The life and times of Bill Bissett
September 22nd, 2012
After 45 years as a writer and publisher, bill bissett is the first recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to literature in B.C. to be presented on Friday, September 14 at Simon Fraser University (downtown). For more information, call 604-736-4011.
From a literary and historical perspective, bill bissett took off in British Columbia where Earle Birney left off. Fundamentally Left Coast, but more recently bi-coastal, bissett has written more than 60 books that are immediately identifiable by the incorporation of his artwork and his consistently phonetic (funetik) spelling.
As an energetic “man-child mystic, bill bissett is living proof of William Blake’s adage “the spirit of sweet delight can never be defiled.” His idealistic and ecstatic stances frequently obscure his critical-mindedness, humour and craftmanship.
bill bissett was born in Halifax on November 23, 1939. He spent much of his teen years in hospital for treatment of an abdominal condition, peritonitis. His mother died when he was 14 in 1953. During this period he became deeply immersed in movies, to the consternation of his father, a judge, who hoped his son would follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer.
While attending Dalhousie University in 1956, bissett ran away with a preacher’s son to join the circus, ending up in Vancouver in 1958 (“either 1958 or ’59”).
In the early 1960s, bissett worked at the Vancouver Public Library and UBC Library. With Lance Farrell and Martina Clinton, he began experimenting with language and drugs. Martina Clinton was bissett's partner for much of the 1960s, from 1961 to 1967, and became the mother of their daughter, Oolijah, born in 1962.
While the TISH poetry movement was forming at UBC, bissett, according to his Talonbooks publisher Karl Siegler, was “universally recognized as one of the grooviest, stonedest, weird freaks—one of the great Olympians of the Kitsilano hippie scene.”
While attending UBC in the early 1960s, bissett was influenced by the Washington state-born poetry professor Warren Tallman who brought American poets to the campus. During this period he also met fellow poets such as Patrick Lane, Judith Copithorne, Jim Brown and Maxine Gadd.
In 1962, encouraged by fellow writers Robbie Sutherland and Lance Farrell, bissett randomly picked the name for his mimeograph publishing imprint, blewointmentpress, by blindly picking a word from the dictionary [dicksyunaree]. The ointment described in the dictionary entry was a medication for the treatment of crab-lice. The first issue of his blewointment poetry magazine appeared in 1962. Other early literary cohorts included Kurt Lang, with some support from Earle Birney and Dorothy Livesay.
In 1965, bissett cofounded Very Stone House with Lane, Brown and Seymour Mayne. In 1966, he published his first two books, fires in the tempul OR the jinx ship n othr trips (Very Stone House/blewointment) as well as we sleep inside each other all (bp nichol's Ganglia Press).
In 1966, after speaking out against the Vietnam war on a CBC-TV documentary, bissett began to be followed. He claims he was beaten up and harassed by police. Two social workers bought $800 worth of his paintings and advised him to leave town or else he and Martina Clinton wouldn't be allowed to keep their daughter.
In 1968, bissett co-founded a cooperative art gallery, Th Mandan Ghetto, with Joy Long and Gregg Simpson. After he was busted while taking marijuana to a Powell River commune, he spent a few weeks in the winter of 1968- 69 at the Oakalla prison farm, plus some time in jail in Powell River, Vancouver and Burnaby. He was fined $500 but federal authorities vowed to appeal the ruling, wanting a stiffer sentence.
During this period he also released a 12-inch vinyl LP, produced by Jim Brown, in conjunction with his book entitled awake in the red desert (Talonbooks).
The major disaster—or turning point—in bissett’s life occurred at a Kitsilano house party in 1969.
Having performed earlier in the evening at a concrete poetry show, bissett fell through a folding door that was supposed to be latched shut—and plummeted 20 feet to the concrete floor in the basement, severely injuring his head. “Or at least that’s what they tell me. Those brain cells have gone.” (The door had been unlatched to let the cat downstairs for its milk. A two-year court case was won by the insurance company and bissett never received any compensation.)
bissett was paralyzed and catatonic, and about to be sent to Riverview for electric shock treatments, when an interning neurologist rescued him by correctly diagnosing his inter-cerebral bleeding.
After an emergency operation, bissett couldn’t communicate and he suffered from edema and aphasia (memory loss). “So I was like a write-off.” A young neurologist was the only person who believed he might recuperate. bissett confounded older physicians by relearning body movements and speech, aided by the young neurologist who brought him balls to squeeze, taught him the alphabet and insisted he try to paint again. Gradually his combination of aphasia, edema, paralysis and epilepsy abated. This second long-term hospitalization heightened his appreciation for life and also spared him from returning to prison.
