Williams and Robinson

Giller Prize-winner Ian Williams (l.) will converse with the U.S.’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Marilyn Robinson on the craft of writing, themes and the power of fiction at Vancouver Writers Fest. FULL STORY

John Pass

April 07th, 2008

Two Toronto-centric gatherings, recipe the lucrative Griffin Poetry Prize and the glitzy Giller Prize, have recently purchased respect with relative ease, but the Governor General’s literary awards in Ottawa remain venerable as an institution.

Winning his first English language poetry GG for his sixteenth title, relative outsider John Pass of the Sunshine Coast was catapulted into the national limelight for writing Stumbling In The Bloom, published from Lantzville by Oolichan Books.

Pass thanked his wife Theresa Kishkan for her consistent encouragement and told a news conference: “Public acknowledgement of this order is remarkably gratifying. It gives me some assurance that my forty years or so writing poetry has been worth it, not just to me but to readers.

“It’s an odd art, simultaneously intimate and alien, private and public, immediate and remote. You start out wanting words for everything, the world, and end up, if you’re immensely persistent and fortunate, creating a world, one in which others might catch convincing glimpses, intimations of their own worlds.

“Or, to put it another way, you start out as a kid in his backyard in Calgary, day-dreaming, aimlessly swinging a stick maybe, muttering to himself, and end up on a stage in Toronto before the national media.”

BCBW: Do you remember how you felt when you first heard the news?

PASS: I heard news of the nomination pulling into the parking lot of Capilano College in Sechelt on my way to work. I was completely surprised. The book got very few reviews and only one enthusiastic one, from Hannah Main-van der Kamp at BC Bookworld. I didn’t really expect to win. I thought it would probably go to Ken Babstock or Sharon Thesen. So I was thrilled and surprised all over again when the phone call came a couple of weeks later.

BCBW: What has been the role of Oolichan Books?

PASS: Oolichan published my two most recent titles, Water Stair in 2000 and
Stumbling In The Bloom. Both were nominated for the GG. Ron Smith is an
excellent editor, perceptive and attentive to detail without being intrusive. Also the design of both these books has respected and reflected the text admirably.

BCBW: In what way?

PASS: The use of a wider format in Stumbling, for example, to permit longer lines without breaking them, was risky for Oolichan. Bookstores don’t particularly like outsize books as they’re difficult to shelve, but the poetic values came first. I appreciate that kind of editorial decision a lot.

BCBW: You’ve also done two books with Harbour—but never any book with a “big” publishing house back east. Does this mean slow and steady can win the race?

PASS: The “big” publishing houses in poetry are nearly always the small literary publishers. On this year’s shortlist, for example, only one of the four titles was published by a “big” house, McClelland & Stewart. The others were Nightwood, Oolichan, House of Anansi (with two shortlisted titles). Those are three of Canadian poetry’s BIG houses!

I don’t know that winning a GG is winning the race. One goes on writing, hopefully, beyond the victory lap. I think the key to accomplishment in poetry was well-articulated recently by the Anglo-Irish poet Michael Longley, someone from the same circle as (and until recently hugely overshadowed by) the remarkable career of Seamus Heaney. He says in an interview in The Guardian that poets have to remember to take poetry seriously, not themselves.

BCBW: Would you agree with our reviewer Hannah Main-van der Kamp that you are a man “besotted with a particular place, a possible Paradise”?

PASS: Yes, I’m besotted with place alright, but I think there are particular instances, even in Stumbling In The Bloom, of more than one possible paradise. Each poem reaches out to its own, and the reader’s.

Essay Date: 2007

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