Cobourg Poetry Workshop
feature poet

Roy Kempton



I offered him joy
He wanted pain

I offered him light
He wanted darkness

I offered him bread
He wanted stone

I offered him stone
He wanted words

I offered him words
He wanted silence

I offered him silence

Roy Kempton was born in Ireland and emigrated to Canada in 1975. He worked as a Professional Engineer in private consulting practice until his retirement in 2008. He has three grown children and lives with his wife, Barbara, in Wicklow.

One of the pleasures of hearing Roy Kempton read is not knowing what to expect, your poems ranging over a wide canvas - childhood experiences, observations at a northern Ontario truck-stop, historic references, for example. How would you describe your work?

I do not put my work into any particular category or style. I write on emotion, be that sadness, joy, even anger and frustration. I do draw a lot on my experiences and try to weave these into an understanding of life, the joys and trials we encounter, the reasons why life takes us on a certain journey. My work is hopefully an expression of a mature man who has come to terms with triumph and tragedy and who sees both these states as unavoidable and a part of the very sense of being. I wrote once in a poem that, as I sat by my dad as he lay dying, I felt more alive than I ever had. Such irony, if you will, when encountered and remembered enriches the adventure of living.

Growing up in Ireland has been a theme that threads, movingly, through your poetry. And, I believe, you have a keen audience in Ireland for the videos Barbara makes of some of your readings.

There were a number of aspects to my life in Ireland that people seem to find interesting. Sadly, a lot of the old ways are gone by the wayside just as I am sure that they have in Canada. In my youth, there was an innocence and simplicity to life that is now long buried in the hustle and bustle of an internet world of seven day a week striving. There is a loss of personal contact in spite of the myriad ways we have of keeping in touch. The art of conversation and neighbourly interaction are two things sadly in decline. I saw on a news item the other night where children were asked what they thought about computers. One young girl said, "I don't know what people did when there were no computers, did they sleep all the time?" We are losing that most valuable human resource -- imagination. It is sad that gadgets have taken such control.

There is a rich tradition of story telling in Ireland and, in my youth, I can remember men gathering outside just to chat and exchange gossip. If it rained, of course, there was always the chance to visit the local pub to carry on the visit. Poor, in a material sense as my growing up was, I would not exchange it for today's world of gadgetry and couch potato entertainment.

When did it all begin - writing that first poem and the realization that poetry would be another important means of expression for you?

I have a modest library and in it can be found a number of books with bookmarks in place, the result of discovering over a number of years, that my attention span would not allow me to finish a 400 or 500 page book. It was an obvious thing for me to turn to poetry which is something in which I had always been interested, particularly coming from Ireland where poetry is a large facet of cultural life.Following on from that, about 12 to 15 years ago, I began to dabble in writing. I found the challenge rewarding. Looking back at my early work, I realize I had a long way to go to produce anything that would merit being called poetry. Now I am comfortable with my writing approach, though, as in every walk of life, there is certainly room to improve. Should I produce work that others find stimulating and enjoyable, then the reward in writing is much greater.

What process do you go through in creating a poem - from the initial spark of an idea to the completed poem?

Spontaneity, I believe is the spark of the better poetry I write. Such occurence can then drag an experience or emotion into the equation -- I simply let go until the words dry up. Then I visit and re-visit the poem, being careful not to change too much in the interest of punctuation or structure. The flow of the poem, with minor touches, will be there. It takes care of itself in combination with the emotion and feeling one is trying to capture. For me it is difficult to 'set out' to write a poem. I wait for the stirring, the urgency to express, then take it from there. This sometimes means going weeks or months without any writing and on other occasions, the opposite -- maybe ten or twenty poems in one week.

Hopkins said "If you look hard enough at an object, it begins to look back at you". The object in my thinking may be an experience, an event that calls out to be meaningful to my life and the lives of those around. It is this sense that I draw on as I become more nostalgic with age.Perhaps, not surprisingly, it is the simple everyday things that now most often spring to mind in recurring fashion, driving me to put pen to paper. As Stanley Kunitz said "At my age, after you're done -- or ruefully think you're done -- with the nagging anxieties and complications of your youth, what is there left for you to confront but the great simplicities?"

The outcome of this type of writing is that it can produce a rush of words that at first reading may not appear to make sense. I have found, however, that patience in reading such poems will produce the hoped for result. In this I am reminded of Gertrude Stein. Her poem "Piano" is quite baffling and appears to make no sense. Once, after she gave a perfectly logical lecture on poetry, a reporter asked her why she did not write the way she spoke. She replied, "Why don't you read the way I write?"

Why poetry - as opposed, for example, to short story writing or longer forms?

For me, creating a poem to capture an experience or emotion, is an exciting challenge and short poems with deep meaning is what I strive for. I see little merit in rambling poems -- one piece of your favourite pie is enough - you don't have to eat the whole pie to enjoy the taste. An example of this, the "Ballad of Reading Gaol" by Oscar Wilde runs, I believe, to 185 verses. I have never finished reading this poem and probably never will. Poetry gives me a vehicle of expression that I would not have through other forms of writing. Poetry for me is short story telling in a sense.

Poetry readings have become an occasion for poets to either launch, or promote, their latest book. Will you be doing that at your reading on October 20?

No. My October reading is not launching or promoting anything. I enjoy reading and while I have produced a number of chapbooks of my work, I will not be promoting these.

As with novels, finding a major publisher for one's poems is very difficult. So what about self-publishing? The advent of creative desk-top publishers has opened up avenues of opportunity that didn't exist not so very long ago.

