It was while listening to Jack Spicer that I started wondering what a “book” is when it comes to poetry. Grant-giving agencies and other casual observers don’t have any trouble figuring it out. The Canada Council for the Arts, for example, defines a book as something that has at least forty-eight printed pages between the covers. Anything shorter will be a chapbook or a pamphlet. So as far as the Canada Council is concerned, a forty-six-page poem is not a book, but a collection of forty-nine single-page poems is a book. Probably a lot of people would agree. A US border guard once looked at my copies of Baseball and asked, “You call that a book?” (“Little Books”)
After reading a couple of these pieces in various venues over the past couple of years, I was intrigued to see the final product of George Bowering’s collection of essays, How I Wrote Certain of My Books (Toronto ON: Mansfield Press, 2011). In twenty-six short pieces, Bowering discusses a great deal of how some of his books came to be, focusing on various poetry and fiction titles over a lengthy career.
Going back to the early 1960s, Bowering’s publications make up a list well over a hundred simply in trade books alone, let alone smaller publications such as chapbooks, broadsides and the like (anyone interested in what Bowering produced up to the end of the 1980s can check out Roy Miki’s incredibly-researched and entertaining volume, A Record of Writing: An Annotated and Illustrated Bibliography of George Bowering, published by Vancouver’s Talonbooks in 1989). Given his lengthy career as a writer, moving through multiple genres, there are the occasional hints toward a larger process, an overview, so to speak, but only in the most general terms, as he cites such constraints as Oulipo in the “Preface” to the collection, writing:
I am not about to maintain that all my books were composed according to the principles suggested by those marvelous Oulipian writers and mathematicians. But all my life I have been interested in finding ways to disrupt my own paths of thinking, of finding ways to have my poems and stories written by accident, of setting up constraints to force me away from representation and description of what I think I see in front of me.
When any writer talks about the work he or she has done, and why, other names are inevitably brought in, and Bowering’s conversation on his own books and writing include incredible amounts of references to other writers and their works, including Harry Mathews, Jack Spicer, Raymond Queneau, Robin Blaser, Raymond Roussel, William Carlos Williams, Artie Gold, Ryan Knighton, Lorine Niedecker, Robert Duncan, Gertrude Stein, Ranier Maria Rilke, David W. McFadden, Al Purdy, Robert Creeley, Jack Kerouac and plenty of others.
Yeats got his metaphors from creatures in his wife’s dreams, of course, but he knew that he was one of many co-workers in the great task of poetry. The language he was working with was far larger, older and wiser than he would ever hope to be, and so was the great work. I remember asking the woman who was teaching my child “creative writing” rather than composition why she was doing that, and the woman told me it was so that my child could “express herself.” My child was lucky that there were James Joyce books in the house, H.D. books and Robert Duncan books. If my child wanted ever to be a writer, she had better not be satisfied to express herself, I thought. She could learn a lot by trying to imitate the writing of H.D., let’s say. (“Autobiology (1972)”)
For those who don’t make books, the entire enterprise seems to be a mysterious and confusing process. For those of us who do make books, it seems equally confusing, but often for a whole slew of other reasons, most of which aren’t confusing at all. Really, one begins to write a line, and then writes another line. One looks back at what one has written, and tweaks it as necessary. This is simply repeated, over and over and over, hundreds if not thousands of times, until a book is completed. What is so complicated with that?
So I started on the plane trip from Vancouver to Dallas, and continued after a day in Dallas, where a former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader kicked me in the ankle at the Canadian consulate because I said I didn’t like either the Cowboys or football. There in Dallas they thought I would like to see the house where that famous TV show was filmed, about who killed ER or whatever, the Ewings, but I had never seen the show. I asked to see the site of the Kennedy shooting instead; they couldn’t understand why I might want to see that. Anyway, next day I was flying to Albuqurque, and decided to spend the time on the plane in scratching out whatever I had written and didn’t like. When I got to New Mexico, I had scratched out the whole page, every word. (“Kerrisdale Elegies (1984)”)
Certainly, this isn’t the first time Bowering has discussed writing, in the general sense, from Horizontal Surfaces (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2010) and A Magpie Life: Growing A Writer (Toronto ON: Key Porter Books, 2001) to earlier collections such as Errata (Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1988). One thing I’ve always appreciated about Bowering’s essays are their readability. It was essential to me as a young writer, before I knew anything at all, allowing that space into the work, into the page, without requiring too much previous knowledge to dig in, move around. For readers of Bowering’s work, these pieces provide added knowledge to what was previously known, perhaps even allowing the occasional older work a new life, and provide a worthy entry point to new readers.