Interview with Canadian Writer, Richard Osler

Photo: Richard Osler

Photo: Richard Osler

Richard Osler used to live the poetics of the stock market’s rise and fall as a specialty money manager. Now, he lives to capture the sound of word-rise and word-fall, as a poet and poetry workshop facilitator. His chapbook Where the Water Lives was published by Leaf Press in 2012 and his poems have been accepted in numerous journals including the Malahat Review, Prarie Fire, Antigonish Review, Ruminate and CV2 which published a feature interview with him in its Winter 2011 issue. A recent poem was long-listed for the 2015 PRISM international poetry prize. He also leads weekend writing retreats for poets and facilitates poetry workshops, once or twice a week, in a drug and alcohol recovery centre in the Cowichan Valley, Vancouver Island, B.C. where he has lived since 2010.

Geosi Gyasi: I learned from online that the renowned Canadian doctor, Sir William Osler was related to you. Could you tell us what we ought to know about this great doctor?

Richard Osler: Since our interview is focused on writing and poetry my first response would be that Osler (1849 – 1919) was physician in the 1880’s to Walt Whitman, the American poet who is considered one of the pioneers of modern poetry. I would like to say Osler liked Whitman’s poetry but it was too “out there” for him. But this is not why Osler is still renowned today around the world even though he died almost hundred years ago. Ironically, he is, dare I say it, revered by many doctors even today as the equivalent of Whitman for modern medicine, one of its most important pioneers.

Osler’s massive literary output contributes to his reputation: he wrote more than fifteen hundred, books, articles, pamphlets and scientific papers in his lifetime including  his textbook – The Principles and Practices of Medicine published in 1892 . It lasted as an authoritative educational medical resource for almost 30 years.

One of his best known essays — Aequanimitas — was handed out to graduating doctors in North America for maybe as long as fifty years! Aequanimitas, which means even minded, was the motto on Osler’s coat of arms when he was knighted by the King of England in `1911. I named my money management business Aequanimitas in his honour!

But even more than his medical and scientific texts, his numerous quotes on what it is to be a successful human being as well as a great doctor is what make him so well known. At least two volumes of his quotes have been published in the past thirty years.

Here is one of my favorite Osler quotes which also celebrates poetry:

Nothing will sustain you more potently that the power to recognize in your humdrum routine, as perhaps it may be thought, the true poetry of life – the poetry of the commonplace, of the ordinary man, of the plain toil worn woman with their loves and their joys, their sorrows and their griefs.

What’s uncanny to me in this quote is its call to pay attention. The same call all poets are given. The best doctors and poets pay attention. For a doctor that is called being a great diagnostician. Osler, by all accounts I have read, was one of the best in his time.

Geosi Gyasi: Who gave you the permission to become a writer?

Richard Osler: I never thought about writing needing permission from any outside source. For me, as long as I can remember, writing was a basic need. It was the way I could prove I existed outside of myself.

Geosi Gyasi: Could you determine how many years you’ve been writing?

Richard Osler: Since I was a small boy, so for more than fifty five years. But much of that writing, until the past twelve years when I rediscovered poetry, was through journalism and journals and for the past five years through a blog on my website (recoveringwords.com).

Geosi Gyasi: What is the most important aspect of writing?

Richard Osler: To write, no matter what. Mood-on, mood-off. Do I do that? No. But if I don’t I carry that resistance with me, sometimes for days, until I do.

Geosi Gyasi: Have you ever thought about how you want to be addressed – a poet or writer?

Richard Osler: I don’t care what people call me. I ‘m the one I care about calling a poet or writer. Yesterday and the day before I was a poet. I wrote a poem each day. Today I am a writer, responding to your questions and starting a new blog post. And maybe I will be a poet today as well!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you apply the same principles of writing poetry to non-fiction?

Richard Osler: The same principle: do it! A non-fiction writer writes non-fiction. A poet writes poems!

Geosi Gyasi: What is your greatest achievement as a poet?

