Caitlin Press founder looks back
June 25th, 2015
The first office of Carolyn Zonailo’s Caitlin Press was at 2515 Burrard, in the Alm Building, named after the man who built the building–whose surname was Alm. Carolyn Zonailo was born in Vancouver in 1947. The Caitlin Press began producing chapbooks in 1977, likely as the first literary press to be both owned and managed by women. Founded by Carolyn Zonailo in Vancouver, it had Cathy Ford of Mayne Island and Ingrid Klassen as editors. Its namesake is Caitlin Thomas, wife of Dylan Thomas.
[November House, managed by Cherie Smith, predated Caitlin Press in Vancouver but its ownership was shared between Cherie Smith and her husband, Buddy Smith, a bookseller.] In 1991, Carolyn Zonailo sold The Caitlin Press to new owners in Prince George. Later a Harbour Publishing employee Vici Johnstone took over independent ownership and moved the press to Halfmoon Bay. In 2015, Vici Johnstone and Caitlin Press received the Jim Douglas Award for outstanding B.C. publishing, maintaining a non-exclusive emphasis on books for, by and about women.
Here is her personal essay about her literary life:
The Breathable, Blue Surface: Of Poiēsis, Memory and Place
by Carolyn Zonailo
The emerald sea, the grey-green sea,
the turquoise sea, the final blue Pacific…
pieces of sea glass collect on the beach
(prized most of all, the cobalt blue,
the smoky violet shards);
gather as sea-treasure in a mosaic.
—from “Blue and Green”
The Taste of Giving (1990)
This personal literary essay begins with my birth. There are two items of significance about my birth, in terms of this essay. The first is that I was born in Vancouver. The second is that I was born a poet. They say one is either a born poet; or makes themselves into one; or some will become poets out of emotional necessity; whereas others find themselves having become a poet by accident. These are all viable ways that one can come to be a poet. In my case, I did not have a lot of choice in the matter. I was born this way. If the poems stopped coming, the lines ended, the images disappeared, the rhythms dried up, I would never write another poem. But for me, the poems arrive. They hammer at me and bother me and keep me awake until I give in to them. I write poetry by listening. I know when a poem is finished, because it leaves me alone. Sometimes a poem will keep on pestering me over and over again, at times for something so small as a misplaced comma. Like it or not, I’ve spent my life since age fifteen being a poet. Prior to that, looking back, I can see that I was in apprenticeship, my poetic sensibility shaped by early life experiences.
Then there is the issue of being born in Vancouver. As places go, Vancouver is one of those geographies that indelibly shape those born there. Lots of people are born in a place, move during their formative years or when they are grown, and never much look back. They become attuned to wherever they live their adult lives. They leave the old home town behind. They move on—to other places, other cities, new locales, different continents, interesting countries. Not so with most Vancouverites. Sure, we can live in other places—but the sea, the mountains, the lush forests, the rain, the coastal essence is like one of Odysseus’ sirens, calling us back to where we started. The saltchuck is in our veins. The mountains are part of our identity. The rain is native to us, part of our natural habitat. Vancouver largely shaped the kind of poetry I have written; it imprinted itself on the DNA of my psyche. I can pull myself away from the beaches of the west coast, but I can’t quite shake the sand out of my hair, or keep the seashells from hiding in my jacket pockets.
I was greatly influenced by three books in my early years: my copy of Mother Goose, given to me on August 25, 1952, when I had my tonsils operation; my illustrated Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland; and my grade four textbook, Poems Worth Knowing. An indelible influence on who I am as a poet is my innate love for books, for reading, and for literature. Quite simply, I loved poetry and stories—from the first Mother Goose nursery rhymes and the little Golden Books for children that my mother read to me. As soon as I learned to read, I constantly had my nose in a book. I read and read. I kept lists of the books I read. I rode my bicycle from Ontario Street, up past the graveyard on 33rd Avenue, to the public library on Fraser Street, during my elementary school days. For me the life of the imagination and my day-to-day world were always coexistent.
There were three men who had a profound influence on the development of my early thinking. The first was my father, Matter Zonailo, who was born in the small community of Castlegar, British Columbia, from Doukhobor and Russian parents. My father’s real name—had the birth registrar been able to record it accurately from the Russian—would have been closer to Matvey Zhaynalov. Although he was my parent, I have always considered this unique and intelligent individual to be one of my life teachers.
The second man who influenced my thinking was my first father-in-law, Dr. John Weir Perry, a psychiatrist, Jungian psychoanalyst, and author, who studied with Carl Jung in Zurich, Switzerland. Dr. Perry, upon his return to the United States, founded one of the first Jung Institutes in North America. I was just eighteen when I met Dr. Perry, who introduced me to the writings of Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Carl Jung. From then on, I have been a lifelong student of Jungian psychology.
The third influential man whom I met when I was barely twenty was the classicist scholar, university professor, and famous author, Norman O. Brown. Two of Brown’s books, Love’s Body and Life Against Death were intellectual best-sellers at the time when I studied with him. It was an incredible experience, as an undergraduate, to have Nobby Brown (the name he was affectionately known by with his students) as one of my professors when I attended the University of Rochester, New York.
There were three women poets whose work I read early in life who influenced my poetic sensibility. The first was Sappho. I read the existing fragments of her poetry in translation while I was still in high school. The next was H.D., Imagist poet, youthful friend of Ezra Pound, and later on a patient of Freud. The third was Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet, whose work and life stands as a testimony to the perseverance necessary to be a truly fine poet and a woman, who gave witness to her own turbulent, historical times. When forbidden to write her poems because they were considered too subversive, several of her friends memorized them, keeping the work alive until such time as Akhmatova’s poetry could be written and published again.
In addition to the books, teachers, and poets mentioned above, there were three experiential factors in my life which formed who I was to become as a poet. The first was spiritual. As a child I had mystical experiences, moments of the numinous, which I can still remember to this day. These events, which I call mystical for want of another term, created the basis for the spirituality that continues to influence my poetic sensibility.
My Russian Doukhobor (spirit-wrestler) heritage is a lifelong influence on both who I am and in my writing. The Doukhobors are not Christian per se, but rather a Christian-based sect. Theirs is a spiritual philosophy of non-violence, gender equality, and a way of life, more than a religion. The Doukhobors are committed pacifists. They effectively held the world’s first peace rally in 1895 in Russia, when they burned their firearms and refused to serve in the Czar’s army.
The Doukhobor Burning of Guns predates Gandhi and other twentieth century acts of non-violent protest and peace activism. The Doukhobors were comprised of free landed peasants, plus more educated people, who originated from many different regions of Russia. Because of their refusal to adhere to the doctrine of the Orthodox Church, as well as their refusal to bear arms for the Czar, they faced persecution. By the time of the Burning of Guns most Doukhobors from all different areas of Russia had been gathered up, their lands confiscated, and they were forced to live in the mountainous Caucasus region. In 1899 the Doukhobors sought political asylum. They emigrated to Canada, the largest single en masse immigration in Canadian history. The great Russian writer, Leo Tolstoy, was instrumental in negotiating and financing their passage from Russia to Canada. I consider myself extremely blessed to have grown up knowing the amazing Doukhobor family members on my father’s side.
I also spent the years of my youth attending first Sunday school, then C.G.I.T. (Canadian Girls In Training) at St. Giles United Church near Cambie and 41st Avenue in Vancouver. The United Church of Canada is an amalgamation of three other Protestant
Churches. The United Church is a religious institution which purposely welcomes rather than intimidates. As well, I attended masses at a Catholic church when staying with my American cousins every summer. Compared to the simple services of the United Church, I was awed by the beauty and ritual of the Catholic mass, back in those days performed in Latin.
As a teenager I was involved with a born-again Christian group called Young Life. Their exuberant and musically inspired approach to religion added another positive dimension to my early spiritual experiences. Thus, by the time I left Vancouver to attend university, I had been exposed to different approaches to religious expression. This gave me a broad base for understanding ways to the Divine, which I continued to explore by taking comparative religion courses while an undergraduate. The mystical experiences of childhood; together with being of Doukhobor heritage; along with experiencing Protestant, Catholic, and born-again Christianity, gave me a profound grounding in the spiritual possibilities of life.
A major experiential factor in who I am as a poet, was my involvement with nature and the outdoors. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, the beauty of the natural world was all around me. Literally, from birth on, I was taken on journey after journey on boats, up and down the west coast. My father was an avid fisherman, hunter, and outdoorsman. Throughout my growing up, my father often brought our whole family along in his explorations of the coastal and mountainous territories of British Columbia, as well as down the U.S. west coast, all the way to Mexico. We camped, we fished, we hunted, we explored.
We traveled by boat on the west coast, by station wagon up-country—into the Interior, to the Okanagan, the Cariboo, and the Kootenay regions of B.C. We also fished and boated on the many inland lakes, rivers, and streams. I had my own fly-fishing rod;
I owned a .22 calibre rifle which I knew how to shoot and earned badges doing target practice competitions; I caught many varieties of fish, including the elusive Tyee salmon. The largest salmon I played and landed myself weighed in at thirty-four pounds. I also went on deep sea fishing trips off the coast of Mexico. I knew how to jig for cod, shuck an oyster, pluck a game bird, and tie fishing flies. My father’s passion as a sportsman, and my mother’s willingness to be a good sport at bringing along her children—no matter what the terrain, marine conditions or weather—made for an incredible growing up experience. The wilderness of the west coast, as well as of the rest of British Columbia, was not just theoretical, but lived first-hand.
So it is from the three books I treasured in early childhood; the influence of three men I knew before age twenty; as well as my reading of three major women poets that I derived my earliest influences. Added to this was my deeply ingrained spiritual sensibility; my intense love of the west coast and its rich natural beauty; and my childhood and adolescent discoveries of literature. And there you have the basis for a lifetime of writing and publishing poetry. I began writing in my teens; the first poems I published were in my high school yearbook and the school’s literary magazine Gambit. That name was the one I came up with; it was chosen from other submissions. I was the valedictorian of my high school graduating class of over four hundred and fifty students. My speech began with a quotation from the American poet, Vachel Lindsay.
