An Interview with Richard Osler

Clarise Foster: In Hyaena Season the poems reflect a range of personal revelation and experience — your youth, relationships, family, your journeys to Africa, your work with addictions. But to start at the beginning—the first poem in the book is “Baptism.” I am always curious about the piece a poet chooses to begin a collection, especially a first full-length collection. Why did you choose this poem and what did you envision it would give the reader?

Richard Osler: “Baptism” is about a dark rite of passage into life’s more complex truths and likewise, I hope, a poem of passage for the reader into the book, its themes. That somehow, what I found, buried in the swamp that day, was more than a skull, a calf’s skull, thank God, although in the instant of feeling it with my hands and my terror I did imagine far worse, a human skull. This was my first hands-on, first emotional, experience with life’s darker shadow, its more sinister element. My coming of age story without intermediation. I hope a reader will find their own story in this story and the most important part of the story — that we are not alone in this; and however we’re darkened by an experience, if we can face it and name it, more often than not, we can overcome it.

“Baptism” also serves to establish the place, the “local” as W.C. Williams named it, that has defined me and informs so many of the poems in the collection. My local was a large acreage northeast of Toronto in the Pine Ridge moraine. A rugged land of gravel hills and rich mixed forests. I roamed its hundreds of acres in my early years every weekend and summer. Its focal point — a ten-acre pond, fed by natural springs, and built by my Grandfather in the 1930s. That pond, its surrounds, haunt my dreams to this day, even though it was sold in the early 1990s. That property, even when not specifically mentioned, lies in the background of all the poems about my mother and father in the book.

When I started working with freelance editor Liz Philips on the manuscript, “Baptism” was the first poem of many I rewrote. She didn’t tell me what to do, just what didn’t work for her. In this case she thought the poem had more it wanted to be.

I was so discouraged. I was sure she was wrong. After all, the poem had already been published in the Antigonish Review. But I trusted Liz so I committed to making changes. One day I was reading an interview with Carl Phillips, the American poet. There, he talked about the so-called undertalk in some of his poems. A second voice creating questions, conversations inside a poem. Yes, I thought, I could let another voice ask questions and I could let that device help me find the larger poem. Larger in its meaning and size — more than 60 lines from 23.

CF: I am curious, which poem escaped revision?

RO: “Her Mother’s Death” escaped revision except for two line-break changes!

CF: I find it interesting that you begin Hyaena Season with poems about your relationship with your father and end it with poems with poems about your relationship with your mother—of those poems I found “Not a Bible Story” in the first section and “His Mother’s Flowers I” in the last are two of the most compelling poems in the book. Not only are they moving — but achingly fluent in their capacity to communicate that fraught sense of “love” that often shapes familial relationships. They are also remarkable for the fact that they in effect bookend the collection. At what point were these poems written — did they precede the other work or did they come after other poems—what was important for these poems to do?

RO: “His Mother’s Flowers” came earlier, in 1999. My first mother poem after writing father poems for years! “Not a Bible Story” came a few years later. “His Mother’s Flowers I,” which details the destruction of a prized tulip-bed, isn’t a revenge poem against my mother! I don’t remember what triggered the poem but as it wrote itself I began to understand my mother in a deeper way: her passion for flowers and my sense I rarely felt known or understood that in those early years. The poem made me face my act of violence and brought me to a peace with my mother, our misunderstandings, and helped me forgive both myself and her.

“Not a Bible Story” came out of a prompt by Canadian poet Patrick Lane during one of his retreats: Where does your story begin? A great prompt. It wasn’t until the first words appeared on the page that I knew what I was going to say. I had never thought of the impact of my father’s knives or other sharp-edged tools nor the Abraham/ Isaac dynamic in our relationship. As I answer you I see what I didn’t see before. How a knife or a pair of scissors in my “His Mother’s Flowers” connects to “Not a Bible Story” and to an episode about swords in the poem “Rights and Wrongs.”

I don’t think of readers as I write. But if I let a poem take me to a “true” place in my life, let it expose what I couldn’t see before, my hope would be that the reader might become curious about patterns and events in his or her life and be open to understanding them in a new way.

Richard Osler is a Vancouver Island-based poet, retreat facilitator and poetry therapist at an addiction recovery centre. Nothing in his previous lives as a business journalist with the Financial Post, on-air business columnist with CBC’s Morningside radio program and specialty money manager prepared him how he has witnessed poems become paths leading to wholeness for himself and others.