Saturday, March 24, 2018

Arc walks, 2018 : centretown

[official Arc Poetry Magazine twitter photo by Chris Johnson] On Tuesday, I hosted the first of a series of “Arc walks” that Arc Poetry Magazine approached me to curate on their behalf, aiming for a series of hour-long literary (poetry specific) walks around various Ottawa neighbourhoods, to showcase a series of known and unknown landmarks, sites and whatnots. The first walk focused on a fragment of Centretown, walking along a stretch of Bank Street to Parliament Hill, before ending up on Sparks Street, just at Elgin. One of the challenges of these walks is not only to find a series of spots that might be interesting enough to discuss, but that would fit into the space of an hour’s walk (Lowertown, I think, might be a bit of a challenge, given how scattered around some of the research seems, so far). With this one completed, I’m now looking around on figuring out my Glebe walk, and then a potential Lowertown walk, with six to be completed this year in total, including a French walk and an Aboriginal walk (the curators/hosts of such as yet to be determined). For information on the days/locations of the further walks, either check out or the website for Arc Poetry Magazine (or, like, just come back here). Thanks to Arc Poetry Magazine, Frances Boyle and Chris Johnson, and everyone involved for the opportunity! It was more fun than I might have thought (the walking part, I mean). And we even ended with a pint at D’Arcy McGee’s.

Here’s a slightly edited version of the script I read from on Tuesday (with a guest-appearance by poet Jennifer Baker, who read a poem by John Newlove as well as one of her own).


For this series of walks, I’ve deliberately aimed to be more contemporary than much of the information on Ottawa’s literary history, forgoing much of the facts of the Confederation Poets Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott, for example, for more contemporary examples such as John Newlove, Michael Dennis and jwcurry, among others. Some have claimed the history of the city is made up of examples of those who have moved through the city but chose not to remain, and writers in this category are numerous, from Norman Levine, Al Purdy, Raymond Souster, Hugh MacLennan and George Elliott Clarke to Joan Finnigan, Stephanie Bolster, Robin Hannah, Elizabeth Smart, Robert Fontaine, Carol Shields and John Barton. While elements of this might be true (I’m not convinced this occurs more in Ottawa, as suggested, than any other city), there are lots of people and activities that have existed here for years, some of whom continue to inspire activity.

FIRST STOP: 248 Bank Street: In the early 1960s, 248 Bank Street was the second of three locations of Ottawa’s infamous Le Hibou coffeehouse, which would have been run at the time by William and Sheila Hawkins. From 1960 to 61, it lived at 544 Rideau, relocating here until 1965, when it moved 521 Sussex for Le Hibou’s final decade. Throughout the 1960s and 70s, William Hawkins [archival photo provided by Cameron Anstee] was known as Ottawa’s most dangerous poet, and easily one of the most well-known Ottawa poets of the period, publishing numerous poetry books, organizing readings and generally causing trouble. It would have been here that Hawkins ran fundraisers for himself and Roy MacSkimming to be the only poets east of the Rocky Mountains to make it out to the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963, asking friends and enemies alike for cash to help him get out of town (Toronto poet Victor Coleman was apparently offered the opportunity to ride with them, but didn't trust their car to make the trip). And when their car broke down on the way home, it was Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley who paid for the repairs, preventing them from being stranded in the interior of British Columbia.

Le Hibou in the first half of the 1960s included numerous readings alongside the musical performances, and some of the literary activity in and around the coffeehouse included poet Harry Howith and his short-lived Bytown Books, designer/printer Robert Rosewarne and his Nil Press, poets Roy MacSkimming and George Johnston, and the single issue of Something Else, edited by William Hawkins and Denis Faulker. It was only later on that Le Hibou moved over to Sussex Avenue, where it continued to host poets and musicians alike, including Gordon Lightfoot, Joni Mitchell, bpNichol, Victor Coleman, Robert Hogg and many, many, many others. In 2013, VERSe Ottawa made William Hawkins one of the first two inductees of the Hall of Honour, and he died three years later.