I suppose I could say that I’ve never deviated from the writing process that began so early on in my life. To be a poet, and to be able to present my work in public, continues to be a gift for which I am tremendously grateful. It is also an ongoing challenge—because poetry does not in actual fact come easily—rather it demands dedication, commitment, trial and error, a lot of hard work and discipline, as well as an ability to pay attention to the world, listen to language in all its nuances, and observe life at the same time as we are plunged into the midst of living.
Although born and raised in Vancouver and deeply attuned in sensibility to the west coast of British Columbia, I’ve been both rooted and yet restless at the same time.
My travels extended down the entire west coast of North America, through Washington, Oregon, California, and Mexico. I’ve also gone cross-country from west to east and back, both in Canada and the United States. As I mentioned earlier, I had American cousins, and I spent part of each summer living with them in the Seattle area. Early on I had an understanding of the differences between the States and Canada. As soon as I graduated from high school, I moved to southern California, to attend a private university for women, Scripps College.
I chose Scripps because it offered a special humanities core curriculum. As a student there, I studied classical Greek literature and history, in translation, as well as taking a course in ancient Greek language. At Scripps I began my studies in comparative religion and continued my lifelong interest in mythology, begun while still at school in Vancouver. I also took other literature classes. Scripps College was part of the prestigious Pomona and Claremont Colleges, located in Claremont, California, east of Los Angeles and nearby the foothills of Mount Baldy, where Leonard Cohen famously took up residence as a Buddhist monk.
At Scripps I had a woman professor who taught English novels, including those of Anthony Trollope. She took us out walking in the foothills of Mount Baldy, to give us a southern California approximation of the English moors. The first of the four long vision-quest poems I was yet to write, “The Dreamkeeper,” is inspired by the incredible landscape of those desert foothills, which gave me an experience of a wilderness totally different from that of the west coast in British Columbia.
I have loved the west coast, from the northern islands, home of the Haida with their superb artwork; to the lush rainforests of coastal B.C.; and then the beautiful Skagit Valley, in Washington State, where for many years novelist Tom Robbins lived, whom I met and danced with one spring at the local Tulip Festival; and out to Port Townsend, home of the poet Sam Hamill, founder of Copper Canyon Press; to the wild Oregon coast, not far from where poet William Stafford taught at Lewis & Clark University; and on to the incredibly beautiful northern California coast from Sausalito to San Francisco; down past Santa Barbara and Venice Beach, to Malibu, just below the great, unwieldy city of Los Angeles.
While a student at Scripps I met an astrophysics student at Pomona College, John Perry, whom I married. John and I drove into Los Angeles to hear the jazz greats play at small, intimate clubs—Charlie Mingus, John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, Mose Allison. We also drove up to San Francisco to stay with John’s father Dr. Perry and his wife and young children in their home among the redwoods in the Mill Valley area of Marin County. Dr. Perry’s residence was still under construction; he was doing some of the work himself and had designed the house. As a Jungian psychoanalyst, he wanted the bedrooms on the ground floor of the house, with the kitchen, living room, and playroom on the floor above. In more traditional homes the upper floors are usually reserved for bedrooms. Dr. Perry believed, since we went down into sleep, dreams and the unconscious, that the natural place for sleeping should be below the communal living spaces.
One night, John and I accompanied his father and stepmother on an evening outing into San Francisco to see a premier screening of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. On our way into the city we stopped to pick up Alan Watts from his houseboat located on the coast, not far from the Perry’s home which was inland. Watts was the popular author of such books as The Way of Zen (1957) and one of the important spokespeople for the 1960s social revolution. He helped to introduce Zen Buddhism to the western world.
These were heady as well as turbulent times, being young and living in the States in the mid to late 1960s. Everything seemed possible. John and I drove the fabled Route 66 three times across the United States, as well as the Trans-Canada across Canada. We stayed at John’s childhood home in Cambridge, Massachusetts during holidays and in the summers. When John finished his B.Sc. in astrophysics, he decided to move east to do a Ph.D. at the University of Rochester. I transferred, along with him, to the upstate New York university. Given John’s passion for driving, especially on back routes, I became familiar with the beautiful landscape and enchanted small towns of Washington Irving territory, where you could easily imagine Ichabod Crane appearing on one of those country roads.
John and I spent a lot of time in New England, his famous and accomplished family dating back to the Mayflower. Artefacts from the far east which had belonged to Commodore Perry were on display in the Cambridge house owned by John’s mother, who was born Martha Kingman and came from a prominent Rhode Island family. Matthew Galbraith Perry (1794-1858) was a Commodore of the U.S. Navy. He opened Japan to the West, with the Convention of Kanagawa in 1854. Commodore Perry wrote a report about this historical event, in three volumes entitled Narrative of the Expedition of an American Squadron to the China Seas and Japan (1856). Commodore Perry is well-remembered in U.S. history, as well as Japanese history, even becoming a comic strip character in Japan and the subject of more than one film in the U.S.
There were also paintings and mementos of Commodore Perry’s older brother, Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819) an officer in the United States Navy. This Perry was given command of a fleet that led the Americans to a decisive naval victory in the War of 1812. He was known as the “Hero of Lake Erie.” I still remember a large painting depicting this war on display in a room which housed many of the Perry family heirlooms. Perry’s battle report was famously brief: “We have met the enemy and they are ours; two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.” This war could have led to the Americans invading Canada, which thankfully did not happen.
John’s father, Dr. Perry, served as a psychiatrist and physician in the Korean war. After that, he lived in Zurich and studied with Carl Jung, becoming a Jungian psychoanalyst. Dr. Jung wrote the introduction to Perry’s book, Lord of the Four Quarters (1970). Other books by John Weir Perry include The Self in Psychotic Process (1953); the groundbreaking The Far Side of Madness (1974); and his posthumous book, gathered from papers given in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Trials of the Visionary Mind: Spiritual Emergency and the Renewal Process (1999). On Dr. Perry’s return from Switzerland—his marriage with John’s mother having ended in divorce several years earlier—he rebelled against the norms of his Yankee upbringing and Harvard education to settle out west.
I met John in southern California, since he had decided to do his undergraduate degree in the west instead of at Harvard, which was the family tradition, in order to have contact with the father he never knew while growing up. During my travels with John in New England, I had a taste of Robert Frost’s locale, as John’s family owned a farm in New Hampshire where he had spent his childhood summers. There I saw the stone fences made famous by Frost’s poetry. We also visited Cape Ann, Massachusetts, where the Perry family owned a beautiful house on the water. I swam for the first time in the dark, cold waters of the Atlantic. Cape Ann brought us into close proximity of Gloucester, the working fishing village made vivid in the poetry of Charles Olson.
While studying at the University of Rochester, it was an exhilarating experience to be a student of Norman O. Brown. One day Brown was giving a lecture which included a discussion of the difference between linear time and mythical time. There was a large, institutional clock mounted on the wall at the back of the lecture hall. Just as Brown launched into the part of his lecture about mythic time, the clock spontaneously fell off the wall with a large crashing noise, startling all of us. Brown glanced up and without missing a beat, he looked at us with a straight face and said: “See, that is what I mean about non-linear time.”
As an undergraduate in Rochester I read the work of American poets such as Hart Crane, Wallace Stevens, W.C. Williams, Sylvia Plath, T.S. Eliot, H.D., and Ezra Pound—and then more Pound. As well, I read poets as diverse as Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan, among others. I marched in New York City in one of the first high-profile anti-Vietnam peace demonstrations. I heard John Cage play his daring, atonal music; heard poets like a young W.S. Merwin read. I saw the Gurdjieff whirling dervish dancers, since the Gurdjieff farm in New York was just outside Rochester. Several University of Rochester students spent time there, although I never did. Olga Ivanovna, who later became Mrs. Frank Lloyd Wright, had been a follower of Gurdjieff in France, and she was responsible for running the strictly organized community in upstate New York. There was a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Rochester that I visited.
John was a photographer, as well as an astrophysicist. Later on he became at the forefront of holographic photography, from his home base in Burlington, Vermont, where he taught at the University of Vermont and also operated his photography and holography studio. While in Rochester, John and I went often to the Eastman Kodak Museum, where we could view the photographic works of Arthur Stieglitz, including the extensive collection of stunning portraits of Georgia O’Keefe.
I published poetry in the University’s student literary journals and hung out with a small group of fellow writers, some of whom are still friends that I visit in New York and Vermont. While a student at the University of Rochester, I received two handwritten notes from Professor Brown, who was known to his students as Nobby Brown. The notes were written on blue stationary and folded into matching envelopes. These were the days before email and text messaging and twitter. One note was to congratulate me on a poem of mine that had just been published in a student magazine; the other simply requested, “Tell me all you know ’bout Pound.”
The years in California, New York, and New England certainly lead to a widening of my literary sensibilities, from the west coast poets whose work I already knew, such as Robert Duncan, Gary Snyder, Jack Spicer, to mention only a few; and from the excellent grounding in English poetry I had from high school in Vancouver. While still a high school student I had read American and British modernist poets, in the small-sized anthologies edited by Oscar Williams, plus in any books or magazines I could get my hands on. My modernist poetry “Bible” was a book that led me forward on my poetic quest as no other book did. It was entitled The Modern Poets, edited by Brinnin and Read and published by McGraw-Hill in 1963. As a teenager in Vancouver, still in high school and hungry for contemporary poetry, this book opened up the work of contemporary American and British poets in a way that no other anthology could have done.
Toward the end of my years in the States, I spent several months living on the island of Crete along with John and a small group of students who were photographers, plus one professor and another fellow writer from the University of Rochester. Traveling in Greece formed the basis for my book of prose poems, Zone 5, later published in Vancouver by blewointmentpress (1978). After the group left Crete, I made my own way across Europe to London, where I found a roommate and basement flat, planning to live there for a year. But after only a few months, I returned to Rochester and became a student again. Back in the United States, I realized that I had married too young. I decided that I needed to return to the city of my birth. I made a commitment to affirm my identity as both a west coast and a Canadian poet.
From 1970 to 1990 I fully immersed myself in the literary life of Vancouver, but with some caveats. First, I had spent several years living in the United States, mostly the eastern U.S., and I had experienced a different culture than where I had grown up. I had read American poets who were not associated with San Francisco or the west coast. Therefore I looked at the Vancouver poetry scene—although born and raised there—with somewhat of an outsider’s eye.
