#54 Gary Geddes
January 21st, 2016
LOCATION: 1926 Commercial Drive
Born in Vancouver in 1940 and raised in the Commercial Drive area, Gary Geddes was once described as Canada’s best political poet by George Woodcock. Growing up in East Van, he lived for about five years in an apartment upstairs at this address. “It was not glamorous,” he recalls, “but it had a good command of the street and the passing trams and streetcars. The back porch overlooked an unused alley, but had the backyard trees of 4th Avenue to soften things up. The original building still stands [in 2015] but does not look as if it has any heritage value that will make it a permanent fixture. The apartment was so small I had to share a fold-down couch with my older brother, which couldn’t have been much fun for him. What was magical to me was the storage closet behind the oil stove, where I would dress up in various costumes—whatever was available—and emerge to perform various pantomimes or musical numbers, some of them in drag. I guess any place bounded by streets called Broadway, Commercial Drive and Terminal Avenue suggests a certain dynamic.
“My time at Grandview Elementary School, Templeton Junior High and Britannia were cut short when the family finally dredged up the down-payment for a rickety old house on 20th Avenue near Main, where I transferred reluctantly to King Ed High. But my time in East Van seems to have been kept alive in the imagination through the traumas of adolescence, my work at BC Sugar Refinery, and my fascination with the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge, experiences that made their way into The Perfect Cold Warrior, Sailing Home and Falsework. Even now, I am drawn constantly back to some of those haunts out of nostalgia and the chance of a good meal at Cafe Kathmandu restaurant.”
He has recalled growing up on the Eastside in a poem called Active Trading in 1994:
“Thus I evolve, under lamplight,
celebrant of the car crash,
the wall of reflecting hubcaps,
racks of bumpers, grills,
Crusader’s armour, ready
for anything: earthquake,
Armageddon, Social Credit.”
Gary Geddes has been one of the most influential literary figures in B.C., having edited a widely used university text, 20th Century Poetry & Poetics (1969) and one of the first modern anthologies of distinctly British Columbian literature, Skookum Wawa (1975), as well as Vancouver: Soul of a City (1986).
Geddes founded two literary presses in Ontario, Quadrant Editions, in 1981, and Cormorant Books, in 1986. He then returned to British Columbia where he lives with novelist Ann Eriksson. With more than 35 titles and counting, Geddes lives by his wits, veering increasingly towards non-fiction.
An exemplary Geddes title is Falsework (2007), an historical memoir and long poem in many voices about the disastrous collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge, now called the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, in North Vancouver, during its construction in June of 1958. Eighteen workers were killed as well as a rescue diver. The tragedy occurred in the month that Geddes graduated from King Edward High School. “I was working at the time on the waterfront at BC Sugar Refinery,” he recalls, “loading boxcars with 100-pound sacks of pure, white and deadly sugar, so the news did not take long to reach me. What I did not know at the time was that my father had been called out as a former navy diver to stand by in the search for bodies in the wreckage. I’ve carried for a long time the image of him dangling from his umbilical cord of oxygen in that cauldron of swirling water and twisted metal.”
On the same subject, Eric Jamieson received the Lieutenant Governor’s Medal for Historical Writing for his thorough non-fiction response to the event, Tragedy at Second Narrows: The Story of the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge (2008). Other major disasters that occurred within B.C. have been identified by historian Derek Pethick as the Smallpox Epidemic (1862); the Bute Inlet Massacre (1864); the Barkerville Fire (1868); the Loss of the S.S. Pacific (1875); the Vancouver Fire (1886); the Nanaimo Coal Mine Disaster (1887); the Fraser Valley Flood (1894); the Point Ellice Bridge Disaster (1896); the New Westminster Fire (1898); the Victoria Fire (1910); the Hell’s Gate Slides (1913, 1914); the Loss of the Princess Sophia (1918); the Influenza Epidemic (1918–1919); the Great Depression (1929-1939); and the Fraser River Flood (1948).
To Pethick’s list should be added the Fernie Mine Explosion (1902); the Shipwreck of the Valencia (1906); the Rogers Pass Avalanche (1910); the Vancouver Waterfront Fire (1945); the Second Narrows Bridge Collapse (1958); the Port Alberni Tsunami (1964); the Hope Slide (1965); the B.C. Interior Firestorm (2003); and three airline crashes (1956, 1965, 1978) that killed 157 people in total.
Poet, professor and non-fiction author Gary Geddes has been one of the most influential literary figures in B.C., having edited a widely-used university text, 20th Century Poetry & Poetics, and one of the first modern anthologies of distinctly British Columbian literature, Skookum Wawa, in 1975, as well as Vancouver: Soul of a City, in 1986. In 2008, Geddes received the fifth annual Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence [See below].
