Friday, September 19, 2008

from the centre to the periphery: an interview with Barry McKinnon

this interview was conducted over email from January 2005 to January 2006
Barry McKinnon was born in 1944 in Calgary, Alberta where he grew up. In 1965, after two years of college, he went to Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in Montreal and took poetry courses with Irving Layton. He graduated in 1967 with a BA and in 1969 with an MA from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and was hired that same year to teach English at The College of New Caledonia in Prince George, British Columbia, where he has lived ever since.

McKinnon primarily works in the form of the long poem/serial, and most of what he has published fits in the collection The Centre: 1970-2000 (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2004), which includes the books and chapbooks The Death of a Lyric Poet (Prince George BC: Caledonia Writing Series, 1975), The the. (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1979), Pulp Log (Prince George BC: Caitlin Press, 1991) and The Centre (Prince George BC: Caitlin Press, 1995). Some of his other collections include I Wanted to Say Something (Prince George BC: Caledonia Writing Series, 1975; Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1990), STAMP COLLECTION (Vancouver BC: blewointmentpress, 1973), a walk (Prince George BC: Gorse Press, 1998), in the millennium (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2000), BOLIVIA / PERU (Prince George BC: Gorse Press, 2004), and it cant/ be said (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2008). Finalist for the Governor General's Award for Poetry for The the., he won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award (BC Book Awards), and has twice won the bpNichol Chapbook Award for the best chapbook published in Canada in English. In 2006, McKinnon finally retired from The College of New Caledonia, and was awarded an honourary degree from the University of Northern British Columbia for all of his work as a writer, publisher and promoter in Prince George.

Of The Centre, Robert Creeley wrote: This tender self-exploration can move us all to a wiser and more receptive recognition of the world we live in daily, inside and out. Barry McKinnon's great skills as a poet make substantial all the living meets with and defines, and must finally accept willy-nilly: 'a centre to hold to when the/mind goes out of the heart, heart out of the mind…" As they used to say, he cares.

rob mclennan: What was the selection process for your selected/collected poems, The Centre: 1970-2000 (Talonbooks)? It seems very deliberately built, starting around your arrival north to Prince George, B.C. from Vancouver, and leaves I Wanted to Say Something as a noticeable absence. Was it a difficult process to leave certain things out, or was it relatively simple?

Barry McKinnon: I Wanted to Say Something was written circa 1970 in Prince George – the first long poem that appeared for me (prompted out of my grandfather’s photos wch I was given sometime before that; they were pioneer family photos, for the most part, taken around the turn of the century (19 to 20th)). The answer to yr question is simple: the poem for me didn’t fit the collection. I wanted to start with a northern “thematic” – that then moves me forward into the other various sections that pretty much place me here, Prince George north – (tho I think the questions abt “place” in poetry are often mistaken, or presumed confined to physical landscape. The body is a place, love is, arrhythmia (ha) etc. language and the imagination, for the poet, are the big ones. etc. so, the prairie poem seems to stand out/ in its own singularity tho I might be wrong. Karl Siegler wondered why I didn’t include it, and also George Stanley. So this is a/the short answer. All other sections starting with “death of a lyric poet” move chronologically; nothing that I’ve written and kept was edited out. If you feel that “I Wanted” shld have been left in, I’d be curious to hear yr take. Also, if this interview – written fast in lower case etc., appears as it is, I want to say that you made the push for “the centre” selected; otherwise I seemed stalled or not as interested in seeing these books in print via a larger publisher with distribution. Tho god knows, the various small press self-publishing runs, & eventually caitlin printings, didn’t go out too far. Is there an audience of readers more than 100 or so might be interested anyway? A bit sardonic but, you know the story. Ha.

The short intro to the talonbook gives more context/intention. Anyway, I can come back to this question if you want.

rm: Do you feel any differently about the work collected in The Centre: 1970-2000 after spending time compiling the manuscript, or now that the collection is out? It almost sounds as though, once the work is out, you’re happy enough to only have your immediate audience see the books, and don’t worry too much beyond that. Is that a fair assessment?