SECOND STOP: 231 Bank Street/319 Lisgar: While the space above has hosted living and studio spaces for numerous artists and illustrators over the years, including Adrian Gollner, David Cation, Jennifer Dickson and Dave Cooper, Ottawa poet Michael Dennis also lived upstairs for a number of years, roughly from 1985 to 1988, and again from 1994 to 2002. Originally sharing the space with artist Daniel Sharp, he moved out when Sharp got married, and moved back in to replace the Sharps, once Dan and his wife started having children.

Michael Dennis came to Ottawa from Peterborough in 1984 to attend Carleton University, and became one of the most published poets in the city, having managed some two hundred journal publications by the end of the decade, as well as multiple chapbooks and books, culminating in Fade to Blue from Pulp Press. He was also one of a small handful of writers and artist that appeared in Ottawa in the early 1980s from Peterborough, arriving in conjunction with poet Riley Tench, and writer and visual artist Dennis Tourbin.

There are those that might recall that 319 Lisgar Street used to host Invisible Cinema, after years of hosting Gallery 101, where readings were held throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s by Rob Manery and Louis Cabri’s The Transparency Machine, back in the days when Dennis Tourbin ran the gallery. The Transparency Machine existed under the umbrella of the experimental writers group, a group loosely based on bpNichol and Steve McCaffery’s Toronto Research Group. Focusing on formally innovative English-language poetry, The Transparency Machine hosted a series of readings and talks by a variety of North American poets, including Steve McCaffery, Jorge Etcheverry, Robert Hogg, Lisa Robertson and Tom Raworth, focusing their attention on the Vancouver Kootenay School of Writing, as well as various American and British language writers. Later on, the series rebranded as the N400 Series at the Manx Pub, which existed until Rob Manery moved to Vancouver in 1996, two years after Cabri had left for Philadelphia. Further into the 1990s, Gallery 101 also hosted my poetry 101 series, the short-lived name of what ended up becoming The Factory Reading Series. Subsequent locations of Gallery 101 also hosted Max Middle’s now-defunct performance series, The AB Series.

Another occupant of the same space at 319 Lisgar, prior to Gallery 101, was legendary Ottawa curator and bookseller Richard Simmins, who operated a used bookstore there for many years. Author of the early 1980s novel Sweet Marie, published through Vancouver’s Pulp Press, the precursor to Arsenal Pulp Press, Simmins was also the father of British Columbia poet Zoe Landale.

THIRD STOP: L’Esplanade Laurier Building (140 O’Connor Street/Bank): Despite living in Ottawa longer than he lived anywhere, John Newlove always considered himself to be a Saskatchewan poet. He worked for years as an editor for Official Languages in one of the office towers at L’Esplanade Laurier, originally moving to Ottawa in 1986 from Nelson, British Columbia, after John Metcalf’s wife Myrna (owner of the Elgin Street Diner) helped secure him an interview. Years later, Newlove would joke that moving from permanent job to renewable contract, he had become a government whore as opposed to merely a slave. Here’s a poem he wrote during that period, composed around his experience with government service, originally published as “LEONARD, IT'S WINTER IN OTTAWA” in a festshrift for the Montreal poet and musician in 1994.


The streets are full of overweight corporals,
of sad grey computer captains, the impedimentia
of a capital city, struggling through the snow.

There is a cold gel on my belly, an instrument
is stroking it incisively, the machine
in the half-lit room is scribbling my future.

It is not illegal to be unhappy.
A shadowy technician says alternately,
Breathe, and, You may stop now.
It is not illegal to be unhappy.

[Jennifer Baker, reading John Newlove] Across the street, I used to see John Newlove quite regularly, as I sat daily in the Dunkin’ Donuts window to write, from 10am to 3pm, six days a week, from May 1994 through to June 2000, existing in the space for the entire lifespan of the donut chain, living in the space now occupied by Tim Hortons. Newlove would step off the bus at the stop outside my window, nod and wave his cane at me as he would head off to the office. While sitting in my daily space, one that became quite well-known after a few years, I hosted numerous writers and artists who came in to visit me as I worked, including John Barton, John Metcalf, Dennis Tourbin, b stephen harding, Victor Coleman, John Boyle, Tom Fowler and even Newlove himself.

