Interview / Gary Geddes
April 07th, 2008
GARY GEDDES was born in Vancouver in 1940. He was raised for four years in Saskatchewan but grew up primarily in Vancouver's Commercial Drive area. He became a lay preacher for the Baptist church and a singer in one of Vancouver's first rock combos. He received his PhD in English from the University of Toronto and has edited important college anthologies such as Twentieth Century Poetry and Poetics (1969) and Skookum Wawa (1975), a breakthrough volume for BC literature. Described as Canada's best political poet by critic George Woodcock, some of his major poetry titles are Letter of the Master of Horse (1973), War Measures and Other Poems(1976), The Acid Test (1981), The Terracotta Army (1984) and Changes of State (1986). Geddes has led a literary delegation to China, founded a subscription-based publishing company and he teaches at Concordia University. Gary Geddes lives in Dunvegan, Ontario.
T: War Measures & Other Poems is an odd book to come from a westcoaster. Where do the politics and the interest in French Canada come from?
GEDDES: You can't grow up in BC without becoming political. Either you get on the bandwagon and try to milk the land, or become a socialist-there seems to be no easy middle ground out here. I guess my fundamentalist background left me with an overactive conscience too, like all those other Baptists who ended up in the CCF. As for Chartier, the mad bomber, he was a westerner too. He knew about marginality. He was French-Canadian and an Albertan. I found in his death a symbol for something tragic and deadly in our culture. He had no means of redressing the injustices he felt. He thought politicians were crooks. Many of them are. What good was his vote? He decided to take a stick of dynamite into the House of Commons. Was he going to throw it from the gallery? We don't know. The newspapers laughed at him, as a not-so- beautiful loser, as another Canadian failure, as a fool. One paper denied that his act was Canadian. We don't act separately here, it said; we are violent in groups only. Therefore, Chartier's act is meaningless, essentially American.
T: Your Chartier is not an assassin.
GEDDES: No, he seems cut out for something else. Whether he changed his mind when he got there, seeing all the school children in the gallery, watching the minister of consumer affairs picking his nose and reading the Globe or remembering another alternative, that of the Buddhist monks in Vietnam, who gave up their own lives in protest to the American presence-whatever it was, Chartier ended up taking his own life. Who's to say he didn't intend that all along, and who's to say it was not the most powerful gesture possible? Some of our contemporary terrorists should remember that.
T: That was a long answer. It's also a long poem. How do you keep a poem that long from collapsing in the middle, or turning to sludge?
GEDDES: Maybe you don't. I tried something different. I used the form of diary jottings, to keep the sections short and lyrical, highly charged and with the kind of intensity of image of a stopped frame in a film. Kroetsch called those sections narrative remnants, a phrase that makes sense to me. The reader is kept alert by both the intensity of the image, hopefully, and the energy and attention required to stitch together those non-linear, but still interconnected, narrative remnants.
For the long poem, you need many different strategies, but it's the most exciting form in my view, and the one that separates the sheep from the goats. I leave it up to you to decide which is which.
T: How did you come to spend time on Vancouver's Commercial Drive and what part did that landscape play in your life?
GEDDES: When the family returned from Saskatchewan, we lived briefly with my father in Rivers Inlet, where he was gillnetting. That landscape continues to haunt me in quite a different way, for its excess, its exotic qualities, the vibrant colours, the scale of trees and mountain and ocean. Commercial Drive was bleak in comparison, a poor decompression tank for immigrants and white trash waiting for a break to get them into the suburbs. I don't know how much of that I noticed as a kid. I was too busy making a living and trying to survive on the street.
T: Was it all that negative? GEDDES: That experience was not pleasant, but it wasn't totally negative either. It's the stuff legends and stories are made of. I sometimes wear my poor years as a sort of proletarian badge fried bologna and baking powder biscuits, hustling coal sacks and hubcaps, living in a drab flat over a store at the corner of Fourth and Commercial- but it was also rather magical, since that's where I began to learn about sex, where I started to earn money from working for a hunchback jeweler, where I bought my first second-hand bike that gave me the freedom of the city.
T: So the poverty is a fiction?
GEDDES: No, but it's convenient legend to use sometimes in polite, pretentious company. We were poor. The family received food baskets at Christmas and clothes from friends at the church. My father had drinking problems and health problems, so there was not always sufficient money available. My mother worked in Toot's Cafe at the corner of Broadway and Commercial for fifty cents an hour and tips, at a time when she should have been at home looking after my younger brother, who was sick.
Still, the Drive had the best view in the city, if you looked north. I'll always miss the mountains I could see almost any day of the week. And the trams and streetcars.
T: The place seems to be central in a number of ways in your life, if only in name.
GEDDES: Yes, it's my St. Urbain Street. My father drove cab like Duddy's father. I learned to hustle on the Drive, working at various jobs, coming quickly to the opinion that only work would get me out of there. Ironically, many of my writer friends are now moving to the Drive; it's the only place I could possibly afford to live if I returned to Vancouver. I know what you're getting at though. The many different hats I wear as a teacher, editor, writer, publisher and general propagandist for culture in Canada may have some roots in the Drive. Not in the commercial sense, but certainly in terms of drive. A. Y. Jackson once said that the only way an artist can survive in Canada is to become an institution. That's my impression too. Especially for poets. Who wants to pay for a poem, or a book of poems? So I teach, I do a few odd jobs that are useful and that bring in money to support my family and my almost secret vice of poetry.
T: But you've had some success, and some support too.
GEDDES: Yes, I'd say I've been very lucky. The kid on the Drive would never have believed all this. Still, I was a romantic and had great hopes for myself. I wanted to be a preacher and save the world, from what I'm not sure. Now I think I'd like to save it from people like me.
