on a rail fence
in the dust
“This small, imagist poem has become, for me, an expression of my poetics. It combines the elements I see necessary to the way I write poetry. The setting includes the natural world (the bluebird), the field of human endeavor (the fence, the road), and the spiritual (the sky).
“The bluebird was chosen for its colours. The red of its breast is symbolic of the emotions and passion; the blue signifies the rational. Like the bird’s song, my poems begin with the emotions but are worked and shaped in the rational mind before being expressed as the bird expresses its song. The poet is, as is the singing bird, the connection between the natural and the spiritual experience and the beauty gracing the works of mankind.
“Whether changes are effected by the poem or in reaction to the poem, i . e., the whirlwinds, or not does not matter at all in itself. The bird and its song, the poet and his poems, continue to matter intrinsically.”
For over four decades, Jeff Seffinga has been an active voice of poetry in Southern Ontario’s Golden Horseshoe. His considerable knowledge of the written word and his skill as a poet are matched by oratorical strength and ease, and an open willingness to read at public readings held in such diverse venues as libraries, art galleries, coffee houses and historical sites.
In addition to developing his own talents, Jeff has devoted much of his life to helping others in the development of their written and vocal expression. This natural extension of who he is has been a tremendous benefit to individual writers, writer’s groups, and the networks that connect them, within his community.
A look into Jeff’s early years gives us a sense of his roots, the first expression of the muse, and the writers who influenced him. In 1951, at the age of eight, he emigrated with his family from the Netherlands to Canada. Rural living in Eastern Ontario instilled in him a strong connection with the land and an appreciation for the joy of simplicity.
since seaside birth
in dry country
His interest in writing and poetry began in high school. Memorable events were publication in “Reminiscor” yearbook contests and a visit by Wilson McDonald. As a general arts student of English and History in college, Jeff explored works by Tennyson, Browning, Hardy, Hopkins, Frost, Williams and Eliot. He joined formal and informal writing groups, and his studies were coloured by poetry readings on and off campus given by contemporary poets such as X J Kennedy, and Ginsberg, Kerouac and Ferlinghetti.
During the sixties, Jeff’s writing was an expression of the times—works in underground papers, his own mimeographed ‘street distributions,’ and readings in coffee houses in the Hamilton and Toronto area. He listened to and read the poetry of Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen, Milton Acorn and Gwendolyn McEwen. The culmination of this period in his life was a nationally distributed anthology, Six Days (1971).
Following a hiatus of several years, Jeff reconnected with the writing world in 1978. He briefly joined the Tower Poetry Society, then became an associate member of the League of Canadian Poets in Toronto. Herb Barrett’s guidance and encouragement rekindled the spark within, leading to the publication of Jeff’s work in numerous “little magazines.” His first collection of poetry, Three Crows Flying (Seagull Press, 1981), was the creative outcome of a “near death” experience, and an expression of his rebirth as a writer. His renewed vigour is evident in a poem from 1986:
THE MOUNTAINS ARE SHOUTING
The wise man told me that mountains shout,
He said they would fill my crumbling well
His incantations seemed dead as leaves
Put on your ears, said he.
Simulating respect, I left him.
The only sound apparent a lonely wind
I cursed the old man as insane
Yesterday a hill whispered my name,
Suddenly now the mountains are shouting,
Jeff’s writing continued to be published in magazines, anthologies and card, poster and broadsheet forms. He wanted to develop his skills further and pursue a more active involvement in the poetry life. To this end he took writing courses through Mohawk College and McMaster University Adult Education programs in Hamilton. And he worked with others in the community (Jayne Berland, John Ferns, Bruce Whiteman) to found the Hamilton Poetry Centre.
Herb Barrett and Jeff together operated the Hamilton Haiku Workshop, which later became an independent chapter of The Canadian Poetry Association. They held reciprocal readings all through southern Ontario. In 1984 they undertook publication of an annual chapbook, Tidepool, and later, Hamilton Haiku Workshop published a collection of Jeff’s shorter poems entitled Tight Shorts (1988). Jeff’s own haiku were being published in several haiku-specific magazines throughout this time.
picking up a pebble ...
above the park
the wooden fence
During the 1980’s and 90’s, Jeff mentored others in the spirit of care and interest that had been shown to him by Herb Barret. He also became a publisher. He began Cannon Press in 1985 with a small pocket/purse size booklet of poetry entitled Lunatic Hands (which included Migrant, above). He subsequently published works by several Ontario poets, among them Tony Cosier and Elizabeth Evans.
