Saturday, April 30, 2016

Matthew Henriksen, The Absence of Knowing

Bring the fatted worm to the altar
I will pin down the skin

The body open
What you imagined

An orphan cannot say her father is no man
A worm cannot say

No No Don’t do this
But the fatted baby will say

When she is older I don’t remember
What my father cut from me (“Baby”)

On the heels of his Ordinary Sun (Boston MA: Black Ocean, 2011) comes Arkansas poet Matthew Henriksen’s second poetry collection, The Absence of Knowing (Black Ocean, 2016), a book composed of incredibly sharp lyric poems. The narrator of The Absence of Knowing works through a hardscrabble series of lessons, often hard-won, attempting to claw out of the dark and into, if not necessarily light, at least a kind of comprehension, which would perhaps allow a better navigation of that dark. Near the end of the sequence “VERY SMALL BOOK,” he writes: “I ate a small flower I don’t know the name of / Not difficult to get comfortable in this world / As long as this is not the world [.]” The same poem also features a kind of lyric density in short lines reminiscent of the work of Rae Armantrout, for how much can be packed into such a small, clipped space. I’m curious about the mix of short lined lyrics and longer prose works—different poems requiring different constructions—set side-by-side, and the structural variety throughout the collection only highlights the strength of that variety. Henriksen appears comfortable moving between shorter lined lyrics and longer prose-forms, and I’m intrigued to see where the structures of his poems might go to next. The poems in The Absence of Knowing exist as a sequence of contemplations through beauty, absence, violence, philosophy and a series of connections and disconnections, as he writes in the poem “Therapy Poem”:

We agree every morning on coffee
We eat the same meals
Share a toilet

Variations of happy sounded out in time
Animals animals and sleep

We do this thing when one of us plays Nina Simone
We both listen and sooner or later we start talking about her

I beg my wife to read Clarice Lispector
I do not know how to tell her about Celan

In Joseph Bradshaw’s 2012 review of Ordinary Sun online at Jacket2, he focused on the “Whitmanesque” elements of Henriksen’s poetry, writing that “Matt Henriksen is a visionary poet in the decidedly American, Whitmanic grain.” Bradshaw writes: “The key to the visionary impulse is in our mutual sympathy: if the poet is curious about “the harmony of things with man,” then we too can be curious. The aim of the visionary impulse is to explore the endless ravishments and ravagings — harmony’s dualities — of the unacknowledged worlds within our world.” In The Absence of Knowing, Henriksen, perhaps in response, includes a four-page prose piece, “My W/hole Aesthetic” that opens with Whitman’s standalone name in quotation marks:

Rust on the balcony, leaves. The trees are made of scratch-scratch. Terror of the leaf raking over concrete. I am trying to destroy my way out of Blake. Walt says, “I,” and it is so. I am tired of talking about I, defending I. Accept it all.

Send something south and it blooms.

We wrote in a rapture of distress. Self-destruction. Not I-destruction. Went south and found an unmarked grave, now marked, two birth dates, a wedding day, awaiting the second day of death. I am god. Good, too. Good for you. For good. For ground. In a rapture of distress we unwrote ourselves and wrote a Self, receptacle of God, larks, lungs, longitudes, dung, and dogs. The barking of the howl, the day of the night, the sleep of the sun. Tomorrow we woke alone and I sat on the floor all morning, staring at a finch an hour. It came as far as the television table, perching for many minutes in silence—silences be damned, this was silence—aware of me completely and unafraid, flying away never fearing. Self-destruction leads to a lack of emitting fear, all fears admitted and culpably calculated in the lungs, where in choked breath a waking blackness comes, the pit of absolution, the absolute precision of a dream, a sleep-waking, a Hell-not-a-hell, through no false hell, for all’s a false hell but exclusion from the Earth, and Heaven then is either ripening in the soil or it is Hell as certain as a Heaven. World and underworld then, and if the world is round then through logic one may find that under the sphere is the center, the zero, the nothing and the nothing-there, nether-world, never world, darksome hole, yes, love-hole, center of the flapping cry.

