April 07th, 2008
Veering Off Down Goof Lane
[Georgia Straight, symptoms Vol. 12 No. 535, 1978]
Warren Tallman was on the committee that established UBC’s Creative Writing Department under Earle Birney and Roy Daniells in the late '50s. He played a large supportive role in the formation of TISH magazine (which some people now view in almost mythical terms as the start of a vitalized Vancouver poetry scene), his home has been a melting pot for young poets, and occasionally, he has even been called upon to bail poets out of jail.
Well and good. The spirit of sweet delight can never be defiled. Hats off to Warren Tallman. But it was not until I went to the Vancouver Public Library and read what Tallman has written over the past thirty years that I truly appreciated the guy. It was difficult to equate the spontaneous, expansionary orator with the insightful essayist. But they are one and the same man.
Tallman is not afraid to be ‘proprioceptive’ in print because he believes that with modern poetry, “Intellect no longer stands like an Apollo under whose overseeing purposes and powers the lesser divinities make their lesser motions.” The following digression on Allen Ginsberg aptly illustrates how Tallman uses his ‘openness’ to contribute to our understanding of what modern poets are doing:
“By placing absurdity in the driver’s seat of his measure vehicle Ginsberg is able to veer off down goof lane or up paradise valley at will and thus recreate those personal and institutional misadventures which have become the commonplace of open road advertising in the grotesque our-gang comedies of Madtown.”
All of which leads me to mention the publication by Coachhouse Press in its Open Letter series of a collection of Warren Tallman’s essays titled Godawful Streets of Man. The book is 20 years in the life of a self-described ‘North American perceptualist’. The excerpt printed in this issue of The Straight has been lifted from an essay called Wonder Merchants. The piece is a thumbnail sketch of ‘who was who’ during the upsurge of modernist poetry of the 1960s.
To do this interview I dutifully trudged out to UBC to one of Warren Tallman’s poetry classes. At first I was taken aback. It seemed all Tallman did was chain smoke, gesticulate, smile the smile of a burned-out guru from outer poetic space, and chat about his poetry buddies. The guy’s lecture was 100% expansionary; he changed topics with each cigarette. I looked around me. Could it be the only rationale for taking this class was that students knew Tallman could care less about marks and assignments? In fact, Tallman was so far gone he couldn’t even care less about not caring. Yet somehow it was stimulating. All his rambling was like a serial poem, coherent in its willful eclecticism. Suddenly Charles Olson’s obscure definition of ‘proprioception’ began to make sense to me. Here was a man who had pure ‘sensibility within the organism by movement of its own tissues’. Warren Tallman reminded me of a close friend of mine. This friend quit school and went travelling in Africa for four years. He went to Timbuktu, had his appendix removed in a jungle clinic in Upper Volta—all sorts of awful/bizarre/wonderful things. By the time this friend returned, I could hardly hold a ‘normal’ conversation with him. His openness to new things so totally dominated his personality that when you talked to him, all he did was nod his head and say, “Yah, yah,” to everything.
Unlike most academics (Tallman once commented in an essay that it was interesting that the word academic has come to be used as a synonym for pointlessness) Tallman's capacity for appreciating what is of value in a person’s writing is not necessarily hindered by his ability also to perceive what is not of value. A somewhat loosey-goosey perspective, to be sure. Hence you get poet Gladys Hindmarch remarking in a 1970 issue of the Georgia Straight: “Because of his aesthetic and open intelligence, he has never been in favour with the teachers of the UBC writing department; and because he has constantly insisted that poetry is to be heard, is not to be read on the page as a symbol-puzzle, that the work of the critic is to be receptive and not make tidy arguments, he has been snuffled at by the academics.” And poet Brad Robinson on Warren Tallman: “He has the rare ability to encourage one to develop his or her own voice, he has consistently stressed to be local, write about what it is you know… he has worked incessantly for laying the groundwork for a healthy and germane literary environment in Vancouver.”
TWIGG: Where’s the West Coast poetry scene heading these days?
