I’ve always written poetry. The first thing I wrote at the age of five was a poem. I began hanging around the Toronto literary scene when I was about sixteen. I’d sneak out of the house at night and go down to readings at the Bohemian Embassy, Grossman’s Tavern (where I was under age though I didn’t drink), and to various library basements and cultural centres. The first poets I encountered are those I honour in the section of The Madness of Planets, “A Litany of the Makers.” Some of those poets were Milton Acorn, Irving Layton, Gwendolyn MacEwen and Dorothy Livesay. I realize now how lucky I was to be close to those giants. They were my “singing masters” (as Yeats called them) in the art of poetry.
Early on, I was lucky to meet like-minded younger poets: Andrew Brooks, Larry (Robert Lawrence) Hopperton, and James Deahl. We often met at the apartment on Palmerston that Deahl shared with Milton Acorn. When I was in the my first years of undergraduate work at the University of Toronto, we’d gather at James’ place on Sunday afternoons and smoke our pipes and argue about poetry under the watchful tutelage of Milton Acorn. We’d read in places like the basement of the Main Street Library where Chris Faiers ran the reading series, and we’d go out for beers afterwards and argue more about poetry. I think the best way to learn poetry is to hear it and to discuss it with living poets. I have found that emerging poets who merely sit in their rooms and don’t engage the art and its artists are deficient. Talking about poetry is as important as reading it. We read broadly in those days. We haunted the second hand shops — David Mason’s on Church Street, Steven Temple’s on Queen, Alphabet Books, Atticus Books, and even the dusty Acadia Bookstore on Queen East. There was nowhere we wouldn’t go for poetry.
I met Marty Gervais at a reading he gave at Harbourfront — way before Harbourfront evolved into what it is now – and talked to him about poetry. That would be about 1977. A poet’s formative years are the years when he or she must immerse themselves in the art. I studied literature at the University of Toronto with Northrop Frye. We read Al Purdy’s poetry in a Canadian Poetry class, and then I had the chance to go to a Purdy reading, and was even luckier to go drinking with him afterwards. “A Litany of the Makers” is a suite of poems about my mentors who are no longer alive. I feel a powerful sense of loss at their absence. They were presences who were larger than life. Later on, when Brian O’Riordan and I did two books of interviews with Canadian authors, In Their Words and Lives and Works (two of the most quoted books in Canadian literature studies), I was able to meet and get to know Eli Mandel, Raymond Souster and others who were instrumental in my development. I learned something different from each one of them — rhythm from Acorn, a sense of place from Purdy, the delicacy of language from MacEwen.
MacEwen was the poet who got my first collection of poems published with Black Moss Press — The Open Room (1989). The book had been rejected by over 1,000 publishers across North America. I’d already had three phantom books — books that were accepted for publication but had something go wrong: a press that burned down, a publisher that sent me a bad contract, another who went bankrupt. I had sent my failed manuscript to the American Pulitzer Prize winner, Richard Howard. I’d been told by a poet in Toronto (who I won’t name) to write like another poet (who I wont’ name). That wasn’t me. I asked Richard “how should I write,” and he wrote back with the best piece of advice I can imagine: “Write your own way, but take your poems apart and put them back together again using meter, rhyme, and form.” I learned a lot from that exercise. Not only did it make my poems stand out for just about everything else that was being written in Canada, but it also made me more aware of language, aware of the fact that I was writing against the pressures of form, not merely filling form with words. In any case, MacEwen got my manuscript via James Deahl. On the final Boxing Day she was alive, she phoned me up and said she had spent all Christmas Day, her last, reading my book, loved it, and would send it to Marty Gervais at Black Moss Press. A week after she died, I got the acceptance letter. I was thinking of her recently when I won the prestigious Gwendolyn MacEwen Prize. I owe her a great deal.
The idea for The Madness of Planets came from a scientific article that Andrew Brooks posted on his Facebook page. The article described the fact that the orbits of planets and what they draw into them through the pull of gravity are, essentially, erratic. The article went on to say it is a wonder they haven’t slammed into each other. The miracle is that they move in harmony, that they metaphorically respect each other and each other’s paths while all doing the same thing. That for me was an explanation of the poetry world I had lived in for so long. I’m in my late fifties now. I’ve met a great many poets. I’ve almost met Gilbert and Larkin — missing them by moments. I corresponded with Larkin. Heaney was a pen pal who mentored me and encouraged me just after the publication of The Open Room. Poetry is a community. Poets are the one group of artists I’ve known who treat each other with an incredible generosity of spirit. They listen to each other. They enjoy each other’s work and each other’s company.
A few years ago I was in Windsor for a Poet Laureates event that Marty Gervais organized at the Walker house. Afterward, John B. Lee and Eric Folsom and I sat on the sidewalk at a pub on Ouellette Street and talked and talked until long after the pub closed for the night. I have to write a poem about that evening. The wonderful thing about poets is the way they love to tell stories. Alive, they are incredible people. When we lose them, we lose a light from the heavens, a voice from the world that does more than speak about the world. Poetry, for me, is the conversation with everything, the desire to know and know more, and never cease from knowing, and in that knowing to give back as much as one’s heart and mind and words can contain, and speaking what one can, share the world with whoever will listen.
The Madness of Planets is my tribute to the great voices I have known, to the generous hearts and to the spirits who refuse to let down the world by reneging into silence. Shakespeare said in ‘Sonnet 18’ that poetry is a means of cheating time, and permitting that which is mortal and fleeting and bound by the span of life to live beyond the moment: so long lives this and this gives life to thee. I want to give the poets I have known that extra mile. I want the future to know what it was not merely to be alive but to exist with the solar system of a milieu. I happen to think that in my lifetime I have witnessed the golden age of Canadian poetry and letters, and I am fortunate, very fortunate, to have been part of that. The Madness of Planets is my thank you letter to poetry.