April 07th, 2008
It’s a beautiful day in the Cariboo, full of sunshine, colour and wind. Turning off Highway 97 towards 108 Mile—-formerly a religious housing project financed by Block Brothers Realty—-I am struck by the horizontality of the landscape, the rolling grasslands, the shallow lake, the low trees in the distance. Having lived previously in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, Harold Rhenisch, father of two daughters and author of eleven books, has had a long and fruitful association with B.C. Interior landscapes and orchards. Having studied Creative Writing at UVic, he’s not a city guy—by choice—and was born in Keremeos in 1958. As I drive into the spacious yard, I see evidence of Rhenisch the horticulturalist. Fruit trees, ornamentals, flowerbeds and berry patches grow in seemingly careless profusion. The disorder of the yard extends to the burgeoning disorder of the lakeshore, full of willows, bulrushes and red-winged blackbirds. On the covered deck that overlooks the lake, we sit on creaky but comfortable wooden chairs, sharing the deck space with several boxes of Okanagan apples.
GAYTON: What’s it like being a full-time writer in 108 Mile?
RHENISCH: It feels like sacred country, like a lost land in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. It feels like Coyote and all the old Shuswap myths are still alive around me. Which they are. I can easily imagine writing in other parts of the province. But the 108 is full of light. I’m living in the sky here, high up on the plateau. The land falls off to the Fraser 50 miles to the west and to the Thompson, 50 miles to the east, and storms come in across the Chilcotin, smelling of the sea. I think Horsefly would be a great place to write. So would many places in the Chilcotin, or somewhere on the Nicola. Keremeos and Hedley were wonderful.
GAYTON: Do you feel isolated in 108 Mile?
RHENISCH: I used to dream of getting out, of going to a city, and living in the wealth of a university, but the land always kept me here. Over the years I have made peace with my literary isolation. This is home. The libraries here are of little literary use. Film, theatre, and dance are almost nonexistent. There are no literary readings. There are no publishers. If you want to know what Canada would be like without the Canada Council, this is pretty well it. What we have here is an oral culture, without written traditions of history, philosophy, or literature, but it is my culture.
GAYTON: Most writers seem to grow into a single genre, but your work ranges through poetry, short story, essay, autobiography, humor. How did that come about?
RHENISCH: The short answer is that I learned about pacing and plot from writing long poetry. The more detailed answer is that it came about because I was a nut for Ezra Pound, who did all these things at once (except the humour). Pound maintained that the epic of our time had to contain history and economics. His is a mess, of course. So was mine. But it was a way forward from writing wild, dionysiac, and lushly romantic poetry. With Pound in my mind, I wrote from the principle that if all forms of writing had come from poetry, poetry could still contain them all. I incorporated history, essays, autobiography, humour, myths, stories, philosophy, metaphysics, politics, and economics into my poems. I made several good books this way, but I also made every mistake imaginable. I wrote long poems of 50 and 100 and 350 pages and worked on them for years, only to be left with a few scraps.
I taught myself to write Hemingway’s simple declarative sentence. That took a decade. But by that point, I had learned thousands of things about writing, which had no outlet. Over the next ten years I was to learn that success often comes not through force, but by writing where the words flow, not by inventing but by sharing. If you use Shakespearean England, or the Ireland of James Joyce as a measure, today’s BC is a place that shows little interest in its own writers. Yet you take writing completely seriously, valuing local writers, their ideas, and the works they produce. Where does that come from?
Most of the world literature that I care about is regional writing. One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Songlines are regional books. Peter Handke and Charles Wright are very regional writers. Yet these regional books and writers belong to a vibrant tradition of world writing. It’s no different here. Shakespeare and Joyce knew much about the imagination and how it uses local material to create the universal. You can only do it if you accept everything and celebrate that house just outside of Lac La Hache with the two snowmobiles on the roof. Until I did realize that, until I learned that literature is a celebration, I often did feel alone in the Interior.