TALLMAN: I think it’s coming down to tribal, personal, communal activity. To me, the large publishing houses are losing force—and I mean New York and Toronto, which for Vancouver purposes, are the two largest publishing centres. I think we’re getting poets now who are interested in having what they write being read by some friends of theirs. In fact, I often think of it as tribal. Like William Carlos Williams had the feeling that maybe the tribal was the true nature of this continent. A lot of poets I know are no longer interested in the great book, the huge audience.
TWIGG: So as you said recently in one of your lectures, The Great Poet is dead.
TALLMAN: Yah, Robert Duncan, the San Francisco poet, said, “It’s an end to the age of masterpiece, a beginning to the age of testimony.” I think he meant simply that any one poet does what he can do, then he turns it over to his friends.
TWIGG: Fame and fortune and vanity just don’t enter into it as much then?
TALLMAN: Well, any person could be tempted to think, “I could be the new Rod McKuen.” (laughter) But he’s not a poet at all, he’s an entertainer. I remember Yevtushenko came to town from Australia and McKuen had been in Australia at the same time as Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko was mad out of his mind. McKuen was getting audiences of 12,000 people and poor Yevtushenko was getting only 800 people.
TWIGG: But don’t you think Yevtushenko has been turning into somewhat of a Rod McKuen figure himself?
TALLMAN: That goes into the whole range of Russian poetry. The Russians have such a different conception of poetry than we have. Poetry’s a stage art in Russia. That’s what I got from Yevtushenko.
TWIGG: We’re sort of getting away from the West Coast here. Let’s take a plane back to Canada and talk a little more about this tribal thing. I’ve heard it said that Canada may just have more poets per capita that any other nation. That fits into your theory that poetry is moving into smaller and smaller circles.
TALLMAN: Right. Canada’s kind of a special country. The huge space and the relatively small population. And we’ve got this very active government support for poets. You can find very few nations on earth that have that exist for them. Anytime that Michael Ondaatje wants to come out to Vancouver, the government will pay his plane fare.
TWIGG: And yet you hear people bad-mouthing the Canada Council all the time.
TALLMAN: You can always bad-mouth a government agency. I think the Canada Council has been run more intelligently than almost any governmental support program for the arts. I have some reservations about it, but Naim Kattan has been doing a terrific job of letting the poets exist. As far as I know there’s no censorship of poets in Canada. The only censorship I can see is just the censorship of choice: Do you give a grant to A or do you give a grant to B? You can say that’s a form of censorship.
TWIGG: This brings to mind that incident in Parliament recently where some MP stood up—and I can’t remember his name—and he said look what we’re financing. He held up some work of bill bissett’s and complained who is this person? Is our money going into this? It seems to me that the Canadian public would prefer their poets to go off into a corner and make their poetry. That’s fine. Just don’t have any influence in our daily lives. You agree with that, don’t you? You don’t think poetry should necessarily have a mass appeal, say as it does in Russia.
TALLMAN: That’s right. I don’t believe in a mass appeal for poetry. I only believe in such mass appeal as might occur. That is, I don’t think a poet should ever write for mass appeal. I’ve noticed that for anything I write—and I don’t write poetry—I always have a few people in mind. I feel well, there are six or eight people who will probably read this. So I become very interested to write for them. Just as in a conversation, you become interested to talk to someone. It’s the same proposition. I’m heavily against mass appeal. I think that’s the death of poetry.
TWIGG: What about a poet who has strong political views and wants to use his poetry as a vehicle for his views?
TALLMAN: I follow Olson on that. Olson said art comes first, the political views will follow. I have quarreled with a number of poets who have put politics first and used their art to propagandize.
TWIGG: Give me some examples.
TALLMAN: Well, in Vancouver, Jamie Read is an example of a poet who began to preach Maoism. Then he began to say that my language must conform to Mao’s idea of a simplified vocabulary so that the peasants would understand what he was talking about. And I thought, ‘Well, Jamie ain’t a poet no more. Maybe he’s a politician.’ I still like Jamie, but boy…
TWIGG: But when you look back through time, you find there have always been politically committed poets. Is there something in our North American way of life that—
TALLMAN: (interrupting) Jamie Read, Stan Persky, Tom Wayman, Pat Lane, partly, Brian Fawcett partly, are all beginning to despair about poetry and take up politics. What I find is that a person who has a gift for poetry tends to be a damned amateur politician. He may think he knows whether Marxism is best, democracy is best, or Trudeau is best or what. But when he converts his whole gift for language into a gift for politics, I find a diminishment in the poetry. Olson was against wisdom as such. He said poetry is an art. You practice it and your politics, your religion, your wisdom will or will not come in. It’ll be there if you are. If you’re a poet, you’re a poet.
