Roy Kiyooka's letters: Transcanada Letters + Pacific Rim Letters + some other writings
A prolific artist, and considered one of the Canada’s first “multi-disciplinary” artists, the late Roy Kenzie Kiyooka’s (1926-1994) ouvre includes such recent things as: Pacific Windows, Collected Poems by Roy Kiyooka (ed. Roy Miki, Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1997), which includes pieces from the poetic and photographic project StoneDGloves (Ottawa ON: The National Gallery of Canada / Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1970) and the long poem Pear Tree Pomes (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1977), which was nominated for a Governor General's Award; Mothertalk, Life Stories of Mary Kiyoshi Kiyooka (ed. Daphne Marlatt, Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1997); December 1987 to February 1988 (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1995, with art by David Bolduc); inclusion in The New Long Poem Anthology, second edition (ed. Sharon Thesen, Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2001); and two critical tribute/acknowledgments to the late poet, artist, photographer, musician, teacher and friend, the collection All Amazed, For Roy Kiyooka (Vancouver BC: Arsenal Pulp Press / Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery / Collapse #7, 2002), edited by John O’Brian, Naomi Sawada and Scott Watson, and more recent issue of Calgary's dANDelion (volume 29, no. 3, 2003). Thanks to editor and critic Smaro Kamboureli, NeWest Press has released two volumes of Kiyooka letters, re-releasing his long out of print Transcanada Letters (2005, with an afterword by Glen Lowry; originally published by Talonbooks in 1974), and the long awaited second volume that Kiyooka himself had attempted to prepare, before his death, the collection Pacific Rim Letters (edited, with an afterword, by Kamboureli, 2005).
Doesn't any poet write a single work all his livelong life? Break it up into measurable units, call each unit a lyric — a stroke of magic or, if you wish, a telltale paragraph. The long or short hiatuses between each word don't matter. Some poems come suddenly like an intrepid November flood while others take years to accumulate the necessary grit. I've been rereading A.B.C. The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind by Ivan Illich and Barry Saunders, a succinct treatise on why we've all become the linguistic / political creatures we are. According to them, the Homeric tradition, which is preliterate, posits an uninterrupted narrative without an actual text. Like it's all covert with actual and stored experiences, and given the time and occasion, it becomes an actual speaking or singing out. What moves me, moves, serpent-wise, through the body of my speech is nothing, if not both the seminal body and the insensate breath's filial bequest.(statement by Kiyooka, The New Long Poem Anthology, Second Edition)
Held together as two volumes of selected correspondence over a period of nearly twenty years, Kiyooka's letters, like his poems, revel in the language, and include both letters and poems dipped in, where part of his ongoing correspondences with various friends, family members, writers, painters, funding bodies and others, all written to in much the same bursts of energy, thought and generous speech (the second volume includes an index at the end, making letters far easier to find, something that would have been nice to include in the first as well).
dear Lawren Harris jr
Y E S i will be in Sackville
March 22nd/23rd. probably the night before.
i am thinking of flying -want to
take pics of the landscape frm 5000 ft.
otherwise will drive thru
- -i dont know how small/large yr classes are.
if they average 12 to 15 i wld prefer to talk with
them as aggregate rather than each group in turn.
i talk to everybody the same way, anyhow.
we could have one long crit that went on til all were
art students shld feel free to come to the reading.
they shld know that poetry is as much for them as for
english students. its something they can also do.
mix of english/ art students is the best possible
audience. even for a séance. (p 248, Transcanada letters)
Each volume also has a generous selection of photographs, held together in a series, a structure that Kiyooka seemed to work in, in both photography and poetry, continually extending and extending and extending the frame.