BM: Feel differently? Yes: I joked that seeing it all together with a beginning and ending date creates a tombstone effect. I don’t know abt you, but going back this far to re read “death of a lyric poet” and its world, feels anachronistic (to see time, place, and experience and a particular use of language that seems far behind me). Writers talk abt taking risks in poetry etc. I think the big risk is when the poet decides that what he/she’s written is a poem – and at that point decides that it stands as poetry. I believe the early work stands moving from its various particulars, but I don’t need to read it, knowing on so many and various levels what’s there, etc., knowing what I learned from each sequence, presumably in order to go onward. So, to edit the whole thing was tough and tedious – that attempt to review, edit and adjust each comma, space, decide to use upper/lower case for certain words, to test the “meaning” etc. Egad. even at that, the copy editors at talon sent me 10 pages of corrections showing inconsistencies that I missed. For eg. the two spellings/meanings of florescent, and “which one do you want here?” etc. Good eyes, those kids, and bless them for it. So: the book came out with the happy sense that anyone who didn’t know what I was up to for 30 years wld now have a chance to see the body of work. Important to know the book is out there for a larger audience and for me to move on, – and into the next poem. For me, in terms of the vast readership, ha, this means a chapbook usually self-published in 126 copies. When I have 100 pages or so (sometimes 10 years to get there), I’ll send the ms. out to a larger publisher (as with The the., so many years ago). Simple answer: I’m happy enough moving and publishing in this way.

rm: Is it really that simple? I mean, waiting to have 100 pages as a compositional unit seems odd and somewhat arbitrary (but I suppose everything, essentially, is arbitrary when it comes to compositional process). Obviously I Wanted to Say Something was a much different project; but still, when we read together in St. Catharines, Ontario to launch our Talonbooks [2004], you made a comment about my writing being one long line, and it seems as though all of your work can be considered in the same way. It makes me think, too, of the poetry of Robert Kroetsch, bpNichol and Gerry Gilbert: the lifelong poem. Are you conscious of that as you write, as all of your work being part of one large ongoing process?

BK: Was it Pound who sd much of writing was waiting/patience – but in whatever way, to be ready when the poem “arrives”. I used to get frustrated when “not writing” while others seemed, with certain ease, to write everyday, and publish a book every year etc etc. I had to learn to accept the long stretches, to wait for whatever condition/experience prompted the poem for me. At those points, it was an urge, as I think Williams sd: to easy my mind. Ha. So there is/was a certain sociology/psychology/physiology context. Some of the so-called long poems were written quite quickly over days or weeks. One piece unpublished “surety disappears” took abt a year for 7 pages or so. As I sd to Kroetsch one time, that the long poem didn’t necessarily have to be physically long; a year to write 7 pages is a long time: thus, a long poem – long to write etc. Ok. The life long poem bit: for me I see distinct times, periods and poems that run a kind of range in several circumstances/several muses. Lately, and this is to say, I’m coming more now to the sense of one long poem that I’ll keep adding sections to; each section might present itself via singular big concerns, but it’s all one thing: the title gives me the range: “in the millennium”. Ie. What millennium? Ha. If it’s this one, I’ve got lots of years ahead. Oh ya. I just turned 60, so please see the humour and irony in that. This a quick note amidst work pressures. I’ll add and edit at some point. These are good physical questions you give me, and much more to say.

rm: You seem to juggle a lot between writing and teaching, but would your writing process be any different if you were to spend less time working? What I’m wondering is: is the length of time a Barry McKinnon poem sits essential to its completion?

BM: Time and poetry. I think it was wc williams who sd the poem must sum the poet’s life to the point of writing; this idea leaves much room for the second, the day, the years etc. I think I’ve experienced the whole range: pulp log was a daily log in 50 parts. A little poem called “bushed,” a compressed and depressed lyric, summed a 2 year sabbatical – again, daily writing over a period of months. I don’t think this poem cld have been written while teaching. I needed the time/space for the concentration this piece was demanding. Pulp log, written between classes on a little mac in my living room with lots of distractions. At one point in a busy life as they say, I had to work by the seat of my pants. At another point I felt that poetry required periods without work distraction. Bolivia/Peru: I had a month or 2 free of work to write this piece; again, it required time to puzzle thru and discard the seat of the pants bullshit, to get down to the poems fundament. I sat on the last few lines for a week or so - stared it down, wldnt let it to into a false conclusion. A painful, necessary process - the waiting. Right now I have 120 students, 5 classes, essays to mark etc & therefore (forgive the whining) feel drained by its consumation. Poetry and writing feel a long way away. On the other hand, I have to reject the notion of leisure as a requirement; you know, real author supported by universities and governments, sits in smoking jacket with pipe staring profoundly into space. Egad. You gotta live in the mess of experience but still, no matter what way, contemplate whatever dimensions it presents. You gotta write when it demands you do/give it precedence. Writing prose or novel etc., the temporal requirement is more set and obvious. Poetry is both slow and spontaneous.

rm: I find it interesting that the piece Bolivia/Peru works geography in much the same ways your work from Prince George has over the years, using geography as merely an anchor, or starting point, to go somewhere further. How aware are you, generally, of writing geography? I know a number of the Tish poets learned to write their local from Williams, who you’ve mentioned as well. Is writing the local a beginning or an end for your work?