Another caveat about living in Vancouver, when I moved back at the beginning of the 1970s, was that of being a woman. When I jumped into the milieu of the poetry scene, women’s voices were just beginning to be heard, especially in Vancouver—although Canadian literature has long featured outstanding women writers, from Susanna Moodie to Margaret Laurence, Margaret Atwood to Gwendolyn MacEwan. But it seemed when I first began to publish and give readings in Vancouver, male writers and poets mostly dominated the city’s literary landscape. There were, however, a few truly extraordinary women poets, such as Daphne Marlatt, Maxine Gadd, Gladys Hindmarch, and Pat Lowther, who was so tragically and brutally murdered by her husband. I regret never having had a chance to meet Lowther, as I felt close to her in poetic sensibility.
These women writers were a ground-breaking generation ahead of me, as were the TISH poets, who gathered around professor Warren Tallman and his wife Ellen at the University of British Columbia. As well, there were poets who were members of The League of Canadian Poets, who lived on the west coast but had a national outlook on Canadian poetry. These poets, also, were a generation or two older than me. My final caveat was that because I was younger than the majority of the Vancouver poets I was meeting, I at first lacked for contemporaries; of course, this would soon change.
Despite my reservations, I was fortunate to be living in Vancouver during what turned out to be a very rich, diverse, and creative time. It was when Canadian literature was still in a growth spurt, especially west coast writing, and when local organizations were coming into being. As a young poet, I was able to mix with and meet many of the older, established, and senior poets, both in B.C. and across Canada. The literary communities in Vancouver and nationally were open, fluid, and—although there were the inevitable cliques—it seemed that we all came together as a community; we were ‘the tribe of writers’ as Margaret Laurence once said.
During those foundational times, I was one of the original six writers on the founding executive of The Federation of B.C. Writers, which included journalist Daniel Wood; the late James Barber, who was famous for his cookbooks and television shows; writer David Watmough; poet k.o. kanne; and writer Jan Drabek. Drabek had grown up in Prague and a childhood friend of his was Vaclav Havel. Havel, a writer, became the first leader of the Czech Republic once the Communists were ousted. Jan Drabek returned to his homeland and became an ambassador for the newly formed Czech Republic. I had the pleasure of editing Drabek’s memoir Thirteen, for Caitlin Press (1992).This book told the story of his childhood in Prague and his family’s harrowing escape from the Communist regime.
The Federation of B.C. Writers was a humble organization at the beginning stages, although created with great enthusiasm. For the first three years, this founding executive met in one another’s homes. I carried a cardboard file box—essentially the Federation—from place to place. Toward the end of this period, the entire executive seemed to have dwindled to k.o. kanne, myself, and the box. But luckily the Federation, despite some major ups and downs in its history, is still going strong.
I was one of the founders of the B.C. Book Prizes, which consisted of Bryan Newson, Project Coordinator for the Association of Book Publishers; myself, Federation of BC Writers rep and Secretary; Tony Gregson, ABPBC Executive Director and Chairman; Paddy Laidley, BC Booksellers Assoc. rep, who was an excellent fund-raiser from private sources; Brian Scrivener, UBC Press; critic and reviewer Alan Twigg; poet k.o. kanne, Administrator; and Alice Niwinski, from the Planning Dept. of the City of Vancouver.
Alan Twigg is now well-known as both a writer and the founder of B.C. Bookworld, an important tabloid-style review magazine that has been instrumental in helping to garner recognition for B.C. writers and publishers, especially since it continues to produce both a review paper and on-line resource site. I first met a very young Alan back when I was an emerging poet. Alan interviewed me for a local cable TV show he was producing. This was one of Alan’s first shows; however, I lost my voice and couldn’t speak at all, right in the middle of the live broadcast. Alan had to improvise on the spot, taking my poetry book from my hands and reading the poems himself, until I regained my voice and we continued the interview.
In 1977, I founded Caitlin Press in Vancouver, the first literary small press in B.C. founded by a woman. Cathy Ford, a young poet and creative writing student I met at UBC, and Ingrid Klassen, an editor, soon joined me. Together we ran Caitlin Press until 1983, when I took over management of the press by myself. Around when Caitlin Press was up and going, poet Mona Fertig founded and ran The Literary Storefront in the Gastown section of Vancouver. She went on to establish a private letterpress, Mothertongue Press, on Salt Spring Island. In 2007, Fertig published a beautiful limited edition handset chapbook recounting the history of The Literary Storefront. Press Gang Printers Ltd., a printing business owned and operated by women, was established in Vancouver in the 1970s. Several of Caitlin’s titles were printed by Press Gang. The feminist journal, A Room of One’s Own, was founded by a collective of women around this same time. The downtown writing and publishing centre of SFU was established, under the guidance of Ann Cowan, who was the wife of Peter Buitenhuis—he had moved from Montreal to Vancouver to be the head of SFU’s English department.
Poet and artist Ed Varney had joined with Henry Rappaport to found and run the successful printing and publishing house Intermedia. Some of the poetry anthologies, published by Intermedia from those times include: Pomegranate: A Selected Anthology of Vancouver Poetry (1); New West Coast: 72 contemporary british columbia poets (2); and D’Sonoqua: An Anthology of Women Poets of British Columbia, Volumes I & 2 (3). Intermedia also published the two volume Canadian Short Fiction Anthology (4).
It was not only a fervent, interesting, and active stage in the growth of Vancouver and B.C. literature, it was also a time when there was much work to be done—when many of the institutions, organizations, publications, and literary presses that writers on the west coast later took for granted still needed to be created. There was an emphasis on making a contribution. Since writers, literary press publishers, and others were actively engaged in the process of putting B.C. writing on the map, it seemed there was a genuine spirit of community. And, because I’d spent the time described above away from the west coast, I wasn’t stuck in any one specific group or clique of writers. This gave me a wonderful freedom to know many different poets and writers of diverse talents.
I took three creative writing courses in the 1970s, prior to founding Caitlin Press. None of these courses were taken for credit, as both my B.A. and M.A. degrees are in literature, not creative writing. My first creative writing course was an audit of a year-long poetry seminar in the creative writing department at the University of British Columbia in 1973-’74. This workshop was taught by poet, novelist, and professor George McWhirter. Although I often didn’t understand exactly what George was saying, due to the speed at which he talked and his strong Belfast accent, he was a wonderfully supportive and encouraging creative writing teacher. One of my fellow students who took that class went on to do a creative writing degree with George, and he, too, admitted to me later that he never understood all that George was saying, for the whole duration of doing his degree. McWhirter became a celebrated B.C. novelist and poet and is beloved by many former U.B.C. creative writing students.
McWhirter’s seminar allowed me to meet several writers who were my contemporaries, some of whom became close friends, such as poet and editor Cathy Ford. Tim Stephens, who became the well-known astrologer who writes weekly columns for The Vancouver Courier (and now on-line), was also part of the poetry seminar. Other students included west coast poet and teacher David West, maritime poet Don Domanski, and esteemed B.C. poet Robert Bringhurst.
Cathy Ford was undoubtedly one of my first poetry friends in Vancouver. A few years younger than me, Cathy is a talented poet and editor. Ford and I shared several passions: a love of poetry; an ability to engage in the politics of administrative and committee work; and the distinct gift of being able to edit poetry—a skill not every editor has. We also shared a desire to contribute to the literary community as a whole. Cathy served as president of The League of Canadian Poets in 1985-’86; she was a member of the national task force of Woman and Words. Ford has also been an important editor for the Living Archives of the Feminist Caucus, League of Canadian Poets, and she has served as the League’s representative to the Public Lending Right (PLR) Commission.
We began working together with Caitlin Press in 1979. In addition to her poetry and editorial work, Cathy was also able to do typesetting, paste-up, and layout. When we first started working together Cathy was living in Vancouver. She then moved to Mayne Island and our work sessions always had to be done with the ferry schedule in mind, especially since Cathy did not drive in those days. We became adept at doing paste-up on the run, sometimes resorting to using a window as our light table. When my husband built us a proper table it was like manna from heaven. This light table was moved to an office I rented for writing and as the headquarters of Caitlin Press, in the Alm Building, on a corner of West Broadway. Cathy, like myself, had a love of book design and we devised many ways to create appealing covers at minimum cost. Not only were we always pressed for time, Caitlin operated on the proverbial shoestring.
Cathy and I travelled together in 1978 to attend what was our first League of Canadian Poets meeting in Montreal. We were each carrying bottles of codeine cough medicine prescribed for us at the last minute by my physician father-in-law, because although we were both suffering from bronchitis, we didn’t want to cancel the trip. In spite of having coughs, our first national meeting was an incredible experience. Cathy Ford’s books include: Tall Trees (1977); The Womb Rattles Its Pod (1981); The Desiring Heart (1985); and Cunnilingus, Or How I Learned to Love Figure Skating (1997).
The second creative writing course I took was a poetry workshop taught by the late Charles ‘Red’ Lillard, who wrote with such loving detail about the west coast. It was the summer of 1974, and there I met poet and painter Nellie McClung, author of several books of poetry including My Sex is Ice Cream: The Marilyn Monroe Poems (1996) and I Hate Wives! (2003), as well as the wonderfully humorous autobiographical book of short stories Tea With the Queen (1979) (5).
Nellie became a great personal friend from the time we met until her recent death on February 13, 2009, concurrent with my writing this essay. Nellie is the namesake granddaughter of the renowned Canadian suffragette Nellie L. McClung, who was one of the first woman elected to government in the entire British empire and the author of seventeen books of fiction and autobiography. My Nellie was always very proud of being named after her famous grandmother. She wrote a story about this that is online at Coracle Press, entitled “Charles Tupper and Me” (2004). My friendship with Nellie included poetry, books, readings, openings, parties, a trip I took with her to give poetry readings in her native city of Edmonton, and years of laughter together. Nellie McClung possessed enormous wit and a brilliant sense of humour, evident both in person and on paper. At poetry readings, it was always a delight for me to hear her read “Downing Daquiris with Fidel & Discussing Moncada” from her book Baraka (1978). Nellie loved her adopted city, Vancouver, and always said she “took her inspiration from the mountains and the sea.”
