April 07th, 2008
AL PURDY was born at Wooler, Ontario in 1918. He grew up in Trenton, Ontario, rode the freights to the West Coast, and took mainly working class jobs as he evolved his poetry of engaging frankness, sardonic humour and reflective depth. Some of his many poetry books are Poems for All the Annettes (1962), Cariboo Horses (1965), for which he received the Governor General's Award, A Handful of Earth (1977), an anthology Being Alive (1978) and The Stone Bird (1981). He has travelled extensively. Al Purdy lives in Ameliasburg, Ontario. He was interviewed in 1978.
T: What was your family upbringing like?
PURDY: We were lower middle class, I guess you'd call it. My father was a farmer who died of cancer when I was two. My mother moved to town and devoted her life to going to church and bringing me up. I suppose I reacted against religion. But I remember when I rode the freight trains west for the first time, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I got lost in the woods and couldn't get out. So I prayed. I wasn't going to take any chances, no chances at all.
T: If a person reacts that way when he's very young, they say he'll react that way again when he's old.
PURDY: Christ, I'll never make it! I haven't prayed since that time. I doubt if I ever will again. I'm not religious in any formal sense, not in any God sense.
T: Do you think riding the freights appealed to you because it put you in touch with your survival juices?
PURDY: Well, let me give you the story about the first trip I took. I was hitchhiking north of Sault Ste. Marie when suddenly the Trans-Canada Highway didn't go any further. So I had to catch a train. I waited till after midnight. I got onto a flatcar that had had coal on it. It was raining and so I huddled there, all self-equipped with two tubes of shaving cream and an extra pair of shoes and a waterproof jacket.
We went all night into a town called Hawk Junction. I was desperate from the rain. I got out my big hunting knife and tried to get into one of the boxcars. I ripped the seal off one of the cars and tried to open the door but I couldn't do it. So I went back and huddled miserably on the flatcar. I didn't know I was at a divisional point. A cop came along and said, "You can get two years for this." He locked me up in a caboose with bars on the
windows. There was a padlock on the outside of the door, which opened inward. Then he came along a couple of hours later and took me home to have lunch with his family. They gave me a Ladies' Home Journal to read.
I began to get alarmed. What will my mother think? Two years in jail. The window of the caboose was broken where other people had tried to get out and couldn't do it. But I noticed, as I said, that the door opened inward. There was a padlock and a hasp on the outside. I put my feet up on the upper part of the sill and got my fingers in the hasp. I pulled the screws out of the padlock on the outside.
I started to walk back to Sault Ste. Marie, which was a hundred and sixty-five miles. Then I got panicky. They'll follow me. I'm a desperate criminal. I broke a seal. So I thought I'd walk a little way in the woods so they won't see me. But I got in too far. I couldn't get out. I was there for two bloody days. It rained. That was the last time I prayed, as I said.
T: What were your ambitions as a kid?
PURDY: To stay alive. To get along with other kids. Growing up in a small town, the only son of a very religious woman, I was always alone. Until I got into the Air Force at the age of twenty or so, I didn't get along with anybody. I became a great reader. I read all the crappy things that kids read. I remember there was a series of paperback books back then called the Frank Merriwell series. When I was about thirteen, a neighbour moved away and gave me two hundred copies of Frank Merriwell. This guy Frank Merriwell went to Yale University and he won at everything he didnaturally he was an American and anyway, he went through many vicissitudes. I pretended I was ill and went to bed. My mother fed me ice cream and I read all two hundred books. I stayed in bed for two months. Then I went back to school and passed into the next form.
T: Were you good in school?
PURDY: Not really. I even failed one year so I could play football. One year I got ninety percent or something and the next year I got forty. Don't ask me why. I started writing when I was about thirteen. I thought it was great when in fact it was crap. But you need that ego to write. Always.
T: You sound like you were probably pretty harem-scarem in those days.
PURDY: No, I wasn't harem-scarem at all. I was pretty conventional. Also I was always very discontented. A miserable little kid. I started, out of sheer desperation, to ride the freight trains. There's a quality of desperation about riding the freights. In my own mind, I was sort of a desperate kid. At a certain age you're always uncertain how other people will take you. I was desperately unhappy trying to adjust to the world. Finally I didn't give a damn.
T: Was the RCAF the next step in your life, after the freight trains?
PURDY: I was doing odd jobs around Trenton. What you did was you picked apples or you worked for Bata shoes. You quit one and then the other. I got into the Air Force for a job. I was there six years. I took a course and became a corporal, then an acting sergeant. Then I was demoted from acting sergeant to corporal and all the way down.
T: You got demoted "to the point where I finally saluted civilians." Why?
