Writer in Residence

Poetics of Place

By Barry Dempster

I’ve been thinking about the poetics of place: Tim Lilburn’s Moosewood Sandhills; Don Domanski’s wilderness of a cosmos; Karen Solie’s truck stops and motels; Tim Bowling’s fishing boats. It’s not just splashing about in details, I tell my students, but precision (like piercing an atom with an invisible pin) and ruthlessness. You have to make sure that nostalgia doesn’t clot the muse’s arteries.

What vehicle do we choose to take us in and out of landscape? Regret? Jubilation? Fear? Misunderstanding? Is there really such a thing as purely being here? The minute that the second hand notices that it’s being observed, it tears a hole in time, the future leaking out. You have to focus on what the “now” is doing to the “then” and how this creates a much more complex “when.”

The little piece of Scarborough I grew up in and have returned to in both my poetry and fiction has never stayed still long enough for me to know it well. To be honest, I spent most of my time there scrambling to find a way out. A cantankerous relationship at best. I’ve sometimes taken out-of-town writers on a tour of my childhood neighborhood just a few blocks from the Bluffs and have watched them trying to see what I’ve written rather than what’s actually there. My Scarborough is such a collage of experiences and expectations, fables and facts, that it’s a place that never quite settles into anything other than a rousing game of Now You See It, Now You Don’t.

When I saw the real Moosewood Sandhills, I couldn’t believe how small they were, how unassuming. But the poems wouldn’t let my disappointment stand; Lilburn’s perspective was a starting point rather than a destination. There is no motel quite like Solie’s, but that’s a gift rather than a loss. Bowling will give you sea legs if you take deep breaths and hold them inside for as long as you can. The trip to Domanski’s world will change you in ways that go beyond scholarship and religion, even beyond Domanski himself.

Each of these poets, and the countless more who sing prairie songs, bellow across the canyons of big cities, shout out their islandness, their killer winters, their Lake Louises of the soul, are human in their need to draw maps, yet mythic in their willingness to be those maps.

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.