Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Neil Flowers on Northern Comfort (Commoners’ Press, 1973)

Neil Flowers, Neil Flowers, aka Neil Whiteman, aka Monk Besserer, and likely several other aliases that he’s long forgotten, was born in Montreal and has lived in Italy, Mexico, the U.S., and on Saltspring Island, BC. In the late 60s and early 70s, he studied literature at Carleton University, including being a member of Robert Hogg’s seminar in modern and contemporary poetry. As well as being a poet, Neil has a long history as an actor, director, and writer for radio, theatre, and film. He currently lives in Los Angeles where he works as a screenwriter and script doctor, and teaches screenwriting. A distant ancestor, Robert Flowers, a British soldier stationed at Lake Champlain who fled America for Canada when the Yanks more or less won their revolution, helped found the town of New Carlisle in the Gaspé.

Neil transcribed and edited the public poetry reading that effectively became the anthology Northern Comfort (Ottawa, ON: Commoners’ Press, 1973).

Q: Northern Comfort was, by its own admission, an edited transcript of “a reading of poetry by various people, given in the back yard of the Victoria Hotel 18 Murray Street, the Byward Market, Ottawa, on the evening of June 29th, 1972.” What was it about this event, beyond any other, that prompted transcribing it for the sake of print?

A: Interesting question. Your “beyond any other” seems to imply that there were more. I could be wrong, but to my knowledge, and to that time, the reading was a unique event in Ottawa’s cultural history. That seemed to make it important enough to leave a record. Except for Le Hibou, the city was pretty sleepy in the sense of street or popular art. Also, the mix and number of good poets who read was interesting to me, so I thought the variety of verse would help the book. It was an anthology, in a sense, of a specific place and time, rather than of a style or a school. Also, I respected the energies that had brought it together, such as Bill Stevenson, who at only 24, or something like that, was a top-dawg blues pianist. He’d recorded. I play blues piano to this day in large part due to his inspiration and he, in fact, gave me the only piano lesson I’ve ever had. Peter Lamb helped put the evening together, and recorded it, as you know. Peter and I had been friends from Carleton. We were in the same graduating year. Robert Hogg was reading at the event, and Bill Hawkins was the emcee. If they were a part of it, it had to be interesting. And so it turned out to be.

Q: Given that literary events are prevalent in the city now, it’s almost difficult to think of a community of writers that weren’t regularly meeting and performing. How did the reading first come together? And which came first: the idea for the reading, or the idea for the book?

A: Well, there was not a community of writers meeting and reading regularly back in 1973 in Ottawa. None that I’m aware of at least, except for the readings Hawkins led at Le Hibou. Only when Bob Hogg came to town, to teach at Carleton, did there start to be readings there. He brought John Newlove, Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, George Bowering, Warren Tallman, Alden Nowlan, and Ed Dorn, to name a few. An extraordinary lineup, when you think about it, several of the best poets in English of the era. Bob deserves major kudos for his work in getting these poets to come to Ottawa and getting the Dean of Arts at Carleton to pay for it. In the sense of nationally and international known writers, Bob is the person responsible for bringing contemporary poetry to Ottawa. He may have brought Margaret Atwood, too, not sure, you’ll have to ask him. She did turn up there. So did Michael Ondaatje, who read from The Collected Works of Billy The Kid. His reading was held in one of the major lecture theatres at Carleton—and it was packed. The Four Horsemen—with bp nicol—performed at Carleton, too. Not sure if Bob brought them either.

It’s worth saying that Bob was a poet, not someone with a doctorate who only wrote about poetry or literature. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hugh Kenner was an academic, not a poet; still, The Pound Era is one of the best books about poetry ever written. But Bob knew poetry from the inside; he was young; he was friendly toward students. He’s Canadian, too, not British or American, and there were a lot of those in the Carleton English Department of the period. In fact, there was a public foofaraw about not enough Canadians in the department and enough Can Lit being taught. All these qualities counted very much in Bob’s favour from a student’s point of view. He was popular with those who knew him. One great thing we did in that class was we sent Ezra Pound a birthday telegram on his 85th. That was Bob’s idea. It was a cool thing to do. It wasn’t just academic stuff. It was a live connection.