The third creative writing course I took was in 1976, when I attended a special writer’s school at the University of Toronto, organized by Gerald and Arlene Lampert. There I had the rare opportunity to take a poetry workshop with P.K. Page. I write about this experience, plus that of knowing Dorothy Livesay, Marya Fiamengo, and Anne Marriott in an essay entitled “Foremothers: Four Modernist Women Poets from the West Coast” published in RE:GENERATIONS, Canadian Women Poets in Conversation (6) edited by Di Brandt and Barbara Godard, Black Moss Press (2005). This essay was first written for presentation to the conference/festival, “Wider Boundaries of Daring: The Modernist Impulse in Canadian Women’s Poetry,” held at the University of Windsor, Ontario, in 2001.
The years that I was involved with Caitlin Press were from 1977, when I founded the press in Vancouver, until 1991 when I sold it to publisher Howard White’s sister, Cynthia Wilson and her partner Ken Carling, who relocated it to Prince George. There, for the next fifteen years, Caitlin Press became a prominent publisher for northern writers. Both Ken and Cynthia are now deceased, and after Cynthia’s death, Caitlin Press was in limbo until Vici Johnstone purchased the press and located it in Halfmoon Bay, on the Sunshine coast. In my almost fifteen years with Caitlin, the press published more than twenty writers; some of the west coast poets include Elizabeth Gourlay, David West, Cathy Ford, Beth Jankola, Carole Itter, Norm Sibum, David Conn, Ajmer Rode, and Mona Fertig.
Prior to 1977, I became friends with poet Patrick Lane, who encouraged me to begin a literary small press. I am grateful to Pat Lane for four contributions to my literary life. As an older and more established poet—now one of Canada’s best known writers—he was generous to me when I was young. Besides encouraging me to begin a small press, which led to the founding of Caitlin Press, it was his idea that I join The League of Canadian Poets. Patrick was one of my sponsors. He also took me to West Vancouver to meet a woman he told me I would like very much. Thus began a wonderful friendship with poet, reviewer, and UBC lecturer Marya Fiamengo, twenty years my senior. Patrick told me to write poems about my Doukhobor heritage, something I’ve continued to do throughout my literary career.
When Pat Lane proposed I should become a member of the League, he lined up Lantzville poet and writer Kevin Roberts to be my second sponsor. I met Kevin in the first seminar I attended while beginning my M.A. at SFU. This graduate class in Canadian Literature was taught by Lionel Kearns. Poet and professor Kearns was an original member of the TISH poets. The seminar was held at Lionel’s home in North Vancouver. I remember going up the hill to find his house for the initial class; it was early September and the weather was warm and gardens were colourful with flowers. I passed house after house with neatly manicured lawns and front yards, until I came to a house where the lawn was overgrown, with little evidence of any yard work having recently been done. I had found the right address for Lionel Kearns. I’ve kept this image of what a poet’s yard looks like ever since.
Kearns’ poetry books from that time include Practicing Up to be Human (1978) and Ignoring THE BOMB: New and Selected Poems (1982). Later on, I became known to Lionel as his matchmaker, since I introduced him to a high school friend of mine, Gerri Sinclair, whom he later married. Gerri, at that time a Shakespearean scholar, went on to found one of the early high tech companies. She later became CEO of Microsoft Canada and is now known as one of the leaders of Canadian business and technology.
In 1978, I attended the annual general meeting of The League of Canadian Poets, held in Montreal. Cathy Ford, U.S.-born Vehicule poet Ken Norris, Montreal poet Sharon Nelson, and myself were the youngest members of the League at that time. I have written about this first visit to Montreal in a short article entitled “Journals & Journeys” published in QWrite, winter 1998 (7). Thus began many years of travel to attend League meetings in different parts of the country, which allowed me to meet both older and contemporary poets from all over Canada.
In the 1980s I served on the national council of the League as vice-president of membership, as well as in the position of B.C. representative. Those years on national council gave me an opportunity to meet and often work with poets that, as a west coast writer, I would never have come in contact with otherwise. Established writers, from poets such as Miriam Waddington to poet and novelist Michael Ondaatje, and everyone in between, were always generous to me as a younger poet. I loved getting to know all the different regions of Canada, along with their poets and writers. I gave poetry readings across the country as well as taking part in executive meetings. I got to feel at home in Canada, and gained a huge appreciation for the contribution its writers make to this country.
I feel privileged to have had this experience, made possible in large part by the Canada Council. Unfortunately, these face-to-face meetings with writers are no longer so prevalent in these days of conference calls, email, internet social media, as well as the subsequent scarcity of public funding. During the 1970s and ’80s poets from all over the country, from F.R. Scott, Louis Dudek and Margaret Atwood on down, made an effort to attend annual meetings. The League ones were not sedate gatherings, rather, they were very much the opposite. They were often filled with drama, drinking, politics, partying, and the occasional brawl. I remember one meeting in particular where—before the first evening was over—someone had punched Patrick Lane; and Maxine Gadd had fallen down, cut her head open and had to be taken to emergency. And this was just the opening night!
The Writers’ Union had its own meetings, but TWUC always seemed to be less rambunctious than the League’s annual gathering of poets. At one League meeting, when mild-mannered and soft-spoken Francis Sparshot was president, Miriam Waddington interrupted the proceedings so many times that Francis ended up breaking down in tears and imploring Miriam to shut-up. There was another meeting where a rough-hewn Milton Acorn yelled and screamed throughout the business sections. This provided some comic relief, if nothing else, since the sessions when the League’s business was being conducted were often either dull, or tension-filled political events.
In those years of the ’70s and ’80s in Vancouver, the late poet Gerry Gilbert was writing his own work and producing the handmade literary journal, BC Monthly, from his co-op loft near Oppenheimer Park in what is now known as Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. I used to visit Gerry there. I’d enter through the door that said New Era Social Club in old lettering on the transom above the tall entrance way, walk up the long set of steep stairs, and enter the large, loft space. Then I’d be in Gerry Gilbert’s special world where poetry, language, word-play and literary production dominated. Some of the spacious loft areas were partitioned into smaller ones, including the living quarters where Gerry made his home.
I mostly remember the space at the front, where the windows looked onto the street, with a smaller sitting room off this large area. The front loft was where Gerry laid out copies of BC Monthly. Sometimes I would help to collate or stamp; each copy of every issue ended up with a personal touch from Gerry—a rubber stamp here, a drawing or slug-signature there. These issues of the magazine were made by hand on Gestetner or mimeograph machines, then stamped or signed or in some way made original by Gerry. It was a labour of love in which Gerry Gilbert gave voice to many Vancouver poets and writers, year after year.
Gilbert’s books from this time, Grounds (8) and From Next Spring (9) mixed poetry, prose poems, interviews, photographs and drawings. In the fall of 1977 Gerry gave me a small notebook, decorated with a frontispiece of Queen Victoria and with flower drawings on each page, in which I wrote a suite of poems entitled “A Book of Flowers.” Gerry travelled east to give poetry readings and had a sense of the poetic landscape of the country as a whole, which he recorded in his poetry. Like myself, Vancouver was Gerry’s locale as a poet, but his was never a regional poetry. Gilbert’s selected poems, Moby Jane (10) was published around this time, in Toronto.
The co-op radio show, radiofreerainforest was another way in which Gilbert made a huge contribution to the poetry milieu of Vancouver. Here, he quite literally gave voice to many poets and writers, and it was always a pleasure to read for him on live radio. Gerry also did an indefatigable job of recording readings by diverse poets, again a task he kept doing tirelessly for many years, often using the recorded readings on his radio show.
I learned from Gerry, when I was an emerging poet, that although he made poetry, word-play, word-association, language, art and literature all appear like play, it was actually hard work that required discipline, both in the writing and in the living. I’d say Gerry was the most disciplined of all the writers I met when I was in my late twenties and early thirties. It was good for me to learn, early on, that being a poet required that kind of dedication, discipline, and hard work.
bill bissett was publishing poetry titles with his blewointmentpress in Vancouver and Toronto at this time. bill published three of my early books between 1977 and 1983. A prolific poet and painter, bissett is a Canadian institution. He was at the forefront of performance poetry both in Canada and internationally. If you have heard bill do a poetry performance, it is an experience you will never forget. bill is one of the bravest people I have ever known. After a serious fall as a young man, he almost died from neurological complications. He had to relearn all speech and motor functions. Not only did bill write and publish many collections of his own poetry, as well as being an accomplished painter, he also gave his time and energy to other writers through his literary small press activities. He was always a great inspiration to me in my efforts to keep Caitlin Press alive. To put it quite simply, I adored bill as a poet and a friend. I own several of bill’s paintings, which I never tire of looking at. He was a good friend through Caitlin Press days and throughout my time with The League of Canadian Poets. There is only one bill bissett in Canadian poetry.
Another literary small press publisher who was a big help to Caitlin Press was Steven Osborne, founder of Vancouver’s Pulp Press, as well as of Geist magazine, which has become a national favourite. In the early days of Caitlin, when we were publishing with limited funds, Steve generously let us use the typesetting equipment at Pulp Press to set our books. Without this, Caitlin would probably not have survived.
Through my intimate friendship with Saturna Island painter Anne Popperwell, I met the young poet Richard Olafson, when he attended a poetry reading I gave on Saturna. Richard went on to found Ekstasis Editions, now based in Victoria, B.C. More than twenty years later Richard told me that hearing me read and talk about Caitlin Press that day on Saturna Island was one of the events that urged him onward in his plan to establish a literary small press—a press that has remained steadfastly dedicated to mainly publishing poetry. Blood of the Moon (11) was Richard’s earliest book. Richard Olafson, with the help of his partner and wife Carol Sokoloff, has struggled through economic risks to continue as small press publisher who is loyal to poetry, publishing both established and emerging voices. Ekstasis Editions is a major publisher of poetry in British Columbia; as well, Ekstasis has published poetry from across Canada, including poets from Quebec in translation. He also founded The Pacific Rim Review of Books, a tabloid journal devoted to reviews, articles, interviews, and ideas regarding poetry and poetics.
