London Open Mic is proud to feature two of Southwest Ontario's poetry legends at our National Poetry Month reading, April 5th at Mykonos Restaurant.
Poet/publisher JAMES DEAHL was born in Pittsburgh (USA) in 1945, and grew up in that city as well as in and around the Laurel Highlands region of the Appalachian Mountains. He moved to Canada in 1970 and holds dual American/Canadian citizenship. Deahl is best know for his 1987 collaboration with Milton Acorn, A Stand of Jackpine. He is the author of twenty-six literary titles, the latest being: To Be With A Woman (Lummox Press, 2016), Landscapes (Cyclamens and Swords, 2016) and Unbroken Lines (Lummox Press, 2015).
A cycle of his poems is the focus of a one-hour TV special, Under the Watchful Eye (Silver Falls Video Productions, 1993). The audiotape of Under the Watchful Eye was released by Broken Jaw Press in September, 1995. These have been reissued on CD and DVD by Silver Falls.
Tasting The Winter Grapes (Envoi Poets Publications, 1995) won the Award of Excellence from the Hamilton & Region Arts Council. In 2001 Deahl was presented with the Charles Olson Award for Achievements in Poetry. His When Rivers Speak (Unfinished Monument Press, 2001) won the Ramada Plaza Hotel Award. Most recently, Deahl won the 2013 Monica Ladell Award.
In addition to his writing, he has taught creative writing and Canadian literature at the high school, college, and university levels. He no longer teaches, and for the past dozen years has mostly been a full-time writer/editor/translator. As a critic and literary historian, Deahl is the leading Acornic scholar. He’s a member of The Writers’ Union of Canada.
Three poems by James Deahl:
Not Crossing Trump’s America On The Terminal Day Of January
America is over and done with.
— James Wright
Middle-aged men in Pennsylvania
go about in shirtsleeves;
white-tails forage fields
that once held corn
beside a toppled barn.
Someone missed his departure time
and walks the platform
wondering if there’ll be another train.
Jay’s Book Stall long closed,
women wander the streets
by the hospital.
Sixty-five years ago
snow blanketed my toy cars
placed on the porch railing . . .
a railing torn down
Today snow falls
covering the bird seed,
grey Michigan sullen
when viewed through the storm
across slow waters.
-- James Deahl
An Obscure Pleasure
Huron’s still unfrozen,
its waters lie steel grey
instead of clear blue.
Ice fishers wait knowing
winter must surely come.
Our mallards long vanished,
geese are found everywhere
refusing to migrate
as though certain their lake
will maintain the open
waters they need to live.
I walk the tip of land
across from the lighthouse
and look at a country
I will visit no more,
where I can never pray
again at my parents’ graves.
Like Syrian families
I, too, am exiled.
Whence this obscure pleasure
to realize this land
finally has become home?
-- James Deahl
Not a leaf is left
on the poplars
where they stand locked
in their frozen pools.
Behind their boughs
winter turns the sky to silver
as daylight darkens
over an icy river.
Deep in the floodplain
save a man and his dog
silently walking the iron ground.
-- James Deahl
Three poems by Norma West Linder:
Fragments of Atlantis
See from the long span
of Highway 401
each farm become
in morning mist
in sea-green waves of grass
while ghost-like cows
bob rust-red heads
And the circular
green lace sails
of lonely maples
in the unreal
-- Norma West Linder
Nursing the ancient ache
of human sorrow
I enter the garden
But tulips are closed
Red roses have disappeared
into the shadows
Only the arms of the birch tree
reach out in luminous welcome
Ghostly white arms
of the birch tree
reach to encircle me
Leaves whisper silver-toned secrets
Sorrow drifts off on the wind
Starlight brings sweet benediction
World without, whirled without end
-- Norma West Linder
Christmas Trees in July
My sombre mood
is lifting as I float
wide-eyed in this tree-ringed
Lofty firs and spruces
catch in outstretched limbs
a liberal sprinkling
of their neighbours’
tiny white parachutes
falling all around
I should move on
My list of things to do
yet here I lie content
under blue scarf of sky
adrift in warm blue water
spread with summer snow.
-- Norma West Linder
Interview with James Deahl & Norma West Linder
Interview by Kevin Heslop & Stan Burfield
James, how young were you when you started writing poetry? What influenced you in that direction?
