25th Trillium Award

Poets in Profile: Stewart Cole

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Stewart Cole

Have you ever considered the "auto-erotic" of the daily commute? Looked down at your hands without recognizing the "five-legged creatures" attached to your wrists or imagined your sleeping self from the vulture's perspective? Stewart Cole's first book, Questions in Bed (Goose Lane Editions), is a compendium of questions big and small, wrought in such precise, surprising language that the world is brought into and out of focus at once. Now a resident of London, Ontario, Stewart writes a monthly Canadian poetry review on his blog, The Urge.

In today's Poets in Profile feature, Stewart tells us about The Cat in the Hat, "raw Anglo-Saxon hurt" and Maestro Fresh-Wes.

Open Book:

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

Stewart Cole:

My grandmother, Elinor Reside (née Dow), encouraged me from a very early age to watch birds, note their varying colour and flight patterns, listen for their songs, and (perhaps most crucially) learn their names. I took to this with great enthusiasm, and through it learned the wonder of marrying close observation to words. I use my bird-knowledge sparingly in my work — I?m not what I?d call a nature poet — but I try to learn to name as much as I can out there, to build and build that lexicon, like adding toys to a playroom.


What is the first poem you remember being affected by?


The Cat in the Hat. Of course I didn?t know then that so much of what I was responding to was metrical: ?I can hold up the cup / And the milk and the cake! // I can hold up these books! / And the fish on a rake!? I often think we need more concerted anapests in our poetry (not to mention fish on rakes!).


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


One of my great sources of hope in the world is the fact of other artists out there creating in brilliant ways of which I am not capable, whether technically or temperamentally. So I don?t think I ever wish to have written someone else?s poem. But taking up the ?any time period? aspect of the question, I?d like to use this opportunity to uphold Sir Thomas Wyatt, who wrote some of the earliest poems in the language for which I feel an unalloyed admiration. ?They flee from me, that sometime did me seek / With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.? Okay, if I?d been an Elizabethan court poet, hopelessly beholden to imported Petrarchan convention, and then I?d read that poem — with the way it deftly infuses genteel continental vulnerability with raw Anglo-Saxon hurt — then yes, I might have edged toward wishing I?d been the one to write it.


What has been your most unlikely source of inspiration?


Of course I should say that that no source of inspiration is unlikely, and of course that?s true. But thinking of it from a reader?s point of view — as in, thinking of inspirations I have that might strike someone who reads my work as unlikely, I?ll choose one and say Maestro Fresh-Wes. Rap in general is no unusual influence on poetry, of course, because in many ways it is poetry and something we should be influenced by. I don?t listen to much rap anymore — the misogyny and relentless braggadocio gets to me — but throughout my early adolescence it was basically all I listened to, and its rhythms and cadences live in me. I have nearly as many late 80s/90s rap verses rattling around in my head as I do proper stanzas, and they definitely inflect my prosody. I single out Toronto?s own Fresh-Wes because he really was my introduction. ?Let Your Backbone Slide? came out when I was eleven, and it was the first rap song that hooked me. Weirdly, I recently mentioned it to some friends only a couple years younger than me, and they?d never heard of it, or him. If you haven?t, get thee to YouTube: don?t let our hip-hop heritage be forgotten.


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


Keep it around until it does. Tend it on occasion. Water it more (or less). Change its soil. Ignore it to the brink of death then zap it with fertilizer. I?m in no rush. My wife has a Peace Lily that seems perfectly healthy — it keeps getting bigger and its leaves are thick and glossy green — but refuses to bloom. It?s like that: some of the poems in the book kept me waiting for 5+ years before finally blooming for me.


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


For the last six months I?ve been dipping pleasurably in and out of The Collected Poems of Laura Riding, a lesser-known Modernist master (mistress? mistrix?) who was a crucial influence on early Auden, and acknowledged by John Ashbery as one of ?the three writers [along with Auden and Stevens] who most formed my language as a poet.? She lived until 1991, but stopped writing poetry in 1938, citing her realization that ?poetry had no provision in it for ultimate practical attainment of that rightness of word that is truth.? I?m not sure about that rationale, but her work is off-kilter, intelligent and original in ways that both keep me coming back and leave me salivating at what other dazzling, once-prominent talents from previous eras I haven?t yet been led to. She should probably be central to the modern canon, but of course her marginality makes her all the more appealing.

In terms of contemporary stuff, I?d recommend checking out Nyla Matuk?s first full-length collection Sumptuary Laws (Signal Editions), which I?ve recently reviewed on my blog The Urge. Also, Patrick Warner?s fourth collection Perfection (Goose Lane Editions) (which I?d love to review but won?t because we share a publisher and launched at the same time — too close) is a fantastic book, deftly unified and knifelike in its precision while seeming almost effortless.


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


Best are those days (or hours or moments) of feeling tuned-in ? "Am I thinking the words, or are the words thinking me?" — when I?m convinced that what I?m writing will connect with someone out there, will succeed in building that verbal bridge from solitude to the social. Readings can be good for that too. Worst is the opposite feeling, those (usually mercifully brief) spates of floundering when I can?t find the words to connect to myself, much less any potential audience. Still, the best far outweighs the worst: I?m grateful to have been granted this compulsion.

Stewart Cole grew up in the Rideau Valley south of Ottawa and has since lived in Victoria, Montreal, Fredericton and Toronto. His poetry and reviews have appeared in a variety of publications across Canada. His chapbook Sirens was published by Cactus Press in 2011. He now lives in London, Ontario.

Visit Stewart's blog, The Urge, each month for a new review of Canadian poetry.

For more information about Questions in Bed please visit the Goose Lane Editions website.

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

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