Writer in Residence


By Barry Dempster

It’s a risky thing to put a poem out of sight in order to let it germinate or steep, whatever the science of hope might call the process. Some poems only turn up posthumously and are declared masterpieces or strange mistakes. But I don’t really care about the pages that might outlive me. What really bugs me is how a poem can go from promising, even a touch prideful, to absolutely terrible by just sitting in a drawer. Something bizarrely chemical seems to be going on: metaphors staling with every passing minute, leaps of language collapsing, profound thoughts found out to be merely painted on with a coat of fool’s gold.

No wonder I have so much to say about revision to my students. That’s where the real work is done, where the magic is made of steel rather than fuzz. But it’s not simply a case of fixing the questionable or steering a stanza into dock and then hoisting a new, spanking-clean sail. The problems with a poem are usually layers thick, layers of botched music, clichés, overdoing it, not going deep enough, not quite hitting the right tone, getting voices mixed up, writing what you know rather than what you’re on the verge of knowing. The things that can go wrong with a poem! Layers upon layers. By the time you’ve made it to the bottom of a poem, it often looks more like a freshly-dug grave than a foundation.

If you read a new poem out loud, sometimes you can hear the sharps and splats, the odd bits that are supposed to cause shivers, but end up just producing spasms. Try reading a poem out loud in a fake foreign accent: more weak spots will be exposed. But then you read the damn thing to your writing group or your partner or your dentist or mechanic, and slam, whole lines fall to the ground. Technically, some poems need to be revised forever. How to tell the difference between those and the poems that are almost done, as close to “gorgeous” as they’re ever able to get, is nearly impossible. Just one more try. One more surgery. Often, it’s only exhaustion that manages to produce a final draft.

You then decide to send a few of these “finished” pieces to a contest or a well-respected literary magazine, and, at the last minute, add a mediocre poem to help make the strong ones stand out even more. Every poet knows what happens next. The mediocre one is chosen and will represent you for years to come, making you question the entire process of revision. For a short time, you trust implicitly in free style writing and brainstorming. You try not to even know what you’re writing. The muses are with you, at least until you find one of these “inspired” poems in a drawer and are shocked by its amateurishness and start peeling off the layers, trying, once again, to get to the bottom of excellence, to find the “masterpiece” deep down inside.

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.