A big work presented to all: "Some End/West Broadway" by George Bowering and George Stanley

The following interview is parts five and six of a nine-part series of conversations with BC poets which I conducted in April 2019. All nine were originally posted at ReadLocalBC.ca.

The world speaks to me – George Bowering

in sentences. I can’t push words here and there
the way clay sculptor poets and furniture movers
do, the way Daphne and Fred can, this is not
literary criticism, this is an old poet
sitting naked in a chair almost remembering
what he has been doing all this time. A leopard
steps on very big quiet feet across the mind’s
pasture, and this brain fresh out of the icebox
tries to watch him till he disappears in the trees
also placed there by an inattentive imagination. This
is not literary theory but a cluttered desk his eyes
see bit by bit, a clutter he calls method, a mess
he will never catch up to. The world speaks to him
this way, piece by piece, and for whole minutes
he forgets his nakedness the way large cats forget

Reprinted with permission from 
Some End/West Broadway by George Bowering 
and George Stanley (New Star Books, 2018).

Rob Taylor (RT): When did you first meet one another? Was it in real life or in books? Was it literary love at first sight/read?

George Stanley (GS): I first met George Bowering in June of 1971 when I returned from Europe. I had no place to stay and Stan Persky arranged for me to stay upstairs at George and Angela’s place on York Avenue. I guess it was love at first sight because he had just written a couple of wonderful poems, one called “Summer Solstice” and one called “Desert Elm.”

We were very close starting in the summer of 1971, and our friendship gradually grew over the years. We had a pub night every Tuesday night and that continued along even after I moved to northern BC, I would come back and go to it. Then in the late 90s we had this group called “Dads and Tads.” We called it that because all of us were either in our sixties or our twenties. We met at Shenanigans bar on Robson Street. We’d meet in the early evening and by 9 pm it turned into a loud Korean nightclub.

Also, when I went up to Terrace to teach Canadian literature I began reading his novels. I really began to respect him as a great writer when I read his novels.

George Bowering (GB): My education and training in poetry in the early days was greatly involved with the San Francisco poets, Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser and Michael McClure, and as things went, to the next batch, Stan Persky and Joanne Kyger and George Stanley. It was normal that I should be living in that rented bungalow in Kits with George—it had been what we all called an urban commune for years, but around that time, five of the seven members moved west a block to York Street West, while Angela and I continued to rent the place, living with the new baby Thea and our famous chihuahuas, Frank and Small. We let George take over the upstairs. I guess it was still a kind of poetry commune, but the members included a baby and two little dogs.

RT: Your new book, Some End/West Broadway (New Star Books), is itself a kind of poetry commune: two books, one by each of you, brought together back-to-back as one creature. The books don’t live in isolation, though, but “speak” directly to one another in a number of ways. Both feature a “Letter” to the other poet, for instance. Bowering, you kick it off, writing an epistolary poem to Stanley in response to a section from West Broadway, and Stanley then replies. Further on, in two different poems, one by each of you, Bowering appears and lies down in (or on) one of Stanley’s poems.

I mean, this is all totally normal stuff that happens in most poetry books, but it does open up a real chicken-and-egg question about this book’s origin: were those poems late additions, stitching the two manuscripts together, or did the idea of the collaboration come in part from this emerging, occasionally prostrate, back-and-forth?

GB: As well as I can remember, I remember that I had read George Stanley’s poem about the girl running across Broadway before I read it in the book. But had I? I am pretty sure that he did not write the reply to that poem before—oh, damn! Now I cannot reconstruct the sequence! And it is more complicated than that: one of my poems makes reference to a great poem of George’s that was published in his previous book, A Tall, Serious Girl. This situation reminds me of walking on pieces of floating wood. But I am not bothered at all. For one thing, the work of poetry is never individual; poets are engaged in a big work presented to all. Wouldn’t it be great if Thomas Wyatt could reply to something you added to one of his poems? In my fiction, I have on occasion borrowed people invented by other novelists, from Audrey Thomas, Daphne Marlatt, David Markson, and even Louis L’Amour.

GS: And also George has introduced fictional characters into his so-called “histories” like Bowering’s BC.

