PREFACE: The Struggle for an Alberta Literature
Donna Coates and George Melnyk
INTRODUCTION: Wrestling Impossibilities: Wild Words in Alberta
Aritha van Herk
PART ONE: Poetry
1. The “Wild Body” of Alberta Poetry
2. “To Canada”: Michael Gowda’s Unique Contribution to the Literary History of Alberta
3. Pastoral Elegy, Memorial, Writing: Robert Kroetsch’s “Stone Hammer” Poem
PART TWO: Drama
4. No Cowpersons on This Range: The Cultural Complexity of Alberta Theatre
5. Playing Alberta with Sharon Pollock
PART THREE: Fiction
6. “No Woman is Natural”: The (Re)production of Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Suzette Mayr’s Moon Honey
7. Wandering Home in Rudy Wiebe’s Sweeter Than All the World and Of This Earth
8. Richard Wagamese – An Ojibway in Alberta
Frances W. Kaye
PART FOUR: Nonfiction
9. From Grizzly Country to Grizzly Heart: The Grammar of Bear-Human Interactions in the Work of Andy Russell and Charlie Russell
10. The Doomed Genre: Myrna Kostash and the Limits of Non-fiction
AFTERWORD: Writing in Alberta – Up, Down, or Sideways?
THE STRUGGLE FOR AN ALBERTA
DONNA COATES AND GEORGE MELNYK
In October 2005, the University of Calgary hosted the “Wild Words” conference, which aimed to bring a critical perspective to Alberta writing on the occasion of the province’s centenary. Admittedly, a one-hundred-year literary tradition is brief as literary traditions go, but Alberta’s literary roots are much older. They reach back to the orature of First Nations peoples and the colonizing exploration and travel literature of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this tradition, one also finds various European cultural and linguistic streams associated with waves of immigration and settlement. The existence of historical depth is one thing; the matter of literary quality is another. Even the very concept of an “Alberta literature” is an issue. The Wild Words conference dealt with these matters in a wide-ranging and provocative examination of the work of prominent Alberta writers and so served as the starting point for this book project.
The idea of a distinct Alberta literary identity is a recent one, first formulated in George Melnyk’s two-volume Literary History of Alberta(1998,1999). But the concept has deeper roots. It began in an embryonic form in anthologies of Alberta writing published in 1955, 1967, and 1979, all of which were associated with political landmarks such as Canada’s centenary.1 These three celebratory collections were then followed by literary anthologies of Alberta fiction – Alberta Bound (1986) edited by Fred Stenson, Alberta Rebound (1990) and Boundless Alberta (1993) both edited by Aritha van Herk, and Threshold: An Anthology of Contemporary Alberta Writing (1999) edited by Srja Pavlovic. More recently we have The Wild Rose Anthology of Alberta Prose (2003), a historical collection edited by George Melnyk and Tamara Seiler and Writing the Terrain: Travelling Through Alberta with the Poets (2005) edited by Robert Stamp. This fifty-year span of anthologies suggests that Alberta literature is a reality, and yet there has been no critical literary study of Alberta writers as Alberta writers other than the Literary History. The concept of Alberta writing as a distinct literature includes within it the evolution of a cultural framework that defines that literature. A cultural framework is both grounding and a context out of which literary production occurs. This volume applies contemporary literary theory to Alberta writing in support of the concept of a meaningful Alberta literature. But it does so in a preliminary way because the essays in this book deal with only a small portion of Alberta’s literary reality. It is our hope to produce further volumes that bring scholarly attention to the work of numerous writers not dealt with in Wild Words as part of a continuing exploration of what it means to be an Alberta writer.
The idea that a province in Canada, other than Quebec, could have a distinct literary identity is novel and debatable, just as 80 years ago the idea that Canada itself had a distinct literary identity was novel and debatable. By the 1970s, Canadian literature as a concept had become commonplace. In the same decade, the concept of Prairie literature also became an accepted label to distinguish regional writing in Canada. The idea had been first articulated by Edward McCourt in The Canadian West in Fiction (1949) and was reiterated by Laurie Ricou in Vertical Man/Horizontal World (1973) and Dick Harrison in Unnamed Country: The Struggle for Canadian Prairie Fiction (1977).
