Esteemed Canadian poet, novelist and essayist B.W. Powe is one of York’s treasures, bolstering this University’s strong literary tradition. A prolific writer, he has produced books that were championed by Canada’s leading publishers including Coach House, Guernica Editions and Random House.
Powe, who began at York in 1995, teaches courses on Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye and on Visionaries, and has helped found the Dead Tree Medium Theatre Group through the McLuhan Initiative at York University.
Described by Toronto writer/editor Elana Wolff as “oceanic in intellectual breadth and interest, spiritual vision and pure, unshielded feeling,” Powe produced an engaging new volume of poetry: Decoding Dust (NeoPoiesis Press, 2016). It contains emotive themes of family and deep connections; it perfectly encapsulates life at a particular point in time – with grown kids and ailing parents – as well as the universal ‘stuff’ of life.
In this Q&A, he discusses his new book.
Q: Why did you write Decoding Dust?
A: The poems came from a desire to get close to the soul and sorrow, the heart of my family and heartbreak, shapeshifters and the garden of vision. I wanted the book to be a place of intensities, where many voices would speak.
Sometimes my desire was just to shape something beautiful. It may seem an odd thing to say, but if you’ve added beauty to the world, in the way a tree is beautiful, then I think you’ve done something. That’s part of what I wanted to do: leave a beautiful line on a page.
Q: What are the key ingredients to your writing process?
A: Time, concentration, quiet, few interruptions, the cultivation of images and voices, a solitude that creates receptivity. Keeping myself open to atmospheres and the closeness of things, to the voices of soul yearning and transformation… This is what I hoped to get into Decoding Dust … an availability to dreaming true, letting the spirit speak.
One of the things I say to my creative writing students is, if you don’t like solitude, you’re in the wrong business. It’s a double-edged experience because the reverse of solitude is loneliness… and loneliness is one of the epidemics of our time. There’s loneliness and there’s heartbreak in the voices that inhabit Decoding Dust.
I call the creative environment that you need “the greening,” from Hildegard von Bingen’s word, viriditas. It means your space/time should have signals of encouragement, music, artwork, light, films, a spiritual-imaginative nourishment that allows you to make associations and imagine stories.
“I’m indebted to York’s English department for the encouragement to teach my courses – on Visionaries, on McLuhan and Frye. The courses are my children, in a way.” – B.W. Powe
Q: What writers inspired you to write?
A: When I read Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, I thought: I want to write. Then I read Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel and Of Time and the River... Virginia Woolf’s The Waves… Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf… They were extraordinary books for me. I read McLuhan at an early age, and Sartre’s essays, Susan Sontag’s books. They inspired my essays.
The poets who spoke to me early on were William Blake, Emily Dickinson, Arthur Rimbaud and William Butler Yeats. And song lyrics: I was a fan of Bob Dylan and The Who’s Pete Townshend. Patti Smith became another inspiring figure.
Q: Who are your favourite poets? What are you reading now?
A: Canadians, of course – I revere Anne Carson and A.F. Moritz – and many European, South American and Spanish poets. Rainer Maria Rilke, César Vallejo, Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, Antonio Machado. I’m currently reading Rubén Darío. He’s Nicaraguan. I revere Federico Garcia Lorca and I’ve been translating his lyrics. It’s the way I teach myself Spanish. My wife is Spanish and she says that my translations are good. I think she’s being nice. I’m also reading Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy, Gilead, Home and Lila, novels I admire very much. I’m re-reading George Steiner’s After Babel on translation.
Q: Can you speak to York’s support for your work and how York fosters excellence?
A: There has been very strong support. Recently, York funded a theatre project by the Dead Tree Medium Group, which will transform Decoding Dust into works for stage and video.
A great thing York has given me is time. I’m indebted to York’s English department for the encouragement to teach my courses – on Visionaries, on McLuhan and Frye. The courses are my children, in a way. I suppose they’re a little unusual in the curriculum, but they’ve been encouraged. That kind of support on York’s part has been remarkable. I should mention that [former] Dean Bob Drummond was very keen on having a creative/scholarly mix in the English department, which has been maintained here extremely well. I’ve found fine colleagues here too.
The other great thing about being at York has been my students. I’ve been blessed in attracting extraordinary students.
“The fact that York University pays me to do this is one of the great gifts of the cosmos.” – B.W. Powe
Q: What’s the advice you would give a budding writer in your class?
A: Good luck! And courage, strength, stamina, inspirations and wisdom. Love what you do. Find the heart in it. Decoding Dust was another attempt to put the heart on the page. The first ultrasound we saw of our baby last week was of her/his heart. It was very moving. And I thought, well, that’s kind of what we’re doing here: trying to find a way to make the heart beat as loud as it can… to remind us how miraculous it all is.
I encourage students to set aside time and delve. Take a poem or a story, and read it over and over. You’d be amazed at how much awareness comes when you take time. I suggest: allow inspiration (from the Latin word inspiritus) to enter you. The second word I use is entheos, the Greek word for being filled with the Gods. It translates into our word “enthusiasm.” Another word is, again, “greening:” creating an environment in which awareness can deepen. The fourth word, duende, I’ve taken from the Spanish tradition. The word comes from Flamenco, meaning the rising to the moment.
It seems to me a spiritual crime to go into a classroom and dispirit people. You need to lift them. But it’s a two-way process: they inspire me, too. The fact that York University pays me to do this is one of the great gifts of the cosmos.