Jeff’s many involvements in the local literary scene have become legendary. Creative Arts, Inc. was receptive to his initiative of establishing poetry readings at its annual Festival of Friends. With Festival organiser Bill Powell, Jeff also organised and published an annual Top 40 Anthology of Hamilton Area Poets. His work on the Literary Committee of the Hamilton and Region Arts Council was instrumental in the formation of Lit Chat, a structured discussion group for local writers. With HARAC, he organised National Book Week activities: “Blue Pencil Room” editorial assistance and criticism, Children’s Day at the Hamilton Public Library, and readings by nationally renowned authors.
Sandburg, your poem
My black cat has oversized feet.
Up and down stairs he thunders.
A foggy morning here, Carl,
Jeff had a chapbook published by Mekler and Deahl in 1995. Bailey’s Mill is a series of connected poems dealing with the immigrant and overreacher themes in a United Empire Loyalist setting and is illustrated by drawings especially produced for the book by artist Katherine Porter.
"On Bailey fell the mantle
In celebration of Hamilton’s Sesquicentennial in 1996, Jeff worked with publisher Mekler and Deahl and with Canadian Poetry Association Hamilton to edit two anthologies of work by local poets. He and James Deahl also collaborated to create the Acorn-Livesay People’s Festival, administering a poetry contest and setting up readings and events throughout Southern Ontario. They subsequently established the annual $500 Acorn-Plantos Book Award plus medallion as a continuation of a prize originally awarded to Acorn by his fellow poets.
Amidst this active service to the writing community, Jeff’s own poetry was being published in various anthologies, small magazines and newsletters. His work can be found in Tower Poetry and Hammered Out; in national anthologies such as the Canadian Poetry Society’s A Tapestry in Six Colours and Black Moss Press’ Following the Plow and Body Language; and in This I Believe (Mini Mocho Press). Premises for a New Animal Husbandry took first prize in Grain magazine’s 1996 Prose Poem contest.
From Kairos 9 (1997) we see another side of Jeff’s evolution as a poet.
Maria, I have been cold too long.
That summer here, you were delighted
And when we lay on our hillside, you
Explain to me in the endearments we used
The burden I bear is darkness and frost,
Returning to the Tower Poetry Society in the late 1990s, Jeff quickly assumed an important role in the Society’s affairs. He became Editor-in-Chief in 2001, a position which he still holds. In addition to overseeing publication of the Society’s biannual Tower Poetry, his responsibilities have expanded to embrace much of the content on the TPS web site.
More of Jeff’s poetry was published in book form during this period. a reststop along the infinite road (Cannon Press), a collection of poems reflecting his connection with the natural world, came out in 1999.
STOP THE CAR
Stop the car, she commanded,
Because she makes so few demands,
Look there, she whispered,
She pointed to a roadside shrub,
Wait a minute, she breathed,
The cloud passed on. Sunlight struck
No need, she smiled,
In 2002, Black Moss Press published we measure our time in coffee cups, a collection of poems about the Canadian “Tim Hortons” coffee shop experience. Jeff likes to refer to these poems as Timbits (the name which Hortons gives to its donut holes). Here is one “Timbit”:
a rig stopped
under the hood
eight axles support
across six lanes
two miles behind
without an old photograph
the building’s last incarnation
sometimes now it serves as a parking lot
the smell of leaked oil and exhaust fumes
GARDEN CONCERT (excerpts)
“The calm garden has no instant impact
“Before the music began to weave its threads
“In the garden’s freedom, light chases butterflies
“Glare blinds the oboist;
“As we dream to the conversation between
“Before the performance,
“The swirl of the oldest magic: music and light
“The gleaming instruments are tucked into dull cases;
Over the years, Jeff Seffinga’s passionate love of the land, and of language, have combined to create a substantial, and growing body of work. Moreover, his impressive legacy of supporting and promoting poets and poetry in his community continues to expand. In every sense of the word, Jeff’s life has been and still is, a life devoted to poetry.
|Previous Feature||Next Feature|