A special Prairie Poetry Issue of Essays on Canadian Writing (1980) edited by Dennis Cooley of the University of Manitoba, who spoke at the 2005 Wild Words conference twenty-five years later, confirmed the validity and viability of the Prairie Literature concept. It was based on a regional division of Canadian literature. Once the concept of Canadian literature had been accepted, its diverse content was acknowledged. The PrairieLit concept had grown out of an era in Canadian history that linked the provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba into a single agrarian political economy with a common cultural base. This unity began to unravel after World War II, when Alberta became the centre of Canada’s energy industry. The resulting urbanization, industrialization, and new wealth distinguished Alberta from its two sister “Prairie” provinces, which remained, until the twenty-first century, have-not provinces. With a population in 2008 that was almost triple each of the other provinces and with an oil and gas economy (extraction, processing, and transportation) that was booming, Alberta evolved into a different kind of entity. The term “Prairie” made little sense when applied to post-1980 Alberta because the geographic designation was at odds with the economic and social realities of the province. But what could the replacement term, Alberta, mean?
Regarding literature produced in Alberta, one can first look at the measure of provincial self-consciousness that critics find in creative works by asking, how expressive of its origins is a literary product? What do these origins mean? What should be made of the Alberta-centric contexts that inspire, inform, and transform that creative work in distinctive ways – ways that link it to other creative works produced by writers from Alberta? Second, one can examine how a particular narrative or body of narratives by a writer fits into a literary past, a heritage of writing that is the province’s literary history. By positioning a work or a writer in the continuum of a literary tradition, one augments and expands that tradition. The discursive associations in the texts define the Albertan literary ethos, whether one is relating them to earlier texts or one is drawing distinctive parallels with contemporary works. Third, one can group literary works from Alberta into various categories of cultural grammar based on gender, class, ethnicity/nationality, language, generation, sexual orientation, and genres of writing. By doing so, one removes any sense of the monolithic or exclusive from the concept of an Alberta literature. The term cannot be considered a simple container of straightforward or obvious labels. If anything, this volume is inclusive of all genres and all backgrounds. This, in fact, may be the distinguishing characteristic of Alberta literature in the twenty-first century – its political, social, and cultural diversity. Finally, there is the unifying goal of creating a literary canon that captures that diversity. The formation of an Alberta canon awaits an acknowledgement from the writing, reading, and critical communities in the province, the region, and the country. The growth of scholarly analysis and discussion of Alberta writing can lead to the articulation of such a canon. However, we are too early in the process to do that.
Because the study of Alberta writing is not a regular feature of academe, though Alberta writers are studied in other contexts and under different rubrics, acceptance of the concept of Alberta literature as a valid field of study remains an uphill struggle. The weight of historical prejudice and conventional negativity toward provincial identity in literature is a significant barrier. So the concept of Alberta literature remains contested by other boundary concepts and so becomes a work in progress. This volume is a step on the long road of legitimization.
Writers themselves prefer various terms of self-identification that suit their interests, with “Albertan” not high on the list. Likewise, their works of art are always open to numerous overlapping labels, depending on what aspect literary critics are keen on. In an era when poststructuralist, postmodern, and postcolonial thinking continues to be in vogue, though its influence is beginning to wane, the term “Alberta” may seem irrelevant to mainstream criticism. But it is, we would argue, no less “irrelevant” than terms such as “Canadian” and “Prairie” or even “Quebec” literature. Each of these terms needs to be understood as a general context framing numerous cultural grammars and influences that inform a writer’s identity. Alberta’s contemporary literary house is as dependent on global literary trends, the evolving political economy of the province, and the formative influences of linguistic change and developing critical theories as is any Canadian literature.
In the struggle for an Alberta literature, this volume is not blind to the challenges facing the concept. The philosopher Wolfgang Iser, in The Range of Interpretation (2000), states: “The task of interpretation is thus twofold: it has to constitute its subject matter, and it has to furnish understanding of what has been constituted.”2 This volume attempts to do both. Future volumes will add to this body of criticism and thereby enhance the validity and viability of the concept of Alberta literature as a field of study.
We would like to thank our fellow organisers of the Wild Words conference – poet Tom Wayman, novelist Suzette Mayr, and Harry Vandervlist of the Department of English at the University of Calgary, playwright Clem Martini of the Faculty of Fine Arts, Special Collections librarian Apollonia Steele and Anne Green (Director of WordFest: Calgary-Banff International Writers Festival) for their participation in this task. While not a proceedings, this volume was inspired by the conference and the papers given at the conference. The combination of scholarly and creative energy that went into the conference by both organisers and presenters became the foundation for this book.
