A poet and spoken word performance artist, David lives in Toronto and maintains a secondary residence in Stratford, Ontario. Since semi-retiring from senior executive and CEO roles in the marketing/ communications and business sectors, David now devotes his creative energy to the craft of creating and performing “little islands of grace” and what he jokingly calls “small acts of poetry to change lives.”
David Stones published his first book of poetry, Infinite Sequels, in 2013, and his one-man show of the same name followed soon after. Acclaimed by audiences and described as “mesmerizing,” “riveting” and “not to be missed,” David has performed Infinite Sequels on stages throughout southern Ontario, from Toronto’s Arts & Letters Club to a recent stint at Stratford’s 2015 SpringWorks Festival. Published in various poetry journals since his student days at the University of Toronto, David also performs regularly at poetry events throughout the GTA and southwestern Ontario.
In 2017 he will be the Anchor Poet as part of London’s Couplets series, as well as Feature Poet at several events including Bay Street’s Words & Music Salon. David has recently completed his second book of poetry, Such A Frail Book Of Endings, as well as a unique poetry cycle, 141 Imitations Of Love.
You As Lacuna
has become a presence now
you’ve somehow filled with space
your shape on the bed
still rosy with your fragrance.
Filling the house
the clock ticks
the only moving thing
as a pallbearer’s boots.
In the afternoon
clouds roll in
before cold fists of rain
staccato the windows.
On the flowered bedspread
the cat finds
your shallow grave
to inhale your sleep
rhythmic as the rain.
Even the cat’s breathing
on this day
as time passes
and without consequence.
My Guitar Just Is
Every guitar eventually weeps.
Lennon, Lorca, Cohen...
is there a poet living
who hasn’t etched those words
at some point
in their miserable life?
Well mine has never wept.
bring neither weeping to its soul
or extract it
from the cedary
of its being.
Neither giving or receiving
neither weeping or believing
Silence Isn’t Silence Anymore
Silence isn’t silence anymore.
I hear it now
singing and spitting its hot breath
across the coils
pushing itself into spaces
obdurate and invasive
as the moon.
Silence makes noises now.
it freights the darkness
with its lolling tongue
teasing my eyelids
telling me it loves me
when I know it doesn’t.
is a poor
and lying lover.
it does not move.
Its blackness hisses lies.
Resolute and spurned
it regards the ceiling.
Coiled and waiting
I hear it
David Stones: I’ve never acted before, and I’ve gotta say: a number of people come up to me and say: ‘Where did you learn to act? That was great.’ I’ve no acting experience until I did that show [Infinite Sequels]. And that is acting––you’re acting the role of a poet, you’re playing a role. And certainly, every poem is like a separate scene, almost. At least in my head, it is.
Kevin Heslop: Right.
DS: But, um.... I enjoyed it, and it’s very interesting to sell a personality to an audience, and see them become incrementally engaged in you, the character. They’re losing you: they’re losing Kevin and David Stones. And you’re becoming somebody else. It’s quite a fascinating experience––you’re actually projecting someone else on them, and getting away with it.”
KH: You hide behind your self.
KH: A friend of mine mentioned an improv. master who said that one of the most rewarding things when you’re playing a character is that the audience doesn’t think you’re yourself, and there’s a way in which you can express things that you wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to express.”
"I found, honestly, that I really enjoyed the acting side of it––playing the role of the poet who wrote the book called Infinite Sequels, which I happen to have done, was an interesting premise. I learned the power of acting, and the power of the spoken word. I saw in the faces of my audience––in a way that you don’t see in a pub, or a typical open mic type of situation."
KH: You can be more dramatic; you can be more honest, or vulnerable, or...
DS: Well, that’s great. So, what’s next on your acting agenda?
KH: I’ll be playing Creon in the New Year.
DS: Oh, well. OK. An interesting switch from Twelve Angry Men.
KH: Yeah, um. I’ll have to build some momentum over the holidays.
DS: Are you going to play an angry Creon?
KH: Yeah, um. The advice that I’ve got so far is that he sort of simmers and never allows himself to boil because he’s trying to maintain this... sort of veneer of authority...
DS: That sounds like a tougher part.
KH: Yeah, absolutely.
DS: I’ve always contended that the roles that require extreme emotion––extreme anger, extreme sadness, whatever. Extreme torment––are easier than the more subtle roles––
DS: ––where you’re supposed to be boiling beneath the surface, and simmering away. That to me would be harder to portray, as you’ll find out. You’ll discover things about yourself by playing the roles of others.
KH: What did you find out about yourself by playing this sort of archetypical poet character in your performance of Infinite Sequels?
