Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Poets in Profile: Glen Downie

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Open Book is celebrating National Poetry Month with daily profiles of today's "unacknowledged legislators of the world." Find out what inspires, confounds and delights the poets behind this spring's new releases by following our series.

Shoe store to sawdust shop, fork to clothes closet to plumb bob — Glen Downie's Local News (Wolsak & Wynn), which follows his Toronto Book Award–winning Loyalty Management, examines these mundane spaces and objects with an inquisitiveness and generosity that gives us a new perspective on the world we build our lives around. Like Roo Borson, you may find yourself "being drawn back to Local News again and again, both for the consolation of its particular philosophy and for the wondrousness of its inventiveness."

Open Book:

Can you describe an experience that you believe contributed to your becoming a poet?

Glen Downie:

I think all my early experience with language and books contributed to my sense that words could be meaningful and affecting. As a child I was read to, and learned a few lines by heart. We had a recording of Dylan Thomas reading his work, and I couldn?t help but be impressed by the richness of his language and his delivery. The fact that there were some people in my life who took poetry seriously probably encouraged me more than they realized.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


Apart from the children?s poems, which were mostly just fun, probably the Thomas poems were the first serious ones that moved me: perhaps "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night."


What one poem — from any time period — do you wish you had been the one to write?


There are too many to choose just one. But I?d be happy to have written "Do Not Go Gentle."


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


I?m not sure what "unlikely" means in this context. What makes a source of inspiration unlikely? Is it the very strange, because it doesn?t appear to fit the usual themes, or is it the very ordinary, because it?s considered unlikely to be inspiring enough? I?ve been deeply moved by both the unusual and the ordinary, so I don?t regard either as unlikely inspirations for poems.

In my first book, An X-ray of Longing, there?s a poem about a man I met when I started working at the cancer clinic. His job was to make prosthetic parts for people who had lost bits of themselves to surgery — eyes, ears, nipples. Many people would regard that as a very unlikely job, and an unlikely subject for a poem, but from the moment I met him, it seemed inevitable to me that I would write about him and his work.

In contrast, my most recent book, Local News, is taken up entirely with things that are commonplace: the rooms of a house, tools in a shed, the neighbourhood stores we go into every day. Some might suppose they already know all there is to know about such things. But to my mind, it?s precisely because those things are the foundations on which our daily lives rest that they deserve to be considered thoughtfully, which is something poetry is very good at.


What do you do with a poem that just isn't working?


I leave it and go on to something else. When I do, one of two things usually happens: either the subconscious works on it, and eventually brings to the surface something that will make it better, or I discover that the idea wasn?t really as important to me as I first thought. If I hunch that it really is important, and still nothing has come, I leave it longer. That?s one reason why some poems can take years to write.


What was the last book of poetry you read that really knocked your socks off?


I read barefoot, and try to avoid getting drawn in to picking favourites.


What is the best thing about being a poet?and what is the worst?


I suppose the best thing about practicing poetry, or indeed any art or craft which has no significant commercial value, is that no one else sets your agenda, or dictates to you what?s worth struggling over.

The worst thing is the flipside of that freedom: alone with the poem, you can never be completely sure that what you spend so much time on is of any value to anyone else. No one has asked you to write, and no one?s depending on you to do so, so how do you know it will matter to anyone? Most of us have enough social conscience to believe we should try to improve the world in some way, that we have an obligation to earn our keep on the planet, not just use up limited resources being self-indulgent. But it?s hard to get affirmation that poetry in general, let alone our own poetry in particular, actually does anything to make the world better. And at times, nagging doubt or guilt over that can be paralyzing.


Glen Downie has published half a dozen books of poetry, and in 2008 he was awarded the Toronto Book Award for his collection Loyalty Management (Wolsak & Wynn). His work has appeared in the secondary school textbook Inside Poetry as well as in many anthologies and journals. Formerly a social worker in cancer care, he served a term as writer-in-residence at Dalhousie University?s Medical Humanities Program before returning to a life of anonymity in Toronto as an at-home father.

For more information about Local News please visit the Wolsak & Wynn website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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