Born and raised in Ville d’Anjou, David McGimpsey lives in Montreal and teaches at Concordia University. His poetry blends popular culture and high culture and has earned McGimpsey critical praise — the CBC named him as one of the top 10 English poets in Canada — and several award nominations. He is a journalist, editor, and comedian. He also plays guitar in a band called Puggy Hammer.
Did you read poetry when you were in high school? Is there a particular poem that you loved when you were a teenager that you remember well?
I did. I think the first poem I ever loved was “Goodbat Nightman” by Roger McGough and I think I could still recite that one by memory. I liked poems by e.e.cummings and Sylvia Plath. I had enough trouble and I liked my poems to speak to me and to not look like homework. But, I must admit, I was a super-fan of Mad Magazine and because of their constant use of poetry parodies (i.e. "What if the great writers wrote about baseball?") I had a basic sense of the patter of “great poetry”, esp. American poetry. Come to think of it, I read many parodies of “Howl” long before I actually read “Howl”.
When did you first start writing poetry? And then when did you start thinking of yourself as a poet?
I started writing poems when I was 15 / 16. I was not thinking of it so much as a way of being but as a thing to do and a crucial part of a larger, adolescent retreat into the self. It was, in the very best way, diary writing. I watched TV all the time so I started writing poems about TV shows I liked. I still don’t encourage myself to think of myself as a poet (the idea that “being a poet” required specialness of background or thought has been a constant drag, if you ask me) but that I was and am just a person from Anjou, QC who happens to write poetry. Nobody, when crossing a border, declares to the customs official “I am a poet!”
What do you think a poet’s “job” is?
To amuse the Duke of Poetry? I really don’t think of poetry as a job in any way and believe it is absent of any labour obligations. Poems appear in society, of course, and that society may indeed declare that the poet’s job is to proclaim the beauty of Lake Ontario and so, if a poet wanted to be accepted by such a society, the poet may consider writing a poem about nightfall in Grimsby—but that’s a different job than poetry.
What inspired you to write “71. Song for a Silent Treatment.”?
I was in Nashville, in “Bible Square,” where the U.S.’s major religious publication houses are located, and it was really windy. There weren’t many people around it is a stark contrast to the bright lights and honky tonks of Nashville’s Lower Broadway, just down the hill. I felt like I was nowhere in particular and when I got to my room in the Hermitage Hotel that afternoon I wrote a draft of this poem — I wanted to make fun of my own declarations of honest speech, and see if the facts could help me articulate a sense of regret and sadness.
If you had to choose one poem to memorize from our anthology, which one would it be?
I love reciting poems from memory and it is something I have done since I was in CEGEP (a kind of junior college unique to Quebec). The first poem I learned from memory was Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “The Pennycandystore Beyond the El” and later I would learn quite a few, working at it in my mind quite intently. I loved reciting depressing Thomas Hardy and think I could already give a fair recital of “Hap” (in your anthology) and I have recited Tennyson’s “Break, Break, Break” (also in your anthology) many times and it is perhaps my favourite one to recite of all time. My mother learned a lot of lines from lots of poems because in her time (what she called a “Victorian girl’s education”) poetry was exclusively taught this way — you were not asked to interpret the psychology of a poem, you were asked to recite it. I am still astonished at how many lines from Longfellow she knew! So, I have always practiced recitation (sometimes to the dismay of my students — I’m a ham — but mostly not) and I find it gets me closer to the music of poetry and has been, I think, the greatest help in developing my ear for poetry and with public readings of my poems. I am currently trying to memorize “Casey at the Bat” because I’m writing something about De Wolf Hopper, an actor who made his entire living from public recitals of “Casey at the Bat” but I don't know if I will make it. When I decide to memorize a poem it is because I love the poem and then it can be as easy as remembering the lyrics to “Bye Bye Love”. From your anthology, the poem I want to memorize (and will also try) is Dickinson’s “Wild Nights — Wild Nights!”