DS: I found, honestly, that I really enjoyed the acting side of it––playing the role of the poet who wrote the book called Infinite Sequels, which I happen to have done, was an interesting premise. I learned the power of acting, and the power of the spoken word. I saw in the faces of my audience––in a way that you don’t see in a pub or a typical open mic type of situation. The formality of having a proscenium arch, and a stage facing that audience––yeah, I felt a unique sense of control and power, strangely enough. Add to it that it’s a one-man-show, so it’s only me up there doing 26 to 28 poems, depending on the night. So I learned I enjoyed it. In a strange way, it’s very empowering because it’s terrifying; and I reminded myself that 99.9 percent of the people out there couldn’t do this––
DS: ––and that gave me the strength to do it every night.
KH: Did you find, as you started to establish a rhythm night tonight, that you were free to improvise or take liberties here or there, depending on momentary inspiration?
DS: Yeah, absolutely, and I think that particularly non-verbal aspects of the role, in wandering around and crumpling my papers up, and doing things like that––expressions that I was using, I found a lot more freedom as I kind of familiarized myself. I don’t know about you but I worried a lot about the actual words. It’s my own art that I’m performing, and it’s poetry, so I can’t go wrong with a word. At least that’s what I feel.
"To a degree the sort-of-cranky poet slugging scotch and ruminating about the world is me. I might lean toward that type of character occasionally in my now quasi-retired state. And, frankly, I love every second of that. So that role, that character in many ways is myself––the cranky poet trying to figure out the world of his life..."
DS: I had to be exact. And I had occasions where I literally forgot a line, and somehow I kept going, and no one noticed. But when it’s your own work and your own art, you do feel this powerful sense of responsibility to your craft. And I suppose it’s the same [with] acting in a play. You can’t very well leave out a line or two, as it would destroy the whole sequence.
KH: Yeah, I mean, destroy a sequence insofar as you might not say the line that’s to cue somebody else to say a line; but as I started to go on I felt I had to do some justice to that character, to that person, and imagining that person really existed, so that, if I decided to reconfigure a passage or something, I felt as if I wasn’t giving him his due.
DS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I had the interesting phenomenon of playing a character who was actually me, in a curious way, although the “I” in my poems is often a projected “I”. For a lot of the poems, although it is “I, I, I”, it wasn’t me––it was a muse; it was someone who occupied me for the period of time that I wrote that poem. The emotion in my poetry, or what I’m trying to project, or my frame of thinking, or mind, might be my own, but I project it through a fictitious character.
KH: Do you feel––because it would be difficult to go about one’s daily life sort of drinking liquor, and soliloquizing as you went through a grocery store, do you feel you oscillate between a sort of publicly presentable or congenial figure and that archetype which when you’re writing you get a chance to open up that section of your personality?
DS: Well, it probably is my personality to an extent. I’ve been known to drop into a pub now and then. To a degree the sort-of-cranky poet slugging scotch and ruminating about the world is me. I might lean toward that type of character occasionally in my now quasi-retired state. And, frankly, I love every second of that. So that role, that character in many ways is myself––the cranky poet trying to figure out the world of his life, notwithstanding many of the poems are a projected ‘I’.
KH: So I read on the back of Infinite Sequels that that experience, that way of being, was relegated to weekends when you were working as a professional in business. Is that right?
DS: Yeah, my whole life––I mean, I don’t wanna emphasize that too much, but I hit that watershed at about 22 or 23. I graduated with a degree in English from U of T and wanted to get into advertising, and I did and was on a trajectory, a very steep trajectory. I was succeeding very fast, and I could feel that sense of loss, that that was a bit of a watershed for me. It was taking me away from my art and creativity very fast, despite the fact that I was in the creative side of the advertising business. I was a writer when I started, a copywriter, but moved quickly into management, and moved up into CEO. So, by that point, I was deeply embedded in a 70-hour work week until I was 60. So during that time, I wrote as often as I could. Poetry was perfect for the occasion because it is such a deliberate and strategic compression of thought, and I loved that about it, that I could write something in a night or two or a week that expressed an emotion or a feeling or a particular incident without going through the labour of writing fiction and developing a character. So, poetry suited my purpose very well.
"...my litmus test for my work a lot of the times is ‘what does it sound like when I perform it in a mirror or to myself?’ And I record a lot of my own stuff and play it back. And I’ll re-write stuff; I’ll change the number of syllables in lines, I’ll balance my work, so that it rolls more nicely, if you will."
KH: I read that [Robert Fulford] said of Souster, Raymond Souster that he was capable of articulating moments in flight–– ‘catching a moment as it flies’––in a way that sounds similar to what you’re describing right now.
DS: Yeah, he was the first poet that I really, really... You weren’t there that night that I performed, uhm––because I remember that you weren’t there that night––‘On Turning Into Raymond Souster’, which is just a recent poem that I wrote. And I told the story: I actually started that by performing ‘Search’, which is a poem written by Raymond Souster in the early fifties. And I discovered that poem when I was eight and carried it with me for years and years. A very simple poem.
