Bill bissett: Leading Luddite
September 16th, 2012
bill bissett was born in Halifax in 1939. Severely bed-ridden in the hospital from age ten to twelve, bissett continually ran away from home in his teens. He briefly attended Dalhousie University (“I was supposed to be a lawyer cuz my father was one”) before moving to Vancouver in the early 1960s to attend UBC.
After two years at UBC (“I never melted with the university scene”) he started blewointmentpress in 1964 (“We started it in the ‘60s cuz no one else would print us”). With some support from UBC’s Warren Tallman, bissett became a leading figure in the emergence of a post-beatnik, pre-Hippie Fourth Avenue scene of drugs and experimental idealism.
bissett then suffered a major fall – literally – which left him completely immobilized and near-death with an intercerebral bleed. With the help of a dedicated neurologist, bissett painstakingly overcame a combination of aphasia, edema, paralysis, and epilepsy (“Little by little I got less and less spastic”) and began seeing auras.
bissett’s next setback was political. Several Conservative MPs raised the issue of public funding for bissett’s work, objecting to his inclusion of some four-letter words in his phonetically-spelled poems. Soon afterwards Canada Council support for his press was drastically reduced.
bissett now divides his time between Vancouver and London, Ontario where he is the singer and lyricist for a popular music group called The Luddites.
bill bissett is the author of more than 50 books of poetry. His newest work is inkorrect thots (Talonbooks).
BCBW: Why is your new book called inkorrect thots?
bissett: On the campuses, especially when it comes to writing, there’s a lot of talk about being politically correct. People often ask if I think something is politically correct or not. People’s concern for political correctness seems somehow retrograde to me. I actually find the whole concept very Victorian, even though it may have some things to offer. It has a very puritan ingredient to it. So I wrote this poem called “inkorrect thots”. The Ministry of Korecct Thots explains everything for everyone, but then it has to apologize because it can’t explain everything.
BCBW: After all these years I think many people still regard you as an ecstatic artist. The weirdo hippie poet who spells funny…
bissett: Well, it’s possibly that my ecstasy is different from their ecstasy, and they don’t accept that. It’s possible that they don’t write about their ecstasy and they don’t want me to write about mine. It’s possible, too, that they don’t see where we have a lot in common. They may think since they don’t write about ecstasy and I do, there isn’t a cognitive process, a real knowing going on in what I do.
BCBW: Nowadays when you read over your earlier books, what do you see?
bissett: I think the writing knew more than I did.
BCBW: When you give your reading at the Free Press Festival, which poems will you read?
bissett: I never know what I’m going to read before a reading.
BCBW: Why is that?
bissett: I prefer to gauge life, and my mood. Some poems don’t work one night, others do. It’s the same with being in the band. We’re always surprised by what works. You think it’s quite cool, you hope it’s fine. If the audience loves it, terrific. If they hate it, terrific. But I feel very encouraged if people like what I do. That’s really important to me. I love it if they love it. It really does help me.
BCBW: Through all your changes since blewointment at least you’ve had the consistency of being with Talonbooks for 15 years.
bissett: Yes, Talon is amazing. They’ve been so good to me. In my personal life I’m still restless. The ‘greener pasture’ thing kicks in fairly regularly with its attendant mythologies and blind alleys. But with someone to publish me I don’t feel like going anywhere else.
BCBW: How do you feel about coming back to BC for the Festival?
bissett: I’ve been living in Centralia most of the time since ’85. It’s a thrill to come back here and see close friends. The climate in Centralia is very hot and very cold and very sultry and very humid and very totally freezing. My body’s got quite used to it. And so has my mind, almost. So when I come back here in winter, it’s a luxury.
BCBW: Speaking of Centralia [Central Canada] what’s your response to the political schisms in Canada?
bissett: I’ve been watching the constitutionals workshops on TV. Rogers Cable has them on until 2 o’clock. It’s amazing! We live in a kind of shadow country. Our constitutional workshops are on the cable channels and are not even on the large networks.
I’ve been very impressed with Ovide Mercredi and the clarity of his mind and the presence of his being. Some of the people I saw were reacting like ‘the Family Compact rides again’. Upper and Lower Canada were obsessively concerned about themselves. Then he persisted and continued with the clarity of his mind and his position. I saw a real turnaround in people’s minds. They started to get it and understand it. I’m very encouraged by all this.
Maybe we’ll get a whole bunch of words that promote the distinctiveness of Quebec and promote the inherent self-government of aboriginal peoples. It could happen. I’m still hopeful. I get really into it. Without being Pollyandrew about it, I live in hope.
BCBW: You’ve always been a keen political observer. What do you think about Brian Mulroney?
bissett: I’ve been bummed out by him. I’m just waiting until he’s no longer in office, so we can do something about restoring our own sovereignty. The Gulf War was a reminder that we don’t want to get too involved in American policy making and how cruel their society is. Now we’re just realizing that all this bullshit about globalization and free trade and privatization and deregulation is all a big power-grab by the ruling class for more luxury. It’s basically union-busting. Hopefully we can come back to some democratic sense rather than blatant oligarchy.
BCBW: You don’t recognize Canada as democratic?
bissett: Well, the word democracy can be applied to Canada, but in a lot of respect it’s bullshit. Look at the stacking of the Senate to get the GST through, or shoving Free Trade down people’s throats. Even the chief negotiator Simon Reisman said it was a disgrace and would not work to our benefit.
Mulroney and Bush and Reagan and Thatcher really felt they could provide more jobs if they eliminated the taxes on wealthy people. But I think most people are seeing through it now. If you don’t tax wealthy people then there are no jobs and they’ll just put their factories where the cheap labour is, like in Mexico with workers working for $5 a day. Labatt’s from London, Ontario is moving to Cancun, Mexico.
By the way, do you agree? Or are you the classical interviewer that doesn’t have to agree or disagree?
BCBW: I’m the classical interviewer.
bissett: I worry now that the Free Trade talks are really affecting support for the arts. Hills, the American free trade negotiator, wants the Canada Council on the table. But I think there’s a democratic move towards establishing values and rights in the United States by all the people who’ve become disenfranchised through Regan a d Bush. This actually will help us. We’ve got to help ourselves. We can’t rely on the empire. Canadians are waking up. We can assert ourselves and take control of our own sovereign destiny.
BCBW: So what did the swans have to say to you this morning?
bissett: I asked them about theory and art, and they liked the question. They said art can be theory if it really wants to, but it’s not art; art is about living directly. That’s what’s ecstatic and illuminating about it, it emphasizes living directly rather than theoretically.
BCBW: What else have the swans been saying?
bissett: Well, the swans told me the trees are meeting secretly to decide our fate on the planet. The trees are trying to decide whether they’ll grow more leaves and branches to protect us from the ozone, or just let us burn. This is a big controversy in the tree population. Some trees are bitter about us, but others want to help.
BCBW: As you get older, do you get better at being happy?
bissett: it keeps going backwards and forwards. You go through so many things: for a while, The Loved One is God, for a while Writing is God, for a while Art is God, for a while The Community is God. All these things have their down sides, as well. But this is, relatively speaking, the healthiest period of my life, which I’m very grateful for.
Last year I knew nothing and it became too big a burden for me. This year I know less than nothing, which is helping a lot.
Essay Date: 1992