1. The first was The Alberta Golden Jubilee Anthology, ed. W. G. Hardy (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1955); the second was Chinook Arch: A Centennial Anthology of Alberta Writing, ed. John Patrick Gillese (Edmonton: Government of Alberta, 1967); and the third was The Alberta Diamond Jubilee Anthology: A Collection from Alberta’s Best Writers, ed. by John W. Chalmers (Edmonton: Hurtig, 1979).
WILD WORDS IN ALBERTA
ARITHA VAN HERK
Attempts to essentialize Alberta’s literary tradition are about as permanent as snow before a chinook. The writing aligned with Alberta (whether by accident or location) is a chiaroscuro, swatches of light and shade that dazzle and surprise, conceal and reveal. We’re identified as young, unformed, the literary school (well, kindergarten) without a tradition or an encapsulating definition. Not for us the solemn blessing of Ontario Gothic or hip Toronto urbanism. Not for us the racy stripes of Montreal translative transgression. No, if anything, Alberta writing earns a dollop of good old “prairie realism” (which I have proven elsewhere does not exist) and then quizzical incomprehension. The books that erupt from Alberta are too unpredictable, too wide-ranging and varied to be summarized and contained. Alberta writing is a mystery, a tangent, a shock, unexpected and vigorous.
Three books are essential to anyone wishing to understand Alberta writing. Actually, they are two books, if one considers that George Melnyk’s The Literary History of Alberta is a two-volume affair, altogether 540 pages. But were I required to frame a bookshelf that declared the nature of Alberta’s Wild Words, I would put at one end Melnyk’s as-close-to-comprehensive-as-possible-under-the-circumstances literary history, and at the other end Robert Kroetsch’s elusive evocation of absence, The Hornbooks of Rita K.
Already, I know, I am in trouble. Alberta writing, as I have learned to my own greedy delight, is a sprawling lovely monster. When I tried to include a bibliography of essential Alberta literature at the end of my idiosyncratic and unreliable history of Alberta, Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta, I knew the list to be terminally incomplete, remarkably inadequate. I included it anyway, determined to assert that Alberta, for all its reputation, has a literate culture and a complex literary life, one that embraces immigrants and newcomers, exiles and diasporic settlers, original peoples and carpetbaggers.
An Alberta writer is one of those strange designations that some say contains its own contradiction, like Alberta culture or military intelligence. What does an Alberta writer encompass? Someone who lives in Alberta and who writes about elsewhere, all the many elsewheres that tempt a global citizen? Someone who writes about Alberta even if they do not live here? Someone who frequents the buffet tables of the Banff Centre, but who literally can’t figure out how to get there without a guide and who complains bitterly about the elk rutting on the grounds? Someone who drew a mark on this place even though she was here for the briefest of periods? As George Melnyk so eloquently argues, this is a place of “multiple and contradictory narratives” (Melnyk, Vol. 1 xvii), and there is simply no essential set of measures that can delineate an Alberta writer, unless that measure is itself multiple and contradictory.
Alberta is an evocative site for writing because it occupies a landscape that wears its metamorphosis proudly. Here presides a geography that has undergone movements and erosions, upheavals and glaciations that resonate still, however we might imagine the physical ground as a static or exhausted medium. It is impossible and, I would contend, it will always be impossible to ignore Alberta’s spatial effect, unless one is truly insensate, aesthetically numb. What we see, whether lifting our eyes west to the mountains or east to the plains is a reminder of the world as beauty. What we see looking north is the imaginative future, and looking south, an early subversion of conterminal division. Our writing cannot help but be influenced, positively or adversely, by this spectacular space and our specular gaze. Even hidden in the cul de sac of a suburb it is impossible to ignore the intensity of the light. Even hunkered away from an obliterating blizzard, it is impossible to remain unaffected. The very changes in barometric pressure will insist on prescribing a migraine.
This Alberta practices a version of disorderly inclusion, a peripheral and careless acceptance that frees the writing writer to focus, to fall in love with what words can do out here. Not what words mean – that is for the thematic interests of a Canada that shaped its trajectory and project long before Alberta became a distinct cultural entity. We have a different sense of literary engagement here, one impossible to define. Except that its effect is remarkable, as seductive as warm days and cool nights.
Let me cite an example. Out of fourteen Canadian writers who have been Markin-Flanagan writer-in-residence holders at the University of Calgary, six who came from elsewhere decided to stay in Alberta. Three more who could not stay (the tyranny of having a job) expressed open longing to stay. Four were already Albertans. Only one fled after what was clearly an experience determinedly unhappy. Now why this seeming conversion? Isn’t Calgary the heart of Alberta’s economic crassness? Isn’t the literary energy percolating to the east or west more telling? Certainly, Alberta writing struggles against the old clichés that see us writing only about cowboys, nature, and isometric conservativism. Although that is not the issue at all.
