Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Barry Dempster

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Barry Dempster

Barry Dempster has hit an amazing milestone with Disturbing the Buddha (Brick Books) — the book marks his fifteenth full length poetry collection.

The Canadian Authors Association, which honoured Barry for his collection The Burning Alphabet praised him, saying "Few if any poets encompass the range, the dynamism, and the spectrum of emotional colours Barry Dempster does," a sentiment he continues to prove true in the witty, insightful poems of Disturbing the Buddha.

We speak with Barry today as part of our Poets in Profile series, where we ask poets how they came to the genre, what poems first and most deeply influenced them, and how they approach their writing process.

Barry tells us about an incredibly vivid memory that taught him about the importance of detail, points out the all-time "god of similes" and shares our new favourite limerick.

Open Book:

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

Barry Dempster:

I was five and scheduled for a hernia operation at Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto. I don’t remember being warned, in fact I don’t recall actually arriving at the Hospital. But what remains indelible is the vision of my parents leaving, how it caused everything that had been background to leap into a terrifyingly vivid, almost 3-D world. The nurse’s face, for example, I can still picture the blackheads on both sides of her nostrils and the Valentine’s Day red toothbrush topped with a blindingly white slab of toothpaste that she was insisting that I use even though my toothbrush at home was blue and never had more than a dribble of paste squeezed between the bristles. The green tiled floors seemed to rise around my ankles as I ran out of the room, eyes set on the elevator’s big black buttons, one for up, one for down. When I close my eyes, I can still see the tan line on the ring finger of her left hand as she clasped my arm and tugged me back to my room. I remember that one of her front teeth was less yellowed than the others when she smiled at me and said she was taking me to see my parents. She led me to the window across from my hospital bed where, twelve floors down, my parents were standing on the sidewalk, waving up at me. They were the size of the models in the Eaton’s catalogue. How easy it would be for a wind to come whistling down University Avenue and tear them away. There was no way they could rescue me, not when the palm prints on the grey windowsill seemed to swallow my own pale fingers. The vividness of this experience and the fact that I never forgot it woke me up to the details in the world around me.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” literally left me breathless; I must have read it a dozen times a day for weeks when I first encountered it in high school. Beneath the callowness of my youth, I felt that I was Prufrock, or at least in the process of becoming him. “Do I dare?” was the first question I’d ask myself every morning. How did Eliot imagine me so clearly? How did he manage to make words sing at such a pitch? That first simile — “When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table” — remains the god of similes to this day.


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


Dylan Thomas’s “Fern Hill.” Mouth music at its very best.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


The fire and brimstone of my religious upbringing taught me the power of words. The combination of sin and doubt almost did me in, but it also continually confronted me with glorious waves of praise and metaphor. Without words, how would God have spoken to the nothingness? The power of the Psalms, the madness of Revelations, the wisdom of Proverbs. Although I left fundamentalism behind me, it proved to be the perfect training ground for a poet.


What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?


I put it away in my thick Poems That Aren’t Working File and try to forget it for awhile. Then I tackle it again, replacing words, restructuring. Then back to the file. Try again. Etc. I’m a stubborn bugger. I have trouble throwing a failed poem away. There’s a good poem in there somewhere. It’s my job to find it no matter how long it takes.


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


Dean Young’s “Bender,” his New and Selected poems. He’s a combination of Icarus, Nadia Comăneci and a school of krill pouring into the mouth of a blue whale.


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


The best thing about being a poet is the relative simplicity of the job. Give me a pen and paper and I’m good to go. The worst thing is that weird look of panic that floods someone’s face when he or she finds out that I’m a poet. What arcane and possibly lethal skill do they think I possess? I often have to stop myself from bursting out into a desperate limerick…

“There was a man named Barry
who sang like a lonely canary.
He’d drop to his knees,
beg oh, please, pretty please,
don’t make me feel so scary.”

Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, is the author of fourteen previous collections of poetry. His collection The Burning Alphabet won the Canadian Authors’ Association Chalmers Award for Poetry in 2005. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and in 2014 he was nominated for the Trillium Award for his novel, The Outside World. He lives in Holland Landing, Ontario.

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