Born in Vancouver on June 9, 1940 and raised in the Commercial Drive area, Geddes had a variety of jobs as a young man, such as stocking shelves at Woodwards, working as a fishing guide at Whytecliffe in West Vancouver, driving a water taxi and teaching on Texada Island. Geddes eventually became a prolific poet who has travelled extensively, published and lectured widely on Candian literature, taught English and Creative Writing at Concordia University and won a Commonwealth poetry regional prize for The Terracotta Army, the National Magazine Gold Award for Hong Kong and the Archibald Lampman Poetry Prize. He has also founded two literary presses, Quadrant Editions, in 1981, and Cormorant Books, in 1986, plus Studies in Canadian literature, a series of critical monographs.
After teaching for twenty years at Concordia University in Montreal, he returned to the West Coast as Distinguished Professor of Canadian Culture at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington from 1998 to 2001. He subsequently had stints as writer-in-residence at Green College at UBC and at the Vancouver Public Library. As well, for several years in the late 1990s he wrote a poetry review column for B.C. BookWorld.
Geddes is widely connected to poets in Canada and around the world. Flying Blind is partially inspired by his travels through Israel and Palestine with the blind poet and scholar John Asfour. His 2004 poetry collection Skaldance was inspired by trips to the Orkney Islands off Scotland, where he has ancestral connections. The title marries the Old Norse world skald, meaning poet, with the word dance.
Returning to live in British Columbia after many years in Ontario, Geddes proposed to editor Phyllis Bruce a book project that would entail sailing up the B.C. coast and writing a memoir of past and present experiences, Sailing Home (HarperCollins, 2001). “I grew up in Vancouver, spending summers working as a fishing-guide and gopher at my uncle’s boat rentals at Whytecliffe Park. I also gillnetted one summer with my father in Rivers Inlet and later drove water-taxi between Vananda and Westview. All these experiences, plus the inheritance of generations of Scottish fisherfolk and boat-builders, have forged my permanent links with the sea.”
To explore the most probable pathways of the Afghan or Chinese monk named Huishen, who might have reached the west coast of North America about 1,000 years before Columbus, Geddes took his wanderlust to the Himalayas, the Taklamakan Desert and Central America (where Huishen is most likely to have landed, according Chinese archives) for a memoir of misadventures, humour and hearsay, The Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things (HarperCollins, 2005). The travelogue is as much about strangeness and dangers of Taliban, Chinese and Zapatista politics, and Geddes’ twinned affinities for poetry and history, as it is about the historically elusive pre-Columbian monk. According to publicity materials, “Geddes quickly finds himself caught up with Afghan refugees and dissidents in Pakistan, Tibetan monks in Xiahe, a Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise in Louyang, a clandestine lecture on art and politics in Xian, guerrilla warfare in academia back home, mysterious cairns in Haida Gwaii, and the ghosts of Quetzalcoatl, D.H. Lawrence and Trotsky in Mexico.”
Geddes’ memoir Falsework (Goose Lane, 2007) is a long poem in many voices about the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge, now called the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge, in North Vancouver, during its construction in June of 1958. Eighteen workers were killed as well as a rescue diver. The tragedy occurred in the month that he graduated from King Edward High School. “I was working at the time on the waterfront at BC Sugar Refinery,” he recalls, “loading boxcars with 100-pound sacks of pure, white and deadly sugar, so the news did not take long to reach me. What I did not know at the time was that my father had been called out as a former navy diver to stand by in the search for bodies in the wreckage. I’ve carried for a long time the image of him dangling from his umbilical cord of oxygen in that cauldron of swirling water and twisted metal.” Falsework was one of three books shortlisted for the 5th annual George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in 2008.
One of the poems won second prize in the Living Work Competition, judged by Tom Wayman, Buzz Hargrove (CAW) and Ken Neumann (USWA); another poem was incorporated into a painting by Vancouver artist and muralist Ricahrd Tetrault; several more poems were set to music by Vancouver composer Larry Nickel; and Martin Kinch at Playwrights Theatre Centre prepared a dramatic reading of the book by professional actors for the Vancouver International Writers Festival in October of 2007, as well as the Ocean Cement machine shop on Vancouver Island.
Geddes takes his work very seriously but is also capable of self-effacing humour. Presenting the Dorothy Livesay Prize for Poetry one year, he took a moment to recall the namesake for the award. “She was one of those fearless and tireless poets, a passionate fiesty woman. She was also not very nice at times. I remember sitting on my back lawn. She was peeved that she hadn’t been included in some anthology. She told me, ‘Gary, you’ll never amount to anything as a writer. You don’t have enough charisma.’ She was seldom wrong!”