Words for women, death for men.

Friday, April 29, 2016

U of Alberta writers-in-residence interviews: Thomas Wharton (2002-3)

For the sake of the fortieth anniversary of the writer-in-residence program (the longest lasting of its kind in Canada) at the University of Alberta, I have taken it upon myself to interview as many former University of Alberta writers-in-residence as possible [see the ongoing list of writers here]. See the link to the entireseries of interviews (updating weekly) here.

Thomas Wharton was born in Grande Prairie, Alberta. His first novel, Icefields (1995), won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book, Canada/Caribbean division. His second novel, Salamander (2001), was short-listed for the Governor-General’s Literary Award and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize. A collection of short fiction, The Logogryph, published in 2004 by Gaspereau Press, won the Howard O’Hagan Prize at the Alberta Book Awards, and was shortlisted for the IMPAC Dublin Prize.

Wharton has written a YA fantasy trilogy, The Perilous Realm (2008-2013). His most recent book is the eco-fiction Every Blade of Grass, self-published in 2014. Currently he is working on a new collection of fantastical tales. His work has been published in the US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and other countries.

Thomas Wharton is an associate professor in the department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta, where he teaches creative writing. He lives in the countryside near Edmonton with his wife and three children.

He was writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta during the 2002-3 academic year.

Q: When you began your residency, you’d published two novels over the previous eight years. Where did you feel you were in your writing? What did the opportunity mean to you?

A: At the time I started my residency I’d written a third novel that both my agent and my publisher had a lot of doubts about. I shelved it in frustration and began another project I’d had on the go for a long time: a collection of stories about mysterious, magical books. The residency gave me the security and the renewed confidence to let go of the one project for the time being and start this new book about books.

Q: Was this your first residency?

A: No, my first residency was at Grant MacEwan University in 1999. That was a four-month residency, I believe.

Q: The bulk of writers-in-residence at the University of Alberta have been writers from outside the province. As an Edmonton-based writer, how did it feel to be acknowledged locally through the position?

A: I don’t know if I saw it as an opportunity for me as an Edmonton writer, per se – it’s actually taken a long time for me to think of myself as an Edmonton writer – I’ve lived in other places for much of my life, and now I live outside the city, so I don’t know what to call myself anymore. I just felt honoured that the committee thought my work made me worthy of the job!

Q: How did you engage with students and the community during your residency?

A: Interestingly I didn’t meet with many students during my residency. Most of the people who came to see me were people from Edmonton and surrounding communities. I had the feeling most of them were more aware of the residency and what it could do for them than most students were. I also felt that students saw the writer-in-residence as another authority, like one of their professors, and this may have been why some were reluctant to have their work read and critiqued. Although I did have one student drop by one afternoon and ask me if I would read his essay and give him some feedback because he had to hand it in ... in half an hour!

Q: What do you see as your biggest accomplishment while there? What had you been hoping to achieve?

A: I met with people who were having difficulty with their writing in one way or another – either because they were struggling to get started as writers or had stalled on a project. It was a good feeling to work through some of the issues with them and to bring in my own experience in order to help them get some perspective on their own. There were also a few challenges in working with people who simply wanted confirmation from me that their work was wonderful, and when I couldn’t affirm that, they weren’t always pleasant about it.

Q: Looking back on the experience now, how do you think it impacted upon your work?

A: It was my first major writer-in-res gig, and at that point I hadn’t done much creative writing teaching. So helping other writers really gave me an opportunity to articulate (to myself as much as to the writers who came to see me) what I have learned about good writing. I think the experience made me work harder and think more deeply about what I was doing as a writer.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Carrie Etter

