“I Give the Muse Office Hours”: An Interview with Barry Dempster

by Maureen Scott Harris and Maureen Hynes

Poet and essayist Maureen Scott Harris has published three collections of poetry and three chapbooks. Her second book, Drowning Lessons, won the 2005 Trillium Book Award for Poetry; Slow Curve Out (2012) was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award. Her essay on the Don River won the 2009 WildCare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize. Come Caribou Come was the runner up in the 2018 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. With the River Poets she has developed poetry walks through Toronto’s ravines and parks. Harris is the publisher of Fieldnotes Chapbooks. She lives in Toronto.

Maureen Hynes is the author of seven books, five of which are poetry. Her latest poetry collection is Sotto Voce (2019, Brick Books). Her first book of poetry, Rough Skin, won the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award, and her 2016 collection, The Poison Colour, was shortlisted for both the Pat Lowther and Raymond Souster Awards. Maureen’s poetry has been included in over 25 anthologies, including twice in Best Canadian Poems in English, and in Best of the Best Canadian Poetry, 2017. Maureen is poetry editor for Our Times magazine. She lives in Toronto.

Barry Dempster began his writing life as a teenager in Scarborough, with little in his background to support any literary inclinations, and at a time when the teaching of creative writing was rare in Canada. He found his own way, by accident and diligence and the serendipity of encounters with people who offered encouragement or support or example. His more than forty years’ commitment to a writing practice, particularly to poetry, is exemplary.

In fall 2018 we (the interviewers, Maureen Scott Harris and Maureen Hynes) found ourselves talking about Barry and how much he had contributed to our writing lives. Since the early 2000s, with Liz Ukrainetz and Jim Nason we’ve had the pleasure of being in a writing group with him, initially meeting every three to four weeks in Toronto. Now we meet roughly once a month at Barry and Karen Dempster’s home in Holland Landing north of Toronto. This change was occasioned by the progression of Barry’s Parkinson’s disease (diagnosed in November 2009), which makes it difficult for him to travel.

Barry’s poems, his knowledge of poetry, and his commitment to writing have not only sharpened our critical skills and kept us writing, but pushed us to make our poems the best we are capable of. We’ve also benefitted from his acute editing skills: formally or informally he edited Harris’s Drowning Lessons as well as large sections of Slow Curve Out, and Hynes’s Harm’s Way and Marrow, Willow.

Talking about Barry, we discovered we wanted a larger conversation with him. We had questions: How did he come to write in the first place? What was his writing practice? How did his life shape that practice? Where did he get the discipline to write a poem a day? So the idea for this interview took shape—a way to ask our questions, and to share his knowledge and generosity with writers and readers who have not experienced it directly.

What follows is an excerpt from roughly six hours of conversation recorded over two different sessions in December 2018 and February 2019. We transcribed those talks, editing the blurts and tangents of conversation into more or less full and sequential sentences, then asked Barry to review the text for accuracy to his thought. The full interview will be published as a Fieldnotes Chapbook some time in 2020.

Maureen Scott Harris & Maureen Hynes
Toronto. Fall 2019.


Maureen Scott Harris, Barry Dempster, and Maureen Hynes

 

You’ll creep out of bed tomorrow morning,
the soft clocks of your eyes blurred.
Sshh, careful now, the sword
in the stone still thinks it’s alone.
—Barry Dempster


Maureen Scott Harris: Let’s start with the basic question: Did you always want to be a writer?

Barry Dempster: I’m not sure I know when I first wanted to be a writer. I know when I first started writing—I was 17, and I sat down one day and wrote a poem. All I remember about it now is that it was very dark. Even back then, I knew where to put my darkness, without a clue as to how or why.

I wasn’t born with an interest in writing, but I had an ability to entertain at a very young age. Why I needed to entertain people is beyond me even now, but I had the desire to make people laugh and say, Wow! Is that true? It wasn’t just being a class clown, it was also knowing that I could change the mood or tenor of a room; I could go in and make people feel better about their lives.

This may sound a little occult, but I feel like I was chosen by writing. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have any particular plan, or any particular profession, that gave me a great deal of joy or meaning. I feel like I could have been a good teacher, but it wasn’t something that would fill me to the bones. When I started to write, it really felt like the universe was gifting me, exclaiming I bet you’ll be interested in this! And I found I was more interested than I ever would have believed, despite the fact that I didn’t have any particular notion of myself as skilled or talented.

You found me, you found me out, was what I felt—that was it, I was ready, simply, to learn how to be a writer. The universe didn’t seem at all concerned with how I’d make a living. When people brought up that question, I really wasn’t sure. I just set out with a kind of blind trust.