Souster was known as the Poet Laureate, actually, of Toronto, in that that was all he wrote about, was the people in and around Toronto. And I loved that poem, and Raymond Souster was the first real poet that I discovered. He, of course, helped found The Canadian League of Poets, and with Louis Dudak, he founded a magazine called Contact in 1951 or ’52. And Contact wasn’t around for a long time, but it published some of the first poetry of people like Atwood and Leonard Cohen, et cetera, so it hit that mark pretty fast.
Souster was a big influence on me. His style was very simple, straightforward, yet poignant when he needed to be.
KH: Is there some way that that straightforward mode of poetry writing typifies for you the Canadian mode, or is that too grand a statement?
DS: I think it’s too grand a statement. I suppose I’ve been attracted to that form of poetry. I mean, you read somewhere in there that Rod McKuen, of all the people, was also a great influence on me. Rod McKuen’s poetry, that’s absolutely despised in the United States by many people, is the highest selling American poet of all time––he even beats Walt Whitman. Rod McKuen’s stuff is very simple, very straightforward. And he always took the position that if a listener or a viewer has to ask what a poem’s about, you’ve failed as a poet. So, notwithstanding you’re trying to be very poignant and compelling in your interest in language and your compression of thought, at the same time I want to make sure that the reader, or the viewer or the member of the audience, knows what that poem’s about.
KH: The distinction between simple and simplistic.
DS: Yeah. The second poem that I remember was––Louis MacNeice, do you know him? His poem called ‘Snow’ is an excellent, excellent, superb poem, that again I carried with me for a while, and this was before I was really writing poetry. I started writing when I was about 12 or 13––I actually started taking a hand at writing poetry.
KH: And started reading––I noticed throughout Infinite Sequels, for examples, many names in the American, British, and Canadian canon––Plath and Cohen and Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence.
DS: Yeah, exactly. In the poem ‘Emily Dickinson’ where Sylvia Plath gets tickled etc. Yeah, I read fairly extensively. I’m one of these strange people that's actually kept a journal since 1976 of every book I’ve read. My objective is to read 52 books per year, and I usually read 80 books a year––a lot of them short, and fiction and non-fiction, a bit of everything. I don’t focus on anything much. But I like to look back at what I’ve read, and I can remember when I read it as far back at 1978––I can remember when I read that book––
KH: Where you were seated...
DS: ––who I was married to (ha-ha), what I was doing at the time. And particularly I remember the emotions of that period. So that’s why it’s been interesting for me. In the late seventies I thought, well, I should really write down what I’m reading and keep a manual of it. And in my study in Toronto, I have all the different volumes of journals, and I can go back and always have that list, and it’s very interesting to go through it.
KH: Is there anything particularly outstanding that you’ve been reading now, anything that’s affected you lately?
DS: Ah, not much. Really, I just started a couple of days ago, Trump’s “How to Get Rich”, which is fascinating. And that was actually co-written with that woman who plagiarized that speech for his wife?
DS: And I don’t know why I––
KH: Not great literature.
DS: ––picked that up at all. I owned it and I didn’t know I had it and I found it in my library in Toronto and thought, ‘I’m gonna read it again.’ There’s an interesting little chapter on ‘Why I’ll Never Go Into Politics’––because ‘I’m not that interested in it and I don’t think that I’d be very good at it.’ I’m surprised that no one’s quoted that, because he goes on about this, and he’s got a whole chapter on it. But uh, one oscillates with one’s readings. Sometimes I might go a week or two where I don’t really read a lot. I lead a busy lifestyle. I’m on three boards, and The Stones Group, which is a marketing and communications agency, is still active; I worked last night, for example, until twelve midnight on a Strat plan for a non-for-profit in Stratford, so I facilitated a session with their board. So I still do that. It takes me away from the reading and the writing still, but I lead a much more balanced lifestyle, quite balanced. As I said earlier, I was kind of swaying towards poetry, golf, a very active social life, my boards, and reading and writing. It’s a good life.
DS: Cheers to that.
KH: There’s a line that I found on your blog: ‘Genuine poetry communicates before it is understood.’ By Elliot. Definitely true of his Quartets. I was wondering if you could offer a word or two about what that means.
DS: Yeah, and I love that quote because some people have asked me about some of my poems which are abstractions––abstract poems in the same way that a visual artist can create abstract, impressionistic, or realistic art. Some of my poems are abstractions, and what I’m trying to generate is engagement with the reader or the member of the audience. And I want them to interact with my work and to have that poem say to them what they believe it says. It’s really trying to generate an emotional response. And I think that instances of ‘It Sounds Like Rain’, which is one of my most popular poems, when I perform that, I’ve actually got standing ovations to that poem ‘It Sounds Like Rain’, where I really act that thing out, and it’s, uh––it’s about leaving; it’s about leaving, and it’s about vacancy, and it’s about yearning. And it uses examples, but it is a poem that communicates very early in the going. And if it’s performed correctly, it really generates a lot of responses in people. They don’t even know why they’re applauding, but I know why: it’s because they’ve all been through the experience of missing people, and the longing, and the standing at train stations or airports saying goodbye, and wondering, ‘will I ever see that person again?’