TWIGG: Okay, what’s the poet’s value to society?
TALLMAN: His first value is to himself. Then there’s his value to the small group of people who might read him. Or her.
TWIGG: Are you talking about value in terms of expanding the language, bringing us in touch with our own private cosmologies?
TALLMAN: My sense there is that most poets come down to ‘What is reality?’ They’re testifying to their own version of reality, as Creeley does every time he writes a poem. His honesty is such that he’s giving you the real word. Like Jack Kerouac said, “I’ve got to watch out for my own bullshit lies.” Kerouac wanted to tell the truth. Testimony is the major word for it. They want to give testimony for their own lives.
TWIGG: Are you saying then that a man like Robert Creeley shouldn’t give a damn whether the outside world understands him or not? Just as long as he’s telling the truth?
TALLMAN: He cares intensely whether other people will listen to him but the edge on the intensity is that I damn well am going to speak my own mind. Creeley has this marvelous image of himself trying to please everybody in the room. He’s got this piece of cake in his hand and it’s crumbling and he desperately wants to give a piece of it to everybody.
TWIGG: If the value of modern poetry is testifying to what is real, would you say through the ages that poetry has always served that function?
TALLMAN: Oh no. If you go back and look anywhere, say to Ben Jonson or Samuel Johnson, they’re saying poetry is to tell you the truth in a pleasing form. That is, to tell you known truths. That’s very different from personal testimony. John Milton tells universal truths whereas Robert Creeley is trying to tell the truth of Robert Creeley. As Creeley once said in one of his introductions, “In a different time, I probably would have been a moralist.” What he was saying was, who can be a moralist in our time? Who’s going to tell anybody what to do? That is we’ve been driven into individual values—and boy, That’s where Charles Olson is—and they’re the substitute for universal values.
TWIGG: Are you saying then that modern poetry is a reaction against modern society?
TALLMAN: Yah. As Pound said, “Poets are the antennae of the race.” I think what he meant was that if you want to know what’s going down today, don’t check the newspapers, don’t check a politician, don’t check a radio commentator, check the poets.
TWIGG: Do you really believe that’s true?
TALLMAN: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. I think George Bowering or Daphne Marlatt know more about what’s happening in Vancouver than Jack Webster or Doug Collins. Absolutely.
Excerpt from an essay called Wonder Merchants that accompanied the Georgia Straight interview. “The spores of Vancouver poetry”. By Warren Tallman.
The environment itself, the manifest reaches of humanly untouched space, creates in Western children an aching spirit as of an emptiness, wanting to be filled. When some such children grow up and turn to poetry they are likely to set up shop as wonder-merchants. Poetry for them is less a ‘literary’ activity than, as Duncan had demonstrated when he arrived in town with his enchanted mind, a marvel.
So back to the Sunday afternoon in August 1961, last day of Robert Duncan’s visitation, and George Bowering, Frank Davey, David Dawson, Lionel Kearns, James Read, and Fred Wah decided to start Tish magazine. Kearns declined to be an editor but, as it turned out, for all practical purposes was. Tish 1 appeared in September 1961, and the next 18 numbers appeared on schedule, a phenomenal 19 consecutive months through April 1963 when Bowering, Davey and Kearns finished their MA exams at UBC and began to do what young men so situated do: get married, think about travel, jobs, get out of town. In the seventh number the subtitle changed from ‘a magazine of Vancouver poetry’ to ‘a newspaper of Vancouver poetry.’ But in a deeper sense it was neither magazine nor newsletter but a meeting place for their lives. When the proprioceptive poet subjects himself to his environment in order to become the subject of his sentence, he is likely to move into contact with his and the environment’s vital energies. Inside yourself you may stumble onto well-heads. And phenomenal shared energy was the most obvious fact of the Tish Place they had created. Poems written one week went the rounds the next, were argued and selected or rejected the next, and printed, folded, addressed, stamped and mailed the next. Not waiting for subscribers the editors compiled their own mailing list, paid postage from their own always almost empty pockets, and distribution was free. Poems and letters received were responded to within the day, the week. Everything that was feeding into their lives was being fed directly into a flood of poems: the city, their day-to-day activities, their love affairs, their quarrels over poetics, their differences with Layton, Purdy, Acorn, Gwen MacEwen—one another.
