Writer in Residence


By Barry Dempster

Catching up on the frippery of “Downton Abbey,” I enjoyed Maggie Smith’s trenchant Dowager Countess of Grantham listening to her son wax a mite lyrically about land and history and then exclaiming that the last thing her family needed was a poet. Apparently, poets are contentious, indiscrete and unpredictable. “One needs look no further than Lord Byron,” she continued. “Need I say more.”

In Nicole Hofcener’s hit film, “Enough Said,” Catherine Keener plays a rather swishy character who Julia Louis-Dreyfus snorts at when she answers the question “What do you do?” with the statement, “I’m a poet.”

After years of creative writing programs at major universities, aren’t we housebroken yet? Are we to be complimented or humiliated by the sighs and snorts? Do we crave fitting in or will poetry always be a subversive profession?

Years ago, I worked in Assessments and Admitting at what was then called The Queen Street Mental Health Centre in Toronto. In a conversation one evening, it came out that I was a writer, primarily a poet, and one of the newer psychiatrists stared me down with a fierceness, asking whether I had a psychiatric history, as a patient rather than a mental health professional. I tried to make a joke about writing better sad than happy which caused him to burst out with a hearty “Bipolar!” I responded that I was joking, that my mood swings were hardly wide enough to make a ripple, but he was well into an awfully long list of poets who’d committed suicide: John Berryman, Hart Crane, Yukio Mishima, Cesare Pavese, Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I countered with a list of those who didn’t, which he diagnosed as defensive behaviour. Before the conversation came to an end, I was accused of narcissism, delusional ideation and hearing voices.

It’s a dangerous thing to admit publically to being a poet. You might as well say “I’m incorrigible” or “I’m full of myself” or simply “I’m a nutcase.”

When I used to do poetry classes in public schools, the only thing the students really wanted to know was whether there was any money in it. I would try to explain that there was money to be made doing poetry related things like teaching, editing and mentoring, but invariably some mouthy kid would interrupt me by muttering “That’s crazy.”

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.