I am embarrassed to say that the first books of poetry I had on my shelf were “borrowed” from my high school. Gwendolyn MacEwen’s The Armies of the Moon along with The Shadow-maker. Shortly after that I discovered second-hand bookshops. It was early 1970s and I was interested in Leonard Cohen and Jack Kerouac.
Then I found Al Purdy and Earle Birney.
When I was younger I collected a lot more than just poetry. Novels, dictionaries, art books and so on. In 1984 I sold 5,000 volumes to a bookstore. It was enough money to get a car, move to another province and pay the rent on a PEI farmhouse. But I never sold any of the poetry books I owned.
I worked in a number of bookstores selling both new and used books. Sometimes I worked for books instead of pay, that along with the discount and the good graces of the bookstore owners meant I could get poetry titles at very reasonable prices.
For a number of years I have been going to libraries, wherever I’ve been in the United States or Canada. Almost every library has a room of books that they are selling. Usually these are books that have been donated to the library and have never seen the shelves. It is astonishing what you can find. Eventually every book changes hands and often times it ends up going through a library. Same thing with garage sales, if I see books I stop.
Almost every city and town in Canada has at least one excellent second-hand shop and I make a point of looking whenever I can.
A few years ago I started a poetry blog called “Today’s book of poetry” where I write about a book of poetry I like. I try to post a new blog almost every day. Since I started writing the blog a number of Canadian and American poetry presses have been sending me titles. It is like magic. Poetry books appearing at the door, for free. All I have to do is read them.
And because of the blog I have met a number of writers like David Clewell, former Poet Laureate of Missouri. David sends me boxes of poetry he thinks I need to read. And of course he is absolutely right every time.
I found a beautiful hard-cover David Helwig volume, with paper wrappers, for $1, just outside of Algonquin Park under a tent at the side of the road. Just recently I bought a French language copy of a Bukowski title for $1 at The Word bookshop in Montreal, my new favourite place.
Ever since I began collecting there have been friends along the way who have donated books of poetry they no longer wanted.
My collection contains single author volumes of poetry, with few exceptions. I do have some anthologies on a couple of top shelves but those have almost always arrived without my help. I rarely buy an anthology but they keep finding their way here. The books of poetry I have collected are divided into two groups. Canadian Poetry/Not Canadian Poetry. Each of these groups takes up one half of my study.
Some of these shelves are built out of the first shelves Rhys Knott made for me over thirty years ago. When we bought our home I had brilliant builder/artist friend named Michael Hewko build the shelves in my study. They are beautiful, to me. That was over sixteen years ago. In the years since then I have had Michael come in twice to add new shelves. The end result being that my entire study is now floor to ceiling bookcases and I could not be happier about it.
When I bought my first books of poetry I was feeding a hunger that has never been quenched.
But in recent years I’ve felt that I’ve accidentally built something of value. I am in no way a completest, but I’ve accumulated several thousand volumes of modern poetry. And I continue to buy poetry whenever I have the opportunity.
Some of the books of poetry I collected have been with me for over forty years. They have moved to four provinces, been stored at friends, have been in storage. They are old friends and I want to make sure they are properly cared for when I am gone. You’d think a library could use all this poetry but in truth most of it would end up for sale on a bargain table exactly like the ones I like to find. Instead I have arranged to for it to go to a new home. This new home belongs to a much younger lover of poetry who will respect these books for what they are.
The books in this room have been my life; they have been the one constant entity in my life, outside of personal relationships.
I have written lists of poetry I am looking for and mental lists of poetry I am interested in. If I have one book by a poet that I like I love nothing better than finding every book by that poet. And that can be maddening.
My wife likes to buy me poetry and has a list of books/poets I am looking for. When these arrive it is better than Christmas.
Dennis, Michael. “Shelf Portrait: Michael Dennis.” Shelf Portraits, 25 June, 2021, richlerlibrary.ca//shelf-portraits/shelf-portrait-michael-dennis. Accessed 3 October, 2022.
Dennis, Michael. (2021, June 25). Shelf Portrait: Michael Dennis. Shelf Portraits. https://richlerlibrary.ca//shelf-portraits/shelf-portrait-michael-dennis
Dennis, M. “Shelf Portrait: Michael Dennis.” Shelf Portraits, 25 June, 2021, https://richlerlibrary.ca//shelf-portraits/shelf-portrait-michael-dennis.
Born in London, Ontario, in 1956, Michael Dennis published his first poems in the early ‘70s. His work has appeared in scores of journals and more than 30 books and chapbooks, most recently Low Centre of Gravity (Anvil Press, 2020) and Bad Engine (Anvil Press, 2017). From 2013 to 2020 Michael wrote in-depth responses to 812 poetry books he admired, on his blog, Today’s Book of Poetry. His working life has included stints in car plants and copper mines, installing artworks in galleries and doing time as a short-order cook and dishwasher in a strip club; he ran a small boutique hotel in the 80s’, was Santa at the Kmart in Charlottetown one year, and opened a non-profit ESL school in Jablonec and Nisou, Czechoslovakia, after the Velvet Revolution. Michael passed away in December 2020.