Originally from Normal, Illinois, Carrie Etter lived for thirteen years in southern California before moving to England in 2001. She has published three collections of poetry, The Tethers (Seren, 2009), winner of the London New Poetry Award, Divining for Starters (Shearsman, 2011), and Imagined Sons (Seren, 2014), shortlisted for the Ted Hughes Award for New Work in Poetry by The Poetry Society. She also edited the anthology, Infinite Difference: Other Poetries by UK Women Poets (Shearsman, 2010) and Linda Lamus's posthumous collection, A Crater the Size of Calcutta (Mulfran, 2015). She is a Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I suppose my first book made me feel credible as a poet. In my first two books, I fled the autobiographical; since then, I try to employ innovative techniques for handling such material.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I wrote my first poem outside of school at eleven. I was also writing stories--I'm not really sure which came first.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
My writing tends to come quickly, then I revise, revise, revise. In my books, I have lines crossed out, words changed--the process never ends.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
My first two books are collections of poems with threads of ideas running through them, while my third is much more cohesive as a project. The book I'm working on now (my fourth) is similarly driven by a main idea or rather a complex of them.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I love doing readings. Poetry is a communicative act as well as a form of art, and I relish the sense that something that felt very specific to my own consciousness is being understood by others.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I'm interested in the ways texts always exceed the author's intentions. My ongoing manuscript's first section asks how our relationship to home as place and climate change can motivate us to care more for the environment.

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

I feel a responsibility to address social issues in my writing, but I wouldn't prescribe for other writers. 

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I haven't had that much involvement from my editors, but I would like more--from the right editor. Is that statement inherently contradictory?

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to critical prose)? What do you see as the appeal?
I think writing critical prose about poetry helps me articulate my ideas about it more clearly in my teaching. I tend to take a long time over reviews, though, and am considering setting them aside indefinitely for the sake of focus on the (more) creative work.

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I don't have a routine, but I become antsy and frustrated if too much time passes without writing. 

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I don't stall much, but find it's helpful to read as widely as possible across genres and styles.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Raw corn (I'm from Illinois)

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Film is an influence--its techniques for conveying ideas and emotions. I also think my viewing of film montages has been important for some of the montage-style long poems in my new manuscript.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The list is terribly long. I'll pick three at random: Iain M. Banks, Peter Reading, and Cole Swensen.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I enjoy reading speculative fiction, especially young adult (and so without the hard science), and would love to publish a YA speculative novel. I also have a manuscript of haiku and senryu I'd like to publish someday, The Broken Kite, either as a chapbook or a full-length book.

I'm also tempted to learn paragliding.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I think because of the pleasure I take in both the arts and in working with others, arts administration might have been a good alternate career. When I was finishing my PhD and living in Walthamstow, I fantasized about getting a job at the William Morris Museum.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I was never very good at team sports and had various stomach problems in childhood that led to lots of time away from school: perhaps that made me feel like an outsider. Many writers I know feel like outsiders. 

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
I admired Margaret Atwood's short story collection, Stone Atlas, and can't remember the last great film I saw, so I'll recommend a few favourites: The Whale Rider, Spirited Away and The Wild Bunch. The first two share a theme of girls' empowerment.

20 - What are you currently working on?

The Weather in Normal is the manuscript in progress. In its current form, it has three sections: the first focuses on the effects of climate change in Illinois, my home state; the second brings together literal and figurative (in terms of family) weather in my experience growing up in Normal, Illinois; and the third is an imaginative revisiting of my family home.

I have another manuscript on the side, Grief's Alphabet, on the loss of my mother, who was my closest friend, and ideas for a book tentatively titled Transatlantica exploring the different effects of climate change on the environments of Britain and the US and the way the debates about climate change differ in my two countries.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Neil Flowers on Northern Comfort (Commoners’ Press, 1973)

Neil Flowers, Neil Flowers, aka Neil Whiteman, aka Monk Besserer, and likely several other aliases that he’s long forgotten, was born in Montreal and has lived in Italy, Mexico, the U.S., and on Saltspring Island, BC. In the late 60s and early 70s, he studied literature at Carleton University, including being a member of Robert Hogg’s seminar in modern and contemporary poetry. As well as being a poet, Neil has a long history as an actor, director, and writer for radio, theatre, and film. He currently lives in Los Angeles where he works as a screenwriter and script doctor, and teaches screenwriting. A distant ancestor, Robert Flowers, a British soldier stationed at Lake Champlain who fled America for Canada when the Yanks more or less won their revolution, helped found the town of New Carlisle in the Gaspé.

