Jeff Seffinga:
A Life Devoted to Poetry


on a rail fence
beside a dirt road
a bluebird
fire on his breast
throws his song
to the sky

in the dust
two little whirlwinds

“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.”

Jeff Seffinga

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
a lifetime of land
has deposited me
beside you
in these wheat fields

the revelations
from your hands and lips
are overwhelming

in dry country
miles from the water
a generation away
from oceans
I am drowning

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 wise man told me that mountains shout,
that hills sing marvelous tunes.

He said they would fill my crumbling well
where mystery had dwelt in my head.

His incantations seemed dead as leaves
on winter trees; for me they were
forms without substance, without voice.

Put on your ears, said he.

Simulating respect, I left him.
I flaunted my ears among the hills,
listened for mountains.

The only sound apparent a lonely wind
monotonous on cold stone.

I cursed the old man as insane
and turned away.

Yesterday a hill whispered my name,
I heard a mountain call today.

Suddenly now the mountains are shouting,
mountains are shouting
and hills sing.

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 ...
                                         a million years
                                    in my hand


above the park
                                            a loose balloon
     chases the crows


       the wooden fence
                        three inches higher
                                          after the snowfall


                                                   new moon                                                        
                                                      the stars
                          still the same


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’S FOG
                                        (The fog comes on little cat feet...)

                                        Sandburg, your poem
                                        its simplicity and quiet images
                                        may work in your mind
                                        in your city
                                        but not in mine.

                                        My black cat has oversized feet.
                                        He never silently slips
                                        into a room but hurls himself
                                        under and over the furniture
                                        with the force and roar
                                        of a tornado.

                                        Up and down stairs he thunders.
                                        You keep an eye out for flying glass,
                                        suspect the tremors of earthquakes.

                                        And fog never sits
                                        over this harbour and city.
                                        It rolls, swirls, breaks
                                        against the mountainside
                                        and rips into its own belly with anger.

                                        A foggy morning here, Carl,
                                        is seldom less than full-scale war.
                                        So much depends upon your city
                                        and your cat’s feet.

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
                                                                                of patriarch; he wore it well,
                                                                                cared for his dependent ones
                                                                                with rigour and with love.
                                                                                He looked upon the life he
                                                                                had created, carved out of
                                                                                the wilderness with his mill,
                                                                                and saw that it was good."

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.
I need you to write me about the warmth
of the sun where you are, about the phrases
your birds sing to the accompaniment of breezes.

That summer here, you were delighted
when I showed you the old bones of the land,
the long and sloping flank of it flowing
into the distance with the smoothness of water.

And when we lay on our hillside, you
put your ear to the ground to hear the heart.
From the light filtered through oak leaves
we created our own private mythology.

Explain to me in the endearments we used
the road you now walk, the fields you measure;
tell me the weight of wind on your skin,
the tickle as sunlight teases your hair.

The burden I bear is darkness and frost,
the press of loneliness in a long night.
Maria, send me measures of your laughter
for I have been cold and alone too long

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, she commanded,
                stop the car.

Because she makes so few demands,
                because she understands me,
                                because I love her,
I stopped the car.

Look there, she whispered,

She pointed to a roadside shrub,
dirty and brown,
                                leaves as dead
as any I have ever seen.

Wait a minute, she breathed,
                just watch.

The cloud passed on. Sunlight struck
that bedraggled bush.
each sere leaf
                        the slow pulsating
wings of gathered Monarch butterflies.

No need, she smiled,
                to mine these hills for gold.

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
                                           in the no parking zone
                                           on the boulevard
                                           rumbles at itself

                                           under the hood
                                           two hundred horses are
                                           chomping at the bit
                                           ready to roll

                                          eight axles support
                                          a flat bed
                                          almost a block long
                                          of cold-rolled steel
                                          chained down tight

                                         across six lanes
                                         the driver
                                         finishes his coffee at hortons
                                         gets a thermos filled
                                         for the road

                                        two miles behind
                                        and six hundred more
                                        to go

Along with his ongoing TPS involvement, Jeff is an active member in several organisations: the Canadian Poetry Association, Arts Hamilton, Creative Arts, and Poets for Peace. And he continues to write!

                                        ON THE VACANT CORNER LOT

                                        without an old photograph
                                        it’s nearly impossible to remember
                                        the pickle factory that stood here
                                        not far from where local farmers sold
                                        their garden crops to housewives
                                        but sometimes like a suggestion of ghost riders
                                        you can almost smell the brine and spices
                                        hear the clink of glass jars rocking
                                        on a conveyor belt

                                        the building’s last incarnation
                                        was in the form of a shelter for those derelicts
                                        refused service at even the seediest beer parlors
                                        and unable to beg enough for a bottle
                                        of cheap wine shared under alley cardboard
                                        brown robed brothers smiled gently on them
                                        offered bread and soup and coffee
                                        rolled out rubberized mats on the floor
                                        never asked any questions

                                        sometimes now it serves as a parking lot

                                        the smell of leaked oil and exhaust fumes
                                        the piss and puke and old dried sweat
                                        dissipate in the force of the west wind
                                        leaving a hint of pickle spices
                                        stronger than despair

Jeff’s most recent publication is a long poem in seven sections. Beautifully illustrated and published by Serengeti Press in 2003, Garden Concert was inspired by a live concert on the grounds of a Victorian mansion which is now a museum (see This lyrical poem interweaves themes of wind, sunlight, people, nature and music into an evocative experience of classical music played in a tranquil garden setting—all a signature of this versatile poet’s values, sensitivity, and careful attention to details.

                                        GARDEN CONCERT (excerpts)

                                        “The calm garden has no instant impact
                                        but creeps into consciousness like a melody.”

                                        “Before the music began to weave its threads
                                        with golden sunlight among the trees and flowers
                                        this place belonged to insects. Slow crickets chirped
                                        hidden deep in ornamental grasses. The low humming
                                        of bees followed them from rosebush to peonies.”

                                        “In the garden’s freedom, light chases butterflies
                                        and bounces off copper marigolds. The long
                                        low tones sliding from the French horn’s bell
                                        are the playground of sunbeams.”

                                        “Glare blinds the oboist;
                                        She shields her eyes with neon glasses.”

                                        “As we dream to the conversation between
                                        flute and clarinet, the eyes can see that
                                        a breeze is teasing flowers beside the path.
                                        Low blue blossoms bob; tall pale pink ones
                                        stand still, stiff as if on parade.”

                                        hold the sheets of music clipped to the stands.”

                                        “Before the performance,
                                        musicians and instruments were individuals. Breezes
                                        And sun fused them into one entity, a wind quintet,
                                        a singleness of mind and purpose with five voices.”

                                        “The swirl of the oldest magic: music and light
                                        And nature binding together the human spirit.”


                                        “The gleaming instruments are tucked into dull cases;
                                        the music still hangs from branches, lies on the grass
                                        becoming one with the lace of air and sunlight. . .”


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.


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