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Home » Articles » Archive » UPROAR, WHAT A GORGEOUS WORD: BARRY DEMPSTER with BETH FOLLETT  
UPROAR, WHAT A GORGEOUS WORD: BARRY DEMPSTER with BETH FOLLETT
Sun Sep 6, 2009

Interview from www.openbooktoronto.com

BF:


What led you to write poetry? What were some of the very first poems you read?


BD:


I used to think that poetry was some stranger on a crowded street who in a mindless rush just happened to bump into me, no reason other than I was standing there, too slow to dodge him. But then I began counting the breadcrumbs that led me to that particular street at exactly the moment when poetry came hurtling by. First of all, I was an only child of extremely reclusive parents. I was always hungry for conversation and learned to listen very closely to anything that went beyond the four walls of my family. This is where I learned the first rule of being a poet: pay attention. Secondly, I was brought up as a Plymouth Brethren and all my early childhood reading was Biblical, from Psalms to Revelations, a highly-charged, sometimes delirious mix of imagination and language.


Finally, there was a great deal of anxiety around the issues of loneliness and fundamentalism that sensitized me to my surroundings in an often painful way. I was not only open to experience with an almost osmosis-like intensity, but to creativity as a way of making sense of it all.


The first poem I remember being knocked over by, other than the "Song of Songs" and the "everything to its season" part of Ecclesiastes, was T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." I was stunned by its playfulness, yet could definitely feel the ache at its core that suggested things about time and loss that I'd never heard articulated before. And the language had such swoosh to it, I realized that a mouthful of words was very similar to a mouthful of music. I also recall not being able to get enough of Dylan Thomas' "Fern Hill"; it held its own with any Beethoven symphony.


And then Pablo Neruda's A New Decade, Poems 1958-1967 came into my life. I read poems like "Horses," "How Much Happens in a Day," "Apropos My Bad Education" and "Parthenogenesis" so many times, they felt as intimate as tattoos.


BF:


In Ivan's Birches [Pedlar Press, 2009] you ask questions about the human capacity for psychological and emotional development. Do you know people who have made fundamental changes to their ways of perceiving the world? Are you such a person?


BD:


Although I believe in the possibility of transformation, I also think that much of who we are is pretty fixed. People can change behaviour, but not the impulse behind that behaviour that simply finds another way to express itself. However, some circumstances can almost be like rebirths, things like serious illnesses and natural disasters that shock us so tremendously that it's almost as if our psychological wiring is rearranged in strange knots and tangles. Living so closely to the hugeness of God and then spending most of my non-writing career working with the mentally ill, I've seen people respond to intervention in what could only be called miraculous ways.


As for myself, I discovered that I was able to go beyond the narrowness of my upbringing, to channel a lot of my anxiety and singularity into creative paths that have opened me up quite unexpectedly. For example, when I was a teenager desperately afraid of heights, I used to climb the TV antenna tower and sit on the roof of my parent' bungalow, trying to make the dizziness go away. Little by little, I managed to transform an unreasonable fear into an interesting new vantage point. If I were simply connecting the dots of what might be called my fate, I'd either be a pastor or a hermit living in a cave. Sometimes my life has felt like one long attempt to bend steel or defy gravity and fly. Perhaps it's the trying to go beyond your own limitations that's the real miracle, the desire to be more compassionate, less full of self.


BF:


Does your history of work with people for whom mental health is a battle influence your current poetry more than it used to?


BD:


I learned a great deal about courage and stamina from the mentally ill. I made a conscious decision many years ago not to write about their experiences, to honour them by not treating them like raw material for my work. I admire them more as I get older; their strengths inform my writing at a very deep level.


BF:


In Ivan's Birches it seems to me that the Lover and the Jester archetypes are particularly prominent, and riff off one another; that the poet examines commitment while also encouraging play. Do you agree with this observation?


BD:


Yes, that's an excellent way of putting it. I have an exceptionally intimate relationship with the Jester. In my childhood struggles between God and the Devil, I came awfully close to coming undone, being de-boned and sucked dry.


It was the Lover who gave me reason to not give up the fight, to do all that I could to care about the world in its many guises and philosophies, to nurture passion. But it was the Jester who saw me through, who continues to make mischief even in the darkest of times. I think I might have mistaken the Jester for the Devil when I was in the thick of fundamentalism. How's that for a sea change? The figure who once upon a time was an absolute terror is now a joyous jack-in-the-box.


BF:


I have often used Keats for an epigraph on Pedlar Press catalogues: "There's nothing stable in the world; uproar's your only music." For you, poetry is a form of attention and of discomfiture: the poems in Ivan's Birches both seek a ground and refuse a ground beneath the poet's feet. Will you comment on this?


BD:


Uproar, what a gorgeous word. As I said earlier, poetry is primarily a form of attention, attention to the multi-layers of experience, attention to how language can either clarify or obfuscate depending on its mood. There are always at least a thousand ripples to every splash. Pay attention and you can sometimes even see the truth. It's the nature of existence to constantly be shifting, evolving, evading us at just that moment when we're intent on pinning it down. It's easy to be alive, just one breath at a time. But living a life is all about imbalance and impermanence. Keeping our feet firmly planted mid-air.


BF:


Why are you so crazy for Don Domanski's All Our Wonder Unavenged? [For the record, I adore it too.]


BD:


Don speaks in a voice so totally his own, it's almost a one-man language. But when you surrender to his Wonder, you slowly come to realize that you can speak this language too. He expands our boundaries, treating spirit with the same respect and presence as emotion and intellect. He is the most holistic poet writing today. He believes that the ordinary and the miraculous are actually the same thing.


BF:


You seem to be writing at a furious clip just now: a book with Brick [Love Outlandish] in spring, the Pedlar book coming out now, and a third book with Signature Editions set to be released in Spring 2010. But you are not a writer only, with all your time devoted to poetry. You are also a teacher, editor, collaborator, facilitator of film and book clubs. What's going on? Can you explain this outpouring of poetry?


BD:


My last book before this year's triple crown, The Burning Alphabet, was accepted in 2003, but didn't appear until 2005. There were six years of writing between that acceptance and the release of Love Outlandish and now, Ivan's Birches. In those six years, I experienced two of those rebirth-like circumstances that I was talking about earlier that ultimately unhinged me in terrifying ways, bringing me closer to mortality than I'd ever been before. And so I wrote, and wrote. Out of the hundreds of poems composed each year since 2003, there are at least forty or fifty of them good enough to be part of a book. All that other stuff, from the editing to the film series I run, is fueled by the energy that comes from living so deeply inside these poems. Poetry gives back to the poet much more than the poet manages to give to it.


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