April 02nd, 2008
An Interview with Dorothy Livesay
From Canadian Forum magazine (September 1975)
Bernice Lever is a part-time writer and teacher who edits Waves magazine at York University
BERNICE LEVER: When you began writing in the 20’s as a teenager, did you plan or even think about being a poet for the rest of your life?
DOROTHY LIVESAY: No, a novelist, both my parents were writers. My father had always longed to be a novelist, but he was also very interested in women as creative people. He was always giving me books by women novelists; first the Brontes, and then the later novelists, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, and I had a great phase of devotion to Katherine Mansfield. So I wrote poetry because I couldn’t help it and my mother fed that, I suppose, because she subscribed to magazines like Poetry. Chicago, and Contemporary Verse, another one from New York called Dial, so that the imagist movement was very close to me. I liked particularly their ideas about breaking away from set forms, so that in my teens I was writing quite free verse.
BL: Was having parents who were literary a great advantage?
DL: Yes, very often there are literary families just as there are musical families, but it doesn’t always work. I mean, sometimes the child turns right against that. In fact, my children don’t write!
BL.: When you first went to U. of T. was that the end of the “flapper” era?
DL: Yes. I went to university in 1927, having done an honours’ matriculation so I could enter an honours course in modern languages. Then Andrew Allen was having a great campaign in the Varsity paper, against the powers that be. It was still a kind of 20’s dream world. We hadn’t hit the reality that came in 1929; the banks failing and the boom busting.
BL: Was it a kind of lively optimistic world or a very quiet serious world?
DL: It was pretty lively. There were Andrew Allen, Nathaniel Benson, Paddy Ryan, Sylva Gelber, Stanley Ryerson; a whole crowd of very lively people in my first two years, but I was extremely shy and though I joined the staff at the Varsity, I don’t think I did very much reporting for them.
BL: Didn’t you view yourself as a writer when you began university?
DL: I knew that I wanted to write. Oh yes. But I didn’t mix with writers, there was no feeling of a group in those days. Now there’s nothing else but writers groups! We might get to know individuals who were writing poetry, but we rarely would show our poems. Certainly the girls wouldn’t. I remember a person like Nathaniel Benson would insist that you sit and listen to him read for an hour. This was the devotion one gave to male poets!
BL: SO there was very little recognition given to women writers or poets in Canada.
DL: Very little, yes. Of course my mother knew poets. She was busy when I started university, collecting an anthology of contemporary poets. She met Raymond Knister and had him over for tea. I remember being extremely interested in him and his work. He was interested in mine also. The other person who was delightful was Robert Finch. I remember him coming over and playing the piano in our house on Walmer Road. At Victoria College there was Professor Pelham Edgar, who encouraged Pratt so much. I remember Edgar sitting beside me on our sofa. He looked at my poems, but he began raving about Audrey Alexandra Brown, a young poet in Nanaimo. This rather put me off!
How lovely now
are little things:
Young maple leaves-
A jet crow’s wings.
I have been lost
These many springs:
Now I can hear
How silence sings. (1926-28)
BL: Do you think as you were still a teenager, that it was almost condescending to look at a child’s writing?
DL: Yes, there was something of that element in it. But I did win the Jardine Memorial Prize for my poem “City Wife”. That $100 was quite a lot of money in those days. It gave me some status.
BL: Did you start sending poems out to other places to be printed then?
DL: Eventually, but I was pretty loathe to do it, especially because I was having a running feud with my mother on the subject. When I was 13 she sent a poem of mine, unbeknownst to me, to the Vancouver Province. They published it and paid me $2.00. I was more and more embarrassed when she pushed my work. A mother who is too mothering and who was enchanted that her daughter is a poet! You can see the kind of situation that develops as a teenager gets older!
BL: Oh yes. When they are fighting for their own identity and independence.
DL: Yes. So I didn’t send out much and I think my mother arranged with Macmillan’s to bring out Green Pitcher. I was sort of a passive observer. Remember; it’s Green Pitcher, the jug. “In a pitcher I have my songs in store; when I uncalk it, out they pour.” That was a translation from a Spanish poet. That was how I felt, it was there locked up inside me and all one had to do was pull the cork and the poems would come.
