Dorothy Livesay #2
April 07th, 2008
DOROTHY LIVESAY was born in Winnipeg in 1909. Educated in Toronto and Paris, drug she moved to Vancouver and evolved a turbulent literary career as a "social realist." Winner of Governor General's Awards for Day and Night (1944) and Poems for People (1947), health Livesay has expanded her work beyond its initial leftist, dosage proletarian focus to produce some of her best work such as The Unquiet Bed (1967), Ice Age (1975) and The Woman I Am (1977). In addition to her fictionalized reminiscences in Beginnings: A Winnipeg Childhood (1973), her memoirs include Right Hand Left Hand (1977). Dorothy Livesay has lived in most parts of Canada. She currently resides in Victoria. She was interviewed in 1978.
T: In the thirties it must have been more difficult for a woman to take an activist role outside the family than it is now. Where do you think you got your strength for your nonconformity?
LIVESAY: Well, there have always been women rebels. But I don't think there have been very many women revolutionaries. For that I would think you have to be a militant since childhood, which I never could be. My father called himself a radical, a man who went "to the root of things." Being a newspaper man involved with sending a news service across the country, he'd never committed himself to the Liberals or the Conservatives. But he was interested in the development of the CCF. He had an open mind, until I went out on the picket lines!
T: Do you think it's more difficult to create social change nowadays because a class structure is not so obvious?
LIVESAY: Yes. What we'd hoped for was that the soldiers would come back from the Second World War and be ready to change society. Instead, they were very accepting of society. The working class that we used to think of has become very much a middle class, therefore they are afraid of change.
T: It seems to me that liberalism dominates our age but it's unprogressive because it's basically just individualism. How do you feel about social change for the eighties?
LIVESAY: Well, when you get to seventy, every decade seems to be swinging one way, then the other. Plus ca change, Plus c'est la meme chose. Certainly, though, there's been a great liberalization in the areas of sex. What we did surreptitiously as university students in the thirties, is now all completely in the open.
But as a whole, I would say North America is still very reactionary. In Europe there's a great deal of this splitting up, of wanting to be independent over there, amongst the Bretons, the Basques and what have you. It's happening in England with the Welsh and the Scottish. This is an age not of disintegration but of refraction, of splitting off and becoming culturally and linguistically aware of oneself. So I don't find it disturbing that this is happening in Canada too, even though others do. It may be that Quebec can move much faster towards a socialist society than the rest of Canada.
T: When you were a student in Paris you wrote, "I don't see any way out but the death and burial of capitalism." Forty-seven years later, do you still believe that?
LIVESAY: It's taking much longer than we thought, but of course it is happening all over the world. Capitalism has taken on many practical socialist ideas.
T: You've always been a great believer in proletarian literature, or writing which is readily accessible to everybody. Do you think Canadian writers are adequately responding to their social obligations?
LIVESAY: No, not at all. We have no writers like Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir who believe that the writer in any country must be committed to seek better things for humanity. If he doesn't speak out then he's committed to reaction.
T: Certainly there must be some writers whom you read nowadays and admire, whom you could recommend to other people?
LIVESAY: I had high hopes for the grass roots poets in Canada like Milton Acorn, Al Purdy and Pat Lane. And Pat Lowther was certainly very much a committed poet before her murder. And Tom Wayman. It would seem to me that these poets and those that follow with them are speaking out, but there isn't anything like the commitment of the writers in the thirties. We were so stirred up by what was happening in Spain. The takeovers by Mussolini and Hitler created an anti-Franco situation in Canada which was very strong.
T: We have lots of capable wordslingers, but very few people are concerned with international matters.
LIVESAY: It's pitiful what some of the young writers are doing. They are completely ignoring what's happening in the world, which is the threat of nuclear war. But it isn't so with the youngest group. I've been in contact with students in Ottawa and Manitoba who are nineteen and twenty and they seem very concerned.
T: In the thirties, when you were writing for New Frontier, you were more consciously propagandist in your poems than you are now.
LIVESAY: Well, in those days you didn't have any mass media. You didn't have people participating so much in the level of, say, folk songs or jazz. Now the scene is changed. Beginning with the sixties, in Canada and perhaps around the world, the poet is now asked to come and speak to musical gatherings or pop weekends. There was never any of this in the thirties. Of course we tried to join in on picket lines and have mass chants, but it was somewhat schematic, or unreal. What's very good today is that poets are now part of popular art. I don't spurn popular art. Many songsters are very good poets.
T: In your poem, "Last Letter," you write: "I am certain now, in love, women are more committed." Do you think that opinion will ever change?
LIVESAY: It's going to be very tough. Young men are having an awful time adjusting to the idea that a woman is a person, completely free to do what she pleases. I have confessions from young men who tell me their problems with their girlfriends. I sympathize with them, but we're absolutely flooded with television and magazines which work against change. The consumer market for women's products is appalling! Girls must have more and more dresses for more and more occasions to attract men. How are you ever going to break that down?