Robert Frost wrote "I have a lover's quarrel with the world". In a sense that describes my feelings toward publication. I have submitted to magazines and book publishers and while I have received complimentary responses on a number of occasions, as yet I have not been published. Being published, for me, is not an end in itself but in it lies the realm of recognition that one's work has merit and should be there for others to read. My world will not stop on its axis if I am not published. I do have some of my work with a publisher at the moment but I was advised it would be some months before I received a response. As I mentioned previously, I believe age is a factor in a publisher's decision making. Sooner or later, I may grow tired of trying and simply leave my poems lying around for my grandchildren to come across one day.

Historically, we have the more classical forms of poetry but, more recently, there is Performance poetry, Slam, prose poetry. What is poetry in 2011?

Poetry in 2011 is different than it was in 1811, for example, but I think we try too much to categorize writing. The fundamental truth of a poem is still there, its function still the same whether it is rhyming or free verse, sonnet or haiku. We find what we seek from poetry in whatever form it takes.I do not react well to being asked to write in a certain style. This does not mean that I do not enjoy various forms of poetry. On the contrary, I find a range of styles refreshing. However, when it comes to writing that is a different story. Let the rhymers rhyme and the blank verse writers be blank or something. There is room for all shades, but my preference is free verse. The big difference today, of course, is that many more people have access to poetry. I wonder how many poets were not recognized over the centuries because of life status or inability to read and write.

When reading to an audience, you have a very distinctive style; the audience engages quickly with you. When you write a poem do you create it to be heard, or read on the page?

I do not set out to give a poem a particular slant. Some of my work in recent years appears to some people to be more "for the eye". This is an accident, if you will, in how particular poems turn out and is not contrived. I do find, however, that the more spontaneous, the more visual poems, are best enjoyed "off the page". Poems that are narrative are best suited to my style of reading. One of the great memories I carry with me was when I used to read to my late granddaughter and how she always asked me to read to her when we were together. People have often remarked on the sincerity and richness in my voice. I can claim no credit for developing that. My father had a deep resonating voice. I guess it was handed down.

What are the major influences on your writing?

It is hard not to be influenced by the writings of a Nobel Prize winning poet who lived just a few miles from my home in Ireland. Heaney's writings reflect so much of the common things we encountered when growing up. Certainly there is an influence factor there but I also admire the poetry of Ted Hughes and the less complex works of Stanley Kunitz.Members of the Cobourg Poetry Workshop have stated on occasion that they are envious of me in that I have found my voice. While I know what they are saying, I am not sure I know what it really means. Since we are all influenced through our writing lives by other poets, how original is any voice? Influences help us in our journey of writing but it is difficult to "copy" a style. Staying with influences I believe is good, but in the end all poets have their individuality and that is really what we strive to express.

If I may go in another direction for a moment ... your family experienced a great tragedy with the death of your grand-daughter. Out of it came an anti-bullying initiative that you brought to schools in Northumberland County. Three years on, has that initiative made had an impact on the levels of bullying in local schools?

Such a question is impossible to answer. What we do know is that in the schools which my granddaughter attended, there are now programs in place to highlight awareness about bullying. I believe both students and teachers are more conscious of this blot on our society. It takes time to change long engrained attitudes, but we are seeing encouraging signs in both grade schools and high schools. One example is in the number of students applying for the Anti-Bullying Initiative Awards. This has gone up each year since we introduced the program. We believe we are making a difference and in that we are encouraged to continue our efforts.

What has been the impact on you?

I have beaten myself up many times over Abi's suicide. No amount of consoling or kind words can stop that. It is something that has to be dealt with alone in those quiet moments. Setting up the Anti-Bullying program has proven to be a two-edged sword. It keeps the tragic event to the fore and yet, in its promotion, we are honouring her memory and retrieving a sense of purpose for her short life. It gives a diversion from oneself by concentrating on the plight of other kids who may right now be struggling with the kind of issues that overwhelmed Abi. Each time I hear about a teenage suicide, triggered by bullying, I am reinforced by what we as a family are attempting. I find comfort in that. Abi's death gave me a new perspective on many things and many of these are reflected in my most recent poems.

How has your poetry changed over those years - or not?

My poetry has certainly changed over the years, not so much in terms of subject matter, but in how I have learned to treat and express that matter. I believe I am a better writer. Some of my early writing now seems rather shallow and poorly presented. With experience in writing and from reading the works of established poets, change is inevitable. Hopefully most times it is for the better.

Your favourite poets?

I have several poets that I find myself drifting back to again and again. However, I find a broad range of reading sometimes surprises. While I tend to lean on Hughes and Heaney, I also like the work of Stanley Kunitz, believing that if you are still writing at the age of 100, you surely have something to say. Other poets that I like are Sue Goyette, Karen Houle, Dennis O'Driscoll and Robert Frost. I particularly like the succinct style of the late Polish author and poet, Ryszard Kapusciriski. Karen Houle read at one of our CPW evenings. Occasionally, I may go over to the 'dark side' in search of Sylvia Plath.

What are you reading these days?

I am reading "A Year with Rumi", a series of daily readings of the 13th century poet as translated by Coleman Barks and in a similar vein, "A Year with C.S. Lewis". If you will -- a salve for the soul, a balm for the body.

Will you be reading any new work on October 20?

All the poems I will be reading on October 20th are new. None of them have been presented at any of my previous readings.

Anything you'd like to add?

Given my love of poetry and writing, it is a recurring source of regret to me that I did not know my late granddaughter loved writing until after her death. I have copies of several short stories she was working on, but her mother told me she was very secretive about her writing. Her writing, I believe, shows a lot of potential, which now, sadly, will never be realized. It displays no hint of foreboding that might have been a red flag to the family. Everything seemed to suggest a well adjusted teenage coming to grips with life, friends, boyfriends, family -- nothing unusual.

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