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George Bowering

in conversation with Eric Eggertson

This interview was first published in the Vancouver Poetry Centre Newsletter, Volume 1, Number 10, August 16, 1979, and a version of the interview also appeared in The Ubyssey student newspaper at the University of British Columbia. It is 2,800 words or about 6 printed pages long.

The bank of language

George Bowering’s long list of publications recommends him to me as an active member of the writing community. Among his many books are Rocky Mountain Foot, In the Flesh, The Catch, Mirror on the Floor, Autobiology and A Short Sad Book. He has also published two books of his stories, Flycatcher and Other Stories and Protective Footwear. While going to UBC, Bowering was an editor of Tish, a poetry newsletter to which a new generation of Canadian poets were drawn. He later edited Imago and is presently an associate professor of English at SFU. He is now editing six books, including a book of interviews with four B.C. writers and an anthology of 15 Canadian poets.

I interviewed George Bowering at Warren Tallman’s home on Bella Vista Street. The handwritten Ginsberg and Duncan poems and the photo-murals by Roy Kiyooka that adorn the walls were appropriate for the interview, for George was a part of the awakening to the New American Poetry that began with visits by Olson, Creeley and Duncan, continued in Tish, and is evident in the community of writers George is associated with.

Eric Eggertson: I’m interested in the relationships of people to cities. Daphne [Marlatt] has a strong sense of communities and cities that she keeps going back to.

George Bowering: Yes, there are places I go back to just about every year that are particularly good audiences. For instance, at the Forest City in London, where I’ve read for three years in a row, I had just written the first half of A Short Sad Book when I did a reading there, so I read the whole first half of it and they put in on videotape. Then the next year when I got there I had finished the second half of it, so I just picked up on the chapter I wrote after that. Now they’ve got the whole novel on tape. And this year I thought “Well, they’ve heard that” so I read from my new novel. That’s a nice situation.

As a matter of fact, before last night [June 22] the last two readings of Daphne’s that I’ve been to were both in Toronto. We both just happened to be touring there. In March I caught a reading of hers at the new place that Owen Sound, the sound poetry group, has in Toronto. That was wonderful because the audience was made up of the same people whose poetry you read in little magazines, and you are reading your stuff, and who are being published by the same people as you and so forth. It’s just the way, I’m sure, that she thinks about the community operating in the country. She and I were in town, representatives of the West Coast arm of a community that also includes, in Toronto, people like bp Nichol and the Four Horsemen, David Young, Victor Coleman, and so on. At that kind of reading I always read the most difficult stuff I have because I know there’s going to be some take on it. And it’s a pleasure to go back there and pick up where I left off.

EE: It’s like continuing a conversation that’s already begun. The audience has a background.

GB: Yes, you’ve read Ed Dorn and Louis Zukofsky and so forth, so the references you make, the poems you write that feed from the difficulties in those people’s work, are shared amongst the initiates.

I always gear what I’m going to read to who the audience is. Ninety percent of the time I do. Sometimes I take a chance.

EE: What about the Poetry Centre reading on April 6th?

GB: I read a story that dealt with a person who was in the local community and had died. Unlike most of my stories it was based on real events. There was a half hour reading time and the story takes exactly 30 minutes to read, so I just came on, read the story and walked off again. That’s not to say that all 800 people knew what it was about, but that is not always necessary.

If I have an audience that I feel good with, or familiar with, it’s a question of, “This is what I’ve been doing lately.” Often if I read for the first time ever, at the University of Saskatchewan or something, I say, “These are some of the things I’ve done over the last several years.”

EE: So different readings have different purposes in your mind?

GB: Well, I read this winter at Sherbrooke, a French university in the Eastern townships. I wanted to enter the contention that the Canadian tradition isn’t only devised by Northrop Frye, A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott, and the Confederation poets. Also I wanted to dispel this image they have that all West Coast poets are lumberjacks and dirty-mouthed Tish poets.

I read Allophanes, a very complex poem full of lots of allusions to European philosophy and poets like Edgar Allan Poe. I got into a big fight with the English department because they tried to tell me that that was not my tradition. They had some concocted sense of a Central Canada — Ontario/ Quebec — tradition that had nothing to do with what I was reading while learning to be a poet.