BL: Are there certain experiences or emotional times when you do write?
DL: I believe that poetry is probably due to a surfeit of emotional stress or excitement or even emotional depression; that the feeling that one has particularly when young are so very strong that they spill out into words. I think the feeling has to be there at the start; it might be love, it might be hate.
BL: In 1956 Desmond Pacey wrote in an introduction to your Selected Poems, that you “had been writing poems of high merit for thirty years and giving every indication of being ready and .able to go on for another thirty years”. Now it’s 1975 and your latest book Ice Age is due out from Porcepic Press. So Pacey was correct. Do you think any of your basic concerns or themes have changed?
DL: No, I don’t really. Most of the more serious reviews of my collected poems, The Two Seasons, have pointed out the themes of isolation, of man’s destruction of the natural world and of a Dionysian belief in life, its recurrence and its rebirth whenever we feel too low; these themes are all in the earliest poems. There’s one 1930 poem, “Pioneer”, which is about the destruction of trees; and “Hermit” stresses this, too. Just the same themes are in those as in my most recent work; of course tempered by experience and by the grim facts of our life today. On the other hand the techniques have greatly changed from those longer poems, which were most often written in blank verse.
BL: You’ve written an article, in Contexts of Canadian Criticism, about the Canadian genre being the documentary. Do we have a special kind of narrative poem in Canada?
DL: Yes, we do, very definitely. My essay builds up a narrative picture of the earliest poems done in the 19th Century, say by Charles Mair, Charles Sangster, and particularly Isabella Valancy Crawford. A narrative poem which also documents the history of that period is quite a Canadian thing, and probably the most brilliant person to do it in this century was Duncan Campbell Scott with his Indian poems. He used the documentary material but transformed it by his intense poetic gift into something further, a dramatic vision.
BL: In your own career, the lyric came before the documentary. You loved to sing and dance when you were a child. Have song and. dance been constant inspirations? DL: Well, as an adult, I found I couldn’t sing and I couldn’t dance; but I suppose I might have put the childhood joys into the poetry to compensate.
BL: Did you have any girlfriends~ other than your mother’s friends who were writing?
DL: No, except one very close friend through high school years and partly at university. In school we were writing poems to each other all the time, more or less taking off the teachers. We started a magazine called Fortnightly Frolics of the Lower Fifth, which the Principal banned, much to our utter amazement and horror.
BL: …that they would even pay attention to it.
DL: But I had a very lonely life as a student at Trinity College. They took no interest in literature and the young men of the College, hearing I was a writer, practically ran from me when they saw me coming. I was just a “blue stocking” and it was really difficult to have a Sunday afternoon tea with young men and girl students, because they were so afraid of coming near a poet, or poetess, as they called me. It was probably the worst place for me. University College was much freer.
BL: It’s really difficult when you don’t have a friend there, someone sharing with you.
DL: Well, by my fourth year, after I had been a year abroad-everyone was getting very politicized (this would be ‘30, ‘31) and we had a wonderful group of people, led by a Professor of Economics, Otto Van der Sprenkel, who had been to Russia. He introduced me to contemporary poetry, namely T. S. Eliot. At that time, no contemporary writing was ever studied and no one seemed to know any-except, presumably, E. J. Pratt would have been aware of who was writing outside Canada. But no one that I knew, the students or professors, had ever heard of T. S. Eliot. We had long evenings which ended up in playing poker all night at Otto’s apartment; and when he saw I was interested in poetry, Otto gave me Ash Wednesday, and then I went on to The Wasteland. So my first meeting with Eliot was very favourable. Later when I went to Paris and did a thesis, a Diplome d’Etudes Superieures (1932), comparing modern poetry with the French symbolists, I began to be critical of Eliot because by then my political views differed so from his. He claimed to be a Royalist in politics, wasn’t it, an Anglican in religion, and what was the third? A classicist. Yes. So, the more I studied him, the less I liked him. I never have gone back to enjoying Eliot.
BL: Did you like Pound’s writing any better?
DL: Oddly enough, no one knew Pound at that period. I had read some of the imagists, of course, “H.D.” and William Carlos Williams; but not Pound.