The poet, professor, filmmaker, and one of the founders of the Kootenay School of Writing, Colin Browne, was another poet my age who spent time on Saturna Island. He was a friend and fellow M.A. student at SFU at the same time as I did my graduate degree. When I originally knew him, his work seemed to centre more on film-making than poetry. An early film Colin made was entitled Strathyre. He became the life partner of another high school friend of mine, photographer and Emily Carr Art School teacher, Marion Penner Bancroft, but in this case I did not introduce them.
Up the coast, Howard and Mary White were running Harbour Publishing, in the coastal area of Madeira Park near Pender Harbour. I remember visiting them back when Harbour Publishing was relatively unknown. From their remote coastal location, they built one of B.C.’s foremost literary publishing endeavours. Howard also became a prominent west coast writer. As well, he ran for provincial political office. From the 1980s on, I taught creative writing courses in various locations including Sechelt. One of my classes was attended by Mary White and Howard’s congenial father.
During the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, I owned a small waterfront property at Halfmoon Bay, and also spent part of each summer on Savary Island. Caitlin Press, ironically, after close to fifteen years in Vancouver and another fifteen years in Prince George—serving as the press of northern B.C.—is now under new ownership and is located in Halfmoon Bay.
These are years in which I got to know not only Howard and Mary but also the Sunshine Coast’s celebrated poet Peter Trower. When I first met Pete he was living with his elderly mother in Gibsons, the coastal village made famous by the television series The Beachcombers. Since I was travelling up and down the coast frequently, I often visited with Pete, and we also gave poetry readings together in Vancouver. He became a valued friend.
When I was an emerging poet in Vancouver, I corresponded with a young John Pass, who once wrote to tell me that both myself and another woman in Toronto were sending him our poems about Emily Dickinson, and why didn’t we just write to each other and leave him out of it? That is how my friendship with Vancouver-born poet and lawyer Susan Zimmerman began. Poet John Pass later became a prominent B.C. author of The Hour’s Acropolis (1991) and Radical Innocence (1994), from his home base near Pender Harbour which he shares with poet and novelist, Theresa Kishkan and their family. One of John’s early chapbooks had a title that has somehow stayed with me, even though it seems prosaic, There Go The Cars (1979). It always amazed me that such an intricately cerebral writer as John could take that same attention to detail and apply it to building a house, which he did. Together, John and Theresa also run the letterpress High Ground Press.
From 1975 to 1980, I was a graduate student and teaching assistant at Simon Fraser University. I loved the years I spent doing my M.A., although I was very busy—by this time I had two young children, had founded Caitlin Press, and was writing and publishing. The campus of Simon Fraser is set on top of a mountain in Burnaby, B.C., adjacent to Vancouver. The buildings are low, concrete quadrangular structures with lots of gentle landscaping such as ponds and green space, giving the entire campus a very contemplative feeling. It is also, as universities go, a very young institution, which added to the feeling of space and freedom there.
At SFU I got to know an entirely different set of writers and poets, some who were my fellow students and some professors. I’ve already mentioned the poet and professor Lionel Kearns. I was able to take a course on Henry James with the wonderful scholar Peter Buitenhuis; I took another seminar on the Romantic poets with the late Robert Dunham; as well as a seminar on American fiction with George Bowering. George is a pre-eminent Canadian poet and writer, having won the Governor General’s award for both poetry and fiction. He was also Canada’s first poet laureate. Bowering was a lively and informative teacher. He became an important literary influence and inspiration for me. I learned a lot from him, both as a professor and as a poet. His late wife, the beautiful Angela Bowering, was a fellow student of mine in Robert Dunham’s seminar. It was a significant experience for me to get to know both George and Angela over the SFU years.
My time at SFU brought me into contact with Dr. Ralph Maud, internationally recognized scholar on Dylan Thomas, Charles Olson, and other subjects. Ralph Maud was important to me as a professor, mentor, and friend. Maud had published work on the natives of British Columbia; he was knowledgeable about Doukhobor material. Maud was also at that time interested in Jungian psychology. James Hillman, the famous Jungian psychoanalyst, writer and thinker at the forefront of the second generation after Carl Jung, was at this time living in Dallas, Texas. There Hillman was involved with Spring Publications, as well as writing, publishing, lecturing on the international circuit, and carrying a private practice as an analyst. Professor Maud travelled to Dallas for therapy sessions with James Hillman. In the course of these visits, Hillman and Maud became friends.
For a few years Hillman visited Vancouver annually, sometimes during the weekend of American Thanksgiving. I was privileged to partake in these gatherings hosted by Dr. Maud, which often included turkey dinners. It was wonderful to get to know James Hillman in person. One day, I hosted an intimate west coast salmon luncheon for Hillman, Maud, and a few other guests at my home. In this private setting Hillman let down his hair—and being very witty as well as learned—he was a fascinating guest. I also had a small part in helping with a well-attended speaking engagement that James Hillman gave in Vancouver in the mid-1980s.
I benefited greatly from Dr Ralph Maud’s interest in subjects which we had in common. He was also tremendously supportive of me when he became my thesis supervisor, even though my interest in Keats and Henry James were not academic specialties of his. From our professional relationship we developed a close personal one. Ralph and I travelled together to the Haida Gwaii, formerly known as the Queen Charlotte Islands, a place we both considered one of sacred geography. Together we saw Haida landscape and art, an experience which engendered another of my long vision-quest poems, “Ceremonial Dance.”
I wrote two extended essays for the requirements of the M.A. degree. One essay is entitled, “Psyche’s Temple: Myth as Metaphor in John Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche'”; the other drew upon the work of James Hillman’s The Dream and the Underworld (1979) and that of Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1958). This M.A. essay was published in the journal Dragonflies: Studies in Imaginal Psychology, University of Dallas (1980) under the title “The Beast in the Jungle: The Observer’s Art” and is listed in Jungian Literary Criticism 1920-1980 by Jos van Meurs, Sigo Press, Boston (1988).
Although Ralph Maud was not a poet, he sometimes gave me feedback on my poems; in turn, I helped edit some of his academic articles. I also listened to the adventures of Ralph’s romantic life; he knew my two children; and he was always a loyal friend, coming to visit me in each place I lived including Halfmoon Bay, Savary Island, Toronto, and in the countryside south of Montreal, in Huntingdon, Quebec. Now in his eighties, Maud is still writing and publishing scholarly books, including a newsletter on Charles Olson that he produces himself. Maud maintains a lively and intelligent grasp of his chosen subjects. As well, Dr. Maud has retained the devotion of several graduate students who attended SFU, myself included.
Besides Colin Browne, who I’ve already mentioned, there were other talented graduate students at SFU when I was there. I met and became friends with poet and one of B.C.’s few experts in Doukhobor studies, Tom McGauley. As chance would have it, Tom was raised in Castelgar, where my father was born. Tom’s family were of Irish descent, whereas my family were Russian Doukhobors. Tom’s father, Bill McGauley and his twin brother grew up with my father, as close by neighbours. They all went to school together, until World War II sent them scattering in different directions. My father then moved to Vancouver, whereas Tom’s family remained in Castelgar
The friendship between our fathers created an instant bond between myself and Tom. I still defer to McGauley’s extraordinary and specialized knowledge of Doukhobor material. There are very few people who have the depth of understanding of this part of British Columbia’s history as Tom does. He remains a close friend and I have been fortunate to help edit McGauley’s unique body of poetry, Re-Carving The Chrysoprase Bowl, yet to be published In order to do his scholarly work on the Doukhobors, and to keep on with writing his poetry, as well as his political activism and public speaking, Tom has been a night janitor in a school near where he lives in Burnaby. In this unconventional way, Tom has been able to earn a living while at the same time maintaining intellectual freedom, with time to do creative, political, and scholarly work.
I met Charles Watts when I was finishing my M.A. papers. Watts had already written his important M.A. thesis on Ezra Pound (which was later published) when I hired him to help get my thesis papers into the format required by the university library, before they could be accepted and bound. Not only did Charles come to my aid in preparing my papers, he did such a good job of it that he also managed to create for himself an ongoing paid position doing thesis formatting for the library. He held this job for many years afterwards. Thus began my knowing Charles, and to know him was to love him. Charles was a poet, scholar, political theorist, and a very gentle man. He was special. Charles Watts loved poetry. Originally from southern California, Charles embraced his adopted home of Vancouver. Watts went on to write a Ph.D. dissertation on the poetry of Wallace Stevens.
Charles and I travelled together to Toronto to attend one of Greg Gatenby’s famous Harbourfront International Literary Festivals. Among others, we heard Denise Levertov read her poetry, and the truly dramatic Robertson Davies read from his Deptford Trilogy. During the week of the festival, Charles and I spent quite a bit of time with Denise Levertov. She was an unpretentious and lovely woman, interesting to talk with and friendly. She had an endearing gap-toothed smile, reminding me of Chaucer’s Wife of Bath. Levertov’s smile made her less intimidating and all the more approachable. Charles wrote a poetry chapbook inspired by this week we spent together in Toronto.
I ‘ve always remembered that he and I were together at the time of John Lennon’s murder on December 8th, 1980. What else can I say about Charles? He was taken far too young, a victim of cancer, but his life still managed to touch the hearts of many, including mine.
During my time at SFU I did not have the opportunity to take a course with poet Robin Blaser. However, I had already immersed myself in the work of the San Francisco poets, of whom Blaser was one; along with Olson and the Black Mountain poets, while I was an undergraduate living in the U.S. With the exception of Robert Duncan, who was and has remained for me, an influential poet, a brilliant poet, I had moved on, having been through the stage in my life when the poets associated with Robin Blaser were of significance for my writing and thinking.
What I had missed out on, and was keen to catch up with and learn as much as I could about, was Canadian literature. As I’ve mentioned already, my education in high school in Vancouver was mostly in British poets. I continued to study literature while an undergraduate in the States, getting a good grounding in American fiction and poetry. By the stage in my life when I was at SFU I was hungry to read and discover everything I could about our own Canadian poets and writers, all the way from the beginnings of Canadian literature to modernist and post-modernist writers, the latter of whom I had the chance not only to read, but also to know or meet. By this time, I was overjoyed to explore the richness of home-grown writing, from its earliest inception all the way to becoming a world class literature.