T: Let's talk a little about your latest book of poetry. Is the title Ice Age intended to have personal and political implications?
LIVESAY: And human. I had been reading, as we all have, of the possible changes in our world climate. The ice age is moving down again. This is a symbol of what's happening to humanity psychologically and spiritually. And of course personally, as one is approaching seventy, one begins to sense that this will be the end. All I have said will turn to ice.
T: Your style as a poet has not fluctuated a great deal since you began writing. How consciously have you been concerned with manipulation of technique?
LIVESAY: I used to be very conscious of punctuation. All my early poetry was very carefully punctuated. But I think my style changed when I carne back from Africa in '63. That was the year the Black Mountain thing descended on Vancouver. Earle Birney brought Robert Creeley and Robert Duncan and that whole crowd. I heard them that summer and met Phyllis Webb and all the Tish people. But I got bored with the way they were all talking the same way. Lionel Kearns would use a metronome finger as he read. But I did come around to thinking that capitals at the beginning of a line were unnecessary. So I started arranging my lines as much as I could according to the breath. George Bowering helped me quite a bit on that. But I'm conservative. I don't want to make it look far out, like bissett and these people.
T: Many poets nowadays write poetry which is meant to be read aloud. Do you keep that in mind when you write?
LIVESAY: If I'm alone, I'll go over a poem aloud. I'll pace it out. I'll find that a particular stress or syllable doesn't work there at all.
T: Did you undergo a problem of adjustment becoming a poet as performer?
LIVESAY: Well, I remember the Ford Foundation once invited Canadian poets to come from all over the country to Kingston to discuss the literary scene for a weekend. The government was concerned with setting up the Canada Council. This would be around '56. Between these long sessions with publishers on the state of publishing, we organized little poetry circles. Layton and Dudek were there, people of that sort. I was asked to read. I read a recent poem that hadn't been published called "Lament," about the death of my father. I was absolutely terrified. I believed in the poem before I read it, but while I was reading it, didn't believe in it at all. It didn't make much of an impression. Now it's probably the most anthologized of my poems, that and "Bartok." But it was definitely not an easy time to read aloud.
T: Did you get much support from the CBC?
LIVESAY: I don't know when I was first asked to read for the CBC. I had a longstanding fight with Bob Weaver, who was doing Anthology. He insisted that the poetry be read by an actress. I couldn't stand their women actresses. They read it all wrong. I didn't think my voice was that bad. Some of us had a ten-year fight with Weaver to allow the poet to read it his own way. They swore an actor could do it better. Part of it was they had to pay the actor, to help them survive. Now it's pretty well the rule that a poet reads his own poems.
T: Most of the power of your poetry comes from your ability to make the personal reflect the universal. Do you ever consciously write poetry as a social function, starting with the universal deliberately?
LIVESAY: My earlier documentaries were full of immediate passion, like Day and Night. It just sprang out of my experience. But Call My People Home was planned. I had to present what happened to those people. So I did a lot of research beforehand. The same is true of an Indian play I wrote for the CBC called Momatkom. This was in the fifties, long before George Ryga's The Ecstasy of Rita Joe. I was dealing with these radical conflicts way back. In '45 I was writing a poem about Louis Riel. I had to get a Guggenheim grant for that because there were no Canadian grants. Well, I missed getting the grant and couldn't finish the poem. It's now called "The Prophet of the New World." Now suddenly there's nothing but Louis Riel poems, plays and operas!
T: Do you ever look back on things you wrote, perhaps, forty years ago, and want to change them?
LIVESAY: No, I've objected very much to W.H. Auden changing his poems about Spain. I think it's dreadful, sinful. Because that was the feeling at the moment and that's what made the poem. Earle Birney's done the same thing. He's revised and I think it's wicked.
T: Birney was a Trotskyite when you knew him, aside from his poetry.
LIVESAY: Yes. We were all against Hitler during the war. That's how I got to know Earle best. He brought Esther home from London and they had a son born about when my children were born. We met often on picnics and literary evenings. But I had known him even in his Trotskyite days. Earle at that time wasn't a poet at all, as far as I knew him. He was a Canadian interested in literature while he was becoming a Trotskyite.
Then Earle corresponded with me during the war, from Europe. We were always quite close. I dedicated the poem West Coast to him. He represented the poem's central figure, the intellectual, who didn't know what to do. So he finally went down to the shipyards to see what that was all about. Then he enlisted. We've had terrible schisms since.
T: Generally, do you have a low opinion of Canadian critics?
LIVESAY: They're myopic. They have no vision.
T: Has reading the criticism of your work ever been a learning experience for you?
