My whole life shining/charged and fused/with its wick of burning flesh. – David Stones*
Toronto bard David Stones is on fire! He may consider himself a “weekend writer or poet”, but his highly-successful poetry collection Infinite Sequels (Friesen Press 2013) and his poetic performances (based on the book) are certainly attracting attention.
With blazing spotlight performances at the Stratford SpringWorks 2015, the London Fringe 2018, and most recently at the Hamilton Fringe 2019, he and his work have been labelled as “dazzling,” “unforgettable,” and ‘utterly mesmerizing.”
I’m not surprised. As a successful businessperson, Stones is proficient in wooing an audience for a standing ovation.
When I first noticed this poet in 2014 at an open mic reading in Stratford, I assumed he was an actor. Wearing a white cotton shirt, dark rimmed glasses, and a Yorkshire flat cap he performed his work as though he was Hamlet reciting one of his famous monologues. Since then, he’s been a frequent open mic reader in the London, Ontario area and a tough act to follow. Sometimes he would read new work but often he stood tall and animated, with one of his trademark hats on his head, and shared his memorized poems in a captivating way.
Even the poems in his debut book are presented in an eye-catching manner: the soft crème pages adorned with photographs to complement the beauty of his lyrical words. He often writes from a first person narrative and like with a strong story, he immediately pulls the reader into his book with the opening lines of his poem “Almost”:
I was almost something, I almost began/I almost got started, changed flesh into man//Almost a poet, stitching words from wine/the dark balladeer in search of a rhyme (p. 1)
Stones isn’t afraid of rhymes which are scattered in various forms throughout his work but he also excels in free verse and has a knack with twisting and creating unique images. In the poem “Into the Lacquered Air of Evening” he writes I hear the windows slowly breathing/their final gulp of sun. (p. 5) In “The Old Days” he pens the line night becoming a brilliant bandage/in the eastern sky (p. 89)
His comments about love are also memorable. In the poem “Black Box”, he writes: “Sometimes love is seeking harbor/when the heart’s/already sailed. (p. 6) In the poem “I Put Roy Orbison On” he describes his feelings: I became the empty ashtray/the orange/ in the bowl/the object waiting/for utility (p. 24)
If you pardon the cliché, Stones definitely wears his character’s heart on his sleeve and this is the strength of this collection: his ability to make the reader and/or the audience feel his narrator’s emotions.
I have yet to see Stones’ full Infinite Sequels performance. However, The London Free Press stated it was “a brilliant and beautiful piece of theatre….a must see.”
Earlier this week, I chatted with David about his journey as a poet and a performer. We also talked about his upcoming performance planned for October 20, 2019 at the Stratford Writers’ Festival.
With a busy and successful career in business, at what point did you decide to start writing poetry and what motivated you to continue to hone your literary skills to the point of publishing a book?
Well, I won a writing contest in grade four with a short story about a fire eating dragon. I received a whole nickel for that endeavour and I was quite hooked.
I built my career on my verbal and written communications skills, spinning those abilities into roles from advertising/marketing guy, to communications directorships and vice president positions, and ultimately to President/CEO of several organizations. The ability to communicate clearly, whatever the medium, is central to executive leadership. While working hard at my career, not unusually through 70 hour work weeks, I found little time for personal writing pursuits- a terrible excuse, I know, but such is the case. I had a fair bit of poetry published in university and published a handful of poems during my working years, but it took my partial retirement in 2010 to trigger a more focused and intense pursuit of the poetic craft.
For the first time in my life, I began saving what I wrote. Once I had about 20 poems or so, I began to see a book. I didn’t seek publication of any of the poems; they were going into my book. For about two years the development and honing of that book became a rather wondrous portion of my life.
Your debut collection Infinite Sequels comprises 94 poems on 98 pages. Did you start with the theme or did the theme just evolve naturally as the poems developed?
As I wrote, organized and collated those poems in Infinite Sequels I began to learn many things about myself, both as a person and as a poet. I was drawn to the themes of love, longing and loss, the Three L’s that comprise the very spinal column of human experience. I found that I didn’t need to have experienced a particular emotion or situation myself but that I could project a fictitious “me” into imaginary scenarios, so long as the integrity of the sensation was preserved- hence, my frequent use of the “projected I.” In this sense, many of the poems have a muse dimension to them, as though dictated to me by another poet.
Still now, as I publish my work more widely, I often write in the third person or present a scenario observed or evaluated by a third party. Even my first person poems, though relatively infrequent, are often a projected “me” parachuted into a premise in order to expound on a theme or expose a truth that I think demands some lines on a page. In this way, my work contrasts somewhat with the many poets who write virtually exclusively in the first person, describing some aspect of their personal journey or experience.