Neil transcribed and edited the public poetry reading that effectively became the anthology Northern Comfort (Ottawa, ON: Commoners’ Press, 1973).

Q: Northern Comfort was, by its own admission, an edited transcript of “a reading of poetry by various people, given in the back yard of the Victoria Hotel 18 Murray Street, the Byward Market, Ottawa, on the evening of June 29th, 1972.” What was it about this event, beyond any other, that prompted transcribing it for the sake of print?

A: Interesting question. Your “beyond any other” seems to imply that there were more. I could be wrong, but to my knowledge, and to that time, the reading was a unique event in Ottawa’s cultural history. That seemed to make it important enough to leave a record. Except for Le Hibou, the city was pretty sleepy in the sense of street or popular art. Also, the mix and number of good poets who read was interesting to me, so I thought the variety of verse would help the book. It was an anthology, in a sense, of a specific place and time, rather than of a style or a school. Also, I respected the energies that had brought it together, such as Bill Stevenson, who at only 24, or something like that, was a top-dawg blues pianist. He’d recorded. I play blues piano to this day in large part due to his inspiration and he, in fact, gave me the only piano lesson I’ve ever had. Peter Lamb helped put the evening together, and recorded it, as you know. Peter and I had been friends from Carleton. We were in the same graduating year. Robert Hogg was reading at the event, and Bill Hawkins was the emcee. If they were a part of it, it had to be interesting. And so it turned out to be.

Q: Given that literary events are prevalent in the city now, it’s almost difficult to think of a community of writers that weren’t regularly meeting and performing. How did the reading first come together? And which came first: the idea for the reading, or the idea for the book?

A: Well, there was not a community of writers meeting and reading regularly back in 1973 in Ottawa. None that I’m aware of at least, except for the readings Hawkins led at Le Hibou. Only when Bob Hogg came to town, to teach at Carleton, did there start to be readings there. He brought John Newlove, Basil Bunting, Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, George Bowering, Warren Tallman, Alden Nowlan, and Ed Dorn, to name a few. An extraordinary lineup, when you think about it, several of the best poets in English of the era. Bob deserves major kudos for his work in getting these poets to come to Ottawa and getting the Dean of Arts at Carleton to pay for it. In the sense of nationally and international known writers, Bob is the person responsible for bringing contemporary poetry to Ottawa. He may have brought Margaret Atwood, too, not sure, you’ll have to ask him. She did turn up there. So did Michael Ondaatje, who read from The Collected Works of Billy The Kid. His reading was held in one of the major lecture theatres at Carleton—and it was packed. The Four Horsemen—with bp nicol—performed at Carleton, too. Not sure if Bob brought them either.

It’s worth saying that Bob was a poet, not someone with a doctorate who only wrote about poetry or literature. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Hugh Kenner was an academic, not a poet; still, The Pound Era is one of the best books about poetry ever written. But Bob knew poetry from the inside; he was young; he was friendly toward students. He’s Canadian, too, not British or American, and there were a lot of those in the Carleton English Department of the period. In fact, there was a public foofaraw about not enough Canadians in the department and enough Can Lit being taught. All these qualities counted very much in Bob’s favour from a student’s point of view. He was popular with those who knew him. One great thing we did in that class was we sent Ezra Pound a birthday telegram on his 85th. That was Bob’s idea. It was a cool thing to do. It wasn’t just academic stuff. It was a live connection.

There were always parties for the poets after the readings; you could meet and talk with them. I remember Robert Creeley’s reading well: The fineness of his poems, and his total presence without being showy in the least, was galvanizing. When you heard him read, you at once understood his line breaks—attached to his hesitant breath—which could seem confusing or even precious on the page. He was as unique with the short line as Ginsberg had been with the Whitmanesque long. Bob made sure that Creeley and I met afterwards at the party—another kindness I owe Bob, among many. I was somewhat shy. I was meeting a legend! Creeley was soft-spoken and encouraging. That’s a memory for a lifetime. Ginsberg cruised the young men at his party, which is funny-hah-hah when I think of it now. I’m pretty sure I’d never even heard the word “gay” back then.

