Author Tags: Anthropology, First Nations, Poetry, Publishing

"He is without a doubt a major poet, not only in the context of Canadian letters, but in that of all writing of our time." - Robin Skelton.

"Drop a word in the ocean of meaning and concentric ripples form. To define a single word means to try to catch those ripples. No one's hands are fast enough." -- Robert Bringhurst, 2004

Having worked with Ojibwa and Cree writers in northern Ontario, Robert Bringhurst later became one of the foremost contemporary non-Aboriginal experts on the literature of the Haida, reworking the enthnological fieldwork of John Swanton and translating works from important Haida storytellers and poets such as Skaay (c.1827-c.1905) and Ghandl (c.1851-c.1920), not without some controversy. Although there has been some opposition to having another white editor/translator representing and interpreting and possibly benefiting from Haida culture, Bringhurst’s work has been mostly well-received beyond the Queen Charlottes, despite some severe criticisms from a more senior translator who dismissed Bringhurst as an opportunist and plagiarist. Nine Visits to the Mythworld: Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas (2000) was shortlisted for the inaugural Griffin Poetry Prize in 2001. He also edited and re-translated A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World (1999) and Being in Being: The Collected Works of a Master Haida Mythteller, Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay (2001).

Born in Los Angeles on October 16, 1946, Bringhurst immigrated to Canada with his parents in 1952. He spent much of his childhood in western Alberta. In the Sixties he wandered the globe, "as a dragoman in Palestine, law clerk in Panama," etc. He received a BA from Indiana University in 1973 and an MFA in creative writing from UBC in 1975, the year he received the Macmillan Prize for Poetry. He is a typography expert, editor and poet who updated Warren Chappell's A Short History of the Printed Word (Hartley & Marks, 1990) after it was originally produced by the New York Times in 1970. Bringhurst collaborated with photographer Ulli Steltzer on The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwai, which received the Bill Duthie Booksellers Choice Award in 1992. The images, taken over five years, depict the genesis of the six-metre-long black bronze canoe commissioned for the courtyard of the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C. Previously he collaborated with Haida artist Bill Reid on The Raven Steals the Light, a cycle of Haida myths. Bringhurst's relationship with Reid was integral to his growth as an artist on the West Coast. "Bill Reid was my close friend," he wrote in Candian Literature #183. "He was my teacher. He was also, for a time, a kind of stand-in for the father I disowned quite early in my life."

Bringhurst's lecture series in conjunction with Simon Fraser University called The Book and Its Form concerned the history of the book and the study of writing as a visual art. With Doris Shadbolt, Geoffrey James and Russell Keziere he co-edited Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada, a major study on Canadian visual art since the second World War. He also collaborated with anthropologist Catharine McClellan on Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians. He wrote a history of fine art publishing in B.C. called Ocean/Paper/Stone, published in 1984 by antiquarian bookseller William Hoffer, and released a major poetry collection, Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music, in 1986. His guide to typographic etiquette, grammar and style is The Elements of Typographic Style, reissued in 1996. He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and lectured on North American arts and oral literature around the world. He has been general editor of Kanchenjunga Press and the Canada/Scotland exchange program writer for 1989-90, living in Edinburgh. His collection Ursa Major explores the myth of the great bear constellations in English, Cree, Greek and Latin. The Solid Form of Language arose from his initiative to identify and count all the ways in which language is written, including scripts of music and mathematics.

The Tree of Meaning (2006) is a collection of thirteen essays about storytelling, mythology, comparative literature, humanity and the breadth of oral culture. It was followed by Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (2007), a collection of writing that explores philosophy in poetry, the relationship between poetry and music, and the concept of polyphonics. Bringhurst’s thinking involves the work of poets, musicians and philosophers as varied as Ezra Pound, Don McKay, Empedokles, Parmenides, Aristotle, Skaay, Plato, George Clutesi, Elizabeth Nyman, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Dennis Lee and Glenn Gould. This book received the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in 2008.

Bringhurst has long been a highly opinionated philosopher of typography, disdainful of those who do not share his enthusiasms and prejudices. In his essay The Typographic Mind (Gaspereau, 2006), he writes, "How do you expect to be able to cook good food or make good love when you write with prefabricated letters? How do you expect to have good music if you live on a typographic diet of bad Helvetica and even worse Times Roman -- never mind the parodies of letters that flash across your cellphone screens and the parodies of numbers displayed on pocket calculators and cash-dispensing machines? Using computers has led many people to take an interest in typography who were quite unaware of it before -- but where can this interest go when the root experience of creating letters by hand is entirely missing? Typography has become, like baseball and hockey, music and literature, and like architecture too, a spectator sport for many and a celebrity profession for a few. But typography isn't something to watch; it's something to do, like writing and reading and cooking and music and literature. It's an intrinsically rewarding, honest craft. And the nature of craft is that mental and physical stay in touch; they hold each other by the hand."

