NEW, William

Author Tags: Geography, Kidlit & Young Adult, Literary Criticism, Poetry

In 2013, William New was named the 20th recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an outstanding literary career in British Columbia. [See his acceptance speech, "My Writing Life," BELOW]

In 2012, Vancouver-born Bill New won both the Mayor’s Art Award for Literary Arts in Vancouver and the City of Vancouver Book Award for his poetry collection, YVR (Oolichan Books). He was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2006.

Born in Vancouver on March 28, 1938, William Herbert (Bill) New is one of the most prolific and versatile literary critics in Canada, having written and edited more than 50 books. He enrolled at the University of British Columbia in 1956 and received degrees from UBC in English and Geography (B.Ed. 1961, M.A. 1963), followed by a doctorate from the University of Leeds in 1966. His dissertation was on the modern Bildungsroman as a social paradigm. He taught English course at UBC from 1965 to 2003, specializing in the English literatures of the Commonwealth.

In 1966, Bill New became assistant editor of Canadian Literature, working with George Woodcock and Donald Stephens. Quietly remarkable, New edited the review publication Canadian Literature, from 1977 to 1995--for 17 years--almost as long as his predecessor and friend, George Woodcock-—18 years. (He was replaced in the position by Eva-Marie Kroller, who was succeeded by Laurie Ricou in 2003.)

Bill New has been as prolific as he has been enduring. In one year New, as editor, published the Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada, released his fourth poetry collection, as well as his second collection of rhyming verse for children, Llamas in the Laundry, plus a book-length essay on irony in Commonwealth literature, Grandchild of Empire. New has also been influential on the advisory board for the New Canadian Library series. He has lectured and taught in Australia, India, Italy, China, France and the United States, and held the Brenda & David MacLean Chair in Canadian Studies at UBC. He has increasingly turned his hand to poetry and children's books such as Vanilla Gorilla and Llamas in the Laundry. Written for ages 8-to-12, The Year I was Grounded is a playful facsimile of a one-year journal kept by a reluctant diarist who learns to enjoy his own introspectiveness. “I don’t tell everybody this,” he writes, “but I think I like thinking a whole lot, too. Last summer, kayaking on the lake, I spent a lot of time thinking about how things relate.”

According to Oolichan Books, his seventh collection of poetry, Touching Ecuador, is "a long poem in four voices, following the interconnected observations of a modern-day tourist-traveller, a struggling castaway, a disillusioned preacher, and an Everyman weaver who tries to come to terms with mountain histories and a mountain home. Everywhere these four observers find a landscape rich in words: guidebooks and notebooks, calendars and woven letters, alphabets and beaded rituals, children's verses and the stories that populate place."

“Yaletown’s all condos now, Strathcona gentrified,” but Bill New finds subtle and distinctive signs of Vancouver’s past in every neighborhood he visits, from the Blueboy Hotel in south Vancouver to CRAB Park on the waterfront to the two-note warnings of Point Atkinson lighthouse in West Van in YVR (Oolichan, 2012).

In Bill New's fanciful Sam Swallow and the Riddleworld League (Tradewind $12.95), a baseball-mad boy who also loves anagrams stumbles on his way to a Little League tryout, hits his head and tumbles into Riddleworld not unlike Alice descending into Wonderland. Finding himself transformed into a bird, he must solve puzzles and escape from riddle-making cats in order to return to human form. Illustrated by Yayo, it has been described as a novel for ages 9-11.

Publicity materials tell us that it’s tempting to think of New and Selected Poems (Oolichan, 2015) as “the summation of a poet’s career, as a cataloguing of the poems that "matter" from a lifetime’s work, as a retrospective. In the case of Bill New, nothing could be further from the truth. What we have in this selection is a book that speaks to the poem as movement and revelation, as process, never ending. [It] is a work in progress, a celebration of poems spoken and yet to be spoken.”

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada

BOOKS / Selected Publications:

