Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Return of William Hawkins, Ottawa’s most dangerous poet

Sheila Frances Louise

I keep my divorce papers
with my underwear, top drawer, in fact,
so that each morning while dressing,
I resolve again,
to stop following my prick around.

No offence now...

Dancing Alone, Selected Poems

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005 saw the launch of the first book by Ottawa poet and musician William Hawkins since 1974, his Dancing Alone: Selected Poems (Broken Jaw Press / cauldron books, 2005). Easily the most impressive event at the spring edition of the Ottawa International Writers Festival (and supposedly the largest poetry launch in the history of the National Archives), the evening included friends and former bandmates Sandy Crawley, Sneezy Waters and Neville Wells performing a selection of Hawkins classics, former bandmate Bruce Cockburn reading from his preface to the collection, and finally, the rough and charming Railroad Bill reading a generous selection of his three decades of poems. The evening was hosted by Roy MacSkimming, who has known Bill since he was a teenager, and publisher of Bill’s previous selected (when he was with New Press), as well as author of the introduction to the new collection (recently posted as part of the 5th issue of Poetics.ca). With an estimated two hundred and fifty people filling the auditorium of the National Archives, the evening was all about the love.

In the 1960s in Ottawa, and with his work influenced by Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Irving Layton and Allan Ginsberg, William Hawkins was the poet around town. With friend Roy MacSkimming, he drove west to participate in the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963, and the two young poets returned to publish their Shoot Low, Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies (1964). The two were later included in the seminal New Wave Canada (1966), edited by Raymond Souster. Bill went on to publish five more collections, including Ottawa Poems (1966), published by Nelson Ball’s Weed / Flower, and his last collection, The Madman’s War (1974), that came out with the brand-new S.A.W. Gallery (around the same time, another gallery in Montreal, founded the same time as Ottawa’s Sussex Annex Works, started talk about making books in the back room, the group of them that would eventually be known as Vehicule). In those ten years or more, Bill performed his poetry and his music, instigated readings, wrote and published furiously, insulted various people, ran Le Hibou coffeehouse with his wife, hosted Leonard Cohen, Joni Michell, Gordon Lightfoot and dozens of others, and got into as much trouble as he could get his hands on (there’s a story Noel recently told me involving William Hawkins, a truck load of pot, a shotgun blast, the Mexican border cops and Pierre Elliott Trudeau).

I want to toughen
my attitudes
on mediocrity

& make a few statements
on values
to the crowded busloads.

Ottawa Poems

My personal favorite has to be the Ottawa Poems, the Weed / Flower sequence of lyric fact, argument and burning homage to the City of Ottawa in the 1960s.

The personality of William Hawkins is as important as his poems, and to spend any time with him is to be caught up in his charms. Just ask any of the female judges that call him on his Blue Line Cab cell phone for a ride, or the woman organizing Bill’s upcoming birthday party at the end of May, just short of his 65th birthday (which makes him bare weeks older than my mother).

The story, as I understand it, tells that it was Ottawa gadfly and mystic, Noel Evans, after some slight prodding from Bill, who originally prepared the manuscript around 1996. Once completed, neither of them could find a home for the collection. It was Bill, in 2002, who brought the disk to me, saying something along the lines of, I don’t know what to do with the damn thing. You take it.

I spent the next two years searching out other poems of Bill’s that might fit into the manuscript, from lost pieces in issues of Nelson Ball’s Weed/Flower or Canadian Forum, as the discovery of each new poem excited him until he saw them again, causing him to gruff that under no circumstances should I put "that poem" into the final manuscript. In the end, the book remains what Evans had put together, and no more.

King Kong Goes to Rotterdam

Why now King Kong me
Me silent seeker of the Rotterdam of pussycats
Me troubled watcher of St. Orlovsky’s bear
I’m in the ice-bags of tomorrow’s girl
My endless aspirations of Holland won’t save me
I’ve seen the blond girls of Rotterdam copulating
Oblivious of world sorrow
But ecstatic for corduroy trousers

I wear corduroy trousers
Yet I am a billion miles from pigtails

Shoot Low, Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies

I’ve always wondered if it was through Bill’s poems that Michael Ondaatje got the impetus for his own King Kong poem, published nearly a decade later in Rat Jelly (Coach House, 1973). The two young poets would have certainly been aware of each other, as each did appear in New Wave Canada (along with MacSkimming; the book is now considered rare and very valuable for being Michael Ondaatje’s first book publication).

King Kong

In the yellow dust
of the light of the National Guard
he perishes magnanimous
tearing the world apart.
He pitches his balls accidentally
through a 14th storey window
gets a blow job
from the vacuum left by jets.

Up there our lady in his fingers
like a ring, so delicate
he must swallow what he loves
caressing with wounds
the ones who reach for him.

Then through the suburbs.
Impregnated the kitchen staff
of the Trade Winds Motel,
devoured half a Loblaws supermarket,
threw a Vic Tanny gymnasium around.
Last seen in Chicago with helicopters
cutting into his head like thorns.

So we renew him
capable in the zoo of night.

Michael Ondaatje, Rat Jelly

Part of the exciting thing of the new collection, is that after we told Bill that we accepted the manuscript for publication, he started becoming more excited about the work, and even started writing again. Every so often, he would pull his Blue Line cab up to our part of the block on Somerset Street West, and deliver himself with news of a new piece to myself and/or jwcurry. This is one he gave curry, published in March as a 1cent.

Thinking of Cobwebs

For Nelson Ball

When they came they were huge,
Spinning crazily downward - large
Like a giant’s hand -
Grabbing folks
And calling them spiders.

Snowflakes, snowflakes,
Evil mutants
That are inclined to melt.

1cent #362, "110 copies as the webbing liquidifies / uncommonly early this 15 march 2005."

He claims the impetus was far too simple. MacSkimming said he wouldn’t be eligible for a Canada Council grant until he put together a group of new poems, but I think it’s more than that.

Lately Bill is even talking of performing again. If someone would give him a god-damned guitar.

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