James: I started writing when I was 8 or 9 years old. I had been greatly impressed by the work of Robert Louis Stevenson and thought I could do likewise. Easier said than done! About that time I also discovered the poetry of Edgar Allan Poe.
Norma, much of your writing career has consisted of prose--short stories and novels? When and why did you try your hand at poetry?
Norma: I started writing poetry in the 70s when I was conducting weekly creative writing classes at Lambton College where I taught English. I wanted to cover all aspects of writing, so I gave my students an assignment to write a sonnet. Unwilling to ask them to do something I wouldn't do, I wrote a sonnet myself. Then I tried a few structured poems. But when I discovered Ray Souster's free verse making great poetry out of ordinary happenings, I was hooked on that form. Then I discovered that my mate James Deahl was a friend of his. I was delighted. He took me with him to visit Ray several times, and I took what was probably the last picture of Ray, one I treasure today.
Which genre do you prefer writing in, poetry or fiction?
Norma: Poems come to me; I can't go to them. So I guess that sort of writing is inspirational, whereas writing fiction takes planning and plotting. I believe both kinds to be equally rewarding.
James, how did you come by your interest in People's Poetry?
James: In 1964 I read Honey and Salt by Carl Sandburg, which had been published the year before. That won me over.
Kent Bowman describes you as a “defender of the people’s poetry tradition” of Sandburg, Acorn, Levertov, and Livesay.
I wonder if you’d offer a definition of “people’s poetry” and a sketch of that against which it is to be defended. Also, is there an equivalent danger in prose?
James: Good old Kent! When I taught at Ryerson University I developed this definition:
People’s Poetry / People’s Culture
In general, people’s culture has been based on two key concepts:
1. That progress can be clearly seen in the human universe. In terms of social physics, this means that society moves from disorder to order.
Thus, society improves, becomes more fair and less governed by social Darwinism.
2. That humanity is perfectible within history. That is, humans play a (if not the) major role in personal and collective salvation.
It therefore follows that:
3. People’s culture promotes peace, equality, and human goodness.
4. People’s culture opposes racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination.
5. People’s culture opposes classism. It is art made for the people, not the elite.
6. People’s culture works to preserve the natural and human environment.
6 a. People’s poetry includes almost all nature poetry.
6 b. People’s poetry can also be a very urban poetry.
In practice, people’s culture tends to:
7. Be committed to Modernist concepts while retaining key Romantic ideals;
8. Support Socialist / Social Democratic political movements;
9. Oppose large-scale Capitalism and the “business culture”;
10. Encourage all people to participate in building their culture.
— James Deahl, 1997
The enemy, if you will, of People’s Culture (poetry, prose, theatre, art, and music) is Post-modernism. Strange as it may seem, while most Canadian poets claim to be working within the People’s Poetry tradition, they are not. Most poetry today is either Confessional or Post-modern. Few will admit to it, though.
Can you summarize how Post-modernist (and Confessional) poetry run counter to People's Culture and People's Poetry?
James: People’s Poetry is almost always about a person, place, thing, or event other than the poet. Confessional Poetry is really autobiography. People’s Poetry believes in objective reality. And it believes in the power of language as well as other forms of communication. By contrast, Post-modernism believes in nothing. Reality is not something real that is “out there” but rather something cooked up in your own mind. And Post-modernism teaches that writing is unimportant because it is impossible to communicate with another person. Everyone is a prisoner in his or her own mind. (Odd is it may seem to rational people, Post-modernists are all the time writing books to tell people that there is no point in writing books!)
In light of the Trump shock in the U.S., would you say People's Culture and Poetry is still boiling away, or is it just simmering on the back burner these days, or maybe even lost down the drain?
James: I can see little evidence that People’s Culture is alive in the U.S. In a way, Denise Levertov was the last of the great American People’s Poets. The Best American Poetry, 2016 (edited by Edward Hirsch) contains 75 poems. Very, very few are from the People’s Poetry tradition, and one of the few poems that is, “More Than You Gave” by Philip Levine, is by a poet who died in 2015. Here in Canada, we have poets like John B. Lee, Ellen S. Jaffe, Ronnie R. Brown, Tom Wayman, Gary Geddes, and several others. But there are hardly any Canadian People’s Poets under the age of 50. That is cause for real concern.