Malcolm Lowry (M&S 1971)
Four Hemispheres (Copp Clark 1971) - editor
Voice and Vision (M&S 1972) - editor, with Jack Hodgins
Dramatists in Canada (UBC Press 1972) - editor
Articulating West (New Press 1972)
Among Worlds: An Introduction to Modern Commonwealth and South African Fiction (Press Porcepic 1975)
Critical Writings on Commonwealth Literatures: A Bibliography (Pennsylvania State University Press 1975) - editor
Modern Stories in English (Copp Clark 1975, 1986, 1991) - editor with H.J. Rosengarten
Modern Canadian Essays (Macmillan 1976) - editor
Margaret Laurence: The Writer and Her Critics (McGraw Hill Ryerson 1977) - editor
Malcolm Lowry: A Reference Guide (Boston: G.K. Hall 1978)
A Political Art: Essays and Images in Honour of George Woodcock (UBC Press 1978) - editor
Active Voice (Prentice-Hall 1980, 1986, 1991) - editor with W.E. Messenger
The Active Stylist (Prentice-Hall 1981) - editor with W.E. Messenger
A 20th Century Anthology (Prentice-Hall 1984) - editor
Canadian Writers in 1984 (UBC Press 1984) - editor
Canadian Short Fiction (Prentice-Hall 1986, 1997) - editor
Canadian Writers Since 1960 (Detroit: Bruccoli-Clark-Gale 1986) - editor
Canadian Writers Since 1960, 2nd series (B-C-G 1987) - editor
Canadian Writers 1920-1959 (B-C-G 1988) - editor
Canadian Writers 1920-1959, 2nd series (B-C-G 1989) - editor
A History of Canadian Literature (Macmillan 1989). Also published as Jia Na Da Wen Xue Shi (Beijing: People's Literature Publishing House 1994; translated by Wu Chizhe, Wang Qingxiang and Huang Zhigang
Native Writers and Canadian Writing (UBC Press 1990) - editor
Canadian Writers Before 1890 (B-C-G 1990) - editor
Canadian Writers 1890-1920 (B-C-G 1990) - editor
Inside the Poem (Toronto: Oxford University Press 1992) - editor
Literature in English (Prentice-Hall 1993) - editor with W.E. Messenger
Science Lessons: Poems (Oolichan 1996) - poetry
Land Sliding: Imaging Space, Presence & Power in Canadian Writing (UTP 1997)
Literary History of Canada Vol. 4 (UTP 1990) - editor
Jianada wenhua mianmian guan, bing Lunqi yu meiguo wenhua de qubie (How Canadian Culture Differs from American Culture (Hohehot: University of Inner Mongolia 1997)
Borderlands: How We Talk About Canada (UBC Press 1998)
Vanilla Gorilla (Ronsdale 1998) - children's poetry, illustrated by Vivian Bevis
Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form (McGill-Queen's 1999)
Raucous: Poems (Oolichan 1999) - poetry
Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada (UTP, 2002 $75) 0-8020-0761-9 - editor
Riverbook and Ocean (Oolichan, 2002 $14.95) 0-88982-208-5 - poetry
Llamas in the Laundry. (Ronsdale, 2002 $12.95) - children's poetry, illustrated by Vivian Bevis. 0-921870-97-3
Grandchild of Empire. (Ronsdale, 2003)
A History of Canadian Literature. 2nd ed. (McGill-Queen's, 2003) - editor
Night Room (Oolichan, 2003) - poetry
Underwood Log (Oolichan, 2004) - poetry
Dream Helmet (Ronsdale, 2005) - children's poetry, illustrated by Vivian Bevis.
Touching Ecuador (Oolichan, 2006) - poetry
Along a Snake Fence Riding (Oolichan, 2007) - poetry 978-0-88982-236-8 $16.95
Tropes and Territories (McGill-Queen's, 2007) - co-edited, with Marta Dvorak
The Year I was Grounded (Tradewind 2008) $12.95 978-1-896580-35-7
The Rope-Maker's Tale (Oolichan, 2009)
YVR (Fernie: Oolichan, 2011) $17.95. 978-0-88982-280-1
Sam Swallow and the Riddleworld League (Tradewind, 2013)
New and Selected Poems (Oolichan Books, 2015) $19.95 978-0-88982-310-5


Gabrielle Roy Prize, 1989.
Jacob Biely Research Prize, 1994.
McLean Chair in Canadian Studies, 1995-6
Killam Teaching Prize, 1996.
Reading Mansfield & Metaphors of Form; shortlisted for Klibansky Prize.
Association of Canadian Studies Award of Merit, 2000.
CUFA (BC) Career Achievement Award, 2001
Killam Professor, 2001
Governor General’s International Award in Canadian Studies, 2004
Lorne Pierce Medal for his contributions to imaginative and critical literature
Shortlisted, Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry, 2005.
Order of Canada, 2006.
Mayor's Award for Literary Arts, 2012
City of Vancouver Book Award, 2012
George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, 2013

[LITHIS / BCBW 2015] "Lowry"

Alternate Bibliography by Genres (as of 2004)


Underwood Log. Oolichan: Lantzville, 2004
Night Room. Oolichan: Lantzville, 2003
Riverbook & Ocean. Oolichan: Lantzville, 2002.
Stone/Rain. Oolichan: Lantzville, 2001.
Raucous. Oolichan: Lantzville, 1999.
Science Lessons. Oolichan: Lantzville, 1996.

Llamas in the Laundry. Ronsdale: Vancouver, 2002. Illust. Vivian Bevis.
Vanilla Gorilla. Ronsdale: Vancouver, 1998. Illust. Vivian Bevis.

