Writer in Residence

Welcome to National Poetry Month

By Barry Dempster

I always feel a bit uncomfortable when Poetry Month commences. It’s like I’ve had a secret for the last eleven months, no one really interested in how I’ve spent my days, successfully managing to pass myself off as an ordinary guy. But then the first of April, a month dedicated to outing poets and poetry, pops up like those first splashes of colour in my garden – pink crocuses, purple grape hyacinths, blue forget-me-nots – and people start to ask questions, to poke around in the dirt.

Poetry is a thing of such focus and energy that if spied upon would most likely resemble hypnosis. On days when the muse is rank and heavy, it’s almost as if I’m in a coma, not quite able to tell the difference between seeing and dreaming. Poetry is not tap dancing or spraying graffiti on the sides of buildings or the squeak and squawk of a clarinet. Or it is all these things, but in a way that condenses the experience until it’s practically unrecognizable.

So what am I supposed to do when I bump into a neighbour on a walk to the mailbox and he says, “I hear it’s National Poetry Month.”

“Yep,” I nod, feeling dumb, knowing that there’s much more to it than just my one syllable of slang, but clueless as how to elucidate.

I’ve tried things like “It’s a celebration of language,” but then the curious ask when and where. Fortunately, there are lots of poetry readings and festivals going on, but the questioner wants something personal from me, something that only my April can provide.

“You’re kidding, right, a whole month devoted to poetry?”

It doesn’t escape my attention that the first of April is also April Fool’s Day.

“What do you do the rest of the year?” followed by the dreaded “What are you working on now?”

“The constant state of loss,” I respond. I feel caught, watched.

“That’s awful,” the person who has just learned that poetry is big enough to have its own month commiserates.

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master.” I can’t stop myself from turning into Elizabeth Bishop for a moment. “Forgetfulness needs to be full,” I bluster on via Nick Lantz only to add to the weight of confusion in an already very confused world. Finally, feeling trapped like a dolphin in a marine extravaganza show, I morph into Nick Flynn. “If we see each other/again the first thing we should do is close our eyes.”

I don’t mean to be so elusive. A poem is such an intricate piece of whatnot that it’s hard to figure out how to pin it to a calendar.

Come April, it feels like every light in the house snaps on at the same time.

“Is that a poem?” the neighbour asks.

“It might be,” I sigh, feeling that I’ve failed poetry miserably. Just 29 more days of searching for the perfect answer.

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.