Robert Bringhurst has lived on Bowen Island and Quadra Island, as well as in Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Fiji, Austria, Spain, Germany, Portugal, Italy, the United Kingdom, Ireland and Nanaimo. In 2005, when he was residing near Heriot Bay on Quadra Island, he became the second recipient of the Lieutenant Governor's Award for literary excellence in British Columbia as selected by judges P.K. Page (the preceding recipient), Celia Duthie and Daniel Francis. In 2006 he received an honorary Doctor of Letters degree from the University College of the Fraser Valley. According to Trevor Carolan in a nominating letter, “Robert speaks Haida, Spanish, Arabic, French, German, and has taught himself to read Old English, Greek, and Chinese.” A UCFV press release noted Bringhurst was friendly with Hugh Brody, UCFV’s Canada Research Scholar in Aboriginal Studies, and they shared an interest in ecological linguistics. [Also see Swanton, SKAAY, Ghandl entries]

Bringhurst’s other recent books of poetry include Ursa Major (2nd ed. 2009), a “polyphonic masque” for speakers and dancers, written in English, Latin, Greek and Cree, and Stopping By, a long poem published in 2012 in a letterpress edition by Hirundo Press in Hamburg. Recent prose works include The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada (2008) and two volumes of selected talks and essays: The Tree of Meaning (2006) and Everywhere Being Is Dancing (2007), published in Canada by Gaspereau and in the USA by Counterpoint.

Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers
Ocean/Paper/Stone: The Catalogue of an exhibition of printed objects which chronicle more than a century of literary publishing in British Columbia
Solitary Raven: The Essential Writings of Bill Reid
Solitary Raven: The Selected Writings of Bill Reid
A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World


Deuteronomy (Delta, B.C.: Sono Nis Press, 1974).

Pythagoras (San Francisco and Vancouver: Kanchenjunga Press, 1974).

Bergschrund (Delta, B.C.: Sono Nis Press, 1975).

Eight Objects. Kanchenjunga Chapbook 4 (San Francisco and Vancouver: Kanchenjunga Press, 1975).

Death by Water: Poem (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Library, 1977).

Jacob Singing (Kanchenjunga Chapbook 8. San Francisco and Vancouver: Kanchenjunga Press, 1977).

The Knife in the Measure: Variation on a Theme from Li Shang-yin (Mission, B.C.: Barbarian Press, 1980).

The Beauty of the Weapons: Selected Poems, 1972-82 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1982).

Tzuhalem's Mountain: A Sonata in Three Movements (Lantzville, B.C.: Oolichan Books, 1982).

Visions: Contemporary Art in Canada (Douglas & McIntyre. 1983). Co-editor.

Bringhurst Robert & Bill Reid. Raven Steals The Light (Douglas & McIntyre, 1984, 1996).

Ocean/Paper/Stone (Vancouver: William Hoffer, 1984).

Tending the Fire: an Unparable of the Relations of Rabbits & Dogs & Old Women, & c. Alcuin Chapbook 6 (Vancouver: Alcuin Society, 1985).

The Blue Roofs of Japan: A Score for Interpreting Voices (Mission, B.C.: Barbarian Press, 1986).

Pieces of Map, Pieces of Music (McClelland and Stewart, 1986).

Shovels, Shoes and the Slow Rotation of Letters: a Feuilleton in Honour of John Dreyfus. Alcuin Society Keepsake (Alcuin Society, 1986).

Conversations with a Toad (Vancouver: Éditions Lucie Lambert, 1987).

Bringhurst, Robert & Catharine McClellan. Part of the Land, Part of the Water: A History of the Yukon Indians (Douglas & McIntyre, 1987).

Pebble Pond Errata Slip: A Codicil to Ocean Paper Stone (Vancouver: Benwell-Atkins, 1987).

A Short History of the Printed Word (Hartley & Marks, 1990) by William Chappell. Revised edition, updated by Bringhurst.

Bringhurst, Robert & Ulli Steltzer. The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwai (Douglas & McIntyre, 1991).

The Calling: Selected Poems, 1970-1995 (McClelland and Stewart, 1995).

Boats is Saintlier than Captains: Thirteen Ways of Looking at Morality, Language and Design (New York: Edition Rhino, 1997).

