Jan’s poetry has been called “witty and wise” (George Johnston), “energetic and striking” (Carol Off), and “very moving” (Gay Allison). He has published three collections and his poems have been published in numerous literary journals. He has also put in two years editing a poetry journal and has edited books by James Reaney Sr. and Thomas Nashe.
In addition to his poetry, Jan is a musician. He has played in a number of London bands and his work has been recorded on 6 CDs.
This email interview is by Stan Burfield, organizer of London Open Mic Poetry Night.
SB: When and why did you start writing poetry?
JF: In my late-teens I started keeping a diary, a practice that resulted in some early attempts at poetic expression. At university, I took a degree in English language and literature which exposed me to many forms of poetry. My literary studies helped me refine my writing skills; this, and being a child of the 60’s and 70’s fostered a desire to express myself creatively through poetry. At university, I found a mentor, George Johnston, a well-respected, if somewhat traditional, Canadian poet. I had my first poem published in 1975 in a Canadian Authors Association journal coming out of Edmonton. I was hooked.
SB: What have been the biggest influences on your poetry over your life?
JF: The Decadents and Aesthetes of the late 19th century such as Oscar Wilde and Charles Baudelaire.
The poetics of modern pre-war writers such as TS Eliot and Ezra Pound.
Post-war Canadian poets such as Irving Layton and Al Purdy who embodied modernism and used voices I could hear, understand and admire.
The Beat poets such as Alan Ginsberg and Robert Creeley, and the TISH poets George Bowering and Frank Davey for introducing me to truly contemporary forms and themes.
Sound poetry; writers such as bp nichol and Steve McCaffery, for exploding my preconceived notions of poetry.
Poet/musicians such as Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan.
SB: Can you say something about how your poetic style has evolved, and what you generally try to accomplish in your poetry?
JF: Like most poets, I started out by imitating those poets and writers I liked, and admired. This was the early 70’s. I wrote mostly free verse about the things I experienced using a language that was more or less self-consciously “poetic”. But writing is also a craft. I deliberately tried writing in many different forms: rhymed metred poetry, prose poems, haiku, automatic writing, surrealism, writing in the first person as a character who isn’t me, experimenting with vocabulary, line breaks, punctuation; all as a way of consciously developing my craft. Along the way, I began to find it easier to express myself in a voice that felt natural to me, but that deliberately embodied elements of craft. Sometime later, maybe around the same time as I discovered abstract art, I discovered sound poetry, and began to incorporate more abstract forms: performance poetry, concrete poetry, and just using sounds. I see now that I started writing poetry because I was attracted to engaging in a creative process and the main form of expression I had to bring to that process in the beginning was language. If I try and accomplish anything in my poetry, it has been that in the process of writing I discover something about myself and my relationship to what I’m experiencing and have been able to communicate that in a way that is striking, original, and true.
SB: Are there any themes you return to again and again?
JF: Love, intimacy, and spirituality
“Transitions” such as birth, death, and growing older
Understanding and appreciating natural phenomena
The struggle to find personal meaning and insight
Jan Figurski interview Part 2 (not previously published):
SB: You said that early on it was the creative process you were attracted to, and that because language was then the your main form of expression, poetry became your main art form. Can you talk about that creative process, and how it has changed, if it has, over the years.
JF: Creativity is a fascinating subject. For me, the creative process is about putting yourself in a state of reflective awareness, a focus on the present moment. We all have different sets of skills we’ve acquired from a lifetime of learning, and different goals we want to achieve. For me, creativity is a process of focusing your energies in the present moment, a state in which all the skills you have are available to you for a purpose you are only aware of while you are in this state. It is not just about bringing your skills to bear on solving a problem, although this does come into play, it is about writing or playing an instrument while being aware and in the moment. This view of the creative process can apply to many kinds of artistic expression, and also has parallels with meditation.
SB: You will be bringing two art forms to your Oct. 2nd reading, poetry and music. How do these relate to each other for you, both in terms of the creative process, and in terms of your own enjoyment? Can melody be seen simply as another poetic form, or is music very different to us than poetry?
JF; The bridge, for me, between poetry and music was my exploration of sound poetry. Like many children of the 60’s I also harboured a desire to be a musician. With sound poetry I opened my toolkit to include performance using sounds; abstract writing that tries to integrate or synthesize different modes of expression such as performance, writing (non-semantic) language, and music. It is a short leap of faith from there to playing music and singing. I was almost 40 when I decided to re-invent myself. I picked up a guitar and began to teach myself. After a couple of years, I began to play at open mic venues. I was meeting other musicians and began playing with ones who played similar music. I was most attracted to American roots music, old jazz, and vocal harmony. I began playing with an indie folk music group called Screen Door Slam. I played mandolin, harmonica, guitar, and sang. After that group disbanded, I played with a group called Paper Moon. Along the way I have found myself playing harmonica and singing with a few blues groups, more recently with the Dave Dillon Blues Band. Most recently I’ve also been doing some studio work, playing harmonica on a couple of indie recordings. The main difference, for me, between the creative processes of making music and of writing poetry is that writing tends to be a solitary experience, it is a form of expression that very few people relate to anymore; music, on the other hand for me is a shared experience, very much in the moment – you kiss the joy as it flies. And music appeals to almost everybody.
