Thursday, 22 December 2011
Toronto Poets 5 Questions Series - Rob Rolfe
Rob Rolfe was born in London, Ontario. He was a trade union leader and librarian for many years. He now divides his time between Toronto and Wiarton. Saugeen (Quattro Books, 2011) is his most recent book of poetry. He has also published The Hawk (Quattro Books, 2008), and two poetry chapbooks with LyricalMyrical press. His poems have appeared in The Fiddlehead, Grain, Windsor Review, Our Times and many other Canadian publications.
Rolfe’s poetry explores themes of nature, work, aboriginal history and struggles for social justice throughout the Americas. Saugeen reads like a road trip, beginning in the former Saugeen Tarritory in Ontario, and then extending to other parts of Canada and the Americas. These are deeply personal poems linking present conditions to the historical past, and moving backward and forward in time. The book best reflects the author’s belief in the dignity of work, the sanctity of nature and the fight for social justice.
The Pacific Hotel
This is the Sauking, though most still call it the Bruce,
ignorant of the peninsula’s long history. We are sitting at
a small table in Wiarton at the Pacific Hotel. I am eating
a sandwich and drinking beer. At the bar are several of the
town regulars, but not one person from the reserve. The
bar is fancier now, but it’s still thick with smoke, as if
nothing has changed.
The last time I saw her was at this same hotel. I’d just run
down the hill with my sisters and friends, to grab a quick
beer, minutes before the wedding at the top of the hill. The
room was packed, and loud with laughter, a real Saturday
crowd. At a nearby table, looking very old, sat Charlotte
Solomon. I gazed at her, but she didn’t recognize me.
you give in
and go in
to the smoke
the gray ash
of the foundry
you give up
for eight hours
to talk when
TTQ - Your past vocations have been quite diverse and unrelated to one another, from being a trade union leader and then a librarian. What are the similarities between the two and to what degree have these experiences influenced you as a poet, and were you writing poetry throughout your working years and at what point did you decide to take it more seriously?
Rob Rolfe - I was a librarian in the North York and Toronto Public Library systems and a trade union leader for almost 30 years. These are people-centred careers, and my writing is primarily about people and places. I did a lot of writing in my union work. Writing for blue collar workers especially, who demand you get to the point right away, was very good training for the type of poetry I write. I began writing poetry, and occasionally publishing in journals, in the 1970s. I continued to write throughout my working life. I credit my friends at Quattro Books for publishing The Hawk and Saugeen, and for giving me the opportunity to have my work more widely read.
TTQ - Your latest collection of poetry Saugeen (Quattro Books, 2011) has been described as reading like a road trip. What was the genesis of the book and how personal are these poems to you? Would you best describe the writing of Saugeen as a cathartic experience for you in many ways?
Rob Rolfe - The genesis of Saugeen is in my belief that the recorded history of this region of Ontario is incomplete. It omits many uncomfortable secrets, and it portrays a one-sided history of events. I wanted to use the idea of a road-trip to explore, with fresh eyes, familiar places, the beauty of the natural landscape, people I’ve known and my own life. In this sense, yes, the poems are quite personal, though I try to write in an accessible style that will invite readers to bring their own experiences to the poems.
TTQ - What particular message or ideal were you most hoping to convey to readers through the poems contained in Saugeen and how helpful is any feedback you receive from reading your new poems first in front of a live audience?
Rob Rolfe - I wanted to write about the difficult and often overlooked lives of working people, whose lives and social institutions, such as trade unions, are undervalued in our society. Another difficult theme I wanted to explore in Saugeen is what an artist friend of mine from Israel describes as the “guilt” that comes with possessing land that once belonged to others. The Saugeen Territory, as it was once known, was the traditional homeland of the Saugeen Ojibwa before the arrival in Upper Canada of tens of thousands of European settlers. The first six short poems at the start of Saugeen were written in a newer style for me. I began reading them to live audiences shortly after they were written. The audience response, along with useful feedback from friends, helped me to find a voice and a shape for this book as a whole.
TTQ - Do you write poetry daily and what does your writing process consist of, and when do you know that you've written a good poem?
Rob Rolfe - I carry my writing with me constantly, scribbling ideas into notebooks, searching for poems inside my head. I write mainly very short poems, so I don’t need to sit at a desk to compose. Eventually, though, I do use a computer for the difficult stage of building or constructing a poem from an initial image, thought or observation. A good poem for me is one that reads well and has a flow, a rhythm, and usually a visual image. It must be truthful to my own life experience. For me, such poems don’t come easily, and require hard work and persistence to avoid that sometimes fatal desire to finish a poem prematurely.
TTQ - What are your opinions on the recent Occupy Toronto and Occupy Wall Street protests that were happening in many prominent cities worldwide? Do you think the message of Occupy protesters was muddled in many ways or was their message for you loud and clear in your opinion, and to what degree do you think poetry could have enhanced or influenced the Occupy manifesto?
Rob Rolfe - The Occupy protests are a work-in-progress, but I think they have struck a chord with many, mainly because they tap into a widely-held belief that our economic system is in crisis, and that the concentration of vast wealth and power in the hands of big business, banks, the IMF (the so-called “1%”) is at the root of this problem. These protests are part of a worldwide movement in search of democratic and progressive social change. There has always been a place for artists and poets in this struggle. African-American and Latin American poets like Langston Hughes, Gwendolyn Brooks, Amiri Baraka, Cesar Vallejo and Pablo Neruda are perfect examples. Similarly, many poets, artists and singers of modern Quebec (Gaston Miron, Jacques Ferron, Gilles Vigneault, Pauline Julien) played an important role in the shaping of a more dynamic and progressive modern society from a colonial past.