A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World (Douglas & McIntyre, 1999). Bringhurst, Robert (translator).

Bill Reid. Solitary Raven: Selected Writings (D&M, 2000). Bringhurst, Robert (editor).

Nine Visits to the Mythworld: Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaanas (Douglas & McIntyre, 2000). Bringhurst, Robert (translator).

Being in Being: The Collected Works of a Master Haida Mythteller, Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay (Douglas & McIntyre, 2001). Bringhurst, Robert (translator).

Ursa Major: A Polyphonic Masque for Speakers & Dancers (Gaspereau Press, 2003, 2008).

The Solid Form of Language: An Essay on Writing and Meaning (Gaspereau Press, 2004).

The Tree of Meaning: Thirteen Essays (Gaspereau 2006).

Everywhere Being is Dancing: Twenty Pieces of Thinking (Gaspereau 2007).

The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada (Raincoast / The Atkins Library, CCSP Press 2008). $60. 978-0-9738727-2-9

Selected Poems (Gaspereau 2009). $27.95 9781554470686

Stopping By, long poem (Hirundo Press: Hamburg 2012)letterpress edition.

[Book Prizes Photo: Bringhurst with Lieutenant Governor Iona Campagnolo, 2005]

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2009] "Anthropology" "Poetry" "Publishing" "First Nations" "Folklore""Art" "Theatre"

Ursa Major (Gaspereau Press)
Press Release

Poetry / Drama $21.95 / 1894031660

In March 2002, Robert Bringhurst’s Ursa Major: A Polyphonic Masque for Speakers & Dancers, premiered in Regina. The work was commissioned by choreographer Robin Poitras as part of an evening of modern performance and dance entitled Invisible Ceremonies. In Ursa Major, Bringhurst explores a polyphonic technique that allows multiple speakers – and multiple languages and traditions – to collaborate in the story’s telling. The subject of the masque is Ursa Major, the great bear constellation, one of the most universal themes in world mythology. In setting the Cree tradition alongside the mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome, Bringhurst demonstrates the richness of metaphor that North Americans have inherited. This publication is an attempt to express the masque’s performance in typographic form. The book includes a detailed afterword written by Peter Sanger... Robert Bringhurst will be at the Festival of Words in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan from July 24 to 27, 2003, together with John Noestheden’s Ursa Major sculpture at the Moose Jaw Art Gallery and Museum. Bringhurst will also be the guest lecturer at the Gaspereau Press Wayzgoose on October 18, 2003, Kentville, Nova Scotia.

[Gaspereau Press, 2003]

Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay (D&M $35)

Born in 1827, Skaay was a Haida who devoted himself to telling stories after suffering a crippling injury in middle age. The third volume of Robert Bringhurst’s translations of American anthropololgist John Swanton’s turn-of-the-century linguistic fieldwork into the myths of Skaay and other Haida storytellers is Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay of the Qquuna Qiighawaay (D&M $35).

John Swanton arrived in Haida country from Harvard in the fall of 1900 when Haida were being ravaged by European diseases, commercially exploited by the fur trade and assimilated by the missionaries. Despite Swanton’s pioneering work as a transcriber, Skaay’s stories were not widely appreciated. Although there has been opposition from some Haida about having another white editor/translator representing—or misrepresenting—their culture, Bringhurst’s work is being well received beyond the Queen Charlottes.

The second volume of Bringhurst’s translations based on Swanton’s efforts to record Haida mythology is Nine Visits to the Mythworld (D&M $28.95). It includes the stories told by Ghandl, a blind Haida man in his fifties who manages to survive smallpox and pass on his culture. The first volume is A Story as Sharp as a Knife; Masterworks of the Classical Haida Mythtellers. (D&M $29.95). 1-55054-826-3


A Story as Sharp as a Knife (D&M $45)