BL: C. C. Cummings started writing in the 20’s. Was his experimental visual material known in Canada?
DL: No. It was in Paris, reading the French symbolists and reading contemporary English poetry in the British Museum, that I became acquainted with the whole movement of modern poetry. Then I found in Canada when I came back, people like Leo Kenndy, Raymond Knister, W. E. Collin, beginning to write contemporary poetry and contemporary criticism of poetry in the Canadian Forum. So that in the ‘30s the Forum was almost one’s living breath. It was very important to us, and Leo Kennedy did some excellent work on Klein and on Knister, who had become quite a friend of mine, so I caught up. My early years at university were not at all fruitful for literary friendships, but suddenly., from my fourth year on and, when I came back to do social work, I became more acquainted with writers and poets. But then the whole movement of politics had taken over and we were all activists against fascism and for peace. Some of us were far to the left and others not.
BL: Were there special publications that you wrote for besides the Forum at that time?
DL: Well, yes. I became acquainted, about 1934, with Masses, which the Progressive Arts Club had started, and I myself joined the Progressive Arts Club. By 1937, we had launched the magazine, New Frontier, of which I was an editor; and I carried it across the country to Vancouver where I was going to try to get a job in social work. So Frontier certainly set the direction for us all in those years. Its editor was W. T. Lawson. It was also a means of reaching students, because I spoke about the new poetry, particularly mentioning Spender, Auden, MacNeice. I gave a series of lectures across Canada; one was at Western (W. E. Collin was there); one was in Manitoba where E. K. Brown was in charge of the meeting. He was with the English Department then. He was a remarkably astute critic and interested in the modern movement. And then I remember reading in Calgary at the library and in Regina. Finally I landed in Vancouver. We started the whole series of cultural left-wing activities like in Toronto, namely the Progressive Arts Club, with writer’s groups and dance groups, drama groups, theatre of action.
BL: Was this sort of early street theatre? You mentioned the Worker’s Theatre.
DL: Yes. It really was. Oscar Ryan has pointed out the great deal of misinformation about the Theatre of Action. For instance there was a marvellously exciting time in 1931 when eight men were put in Kingston Jail because they were Communists, and a play was written on the spur of the moment called Eight Men Speak, which was real guerrilla theatre. It was played in The Standard Theatre down on Queen Street and there was such a tremendous crowd that they knew they just had to play it again. But the Mayor banned it. The police were there and it couldn’t be put on. Well this just started a tremendous campaign on behalf of Worker’s Theatre. Only today is there serious research into these events.
BL: Right. Getting it all down correctly, recording. In over fifty years of writing you have seen many changes in the social and political atmosphere. When they had McCarthyism in the ‘50’s in the States, do you think that affected writers in Canada?
DL: Well, we had it going long before. We had Bennett and the Iron Heel; the unemployed demonstrations; the march on Ottawa of the unemployed and the banning of the Communist Party and labour leaders put into Kingston Penitentiary. In the same way, the leading Communists were all put in jail at the beginning of the “Cold War” as we called it, in 1939. So we had a great deal of repression. Even fairly innocent cultural movements were smashed when so much police surveillance made it impossible to work openly. For instance, the old bath-house donated by the City in Vancouver on English Bay-had been transformed it into a community center for very delightful activities. Well, once the war came and the Communist Party was banned, satellite organizations like the Progressive Arts Club and New Frontier magazine were considered subversive-had to die or go underground. There was a great gloom.
BL: You feel people like yourself that had been working with these socialistic activities…
DL: Oh we were tainted. Yes.
BL: Right. That made it difficult to find publishers.
DL: Very difficult to find publishers, to get on the radio or to appear in readings. Until Mr. Churchill and Mr. Stalin got together, then suddenly the doors were flung open! The detainees came out of jail, joined the ranks of the army and there was a kind of heyday toward the end of the war in which we did get published. That’s when my first serious collection was published, 1944, with quite revolutionary poems in it.
BL: Poems that had actually been written in the ‘30s?
DL: In ‘36, yes. But no publication then. Then, after the war, instead of the wonderful new society that we had hoped for, we had the Korean war and the whole business of McCarthyism. It certainly affected Canadians. The ‘50’s were about the dullest decade in Canadian literature.