For the book, I told Rolf Maurer (our publisher at New Star Books) that I had a 40-page manuscript and Rolf said it wasn’t enough for a book. So then George said to me, “Well, I’ve got a 40-page manuscript too, so let’s put them together.” I think Rolf was really against the idea at the beginning but George Bowering convinced him. After we agreed to do the book together, we wrote the two letters and the other poems that refer to each other. I think… As George says, it’s kind of hard to put the sequence together.

RT: Speaking of your publisher, GS, all of your books from the last 20+ years (back to 1995’s Gentle Northern Summer) have been published with New Star. In fact, both of you were involved in the early years of the press, when it was the Georgia Straight Writing Supplement and then Vancouver Community Press. GS, can you talk about how your relationship with New Star influenced where you’ve gone with your writing? Do you think working with a Vancouver-based publisher had any role in your steadily-increasing focus on the city?

GS: I don’t think Rolf Maurer has any direct influence on my writing, but I’m certainly grateful to Rolf for publishing my books. The first book he published of mine was in 1995, as you say, but I’ve known Rolf since back to the 80s when he first took over New Star from Lanny Beckman. So he’s been a good friend for a long time. But I don’t think it’s mattered that New Star is in Vancouver. My publisher could be in Toronto.

RT: GB, you’ve had eight books published or reissued with New Star too (seven-and-a-half, I guess), though you’ve published with many other presses in between the New Star titles. Do you think the books you’ve published with New Star have a common thread, something which makes them “New Star books”?

GB: Eight? Are you counting Autobiology? That works. It was during those wonderful Kits years in the 70s that we took to working a home-made press that had a number of names before it became New Star. I like it because it has the same initials as the Nihilist Spasm Band, the great noise group in London, Ontario, that I hung around with. That is, believe it or not, significant. In a way, there is a common thread among several of my New Star Press books: Rolf likes to keep some of my older better titles in print after their Toronto publishers have decided not to for their Toronto reasons. A big part of my reason for publishing with New Star is our history, and another big part is that they have been the publisher of David Bromige, Lisa Robertson, Brian Fawcett, Stan Persky—and George Stanley.

RT: You are two of the great chroniclers of the city of Vancouver. What is it about this city in particular that makes you want to write about it? Or is it more about you than it is the city? Would you do the same in Moose Jaw? New York?

GB:  I had to think for a minute. I think that when I lived in Calgary, Montreal, and London, Ontario, I didn’t write poems about Vancouver. But it is certainly not that my poems were about me. It is true that when I was a tyro poet in the exciting days of youth, I often made remarks about the importance of place in my poems. Right now I am looking at a photo I took looking down at a fishing village in Jalisco that I have spent a lot of time in. I wrote poems there, and the photo makes me nostalgic, while the poems do not. I’m not sure what that tells me, but it tells me.

RT: How about you, GS?

GS: My focus on the city goes all the way back to my grade 11 teacher, Edward Dermot Doyle, who is the person to whom my long poem “San Francisco’s Gone” is dedicated. Part of his teaching in the American Literature class was to introduce the students to the history of San Francisco. Ever since then, I’ve written about the city I was in. I wrote a lot of poems in San Francisco about San Francisco; then when I moved to Vancouver in 1971, I wrote a couple poems about Vancouver; then I was in Terrace for 15 years and most of what I wrote was about the town and its history. I’ve been a “city poet.” Probably about 70% of everything I’ve written deals directly with the city I’ve been living in.

RT: GB, you open your half of the book, Some End, with a series of poems about coming “out of the icebox,” which I assume refers to surviving a heart attack in 2015, which involved your being placed in a “cooling machine” to lower your temperature and “save the brain” (and which later turned you into the poster boy for Vancouver General Hospital, grinning down on 10th Avenue cyclists). Did that event change in any way what you wanted to say in your writing? Your urgency to say it?     

