Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Milton Acorn and bill bissett, I Want to Tell You Love, A Critical Edition, eds. Eric Schmaltz and Christopher Doody


            This introduction will acquaint readers with I Want to Tell You Love along with the places, figures, and ideas that were central to the creation of the book. It begins by providing an overview of the tradition and milieu within which Acorn and bissett were writing in the 1960s. It then moves on to chronicle the convergence of events that let to their meeting in Vancouver. Next, it provides a detailed textual history of I Want to Tell You Love’s creation and its subsequent history of dismissal. Penultimately, it advances a short treatise that underscores the book’s significance and its contributions to the discourse of Canadian Literature and the history of avant-garde writing. It concludes with a few points regarding bissett’s and Acorn’s careers and friendship after their time in Vancouver. Despite their aesthetic differences, bissett and Acorn both hold a fundamental belief in poetry’s transformative capacities for stimulating social change. This edition fosters greater attention to I Want to Tell You Love as a significant meeting of discordant voices, but more importantly as a significant record of Canadian avant-garde activity that engages with, and documents, the frenzy and exhilaration of the 1960s in Canada. (Eric Schmaltz, “Critical Introduction”)

Admittedly, I wasn’t sure what to expect upon first hearing of I Want to Tell You Love, A Critical Edition, eds. Eric Schmaltz and Christopher Doody (Calgary AB: University of Calgary Press, 2021), the previously-unpublished early 1960s collaborative work done by two of Canada’s more important poets to emerge out of the social, political and cultural mimeo-propelled burst of 1960s literary production: Milton Acorn (1923-1986) and bill bissett (b. 1939). On the surface, the two writers couldn’t be any more different, whether through their personalities or how their work sits on the page, but both this project and Schmaltz’s incredible introduction provide a wealth of argument for how the two connect, as well as their overt interest in engaging exactly with those differences. Acorn had already produced a book or two by the time the two poets met up in Vancouver, but it is curious to consider, that had this book-length collaboration actually been accepted by the publishers of the day, it would have pre-dated bissett’s two 1966 solo collections. According to Schmaltz, the main argument for the array of rejection this collection managed was exactly the strength of this collaboration, as potential publishers misunderstood that this is not simply a work by two wildly different poets, but a conversation around where their work actually meet, allowing their work (including bissett’s drawings) to connect into and around each other.

Of the universe, one spirit
should be held up, to the many
stars we know shine within

            One love can be known
all loves pay homage to.

The rose, the sea, white or deep,
the colors are many and one
in resolve; the fire, demons, past
for an angel, all human
in spirit. You can speak beauty
of any flower.

                    Young girls, rose
again, and boys play summer evening
games outside. And they are inside, the
walls are that artificial, useful
to believe in. (bill bisssett, “Crossing Directions”)

As well, it has been a joy to see a small handful of critics over the past few years—I’m thinking not just of Schmaltz, but of British poet/critic Tim Atkins, who offered an incredible piece on bissett’s early influences at the 2018 Kanada Koncrete: Material Poetries in the Digital Age conference at the University of Ottawa [see my notes around such here], as well as a foreword to bissett’s 2019 selected with Talonbooks, breth : th treez uv lunaria: selektid rare n nu pomes n drawings, 1957–2019—have finally been starting to provide bill bissett some proper critical acknowledgment and assessment, all of which is wildly overdue, especially when one considers that bissett is still producing, touring and publishing.

I Want to Tell You Love, A Critical Edition is a remarkable edition, and in certain ways, for reasons far larger than the presentation of this particular collaboration, offering context on and around a specific and hugely engaged period of Canadian writing, politics and culture. Through his remarkably thorough sixty-page critical introduction, Schmaltz examines the political and social landscape that opened up different ideas of culture that led to this particular moment, from the post-war period and the emergence of hippy culture to the creation of the Canada Council for the Arts, circling in on Canadian literature and into British Columbia politics, all before landing on how these two vastly different poets from Canada’s East Coast ended up in Vancouver, and what they did once they landed. Schmaltz writes of the centres of Canadian literature during that period, and how both poets, however active, still existed well on the fringes (even in the context of perpetual-fringe Vancouver), well before the creation of such an oddball collection, which neither could get anyone interested in (apparently each pulled poems from the work to land in their own future solo collections). With the inclusion, as well, of an afterword by and a contemporary interview with bill bissett, this might just be a must-have edition, not only for the purposes of a broader comprehension of Acorn and bissett’s individual careers, but of the hefty examination of the emergence of a particular period of Canadian writing and culture.

Untitled by Milton Acorn

Lover that I hope you are … Do you need me?
For the vessel I am is like of a rare crystal
that must be full to will any giving. Only
such a choice at the same time is acceptance,
as it is a demand high and arrogant.

Christ! I talk about love like a manoeuver of
armored knights, with drums and banners!
Is it for you whose least whisper against my skin
can twang me like a guitar-string? for
myself? or for something stronger than the saw
that cuts diamonds, yet is only a thought of perfection?

And this is not guarantee, only a promise
made by one who can’t judge either his weakness
or his strength … but must throw them
like dice, one who never intended to play
for small stakes, but once having made the second greatest gamble
and lost, lives for the next total throw.

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