TORONTO QUARTERLY INTERVIEW
for INVISIBLE DOGS - October 2013
The following poems are excerpts from Invisible Dogs by Barry Dempster, copyright © 2013 by Brick Books. Used with permission from the publisher.
GOD FALLS INTO YOUR STRIDE
On afternoon walks, you often
long to bump into someone promising.
So you're not surprised when one day
God falls into your stride. She asks why
you take your broken heart with you, why
you don't simply escape, slip into scenery
like an incidental figure
in a Kurelek landscape. You
don't have to be somebody.
She points at a cloud of crows,
suggests you give away your darkness.
At a puddle skimmed with ice, she shows
how you could freeze the pain. You explain
that adding up your footsteps
day after day is giving you distance.
But she claims all you need to do
is lose distinction, blend in
with some spruce, lift your arms,
slow your pulse, turn a lighter shade of green.
Notice that breeze, she shivers. It will
eventually crowd you out.
You can't imagine the world
without you who'd carry all this feeling?
A smidgen for the dull December sun,
a dab for the cedar fences,
a handful for the squirrels who will
run and bury it. Shaking her head,
God says I love you, isn't that enough?
Go wrap yourself in bark and river chill,
drop your heart into the undergrowth
like one more cracked chestnut.
But who will walk with you then? I ask,
knowing how few people listen
with a loneliness intact enough for longing.
The air, she answers,
throwing her hands out from her body,
letting them drift back in again.
MORE THAN YOU REALIZE
The white bowls brimming with pasta
are sheer appetite, as are the basket
of bread, the glistening peppers,
plump purple grapes.
It's all about your body
with its funny fuel gauges
and miles of emptiness.
You are as basic as fingers,
lips and teeth, as far away
from mystery as biology can get,
pure mechanics of chew and swallow.
But then someone mentions God
guesting on a Star Trek rerun
and you remember you're going to die,
not during this dinner, but one day
when not even a plate of Spanish olives
or a deep dish of creme brulée
will convince you to stick around.
Your body will abdicate,
reduced to a space so thin
it might as well be invisible,
exactly like all the other afterlives.
Is it any wonder your fork freezes,
your mouth emptied of everything
but longing? You think immediately
of love, how little it's added up.
And those three sisters
wish, dream, desire if only you
could have married them.
Don't forget the man you can't stop
trying to be, doesn't he deserve
to know how loyal you are?
Time to be more than you realize,
to go beyond that sci fi hunger
for eternal life. Pick up your spoon
and start digging for the china pattern,
the buried roses. Flip over
your teacup and watch the future
take shape. Cut open your own heart
and feast on the bottomless pain.
THE OYSTER CAFE
He takes her to lunch at The Oyster Cafe
to make up for 18 years of nothing but grunts.
Somehow it works, fakes a lilting charm,
both of them skittish in all the right spots.
He breathes on his coffee spoon, blots out
his bulbous reflection. She speed-rips
an invisible calendar and forgives him
a day at a time. Neither orders the raw oysters.
Another husband laments his wife in Florida,
away on the business of untying knots.
Not turned on by him anymore, as if sex
were some kind of switcheroo, a Where¹s Waldo
vanished underground. If I were him, I'd send her
a ticket home and a reservation for The Oyster Cafe
and talk until her earrings drag the tablecloth,
until she slowly turns transparent.
Do you take this voodoo doll? the priest
jabs couple after couple with pinpricks of bliss.
I do, I do, chuffed to the max, heads hanging
off the mattress, goofy grins. A warm stupor,
something The Oyster Cafe serves with a garnish
of sweat and a sucked-on lemon wedge.
Remember how adult it felt to fuck all night,
to realize how strangely desirable you were.
And then you lost your appetite. The years,
Virginia Woolf sighed while swallowing the river.
TTQ – What inspired you to start writing poetry and who were some of your early influences or mentors?
Barry Dempster – I was instantly attracted to the energy between what a poem reveals and how it does so with such discipline and focus. The act of compression clarifies what I really want to say as a writer. When I started writing, my ears were already ringing with the power of the biblical language from my fundamentalist Plymouth Brethren upbringing. Let there be light, what a perfect beginning to a poem.
T.S. Eliot’s combination of seriousness and play changed my life. I was studying psychology, so my poetry education was very helter skelter. Out of synch. It took me years to track down the patterns, to understand who influenced who, to realize that voice has a history. I’ve always been attracted to poets who are a bit larger than life, like Rilke. D.H. Lawrence, Pablo Neruda and Sylvia Plath.
TTQ – What’s the most exciting thing happening in poetry today?
