“Denis Robillard celebrates water…(His) poems fill the cup and the bowl. They slake the thirst of all who thirst for poetry…”
~ John B. Lee, Poet Laureate of the City of Brantford and of Norfolk County*
Early morning rain tap-dances against the window pane. This rhythmic thrum and translucent shower reminds me of Canadian poet Denis Robillard and the blue-gray drenched cover of his first poetry collection The History of Water. For me, water, on the surface, is light on its toes, refreshing, but dive deeper and a murkier metaphor lurks in the mud-lined puddles and swirling streams.
This is where Robillard wades: into his haunting memories of a near-drowning, the loss of a parent, the destructive nature of not one but two flash floods. The result is a silver lining: a first place finish in the Cranberry Tree Press 2015 Poetry Chapbook Contest for his water-themed manuscript.
According to Bruce Meyer, past Poet Laureate of Barrie, Ontario and adjudicator for the contest, “There is a very interesting sense of narrative behind these poems that is at its best when it does what I love best in good poetry: it engages something larger than itself and its subject matter…”*
Last fall to celebrate Robillard’s award-winning work, Cranberry Tree Press published his water-themed book, The History of Water. A book-signing was held in Windsor in early December, however, the official launch party will take place on Tuesday, April 26 from 7 to 10 p.m. at the Teutonia Club, 55 Edinborough Street in Windsor, Ontario.
This National Poetry Month event will also include the launch of contest finalist Songs of Zambia by Rosalind Knight plus two other books: winner of the 2015 Cities of the Straits poetry contest smack in the middle of spotlit obvious (Farmhouse Press) by Laurie Smith and Curious Connections (Farmhouse Press), an award-winning short story collection by Karen Rockwell.
Robillard is no stranger to the Canadian literary scene. For the past 15 years, several hundred of his poems have appeared in the small presses and on line magazines across Canada, the USA, England and Scotland. Those include: Rattle, Rampike, Word Riot, Nashwaak Review, Algoma Ink, Cliff Soundings, Sidereality, Orange Room Review, Dusty Owl, Ditch, Windsor Review and many more. Robillard’s poems were also featured in An Unfinished War, a Black Moss Press anthology about the War of 1812. Born in Northern Ontario, he now teaches high school in Windsor, Ontario. He is also an avid photographer and traveler.
Several weeks ago, I asked Robillard to share his thoughts about his writing process. Below is his response:
- Congratulations Denis on your award-winning manuscript. What inspired you to write a collection of poems based on a water theme?
Many of the poems in The History of Water touch upon my father’s death and my mom’s subsequent flood experience. (In the Fall of 2013, two flash floods in the same month virtually wiped away her home, belongings and dignity within days. It was like the final nail in a floating coffin.) Hence the idea of water rushing in and washing over our fragile lives. It seems like water has been the one true constant metaphor or archetype running through my poems. By the time I turned around I had written more than 40 “water based’ poems. Surely enough for a collection. I nearly drowned twice as a child, so again those images and experiences welled up to the surface and found their final form in these poems.
- Not only did your water-themed poems win first place but I understand that your manuscript Little Read Writing Hood also placed third in the same contest. Some writers feel that entering contests is a waste of time. What motivated you to enter this contest organized by Cranberry Tree Press in Windsor?
After completing my manuscript, my next step was to shop them around. I sent these out to 3-4 publishers in 2013-2014. No dice. No movement. I stumbled across the Cranberry Tree Press manuscript contest in the spring of 2015 and quietly crossed my fingers and held my breath for results. I was not expecting anything big to happen. I was just exercising my poetic spirit by pushing a few poems out the door. Low and behold I won the contest and it was a real kick in the pants. It helped me formulate a game plan for the next chapter of my life. Once those poems had exorcised themselves, I started from scratch again. This is where today finds me.
- How has your past influenced your writing?
