I recently got a copy of The Ivory Thought: Essays on Al Purdy (Ottawa ON: University of Ottawa Press, 2008), produced out of the conference that the University of Ottawa had on the late poet Alfred W. Purdy a couple of years back [see my note on the conference itself here]. The event even included a poetry reading that Gerald Lynch had me host, with readings by conference participants George Bowering [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Steven Heighton and Laurence Hutchman and two locals, Stephen Brockwell [see his 12 or 20 questions here] and Gwendolyn Guth. The book from the conference itself, then, has a wonderful mix of formal and informal essays, as well as a couple of poems by Brockwell and Guth, written just for the event. I’m very appreciative of being able to go to these conference, with this being my third, after Modernism [see my note on the book for such here] and the Long Poem Symposium back in 1996; I should really start going to more of these things.
One of the highlights of the collection (and of the conference itself) had to be Steven Heighton’s piece “On Trying to Wear Al’s Shirts,” that even includes the editors’ note, “Steven Heighton did in fact deliver an earlier version of the following essay while wearing a loud blue polyester shirt that had belonged to Al Purdy.”
How do we come to wear the shirts of mentor poets? Is it a good thing, bad? Is it a gesture of loyalty or a ghoulish appropriation? Or is it neutral—utterly beside the point? I’m going to talk here in an impressionistic, non-syllogistic way about wearing the shirt of an admired older poet while trying to fill it out in my own manner.The Bowering piece, while managing to work his way through all of the arguments and concerns of his TISH and post-TISH days, managed to distract just long enough to slip in some of the finest commentary on Purdy and Purdy’s work of the whole event, and is worth the price of the collection alone. Being that George Bowering wrote the first little mimeo on Purdy’s work back in 1970, many of the conference participants, whether they wanted to or not, had to reference what he had done (and a number of them really didn’t seem to happy about that). Bowering’s “Purdy among the Tombs” begins:
Al Purdy and I exchanged letters, as they say, for forty years, so of course we had some differences of opinion. The last time I saw him was a week before he died on Good Friday, 2000. It happened that I owed him a letter, so a couple of years later I left one for him on his book-shaped headstone at the bottom end of Purdy Lane in Prince Edward County, Ontario.The next conference, Postmodernism, promises to be amazing, and happens from May 9-11, 2008 (I’ve already purchased my flight home for such), & even includes two different poetry readings, one by locals that I'm in, and another, with Frank Davey, Dennis Cooley [see his 12 or 20 questions here], Christine Stewart [see her 12 or 20 questions here], the Max Middle Sound Project, etcetera...
I never thought that he’d write back. I should have known. So here I am with another letter I owe him. I am really looking forward to his reply this time.