Episode 109: Dennis Cooley

The Small Machine Talks Episode 109: Dennis Cooley

recorded on September 28, 2023 1pm CST; 2pm EST

body works, University of Calgary Press, 2023: https://press.ucalgary.ca/books/9781773854496/

Dennis was on the show in November 2020:

The Small Machine Talks, Episode 69, November 2020

a great resource was the conversation Dennis had with the host of Historia Canadiana:


rob mclennan’s write up on body works: https://robmclennan.blogspot.com/2023/03/dennis-cooley-body-works.html

It was a pleasure to speak again to Dennis Cooley 3 years after our conversation in 2020. In this episode we talk about his latest poetry collection body works, published by University of Calgary Press earlier this year. It was also a delight to hear Dennis read several poems from the book.

dennis cooley has lived his creative life on the prairies, where he has been a poet, publisher, teacher, critic, theorist, anthologist, reviewer, organizer, mentor. He was the founding member and three times president of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, founding editor with Turnstone Press and a professor at St. John’s College at the University of Manitoba.

Dennis adds that he’s also taught in Germany for three summers.

Dennis emphasizes the importance of the materialism of the body, the book being a celebration of the body. He reads a few of the epigraphs that were not able to be included in the book. We elaborate on the connections between the body and the planet as mentioned in the Historia Canadiana. He describes the book also as a search for metaphors, how might you describe the body? He reads Ulysses Returns (p. 61) which connects to the poem Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats.

We discuss the pleasure of Dennis’ poetry, and of writing about the body, his sense of the world rooted in palpable things.

We talk about ways of dealing with pain as humour and humour as a kind of wisdom. dennis mentions his earlier book “departures.” with its humour. we shared our experiences of humour in the hospital. i mention the lack of euphemism in the book, the directness. dennis talks about how writing about painful experience is satisfying and comforting.

We muse about the idea of a reader, and the relationship between writer and reader. i talk about how body works is a timely book in its celebration of the body.

We speak about the use of “Cooley” as a character, and also the use of “the poet.” we discuss the problems with first person. He reads “the body arrives”, p. 50 and “a disquisition on beauty” p. 69.

I talk about the Vernacular Muse published by Turnstone Press. There’s an essay, Placing the Vernacular, which discusses eye / ear poetry. I ask Dennis about it in relation to body works. He talks about the pleasing qualities of the second person. There are several incidents of the address, “Dear Reader” in the book. dennis reads “right here dear reader” (p. 24).

I ask dennis to talk about the references to the creatures of the sea and the air in the book. dennis reads “beached” (p 3). he talks about having second thoughts about beginning the book with this poem and we talk a little about that. he reads the next poem, “seismic” p. 4.

I ask if this book has any connection to the Prairies.

We have a discussion about figurative language in the book. dennis talks about the difficulties of speaking about the heart when there are so many clichés about it. he reads “he returns” p. 143.

I ask about any readings coming up, but dennis mentions that Bloody Jack is being turned into an opera.

I ask about works in progress, but first dennis reads “back gammanon” p. 124

dennis mentions his continued work love in a dry land, which has already been the focus of two works, “the bentleys” and “country music.” two more collections will soon be out, another about the miner’s strike in Estevan and another called “Rants.”

Note of Praise

body works is full of wonder, sorrow, farts, metaphor, humour and play. In this poetry collection, Cooley, the poet is once more a trickster, using language as he said in our previous conversation, as a site for play, speculation, and deceit. The lines and syllables twist in one direction and then in another. Puns are aplenty and references to songs, books are all part of the play. Figurative language expands our imagination and makes us look at the body from a different light, from a coffee-bean heart grinding in an enamel music box to eyes luminous as tropical fish.  in body works he addresses a reader directly about the inevitable decline and mortality of the body as secret but necessary information, but he also highlights what shines, what is worth living for: beauty, light, a low arctic fox as a reason to sing.

Thanks to Dennis Cooley for being on the show, to Charles for processing, to Jennifer Pederson for the intro/outro assistance and to all of you for listening and sharing the show. Stay tuned for October’s conversation with me, Elee Kraljii Gardiner and Christine McNair about writing about health issues.