Grandchild of Empire. Ronsdale: Vancouver, 2003.
Reading Mansfield and Metaphors of Form. McGill-Queen's UP: Montreal, 1999.
Borderlands: How We Talk About Canada. Ronsdale: Vancouver, 1998; transl. Wu Chizhe et al., as Jiaocha Didai. Inner Mongolia UP: Hoh-Hot, 2000.
Land Sliding: Imagining Space, Presence, and Power in Canadian Writing. UTorontoP: Toronto, 1997.
Jianada wenhua mianmian guan, bing lunqi yu meiguo wenhua de qubie [How Canadian culture distinguishes itself from American culture, transl. Wu Chizhe et al.]. Inner Mongolia UP: Hoh-Hot, 1997.
Ed., Inside the Poem. Oxford: Toronto, 1992.
Ed., Native Writers and Canadian Writing. UBC Press: Vancouver, 1990.
A History of Canadian Literature. Macmillan: London, 1989; New York: New Amsterdam P, 1989; rpt. McGill-Queen's UP: Montreal, 2001; transl. Wu Chizhe et al., Jianada Wen Xue Shi, People's Literature Publishing: Beijing, 1994; 2nd ed. of English edition forthcoming McGill-Queen's UP, 2003.
Dreams of Speech and Violence: The Art of the Short Story in Canada and New Zealand. UTorontoP: Toronto, 1987.
Ed., Canadian Writers in 1984. UBC Press: Vancouver, 1984.
Ed., A Political Art: Essays and Images in Honour of George Woodcock. UBC Press: Vancouver, 1978.
Ed., Margaret Laurence. McGraw-Hill: Toronto, 1977.
Among Worlds: An Introduction to Modern Commonwealth and South African Literature. Press Porcépic: Erin, ON, 1975.
Articulating West. New Press: Toronto, 1972.
Ed., Dramatists in Canada. UBC Press, Vancouver, 1972.
Malcolm Lowry. McClelland and Stewart: Toronto, 1971.

Ed., Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada. University of Toronto Press: Toronto, 2002.
Ed., Canadian Writers Before 1860. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 99. Gale-Bruccoli Clark Layman: Detroit, 1990.
Ed., Canadian Writers, 1890-1920. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 92. Gale-Bruccoli Clark Layman: Detroit, 1990.
Ed., Canadian Writers, 1920-1959. Second Series. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 88. Gale-Bruccoli Clark Layman: Detroit, 1989.
Ed., Canadian Writers, 1920-1959. First Series. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 68. Gale: Detroit, 1988.
Ed., Canadian Writers Since 1960. Second Series. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 60. Gale: Detroit, 1987.
Ed., Canadian Writers Since 1960. First Series. Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 53. Bruccoli-Clark-Gale: Detroit, 1986.
Ed., Literary History of Canada, vol. 4. UTorontoP: Toronto, 1990.
Malcolm Lowry: A Reference Guide. G.K. Hall: Boston, 1978.
Critical Writings on Commonwealth Literatures. Pennsylvania State UP: University Park and London, 1975.

Ed., with W.E. Messenger, A 20th Century Anthology. Prentice-Hall: Toronto, 1984; revised as Currents, with Kevin McNeilly and Noel Elizabeth Currie. Prentice-Hall: Scarborough, 2000.
Ed., Canadian Short Fiction. Prentice-Hall: Toronto, 1986; 2nd ed., Prentice-Hall: Scarborough, 1997.
Ed., with W.E. Messenger, The Active Stylist. Prentice-Hall: Scarborough, 1980.
Ed., with W.E. Messenger, Active Voice. Prentice-Hall: Toronto, 1980; 2nd ed., 1986; 3rd ed., Prentice-Hall: Scarborough, 1991.
Ed., with H.J. Rosengarten, Modern Stories in English. Crowell: New York, and Copp Clark: Toronto, 1976; 2nd ed., Copp Clark Pitman: Toronto, and Longman: New York and London, 1986; 3rd ed., Copp Clark Pitman: Toronto, 1991; 4th ed., Addison-Wesley Longman: Toronto, 2001.
Ed., Modern Canadian Essays. Macmillan: Toronto, 1976.
Ed., with Jack Hodgins, Voice and Vision. McClelland and Stewart, Toronto, 1972.
Ed., Four Hemispheres. Copp Clark: Toronto, 1971.

Touching Ecuador (Oolichan $16.95)

For those who have been to South America and the Galapagos, and also for those who dream of going, Bill New’s Touching Ecuador is almost as good as the journey but not quite Quito! As a poet and inveterate traveler, New proves himself an old hand at making new connections. Whereas in his preceding collection, New travelled the world to celebrate trees, this time he climbs the active volcano Cotopaxi, rummages in the rug market at Otavalo, ruminates on the ancient Andean civilizations and savours Quecha words and names. Myths and events about and on the Equator/Ecuador clearly fascinate New. “You do not touch Ecuador until you find room in the garden for children to play, until you tend the distance within yourself.” Touching Ecuador contains an account of the hallucination that is the Galapagos, “black upon black, the gargoyles/horned, marine-” and the book’s last section has a dense, challenging duality; a lapsed believer/preacher is looking for a new life in the mountains and an Everyman is travelling the world to discover “reading north depends on south, and south north: the idea of here discovers there.” The Tourist arrives in the high mountain capital and begins his transformation into Traveler. “I come from a country of zero degrees/ every winter a measure of minuses, windchill and toque,” New writes. “The Tourist snaps pictures, moves on. The Traveler/ steps lightly on the line, plants feet across it, listens to the voices in the mountain air.” The fecundity of the land bewilders him, and much is unclear. Mists, language, ancient religion; the traveler cannot touch, hold or define the Line except through “glimpses of connection/ leaving intact the ambiguities of liberty.” 0-88982-223-0

-- Hannah Main-van der Kamp, who regularly reviews poetry from Victoria.