PURDY: By this time I was…going out with girls. I'd been too scared to go out with them up to the age I got into the Air Force. Once, when I was corporal of the guard, I drove the patrol car over to Belleville to see this girl after midnight. I got caught at it. I was acting sergeant at Picton where I had a big crew of Americans waiting to get into training. What I did was appoint a whole bunch of acting noncoms so that I would have plenty of freedom. I went out on the town again. Actually I was enjoying myself for the first time in my life. I hated the town of Trenton and I was finally out of it.
T: You've described your first book of poetry, The Enchanted Echo, as crap. Did you pay for its publication?
PURDY: Sure. Clarke and Stuart in Vancouver printed it for me. I cost me two hundred dollars to do about five hundred copies. About one hundred and fifty of them got out so I guess about half of those have been destroyed. I went back there ten years ago and they'd thrown them all out. Or they'd burned them. I'd been afraid to go back because I didn't think I could pay storage charges.
T: Around this time you got married. Your wife plays a pretty integral part in your poetry, yet we never get a clear picture of what kind of person she is. ..
PURDY: Oh, she's good material. She fixes small television sets and bends iron bars. I picked her up in the streets of Belleville, way back when. Her name's Eurithe because I think her parents were scared by the Odyssey or Iliad or something. It's a Greek name. I don't know why they picked such an oddball name because they're pretty straight people.
T: Have you ever tried writing a novel?
PURDY: Yes, I got sixteen thousand words once but it was terrible. I used to write plays, too. Ryerson Press accepted a book and the first play I wrote was produced, so my wife and I moved to Montreal so I could reap the rewards for my genius. She went to work to support me, as any well behaved wife should. It turned out I had to write a dozen plays before I could get one accepted by the hardboiled CBC producers. She decided if I could get away with not working, she could too. She quit her job, though I advised her against it. That's when we built the house, which would be in ah. ..oh hell, '57 or something like that.
T: Were those the good ol' days or the bad ol' days?
PURDY: Oh, the bad old days. We were so broke! We spent all our money buying a pile of used lumber and putting a down payment on this lot. It was very bad for a while. You know how insecure your ego is when you have no money and you're jobless. There's nothing more terrible than walking the streets looking for a job. I'd been so sick of working for somebody else. Things were so bad we ate rabbits that neighbours had run over and gave to us because they knew we were broke.
I was picking up unemployment insurance for quite a while. When I built the house, I was still getting it in Montreal. I didn't dare move the unemployment insurance to Belleville because they'd give me a job. I used to drive to Montreal every two weeks to pick up the unemployment insurance. I'd drive like hell. Finally I had to get a job. So I decided to hitch-hike to Montreal. It was twenty below zero. I always pick a day like that. I got seventy miles and I couldn't make it any further. I had no gloves and I was freezing to death. Finally I got so disgusted I hitch-hiked back again. Things like that always happen. Born loser.
T: Isn't it possible to perpetuate that "born loser" image yourself?
PURDY: Oh, sure. It's your own attitude. Now I don't figure I'm going to lose hardly anything. But I used to always have that in the back of my mind, that I was going to lose or be defeated.
T: Is a talent for writing something you're born with?
PURDY: I had no talent whatsoever. If you look back at that first book, it's crap. It's a craft and I changed myself. Mind you, there are qualities of the mind which you have to have. I don't know what they are.
Still you look at some precocious little bastard like W.H. Auden–who was one of the closest to genius in this century-and you wonder. My God, there's some beautiful lines, beautiful poems.
T: How did you come to meet Irving Layton and Milton Acorn?
PURDY: I'd been corresponding with Layton because I'd found a couple of his books and liked them. After I got out of working at a mattress factory, I decided to go to Europe. I went to Layton's place in Montreal and slept on his floor before we caught our boat. I met Dudek through him. I can remember being at this drunken party in Montreal and lying on the floor with Layton, arm-wrestling. Dudek was hovering above us, supercilious and long-nosed, saying, "And these are sensitive poets!"
Milton Acorn had come from Prince Edward Island to sell his carpenter tools. He'd visited Layton. I was writing plays and Layton told Acorn to come around and see me and I'd tell him something about writing plays. I couldn't tell him anything. I couldn't even write them myself.
T: What made you head off to the Cariboo when you got your first Canada Council Fellowship in 1960?
PURDY: I was looking for an excuse to do anything. I only got a thousand bucks so I decided to write a verse play. I'd been stationed at Woodcock during the war, which is about a 150 miles from Prince Rupert. Totem poles, Indians and the whole works. We were building an airstrip.
T: So did you intuitively think the Cariboo would stimulate you? Likewise for your trip to Baffin Island?
PURDY: I thought I was so damn lucky to be able to go up there to Baffin Island. I'm the only writer on the whole damned island! The feeling that nobody'd ever written about it before!
T: Now you've published twenty-five books, fourteen in the seventies alone. Do you consider yourself prolific?
PURDY: I'm not prolific like Layton. I'll publish a small book and there'll maybe be three or four poems which I think are worth including in Being Alive. It's a frightening thing to look backward and see that the earlier books have more poems in the collection than the later ones.
