Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Andrea Thompson

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Poets in Profile: Andrea Thompson

Poet and novelist Andrea Thompson has been a part of the Toronto spoken word and literary community for over twenty years, contributing both as a writer and as a teacher, mentor and activist.

Though Andrea has focused her energies on poetry and music in the past, this fall she is turning over a new leaf with her debut novel, Over Our Heads (Inanna Publications).

Over Our Heads tells the story of two half-sisters with very different lives. Emma sings in a punk band, writes poetry and works as a pet psychic, while Rachel fills her days with work as an actuary and spends her nights looking at the stars. When the grandmother who raised the girls passes away, the two are brought together in their grief and shared history.

Andrea speaks to Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series. She tells us about her own grandmother — who sparked Andrea's early interest in poetry — city neighbours as muses and her awesome list of recommended reads (from which you may want to steal!).

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Andrea Thompson:

My earliest memories of poetry, especially poetry spoken aloud, revolve around my grandmother. Not much of a drinker, about half-way into a glass of wine, Grandma has a tendency to either start singing or reciting a poem she learned when she was young. I’ve always been amazed by her memory. I remember telling her once that we had been studying Coleridge at school. She responded with, “Oh, I know him! In Xanadu did Kubla Khan…” and off she went. Even today, at 94, she can do Shakespearean sonnets by heart.

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

AT:

The first poem that affected me deeply was Robert Frost’s, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” There were always poetry books around the house when I was a kid, so I’m not sure how old I was when I read it, but it was the first time I became aware of the power of metaphor. I remember the moment it dawned on me that it wasn’t just a poem about a guy and his horse. What a revelation! I was so moved by the idea that a poem could speak about more than one thing at a time, and so grateful to Mr. Frost — for both his talent and sentiment, that I tore the poem out of the book and framed it. I still have it to this day.

OB:

What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?

AT:

My first thought after reading this question was, something by Rumi. Rumi is like a spiritual tonic for me. If ever I’m completely out of sorts, and hungry for something to make me feel at peace and re-connected to what is beautiful about being human, I go to Rumi. So many people do, and that just astounds me – that this 13th-century Persian poet was able to write words that have uplifted so many, over such an expanse of space and time… What a wonderful legacy to leave behind.

But thinking about the question a bit more, I can’t honestly say that there’s any poem that someone else has written that I wish I would have written myself. For me, that defeats the purpose of writing in the first place. I think that the best, most satisfying writing is an expression of the writer’s essence — their unique nature. I think there’s an audacity and freedom in authenticity that takes you back to the first time you picked up a pen. I love when a writer uses words and voice to express themselves on their own terms. You can tell they’re getting a buzz off it, and when it’s done well, the result is always a kind of reinvention of language and its possibilities. ee cummings wrote a piece called “A Poet’s Advice to Students,” that sums up the idea of writing like nobody-but-yourself beautifully. Or so I feel.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

AT:

I think the most unlikely source of inspiration for me are my neighbours, especially neighbours I don’t know very well. Over the years, quite a few of them have ended up in my poems. My neighbours are like my secret muses. I may never speak more than twenty words to them, and yet I listen to their music, smell their food, hear their children playing in the yard. Without really wanting to, I know how much they drink, how well their business is doing, how happy their marriage is. Just through proximity, we develop this simultaneous intimacy and distance between ourselves and our neighbours that fascinates me.

OB:

What do you do when a poem is not working?

AT:

What I do, and what I tell my students to do with a poem that isn’t working, is to put it away for a while. Give it some time to breathe and figure itself out. If a student throws away work, it’s a heart breaker. Sometimes a dead piece can be resurrected once we figure out what we’re trying to say with it. At the very least, there’s usually some line, some seed of an idea worth keeping that won’t revel itself without some ripening.

OB:

What was the last book of poetry that really knocked your socks off?

AT:

I’ve got a few books on the go at the moment that I’m digging: Forecast by Clara Blackwood, The Last Temptation of Bond by Kimmy Beach and The Reinvention of the Human Hand by Paul Vermeersch. I’ve also heard some great live poetry of late, so next on my shopping list are Understories by Elizabeth Green, Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway by Alexandra Oliver, and anything by Barry Dempster or Jeramy Dodds. Oh, and I met a lovely poet when I was in Saskatoon earlier this year named Fionncara MacEoin, whose collection, Not the First Thing I’ve Missed made me cry on the plane home.

OB:

What is the best thing about being a poet….and what is the worst?

AT:

The best thing about being a poet is getting to play with words, sound and meaning. For me, writing a poem is like figuring out a puzzle. It’s a pure, giddy, nerdy joy. And when it finally clicks and flows and works — it’s like everything is golden and right in the world. I also love the energy exchanged when a poem leaves a mouth, enters a room, an ear, a heart, and is returned. Poetry readings are my version of church — potent environments of inspiration, enlightenment and transformation. Hallelujah!

The worst thing about being a poet is the paycheque.


Andrea Thompson is a writer, teacher, activist and mentor, who has been a mainstay on the Canadian spoken word scene for the past twenty years. In 1995, she was featured in the ground-breaking documentary, Slamnation, as a member of the country’s first National Slam team, and in 2011 was host of the nationally broadcast television series, Heart of a Poet. Thompson’s poetry collection, Eating the Seed (Ekstasis Editions, 2000), has been featured on the reading list at the University of Toronto, and at the Ontario College of Art and Design. Thompson is the co-editor of Other Tongues: Mixed-Race Women Speak Out, an anthology released by Inanna Publications in 2010. Thompson currently teaches Spoken Word through OCADU’s Continuing Studies department.

Check out all the Poets in Profile interviews in our archives.

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