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Interview with Barry Dempster
Thu Mar 17, 2016

A beloved poet explores why life is so rich, even at the worst of times.

See two poems from Barry's new book at the end of this Article

Brick Books celebrates the publication of a new poetry collection by Barry Dempster on March 15, 2016 – Disturbing the Buddha

Disturbing the Buddha, Barry Dempster’s fifteenth collection, is disarmingly conversational and, like the best conversations, it moves between reverence and irreverence, sincerity and irony as it grapples with love, loss, loneliness and simple lack of luck—the “three-leaf clovers” so much more plentiful than the four. Dempster’s wit and playful metaphoric turns let us take for granted the courage needed to admit to life’s ongoing intensities, disruptions, and indignities. In these poems, a forty-year-old man dons a pink plastic crown on his niece’s order; a solitary man watches a Nicole Kidman rom-com with his cat; an aging Aphrodite, more mortal than god, suffers hot flashes. Like the mystic poets he addresses in the book’s final section, Dempster respects the unknown as he comes to terms with the ups and downs of the all-too-human condition.

Shifting effortlessly from light-hearted ode to solemn elegy, Dempster offers no touch-up jobs; instead we find a love of the flaw, a generosity toward it even as he exposes it. This is a poetry of inclusiveness, engaging both our better and worse angels, baring its Achilles’ heel and trusting us to do likewise.

is a still life in a Motel Six
non-smoker. … Tonight
you’ll sleep in a clearing
that won’t be there come dawn.

(from “Lao-Tzu”)

“Few if any poets encompass the range, the dynamism, and the spectrum of emotional colours Barry Dempster does… ” —Canadian Authors’ Association Chalmers Award Jury Citation

Read on to learn about Barry’s writing process.

What am I working on?

 As usual, I’m trying to do ten hands worth of work at the same time. For example, a new collection of short stories, my first in over twenty-five years. It started out as an exploration of men and the mucky business of love and commitment. Mid-way through, I became intrigued with a particular female character’s point of view and now there are three stories with women as the main protagonists.

I’ve also been working on a book revolving around what I’ve learned about writing over a lifetime. At the moment, it’s a mix of snippets on poetics, inspirational advice and personal experience.

And then there’s poetry, both new stuff and various manuscripts-in-progress including a batch of Chile poems that have been whispering in my ear for years. 


How does my work differ from other work in its genre? 

I’m not sure that “differ” is a productive word when it comes to one’s own writing. Plus I have a nasty tendency to measure my voice by what it doesn’t do well rather than where it excels. Voice is the key word here. More musical than some, less structured than others. It’s my particular blend of narrative, surrealism, ordinary details, enjambment, colloquial energy, texture and taking risks with tone. I aim for the stars and end up shooting holes in stop signs. Always attempting new things, taking risks with facts and furies, playing with the big picture as much as I can. Both the sad and the happy truth of it is that I can’t help but be myself.


Why do I write what I do?

Once, visiting a university creative writing class, a student asked me why I kept writing about disembodied body parts. Beg your pardon? What a strange thing to say; I didn’t relate at all. But then she read me a list taken from my book, The Burning Alphabet, including wrists, cocks, toes, thumbs, nipples, knees and shoulder blades, not to mention organs the likes of brains and hearts. It wasn’t hard to figure out that I was deeply interested in what puzzles we humans are, how untethered we can be, how much of us is shatter. But before that young woman’s question, I wasn’t really conscious of how deeply I’d been exploring these ideas. It seems to me that I write in order to discover what I feel and think. Perhaps if I can sneak up on myself, I might also be able to surprise a reader. 


How does my writing process work?

I think it was Marianne Moore who suggested that a writer “be there when the writing is going on.” Time is the most lucrative investment I can make and so I try to put in at least a couple of hours every morning. Some days it’s like I’m lifting boulders from a lake; at first I feel capable of picking up more than my own weight, but then I try to heft the rock out of the water and its heaviness suddenly overwhelms me and the boulder plummets back to the depths again. Other times it’s just water that I’m lifting and it pours from between my fingers, leaving only the tiniest of puddles in my palm. But there are also mornings when all I have to do is make a beckoning sign with my hands and fish jump out of the lake, landing on the shore in the shape of a Welcome sign. The trick is to be there when the fish throw themselves at me. I don’t really know how the process works, just that it doesn’t have a chance unless my bum is in the chair and will stay there even when it seems like nothing is going to happen.

Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Award, is the author of fourteen previous collections of poetry. His collection The Burning Alphabet won the Canadian Authors’ Association Chalmers Award for Poetry in 2005. In 2010 and 2015, he was a finalist for the Ontario Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts and in 2014 he was nominated for the Trillium Award for his novel, The Outside World. He lives in York Region, Ontario. 


Two poems from Disturbing the Buddha




No more white asparagus or Boursin cheese
now that cash is huddling, Dow Jones
dropping like a gored matador. Cheap
Canadian beer. The latest Lucinda
downloaded illegally. Bills shrivel
in my pocket like kleenex fingered so long
it’s turned to lint. There goes Italy next summer.
Amazing how much squeezes down the drain
with a little pressure – grapes, crusts, gristle.
No more takeout three times a week,
no more Friday nights. Soon I’ll have to
sell myself in Value Village.


I used to be worth a fortune, dashed hope
exclaims. My father still leaving me
his cache of anxieties, signing them over
one by one. The whole history of the dead
is wallowing in interest never paid – our lives
and nothing less: pickpocket crows
and mean peacocks, diamonds
wriggling from gold restraints, champagne
watered down with melting ice.


On the way back from the loan shark’s,
I stop at a wheat field where sooty clouds
hang like a charcoal drawing of tragedy.
I can almost touch their weight, their sag.
That pressure again, the entire sky
on the verge of a crash. I lean against
a scratchy bale, inhale the scent
of what one day could be bread, a bit
of butter the next field over, dragging
its udder through three-leaf clovers.


WHITE PANSY, 1927 – Georgia O’Keeffe


It’s like those photos of the dead,
disengaged in some essential way,
but beautiful, an innerness
so intent the wall glows. The spot
where soul once came and went, the only
real colour, yolk-gold, though mauve-black
bruises mar the pinched fringe. The rest white,
glacial cheeks and chin. Why didn’t
she place it in a vase? Memory
alone doesn’t keep
anything alive. All that’s left
is the levitating smell of oil,
the shush of a hog’s hair brush.
A flower long-gone, petals crisp
and cold, puckered at the core
like lips sewn shut.


                                  What is art?
A gasp.
Life staring you down
with its bone face.



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2016-03-17-15:11 - Karen
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