By Dylan Schoenmakers
David Martin is a Calgary-based poet and this year’s winner of the CBC Poetry Prize. His poems have been widely published and can be found in The Malahat Review, Grain, Event, The Fiddlehead, Filling Station, CV2 and Alberta Views. He is also a board member for the Single Onion, Calgary’s longest-running poetry reading series. As the winner of the CBC Poetry Prize, Martin joins fellow poets Gary Geddes, Catherine Graham, Julie Joosten, Jacob Scheier and Adam Sol at the Poet Summit on October 25. His award-winning poem, “Tar Swan,” takes as its subject the Calgary oil sands, confronting its narrative with equal parts gritty realism and surreal imagery, while addressing the inextricability of technology and the environment.
The poem itself is densely written (the CBC Poetry Prize panel applauded its “daring, and brilliantly challenging, use of diction, syntax and imagery”), made slightly more opaque with ecological and oil-industry jargon. But the language doesn’t make “Tar Swan” inaccessible as much as it gestures toward the tremendous research Martin has put into the poem. In addition to reading books about oil sands history, and memoirs from some of the first developers and scientists, Martin toured the historic Bitumount oil sands site, north of Fort McMurray. (Because access to the site is not open to the public, Martin had to be accompanied by an Alberta Cultural Land Use Analyst as a guide.) Martin conducted research at the Provincial Archives, and studied the letters and journals of Robert Fitzsimmons, one of the first commercial oil sands developers. He also interviewed Robin Woywitka, an archaeologist who had worked on an excavation of Fitzsimmons’ drilling and camp site.
The care with which Martin attends to these materials and resources shapes the poem’s tone: absent are the familiar polemics associated with tar sands discourse. Working with subject material so politically inflected, Martin recognizes his poem’s unavoidable political connections, while withdrawing from a particular stance: “I don’t consider myself a political writer in the sense that my writing might be designed to convince a reader to adopt a position on the oil sands. Having said that, though, as soon as I write the words “oil sands” I have entered into a political realm, with deeply entrenched ideas on both sides of the issue. A lot of the ambivalence in my writing comes from the historical research I did: I am fascinated with some of the charismatic personalities of the oil sands history, and share in the disappointment most of them felt when they were unsuccessful in their work; yet I also have my eyes on the current state of oil sands production, and feel a sense of unease about its environmental impact.”
The poem, then, offers conflict between the human and natural, not only through the direct and damaging environmental influence of oil sands development, but in the ambivalence of extending sympathy to both parties. Instead of critique, “Tar Swan” offers tension. The humanized side of the oil sands, not often seen, is developed through the use of a narrator, who is very loosely based on Robert Fitzsimmons. His company, International Bitumen Company Ltd., was of the first commercial oil sands operations. While he raised a large amount of capital to invest in his project, multiple factors contributed to the company’s eventual failure. The poem’s structure encourages connection with Fitzsimmons, making use of six sections to provide “an arc to the experience of the speaker.”
Martin includes various mythological and surreal elements in “Tar Swan” to complement its realism, and to account for the consequences of these human endeavours, the “enormous scope of resource extraction currently taking place,” much of which was unanticipated. While simultaneously addressing the detrimental impact of the oil sands, Martin’s dream-like passages demonstrate how the oil sands, the current effects of which are grotesquely acknowledged and well known, belong to a narrative that is often unacknowledged: “The dream-like elements emerged from thinking about the unintended consequences of the fairly small early developments. What has occurred is well beyond what any of the early developers could have predicted. I’m reminded of one of the letters of Karl Clark, a researcher who devoted his whole career to solving the technical issues of oil sands development. Near the end of his life, once he realized the scope of the project would be devastating to the wilderness he had spent so many years connecting with, he told his daughter that he wouldn’t go back to see what had happened. He felt some regret, even though he had spent a lifetime working towards oil sands production, when he realized the true extent of what he’d contributed to.” Without excusing where oil sands development has lead to, “Tar Swan” acknowledges the human roots in the enterprise. It is this emotional consideration—for human narrative, for the environment—that makes “Tar Swan” such a compelling poem.
Take it from the poet himself: “Attending poetry events offers me the chance to connect a voice to the words I’ve been reading, rather than listening to my own inner voice as I read. As well, I think it heightens my focus on a poem’s details in sound, like rhythm and assonance.” “Tar Swan” is packed full of just such rich details to notice. Please join us at the Poet Summit with David to hear him read his award-winning poem. For now, you can listen to an audio recording of it below.
Dylan Schoenmakers is the Communications Intern at IFOA. He recently completed his MA in English Literature at the University of Western Ontario.