Who are the members of the League of Canadian Poets? With over 750 members – growing every day -, our membership is diverse. Of course, though, all members have one thing in common: poetry! 6 Pieces on Poetry is our new quarterly series where members of the League will answer our 6 questions. We’ll talk poetry, writing lives & lessons, and inspiration, and through 6 Pieces on Poetry, you’ll get to know our membership a little better.
Today we’re talking poetry with Allan Briesmaster. Allan Briesmaster has been active on the Toronto-area literary scene since the 1980s as a workshop leader, reading series organizer, events coordinator and volunteer. He was an editor for Seraphim Editions in 2000-2008, and a partner in Quattro Books in 2006-2017. Since 2003 he has published limited-edition art and poetry books with his own small press, Aeolus House. Allan’s eighth full-length book, The Long Bond: Selected and New Poems, is forthcoming in Fall 2019 from Guernica Editions. He has read his poetry, given talks, and hosted readings and launches at venues across Canada. He lives in Thornhill, Ontario
How did poetry become part of your life?
There is a sense in which poetry lives inside every child until, for most people, socialization and schooling suppress it. For me, being read to by a mother who loved books and an ear for song lyrics played parts in sustaining that not-yet-buried life. But unlike the many poets who started writing precociously, I’m a rather late bloomer. A science student, I chose to major in chemistry. However, I was always a bookworm, and excellent English teachers helped spur an appetite for quality literature. Novels comprised most of my extracurricular reading, though I also returned to the likes of Frost and Dickinson voluntarily. I was well into my first university year when the realization dawned, thanks mainly to the classics I read in a World Literature course, that I must be a creator, not just an admirer, of literary texts. At the same time, I made the assumption, which later proved wrong, that an academic career would suit me. Although I read widely and intensively, the poems I wrote in grad school and in the few years when I taught literature at two universities weren’t much. When there turned out to be no permanent jobs available in my field, I went into computer programming. Only then, once things had stabilized, did I begin to find my voice: writing steadily, even composing some poems on lunch hour walks. I attended poetry readings (impressed with Al Purdy and Gwendolyn MacEwen), was befriended by a couple of accomplished poets, and was coaxed into visiting Phoenix Poets’ Workshop, which, to my surprise, I found congenial. So much so, that within a year I was asked to lead the group. By then, my series of jobs in I.T. were leaving me enough energy for further involvement in Toronto’s poetry scene on evenings and weekends. In 1994 came the offer to run the weekly Art Bar Poetry Reading Series, which I’d gone to since it began three years earlier. This brought on connections with poets across Canada. I went to other reading series frequently and sometimes was a featured reader myself. I was seeing poetry take on a social dimension and how, in important ways, poets can constitute a community. As relationships strengthened, opportunities came about for giving editorial advice. Involvement in the short-lived watershedBooks publishing co-op resulted in my belated first collection (1998; with six more, plus nine chapbooks, to follow over the next 20 years) and gave me a feel for book production as well as editing full-length manuscripts. Poetry might appear to have almost completely taken over my life when, in 2005, I forsook the 9-to-5 in favour of freelance work seven days a week on various literary projects, and especially when, the year after, I co-founded Quattro Books. (I do have other interests, though!) But well before then, poetry enabled travel from coast to coast and the forging of vital personal and artistic ties, besides being an outlet for expression without which life would be inconceivable.
What themes do you explore most consistently through your writing?
My writing is not particularly consistent. Individual poems are usually multi-themed and deal with a broad and shifting range of topics. These reflect many, though by no means all, of my lifelong interests and concerns and obsessions. The divided self and its efforts at integration. The different stages of a life and the sense of identity. Love, friendship, family. One’s relationship to nature and the increasingly imperiled ecosphere. Landscapes and biomes of southern Ontario and elsewhere in Canada. What science illuminates for us in the cosmos – phenomena and laws. The impacts of electronic technology. Experiences of visual art and music and the value they have. Transience and loss. Aging. Mortality. And gratitude. (Freely conceding that some topics of great interest to me, e.g., politics, social justice, trauma, illness, history, pop culture, biz culture, seem best left to poets more adept at handling them. But this might change.)
Do you feel that you’ve found a writing practice that works for you? If yes, can you tell us about it? If not, describe the challenges that you face that prevent you from feeling this way.
I’ve never found, or wanted, a single set of procedures to facilitate writing. My poetry has variable sources and catalysts and is sporadic, not regulated. Although I write each day, it’s without any set time or routine for composition or for revision. I go with whatever works at the moment to unblock my receptors and get me primed to let the flow start and keep on. Not long beforehand, it seems essential to have been exploring varieties of other poetry and literature while thinking along serious lines. Maybe to have felt peculiarly unsettled or troubled. Restless. A long walk or decisive change of scene will induce a clearing effect. Sometimes a poem springs up of its own accord, a complete surprise. The germ could be just a few words with a rhythm. Sometimes a phrase from a text leaps out and piques a reaction. A longer passage could excite or annoy. Other times I’ll be in a workshop or social gathering where a prompt or challenge is issued. The vibes in the air in those situations are conducive, or perhaps merely grant permission, for creative risk-taking. And once in a while an experience, verging on an epiphany, insists on a poetic response, whether straightforward or by extrapolation (making the familiar strange – or the strange familiar). A striking remark in a casual chat, or something objectionable overheard, could spur a delayed riposte. I carry a notebook or at least a piece of paper where I’ll jot some first inklings and in rare instances draft a whole piece that stays largely intact. One added component of my practice that’s crucial is the willingness to revise for as long as it takes for every word to feel right. Worth noting along with all that is how a sense of creative play needs to be engaged while a poem grows into its form, no matter how fraught the subject may be.