T: How closely did you work with Dennis Lee in editing Being Alive?
PURDY: He's a friend of mine. There are about fifteen poems which have been changed a bit because he'd look at a poem and say, "I don't quite understand this" or "I think this could be a little bit better." Picking the poems was a mutual thing. The idea was to be able to read through the sections and be able to go on to a new section easily. The divisions are not so clear cut as in Selected Poems.
It's by far the best book I've ever brought out. It amounts to a "collected" but it feels like a gravestone at the end of a road. There's a feeling of where the hell do I go from here? I certainly write less as I grow older. I'm writing very good poems at infrequent intervals. Like "Lament" and "A Handful of Earth."
T: Do you ever force yourself to write?
PURDY: Occasionally. I think a prose writer forces it out like toothpaste, but I prefer not to. Sometimes you've got a thought and you want to explore it. I dunno. The title poem of The Cariboo Horses was written in about half an hour. Another poem, "Postscript," took seven years.
T: Ten years ago you said people who develop a special way of writing, like b.p. Nichol or the Tish-Black Mountain people, were going down a dead end. Yet they're still travelling after a decade.
PURDY: It's still a dead end. They don't have any variety. The Black Mountain people talk in a certain manner in which they make underemphasised a virtue. It's dull writing. It's far duller than conversation. I can't understand how people can write it except kids can write it and think, I too can be a poet. They can ignore a thousand years of writing poems, not read what's come before. There's so much to read, so much to enjoy. That's the reason to read poetry, to enjoy it.
T: Do you have any thoughts on the general characteristics of Canadian literature?
PURDY: The most prominent characteristic of Canadian literature is that it's the only literature about which the interviewer would ask what the characteristics are.
T: I think your best poems are those that cover the eerie meeting place between past and present, such as "Method for Calling Up Ghosts," "Remains of an Indian Village," "Roblin's Mills 1 and 2," "Lament for the Dorsets." Do you believe you have a soul?
PURDY: Well, Voltaire had some thoughts on that. He tried weighing himself before and after death. I don't think he came up with anything. I don't think I do have a soul. But there are areas in our nature that we don't know about. It's possible that we may find something that we haven't found before and we may use that word that's already invented and call it a soul. We use that word because it's the only word we have. You can feel this, of course, this so-called transmigration of souls. I thought it was a fascinating concept to imagine everybody living to leave lines behind on the street where they've been in "Method for Calling Up Ghosts." What it means is you're walking across the paths of the dead at all times. Every time you cross the St. Lawrence River you're crossing Champlain's path.
T: You think a lot about death?
PURDY: Quite a bit.
T: You were born in 1918. Has feminism affected your life at all?
PURDY: Every time I read my poem "Homemade Beer" it affects me. The audience thinks, "male chauvinist." It's a bawdy, exaggerated poem. Then I can read "The Horseman of Agawa" and it's exactly the opposite. People think you want to be one thing. You're not one thing. You're everything. Of course women have been second-class citizens for years. To gain a position of near equality, which they certainly haven't done yet, they've got to exaggerate. I exaggerate, too. Those remarks about my wife were facetious, of course, but I'm trying to imply with exaggerations that she's a tremendously capable woman.
T: In "The Sculptors" you enjoy the imperfections of the broken Eskimo carvings and in "Depression in Namu, BC" you write, "beauty bores me without the slight ache of ugliness." There seems to be a streak in your that feels affinity with imperfection, that wants things to be blemished.
PURDY: Don't you ever want to splash muddy water into a sunset? A sunset is so marvellous, how are you going to paint it? How are you going to talk about it? So there is a quality of wishing to muddy up perfection, I agree.
T: You end many of your poems with a dash, as if the poem is not really completed.
PURDY: Yes, a lot of poems are in process, as if things happen after you stop looking at it. A poem is a continual revision, even if you've written it down without changing a single word. I like the thought of revision. When I copy a poem, I often change it. When I've written a poem in longhand, as I always do, I'll type, then I'll scribble it all up with changes.
T: What is there in you that needs to commemorate your existence thorough poetry?
PURDY: You have to back to when you started to write. I think most young poets begin to write through sheer ego. Look at me, no hands, Mom. There's always going to be the element of ego, because we can't escape our egos. We don't necessarily want to. But there has to be a time when we can sit down and write and try to say a thing and the ego isn't so important. When you are just trying to tell the truth, you're not trying to write immortal lines that will go reverberating down the centuries. You're saying what you feel and think and what is important to you.
T: Are you at all optimistic about our future?
PURDY: I'm pessimistic about everything the older I get. We're going to wade through garbage. We're going to split up. The Americans are going to take everything, even though they don't need to, of course, because they have it already. The world is going to explode and we'll all be dead. Life is awful.
Essay Date: 1978