Shane Rhodes distills poetry one precious bottle at a time
by Danika J. Grenier
The poets of old used to write for monetary patronage. With his new book, Err, poet Shane Rhodes has given this idea a modern twist, writing for the love of poetry — and, of course, for payment in beer or a few excellent liqueurs.
Before writing Spirits, the book’s first section, Rhodes decided to contact breweries and distillers to ask if any would be interested in exchanging precious liquids for a poem dedication.
“Some places of course thought it was a crazy idea,” says Rhodes.
But much to the poet’s surprise, a few companies thought it an interesting proposition. Prince Edward Distillery, Beau's All Natural Brewing Company and the Manx Pub, for example, were quick to sign up.
The result is a series of witty published poems and one very happy poet with a closet full of potential inspiration — i.e., alcohol.
“I’ve actually got a basement full of beer right now,” enthuses Rhodes, “because all these breweries decided to sponsor poems, which was very interesting.”
Rhodes’ craft, however, was not motivated by desire for alcohol alone. The poet explains alcohol has an important place in our culture and although there are many drinking songs, few poems are written about the subject.
Rhodes’ work therefore sought not only to write about alcohol, but also to discuss man’s timeless relationship with the sweet nectar.
In a poem simply entitled 99, dedicated to Steam Whistle Brewing, Rhodes presents the reader with a life lesson about hard work. Through the detailed image of a weathered labourer, Rhodes implies hard work is an undeniable aspect of the human condition. According to Rhodes, one must work in order to provide as well as survive; it is a constant cycle handed down from one generation to the next.
“It goes back to my own history,” explains Rhodes. “I come from a farming community in central Alberta and my parents were farmers. It’s going back to telling that story.”
Although Rhodes’ sense of humor comes out in witty poems such as Tom Collins — a narrative about a late night drunk that is entirely composed of cocktail names — other sections of Err deal with more serious subject matter. Prior to becoming a notable poet, Rhodes worked in the healthcare industry and witnessed the effects of HIV first hand. The Cocktail was written for a friend who died from the disease.
Rhodes notes, however, most of the poetic inspiration for Err came from the English language itself.
“The book is really focused on what you can do with poetry in the English language,” he says.
Rhodes demonstrates his expert use of language in The Cloud Chamber, the book’s third chapter. In seeking out specific sounds within language, the poet creates works that are not only a joy to hear, but also a joy to read. In Choreographed Echoes, the reader is subject to an entire poem written with words containing the letter combination of OH.
“Those poems started from huge lists of searches that I did with an electronic dictionary,” says the poet. “I would start with a list of 3,000 to 8,000 words. Then from there I would hone a vocabulary for each poem based on sounds and words that seemed the most interesting.”
Rhodes’ quest with Err, he concludes, was to make poetry that is particularly interesting. The result is a genuinely entertaining piece of literature — a book to make you laugh, cry, and perhaps order another round.
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