To celebrate National Poetry Month, I’m sharing this interview with James Dewar, who taught me to say, “I am a poet”, without flinching.
James Dewar is a poet. His work has been published in The Garden in the Machine (Hidden Brook Press 2007) and several anthologies and literary journals. He enjoys helping poets improve their writing skills and offers workshops on poetry writing and performance techniques. He Created and hosts Toronto’s most unique, community-oriented reading series, Hot-Sauced Words Poetry Performances, now in its 6th year. He started Piquant Press to ensure the best new voices in poetry receive the audience they deserve. He never apologizes for being a poet.
◊ James, you are a writer who paints immediate and lasting images in the reader’s mind. Where or how does your poetry fit with this style?
I admit I was a little stymied at first by this question. I’m not consciously aware that I’m always applying two parts … inspiration and internal editor. Inspiration starts with an image around which the poem is built. I keep the two parts separate so one does not affect the other when I’m translating images into words.
Something occurs in an image; perhaps an important event in life is experienced. I translate the feelings critical to the emotional impact of that image, or that event, into words, into the poem, so the reader feels what I am trying to relate through the image itself.
◊ When did you start writing poetry? What was the motivator? Did it give you what you needed at the time? And today?
When I look back on it now, I was motivated to connect, to make an impression. I didn’t think I had anything to offer, I felt ugly and all I had was cleverness. I was in Grade 9 or 10 and a good student, but a trouble maker because I was easily bored. I was shy, really shy and suffered from bad acne. None of the girls would talk to me. Poetry started as a way to communicate with girls. We were studying Romeo and Juliet in class, and that’s where I got the idea. I was infatuated with one girl, wrote a love poem and gave it to her. It was a big deal to her, but it didn’t go anywhere. I wrote a few more over the next few months – still no good.
I wanted to learn more about writing poetry and read all different kinds, outside of class on my own time. I wrote a lot of juvenile, woe is me poetry, hundreds over the next few years. I wrote a lot of rhyming couplets, and I am glad I did. They taught me about meter and the rhythm of language. It was a challenge writing rhyme without sounding forced. The poetry held me in good stead because by Grade 12 and 13, I had become good enough, gained more confidence and with the acne gone, poetry became an effective dating technique.
I started university in 1969 a full-fledged hippy and a pretty good poet. By then I was a little more willing to share my work. When I was in second year at York I applied to take Irving Layton’s poetry class. He limited it to 15 students so I was lucky he chose me from the many scores who submitted manuscripts. That year I spent with him cemented my relationship with poetry. He constantly ranted about not being lazy, to live, to get out there and write, and carry a notebook with me all the time, to push the barriers, to make a difference. In the process I wrote endless numbers of poems, mostly in private, but rarely showed my work to anyone outside my close circle of friends.
◊ You certainly get a kick out of teaching about poets and poetry, lately with the unique perspective of getting poets published … why?
That’s simple. It is the responsibility of all artists to speak for the majority of the population who do not have an artistic outlet. Poetry is an art form. The universal truths poets find and deliver through their poetry should be shared so everyone can ‘know’ the experience and learn important truths only available through art. All artists should push through personal barriers to find the truth. For poets it’s about living outside their comfort level. It is one thing to write and not share it with anyone. As such it provides the same values as journaling. But when poets share their poetry with others, particularly other poets, they learn more about what to write about and improve their craft. They should always be moving toward publication. That’s the thing that’s going to generate an enthusiasm for learning. We all worry that people won’t like our work, that we’ll be a failure, but we are thrilled when they do like our work.
Poets must push poetry out into the public domain or they’ll never know whether their work truly touches people or not. Read your poetry in a room full of people who don’t know you! It’s liberating. It’s because that’s where you, the poet, are supposed to be.
◊ Writers, writing, poets and poetry seem to fill your creative life. You knock yourself out organizing and promoting these … again, why?
