Friday, December 07, 2007

White Pelican: year one

I don’t know if say Edmonton is further away than another place. I don’t think it matters, now. I’ve lived in every province except the Maritimes and I’ve lived in most of the big cities in them and I’ve never felt that I couldn’t be at home…to be at the centre is to be where the ideas are, that is, in your own head, wherever you are. Right now, I’m in Vancouver and that feels like the centre. One of the useful things about art is that you literally take it with you wherever you go…you don’t have any choice—you can’t choose to leave it all behind. (interview with Roy Kiyooka, volume 1, issue 1)
Since I’m in Edmonton, I’ve taken it upon myself to make at least some attempt to read the entire eighteen issue run of Sheila Watson’s White Pelican, the magazine she produced during her last few years at the University of Alberta. With its first issue in 1971, two years after Henry Beissel’s Edmonton/Montreal journal EDGE published its ninth and final issue (Beissel moved from the University of Alberta to Concordia, where he helped form the first parts of the creative writing department there), the editorial board of White Pelican consisted of Sheila Watson, Stephen Scobie, Douglas Barbour, John Orrell, Norman Yates and Dorothy Livesay. As F.T. Flahiff writes in his biography of Watson [see my review of such here], always someone to kill the doves: A Life of Sheila Watson (2005):

At the heart of White Pelican lay Sheila’s sense of community and the nature of the English department at Edmonton as it had developed through the sixties. This “little magazine” had been hatched in the living room at Windsor Road one evening in 1970. Those who were to become its editors were present, and Sheila and Wilfred proposed to underwrite the cost of the venture. In light of this offer, one bit of policy was agreed upon: the magazine would accept no government grants and no advertising. The editors wished to remain accountable only to their contributors, to their subscribers, and to themselves.

It was a daring and, by any standard, a remarkably successful venture. Reviews and essays, fiction and documentary prose and photographs and drawings mixed with what was its mainstay—poetry. Edmonton poets, such as Wilfred, Miriam Mandel, Ted Blodgett, Stephen Scobie, and Douglas Barbour, were well represented, as were poets from other parts of the country, such as bpNichol and Michael Ondaatje. There were new voices (the first pages of the first issue were devoted to poems by Elizabeth McLuhan) and there were voices in French as well as in English. Some issues had a specific focus: one edited by Dorothy Livesay and Rude Wiebe, on the North; another on Gertrude Stein, edited by Sheila, for example. Sheila contributed an essay to this last, one of three she wrote for different numbers of White Pelican. She took particular interest in their publication of excerpts from the diary Henry Kreisel had kept while he was interned in Canada as an enemy alien during the Second World War, and in an illustrated article by the Alberta architect Douglas Cardinal.
That Watson was bringing in some of the younger writers, Barbour and Scobie, being new faculty at the University says very good things about her openness to new ideas and new writing. As she wrote in the first pages of the first issue under the title “ABOUT PELICANS”:

Perhaps I should begin by saying that I speak here as a person not as a group. When the six editors of White Pelican decided to act they were drawn together by proximity not by policy, by concern not by consensus. The fideicommissum was there. Person by person or person with person, each would bear witness to the fact. It would be absurd then for any one of us to assume Coriolanus’s napless vesture of humility or the speak in the neutered voice of the uni-form, the uni-sexed, or the uni-what-you-will. As it happens we are de facto a multiple of three. Under the sign of the white pelican, le pelican blanc, pelecanus erthrorhynchos, we find it possible to co-exist.
Still, what else was happening in Edmonton at the time, including other publishing in the city, province or prairie? No publishing venture lives in a vacuum, and at least the University of Alberta Press would have been publishing, but I wouldn’t offhand know what (this would have been before George Melnyk would have helped invent NeWest Press, and before Longspoon). I’m frustrated that the journal existed without author bios, thus diminishing a sense of context; I know Douglas Barbour, know he is and what he’s done, but what would he have called himself then? New faculty, author of a first poetry collection the year before, perhaps; instead, the work exists well before the biography, the way Sheila herself (according to her biographer) would have preferred it.


Under this white shadow we have made
our home: salt, snow, hunger moon.
The whale’s belly, the harpoons glisten.
We will die clean in our cold garden.
It is ours, we claim it: this sleep,
this waking with the white bears, the
ice, the gods. (John Thompson, volume 1, issue 4)
Some of the most interesting parts of the first year have to be the interviews with Roy Kiyooka (September 16, 1970) and Michael Ondaatje (March 3, 1971), both conducted by Barbour and Scobie, and corresponding with readings each were giving in Edmonton. Both interviews make me think [see my two previous notes concerning Ondaatje here, including about another older interview] about the series Guernica Editions produces; have interviews with either of these authors ever been collected? There are some extremely interesting parts of both, including Ondaatje talking about his The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (1970), and about the film he’d produced on bpNichol, Sons of Captain Poetry (1970):

M: I think this is one of the problems with the movie. Simply by editing a one and a half hour interview down to 8 minutes, you make someone much more articulate and confident than he really is. That’s why I wanted to have the emphasis on quietness at the end. There’s very little silence in the film, which I think is a serious mistake.