I’ve always written, it seems. It started back in high school when I lived in Sault Ste Marie. I was part of the yearbook staff in high school so was able to slip in a couple of poems under the radar and get them published. In 1981 my parish priest caught wind that I had been writing “spiritual poems” so I offered up one of my journals to him to glean over. He read them through giving me high praise for my imagery and content. He then published a few of those poems in the weekly church bulletin. Coupled with this love of writing was the instinctive love of reading. I was a voracious reader as a child, when in fact, my parents were scarcely ever seen with any books in hand. My interests flourished. From science to the supernatural, to spiritual and the panoply of biographies. Again mostly poetry and biography were the mainstay.
- Who are/were your mentors and how did they inspire you?
I digested most of the Canadian pantheon by the time I left high school – Layton, Purdy, Waddington, Service, Atwood, Louis Dudek and many more. I got to meet Irving Layton at a school function in 1982 and his poems galvanized me. At the tail end of high school, I wandered south with my cherry picking of books and took on some mild affectations with the Beats and Bukowski. More modern stuff entered the mix too.
In 2000 I moved to Windsor to pursue my teaching career. I would say that the motor city consciously or unconsciously got my poetry engine fired up on all fours. In Windsor I began to participate in the poetry community. I read at pub nights, was invited to read at university and took a more active role in the poetry community. I met some great people like Marty Gervais, Dan Wells, Gustave Morin, Vanessa Shields, Sal Ala, and many more who were a creative lot and very supportive. In 2002, I discovered Brantford poet John B. Lee and a vigorous correspondence ensued. An open line of communication was shunted open, one which still ensues to this day. He was another lightening rod or galvanizing point in my writing. My style changed of course over the years. Subjects matured and broadened. My reading tastes were also seasoned by more veteran writers. The Windsor Bookfest, opened my eyes to new and emerging writers on the scene like Steven Heighton, Stuart Ross, Jason Heroux and many more. I had essentially become hooked.
- Describe your writing process and/or share some of your poetic insights.
Inspiration comes to the writer in various ways and incarnations. Mostly, unexpected, aleotoric ways. It could be something as simple as watching a cardboard box dipsey-doodle cavort and ballerina step its boxy self along a sidewalk or into oncoming traffic. Like seasoned rubberneckers we have an impulse to look and watch, to see what happens to the bouncing box in traffic. It seems to be propelled by some life force a benevolent poetic hand pushing it along.
A poem comes in the shape of a placid landscape imbued with morning light. The tender generator hum of cricket circuitry, the metronymic cicada rhythm of our breathing. Poetry is the shuffle of words caught in the act of remembering. Your thoughts rising above the smoke of the hills. The way you catch the sunburst in your loins, like a sugar maple swizzle stick. How sunlight floods through the cathedral of your bones. Insects making Morse sounds. Your eyes catching a bird’s stroboscopic shadow for the first time and you image to capture them onto paper.
It is the scrawl of a few tentative words on paper. Something seeking shape. A final varnish against fate. Damage control implemented across the universe with a sea of ghost faces parading in the Grand Abstract mode.
You sit by a pond soaking it all in. Write a few words then meditate upon them, sky, rain, earth, clock, eyes. Then looking through those false starts and aborted lines like a rag picker you re-examine those discarded pieces.
It comes in the guise of the skin of a building. Le Chien D’or. The castles of the Rhine, how they looked and felt under a prism of time. You seek to capture the one true essence, the zeitgeist of it and how it parades through the weathers of time.
- Thanks Denis. I look forward to reading more of your award-winning work.
Follow Denis Robillard on Facebook.
Additional information about the April 26 launch appears here.
Additional information about Cranberry Tree Press as well as the shortlist of the 2015 Poetry Chapbook Contest finalists appear here.
*John B. Lee’s quote and Bruce Meyer’s statement appear on the back cover of The History of Water (Cranberry Tree Press, 2015) by Denis Robillard. Reprinted with permission from the publisher and creators.
**All photos courtesy of Denis and Joyce Robillard.
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