SB: The last poem in the group, Black Dance, has a strong feeling of music in it, at least of drums. Were you tempted to make it into a song? Have you used your poetic background to help you write music? See Poem # 5.
JF: It would work with drum accompaniment, there are definite beats in each section. It is a reflection on the horrors of tribal warfare and post-colonial fascism in Africa. I’m sure I have some stereotypical assumptions about African culture, but I think the piece is effective as a performance poem in the way it contrasts two conflicting images. I will probably not ever re-work it to make it a song. Maybe I could send it to K’Naan, the Somalian-Canadian musician who wrote Waving Flag?
SB: Reading your poems I am blown away by their beauty. The first one, Night in the Virgin Forest, perfectly describes for me the feeling I’ve experienced many times alone in forests under a full moon. And yet there is no way I could reproduce it in words so exactly. It amazes me that you held onto that reality so well during the writing process, and yet you must have also spent considerable time and effort working on the poetics. This was in 1974. Do you remember how long it would have taken you to perfect the wording for it, and did you struggle to preserve the reality you experienced? Did the other poems in the group of five you’ve shared with us go through a similar process? See Poem # 1.
JF: In Night In The Virgin Forest the main ideas I was working with after spending a number of nights sleeping out in the woods during a bike trip on Vancouver Island, were sacred holiness, and animal fear. A fellow poet and friend of mine has said to me that poetic inspiration can be a process that involves rescuing ideas from the chaos of experience. I like that, and I think it captures the process involved in writing this poem. I developed words and phrases to try and capture the ideas coming out of the original experience and worked with them to try and achieve a certain effect. Sometimes what you achieve is nothing like what you started with, but in this case I was able to stay fairly close to the original conception. The whole process took maybe about 2 days writing over the course of a few weeks. A couple of the poems in the 5 poems of mine you’ve posted have gone through a similar process - ideas rescued from chaos – but the 3 others have gone through different processes.
SB: The Moon Swells Inside You is not only beautiful, moody and full of feeling, but it feels very mythical. It feels new and yet timeless. Like it could have been written centuries ago, even in very different cultures. How did this poem come about? See Poem # 4.
JF: The Moon Swells Inside You is a love poem for my former wife, her pregnancy, and our soon-to-be daughter. The silver apples are the silver apples of the moon, an element of Greek mythology I explored after first encountering it in Yeat’s “Song of the Wandering Aengus”. In my poem I use the silver apple to represent feminine wisdom, the precious mystery, a knowledge I may encounter but never have. The rest of the poem represents conception and gestation in similarly symbolic terms. I use repetitive wording in the poem to try and achieve an incantatory effect, and a certain kind of flow in the poem.
SB: What can we expect from you in the future?
JF: The world is an endlessly fascinating place. I continue to learn and grow and reflect on who I am and what I do. So you can probably expect me to continue to write and play music, give readings. On a more pragmatic level, all my books are out of print, so I am probably going to come out with a “New and Selected”, probably in digital form. I am still attracted to “book art” and all the crafts involved in making books such as paper-making, printing and binding; so I am intending to start a new publishing venture that will publish single poems/stories/graphics in unique or limited edition, handmade books in unusual formats.
5 Poems by Jan Figurski
Jan Figurski bio
WHERE: The Mykonos Restaurant at 572 Adelaide St. North, London, Ontario. The restaurant has a large, covered terrace just behind the main restaurant, which comfortably holds 60 poetry lovers. Mediterranean food and drinks are available. Overflow parking is available across the side street and in the large lot one block north, in front of Trad’s Furniture.
WHEN: October 2nd, the first Wednesday of the month, as with most of our events.
LIVE MUSIC will begin at least by 6:30. There is also an intermission with live music and (usually) more at the end of the event. This month we have a surprise, to be announced soon.
THE FEATURED POET: Jan Figurski begins reading shortly after 7:00, followed by a Q&A.
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, there is about 1.5 hours of open mic, ending about 9:00 pm. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). NOTE: FOR THE FIRST TIME, WE WILL NOT BE SELECTING NAMES AT RANDOM, BUT, AS IS TRADITIONAL AT MOST POETRY OPEN MICS, POETS WILL WRITE THEIR NAMES IN A SPOT OF THEIR CHOOSING ON A LIST AT THE DOOR. They will also be asked for their email addresses and whether or not we can photograph and videotape them reading.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates to London Open Mic Poetry Night receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by Brick Books and The Ontario Poetry Society. Donations are our only source of income. We still haven't paid off our initial debt.
EBOOK ANTHOLOGY: Our annual ebook is an anthology of the poets who have read during the year, including both the featured poets, with one or two poems by each, and the open mic readers, with from one to a few, depending on length, from each of those who wish to participate, no matter how many times they read. The ebook will then be available on Amazon at the end of the season, at a few dollars each, used to help offset expenses. If anyone gives us more than several poems, we will select from them. All poems that are included must have been read at the events during the season. The ebook will include a short biography (up to seven lines) of each poet. This must be included with the poems. We may also add a photo of the poet reading at the event. This hasn’t been decided yet. To keep transcription errors from creeping into the poems, the preferred way to get them to us is by email. Those who don’t use email can give us a copy at the events. A cautionary note: Some poets may not want certain poems to be included in the ebook because it would make them unacceptable for later publication in certain poetry journals. Erik Martinez Richards will edit and publish the anthology. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org