Tag Archives: The Abrupt Edge

Confessions of A Prize-Winning Poet

When my first book came out, I was suddenly thrust into the spotlight as “an up and coming young Canadian poet to watch out for” simply by having the good luck to land on a few awards lists. My book Bonfires, published by Nightwood Editions, was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award and won the CAA poetry award in 2004.

This was a strange time for me because my apprenticeship compared to many of my poetry friends was long and tumultuous. Only a few years before, I had written a failed poetry collection for my Masters Thesis in Creative Writing at Concordia, and almost gave up writing altogether at the age of twenty-six.

When I returned to writing and rewrote the lion’s share of that first poetry collection eighteen months later, it still sat on slush-piles across the country until Silas White at Nightwood Editions decided he would make a project of me. Silas invited me to Toronto and told me unequivocally that my poetry was still not very good but showed promise.

Sometimes that is all you need to hear and I believed him. I began writing harder and more deeply than ever before. My aesthetics became more refined and I met many people including Paul Vermeersch, Carleton Wilson, and Autumn Getty who would shape how I looked at poetry.

“The problem with winning an award so young is you begin to believe it has something to do with you, and it does not.”

Flash-forward a few years later, and my book Bonfires was published. It was very much a collaborative affair with my editors. Over-night, it felt like my life changed immediately. Bonfires became a best-seller and an award-winner. I was suddenly invited to many literary evenings as a special guest, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Douglas Coupland and Stuart McLean, Michael Winter and Russell Smith. In a word, I had arrived.

The problem with winning an award so young is you begin to believe it has something to do with you, and it does not. People like to give out awards, but most often it has more to do with the judges’ tastes and less to do with the quality of one’s work.

I really thought I had accomplished something huge, and in a way, I had, as writing a book is not an easy task by any means; however, other aspects of my life had not changed at all. I was still teaching high-school, and I kept hearing my own voice in my head telling me “real poets don’t teach high-school kids”.

I thought about moving to Toronto where I could be at the epicentre of the literary community. I haunted Toronto’s bars on weekends, drinking deeply into the night, and dreamed of the books I had yet to write while teaching all week. I began to resent high-school teaching and wondered aloud why I was not being offered a creative writing position at a university. Turns out those jobs are as rare as unicorns.

The other strange thing about winning an award is some fellow poets look at you with undisguised jealousy as they begin to introduce you “as a guy who has been on a lot of award lists.” As much as I enjoyed the attention of many who loved my first book, and the few publishers trying to steer me away from Nightwood Editions, I began to feel like maybe I didn’t deserve the adulation.

When writing my second book The Cold Panes of Surfaces, a much better book than my first one, in my opinion, I opined to my friend Autumn Getty that I was having trouble writing. I felt like my next book would have to be better than Bonfires. My good friend looked at me with pity and tenderness and said as gently as possible: “No one is waiting for another book by Chris Banks”.

It shocked me at the time but it was the best writing advice I have ever been given.

Soon the magic pixie dust of winning a poetry award wore off, and I was simply another poet with a second book that was not selling as well I would like. I wrote a third book Winter Cranes a few years later, most of the poems in syllabic verse, and again it was ignored by award lists. I began to drink more and eventually had to give it up.

It was a hard thing to realize the attention Bonfires received was a gift that perhaps I would never experience again, and I made my peace with that.

In the last six years, I have written more poems than at any other time of my life. I now look for the few appreciative readers who reach out to me to tell me how much they enjoy my poetry. These days I try to nurture my friendships with other poets, and I am genuinely happy for those poets who find their books thrust into the awards spotlight, especially first-time authors. It is a delight.

But awards do not make one happy. And they do not help you write another book. That comes from inside.

I have seen poets come and go, and the ones that stick around are those who make writing its own reward. They place the individual poem over the prize. When the next awards list is announced, you will find me doing what I always do. Chasing down a line or image or metaphor. The electric shock I get from doing that is better than anything in the world. Even an award.

This article has been Digiproved © 2020 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

So Distant Like This: April is Poetry Month!

It is April 1st and Poetry Month is upon us. Art seems more important than ever as people are sharing free music concerts and homebrewed poetry videos around the world. During these unprecedented times, I think of a little poem by the poet Hayden Carruth that goes like this:

Hey Basho, you there!
I’m Carruth. Isn’t it great,
so distant like this

This is a playful little haiku perfect for social isolation as it reminds us of the immense power of poetry, and how it connects us over distances, and even centuries.