As of 1999, Gary Geddes lived at French Beach, near Sooke on Vancouver Island, and began commuting for several years to teach in Bellingham at Western Washington University. He later moved into Victoria and married Ann Eriksson on June 8, 2007, during a ceremony at the foot of his property at French Beach overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca. “The killer whales we expected to complete the ceremony were a day late, but come they did–on my birthday,” he says. On June 15, 2007, Royal Roads conferred an honorary doctor of laws degree. In his acceptance speech, Geddes quoted Groucho Marx, “I wouldn’t want to join a club that would have the likes of me.”
In the fall of 2008, Gary Geddes was the sixth Writer-In-Residence at the Okanagan College/Mackie Lake House Writer-In-Resident project.
While visiting China in 1981, Gary Geddes saw an archaeological site outside Xi’an, in the Wei River Valley, where an underground army of approximately 8,000 terracotta soldiers and horses had been discovered when farm workers were sinking a well. “A structure resembling an airplane hangar had been built,” he recalls, “to protect the pottery figures while they were carefully unearthed and reconstructured.” Geddes’ self-described “Chinese sonnets” in The Terracotta Army (1984) were republished to coincide with the Canadian tour of The Warrior Emperor and China’s Terracotta Army, which opened at the Royal Ontario Museum in June of 2010 and was also to be shown in Victoria. The book pairs Geddes’ poems with photographs of the terracotta soldiers themselves, forming a history of the Ch’in dynasty. Twenty-four representatives of the terracotta army share their thoughts on Ch’in, the emperor, and Lao Bi, the artist, all filtered through Geddes’ imagination.
Simultaneously, Geddes released Swimming Ginger (2010), also derived from Chinese history. This collection is based on the Qingming Shanghe Tu scroll, sometimes called “Spring Festival by the River” or “Going Upriver on a Bright, Clear Day,” thought to have been painted by Zhang Zeduan before 1127. The scroll’s urban realism is unique in Chinese art, in which the motif of distant peaks and misty landscapes predominate. Geddes attempts to capture the voice of the painter and those of the underprivileged, This volume juxtaposes a reproduction of the scroll that reads from back to front (as Chinese reads) with Geddes’ poems, which read from front to back.
Also in 2010, the Guernica Writers Series compiled six commissioned articles on Gary Geddes by Robert G. May, Shirley McDonald, W.H. New, Bruno Sibona, Lake Sagaris and M. Wynn Thomas for Gary Geddes: Essays on his Works, edited by Robert G. May. There is also an excerpt from Winnifred Bogaards’s 1997 study of Geddes’s work in Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, along with an interview conducted by May, an assistant professor (adjunct) in the Department of English at Queen’s University, Kingston.
In 2011, Geddes’ Drink the Bitter Root describes his forays, at age 68, into Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Somaliland. In a world of child soldiers, refugees and poets-turned–freedom fighters, Geddes is particularly impressed by Somali culture in which poetry is a popular activity viewed as “a healing and a subversive art.”
The title poem of Gary Geddes’ The Resumption of Play (Quattro 2016) received the 2015 Malahat Review Long Poem Prize for its compelling evocation of the trauma produced by Canada’s Indian residential schools. The varying content of the collection includes an elegiac sequence about Geddes’ mother, who died at age thirty-five; a poem about Pound, Brodsky, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev called ‘On Being Dead in Venice;’ and two prison letters from Somalia. Other subjects include Virginia Woolf, Bronwen Wallace, misogyny, obstacles to belief and the healing power of poetry.