In truth, Alberta’s literary world is inclusive and inspiring. It’s even kind to buffalo hunters, those writers who move here when the economy is good, and who bag every grant and prize in sight, even if they care nothing about this place and contribute little to the writing community. It’s quietly protective of its gentle sinners, those writers who have lived here forever, and who slowly grow more bent with time as they work away at tilling this sometimes-infertile soil. And it can be angry too, at writers who characterize this place as reductive or simple, those who visit and dismiss. Alberta has been home to or alienated enough writers to cause a modernist period, if we wanted something like that. Although we’d have to call it something else. Wild Words is a good description.
So why then do I insist on the bookends that I have chosen? Inclusive, comprehensive, and objective in its required compression, given the number of writers and texts that he apprehends, George Melnyk’s Literary History of Alberta makes obvious sense. Melnyk provides a powerfully engaged sweep of this literature, from Writing-on-Stone and the messages recorded in the cliffs there to his closing with Thomas King and Richard Wagamese, both First Nations writers. That he leaves his history at the end of the twentieth century and cannot engage with the most up to the minute contemporary writing is simply reflective of the time when he completed the project; the present cacophony of voices argues that there are more tentacles and offshoots than were even imaginable ten years ago. Melnyk does what he sets out to do, articulating three fundamental claims: “that Alberta has a literary history that is definable and worth knowing; that Alberta’s literary identity is multicultural and polyphonic; and that Alberta’s literary history is now moving toward a global synthesis” (Melnyk, Vol. 1 xx). For that reason, his is a reassuring and solid guidebook to our writerly inheritance.
But the other bookend, a strangely inconclusive poetic text published just after the turn of the century, by Robert Kroetsch, a man who might be called Mr. Alberta (along with having once been identified by Linda Hutcheon as Mr. Canadian Post-modern) except that he has not lived in Alberta since 1980, is a more arbitrary choice. And yet, it is exactly its bizarre “translation of strangeness” (Melnyk, Vol. 2 231) that argues for its synergy and its metaphorical positioning as writing that could be deemed “ur-Alberta.”
The very construction of The Hornbooks of Rita K declares the provisional nature of writing out here, the process of trying to piece together fragments into some kind of literary history.
Each line of the poem is a provisional exactness.
We write by waiting for the mind to dispossess. (3)
So declares Hornbook #10, as if to persuade the reader that there is order to be found within the pages of this meditation, just so long as it knows enough to divest itself of possessiveness. Alberta is poem, poet, narrative, journalist, critique, critic, and archivist, and yet, always more. Claiming to be “intimate friends” with Rita K, the archivist (or whatever he is, perhaps even a literary historian in some way related to George Melnyk) pretends to serve as an interpreter for the bewildered reader, proposing to gloss Rita Kleinhart’s “dense poems” (7). Of course, her poems are not dense, and the reader is not bewildered. It is Raymond who is both dense and bewildered, he the johnny-come-lately to Alberta writing. Raymond pretending to be an expert on Rita (Rita the writer who exists and yet has vanished; the writer who has written enough to have a reputation, yet left almost no trace), is a gloss on those who would parse Alberta writing, those who would reduce it to its marginalia and location.
Raymond is careful to explain Rita’s provenance, thereby identifying her as a literary work:
Kleinhart was invited, during the late spring of 1992, to visit Germany and lecture briefly to the Canadianists at Trier University. On her way back from Trier she paid a visit to the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt and while at the museum mailed a number of postcards to friends. She was not seen alive thereafter.
Her ranch in Central Alberta – her house overlooking the coulees and the valley of the Battle River – contained at the time of her disappearance neat stacks of scrawled notes, manuscripts, partially filled notebooks and, yes, unfinished (or unfinishable?) poems. (8)
Here then is the model for the Alberta writer: a person of some international renown who when she leaves Alberta manages to vanish, although her “ranch” home (and the tongue-in-cheek irony encoded in that designation is beautiful considering the dread brand of ranching that all Alberta writing must resist) contains a huge repository of words, poems “unfinished (or unfinishable?)” as well as the story of who and where she is. Part poetics, part documentary, part fiction, Rita collects all genres into her writerly presence and then refuses their designation by leaving that category empty.