BM: When I went to Bolivia – really on a whim because John Harris and Viv Lougheed invited us to join them (they were writing a travel book etc.) – I had no literary intentions. I used to suspect all of those Canadian poets from the 60s & on who went to alien geographies “to write” or “write about a place” etc. Again, my sense is that the poem chooses you – some unexpected context that prompts the need to speak and write – make a map, a shape. Anyway, I’d read these poems (many I know and like etc.) and noticed that their journals, poems, stories and references occasionally made references like: saw Bob in Paris, got drunk with so and so in Tangier etc. Their paths were crossing; sometimes whole big groups would go to China or South America – sent by the Canada Council. Jesus, here I am in Prince George marking papers breathing in the stink with sour grapes and envy of “the real” writers etc. And ha. I mean, yes, this was/is my “local” and place, tho these terms seem out of date and too large to fill. The poem works with particulars – and abstractions if need be – I hope, so the words/fragments add to a sense of a participant and observer in it both in a small and big way – taking self and place to its boundaries via the poem. Etc. I’m off the topic a bit, but to say geo graph, write the place which had 3 dimensions. I also believe, to extend the metaphor that all of what we call the big emotions are shifting fluxes, geographies and places. Rain, wind, and earthquake. Ha. Our tendency in poetry is to view place mostly as a physical, and/or a physical geography, don’t you think? Ok. We arrive in Bolivia. Joy, John, and Viv – at some point every day take out their big journals; Viv has to keep thorough notes, obviously, for the travel book. John, I think was keeping notes for a novel; Joy, moreso, a daily travel journal: places, prices, how many hours on this or that bus etc. I’d usually at the end of day snap a litre of pilsen or pasena beer, take out a little ring bound book and “write” ha ha. Things like: “hot”, “cool” “vomited” “I like the weather here”. “scared shitless in achicatchi” etc. etc. So, this to say I’m not a writer (wch is a contradictory but freeing notion in some ways) – not a writer with any conscious intention of “describing” the 3rd world with western middle class & liberal judgements. Leave that for the social workers and the poets I mentioned earlier. But I started to feel guilt – that I had no power to get to an incredible and beautiful and frightening complex social and political and human GEOGRAPHY. Well, I was scribbling in s.a., but if I thot I was observing this, to me, strange world, as a poet – egad: what pretension etc. I think the poet should be there and not be there, if you know what I mean. Yr travel/writing exists as object/observation – a mind naturally in whatever it’s in. This is its “drama” ha. It’s what has to be done. So, as they say: 5 weeks bandied about in every emotion one might imagine. Colours, swirls, smells, conundrums, perplexities, sentiments, sentimentalities, fear and loathing. As I’ve sd, on the last day getting mugged in Lima was good for the poem – a kind of violence and a prompt to take the whole damn thing on in a poem, when I got back to pg, I had a stretch of time, and started to write, using my journal notes as literal shift points when the poem seemed to get stuck or ended itself on some part of the page. The poem traces the trip’s chronology, of being here, here and here etc. one of the first lines, ironically enough, and leads me to some aspect of your questions is that Bolivia is not a place. I wanted to get rid of that notion right away; ha., and then proceed to make it a place, or have the poem reveal it to me, make me sweat it out, create it for what it was, or seemed to be – to become a poem that makes an accuracy of detail, and falls apart when it has to. Here’s what I wrote in the afterword: cut and poast.

I think your question is really, and what I try to get to in Bolivia is that you start with one word, word as place to begin: Bolivia sd in a tone that sets it big and sad. To say it’s a measure. We know we’ll end up getting mugged in the end. I’d like to dream that a life’s geography is as Bolivia ends: maps and places, muds and shapes and colours of a peopled earth – poignancy’s, complexities of mind and place.

rm: The selection of The Centre: Poems 1970-2000 is very deliberately shaped around the geography of Prince George, from the year you arrived, and started producing work there. In many ways, I Wanted to Say Something seems to extend the prairie thread from Carcasses of Spring. Do you think this is a thread you might ever return to? Are either of these (in your mind) worth putting back into print? If Bolivia is the next step after Prince George, where else will your geographies extend?