BL: Right. What sort of audiences did you have in the ‘40s and ‘50s? Did you read poetry to public audiences?
DL: We were doing it a good deal locally in the schools in Vancouver. But one of the great things that happened was that the little magazines began to publish in the ‘40s. The first magazine that ever burst on the scene in the ‘40s was in 1941 when Alan Crawley started Contemporary Verse, printed in Victoria, edited in Vancouver. After the war, about ‘46, Crawley and his wife, even though he was totally blind, toured Canada for the Canadian clubs, reading only contemporary Canadian poetry in the most remote Northern towns as well as the big cities. A tremendous tour. It has been recorded by Joan McCullough in Alan Crawley and Contemporary Verse. He’s really the one who started the oral reading across the country. The trouble is that critics like Warren Tallman utterly ignore all that movement, just as they ignored the ‘30s. There has been a great distortion in literary criticism, distortion of what really happened in Canadian poetry.
BL: Have our critics been more aware of what was happening south of the border or in England?
DL: Well, also they didn’t live through it in Canada. I mean if Klein had still been a well man in the ‘60s and if Leo Kennedy had been back here or even A. J. M. Smith, the gaps in literary criticism might not have occurred. But all of these people disappeared in a sense. I was the only one left, I and Frank Scott, who knew the early scene. And Raymond Knister, one of the most promising young modernist poets, an imagist, writing literary criticism in the ‘20s, died in 1931. So, the whole publishing scene collapsed; there were just no books being published and practically no magazines, except the Forum and New Frontier. Thus, I feel it more or less my duty to do more research in that area of the Thirties. My own memories, of course, guiding me to get the picture straight.
BL: By the ‘40s, once out on the West Coast, and especially with Crawley’s magazine, were you meeting other women poets and writers?
DL: Oh yes. There was a whole group of women poets in Victoria. One Easter, in 1941, Floris McLaren, Doris Feme, Anne Marriott and myself met together to talk about the state of publishing and of poetry. We agreed, “what we need very badly is a journal devoted to poetry only, which will not be sort of a maple leaf thing” such as magazines that had been turned out by the Canadian Authors’ Association. We wanted something really contemporary and modern, but we said, “we can’t have any of the old guard as editors, because they will all be prejudiced. We have to find someone who is not prejudiced, but who loves modern poetry”. Almost in one breath we chorused “Alan Crawley!” He had retired from law because of his sudden complete blindness but we knew he was devoted to poetry. So we said, “He is the man, if we can persuade him and his wife–who would have to do a lot of the work”.
Those women poets started that movement from the West Coast. The main business agent and hardest worker was Floris McLaren of Victoria. Anne Marriott’s early poems were published by Contemporary Verse, as was my own long poem on the Japanese evacuation during the war, “Call My People Home”. Look through the magazine, you’ll see that there are many women poets in it. There was a good balance in Contemporary Verse, if you compare it to what’s happened in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s where nearly all the anthologies were edited by men; and women poets were left out. So this is another reason why I felt it necessary to produce women’s anthologies, just to show they’re there.
BL: Right. That they exist. The struggle has always been to find a publisher or to find magazines that would print women. I was upset to find that Dudek Gnarowski, editors of The Making of Modern Poetry in Canada (1967), included not one article by a woman and little mention of your contributions or of Contemporary Verse or New Frontier.
DL: Well, you can’t prove that it’s because of one’s sex that one isn’t published. Even the attitude of the men in the ‘50’s, of the Dudek, Souster, Layton crowd, was very unconcerned with women or with printing their work. Probably P. K. Page was the one person they did fully appreciate. The next group of young men produced a book Trio in which they grudgingly put Phyllis Webb in as one of the “lady” poets. The whole attitude in the reviews of that book was quite nauseating.
BL: Did you sense the same thing in the criticism of your books?
DL: No, I can’t say that. Critics like E. K. Brown and critics in the Forum were free from sexism. I can’t say that my books were reviewed at all from the sexist point of view. I don’t think they were. Even E. J. Pratt encouraged me very much in writing “Day and Night”.
