I was raised on a small farm in central Alberta. My first ambition, a very serious one, was to live alone in a log cabin as a trapper. That changed to farmer, then biologist, then journalist, then florist.
In Calgary, I studied biology, then journalism. Amongst numerous more-nondescript jobs, I was for two years a reporter.
Then, over a four-year period, I went on some extremely long, arduous adventures by foot, canoe and bicycle, hoping they would break me out of my life-long shyness and anxiety. No such luck. So, having read that poetry was a possible route into the subconscious, which I assumed was the home of my anxiety, I took a poetry anthology out into a closed provincial park near St. John’s, Newfoundland. For a month and a half, I read, wrote and memorized poetry until it floated across the sky in my dreams. But it did nothing for my anxiety.
In 1987, I married Linda, a flower designer, and we opened and ran a flower shop in Vancouver for nineteen years.
When we sold the shop and semi-retired, we moved to London, Ontario in 2008 to be near our children and grandchildren.
With more time on my hands, I revved up my poetry writing, and, as a form of shyness therapy, began attending Ron Stewart's excellent poetry workshop. When I got used to that, the next logical step in the direction of my fear was to find a place to read to an audience. Since there was no open mic for regular “page poets” in London then, I decided I would have to organize one. In doing so, the constant social contacts that were necessary turned out to be just the therapy I needed. The stress nearly killed me but I eventually got used to it, and by the fifth season had lost most of my shyness. After 62 years, I felt like I was stepping through a door into a completely new life.
In the process, my ability to write decent poetry has dramatically improved. And I have a place to read it!
• The 2014 Ted Plantos Memorial Award from The Ontario Poetry Society.
• 2nd Prize in the 2014 Poetry London Poetry Contest.
At the bottom I start again
lift myself, glance up.
And try to peel away
all those things I've always known--
the objects, their dryness, their hold,
even touch those
old splashed years--
some other life.
But now I've decided it's
next foot above the last--
sadness, now relief--
my muscles, my joints, my eyes open,
my own solid walls moving past.
Concerning our Glorious Future
As I lift the spoon
from this morning’s coffee
I feel the same long pull of time
that my father did
that their parents did
a chain rattling down
into the well so far
I cannot imagine.
And up, out of that darkness
into this present,
all of it--
the slow ages of our reptilian forebears,
our fearful hominid ancestors,
the entire charging ascent of Man--
comes to a juddering halt
at this drop of coffee
We are stranded here
at the endpoint
of time, banging
on the ceiling.
I Am Standing On A Crate Reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti
I am here now. This
is no longer an alternate future, or someone else's.
I am stretched up tight on this crate
looking down at these
my spine hard against
the stone edge
of Starbuck's window wall,
buffeted by wind and buses
that bellow around this cold corner--
this dark Richmond and Dundas
where I would not be.
Yet I am only two barefoot beatnik blocks down
from City Lights Book Shop
nicely named for Ferlinghetti's own,
in Frisco way back then.
And now up on the crate I too am wearing
that F-beard in which he preached to his
beat colleagues passion
for all these dead poor
these no fame no friends
these leaning here into the slow tide of the block
drifting through time's
pool out of jail for a while
getting by as if free
to like each other or one or some.
I am calm standing on this crate,
wearing this body here now
like someone else's or no one's--
and anyway no one looks at me; my eyes
are always in the book, my ears on my sonorous
voice; and elsewhere
enticing his empathetic, liberal
Empty out our pockets
Missing all our appointments..."
No one hears.
And these, with no appointments
to miss, don't care.
His friends aren't here.
Even so, we few crate poets
yes we have left our safe homes
our cars in the overnight lots
our cell phones in our pockets
and like Ferlinghetti we do our hour
up on our soap boxes
dropping loud words
down into the block.
An important component of London’s literary arts scene, the Open Mic has provided a platform for poets “up on our soap boxes / dropping loud words / down into the block.”
Riff, if you would, on how your experience as a poet in and citizen of London has been affected by your tenure as the Open Mic’s organizer. What did you set out to achieve by establishing this series? Why do you think it has been successful?
It’s all been very interesting, to say the least. From both the personal angle and the community angle. A big discovery was that in going in the one direction I necessarily went in the other simultaneously. My main concern at the beginning was personal, to try to solve my serious shyness. The idea was that reading my poems in public, a very scary proposition, would be a form of therapy. Since there was no such place for page poets in London, I had to create one, and it turned out that the social work of creating the community I needed was exactly what it took to demonstrate to my subconscious that it didn’t have to be so afraid of people. It worked amazingly well for me. And I think some of my fellow poets here in London are getting a similar benefit, to some degree, from the open mic, both from reading at it and from being a member of the community.
Another reason the open mic has been a success is simply that it gives poets a goal. If they’re writing only for their own pleasure and nobody else’s, chances are their motivation will peter out at some point. And if they send to journals, that long wait can be frustrating. But giving themselves a simple, immediate goal like reading a new poem at the open mic can supply for some people the impetus they need to work on those poems. And thus to read and maybe study. As with me. Over these five years, I’ve read a lot more poetry than I ever would have otherwise, some of it written by the poets I’ve featured. In the process, I’ve learned a lot, and my poetry has improved tremendously.