[BCBW 2006] "Poetry"

Along a Snake Fence Riding

Ever prolific, recent Order of Canada inductee W.H. (Bill) New has added two more titles to his resume that includes some 46 titles. His latest collection of poetry is Along a Snake Fence Riding (Oolichan $16.95) and he has co-edited Tropes and Territories (McGill-Queen’s $80) with Marta Dvorak, a collection of short fiction and postcolonial readings featuring essays on writers such as Rohinton Mistry, David Malouf, and Witi Ihimaera.

Fence 978-0-88982-236-8; Tropes 978-0-77353-289-2

[BCBW 2008]

The Year I was Grounded (Tradewind $12.95)

Written for ages 11 & up, Bill New’s The Year I was Grounded is a playful facsimile of a one-year journal kept by a reluctant diarist who learns to enjoy his own introspectiveness. “I don’t tell everybody this,” he writes, “but I think I like thinking a whole lot, too. Last summer, kayaking on the lake, I spent a lot of time thinking about how things relate.” 978-1-896580-35-7

[BCBW 2008]

Vancouver Book Award
Press Release (2012)

For the first time since 1999, a book of poetry has won the 2012 City of Vancouver Book Award. W.H. New’s YVR, his tenth book of poetry, is a city-wide Vancouver song presented in three distinct sections.

An independent jury selected YVR for its maturity of concept and language, its musicality, rhythm and poetry of Vancouver place names, and the many political, geographic and community voices. The jury considered the poetry to be almost flawless, and they recommend the Main Street poems a must-read for Vancouverites.

W.H. New is well-known to Vancouver’s literary community as a prolific and versatile lecturer, editor of criticism and memoir and author of works of prose and poetry for adults and children. He has received the Governor General’s International Award in Canadian Studies and was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada.

The City of Vancouver Book Award has been presented every year since 1989 to recognize authors of books that demonstrate excellence and enhance our understanding of Vancouver’s rich history and culture.

The other finalists for this year’s City of Vancouver Book Award were: John Mikhail Asfour and Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Editors, for V6A: Writing from Vancouver's Downtown Eastside (Arsenal Pulp Press); Claudia Cornwall for At the World's Edge: Curt Lang's Vancouver (Mother Tongue Publishing); Ali Kazimi for Undesirables: White Canada and the Komagata Maru (Douglas & McIntyre); and Jen Sookfong Lee for The Better Mother (Random House Canada).

The jury was comprised of former People’s Co-op bookseller Jane Bouey, author and educator David Chariandy, and retired Vancouver Sun books editor Rebecca Wigod.

Mr. New was also the recipient of a 2012 Mayor’s Arts Awards for Literary Arts. The Vancouver Book Award and Mayor’s Arts Awards were presented last night at a gala event at the Roundhouse Community Arts and Recreation Centre.

My Writing Life in British Columbia
Acceptance Speech (2013)

from William New 25 June 20

I’ve been asked to talk this evening about My Writing Life in British Columbia, and I’ll coast towards this topic in a moment. But I’d like to begin by thanking a great many people for the extraordinary honour of the 2013 George Woodcock award. Thank you—to the jury who selected my name; to the sponsors and organizers of this event: Yosef Wosk and the Writers Trust, Alan Twigg and BC Bookworld, the Vancouver Public Library and the City of Vancouver. I also thank my editors, publishers, and illustrators, especially Vivian Bevis, Ron Smith, Ron Hatch, Randal Macnair, and Mike Katz; my friends Laurie Ricou, Jack Hodgins, and Kieran Kealy (who have so often and so helpfully looked through preliminary drafts of my writing); my wife Peggy (the best reader I know); and all of you here tonight. What this long list tells you is that behind any award to any individual is a mountain range of other people—all talented, hard-working, sensitive and generous: this award honours them as well.

I’d also like to say that I am particularly grateful to receive an award named for George Woodcock. It has a special resonance for me, because George was my friend and mentor for over thirty years. I much admired him—for the breadth of his interests in history, poetry, travel, and social justice; for his skill with words (and martinis); and for his generosity towards others, including fledgling writers (like myself, fifty years ago). He and I first met in 1961 when he was an examiner at my Master’s degree final (not perhaps the most propitious beginning: he asked a challenging question, and I had only an evasive, elliptical answer, but he understood). Later on we became colleagues, and I joined George and Don Stephens on the board of the journal Canadian Literature, sharing ideas and anecdotes pacifically at George’s dining room table. That’s where (in those ancient days before computer typesetting) we literally scotch-taped issues of the journal together. On one occasion, I remember sipping coffee, munching on one of Inge’s amazing hazelnut cookies, and proofreading an article I found interesting, one written by Anthony Appenzell. I didn’t recognize the name, so I asked George who he was. His answer was uncharacteristically inexact. “A writer about town,” he said. Months went by before I found out it was one of George’s noms-de-plume.

I thought about this conversation shortly after Alan Twigg phoned to tell me about the Woodcock award and then sent me a copy of the warm account of my writing career that appeared on the internet. One particular set of words stood out: beside the name (William New) appeared the phrase “also known as W.H. New and Bill New”—for a second or two I felt I should look for a WANTED poster. But then I thought about the multiple identities that each of us has—not just initials and nicknames and soubriquets of affection—but the set of persons that occupies each individual memory: the accumulation of peaks and valleys, hinterland and foreshore, that feeds a writing life. Largely, in my case, in B.C.