BL: So you give Crawley credit for getting poetry readings and women poets accepted?
DL: Yes. The first poems P. K. Page wrote, she sent to Contemporary Verse and I’m pretty sure Miriam Waddington’s first poems appeared there. Alan was a wonderful example of a man who entirely understands and sympathizes with women. There are probably about seven woman poets who got great help from his support and warmth, so that the thing balances out.
BL: Is CV/ II which you are starting in Winnipeg, is this going to be a journal of Canadian poetry criticism?
DL: Yes. A lot of us I mean students of mine, graduate students, young professors, people in the community, and teachers and librarians, a group of such people in Winnipeg have been discussing the poetry situation, and we find that there are so many small magazines, so many little presses publishing that there’s no problem about getting poetry published; but there has been a sad lack of criticism of this poetry. True we have the book by Mandel, you mentioned, in recent years, and the new book by Frank Davey, From There to Here, and there’s the book Boundaries, too, the American anthology which has a Canadian edition with a great deal of criticism in it, as well as poetry. But we want CV/ II to be a magazine which is mainly critical; book reviews, review articles, retrospective articles about people we feel have been neglected. We will also publish a few poems, what we have room for.
BL: If most of the magazines are just printing original new material all the time and no one is evaluating it, it can be dangerous.
D L: Yes, that is the problem. I think there’s an anti-intellectual attitude afloat still. Whereby we don’t criticize at all, we simply let people emote. It’s been a very strong movement in the ‘60’s and like all new movements, it has its value, but it won’t last forever.
BL: Well, I hope not. Regarding your own poetry you use trees or green imagery, but there are other nature images, the sun, the wind or gulls.
DL: Yes, I would say that of the natural images, the tree is central because it has roots; underground roots to the basic elements of life and death. Everything that dies goes to the earth and the tree is reaching to new universes, in a sense, and towards the sun with its branches, and the tree doesn’t flourish by itself very often. The tree needs company, other trees. And. of course, according to archetypal patterns. trees in a sense are people. A tree is the symbol for man and it’s the ancient Indian symbol, isn’t it? The tree of life. And, of course, it’s the Garden of Eden symbol~ it’s absolutely fundamental.
On Looking into Henry Moore I
And fire in stone
Female and male
I’ll rise alone
Self-extending and self-known.
One unit, as a tree or stone
Woman in man, and man in womb. (1956)
BL: In your socialistic poems, when you deal with the city, the family or social setting, you use key words: the home, the door and the bed. Even when you get into civilization, you avoid mechanical or technological language. Do you think this is just your own kind of personal viewpoint or is this something basic that you think a woman you respond to?
DL: Well, here’s where the young men still have it over us. They have done so many physical things with machines that women have not done!
BL: Tinkering around with the car as teenager.
DL: Well, getting summer jobs on the logging camps. My son went out on a halibut boat. Many of them had jobs in canneries or mills. There’s hardly a young man I know who writes who hasn’t done this sort of thing. People like Tom Wayman are bringing this right into their poetry; Pat Lane, also, and a young poet from Manitoba, Pat Friesen, and a poet from Victoria, David Day, who spent his summers logging. Well, he’s got a whole book of poems about logging. So has Peter Trower. They do have it over us! They have that technological, mechanical experience.
BL: You said in your forward to The Two Seasons, where you are talking of affirmation, that there is a unifying regenerative principal; there is a more feminine side to Canadian literature than we really acknowledge. Yet so much of recent Canadian. Criticism is dwelling on the negative aspects of the loser, of being dwarfed by our landscape, instead of Canadians growing to meet the challenges of our land and times. Is your outlook basically optimistic?
DL: Well, I link up with many other women from the past who have not received, until recently, much attention. Even Nellie McClung, whose Clearing in the West is quite a beautiful book, is very positive. Even L. M. Montgomery is coming to the fore as a quaint gothic something or other! But Canada had a number of fascinating writers, just travel writers, in the 19th Century who were women. They were all extremely positive. It’s just, perhaps, a part of woman’s nature to believe in life going on and in overcoming obstacles. I think women who turn against that go mad. One thinks of Sylvia Plath or Virginia Woolf, or Anne Sexton. The women who commit suicide are those that haven’t been able to believe in the life-giving powers.