Raymond happily and lavishly interprets the absent writer for a would-be reader. She was intrigued with back doors and escape (10); she worked from photographs (11); she admires snow (19); she is fascinated by prairie cemeteries (12) – all claims that Raymond makes on Rita’s behalf. Rita herself speaks only through a few Hornbook fragments, enigmatic as inspiration and elusive as the metaphorical effect of literature itself. But I am dwelling on minutiae, taking up the cudgels that Raymond so assiduously beats. Let me get straight to the point. I suspect that Rita is Alberta writing.
This textual anthropomorphism speaks to the numinous nature of Alberta writing. “Her disappearance ... had everything to do with entrance into the world. Only by disappearing could she escape the bonded ghost she had become to her readers” (27). The playful conundrum of appearing by disappearing is indeed the template for Alberta writing. Alberta writing occupies that fugitive category of doubt that inscribes by vanishing, that articulates its existence by an act of erasure. So different from the declarative trumpets of “national” writing, this text is a “bonded ghost,” haunting and yet geographically determined, a writer of and from Alberta and yet impossible to identify, let alone lay eyes on.
Raymond tells us that Rita “was at work on a huge – and I would say bizarre – work that ultimately... caused her disappearance. She held to the conviction that... she would leave each object or place or person that fell under her attention undisturbed” (16). The Alberta writer is indeed an ethical thief, estranged from her own material or at least shy with that material, shading in a few words to delineate this bizarre and eccentric world, careful not to damage its integrity, almost afraid to recite its distinctiveness. And the open question of creativity vibrates through The Hornbooks of Rita K, as if it were a tuning fork for Alberta writing. “One of the considerable and neglected art forms is the stack of papers” (75). This then, is the essence of Alberta writing. A stack of papers, unsifted and disorderly, intent on what they have not yet booked. Wild Words.
The writer and the written engage in a dance that must exhaust the writing, which, even as it persists, endures. By disappearing, claims Raymond, Rita gives freedom to her writing. And yet, around the corner of Raymond’s obsessive tabulations, snooping, discussion, and analysis, Rita’s words remain, endure. Enigmatic, almost aphoristic, the Alberta writer defines home and its hold over us.
Home is a door that opens inward only.
So how will you get out, stranger? I say
to myself. (33)
It may be that Alberta writing does not “get out” at all, but circles its own secret knowledge of its own discomfort, its own one-page brevity. In fact, there is the rub. Alberta writing is stealthy, attributive, mysterious. Hornbook #55 declares, “We turn to speak and confront an absence” (55), yearning to say what we want to say but at a loss for audience. The result then can only be writing as a dance with words that cannot quite define a place, and yet eternally engages with the infinite variety of this place.
Writerly influences – the literary history that the writer circles and lies down with – cannot be neglected either, and here Melnyk’s Literary History echoes Rita K. Rita confesses, “Sometimes I hear in my speech traces of languages I don’t remember knowing” (14). All the different backgrounds and inheritances that inflect Alberta’s character speak through those who try to write, whether they know it or not. And so, the essays in this volume, Wild Words, their careful reading paying attention to both sides of the phrase, Alberta writing, can be read in two directions, through George Melnyk’s survey, and through Rita Kleinhart’s transience.
My name is Rita Kleinhart. My heart is tough, a clenched and patient fist, determined to beat. Wild Words hum in my bones. Here is my summary of these essays that demarcate a few renditions of my Alberta.
Successful mourning, as Christian Riegel declares in his gentle admonition of Robert Kroetsch’s Stone Hammer Poem, requires attention. We need practice in elegy and monument, the work of writing that incites the paradox of loss, a respect for what has gone before. Raspberry baskets hold more than harvest; they invest in the scent of the future.
How can we defend ourselves with poems, asks Douglas Barbour, and who is an Alberta poet? All of us, he answers, Watson and Wah, Mandel and Markotic, Whyte and Noble and Barbour himself, intimate immigrations of image. Those we miss show up in these pages, complete with words, the distinct energy of their outpourings, linguistic constructions. The poems work hard, the waitresses work hard, the service has aching feet. We can, Barbour asserts, defend ourselves with outriders, whose poetic “prologue lines” are intent on longing more than chronicle.
Tongue steeped in its childhood tea, I have stepped off the train at Strathcona, fought my way through the crowds in Edmonton to search for the settlement office. Being multilingual is both gift and limitation, as Jars Balan gently unpacks the trunk of Michael Gowda’s voice, how to speak, when having just arrived here, your own voice must adapt to the needs of others. The question is repeated over and over: how do you write in Alberta, complete with the prescribed order, the limitations of ideology and economy?
