Writer in Residence

Truth Is...

By Barry Dempster

I’ve been thinking about the difference between facts and details, how so many of us cling to something that isn’t quite working in our poems because it’s real, the way it actually happened. Changing blue eyes to brown in order to score a little assonance or sound echo feels like a betrayal to some new writers.

A publisher recently said that the domination of the “I” was coming to an end, that such blatant narcissism had to be resisted. But who said that “I” was “me?” I frequently use “I” in order to enter other people’s lives, to jumpstart intimacy, to protect my sources. Years ago, back when my mother was alive, I won an award for a poem about the death of my mother. I thought it only fair that I take my mother with me to the awards ceremony. The editor of the magazine that gave the award was gravely unsettled by my mother’s presence. “You said she was dead,” he insisted. I tried to explain that it was actually more about a beloved aunt’s death that had prodded me to start thinking about my mother’s death. “It’s what I might feel,” I said. “Imagination,” I added, my voice thinning as I realized how angry he was with me. In his mind, I had lied. He couldn’t get his head around the fact that poetry can be fiction, that the feelings can be separate from the props.

A young poet I worked with at Banff responded to my suggestion that she might consider using “you” instead of “I” in one of her poems with the pronouncement that “you” was a copout, a refusal to face up to the truth. And then there was another young poet who insisted on the third person “we,” making it impossible for me to disagree with anything in her poems without not-existing.

This morning I wrote a poem about my stuff (books, furniture, paintings) literally abandoning me. Someone who reads that poem might visit me one day and be pissed that I don’t really live in an empty house.

Poetry readers are obviously deeply invested in the truth of a poem’s details. But the facts of our lives are often interchangeable. Does it matter to a poem whether you made love to a blonde rather than a brunette? Why not use the word that pulls in the most music? What if you didn’t make love at all, just conjectured it? What if it wasn’t you at all, but me?

Happy Easter!

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.