Barry Dempster | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Barry Dempster

Barry Dempster, poet, editor, fiction writer (born at Scarborough, ON, 17 January 1952). Barry Dempster came to literature through a side door.

Barry Dempster

Barry Dempster, poet, editor, fiction writer (born at Scarborough, ON, 17 January 1952). Barry Dempster came to literature through a side door. Upon completing his studies in child PSYCHOLOGY in 1974, he worked in Toronto with Children's Aid and the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital, and spent fifteen years as a member of the emergency crisis unit of the Queen Street Mental Health Centre in Toronto. In these endeavors, his focus was on special needs children, an influence which manifested in his writing, and in his approach to conducting writing workshops in grade and high schools.

Dempster launched his literary career in 1978 with an appearance in the POETRY anthology Tributaries: Writer to Writer, which he edited. In 1982 he published his first volume, Fables For Isolated Men, which was shortlisted for a GOVERNOR GENERAL'S LITERARY AWARD. He has since published a novel (The Ascension of Jesse Rapture,1993), two collections of short fiction (Real Men and Imaginary Places, 1984; Writing Home, 1991), a children's book (David and the Daydreams, 1985) and twelve subsequent volumes of poetry. They include Globe Doubts (1983), Positions To Pray In (1989), Fire and Brimstone (2000), The Words Wanting Out, Selected and New Poems (2003) and The Burning Alphabet (2005), which was shortlisted for a Governor General's Literary Award and won the 2006 CANADIAN AUTHORS ASSOCIATION Jack Chalmers Poetry Award. In 2010, Dempster was a finalist for the Ontario Premier's Award for Excellence in the Arts.

Dempster was a founding editor of Poetry Canada Review, and served as Poetry and Reviews editor from 1990 to 1997. He currently serves as an acquisitions editor with Brick Books. He has been on the faculty of the BANFF CENTRE as mentor of the Writing Studio, Wired Writing and Writing With Styles programs. Dempster has twice served as Writer in Residence at the Richmond Hill Public Library, and has mentored numerous writing seminars, among them Saskatchewan's Sage Hill and the Upper Canada Writers' workshop in Kingston, Ontario. He lives in Holland Landing, Ontario.

Barry Dempster's background in child psychology provides a grounding for many of his poems. In such pieces as "Disappearing Grandmothers," he touches on a child's awe of elder family members no longer present in the daily, visible world, but from an adult perspective: "Nana was the one with the Bible/waving in her mauve hand, eclipsing/a perfect summer's day. Grammie/preferred pocketbooks, Valley of the/Dolls, tragedies she could/stuff in an apron pocket." In "The Dead Are Watching Us," he vividly conjures up "...grandfathers,/ great-aunts with faces yellow as bungalow bricks,/distant pioneers administering desire in long/lingering looks, their stone-cold irises enthralled."

The influence of a background in psychology is also evident in poems which explore the personal vulnerabilities inherent in apprehensions of the psychological, the spiritual and the mundane, such as "The Morning Devours" where "The wind shrieks up and down the house/like a predatory bird...snakes hitting blunt heads/ on bedroom walls, the sun leaping/ through windows like a tiger." One of his most representative poems, "Unconditional Love," finds Dempster at play with his dog: "Her tongue making territory of my body./ Almost heredity, this doggy love./Dad and his Airedale/crossing childhood at a trot." The poem questions the separation of human and animal spheres, presenting an image of literal, earthly bonding together: "Are there dogs in heaven? I asked/my souls is what she said.../I'd rather grow/a tail than a stiff pair of wings."

Barry Dempster, in all his poems, acknowledges the imprint of sensations and memories that form the basis of personality, and he does so in vivid, precise language and imagery that evokes a visceral response. For over 30 years, his work has shown us the love underlying all our responses to the sometimes bewildering world in which we find ourselves.