There were always parties for the poets after the readings; you could meet and talk with them. I remember Robert Creeley’s reading well: The fineness of his poems, and his total presence without being showy in the least, was galvanizing. When you heard him read, you at once understood his line breaks—attached to his hesitant breath—which could seem confusing or even precious on the page. He was as unique with the short line as Ginsberg had been with the Whitmanesque long. Bob made sure that Creeley and I met afterwards at the party—another kindness I owe Bob, among many. I was somewhat shy. I was meeting a legend! Creeley was soft-spoken and encouraging. That’s a memory for a lifetime. Ginsberg cruised the young men at his party, which is funny-hah-hah when I think of it now. I’m pretty sure I’d never even heard the word “gay” back then.

One night Bob and his wife, Leslie, and I and a couple of others had dinner and drinks with Basil Bunting at The Matador, which was on lower Bank Street, after Basil’s reading. He told us a story about Pound and Yeats and Yeats’s cottage. This was during the time Yeats was writing “Sailing to Byzantium” and the poem was in Yeats’s typewriter. So Basil alleged, adding that Yeats said he had been working on the poem for six weeks. Basil, who at the time was considerably younger than the other two, was there because Pound dragged him along to meet Yeats. Unforgettable story, of course. That same night at the Matador, Basil said if you think you’ve written a good poem, put it in a drawer, wait a year, then come back and read it and if you still think it works, then publish it. Eternally good advice.

That kind of personal contact with such poets made a difference in one’s appreciation of how the art was a living thing, and so you might dare to write verse, too. Leonard Cohen came to Carleton, by the way, and sang in the gymnasium. He had a small, low-key band, was superb, at his best, self-effacing in that way he had, and the crowd was adulatory. And he gave the concert for free, and I mean free-free, as I don’t think Carleton paid for it. He just offered. There was no publicity, word got around in a hurry one day and that was that. Maybe he was breaking in his band and needed a venue? I have no idea, and perhaps I’m being sentimental, but that always struck me as a Canadian-to-Canadian gesture. 

Trevor Tolley, a professor at Carleton, also taught an upper-level survey course in Modern Poetry that was very, very good, gave you the big sweep that included major figures like Wallace Stevens, as well as many lesser lights such as Edith Sitwell or Theodore Roethke. Bob taught for a whole semester, and therefore in depth, those poets—Pound, Williams, Olson—who I would characterize as more important because of their willingness to be so adventurous in terms of form and content. We also read Creeley, Duncan, and some Canadians like Newlove. Bob talked about Gary Snyder, too, a poet, IMO, who gets overlooked. In terms of subject—First Nations ways—Gary’s a prophet. Anyway, I was a student in that class, and it was the first year Bob taught at Carleton. He really let you see what you were missing, perhaps the idea of “open verse” or projective verse (as Olson says) and the sequence or serial poem most of all in terms of theory and possibility. Plus Creeley’s notion—which comes out of Williams—that form and content could be the same, rather than form being separate or imposed externally on the content, iambic pentameter or rhyme, say. There’s the Duncan poem from The Opening of the Field that says, “we let the long line pace even awkward to its period.” Mostly I’m leery of poems about poetry but that one made a big impression. The “all moose” one from the same book, too. That’s the challenge, isn’t it? To let a poem find its own form. Of course there are great poems of the closed variety, the old style, you might say, without judgement, what has been around since poetry began, of which Olson himself wrote some very fine examples, such as “Only the Red Fox, Only the Crow”. But thinking “open” gave new possibilities. That’s probably the big discovery of modern/postmodern verse.

Bob’s seminar made a difference in a positive way in my life and many others. If he hadn’t held that seminar, I and those who studied with him would probably still think that Eliot was the summum bonum of twentieth-century verse, which was pretty much the mainstream academic opinion of the time still, even though Williams had been railing against Eliot’s influence for years. And he was right. Eliot, skillful as he was, was mostly a dead end in terms of subject, but, I would argue, not altogether in style, though Pound sure helped make that style—il miglior fabbro and all that. The Waste Land is a knockout of a poem yet, at nearly a hundred years old, but what Williams said about Eliot’s blast of genius wrecking American verse for a while still rings true. Eliot was no lightweight, but where Williams was heading turned out to be endlessly usable, genitive, influential, crucial to the origin of much poetry that followed; Eliot not so much.