T: Poetry as a substitute religion?
GEDDES: Yes, fakirs and fakers. Jimmy Bakker and Mahatma Gandhi. I think of writing as a way of getting in touch with my deepest feelings. I don't lay these feelings out on the page like dripping laundry. I wring them out and cut them up into very different forms, to make something new with words that will take others deeply into themselves, not into my life and its problems.
T: You take refuge from yourself in masks.
GEDDES: Which one am I wearing now?
T: The concerned, earnest poet-as Baptist mask.
GEDDES: Obvious I should throw that one away, it's too transparent. The mask helps me to find a voice. I seem to be able to get into the heads of my characters by using the first person more easily than I could talking about them in the third person.
T: Is that part of the legacy of the coast?
GEDDES: More the legacy of being human, being insecure. Our culture in Canada, perhaps even more so in BC, has always been anti-intellectual, afraid of the mind and afraid of the imagination, resources cherished in many other countries. I had to work hard to overcome the sense that I should be seen and not heard, that my accent was odd and my thought processes were unattractive. We all live with that as Canadians.
Beyond that, however, I have my own need to remain private. A writer gives himself away with every word he writes, I realize that. But I find it difficult, and not entirely valuable, to write about my own daily life. That life sifts into everything, of course, and colours the most seemingly objective material, even something as exotic and non-native as Letter to the Master of Horse and The Terracotta Army.
T: What is it that is personal in those works?
GEDDES: Frye once said that every poet has one or two structures of feeling that are absolutely central to him and his work, and that these structures are often consciously or unconsciously announced in the titlepoems of the author's books. I'd say that I am preoccupied with injured figures, figures caught in the machinery of society or politics or religion. There's something common between the narrator of Horse, Chartier, the potter in Xian and Sandra Lee Scheuer, who was killed at Kent State University. Perhaps a good shrink could tell you why I write about these individuals. I might even venture a guess or two myself, but not today.
T: Yeats said "everything that is personal soon rots."
GEDDES: Yes, but he was also writing out of his own deepest needs and desires as he said that. It doesn't really matter what material you begin with. What matters is what you do with that material. Or, what it does with you?
T: What do you mean?
GEDDES: I'm not sure, but it sounds right. Material that is personal becomes objectified in the process of creation; material that is objective becomes strangely personalized, receives its stamp of style, of character. So, too, the author changes in the process.
T: No man steps twice. .. GEDDES: That's it, yes. The processes are quite mysterious. The Russian Jewish poet Mandelstam talked about writing his own death or his wife described the process as it worked in his poems. The poet creates and falls into his own myth.
T: Art as self-fulfilling prophecy, then.
GEDDES: Recently there was a film on television about the life and death of Claude Jutra, a Quebec filmmaker of great importance, and a gifted actor and director. He committed suicide not long after he discovered he had Alzheimer's disease. He drowned himself. In one of his early films there is a scene in which the central character walks off the end of a pier and drowns, the concluding moment of the film. There are signs in the other works as well.
Pat Lowther's poems are full of signs that we might say prefigured her own death by violence. I don't want to fall into this way of thinking about writing, or about art. The author's death is the least important detail. The work is what matters, regardless of the path taken or the price paid.
T: You were talking about material being personal.
GEDDES: Personality is a masquerade. What lies underneath is bedrock, unchanging, eternal, if anything is eternal. That is what art aims to discover. Al Purdy's domestic poems are romances. David McFadden's delightful first-person comedies are fabulous fictions created by a psyche that is quite startling, quite severe.
T: And behind Geddes's poems about injured figures?
GEDDES: Perhaps a degree of violence that desperately needs capping. Is it an accident that this interview is taking place on Main Street in an East Indian restaurant that used to be called, not in jest, the Razor Blade Cafe?
T: Excuse me while I move to the next table.
GEDDES: Do you know the Indian concept of "deep-name"?
GEDDES: It's the name by which God would really know you. Not as Alan Twigg, but a real name, such as He-Who-Would-Shoot-From-The-Hip- Before-Falling-Off His- Horse. That sort of thing. In analysis once I described the experience of having my father come from Saskatchewan, after my mother's death, to take me to live with him and his second wife. I was sitting on the piano bench. I'd had only twelve piano lessons. I'd learned to playa few pieces. When my father arrived at the house, he was sitting behind me on the couch and I was playing the piano. As I recounted this story for the psychologist, I burst into tears. Deep sobs. Ii suddenly became clear to me that I had been playing for my life. I had to get that piece right or my father would not love me, would
not take me with him. Of course, that was not accurate at all, but that was how I had perceived it at the time and, perhaps, how I have perceived it unconsciously all these years. There I was on my island piano stool. And that is my deep-name: He- Who-Sings-For-His-Own-Life.
T: And of course poetry can be said to be a form of singing too. Just like making music on the piano.
GEDDES: I sang all the time as a kid. Certain songs on the radio used to make me weep. I never knew why, just assumed I was a sentimental slob. Recently, I learned that my mother had sung all those songs to me as a child, even while I was in the womb. The feelings of loss clung to the notes and lyrics. I used to sing in my potato patch in Saskatchewan, and in the outhouse. Poems must have been a continuation of that urge to sing.
T: For self approval, or the approval of others?
GEDDES: Both, obviously. At a certain point, however, the singing serves other functions than self validation. You start to sing of the tribe, to keep the record, to bear witness. Most poems come to me as a gift. The coincidence of elements that allows me to write a poem has little to do with me. I have to keep alert and keep my language self in good shape, like a volunteer fireman. I have to be there at the right time, ready to work. I believe language is a collective and communal treasure. My job is to try to write another poem, not take credit for what is done.
Essay Date: 1988