John Steffler

John Steffler, poet, novelist (born at Toronto, ON 13 Nov 1947). John Steffler was raised near Thornhill, Ontario and resides in Corner Brook, Newfoundland. Following stints as a farm hand, janitor, carpenter, shoe maker, library clerk and substitute teacher, he entered University College, UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO, receiving his BA (Honours) in English. He continued his studies at the UNIVERSITY OF GUELPH, where he received his MA in English, reading a range of Western and Eastern literature and thought. Steffler has held various academic positions, leading to Professor of English at the MEMORIAL UNIVERSITY OF NEWFOUNDLAND's Sir Wilfred Grenfell College.

John Steffler's extensive body of work includes the novel The Afterlife of George Cartwright (1992), which was nominated for a GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD (1992) and won the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Fiction Award (1993), and the children's book Flights Of Magic (1987). Among his books of POETRY are An Explanation of Yellow (1981), The Grey Islands (1985, 2000), The Wreckage of Play (1988), and That Night We Were Ravenous (1998), winner of the 1999 Atlantic Poetry Prize. Subsequent volumes include Helix: New and Selected Poems (2002) and Lookout (2010), which was shortlisted for the 2011 GRIFFIN POETRY PRIZE. From December 2006 to November 2008 Steffler held the position of Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate.

John Steffler's work shows the influence of his studies in Chinese philosophy and Japanese literature in translation. The poems exhibit a profound sense of place, which serves as the template for his considerations of his culture as seen through the experience of his memory and sense of identity. Yet this is not the Zen stillness we might expect from Asian influences; his language is extraordinarily vivid, almost surreal in its evocative imagery, as well as wide ranging in mood and tone. He can be colloquial, as in the poem "Invited In:" "God... interesting keeping/in your kitchen... why/not I guess when you've got so/many flowers around... they/certainly make a warm sound." He is keenly engaged in awareness of the world and his relation to it, as in "March 22:" "Sitting outside with a book/for the first time this year--/on the blue walls/the birds scribbling/wildly with brilliant/crayons/...I want to paint the inside walls of my skull with these/scrawls..."

The poem that perhaps most exemplifies these qualities of vivid imagery and immediacy is the title poem of the volume That Night We Were Ravenous; driving on a rainy night with a companion, Steffler suggests an averted auto accident, describing the landscape as if it were "a cow MOOSE" dancing "over the roof of our car wearing moccasins." There follows a stream of startling and wildly humorous imagery, where the "trees detached themselves from the shaggy/shoulder and stepped in front of the car... maybe a hunchbacked horse with goiter, maybe a team of beavers/ trying to operate stilts..." These discrete epiphanies follow one upon another, like the events of our lives allegedly passing before us on the verge of death. Steffler and his companion view this cascade of instants in the very heat of the occurrence. By the end of the poem, exhilarated by their survival of a catastrophic personal event, they are "ravenous... We entered one another like animals entering/ woods./ That night we slept deeper than ever./ Our dreams bounded after her like excited hounds." Such is the power of Steffler's poetry.