I realize what I’m saying comes close to sounding pretentious, as if writing is out there searching and choosing special people. I don’t feel at all that I was “chosen” in that sense, I was simply given a minimum of direction. It was very clear I’d have to work damn hard to make writing work, but for some reason, as Joseph Campbell said, it brought me bliss. I had no idea I felt this way until I started working intensely on words.

Maureen Scott Harris: I don’t think that’s pretentious. What you’re talking about is an old idea we now are often uncomfortable with, the notion of “the calling.”

Barry Dempster: The calling—interesting you would say that because I really had the sense that I should be listening for a calling, and that a calling would come directly from God. We were staunch fundamentalists on my mother’s side, followers of the Plymouth Brethren who were driven out of Ireland because of the conservatism of their faith. It was God or nothing, and that nothingness was somewhere you didn’t really want to go; so I tried my best to tussle with God for a time. I realized I was constantly listening for the voice, waiting for it to identify itself, and tell me why I was having such a hard time. When the writing came—it’s strange that I never thought it was God!—it was much more the awareness that language and story could change people. I knew if I surrendered to writing it would somehow take me to a place where I’d belong.

I write every day that I possibly can. There are days when things get out of hand, but, as I say to my students, “I give the Muse office hours. If she is anywhere in the vicinity, she knows where to find me.’ It sounds silly, but it’s not. You can’t expect to be hit by inspiration if you’re not leaving yourself open to it.

Maureen Hynes: Have you, over the years, developed a writing routine, and if so, how would you describe it?

BD: I do have a writing routine. I give the best hours of the day to my work. I’m not having many best hours right now, because of Parkinson’s terrible tremors, so it’s a little tough. Sometimes I need to wait until my meds kick in, and then start writing when I can manage more control.

I write every day that I possibly can. There are days when things get out of hand, but, as I say to my students, “I give the Muse office hours. If she is anywhere in the vicinity, she knows where to find me.” It sounds silly, but it’s not. You can’t expect to be hit by inspiration if you’re not leaving yourself open to it.

Maureen Hynes: When you’re writing, do you just write what comes to you, or do you have an intention or purpose or subject in mind?

BD: I usually have a purpose or a subject. Henry Miller said something along the lines of, “I know I can write just about anything, but if I don’t write one book at a time, I’ll never publish anything.”

Because I have a tendency to want to do as much as possible, to give myself a myriad of challenges, I took that to heart. I try to work on a particular project at a particular time, and really give as much of my energy as possible to it. And then see if there’s something else that I’m beginning to get enticed by—I can do that later in the day. This way, I often work on a number of things at the same time, but they are definitely prioritized.

MH: What are some of the challenges you face when writing? For me it’s being pulled away by any little thing.

BD: I’m pretty good at not getting pulled away. My dedication to my writing schedule is almost Calvinist. I’d be more fun if I could sometimes just say, “Let’s toss it in the air and go out, have an adventure.” And I can do that if I try really hard. Travel is one excellent way of leaving the job behind. When I’m busy taking the world in, I tend not to fret about getting it down on paper.

MH: No tics or habits you’ve had to overcome?

BD: One thing is, the minute I sit down there’s a voice inside my head that says, “You can’t do this.” There has always been that voice, and sometimes when I give into it, it gets so huge and loud that it practically devours me. It has a mouth and a maw. I realized very quickly that I had to get a handle on it and try to sneak in; so, rather than just listening to the voice, I have a bit of a dialogue with it. I say, “All right, today is a bad day. But how about we work together on making it a better one all around?” I talk to it as if it were actually someone who needs attention, and, in a way, that seems to work. When I give it attention, it doesn’t seem to meddle with me in the same way.

Then there is the poem itself. Hard work is usually enough to steer a piece in the right direction. I can accept that a poem isn’t going well, but it will get better the more focused I become. Of course, some poems just don’t improve no matter the hard work you put into them. The trick is to be able to tell the difference—when to push, and when to fold. This is where writing groups are invaluable. I belong to three of them. They show me where the problems are. Without my fellow poets, I’d sometimes just get lost.

A poem a day. Seven days a week. Not necessarily an exciting life …

MSH: What more excitement would you want?

BD: Sometimes I try for two poems, but it’s not a good idea. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to achieve it. I’ll start a second poem but I never finish it—so, one a day.

bookshelves

MH: How do you “birth” a poem—not just in your mind, but physically? Do you work on a computer or write longhand? Or has that changed over the years?

