WITH TED AMSDEN:
Ted, congratulations on your appointment as Cobourg's
3rd Poet Laureate. Your immediate reaction on hearing the
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
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
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.
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.
your role as Poet Laureate, what plans do you have for
reaching out into the community to create greater awareness
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.
a widely respected photographer, who no doubt sees the
world through various lenses, how does the 'visual' influence
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
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.
there poets you are drawn to, either to read or to listen
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.
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.
this answers your questions.
October 2, 2011