When federal authorities arrived at the hospital to serve notice of appeal within a prescribed 30-day period, the head nurse advised them bissett would be dead within a week. The case was dropped.
bissett’s poetry was the subject of a six-month brouhaha in Parliament in 1977-78 over the fact that taxpayers were subsidizing allegedly profane poetry. A nucleus of Conservatives led by Fraser Valley West MP Bob Wenman complained to the Canada Council about grants to bissett’s main publishers since the mid-1970s, Talonbooks.
The controversy arose from material in a book by CJOR hotliner Ed Murphy called A Legacy of Spending in which bissett’s work was reprinted without permission.
“I'm a taxpayer, too,” bissett later responded, “but I don't tell an engineer how to build a bridge.”
The defence of bissett and Talonbooks was a galvanizing factor in the emergence of the literary culture in British Columbia. Hundreds of supporters lent their names to a full-page ad in the Vancouver Sun. bissett recalls, “th censorios n akusing buzzards wer kept at bay 4 ovr 2 yeers warren tallman held a yeer uv huge poetree reedings dfending my self n othr poets n blewointment n othr small presses n great lawyr friend sid simons prepared writs 2 serv.”
To silence their critics, bissett and Talonbooks filed suit in the Supreme Court of B.C. on June 23, 1978 against eight Conservative MPs, seven newspapers and 13 others for libel and violation of copyright.
Neither bissett nor his own press received any funding from Canada Council in the year of the upheaval. Eventually Canada Council reduced funding support for blewointmentpress by 42% in 1982. Two friends paid off bissett's creditors and kept blewointment afloat on an interim basis. After 20 years of Vancouver-based activity, the press was moved to Ontario. It has re-emerged back in B.C. as Nightwood Editions, chiefly managed by Silas White.
bissett comments “now publishing in bc is huge,” he says, “totalee multifasitid vigourous n prinsipuld n tho th forces against art n kultur may try 2 stamp us out we continu on with sew manee voices sew manee platforms ull uv wch is totalee necessaree 2 a civl n demokratik societee without support uv th arts a countree will sink in2 brutalitee…. th rite wing nevr sleeps.”
As much a painter as he is a poet, bissett has largely supported himself since the 1960s by selling his paintings and by reading poetry. The Vancouver Art Gallery hosted an extensive one-man show of bissett’s art, curated by Scott Watson, in 1984, called fires in th tempul. “The magical world of the child,” wrote Watson, “with all his libidinal precociousness, is what bissett is after in his painting…”
That’s a bit much. Sometimes he’s trying to make a buck or two in order to eat. But there’s no question that bissett has been one of the most original and widely appreciated poets Canada has ever produced.
Since the 1990s, bissett has divided his time between the West Coast and Ontario (which he calls Centralia), where he was the vocalist for a rock group, The Luddites. He has released at least five CDs with various collaborators.
bissett’s first collected works appeared as NOBODY OWNS TH EARTH (House of Anansi, 1971), selected by Dennis Lee and Margaret Atwood. A second collected edition was Beyond Even Faithful Legends, Selected Poems 1962-1976 (Talonbooks, 1980). He has twice won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (in 1993, for inkorrect thots, and in 2003, for peter among th towring boxes) and he received the Milton Acorn People’s Poet Award in 1991. Capilano College devoted its 25th anniversary issue to bissett in 1997, edited by Patrick Friesen, in concert with a tribute at the Vancouver Writers Festival.
Following an art exhibition and performance of bissett’s concrete poetry entitled The Writing on the Wall, curated by Lenore Herb, in Vancouver in 2004, editors Jeff Pew and Stephen Roxborough solicited poems for a tribute volume about bissett entitled radiant danse uv being (Nightwood, 2006), a blewointment book.
Also in 2006, bissett was the subject of a Bravo film, heart uv a poet, written and produced by Maureen Judge.
Powers-that-try-to-be in Canada, and literary critics such as Al Purdy, have often looked askance at bissett, damning with faint praise, as if he can’t be for real, but when he’s gone, we’ll safely pronounce he was a national treasure.
That’s why he’ll become the 14th recipient of the province’s lifetime achievement award for authors (formerly known as the Terasen Award) when literati gather for the Reckoning 07 conference at SFU Downtown on September 14th.
Essay Date: 2007