“Poetry is inside talking to inside,” said the great prolific poet Donald Hall. It may be the best words in the best order as Coleridge wrote too, but it most certainly is “inside talking to inside”, or put it this way: one person’s consciousness encountering another person’s consciousness.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, I offer this poem by Jason Shindar who died over a decade ago. It’s called “Eternity” and comes from his book Stupid Hope:


A poem written three thousand years ago

about a man who walks among horses
grazing on a hill under the small stars

comes to life on a page in a book

and the woman reading the poem,
in the silence between the words,

in her kitchen, filled with a gold, metallic light

finds the experience of living in that moment
so clearly described as to make her feel finally known

by someone—and every time the poem is read,

no matter her situation or her age,
this is more or less what happens.

I read this poem about a woman encountering a poem from three thousand years ago, how suddenly a little window appears between the poet and herself, and I smile. I’m struck that this is exactly what is happening between the poet Shindar and myself.

In this time of self-isolation and pandemic, I see poetry as a great connecting force that reminds us words matter. Living matters. It reminds us of the ties that bind us together, as humans are made not of dollar signs and profit margins, but our shared collective experiences.

The current pandemic shall pass, but the hard lessons of these uncomfortable, turbulent times are there to be learned. We need poetry, as we need all art, in order to educate our emotions and to remind us that, ultimately, we are all just people worried about our family and our friends and the state of the world.

Stephen Dobyns once said, “poetry is a window that hangs between two people who otherwise live in darkened rooms.” This idea resonates with me this April as we move into Poetry Month. Please take care of your families, but also maybe pull down a well-loved book off the shelf, spend some time with a favourite poet, and you too can think, “Isn’t it great, so distant like this?”

The official April 2020 National Poetry Month poster features the artwork of Samantha Aikman, winner of this year’s National Poetry Month Poster Contest for Students.

This article has been Digiproved © 2020 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

The Voice That Is Great Within Us: Poetry And Voice

One of the last books the late American poet Tony Hoagland left us with was his slim volume of essays and writing exercises called The Art of Voice. In its contents, he says a convincing poetic voice, “can be embodied through a kind of stuttering hesitation, or by a spontaneous uncensoredness, or as a deepening tangle of psychology. It can be performed as anxiety, or carefree light-headedness, or as overconfident swagger, or as steady, painstaking thoughtfulness” (9).

This quote really speaks to me as my own growth as a poet has changed drastically over the course of twenty years and six books. During my difficult apprentice years, I wanted to exude “a steady, painstaking thoughtfulness” like Hoagland mentions. Look at this poem of mine “Domestic Wages” from my first book Bonfires and you will see what I mean:

Domestic Wages

Five dead snails lie in the saucer of beer I filled last night from
the bottoms of four cans of Kilkenny, dregs my dog didn’t want,

and left out near the strawberry patch where they’d been wreaking
havoc with this year’s crop—but now dead, sent into the darkness

their shells grew from, and the sun is high in the afternoon skies,
making it difficult to believe in notions of infinity, something beyond

my own limited understanding of the word, its virtues and vices,
where killing snails in one’s garden seems a great injustice to

a God who is neither in the world, nor makes himself known to it,
so that we must invent other rituals: rising each morning to face

the drive to work; the queue at the coffeeshop, office parties,
then home again to empty houses, and memories of ex-lovers

falling into the arms of new loves, things we’ve struggled, worked
our whole lives for—and could rightly call domestic wages,

for we earn them through our luck and our labour, all of time
pushing through us, and beyond us, making it harder each day

to separate the divine from the trivial—or what meaning might
be found in a few snails lying dead in a pool of amber beer.

The authority this poem conveys stems from the physical details of the strawberry patch, the dead snails lying in a saucer of beer, but also the idea of time passing–the queue at the coffeeshop, the office parties, and ex-lovers falling into the arms of new loves – these ideas all furnish the poem with a sense of world-weariness that give the poem’s its identity, or sense of authenticity.

