25th Trillium Award

Profile on Damian Lopes, Poet Laureate of the City of Barrie, with a few questions

 
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Damian Lopes (Photo Credit: Sara Stainton)

by rob mclennan

It has been a while since many have heard the name Damian Lopes, from his 1990s micro-press fingerprintinkoperated, and time spent as an editor at Coach House Books to the publication of three trade poetry collections: towards the quiet (ECW Press, 1997), which was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Award for best first book of poetry; sensory deprivation (Coach House Books, 1998); and clay lamps & fighter kites (The Mercury Press, 2000), a book that worked to ?translate South Asian and East African imagery into a Canadian poetic context. Drawing primarily on the devotional tradition of South Asian literature, and rooted in a Canadian landscape [?].? He is also the author of the poetry-multimedia website Project X 1497-1999, and co-editor of A Handful of Grams: Goan Proverbs (Caju Press, 1996).

Born in Scotland and raised in Toronto, he can trace ?his family over much of the globe, including the UK, New Zealand, Tanzania, India and Portugal.? Lopes attended the Etobicoke School of the Arts as a Music major, and later studied English Literature at McGill University. He has published poetry, experimental writing and fiction both across Canada and internationally. As Craig Hill wrote of sensory deprivation in his November 6, 2009 blog post, ?Coming late to damian lopes? eyethought-popping sensory deprivation & dream poetics?: ?Composed over ten years ago, published on-line and in print by Coach House Books about ten years ago, the work continues to crackle (in part because of the superb print work, sharp, solid blacks on good paper).? More recently, Kenneth Goldsmith included Lopes and his work in his ?Conceptual Writing: A Worldview? essay for Harriet: A Poetry Blog , and Hill and co-editor Nico Vassilakis also included him in the seminal collection The Last Vispo Anthology: Visual Poetry 1998-2008 (Fantagraphics Books, 2012). So it would seem that Lopes? relative silence might exist as an absence, but certainly not one that means his work is being left behind, or simply forgotten. In his review of sensory deprivation posted at Rain Taxi, Tom Orange wrote:

Damian Lopes?s book?actually two books bound together head to toe?collects primarily his visual and concrete work that has accumulated over the past ten years. Readers who know only his earlier book Towards the Quiet (ECW Press 1997) will be surprised at the turn away from more traditional lyrics. But Lopes in fact wears more than one hat at a time. His micropress Fingerprinting Inkoperated has helped support and define innovative visually oriented poetries in Toronto for some time now, through a steady stream of limited edition books, booklets, and book objects. Skeptics may note that Lopes?s work owes a lot to Wershler-Henry?s, which is itself in many respects an homage to bpNichol. But Robert Duncan has, correctly I think, demonstrated that a derivative poetics arises not out of some of imaginative impoverishment but an awareness of the very richness that lies underexplored and underrecognized within a tradition, one that for Lopes includes other past and present Toronto-based verbal-visual artists such as Daniel F. Bradley, jwcurry, Beth Learn, Mark Sutherland, and David UU. Lopes blends more traditional-looking poems (found in portions of Sensory Deprivation / Dream Poetics) with a number of visual techniques: photo and digitally enhanced collage, found schematics, popular print media, graphemic decimations and dissemblages. The thematics are wide ranging as well: far from merely fetishizing the physicality of language, Lopes here investigates language, body, and machine as a kind of technological nexus. Indeed the book amounts to something of a compendium of current possibilities for visual poetics.

According to his website, Lopes ?has several novels in progress: The Mango Stone, Masala-Fried Sunfish, Surgeon?s Log and The Bharata.? He was also the founding Chairperson for the Barrie Arts and Culture Council. In November, 2014, Lopes was named Poet Laureate of the City of Barrie, becoming only the second to fill the position, after Dr. Bruce Meyer. The City of Barrie website describes the position:

The Poet Laureate is a prestigious designation that is selected by a jury and awarded to a candidate that has published works, presented their works at public events or forums, and has been acknowledged for their literary creations by the local community. The Poet Laureate, or ?the people?s poet?, acts as a champion for poetry, language, and the arts by raising its profile through public engagements and civic interactions. The Poet Laureate acts as a literary ambassador and works to educate and promote poetry and the literary arts in our city and serves for a four year term running concurrent to Council?s.

In January this year, he was presented to the City Council as the new Poet Laureate. To mark the occasion, he produced one hundred copies of a small visual poem composed to mark the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

rob mclennan:

You were recently named Poet Laureate of the City of Barrie, only the second to hold the title, after Bruce Meyer. Given the posting is a four-year term, what do you see as the role you can play in such a position? What are the requirements for the title of Poet Laureate of Barrie?

Damian Lopes:

I?m honoured to serve as Barrie?s second Poet Laureate. In addition to appearances at various civic events, the office is about the promotion of poetry, the arts, literacy and the culture of Barrie. The position must be held by an active poet.

Barrie is in transition. To most residents, we are finally a city, but to some residents we are not the city, not even for Simcoe County. Some still think ?real? culture comes from somewhere bigger. But driven by tremendous growth, including artistically, from within and from influx, that is changing. We are not the city we were but our story of who we are has not kept pace with growth.

As laureate, I hope to inspire everyone to tell their stories in their own ways. Otherwise, we will remain defined from outside as a blue collar hockey town and a barrier to pass through on the way to and from the cottage, not a place let alone a destination, cultural or otherwise. If we don?t nurture our own talent, we will continue to lose that creativity. My son lives on the same street that the ?Toronto? singer-songwriter known as Bahamas grew up on.