FOURTH STOP: Parliament Hill: There is a great deal of literary conversation one could have around Parliament Hill, much of which has been covered multiple times over. When the public service was moved from Quebec City to Ottawa in 1865, we gained numerous writers in both languages, including well-known Quebec poets Antoine Gérin-Lajoie, Joseph Marmette, and Alfred Garneau. Prince Edward Island poet Milton Acorn sold copies of his poetry books on the grounds to tourists in 1970. George Elliott Clarke claimed to host the first poetry reading on Parliament Hill in 2016 [see my report on such here], a claim I’d rather do more research on before repeating too often. Clarke himself launched his 1990 collection Whylah Falls as part of an event in the Parliament Buildings through Southwestern Ontario Member of Parliament (for Windsor-Tecumseh) Howard McCurdy, for whom Clarke had worked previously as a parliamentary assistant.

Instead, I’d like to focus on the late poet Judith Fitzgerald, who wrote a poem on Paul Chartier, the man who attempted to bomb Parliament in 1966. Imagine: he attempted to throw explosives from the second floor gallery into the sitting house, which would have easily killed Prime Minster Lester B. Pearson, Official Leader of the Opposition, John Diefenbaker, and dozens of other sitting Members. Fortunately, the second floor gallery was filled with a school group that included a thirteen-year-old Fitzgerald, forcing him up another floor, and the fuse he lit was too short, causing his death in the third floor men’s room. It is through Fitzgerald I first heard of this at all, from her 1977 collection lacerating heartwood:


he descended the fire escape
with the coffee in my hand
and a guitar in his
was running down
my white wrist

you are sleeping
in ottawa
it’s another hot night
after the fashion
of steam and tendrils

the humidity and stains
hamper the delight
you take in your fingers
the audience has claims
on these hands

paul chartier
was on the steps
of the commons
while i was thirteen
in a gallery chair

his face was red
it was april and the washroom
was the high note
in his history
for that split second

stains and humidity
hang in this air
resembling war wreaths
the dried blood
angles its journey

down the porcelain wall
the body was changed
by its explosion
he jacked off with a bomb
the prime minister went white

the arm was holding
the back of the head splinter style
in perfect vertical symmetry
you are sleeping in ottawa
were sweating in fine hair

it gets god-awful hot
sometimes in those bars
and directly above
the spick and span urinals
paul chartier’s body comes violently to rest

I could also point out that on July 29, 2006, Ottawa poet, publisher and editor jwcurry held a marathon public reading of bpNichol’s nine-volume The Martyrology in the gazebo behind the Parliament Buildings [see my brief report on such here]. The bibliographer of bpNichol since the 1980s, this event was held secretly, and promoted almost exclusively by word-of-mouth. As curry said at the time, in what other country could you simply arrive and read poetry for hours publicly outside the seat of parliament?

FIFTH STOP: Sparks Street: Most people know that on April 7, 1868, poet, Father of Confederation and Member of Parliament Thomas D’Arcy McGee was walking home after a particularly late session when he was shot dead while walking down Sparks Street. Tried, convicted and executed for the crime was Fenian sympathizer Patrick James Whelan, who many believe was falsely accused to be a scapegoat for the murder. Known as Canada’s first (and hopefully only) political assassination, a plaque has been erected since in front of the Royal Bank Building at 142 Sparks, identifying the location of Mrs. Trotter’s boarding house where D’Arcy McGee was killed.

What few might know is that the boarding house was owned by George-Édouard Desbarats (forebear of journalist Peter Desbarats and his daughter, Ottawa poet Michelle Desbarats), one of a long line of influential printers running the family business. It was during George-Édouard’s tenure that Prime Minister John A. Macdonald made the Desberats the first official printer of the Dominion of Canada in 1869. The first plaque for D’Arcy McGee was put in place by George-Édouard, but soon after, he received an anonymous warning that his printing establishment in the Desberats Building, at what is now 152-54 Sparks Street, the first building to sit on that corner, would be destroyed. The building was, indeed, lost to a fire in 1869, barely a year after McGee's assassination. Currently, D'Arcy McGee’s Irish Pub sits at the corner of Elgin and Sparks Streets.

The author of over a dozen books and some three hundred poems, his work is still being read, and discussed. One of his poems was read by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney at the funeral of former U.S. president Ronald Reagan.

[end of walk one; this is where we went to the pub]

1 comment:

Tim MS said...

This is awesome, rob.