Saturday, January 09, 2010

The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology

Al Purdy’s house in Ameliasburgh is a house full of stories. It’s the only house to which I’ve ever made a pilgrimage, and that was when Al was alive. I’m no literary pilgrim, but I did visit Al with Michael Ondaatje once and a couple of times on my own, at Al’s invitation. Our first contact was in 1976, when he wrote to ask if he could get a copy of Wilson MacDonald’s Western Tour from me. We made an exchange, I got Sundance at Dusk (“for Stan Dragland, dragger out of things from under stones & [illegible] & time, with most cordial greetings from Al Purdy, Nov 20, 76. Ameliasburg”). Al was one hell of a book collector. It was really something to see his library of Canadian books, and to sit with him in the study where he wrote his poems and essays and letters. I’m no worshipper of great ones, as I say, and no habitual visitor of them. I’m almost always content just to read them. But I made an exception for Al, so I was there one afternoon, the day before he was to leave on a reading tour. (Stan Dragland, “An Open Letter”)

In April, when I was in Vancouver launching my most recent poetry collection with Talon, I got into a conversation with Stephen Roxborough about tribute issues/anthologies for writers (he himself had co-edited the book on bill bissett), causing me to run off a list that included issues of The Capilano Review on George Bowering, Robin Blaser and Roy Kiyooka (more recently, there have also been issues on/for Sharon Thesen and another on Blaser), West Coast Line’s tribute to Phyllis Webb, The Fiddlehead on John Metcalf, or Descant on Dennis Lee, as well as part of a recent issue of The Chicago Review dedicating 100+ pages to Lisa Roberston, a couple of feshrifts for bpNichol by Open Letter, and a feshrift a decade or so back for Irving Layton. We wondered out loud: is it worth compiling a list of such tributes? In an industry that works very hard not to acknowledge itself or each other, these tributes, write-ups and acknowledgements, both critical and personal, become essential documents for where it is we’ve been, and what some people, exactly, have been up to; it’s a matter of credit-where-due, which so rarely happens, sadly. Fortunately, there’s a new edition to this list, with the publication of The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology (Madeira Park BC: Harbour Publishing, 2009), edited by Toronto poet Paul Vermeersch, with an introduction by Dennis Lee.

We were in our twenties (and I speak for my friends Tom Marshall and David Helwig, who were there with me) and we didn’t have a single book to our names; we were studying or teaching at the university in Kingston. […] These visits became essential to our lives. We weren’t there for gossip, certainly not there to discuss royalties and publishers. We were there to talk about poetry. Read poems aloud. Argue over them. Complain about prosody. We were there to listen to a recording he had of “The Bonnie Earl of Murray.” And sometimes we saw Al’s growing collection of signed books by other Canadian poets. (My favourite dedication among them was “To Awful Al from Perfect Peggy.”)

All this changed our lives. It allowed us to take poetry seriously. This happened with and to numerous other young poets all over the country, right until the last days of Al Purdy’s life. He wasn’t just a “sensitive” man, he was a generous man. (Michael Ondaatje, “Because We Were Poets”)

Long overdue, this is a lovely book of reminiscences and tributes to the late poet Al Purdy, who died in 2000, and is an interesting counterpoint to the conference the University of Ottawa held on his work a couple of years back. Compiled, as well, as a fundraiser to keep his historic A-frame house in the backwoods of Ontario alive, by the Al Purdy A-frame Trust, spearheaded by the energetic Jean Baird, to (as the back cover writes) “go towards preserving the Purdy home as a retreat for future generations of Canadian writers.” As Howard White, publisher of Harbour and longtime Al Purdy friend and supporter, writes in the foreword to the collection:

If this doesn’t look quite like any book you’ve ever seen before—don’t worry. You’re not imagining it. It’s a unique book on a unique subject. First of all, it’s a book about a house. Not a very prepossessing house either—a backwoods cottage built from used lumber by a hard-up couple who were approaching middle age at the end of a long string of disappointments. For over twenty years the man had tried to make it as a writer and the woman had tried to help him, but their long effort only appeared to confirm his mediocrity. But when they moved into their rough-hewn cottage, a truly remarkable thing happened. Nurtured by the deep connection he felt with this place the two of them forged with their own hands, the man began producing poems of startling originality. His newfound voice struck a note that reverberated across Canada and pilgrims began arriving at the backwoods cottage to acknowledge this unlikely master and perhaps carry a little of his creative spark away with them. The couple were glad of the company and met it with an enthusiasm that ensured more would come. For almost half a century it kept coming and the cottage became one of the most important crossroads on Canada’s literary map. And the man kept writing brilliant, original poems, many of them celebrating the country around the cottage and the life it had opened to them, until he had produced what many consider the greatest body of poetry in Canadian literature.

This is a house that became a gathering point for many a writer over the years, from planned visits to informal gatherings to all-out pilgrimages by such as George Bowering, Margaret Atwood, Paul Vermeersch, Stan Dragland, George Galt, Steven Heighton, Linda Rogers, D.G. Jones, Michael Ondaatje, F.R. Scott, Dennis Lee, David W. McFadden, David Helwig and scores of others. As Dennis Lee writes in his introduction:

This is a book about a house made from salvaged materials. About a nondescript piece of land, 100 feet by 265. And about a tangle of literary friendships that flourished here, not to mention an incomparable poetic universe that grew from the house, the patch of ground, the neighbouring village, to take in all of Canada—opening further to vistas of planetary life, and millennial space and time. The whole shebang being as ad hoc and irreplaceable as the building where it began.

What really makes the book, apart from the tributes and reminiscences from sundry of his friends and visitors from over the years, is the inclusion of a lovely memoir by Purdy’s wife Eurithe, and of pieces by Purdy himself on his Ameliasburg locale, including poems and bits of prose {his prose piece, “Maybe I Said Something that Annoyed Newlove,” is a personal favourite) from his long career (as well as numerous photographs), making this very much a book celebrating not only Al Purdy the friend and the writer, but the A-frame itself.

When the new house was built

callers came:

black squirrels on the roof every morning

between sleep and wakefulness,

and a voice saying “Hello dead man.”

A chipmunk looks in the window

and I look out,

the small face and the large one

waver together in glass,

but neither moves

while the leaves turn into shadows. (Al Purdy, “Interruption”)

Duncan Patterson even includes a prose piece called “Thinking Through An A-Frame,” which includes some of the quite practical concerns on building such a structure, the plans for such, and where Purdy might have acquired his original blueprints.

At about the time when they were casting about trying to figure out how to build a house, the June 1957 issue of Canadian Homes and Gardens happened to feature a small cottage designed by Toronto architect Leo E. Venchiarutti. It was a recent iteration of the A-frame fad which had been sweeping the United States throughout the ‘50s. “You can built this cottage for $2000,” the cover of the magazine boasted. Within, next to photos of the cottage, the editors offered to send the plans to anyone who wanted them for just twelve dollars. In addition to this notable affordability, due in part to the cheapness of shingles compared to wood cladding, Eurithe says that in selecting these plans both she and Al were attracted to the “openness” of the interior. Right next to the article on the A-frame that had successfully seduced the Purdys was featured an article on a very different sort of cottage: a modernist rectangular box, lifted four feet or so off the ground. In addition to the affordability of the A-frame and its internal openness, it is worth pointing out the difference in sensibility between these two houses. After all, far from floating in the air, an A-frame is a very solid-looking thing, planted firmly on the ground.

Information on the Al Purdy A-frame Trust can be found at, or contact Jean Baird at

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