One night Bob and his wife, Leslie, and I and a couple of others had dinner and drinks with Basil Bunting at The Matador, which was on lower Bank Street, after Basil’s reading. He told us a story about Pound and Yeats and Yeats’s cottage. This was during the time Yeats was writing “Sailing to Byzantium” and the poem was in Yeats’s typewriter. So Basil alleged, adding that Yeats said he had been working on the poem for six weeks. Basil, who at the time was considerably younger than the other two, was there because Pound dragged him along to meet Yeats. Unforgettable story, of course. That same night at the Matador, Basil said if you think you’ve written a good poem, put it in a drawer, wait a year, then come back and read it and if you still think it works, then publish it. Eternally good advice.

That kind of personal contact with such poets made a difference in one’s appreciation of how the art was a living thing, and so you might dare to write verse, too. Leonard Cohen came to Carleton, by the way, and sang in the gymnasium. He had a small, low-key band, was superb, at his best, self-effacing in that way he had, and the crowd was adulatory. And he gave the concert for free, and I mean free-free, as I don’t think Carleton paid for it. He just offered. There was no publicity, word got around in a hurry one day and that was that. Maybe he was breaking in his band and needed a venue? I have no idea, and perhaps I’m being sentimental, but that always struck me as a Canadian-to-Canadian gesture. 

Trevor Tolley, a professor at Carleton, also taught an upper-level survey course in Modern Poetry that was very, very good, gave you the big sweep that included major figures like Wallace Stevens, as well as many lesser lights such as Edith Sitwell or Theodore Roethke. Bob taught for a whole semester, and therefore in depth, those poets—Pound, Williams, Olson—who I would characterize as more important because of their willingness to be so adventurous in terms of form and content. We also read Creeley, Duncan, and some Canadians like Newlove. Bob talked about Gary Snyder, too, a poet, IMO, who gets overlooked. In terms of subject—First Nations ways—Gary’s a prophet. Anyway, I was a student in that class, and it was the first year Bob taught at Carleton. He really let you see what you were missing, perhaps the idea of “open verse” or projective verse (as Olson says) and the sequence or serial poem most of all in terms of theory and possibility. Plus Creeley’s notion—which comes out of Williams—that form and content could be the same, rather than form being separate or imposed externally on the content, iambic pentameter or rhyme, say. There’s the Duncan poem from The Opening of the Field that says, “we let the long line pace even awkward to its period.” Mostly I’m leery of poems about poetry but that one made a big impression. The “all moose” one from the same book, too. That’s the challenge, isn’t it? To let a poem find its own form. Of course there are great poems of the closed variety, the old style, you might say, without judgement, what has been around since poetry began, of which Olson himself wrote some very fine examples, such as “Only the Red Fox, Only the Crow”. But thinking “open” gave new possibilities. That’s probably the big discovery of modern/postmodern verse.

Bob’s seminar made a difference in a positive way in my life and many others. If he hadn’t held that seminar, I and those who studied with him would probably still think that Eliot was the summum bonum of twentieth-century verse, which was pretty much the mainstream academic opinion of the time still, even though Williams had been railing against Eliot’s influence for years. And he was right. Eliot, skillful as he was, was mostly a dead end in terms of subject, but, I would argue, not altogether in style, though Pound sure helped make that style—il miglior fabbro and all that. The Waste Land is a knockout of a poem yet, at nearly a hundred years old, but what Williams said about Eliot’s blast of genius wrecking American verse for a while still rings true. Eliot was no lightweight, but where Williams was heading turned out to be endlessly usable, genitive, influential, crucial to the origin of much poetry that followed; Eliot not so much.