BD: It has changed. When I started writing, I kept notebooks because I found that when I sat down, I was often too close to the material. I needed some distance to be able to see it truthfully. Keeping notebooks produced hundreds of ideas, ideas too numerous to ever catch up with. I’d open a notebook at random, and look through it until something spoke to me—say, something about running with a pack of half-wild dogs when I was in Chile, going further and further into my own wildness, even though I’d never thought of myself as a wild dog kind of guy before. I remember that poem coming easily at first, followed by a snag or two. But the important thing was that the poem was already in my consciousness. I could relax into it, unravel it from my notebook where it had first started its journey as a poem.

I always wrote by hand until I lost the ability to read my own handwriting. It’s become a complete scrawl now. I’m down to one finger on the keyboard because my right hand is so jumpy. It’s a bit of a challenge! I keep having to learn something new to trick my symptoms. Parkinson’s can’t help but change the way I write, the mechanics of it, but “change” doesn’t necessarily mean negative. Some of my challenges have taught me more about focus. I think I’ve learned to pack a line of poetry more tightly, to make every single word count.

I think time gets pressurized by illness. A disease like Parkinson’s takes over the body; I no longer have sovereignty, I’m not king of the palace any more. It squeezes me into something that I can write about only at the moment, because all I have is the moment.

MH: So that means you’re not writing in notebooks now?

BD: I actually still do scrawl stuff in a notebook. I try to make it like shorthand so I can read it, although I’ve gone back to a few pages, and I can’t make them out. Now I’m saying to myself I will not worry so much, because I have thousands of pages in my notebooks. If I live to be eighty …

And there are new complications all the time. I think time gets pressurized by illness. A disease like Parkinson’s takes over the body; I no longer have sovereignty, I’m not king of the palace any more. It squeezes me into something that I can write about only at the moment, because all I have is the moment. And I really feel those moments.

Don McKay and I used to marvel at those people who had a transformational experience the night before, and were writing about it the next morning. Didn’t they know that it took eons to shift the continental divide—and they think they can write about an experience that’s less than 24 hours old? But I know now there are some subjects that have to be tackled the minute they happen; otherwise they’ll disappear.

MH: Do you plan a book as a whole, or do you amass a stack of poems, and then shuffle them into a coherent order? 

BD: It changes, and it’s both. I think there are some books—like Letters from a Long Illness with The World (1993), or The Burning Alphabet (2005), or Late Style (2017)—with these books I really had a vision of what needed to be said from the beginning. But, for example, Fables for Isolated Men (1982), my first book, might as well have been written by 25 different poets. I mean, each poem had me in it, but a different version of me. It was like making a collage out of dozens of drawings. I had to learn how to connect the disparities, bring out tones and moods that were initially written years apart. 

Then there are some collections that have just overtaken me, like Disturbing the Buddha (2016). Some of those poems took shape quite quickly while others arrived in a mishmash of rhythms that needed structure before they could announce themselves as poems. I had to wrestle with one poem, then allow another to wander by slowly enough to keep the pace. The ideas behind the poems belonged to the same family, but they needed adjustments and clarity before they could begin to talk amongst themselves.

On the other hand, Fire and Brimstone (1997) really took me by surprise, because I was writing about my childhood and religion, and that took over. It pushed me deeper than I was prepared to go. I did a lot of rewriting with those childhood poems. It almost felt like I was rewiring my entire spiritual life.

MH: Late Style—I’m interested in that title for your 2017 collection. I know Don McKay came up with it, and I guess it comes from the essay by Edward Said, who was reflecting on composers as well as authors, and how age tempers their approach to their work, and to the world. Can you talk about the concept in terms of your work?

BD: I was flummoxed by the theory that we really don’t work at the top of our game once we’re 60 or older. We’re left with the bits and pieces that we didn’t say, or should have said. I got interested in the exception to the rule, artists who are able to write amazing things because their experience has twisted or warped them, or has tied them up to a certain stake that they’d never had to deal with before, and in doing that they produced the best work of their careers. Beethoven, for example, going deaf—what choice did he have? It was over, he was finished, he was done—or, he could hear music that he couldn’t hear when his hearing was perfect. I don’t mean it in a narcissistic way, but I felt that with Parkinson’s there were things I could write about that I couldn’t have managed without embracing my frailty and mortality.

The next book, the book I’ve just finished, was to be about travel, basically trips to Berlin and Chile. However, it was rejected by Brick Books, because as Don McKay put it, it just wasn’t as powerful a manuscript as Late Style had been. Rather than surrendering to 60 and its so-called warning that my best work was behind me, I realized that everything I write should be attempting greatness, no matter the chances. Whether or not I can achieve it, the challenge is there; it’s just a matter of tracking it down.

It became very clear to me that I had to go beyond the sheen of the world, while at the same time letting it get under my skin and become me—or I become it, in a way—and that felt like a difficult experiment.