If Alberta theatre can exhort the paradox, unpack destructive consequences, and shine the flashlight into dark corners, it will. Anne Nothof recites a diverse and diasporic staging, subliminal reaches toward cultural diversity, with neither prairie realism nor cowboy iconography in sight. No frustrated creativity, but a graceful acupuncture in the dramatists she identifies. Together with Sherrill Grace’s clear-eyed examination of Sharon Pollock’s theatre, changing names and changing places to take on the role of Alberta. Pollock proclaims a place where the self can reinvent the self and still shape the locale that shapes writing. With the land as a character, not landscape but character, she questions the inheritance that the generations await. Here in Alberta, the reinvention of a self is not only possible but probable.
Helen Hoy takes up the contradictory narratives of self in Suzette Mayr’s Moon Honey, cacophonous race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoy shows how those categories dissolve in an Alberta no longer monochromatic but hybrid, how parodic intervention and infused refusals of realism implicate bland liberal racism, and juxtapose power with social chemistry. This is, says Hoy, “the site where the imagination meets the skin.” Both come away naked.
Rudy Wiebe’s restless kinaesthesia, tracked by Malin Sigvardson, declares that home is always many steps away. In this migration, Alberta becomes destination but never quite location, a worship of what may never be, as opposed to what is present. You get what you settle for with memory and the future both, but the mergence of religious and geographical movement can propose a stasis too, travel-suffering another name for perambulatory virtuousness.
Frances W. Kaye retribalizes Alberta with the Ojibway presence of Richard Wagamese taking to the pages with polemic and passion in equal measure. Seeking explanation, learning lessons, questing for understanding, the First Nations writer negotiates this space. Defying the binaries of non-white and white, these wounded nomads must grapple with the truth of dispossession and its affect, wounds that must be reconciled to a place and its peoples.
Animals too in their speaking reject the mapped borders of “civilization” and occupy an entirely different site, one that does not recognize Alberta at all. In the grizzly world of the Russells, Andy and Charlie, a new language begins to take shape, claims Pamela Banting. In fact, the Alberta writer who carries a gun smells different, cannot embrace the metaphor of ethics, etiquette, and protocol.
Lisa Grekul takes extinction one step farther, in her examination of Myrna Kostash’s wrestling match with genre. “The crisis of non-fiction” argues an Alberta bloodline that includes life writing, witness, analysis, and debate. Chronology and cause and effect contribute to a travelogue of the world larger than Alberta and yet historically and socially rooted in the horizon of Alberta. The imaginary coherence of this unpredictable – and yes, even doomed – place still argues that we come from the same village, even after we invent that village.
In this Alberta, then, reading these essays in the generous spirit they were written, I confess that my name is Rita Kleinhart. My heart is tough, a clenched and patient fist, determined to beat. Wild Words hum in my bones. The community that Fred Stenson describes in “Writing in Alberta – Up, Down, or Sideways” is my community, replete with memoir-writing, wispy-haired men who went to one-room schoolhouses, and with recalcitrant lyric poets. Fred Stenson’s useful degree in Economics is the same degree I have; I too remember when Culture was a proper ministry and not just a word at the end of tourism, recreation, and et cetera. I too taught in penitentiaries and shuffled my feet at meetings in rude and sophisticated Toronto. And yes, I too ran off to Europe with a backpack and managed to vanish in the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art even while I remain, scribbling lines in a ranch house, there overlooking the valley of the Battle River. I am what is called an Alberta writer. I practice wild words.
And still, “somewhere out there, the fence is down” (Kroetsch 56). Escape is possible, indeed encouraged. The open door beguiles. Write and disappear. And yet, it is not so easy to vanish, or to stop being an Alberta writer. Hornbook #43 confesses to such a writer’s irrepressible and unquenchable desire. “We write as a way of inviting love. Each text is a request that says, please, love me a little” (Kroetsch 19). Yes, this is the truth. Disappearance or not, from or within an elusive and illusory and contested Alberta, our writing is asking for exactly that.
Please, love our words a little.
Kroetsch, Robert. The Hornbooks of Rita K. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2001.
Melnyk, George. The Literary History of Alberta. Vol. 1. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1998.
______. The Literary History of Alberta. Vol. 2. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1999.
van Herk, Aritha. Mavericks: An Incorrigible History of Alberta. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2001.
THE “WILD BODY” OF ALBERTA POETRY
DOUGLAS BARBOUR, UNIVERSITY OF CALGARY
“How do you grow a poet?”
