Darren Bifford's False Spring (Brick Books) is devastatingly timely, concerned as it is with the concept of collapse and cultural crisis. Tough, urgent, and unabashed, the poems in the collection push and question, pulsing with an ethical, outraged heart but never claiming uncomplicated moral high ground.
The collection also contains a series of translations from an imaginary Polish poet's work, bringing an alternate voice and perspective to the complexities of the work.
We're excited to welcome Darren to Open Book today as part of our Poets in Profile series, where we dig into poets' personal literary origins and motivations. He tells us about how teenage romance shaped his poetic evolution, the pizza shop poem that stunned him with its power, and the nuanced difference between a literary culture and a literary community.
Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?
I fell for this girl named Rachel Senin in eleventh grade. It was a real Beatrice moment. I couldn’t find the courage to talk to her all year, so I wrote poems instead. It was pretty sad, really. And then I met Jan Zwicky in my first year of university. She helped the cause tremendously, not least because her thinking and example proved an antibody against Romanticism.
What is the first poem you remember being affected by?
I liked the Beats, especially Kerouac’s cadences when he read aloud, but the first poem that really hit me hard was probably Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Rilke’s "Archaic Torso of Apollo". I remember very clearly where I read it (a pizza shop in Vancouver), and when (1997). I felt the full force of that tremendous final line, and I’ve continued to be troubled by its implications.
What one poem—from any time period—do you wish you had been the one to write?
I can’t imagine wanting to write another poem from another time period. Artists, I think, are fairly stuck in the contemporary; for the past to have any use to them, it must be appropriated and transformed. My favourite 20th Century poem is Robert Lowell’s "The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket". As it is, though, I’m often moved by admiration for many contemporary poets, as if they are simply doing what I do but doing it better. In this country I think Amanda Jernigan and Matt Rader’s work is very good.
What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?
I tend to forget about poems that aren’t working. Sometimes I discover them again and try to fix them. Usually when I write a poem I accept I write it quickly and finish it almost immediately. As a result of this, when I find a poem isn’t working I tend easily to give up. I think this is probably a mistaken approach.
What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?
Amanda Jernigan’s short book, The Temple (Baseline Press, 2018).
How would you describe the poetry community in Canada? What strengths and weaknesses do you observe within the community?
I prefer the notion of a literary culture rather than a poetry community. It seems to me that a community is formed and sustained only insofar as its members voluntarily constrain their individual preferences in the service of a communal ideal. Hence it makes sense to speak of monastic communities, or the community of one’s neighbourhood, or town, or volunteer organization, or work place, etc. But I think of poets in the way Wittgenstein characterized philosophers—as “citizens of no community”. We are beholden to our consciences solely, not to any collective. The poet’s responsibility is to his or her poem.
Insofar as readers also take an interest in poetry, a conversation can develop—in the form of reviews, essays, letters, phone calls, texts, formal events, long dinners, etc. Within that conversation we develop criticism—maybe the poem fails, or is was written in poor taste, or without adequate sensitivity to its subject, or is unbelievably awesome, etc. Without this—without poets paying close attention to poetry, as writers and readers—the literary culture dies. Accordingly I’d like to see longer and more critical reviews which engage in close readings of individual poems. I’d like to see more attention given to the various traditions out of which poems are written and to connections between contemporary poetry and the culture more generally—to painting, dance, philosophy, history, religion, etc. I’d like to see literary journals that receive public funding make most of what they publish available online. I’d also like to see efforts to move away from our almost total dependence on government grants towards cultivating relationships with private patrons. It’s possible that future governments will not see the point of publicly funding poetry. Finally, I think it important to direct financial and emotional resources into getting a diverse cross-section of contemporary poetry into high school English classes, where the kids are already primed to fall in love for the first time. I was told the other day that Scott Griffin is in fact funding this kind of work.
What is the best thing about being a poet…and what is the worst?
Darren Bifford is the author of the chapbooks Wolf Hunter (Cactus Press, 2010), Hermit Crab (Baseline Press, 2014), and The Age of Revolution (Anstruther Press, 2017). His first full-length collection was Wedding in Fire Country (Nightwood Editions, 2012). He co-edited (with Warren Heiti) Chamber Music: The Poetry of Jan Zwicky (Wilfred Laurier Press, 2015). Originally from Summerland, BC, he lived and taught in Montreal for many years, where he also coordinated the Atwater Poetry Project. False Spring is his second full-length poetry collection.