So I got excited. I began working, and had a vision of what I thought it had to be. I approached it differently from anything I’d done before. It became very clear to me that I had to go beyond the sheen of the world, while at the same time letting it get under my skin and become me—or I become it, in a way—and that felt like a difficult experiment. And now I’ve written a manuscript that’s different from anything I’ve done before. It’s written in the voices of different people although, in a hopefully haunting way, those people are all various aspects of myself.

MSH: Do you approach writing fiction differently from the way you approach writing poetry?

BD: Yes, very much so. I have to entertain in fiction. Fiction gives me much more of a sense of audience.

With Tread and Other Stories (2018), I wanted to write a book of love stories, and I wanted them all to be gritty and truthful, to have characters incapable of love, as so many people are. I wanted to write about people who just can’t let go of themselves enough, and people who surrender, as well as people who stand up to the most challenging aspects of their lives—who simply accept that this is the way it’s going to be, that this is love, or as close to love as they are ever going to come. I know that’s not an entertaining notion, I know there are people who will think, “Why write about a crappy character who throws a soccer ball at his girlfriend’s dog?” Or, “Why do we have to read about a man who’s taking his wife to her old house, because he can’t stand the fact that her Alzheimer’s makes her forget that somebody else is living there?” But these are love stories too.

I find that, with a poem, the writing’s a day-long affair—it’s very passionate, it can take hours, I can forget that anything else exists. It’s not that it doesn’t later go through ten, 15, 40 revisions, but ultimately, the magic is created over the course of a day. When I go back to it, the structure’s in place, I just have to find the word that’s a little better to end that one line, or the image that will take away the explanation towards the end, changes like that.

But fiction obsesses me every single moment of every single day until the damn thing is done. If I write a short story that takes five days, that’s five days when, if you see me on the street and call out Barry! I may not answer. I‘m not Barry, I’m the guy kicking the ball into the little dog’s face, I have to be.

Writing a novel—I really don’t know how anyone does it. The first novel I attempted was called Maybe I’m Amazed, but I never could get it into shape. With the second novel, The Ascension of Jesse Rapture (1994), I went to a movie the night after I started it, and as I was walking out of the theatre, I realized I hadn’t felt the magic in the movie at all. I was so obsessed with my novel that I couldn’t lose myself in someone else’s vision. It was like this unwritten novel owned me entirely, body and soul, rather than it being something that I freely wove in and out of. I felt like I had started something that I hadn’t a clue how to finish. That book took me over a year. Once it was down on paper, the ensuing revisions were relatively easy. I had my life back; I could sink my teeth into other people’s works of art. I could let filmmakers, painters, and other writers thoroughly engage me again.

MSH: Do you ever have dry periods or writer’s block?

BD: Sure, it happens. But pimples happen. Corns happen. They make you feel lousy, sometimes they even hurt. But I also feel like it has little to do with the conscious me. It’s a disconnect between ability and inspiration. The best way of dealing with it is to stay in the room with it and just listen for its voice. Instead of saying “I’ve got writer’s block, and I can’t do this right now,” I say “I’ve got writer’s block, but I’m here just in case.” The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence, as Marianne Moore said.

MSH: Can you name three major subjects of your poetry?

BD: I write about aloneness. I don’t want to write about aloneness. I’m sick and tired of aloneness, I’d sooner play with my friends, but if you do a check—Alayna Munce, who edited my novel, The Outside World (2013), had me count words I’d used. She’d say, “Check the word ‘flossy,’” and I’d discover that I’d used it six times! Or she’d give me a word like “particular,” and I’d find I’d used that word 37 times! “Not that particular moment,” “not that particular girl.” So, when I look up “loneliness” or “alone,” there’s always scores of them!

Apparently, I’m more able to write about body parts than about bodies. I remember in a workshop I gave, a young woman asked me why I was so interested in body parts; why did I never write about wholeness? I said, “I do, what do you mean?” But she had compiled a list from one of my books, on two sides of the page: wrists, toes, backs of knees, earlobes, tongues, aaah, it went on and on! I think what I am fascinated with is how you put it all together in one person. I’m still hoping that I’ll eventually get it right.

I am also quite interested in the invisible. It holds such power, not only the invisibility of religion and God, but the invisibility of love.

MSH: What three poets have been important to you over the years?

BD: Rilke has been very important to me. I feel that he’s a god—a god, not the god, and that I could believe in that god.