This question, asked a number of times in the most famous poem by Alberta’s most famous poet, certainly stands as a central one for anybody attempting to write about poetry in Alberta, or Alberta poetry. Poets can grow anywhere, of course – Heisler, Alberta, or Estevan, Saskatchewan, for example. And move through many other sites on their way to and from Alberta: Europe in World War II and Montreal before coming to Edmonton; or the Mackenzie River up north, and SUNY Binghampton on the way to Winnipeg. Or from the West Coast to Edmonton to be published nevertheless by T. S. Eliot in Britain. It won’t be easy to pin down the Alberta poet, nor how s/he has grown.
Robert Kroetsch himself offers a number of illuminating (and/but maybe not) responses. His father has no doubt that the question is useless:
Son, this is a crowbar.
This is a willow fencepost.
This is a sledge.
This is a roll of barbed wire.
This is a bag of staples.
This is a claw hammer.
First off I want you to take that
crowbar and driver [sic] 1,156 holes
in that gumbo.
And the next time you want to
write a poem
we’ll start the haying.
(Kroetsch, Field Notes 38)
The poet (implied) has a number of other answers, although they tend
to cancel each other out, as is the way with so many of Kroetsch’s poetic statements. Here are two:
As for the poet himself
we can find no record
of his having traversed
the land/in either direction
no trace of his coming
or going/only a scarred
page, a spoor of wording
a reduction to mere black
and white/a pile of rabbit
turds that tells us
all spring long
where the track was
poet… say uncle
(Kroetsch, Field Notes 38)
We silence words
by writing them down.
(Kroetsch, Field Notes 42)
So, are these the choices for a prairie poet in the second half of the twentieth century or the beginning of the twenty-first: some kind of offbeat pastoral or the paradoxes of language itself? That Kroetsch has managed
to play both with such subtlety, as well as riff off almost every other kind of discourse only signals his essential mastery, a mastery few others have even attempted, let alone achieved.
Who is an Alberta poet? That’s a tough question, but I’d like to keep any possible answer as open as possible, as open perhaps as the parkland stretching from flat prairie to the highest mountains. From the perspective of the early twenty-first century, there aren’t many to point to before the general rise of new writers in the sixties. Of course, we can always mention the fact that Earle Birney was born in Calgary and spent his earliest years in Banff, but it’s clear that he spent most of his writing life elsewhere. If his most famous poem is set in the Rockies, its mountain could be in either Alberta or British Columbia. That he was a great mentor and a significant figure for younger poets, including some in Alberta, does not really make him an Alberta poet. Far more likely to fit such a description are later immigrants, rather than this important emigrant.1
Two poets Albertans can, I think, claim, who originally shared an interest in mythological and highly symbolic lyrics: Eli Mandel, born in Estevan, Saskatchewan, and Wilfred Watson, born in Rochester, England, and raised in British Columbia. Both eventually ended up teaching at the University of Alberta, Mandel for a significant period, during which his poetry shifted toward a more late modernist stance, and Watson for his whole career, during which he shifted to drama and then to a highly individual experimentation in poetry. Sheila Watson sent the manuscript of Wilfred Watson’s first book of poetry, Friday’s Child (1955), to T. S. Eliot, who took it for Faber & Faber; it then won both the British Council and the Governor General’s awards that year. The poems are densely lyrical in their mythological, religious, and literary allusions. Much the same can be said of Mandel’s early work although, in his poems, his Jewish heritage also plays a strong part. That both of them slowly turned away from their early poetics toward different kinds of experimentation with voice, tone, and open form suggests they felt a shift in the Canadian poetic zeitgeist to which they responded in their individual ways. Their responses, the new poetry they each created in their own ways, are uniquely their own, and, although both knew or knew of Kroetsch, owe little if anything to his poetics. Nevertheless, because Kroetsch’s work has become the foremost sign of a new Alberta poetry, one can argue that their work, like that of many younger writers to follow, appears “under the sign of Kroetsch,” even when any sign of more direct influence is missing.
As time passed, many other poets would move to Alberta, and younger poets would be born and able to find their way to writing and publication in the province of their birth. But, as with so much of the workforce here, many are immigrants who have chosen to stay, for a long time, or for life.
