Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Poets in Profile: Roo Borson

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Roo Borson

Roo Borson is the author of more than ten books of poetry and has received both the Governor General's Literary Award and the Griffin Poetry Prize for her work. Her newest offering is Rain; road; an open boat (McClelland & Stewart).

Roo speaks with Open Book as part of our Poets in Profile series, talking about her childhood reaction to Winnie the Pooh, Toronto as poetic inspiration and some of her favourite poems.

Find out what inspires, confounds and delights today's Canadian poets by following our series.

Open Book:

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

Roo Borson:

When I was a child my father used to recite poetry from memory, often as the two of us were eating breakfast early in the morning, or in the kitchen beforehand, poaching kippers or boiling eggs. I first heard the beauty and suggestiveness of the words in his voice, and his marvelling became my marvelling.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


Wordsworth’s “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways” (one of the “Lucy” poems), and a few lines from Shakespeare’s “As You Like It.” Both were recited by my father, and both come back to me frequently these days. Another of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems, “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal,” is a better poem, but the “Untrodden Ways” affected me first, when I was younger. I loved Winnie the Pooh as a story, but even as a child felt that the poems in it could be better!


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


I really do believe that each of us can write what no other is given to write, and that what matters is that wonderful poetry be written, no matter by whom. And so I don’t wish to have written anyone else’s poem; I’m just glad that so much great poetry exists, and that I can read it, whether in English (if it was written in English), or in various translations into English. With translation, it’s better to read more than one version, as imagery is fairly easily translated, but sound isn’t, and, quite often, the sense, or reasoning, isn’t possible to fully or adequately translate.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


Possibly the city of Toronto. I came to Toronto having lived in places where it was easier to get to more extensive natural surroundings, and so it took two or three months to finally notice the natural wealth that is available to us in the city. I remember quite clearly that the first bits of wild beauty I noticed were grassblades growing near the Legislative buildings at Queen’s Park. By now, my small unkempt back yard has become a world, and the remnant of ravine in my neighbourhood a universe.


What do you do when a poem is not working?


I leave it alone. Then, when I go back to it, I keep only whichever bits shine forth, and work on a revision that may retain very little of the first draft. Eventually, when I think I have something, or fear that I’ll never have it, I’ll show the piece to Kim Maltman, who is a great editor, and he will come up with further suggestions. I’m more than lucky to have him. Even so, some of the bits that “shine forth” can take twenty or thirty years to find their proper places. Such fragments have to find the puzzle in which they belong.


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


Two books come to mind. Joan Didion’s Blue Nights, which was published as prose but reads like a long poem, and is best read that way. Also another book from last year, recently re-read: Sharon Thesen’s Oyama Pink Shale, which contains a number of astonishingly beautiful poems.


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


The best thing: the excitement that comes with looking at the world, and having a response well up, even fumblingly, in words. That’s the “inspiration” part; the second part is the sense of relief that comes with often extensive revision … that finally the words seem to be falling into the right places.

The worst thing, I suppose, is the occasional crashing awareness of what an ephemeral art poetry is in our current culture, though it needn’t be — how far removed contemporary poetry is from most people’s everyday lives, almost as though it is another language, even though poetry is written in every language that has a written form, and is recited widely, since limericks and the like are forms (limited though they often are) of poetry. People sometimes say that movies have been the major art form for some time, and that poetry is as near to being forgotten as opera is; movies are fine, and can be seen as having a poetics of their own, but this is nonetheless a sad thought for poetry. On the other hand, a revival of interest is potentially always just around the corner. Who knows what might happen in future?

Roo Borson has published ten books of poems, most recently Short Journey Upriver Toward Ôishida, winner of the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Pat Lowther Memorial Award and the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, as well as a finalist for the Trillium Book Award. With Kim Maltman and Andy Patton, she is a member of the collaborative poetry group Pain Not Bread, whose first book, Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei, was published in 2000. She lives in Toronto.

For more information about Rain; road; an open boat please visit the McClelland & Stewart website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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