The Next Chapter·Proust Questionnaire

Iconic Canadian poet Dennis Lee wishes he was a better singer

The Canadian literary icon answers The Next Chapter's version of the Proust Questionnaire.
Dennis Lee s a Canadian poet, teacher, editor and critic. (The Canadian Press)

This interview originally aired on April 18, 2020.

Dennis Lee has been writing poetry for more than 50 years.

Lee's career spans nearly 40 books, including the 1972 Governor General's Literary Award winner Civil Elegies and the iconic children's poetry collection Alligator Pie, which is credited with starting a boom in Canadian children's publishing in the 1970s.

In 1967, he co-founded House of Anansi Press with writer Dave Godfrey and edited early works by luminaries like Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Austin Clarke. He is also an officer of the Order of Canada.

His most recent book is Heart Residencewhich collects 50 years of his poetry.

Lee stopped by The Next Chapter to take its version of the Proust Questionnaire.

Tell me about your favourite character in fiction? 

"My favourite character in fiction — if I could be that person, that character — would be an impossible combination of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Don Quixote has all the impossible out-of-date idealism that I identify with strongly and Sancho Panza has all the sly down-to-earth realism that I wish I had."

If you could change something about yourself what would it be?

"I would be able to sing on key — that would make a difference in the shower — but it would make a bigger difference to what I do with music. I write song lyrics but I'm completely unable to write full songs. I always have to work with a composer because if you can't sing, the likelihood of writing a melody that has any interest at all is about zero."

My greatest fear that we will destroy the earth and make it uninhabitable for most species.​​​​​​

On what occasions do you lie?

"Sometimes I lie when I feel cornered and I'm not proud of that. Sometimes I lie when people show me their writing and there's no reason to speak harshly about it."

What is your greatest regret? 

"One of my regrets — because music speaks so deeply to me and because kinaesthetic rhythms are so much a part of how I write — is that I'm not able to do anything in music myself except work collaboratively with actual musicians in making songs. Same thing with the children's poetry that I write. I have no ability in visual art. The idea of conceiving a book from start to finish as a whole thing — words and images — is beyond me."

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? 

"In a world where there is so much real excruciating misery, it's almost obscene to say anything but to honour the suffering that so many people go through. At a more individual level, it seems to me that if you were approaching the end of your life and you looked back and said, 'You know there was something I really, really wanted to do to try to test myself to explore and I never did it.' Knowing that you no longer had the chance to do that, that would be deeply disappointing."

Poet Dennis Lee interviewed about "Heart Residence," which brings together 50 years of his work, on location at the Writers at Woody Point Festival, in Newfoundland. 12:35

Where would you like to live?

"I would like to live on a deserted beach, with a rainforest all around me, in the middle of a vibrant metropolis." 

What is your idea of perfect happiness?

"I would say falling asleep with my honey beside me — with music that we both love just hanging in the air, faintly and slowly playing."

What is your greatest fear? 

"My greatest fear that we will destroy the earth and make it uninhabitable for most species."

Who are your favourite heroes in real life?

"One of them is Stephen Lewis, particularly for the work he's done in Africa as the special envoy from the United Nations on HIV and AIDS. The thing that just takes my breath away is a combination: the role didn't exist until he invented it — and nobody knew how to go about it. He totally created the position. He was willing to stand up and call out all kinds of people who were obstructing the way. It makes you proud to be a Canadian, to see someone who has made a difference that way."

What is your greatest achievement?

"Sometimes I've been able to listen authentically. A small number of times I've been able to coax words to enact what I can hear and feel."

Dennis Lee's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

Sometimes the best audio happens after our interviews end. In this case, Dennis Lee read Michael one of his awful poems. We're happy to share it with you. 1:21

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