GB: You mean did the angel of death make me want to get the important stuff said before it was too late? For those looking on, mainly my dear Jean, it could have been a question of the end by death or the end of writing by brain damage. Well, it is true that a lot of my poems since that time have been written while thinking of mortality, and at my age you think of dying a lot of the time. But as to the important effect—there hasn’t been a substantial change in the way I write poems. I was reading my 2018 poems yesterday, and I thought they were getting better and better, if that is not immodest. But if it is true, that is not because of what I have been writing about. I didn’t have a heart attack, despite what one of those posters said—I had a cardiac arrest, which means STOP. I was very aware of my rare luck. But I did not hurry to the desk with particular intent. Often I get asked questions that enquire about what I wanted to say. But I write what the muse tells me to write.

GS: I write what the muse tells me to write, too. One thing that I said after a reading at Berkeley was, “Creativity is the enemy of inspiration.” Creativity is thought of as something genetic: creativity, talent, genius, all that… No.

When George says “I write what the muse tells me to write” he’s following on the great poet Jack Spicer, who is my mentor. That’s another thing that brought George and me together: our love and honour of Spicer.

RT: Both your muses are in good shape!

GS, when your muse tells you what to write, they seem to want you to revisit old poems as much as to write new ones: the opening section of West Broadway was published under the same title as the closing poem in your 2013 collection After Desire (New Star, 2013). Similarly, parts one and two of Vancouver: A Poem (New Star, 2008) were published in At Andy’s (New Star, 2000). This seems to suggest you work on your long poems over a significant stretch of time, slowing collaging them together. Is that accurate? Do you think these poems are “over” when you publish them the first time, or do you have some inkling in the back (or front) of your mind that they are going to continue to grow?

GS: I do work on my long poems over a significant stretch of time, but I don’t collage them. They come chronologically. But they’re also part of a longer sequence of books located in the same city, so Vancouver: A Poem is followed by West Broadway and then what I’m writing right now, the first part of which is called “Balaclava Street.”

RT: So, say the poem “West Broadway” at the end of After Desire which shows up in this book: when you put that in After Desire were you thinking it was done and then you kept going or were you thinking it was going to keep expanding from there?

GS: At the point of publishing After Desire it was not done. Or no, maybe it was. I don’t know. I don’t remember whether it was done! But I feel alright publishing something, knowing that I’ll be able to follow it up in the next book.

GB:  Or if he doesn’t, maybe I will.

RT: Or you’ll follow one another up in the same book, like you did here. Soon you’ll be writing poems together, handing the pen back and forth one word at a time! Your friendship, on the page and in real life, is obviously a valuable and productive one.

GB, in the title poem in Some End, you write “where did lyric poems / ever get me? I always said poems weren’t / supposed to get you anywhere but the end of the poem.” And yet the rest of the book is filled with people who were brought to you, GB, in one way or another, by poetry: Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, George Stanley, Peter Culley, Al Purdy, bp Nichol, Margaret Avison, Jamie Reid (the book closes with a very moving tribute to Reid). What role does lyric poetry play for you in your life? And how is it tied to your literary friendships, with GS and the many others?

GB: Lyric poetry has been getting a bad name in the past decade or two, at least among the poets and critics I like to hang with. I take part in the putdown, I will admit, but I also have to admit that I like poetry that sings. This is a confusing issue, isn’t it? Listen to those erstwhile friends Robert Duncan and Jack Spicer. They are both serial poets, two of the San Francisco poets who began using that term. Duncan was, to my ear, a lyric poet. He even tried singing with his honking voice, and you’d see him strongly tempted to dance on the stage. Spicer, though, was very plain-spoken. He wrote in sentences. You will hear his influence in the public transit poems of my friend George Stanley. Anyway, the poem you quote here is part of the unoriginal argument I have been making all this time, that poets serve—they don’t get served.

GS: Poets serve, they don’t get served?  I’m not sure what that means. I agree, though, that the lyric is the essential in poetry even if you find the lyric in some larger form, like among the Romantic Poets. George has always had a fascination with Percy Bysshe Shelley‘s poetry, so we read some Shelley poetry publicly. When I think of poetry I think of the lyricism of Shelley, of Anna Akhmatova, of W.B. Yeats.

RT: GB, care to clarify who’s serving who?

