Woodcock Award Speech
July 05th, 2012
I am deeply honoured to follow in the footsteps of so many remarkable recipients of this award, writers, thinkers, and advocates for social justice, beginning with George Woodcock himself. Speaking of footsteps, this may sound odd, but for someone who was an immigrant child it is an unparalleled thrill to know that scores of Vancouverites will tread my name into the city’s ground on their way into and out of this library.
I have many people to thank, people to whom I am deeply indebted because without them I would not be standing here. First of all I want to thank my family for their unfailing support, especially my partner Bridget MacKenzie, my sister Pamela Pedersen, my niece Karen Peterson, and my son Kit Marlatt. I want to thank my late parents, Arthur and Edrys Buckle, for having chosen Vancouver as their site of immigration in the early 1950s. And I want to thank all my writing friends for their conversation, their stimulating insight and wit over the course of many years now. I’ve learned so much from listening to each of you, and especially to the late writer, visual artist and musician, Roy Kiyooka.
As I have insisted on another occasion, being singled out as the most deserving for an award overlooks the fact that writers never really work alone. It may look like that when we disappear for hours but none of my books were written alone. Like the works of other writers, mine have engaged with and relied upon, the words and thoughts of others – indeed, not only words, but the artistic skills and creative insights of theatre directors, actors, and musicians. They have been based on conversations in neighbourhoods and locales with many different persons, each a specialist in her or his field, whether it was fishing, running a café, or working in a bakery. Much of my work has been openly collaborative. Nor have any of my books entered the world without the invaluable midwifery support of many editors and publishers, nor have they found readers without the notice taken of them by critics, other writers, and librarians. In this room tonight there are poets, musicians, translators, theatre artists, editors, publishers and critics to whom I owe a great debt of gratitude.
In a brief article titled “And I quote,” George Woodcock quoted himself: “Often one feels that if a true federalism survives anywhere in Canada, it does among the artists with their intense local loyalties and their countrywide links.” I like this translation of a rigid political structure into an impromptu artistic one. All such “local loyalties” grow by association and somewhat haphazardly, even fortuitously. Even though these loyalties can lead to aesthetic disputes and put-downs between different circles of artists, nevertheless they are characterized by an economy of sharing. In this province they are also characterized by an economy of improvisation in the face of a long history of inadequate funding for the arts. As most of you know, a huge amount of volunteer time and energy goes into the making of any artistic production and each is in this sense a community effort.
When I began writing in the 1960s, at a time when there was a push to recognize not only our national literature but a distinctively British Columbian literature, improvisation and free collective effort were understood to be a necessary part of art-making. In recent decades, the publishing industry has opted for a celebrity best-seller model that obscures the community aspect behind all writing, an aspect that poets still understand because poetry is and will always be less of a commodity than either fiction or nonfiction.
I began writing within a community of poets, the Tish poets, committed to writing the local. Subsequently my work evolved within larger circles of writers across the country, thanks to the Canada Council’s readings program, which took me to major cities and all three coasts. And thanks too to various writers-in-residence programs which gave me the opportunity to meet with other writers in Ontario and the prairies, a version of Woodcock’s “countrywide links.”
Even though I’ve lived for a few years in the U.S. and on Salt Spring and Vancouver Island, I feel that my real locale is this city, this city and its environs penetrated by water. For better or worse this is my muse-city, a city that prompts connection with what is both material and immaterial. A city where edges blur, where streets flood in heavy rains and sewers back up, where a major river rushes down from the province’s heartland with its load of silt, where mountain creeks teem with snow-melt, bringing down whole trees on their way to the sea.
We no longer have the fogs we used to have in the 50s and 60s but I remember staring from the windows of my family’s home in North Van at a city that had simply disappeared. The disappearing acts of fog have been replaced by more concrete disappearing acts, the half-block holes of redevelopment that appear routinely and almost overnight erase the memory of what was there before. This city has been, since its beginning, a rainforest city of rapid rot and quick new growth, both physical and socio-political. A city literally and metaphorically on edge, marked by holes and edges. A city whose historical centre at Hastings and Main is so edgy tourists avoid it. A city in which whole families disappear from their homes into homelessness. For better or worse this is the city that calls me to sound the invisibilities that underlie its spectacular concrete and glass monoliths.
Still if this is the geographic terrain of my writing — an urban distillation of the West Coast with its islands of drowned mountains, its tidal arms washing deep inland – it doesn’t account for all that has kept me writing for almost five decades now. As Robin Blaser once said in an interview: “…whatever else art or a poem is, it’s not the world, and it’s not really going to give you the world. What it does is let you deal with the territory, and the territory doesn’t have any map.” The territory is inner, pre-verbal, a field of rhythmic energy waves materializing as words, phrases, images and in that process encountering critical concepts. That’s the immediate moment of writing.
Our incessantly active brains seem to work as a kind of echo chamber for language. When I first came to Canada as a nine-year old I was fascinated not only by West Coast vocabulary (cricks, saltchuck, boonies) and by the American slang of country-and-western music on the radio, but also by the more staccato rhythms of speech around me, so different from the longer rhythms of colonial British or the graceful looping rhythms of the St James Bible and Anglican hymns of my childhood. I often misunderstood people, didn’t know the references or couldn’t catch the accent, which contributed to a lifelong sense of “not knowing” except through sensation, what the body experiences without words, as well as a puzzling together of echoes, phrases picked up from what I’d read or heard. Disjunction and dislocation can create a reach for its opposite. So I was curious about this locale and its varied inhabitants. Who were these people living alongside me? Who were the people who made this city? And who were the people who knew this terrain long before the “we” a city proposes?
