Writer in Residence


By Barry Dempster

At the suggestion of a friend, I gave my students a Seamus Heaney poem, “A Personal Helicon,” cut up into a puzzle of words, running the gamut from eight “a’s” to one “you” and “your” apiece. Put together as Heaney had it, the poem told the story of a dry well discovered in childhood, ending with a dark metaphor that came equipped with a shiver. It’s such a clear, masterfully detailed poem that I didn’t have a clue how my students could make something new of it.

But indeed they did: poems about their own experiences, about fear and love and confusion. No one came even close to sounding like Heaney. The word “fungus” triggered a negative tone in all their poems, but the appearance of it differed in each narrative. For some, it was a discovery, for others a danger. Then along came “Fructified,” an awfully cumbersome word. But everyone managed to drop it into their poems. It was not so much that they turned it into something beautiful, or essential, but that they found a place for it; they respected its presence.

Did Heaney know that he’d used the best words, that they would end up creating at least fourteen intriguing poems? Out of chaos, form arrives, and it speaks to us in many different languages. It made me wonder what would happen if these words were the only words we had left after an apocalypse. “I” is there, as is “loved” and “dignity.”

It sometimes takes a trick to wake us up to possibility. So many students over the years have excused their lack of motivation or their insecurity as the result of not believing that they have a distinctive voice, that the world doesn’t need another mediocre poet. I’ve always stressed that no two poets are ever completely alike, but a part of me has occasionally wondered whether I might just be trying to make them feel better about their potentials.

But the Heaney exercise has given me a boost. Fourteen poems couldn’t be more different. Even using someone else’s words, my students ended up finding themselves.

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.