Is that himself he sees [one of my poems asks], sunhat
askew, from the lawn chair in the chicory?
And is that also him, oblivious
to atlas-makers, tussling
friendship, trailing soccer shoes,
walking arm-in-arm with the moon?
(Foreshore, Riverbook & Ocean, 2002: 20)
The answer is Maybe. Or as another poem puts it:

childhood is full of mountains, reaching up, climbing
into, times tables, talking down, sex, death, I’m cliff, drop over
(weaver’s alphabet, Touching Ecuador, 62)

I’m talking about how people see. How and when we see. What our contexts have to do with reading the world. And who am I talking about? Whoever connects with the poem. Only indirectly myself.

Of course, no one’s ‘self’ is constant and uniform. It accumulates. So among the many ‘people I’m also known as,’ I’d have to include the boy who grew up in South Vancouver, where maple scrub meant wilderness to play in while the world was at war. And the young teen on a Kootenay farm, pelting through apple orchards. Also the ordinary kid who filled sawdust hoppers, acted on CBC radio, sold art supplies to Gordon Smith and Jack Shadbolt, and played a wicked game of badminton: or at least thought he did. And I’m the young adult who worked as flunky in a mining camp cookhouse; the geography student who spent university summers analyzing soil samples and running survey lines over large tracts of the Monashees, Chilcotin, Skeena Valley and the Island. I’m the Commonwealth reader; the traveller/teacher; the husband and father. The grandfather, resisting decrepitude. And the writer. Which means all the above, and more, still remembering [. . . ] images and incidents, rules and revelations:

the pile of cordwood that had to be chopped before your father
gets home, and stacked so it wouldn’t fall—

[ cord,
from cuerda rope:
the wet fir measuring
4 by 4 by 8, knotted and never
easy, bark and all—
(weaver’s alphabet, Touching Ecuador, 2006: 62) ]

Sometimes identity arrives by accident. On one occasion, not knowing any better—at the first international conference I ever attended, in Australia in 1968, I made the mistake of obeying the conference rules: which said that I should not read my paper but talk to its message instead, because everyone had a copy of the paper already and would therefore definitely have read it beforehand. However, as you might have guessed, I had been scheduled to be Speaker-with-Unfamiliar-Name #1 at Session #1 on Day #1. In the very early morning. I and a few others managed to reach the room on time. But no one had read my paper. I talked in a vacuum, and then tried to slip through the floor. Later on, when delegates did read and refer to what my essay said, I was of course pleased; but during this process I acquired another identity. I became, for a short time, “Dr. New’spaper.” Re[a]d all over, perhaps.

So: Life informs writing. But not all writing is autobiographical. I think identity, like

Slide alder [,] breaks open
slowly / each leaf happens
alone / like daylight on mica
shine by shine

. . . . .

[It is] the binder / piecing plates together
[who] sews order / counts measure /
gathers random alphabets
into picture / fracture
(foliation, Raucous, 1999: 35)

—and poetry is full of lies, half-truths, inventions, and hypotheses. So why write it? It’s a question I’ve often been asked. My usual answer is ‘because that’s where the pen took me,’ which sounds like a cop-out, but is close to the truth. Why does a writer write anything? To say something, maybe about the condition of living where we live. To find out what to say. To see if something can be said. And to remember, engage, maybe entertain. As in a poem called ‘Ice’ (it’s a Vancouver experience):

One of those rare years,
minus-nine for ten days straight, the sun low
and bright and ice-fog drifting in and out of
cedar fronds, Lost Lagoon slowly freezing:

is it safe yet, can I skate yet,

the children, unused to ice outside the indoor rink—

No joy for birds: the swans puzzled, food scarce,
their rush nests stiff with angularity: in the black
chestnut branches, crows auguring


and down on the ice, random geese
skidding across the unfamiliar—
Day ten fifteen centimetres sudden colour:

Pond ice scrambling with children, their skates still

hi hi hi

nickel bright from the Army & Navy, scarves, tuques,
mittens, parkas red as Township maple
loud against the conifers,

Watch me, Watch,
ankles bending in, hockey stick a tripod, Watch

parents’ eyes racing, counting numbers, testing
weight, calculating fastest rushing distance
frozen fountain to blue-grass shore—

one of those rare years: and then
crocuses bursting purple,
swans piloting SLOW NORMAL,
parents home again in rain gear—
only the crows still calling Caution—

Down on the ground the children laughing, chasing
soccer balls, lighting again upon their baseball gloves,
tucking away the ice on Lost Lagoon for a day they
do not picture yet, when they’ll remember,
out of nowhere,
one of those years—
(Ice, YVR, 2011:66-7)

Science Lessons, my first book of poetry, appeared in print in 1996, when I was almost sixty. I’d published several critical and pedagogical books by then, about literature in Canada, New Zealand, and elsewhere in the Commonwealth, but my friends and academic colleagues reacted differently to a book of poetry. Some were enthusiastic, some were noncommittal, some perhaps saw poetry as an aberration, I don’t know, I didn’t ask. But after several more collections appeared, I often got the question: Did you write a lot as a child? As it happens, I didn’t. I read (or was read to) about Robin Hood and Oz, Hercules and the Round Table, all those places called Elsewhere, which schools tended to treat as more real than whatever was nearby—“nearby” meaning Ross Creek, or the log booms on the Fraser, or the oiled floors of the South Hill five-and-dime. You see where this is leading me: Away. “Away” sounded attractive, and so when I had the opportunity to leave BC and travel, I left. And sampled a lot of things that Elsewhere had to offer—and then I returned—having begun to appreciate the importance of here: roots and connections, an ecology of friends.