the last 3 days with
hiro mayumi and rei together
with all their friends on denman island . january '84
and growing children
all cared for
all held in awe
your feelings in mind:
my own feelings for
the sake of a
'i' click the
shutter. i am blesst
by the lilt
& tilt of a fine spring light (p 241, Pacific Rim Letters)
The critical attention and appreciation of Kiyooka has been slow coming, with the appearance of the collected poems in 1997 (as much as his work could have been 'collected,' with many pieces that appeared in various places not included), and the collection All Amazed, For Roy Kiyooka, that came out of a major multidisciplinary conference two years later, The Roy Kiyooka Conference, October 1-2, 1999, curated by Daphne Marlatt and Michael Ondaatje, at the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design in Vancouver (where Kiyooka spent most of his last thirty years). The collection includes a transcript of some of the proceedings at the conference, with readings, film and performances by George Bowering, Carole Itter, Sarah Sheard, Gerry Shikatani, Michael de Courcy, David Bolduc and Fumiko Kiyooka, with generous sections of Kiyooka’s own writing, as “read” in the text by some of the participants. As the editors write in their introduction: “Rightly or wrongly, we felt that the worlds Kiyooka inhabited and contributed to did not know enough about each other: the art world does not know so much about poetry, and poets do not know so much about art. We wanted to bring these worlds together as they were together in his work.”
The pieces in All Amazed each give a sense of Kiyooka’s range of interests and output, dealing with different aspects of his work, from the poetry read at the conference, the issues of writing and race from Roy Miki (Kiyooka’s family was displaced as enemy aliens during the second world war from Vancouver to the prairies), the photography work through the eyes of Sheryl Conkelton, and the everything of the teacher by former art student Henry Tsang. As well as a range, the book gives a sense of the importance of Kiyooka’s work to those who might not be familiar with it, still being opened and understood now, years after his death. In the introduction of Mothertalk, Marlatt wrote of Kiyooka being “...well-known in Canadian painting circles of the 1960's and early 70's for his geometric abstract canvases, an artist who subsequently abandoned his painting career to make photography, writing, and music at the intersection of the Asian and Western cultural heritages he found himself living out.” Part of what made Kiyooka interesting as an artist, was the enforced smallness of his work, the extreme detail that came through his writing, photography and painting, that seemed to come so naturally to him, whether through the sense of short play in his poetry, or from the construction photographs that made up StoneDGloves.
in the runnels of his
the untellable seasons
in a labialcave
(p 60, “All Amazed in the Runnels of His 60 Winters,” All Amazed, For Roy Kiyooka)
All Amazed includes healthy examples of some of his various work, including the photography/text project Pacific Windows that made up a special issue of The Capilano Review in fall 1990 (second series, #3), stills from video/performance work, and a biography and bibliography. Published, among other things, as the 7th issue of Collapse magazine, which included a cd in its second issue of Kiyooka reading from Mothertalk (the book he wrote based on his mother's recollections, translated into English), the collection adds an interesting critical dimension on his serial works in photography and poetry, the latter of which seems less acknowledged critically than the former. As with any collection of this type, its hard to look at any of it as a whole without seeing the limitations placed on it for its size, and just how much more could have been included.
The special issue of dANDelion, subtitled "new writing critical essays photography on the work of Roy Kiyooka," includes pieces by Glen Lowry, Rita Wong, Scott Toguri McFarlane, Matthew Holmes, Douglas Barbour, Jill Hartman, Jay MillAr, Gregory Betts, Tara Lee, Lola Lemire Tostevin, David Fujino, David Mount, Maria Hindmarch, Michael Barnholden, Pete Smith, Lawrence Upton, Roy Miki, Claudia Lapp, as well as a collaboration by Kiyooka and Daphne Marlatt, as well as part of the (then) forthcoming Pacific Rim Letters, introduced by Smaro Kamboureli, and provides an essential counterpoint to the work collected in All Amazed. As Hartman and derek beaulieu write in their editorial to the issue:
In his essay, Michael Barnholden suggests "serious study and review [of Roy Kiyooka's poetry] outside of the attentions of a few friends were rare," due to Kiyooka's penchant for self-publishing. With this issue (the O issue), friends such as Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, and Roy Miki offer collaborations, responses, and unpublished Kiyooka poems and prose--the limitations of the chapbook form (accessibility being the main one) mean that much of Kiyooka's work is still unpublished or hard to find. Poets and critical writers share space in this issue in order to collage voices and describe influence. The O issue is itself a part of a larger Kiyooka collage: Kiyooka's collected poems, Pacific Windows: Collected Poems of Roy K. Kiyooka (Talonbooks, 1997, edited by Roy Miki), a forthcoming book of previously unpublished work edited by Smaro Kamboureli, the recently published book of critical essays on Kiyooka, All Amazed for Roy Kiyooka (Arsenal Pulp / Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery / Collapse, 2002), along with some of the tributes to his life and work that were published shortly after his death (the "little Roy Kiyooka section that leads off" West Coast Line 16, 1995, and the 22 page "celebration of Roy Kiyooka" in Brick 48, 1994) together with this special issue of dANDelion begin to constitute not only "serious study" but are also an invaluable resource and continuing dialogue on a most spectacular writer, publisher, and artist. (p 193)
Along with critical essays and tribute poems to Kiyooka, one of the pieces included in the issue is a multiple part poem titled "this side, Victoria Park, Calgary — after Roy Kiyooka" by a friend of Kiyooka's, the Vancouver editor, teacher, poet and critic Roy Miki, that begins:
This is the unspeakable screen where he sought to protect the inquiries
that riddled one's childhood.