Another thing: London Open Mic provides one more big poetry event in the city (actually more than one), which is one more reason for people to keep thinking about poetry and writing it. If, every time they turn around they see another poetry thing taking place, how can it not excite, and once they’re into the idea because so many other people are the poetry itself will take over. It only needs to get its toe in. Ever since the beginning of the open mic, my idea of real success was seeing people move to London because of the poetry scene here. Well, I don’t know if that’s happened yet, but I expect to hear about that person any time now.
“Staircase--eleven floors” metaphorizes the narrator’s climb of an apartment-complex staircase and the poet’s encounter with the blank page: “At the bottom I start again // lift myself, glance up. / And try to peel away / all those things I’ve always known....”
What, if anything, does writing (or reading) a poem promise or afford you––escape, respite, ascension?
For me, poetry does give a bit of respite from anxiety. The creative act enforces a temporary calm. Which is wonderful. But in another sense, poetry is just the opposite of respite and escape. Reading it brings me out of myself into someone else’s reality, into their outlook, their inner being. In doing so, it gives me one little revelation after another. I’m continually shocked to see how different we are from each other and thus to see how immense is the subjective world we all live in. And that I could be living in. … You mention ascension. Yes, I guess you could say that following all the little revelations is a process of mind expansion, as we hippies used to call it, and so could be seen as a sort of ascension. But let’s face it, we’re all here together on the face of the earth. There are no super-wonderful poets up there floating around above the rest of us.
Writing poetry for me is an even more wonderful experience than reading it. The creative act focuses my mind, which, for someone with ADD, is the opposite of my norm and so is like an orgasm in its intensity. In writing some of my better poems, I create my own revelations, pulling many things together that previously hadn’t been connected. Not random things, but pieces of reality that really are part of a larger whole. To me that’s one of the astonishing possibilities that writing a poem allows, and which seldom happens elsewhere.
I’ve also used writing poetry as a tool in helping to connect my conscious mind to my unconscious mind. That isn’t as difficult as it sounds. Sometimes, wanting to do it strongly enough is all it takes to make it happen. The conscious and unconscious sources of words and thoughts can become so blended that it’s impossible to tell which are conscious products and which unconscious. Most poets have experienced this without even trying. After the writing, a lot can be learned just from analyzing the poem, as if someone else had written it. By the way, two seemingly different aspects of human life are heavy with metaphor: poetry and dreams. When your subconscious mind helps you write a poem, it’s actually your dreaming self you’re working with. In the daytime.
“Concerning our Glorious Future” begins by tying its narrator to what rapidly becomes our deep ancestry, and concludes with a reflexive, ironic turn whereby we are “banging / our heads / on the ceiling.”
Two questions. Was this poem, for you, a statement of sorrow at the denouement of the anthropocene (or a more personal statement)? And secondly how might a biologist square or assimilate the human drive to write poems?
I just threw in the cavemen to give a feeling of the enormous length of time we have all spent jumping our little lives forward, one tiny generation after another. At the time, I was sitting at my desk at the flower auction in Vancouver at 5 in the morning trying to wake up with a coffee, looking down over the heads of some 150 buyers, and it occurred to me that many of these people, especially some of the Chinese corner store owners, were sitting in the same seats as had their fathers. And maybe their father’s fathers before them. And suddenly I had this sleepy feeling of these zillions of people, from endlessly far back, all pushing themselves into the future, an immense process which, at that moment, ended right there, as that drop of coffee was falling from my spoon. I was thinking that even with all that lineage pushing forward, nothing then or now actually exists but the present. How can that be? I just about wrapped my mind around the whole thing in that one second. “Grokked it”, as Heinlein used to say. I put down the spoon and picked up my pen and wrote it as a poem. That was one of those revelations.
I don’t know how a biologist would use his profession in his poetry. Good question. Definitely, there are good poets who use science as their prime subject. It’s not for me though. Except in the sense of trying to communicate a large vision. And there are plenty of those in science. For instance, the most astonishing vision I’ve ever had was of seeing how nature came about. Life. Nothing else can compare to that one. I’ve tried to get it across in prose, and by describing it aurally. But it never takes. However, it might be done in a poem, not by describing it but by setting up the readers’ minds so they suddenly see it on their own. The thing is, any vision like that never comes in words, only as a visual intuition. And I think poetry is the only medium that can carry that kind of thing. I tried for it, sort of, in “Concerning Our Glorious Future” but I haven’t seen anybody jump up and down about it yet.
The influence of the Beats––Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Snyder, Ginsberg, Burroughs, Huncke, others––and by extension the jazz intonations with which they, especially Kerouac and Ginsberg, wrote, comes across in “I Am Standing On a Crate Reading Lawrence Ferlinghetti”.
I know you undertook a cross-country journey similar to Sal Paradise’s. How and when did you first encounter the Beats? And how has the ethos they represented influenced your own life and work?