Yes, there are friends along the way,
you know who you are,
this is for you: it belongs to you
because you do not have to see it
to know what it says, it says love,
trust, pleasure, joy, a pressed
rose, a dog-eared photograph
of caught laughter, soft rain—

if you imagine these words,
run, rose, photograph,
listen for the pealing playground,
shouts, whispers, the ripple of talk
all magnified in silence,
knowing silence is not loss,
just these words, the telling
sound of riverbook and ocean.
(Friendship, Riverbook & Ocean, 2002: 21)

I perhaps didn’t write as a child because of those straight pens we all had to use at Moberly School, the ones with steel nibs that split and splatted into Rorschach blots before we knew how creative that could be. Or the MacLean Method of cursive writing, which I’d learned by Grade 6, and then unlearned while taking lecture notes at university. No, I didn’t write. Not much. Instead, I drew. On any piece of paper. With any pencil. Any scrap end of wax crayon. And on rainy days in Vancouver . . . I created collages out of colourful shapes that I cut out of old magazines and fixed onto the cardboard backs of cereal boxes with flour-and-water paste. With apologies to Marianne Moore, I think I was making abstract gardens with real dinosaurs in them. Which may be as good a definition of what anthologists and critics and literary historians often do as it is an approximation of what poetry and the visual arts attempt. In any event, I think all my books—the histories, anthologies, poems, critical arguments, and even encyclopedias—can likely be read as collages: three- or maybe four-dimensional forms on which words recurrently play. Sometimes they’re cyclical, as in this Cariboo poem:

night gathers on the lake
the way afterthoughts mutter
should’ve said and grind slow,
while just out of reach, light

tips the spruce, the dying pines:
night gathers on the lake:
kingfishers circle to nest,
the rapid skroak, the loons’ hollow

codas quiet, till next morning
reclaims the spruce, the dying pines,
and fishing starts again—life
is conditional here, drought depleting

the water, beetles killing the trees:
next morning’s words are codas,
conversations out of kilter—
except, this night, trout rise

to a cloud of evening insects, midges,
mosquitoes—the beetles killing the trees
consume the light, but dragonflies
dart and hover, dart and hover:

in the brief space between lake and sky—
as afterthoughts startle, when trout
flick stars at midge and evening
and lilypads mimic the moon—light,

in fragments, ricochets in rings—
(Night gathers on the lake, The Rope-Maker’s Tale, 2009: 109)

Looking back, I realize that whatever responses my colleagues gave to my poetry and children’s books, no-one has ever asked me if I wrote a lot of critical commentary as a child. Perhaps it was taken for granted. Mistakenly. But there is a back story here, one that involves the dedicated work of my extraordinary school teachers in South Vancouver. I want to single out two of them tonight. The first is Gladys Fox, a caring, encouraging, and downright demanding teacher who ensured we all learned grammar in Grade 4, and who perhaps gave me the grounding I needed to become a writer later on. (Recognizing a nominative absolute, by the way, once got my whole Grade 7 English class excused from a stuffy room to go outside and play baseball: who says grammar has no use?) The second is my Grade 8 electricity teacher, Laurence Peter, who became famous as the co-author of a book called The Peter Principle; I wrote this about him, using the ecological term:

[nurse log:] He’d have laughed at the metaphor . . . —
not laughed exactly (not his style, guffaws)

but he savoured irony, the eyes more than the
corners of the mouth, tasting contradictions,

opportunities for play—nurse log: the mossy giant
whose bark feeds the generation after—huckleberries

shinnying sunlight, halfling cedar-fronds that
hardly wear yet the living they’ve already

won from the already gone, the treeness they’ve

under furze eyebrows, his eyes would dance
at contrarieties, the voice low:

peace, he’d write,
just before his letters ended—
(For LJP, Underwood Log, 2004: 126)

Laurence Peter taught more than circuitry and drafting paradigms. He also taught his students to be free to break rules when it made sense to do so. A valuable lesson.

Although I have to add that not all rule-breaking makes sense. Nor is it always intentional. One of my first forays into Elementary Academic Writing occurred when I was about 16, writing for the student newspaper, The Pepmaster, at John Oliver High. This was the ‘50s, the McCarthy era, remember. Two of our teachers—Dick Harris and Jack Mercer—had just taken part in the UBC Players Alumni production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, about the dire consequences of witch-hunting. When they went on to win the Dominion Drama Festival that year, I reported for the paper. “he portrayed Giles Corey. “ When that particular issue of the paper appeared, I learned the importance of proofreading. As Mr Mercer wryly made me aware, the paper had printed “Mr Mercer won Best supporting Actor; he betrayed Giles Corey.” Maybe that’s why I took up editing, embracing ‘the foxed page [called] wilderness.’