GB:  The Irish brothers, George and Gerald Stanley, became a poet and a priest, two professions in which one serves, in ways quite similar, I think. Even if the poet, like Shelley, is a renowned atheist.

RT: GS, in the 2014 Capilano Review issue devoted to GB, “Bowering’s Books,” you wrote about what was then GB’s most recent collection, Teeth (Mansfield Press, 2013). You talked about the poems where Bowering takes us on a trip: “Like a trip, [GB’s poem] goes somewhere. It goes more than one place, it seems to want to go places.”

This quote reminded me as much of your Vancouver poems/books as anything (we’re on the bus, going places, but we’re also going so many other places, too). In what ways do you think GB, through his friendship and/or his poems, has influenced your own writing, or the way you think about it?

GS: Some poems of George’s have an inherent desire to move on. In that review/essay I contrast his poetry with the kind of poetry that is constantly looking back at itself and justifying itself. His wants to move somewhere else.

I don’t think that George’s writing has had any particular influence on my writing, but what drew me to him in 1971 was his intelligence and his warmth. We had no difficulty understanding each other. It was really an instant kind of friendship. All through our years of friendship, he’s really instructed me in Canadian literature. It often turned out that the poets that I liked the best were the poets that he’d always seen were the best, for example, Margaret Avison or John Newlove.

RT: GB, how do you think GS’ writing and/or friendship have affected your writing life?

GB:  He is a real friend. It is what one would have asked of life—to have a friend who works at the art, who studies poetry, who has read Euripides and Anna Akhmatova and John Newlove. I may not steal his tropes (though he should not be unwary), but I will work better at the vocation knowing that he is in my life.

RT: GB, in your half of the book, Some End (New Star Books), there is a tribute to Peter Culley. In it, you write movingly about how older poets (and readers) need what younger poets bring them “out of the dark.” The poem is all the more moving knowing that Peter Culley died of his heart attack only 11 days before you had your cardiac arrest. You speak in many other places (and poems) about your peers and elders, but could you talk a bit about some younger writers who have influenced your writing? Or just some of your favourites (on the page or off)?

GB: It seems as if the longer I stay here, the more younger poets there are. And there are so many now. I have always paid attention to the young writers, and now I am talking about those, say, who are 20 to 50 years younger. I recently published an essay about Vancouver poets, the oldest being Earle Birney and the youngest Ryan Knighton, whom I first knew when he was around 19. When I read those words now, “We call it light,/we who need/ what these younger/ bring, at their cost/ back out of the dark,” I could have been writing about Ryan, who is blind, though really, I am struck now by how right those words and their placement are—but I could not lay out in prose their meaning. But you know, when I name some of my favourite younger poets you will say that they are your elders, eh? I mean come on—Erin Mouré teaches me and so does Oana Avasilichioaei.

RT: How about you, GS?

GS: My intuition is that I assume that I have learned something from younger writers but I can’t know what it is in the way that I would know what I’ve learned from older writers.

RT: Why do you think that is?

GS: I guess it’s something about the nature of time.

RT: As we consider younger writers, could you each speak a bit about the role of mentorship in your life? GB, you’ve written often about the importance of Al Purdy and the A-frame in your development as a writer (your wife, Jean Baird, chairs the Al Purdy A-frame Association). Who were the writers whose friendship or guidance shaped you the most, and how do you find yourself “passing it on” to other writers? What role does the A-frame play in that process?

GB: I keep hearing about mentoring, mainly from people at the universities. I have never got comfortable about the word, though people often accuse me of being a mentor to lots of younger writers. I don’t know. Is it mentoring if a poet writes about poetry and a tyro reads such writing and says that sounds right? Of even if an older poet’s method of composition persuades the younger to work from that stem? If so, I have been mentored by William Carlos Williams, whom I never met, and Robert Duncan, D.G. Jones, Gilbert Sorrentino, H.D., Ezra Pound, and Margaret Avison. When I was starting up I showed a short poem to Allen Ginsberg. He said to get rid of all the little function words, the ones the 18th-century poets used to fill out their iambic. I did, and he was right. One of the best tips I ever got. I like, if that is what you are talking about, pointing out something a poet has done nicely. I did that with Patrick Lane a couple of weeks before he left us. But I have never done that at the A-Frame. I went there to be with, not to learn.