BL: You’ve written much criticism and commentary over the years. You recently had a book out called A Winnipeg Childhood. Are you planning to write more prose books?
DL: Yes. That really was thought of as my first book of memoirs, like Margaret Laurence’s A Bird in the House. It’s based on my own life but there are fictional changes. But the next book’s going to be about my parents’ early lives and how they met and soon, and Winnipeg through the war years.
BL: Have you been teaching from Victoria to Fredericton?
DL: Yes, indeed. I’ve been very thankful to the Canada Council for all the aid they’ve given me to .do these things. I’ve been twice writer-in-residence, once in New Brunswick in Fredericton, latterly in Manitoba and I’ve had grants to do research across the country.
BL: In these different locations did you feel there was a certain voice and place, that literature is regional?
DL: Oh, I very much believe, it must, be rooted in the place where a person grows up and takes on the geographical and physical characteristics of that ‘place. The best poetry has always come from the roots. One might say the best literature-it’s ridiculous to ignore the regional as many of our critics do, and just talk about being “international first”. It’s impossible. Any literature you can think of-the Russian, French, Italian, has sprung from that particular nation’s physical environment and geographical situation, its political history.
BL: Now, it’s International Woman’s Year. You’ve seen changes in the role of woman and certainly in the role of woman artists. Has it been much easier lately for women writers to get published, to get recognition?
DL: Well, it’s still a do-it-yourself thing. My two anthologies of women poets were produced by small presses, by a small group of people very keen to do it and the women weren’t paid. This happens unless I was able to get a special grant from somewhere to pay for some poems, as I did in Woman’s Eye. There’s a long way to go yet.
BL: Women’s Educational Press started in Toronto about three years ago; they’ve probably brought out less than twenty books.
DL: Well, I was particularly thrilled with their book, I don’t know if they actually wrote, prepared or published it, but they sponsored it; a book of over fifty women painters from Toronto, Eclectic Eve. It’s a marvellously interesting book. Each of the artists tells about her attitude to her art, to her family, to her public and in what ways she feels, if she did feel, discriminated against.
BL: Perhaps that’s the thing that we have to do, Work to get women editors or women film producers or women theatre directors.
DL: There are such people around. I know a number of them doing this sort of thing, especially in the West. That’s where the women’s suffrage movement started, with Nellie McClung and her campaign of 1912 in Winnipeg.
BL: For a woman writer it would, be delightful to have a male secretary, someone who is also good at changing flat tires or running the lawn mower.
DL: Yes, a kind of general chauffeur-secretary. Well, after all, most male writers have wives who do all those things for them. I need a “wife”!
BL: You mentioned in your anthology called The Woman’s Eye, that women have their own point of view or specific perception• of life.
DL: Well, the male critics have objected to this in their reviews. They feel they can’t understand it. Biologically speaking, we are different and I expect we’ll be different for a long number of years to come. Any biological differences affect one’s point of view. There’s no getting away from it. I don’t think women are like men. Time and again “you find writers, in their autobiographies, saying, “I’ve known women for many years and many women intimately, but I still don’t understand them”. Well, the reason is that men, in a sense, expect women to be the same as themselves. Yet they made their education and their whole social mores force women to be quite different and to wear masks. However, the younger generation is breaking away from this. I know some awfully happy young marriages where they share, the man and the wife share beautifully.
Ballad of Me
bursting feet first
then topsy turvy
the fear of
BL: We talked about the ‘40s and ‘50s which seemed to have been a kind of banal or low period in Canadian letters. What about the last 15 years, through the ‘60s up to ‘75. Specifically, beginning with kind of technical changes in your own writing.
