Poet Roo Borson takes students on a Short Journey Upriver

On Thursday, Oct. 7, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented poet Roo Borson. Chris Cornish, a teaching assistant in the Canadian Writers in Person course, sent the following report to YFile.

…Do you still love poetry?
Below the willows, in the dry winter reeds,
banjo frogs begin a disconcerting raga,
one note each, the rustling blades grow green…

The evening of Oct. 7 brought the students and faculty of the Canadian Writers in Person series together to hear a reading by acclaimed Toronto poet Roo Borson. The author of 10 books of poetry, Borson has been described by The Washington Post as “one of the best-known Canadian poets of her generation. She’s a clear writer, clear-minded, with a dark and musical imagination.”

Right: Roo Borson; photo by Sue Schenk

Borson was accompanied to the reading by her long-time collaborator, Kim Maltman, a professor of mathematics at York. Borson and Maltman, along with visual artist Andy Patton, formed the group Pain not Bread and worked together on a book of poetry titled Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei.

Before reading from her latest work, Short Journey Upriver Toward Oishida, Borson offered the audience some “instructions” for listening to the poetry. She asked students to allow it to play on their senses as a piece of music. As song lyrics sometimes lose a level of meaning when the music is removed, poetry also loses a dimension when it is read, but not heard. After the reading one student said, “When I heard her reciting her poetry, together with the inflection of her voice, many of the words brought thoughts, ideas, connections and images to my mind. It was quite an experience. I did not experience all of these reactions when I read the poetry for myself.”

In person, the students found Borson to be engaging, funny and illuminating. Asked about her initial attraction to poetry, she commented that she grew up with a lot of exposure to the form. In the mornings, her father used to recite Shakespeare and Wordsworth over the toaster, or while making scrambled eggs. Borson shared his love for the sound of words, particularly in translations of Japanese poetry.

When asked about the origin of the unusual title of her latest work, Borson referred to Basho, a 17th-century Japanese poet. Basho made a journey along the Mogami River, stopping at the village of Oishida in Japan. There the villagers consulted the poet for advice on their own poetry. Borson considers herself as one of those villagers, consulting Basho and his work as she makes her own journey upriver through her poetry.

Right: Illustration of Basho, a 17th-century Japanese poet

Concerned with the role of poetry in our time and culture, Borson explained to students who were initially put off by misconceptions of elitism in poetry that it is not about hidden meanings, but about resonance. She encouraged students to just read and see what happens, to embrace the mystery and to go from there.

Borson also addressed the themes of nature that appear consistently throughout her work. She emphasized that we are all a part of nature, so it is not something she consciously uses. More simply, she says, “we live in it. It’s a matter of what your eyes are open to. My world contains willows, birds and cherries.” She bases most of her poetry on her personal experience of the world, whether it is landscape, the death of her mother, or memories of home. From there she takes off to where she says, “clouds are being born….in the faint blue realms and down not buried deeply, but just below the sand, where fish live with lowered heartbeats until the rains come.”

More about Roo Borson

Borson was born in California in 1952. She received her master of fine arts degree from the University of British Columbia in 1977, and has since made Canada her home. Borson’s work appears in dozens of collections including the New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse, the Norton Introduction to Literature and the Norton Introduction to Poetry. The winner of both the CBC Prize for Poetry (1982 and again in 1989) and the CBC Prize for Personal Essays (1991), she has seen her work translated into Dutch, Hebrew, Italian, Serbo-Croatian, Chinese, Swedish and Czech. Shortlisted twice for a Governor General’s Literary Award, she won the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize in 1993 along with Kim Maltman and Andy Patton, her partners in the collaborative poetry group Pain Not Bread.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. Shani Mootoo, an up and coming novelist, will be the next author to read, on Oct. 21.

Chris Cornish recently graduated from the Atkinson Faculty of Liberal & Professional Studies with a BA (Honours) in liberal studies. He is currently working on a masters in interdisciplinary studies at York.