A seventh, unnamed ‘editor’, Gladys Hindmarch, was near the centre of their energy vortex. At the same time she was writing nursery rhyme variations in prose rhythms derived from Jack Kerouac and from high school age experiences playing tenor sax in a Vancouver Island dance combo. Because the magazine was devoted to poetry, her ‘fiction’ didn’t appear. She was evidently born proprioceptive, so sensitized to her environment, so quick to internalize it, making it her own, that she lived in a state in which she had almost no public identity other than that created by the person or persons she was with. On still spring evenings, not a whisper of wind, when she walked through the door the leaves on nearby trees would flutter into a welcoming dance. Possessing such marked extra-sensory powers, working entirely by untuition, she provided endless hours of direct personal response to the lives and poems of the other editors. Because her being was so volatile at that time, she became for all of the others whatever image of the feminine they happened to need: mother, sister, muse, lover, consolation, inspiration, sounding-board, scold, conscience. Unable to categorize, classify, or indeed even to speak until speech was given, when she said ‘no’ to a poem, or went silent, the other editors tended to pout that poem aside. She was a living metaphor for the numinousness around, the most distinct single human form of the wonder of the place.
Two related groups were drawn into the vortex of energy swirling in the Tish place, one willingly, the other with a certain interested reluctance. The willing ones were a number of fractionally younger writers, Robert Hogg, Daphne Buckle (Marlatt), Dan McLeod, David Cull. The more reluctant but interested ones lived ‘downtown’, Gerry Gilbert, Judy Copithorne, Maxine Gadd, bill bissett, Roy Kiyooka, John Newlove. Already oriented toward modern art, music and film, and interested in the American poets Tish was emphazing, they distrusted what seemed a heavily academic orientation that all the Tish editors were students at UBC. But the energy and a sense of the wonderful is a difficult combination to resist, so the downtown poets became, if not fully convinced, definitely interested and sympathetic. There were exchanges, an uneasy alliance, wry eyes watching wry eyes, the kind of friendships that are active and warm but have blank spaces. What Tish did no have for the downtowners didn’t come clear in decisive ways until the original energy began to wobble in Spring, 1963. Tish continued that summer and then, intermittently through to 1968. But almost as if energy were being transferred from one centre to another, in October, 1963 bill bissett stepped in with Blew Ointment Press and a poetics that had no been in the Tish vortex began to come alive. Bissett, himself an energy vortex and wonder-merchant, became the new centre for the energy that Tish had generated. As Tish continued on a still important but wobbling pivot, Blew Ointment Press, a house for the houseless bissett, began to push the Modernism into new dimensions.
Within close distance of the Tish place and bissett’s Blew Ointment house, like various balconies and porches, or right next door, or just across the street, are more magazines and presses than I can discuss, Talonbooks, Intermedia, Circular Causation, Very Stone House, And Vancouver Community Press, the cluster of which brings into presence the work of Maxine Gadd, Judy Copithorne, Gerry Gilbert, Roy Kiyooka, Jim Brown, Ken Belford, John Newlove, Scott Lawrence, jorj Jeyman, Pierre Coupey, Seymour Mayne, Pat and Red Lane, Stan Persky, Barry McKinnon and Brad Robinson. The most consistent and dedicated of these presses, Talonbooks, produced by David Robinson and Gordon Fidler, is significant for all
[Georgia Straight, Vol. 12 No. 535, 1978]
Essay Date: 1978