Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Janice Tokar

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Janice Tokar

Janice Tokar is the author of the poetry chapbook Arrhythmia (above/ground press). The collection has been praised for its "spare, pulsing poems [which] beat with the irregular rhythms of life, death, love and loss".

Janice speaks to Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series. She tells us about growing up in a small town, recommending poetry to aliens and writing in one's sleep.

Open Book:

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

Janice Tokar:

I can’t help but feel that there’s simply something about having grown up in a small town on the prairies that played a significant role: a degree of isolation; the late-August wind; a world made up of 50% sky.

Also, my parents were both actively involved in the cultural life of our community. They sang in choirs, organized concerts and put on plays. My father composed music and wrote short skits. The house was filled with books, including mysterious (to me) volumes of Ukrainian novels and poetry. By the age of four or five, I was singing songs and reciting little poems on stage at the local town hall.

But there were challenges as well. My mother lost most of her eyesight — and nearly lost her life — due to a brain tumour when I was 15-months old. And my father died suddenly from a heart attack just after my eleventh birthday. So I had to face loss, upheaval and insecurity at a relatively young age. These events had a huge impact on my life and on my perception of the world around me.

So, those are some of the things that I imagine predisposed me to write poetry. But if I had to pick a specific, individual experience, I think I’d go with reading a poem called Meeting . . . which brings me to your next question!

OB:

What is the first poem you remember being affected by?

JT:

The Grade 4 Reader in elementary school was “Up and Away”. It contained the poem Meeting, by Rachel Field, about an encounter between a school child (the narrator) and a deer that was drinking at a brook. Here’s a passage from it: “Beautiful, brown, and unafraid/Those eyes returned my stare,/And something with neither sound nor name/Passed between us there.//Something I shall not forget;/Something still, and shy, and wise,/In the dimness of the woods,/From a pair of gold-flecked eyes.”

My 9-year-old self was so moved by this: bowled over by the power and immediacy of the verse. I was there, looking into the eyes of the deer!

If aliens were to land and express an interest in apprehending human consciousness, I’d refer them to the poetry section of the library.

OB:

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

JT:

There are dozens of amazing poems that I wish I had written: for example, This is Just to Say (William Carlos Williams); Driving (John Newlove); Old Men, Smoking (Sandra Kasturi); Julian Day 2449146 (Gil McElroy); and numerous sequences from Monty Reid’s Garden collection.

But if I had to pick just one poem, it would be "Short Talk On Walking Backwards" by Anne Carson. In that piece she captures (for me) an emotional truth about grief and the chasm of silence that death cleaves. She also poignantly conveys the imagined loneliness of the dead, but it is her portrayal of their longing to have their presence acknowledged — their vulnerable, almost hopeless longing — that cuts me to the core.

OB:

What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?

JT:

I’m not sure whether this counts as a source of inspiration, but I can tell you about the most unlikely genesis of a poem that I’ve written. I woke up one morning to find the notepad I keep by the bed covered in scrawly handwriting — my handwriting. It began: “They will arrive by stealth / Sated children lick salt from their lips”, and went on for a dozen more lines. Odd phrases to write in one’s sleep — and I have absolutely no memory of writing any of it! I ended up publishing the poem exactly as I found it, with additional line breaks and one line inverted from the original.

OB:

What do you do when a poem is not working?

JT:

After the ritual hair-pulling, I toss it into a folder labelled “Misfires”, with the hope of mining it for spare parts at some future point. But this hope is rarely realized: the file’s more graveyard than wellspring.

OB:

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

JT:

I’m going to go with “what was the last poetry that really knocked your socks off?”, if that’s okay.

jwcurry has been orchestrating Messagio Galore sound poetry performances over the past number of years, with appearances in Ottawa, Toronto and other cities. This is poetry at its most elemental, visceral, and mesmerizing. The performances echo and hum and vibrate their way directly into the blood and bone. Try holding on to your socks while experiencing a piece like GLASS ON THE BEACH — can’t be done!

OB:

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

JT:

Best two things: the heightened flow state on those rare occasions when a poem catches fire and words spontaneously pour out; the creative and generous people I’ve met through writing. Worst two things: being stuck with a line mid-poem that has the exact right words but the wrong rhythm; the inevitable self-doubt and second-guessing that flutters about after I press SEND.


Janice Tokar’s poetry has appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine, the Bywords Quarterly Journal, The Peter F. Yacht Club, ottawater and Experiment-O. Her first chapbook, Arrhythmia, was published by above/ground press in April, 2014. An earlier manuscript of Arrhythmia placed second in the 2012 Tree Press Chapbook Contest.

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

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