In the context of Bob’s seminar and the readings he put together, you might be interested in knowing that I designed the poster for the Ed Dorn reading and several years ago donated my copy to the Carleton Special Collections Library, which didn’t have one. You can see the poster there, if you’ve a mind to do so. It was somewhat of a struggle to get Carleton to print it, but they finally agreed and on very nice paper, but they would only print a small number, no more than 40, as I recall, so it’s a rare item. I also sold my 1st edition copy of WCW’s first Selected Poems (New Directions, 1949) to Spec Coll a couple of years back, a book I’d bought in LA. So it’s there, too, dust jacket in perfect shape, in case you or your readers would like to have a look.

That’s a long way around and with detours. To answer the question directly: The idea for the reading at the Victoria came first. After the fact, I decided it would make a good book.

I’m not sure who first proposed the reading, and how the logistics brought it about. I wasn’t privy to that stage of the organizing. I had nothing to do with it. You need to speak with Peter Lamb. He would likely know, as I believe he helped put the reading together as well as recording it and shooting some film of it (alas, likely lost, Peter told me recently).

Q: How was the idea pitched to Commoner’s, and how were they to work with?

A: Sorry, can’t recall the details of how I pitched the idea to Commoners or how we were connected. They were a breeze to work with. I edited the MS exactly how I wanted it to be and that’s how it went to press. No tinkering. Peter Lamb either took or provided nearly all the photos. Brenda Cook, Peter’s girlfriend at the time, took the beautiful picture of Hawkins, as you know because it’s credited. As I recall, once the MS got rolling, I connected Commoners with Peter and that’s how the pictures happened, i.e., Peter gave them a bunch of images to work with and they chose.

Although I was involved in the preliminary layout of the book, Cam Christie at Commoners deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the way Northern Comfort finally looks. He also shepherded the book through the printing process while I was out in BC. As soon as I had submitted the MS, I took off for BC, where I lived for the next several years. After being out there only a few months, I came back east for personal reasons, and that’s when I first saw Northern Comfort. I was astounded that the book had actually been done because these projects often run aground when money and enthusiasm decline. And I was doubly astounded that it had come out so well. As I say, Cam Christie did the heavy lifting in terms of getting the book out. He was the sine qua non. Minus him, it wouldn’t have made it.

Q: How were the poets selected? Were there some you wanted to include in the event but weren’t able?

A: In the sense of being selected, it seems you mean who was selected to read, not who was selected to ultimately be in Northern Comfort. Yes? This is a logistics question, to which I don’t think I know the answer. Does that sound odd? What I mean is that I had zero pull with the organizers. Before the event Bob Hogg and I had some sort of conversation about the line-up, but how definitive that became I don’t know. Maybe Hawkins had some input? I do recall the question of how we were going to allow George Johnston to read, as he was out of town, up at his cottage. It was imperative that he read because he was a legend, published by a major publisher, and he lived and taught in Ottawa. Who suggested the idea of the telephone hook-up I can’t remember, possibly Peter Lamb—he was really good at that end of things—but there was definitely an effort to get that bit of technology to work just because it was George and we wanted him as part of the event. To be frank, I doubt we would have gone to the trouble for a lesser figure.

Q: I was going to ask you about that; even when I first encountered the book years ago, I thought it absolutely delightful that you had readers unable to participate in person phoning in their readings. William Hawkins has also given me the impression over the years that George Johnston was pretty important for younger poets in town, as a mentor and influence. How do you recall Johnston?

A: Bill is absolutely right about that. i.e., George being a mentor and a light. George taught Old English at Carleton and, at least once, Old Norse. He was, as I said, a legend, tall, imposing, with his white beard, gaunt look, and beret. You knew he was into the skalds. Pretty amazing! You respected him and his obvious integrity. He was somebody who seemed like a poet first and then a university professor, rather than the other way around. I started his class in Old English, but it was too much for me at the time and I dropped out. Nonetheless, he and I not long afterwards had a good discussion about Robert Lowell’s poem, “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket” from Lord Weary's Castle. This gives you an example of the mentor thing.

