Canada’s Poet Laureate

Fred Wah, newly appointed as the parliamentary poet laureate for Canada, was in Windsor this week to read at The Capitol Theatre. The event was sponsored generously both by the cultural affairs office of the City of Windsor and the English Department at the University of Windsor. And I was asked to host the event. For me, it was not only an honour representing the city as this municipality’s own first poet laureate, it was also a bit of a homecoming. I had a chance to talk with Wah before the event. We sat in the lumpy up old theatre seats at the front of the room, and talked about the 1960s. Both of us were focused on our careers as poets back then. Or maybe we never thought of ourselves as carving out for ourselves an actual “career,” but poetry some 40 years ago consumed us. It’s what we were reading, and what we were writing. Wah was on the west coast then at UBC working under the tutelage of Warren Tallman and the American poet Robert Creeley. He was part of a group that started a magazine called “Tish.” This zine threatened the conventions of writing in this country, and later George Fetherling would declare it to be “the most influential literary magazine” ever to exist in Canadian literary history. True enough. It spawned a generation of writers whose observations about the world, and about writing, changed the way we put words on a page.

Much later, the legendary Earle Birney would acknowledge the imagination of these younger writers, and would set out to rewrite many of his time-worn poems, the ones that first catapulted him into fame. Birney’s mentor became the young and energized bp Nichol. It was like W. B. Yeats turning to the inspired youthful Ezra Pound.

But there we were. I sat beside Fred and we talked about that period. We both recounted stories of going to see a skeptical Birney who scanned our writing. We had brought samples of our poetry to him, and in both instances, we believe they were never read. Both of us were quickly dismissed and sent on our way. We had a good laugh over that experience. We also talked about hitchhiking across the country in the 1960s, and I told him how I was stopped in Swift Current, the place of his birth, and was stuck there for two days. I couldn’t get a ride out of the town, until a preacher pulled up — very reluctantly but overcome with guilt for abandoning me — and drove me to Calgary. I always say he saved my soul — so to speak. Wah, for his part, was hitchhiking east with his wife, Pauline, and got a ride in a sports car. In those days, I was living in Toronto, and Yorkville (“The Village”) was crammed with hippies. The old Riverboat club in those days featured Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell. In those days, I was hanging out at The Book Cellar and The Village Books and reading all the poets whose books were being printed at Coach House Press. I was also devouring all the work in the “little magazines” that came out of Toronto and Montreal and Halifax. I was also being introduced to writings by Gary Snyder (“The Beats”), and Ginsberg, and of course, Jack Kerouac. But it was these Canadian poets on the West Coast whose work fascinated me. I was drawn to the Tish writers like George Bowering, Lionel Kearns, Robert Hogg and Fred Wah. They were experimenting with writing and pushing the boundaries. I always likened them to the Romantic poets — Wordsworth and Coleridge — publishing The Lyrical Ballads in 1798. Though that book’s immediate effects were modest, it is regarded today as marking the beginning of the Romantic movement in English Literature, and the landmark event that transformed the way poetry was written.

And so earlier this week, Canada’s poet laureate candidly talked about those university days when he and Bowering and Kearns were mimeographing Tish. He smiled at the question if he and the others had “a clue” as to what they were doing as young writers back then in  the mid-1960s. He acknowledged they couldn’t know they were changing the world. They were in the moment.

On the other side of the county, however, I was reading them. For me, it was exciting — it was different, it was challenging, it was unique. It opened my eyes.

Photos below were taken by Jason Rankin.

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