So why does one’s poetic voice change? Aye, there is the rub. My recent books are full of rapid-fire phrases, or that “spontaneous uncensoredness” quality Hoagland spoke about earlier. How did this happen? Part of it for me grew out of my anxiety to try new things. I wanted to write poems better matched to the way people now read poetry in a post-smartphone, cloud-based technological world. Here is the poem “Time’s Atlas” from my latest collection Midlife Action Figure:

Time’s Atlas

Some people treat each day like IKEA instructions.
Others look for a higher dimension in church pews.
Hot yoga studios. Time is an atlas. A Fisher-Price
View-Master of first kisses and “no return” policies.
I wish this were even more poetic. Throw in the phrase
in medias res like a trial balloon. A benediction. A spark plug.
Another celebrity has overdosed on booze and benzos.
Every story deserves a splashy two-page spread. Despite
Old Navy ads and toothpaste for sensitive teeth, the heart is
a scourge. My spirit-animal is a scarecrow. The first-person
singular feels wrong here, but the hive mind, all that buzzing,
overwhelms me. How many different ways to say Hallelujah?
I think we would all feel better if we were allowed to fall apart
one day out of the year. If only we could burn the briefcases.
I miss the sound of cicadas. Electric dusk. What do they care
about the end of post-modernism? Birth of narrow-casting?
Everyone has a few words they would like to bury forever.
I am losing landmarks as I get older, but thankfully we can
google it all. The little white house on a hill overlooking
the highway needs a new coat of paint but it is still there.
The uranium mine, the miners, are gone. If you feel yourself
going crazy, you probably are. Only a little. Young men
in black and white photographs, wearing soldier uniforms
or baseball attire, stare out stoically from the back wall
of dimly lit bars and taverns. Today, wellness programs
preach resiliency like they are selling hamburgers. I keep
turning the pages of time’s atlas. I trace its illustrations
with my fingers. The contoured lines. The last pages
blank, then something, new shapes, a lost continent,
new ports of call. A secret harbour, or a penal colony.
I mark a big X where the future will make landfall.

What is so interesting about comparing these two poems is they feel like they are written by two different poets, and in some ways, they are as the latter poem is written by a more experienced poet willing to take greater risks, and who has had the benefit of twenty plus years of reading more poetry which adds to his overall arsenal of approaches.

I guess what I am saying is there no one right way to “voice” a poem. You either believe the speaker of the poem or you do not. It’s a credibility thing. Young poets spend years trying to find the right voice for their poems. I don’t think you really can teach voice. You have to find it on your own through reading and writing and failure. But finding one’s poetic voice will happen if you stick with it long enough. That is a certainty.

As Hoagland explains, “The truth is, a writer’s voice is made from other writer’s voices. Pieced together, picked and chosen, stumbled into, uninformed: influence seems like an involuntary series of contagions that eventually turned into a sort of vessel or transportation system. As we acquire a sense of taste, and perhaps a sense of vocation, our reading becomes more directed and targeted, but we are bent and shaped and destined to be changed by the genius of others” (52).

I like this idea of poetic voice as a transportation system. Once you find it, the poems become easier to write and the subject matter more varied. The images and metaphors become more distinctive and trustworthy. Voice is what ferries meaning from the poem’s speaker to the reader. Remember, the poets we honor most are those whose voices we still hear long after they are gone.

This article has been Digiproved © 2020 James FisherSome Rights Reserved  

Introducing The Abrupt Edge with Chris Banks

Before I let Chris speak, I wish to introduce not only him as The Miramichi Reader’s new Poetry Editor, but his new column, The Abrupt Edge as well. It will be a regular feature here at TMR and will feature poetry, poetry news and whatever else Chris wants to tell you about. Welcome, Chris!

The late American poet Stanley Plumly once wrote an essay called ‘The Abrupt Edge” in his terrific book of essays Argument & Song. He borrowed the phrase from ornithology which is used to describe the edge between two types of vegetation. For instance, a brooding forest opening onto a rolling meadow where the birds might hide in the trees but then sweep out into the meadow to find prey. There are advantages to both places. However, the way Plumly saw the abrupt edge referred to a particular kind of poetry, and he talked closely about the poetry of Keats and Plath in particular, explaining the real edge is between, “life and more life, memory and wish. The powerful imagination does not work, as every good poem reminds us, unless it comes to an edge, makes its pass, and one way or another, returns”(18).

I felt ”The Abrupt Edge” was an apt title for our new Poetry features here at The Miramichi Reader and I hope to showcase the kind of poetry Plumly was seeking, poems and reviews and small poetry news items that live at the edges of our lives, but also momentarily make their pass into some larger world bringing back a richness that can only be found there. This is where the danger and the diversity exists. As poetry editor, I am hopefully up to this task and look forward to working with everyone at The Miramichi Reader.

(If you wish to have your poetry or brought to Chris’ attention,  use the form below.)

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This article has been Digiproved © 2020 James FisherSome Rights Reserved