Somehow we crossed paths and he asked me whom I liked and I said that I was reading the Lowell poem. I still remember chunks of it. I was so taken by the poem that I drove to Nantucket one summer after teaching at Carleton in order to visit the island. I almost missed the graveyard. I had to ask a local who pointed it out because it
s just like the poem says. It looks like an empty field, but its field of Quakers in their unstoned graves,” Quakers didnt believe in tombstones. Lowell later sort-of dismissed these poemsthe ones in Lord Wearys Castle, I meancalling them “armoured,” and compared to “Skunk Hour,” for example, they are rhetorical, but I admired that poem then and do now.  It’s magnificent, complex rhymes and all. George was surprised at my enthusiasm for the poem. A little impressed, I suppose, because I was a kid, really, and into this thorny work—with its allusions to Moby Dick plus the very Catholic section about Our Lady of Walsingham—and which is, incidentally, a sequence poem, speaking of. Anyway, George told me he liked the poem, too, and nodded in that sage way of his. I was incredibly flattered that he’d taken the time to talk with me and to approve. That conversation made me realize that he wasn’t forbidding or unapproachable at all, which you might have thought from the way he looked and his reputation as a poet. He was like a fifth columnist is how I began to think of him. His earlier poems were somewhat contradictory, crafted in tight quatrains mostly, hard-rhymed, a style completely out of fashion then, the currency of the time being “free” verse, yet his content was very 60s in a way, inasmuch as it pointedly questioned the bourgeois way of life. His later poems became freer in the handling, the form, though he once said that he had to “unlearn” the idea of a poem finding its own form. There are many paths up the mountain.

He was a great soul and an incredible poet. It was unthinkable back then to have a reading in Ottawa and George not be a part of it, which is why we went out of our way to make sure that he was.

Q: You mention that readings were a rarity at the time in Ottawa, but for what Hawkins was curating at Le Hibou, but I’m curious about what was happening in town as far as small poetry publishing, whether journals or books. In 1972 there was Commoners’ Press, obviously, as well as Golden Dog Press and Northern Journey. What were the local poets paying attention to? How were Ottawa poets getting their work out?

A: Sorry can’t be of much real help here either. Northern Journey I read, and of course Roy MacSkimming ran New Press and published Bill’s The Gift of Space, but the history of poetry publishing and performance in Ottawa I really know little about beyond what I told you regarding Bob, though that part is important. My life at the time was centred around my studies at Carleton and being a new father while being very young. I didn’t have a book in the works at the time, so I wasn’t really thinking about publishing. If I were you, I’d ask Roy about this. He’d likely know.

Q: You’ve said you left town before the book appeared in print, returning later to see a finished product. Do you remember any response to the collection, either from contributors or the public?

A: Tough question. Long time ago. Bob approved highly and congratulated me when we saw each other during my brief return to Ottawa from BC. So did my brother, Bruce. There was a review somewhere that lauded the book.

Although Northern Comfort does, as Cameron Anstee notes in his piece on it on your blog, capture the spirit of the event, I think it’s worth insisting on how exuberant that evening was. It felt magnetic, important, and it felt homegrown in the best way, too, like the difference between a home-grown tomato and a store-bought one. It felt authentic to the spirit of the place, not an import, not from somewhere else. It was ours. It showed us who we were, that we mattered to ourselves and, in a sense, generally. When you study poetry at university or at any school, it’s easy to be intimidated or to think that only the great ones count: Donne or Keats or Dickinson or Williams, etc. Not that they don’t. Of course they do. You have to learn from somewhere, so learn from the best.

But especially, I think, speaking as a Canadian, and from the perspective of more than forty years, it could be easy to be intimidated by the British and the Americans if English was your first language and you wanted to write verse (the question of Québec is different). TISH was trailblazing on the West Coast with Bowering and Davey and Bob Hogg. And there was Daphne Marlett: Steveston is a masterpiece, if you ask me. Newlove came riding out of Saskatchewan. In the East, Ray Souster in Toronto and, say, Irving Layton in Montreal, were important as guides. So was Leonard Cohen, by the way, in terms of spirit, whatever one may think now of his limitations as a poet (his songs are a different matter, there he is a master). He did write some first-rate single poems, “I Have Not Lingered in European Monasteries,” or “You Have the Lovers,” for example, and he was breaking through in his poetry, as well as his music, to a large audience. That was important as a possibility. And of course there are the two superior novels. They weren’t Frederick Philip Grove. They were from an altogether different register, which Desmond Pacey saw and immediately lauded, calling Beautiful Losers the best Canadian novel written to that point.