KH: You say that it needs to be performed correctly in order to evoke that response. What do you mean by that? How could one succeed or fail at that?
DS: Well, that’s an interesting question. I think that sometimes poets perform their work too fast, for example. Cadence, the lilt and cadence of my poetry––my litmus test for my work a lot of the times is ‘what does it sound like when I perform it in a mirror or to myself?’ And I record a lot of my own stuff and play it back. And I’ll re-write stuff; I’ll change the number of syllables in lines, I’ll balance my work, so that it rolls more nicely, if you will. I’ve added sections to poems because I realize that when spoken out loud it’s gonna work a lot better if I go to an ABCD, ABC, whatever, rhyme scheme, completely off the wall: something like ‘The Nameless One’ is written in narrative and suddenly goes into a rhyming scheme ending. I mean that some of that is because––and that by the way was a dream I had about being called on the carpet for writing bad poetry, and The Great Master, whoever that is, said, you know, ‘What’s your name?’ I said, ‘I don’t have a name,’ and I refused to answer him, and he was gonna punish me for writing bad poetry, but he said, ‘I can’t persecute you for writing bad poetry if you don’t have a name.’ But anyway, once again I guess what I’m saying with reference to the quote from Elliot is that good poetry communicates fast––not content, but emotion, and it communicates a feeling. And to me, poetry, my good poetry, is going to communicate that rapidly and accurately to my target audience, whether it’s a reader or a listener.
KH: Images throughout Infinite Sequels likewise communicate rapidly, and one image in particular that you saw I’d sketched in my notes here was of you sitting on a bench, looking off in one direction.”
DS: Yeah. ‘Man on Bench’, I call that. That’s my iconic image. Sort of like a leitmotif for me and for Infinite Sequels.
KH: ‘Man on Bench.’
DS: ‘Man on Bench.’
KH: Would it be missing the point to ask you to elaborate on the compulsion to include that, why that sort of typifies an idea for you?
"So, I feel as though––Leonard Cohen was 29 or 28 when I met him, as it were. And I grew up with the guy, and I just think he was an absolutely phenomenal master of words, whether he even recognized it or knew it sometimes. Just phenomenal. His language was always so alive, so vibrant, creative and, well, unexpected. He used the word, the metaphor, that no one else would ever use. 'Like a worm on a hook/ like a knight bent down in some old-fashioned book.' And he led me to the guitar and guitar work. And I ain’t no Leonard Cohen, that’s for sure, but he’s been a huge beacon at the end of the dock for me, that’s what he was, and was for millions of other people."
DS: Yeah, there are a lot of poems––‘The Poet’, you know, all the titles––a number of poems where the poet––‘Into the Lacquered Air of Evening’, and there are others––where I literally envision the poet sitting on a park bench and reflecting on the evening closing or the sun coming up, and that has been the initial premise of the poem that then moves into his reflection on his life in art, or the people walking through the park. There are probably ten poems that have begun that way.
KH: Is that a way of getting into character, for you?
DS: Yeah I think it is. And to be very blunt, I live at Summerhill in Toronto, Summerhill Gardens is our street, and at the end of the street is a little park––you’ll actually see reference to ‘the little park’: ‘all around the little park/ I hear the windows/ slowly breathing their final gulp of sun.’ That was actually me watching the sun go down reflected off those windows. And so the park really exists, and Man On Bench is a stock shot––not of me––I bought the shot, and then we Photoshopped it so as to bring the colours up and down a little bit.
KH: Does that have something to do with the idea behind ‘On Becoming Raymond Souster’?
KH: Yeah, with becoming a kind of cartographer of your native place.”
DS: Yeah. Well, again, that poem is a response to the poem ‘Search’, and ‘Search’ is Raymond Souster, probably a projected ‘I’, is sitting at a diner––and ‘The warmth steaming at the windows of the / hamburger-joint / where the Wurlitzer / Booms all night without a stop, where the onions are thick / between the buns.’” That’s the early fifties. And so he’s looking at a woman who has a very thin coat on, and he’s just wondering how she’s going to go out into that night, kind of a wintry night. And I was literally going––I jokingly say it, but it’s the truth––I wrote that poem in August in a bar on Dundas and just sitting in that bar on a very hot day, it was like 38 degrees, and I somehow or other conjured a snowstorm, and the cars on Dundas that were stuck in traffic in the heat were suddenly mired in a thick snow storm. So that’s how that poem came to be, but that was a response to the poem called ‘Search’, which I carried for years when I was a kid.
KH: You use the phrase ‘projected I’ a number of times. I wonder if you could expand on that a bit.