James, in “An Obscure Pleasure”, you write, “I walk the tip of land / across from the lighthouse / and look at a country / I will visit no more....”
What has your ostensibly self-imposed exile from the States meant to you?
James: Well, during the 47 years I have lived in Canada I have visited the U.S. about 150 times, if not more. Over the years I have presented poetry readings in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C. Now thanks to President Trump I will never present a poetry reading in New York City, a long-cherished dream, I will not see the Grand Canyon again nor drive Route 66 to California, and I can no longer visit my parents’ grave. Also no more readings in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, which were annual gigs. But I am OK with this. After all, I am a Canadian writer.
James, the fourth sestet of “An Obscure Pleasure” concludes the poem with a question the narrator asks himself, namely: “Whence this obscure pleasure / to realize this land / finally has become home?”
I wonder if you’d answer this question.
James: I thought I would be sad at being banned from the U.S. (which I had, of course, expected). I really thought I would be sad. But I am not sad at all (except for my parents’ grave). In fact, I feel relived, in a curious way. That seemed strange.
Do you see any of the younger generations of poets taking up the mantle of the People's Poetry. Are there any general directions you see them tending to go? Both in Canada and the U.S. And how about Europe, where one might hope poetry is till having an impact?
James: I have little idea of what younger writers are doing. I am quite active in the Sarnia writing community. I also keep closely in touch with the poetry scenes in Toronto and Hamilton. I also attend meetings of The Writers' Union of Canada in London. Really, there are very few writers under the age of 40. From what I can see, younger people are mostly into the music scene and/or drugs. And here I do not refer to pot or hash. I am talking about heavy drugs. As to the future, I feel that poetry will play a much smaller role. Same goes for fiction. The great age of Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Carol Shields, and Margaret Atwood is nearly over. And for a man who used to teach CanLit at Seneca College, this is a sad situation.
Norma, I wonder whether you’d offer a few words about the community of poets in Sarnia and how you’ve been influenced by them.
Norma: I belong to a group called After Hours Poets and we try to meet monthly. At the meetings, we pass around our latest creations and have them critiqued. Sometimes, just by changing or omitting a word or two, the poems can be improved. Also, it's good to mingle with others engaged in the same pursuit. I belong to other groups, however, since I also write novels.
How would you rank attending workshops vs attending and/or giving readings, and having your poetry published, in terms of importance and enjoyment?
Norma: It's of utmost importance to me to have my work published. If it isn't shared, it's not completed as far as I'm concerned. I also enjoy spending time with other writers and doing readings. Living with a poet suits me beautifully. We're here to share good news with each other--that's so much better than quiet satisfaction. Also, we're able to ask each other's opinion about possible titles etc.
James, could you mention one or two of your favourite memories from your literary life?
James: These would be meeting Milton Acorn, who became a great friend and mentor, and meeting (and falling in love with) Norma West Linder.
For those of us who are single, or whose partners don’t share our interests, what has it been like living with another poet?
James: Because artists have a vocation rather than a regular job, it is good to live with another artist because they will understand the level of commitment art requires. My second wife was the painter Gilda Mekler. We were together for 29 very happy years. I have been with Norma for 6 years and we get along perfectly. Between us we have over 50 books. Seven of my books and four of Norma’s were published during that time.
What would you say is the chief problem in Canadian literature today?
James: While there are problems with the creative act itself, I believe a more serious issue in Canada is the lack of a younger audience. My wife and I are just back home from hearing the bestselling novelist Eva Stachniak. This was a free event with plenty of first-rate food and drink provided. We noted that there were only a couple of people in her audience who appeared to be under the age of forty. Ms Stachniak turns sixty-five soon and most audience members were from her age group.
Having been both the assistant manager of a bookshop as well as the manager of a literary publisher, I well know that books do not get published without readers. There are few readers in Generation X, as it is called. And almost no readers among the Millennials. It seems clear that when the Baby Boomers die off there will not be enough readers to support either publishers or book stores.
I used to run a reading series in Sarnia, and a series in Hamilton before that. The last reading I attended in Hamilton had one (yes one) audience member who was not middle-aged. I have long noticed that most readers are people my age. Or older. And that is a problem.
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: April 5th, 2017. Poetry begins at 7 pm. Come anytime before that and place your order.
THE FEATURED POETS: James Deahl and Norma West Linder open 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.