Also, when I was at SFU I was a mother of two children, and a lot of my reading that wasn’t part of my formal studies was focused on feminist writers and women poets. It had taken me a long time to climb out from under the weight of predominately male poets, professors, and even friends, in order to find a way of looking at the world from a male perspective. I write about this in “Foremothers: Four Modernist Women Poets from the West Coast,” that I refer to earlier in this essay. The period in my life when I was at SFU was an extremely creative time for me, as I was writing, giving readings, publishing my work, travelling to other parts of Canada, and running Caitlin Press. I was as excited about women writers as I was about Canadian literature.
I had also found other west coast poets south of the border who had caught my attention. I’d read Roethke’s work while at the University of Rochester, and continued to have an interest in his poetry. But there were two newer poets who lived in Washington state who by this time I had begun to read: Sam Hamill and Carolyn Kizer. As well, I had discovered the work of lyric poet and conscientious objector, Kansas-born William Stafford, who lived in Oregon. Stafford continues to this day to be a poet I draw inspiration from, both from his poetry and his books on poetics. Stafford’s pacifist belief resonates with my Doukhobor sensibility, as does his dogged individualism.
I can’t begin here to cover all the students and professors that I met, learned from, and was enriched by having known during the years I spent at SFU. I will, however, single out a few, beginning with professor Sandra Djwa, who wrote an outstanding biography of Canadian poet, lawyer, McGill professor, and political activist F. R. Scott, The Politics of the Imagination: A Life of F.R. Scott (1987). (Scott was a major figure in helping to found the C.C.F., which later became the New Democratic Party of Canada). I’ve been fortunate to see Sandra over the years at various literary events across the country. One of Canada’s top literary biographers, she has also been writing a book on the life of poet P. K. Page (12). Fred Candelaria was a professor and poet who I knew while at SFU, and as fellow poets we did several readings together. A young Roy Miki served on the examining committee for my M.A. thesis defence. Miki has gone on to publish poetry, scholarly work, and significant accounts of the internment of the Japanese living in B.C. during WWII: Justice in our Time with Cassandra Kobayashi (1991), Broken Entries: Race, Subjectivity, Writing (1998), and Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice (2004).
During the mid-1970s and 1980s, I became close friends with several women poets, writers, editors, and artists. In September 1975, the very first week of my M.A. studies, I met scholar and writer Jean Mallinson, who was then just beginning her Ph.D. in Canadian literature. Jean is twenty years my senior but we started talking, and have been in a literary and personal conversation ever since. Besides publishing many scholarly articles and contributing essays to books on writers such as her ones on Margaret Atwood, Jean has also published a book of short stories, I Will Bring You Berries (1987), and two books of poetry. Mallinson recently published the non-fiction work Terra Infirma: A Life Unbalanced (2007), a book about the destruction of her balance function caused by taking the antibiotic gentamicin.
Mallinson and I were a part of an ongoing women’s literary group and over the years we’ve known many of the same women writers from Vancouver, and across the country. Other poets I’ve already mentioned include Cathy Ford, and the poetry foremothers P. K. Page, Marya Fiamengo, Dorothy Livesay, and Anne Marriott. There were many other women poets who helped make those times in Vancouver rich and meaningful. To name only a few: Leona Gom, Judith Copithorne, the late artist and poet Dorothy Manning, Mona Fertig, Elizabeth Gourlay, Dona Sturmanis, Helene Rosenthal, Rosemary Hollingshead, Florence McNeil, Lorraine Vernon, poet and artist Beth Jankola, and the late Rosalind MacPhee.
Although I have written about Marya Fiamengo and Anne Marriott elsewhere, both my friendship with Marya and my writerly relationship with Anne were of special importance. Marya became an intimate friend on several levels: poetry, personal, family, intellectual. I always found refuge from the many demands of my life at Marya’s art-filled
home and in her nurturing company. It was such fun to walk down the steps to the sheltered bay near her house for a swim with Marya in the summer months. Marya was beautiful: she was truly larger than life, in her personality, her figure, her dress, and in her ideas. I did many things with Marya, including local readings, League meetings, and visiting her UBC classes to present my poetry. I spent a lot of time in her company—exchanging books to read, sharing our poetry, visiting her home, talking and listening. She, in turn, came to visit me, knew my family and my children, wrote reviews of my books when they were published, and became one of my closest women friends.
Books that Fiamengo published during those years include: In Praise of Old Women (1976); North of the Cold Star: New and Selected Poems (1978); and Patience After Compline (1989). All through the 1980s Marya read me almost every new poem as she was working on it; she hand-wrote her poems, and then took them to a typist. When she was in the working stage with each poem, she would read them to me and make revisions as she was reading aloud. She introduced me to her artist friends, Joy Zemel Long and Joe Plaskett. And, of course, Marya knew poets, young and old, all across Canada; to listen to her anecdotes and stories and laugh along with her as she wittily recounted literary adventures was enjoyable as well as informative.
I knew Anne Marriott through the women’s writing group that I belonged to for several years. Anne wasn’t a part of it from the outset, as Jean Mallinson was, but she became a very important member of the group, which included myself, Jean, Elizabeth Gourlay, Alison Hopwood and Anne Marriott. Others came and went at different times, but the writing group held together right up until I left for the east. We met at one another’s homes, we work-shopped our new writing, we talked poetry, we shared our passion for literature and writing, and, we got to know each other well. I’ve written in the “Foremothers” essay about the privilege of listening to and helping with Anne’s poems as they were in the midst of being created—wonderful new poetry from Anne Marriott, that became the last of her new writing, once she had succumbed to a massively disabling stroke. The Circular Coast: Poems New and Selected (1981) was published around the time Anne joined our writing group. The poems in Aqua (1991) were ones we had work-shopped with the group.
I first met Beth Jankola in 1975, when we were both participating in a poetry reading along with other poets. When Jankola got up to read, she shook so hard all over her body that the papers in her hands rattled. It was painful to watch someone that nervous trying to perform. We gave a second reading together in a bookstore out in Langley. She shook a little less that time, and less so in every subsequent reading. Of course, Beth became a polished poet, presenter, and graphic artist as time went on.
Beth is ten years older than me and we shared a close friendship and literary relationship for many years. I published four of Beth’s books, including one of the early Caitlin Press titles, Mirror/Mirror (13). Beth’s husband, Joe Jankola, grew up in Castelgar, along with my father, aunts, and Tom McGauley’s family. My Aunt Eileen and Joe went to school together and were close friends. Joe was of Italian heritage, one of the many ethnic groups living in this tiny town in the interior of British Columbia during the Depression. Joe Jankola was a pro baseball player, which led him away from the Casltegar/Trail area. I have written about Joe, my Aunt Eileen and my father in the poem, “Collecting Junk” (14). Beth and I travelled together to Toronto, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to give readings, and we organized a poetry reading series entitled Studio B at Beth’s art studio in Burnaby.
For many years, Beth and I enjoyed a tradition of meeting on Vancouver’s Main Street for monthly dinners at inexpensive East Indian, Italian, and other small restaurants along Main street, spanning from 49th Avenue all the way to downtown. We would talk about poetry, poets, creative work, and domestic life. We were a help to each other in our individual juggling acts of poetry, family life, and maintaining our poetic discipine in the midst of busy lives. Beth published poems in the two literary magazines run by Montreal Vehicule poet Stephen Morrissey, author of The Trees of Unknowing (1978) and Divisions (1983). She also corresponded with him. Sometimes she brought his letters to our dinners to read to me. One time she even brought a photograph of him in which he looked quite ascetic. We began to refer to him as ‘Monk Morrissey’. In 1989 I edited and published Morrissey’s book, Family Album, but I had not met him; he had also reviewed my book A Portrait of Paradise. However, we did not share a literary or personal friendship. Morrissey was always considered to be Beth’s friend. Jankola was an excellent source of literary gossip, introductions, and always seemed to be more ‘in the know’ about people than me. Beth now lives on the Sunshine Coast, where she devotes her time to her artwork, operating The Field Road Studio.
Mona Fertig, poet and publisher, came from a family that lived next door to the Jankolas in Burnaby, B.C. Mona’s father, George Fertig, was an accomplished painter who was devoted to Jungian ideas. Unfortunately, his paintings were ahead of their time in the suburban city of Burnaby. He was not a commercial success, but you can now see his work on the cover of Mona’s Invoking the Moon: Selected Poems (2006); and on her websites and in the series of art book publications Mona has recently produced.
One colourful friend that Jankola and I had in common was poet, activist, and publisher Noni Howard. I went to San Francisco yearly from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s to participate in the women’s poetry festival hosted by Noni and the literary small press she ran. On one of these trips, I made the mistake of agreeing to have Noni pick me up at the airport. Dressed in her de rigeur tuxedo and black wig, the first thing she asked was if I could pay a parking fine so that we’d be allowed to leave the airport parking lot. Then, after a wild drive into San Francisco, she parked her beat-up boat of a car on the sidewalk and hit me up again to buy two large jugs of Gallo wine. She had no trouble drinking them in their entirety during the hour we spent together at her place before going on to the festival venue. Noni, originally from Sherbrooke, Quebec, was a former student of Irving Layton, who she adored and continued to visit up until his last few years. The many festivals of women’s poetry that Noni organized featured notable writers including Kay Boyle, Bobbie Creeley, and women poets from not just the Bay area, but other parts of the U.S. Noni was a poet of the old-school—eccentric, hard-living, and larger-than-life.
Over the years Noni stayed with me several times in Vancouver, as well as in Montreal. The stories I could tell about her are pretty much endless, often humorous, and include her life adventures as a gay activist and a dominatrix. Her poetry has been recognized and honoured in her native Sherbrooke as well as many other places. In addition to poetry, Noni published a book of erotica. As chance would have it, I received a large envelope from Noni just after I began writing about her for this essay. In it was a letter and a new poem, very moving, that she had written for me and a photocopy of her certificate verifying that she has now become an Episcopalian lay minister. Noni is obviously still a work in progress! (15)
Speaking of characters, I was invited to work with Vancouver’s legendary jazz pianist, composer, and author Al Neil. On the back cover of Neil’s book of stories Slammer (1981), it talks about his international reputation as a major jazz innovator, hipster, veteran, and multi-disciplinary artist. At the time that Al and I connected, he was working with percussionist Howard Broomfield, whose percussion instruments were comprised mainly of bottles of booze that had been consumed by self-confessed former heroin user Al Neil. Somehow Broomfield managed to create—by filling an assortment of used bottles with different quantities of water and suspending them from a homemade frame—a beautiful and unique sound instrument.
