revealing the truth: in terms of posterity, I'm a footnote.
My books have been spaced apart in time (sometimes by a decade or more) and each has come from a different publisher. My work tends to range considerably in tone and structure, sometimes aiming for humour, sometimes experimenting, collaging together unlikely insights from science, nature, language and fantasy. I have always been suspicious of identifying with a given movement or style, and somewhat diffident about promoting myself as a poet. I figured that, if people needed my work, they would find it; if they didn't, that was OK too.
Also, I have not focused solely on writing verse and buttressing a reputation as the next great thing in the incestuous realm of Canadian poetry. As a result, my work doesn't appear in major anthologies or special “Canadian content” issues of foreign periodicals. Some potential poetry-writing time and energy has gone to travelling, free-lance journalism, working, building a career in education, photography, music, fixing old motorcycles… you get the idea. Perhaps I'm one of those people doomed to be good at a lot of things, but not exceptional at any particular one.
There are a few reasons why I feel I deserve status as footnote, however.
1. I was, for a little over a year, a typesetter, editor and travelling book salesman at Coach House Press in its experimental and productive period in the early 1970s, where my first book – Taking Tree Trains -- was published. I was guest editor for a “younger writers” issue of IS (pronounced EYES), Victor Coleman's poetry mag. Its design (not mine) had white text on a psychedelically coloured background. Unfortunately, the pages were printed on a humid summer day. Between each pass through the big Heidelberg offset press, they swelled up a little more. By the time the last ink was laid on, most of the white letters had disappeared into an off-register kaleidoscope. It was the perfect obscure issue -– almost nobody could read it.
2. When I attended the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at the Boulder campus of Naropa Institute, I got to work one summer as Allen Ginsberg's assistant. One of the duties he assigned me was to unpack and catalogue a box of assorted paper -– posters, brochures, etc. – that he'd been moving with him for years. Near the bottom, I found a large ticket stub from a Bob Dylan concert at the Royal Albert Hall (probably from his world tour in 1966). On the back, in tiny handwriting, was an original Ginsberg poem titled “Guru.” For a moment, I was tempted to keep it and say nothing, but having learned how honest and generous Ginsberg was as a person, I couldn't. So I presented it to him, and he was overjoyed. “I've been looking for that poem for years!”, he said. It later appeared in one of his collections. In my second summer there, I had the same role for Anne Waldman. We interviewed some of the visiting writers, and the transcripts of our sessions with Robert Duncan and William Burroughs were each eventually published as chapbooks or parts of anthologies.
3. While I was on the executive of the League of Canadian Poets, we got an unusual request. A couple who wished to remain anonymous greatly admired Al Purdy's work, and wanted to send him $10,000 as a tribute. But they couldn't commit the crass act of just mailing a cheque. Would the League be willing to create a special award and “launder” the funds by giving them to the Bard of Belleville draft beer? We couldn't see any harm, and brainstormed names for this one-time honour. I suggested “The Voice of the Land,” and it stuck. I was told that some League members objected to the phrase for political reasons, not liking the implications of “Voice” or “Land.” “They probably didn't like 'of' or 'the' either,” I responded. Later, when visiting the great poet's grave, I was startled to find that “The Voice of the Land” was carved onto his tombstone, presumably at his request.

Of course, once my new collection is published –- a big one for poetry, running some 160 pages -- anything could happen. I could be nominated for awards, denounced as a purveyor of dead white male literature long past its sell-by date, or finally identified as the key figure in the newly-recognized movement of Poets Named John from Guelph Who Try to be Funny. At the very least, I plan to have a good time launching it and doing readings here and there. Join me when you can.

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.

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John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page