[The foxed page they call wilderness
does not distinguish vein from shadow
vertical from flat removed from near /
it is the eye that stops on foreshore /
calls it cornflower cold
(Foreshore, Raucous, 1999: 19)[

In any event, I compiled several books because, as a critic and teacher, I needed them. I wanted to find out about Canadian writing and its connections with English-language writing around the world. I wanted to challenge conventional English-department boundaries by teaching these amazingly rich world literatures to as wide a range of students as possible. Because few textbooks were available, I created some. Students needed to be able to access information; surveys and commentaries needed to be written. So I found myself

Stepping off the edge again /
out of the crayon box of stale
maps / straying over old lines
[I’d] learned / impulsively / [and] still
scribbling (Handsel/ Charming/ The Bush, Raucous, 1999: 38)

One advantage of living in BC in the last half-century is that it was possible here to pursue these Canadian and comparative interests. At UBC in 1958 I was a student (of Reg Watters) in one of the first university courses in Canadian literature ever offered anywhere in Canada. While I was an undergraduate in 1959, George Woodcock’s Canadian Literature was founded, the first critical journal to be devoted solely to Canadian writers and writing. In 1965 I was hired to teach one of the first courses in Commonwealth Literature(s) (or what would later be called ‘postcolonial’). I said it was possible to pursue these interests. But not easy. Access to material was a constant challenge. And plenty of Establishment nay-sayers told me I was wasting my time. Knowingly or not, they were dismissing what they had constructed as marginal without recognizing that Edges are where transformation takes place. They did not foresee how creatively the word Culture would reveal a plurality of voices here, how much ‘old margins’ would come into their own.

This is the British Columbia that’s affected my writing life. When I was a child, the only local writers I heard of were those who were alluded to in the newspapers: Pauline Johnson, Audrey Alexandra Brown, Roderick Haig-Brown, Eric Nicol; later on a Jack Scott column would mention Malcolm Lowry, but I didn’t think it important till I started writing. Early on I didn’t know of Irene Baird, Bill McConnell, and Howard O’Hagan, or realize the importance of their work; and the vigour of BC Bookworld and the Vancouver Writers Festival had not yet even been dreamed of. But at university, things changed. I found writers all around me. My long friendship with Jack Hodgins, for example, began in a second-year English class in 1957. Fellow students in later years included Audrey Thomas (with whom I invented a surrealist poet whose work we submitted to magazines, though nothing was ever accepted), and Daphne Marlatt, George Bowering, Lionel Kearns, Fred Wah. I took a Chaucer class from Earle Birney, wrote a thesis on Frederick Niven, and after 1965 was teaching a new generation of writers that includes Linda Rogers, John Pass, Keath Fraser, Tamas Dobozy, Onjana Yawnghwe, and (yes) Dorothy Livesay. I’ve found friendships among writers, too: having tea with Ethel Wilson, coffee with Timothy Taylor, lunch with Bob Heidbreder, ginger fried beef with George McWhirter; sharing a conference platform with Robert Bringhurst, Joy Kogawa, and Jeannette Armstrong, an editorial meeting with Alice Munro, a high school courtyard with Andreas Schroeder, a poetry reading with Kate Braid and Lorna Crozier and Evelyn Lau, exchanging ideas with all of them. And many more. The simple fact is that extraordinary talents have flourished in BC in the last fifty years: from Muriel Kitagawa, P.K. Page, Margaret Laurence, and George Clutesi to Nick Bantock, Phyllis Webb, Wayson Choy, and Jane Rule; Douglas Coupland, Bill Deverell, and William Gibson to Michael Turner, Harold Rhenisch, Craig Boyko, and Steven Galloway; Meredith Quartermain, Wayde Compton, Patrick Friesen, and Anosh Irani to Esi Edugyan, Annabel Lyon, Ivan E. Coyote, and Nancy Lee; the list keeps growing, and changing. BC was multicultural from the beginning, but often not willing to recognize it. For me, it was the norm of growing up in Vancouver; it’s also the stimulating reality of a culture no longer an old margin but now a remarkable centre of literary inventiveness and accomplishment.

Circuitously, this engagement with edges, change, and the next generation led me into yet another identity.

One of the great joys of writing books for children has been the chance to meet with children, as when I’ve been invited to visit elementary schools and read to a class. I’ve always been wonderfully welcomed. I especially remember one occasion when, just as I stepped inside a Grade 1 room, a chipper little guy ran up to me and solemnly asked, ‘Are you the Arthur?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. So I became ‘The Arthur.” Another name to add to Those I am Also Known As.