Al Neil liked my long vision-quest poems, and he invited me to perform live with him and Howard. We performed my poem “The Dreamkeeper” with Al on piano and Howard on percussion, both musicians creating original jazz to accompany my reading. We gave this performance for the first time on November 18, 1978 at the Pumps Gallery in Gastown, Vancouver. We then performed and taped this work at Psichord Studios on December 20, 1979 in Vancouver. Tapes exist of both these performances.
Both the legendary Neil and the innovative Broomfield were highly charged creatively, and a handful to work with. Nevertheless, working with them became an act that we took on the road. We presented my long vision-quest poem “Journey to the Sibyl” with vocal reading by myself, Al Neil on piano, and Howard Broomfield on percussion. From Montreal, we then visited Toronto, where Al and Howard produced an album of Neil’s work entitled, boot & fog. This 33 1/3 vinyl long-play album was produced by The Music Gallery, Toronto, Ontario (1981). Included with the record, made over the same few days in Toronto, was an extended-play 45 entitled, “Journey to the Sibyl” which consisted of my performance of the poem, with Neil and Broomfield’s original jazz.
Working with these two in rehearsals, in studio, and in live performance was exhilarating, exciting, off-the-wall, and unforgettable. One of the important reasons this show hung together was Howard’s calming influence and pragmatism. A few years after this collaboration, the artistic community was stunned and saddened by the news that Howard Broomfield had committed suicide. Al Neil is still an incomparable fixture on the Vancouver music and literary scenes. He has lived for many years as a squatter in a wooden house on the mudflats of North Vancouver, near where the famous novelist and author of Under the Volcano Malcolm Lowry once lived. Neil has long been the romantic partner of Vancouver artist and writer Carole Itter. Al Neil is both a survivor and one of the last true bohemians.
Classical composer Mark Armanini has composed and arranged musical scores using some of my short lyric poems in live performance and recording, beginning in April, 1987 and continuing to the present. Two of my short poems were performed and recently recorded by Juno award nominee, jazz singer Kate Hammett-Vaughn on her 2005 CD, Conspiracy for Art Songs, with music composed by Armanini. It is a privilege to have worked with both jazz and classical musicians.
In 1983 I took on the job of producing all Caitlin Press titles by myself. However, Canada Council funding was a big help by this point. At this time I served for several years on the national executive of The League of Canadian Poets, which included extensive travel throughout Canada. From 1981 to 1991, I lived and raised my children in an older renovated home in Kerrisdale, up the hill and not far from where I had lived during the 1970s. There was myself, George Bowering, Elizabeth Gourlay, George Woodcock, and Ed Varney who were fellow poets and writers living in the neighborhood at this time. Bowering’s book-long poem, Kerrisdale Elegies (1984), based on the work of Rilke, still resonates with me from those twenty years spent living in the Kerrisdale and Dunbar areas of southwest Vancouver.
Over these years, the 1970s and ’80s, I was running Caitlin Press, giving poetry readings in Vancouver and other parts of B.C., attending Simon Fraser, and teaching creative writing courses in diverse locales including Sechelt, Port Moody, Squamish, Surrey, and New Westminster. I was sustained in my editorial work as one of the original members of the Freelance Editors Association of Canada (now EAC); the Literary Press Group of The Association of Canadian Publishers; and the B.C. Book Publishers’ Association. These organizations included dedicated, intelligent, and hard-working individuals too numerous to mention.
Montreal Vehicule poet, Tom Konyves, whom I originally met in Montreal in 1978, moved to the Vancouver area in 1983. Konyves is an experimental poet who coined the term “videopoems” to describe his multi-media work. His videopoetry and performance works make him one of the original pioneers of the form. Tom also ran a video production company, AM Productions, for many years in Vancouver. One of Konyves’ poetry books published in Montreal was entitled, No Parking (1978). In 1988
I published Konyves’ book of poetry Ex Perimeter. At one point he and I shared the position of B.C. rep for the League of Canadian Poets. We organized in Vancouver the first of what has now become the League’s national W(rites) of Spring annual fundraising event. I’ve continued to see Tom while I’ve lived in Montreal, at various readings and poetry-related events. It has always seemed odd to both Tom and myself that he ended up living out west, when Montreal was much more his natural milieu and I, a born and bred west coaster, have made my home in Quebec for as many years as I have.
Over these two decades of the ’70s and ’80s, I attended a lot of poetry readings, gave many readings, organized readings, and just plain hung out with other poets. In those days, we went to each other’s readings, read fellow poets’ books, and gathered frequently to drink beer together and talk shop. The pub at the former Cecil Hotel was where George Bowering and other poets would gather on Friday nights to generally argue, carry on, and have fun together. And after poetry readings we usually went out to whatever pub was closest.
These poets included David Phillips, Pierre Coupey, and the argumentative Brian Fawcett, who at that time was publishing his lit magazine NMFG, as well as any poet who was in Vancouver from out of town. A gift George Bowering had was to be able to mix with other poets in an informal way. He was witty, fun to be with, and dedicated to literature. George was a catalyst for gathering other poets around him. Not only that, he had (and still has) a great radio voice. Part of his gift includes an ability to joke around with poets of different ages and accomplishments, putting everyone around him at ease.
Brian Fawcett was a fixture on the poetry scene in Vancouver during these years. He published his magazine No Money From the Government, partly as a sounding board for his leftist political ideology. Considered to be a talented poet, Fawcett announced in the early1980s that he was officially quitting poetry. His last poetry book from those times in Vancouver was Aggressive Tranport (1982). From then on, he wrote fiction and non-fiction social critiques. Brian also married a friend of mine from high school; he divorced her and then remarried her. Luckily, I had no part in them meeting.
Patrick Lane introduced me to a poet my age in the 1970s. Once a week I had lunch or dinner with Seattle poet Norm Sibum, who lived in the Commercial Drive area. We spent a lot of time arguing poetry and poetics in Grant’s Cafe or the nearby Hungarian restaurant he also frequented. His poetry chapbook, small commerce (1978) was the third title I did with Caitlin Press.
Norm and I were young poets together. We read our work to each other, we gave readings, and we were close poetry friends. But Sibum was a born complainer; his life and his romantic liaisons were frequently in shambles. I did a lot of listening and picking up the pieces for Norm. One of the things he whined about was Vancouver. He hated the city and never felt at home there, although he was a part of the local poetry scene. He couldn’t stand the rain. He was born in Germany and, as an army brat, had grown up in different parts of the U.S. He gossiped all the time about fellow poets, including me. On the plus side, Norm could be charming when he felt like it. He played wonderful steel guitar music. And he introduced me to poet and college professor Sharon Thesen. As well, Norm was truly passionate about poetry and a disciplined and dedicated poet. Over the years of knowing Sibum I came to feel he was opportunistic and not to be trusted. Finally my relationship with Sibum became too onerous and one-sided, so I distanced myself from the friendship.
Ironically, he later moved to the Eastern Townships in Quebec. One day out of the blue he phoned me. Like a retired fire horse to the bell, I once again took up the burden of being a friend and fellow poet with Sibum, as well as becoming social friends with his new partner, artist Mary Harman. As things in life often seem to come full circle, Mary Harman was a friend and colleague of my first husband, John Perry. Over the years Norm and I have been poetic buddies, friends, and now, strangers. After a couple of years in the Townships, Norm and Mary moved into my area in Montreal. When I asked Beth Jankola why, why, did Sibum have to move to Notre Dame de Grâce, my much loved Montreal neighbourhood—when he could have chosen any region in North America—she replied simply: “God’s joke.”
Norm had enjoyed the benefit, over the years, of a private collector who paid for his literary papers. When I placed my papers at Simon Fraser University in 2005, Eric Swanick, head of Special Collections and Rare Books at the W.A.C. Bennett Library told me, much to my surprise, that they had recently acquired Sibum’s papers. It turns out that the man who had been collecting Norm’s papers went through a divorce. The ex-wife was awarded the literary papers as part of the divorce settlement and she then placed Sibum’s papers at SFU. Somehow this poet from the west ended up living down the street within walking distance from me in Montreal and his literary papers are now housed along with mine at SFU.
After weathering several years of being friends with Norm and his partner Mary in Montreal, I saw Patrick Lane at a conference. Along with poets Elizabeth Brewster and Marilyn Bowering, Patrick and I were reading at the Trent University event entitled “Extraordinary Presence: The Worlds of P.K. Page” (2002). After a wonderful weekend spent honouring both P.K. Page’s poetry and her visual art, Patrick asked how it was going with Sibum once again living in the same city as me. Pat, as familiar as I was with Norm’s negativity, mentioned that I could once and for all stop knowing Sibum, the friend of my youth. Used to being loyal to friends, it was an idea that had actually never occurred to me. I acted upon Patrick’s suggestion. I can only hope that when I relocate full-time back to Vancouver, Sibum will not follow.
In the mid-1980s I became friends with the journalist, poet, editor, writer, and teacher Trevor Carolan. Trevor is an affable, hard-working, and lively person to know. One of my projects with him involved helping to edit Carolan’s translation of what was published in 1990 by prestigious new age Boston publisher Shambhala under the title, The Book of the Heart: Embracing the Tao. Carolan had earlier published my book of short lyric poems Compendium (1985) with his Heron Press. At the same time I also edited and helped with the design of Trevor’s poetry collection Closing the Circle (1985). He has written other books of poetry and prose, including The Pillowbook of Dr. Jazz (1999). Trevor has travelled extensively, especially in Southeast Asia, Australia, and along the U.S. and Canadian west coast. Carolan studied with poets Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder and is a practitioner of Tai Chi. Trevor Carolan is a wonderful blend of west and east. His ancestry goes back to one of the original Irish bards, Turlough O’Carolan, born in 1670 in County Meath, a travelling bard and harpist who wrote in Irish (Gaelic).