So Infinite Sequels evolved as a series of poems, some from the dredges of my own heart, some dictated to me by my poetic muse figure, but most pursuing the broad themes of loving and treasuring what we have, of longing for what we desire and dealing with the elusive emptiness of yearning, and of negotiating the heartache of loss. Intentionally, there is no poem called Infinite Sequels and the words appear nowhere except in the title. Such must be the case. Infinite Sequels, the title, speaks to the rhythmic, circulatory nature of these Three L drivers of our lives, endlessly drumming the perimeters of the human heart.
Several of your poems include rhymes. What do you like about rhymes and why do you include them in your work?
Where to begin? Fact is, though rhyming and rhyme schemes are fundamental to poetry and date back to the very roots of poetic art, I’m afraid they’ve become rather maligned over the past 75 years or so. There’s the suggestion that rhyming somehow cheapens verse or that it’s some kind of amateurish mechanism or short cut to creation. I think this is troubling and wrongheaded, a form of misdirected artistic snobbery.
Folks who run poetry contests that disallow rhymed work, or suggest that it’s not preferred, are simply failing to understand the beauty and complexity of words connected and aligned through rhyme.
The sonnet, the rondeau, the villanelle, the ballad: where would we be without Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s sonnets or creative injections of rhyming couplets, or Dylan Thomas’s exploration of the villanelle? T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, which heralded the very birth of modern poetry, employed a crafty and brilliant rhyme scheme.
Rhyming lends a musicality and lilt to verse. I use it sometimes as a poetic device throughout an entire piece, always seeking inventive rhyme associations through word choice, patterns, assonance or leonine approaches, and sometimes as a literary utensil employed at a strategic point in a poem.
“Almost,” the poem that opens and closes both the book and show version of Infinite Sequels, is composed in rhyming couplets and is one of my most popular poems. You’ll notice in my work how often when composing in blank verse, a short burst of rhyme flowers forth, like a lone blossom on a branch. Perhaps this relates to my love of the guitar. My major poet influencers- Emily Dickinson, Dylan Thomas, Sylvia Plath, Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, the list goes on- all used rhyme from time to time and to great effect. And so will I…..and very proudly.
You’ve developed Infinite Sequels into a rather sophisticated and elaborate stage production, complete with a curated production music track and live violin. London Free Press lauded your show as a “brilliant and beautiful piece of theatre,” while glowing Hamilton Fringe reviews say your performance “transcends the theatre space” and makes “emerging back into the mundane world again seem jarring.” (View Magazine) What motivated you to produce this show? What can the audience expect to hear and see? Do you need to like poetry to enjoy your show?
I’ve long been fascinated with the intersection of music and the spoken word, poetry as performance art. The show version of Infinite Sequels has evolved over time. Basically, I expanded readings from the book into a linked series of poems, created a character called The Poet, gave him a set comprising a study littered with discarded poetry and an enticing bottle of scotch, and then began adding music under for portions of the production.
The loose premise of the show is that The Poet relives his life and loves through his poetry. Again, The Poet is not me, but a projected me, a character who wrote a book called Infinite Sequels, which coincidentally I did as well. The current version of the stage show comprises close to 30 poems, about half of which are found in the book version. The soundtrack is sourced and fully licensed through Pond5 in New York.
Last year, I added live violin to the show, using a musician from London, and for 2019 I’m thrilled to have fellow poet and sterling violinist Tom Gannon Hamilton by my side in the role of The Violin.
As with the central themes of the book, The Poet moves through a progression of poems dealing with those big Three L’s, love, longing and loss, tossing in a few laughs and long pulls on the scotch along the way.
We just today got a very late breaking review of our Hamilton shows from theatre blog Beyond James: “beautifully written and performed,” among other accolades. The show’s been most gratifying and I love performing it. It’s at once both terrifying and exhilarating to be up there for an hour performing your work. But I think it’s a splendid and somehow appropriate way for people to engage in my poetry….
And you ask if one needs to like poetry in order to enjoy the show. I’m very pleased to say that some of my best and most effusive praise comes from people who tell me how much they hate poetry, how they’ve despised it since grade school when teachers trotted out all those dreadful and tedious poems, demanding analysis and memorization. But, they say, their partner persuaded them to come to my show and they loved it. We struggling poets of the world have to do all we can to bring people closer to our craft. I think that performing our work, rendering it in compelling theatrical form as with Infinite Sequels, helps lift the words off the page for people, bringing it to life and generating a deeper understanding and appreciation of our art form.