DS: Well, what I mean is that, imagine––if I imagine a scene, then I put myself into that scene, and I write about that scene, in the first-person. And when I do that I search very deeply for my own emotions and my own emotional responses to that situation. But the person in the scene is not me, it is a fictional person.
DS: I’m just writing a poem now called ‘Gethsemane’, which is about––a very long poem––about a soldier who is dozing for an hour in an olive grove, which is suggested to be Gethsemane, and he’s reflecting on how the revolution is going. And it’s got multiple meanings because I also have implications for the life of Jesus of Nazareth––it’s got a number of allusions to that. But it’s written in the first-person. Needless to say, I’ve never been in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it’s a reflection in that olive grove. So, I’m projecting my feelings––which are very genuine––onto a fictitious character and using the character as a vehicle to elaborate on my emotions.
KH: ––as a kind of catalyst.
DS: Catalytic, yeah. Catalytic.
KH: I noticed that your poems have been lengthening. Compared to Infinite Sequels, the poems in A Frail Book of Endings are, as Gethsemane, longer. Is there some significance to that?
DS: Yeah, I think so. I just think that I’m just fleshing things out more. I’m thinking more in a deeper, perhaps more sophisticated, linear way. I just finished a three-part poem called, ‘What Fleeting Means’, which is three separate poems, almost a triptych of poems. So, I don’t know. That’s just something that happens. I still like the short stuff. ‘In Apologia’ I just read the other night.
KH: Yeah. Bold poem.
DS: ‘Excuse me––uhm, how does that go?
KH: Let me pull it up...
DS: I seem to have left the wick––see, you’ve got to read that right. ‘Sincerest apologies/ but I appear to have ignited/ the wick of your woman/ and left it/ burning.’
KH: Hahaha. Brazen.
DS: It’s a good way to get punched in the head.
KH: It’s a bold way to open up a collection.
DS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
KH: Well, let’s see...
DS: One thing I don’t want to have the interview go without mentioning is Leonard Cohen.
DS: You know, because it gets to the point that you don’t want to say too much about his passing and his life because so many people have commented and you’ll be just a voice in the crowd, but Leonard Cohen––
KH: He was a big influence on you.
DS: ––huge. I mean, I discovered him in grade nine in 1962 or ‘3, somewhere in there, and I discovered Let Us Compare Mythologies, which he published in ’57. That was in our library at school and 1965 is when the movie came out, Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Leonard Cohen, which is on NFB now; it’s available there. So, I feel as though––Leonard Cohen was 29 or 28 when I met him, as it were. And I grew up with the guy, and I just think he was an absolutely phenomenal master of words, whether he even recognized it or knew it sometimes. Just phenomenal. His language was always so alive, so vibrant, creative and, well, unexpected. He used the word, the metaphor, that no one else would ever use. “Like a worm on a hook/ like a knight bent down in some old-fashioned book.” And he led me to the guitar and guitar work. And I ain’t no Leonard Cohen, that’s for sure, but he’s been a huge beacon at the end of the dock for me, that’s what he was, and was for millions of other people. What’s interesting about Cohen is that he went through a big period of ’68 through ’85 or so when a lot of people mocked him; he was a subject of derision. People forget this. His concerts were easy to get tickets for in Toronto, and I went to every concert, and have every t-shirt, back to ’68.
DS: And his fourth or fifth album, Various Positions, was not released in the States. Columbia Records refused to release it. And it contained little numbers like, oo, ‘Hallelujah’ and ‘Dance Me To The End of Love’. They did not release that. They ultimately did, but it took them three years before they did.
KH: What do you think compelled that derision?
DS: What compelled it was the popularly held belief that he can’t sing, he only knows six chords, and that his songs and melodies are simplistic. And those things are all true: he was not a great singer, and he didn’t know a lot of chords. But people soon realized he mastered the use of those chords just the way he mastered the English language. He braided those six chords into simple but totally unforgettable songs of rare beauty and emotion. And again, those lyrics of his matched the chords indirectness and unadorned expression of the most earnest kind.
KH: Do you think there’s a similarity between Cohen in that respect and Bob Dylan, who was derided as someone who can’t sing...
DS: Oh, yeah, there was a big similarity. They were very good friends, or had been. Long before Dylan won the Nobel, a number of prominent Canadians have pushed Cohen for that Prize; and in my view, the business case for Cohen winning the Nobel Prize is much stronger than Bob Dylan’s.
KH: What do you mean by ‘the business case’?
DS: Well, his canon of work and his impact––not only as a singer and songwriter, but as a novelist and poet––is phenomenal compared to Bob Dylan’s. And I play a lot of Bobby Dylan, and I can tell you: his words are very clever, very crafty, very interesting, but I think they’re quite meaningless a lot of the time––I really don’t think there’s a lot behind them. But you get the general sense of where he’s coming from, and I love singing his stuff. But the melodies are very simple, and the words are incomprehensible a lot of the time, and they’re very drug-driven. Cohen’s are not. I find Cohen’s work to be much deeper and more sophisticated, more complex and much more meaningful to the human heart. Although I applaud Dylan’s winning the Nobel Prize. It’s great for poetry and songwriting, and it does open the door, maybe, for Leonard Cohen posthumously winning that award.