And Neruda, Neruda has brought me such joy! He let me realize there was room in poetry not only to make a life, but to make a life that, regardless of how much the past sneaks in with its misery, its loneliness, there’s also a lot of joy. I loved going to Neruda’s three houses in Chile. I loved seeing the little ships in his bottle collections. I felt as if I was a kid again, and was trying to get my hand out of my mother’s grip and just run and play!

TS Eliot, for “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” which I think is the greatest poem ever written.


Poems by Barry Dempster

 

Secret Dog

Guardian, the German shepherd
with balls as taut as coiled
rattlesnakes, tonks me on the thigh
with his blunt head. We journey
into the Chilean foothills,
cornfield clattering with
manmade rain, the sun leaning
over a rim of sky like Humpty Dumpty
in flames. Up ahead, the vineyard
tilled, grapes taking syrupy breaths
of iron and sweat.
Before long we’re joined by Campana,
a pigpen of a poodle,
and Rocky the terrier
bordering on road kill. Three
mucksters and their gringo human.
We all pee on the same cactus.
One eats a cricket, washing it down
with canal water. It’s all
I can do to stay on two legs,
a tingle in my ass the threat
of a tail – secret dog, tearing
at the dirt, nosing rabbit shit,
squashing vetch, wind lifting
our scent to the scrub
where the grade grows steep
and our tongues can taste
the sourness of too much distance.
Halfway to the clouds, I devour
my white bread and cheese –
snarling, unabashed.


Isla Negra

Neruda sits on the Isla Negra shore
like a great bald fish, listening to
the fuss of the horizon, a flurry
of energy flying from holy things
like egrets and clouds. The sand
glitters with butterfly pieces of
coloured glass, women bending
to pick them up, exposing
the smalls of their backs. It feels
like the world is flooding, doves
exhausted – metaphor the only
solid ground. He puffs his chest
into the wind as if inventing
a new direction. Matilde’s ankle bones
glow as she paces the foam line
searching for heart-shaped stones.
He calls himself a sailor
though he’s terrified of water.
It’s the idea that matters,
the salt rolled out into a long
white mantle of beach. He writes
as if he’s deep inside a swim,
the cursive of waves in wild green ink.


Barry Dempster is the author of two novels, a children’s book, three volumes of short stories, and 16 collections of poetry. He has been nominated for the Governor General’s Awards for literature twice, for his first book, Fables for Isolated Men (Guernica, 1982), and for The Burning Alphabet (Brick Books, 2005), which won the Canadian Authors Association Award for poetry. In 2010 and 2015, he was a finalist for the Ontario Premier’s Award of Excellence in the Arts. And in 2013, he was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award for his second novel, The Outside World. From 1990 to 1997, he was Poetry and Reviews Editor for Poetry Canada, and from 1999 to 2018, he was the Acquisitions Editor with Brick Books, where he discovered and edited over 30 books from many of Canada’s finest emerging and established poets. His editorial successes include a Griffin Prize winner and a Griffin nominee, a Governor General’s Award winner, and a Trillium Book Award winner.

Equally comfortable with poetry and prose, Dempster also has extensive experience as a creative writing instructor. He has been on the faculty at The Banff Centre as mentor for the Writing Studio, Wired Writing, and Writing with Style programs, and has twice been the Writer-in-Residence at the Richmond Hill Public Library. He has run hundreds of workshops in Ontario elementary and high schools, at the Upper Canada Writers’ Workshop in Kingston, Ontario, and Sage Hill, Saskatchewan. He has also offered master classes at Los Parronales, near Santiago, Chile; Mahone Bay and Shelburne, Nova Scotia; Ottawa; Winnipeg; Hamilton; Holland Landing, Newmarket, and Barrie, Ontario; and Victoria.


 


Poet and essayist Maureen Scott Harris has published three collections of poetry and three chapbooks. Her second book, Drowning Lessons, won the 2005 Trillium Book Award for Poetry; Slow Curve Out (2012) was shortlisted for the Pat Lowther Award. Her essay on the Don River won the 2009 WildCare Tasmania Nature Writing Prize. Come Caribou Come was the runner up in the 2018 Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. With the River Poets she has developed poetry walks through Toronto’s ravines and parks. Harris is the publisher of Fieldnotes Chapbooks. She lives in Toronto.

Maureen Hynes is the author of seven books, five of which are poetry. Her latest poetry collection is Sotto Voce (2019, Brick Books). Her first book of poetry, Rough Skin, won the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Award, and her 2016 collection, The Poison Colour, was shortlisted for both the Pat Lowther and Raymond Souster Awards. Maureen’s poetry has been included in over 25 anthologies, including twice in Best Canadian Poems in English, and in Best of the Best Canadian Poetry, 2017. Maureen is poetry editor for Our Times magazine. She lives in Toronto.

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