Five Questions for Poet Tom Dawe
As a multiple-award-winning poet and founding member of Breakwater Books, Tom Dawe is a treasure of the Newfoundland writing scene. His newest New and Collected Poems (Breakwater Books) gathers each of his published collections and uncollected poems to span five decades of poetic achievement. Below we chat with Tom about how his idea of poetry has changed, how he begins his poems, his history of collaboration with other poets, and more.See more details below
All Lit Up: Your most recent collection New and Collected Poems spans five decades of your work and includes each of your published collections plus new work—that’s quite an achievement. Has your idea of what poetry is changed since you began writing poems?
Tom Dawe: My ideas on the nature of poetry have changed somewhat since I began writing in the sixties. In fact, when I read them now, some of my earliest poems seem a bit unfamiliar to me, notes from another time, efforts that have winged off into the world on lives of their own. Philosophers through the ages have always been intrigued by the self. What is it in us that remains the same, what changes? Over the decades I know I've been a number of selves. The poetry of my hippy years seems far removed from my latest haiku-like compositions. My outport poems are a universe away from my protest poems. I find it interesting that many poets have written poems about what poetry is. I love Margaret Avison's poem "Poetry Is" where she says "Poetry is always in / unfamiliar territory." And then she adds: "At a ball game when / the hit most matters / and the crowd is half-standing / already hoarse, then poetry's / eye is astray to a / quiet area to find out / who picks up the bat the runner / flung out of his runway."
ALU: How do you begin a poem?
TD: I've begun poems in many ways. Sometimes I've carried an idea for years, and an idea might not be something all worked out but, as Picasso used to say, a starting point. At other times a poem is ready to be written down almost immediately. I have jottings in notebooks that could become poems. Hopefully, some of them will. There are times, however, when I go to my notebook and wonder why the hell I put that note there in the first place. Alden Nowlan has a poem about how poems come about for him; it's called "The Encounter, the Recognition." It means a lot to me: "There's a path through the woods, or a corridor / in an empty building. I enter it / at both ends and walk slowly toward myself. / I am wholly drunk. / I am wholly sober. / We meet midway / and recognize one another. / 'Hello, Alden,' I say. / That's how my best poems are created."
ALU: You have a history of collaborating with other artists and writers, like Gerald Squires in Where Genesis Begins. What do you enjoy about the collaboration process?
TD: I especially enjoyed collaborating with Gerry Squires on Where Genesis Begins. Gerry was a dear friend and it was amazing that we often thought along similar lines. Gerry was a great lover of poetry; he had a poetic outlook on our place in the universe. And I too, in my earlier years, had been a painter. Sometimes we were working on the same subject without realizing it. For example, when I was working on the poem, "Lot's Wife," Gerry, unknown to me, was working on a large oil painting of the same title. We took this to be an auspicious sign. On the day we decided to do the book, we sighted a magnificent, once-in-a-lifetime eagle perched on the erratic rock outside Gerry's studio.
ALU: What, outside of other books/writers, inspires your writing?
TD: Of course, I am inspired by other books and writers but there are all kinds of inspirations. I am inspired by the richness of our folklore. Einstein once said that if you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. I am also inspired by the natural world and our place in this wonderful universe. As Georgia O'Keeffe used to say, I strive to make my unknown known. I am amazed at how chance and choice converge to make us who we are. I am moved by that child who lives within each one of us, the one who never grows up.
ALU: What are you reading right now?
TD: Right now, I am reading the letters of Georgia O'Keeffe, The Short Stories of Eudora Welty and re-reading Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.
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Tom Dawe is renowned for his work in poetry, folklore, and children’s literature. The recipient of numerous awards, he has been the St. John’s Poet Laureate, and in 2012 he was named to the Order of Canada. Dawe lives in Conception Bay South, NL.
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Thanks to Tom for answering our questions, and to Samantha at Breakwater Books for connecting us! You can order a copy of New and Collected Poems here.
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