Review of the author’s work by BC Studies:
Skookum Wawa: Writings of the Canadian Northwest
Vancouver: Soul of a City
The Resumption of Play (Quattro Books 2015) $18 978-1-927443-87-3
What Does A House Want? (Red Hen 2014)
Drink the Bitter Root: A Writer’s Search for Justice and Redemption in Africa (D&M 2011) $32.95 978-1-55365-458-2
Swimming Ginger (Goose Lane, 2010)
Falsework (Goose Lane, 2007)
The Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things (HarperCollins, 2005)
Skaldance (Goose Lane, 2004)
Sailing Home: A Journey Through Time, Place and Memory (HarperCollins, 2001) — non-fiction
Flying Blind (Goose Lane, 1998)
Active Trading: Selected Poems, 1970-1995 (Goose Lane, 1996)
The Perfect Cold Warrior (Quarry, 1995)
Girl By The Water (Turnstone, 1993)
Letters From Managua: Meditations On Politics And Art (Quarry, 1990) —
Light of Burning Towers (Véhicule, 1990)
No Easy Exit (Oolichan, 1989)
Hong Kong Poems (Oberon, 1987)
I Didn’t Notice the Mountain Growing Dark (Cormorant, 1986)- translations
of Li Pai and
Tu Fu, with the assistance of George Liang
The Unsettling of the West (Oberon, 1986) — fiction
Changes of State (Coteau, 1986)
Les Maudits Anglais (Playwrights Canada, 1984) — drama
The Terracotta Army (1984; reissued Goose Lane, 2010)
The Acid Test (Turnstone, 1981)
Conrad’s Later Novels (McGill-Queen’s, 1980) — criticism
War and Other Measures (Anansi, 1976)
Letter of the Master of Horse (Oberon Press, 1973)
Snakeroot (Talonbooks, 1973)
Letter of the Master of Horse (Oberon, 1973)
Rivers Inlet (Talonbooks, 1971)
Poems (Waterloo Lutheran, 1971)
15 Canadians Poets x 3 (Oxford University Press, 2001). Four editions.
The Art of Short Fiction: An International Anthology (HarperCollins, 1992)
Companeros: Writings About Latin America (Quadrant, 1990)
Vancouver: Soul Of A City (Douglas & McIntyre, 1986)
Chinada: Memoirs of the Gang of Seven (Quadrant, 1983)
The Inner Ear: An Anthology of New Poets (Quadrant, 1983)
Divided We Stand (Peter Martin Associates, 1977)
Skookum Wawa: Writings of the Canadian Northwest (Oxford,1975)
20th-Century Poetry & Poetics (Oxford, 1969, 1996)
Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, 2008
Gabriela Mistral Prize (Chile), 1996. [awarded simultaneously to Octavio Paz, Vaclav Havel, Ernesto Cardenal, Rafael Alberti, and Mario Benedetti]
Poetry Book Society Recommendation, 1996.
Archibald Lampman Poetry Prize, 1996, 1990.
Writers’ Choice Award, 1988.
National Magazine Gold Award, 1987.
America’s Best Book Award in the 1985 Commonwealth Poetry Competition
National Poetry Prize, 1981.
E.J. Pratt Medal & Prize, 1970
Gary Geddes: Essays on his Work, edited by Robert G. May (Guernica 2010) $20 978-1-55071-299-5
Sailing Home: A Journey Through Time, Place and Memory (Harper $32)
After his marriage collapsed and he’d chucked his tenured teaching job in Montreal, Vancouver-born poet and editor Gary Geddes bought a 31-foot sloop called The Groasis and learned to sail it—slowly—to produce Sailing Home: A Journey Through Time, Place and Memory (Harper $32).
My literary predecessors were legion—such as James Cook, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra and George Vancouver—so I planned to maintain a respectful distance from their journals.
There were three female exceptions.
Kathrene Pinkerton, whose Three’s a Crew (1940) was published the year I was born, recounts her adventures upcoast with her husband Robert and daughter Bobs. I was particularly fond of this book because it casts Kathrene and family as duffers with even less knowledge of the sea than I possessed, although Robert had some mechanical competence and Kathrene was capable of fine writing and acute observation.
M. Wylie Blanchet, a widow with several children, cruised the Inside Passage over several summers, condensing her experiences into a minor classic called The Curve of Time (1968).
The third member of the trio was Beth Hill, whose Upcoast Summers, published in 1985, pieces together the 1933-1941 journals of Francis Barrow, who travelled the coast with his wife Amy and two black spaniels and managed to record encounters with 227 coastal residents.
If these upbeat, affectionate accounts had a downside, it was in their implicit reminders that sailing is more enjoyably done with company and that the working population of the remote coast that I was setting out to find—farmers, loggers, fishermen—had almost disappeared.
As inspiring as these books were to me as I gunkholed my way up the Inside Passage, where hazards are innumerable and support can be minimal, I wanted to do something different. For me, a trip up the coast would be not so much a discovery as a recovery narrative, a way of getting in touch with people and places and events from my own past.
I felt that I knew and, in some ways, owned the coast already.
My grandfather had drowned off Point Atkinson, his body never recovered. My mother swam alongside the boat for miles in Howe Sound as a young woman before dying of cancer at age thirty-four. My father had been part of the rescue team at the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge in Vancouver. He and I had fished together commercially in Rivers Inlet. I had spent several summers on the waterfront, loading trucks and boxcars at the B.C. Sugar Refinery in Vancouver, working at my uncle’s boat rentals in Whytecliffe and, later, driving water-taxi between Westview and Texada Island.