Now poetry is a river in Canada, and it’s the Fraser or the St. Lawrence, not Etobicoke Creek. When it comes to the genre, we take a back seat to no other culture in the English-speaking world, which is pretty remarkable considering how small a country we are, smaller in population than California.

Sometimes you hear that being sandwiched between England and America works against us but I think this has worked in our favour in terms of poetry and prose in English. We’re neither of them, but we’ve drawn from them, which, mixed with our own poetic spirit—and I’m pretty much talking from W.W. E. Ross and Ray Knister on—has made something quite unique. And let’s get a word in here edgewise for the national and provincial arts councils for doing so much to foster the admirable state of affairs here in the arts. But, to continue the metaphor, poetry in Canada was starting to overrun its banks back then. Northern Comfort demonstrated, I think—I hope—that Ottawa, that government town which could be easy to dismiss, was a part of the gathering flood, that the town had poets who were active, who were writing, and who were just as relevant as the stuff we read in the anthologies. We were waving our shirts above our heads. We were alive.

Northern Comfort

Published by Commoners’ Press, 1973

Subtitled “being a reading of poetry by various people, given in the back yard of the Victoria Hotel, 18 Murray Street, the Byward Market, Ottawa, on the evening of June 29th, 1972.”

Transcribed and Edited by Monk Besserer
Cover by Alyx Jones
Design and Layout by Cam Christie and Monk Besserer

Typeset and Printed in an edition of 500 copies at Commoners’ Press, 425 Rideau St., 2B, Ottawa.


            The text of this book is a slightly edited transcription of a reading that began at approximately 8:30 p.m. on June 29th, 1972 in the backyard of the Victoria Hotel. The reading was arranged by Peter Geldart, Alyx Jones, and Bill Stevenson, the three principle co-ordinators of Market Projections, a now-defunct OFY sponsored group of artists who got together to try and bring some life into Ottawa’s artistic scene. Most of their work was of the “happening” variety and is now long gone but this book, if nothing else, stands as witness to their inspired collective energy. Without them none of it would have happened.
            I have tried to offer in the text a layout that will facilitate a re-creation of the experience through reading. There is a long section by Alyx Jones that has been omitted for quantitative reasons but with that sole exception whatever editing I have done was only to this end. There are countless “um”s and “ah”s omitted (I am always astonished at how inarticulate a poet can be), though some may think there are still too many. Occasionally I have substituted a word that was obviously intended though whoever spoke actually said something else (slips-of-the-tongue). Whenever a poet read two or three poems straight through without comment I have separated them with a row of asterisks to indicate as much – in effect, a time break. There is, also, a small amount of material missing – the machine was shut off for the telephone calls from George Johnston and Ronnie Judge, and I’m still piqued over those omissions for there seems to have been no reason to do so. The opening remarks of Alyx Jones and George Johnston, for example, are perfectly audible. There are also lacunae as a result of the necessity to change tapes. Even twentieth century technology has its limits.
            Someone has said that the real function of Northern Comfort should be as textbook for Ottawa schools. It’s not likely that the OBE will ever make NC required reading or that it will ever find its way onto English 100 courses anywhere, but for those whom school is out something may be learned.

            Neil Whiteman                        November 1973

Dramatis Personae (In order of appearance.)
William Hawkins
Alyx Jones
Robert Hogg
Marius Kociejowski
Christopher Levenson
Neil Whiteman
Jack Nathanson
George Johnston
Ronnie Judge
Unknown Reader
David Andrews
The 47 Argyle Street Band
Christophe James
Bill Stevenson

[note: incredible thanks to Cameron Anstee who provided book scans]