Any work I’ve done in collaboration with Carolan has always been delightful; as well, I’ve had the pleasure of knowing his wife and when still alive, his father. Trevor’s father was Irish and was in construction in Vancouver’s lower mainland; my father, of Russian background, was also in construction. One of the bonds between Trevor and myself was the shared liveliness and eccentricities of both our fathers. Carolan has also edited several anthologies, including this one. He collaborates with Richard Olafson on The Pacific Rim Review of Books. Although I met Trevor toward the end of the two decades under consideration here, we’ve remained good friends, giving readings together, keeping in touch, and being supportive towards each other’s literary endeavours.
When the 1980s ended and the 1990s began, sweeping changes came into my life. My book, The Taste of Giving: New & Selected Poems, was published in the fall of 1990. This book was comprised of a selection of my poems written between 1975 and 1990. The book includes a lucid and intelligent introduction by Jean Mallinson. Around the same time, I co-founded The Poem Factory with Ed Varney. When Varney and I began working together, we were both living within close walking distance of each other in Kerrisdale.
In December of 1990, my home in Kerrisdale was sold. After ten years of working hard to keep this family home for myself and my children, it was painful to part with the house I loved, but the time had come. In early 1991 I moved into a property owned by my construction business family, a beautiful house with an incredible view of the city in the McKenzie Heights area of Vancouver. In April of 1991, I sold Caitlin Press. Moving from Kerrisdale to the new house had involved a great deal of downsizing. By selling the family home, publishing my selected poems, and selling Caitlin Press, I was unconsciously clearing the decks for what turned out to be an entirely surprising new phase of my life.
At the end of May 1991, I attended a Writers’ Union national meeting at John Abbott College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, an hour west of Montreal. Having published Stephen Morrissey’s poetry book in 1989, I wrote to let him know that I was planning to visit Quebec for the weekend. He wrote back, saying, “The least I can do is pick you up at the airport.” And, as they say, the rest is history. My mother said I took one professional trip too many.
Ed Varney and I continued collaborating with the renamed small press, The Poem Factory/Usine de poème, from 1992 until 1999. This cross-country literary endeavour was a creative and unique contribution to Canadian small press publishing. We concentrated on producing broadsides, limited edition books and chapbooks, and anthologies. The philosophy behind the press was to keep costs to a minimum, thus leading to many ingenious approaches to production. Our publications were often hand-folded and sometimes hand-sewn, or otherwise uniquely bound by Ed Varney, an enormously talented graphic artist and poet. Varney’s books include What the Wind Said (1992) and Solar Eclipse (1994).
Among the many authors we published were Glen Sorestad, Robin Skelton, Victor Coleman, Cathy Ford, Barry Dempster, Ken Norris, and David McFadden. This productive partnership between Varney and myself was possible because we used his Kerrisdale home as our base of production, and I commuted on a regular basis to Vancouver, to visit my family and work with him. There was no formal decision to end work with the press, rather it just became more difficult for Ed and I to meet once he moved to Vancouver Island. Ed Varney still publishes occasionally as The Poem Factory. I am a fan of Varney’s artwork as well as his poetry. He is also an artstamp artist; he created a beautiful stamp of me entitled Carolyn Zonailo: Canadian Poet. I used this image, drawn and coloured by Varney, on the cover of the inventory of my literary papers. I have original copies of different artstamps and other artwork by Varney framed and hung in my home. He gave me a collage that remains one of my favourite pieces of art, which I have the pleasure of seeing on a daily basis.
This isn’t really the end, but this essay has come to its conclusion. In the spring of 1991 I attended that life-changing Writers’ Union meeting. Within six months, to my own and everyone’s surprise, I found myself living in a white wooden farmhouse built circa 1870, in the midst of dairy farming countryside, a few miles outside of Huntingdon, Quebec. Montreal poet Stephen Morrissey owned four acres of land, adjoining the Trout River. I lived there for six years, in a house we named “The Cedars,” commuting between the country, Montreal, and Vancouver. In 1997, we moved to a small red brick house in the Notre Dame de Grâce neighbourhood of Montreal, which we call “Casa Bella.”
Now I’ve learned to live land-locked for two decades, having to make do with freshwater rivers and small lakes, some of which are too polluted for swimming or suffer from blue-green algae. When I feel desperate for the sight of a larger body of water, we visit Lac St. Louis in Lachine. This nearby suburb of Montreal is named after China, because the earliest explorers believed they had found the sought-after Northwest Passage, which would lead all the way to China. Little did they know that the whole expanse of both North America and the Pacific Ocean lay between them and their goal.
Lachine is home to some of the original fur trade buildings; one, now a museum, was built in the 1600s. It contains artefacts and a history of the early fur trade companies. This picturesque suburb, which fronts along the St. Lawrence River, is where the first locks comprising the Lachine Canal were built in the early 1800s. This became the precursor of the famous St. Lawrence Seaway, which joins the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes. This was an engineering and construction feat of unequalled endeavour, undertaken and completed in the mid-twentieth century. After the locks in Lachine, the St. Lawrence rivers widens out considerably, and this larger body of water within the river is known as Lac St. Louis. Although you can still see the opposite shore, it is quite far across and one can get the feeling of being by the sea. From Lachine you can follow the shoreline as it leads west, to Ste. Anne de Bellevue, the small riverside town where I first stayed on the campus of John Abbott College, back in 1991. Ste. Anne is almost at the westernmost tip of the island of Montreal. Here boaters have to use a system of locks to pass from Lac St. Louis back into the St. Lawrence River.
Of course life, poetry, editing, publishing, giving poetry readings and knowing other poets has continued during these years in Montreal—in a new locale, a completely different climate, a contrasting landscape and architecture, and an entirely distinct, vibrant urban centre. The issues of isolation are similar, but again different, to that of writing from the west coast, where one often feels cut off from Ottawa and the east, and sometimes resenting where the centres of power seem to reside. Here in Quebec, there are language and cultural issues that make people feel isolated. English-speaking Quebecers, even if their families have lived here for six, seven, eight generations as the Morrisseys have, are labelled anglophones. The term used for immigrants from other countries is allophones. As parts of a minority, both anglophones and allophones live with the continual threat of one day actually being cut off from R.O.C., i.e. the Rest of Canada, the name Quebecers call Canada.
When I was out west for a few months this past winter, Trevor Carolan asked if I could contribute to an anthology about the Vancouver poetry scene, writing from ‘the horse’s mouth’ so to speak, as I was a woman, and a poet who was there and lived it. I hesitated, but Trevor persisted. This present essay is the result. I began writing it in Vancouver in December 2008 and have finished it in Montreal in August 2009. This essay reflects my own, individual experience; another poet would write a completely different account of these times in the history of B.C. poetry. This was an important period in the development of British Columbia’s literature, as it was going through a major growth spurt. The time span I write about here takes me personally up to my mid-forties—in Jungian terms, to the end of the first half of adult life.
I always consider that every piece of writing I do—be it poem, essay, story, or book—has a life of its own, separate from me. This essay is only the mere tip of the iceberg regarding the many poets, writers, editors, publishers, reviewers, scholars, readers, and others who I met during the 1970s and ’80s in Vancouver and Canada-wide. It is not possible for me to include here each and every person I’ve known who has made a creative and cultural contribution to our literature, or to my own development as a poet.
I dedicate this essay to the lives and writing of three deceased Vancouver poets whose presence I felt with me during this work of reaching back through memory to hear the voices of poets and of place. This essay is dedicated to Eric Ivan Berg, Nellie McClung and Jon Furberg; as well, it is also dedicated to Montreal poet, painter and publisher, the late Sonya Skarsdedt, who died far too young. I will end with a fragment from my recent poem, “Coyote Says:”
think like a poet,
use your wits like Odysseus,
enjoy the story
of your own life
and watch for me, Coyote,
I may cross the road
in front of you
or visit you in your dreams.
by Carolyn Zonailo
Montreal – Vancouver 2008-09
Acknowledgements, Footnotes and Appendix
I would like to thank my assistant editor Marie Thone, for keyboarding and for her keen editorial expertise. I also thank Trevor Carolan for calling forth all that I’ve managed to recount here. I thank Stephen Morrissey for research, fact-checking, and his overall unfailing support.
This essay was originally written for publication in Making Waves: Reading BC and Pacific Northwest Literature, edited by Trevor Carolan, and co-published by the University of Fraser Valley Press and Anvil Press, Vancouver B.C., 2010. My essay was edited and shortened for the anthology publication; I have restored the essay to its original length and content, and slightly changed the title. Revisions were completed in the summer of 2014, Montreal.
*I am doing final revisions of this easy in the spring of 2014. Early this year I received a phone-call from Noni’s partner, from their home in Halfmoon Bay, south of San Francisco. She told me that Noni had been to church on Sunday morning, came home and had a nap, then died in her sleep. There will never be another Noni.
Biography of Carolyn Zonailo
Carolyn Zonailo is a Canadian poet who has published twelve books of poetry. Born in Vancouver, B.C., Zonailo received her M.A. in literature from Simon Fraser University, where her papers are now archived in Special Collections and Rare Books at the W.A.C. Bennett Library. CZ has remained active in literary small press publishing, founding Caitlin Press in Vancouver, in 1977; co-founding The Poem Factory with Ed Varney in Vancouver, in 1990; and Coracle Press with Stephen Morrissey in Montreal, in 2000. Her areas of study encompass literature, mythology, and Jungian psychology. CZ has lived for the past eighteen years in Montreal, Quebec; she currently divides her time between Vancouver, Montreal and New York City. Zonailo has served on the executives of both provincial and national writers organizations, including The Federation of B.C. Writers; The League of Canadian Poets; The Writers’ Union of Canada; and QSPELL, the original English-language writers’ association in Quebec, now known as The Quebec Writers’ Federation.
Zonailo’s poetry books include The Wide Arable Land (1981); Zen Forest (1987); Memory House (1995); The Goddess in the Garden (2002), finalist for the A.M. Klein Poetry Prize; and the moon with mars in her arms (2006). Primarily a lyric poet, CZ has also published a book of prose poems, literary essays and articles, as well as writing long poems, narrative poetry, and a full-length poetic play. She is presently working on her forthcoming second book of selected poems, Fight Fire With Spirit: Selected & New Poems, as well as a collection of stories about her childhood in Vancouver, and new poetry. Visit her website: www.carolynzonailo.com