On Nov. 22, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and lecture series presented author Glen Downie reading from his latest book of poetry Local News (Wolsak & Wynn Publishers, Limited, 2011). Special correspondent Chris Cornish (BA Hons. '04, MA '09) sent the following report to YFile.
Once, loners with limited horizons came to the basement to search out foreign voices, yearning for something they could never name. They hunched over tables illuminated with glowing tubes and dials imagining themselves at the edge of the Milky Way, half-hoping to hear angels or proof of alien intelligence. What they heard through celestial static was soul music, the weather in Finland and news for all the ships at sea. They heard mariachis and the voices of drowning sailors. Communing with spirits is a basement activity, but those days have gone.
from Local News
by Glen Downie
Glen Downie (right) describes his latest book of poetry as a pebble dropped in the water. Beginning with the rooms of the house, Local News ripples out in concentric circles to include poems about the backyard, the neighbourhood, and the city. Unlike Don Marquis, who found that writing “a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal into the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo,” Downie found an enthusiastic response to his work at the Canadian Writers in Person series.
Part of Downie’s inspiration was the experience of being a stay-at-home father with his newborn daughter, “the little engine of my days”. He had left his job as a social worker in Vancouver and had moved into a house with his wife in the Junction neighbourhood of Toronto. His horizons limited by how far he could go with a baby-stroller, he challenged himself to “see newly that which was old, ordinary and mundane.” Thus, the kitchen is dominated by twin gods of fire and ice, the bedroom an incubator of dreams and miracles, and the tool shed a motley crew of saints, thugs, skeletons and dutiful citizens.
Though some of his work conjures the image of a lonely wordsmith gazing thoughtfully out of an attic window (“the city scribbler’s substitute for life alone in the woods”), ideas often come while on the bus or walking the dog. Sometimes, Downie admits, they are stolen from stories of his wife’s day at work or even by accident. Once, while writing about the “first of March,” he made a typo that sparked a much more interesting beginning to spring’s most brutal month: the fist of March. Downie believes we all experience things that are worthy of poetry, stumbling upon brilliant ideas and turns of phrase, the only difference being that writers sit down and do something with them. He encouraged fledgling writers “to live, to do something, to meet people.”
While much of his poetry is inspired by real places, people, and events, Downie is careful to note that poetry lies somewhere between the literal and the fictional. His description of streets, barbershops, and hardware stores might be composed of pieces of several different places, memories, or an imagined past. He is also interested in the tension between what we have now and how things used to be, even beyond his own direct experience. Downie has written a lot about his father’s life on a farm, say “something out there in the mists that I can never quite touch.”
Having been born in Winnipeg and after working in Vancouver for several years, it took Downie a while to warm up to Toronto. He is certainly no fan of big box stores and malls, but after exploring his local neighbourhood in order to write Local News, the poet admits to feeling much more at home. “You can’t possess a place until you know it,” he observed.
The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which are free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. It is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. At 7pm tonight in Room 206 of the Accolade West Building, Camilla Gibb will read from her Giller-nominated novel, The Beauty of Humanity Movement.