When do you perform Infinite Sequels next? How far do you think you can take a performance piece like this?
I’ve got just one show left for 2019 and that’s October 20th at Revival House in Stratford, Ontario at 8 p.m., as part of the Stratford Writers’ Festival. I’ll also be doing an onstage interview and Q&A after the show. Full ticket and show information is available here. Come on out! I’d love to see as many fellow poets there as possible.
One of the many things that’s impressed me about your open mic performances is how you memorize and recite your material. How long does it take to memorize your work like this and what techniques do you use?
Well first, thanks for the kind words, Debbie. I take the public performance of my work very seriously, whether it’s the show, a feature poet gig, or just open mic. I rehearse everything a few times. I choose my selections carefully and time them to make sure I’m within the allotted time frame.
As for memorization, there’s no question that if you can commit the work to memory and recite it facing the audience and maintaining eye contact with people, you’re going to deliver a more commanding verbal rendition of your work. Eye contact is fundamental to effective human communication.
There’s no real secret to memorizing poetry. It’s all about “blocking,” breaking the work down into component parts or chunks, and learning each part in sequence. The show, for example, has 11 blocks, some with just one poem, some with as many as six. I then block every poem.
As the production track lilts and Tom The Violin hovers with his beautiful playing, I finish one block of a poem while simultaneously placing into my brain the start of the next block. Through rehearsal you get to link the blocks seamlessly, to pace each poem and each block of every poem to every beat of the music, adding animation through the process…….And let me add something very important here.
Silence is a crucial part of verbal delivery. Pauses, contemplative spaces, strategic intervals between words and phrases, can be more effective than the actual spoken words.
Describe your creative writing space…… pen and paper or computer? inside or out? study or coffee shop? noise or quiet?
I write pretty well anywhere. I have two great studies in Toronto and Stratford and write a lot in those locations, always in longhand with a pen for the first go round. I also write quite a bit in relaxing lounge or resto settings, often with a nice Ripasso at the ready. And I often compose while walking. If my notebook’s not handy I use the “Notes” section of my smart phone, which right now has over 200 pages of notes and poetry snippets.
I noticed on Facebook that you like to share images of food, usually gourmet meals that you’ve prepared. Is cooking one of your main passions? What other hobbies do you have besides writing and performing?
In a word, I love food and cooking- but one reason that I’m on the Board of the Stratford Chefs School. I’ve cooked and prepared food quite extensively since the mid-‘80s and actually wrote a cookbook about 20 years ago. I cook and prepare almost anything: lots of Italian, French, Indian, Asian, cosmopolitan, salads of all kinds. To me, a perfect weekend is having eight people coming for dinner on Saturday and I get to plan and deliver the whole thing to table.
I also enjoy my guitars. As I tell it, I play about 500 songs badly, but have also written about 20 songs or so and I’ve cut a couple of CDs. I’m also an avid sports fan, following most professional action. Throw in my consulting, work on several Boards, gardening, reading at least one book a week (I’ve charted and journaled every book I’ve read since the late ‘70s), any and all aspects of Old World red wine, and my beautiful wife, daughter, family and granddaughters, and you have a rather complete life.
What’s next for David Stones? In the short term? In the longer term?
In the short term, I hope to get up tomorrow morning. In the longer term, I hope to get up the day after tomorrow…..A simple question but not so simple to answer. From a poetry standpoint, I hope to continue to push poems out for publication, albeit strategically. I’ve had some 25 poems published so far in 2019. With the show and all, I haven’t been as active on the publication front as I’d like to be. As well, I have two manuscript collections that I’m working on. I’m going to continue to seek venues for my show and, for good measure, I’m writing a completely new show which includes some poetry but also lots of narrative and music. So we’ll see how all that goes. I also have four feature poet gigs lined up for the fall….. So I think I’ll be staying busy, which is a good thing.
Thanks David! What a fascinating journey you’ve been on! I look forward to hearing and seeing your next performance.
David Stones is a mostly retired marketing and business executive, now taking a deep breath as a poet, performer and spoken word artist. His poetry appears regularly in print and on-line journals (Harmonia Press, Beret Day Books, Authors Press, Big Pond Rumours). He is the winner of the 2018 Brooklin Poetry Society prize and the 2019 Ontario Poetry Society’s Mighty Onym poetry contest. David is a proud member of the League of Canadian Poets and The Ontario Poetry Society and resides in Stratford and Toronto.
Additional information about David Stones can be found on his website.