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Tuesday, January 06, 2004

adventures in poetry, or something

When I started at the beginnings of this mad enterprise, it was what it was, youthful scribblings complete with romantic self-involvements. (Some would say it hasn't progressed too much from that.) Write what you know, they said. Later on, George Bowering would respond, write what you don't know, otherwise you'll never learn. Most of my early models in poetry came out of the 1960's of Vancouver, British Columbia – George Bowering, Roy Kiyooka, Fred Wah, John Newlove, et al – learning from their own models the importance of writing the local, taught by example by Americans Charles Olson, William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley.

Poetry, as a teachable form, remains (and should remain) fractured, existing in the realm of individual research. Writing courses can only provide focus, perhaps some direction along the way, to what should already be there. One of the few arts without apprenticeships, teaching writing is not the same as teaching painting or sculpting – introducing technique – relying much heavier on the part of the individual to pick up what they can.

Until you've experienced it, its hard to comprehend how Canada is still a country of regions, despite our relatively small population. Its one of those things I forget the extent of, until I'm back on the road, experiencing it. To look at the winners of the Saskatchewan Book Award, or the BC Book Award; how little overlap there is for reviews of poetry in the Globe & Mail, filling station, or in Arc: Canada's National Poetry Magazine.

The poetry of the prairies, long lines and breaks across the page – Dennis Cooley, Sylvia Legris and Rob Budde – is infinitely more readable once you've sat through the geography. Driving from Regina to Calgary a few years ago, it was hard not to have John Newlove lines echoing between my ears, “Ride off any horizon / and let the measure fall...” Its a matter of the story running through, unfamiliar to my own experience. As in the work of Roy Miki and Roy Kiyooka, Vancouver poets and nisei, writing from the clash between cultures, and lingering frustrations of being uprooted when they were children, simply because they were Japanese during the war. How does that affect your language.

The last time I took a train through the prairies, I read a Robert Kroetsch novel, The Words of my Roaring, with the background of the 1930's dust bowl drought, and the coming of Tommy Douglas' NDP party into landslide. Between literature and geography, using one to learn the other, from both directions. If you are a reader of poetry, there are the obvious connections – bpNichol's sense of Toronto, Eli Mandel's prairie, George Bowering's Vancouver, to Leonard Cohen's Montreal. Each provide a sense of flavour, even a small mythology, to their own points of origin. For a closer example, the best would be the 1960's and 1970's Ottawa of William Hawkins, whether seen through his Ottawa Poems (1966), or the co-authored (with Roy MacSkimming) Shoot Low Sherrif, They're Riding Shetland Ponies (1964). Go through Daphne Marlatt's Vancouver Poems (1972) or George Bowering's reworking of Rilke's Duino Elegies in his Vancouver work, Kerrisdale Elegies (1986). How different would it have read had he lived in Ottawa, and written Glebe or Rockliffe Elegies? There are arguments that everything comes down to place. Much of the various aboriginal belief systems are built on it, even to my own history and background out of historic Glengarry county, and a dairy farm outside of Maxville, Ontario. One hundred and fifty years of family on the same road, which, in some corners, isn't very long at all. History and place enter into the writing, often against our will. I suppose, skirting around the argument between inherited behavior, and learned behavior, the difference between what comes from the inside, and from the outside. There is ever a balance between both, and to change one, inevitably changes the result.

When Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell and I did a reading tour in Ireland in January, 2002, I read history, not literature in the preceding weeks, to get me started. Unlike Irish travels, I at least know some basics of Canadian history, and use literature (among other things) to help me enter deeper in, already aware of the Wild MacLeans, the Winnipeg General Strike, the Cypress Hills Massacre, and The United Empire Loyalists. Once a solid base of fact, one can work to enter into feeling.

In Sechelt, B.C., just up the coast from Vancouver, at a conference on Small and Micro Presses in 1996 organized by Michael Barnholden and Victor Coleman, we found a pioneer cemetery with graves dated into the 1940's. That's roughly one hundred and eighty pioneer years later than where I started, as a kid walking through the Indian Lands, Roxborough Township. Further east than that, how extreme the differences in when we consider pioneering – Wolfe, Montcalm and the like, or the vikings, further still. There are museums in the interior of British Columbia with farming implements that my father had the same of, kept in the shed as I grew up. Part of a long-past history in one area, and more recent in another.

Where does that leave the rest of us, but to figure out.

Like a puzzle that gets bigger as it builds.