The lure of the coast is such that people will try to travel it in anything that floats, including bathtubs, canoes, leaky rowboats, ancient hulks with dangerously high superstructures, kayaks, houseboats made of plastic, rotting clinker-built trollers, concrete sailboats, perhaps even bamboo rafts if, as seems likely, Asian and Polynesian navigators actually made it to the West Coast.
My own expectations were modest: I wanted a sailboat that was roomy, seaworthy and cheap, but with devastatingly beautiful lines and an exotic track record. One of my friends recommended I phone an acquaintance in Victoria who did legal work for the artistic community and might know where to begin. This proved an interesting lead.
If I were prepared to give up the idea of sailing, the voice said, and willing to do some basic carpentry work, I might be able to use one of the two gillnetters currently serving as props in the Scott Hicks movie of David Guterson’s stunning novel, Snow Falling on Cedars. The price was right and my earliest experiences in boats on the coast had taken place on my father’s gillnetter in Rivers Inlet, so this was a tempting offer. However, I was determined to sail as much as I could and I wanted a boat with a real rather than a fictional history. I also knew better than to try composing my modest memoir in the shadow of such excellence. Eventually, boat and owner came together as if the hand of fate had intervened, though you’ll have to wait for that part of the story.
Sailing Home is not for professional seamen or the archetypal beautiful person on a yacht; rather, it’s for the rest of mankind, those of us who, with warts and failures and impossible dreams, have tried to go back, with or without a boat, tried to find that intimate space, or state of mind, called home.
When I set sail at the tail end of the second millennium, I was joining the ranks not only of intrepid mariners, but also of complete novices such as Charles Darwin, who emptied the contents of his stomach over the gunwales during three-and-a-half years at sea on the Beagle, and a religious crusader named Jeff Bauchmann rescued off Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island on July 3, 1999 with no charts or maritime experience, only the two hundred bibles he was planning to deliver to Russia. When the Canadian Coast Guard picked him up, he was heading in the wrong direction. Although my missionary zeal was of a different kind, and my library of offerings to the Russians would have had considerably more variety, I certainly knew the feeling of being way off course.
First I had to learn to read a chart (“No, Gary, asterisks are not decorative. They’re symbolic; they represent rocks.”), figure out how to handle a headstrong boat, and learn to navigate in a sea teeming with personal and tribal ghosts.
I was, from the outset, a sort of floating anachronism, crawling across the surface of the sea on my belly, because so much coastal travel is now done by air. My speed, five nautical miles per hour, seemed good to me; I needed to slow down, decompress, take stock, to look long and hard at the places of my desire and, perhaps, see them again for the first time.
It was a scary and glorious misadventure. In due course, tide-lines would became song-lines; life-jackets merge with book-jackets; boat and book share something we refer to, quaintly, as a launch.
[Gary Geddes / BCBW 2001]
GARY GEDDES: Interview
GARY GEDDES was born in Vancouver in 1940. He was raised for four years in Saskatchewan but grew up primarily in Vancouver’s Commercial Drive area. He became a lay preacher for the Baptist church and a singer in one of Vancouver’s first rock combos. He received his PhD in English from the University of Toronto and has edited important college anthologies such as Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics (1969) and Skookum Wawa (1975), a breakthrough volume for BC literature. Described as Canada’s best political poet by critic George Woodcock, some of his major poetry titles are Letter of the Master of Horse (1973), War Measures and Other Poems(1976), The Acid Test (1981), The Terracotta Army (1984) and Changes of State (1986). Geddes has led a literary delegation to China, founded a subscription-based publishing company and he teaches at Concordia University. Gary Geddes lives in Dunvegan, Ontario.
T: War Measures & Other Poems is an odd book to come from a westcoaster. Where do the politics and the interest in French Canada come from?
GEDDES: You can’t grow up in BC without becoming political. Either you get on the bandwagon and try to milk the land, or become a socialist-there seems to be no easy middle ground out here. I guess my fundamentalist background left me with an overactive conscience too, like all those other Baptists who ended up in the CCF. As for Chartier, the mad bomber, he was a westerner too. He knew about marginality. He was French-Canadian and an Albertan. I found in his death a symbol for something tragic and deadly in our culture. He had no means of redressing the injustices he felt. He thought politicians were crooks. Many of them are. What good was his vote? He decided to take a stick of dynamite into the House of Commons. Was he going to throw it from the gallery? We don’t know. The newspapers laughed at him, as a not-so- beautiful loser, as another Canadian failure, as a fool. One paper denied that his act was Canadian. We don’t act separately here, it said; we are violent in groups only. Therefore, Chartier’s act is meaningless, essentially American.
