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Richard Greene: Striking gold in the kitchen sink

The Governor General's Award-winning poet pays tribute to his editor, Carmine Starnino, and the art of distilling a lifetime of poetry into one acclaimed volume.

"Don't worry about length. Send everything you've been working on," Carmine Starnino wrote in his e-mail. He seems to have added as an afterthought the subject line: "short of the kitchen sink." This became a touchstone for me - the kitchen sink is every damn thing I have ever accomplished as a poet.

image-richard.jpgAs editor of Signal Editions, the poetry imprint of Vehicule Press, Carmine was helping me solve a problem. Never prolific, I had been able to write a number of good poems - but over many years. They were scattered through unread and unreadable journals and my two books that slid instantly from the printing press into oblivion.

Carmine was going to publish a book that told the story of all my poems - that is, he would represent with a few works the early phases of my "career," and then show what I had become with unpublished works. It would be a "new and selected poems." That was in 2006, but I would have to wait in the queue for publication until 2009.

Three years in a poet's life can be a long time or no time at all. As it happened, we had no sooner agreed on the general outlines of a book that would appear than I found myself working on something new and different.

In the years following 9/11, I had travelled across the United States again and again by Greyhound and Amtrak. I kept elaborate journals describing the places I had seen and the conversations I had with strangers along the way. In 2003 I wrote a few lines of a poem based on these travels and laid it aside. In 2006, it came back to life, occupying me for a whole summer. I sent installment after installment to Carmine, insisting each was the last. In the end, the double-spaced typescript of the poem was 63 pages long.

Carmine took all that I gave him, made his choices, and found an order - placing gritty or humorous poems at the beginning, preparing for others of a different tone later. He rescued poems from my past that I had lost hope for, and he found room for the whole of "Over the Border."

When we went to Rideau Hall for the presentation of the Governor General's Award, I felt a little guilty that Carmine, nominated last year, has not received the honour. I don't believe it will be long delayed. He is truly a superb poet. And, of course, the best of all editors.

Richard Greene is the winner of the 2010 Governor General's Award for Poetry for his collection Boxing the Compass, described by the jury as "matchless." Born in Newfoundland and now a professor at the University of Toronto, Greene has eight other books to his credit, including a biography, Edith Sitwell: Avant-garde Poet, English Genius.

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