Richard Osler: Writing the “next” poem. I say this slightly tongue in cheek but it holds a big truth. I only grow as a poet by reading the poems of others and writing my own. The more “next” poems I write the greater the chance I will write a poem that matters to me and others.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you earn a living from writing?

Richard Osler: No. I earn my life. Every time I write a poem which requires me to pay attention to my life and the world around me I pour money into my “life account”. Forget the bank account! By writing I remember what I forgot and my life gets larger. I become more of who I am! So much of what we do and who we are falls away but writing can recapture it. Yes!

To add something: very few people I know, if any, make enough money just from writing poetry to get by. Outside of so-called spoken word artists like Canadian Shane Koyczan ( one of the best in the world) or England’s Kate Tempest maybe just university professors who write and teach poetry can be said to make a living through poetry! But it’s their teaching that brings home the bacon or should I say the tofu!

Outside spoken word poets and the university system the only poet I can say for certain makes a living solely from poetry would be David Whyte (born in the UK but now lives in the U.S.) who uses his poems and the poems of others to inspire audiences all over the world. He takes poetry and makes it relevant in the lives of his readers and listeners. And he makes big bucks doing it.

Geosi Gyasi: Your poems have been published in a number of places including The Antigonish Review, The Other Journal, Ruminate magazine, Prairie Fire and a host of others. Do you have a favorite among all the poems you’ve written?

Richard Osler: Never thought of that question. Maybe my favorite in terms of a poem I use a lot at readings is one I wrote during divorce proceedings with a former wife. My lawyer had sent me a note about poetry and I began to write a poem based on splitting up our poetry collection which is huge. We didn’t actually split the collection. I kept it. But the idea kicked off a poem “Two Poets Divorce” which my lawyer often gives to new clients.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have a secret place you sit down to write?

Richard Osler: No. I can write anywhere but most often it’s here in an upstairs library where I am writing this. I am surrounded by more than two thousand poetry books I have collected during the past fifteen to twenty years.

Geosi Gyasi: You lead poetry writing retreats and work with recovering addicts using poetry as a source for transformation. Could you educate us on how you use poetry as a tool for recovering addicts?

Richard Osler: I use it by using it! Many people have not experienced the impact of a great poem in their lives ever, or at least since their school years. And even then poetry wasn’t being delivered as something that could change them but as an intellectual exercise. What does it mean? I don’t give a darn about what a poem “means”, I care how it makes someone feel less alone, more alive. As if the writer could have been writing from that reader’s or listener’s life and experience.

Let me quote something President Obama said during Poetry month this past April:

Poetry matters.  Poetry — like all art — gives shape and texture and depth of meaning to our lives.  It helps us know the world.  It helps us understand ourselves.  It helps us understand others — their struggles, their joys, the ways that they see the world.  It helps us connect…..

Sometimes it’s only after reading a poem — or writing a poem — that we understand something that we already went through, that we felt, that we experienced…..A good poem can make hard times a little easier to survive, and make good times a lot sweeter. 

Poetry helps us understand ourselves! Yes. Thank you President Obama.

But let me get specific. I use poetry in two ways:

I use poems of others to engage the patients. To make them sit up and take notice

Then I will take a line from one of the poems I have read and ask the clients to write from that line.

I have witnessed poems created this way almost five thousand times. And almost every time the writer is shocked by what they wrote. But because they discover the mysterious secret at the heart of writing poetry: a poem writes us, we don’t write it. Or to put this another way: we write a poem so we may know! Not just to tell what we already know.

I collect quotes by writers who describe this mysterious process: here are three by three women writers, Canadian poet, Susan Musgrave, American poet, Alicia Ostriker and British writer, Jeanette Winterson.

Poems always seem to know more than I do and to be wiser than I am, as far as I can see. That’s also what’s magical about writing. Where do these things come from?

Susan Musgrave from an interview with Joseph Planta, February 2014

When I was young I used to plan my poems. I knew what I wanted them to ‘say.’ Now they are like crawling into the dark. I write in order to understand what confuses/troubles/baffles me. I write to clarify what I’m feeling. I write to include the contradictions, wrestle the obsessions, because I don’t know who I am when I’m not writing.