T: Your Chartier is not an assassin.
GEDDES: No, he seems cut out for something else. Whether he changed his mind when he got there, seeing all the school children in the gallery, watching the minister of consumer affairs picking his nose and reading the Globe or remembering another alternative, that of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam, who gave up their own lives in protest to the American presence-whatever it was, Chartier ended up taking his own life. Who’s to say he didn’t intend that all along, and who’s to say it was not the most powerful gesture possible? Some of our contemporary terrorists should remember that.
T: That was a long answer. It’s also a long poem. How do you keep a poem that long from collapsing in the middle, or turning to sludge?
GEDDES: Maybe you don’t. I tried something different. I used the form of diary jottings, to keep the sections short and lyrical, highly charged and with the kind of intensity of image of a stopped frame in a film. Kroetsch called those sections narrative remnants, a phrase that makes sense to me. The reader is kept alert by both the intensity of the image, hopefully, and the energy and attention required to stitch together those non-linear, but still interconnected, narrative remnants.
For the long poem, you need many different strategies, but it’s the most exciting form in my view, and the one that separates the sheep from the goats. I leave it up to you to decide which is which.
T: How did you come to spend time on Vancouver’s Commercial Drive and what part did that landscape play in your life?
GEDDES: When the family returned from Saskatchewan, we lived briefly with my father in Rivers Inlet, where he was gillnetting. That landscape continues to haunt me in quite a different way, for its excess, its exotic qualities, the vibrant colours, the scale of trees and mountain and ocean. Commercial Drive was bleak in comparison, a poor decompression tank for immigrants and white trash waiting for a break to get them into the suburbs. I don’t know how much of that I noticed as a kid. I was too busy making a living and trying to survive on the street.
T: Was it all that negative? GEDDES: That experience was not pleasant, but it wasn’t totally negative either. It’s the stuff legends and stories are made of. I sometimes wear my poor years as a sort of proletarian badge fried bologna and baking powder biscuits, hustling coal sacks and hubcaps, living in a drab flat over a store at the corner of Fourth and Commercial- but it was also rather magical, since that’s where I began to learn about sex, where I started to earn money from working for a hunchback jeweler, where I bought my first second-hand bike that gave me the freedom of the city.
T: So the poverty is a fiction?
GEDDES: No, but it’s convenient legend to use sometimes in polite, pretentious company. We were poor. The family received food baskets at Christmas and clothes from friends at the church. My father had drinking problems and health problems, so there was not always sufficient money available. My mother worked in Toot’s Cafe at the corner of Broadway and Commercial for fifty cents an hour and tips, at a time when she should have been at home looking after my younger brother, who was sick.
Still, the Drive had the best view in the city, if you looked north. I’ll always miss the mountains I could see almost any day of the week. And the trams and streetcars.
T: The place seems to be central in a number of ways in your life, if only in name.
GEDDES: Yes, it’s my St. Urbain Street. My father drove cab like Duddy’s father. I learned to hustle on the Drive, working at various jobs, coming quickly to the opinion that only work would get me out of there. Ironically, many of my writer friends are now moving to the Drive; it’s the only place I could possibly afford to live if I returned to Vancouver. I know what you’re getting at though. The many different hats I wear as a teacher, editor, writer, publisher and general propagandist for culture in Canada may have some roots in the Drive. Not in the commercial sense, but certainly in terms of drive. A. Y. Jackson once said that the only way an artist can survive in Canada is to become an institution. That’s my impression too. Especially for poets. Who wants to pay for a poem, or a book of poems? So I teach, I do a few odd jobs that are useful and that bring in money to support my family and my almost secret vice of poetry.
T: But you’ve had some success, and some support too.
GEDDES: Yes, I’d say I’ve been very lucky. The kid on the Drive would never have believed all this. Still, I was a romantic and had great hopes for myself. I wanted to be a preacher and save the world, from what I’m not sure. Now I think I’d like to save it from people like me.
T: Poetry as a substitute religion?
GEDDES: Yes, fakirs and fakers. Jimmy Bakker and Mahatma Gandhi. I think of writing as a way of getting in touch with my deepest feelings. I don’t lay these feelings out on the page like dripping laundry. I wring them out and cut them up into very different forms, to make something new with words that will take others deeply into themselves, not into my life and its problems.
T: You take refuge from yourself in masks.
GEDDES: Which one am I wearing now?
T: The concerned, earnest poet-as Baptist mask.
GEDDES: Obvious I should throw that one away, it’s too transparent. The mask helps me to find a voice. I seem to be able to get into the heads of my characters by using the first person more easily than I could talking about them in the third person.