LIVESAY: I don't think I've had any serious critical work done on me in the earlier years. The whole group that centred around Frye ignored me completely. You won't find any of them even looking at my books.
T: Is the Canadian writing scene more fragmented than ever?
LIVESAY: Well, I don't think we ever were fragmented because we were small enough to be a company, a community of writers. We all knew each other. Now it's just become more regional. You have communities in five regions but you don't have a unification for the country. That's significant for the future.
In a remark he made in the introduction of Emily Carr's first book, Ira Dilworth said Carr was absolutely rooted in her region, in the history of BC and Indian life. But because she was dedicated to that region she's an international genius. It's true of Hardy; it's true of Balzac. The more you really absorb a locale or community, the more international
T: Are there poems of yours which you think will stand the test of time?
LIVESAY: Some poems have meaning now and some poems have meaning for always. A poem like "Bartok and the Geraniums" might have meaning for always. It's a male/ female poem, but it's also about art and nature. Then there are poems about women's plight. And perhaps a poem which predicts the androgynous future, "On Looking into Henry Moore." I think he was androgynous. He was the humanity of man and woman, the complete thing, which I've been striving to express. I also think in the Canadian scene that my documentaries will have importance. Day and Night and Call My People Home are being put into anthologies quite frequently.
T: Has your writing been affected by your earlier work as a journalist?
LIVESAY: Yes, I think that helps. I hated newspaper work because you have to do such dirty things to people. My year of apprenticeship on the Winnipeg Tribune was painful. I had to compromise people to get my story. hated that. Then I worked for the Star. I sent articles about France and then after the war I did a series on post-war rehabilitation in England. I was freer then, but as a younger reporter you simply had to get a story out of people. I hated that.
T: I don't think there's any particular route one should follow to become a writer. However, would you recommend a career in journalism as opposed to the university route?
LIVESAY: Both things that I did, journalism and social work, have been significant. But I actually would have liked to have been an anthropologist. There are a number of anthropologists who are also poets and writers. That sort of area is far better than going into English. The last thing I'd tell people to do would be to go through as an English major. I took languages, French and Italian, and that was far more broadening. But then I'd read all the English literature at home in my teens. I tell every single promising poet, "Don't go through and be an English major. It kills your poetry." That's my great message!
T: Yet you were in Vancouver teaching a course on woman writers. Which are your favourites?
LIVESAY: I've always tremendously admired Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and Edith Sitwell. Recently, Doris Lessing, Rebecca West, Simone de Beauvoir. I don't know American writers very well at all. I've had to close myself off from that. I'm doing so much Canadian reading. Canadian women writers have been neglected. All the best and first Canadian women fiction writers have come from the west. The Canadian novel had its roots in the west, certainly not in Montreal or Ontario. But when Mordecai Richler came to give a talk in Alberta, he hadn't read anything by Frederick Philip Grove. He didn't know he existed. It's that kind of incredible insularity that I've been fighting against. Emily Carr's style was utterly unusual and she had a brilliant mind. And another BC writer, Ethel Wilson, also had a totally individual style. But all people think of back east is Marian Engel or Margaret Atwood. These weren't the first, and they're not the best. But I should mention that I have not read as much as I should have of French-Canadian women writers. Gabrielle Roy is absolutely a top novelist. And Anne Hebert.
T: But it seems like the Canadian theatre scene, as a whole, is coming along well?
LIVESAY: It's the healthiest. It's not looking at its navel. That's the worst thing about the poets in this country; they're writing from an ivory tower. Even the young ones. All that Tish group is ivory tower in my view.
T: Are there major projects on your mind that you're worried about not getting done?
LIVESAY: Well, I've done a lot of work on the first woman poet in Canada, who was a Confederation poet, Isabella Valancy Crawford. She was an Irish child brought to Canada in 1855 or 1858. She was a remarkably visionary poet. I discovered and edited an entirely new manuscript that had never been seen. There are now about five people writing theses on her. The other writing I would like to do is some work on popular women writers like Pauline Johnson, Mazo de la Roche and Nellie McClung, who were neglected and spurned by the critics. There needs to be a whole critical book looking at popular writers in Canada. Their work laid the basis for more mature work like Margaret Laurence's. I don't think a mature novel can arise in a country unless there's been a lot of popular writing as a base.
T: Certainly one of the signs of maturity in a country's literature is when all books do not have to aspire to be War and Peace.
LIVESAY: Yes! What's wrong with the ballads of Robert Service? It's a genre. It's great fun. A lasting literature has to have a base from which to grow. She who went before Margaret Laurence was Nellie McClung.
T: And Dorothy Livesay. That must be a good feeling, to know you helped lay the foundation for what others are now writing.
LIVESAY: Yes, it is. But I've never felt that the poetry belonged to me. I am the vessel through which it comes. My tentacles are out recording. What's coming through has been for everybody.
Essay Date: 1978