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In 2009, when the national broadcasting station CBC elected him one of Canada’s ten best, living English-language poets, Ken Babstock was not yet forty and had produced only three collections of poetry, which were small but rich in content. Born in 1970 in Newfoundland, the pastor’s son grew up in the Ottawa Valley. In his youth, he occupied himself with poetry in order to distance himself from the church’s language, which he found fraudulent. His interest in philosophy led to enrolling at the Concordia University of Montreal, but then he stopped studying. For twelve years, he took physically strenuous jobs in Ireland and Canada, working in forests, factories, and on building sites. From these experiences he gleaned the invaluable inspiration for writing many poems that would later appear in literary magazines and anthologies, soon to secure his first literary awards. In 1997 he won a coveted Gold at the Canadian National Magazine Awards.

His first collection of poems, with the challengingly ambiguous title Mean (signifying not only nasty, stingy, vile, and cool, but also a resource and, in fact, to mean), was published in 1999 by the renowned House of Anansi Press in Toronto – until today Ken Babstock’s family publisher, where he meanwhile works as a poetry editor. In this collection, Babstock explores the primordially wild landscape of his youth to the same degree as he does chasms of human nature. He contrasts the unspoiled idyll with destruction-charged forms extracted from civilization, whether motorcycles or prisons, and reveals the violence lurking just below the surface of people and nature. Instead of indulging in romantic glorification, the poet directs an unadorned and realistic gaze at worlds both urban and rural; he describes hockey fouls and child abuse, but also tells of intimate experiences like loneliness and love with a breathtaking intensity. In the act of doing so, his language is always starkly compressed, whether dealing with spectacular or gentler topics. For this staggering debut, he was honored with the Milton Acorn Award and the 2000 Atlantic Poetry Prize.

In 2001, when Ken Babstock presented his second collection of poems, Days into Flatspin, he confirmed his reputation as one of the most promising talents of his generation. Characterized by their masterly style, surprisingly metaphorical qualities and accomplished verbal art, these poems captivate through a wealth of forms and topics. A game of Frisbee evolves to a sonnet, the sight of a cow triggers reflections on becoming and ceasing to be, and a flat tire brings to mind the Surrealist watch by Dalí. One poem references The Raft of the Medusa by Géricault: Babstock – the breadth of his raw embracing of nature considered – is at home in a variety of cultures. He repeatedly builds a bridge connecting the New World to the Old, and reacts to works by other artists and poets such as Giacometti, Thomas Hardy, and Richard Hugo.

Airstream Land Yacht, the designation for a camper trailer and uniting three elements – air, earth, and water – is the title of the third collection of poems, which appeared in 2006 and made Ken Babstock well known beyond the borders of the English-speaking world. Poems from this collection were translated into Dutch, French, Serbo-Croatian, and Latvian. In conjunction with the “VERSschmuggel” translation workshop, Lutz Seiler, one of the most important, contemporary poets in these parts, translated a selection of the poems into German on the occasion of Babstock’s invitation to the Berlin Literature Workshop while participating in the 2007 Poetry Festival. Included among the poems selected for translation was “The World’s Hub,” Babstock’s freely adapted version of a poem by Pier Paolo Pasolini, which, given the German title “Die Nabe der Welt,” splendidly conveys the Canadian poet’s verbal art: “…Everyone drove, to all points within the limits of nowhere / the rest incarcerated on public transit: packed in the high-wattage strip light / sat the poor, the mad, the adolescent and license-suspended, the daylight drunk / and Malton’s newly arrived...” Babstock returned the poetic favor by translating a selection of Lutz Seiler’s poems into English, signaling a highly productive exchange to be continued in the near future.

In Canada, critics were so ecstatic over this third collection of poems that Babstock’s name was mentioned alongside W.H. Auden. In 2007, he was nominated for the Griffin Poerty Prize, the world’s most highly remunerated literary prize. Among his many qualities, the jury, which included Charles Simic, justified its choice by citing Ken Babstock’s vast artistic range: “…here we find a poet who can do almost anything, both formally and in his exploration of such subject matter as romantic love, landscape, the body, the city, physical pain, and a joyful awareness of the sensory details of a world full of marvels and riddles…Babstock can be terse, darkly funny, tender, elegiac, wise, mysterious, but he is always fresh and always honest…” The poet who in his youth had already searched for the poetry of the true word can be especially pleased with this evaluation.

At the beginning of his reading at the Griffin Poetry Prize ceremony, Babstock stated that he commits himself to serving as an editor and professor for the mediation of poetry, and that he would go postal were he asked one more time by the popular media if poetry is dead. His diagnosis is that poetry is alive and well – something he proves from anew with every verse. In the spring of 2011, his eagerly awaited fourth collection of poems, Methodis Hatchet, will appear courtesy of the publishers House of Anansi, while he works on newer poems, which address questions of physicality, the philosophy of time, and other topics. Most recently, he feels enticed by prose, so that perhaps one day we can read a novel by this gifted poet.




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Publications translated into German VERSschmuggel /reVERSible: Canadian Poetry / Poésie du Québec. Edited by Thomas Wohlfahrt. Authors: Ken Babstock, Claude Beausoleil, Nico Bleutge, and others. Published by Verlag Das Wunderhorn, Heidelberg, 2008 Lyrikline (visit http://lyrikline.org): Compatibilist and The World’s Hub. Translated into German by Lutz Seiler.
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