T: Is that part of the legacy of the coast?
GEDDES: More the legacy of being human, being insecure. Our culture in Canada, perhaps even more so in BC, has always been anti-intellectual, afraid of the mind and afraid of the imagination, resources cherished in many other countries. I had to work hard to overcome the sense that I should be seen and not heard, that my accent was odd and my thought processes were unattractive. We all live with that as Canadians.
Beyond that, however, I have my own need to remain private. A writer gives himself away with every word he writes, I realize that. But I find it difficult, and not entirely valuable, to write about my own daily life. That life sifts into everything, of course, and colours the most seemingly objective material, even something as exotic and non-native as Letter to the Master of Horse and The Terracotta Army.
T: What is it that is personal in those works?
GEDDES: Frye once said that every poet has one or two structures of feeling that are absolutely central to him and his work, and that these structures are often consciously or unconsciously announced in the titlepoems of the author’s books. I’d say that I am preoccupied with injured figures, figures caught in the machinery of society or politics or religion. There’s something common between the narrator of Horse, Chartier, the potter in Xian and Sandra Lee Scheuer, who was killed at Kent State University. Perhaps a good shrink could tell you why I write about these individuals. I might even venture a guess or two myself, but not today.
T: Yeats said “everything that is personal soon rots.”
GEDDES: Yes, but he was also writing out of his own deepest needs and desires as he said that. It doesn’t really matter what material you begin with. What matters is what you do with that material. Or, what it does with you?
T: What do you mean?
GEDDES: I’m not sure, but it sounds right. Material that is personal becomes objectified in the process of creation; material that is objective becomes strangely personalized, receives its stamp of style, of character. So, too, the author changes in the process.
T: No man steps twice. .. GEDDES: That’s it, yes. The processes are quite mysterious. The Russian Jewish poet Mandelstam talked about writing his own death or his wife described the process as it worked in his poems. The poet creates and falls into his own myth.
T: Art as self-fulfilling prophecy, then.
GEDDES: Recently there was a film on television about the life and death of Claude Jutra, a Quebec filmmaker of great importance, and a gifted actor and director. He committed suicide not long after he discovered he had Alzheimer’s disease. He drowned himself. In one of his early films there is a scene in which the central character walks off the end of a pier and drowns, the concluding moment of the film. There are signs in the other works as well.
Pat Lowther’s poems are full of signs that we might say prefigured her own death by violence. I don’t want to fall into this way of thinking about writing, or about art. The author’s death is the least important detail. The work is what matters, regardless of the path taken or the price paid.
T: You were talking about material being personal.
GEDDES: Personality is a masquerade. What lies underneath is bedrock, unchanging, eternal, if anything is eternal. That is what art aims to discover. Al Purdy’s domestic poems are romances. David McFadden’s delightful first-person comedies are fabulous fictions created by a psyche that is quite startling, quite severe.
T: And behind Geddes’s poems about injured figures?
GEDDES: Perhaps a degree of violence that desperately needs capping. Is it an accident that this interview is taking place on Main Street in an East Indian restaurant that used to be called, not in jest, the Razor Blade Cafe?
T: Excuse me while I move to the next table.
GEDDES: Do you know the Indian concept of “deep-name”?
GEDDES: It’s the name by which God would really know you. Not as Alan Twigg, but a real name, such as He-Who-Would-Shoot-From-The-Hip- Before-Falling-Off His- Horse. That sort of thing. In analysis once I described the experience of having my father come from Saskatchewan, after my mother’s death, to take me to live with him and his second wife. I was sitting on the piano bench. I’d had only twelve piano lessons. I’d learned to playa few pieces. When my father arrived at the house, he was sitting behind me on the couch and I was playing the piano. As I recounted this story for the psychologist, I burst into tears. Deep sobs. Ii suddenly became clear to me that I had been playing for my life. I had to get that piece right or my father would not love me, would
not take me with him. Of course, that was not accurate at all, but that was how I had perceived it at the time and, perhaps, how I have perceived it unconsciously all these years. There I was on my island piano stool. And that is my deep-name: He- Who-Sings-For-His-Own-Life.
T: And of course poetry can be said to be a form of singing too. Just like making music on the piano.
GEDDES: I sang all the time as a kid. Certain songs on the radio used to make me weep. I never knew why, just assumed I was a sentimental slob. Recently, I learned that my mother had sung all those songs to me as a child, even while I was in the womb. The feelings of loss clung to the notes and lyrics. I used to sing in my potato patch in Saskatchewan, and in the outhouse. Poems must have been a continuation of that urge to sing.
T: For self approval, or the approval of others?