During Eli Mandel’s time at the University of Alberta, he influenced many students with his energy, engagement, and excitement at the changes taking place in the writing of the period, many of which he incorporated into his own poetry. The young Mandel argued poetically that he came from a place where “the farmer’s chorus, a Greek harbinger,/Forecasts by frost or rings about the moon/How ill and black the seeds will grow” (Mandel 15). In Alberta, as he shifted toward a stance much closer to where his slightly younger poetic comrade Kroetsch would begin – more open, more contingent, more what at the time writers came to identify as postmodern – he would remember that place differently, in “Estevan, 1934”:
remembering the family we
called breeds the Roques
their house smelling of urine
my mother’s prayers before
the dried fish she cursed
them for their dirtiness their
women I remember too
seldom they spoke and
they touched one another
even when the sun killed
cattle and rabbis
in the poisoned slow air
they touched stone
That memory could be so altered by the new possibilities of lyric intervention introduced by the New American Poetry speaks to the way formal innovation also forces innovation in content. Mandel found in the new freedom of verse possibilities for a subversive political poetry that would not simply be a rhetorically charged gesture. He could slide from comic/satiric political harangues like “The Mayor’s Papers” (93) or “Messages” (134), through sharply etched images of the new powers at work in Alberta in “At Wabamun the Calgary Power Station” (163), “Lake Wabamun: Summer 68” (165), and “Oil Refineries: Edmonton” (166), to the spare beauty of the imagistic sequence, “Wabamun” (160–62). Whereas the former poems speak directly to power, often trying to demonstrate its comic emptiness, the latter enters a different kind of spiritual emptiness, one that attains a deeply poetic grace:
to have come to this
Mandel’s changing poetic can be seen in terms of precisely a “wild” poetics of an Alberta open to all contemporary influences in ways that perhaps academic Toronto, under the influence of Northrop Frye, would not.
When we turn to Wilfred Watson, we find a writer who, even in his most mythopoeic writing, has always been unique. And although Friday’s Child (1955) won both the Governor General’s Award and a major British prize, his work has, on the whole, been ignored, which is too bad given its stark power and incredibly wide-ranging concerns. Certainly, the poems in Friday’s Child, which caught T. S. Eliot’s attention, belong, like Mandel’s early work, “to the body of mythopoeic poetry which dominated Canada in the 1950s, and which is so closely associated with the influence of Northrop Frye” (Scobie 282). But Watson had no interest in repeating himself, nor in being part of any “school,” and so he did not publish much poetry for the next two decades while exploring, partly in terms of the theories of Marshall McLuhan, new possibilities of poetic theatre. Because he published almost nothing until 1972, it appeared that he had given up poetry; the reality seems to be that he was experimenting with new forms, hints of which could be found in the few poems he did publish, like “A Manifesto for Beast Poetry” (1960) and
“I Shot a Trumpet into my Brain” (1966), in which the concept of manifesto played as important a part as the looping free verse. There was also the unpublished sequence of “poems by Jenny Blake,” written in the voice of a wild, virginal woman. These read like updated versions of Yeats’s “Crazy Jane” poems, although they mix a near free verse with traditional rhyme.
Nevertheless, for those few who read it, the sorrowful Canadians (1972) was a revelation. Taking full advantage of the then new technology of the IBM electric typewriter with its various balls of different typefaces, Watson created poems full of different and often antagonistic voices, chanting in a highly politicized manner. Sometimes they explore the sexual politics of the time, as in “poem 1970,” with its refrain of “MY WILD BODY IS A CORPSE,” and its insistence that that body will not be buried but rather “sits up,/and sings, man is a noble potato” (163). In many of the longer poems, the politics emerges from the wars of the time and the new imperialism driving them, as in “lines 1967”:
they flew across our borders at the speed
HANOI IS HERE
dropping images which fell alike on women
children and infants.
HANOI IS HERE
we had only a few poems to defend ourselves
HANOI IS HERE
and no strong men like Thoreau, Whitman or
HANOI IS HERE
they criss-crossed over our houses, dropping
vowels that were block-busters
HANOI IS HERE
they set up bazookas which lopped novels into
HANOI IS HERE
they raked our streets with plays.
they sent in lowflying jets armed with
they blew us to bits just as we were saying
they seemed such nice people
HANOI IS HERE
By this point, Watson reveals himself as one of our most protean poets, always changing, always new. And he is happy to take on icons, usually with a savage wit:
17 ways of not looking at the face of margaret atwood on the dust
jacket of survival.
the first is, not through the eyes of the west coast halibut.
the west coast halibut will not survive.
17 ways of not looking at the face of margaret atwood on the dust
jacket of survival.
& the second is, not through the eyes of jack shadbolt.
jack shadbolt will not survive.
Despite their highly “political” content, it seems to me that the poems of this period carry a heavy weight of anti-ideology, as well as a concentrated satiric contempt that cannot be called comic, exactly, but does have a certain sardonic heft.