D: And Barrie is in some ways very interested in silence; in his poems.

M: He is. Very Much so. But then you’ve got the problem of how you can make silence symbolic in a movie … Barrie originally wanted to call it I DREAMED I SAW HUGO BALL after that song he sings at the end. But this other title, SONS OF CAPTAIN POETRY suggests an era which is kind of post-Pop really. You see, I don’t see Barrie as a Pop poet, or a camp poet. Comic books are so much in fashion these days, it’s really sad, because people see it in that camp way. Cohen, I find, is very much part of the Pop-camp system, and he uses it imperialistically. For Barrie the Pop figures, like Green Lantern, are his saints. They’re much more human figures, they’re very human, very identifiable, like lost brothers and things like that. I think THE MARTYROLOGY is the best thing he’s done. I think it’s the most private things he’s done so I don’t know what kind of reaction it will get. It’s coming out sometime this year with Coach House. I think most of Barrie is in that book. It’s a kind of autobiography with these strange relations emerging, people left over from this pop world, threading through this very sad world with false icons all over the place. Victor Coleman says one of the best things about Barrie in the film. Roughly, he says of THE MARTYROLOGY that it’s important enough that Barrie’s not quite sure of where it’s taking him, he’s not quite sure what he’s up to! Which I think is a beautiful thing to say about anything that is really important to a person. It is so important to him that he hasn’t got the confidence in it. Travelling blind.
Another entertaining part is just seeing work by now-well known writers and their works, including the first part of what later became the late Jon Whyte’s poetry collection/long poem Homage, Henry Kelsey (since collected in the 2000 collection Mind Over Mountains: Selected and Collected Poems, published by Red Deer Press), and pieces by the poets John Thompson (d. 1974) and Pat Lowther (d. 1976), as well as pieces by bpNichol even before the first book of The Martyrology (1972) had seen print.


oh the a be
an or and and

c d q o p

whistle up gorge leg
laughter m l steep
la lune la lune

low l t s z
v v o b q r
la tigre i y w



spoon (bpNichol, volume 1, issue 2)

year one:

issue #1: edited by Sheila Watson

poem by Elizabeth McLuhan
photo of Roy Kiyooka by Bernie Bloom
interview with Roy Kiyooka
letters from Roy Kiyooka
poems by Miriam Mandel
drawing by Norman Yates
poems by Wilfred Watson
essay by Wilfred Watson: Towards A Canadian Theatre
poems by E.D. Blodgett
Gordon Peacock: A Plethora of Playwrights?
book reviews by Dianne Bessai and Douglas Barbour

issue #2: edited by Douglas Barbour and Stephen Scobie

two poems by Michael Ondaatje
A Conversation with Michael Ondaatje (Barbour, Scobie)
various selections by bpNichol
Prairie Poems by P.K. Page
four poems by Steve McCaffery
three poems by Stephen Scobie
Song by John Lent
two poems by George Chambers
Summer Elephants: Ian Hamilton Finlay

issue #3: edited by John Orrell and Norman Yates

Postures of Survival: July 1, 1935
P.O.S. by Pierre Falcon
artwork by Frederick Candelaria
P.O.S. World Arena
P.O.S. by Jon Whyte
poems by Christopher Wiseman
poems by Leona Gom
P.O.S. University Arena

issue #4: edited by Dorothy Livesay with Rudy Wiebe

Poems by John Thompson
Poem by Pat Lowther
Dream of Sky People by Isabella Foord
Poem by Duncan Pryde
Poems by P.S. Barry
Poem by Floris McLaren
Poems by Eleanor Crowe
Poem by Skyros Bruce
The Fish Caught in the Battle River by Rudy Wiebe
Poems by D.M. Price
Poem by Mick Burrs
The Rhetoric of the North by R.J. Merrett
Poem by William Aide
An Earnest Recalling by Chuck Carlson
Poems by Mary Vida
Poem by Peter Stevens
Poem by Tom Ezzy
Poems by Brett
A Clutch of Books by Rudy Wiebe

1 comment:

Carpenter said...

some nice digging here, rob. some substance. makes me want to go birding for white pelican. thanks.