Quill and Quire

Dennis Lee

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The fabulously lucky Dennis Lee

And payoffs at work dissolve:
twenty years of editing, and for
what? a few good books and people aside, to drudge in the sewers of ego,
of back-biting, back scratching, spleen, and all to
speed the canonization of mediocrity as a national literature –
was that worth half my lifetime?

Dennis LeeCould these lines have possibly come from the pen of one of CanLit’s great pioneers and nurturers? The answer is yes. This poetic cynicism is from the voice (or voices) of the narrator in the title poem of Dennis Lee’s new book, Nightwatch: New and Selected Poems, 1968-1996. But when asked if this sentiment is consistent with the author’s, Lee suggests that neither he nor the poem expresses any one view, but rather a variety of shifting and sometimes inconsistent “moods.”

“You could yank out of it any single statement and say ‘This is what Lee must think about all of life,’ but that’s just not the way my poetry works. It tends to go in these hell-bent-for-election rides of feeling, thought, and exploration, so that finally the whole terrain that’s been covered is the truth.” It is these changes of direction, opinion, and point of view that lie at the structural heart of much of Lee’s poetry. “I hope in fact that it’s almost theatrical – the sense of ‘Holy shit! What kind of ride are we on here?’”

A survey of Dennis Lee’s c.v. suggests an interesting one. At various times in his career, he has been a poetry editor, critic, author of Alligator Pie and other fabulously popular children’s books, and writer of some of Canada’s most important adult poetry. Is there a disciplined control of his crossing between genres and projects, this wearing of different literary hats?

“No,” he answers. “Things come in lumps. In everything I do, the motive power is supplied by the thing that’s trying to get written. So I’m almost completely at the mercy of my imagination. The shape of the day is essentially determined by the writing.” For Lee, creation is not an enterprise that can easily be regulated and scheduled by the poet. “It’s not like ‘Oh, today I think I’ll write Paradise Lost.’”

As long as he has privacy, Lee has found that he can “basically write anywhere.” However, he generally works in his basement study in the Annex area of Toronto, as well as in the back yard. “When I was younger, it could come any time of the day or night. Now it seems to start in the morning when I get up – so I have some coffee and then I get going.”

But the going can be arduous. “It is true that I work extremely slowly. Pretty much everything goes through at least 50 revisions. Very occasionally something will come through on the second or third take, but for me that’s like winning a million-dollar lottery prize. It’s more likely to be something that comes and goes and comes and goes over a period of years.” For example, Nightwatch was started in 1985 and finished in 1995. Creativity for Lee is clearly not a matter of sitting around waiting for lightning to strike. “It would be great if on every occasion you could come running out of the room you’ve retreated into saying ‘Look! A new masterpiece! If I had not spent the last three hours behind that door would we have these 83 lines of irreplaceable poetry?’ But that’s not the way it works.”

Over the last three years, Lee has been “bearing down very hard” on Nightwatch. It encompasses many of his famous earlier works as well as the title poetic sequence, which is written in the voice of a middle-aged writer whose private world of family and marriage is crumbling around him and his public world (the writing itself) is undergoing serious questioning. Although anyone who’s ever taken Literary Criticism 101 knows not to confuse the writer with the written work, the temptation is sometimes too strong, and I ask Lee if Nightwatch is poetic autobiography. He gently discourages such a view.

“I don’t have feelings either way about talking or not talking about personal things. The goal is not to make a personal statement, but to follow the words where they want to go on the page.”

Following the words led Lee to a City of Toronto Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995. Part of the award was a $2,500 grant to be put toward the literary project of his choice, and he committed the funds to the underwriting of a collection of young Toronto poets. Lee further decided not to select the poems himself, but to instead find someone “roughly in the position I was in 25 or 30 years ago” to do the job.

This someone turned out to be Michael Redhill, a “very gifted poet of thirty-something” and currently an editor at Coach House Press. The resulting poetry has garnered Lee’s enthusiastic praise. “The range of the stuff that’s going on in Toronto right now, I mean, it’s just cuckoo. It’s just so far across the spectrum. I’m more heartened now by what Michael found than what I actually expected there to be. It’s been a bit of a revelation for me.”

But when asked for his opinion of the current “commercial” market for serious poetry, he laughs. “What is the difference between serious adult poetry that tries to follow the marketplace and poetry that doesn’t? Maybe 23 copies. I mean, I wouldn’t write adult poetry at all if I was doing it for commercial considerations, and neither would any other person who writes the stuff.”

Still, there have been several years where poetry did manage to bring Lee considerable commercial success. However, these poems were written for a different audience: children. And although there have been courtships from publishers asking Lee to write more and more children’s books, he has resisted an all-out accommodation of their requests. “I realized after Alligator Pie hit big back in 1974, ‘Shoot, I could become a Dennis Lee factory and turn out one of these every year or two.’ But I would have felt pretty mingy doing that.”

Our time almost up, I ask the poet what he thinks he would have been if he hadn’t followed words in the directions they have taken him. Lee answers by telling the story of being a math student at U.T.S., a high school for gifted kids in downtown Toronto, and being told by one of his teachers that he had a promising future in mathematics. “I remember a funny feeling of disillusionment when he told me. But in winkling it out afterwards, I knew that he was wrong.” Although he was an excellent math student, he was somehow left outside the “elegance and beauty” of mathematics, and hadn’t yet found the thing that would let him experience it fully from the inside. Nevertheless, there were hints. Looking back, Lee acknowledges that even then there was an awareness that “I was already at home with words and women.”

“A whole lot of people have to earn their money through working in something that’s not their home medium. So you’re fabulously lucky if you can pay the rent by doing something that is.”

“So what about you?” I ask him, almost certain of the response. “Do you feel fabulously lucky?”

“Oh yeah.”