Barry Dempster – I think the diversity of voices is wonderfully exciting. Some poets seem to complain about this and build fences. But I love how different we all are from one another. This morning I was reading Louise Gluck, D.A. Powell, C.K. Williams, and Bob Hicok, and it felt like my head was spinning. I read for half an hour every morning and it's like a trip to the Tower of Babel. It doesn't matter whether I can understand a poem; sometimes the best I can do is just immerse myself in the language. Some poems are jazz, while others are brooks or broken sound barriers or cats crying in the dark.
TTQ – In terms of writing, what would be a perfect day?
Barry Dempster – A perfect writing day is one in which I’m able to hang on to the dream state of a good night's sleep and not get pushed around by the everyday chaos. I need to focus; I can't write on the fly, or in bits and pieces. I close my office door behind me, ignore the phone. I need at least two hours where the rest of my life can manage on its own.
But it's not enough to just write; you have to prepare and study and immerse yourself in the life around you. Part of a perfect day is diving into other artists’ works, opening jammed windows, asking questions that you don't already know the answers to.
TTQ – How would you best describe your latest collection of poetry, Invisible Dogs (Brick Books, 2013), and what message or feeling do you hope your readers will take away with them after reading the book?
Barry Dempster – I don’t think poetry should really concern itself with messages. A poem needs to discover, not offer an opinion.
Invisible Dogs could best be summarized as a series of daily walks. Moving towards something means that you¹re probably moving away from something else. It’s about healing, about breaking and putting yourself back together again. The trick is how we live with both hope and sadness, the light falling into shadow with a soft kerplunk.
TTQ – How difficult has the business of staying alive, surviving a broken heart and turning 50 been for you personally, and where does your determination to overcome the adversities of daily life come from?
Barry Dempster – Life can be incredibly hard to figure out. Happiness gets lost when we take the corners too fast. Grief has recently become a condition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Not a day goes by when I’m not aware of some kind of suffering: battlegrounds, earthquakes, personal betrayals.
But something in me keeps bouncing back. A stirring in my chest turns out to be chickadee. I walk out my front door and am drenched in kindness. Desire takes me by the hand and squeezes until my bones run like honey.
It’s learning to trust imbalance that keeps saving me time and time again. Suffering is part of the deal. When I ache, I ache. I don’t look for something comfy, joyful or requited to take the pain away. But when bliss pops up, I give it all the space it needs to feel at home.
I don’t call this God anymore. And I’m not a big fan of the words fate or fault either. It is what it is: meaningless one moment, purposeful the next.
TTQ – You quote Friedrich Nietzsche at the beginning of the book and Nietzsche suffered a complete mental breakdown at the age of 44. Was Nietzsche's inability to conquer his demons the perfect metaphor for, Invisible Dogs?
Barry Dempster – I don’t think that demons can be conquered; you’ve got to learn how to live with them. And the word “inability” suggests failure. What struck me about Nietzsche in this particular paragraph was his willingness to, as the saying goes, accept the good with the bad. A life without demons is a life at least partially ducked. The invisible dogs in my book are lonely, even abandoned, yet they're speaking up for themselves, doing their best to be heard.
TTQ – How arduous was the editing process for, Invisible Dogs, and who helped you get through that process and how important was their input to completing the book?
Barry Dempster – I revise a lot, over a long period of time, so that when I enter the editing process, I know the poem inside out. My wife usually goes over what I write several times, and one of my writing groups has often had a thing or two to say as well. But a good editor can still pose questions that lead to deeper thought or a more complex music. I worked with Jan Zwicky on this particular book and was wowed by the intricacy of her comments.
TTQ – Invisible Dogs is your fourteenth collection of poetry. What keeps you inspired to continue writing and do you think your best poetry is yet to come?
Barry Dempster – I absolutely love poetry, both as a writer and as a reader. While I often lose faith in myself, I never doubt the form. Without poetry, language would have overdosed on lies and explanations long ago.
I keep trying to get better. Less ego, more spunk. Audacity improves with age. I practice every day.
TTQ – What words of advice would you give to young aspiring poets?
Barry Dempster – Let the writing be an act of love. Read poetry until you’re drunk with it. Try to remember, art is not a competitive act.
TTQ – What’s next for Barry Dempster?
Barry Dempster – I’ve got a novel called The Outside World coming out with Pedlar Press in December. Other than that, I’m spending more time in the now, and the now after that.
*Note – Photo of Barry Dempster courtesy of Francesca Aceti. The following poems are excerpts from Invisible Dogs by Barry Dempster, copyright © 2013 by Brick Books. Used with permission from the publisher.