Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: Michael deBeyer

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Michael deBeyer

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Atticus Dean Mitchell:

Hey Michael, I am a student at Malvern Collegiate Institute, and in my grade 12 Writer’s Craft class, we are working on an assignment that requires us to interview a Canadian poet of our choosing in order to gain a better understanding of how poetry comes to life. I was wondering if you could answer these couple of questions to give me some sort of idea.

Thank you very much for your time.

I see that you grew up in Ayr, Ontario, and currently reside in Fredricton, New Brunswick. I, in my own epic travels, journeyed through Ayr while driving along the highway 401. Having read your second work, Change in a Razor-Backed Season, I noticed that you use plenty of striking images in order to get your point across. Do the areas where you grew up (or where you live today) have any particular impact on the pictures you paint in your writing?

Michael deBeyer:

Yes, absolutely. I would say that most of my poetry, if not all of it, has a geographical location. The location might not mean much to the poem overall, might be incidental or invisible, but the content of the poem, the concrete images, have a physical, geographical reality. To me, the places are indelibly part of the poem: there is a real road-side phone booth in “October at the Warm Spells End,” (on Regent Street in Fredericton, NB) and a real fountain in “Coastal Marquee” (south east of the market in Saint John, NB), but their realness shouldn’t matter to the reader, because in order for it to matter the reader would have to have the same perspective I have remembered, with the same circumstances that lead to my perspective, otherwise the real-ness could be considered wrong. Nevertheless, I would like to think, and your question may confirm this, that the basis of these poems in geographical settings, in concrete reality, might lend the poems a striking quality, even if the entirety of their reality isn’t conveyed.


You stated in an interview with CanLit Poets that the works of T.S. Eliot inspired you to delve into poetry, and today you find most inspiration by walking outdoors and relishing the natural world. Is it Eliot who inspired you to work in such a way, or are there any other poets whose traditions you took on for yourself?


Eliot’s inspiration was multifold for me. He was the first Modernist I’d encountered and the first poet I came across that did not use structured meter and rhyme schemes, so I was a little in awe of him. Not to mention his taking on large, cultural themes, upsetting norms at every line. I think his influence was mostly in the form, ironically, of rhythm. The opening lines of The Waste Land in particular, seemed to subvert expectations of rhythm (or certainly would have for his audiences), which to me seemed a perfect part of the theme of The Waste Land.

Walking, however, is more a byproduct of more recent years and is inspired by Canadian poets like Don Mckay, Anne Simpson, Don Domanski and Tim Lilburn, all of whom seem so often situated outdoors. I think poetry is largely an engagement of encounter; I couldn’t write poetry if I were always in a room. The encounter isn’t necessarily the subject matter, but it’s definitely the point of origin.


In most poetry I read, the themes and meanings are generally forced upon the reader. However, your writing style is very unique in the sense that you leave lots of room for interpretation and doubt, or at least the majority of the work is left up to the reader. A great example of this is at the very end of your book, which ends with a poem that pairs both the end and the beginning. This leaves the reader in a state of constant transition, leading us to wonder if the end of the book is really the end at all. Is this style a result of other works you have studied and borrowed from, is it instead a refreshing change of pace altogether or am I completely wrong in my assumption?


That’s a brilliant question. I might only be able to answer it in pieces. What do you think?

I have trouble with certainty. I’m leery of poems that are sure of themselves (part of the reason I’m suspicious of object poetry). It’s never seemed appropriate to me when a poem starts and ends on sure ground. A metaphor, after all, isn’t a certain position; it’s a proposition, and, like any proposition, it flirts with doubt.

Doubt is my home. It is not a situation of insecurity, and let me underline this fact; it is a station of wonder. We, contemporary middle class Canadian culture writ large, tend to view doubt as a failure somehow, as a weakness. But I don’t see it that way. I see it as openness, a willingness to accept alternate interpretation, inclusiveness, an eagerness to learn, a subversion of ego.

I try, as much as possible, to get to the centre of real problems, real paradoxes in my writing: not to explain or resolve them but to reveal them as problematic, paradoxical. A pigeon that flies into a church faces a restriction, an imposition on its very nature, by being locked in an interior that alternately reveals its nature as a wild bird. Being isn’t clear cut if what you are can be simply subverted. My heart still does cartwheels for that bird, and my mind still struggles with the problem of the caged bird.

I tend to favour the natural world over the world of human construction. Nature appears to contain much order, but it is far from being understood. To honor nature is to embrace our lack of understanding of nature.