EE: Are you talking about your personal tradition?

GB: One is more bound to do that out here on the edge of the colonies than, say, in Toronto or Kingston or something like that.

EE: Is that because there are fewer people here who think they have the authority to define the West Coast tradition?

GB: Well, I guess we weren’t settled long enough to have all the apparatus that grows up around the writing of poetry. We didn’t have a long enough history to see, say, the connections that Frye sees between Canadian settlement patterns and the images that show up in poetry. I mean, it is literally true that I never heard of a single Canadian poet at any time in my education until I was in my late twenties. I would go and talk, when I was a young poet, to people who had grown up in Ontario or New Brunswick, and they had had Canadian poets in their high school textbooks. And apparently that also happens now here.

I’ve done some readings in high schools. I used to fly to Toronto every year to teach for a week about writing and so forth in a Toronto high school. I found that they didn’t know an awful lot about what’s happening in Canadian poetry. In terms of poets who are alive, they knew about some — like Leonard Cohen, Irving Layton and Earle Birney. But they didn’t know anything more about their poetry than they knew about anybody else’s poetry. They knew about the Canadian poets as Canadian citizens, or Canadian characters, or something.

EE: Have your regular visits back East given you a better perspective of the B.C. literary scene?

GB: Quite often when I go to Toronto I speak as a sort of spokesman, however heretical, from the West Coast. And often amongst the West Coast poets I once knew more about what was going on in Eastern Canada because I cared more about that than a lot of others here did, say six or seven years ago. So I’d say, “Oh, there’s some good stuff happening back there, you should pay attention to this.”

But I go back and forth on that and also on whether you should stay strictly with poetry or be on the radio as well. A lot of people thought it was improper when I did a lot of, you know, yakkity-yak on the CBC, as if I was going into popular journalism. It’s the same thing we used to give each other hell for in Tish — you should be a super-serious poetry person.

EE: You were undermining the movement, so to speak.

GB: I get that business too about whether you should be a pure small press person or whether you should go for the big-business presses. Of all the people that I grew up out of I’m the only one who’s published by McClelland and Stewart.

EE: Then there are the complaints that the Poetry Centre is being too commercial.

GB: The nice thing about the reading series is that it has much bigger audiences than any Canada Council supported readings ever get. That’s an encouraging thing to see.

The only thing I wish about the series is that there were more poets who arose in the ’seventies, as opposed to those who arose in the ’sixties. Coming from the States, I mean. In the last ten years there were all kinds of really interesting American poets who I would love to hear, and hear more often, that nobody in the country ever gets to hear any more. Or heard of. Whereas in the ’sixties you got an awful lot of readings by people like [Robert] Creeley, [Robert] Duncan, [Edward] Dorn and [Charles] Olson. I don’t think Tom Clark has ever read, except maybe once in Toronto at A Space. A really really important poet. And Ted Berrigan, I don’t think, has read in Western Canada ever. I don’t know why he’s not in the series [laughing]. There are eight or ten of them that I would just love to hear every two years at least. It just doesn’t happen any more.

One of the bad things that has happened because the Canada Council has been, over the last seven or eight years, really supporting readings in far-flung areas in Canada, thereby bridging the gaps between our regions, etcetera, is that is has made the host organizations, especially the university ones, very lazy in a couple of different ways. First, they don’t feel they have to do any publicity because the Council’s paying for the shot anyway. Second, and more serious, is that all the people are going to get now are Canadian poets because the Canada Council won’t pay for the travelling expenses and the fees of non-Canadian poets. So, whereas ten years ago universities would have a mixed series of American, some British and Canadian poets, now you get nothing but Canadian poets, the same ones over and over again. I think that’s a bad sign. Not that it’s bad to have Canadian poets read in your series, but it makes the reason for those readings seem a little bit suspect. It gives you that whole thematic content from University of Ontario Studies that the poetry is there to awaken you to how Canadians feel and so forth, rather than to tell you what the muses are telling the poets.

EE: How about the audience? You get different audiences; do you write to a particular audience or do you write to yourself?

