Writer in Residence

Fear of Flying

By Barry Dempster

I gave a public performance the other night. It was supposed to be a reading from my recent novel, “The Outside World,” but I thought I’d sneak in a few poems from my “Invisible Dogs” as well. I made a joke about the poems, giving audience members permission to hide beneath their seats if they had come solely for the fiction, if poetry made their teeth grind or sent sickly shivers up and down their spines. Why was I dissing poetry? Why didn’t I just announce that they were in for a real treat?

It’s socially acceptable to groan and scowl when someone says that they’re a poet. I still remember forty-odd years ago, on “Mike Douglas,” an afternoon talk show, when writer Erica Jong called herself a novelist and a poet. Adela Rogers St. John, a well-known journalist, made a loud clucking sound and exclaimed, “A poet!” followed by another cluck. “Not even Robert Frost had the nerve to call himself a poet.”

Why that story has stuck with me all these years is that it was the beginning of my fear of being a poet, of admitting it, of aiming for the right to actually name what I was doing every single day and would continue doing every day for the next forty-odd years. Rogers St. John made me feel like I was ill-bred and pretentious. What did the other viewers learn from that same experience? That poetry was a snobby job done by nervy poseurs who rank themselves superior to Robert Frost.

I had plenty of bad math teachers, but I can still take measurements and balance my checkbook. Those teachers didn’t cast a horrid spell over numbers, rendering me incapable of even counting on my fingers. I once had a history teacher who managed to make India, China and the Middle East equally boring, but somehow I knew that she was the one at fault, not the histories of these fascinating countries. But one bad apple of an English teacher who doesn’t have a clue how to teach metaphor and people are ruined for life. Poems cause anxiety attacks, nausea, and a listlessness that’s just one brain cell away from a coma.

Still I insist on reading a few poems to the fiction-loving audience. I read loudly, clearly, enunciating every syllable, drawing out the music. Occasionally looking up from my book, I see fear on some of their faces. Others just look confused.

At the book signing afterwards, only good words are said about my poetry, but every compliment is followed by a confession: “I don’t have a clue what to do with a poem” or “Poetry goes way over my head.”

No matter how inviting the poems I chose to read were, no one seemed willing to give up their hesitancy. Which came first, their fear of poetry, or my fear of their fear? Hang Adela Rogers St. John. I’m a poet.

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.