Cobourg Poetry Workshop
feature poet

Ted Amsden


Ted, congratulations on your appointment as Cobourg's 3rd Poet Laureate. Your immediate reaction on hearing the news?

Relieved. I am looking forward to a good night's sleep. I can finally put aside the I Ching, the chicken bones, the dice, the endless teacups filled with soggy tea leaves and all my machines of prediction that inevitably let me down.

How do you see your new role?

A fun filled thrill ride through the amusement park called Cobourg. I plan on stopping at the schools and encouraging the children to join me. I hope, too, that I can find some willing CPW members who are not afraid of bravely going where few have gone before and join in our conga line down Main Street.

People use the word celebration often these days. The word is so debased. But poets can't help themselves- even the drollest of the bunch- celebrate language. If I can convince a few to huff and puff as hard as I, we just might blow down the hoarding of boredom that lines our sidewalks.

Many people, when they think of Ted Amsden and poetry, see someone who has stepped out of the conventional mould. They sit up and take notice, expecting something different. How would you describe your poetry?

Actually, with the exception of how I lay out my poems which I do according to a relatively simple logic of graphic organization that focuses attention on phrasing, my work is plain as pudding. Of course, pudding can be tasty. A smooth ride for the tongue, a bit of comfort when you need it and a peaceful feeling of full when the last spoonful is finished. That said, how I deliver the pudding, now that is the fun part. I deliver with the unabashed intention of pleasing myself. This because of a dream. For a number of years I enjoyed a certain fantasy of seeing my name on the marquee of the Capitol Theatre. The trouble was at the same time I was nagged by a very deep fear of standing in front of an audience. Then along came the dream. In it I was walking through the curtain towards the stage at the Capitol feeling the heat of the spot lights and expectation of the audience when that part of me that informs my dream life spoke with a matter of fact tone saying that all I had to do was entertain myself and all would be alright. Since then I try to deliver my words by relaxing into a natural inclination to give myself over to playing with ideas of drama and expression that have impressed me.

The poetry of your Poet Laureate predecessors, Eric Winter and Jill Battson, could be described as more classical. Judging from your earlier readings in Cobourg - some of which would fall into the 'performance poetry' category, dealing with very contemporary, often raw, themes - will the requirements of the position of Poet Laureate restrict the kind of freedom in your writing and reading that people have come to look for?

Definitely. I will have to respect the dress code of the establishment. Expect to see me in metaphorical tie, grey flannels, blue blazer and sounding very pompous during state occasions. I will struggle, I know. It will be difficult. I will have to resist channelling Eric Winter. Look for my words to become more pedantic, dogmatic, less buoyant, more stern, very stately. Fortunately I look good under stage lighting. I don't need makeup. And as a newspaper hound I have attended enough official gatherings to know how to say much, reveal nothing and step away from the mic leaving the audience hungering for more.

In your role as Poet Laureate, what plans do you have for reaching out into the community to create greater awareness of poetry?

Loud speakers on the top of old cars. I was really impressed when I lived in Mexico. In dusty little sombrero towns, news was spread by excitable chaps talking too loud through blown speakers. Yet, it worked! Heads turned. People gave up their distractions and considered what was being said. So- Ay Caramba, Cobourg! Its Party Time! Let's have a little Northumberland salsa in the street.

Let me tell you, during the first night of the Jazz Festival in Port Hope recently, I have never seen so many happy grey haired people acting, well, almost childishly. Why? Because Down Child Blues band was smoking hot. Talk about your community activation program that works! We need music, clapping, stand-up-and-sway-with-the rhythm events. How this relates to poetry I am not sure. But anything that causes the colour of cheeks to redden works for me.

As a widely respected photographer, who no doubt sees the world through various lenses, how does the 'visual' influence your poetry?

That's a question that strikes at the centre of how I understand creativity. My Creator is hardwired. His-her-its bandwidth is the size of galaxies. It is constantly issuing a lava of universes all of which can be zoomed into micro detail at any point. I am a voyeur. A looker. I stand in the stream of the issuing images. The whole visual world excites me. More so because we exist upon a stage of Nothingness. The world is all texture, surfaces and geometry, form and volumes wrapping this nothingness. There are laws of composition geometry and physic but no connections. For me at the heart of photography interpretation is relatively straightforward. I find it is very thin emotionally. The interpretation of photography is not as layered as poetry. It is easily manipulated, too. We talk and pat each other on the back, say the words and retire to our psychic caves. It's difficult to reach another. Poetry is the only language that comes close to connecting us. Interpretation of poetry is secondary to its more substantial message of the complexity of our shared humanity. If I were a more realized human I would talk nothing but poetry to you. As an aside, my cat and I have pretty good relationship because I gave up a long time ago thinking I had to make sense with him. We talk a rudimentary language of poetry. Poetry is multidimensional. My best photography works on multi levels, as does poetry. But only poetry speaks to the alternating currents that connect. Currents that I must admit I am not always sensitive to. Sometimes I wish I were a woman because then it would be easier to pick up on the emotional climate of being.

Now that answer was all over the place. I apologize. Poetry and photography are intertwined in me. I have never been able to figure one out in relation to the other.

How did it all start? What drew you to writing poetry?

Reciting lines in grade five at the front of the class. That was truly the best of time and the worst of times for me and poetry. In my fresh unawakened state of being I discovered the thrill of rhythm and rhyme. At the same time I discovered the fear of public speaking and learned how to talk to myself in a hurting, shameful way. I can still remember standing there in front of the class. I remember the room. The lighting. The time of day. I was locked down inside myself. The teacher encouraged me to try, to say anything. All the while I was thinking, "I hate myself." I was too young to know the precedent I was establishing and that it would take me decades to correct. It has always been the lyricism of poetry, the expression of complex feeling and power of words to evoke that has drawn me to poetry.