KH: Did you notice a shift in Cohen’s work––and, again, not to dwell too much on Cohen––after he started making these retreats to California, becoming a Buddhist and so forth? I think there may have been a general suspicion that his creative power came to a large degree from a sense of melancholy and a sense of loss and that if he achieved a kind of inner peace he would cease to be capable of expressing that same quality. Did you notice that? I suppose his final album is a testament to that not being the case, but...
DS: Well, I have to say no, because I think that sense of loss and melancholy, driven by depression and melancholia, had been there from the beginning. It became a bit more sophisticated or complex later in life because he became much more reflective about the women he’d known and the hearts he’d broken. So I’d have to say no, in some respects. I mean, that later burst of energy was driven by the fact that his manager had absconded with five million dollars. What a huge gift that really was to mankind. In the late 1990s he was retired and not comin’ back. He was on Mount Baldy for five years, and it was his daughter, Lorca, who told him, ‘Something’s going on here, man. You better come off that mountain and take a look because I think your money’s gone.’ So, I mean you do get a more sophisticated, reflective perspective as you get older. I mean, ‘So Long, Marianne’, written in 1968 had just as much melancholy as anything that was to follow.
KH: Do you find that your emotional capacity deepens with years, that things in the rear-view take on greater significance than things in the windshield, so to speak?
DS: Yeah, I think definitely. There was a singer I heard on the CBC recently, I can’t remember who it was, who said, ‘I weep more, now.’ I’m more prone to weeping. Weeping becomes easier as you get older. For me, I’ve become much more reflective about my life, my marriage, my loves, my child, etc. I don’t want to get morose about it, because a lot of it’s very uplifting and extremely rewarding, to reflect on those things. But at the same time, I’m 67 now, and it’s hard to believe, but it’s a very good feeling to look back over those years. I’m able to interpret––deal with those years in a much more intelligent, creative way than when I was younger.
KH: What do you mean by that?
DS: Well, when I was younger I was more challenging about what was happening in my life, the dissolution of my first marriage for example. I was more combative. And issues to do with my daughter, who’s now 36––you know, relationships, both personal and work relationships. And I think as you get older––maybe it’s maturity––you become more objective and able to objectify it and look upon it a bit more objectively, detachedly.
KH: Um, I noticed there’s a tweet on your twitter account that read, ‘One in four Americans that were eligible to vote’––not to smear this conversation with the exploits of the golden toad south of the border, but––‘eligible to vote, voted for Trump. That sounds like a revolution in the making.’ I think there’s real substance to that, and that this election could be a real catalyst, if I’m trying to find a silver lining––
DS: Well, my tweet was about the fact that fifty percent of eligible Americans didn’t vote: 25% voted for Hillary and 25% voted for Trump. And my tweet about revolution is that 75% of Americans didn’t vote for Donald Trump, and that could a revolution make, one way or another. Who knows where the 50% would have voted if it were Australia, where it’s illegal not to vote, so you have to vote. And I wish more countries would adopt that model, because when push comes to shove, I think we should push and shove.
KH: What do you think of the none-of-the-above option on a ballot?”
DS: It’s valid. I think Australia does that, and you can get a jail term not for voting; but I do believe that they have the option of none-of-the-above, because that’s casting a ballot. So, it’s valid. I don’t want to get into the Trump thing, though.
KH: Yeah, to hell with that.
DS: Creative process.
"Gethsemane is interesting because it’s more based on an imagined scene of a revolutionary, a soldier, a fighter––maybe driven by Syria to an extent, I think, sometimes––taking a moment off, lying in an orchard, and almost falling asleep, and 'the bees are droning/ their lazy hymns in the citrus,' and he’s reflective on his life."
KH: Creative process.
DS: I don’t have one. Creative process: I often start with a title or a first line. I remember Dylan Thomas always said he often started with a title–– ‘Fern Hill’, or––
KH: Do not go gentle....
DS: In the white giant’s thigh, or do not go gentle. And I often will build around that or a first line. I remember reading a lengthy treatise on cancer, on the disease cancer, because I did a lot of health-related marketing and promotion, particularly oncology and hematology, and it was a line about, ‘We have a lot of lacunae related to cancer’. I was not familiar with the word lacuna. Looked it up. And I remember when I did it, within ten minutes, I had, ‘You as lacuna’––and then I had, ‘Your awayness has become a presence, now.’
DS: I love that, ‘Your awayness has become a presence now / a space you’ve somehow filled with space, / your shape on the bed still rosy with your fragrance.’