My first big encounter with the Beats was back in the late 80’s when Linda and I had our flower shop in Vancouver. Ginsberg came to town and gave a reading flowing with that rhythm, and his Buddhist thing, all to the wheeze of the squeeze box in his lap. It was entrancing, in its odd way. (I happened to have a pretty good recorder with me and got the whole thing on tape, which a friend has just transferred to digital for me. So I’m gonna put it online when I get around to it.) But I never really got into the Beats after that, other than the occasional poem, until you introduced me to them again, Kev. And now, this moment, as I put your name and The Beats together on the same line, in my mind I can hear you reciting Kerouac. So good. Yeah, that jazz rhythm. Would you do me a big favour and recite it for me again June 7th? … “So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey…”
Yeah, those cross-country journeys. That was when I got heavily into poetry. It started slowly on the first trip, as I tried to make it across Canada on foot. (Which turned out to be impossible to do in one year: I got only half way across.) For the first couple weeks I was reading Basho’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North In my tent at night by candle light. Basho’s presence stayed with me all the way to Thunder Bay so I took the occasional break along the road to write a poem. I even wrote one as I walked, writing and revising it in my mind on the go, not really seeing the environment at all. But none of those poems were that good. Strong memories though. The next year I went on an equally long, seven-month canoe trip from Calgary to Quebec City, but didn’t write a single poem that whole time because the three other people I was with so stressed me out emotionally, continuously over the entire three thousand miles, me being so shy and they being such judgemental types. In that sense, the canoe trip was just as difficult as the walk had been. Two years later I bicycled the eastern half of Canada, the easiest of the three trips by far. But as I rolled down into St. John’s, Newfoundland I was depressed and desperate, realizing I was still as shy and anxious as I had ever been. All that endurance and determination hadn’t made me a bit stronger emotionally, and I knew that when I went home I would never have this chance again. So I pedalled back out to a closed provincial park and stayed there a month and a half till winter set in, doing nothing but poetry. I had read along the road one night that poetry was a possible path into the subconscious, and I figured that had to be the source of my. Well, I was right: the poetry did its job, in that I did get in touch with my subconscious. But no, I didn’t lose any anxiety. I nearly went insane instead. It wasn’t until decades later, when Linda and I had retired here to London to be near her relatives, that I realized if I were going to lose my shyness I would have to go towards people, not away from them. Damn. A counsellor could have told me that back at the beginning of my life. But that’s okay; I finally solved it myself by creating London Open Mic, lost my shyness, and here we are in the present. Another drop of coffee falling from another spoon. It took me a lifetime to get here, but it was my own adventure.
What is your favourite word?
Hmmm. Don’t really have a favourite word. But if you were to ask what my favourite concept is, I can answer that one easily. I love concepts, understanding things. My life has been one long series of attempts to get what’s going on.
What is your least favourite word?
Any word that has snob appeal.
What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
I love a sense of reality, whatever that entails. I love seeing the bare bones, the structure that underlies things, whatever that may be. Emotionally, I’m turned on by calmness, by true empathy, or at least the idea of it, by people being able to communicate and relate somehow with each other’s true selves. Or at least the idea of it. And trust. And I especially love doing something to help someone along their path, no matter what that path consists of. The more different from mine it is, the more I get out of it.
What turns you off?
Artifice, pointless wordplay, the imposition of ego, judgement. (But I love to suddenly see the reasons for them, which frees me from my own judgement.)
What is your favourite curse word?
Damn. When I was a kid, I only heard my father swear one time. He was blind, and that day he was putting up a fence on the farm, pounding a big staple into a fence post to hold a wire. I happened to be standing there, probably distracted him, and he hit his finger with the hammer. Damn. Quietly, like he was making a remark to somebody. I was shocked. I still remember it clearly.
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
The slurping and crunching that people do when they eat with their mouths open.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
I would be a scientist in a heartbeat. The only reason I’m not is because of my ADD, which prevented me from getting through those textbooks on biochemistry. I simply couldn’t focus long enough. (My ADD, by the way, was caused by being sprayed with a cloud of DDT from a low-flying biplane, which my mother had forgotten was coming over our farm that day. I was a little kid at the time and was totally soaked in it, and breathing it in like I was under water.)
What profession would you not like to do?
I would have said social organizer, but now I can hack it. Just barely.
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
“You did okay.”
WHERE: 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: June 7th, 2017. Poetry begins at 7 pm. Come anytime before that and place your order.
THE FEATURED POET: Stan Burfield opens the event at 7:00, followed by a Q&A.
OPEN MIC: Following the featured poet, 15 open mic poets will read until 9:30 at the latest, with an intermission at about 8:00. Each poet has five minutes (which is about two good pages of poetry, but it should be timed at home). Sign up on the reader`s list, which is on the book table at the back. It's first come, first served.
COVER: Pay What You Can (in jar on back table, or use Donate Button on website Donate Page). Donations are our only source of income to cover expenses.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Anyone who donates at the event receives a ticket for a raffle prize, three of which will be picked after the intermission. The prizes consist of poetry books donated by The Ontario Poetry Society.