VERSefest: The itch that keeps Dennis Lee scratching at poetry

The children's author and poet Dennis Lee will be part of this year's VERSefest.

At 79, Dennis Lee carries his history with him. It is a pleasant burden.

He doesn’t mind looking back at past triumphs, of which there are many, but he doesn’t want to dwell on them.

“I certainly observe it,” said the poet, editor, teacher and critic. “But I don’t want to get caught in museum-y things and feel that I have been stuffed and mounted over the mantel.

“In many respects, I take the past for granted. I do enjoy it a lot, but sometimes people point out things of which I have no recollection,” he told ARTSFILE in an interview

So he goes forward including to Ottawa this week when he will be a featured guest at the annual VERSefest gathering of poets and spoken word artists which opens for business March 26 and runs until March 31. He’ll be reading to children at Charles H. Hulse Public School on Friday morning. “I enjoy that.” Then on Friday evening at 7 p.m, he is with three other poets and on Saturday at 10 a.m. he’ll be on stage alone. Both events are at Knox Presbyterian.

Wth more than 30 books to his name, Lee has a decorated place in Canadian literary history. He is a Governor General’s Award winner for poetry for the collection Civil Elegies and Other Poems. He co-founded one of Canada’s most interesting presses the House of Anansi in 1967 with Dave Godfrey. And, of course, he was welcomed into Canadian homes likely for the foreseeable future with his collection Alligator Pie.

In the heady days of the late ’60s and early ’70s in Toronto, there was a wave of creativity in Canada, much of it centred on Toronto. Lee was in the midst of that along with colleagues such as Margaret Atwood and Tim Wynne Jones.

“I look back in wonderment that such things were possible.

“It was an explosive time. Things were bursting on the scene in other disciplines. Theatre was one of them, music and the visual arts. It is amazing how much of that came together at the same time without anybody having pre-planned it.

“Often individuals had no idea, even within their own discipline, that there were other people about to hop on the scene in the same way they hoped they would.

“I sometimes have an image of the writing world then of a street where one morning a guy comes staggering up from a basement apartment with a shitload of manuscript pages and he stands there blinking.

“Across the street there is a woman coming down from a third floor attic and she has a manuscript and she had no idea anybody else was there.

“Up and down the street we discover a herd of loners; some have written nothing but crap and some have written really exciting first manuscripts that would be published by presses that hadn’t existed two years before.”

This is the kind of ferment into which Lee entered. And he is still writing, still moving forward.

His most recent publication is Heart Residence: Collected Poems 1967-2017 (House of Anansi) came out about two years ago.

While he doesn’t want to be stuffed and mounted, this project was “kind of thrilling to do actually.”

He worked with the poet, typographer and book designer Robert Bringhurst.

“This was a chance to sit down and survey the whole sweep. and so there are the essential adult long poems and there is also children’s poetry and translations. It really is an omnibus of all the work done.

“I spent about a year working on that.

Lee admits to being a “constant, manic, aggressive reviser” but he says he was actually “pleasantly surprised that I would have been messing around to no purpose if I dove in” and started tweaking the poems included in the text. “I felt it had reached the form it wanted to be in.”

Lee doesn’t write to deadlines. Instead “I go through endless drafts, some poems might go through 60 or 80 drafts.”

He said he eventually reaches a point where he gets a feeling that the momentum of revising has carried him too far. So he’ll leave the poem for a few days and then return for a look.

“I realize I have just been gussying this thing up, doing things for the sake of doing things’. Then I go back two or three or five drafts to find the right one.”

His career has put poetry for adults and children on the same spectrum. Both are important.

“It’s something that was innate from the beginning.

“I think sometimes of the way a tree grows. It starts off as a sapling and adds a ring every year. The rings that came in the second, third and fourth year don’t go away. They remain. A human goes through similar growth patterns.

“To me it is natural to reach inside and see what is there from the two year old and the five year old and the 11 year old and the 22 year old and now the 79 year old.

“It comes naturally to me. Occasionally I’ll start working on something with no idea if it is a children’s poem or an adult poem. I don’t worry about it.

“It just seems natural that there is still a four year old who is enchanted with the way words can dance around.”

As an educator, Lee knows that there is an innate affinity to play with language.

“Watch a child of two or three begin to discover what words can do. They begin a run of words and it just enchants them; they won’t let go. They just keep chanting until the adults go crazy.”

Lee was a kid like this growing up in Etobicoke. He was attracted to the rhythm of language.

“In my early years in the 1940s, we all ate breakfast together and we would have the radio on and the weather report for the province would come on.

“I fell in love with the names of places and the weather in places like Temagami. I had no idea what this meant; it was just a string of syllables.

“It would happen at every morning, these same place names. It was as if the announcer had gone into some kind of trance. That just scratched an itch I didn’t know I had.”

It was the poetry of the weather.

“One phrase I remember hearing in the winter was when they were talking about highway conditions and they would say bare to centre bare. What the hell does that mean? I was too young, but I couldn’t get over it. Was it animals or nudists, who knew what it was?”

The rhythm of words has been a constant for Lee.

“This is music to my soul.”

Writing poetry is full of the joy of being able to choreograph the words on the page, he said.

“I’m tracking a cadence. This under-music rises up and grabs hold of me and I try to grab hold of the right words. That’s the way I dance.”

Lee did take piano lessons as a kid and he loved the blues and improvisation but he “can’t sing, I can’t carry a tune.”

His proof? “I was an artist in residence at Soulpepper Theatre and I worked with five musicians for awhile on a project called The Lost Songs of Toronto. Lot of cities have songs that grew up and weathered there like Loch Lomond or Sidewalks of New York.

“But Toronto has almost nothing of that kind. So we decided to write some songs and staged them as a cabaret.

“I was working with John Millard of The Polka Dogs. I told him I couldn’t carry a tune. John said I was just being modest. Then he heard me sing. His jaw sort of dropped and he said ‘Shit you really can’t sing’.”

You really don’t need to sing for your supper, however, when you can write a collection of children’s poetry called Alligator Pie.

His attitude towards that book is “I keep my head down. The guy who wrote that, I applaud him. I am happy for him that it has the high profile that it does, but I am always concerned with what comes next and the damn thing that is chasing at my nerve ends because what’s on the page still isn’t right.

“I’m invested in what’s pulling me ahead. Whenever an honour or recognition of some kind comes up, I enjoy it for a day or two and then squeeze the sponge and move on.”

Speaking of that, he is working on something, “but I have the usual superstition. My lips are sealed.

“The itch is always there. If it ever does leave I hope I have the good sense to stop.”

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.