In the context of Bob’s seminar and the readings he put together, you might be interested in knowing that I designed the poster for the Ed Dorn reading and several years ago donated my copy to the Carleton Special Collections Library, which didn’t have one. You can see the poster there, if you’ve a mind to do so. It was somewhat of a struggle to get Carleton to print it, but they finally agreed and on very nice paper, but they would only print a small number, no more than 40, as I recall, so it’s a rare item. I also sold my 1st edition copy of WCW’s first Selected Poems (New Directions, 1949) to Spec Coll a couple of years back, a book I’d bought in LA. So it’s there, too, dust jacket in perfect shape, in case you or your readers would like to have a look.

That’s a long way around and with detours. To answer the question directly: The idea for the reading at the Victoria came first. After the fact, I decided it would make a good book.

I’m not sure who first proposed the reading, and how the logistics brought it about. I wasn’t privy to that stage of the organizing. I had nothing to do with it. You need to speak with Peter Lamb. He would likely know, as I believe he helped put the reading together as well as recording it and shooting some film of it (alas, likely lost, Peter told me recently).

Q: How was the idea pitched to Commoner’s, and how were they to work with?

A: Sorry, can’t recall the details of how I pitched the idea to Commoners or how we were connected. They were a breeze to work with. I edited the MS exactly how I wanted it to be and that’s how it went to press. No tinkering. Peter Lamb either took or provided nearly all the photos. Brenda Cook, Peter’s girlfriend at the time, took the beautiful picture of Hawkins, as you know because it’s credited. As I recall, once the MS got rolling, I connected Commoners with Peter and that’s how the pictures happened, i.e., Peter gave them a bunch of images to work with and they chose.

Although I was involved in the preliminary layout of the book, Cam Christie at Commoners deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the way Northern Comfort finally looks. He also shepherded the book through the printing process while I was out in BC. As soon as I had submitted the MS, I took off for BC, where I lived for the next several years. After being out there only a few months, I came back east for personal reasons, and that’s when I first saw Northern Comfort. I was astounded that the book had actually been done because these projects often run aground when money and enthusiasm decline. And I was doubly astounded that it had come out so well. As I say, Cam Christie did the heavy lifting in terms of getting the book out. He was the sine qua non. Minus him, it wouldn’t have made it.

Q: How were the poets selected? Were there some you wanted to include in the event but weren’t able?

A: In the sense of being selected, it seems you mean who was selected to read, not who was selected to ultimately be in Northern Comfort. Yes? This is a logistics question, to which I don’t think I know the answer. Does that sound odd? What I mean is that I had zero pull with the organizers. Before the event Bob Hogg and I had some sort of conversation about the line-up, but how definitive that became I don’t know. Maybe Hawkins had some input? I do recall the question of how we were going to allow George Johnston to read, as he was out of town, up at his cottage. It was imperative that he read because he was a legend, published by a major publisher, and he lived and taught in Ottawa. Who suggested the idea of the telephone hook-up I can’t remember, possibly Peter Lamb—he was really good at that end of things—but there was definitely an effort to get that bit of technology to work just because it was George and we wanted him as part of the event. To be frank, I doubt we would have gone to the trouble for a lesser figure.

Q: I was going to ask you about that; even when I first encountered the book years ago, I thought it absolutely delightful that you had readers unable to participate in person phoning in their readings. William Hawkins has also given me the impression over the years that George Johnston was pretty important for younger poets in town, as a mentor and influence. How do you recall Johnston?

A: Bill is absolutely right about that. i.e., George being a mentor and a light. George taught Old English at Carleton and, at least once, Old Norse. He was, as I said, a legend, tall, imposing, with his white beard, gaunt look, and beret. You knew he was into the skalds. Pretty amazing! You respected him and his obvious integrity. He was somebody who seemed like a poet first and then a university professor, rather than the other way around. I started his class in Old English, but it was too much for me at the time and I dropped out. Nonetheless, he and I not long afterwards had a good discussion about Robert Lowell’s poem, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” from Lord Weary's Castle. This gives you an example of the mentor thing.