Alicia Ostriker from God in the House, Tupelo Press, 2012

Jeanette Winterson from Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Vintage International, 1995

I love these quotes. But especially Musgrave’s quote: Poems always seem to know more than I do and to be wiser than I am. And then Winterson’s quote which expresses the healing that come from the given-wisdom of our poems.

Sometimes the feeling or emotion revealed by a poet from their poem can be life changing. An example from a recent writing session is this line from the Asian-American poet Li-Young Lee: What kept you alive/ all those years kept you from living. For the exercise I changed this to “What kept me alive, all those years kept me from living. Some great poems came out of that line! Many of the writers realized how their coping mechanism had blinded them to the life going on in front of them.

Often I will also use the line: I Remember as a writing prompt. This idea comes from the book of that title written in the 1960’s by Joe Brainard. His book of I remember’s was one hundred and sixty five pages long!

Here is poem, with permission, by a woman who surprised herself utterly by what she wrote:

 

I Remember

I remember seeing my three year old sister

sitting in Uncle Jimmy’s lap

 

I remember thinking Uh Oh

 

I remember walking up to the arm chair

 

I remember tapping my sister on the leg

to get her to come outside to play

 

I remember I was four

 

I remember the sun was shining and Aunt Alice

was vacuuming

What a remarkable poem. (I have changed the names of the uncle and aunt in the poem to protect the writer’s anonymity.)What a shocking last line. No amount of that kind of vacuuming could clean up Aunt Alice’s life! When this client walked into the writing workshop her abusive uncle was not on her mind! But when she wrote I Remember, this memory showed up. Not one of the thousands upon thousands of memories she has but this one. This gave words to an abusive situation the writer had encountered as a child and one she had not shared publically before. I think that poem was very important for her, for her recognition of the impact of that event on her life and her addiction.

This poem is such a great example of why poetry matters and not just to recovering addicts. And Jeanette Winterson in another quote says it so well: A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry is. That is what literature offers – a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place.

In an interview in The Times in 2007 Winterson gave perhaps my favorite quote on the healing and nature of poetry: If I break my leg, I’ll go to a doctor. If I break my heart or if the world breaks my spirit, I will go to a poet.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you come to write, “Where the Water Lives”?

Richard Osler: Where the Water Lives is a small format chapbook of small poems I began to write during a poetry retreat with the Canadian writer and poet Patrick Lane. He encouraged us to write a short imagistic poem everyday, one that just describes an image you see. His point was that in most cases that simple description will become a metaphor whether you like it or not!

Here is the first poem I wrote in the series that inspired all the others:

 

Beach Cathedral

The ocean sounds

its Gregorian chants

to a congregation

of crows, tidal rocks

and a heron,

the small fish

               dangling.

This happened at the beginning of the Christian season of Lent so I decided to keep writing these small poems for almost forty days.

Where the Water Lives by Richard Osler

Where the Water Lives by Richard Osler

Geosi Gyasi: What inspired your book, “Again, No More, Poems of Africa”?

Richard Osler: Ah, this needs a longish answer especially since you are an African and I am not. I first went to Africa in 2004 with a friend who had a foundation that was funding water wells in the Gwembe Valley in Zambia between Lusaka and Livingston. We were hearing much about the agonies of Africa, especially the AIDS epidemic, and I wanted to have a first hand experience. I still remember a list on a school teacher’s wall of all the children in the school based on whether or not they were single-parent or double-parent orphans. Now, that put the AIDS horror is stark relief. (That program has now funded more than four hundred wells and an on-going maintenance program means less than 5% of them or not working at any given time.)

That trip led to another in Zambia in 2005 and then another to war-effected areas of Africa in 2006. This trip was brutal for me. My trips to Zambia did not prepare me for the reality of what war-related violence does to a country and its people. We visited Northern Uganda still suffering from the Lord’s Resistance Army, Rwanda and its unbearable history and then to Goma in the Eastern Congo where warfare was still on-going and especially the war of rape against women.