DS: And that was the line, and it all started with that book and the word ‘lacuna’, and the title, where a person can be a lacuna, a missing part, a space, a gap. And so that often drives where I’m going to go with a poem. Gethsemane is interesting because it’s more based on an imagined scene of a revolutionary, a soldier, a fighter––maybe driven by Syria to an extent, I think, sometimes––taking a moment off, lying in an orchard, and almost falling asleep, and “the bees are droning/ their lazy hymns in the citrus,” and he’s reflective on his life. So that one just came from my imagination. Not often do I write about something I’ve seen, or witnessed. My parents drove some of those poems. You heard the other night, I think, ‘My Father’s Medals’?
KH: Yeah. ‘They’re too heavy for me now.’ What a beautiful encapsulation that is.
DS: My Dad actually said that, he said, ‘You know, David, I can’t wear those medals anymore, they’re too heavy.’ And I didn’t say this the other night, but we had––there’s a company that manufactures miniature medals for these old guys who are so frail and stooped over, they can’t wear those big heavy medals––so we had these smaller, lighter ones that we could plug on his chest. But they still connoted the same thing, and my dad knew that. He wore those medals proudly.
KH: 'My Guitar Just Is.’
DS: That poem, frankly, is based on the solid fact that I’m not a great guitar player. I think what I was saying is that while some guitars weep, some guitars moan, my guitar doesn’t do any of those things: it just basically is, it does what it can to create music and song and to create poetry and life, but it’s not capable of doing much more than that, and it doesn’t need to. It’s just fine.
KH: There’s a similarity there to the six chords that Cohen possessed.
DS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Just this morning I was playing stuff off Cohen’s latest album. I don’t know if you heard that song ‘Leaving the Table’? ‘I’m leaving the table/I’m out of the game/I don’t know the people in your picture frame.’ Every song is about death. It’s incredible. There was an article on the weekend in the Star that mentioned Cohen’s having said in September to friends in Montréal that he had six weeks left to live. So the cancer sentence was known for a while. He just didn’t publicize it. In Infinite Sequels I paired that guitar poem with another one about old guitar strings [wherein] I’m changing the strings on my guitar, looking at the floor, littered with strings, and it felt like I had cut the songs and words from my guitar. And then I say there will be new songs; there will be new music; there will be new guitar strings that will reinvent my music for me.
KH: Is death the artist’s great subject?
DS: Is what?
KH: Is death the great subject of the artist?
DS: Well, I’ll put it this way: death’s pretty ultimate; it’s pretty final. So it’s definitely one of the great subjects of artists, for sure.
KH: Is there an idea of reincarnation behind the old guitar strings laid on the ground and that they will be replaced by news ones and that there’s a constant, regenerative, creative process from generation to generation?
DS: Yes, I think that’s what that poem would say. Whilst you feel that sense of loss and so on, life will go on, and there will be new music. It’s one of the lines in that poem: ‘There will be new music. There will be new songs.’
KH: You say, ‘I think that’s what that poem would say.’ Do you ever feel as if particular poems can encapsulate a philosophy that you don’t necessarily have to adhere to?
DS: Oh, for sure. That’s certainly true for me. If an idea intrigues me, or an emotion intrigues me, or an emotion or response is generated by something I’ve read or something I’ve experienced, that may trigger a poem, and I will write about that, but I don’t necessarily endorse or underscore that particular feeling or emotion or idea in the poem. But I think it’s appealing. I think others will find it interesting and will be engaged by it, and that’s enough. In the same way, a novelist can write a whole novel about this or that, but not necessarily endorse any of the ideas in it...
KH: Right. Like Lolita, Nabokov’s––
DS: Like Lolita, for example. Once again, an absolutely phenomenal book, phenomenal writer. When I read Lolita I wonder how he got away with getting that published at all. He did have a lot of trouble. I think he’d have more trouble today than he did then, strangely enough.
KH: Interesting. I mean, in contrast to the sort of pop music scene that is wallpapered with recyclable 13- and 14-year-old kids, why do you think that that would be a more problematic book today?
DS: Well, simply because it seemingly is about pedophilia. It’s about a male that is attracted to an underage lady. If you’ve seen the original film with Peter Sellers, a fantastic movie, I think way better than there-make, it more clearly seems to project that pedophilic sense. I mean it’s about desire and lust and all these underlying themes in a broader sense, but why did Nabokov choose to select a female heroine that’s like 13-years-old?
KH: Do you think art’s supposed to challenge its audience, or console, or to disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed?
DS: I think art should do all those things. It should console and stroke and challenge and disturb and upset. It should do all of those things. Another popular poem I perform is ‘Black Box’, which is a very angry poem which deals with terrorism and the veiled, rather frightening undercurrents we see in the world today. But I use that as a metaphor, in the same way that I use human relationships. So in the same way that a human relationship can end, and “they’re gonna find that black box in our wreckage, and let us know what failed,”| I see that as a larger metaphor for the world itself. I just did that poem in Toronto to a soundtrack where I did a dance at the end and I said something about, ‘It’s wonderful to dance in the face of the apocalypse. Bring it on, Donald. We’re ready for you.’