The arts are growing here, including the literary. Amongst others, the MacLaren Art Centre?s Carnegie Days, L3 Writers? Conference, Word Up reading series, poet laureateship through our Department of Culture and our Poet Laureate emeritus, Bruce Meyer, have put Barrie on the literary map.

My role is to support ongoing efforts to promote the local, both talent and audience, in the celebration of ourselves and to encourage everyone to play with language and story. I?m currently researching a possible poetry project that would span my term as Poet Laureate and hopefully engage residents with our unique heritage.

rm:

Given that your three trade collections appeared within a couple of years some fifteen years ago, I?m curious as to why we haven?t seen much in the way of new work from you since. Between your own writing and your micropress, fingerprinting inkoperated, you seemingly went from being enormously active and productive to a near-silence. Where did you go?

DL:

Perhaps it should have been into therapy for writerly PTSD: post traumatic submission disorder...

The four projects that resulted in three books and two poetry-multimedia websites all published between 1997 and 2000, actually took close to a decade to create with family support, arts grants and a student?s standard of living.

Before my wife and I moved to Barrie at the very end of 1999, I had made the mistake of chasing the brass ring. I almost sold my novel to a major publisher. Twice. In playing that game, I was no longer writing for myself. Nor did I take the near misses well.

Ultimately, I stopped writing new work for a couple of years after my son was born in 2001. I pulled the novel out of the bottom drawer and tinkered. In 2003 I returned to writing with a crazy poetry project that has yet to come to fruition ? more on it below.

After a circuitous six-year battle to get myself out of the way, I?m finally close to completing my novel. With my father?s death last fall, the story has become clearer and my reluctance to speak plainly has lifted. It will be published. Eventually.

His death also bookended a collection of poetry I have been struggling with for several years. I work slowly yet sometimes life must catch up.

But I haven?t fallen completely silent. Beginning in 2008, some of my creative energies were directed into arts advocacy in Barrie. I?m proud to have played a small part in successfully advocating for the construction of a downtown theatre geared to local use. And since 2008, I have given more readings in the Barrie area than I ever did living in Toronto.

And then life gets in the way, and for a while laundry gets moderately more attention than writing. Much of the last two or three years was preoccupied by family matters. But 2015 has me hopeful again.

Always with the risk of grand failure, I work by this Gertrude Stein challenge (engraved on the back of my iPad): ?If you can do it then why do it??

rm:

Part of what has been intriguing about your work is in how you?ve deliberately worked to blend, as the blurb for clay lamps & fighter kites wrote, ?South Asian and East African imagery into a Canadian poetic context [?]? How has this work helped clarify or enhance ideas of your Asian and East African heritage?

DL:

The blending is self-expression. I am a masala. My parents are too, culturally if not genetically. Each grew up as an expatriate and minority, both visible and religious. I?ve been told my name is not South Asian. In Goa I was told I didn?t look Goan. No doubt I?ve been called a coconut behind my back. An emigrant, I?m always out of place. Each inheritance allows me just one foot in the door. The interstice can be a vantage of advantage.

In playing with South Asian devotional poetry, I began reclaiming for myself an ancient literary tradition separate from the Western Canon. The Sanskrit library alone is vast and includes two of the world?s greatest epics, the popular Ramayana and the world?s longest poem, The Mahabharata.

So when I returned to writing in 2003, it was with the idea (see Stein quote above) to excavate the pre-Hindu Aryan poem that lurks at the heart of the accumulative Mahabharata. Arriving in their chariots, the Aryans syncretized their culture not only with those in ancient Persia and India, but also Egypt, Greece and Rome. The Homeric and Sanskrit epics, at least at one time, were not so disparate after all.

I have long been interested in culture through migration and the confluence that results. We are all blends, especially in Canada.

Though I completed full drafts of two (of a projected five) books, this project has been put on hold, primarily because the long expected source material is still not available. One excerpt was published in 2008.

rm:

You?ve been working quietly for years, with a number of works-in-progress on the go, including a series of novels. How do you feel your work has developed over the past fifteen years, since the publication of your poetry titles, and where do you see your work headed?

DL:

Some bad copy editing has me writing lots of novels... I have one more in mind (that might split in two), but no series.

Fifteen years ago I did not have the maturity or experience to write the novel I?m now attempting. Though I?d have scoffed if told that then. Since, my youthful confidence was severely shaken, then broken.

In the last twelve years, I have played with many forms of writing, primarily applying all I learned from ?experimental? writing to ?traditional? forms like the family saga or epic poetry. The results have been mixed. At times my writing digressed. Or at least wandered. But I learned from bpNichol?s work to trust the process. And I?ve had some great help along the way.

I?m writing for myself again. That?s partly why I?ve remained quiet. Today?s world wide cacophony can be silencing and can make it difficult to hear myself. And what hubris is required to speak above that din? So I concentrate on this page, to see in it my desk, the window beside it, the road through the glass and beyond my neighbours to our downtown across the bay.

The laureateship is spurring me on: it?s time to get some work out the door. I am finalizing two manuscripts at the moment, poetry and fiction. With any luck they might appear in short order of each other to make me look busy again.

Updates on all my projects can be found on my website www.damianlopes.com.


Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa with his brilliantly talented wife, the poet, editor and bookbinder Christine McNair, and their daughter, Rose. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He also curates the weekly ?Tuesday poem? series at the dusie blog, and the ?On Writing? series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He currently spends his days full-time with toddler Rose, writing entirely at the whims of her nap-schedule.

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