GB: No, I write to an audience.

In the first instance I think of myself as the audience, as listening to the voice as coming to me from wherever they’re being dictated from, but not myself as the maker of the sounds that the audience is going to hear.

EE: You’re more of an editor, then.

GB: When it comes to how it is going to be performed or corrected or rewritten or composed or whatever, the people in my community play more of a role. I was trained in this when we were doing Tish. If you made a mistake, you did something egotistical, you would get jumped on by the other guys in the group, and they would reach in and grab your poem and start scratching lines out. Or they would refuse to let you print it in Tish. And I think that’s really good. That is a part of our tradition, we are very concerned about how each other is going to see our work. I’m much more concerned with how Fred Wah sees my work than with how some Toronto editor sees it. I think there will be a continuity from that out into whoever else wants to pick it up, but I read specifically to certain people. Like George Stanley. If George is in the audience I’ll read to him.

I remember a conversation I once had with Victor Coleman and Frank Davey. We were talking about how much the audience will pick up out of what you read. And I feel as if very little of what I read is going to be picked up by an audience, but the amount that does get picked up, I want to be very careful about that. I don’t want them to pick up the wrong stuff.

Frank was saying that no one person would pick up 90 percent of what he was putting out in the poem, but he figured that the whole audience would get 90 percent. Victor said he thought his whole audience would get about 10 percent, and I figure my audience will get maybe 25 percent.

EE: Is that because of the complexity of the work?

GB: I like certain things to be accessible — people to pick up rhymes and certain things, but I have a feeling that the more complex and difficult it is, without turning it into one of those professor poems of the ’fifties, full of allusions to Greek mythology, the more it will be like the condition of the language as a whole. Any one person who is a citizen of the English language, for instance, is only aware of a very small part of what the language is capable of. I would like that condition to inhere to anything I take out of the language.

The more you are in control of what you’ve taken out of the bank of language to produce as a poem, such as Charles Bukowski does, the more that will be about you than it will be about the language, which seems to me not to be the business of what poetry is for. There have been billions of people in the world, so if you’re expressing one person in that poem you’re not getting much, and the reader can get that by talking to you at a party anyway. Any time the language makes itself manifest it’s going to be in interesting forms, and the more interesting the forms are the better. I’d like to leave poems that aren’t finished with, that you don’t pass off the way you pass off a daily newspaper.

EE: Do you distinguish between your poetry and your prose, as to what you’re writing about, who you’re writing to, the way in which you do it?

GB: I’m writing much less verse now than I used to. When I was very young I wanted to be a prose writer, and I became a poetry writer partly because your attention span and how excited you get about the world when you’re in your twenties seem to lead almost inevitably towards writing lyrics.

I did write prose in those days but I was all wrong about how to do it. I was trying to write realistic prose from the samples that I saw in a small-town bookstore. I was paying more attention to the world which needs to be remembered and described. Meanwhile, I spent 15 years writing poetry which was getting longer and longer and larger and larger and more and more narrative in some sense. It just turned inevitably into what I’m more interested in, and that’s fiction.

EE: But there’s still that attention to language.

GB: Oh sure. I still mean my prose to be read out loud. And I still invite all those things that we have traditionally ascribed to poetry — the care with the vocalization, the rhythmic interest, the rhyming interest, and so forth. And the prose is less referential, it’s more self-reflexive, as they say, than the prose I was going to write 20 years ago. The conditions with which I write it are very similar to the conditions with which I used to write poetry.

EE: What are those conditions?

GB: That when you sit down and write your attention is not towards the thing that you’re writing about, you’re not writing something that will provide a window through which the reader can see the world, but the attention is to the page that the words are going down on. If it is a window it’s a window that you look at for its own sake, like a cut-glass window. I mean, writing is writing — sculpture doesn’t try to pretend it’s not there. None of the other arts try to pretend they’re not there, so why should prose?

Eric Eggertson

ERic Eggertson

Eric Eggertson has worked in journalism, and in corporate communications. He studied at Capilano College and UBC. Originally from Winnipeg and Vancouver, he now lives in Saskatchewan with his wife and three children.

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