What lesson that you learned through a creative writing course/workshop/lecture/book sticks with you most presently?
In the past year, Kate Marshall Flaherty’s StillPoint writing workshops reaffirmed a cluster of common-sense precepts. … Before beginning, empty the mind of what was weighing on it; relax, open up; set your habitual self-consciousness, self-criticism and self-censorship aside. Then get down everything you can without pausing. Suspend judgment until after you’ve reached the endpoint or hit a definite impasse. This is especially desirable when there is a scant ten minutes to respond to a prompt – a situation which has, in fact, generated a number of successful poems. Afterward, if the piece holds real promise, stick with it until it is all that it wants to become. And later, be amenable to constructive criticism from your peers
What is the importance of community to your writing life?
Community is all-important. In every conceivable way, the giving and gaining of practical and moral support to and from fellow writers – along with all who appreciate poetry – makes life not only more bearable but actively fulfilling for me, in this one central zone anyway. I’m not referring to wide acclaim or narrow favouritism or forming a coterie. I mean what I have experienced as an arc of goodwill and generosity among diverse poets and poetry-lovers that spreads. A sphere, ultimately, wherein creative energy and value circulate freely, through reading, performing and listening, so as to include and encourage instead of wall off. Poets help each other’s writing improve and find more of an audience, and in so doing broaden horizons, deepen our friendships and solidify a common purpose. In claiming this I’m no wishful idealist but an observer and a contributor. While I acknowledge that there is much more still to be done in this area, I have witnessed a remarkable flourishing in the past few decades throughout what I like to call a “community of communities.” It extends to workshops, study groups, soirees, readings, launches, book fairs, salons, and multimedia performances. It even applies to prestigious festivals and award presentations. Private gatherings, too, where poetry is shared – and not among poets alone. And, certainly, in interpersonal exchanges, including electronic media (fractious though that can become). At its best and most characteristic, this community is tolerant, welcomes difference, and reaches out to beginners in the art, to those who may be inveterate outsiders, and to those otherwise on the margins. By and large, it exists regardless of the all-too-human tendencies that run counter, such as petty feuds, closed-mindedness, a self-serving careerism, networks of privilege, inflated pretension, and passing fads. I’ve learned not to generalize overmuch about poets, but I think it is safe to say that most of us are somewhat introverted and unassertive. We can be standoffish and are at least as quirky and touchy as the rest of humanity, with an added knack of being able to wound with words – and yet, altogether, we benefit more than most loose aggregations when we befriend and mentor one another and feel solidarity. After all, the material rewards, book sales and degrees of fame and prestige enjoyed by even the most renowned Canadian poets tend to be rather limited. And while it is in our natures to compete and to envy, we seem mostly in favour of enlarging the shared pie. I believe that such sharing also entails finding means to expand the audience of non-poets who “get” what we do – which means inviting them, as well, into our communities. Of course, the foregoing is all from a personal perspective which, up to now, has shown me a largely positive trend. In fact, the number of mini-communities continues to increase and diversify. I’m hopeful but don’t take for granted that the alignment of basic benevolence and enlightened self-interest that has so long been so favourable will hold.
What keeps you going as a writer?
I harbour the sense, as Wordsworth’s line puts it, “of something evermore about to be.” That is so even while I feel increased concern about the climate crisis and about social inequity. I won’t go into what actions I take outside of my literary life, though admittedly the relationship is problematic. Obviously, there are more effectual platforms for raising awareness and alarm. But I see poetry, among its other impacts (not the least of which can be the linkage of incomparable aesthetic pleasure with a spiritual intimation), giving consolation and seeding empathy in unique ways. Perennially. I find, too, that poetry still lightens “the burden of the mystery.” Also, that ongoing community-building through poetry will, at this time as much as ever, enrich lives. Participation in such exchanges, both in events that involve poets and in written texts, is essential to what I intend to pursue for the rest of my life. More specifically motivational for my writing is the knowledge that subjects remain which my body of work up to now has only touched on: ones that will want techniques and styles I haven’t yet tried. In addition, subjects that were broached in my previous books are far from exhausted and will themselves demand different treatments when I revisit them. Together with that comes the realization – life being short – of the need to quicken the pace for what I hope is further high-quality output. At the same time, I plan to carry on with the editing and publishing activities that have been bound up with my writing life. But if they start to crowd into my own creative flow, I’ll phase them out. Then, knowing of people who find my poetry worth reading encourages me to keep on preparing the poems for a book which is to follow my forthcoming Selected and New Poems (Fall 2019). And what is most immediately keeping me in the game, as it has for over three decades, is anticipation of the next poem I’ll write.
+ recommend a book or performance by a fellow League member: The Broken Face by Russell Thornton (Harbour Publishing)