Into the Eyes of his subjects

Bruce Meyer took a photograph of me that I didn’t really believe would surface all these years later, but there it is, in a book Portraits of Canadian Writers (208 pages, $22.95, published by Porcupine’s Quill). It is there along with an anecdote about how I saved his life when he fell desperately ill with influenza while he was living in Windsor and teaching at the university here. That photograph and that story, of course,  are mere footnotes alongside a host of many other writers, both famous and otherwise. In this absolutely unique collection, you will discover photographs and stories of Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Al Purdy, Ray Robertson, Bronwen Wallace, Leon Rooke and Earle Birney. Meyer did most of these in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when he was a young, ambitious, aspiring writer who was working on his doctorate. But his mission to interview, and photograph, some of the most influential authors of modern Canadian writing took him across the country, knocking on doors, and sitting, questioning, and listening to these poets, novelists and short story writers. The result is this vital record that through its telling says so much about our writing today, and maybe its future.

Porcupine’s Quill describes Meyer’s approach in this book as “snapshots — both visual and textural.” Indeed they are also delightful revelations, some sad, some funny, some poignant in catching these writers at their own beginnings. Like meeting Ray Robertson —described as “shy” and reserved and confessing to Meyer that his sole objective was to become a writer. Meyer, then having just founded the creative writing program at the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Education, told Robertson the only way to success was to keep writing. Obviously, this now successful novelist, did, and the rest is history. The story of interviewing the legendary Dorothy Livesay, then an aging poet, will make you smile, in that, she cornered the fresh-faced Meyer and french-kissed him, and remarked, “Oh, if we had lived in the same time.”

Meyer knows this book is by no means “a complete catalogue of the most important Canadian authors of the past 30 years.” He says it is “a small measure of the voices who have contributed to the cultural dialogue” of Canadian literature. But the world that Meyer inhabits here is one that is full of curiosity.  He writes: “I look into the eyes of these subjects…I realize that what I saw when I looked through the lens of my camera was the writers who not merely wrote works that make us stop and consider who we are, but who created — out of their imaginations — the words and visions of this world they share with us.”

At the same time, however, the world being created in this fascinating collection is very much a memoir of sorts, through the eyes of Bruce Meyer, the author of nearly 50 books of non-fiction and poetry. We learn much about him, what attracted him to these writers, but more importantly, as anyone who has done interviews realizes, we discover what follows from these interactions is that we come away with a veritable sense of something more intimate, more personal. That couldn’t happen without Bruce Meyer, without his perspective, his curiosity, and his camera. This book serves as a significant document that in a way taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that the twists and turns our literature has taken has its origins here in the lives of these individuals. In that way, Portraits of Canadian Writers is a trusty guide to our writing, and maybe explains why it has blossomed.

The photos below show Leonard Cohen, Al Purdy, and very young Marty Gervais.