He was born in a neighbourhood where the streets, lanes, and foot-
worn paths of the park returned on themselves.
The provisions of memory, always on alert for the anomalous register,
cloaked the bone rushes of his awakened tensile regions with a
notorious green thumb.
It resembled a casual photo seen years later in the multitudinous
chamber of a lexicon in crisis.
What it incarnated then, the spooks removed from the tongues in
check, came across the divide as a designer storefront for ripe but
In what was described as a salamander like manoeuvre, even after
prolonged decades, the resonance, or call it the abrasive whiskers,
would sneak up on his reveries at the most anticipated of times. Dub it
then the installation of the so-called syllabic entourage.
What tissues assumed the audible signed on as compensation for the
displaced get out of childhood free card. Each album cushioning the
aerated passage of family matters dispersed in the alleys of his peregrinations.
The patron saint of lease
the tanginess of elsewhere
routes the dog days of slumber (p 110-1, dANDelion)
Still, my favourite of any of the Kiyooka tribute poems has to be by Sharon Thesen, included in her collection aurora (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1995):
AFTER ROY KIYOOKA'S FUNERAL
I take a kitchen chair out to the front porch
and stand on it to reach the light.
Encased in amber bubbled
glass, which has to be unscrewed
in three small places. The screws are brass,
stiff, unused to suffering. Then the
40 watt bulb comes out and in goes
a 100 watt bulb. The amber casing
back on, with its old cheap bracing
my visitors. Now the path
is lit farther out—and
the way in brighter,
bigger. (p 45, aurora)
The pieces that make up the two volumes of his selected letters (and they are very much selected, as Kamboureli states), Transcanada Letters and Pacific Rim Letters, also show off Kiyooka's broad range of interest, and include letters official and personal, poems written for particular friends and other writings, all of which were copied by Kiyooka before he sent, and even rewritten afterwards (some weren't sent at all), all with the consideration that some day the letters would be published. The second collection even opens with a note/poem concerning the letters themselves, writing:
some thoughts concerning
a 2nd Book of Letters titled
The Pacific Rim Letters
'76/'85: the hive of those years:
the erstwhile politics as it veers in on
one man's life in art inside the
maelstrom of these covert ideological times.
together with (a matrix of) yes
love letters rooted in one man's touches
'eros' and both touch 'art' is to
say the least where you find me. follow
the precincts of a chronology as posited
by the dated letters: enfold blocks
of other writings, obsessions truculent
thoughts from other contexts to bear
in upon callit a weaving/ wavering narrative.