GS: One thing I’ll add is that mentorship was what that “Dads and Tads” group I mentioned earlier was all about. It went on for two or maybe three summers in the late 90s. Young poets like Ryan Knighton and Reg Johanson were learning from me and George and Jamie Reid as the elder poets, the “dads” of the group. As for me, my own mentors were Jack Spicer and Robert Duncan.

RT: GB, in your answer you mentioned W.C. Williams as a mentor-in-writing. He seems like a significant poet in both of your lives – GB has written in the past about the important role The Desert Music played in his development as a writer (and then there’s the whole “icebox” thing in Some End), and it’s hard to read your series of books and poems about Vancouver, GS, and not think of Williams’ Paterson (in “Letter to George Bowering” you call it your “Paterson pastiche”). What do you think you learned from Williams?

GS: Williams, of course, is the progenitor of all of us modern poets, not just me and George but all the poets in The New American Poetry dating from about 1960. To me there are three essential factors of modern writing: one is ordinary language, one is free-form or vers libra, and one is precise states of emotion, and they’re all in Williams.

I was never influenced to write anything by a particular poem of Williams’ until I read Paterson, the first book of Paterson particularly, and that gave me the idea of writing a long poem about Vancouver.

RT: Was it just the idea of writing about a town, or something about how Williams wrote his poem?

GS: The way that Williams wrote that poem, in that there would be verse and then there would be long prose passages. That was a kind of “mixed style” that I adopted. But at the very beginning of that poem, I distance myself from Williams because Williams identified himself with the city of Paterson and I couldn’t identify myself with the city of Vancouver. I wrote, “this is not my city.” My city was San Francisco.

RT: Do you still feel, after so many years, that this could never be your city?

GS:Oh, it is now, just like I’m now a Canadian. Fairly recently I began to refer to myself as “an American poet and a BC poet,” but I think I might as well accept the fact that I’m a Canadian poet too. I read a review in The Malahat Review of After Desire and it was written by an academic who I’d never met from Queen’s University. I thought, “Somebody I’ve never met is reading me in Eastern Canada? I must be a Canadian!”

Back in 1980, I had the idea that I could become a Canadian poet by writing poems about Terrace, because I had read poets like Margaret Avison, who wrote about Toronto, and Margaret Laurence, who wrote about a small town in Manitoba. I thought, “If I write poetry about a small-town and BC, this will make me a Canadian poet,” but that didn’t really work. I lived 15 years in Terrace and one year in Prince Rupert, so I do think of myself as a British Columbian. I found out that a lot of native-born Vancouverites never think of going to the interior. They go to Toronto but not to Kelowna.

RT: GB, what are your thoughts on Williams’ impact on your writing?

GB: In high school I did what I thought all the kids did: read the poets we weren’t being fed in class. That’s how I got H.D., Hart Crane and William Blake, for examples. In first year at Victoria, we had that fat little anthology by Oscar Williams. There were two William Carlos Williams poems in it, one of them in the “humor” section. No professor showed me WCW. But when I found him I hung on tight—I was a kid on the road to Damascus.

RT: Speaking of influences: we’ve mentioned Anna Akhmatova a few times already in this discussion. GS, your Akhmatova translations and poems are appearing more steadily in your recent books. You note in “Letter to George Bowering” that you “can’t get [Akhmatova’s poem] to stay put in 1944” – instead your translations often bring her to modern-day Vancouver (so your “imitation” of her poem “Our Age,” about “decline of the West,” becomes about West Point Grey, for instance). What’s going on here? Why do Akhmatova’s words move so irresistibly into your 21st-century Vancouver?

GS: I spent a few weeks in Moscow—maybe it was only about 10 days—in 1991. I met some people there and I got interested in the Russian language. I began learning to read Russian poetry, and I was drawn to Akhmahtova. She was a very modern poet for her own time. She belonged to a group called the Acmeists, “acme” being the height of realism. She’s very much a realist poet.