DL: Well, I was away from Canada, in London and then in Africa from 1958 to late 1963, so I was quite out of touch with what was happening. I had expected the same doldrums, but on returning from what is now Zambia in ‘63, I was met in British Columbia by an extraordinary boom in poetry and poetry readings, all influenced by the Black Mountain school. Much has been written about that so I’ll only add that in meeting people like Lionel Kearns, Frank Davey, Robert Hogg, and talking over their new approach to their techniques based on Charles Olsen’s open field ideas, I certainly was influenced. I hadn’t written poetry for about five years. Certainly I hadn’t written in Africa because I was too damn busy teaching. Consequently when I returned and found this real revival of poetry and especially poetry reading, I did two things: I began studying linguistics and the whole shape of the language, because of what Olsen had done, and I took a course towards an M.A. in the theme of my thesis, which was Rhythm and Sound in Contemporary Canadian Poetry. That was at U.B.C. At the same time I was teaching a bit, teaching creative writing for Earle Birney’s course, and altogether, all this started me writing again. One of the first long poems I did was based on my African experience, called “Zambia”. From then on I think I haven’t stopped writing.
I had an intense love affair during those years and about five years of poems came from that relationship. The book, The Unquiet Bed, collected some of those poems in 1967, Canada’s Centennial. That book was a tremendous success. Roy Kiyooka did the illustrations. It was quite a beautiful looking book and it was sold almost before one could breathe. It hardly had time to be reviewed much before it was out of sight. This was the beginning of the Ryerson troubles, so the book never got into paperback or reprinted in any way, which was pretty sad. Consequently, it wasn’t until The Collected Poems that the poems in The Unquiet Bed got into print again. Many libraries haven’t got that book. But now, of course, they’re in my collected poems. Those poems were the ones that the young people really responded to, and I begin all my readings with them. Even, recently, reading in Belfast, the more I would read of those love poems, the more they would ask me to read. It seems to be a universal kind of poetry.
That brings me to the whole problem we haven’t discussed, of internationalism and nationalism. Now, Margaret Atwood omitted Milton Acorn and me from her discussions in Survival.
BL: Well, you survived.
DL: She claims the reason was that we weren’t really Canadian nationalists, we were internationalists. Nothing could be more ridiculous! If you read my Collected Poems you will see they are based and rooted in the regions where I grew up, Manitoba and Ontario. Moreover, the same is true of Milton Acorn. His early poems are beautiful lyrics, springing right from Prince Edward Island and the sea. So we begin always with our own region and then spread ourselves a bit further across this country to feel ourselves as Canadian. But there are always periods when it becomes more important to be concerned with the international scene than with the national. One of those periods was the ‘30’s. We were all internationalists then, against Fascism, Nazism, the Spanish civil struggle, and so on. It was vital. And then there’s a swing back and the war and Canada’s participation in it started a wave of nationalism. This was just as true when I was a young child in the ‘20s. There was a great nationalist wave in Canada, of which my, family and I. were a part.
Well, then you move to the ‘60s movement on the West Coast which is definitely international and-not concerned with the Canadian scene. They are all writing language they can understand around the world, and that’s why I think concrete poetry is like concrete music-it is something that makes you “with it”, anywhere. For instance, a recent festival in Cambridge, England, brought together many people simply, doing “sound poetry” in their own languages. Well, this is a valid, movement, but I’m not particularly interested in it. So one has to do both; one has to look at one’s own culture and also attempt to spread it abroad, which has never been done yet (i.e., thirteen Canadian books in the Belfast University Library); and at the same time be aware of what’s happening in parallel ways, say in Africa or in Australia or in Ireland. This doesn’t mean you’re not a Canadian, believer in Canadian identity.
BL: True. Your most recent book will be out this autumn, Ice Age, is it again dealing with love poetry?
DL: No. It’s dealing with the world’s chaos and crisis. It’s perhaps a rather gloomy book with• very few love poems. There are poems about children, family relationships, old people, a good number of poems about aging and poems which, perhaps, might be called mystical– a sense’ of what lies beyond for mankind. It’s .quite a serious book.
BL: Do any of the poem’s deal specifically with women and problems-of communication as this poem does with doctor and patient non-dialogue?
The doctor goes on handing out pills
that reduce me
why couldn’t he
implant some sunflower seeds
so at least I’d be able to se
over the fence? (1973-75)
DL: Oh yes. I think, just for sparkle, I’ve put in a poem, “Homage to Monty Python”, dealing with women who take over the role of motorcyclists. I think it’s a very
BL: Many publications, special books or magazine, issues will be out this year for International Woman’s Year. Do you think that women write just for themselves, as personal commitment, or, with the more militant feminists, is it propaganda?