ah! my mid-winter thoughts—you too
shall sieve a frost-bite thought through
the fecund seasons resounding inside
a prolix pagination. these hibernating words
want to plant a spring vowel inside
that endless processional of words they are
a humble heir of….perhaps all the
letters i've ever written are addressed to
a fearful mute i carry around inside
my mundane self
Part of the consideration of the second volume, well after Kiyooka had moved beyond painting, after disappointments with what would become the Regina 5 (the show "announcing" his five compatriots occurred without him, almost immediately after he had moved west), included talking about his increasing amounts of work in photograph, text and music, and a manuscript called "WHEELS" that he was working to shop to Michael Ondaatje at Coach House Press (it never appeared with Coach House, but was included in Pacific Windows: Collected Poems of Roy K. Kiyooka). What makes Kiyooka's letters most interesting is the way he uses the language and knows how to use the language, far more vibrant than any English-born (he seemed constantly aware of English not being his mother tongue), and more poetic than most other people's poems.
noon. 13. 3. '83
We're into spring here. The callit 'balm' is in the air. All the cherry blossoms in town tincture the grey ah lengthening days & dwindling nights. Methinks I'm becoming more & more a wind & weather man: not that I think I can read 'their' signatures any better than I can read my own. No, nothing like that. It's more the way I ride the currents of my feelings than it is like 'knowing.' Anyhow, spring's here and already my own ah stiff bod is beginning to limber up. I don't need any more 'grease' in my life (fuck O.P.E.C.): what my bod wants is more S-U-N-N-E! Ah Hawaii!
…emerging like a seedling from a long winter compost, the dream of a summer in Japan begins to shape itself. One thing I know about the forthcoming trip is that I'll be taking my old mother. W-H-E-E-L-S
Otherwise. I just want to say that WHEELS is in your hands to see thru the ol' Coach House Press. For what it's worth I've spent the whole of the past month going thru it with the proverbial fine tooth comb. Re-addressing the Text again, I sd to myself, this time it's really had it. In other words, dear Mike, what remains awkward will have to stay that way. I mean I can't belabor it any longer. There's too much of a thronging in the wings: callit the unvoiced cry of the hirsute future, whatever. After 14 springs, it's time to go on with the show, etc. Whatever else I'm about as an erstwhile 'writer,' I know within myself that the whole quest has been to claim some small portion of, callit, the verities of English which is, among a host of other things, not my mother tongue. One thing seems certain & that's how 'language' will go right on shaping us, some actual part of our very substance, for the rest of our days. One day I would like to wake up with the feeling that I could walk away from it without a tinge of fear, let alone remorse. Ah the horseless carriage, a forlorn love & a mouth fill'd with the rarities of simple breath . (p 195, Pacific Rim Letters)
One of the pieces I have always liked, from Transcanada letters, was learning how close he got to where I was, a preschooler in eastern Ontario, as Kiyooka references both county and Robert Creeley in the same breath, to Angela Bowering in 1974, starting:
- -among a heap of papers the confused litter
of 49 yrs these bits and pie-eyed pieces of that
lovely summer afternoon in Glengarry County…
before any one of us thot 'I'm not young any more
etcetera." Bob's Pieces echo thru these leavings-
w-o-r-d-s at least, for you (p 353, Transcanada letters)
Of any such artist as vibrant and essential as Kiyooka, there is always that hope that there is "more," of works unseen or lost, that simply haven’t seen the light (yet) of day. I keep hoping that there might be another collection of poems, the uncollected, picking up pieces from old issues of Arts Canada, scattered throughout his archives (wherever they are), or in various editions of his own self-published Blue Mule chapbooks. Will there be more? I keep hoping there will be more.
my left shoulder spills
a precise triangle
on the polisht wood floor
to live in
the presence of
this breath enables…
fuck Marcel Duchamp's Descartean Ploys I'll take
W.C. Field's crooked billiard cue any day
Libidinous Dreams shall destroy
All yr IBM D-A-T-A
Theres gonna be a Reign-of-Shit over
Everything till Kingdom Cometh
I remember Virgin Country
No surrealist nude ever steppt onto
Visions of hell-flowers clutcht
In the hands of a Beatrice Claudia or Monique
High embankments of primary colours
The Red Yellow and Blue 'stains' of Paradise
to eat/ sleep/ love/ work/ and sing
what else is there
Orpheus? i believe in my feelings when
i feel like 'a song' (p 178-9, Pacific Rim Letters)