GEDDES: Both, obviously. At a certain point, however, the singing serves other functions than self validation. You start to sing of the tribe, to keep the record, to bear witness. Most poems come to me as a gift. The coincidence of elements that allows me to write a poem has little to do with me. I have to keep alert and keep my language self in good shape, like a volunteer fireman. I have to be there at the right time, ready to work. I believe language is a collective and communal treasure. My job is to try to write another poem, not take credit for what is done.
[STRONG VOICES by Alan Twigg (Harbour 1988)] “Interview”
Falsework (Goose Lane $19.95)
Three events in British Columbia drew world attention during the 1950s. Englishman Roger Bannister and Australian John Landy eclipsed the four-minute-mile barrier at Empire Stadium during the Miracle Mile (on August 7, 1954); north of Campbell River, engineers generated the largest non-nuclear peacetime explosion in human history at Ripple Rock (on April 5, 1958); and eighteen steel workers and one rescue diver were killed when the Second Narrows Bridge collapsed during its construction (on June 17, 1958).
In 1958, having just graduated from King Edward High School, Gary Geddes was working on the waterfront at BC Sugar Refinery, loading boxcars with 100-pound sacks of sugar, so the news of the bridge collapse did not take long to reach him.
“What I did not know at the time,” he says, “was that my father had been called out as a former navy diver to stand by in the search for bodies in the wreckage. I’ve carried for a long time the image of him dangling from his umbilical cord of oxygen in that cauldron of swirling water and twisted metal.”
Geddes has imagined the voices of those most directly affected by the accident for an unusual collection of poetry, prose and archival photos called Falsework (Goose Lane $19.95). The title is an engineering term that refers to the temporary supports that are required for a cantilevered bridge under construction.
“In this case,” he says, “a mistake was made and the horizontal I-beams were inadequate to support the weight. It was a simple mathematical error that should have been picked up by both the contractor, Dominion Bridge, and the consulting engineers, Swan Wooster and Associates.”
The Second Narrows Bridge was renamed the Ironworkers Memorial Bridge in 1994 to commemorate the tragedy. To this day many British Columbians are haunted by the event. This summer, when Geddes read from Falsework at the Denman Island Writers Festival, a woman in the audience recalled working as a telephone operator in 1958—and every conversation she overhead on that fateful day mentioned the bridge failure.
[BCBW 2007] “history”
Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence: Press Release (2008)
Vancouver, BC – The West Coast Book Prize Society is proud to recognize Gary Geddes as the recipient of the fifth annual Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence. British Columbia’s Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable Steven Point, will present the award at the Lieutenant Governor’s BC Book Prizes Gala to be held at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel in Vancouver on April 26, 2008. The event will be hosted by broadcaster Fanny Kiefer. This prize was established in 2003 by former Lieutenant Governor, the Honourable Iona Campagnolo, to recognize British Columbia writers who have contributed to the development of literary excellence in the province. The recipient receives a cash award of $5,000 and a commemorative certificate.
The jury for Geddes’ award consisted of Carla Funk, poet laureate for the city of Victoria; Margaret Reynolds, executive director of the Association of Book Publishers of BC; and Mel Bolen, owner of Bolen Books, Victoria. Carla Funk, wrote, “From 15 Canadian Poets to Skookum Wawa to 20th Century Poetry and Poetics, Gary Geddes has raised the literary profile of both our province and nation, and has long been considered one of Canada’s most important men of letters. He has given decades of his life to teaching Canadian literature and the craft of writing as well as working as a university professor, writer-in-residence, critic, anthologist, translator, editor, and most importantly, writer. Gary Geddes’ writings have crossed countries and continents in performance and translation. He has received numerous awards, including the E.J. Pratt Medal, a Canadian Authors Association prize, two Archibald Lampman awards, and the Gabriela Mistral Prize for service to literature and the people of Chile. His work as a poet has been generous in its outward-looking gaze. His poems bring song and light into darkened corners of the human experience, document silent and hidden lives, and enter politics through the individual and the personal. His newest book of poems, Falsework, explores the 1958 collapse of Vancouver’s Second Narrows Bridge. His meditative memoir Sailing Home: A Journey Through Time, Place and Memory (2001) chronicles his return to the West Coast with a deep sense of awe and gratitude for the beauty, wildness, and history of this place. In whatever genre he pursues, Gary Geddes writes with eloquence and intense awareness of mystery within the commonplace, and the single human voice singing inside the crowd. He tells the truth, in all its rawness and splendour. For the integrity of his creative work, for his active and generous promotion of other writers, and for the words he has given to help map the literary geography of British Columbia, we proudly celebrate Gary Geddes.”