I even published a poem called Visiting Yeats, in which I lamented Yeats’s ability to walk through the municipal gallery in Dublin and see all his old friends, while I could only go to the cold room down the hall and look at his books, unless I learned to talk about my country. I learned. Writing is a cultural celebration.
GAYTON: So the size of the audience doesn’t matter?
RHENISCH: George Seferis said of 1930’s Athens that it was a good feeling to have only sold six copies of his book, because he could imagine having all of his readers over for dinner. He went on to win the Nobel Prize, for just those poems. So no, it’s not the size of the audience that matters to the creation of a work; it’s the size of the community.
GAYTON: You’re fluent in German. Do you keep up with contemporary writing in that language?
RHENISCH: Yes. I spent 1990-1995 reading nothing but German books. Only slowly have I managed to return to reading English ones. It has been a hard journey. I’ve been translating Stefan Schuetz’s radio play Peyote. It’s set in Banff and explores with ruthless humour and unflinching detail the meeting of an old native shaman and a German tourist. It unfolds on many different levels and ought to unsettle our ideas about native and European cultures for decades.
GAYTON: Your book Tom Thomson’s Shack, is a collection of
short pieces mined from your experience in the Interior. In each new chapter, you start off by throwing a number of balls in the air—characters, plot twists, asides and so on. As you began writing these chapters, did you know which ball you would finish it with?
RHENISCH: Not at all. But that’s the whole idea. Coyote would laugh at a question like that. He laughs all through this book. As I wrote it, Tom Thomson’s Shack quickly ceased to be a record of what I wanted to write about and more a record of what I hadn’t seen before, even though it was right in front of my face. Also, I wanted to have some fun. Dreadful, dull, “serious” literature and philosophy gets to be a bit much sometimes. In my world view, clowning is very important, and writing works best when it transfers energy between the rational and the irrational, or between oranges in a juggler’s hand and the grass they fall on. I want to bring the written and oral parts of our culture back together. When it works, it’s wonderful.
GAYTON: What are you working on now?
RHENISCH: Right now I’m working on a big Shakespeare project. I’ve made new versions of all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, putting them into colloquial language, and bringing the love and sex right to the surface. I’m really excited about this. I’m also working on a collection of poems I call Punching Shakespeare, which is an equal mix of Punch & Judy skits and revisions of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I’m also finishing up my spoof of Pound’s Cantos and a prose book of landscape sketches of the Cariboo, all with birds. I’m finishing up my translation of Schuetz’s Peyote and I have the beginnings of a prose book about Germans in the Okanagan and the United Fruit Growers movement of the early ‘70s.
I’ve come to see the early ‘70s as a pivotal piece of history, in which European immigrant orchardists rose up against English immigrant orchardists and traditions, demanding independence. It was one of the most important events to happen in the Okanagan this century, and a whole culture passes through it and is transformed.
GAYTON: Toronto also seems to loom large in your literary consciousness.
RHENISCH: Toronto is huge. The 401 Freeway roars through Greater Toronto in its 16 lanes of carbon monoxide and decibels. You could lose 100 Mile House in a mile of that. You could lose every other town in B.C. in the rest of its 100 some-odd miles and still have room to spare. And that’s just the Freeway, not the streets. Toronto can be a beautiful and vibrant city, sparking with life and energy, but it is so vast and so out of touch with the earth it has sprung from, that it doesn’t really deserve to be our national cultural capital. There are, after all, parts of the country in which a relationship to the land is far less abstract.
When I wrote Out of the Interior, about the Okanagan, I was appalled to find it was available in only one of Kelowna’s three bookstores. The other two did their purchasing from Toronto, and stocked books about Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula instead. No offence to Jackson Triggs wine, but that is shameful.
Toronto flows through Tom Thomson’s Shack because I want to show how Toronto appears to an outsider. I believe that might be useful. I want to show how its definitions of Canada just don’t fit out here in our mountain valleys and plateaus. I set up some alternative visions of Canada. Liberating ones. Ones with a future and open to possibility.
Essay Date: 2001