Somehow we crossed paths and he asked me whom I liked and I said that I was reading the Lowell poem. I still remember chunks of it. I was so taken by the poem that I drove to Nantucket one summer after teaching at Carleton in order to visit the island. I almost missed the graveyard. I had to ask a local who pointed it out because it
s just like the poem says. It looks like an empty field, but its field of Quakers in their unstoned graves,” Quakers didnt believe in tombstones. Lowell later sort-of dismissed these poemsthe ones in Lord Wearys Castle, I meancalling them “armoured,” and compared to “Skunk Hour,” for example, they are rhetorical, but I admired that poem then and do now.  It’s magnificent, complex rhymes and all. George was surprised at my enthusiasm for the poem. A little impressed, I suppose, because I was a kid, really, and into this thorny work—with its allusions to Moby Dick plus the very Catholic section about Our Lady of Walsingham—and which is, incidentally, a sequence poem, speaking of. Anyway, George told me he liked the poem, too, and nodded in that sage way of his. I was incredibly flattered that he’d taken the time to talk with me and to approve. That conversation made me realize that he wasn’t forbidding or unapproachable at all, which you might have thought from the way he looked and his reputation as a poet. He was like a fifth columnist is how I began to think of him. His earlier poems were somewhat contradictory, crafted in tight quatrains mostly, hard-rhymed, a style completely out of fashion then, the currency of the time being “free” verse, yet his content was very 60s in a way, inasmuch as it pointedly questioned the bourgeois way of life. His later poems became freer in the handling, the form, though he once said that he had to “unlearn” the idea of a poem finding its own form. There are many paths up the mountain.

He was a great soul and an incredible poet. It was unthinkable back then to have a reading in Ottawa and George not be a part of it, which is why we went out of our way to make sure that he was.

Q: You mention that readings were a rarity at the time in Ottawa, but for what Hawkins was curating at Le Hibou, but I’m curious about what was happening in town as far as small poetry publishing, whether journals or books. In 1972 there was Commoners’ Press, obviously, as well as Golden Dog Press and Northern Journey. What were the local poets paying attention to? How were Ottawa poets getting their work out?

A: Sorry can’t be of much real help here either. Northern Journey I read, and of course Roy MacSkimming ran New Press and published Bill’s The Gift of Space, but the history of poetry publishing and performance in Ottawa I really know little about beyond what I told you regarding Bob, though that part is important. My life at the time was centred around my studies at Carleton and being a new father while being very young. I didn’t have a book in the works at the time, so I wasn’t really thinking about publishing. If I were you, I’d ask Roy about this. He’d likely know.

Q: You’ve said you left town before the book appeared in print, returning later to see a finished product. Do you remember any response to the collection, either from contributors or the public?

A: Tough question. Long time ago. Bob approved highly and congratulated me when we saw each other during my brief return to Ottawa from BC. So did my brother, Bruce. There was a review somewhere that lauded the book.

Although Northern Comfort does, as Cameron Anstee notes in his piece on it on your blog, capture the spirit of the event, I think it’s worth insisting on how exuberant that evening was. It felt magnetic, important, and it felt homegrown in the best way, too, like the difference between a home-grown tomato and a store-bought one. It felt authentic to the spirit of the place, not an import, not from somewhere else. It was ours. It showed us who we were, that we mattered to ourselves and, in a sense, generally. When you study poetry at university or at any school, it’s easy to be intimidated or to think that only the great ones count: Donne or Keats or Dickinson or Williams, etc. Not that they don’t. Of course they do. You have to learn from somewhere, so learn from the best.

