Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Chris Chambers

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Chris Chambers

Chris Chambers, a fixture of the Toronto poetry community, is known for his witty and playful urban-focused poems, chockfull of wordplay, wildlife and city dwellers. His newest collection, Thrillows & Despairos (Wolsak & Wynn), has been eagerly anticipated after the success of his Lake Where No One Swims and Wild Mouse (the latter written with Derek McCormack).

Thrillows & Despairos is filled with urban version of the nature poem, where squirrels face off against Honda Civics, seagulls against gale force winds. In the collection, we watch Toronto dream of itself, crystallized in the powerhouse images we've come to expect from Chris.

So we're excited to speak to Chris about his poetic process as part of our Poets in Profile series, where we talk to Canadian poets about their craft, their reading and how poetry first came into their lives.

Chris tells us how a poem about comic strips was a turning point for him, about his aviary of inspiration for Thrillows and Despairos and the poet as rock star.

Open Book:

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

Chris Chambers:

I had all these little bits of writing — short, strange pieces — when I departed my College Creative Writing Class. I was sent off with gentle instructions to not worry about wrapping a form around them; don’t force them into a novel-shaped mould. That was from Stan Dragland who taught the course, was very encouraging and, ten years later, edited my first collection (Lake Where No One Swims).

Soon after leaving college and with a sheaf of fresh “creative writing,” I read this poem in The New Yorker: “Reading the Sunday Comics, 1963,” by Nicholas Christopher, a 4-parter over most of two pages which efficiently and poetically summed up Gasoline Alley, Blondie and two other comic strips from before my time. These beautiful lines, cleverly broken up, describing Dagwood Bumstead’s massive sandwich and wondering how he ever ended up with his gorgeous wife. In The New Yorker. That’s when I first thought maybe my stuff could be poems. A series of pop culture referents helped open the door. But that door was open. So then I immersed myself in poetry and poetics and tried to apply what I was reading to my own stuff. For about 25 years and counting.

A few years later, handing a set of four little broadsheets that I wrote for a Toronto band (a single-sided eight and a half by eleven called The Monday #) handing these to a guy whose little magazine Book City was purchasing on consignment in about 1994. And having the editor/publisher of this magazine, who turned out to be John Degen (poet, novelist, publisher, copyright evangelist and current ED of the Writers’ Union) having him return to the store (the old Book City in the Annex — where I worked the consignment desk) a week or two later to ask if he could publish a poem from the broadsheets in Ink, his little magazine. Making the leap from diy at Kinko’s to being published in Ink was very affirming at the time and has managed to keep me making poems up to now. And meeting and having a friend like Degen — he’s been contributing to me becoming a poet ever since. So that’s cool.

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

CC:

“Prufrock,” probably, was the first I felt I had any luck unlocking after initial bafflement. With the help of a passionate teacher in my last year of high school. Then “The Return” by Pound, early in first year at Western, having an older friend help me to unlock that one. These two early experiences kept me open and intrigued enough to try more. Many folks sweep it all away and poetry has little or no place whatsoever in their lives. Maybe they never unlocked a decent poem. Perhaps they did and ho hummed.

OB:

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

CC:

“Over 2,000 Illustrations and a Complete Concordance” by Elizabeth Bishop.
“Everything only connected by ‘and’ and ‘and’.”
I write it out from time to time to remind myself I know how to write a great poem.
Also very fond of Loudon Wainwright III’s work on “Dead Skunk”.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

CC:

For my latest book, Thrillows & Despairos: pigeons. Definitely pigeons. But also baby crows looking for their voices, light bulb-crazed ladybugs, Steven Malkmus lyrics and texting houseflies, among others.

OB:

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

CC:

There was a great answer to this question from Nathan Whitlock who said “cannibalize it for parts.” But I am a very patient fisherman. I’d probably put it aside and come back for another hack six months to six years later.

OB:

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

CC:

I really liked Claire Caldwell’s Invasive Species. Looking forward to her next one.

OB:

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

CC:

Insinuating myself back into the Toronto scene these past few years, speaking with a woman at the back of the Monarch Tavern at a book launch who asks what I write, and when I tell her says, “the poets in this town all look like rock stars.” Standing in rooms like this one — in front of a mic on a small stage, or at the back, a part of our little scene — is one of the best things.

The worst? Outside the Monarch Tavern this same night — and every night, of course — to most of the rest of the world it’s only poetry.


Chris Chambers is the author of Lake Where No One Swims and Wild Mouse (with Derek McCormack), which was nominated for the Toronto Book Award. These poems have appeared in Taddle Creek, Jacket, This Magazine, The Literary Review of Canada and were awarded the K. M. Hunter Artist Award.

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

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