I connect with her because I think of myself as a realist. I used to call it simply an “aboutist,” I wrote poems that were about something. That was in reaction against Language Poetry, which turned the arrow of reference back on the poem itself. Akhmatova broke with the reigning poetic movement of the time, which was symbolism, and began writing this very precise, realistic poetry (like Marianne Moore said, “plain [language] which dogs and cats can read”).

GB: I have been hearing about her most of my poetry life, but I am ashamed to say that I have never given her many hours. I did the usual thing for people my age—I let Vladimir Mayakovsky be my Russian.

RT: That idea of letting one person represent a country is a good lead-in to my next question. In the title poem in Some End, GB writes, on the idea of being young again: “but what about all these books? Would we / have to write them again?” Which books would be the first you’d write again (if any), and why? Which would you have represent your country?

GB: The way I read that poem is that I don’t know whether I would be able to start on such a big job. Give me another life and I will write whatever gives itself to my hard-working brain or soul. I can tell you which of my books I would not write again first. It would be How I Wrote Certain of my Books.

GS: I’m reminded of a joke that George told when we were in Seattle. Before he started reading he said, “This is my prayer, oh Lord. If I have only one life to live I hope this is not it.”

I would imagine if I had another life, I’d be another person, I’d write different poetry (if I wrote poetry. Maybe I wouldn’t write poems!).

If I had a chance to go back over all my work, I think right now I would cross out much more of my work than I would have even 10 years ago. I sometimes look back at a poem of mine and I think “this is really pretentious” or “this is stupid,” whereas back then I thought it was a good poem. At the same time, when I look back I know which are really good poems that I’d like to keep. I would keep a poem called “Flesh Eating Poem” and a poem called “Pompeii,” but I would probably drop a poem called “Achilles Poem,” which was an attempt to imitate Charles Olson.

RT: Moving from one form of flattery to another (imitation to tribute), two of the most moving poems in the book – one by each of you – are tributes to Jamie Reid (“Inside Ours” and “Love”). Reid was, as you mentioned earlier, your third Dad amidst the Tads, and died in 2015. Together your two poems about him talk about the intermingling of the personal and the political, attempting to pull in some of the many elements of Reid’s writing and life. What one thing would you like unfamiliar readers to know about Reid and/or his writing?

GS: I would say there are two things: first, that he was a poet in a radical, modernist sense. People used to criticize Jamie because of his membership in the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) as though he’d betrayed poetry or something like that. His identifying with communism goes back to Marx and the thinkers and poets of the 19th century. For Jamie, to be a communist was to be a modernist.

The second thing is that he had a big heart. He had so much love for people, and I remember the kind care he took for two poets in the last days of their lives: Billy Little and Goh Poh Seng.

GB: In the Tish days, I was the oldest of the five editors, and Jamie was the youngest. I knew everything there was to know about everything, of course, but I envied Jamie Reid. He was a beautiful skinny imp Rimbaud. If he were to kiss your cheek in the evening, you would wake up more intelligent in the morning. I was one of those people who regretted his years as an adherent to that goofy political outfit, but just a few years ago I saw him playing the gravedigger in a production of Hamlet. It was then I knew that I knew him.

Final Vocabulary – George Stanley

‘Life is about other people.’
Peter Weber

‘I is an other.’

Do what you’re here for.

Reprinted with permission from 
Some End/West Broadway by George Bowering 
and George Stanley (New Star Books, 2018).

George Bowering was born in Penticton, BC. He spent his freshman year at Victoria College, then joined the RCAF for three years, then got two degrees at UBC, then went to teach at Calgary, Sir George Williams, Simon Fraser, and three European universities. Then he retired so that he would have time to write books and so on. He is currently writing a little book in which he looks at the poetry of John Keats, Emily Brönte, Sir Philip Sidney and others. 

George Stanley is the author of seven previous books, the most recent being After Desire (2013), Vancouver: A Poem (2008), and North of California St. (2014), which collects poems from three earlier, out–of–print books. Born in San Francisco and living in Canada since 1970, Stanley was the 2006 recipient of the Shelley Memorial Award from the American Poetry Society.

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