Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Bob MacKenzie

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Poets in Profile: Bob MacKenzie

In Spirit Quest (Dark Matter Press), Bob MacKenzie's poems and Sharlena Wood's paintings work together to become an artistic conversation about one of Canada's most powerful landscape — the Rocky Mountains. Bob's poems tell the story of a man recalling his boyhood experience with the mountains, while Sharlena's artwork weaves in another point of view.

Bob, who is a multidisciplinary artist in his own right, speaks to Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series.

He tells us about growing up in a house full of art, what Coleridge can tell us about unfinished poems and the joys of collaboration.

Open Book:

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

Bob MacKenzie:

Does one become a poet? I wonder. In my case, genes may have something to do with me being an artist. Entire generations of my family have been artists or engaged in creative endeavours, going back to my grandparents and forward to my children. This is just what we do. I grew up in a home with two artist parents with eclectic skills and interests, a father who was a photographer, musician and film-maker and a mother who was a gifted photo-colourist and visual artist. They easily passed on their love of creating and their skills to my younger sister and me, often letting us work alongside them and learn their craft.

Of course, things did happen along the way that influenced my decision to go into the arts and to make poetry my focus. When I was in Grade 11, allowed by the teacher to do nothing because I always got high grades, someone handed me Spice Box of Earth, published by Leonard Cohen at around the same age I was then. As I read it, I was blown away by this poetry. I became an instant lifelong fan of Cohen. That was one of many pivotal points in my deciding to make poems and to approach the writing and presentation of poetry in unique ways.

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

BM:

I've lived a long time. In our home, there were always stories, songs, and poems. I was affected in one way or the other by most of them, but I don't remember a specific first. I suspect that, after nursery rhymes, it may have been something by the American poet Ogden Nash or perhaps some popular song lyric of the day. From early on, I was surrounded by many potential influences which affected me in different ways. I remember that, when I was in Junior High School, I was quite moved by William Ernest Henley's poem "Invictus" and since have always followed his final dictum: "I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul."

OB:

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

BM:

You know, I don't really think that way: in terms of anything as The One. For me it's more about pattern, like mosaic tiles coming together to create some vision or raindrops at just the right angle to catch the sun and create a rainbow. I would love to have written some of John Donne's poems. "Go and Catch a Falling Star" was an early influence. "Death Be Not Proud" and "Batter My Heart" are others that set the bar for me. William Blake's long poems inspire me to write as he did, telling dramatic stories in long poetic form. While not necessarily wishing to have written what they did, there are many poets I aspire to write as well as. In Canada, one strong influence on me is "David" by Earle Birney, an incredibly well-crafted short-story in poem form that works on several levels. Yes, perhaps I might have liked to have written that one.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

BM:

This is hard. I live in a world where unlikely things happen and unlikely people live. To me, the concept "unlikely" seems highly subjective, so to properly answer I'd have to know your definition of unlikely. In my world, everything is likely. I try to write honest descriptions of the people and events I see around me. I like direct, conversational writing that communicates to readers at all levels and in all life-circumstances. Many of today's poets write in non-figurative ways, imagining they are creating Surrealism, or painting expressionistic verbal-images that have little relationship to natural speech. Of course, there are also styles such as text-art, and sound poetry which wander entirely away from the verbal in poetry. In this context, I suppose to describe the lives and events around me as figurative images in simple language may be the most unlikely of all.

OB:

What do you do when a poem is not working?

BM:

I've never considered that a poem just isn't working. Some poems, once begun, are simply not yet ready to be completed. I hang on to these stubs and fragments then take another look at them from time to time. Sometimes I later complete them. Sometimes they become part of another poem. Sometimes, I discover the poem is after all complete as is. "Kubla Khan" was never completed, yet Coleridge published it anyway (though with an elaborate and dubious cover story). The poem does work.

OB:

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

BM:

Books of poetry rarely "knock my socks off" as it were. If a poet is capable of writing a brilliant poem, it may not be and probably is not possible to consistently write brilliant poems. Individual well-crafted poems can blow me away, not collections. I suspect the last book of poetry that had affected me that way was Spice Box of Earth when I read it in 1964.

OB:

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

BM:

Throughout my career, I've made poetry that is conjoined with other aspects of art: music, paintings, sculpture, live and recorded performance, and so on. This is based on the principle that the whole will be greater than the parts. When I work with other artists, what usually results is a creation none of us could have made on our own. This is why the majority of my art is made in collaboration with other, often brilliant artists. I find joy in sharing this experience with other artists. As an artist, I am at core a poet, but that is only the centre of what I do. With poetry as the foundation, I'm free to explore wide and sometimes extreme avenues to art, expression, and communication. This is the best thing: to live in an artistic community, to know the fantastic artists I know, and to be free to do what I do.

I'm not sure there is a "worst" thing but only less wonderful. I don't like my work or my artistic partners' work being not recognized or even ignored by those who should know better and, in a perfect world, I would love us all to be paid the actual value of what we bring to the broader community.


Bob MacKenzie is a poet and multidisciplinary artist. He created the handmade art book SongRise to complement a photography exhibition in 1995. SongRise was republished by Dark Matter Press, which also published Spirit Quest, a collaborative poetry and art project with Sharlena Wood. In spring 2015, a retrospective of Bob's work from 1965-2015, Agapé: Heaven & Earth, will be released by MacKenzie Publishing (no relation to the author).

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

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