a series of one-liners: an interview with William Hawkins
This interview was conducted over email from November 2004 to January 2005
In the 1960s and 70s in Ottawa, poet and musician William Hawkins was the central figure to a lively writing and music scene, publishing work in Raymond Souster’s seminal anthology New Wave Canada (1966) and in Oxford’s Modern Canadian Verse, and producing and playing music with Bruce Cockburn, David Wiffen, Colleen Peterson, Amos Garrett, Darius Brubeck and Sneezy Waters. His collections of poems include Shoot Low, Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies (with Roy MacSkimming, Ottawa: 1964), Two longer poems: The Seasons of Miss Nicky, by Harry Howith; and Louis Riel, by William Hawkins (Toronto: Patrician Press, 1965), Hawkins (Ottawa: Nil Press, 1966), Ottawa Poems (Kitchener: weed/flower press, 1966), The Gift of Space (Toronto: New Press, 1970) and The Madman’s War (Ottawa: S.A.W. Publications, 1974). A resident of Ottawa for most of his life (with side trips to the Val Tetreau Correctional Institution, Vancouver, Toronto, Tallahassee and Mexico), he is a veteran driver of the Blue Line taxi corps. In spring 2005, Fredericton’s Broken Jaw Press released Hawkins’ second volume of selected poems (after The Gift of Space), the collection Dancing Alone: Selected Poems 1960-1990, with a preface by Bruce Cockburn and an introduction by Roy MacSkimming. The collection was launched in Ottawa at the Canada Europa Festival (organized by the ottawa international writers festival) on Wednesday, April 20th at 7pm, and called the largest poetry launch the National Library has held (hosted by MacSkimming, the event had an audience of nearly three hundred, including Cockburn, who came to read from his preface). This interview was commissioned by Steve Artelle's National Capital Letters, but he hasn't put an issue out in months.
rob mclennan: From the introduction Roy MacSkimming wrote for Dancing Alone: Selected Poems 1960-1990, it sounds as though you’ve lived a pretty wild life. How did you first get into writing and publishing poems?
William Hawkins: I started writing to impress the ladies. I continue to do so. As the ladies get older they are harder to impress. Or I’m losing my touch. Publishing? Well it was Poster Poems with my friend and fellow artist Andries Hamann. We cranked them out for beer money.
rm: Have any of the poems from the posters appeared in your trade collections? And you said you wouldn’t let any of them appear in the selected. Why?
WH: The first two and the one you have are the only ones not in the book. The only reason I know of is that Noel didn’t put them in.
rm: After making the posters for beer money, where did it go from there?
WH: It started going fast. I thought I had something when I wrote “King Kong Goes To Rotterdam.” Then Roy MacSkimming and I published Shoot Low, went to the Poets thing at UBC [the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963]. What I heard there affected me greatly. Not just from the poets teaching, but from the young guys and girls there. [George] Bowering, Bob Hogg, Ms. Webb and Lionel Kearns were some of the people I remember. Red Lane, Pat’s brother. The teachers? Well, [Allen] Ginsberg and [Robert] Creeley for sure. But Charles Olson. I’d never encountered an intelligence like that.
rm: What was it about Olson that struck?
WH: It was really the man that struck me, wide ranging intellect. Yet ready to party. The poets at that UBC course that influenced me were Creeley and Ginsberg. I don’t really have to re-read them as their poems stuck in my head. Although if Santa wants to stick something in my stocking Creeley’s collected works would be nice. I have Ginsberg’s.
rm: Michael Ondaatje has a poem “King Kong meets Wallace Stevens” in the collection Rat Jelly (1973). Since your poem came first, do you think he got the idea from you?
WH: I don’t know, didn’t know he’d written such a poem.
rm: Ottawa has certainly had more than its share of literary history, going back to the 1850s, but never really a history of small publishing in the same ways as Vancouver, Montreal or Toronto did in the decades up to the point you were starting out. How difficult was it to be a writer in Ottawa in the 1960s and 70s?
WH: I have never thought of myself as a writer. I am a poet.
rm: What do you consider the difference?
WH: Drudgery. Poetry is a happening, immediate thing. Writing is gluing yr ass to chair. Too much like a job. I must admit I envy MacSkimming’s ability to do it and Pat Lane. I suppose I’m lazy.
rm: When you were starting out, what else was happening in Ottawa?
WH: That was forty years ago! How the fuck should I know! I’m a brain damaged old man. Actually it was bleak, furtive and I was looked upon as insane. I was insane. Still am.
rm: That might be true, but I think your energy also sparked a lot of activity. I found the Northern Comfort anthology, of the day long reading from the early 70s you participated in, and you seemed to be highly thought of by the other readers, going as far as dedicating the book to you. How did Le Hibou come to be?
WH: I refuse to be held responsible for the delusional thinking of those seventies crazies. Energy? Crazy fuckers unleashed Disco on us! I’m lucky they didn’t lynch me.
Denis Faulkner and George Gordon-Lennox started Le Hibou. They attended Ottawa U as did I, briefly, until I discovered it was run by the Oblate Brothers and therefore part of a papal plot to enslave unsuspecting protestant princes, like meself.
rm: I know you hung around with Roy MacSkimming around the time you were starting to publish; what other writers were around Ottawa or beyond were you interacting with?
WH: Harry Howith, George Johnston & Nicholas Montserrat (The Cruel Sea).
rm: What led up to your “Louis Riel” poem, that made up your half of the book with Howith? What’s a boy from Ottawa doing writing about Louis Riel anyway?
WH: Louis was a mystical experience. You got to love a guy that wanted to move the holy see from Rome to Montreal.
rm: How did you get involved with Le Hibou? Bob Hogg tells a story of hanging out with you there with Joni Mitchell, when he had come up from Buffalo to meet with Carleton University, before he got his job there. Was it a performance space for poets as well as musicians?
WH: Sure it was. Read MacSkim’s intro [posted on Poetics.ca #5].
rm: After all of your activity in the 60s and 70s with poetry and music, what made you stop?
WH: I figured I’d seen it all. Knows all, sees all. Does fuck all. Roy MacSkimming’s way of putting it was good: other obsessions. I wandered off.
rm: After all that time away, what started you writing your recent poems?
WH: Curiosity. I suppose I wanted to see if I could do it. Getting the computer helped. I kept writing after I “wandered off into other obsessions.” But only in me head. Snips of lines, pompous titles: a speciality of mine. But rarely writing anything down and losing it when I did.
rm: Has the time changed anything in your writing? Or the way you see it?
WH: Time has changed everything. The angles, perspective and immediacy. At first this was confusing. Now I have decided it is refreshing. But as Maggie Muggins used to say: I don’t know what will happen tomorrow.
rm: With the new work you’re doing, does it feel any different than writing three or four decades ago? Does your old work stand up?
WH: I really don’t know. Absolutely everything is different. As well, I’m not a good critic, of my own work or others for that matter. Didn’t somebody say comparisons are odious? I don’t know about odious. Irrelevant may be closer. To me a poem is evocative or not.
rm: What sorts of things are you reading now?
WH: P.K. Page, Heaney, Nelson Ball, Bowering, Pat Lane, Auden and have finished off mclennan and Zach Wells. I rotate things, as you may have gathered.
rm: Noel Evans was the one who originally did the compiling of the selected back in 1996. How long have you known Noel?
WH: It would have to be at the Studio Club in the early Sixties. The Studio Club, Ottawa’s first coffee shop, was located in a building that was, strangely enough, occupied by artists, on Queen St. The Delta Hotel stands there now.
rm: How did the process of the selected poems get started?
WH: I don’t remember. You’d have to ask Noel.