I think the only way to be in the world is to recognize transition, to be open to alternatives, and to second guess your surest opinions. That doesn’t mean I don’t accept a lot of assumptions in my real life, but poetry is a great venue for exploring doubt and uncertainty. I don’t know if this is a credible explanation of doubt in poetry, but I hope I find enough readers willing to take the ride. Other writers in this vein might include Ralph Angel, John Smith, Keith Waldrop or Michael Palmer, to name a few I’m familiar with. I don’t know that it could be called a tradition in poetry, however.


When reading your book Change in a Razor-Backed Season, what really caught my attention was how you changed from one vivid setting to another, but in such a way that it flowed together perfectly. It was particularly noticeable when the book started off dealing with everything water-related, with topics ranging from whales to stormy skies. I hardly even noticed when the settings began to change and I was taken into a more dreary location, filled with abandoned towns and cathedrals. Since it all comes together so beautifully, it hardly seems like coincidence, so my question is do you carefully orchestrate these set changes before any other work can even start?


The order of poems, their thematic groupings and so on, is really a result of editing — very much an after-the-fact process when organizing a book. Now, I do fall back, occasionally, on grouping by theme; you note water-related poems as one such theme. But I think there is a more intuitive guide when it comes to grouping poems that I’ve come to think of in terms of colour. It’s not the colours, identified in the poems, but the colours of the poems overall, kind of like a mood if you think of a mood ring, for example. Change in a Razor-backed Season was very grey with a bit of brown. My first book was very yellow. My third, when I get around to it, is so far green. I think if all the poems can be in the same colour category, they might have the suggested effect of appearing as well-planned set changes.


My biggest question of all is how do you decide what to keep and what to scrap when writing different drafts of your poetry? It seems as though it would be hard to have to write down something so vivid and meaningful at first, but then have to re-work it because it doesn’t flow with the rest of the work.


It’s interesting. I’m a constant editor. I’m certain none of the poems in Change in a Razor-backed Season were started and finished in a single draft. Even “The Saturday Domestic,” which largely came out in a single sitting, still went through three or four drafts. Some of the poems were probably ten or fifteen drafts in the making. All editing really is a process of identifying weak moments (some would suggest I haven’t edited enough!). Anything clichéd, hackneyed, predictable, whimsical or wordy has to go. I don’t like when my poetry tries too hard to explain itself. So I try to edit all that stuff out. Furthermore, it may go without saying that each poem has an intent. My job as an editor is to focus on the intent and forego anything working against it. And here’s a beautiful trick: the intent is often established by some image, metaphor or turn of phrase, which the whole poem can be sort of wrapped around. In “Whale Sound Trilogy, I.” it’s the word “hydrophony;” in “The Rain Schedule” it’s holding a hand to “the wooden axel of your waist;” in “September” it’s the entire second line pivoting on the word “quick”. In each of these cases, I would say these words or phrases hold the intent of the poem, and the rest of the poem is there to bear them out. No poem, for me, is finished without that spark in the lines that becomes the intent. Poems that I remove from a manuscript are those without the spark, and it really feels good to get rid of them.


When you aren’t working, what do you do in your free time? It would be interesting to learn how a poet acts when they aren’t busy being a poet.


That’s an ironic question: what I do in my free time is try to write poetry! I have a full time job (in e-learning) and two small children at home. These consume the vast majority of my time. I’m lucky if I spend an hour a day on writing-related activity, which includes reading poetry, editing old work, and achingly trying to write.

I think it’s true that anyone who decides to write poetry, publish poetry (online, in journals or in book form) and stay active in poetic circles (workshops, readings) has always to balance two diametrically opposed enemies: time and money (I would also suggest devotees of motor cross racing or backyard archeology, or similarly passionate individuals, face similar constraints). Right now, I’m keeping myself ahead of the cash problem, but only at the sacrifice of time which I’d rather spend writing. I could spend more time writing, but would not be able to hold down a job that pays the bills. That being said, there are activities that I participate in that have a dual purpose: I walk to work, so tend to invest that time in thinking about poetry; I’m trying to get my kids interested in biking and rock climbing, partially to give me more time outdoors, in the presence of some eventual encounter.


Thanks again.

Michael deBeyer is the author of two books of poetry: Rural Night Catalogue (2002) and Change in a Razor-backed Season (2005), both published by Gaspereau Press. Born in Ontario, he currently lives and works in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Atticus Dean Mitchell is the second of three results formed by the union of a hard-working Irish Canadian who works in the judicial system and an African-born caucasian American. The self-proclaimed “Colloquial Cartographer of Calligraphy”, Mitchell’s first work, an autobiography entitled “A Paragraph About My Summer Vacation,” was published to widespread acclaim and cemented his status as one of the up-and-coming Canadian writers to look out for. His hobbies include experimentation with percussion instruments and spending quality time arguing with his peers. Mitchell seeks to pursue a life of fame and fortune, whether that is through acting or being a pirate.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page