But especially, I think, speaking as a Canadian, and from the perspective of more than forty years, it could be easy to be intimidated by the British and the Americans if English was your first language and you wanted to write verse (the question of Québec is different). TISH was trailblazing on the West Coast with Bowering and Davey and Bob Hogg. And there was Daphne Marlett: Steveston is a masterpiece, if you ask me. Newlove came riding out of Saskatchewan. In the East, Ray Souster in Toronto and, say, Irving Layton in Montreal, were important as guides. So was Leonard Cohen, by the way, in terms of spirit, whatever one may think now of his limitations as a poet (his songs are a different matter, there he is a master). He did write some first-rate single poems, “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries,” or “You Have the Lovers,” for example, and he was breaking through in his poetry, as well as his music, to a large audience. That was important as a possibility. And of course there are the two superior novels. They weren’t Frederick Philip Grove. They were from an altogether different register, which Desmond Pacey saw and immediately lauded, calling Beautiful Losers the best Canadian novel written to that point.

Now poetry is a river in Canada, and it’s the Fraser or the St. Lawrence, not Etobicoke Creek. When it comes to the genre, we take a back seat to no other culture in the English-speaking world, which is pretty remarkable considering how small a country we are, smaller in population than California.

Sometimes you hear that being sandwiched between England and America works against us but I think this has worked in our favour in terms of poetry and prose in English. We’re neither of them, but we’ve drawn from them, which, mixed with our own poetic spirit—and I’m pretty much talking from W.W. E. Ross and Ray Knister on—has made something quite unique. And let’s get a word in here edgewise for the national and provincial arts councils for doing so much to foster the admirable state of affairs here in the arts. But, to continue the metaphor, poetry in Canada was starting to overrun its banks back then. Northern Comfort demonstrated, I think—I hope—that Ottawa, that government town which could be easy to dismiss, was a part of the gathering flood, that the town had poets who were active, who were writing, and who were just as relevant as the stuff we read in the anthologies. We were waving our shirts above our heads. We were alive.

Northern Comfort

Published by Commoners’ Press, 1973

Subtitled “being a reading of poetry by various people, given in the back yard of the Victoria Hotel, 18 Murray Street, the Byward Market, Ottawa, on the evening of June 29th, 1972.”

Transcribed and Edited by Monk Besserer
Cover by Alyx Jones
Design and Layout by Cam Christie and Monk Besserer

Typeset and Printed in an edition of 500 copies at Commoners’ Press, 425 Rideau St., 2B, Ottawa.


            The text of this book is a slightly edited transcription of a reading that began at approximately 8:30 p.m. on June 29th, 1972 in the backyard of the Victoria Hotel. The reading was arranged by Peter Geldart, Alyx Jones, and Bill Stevenson, the three principle co-ordinators of Market Projections, a now-defunct OFY sponsored group of artists who got together to try and bring some life into Ottawa’s artistic scene. Most of their work was of the “happening” variety and is now long gone but this book, if nothing else, stands as witness to their inspired collective energy. Without them none of it would have happened.
            I have tried to offer in the text a layout that will facilitate a re-creation of the experience through reading. There is a long section by Alyx Jones that has been omitted for quantitative reasons but with that sole exception whatever editing I have done was only to this end. There are countless “um”s and “ah”s omitted (I am always astonished at how inarticulate a poet can be), though some may think there are still too many. Occasionally I have substituted a word that was obviously intended though whoever spoke actually said something else (slips-of-the-tongue). Whenever a poet read two or three poems straight through without comment I have separated them with a row of asterisks to indicate as much – in effect, a time break. There is, also, a small amount of material missing – the machine was shut off for the telephone calls from George Johnston and Ronnie Judge, and I’m still piqued over those omissions for there seems to have been no reason to do so. The opening remarks of Alyx Jones and George Johnston, for example, are perfectly audible. There are also lacunae as a result of the necessity to change tapes. Even twentieth century technology has its limits.
            Someone has said that the real function of Northern Comfort should be as textbook for Ottawa schools. It’s not likely that the OBE will ever make NC required reading or that it will ever find its way onto English 100 courses anywhere, but for those whom school is out something may be learned.

            Neil Whiteman                        November 1973

Dramatis Personae (In order of appearance.)
William Hawkins
Alyx Jones
Robert Hogg
Marius Kociejowski
Christopher Levenson
Neil Whiteman
Jack Nathanson
George Johnston
Ronnie Judge
Unknown Reader
David Andrews
The 47 Argyle Street Band
Christophe James
Bill Stevenson

[note: incredible thanks to Cameron Anstee who provided book scans]

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