BM: Where will the geographies extend? Your question creates an interesting circle for me. Just now finished a piece called "sixty." As I sd to Ken Belford, it was more of a wrestling match than "writing." If we ended in a draw it was for me to get a few lines I needed -- some sense of the words to "match" the experience of turning this age. To get to yr question: the geography in "sixty" is personal chronology: age and time as invisibility -- & to take this on as a place/context/geography/ (non of these words work anymore. Bowering's Autobiology?) -- to let me meander in 5 pages for 5 months to image and thought -- to wrestle the words for what is otherwise wordless. Geography of blank page. What I had to learn was to throw half of it out, and in a way, make the gaps as big as I cld -- to resist story and narrative detail. Sparse, condensed -- almost nothing there. Ha. Yet this oddly seems to match the condition I found myself in. Now I'm 61 so can move on. Ha.

Bolivia: that writing was partly to express the large relief of seeing & experiencing it and feeling brave arriving home alive etc. But ya, Bolivia a huge geography of mind and place, and likewise the prairie poem of so long ago. It seems odd yet human that the mind can contain such big things -- feel them as a whole & that a language can bring parts of it over. I think the poet -- a huge part of the job, is just to look out at whatever is in front of him or her, but unlike the lyric practice, to also see the political dimension, and then risk to let the poem see if you know anything about "it" (poem and all outside it) -- or anything. Otherwise, one is stupefied and mostly stupid. Poetry maybe rescues us in the midst of what seems formless. Otherwise. Etc. I always liked David Phillips' title and poem "the coherence" -- what the poet is sometimes impossibly after. I don't know where to go or what will prompt the poem. Lately in Tumbler Ridge it's the evidence all over again of what happens in the Canadian north. It's the fast track and grab for wood, coal, gas and oil. How can poetry get to this world without seeming sentimental for an impossible utopia? Pound I think really wanted coherence. Maybe he's the first modern example of the attempt.

You do good research. I'm trying to hide Carcasses of Spring, tho it's useful to see a young man's struggle to make poetry. I don't know what can be retrieved. It's hard to go back that far. What's ahead? Geographies? Prince George part 2 may never happen but I feel now just like the young poet I was: to head out in every sense.

rm: To perhaps fully form that circle, how has the artistic landscape of Prince George, in your mind, changed since you arrived in 1970? And how does it feel, being offered an honourary PhD by the University of Northern British Columbia?

BM: Prince George came alive with poetry in the late 60s and remained so for about 10 years, so much so that Earle Birney once called Prince George, "the poetry capital of BC." We were bringing in everybody we could: Atwood, Ondaatje, bpNichol, Phyllis Webb, Bowering, Dorothy Livesay, etc etc. Charlie Boylan and I started the readings at the college when we found out that the Canada Council would sponsor poets and writers, so this program made it easier when we pitched the idea of a reading series to the college. It wasn't, as they say, going to cost the institution money. In 1969 we had our first reading: Al Purdy. To his amazement, we got 500 people to Vanier Hall for the event, the biggest audience he'd ever had. It's kind of a duplicitous story though, because Charlie figured no one in PG would come to a poetry reading, so he put the popular folksinger Tom Hawkin as top billing to draw the biggest possible crowd. Hawkin never showed up, so Purdy had to go on solo. The crowd, as I remember, were damn disappointed that Hawkin didn't show, but Purdy got their attention fast with his humour and general manner and appearance. He didn't fit the stereotype. At any rate, no one left the reading.