How do your poems evolve - from the initial spark of an idea, to the printed page, to standing in front of an audience ready to, what? Read? Perform?

Recently, I witnessed two blue herons flying through the Barron Canyon in Algonquin Park. There were many pings of delight set off in my brain during that short fly through. The 10 seconds they were visible within that dramatic setting were, excuse me for using a debased word, "magical." I have seen many herons fly, but not two, side by each, flying as if they were buds moseying down a laneway having a cranky chat. The challenge was to convey the physicality of the flight, the surroundings, at the same time as hint at the mental associations that were triggered as they flew past. I thought of Vietnam, Japanese painting, Indians, ballet and photography at the same time as I marvelled at their flight and the beautiful day I was experiencing in Algonquin Park. My challenge was to present a visual image of the event, and tie in the elements that came to me as I was watching. Of course, I wanted to do it with a certain sense of lyricism within tight phrasing. The latter is something I have to work at constantly and where I find I lie to myself the most. Some words scream when you take them out of where you have lovingly placed them the night before. Others give you cause to think you were an idiot for having used them in first place.

Then there's my unique graphic layout that I love not only because it makes the page look good but also because I use it to indicate phrasing and emphasis. Also because the sound of the bird's wings and voice were so strong, I had to lay down some words for the reader to play with. I expect the reader to go out on a limb (ha ha, pun intended) and try being bird for a moment. Poems should be read aloud. So what if you sound like Sid Vicious singing "I Did It My Way". Have some fun! Screech it, Man!

When it comes to me reading my work. That is always fun. I am my own endorphin machine and reading my stuff aloud provides the same medical benefits as purring does for a cat.

I draw on many voices when I read. There are the psychic ones, the voice of reason, paranoia, guilt, self doubt, etc. Then there are the creatures that lurk inside my imagination. You know, the Inner Child, the Idiot, the frustrated actor, the clown, the Voice of God, blah, blah. I don't parade my words silently in the quiet of my brain. I talk to myself. In private and in public. I have had people move close to me because they want to hear what I am saying. The voices that come as a result of reading a computer screen are different than the ones that come from reading a piece a paper. And the voices that speak when I am in front of an audience, well, dammit, things can really start to go sideways when you start to get hot under the collar while standing in front of folks.

But under the spotlight in front of people is where words really unhinge from familiarity and begin to breathe. I have a long way to go before I am reading in a manner that I think I am capable of. I have a vision of reading that includes stretching, beating, bruising, inhabiting, riding, cajoling words. Sometimes I think there is the possibility of new way of speaking that is multilayered, that fuses past, present and future tenses, that is both rational and irrational yet speaks to true being.

I find the least threatening venue to say my words is in the shower. There, talking to the curtain, a nice steamy atmosphere everywhere, all lathered up, my throat moist, my octave range is extended and I am at my best.

Changing tack slightly ... for many, 'poetry' is Keats or Wordsworth, but, with many varying forms - Slam, Performance, Prose, Spoken Word - what is poetry in 2011?

Ahh... its big bag of difference now. It's scary for those who want to dwell in the comfort of the old days. It's thrilling for those who dream of marrying video, performance and language. Where to fit yourself in? At your personal level of comfort obviously. I have some dreams of putting myself on U Tube reading from a pulpit set on the head of a needle while my words are broadcast in16 languages each translated with subtle differences.

Are there poets you are drawn to, either to read or to listen to?

My bible, that sits beside my bed, is Harold Bloom's "The Best Poems of the English Language." I turn to it in the middle of the night during the witching hour when my self worth is metering at its lowest reading. My classical education in poetry sucks. I am the prototypical zombie created by Television. I remember TV jingles from my childhood not poetry. As for modern poetry, I don't read a lot of it unless I find it in front of me. I am bored with poets who write endlessly of process and tell stories. You know, these days, everybody is a photographer, everybody is a painter, a writer, everybody has a narrative, has got a story. I don't care about run of the mill feelings. I don't care about another's day-to-day observations. Call me jaded. I am drawn to drama. I like actors and the buzz they create around themselves. Give me a King Lear at Shoppers Drug Mart staring at a goddamn hair brush having a fit. Tinkle in some Musak. Drift a concerned sales assistant by. Add the sound of a couple in the background arguing about string theory. Write a poem about that! Big writers who stand in front of the universe and talk directly, that keeps me awake. Not those that try in their little stanzas to convince me they really care about the issues of the day.

As for my favourite type of photography, it's photo-journalism. Some photographers- usually hardcore documentary photogs - can highlight moral and ethical issues and still set their shots in rocking composition. That's holding the good, the bad and the beautiful all in your hand at once.

What are you reading these days?

Pilgrim by Timothy Findley and Moby Dick by Herman Melville (I want to steal that man's ideas) interspersed by New York Times, Harpers, Atlantic Monthly, the Walrus, Toronto Star, Canadian Art and the Globe and Mail. I always I have a catalogue on the go. Right now it's Ikea. I go on-line regularly to check the news. I am a news junkie. Absolutely love the New York Times Lens Blog and Video section. There are other sites more obscure, photographic, but I just don't have the time so I visit them briefly.

Hope this answers your questions.
Ted Amsden
October 2, 2011

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