I am passionate about it! I love it when someone brings another poet forward who is as shy as I was. Irving Layton’s generosity to me and so many other poets was unbelievable. Today I’m paying it forward. It’s one of the reasons I created the unique format of the Hot-Sauced Words Poetry Performances show (our 6th anniversary is this month!). Irving Layton was so generous to me, so why shouldn’t I emulate him? I am always ready to listen and give advice on how I got this far. I didn’t get here because writers with big egos made me feel stupid. Writers gave me advice on what works in my pieces, pointed out a couple of problems I should work on, helped me with challenging ideas. So many people helped me. I expect artists to be generous. I’m always stunned when I meet one who isn’t.
◊ James, could you take a moment to explain (i) scaffolding and (ii) the insight that sometimes poetry is written just for the poet?
This can happen at the beginning or at the end of a poem.
We often sit down and start writing, like journaling, writing (talking) around a subject for a while. Suddenly we hit metaphor or a symbol and our creative brain takes off. A fantastic poem goes on from this point. At the end we can become tempted to explain the poem we’ve just finished writing, and so we write 3 or 4 more stanzas at the end – basically writing the poem twice.
Scaffolding allows a poem to come into life in the first place. Words written at the beginning had to be written before we get into the mood or image that starts what will become the finished poem. At the other end of the poem, the poet decides to explain it. Chop off the scaffolding. It’s like building a house, you don’t leave the scaffolding there when it’s done. You take it away and the house is beautiful. It takes awhile to learn to identify scaffolding in our own writing. Share your work with seasoned poets.
(ii) Sometimes poetry is written just for the poet.
A poet doesn’t always know what they’ll get when they start writing. They may be trying to get a handle on a feeling or something that upsets them. A poem needs to be more sophisticated than that initial reaction. Sometimes nothing artistic happens in a personal piece. It is a journal entry that happens to look like a poem, but it is only for the poet. In essence, this could be scaffolding that goes nowhere.
A poem needs universal appeal. When there is no way to successfully translate a feeling or a rant into a written work of art, (“I really get that”), it’s just journal talk unless something happens, a metaphor or a series of lines come out that is good poetry, and the scaffolding takes a twist and goes off in the direction created by those lines. That’s when the artist comes out to play.
◊ What’ the best advice you have for poets that aspire to be published?
Write a lot of poetry … all the time. Write a hundred poems in a form you like and write only in that form for several months. When the form becomes ingrained, a poet will start writing really good ones. I will suggest one challenge, a form that is fun and yet the most difficult: the sonnet.
Understand the music before innovating. In general, poets don’t know enough about form and meter, and they absolutely must learn it! There is a natural rhythm to each language. In English it is most commonly expressed as iambic pentameter. For instance most of Shakespeare’s works follow that pattern. Most younger poets, however, grow up listening to rap music, so many of them use the rap rhythm in their poems. There are many different rhythms.
Read many poets. Study the craft of poetry and become more critical in order to develop a better sense of what works and what does not work for you. Poetry is subjective, as are all art forms. If it turns your crank, odds are it’s a theme or form that affects what you write.
◊ Please tell us about how the chapbook, “Tuesday’s Child, Poems from the Blue Heron” came to be.
This chapbook is the collection of works from eight poets who participated in the ten-week course I designed and facilitated: Get Published Poetry at Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, Ontario. The design was crafted around my notion that all poets have five really good poems. Participants used their own works-in-progress as examples of what makes images work and what kinds of writing can confuse or disappoint a reader. We discussed the use of surprise in poetry to delight and enlighten. Experimenting with a number of poetic forms excited everyone about the challenges of being restrained by rhyme and repetition. But the rewards of solving these puzzles proved how much fun poetry can become when the objectives of the poems are met and their place in the grand scheme of the art form is established. I enjoyed working with such an enthusiastic bunch of writers like that! You were a wonderful participant. (Copies of Tuesday’s Child can be purchased online.)
◊ Let’s close with a quote from your favourite poet.
To paraphrase Irving Layton: A poet only has three responsibilities. The first is to accept the fact that you are a poet, accept the fact you have a special talent, just accept and don’t fight it. The second is to write poetry. The third is to deliver it to the world.
‘Deliver it to the world’ can mean many things: reading it, printing it, putting out a poetry chapbook, maybe even being recognized by a big publisher and going on to be an icon of the art form.
Once you’ve read a poem in front of an audience, your duty is done to that poem. Don’t worry. It won’t be the last one!