KH: That’s maybe a twenty-first century theme––how to make music on the Titanic.
DS: Well, we’re arranging the deck chairs.
KH: Arranging the deck chairs, yeah.
DS: Ever heard that expression?
KH: Yeah, there’s a nice inversion of that of Stephen Colbert’s when he was roasting George Bush during the White House correspondents’ dinner where he says, ‘Some people say that Bush is just arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but no: this administration isn’t sinking, it’s soaring. If anything, he’s arranging the deck chairs on the Hindenburg!
DS: Well you do bring up a great scene, of dancing in the face of the apocalypse––it’s a very good metaphor––or a comparison could be the Titanic’s musicians having been ordered to play: as the boat sank in the silence of the mid-Atlantic, the orchestra’s playing. And that was sort of the sense I get with that poem, and why I perform it to a sort of Jazz number. Since you saw my show [in 2014], I dance more and I do the twist and I make comments about dancing in the face of the apocalypse. It’s a very similar comparison. It’s sort of like, as the ship is sinking, we keep performing and doing our thing, somewhat turning a blind-eye to reality.
And if you go to some old Rod McKuen stuff from the sixties, that’s where you see some of my roots, because Rod McKuen was an absolute master at the spoken word art, poetry, performed to music. He did more than twenty albums, and he was extremely good at it. That big raspy, smoky voice of his. He was huge.
KH: So, the show’s evolving then, yeah?
DS: Yeah, it is. It is. I keep getting disappointments, Kevin. I’m largely driven by Fringe festivals, and I just missed London for the second year. It’s a complete lottery. I’d love to do my show in a place like London. I didn’t get Ottawa. I find out about Toronto on Thursday night. But, you put a show in like that, and I’ve got the show; it’s a good show; it’s a proven show; it works. But you go into a lottery. And a lot of the people in the lottery don’t even have a show. They got nothin’. ‘Cause I’ve been to the lottery draws, and all you do as you put the name of your company in. So I have a registered company called, Thespis Spoken Word & Stage. I can’t believe that ‘Thespis’ wasn’t taken––Thespis, the god of spoken word. Thespis Spoken Word & Stage. So you put the name of your company in and you pay thirty bucks and if you get selected––I’ve been at the Toronto Fringe three years in a row, now. I go to their party, and a lot of the people who are there, who are selected, have no idea what they’re going to do.
KH: That’s frustrating.
DS: It’s very frustrating ‘cause I got a show and I can do it. But Friday night, I’ll find out. That’s my last one of this season. I don’t have an agent; I don’t go that route, now.
KH: What’s the new show about?
DS: Um, Such a Frail Book of Endings, it’s a combination of different poems. I’m writing pieces specifically for the show. So, 70 poems.... I might even have some actors involved.
KH: You know my number.
DS: You could do both––you could act and do a couple of poems.
DS: So I like to expand the concept. Poetry on stage, spoken word on stage, with musical backdrop, is so powerful.
KH: And it’s older than one or the other, right? I mean, that’s much closer to the original poetic tradition.
DS: Yeah, yeah, exactly. And if you go to some old Rod McKuen stuff from the sixties, that’s where you see some of my roots, because Rod McKuen was an absolute master at the spoken word art, poetry, performed to music. He did more than twenty albums, and he was extremely good at it. That big raspy, smoky voice of his. He was huge. What have you got there that you haven’t asked me?
KH: Um, there a couple, here. ‘The white page laughing’ comes up a couple of times. Is this a sense of mockery coming from the blankness of the page?
DS: Yeah, I’ve written a number of poems for Infinite Sequels, a number of them unpublished, about the whole journey of actually creating and writing words on a page. And Leonard Cohen, again, he talks about, what’s the expression, ‘blackening pages’, the challenge of blackening pages.
KH: That’s an extraordinary phrase.
DS: Yeah, and you’ll see it in a recent poem, which I’ve retitled, by the way, I just call it ‘Snowman’, now. Snowman, where I talk about how the words become the buttons on the page resisting rain, resisting criticism in a way, but they just stare out at you, and they become permanent in that way. So I write a lot about the actual task of writing poetry, of creation, and sometimes it is as though that page is just white, white, white, white, laughing––it’s just laughing at you. It’s like the page is mocking and declaring “you’re not going to cover me with words.” And we all go through it. I go through periods where I don’t write anything sensible for two weeks, and it irks me.
It’s usually when I’m busy with these other things that take me away from it. But I know tonight, I’m good. I’ve got some good ideas, and I’m going to be staying at home in my Stratford place, and I’ve got some wine in the wine cellar. I’m going to open up some deeply reflective, disturbingly red Ripasso, breathe deeply and get at it. I feel like writing tonight…..and that makes it a good night…..a very good night.