Writer in Residence


By Barry Dempster

It was a minute-and-a-half since I finished toying with a poem that hadn’t been working for weeks; I had that submarine feeling that it was sinking out of sight. But I had no time to dither with the muse. I had a meeting with a young poet with whom I’d been dodging the question for weeks now of how to know when revision isn’t working and a poem should be tossed.

I made it through the session without finding the answer. I was already late for a vet appointment for my cat, Iris Belle, to have her stitches removed after a routine spaying. The plastic cone she had to wear for a week figured prominently in the poem that was haunting me. How to get both Elizabethan and pathetic into the same stanza? I was hoping that the day the cone came off would be the day that the poem would turn around. But before I could begin, Iris Belle rolled over on her back at the bottom of the bed, popped one ear out, then the other, and squeezed the plastic over her face until it finally gave way, flying across the room. The cone poem was taking on much bigger dimensions right before my eyes.

On the drive to the vets, I was lost in line breaks and similes and didn’t really register that the wind was blowing something fierce. There was the sound of gushing air coming from the driver’s door as if the window wasn’t completely shut. I had a second of panic wondering whether the door might not be closed properly. At this exact moment, a gust of wind made it feel as if all four of my car’s tires left the ground at the same time. Still, all I could think about was my unfinished poem.

I calmed myself down by concentrating on the details of the veterinary clinic, making sure that I’d got them right in the poem. The receptionist was poking her green painted fingernails between the bars of the cat carrying case and uttering a string of endearments starting with “cutie” and ending with “sweetheart.”

One stitch was a bugger to cut, so Iris was soon shrieking. How could I manage to duplicate such a sound? When the ordeal was finally over and Iris was back in the cage shivering, I walked out into the parking lot and was hit by another blast of wind. The cat’s case almost flew out of my hand. I could feel a wrench in my shoulder, but I managed to hold on. I suddenly saw how heroic the poem needed to be. I couldn’t wait to get home and start revising.

“Never give up,” I’ll say to the young poet. “Keep trying.”

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Barry Dempster, twice nominated for the Governor General’s Literary Award, is the author of fourteen poetry collections, two novels, The Ascension of Jesse Rapture and The Outside World, two volumes of short stories and a children’s book. His collection The Burning Alphabet won the Canadian Authors’ Association Chalmers Award for Poetry in 2005. In 2010, he was a finalist for the Ontario Premiers Award for Excellence in the Arts. He is also Acquisitions Editor for Brick Books.

For more information about Invisible Dogs please visit the Bricks Books website.