In the fall of 1900 a young linguist named John Swanton (1873-1958) took the coastal steamer Princess Louise north from Victoria, headed for Haida Gwaii. He received his first Haida lessons on board from master carver Daxhiigang, known in English as Charlie Edenshaw (1839-1920).
Swanton’s way was charted by his mentor, anthropologist Franz Boas (1858-1942), who understood the need to document Haida culture during a period when the overall Haida population was estimated at 1,000. Swanton found approximately 700 Haida in the mission villages of Skidegate and Masset.
“Haida culture never had a more devoted foreign student,” says Robert Bringhurst in his landmark study, A Story as Sharp as a Knife (D&M $45), subtitled The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World.
The young ethnographer hired a teacher, guide and assistant named Henry Moody to help him accurately record the first written pieces of Haida literature from an hereditary chief named Sghiidagits.
“But why, we may ask, is Sghiidagits, a Haida, telling John Swanton a Tsimshian story?” Bringhurst asks. “Is this what is known nowadays as a cultural appropriation—or is it a sign of healthy intercultural trade?” Bringhurst answers his own question when he points out that Swanton bought his first story from Sghiidagits, thereby proving his respect for Haida protocol.
Bringhurst reports that Swanton paid his co-worker Moody $1.50 per day, six full days a week. He paid poets, singers and storytellers 20 cents an hour and budgeted $35 per month, a princely sum at the turn-of-the-century, for this purpose. “If we compare these rates to Swanton’s own workload and salary, we will find that he was paying his Haida colleagues pretty much the same hourly rate he was making himself.”
During the year that followed Swanton transcribed the oral work of Haida poets, most notably Skaii (John Sky) and Ghandl (Walter McGregor), the ‘Homer’ of his literature. The latter spent a month painstakingly dictating about 5,000 of his poetry.
“Why Ghandl of the Qayahl Llaana of Qaysun has not also been adopted with full honours into the polyligual canon of North American literary history I do not know,” says Bringhurst. “He seems to me a great deal more accomplished—and therefore far more worthy of celebration as a literary ancestor—than any Canadian poet or novelist who was writing in English or French during his time.”
Bringhurst has been reworking Swanton’s phonetically transcribed versions of Haida myths, stories and songs for many years. He began to study the Haida language in 1982 and has published previous translations of Haida poetry in scholarly journals. He studied linguistics with Noam Chomsky in the 1960s and has worked as a translator from Arabic and Greek. With photographer Ulli Steltzer he co-authored The Black Canoe: Bill Reid and the Spirit of Haida Gwaii. With sculptor Bill Reid he produced The Raven Steals the Light. 1-55054-696-1


UCFV honorary degree
Press Release (2006)

from University College of the Fraser Valley
Despite his reticence about long-term ties with universities, Bringhurst appreciates the honorary Doctor of Letters degree awarded him by the University College of the Fraser Valley. The prolific independent scholar was been honoured for his eclectic body of work

“Robert Frost said he had a lover’s quarrel with the world; I've had one with the university,” said Bringhurst. “I spent ten years getting my BA. I started off majoring in physics and wandered all over the academic map before getting a degree in comparative literature. I’ve been a student all my life, but never a model student -- and I haven’t proven a model teacher either.

"In a normal year I visit five or ten different campuses, giving lectures, doing readings, sometimes teaching a seminar, but never sticking around. For me this has been an ideal arrangement. I'm not the sort of person who should stay very long in either a city or an institution. I'm happier zipping in and out again, giving my lecture, having a day or two of non-stop conversations, and going on my way. And equally happy staying home, writing and tending my little patch of forest.

“I am thoroughly delighted to be receiving this honorary degree. My relationship with the university is like a series of love affairs, not like a marriage. And I think that there is nothing the least bit shameful in intellectual promiscuity. Now and again one encounters institutional scholars who are suspicious of non-institutional people like me. I see the degree not only as an honour but in a way as a vindication, and as evidence that institutions, like individuals, can think beyond their own immediate self-interest.”

APHA Award
Press Release (2009)


22 January 2009

Gaspereau Press is pleased to announce that author Robert Bringhurst has been named winner of this year’s American Printing History Association (APHA) award for distinguished achievement in the Individual category. The winners of the 2009 awards will be recognized at the Association’s annual meeting, to be held Saturday, January 24 at the New York Public Library in New York City.

The awards are intended to recognize "a distinguished contribution to the study, recording, preservation or dissemination of printing history, in any specific area or in general terms." Previous laureates of the Individual Award include Henry Morris (2008), printer and publisher of Bird & Bull Press; Ruari McLean (1993), typographic designer at Penguin; and John Dreyfus (1984), typographic advisor at Monotype. The Association cited Bringhurst’s many publications, including his highly influential manual The Elements of Typographic Style (1992, now in its third edition), The Solid Form of Language (GP, 2004) and most recently, The Surface of Meaning: Books & Book Design in Canada (2008).

The APHA promotes the study of printing history through publications, exhibitions, conferences and lectures, and through the development and maintenance of library and museum collections relevant to the preservation of printing history. The Association’s award for Individuals was established in 1976. A second award, for Institutional achievements, was established in 1985. The awards are given each January at the Association’s annual meeting in New York City.