Charlie got fired at the end of the first year (these are long stories I'm now writing in more detail) -- and I continued as an organizer until the early 80s. After the major creative writing conference with Robert Creeley in 81, the political and educational shifts at the college tired me out. The new principal had a mandate to reduce the arts in favour of technical and vocational training. We lost creative writing, art, drama, music etc. This is also a long story that involved a serious battle that we never won. The long story also includes my layoff. I was, I guess, a kind of visible "symbol" of what they might have thought specious, arty, useless. Dangerous? Earlier on the first principal did want "the arts" in the highest sense -- string quartets and iambic colonial poetry -- but he was nervous and not in total agreement with our politics or aesthetics, the college would constantly get complaints about the poets we were bringing in. I often heard comments like these: "they use bad language", "it's pornographic" and the overall comment from the administration: "this is not quite what we had in mind." So it's more complex than I'm giving it here, but in general, those who run the show didn't value the activity enough to fight for it. My feeling was pretty simple: that the very thing that the community needed in the largest sense got hacked out; those who did the hacking and who allowed it, had a cynical and narrow view of the world by reinforcing the same stereotypes I experienced in the real work of the world, so what's with this other shit. Well, I'm being a bit sardonic here myself, but the students and many people in the community did support us and protested with great energy, but we never did get much back.

So I went dormant and scaled down the series. Teaching loads were increasing and my energy dissipated. I brought in a few readers every year, but was hoping to hell someone else would take over. It's also important to know that the university was launched 12 years ago or so, and that much started to happen again. Rob Budde is presently a key organizer who works hard; he has a reading series, a web journal, organizes conferences and lectures and published chapbooks -- stuff that you, to use the vernacular, gotta do in these up river communities.

Anyway, my layoff in 81 is a big part of the story here. It was obvious that the college was going, to say the least, change direction. I was laid off for "redundancy" based on my creative writing class enrollment. I had 15 students, wch in any other college or university context wld be the right number for a workshop course. I also had 4 other sections of composition, technical writing, and literature that were full. Since we didn't have a seniority clause -- I'd been there the longest, abt 13 years -- anyone's ass was up for grabs. So, it became pretty obvious that I was nailed for political and maybe personal reasons. My teaching record, evaluations and cultural work not measured or taken into account. Irony? This is also the year that I got nominated for the Governor General's Award. When that happened a cheer went up in our division because it gave us visibility beyond the mediocre shithole the place was quickly becoming. At any rate, I didn't get the award and I'm glad I didn't. Frank Scott needed it more than me. Ha ha. I think my fate was to fight and get back on the boat so to speak. Another irony is that mostly what "saved me", was the 50 writers who'd been to the college and who wrote to protest the layoff. I was in pretty bad emotional shape so have to thank Brian Fawcett and Pierre Coupey for starting the protest. John Harris handled the fight here, and twisted the bastards in circles; he kept the fire lit for abt the 3 months it took to rescind the layoff -- so I got back in as a remedial teacher in a new division of the college called "the development centre". During the year of so there -- there was very little to do except worry that if there was very little to do, they'd lay me off again. Everyday in the centre, I wrote "the centre". This poem contains the clearest sense of what I was going thru emotionally and otherwise and that within this context I lost my energy for cultural work. People kept asking why I didn't get out -- go somewhere else. I didn't want to sound paranoid, but will say that one verbal job offer finally didn't come my way. Why? At one point the college president in charge -- ceo's they started to call them & not deans, but managers -- said to me that if I caused any trouble because of the layoff that he'd make sure I never taught again. Hard to believe, but Harris is my witness. I think I was blackballed in the system -- and add to this that the fight went national, and because of its complexity and messiness, probably meant that no one wld take a chance to hire me for fear of an upheaval of sorts. It all spelled trouble. So: it was all good as the kids say today. Ha. In terms of sensibility, I saw the darkness of a public institution gone mad -- and wrote out of knowing what I'd seen and experienced in it. So much for me and the lyric narrative in this world.

I hope this isn't taken as whining, but also our workloads maxed out. I eventually got out of the centre and back into university transfer courses. In the worst semester that followed I had close to 150 students, no days off teaching, and 2 of those days went from early morning until 10 at night. But it's the old story of persistence in the face of it -- I had a family to raise etc. Tho in retrospect because of various forms and levels of damage & for all kinds of reasons I should have quit.

Now it's 2006 -- 36 years later -- and I've "resigned for reasons of retirement" wch in my case I hope doesn't conjure an image of an asshole in white shoes on a golf cart. Ha. Whatever "recognition" I'm getting for whatever it is I did here is coming from the other and wonderful small communities of people that form in these remote places. Rob Budde at UNBC put my name forward for an honourary degree from UNBC and recognizes the work that not just me, but many of us engaged in. Joy, my wife met all of the writers; she should get the degree for keeping me sane most of the time. But as Creeley says, "when I know what others think of me, I'm plunged into my loneliness". Nevertheless: a very full life.

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