Contemporary Verse 2: The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing

Contemporary Verse 2: The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing

An excerpt of the interview with Richard Osler, winner, second place in “Show Me the Book”.
Please CLICK HERE to download the entire interview as a PDF.

Clarise Foster: It is interesting to me that you have actually made a career of poetry — from your website I understand that you offer poetry workshops, often with a therapeutic emphasis. What got you started on this path? Why poetry and what do you feel it is about poetry that you have made it a central focus in your Recovering Words workshops?

Richard Osler: Synchronicity (meaningful coincidence) played a big part in developing my poetry practice in recovery centres. A friend sent me an invitation to a John Fox retreat and I went. He was instrumental in directly connecting healing and poetry for me. John is a poet and registered poetry therapist in the U.S. who leads many retreats and workshops around the world.

When I met Fox I had already led my first poetry workshop with friends using exercises from Susan Wooldridge’s wonderful romp with words, her book poemcrazy. That experience showed me how most people, even those who have no writing background, with the right prompts, can access words that reveal them to themselves and others in the most surprising way. All this prepared me to say yes to leading recovery workshops starting four years ago. I still remember a line from a poem written in my first recovery workshop — “An addiction is loving something that will never love you back.”

The best way to explain why poetry works so well in a recovery setting is through a poem I wrote while answering this question.

The Trouble a Poet Is

At a centre for recovering addicts,
a hollowed out place with echoes inside,
I come prepared with some forty-sixers,
empty ones I want them to fill back up
with words; but with this proscription:
no mention of bottle or booze
of any description — Jack Daniels,
Johnny Walker Red, Seagram’s Seventy-Six.
At first, blind stares, the glass-eyed look
the near-drowned wear, or the gaze of creatures
coming up for air from the black lagoon.
Then some words: my wife; his addiction.
And this: A wrecking ball made of glass,
from the boy/man with his big-sass smile
and his tattooed swagger before he wrote.
I expected trouble but not this trouble:
the trouble a poet is. Their lies, the way
they upset the ordinary, the everyday;
describe a world farther away and nearer
than the one we think we know. Rilke
called poets Bees of the invisible. I am
thief and liar too, and call poets, their poems,
wrecking balls made of words. I drink
from these bottles all day, all night, long.

Most people can write something that shocks their sense of who they are when triggered by the words of great poets who upset the ordinary and smash normal ways of seeing the world. I have watched countless recovering addicts read their own poems out loud as if the words and stories were someone else’s, not their own. Those words can wake them up, begin their healing. It is as if the writer is having a conversation with a stranger who is yourself, as Derek Walcott says in his poem Love After Love. The American poet Jane Hirshfield says it so well: “Language is sought, and seeks. The poet, pursuing a vessel to hold something known, finds what the poem may know what the poet as yet does not.”

CF: According to the activities listed on your website, you also hold poetry retreats. How do these work; who takes them; and how do these activities contribute to your own practice?

RO: My writing retreats go for three and a half days with about twelve hours of facilitated writing time, discussion and reading of poems assigned in previous sessions. The retreatants range from novices to experienced published poets.
My retreats are the way I explore the craft of poetry. And I have been taught by master poets who have helped give me many of the ideas that fashion my so-called “writing adventures” I use in my retreats. Patrick Lane is well known as a master poet but perhaps not so well known as an exceptional teacher and retreat leader. He has influenced my teaching the most. Others include John Fox, B.H. (Pete) Fairchild, Kim Addonizio, and David Whyte.

CF: It sounds like you spend a good deal of your time working on or with poetry. How do you support it all financially — do you have a separate day job?

RO: I like to think I have two day jobs — one pays me generously in cash; the other pays little or no cash, but its psychic and spiritual income is limitless. Not a hard guess to figure out which job poetry is!

Twenty years ago, after earning an English degree and unexpected careers in business journalism with the Financial Post and financial analysis with a stock brokerage firm, I formed a speciality money management business called Aequanimitas Inc. I borrowed the name Aequanimitas, which translates as even-minded, from my ancestor, Sir William Osler, the renowned Canadian doctor

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