DL: It’s perhaps too early to assess this spate of women’s writing, but I do notice two things that may be part of the process: one is as you say that women are writing in order to be very belligerent about their previous deprivation and underdog position. Like Marya Fiamengo whose work I have in my anthology, Woman’s Eye, she’s written very cutting poems there about men and male chauvinism; and other poets like Sharon Stephenson who have gone completely over to the revolutionary struggle and whose poems deal with women as workers. So there is that trend which is a trend toward over-statement that is necessary before it is absorbed into the psyche of the society and also the psyche of women writers. When I was first introduced to Communism and Marxism it had this same effect upon my writing. It was overstatement and it was very emotional and concerned with day-to-day struggles. And those particular poems probably aren’t lasting in value, but from the experience of writing, from the immediate impact of struggle, and, probably doing a lot of bad writing, one moves to a synthesis between one’s original lyric voice/and the new knowledge gained from struggle; so that I do have successful poems from that period. “The Outrider”, “Day and Night”, and “Lorca’“ are poems that still work and I would certainly never do what W.H. Auden has done-go back and change them, because I didn’t any longer believe in them. I think that’s a wicked thing to have done, and will have a bad effect on his reputation. So there is all that type of thing happening.
The other type of thing that’s happening is that women are expressing their inner psychological struggles in relation to the male-female situation and it’s terribly ingrown in a sense, it’s terribly agonized. Sylvia Plath, I suppose, is the example. But there are many Canadian women poets who were doing this. Margaret Atwood’s an example, and Myra McFarlane. There are a number of young ones who are agonizedly trying to find their place and identity as human beings by writing their inner feelings, much as if the audience was their psychiatrist. And this probably is a phase, that women have to go through and it doesn’t necessarily mean there’s going to be very great poetry coming from it.
BL: There may be a lot of learning. Your poem, “The Three Emilys”, explores the roles and possibilities open to women artists. What further liberation or development do you see women taking?
DL: Well, I’d like to see them get together more in improving social conditions and conditions so the woman artist is free to write. I mean, why don’t they get together and share a male stenographer? Such cooperative things could be done. Women painters and writers seem to be very much alone. They’re on a little island. Either they are single women who have never married and feel rather bitter; or they are single women with one or two children, abandoned or separated; or they are still in the family group with a husband to care for and meals to get and children to send to school. Most of the women seem to have decided to go through the family pattern for at least fifteen years and then all the time be preparing themselves for being artists afterward. I think I did everything at once, and probably at some, great cost to my stability: but women artists today will certainly have to work out a way of sharing; not merely sharing with the man in their life but – sharing with each other and being more tolerant of other women. Some of the most vicious critics of women’s writing are women! This shows a great insecurity and jealousy that is most unhappy.
BL: There’s been a great pressure ,on women artists or professional women to be super-women, to leap up at 6:00 a.m: do the housework, get everything ship-shape before they ‘went’ to their job, then to be sitting around all beautifully dressed and entertaining husbands in the evening.
DL: When I’m asked this sort of question I often quote Storm Jamieson and the effect her book had on me. A novel she wrote in the ‘20s called Three Kingdoms. Her thesis was that a woman may have two kingdoms, husband and child, child and job, husband and creative work, and so on, but if she attempts to handle three, she’s sunk. Her novel proved this. She had to give one up finally; in that novel, it was her husband. But I don’t think this “Three Kingdoms” theme is really true, but it’s perhaps a myth that we are born into. We expect that this is going to be the problem, so that myth has to be solved somehow and broken down.
BL: Do you find a great satisfaction after nearly five decades of writing, are you finding critical acceptance and larger audiences for your writing?
DL: Yes, I’ve always felt that feedback’s important to an artist or a writer, and I certainly didn’t have it, in the first 20 or 30 years of my writing. Actually, I have been happier each decade. The last fifteen years have been most rewarding to me and I am extremely happy and have had the most excellent good fortune in getting help through the Canada Council, the universities and in meeting students who seem to respond and also to give me ideas. I would say that 1965 tol975 has been my decade, the most rewarding time of my life.
Essay Date: 1975