If on these occasions I’m reading from Vanilla Gorilla, six- and seven-year olds usually want to hear the verse that at their age they think is the Funniest Poem in the World. It begins this way:

I dreamt I ate a guava,
I dreamt I ate a pear,
I dreamt I left Ungava
In my uncle’s underwear
(My Uncle’s Underwear, Vanilla Gorilla, 19998: np)

In subsequent stanzas, the dreamer flies south to Java and back, the word ‘underwear’ is repeated several times, and by the end there’s a great deal of giddy noise in the room. But sometimes a class will surprise me with their seriousness. As happened once when a Grade 6 teacher had discussed The Year I Was Grounded beforehand, and then, after I arrived, asked her students which poem they particularly wanted me to read aloud. They chose one called ‘Dust to Dust.’ They did not say why, but the poem is the one that the boy narrator in the book writes after learning that his grandfather has died:

I figure dust is what you don’t see
until the sun shines through a window

or what you don’t notice
till a helicopter stirs up the ground

and under the blades a small cyclone

I mean,
it seems too small to pay attention to

but I’m pretty sure
dust has plans

it’s gathering in lumpy armies
under beds, invading lettuce leaves and eyes,

designing desert dunes in 4-by-40 barleyfields,
and taking over the world

the emperor of dust is a draft of air,
who moves mountains, particle by particle,

into thicknesses you can write your name in,
the size of empty lots and broken wings
(Dust to Dust, The Year I Was Grounded, 2009: np)

I read it to silence—and then to a long, slow exhalation of breath.

By contrast, “My Uncle’s Underwear” was originally written as part of an alphabet book that never got published; the revised version didn’t appear in print for another twenty years, by which time it had turned (in part) into a poem about north and south. Before I read it to elementary schoolchildren, I always ask, “Which way’s north?”—hands immediately point every which way, including Up—and I usually see the teacher in the back of the room writing ‘Review Directions’ in a coil-bound notebook.

In retrospect, I think that directions (‘Where’s north: look for the mountains’)—or maybe directional signs—have been important to me for most of my life. They lie behind my fascination with maps and map-making, and because they talk about relationships, maybe they shape collages as well. My summer jobs and later journeys fed my interest in place and space and what they say about power. I’ve found that Geography tells me about distance and location, proximity and connection, lines, cycles, tangents, and erratic arcs. I’ve also found that connections between geography and literature reveal what I’ve come to understand by here, away, and the space in between.

As you know, In-between spaces are often construed as barriers or dividing lines, as ‘Main Street’ usually is, for example, in Vancouver sociology. In my book YVR, I try to read ‘Main Street’ differently: not as a limit, a marker of exclusion, but as a walking place, a site that moves, an activity to participate in, live with, possibly range across. Because dividing lines, whether in space or time, are almost always arbitrary, and (in reality) territories of interaction. Which is one motif in my poetry, and the burden of much of my academic writing: how to see across conventional lines, how to attach value to alternatives, how to understand the networking that builds families and neighbourhoods, how to live happily and creatively with change, how to live in British Columbia, aware of who we are, here and now, and at the same time of our attachment to the Cordillera and the rest of the world.

the continents speak in this mountain corduroy, the heart
beating beneath its ribs:

you, i, walkers,
we, too, speak through a tussle of bones, touch earth and
breathe sky, aspiring:
. . . .

for reading north depends on south, and south, north: the
idea of here discovers there [and there, here, starting again…]
. . . .
[yet] read as i will, toss the alphabet of days, chase calendars into
distance, north lives within me, i in north, aboard here, the moving continents, chords joining arc’s ends, singing, and starting again . . .
(fr. the weaver’s alphabet, Touching Ecuador, 2006: 75)

You have honoured me this evening with a Lifetime Achievement Award, for which I am deeply grateful. In this context, I’d like to conclude by reading a celebratory poem from YVR, one that tracks the lineaments and multiple identities of an ordinary life through decades of pop songs; it’s called ‘Dancing’:

On a giddy day—didn’t matter the season,
crayon rays or liquid sunshine—my parents
would dance the Charleston in the middle of
the kitchen: hold their knees, twist their heels,
kick out their feet, shimmy shake shake shake—

I laughed, flung limbs about as though joining in—
but not long after turned away, learned alley
attitude and tuned in to the long decade I shared
with my friends, somewhere between Don’t
Fence Me In and Joni paving paradise.

They didn’t understand, we said: we were in
love: all April we wore blue suede on our feet,
and brushing aside the old linoleum stood
hangdog on the corner, many-splendoured,
waiting for someone who’d say Only you,

Put your head on my shoulder, someone who
might even listen if we dared I get ideas,
maybe Donna, Diana, Little Susie, Peggy Sue:
they shook us up, we rocked the clock,
the decade ended.

Another began, though we scarcely noticed,
so pressed for time: we settled for the moment
with our one-and-only—Rita, Rigby, Jude or
Maggie Mae—sometimes hard, those days,
penny-lonely when we told the sunshine goodbye,

but we had some help from our friends, learned
the words to parenthood, played carpenter and
walrus and danced on the kitchen floor, twist and
shout. Suddenly the children didn’t understand,
wanted to move to moonwalk, Chilliwack, Overdrive:

Noise, we said, and next we knew they’d moved.
We weren’t ready: the silence paralyzed—
how high the moon climbed without our noticing,
how shadows echoed, only absence rapping at the
door. We stumbled when the radio played oldies

and we knew the words, recognized the rhythm.
Out we walked into April rain, wondering where
the corner was: found ourselves humming along,
tapping our feet when the Charleston returned.
Love, we said, the place we live, it’s all singing.

We sing with the little ones now, Wheels on the
bus, You are my sunshine. They laugh, wave their
arms about, wriggle onto the floor, draw pictures
of happy suns in rainbow crayon. From the next
room, we hear even the [roof-beams] dancing—

(Dancing, YVR, 2011: 62-3)