The only way I could deal with my shock from all the stories I heard was to write poems each night during that trip. Those poems turned into a small book of poems, Again, No More. I had to write those poems, to place into a container, some kind or order, the chaos created inside me by what I was seeing and hearing.

But let me be clear as well, I was also overwhelmed with the unquenchable resilience in so many people we met. They had something, an essence, that I can only define as a mysterious joyousness and commitment to living, in spite of all their suffering. Out of it came a generosity of spirit not a smallness of spirit.

I met a woman on a trip up to a safe house for women in a village near where fighting had overtaken it a few years ago, and again a few months later. The house was for women, suffering from fistula’s caused by rape or childbirth, or recovering after surgery in Goma. This woman exuded a warm and generous optimism. She worked tirelessly for a widow’s group in her spare time and for her job, on outreach programs for women including those recovering from fistula repair through the NGO Heal Africa, based in Goma, DR Congo.

On the way up in the back of a pick-up I learned that her husband had been murdered eight years before by thieves in her home, in front of her children, as she was in hospital, having delivered her daughter the day before. For me, growing up in a safe and prosperous Canadian neighbourhood in Toronto, this seemed inconceivable. From her story I wrote this poem, probably still my favorite from that collection.

 

Now I Am Eight

(Goma, DR Congo)

My father came home

and the men came too,

to rob him.

But there was no money

so he died there

in front of me

and my sister.

My mother was not home.

She had given birth

the day before.

I was five then.

Now I’m eight.

I tell my mother

I am ready to put

flowers on the grave.

She says if I do

I will be the next to die.

I say: there are many ways

in Africa to die.

I am still in touch with this boy, now a young man, through Facebook! Although, it is difficult because he speaks French and I don’t but enough to get a flavour of him. A few months after I wrote this poem his mother did take him to his father’s grave. What a remarkable young man he is. So engaged and optimistic about his life in spite of living in an area that can erupt back into a war zone at any moment.

Geosi Gyasi: How did you arrive at the title of your book, “Not Yet”?

Richard Osler: The title of this limited edition chapbook (fifteen poems) comes from the title of the first poem in the collection:

 

Not Yet

Death’s proximity startles life

into ferocious abundance –

even death hesitates against

that intensity – seems an eternity.

It’s a held-breath – a moment.

The surfer speeds on and on

while the wave waits, suspended

not yet a fist.

I haven’t read this in years. I cringe somewhat with all the abstractions in this poem. I am reminded by a line in a poem called Tenderness by Stephen Dunn: Oh abstractions are just abstract//until they have an ache in them. Isn’t that a great line?

I am not sure my poem has enough ache in it. It’s about remembering to pay attention, to look at life with eyes wide open since life is so short. To appreciate each day because we are not dead – not yet. In an interview a few years ago Stephen Dunn, after a reading where he didn’t realize how much “death” was in his poems said: a poet came up to me afterward, shook my hand, and said, “Mortality: a poet’s best friend.” Love and death, the engine rooms for poems I guess!

Geosi Gyasi: What is the motive behind your poem, “A Month Before She Left”?

Richard Osler: Well, I just finished saying that love and death are the trigger for most poems! In this case it was the death of a twenty year marriage that ended up being central to this poem. The poem has gone through many revisions but the story of the newt that looked drowned in the pool, but came alive and disappeared, prompted this poem.

 

A Month Before She Left

At the pool’s bottom, past

any reflection,

including her wavering face,

she sees the newt

belly-up

             wrong coloured

as Bowering says

about his snake. Belly up –

how much easier it is to say,

without a quaver, than death.

She finds the pool scoop,

fishes out the body, places

it on her palm, arranges

the feet, curls the tail,

then puts it on the top plate

of the pool-side light and waits.

Why bother, he wants to say.

Just a newt. But then, later,

when she turned back

to look and said: it’s gone,

he thought she meant

                             the newt.

When I first was writing this poem I thought about the newt’s seemingly miraculous resurrection but later I wondered if it was a metaphor for something that came alive in my wife’s life . Something that led to her leaving.