So, terrain and community through time, their inter-dependence: a curiosity about this has driven much of my work — from the oral history work in Steveston with Maya Koizumi, Robert Minden and Rex Weyler — to Steveston, the book of poems and portraits that Robert and I did together in the early 70s — to Opening Doors, the collection of life stories Carole Itter and I gathered among the various ethnic and racial communities that made Strathcona the neighbourhood it is. Looking for other ways of presenting the struggles of these communities, I moved more recently towards theatre with The Gull, a contemporary version of a classical Japanese Noh play with music by Richard Emmert, produced in Richmond by Heidi Specht and Lenard Stenga of Pangaea Arts. And most recently Shadow Catch, a Noh-influenced chamber opera with music by four Vancouver composers about Oppenheimer Park and homelessness, produced last year by Benton Roark of Pro Musica and directed by Colleen Lanki of Tomoe Arts. The arc of writing about the cultural hybridity of this city and its physical transformations over time, an arc that began with my fiction and poetry of the 1960s, continues still.
There has been another arc, equally insistent, the arc of writing from a woman’s perspective and a lesbian perspective. This perspective inflects all my work but surfaced most clearly under the influence of the second wave of Feminism, that trans-local, international movement of the 70s and 80s. I still have a vivid memory of walking in a peace march with Maria Hindmarch towards the Burrard Street Bridge and Maria telling me with excitement about a book she was reading called New French Feminisms. That, together with an early essay by Nicole Brossard about language and feminism, an essay in the Quebec magazine Ellipse which lay on Pauline Butling and Fred Wah’s coffee table when I visited them in the Kootenays — from these moments of revelation sprang a lot of talking, thinking, collaborating and writing in the next two decades. There was the organizing work that produced the ground-breaking 1983 conference “Women and Words” led by Betsy Warland, and then the stimulating exchange of ideas over a span of some 8 years editing the feminist cross-country journal Tessera with Barbara Godard, Kathy Mezei, Gail Scott, Susan Knutson, and Louise Cotnoir — so many gifted, remarkable women. During this time, two novels, Ana Historic and Taken, were written, as well as several poetry collaborations with Betsy, plus a mini-collaboration of “transformance” poems with Nicole Brossard.
The subtle and not so subtle divisions between self and other, all those others we set apart from ourselves and make somehow lesser, that gift of awareness that the feminist struggle advances — a struggle that still continues — translated itself in my mind to an equal care for the ecological web that we live within and that supports us. This concern about the irreversible damage we are doing to our environment has surfaced in much of my recent writing.
Energy seems to come in waves, whether the zeitgeist of certain decades or the infinitely smaller waves of individual awareness. Energy pulses through the inherent emptiness that each one of us is — or a city is — depending from, dependent on, all the others who co-inhabit our streets, our memory banks, our momentarily writing hands.
I’d like to end with a recent poem that pulses through layers of this city’s history within the context of its changing economy and a changing climate.
white shock blue grouse willowware
shades glaze those two facing sisters hyas muckamuck
renamed couchant imperial untracked crown looms legalized
so close down main tonight hope snows veins eyes loose
change names liquid
drip eaves long gone in re-
build demolished reconstructed viz city market dream the
locals by early water under bridge no willow sole perch
sturgeon at false creek points slaughterhouse then sawmill
a market econ oh
who managing whose house it runs down to
a metro built on labour’s back on brick or wood slats glitz
‘n bling now wallow in stock collapse concrete drips snow
line no-show line down blue shopping or shipping out all
water under the bridge
maxsuez tanker traffic liquid asset run-off
’s melt oolichan near gone
it’s warming up
so grab a
rainhat eh once cedar see reigning oil’s long
reach it rains for free
If poetry works through waves of association in which language sound and thought fuse in about-to-become formations that hold their own dissolution within them — just as any formation of the city does –
If poetry testifies to moments of associative awareness in which language sound and thought meet in an about-to-become formation that holds its own dissolution within it, just as any formation of the city does, then I’d like to end with a near-perfect few lines by Phyllis Webb that riff off one of Kundera’s titles:
heavy wait for
that unbearable that
moment of being
a featherweight a
spin of spume
on a dark wave….
(from ‘The Unbearable Lightness…’)
I discovered when writing Ana Historic that English phrases of a certain class and period that my mother used frequently in my childhood, phrases I had silenced for many years, would suddenly make themselves heard in the writing. Rhythm in particular seems to underlie these echoes, most obviously in the rhythms of repeating song lines we can’t shake, words amplified by melodic rhythm. There are also the ever-present rhythms of syntax, whether spoken or written, intact or deliberately broken — a curiosity about these has driven much of my work. Perhaps we think in rhythm, which after all is a pattern of repeating energy-pulses or waves.
How to do that in the black and white print of words on a page or a screen? I’ve talked about community and edges, holes. Where they merge is where language hovers in all its impossibility.
[June 28, 2012, Vancouver Public Library]
Essay Date: 2012