Geosi Gyasi: I am wondering how long it took you to write, “The Trouble a Poet Is”?

Richard Osler: When you asked about a favorite poem this one came close to the top. In many ways it was a gift, a found poem, of sorts, through my work with recovering addicts. And it was also a gift because I wrote it in about ten minutes. It was done. Not usual for me! As I was answering written questions to an interview for a feature article on me in a Canadian literary magazine, one question prompted this poem. And the editor published it!

 

The Trouble A Poet Is

At a centre for recovering addicts,

a hollowed out place with echoes inside,

I come prepared with twenty-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 – Old Crow, Jim Beam,

Johnny Walker Red, or Maker’s 46.

At first, blind stares: the look of fish

too long in the net or, up from the depths,

cavers too long in a crawlway.

Then some words: my wife; a prison.

And this: A wrecking ball made of glass,

from the boy/man with his big-sass smile

and his tattooed swagger.

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. I am

thief and liar, too, call poets, their poems,

wrecking balls made of words.

Geosi Gyasi: What do you hope to achieve with your poetry workshops?

Richard Osler: I have to think this one through! I lead workshops for poets of all skill levels, from beginners to master poets. And I lead workshops for recovering addicts in one program and for their loved ones in another. With the writers’ workshops, which I call retreats, I focus on aspects of craft but also know even with that each poet is likely to be surprised with what appears in their poems. With the “recovery” workshops I just hope that each writer takes the risk to write even though they “know” it’s impossible, they can’t. And during these workshops I am still so astonished and happy when everyone manages to write something. It is rare to have someone not come up with something.

Geosi Gyasi: Do you ever regret becoming a writer?

Richard Osler: Strange question for me. For most of my life, except when I was a business journalist for four years back in the 1970’s I have not thought of myself first as writer. Iive always thought of myself as something else first and a writer second. So if I have a regret it’s that I didn’t fully embrace being a writer forty years ago!

Geosi Gyasi: Between 2004 and 2006, you took three trips to Africa. Could you tell us what brought you to Africa and your thoughts about Africa?

Richard Osler: I have talked a lot about Africa in a previous question. But it still haunts me. After those early trips I co-founded a charity in 2009 to support on-going projects for women and children in the Great Lakes region of Africa. I learned that the experts were the local nationals on the ground. They came up with the projects and the ways to make them successful. Our support was financial. Yes, the money was important but I always felt we were the ones who benefitted most! The women I met through our projects, especially in the DR Congo, they have been my greatest teachers! Their bravery, their resilience. What life knowledge do I have that comes close to theirs? Not a lot!

Geosi Gyasi: Do you have any literary forebears?

Richard Osler: Yes. I have mentioned Sir William Osler. Although he was a doctor his literary output was astonishing on many topics, not just science and medicine. One of his books which I cherish most is tiny. It’s called A Way of Life. It was the convocation address he delivered at Yale in 1913. The language may feel a little dated but the wisdom is timeless. Live your life one day at a time!

A niece of Osler’s, Anne Wilkinson, was an accomplished Canadian poet who some critics feel never got her due, whose work needs to be revisited. She also wrote a history of the Canadian Osler family – Lions in the Way — that created quite a scandal and stir in the family. Her name was a dirty word in my family when I was young. I had no idea she was such a fine poet!

On my mother’s side of the family, my great, great, great Grandfather wrote a diary of his early life in Canada in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s that was published in a book called Ten Years in Upper Canada. He was captured by native American and he was the only survivor. One day I would like to work on something based on it.

Geosi Gyasi: Are you currently working on any new project(s)?

Richard Osler: I have been working on a full-length poetry manuscript for about seven years! Its latest version, unrecognizable from its first version, is out with publishers as we speak. It has made a few short lists but so far remains unpublished. My fingers remain in a permanently crossed position!

And I am always looking for topics for blog posts and new material for my workshops. Right now the floor in my office is littered with about sixty poetry books! Oh, the joy of poetry!

END.

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