Friday, September 30, 2022

TtD supplement #225 : five questions for Barry McKinnon

Barry McKinnon was born in 1944 in Calgary Alberta, where he grew up.  In 1965, after two years at Mount Royal College, he went to Sir George Williams University in Montreal and took poetry courses with Irving Layton. He graduated in 1967 with a B.A. degree. In 1969, he graduated with an M.A. from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and was hired that same year to teach English at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George where he has lived and worked ever since. His chapbook, G o n e  S o u t h, his second from above/ground press, appeared not that long ago.

An excerpt of his poem “The Field” appears in the thirty-fourth issue of Touch the Donkey.

Q: Tell me about “The Field.”

A: I wrote a version of from the field several years ago, designed and printed 2 copies with a photograph of the McKinnon field and farm house;  this is the view from the family farm-gate looking east.  

I gave a copy to my friend at the time, Ken Belford, and waited for a reply; we’d meet for coffee often to talk poetry and poetics, and swap stories abt the writers we knew.   He sd he was reading the poem slowly and carefully, but I heard no further comment from him.  I call this the Duke Ellington approach – to give neither criticism nor praise and to let said silence leave the writer (or musician) to make an awkward measure of their own skill and worth .  I decided that there was something wrong with the poem (scattered, obscure, drifting and meaningless in a bad way – and what Ezra Pound might call “ a work of second intensity”.  Years later I opened the file, re read the piece and decided that it was salvageable with much editing work ahead.  I decided the original opening line abt veering off a contemporary freeway & the sudden jump to my memories of growing up in the 1950’s, was a mistake. Removing that first line gave me reason to continue the hard slog into the memories and images that formed my early view of the world:  school detentions, 10  years old selling xmas cards in July, paper routes thru winter snow, tap dancing lessons, hauling and selling manure in high school,  trips to the farm in spring, the flooded fields, my grandparent’s rooming house, the care and wisdom of my mother, the drunk men on the farm “busted like Indians” etc etc.  The details and my reflections, unlike the literal list here, are given meaning by the gaps, and fragmentations - a boy’s raw and direct thought with sparse narrative detail.   The emotion comes from a sense of isolation, humiliation, and fear, and exaltations in that prairie landscape. I had, as Robert Creeley once wrote,  “a small boys notion of doing good” as a kind of prerequisite to be taken into the family fold.

relief was dirt/  sage & meadow lark
A note on typography:  I wrote some sections in italic as a visual/tonal/rhythmic shift - to set them apart as lyrical riffs in a quieter voice:

wheat gum, crocus, a  22 gun, - pussy willow, cat tail, in the east slough mud wading for ducks in bright wind and light had meaning  in a multiple compilation  & complex of  


no word we had

when sensed in weakness that all was gone my mother said this happens to the strong -

hod carriers, paper boys selling Xmas cards in July – the family ledger of all
we did defined us in the backroads we had to take thru the impending field

Otherwise, the whole poem can be found under New Archives, at barrymckinnon.com.

Added note:

Hod Carrier:  I remember my father calling us hod carriers.  My brother and I had a 1947 Fargo truck that we used to haul and sell manure. Later I found that Hod Carriers are laborers who haul bricks in a 3-sided box on their shoulders. We hauled manure – hod carriers of another sort.  

Q: How does this piece compare to some of the other work you’ve been doing lately?

A: This is an interesting question. I would usually suspect the term “other work” to mean “new work”, but since I’m again in a long silent stretch – i.e. no new work - my current project is to revise I Wanted to Say Something – a poem written in 1971  (51 years ago!) chronicling my grandparent’s migration from Michigan to the Alberta prairie in 1908.

My revisions are partly based on new detail in my deceased grandfather’s 1978 oral memoir when he was 90 years old in The Wheatland Lodge in Strathmore, Alberta.  I transcribed his account many years after I wrote the poem and found information that amplifies his original stories, and clarifies some of the queries I had at the time of writing. The project now is to add, delete, and expand details (including the addition of a few lost photographs not included in the 2 published versions).  How to get the story right when two memories are transcribing the past?  

I was making internal corrections at the time of writing in 1971, but purposely left them in the text; for instance, in one picture of my grandfather and a child standing in a field of oats  (I ask, is it my mother/ or  my aunt?).  Later in the poem, after finding out it was my aunt Dorothy, I write, “finally/here is your aunt”.  

                                             and here, is it my mother/or  my aunt ?
        hidden in the grass, the oats
              her shoulders

                                   (who gave this life to me ?

the legacy:  pictures/and ignorance  and love
to look back

I was also unsure of the cause death of my grandparent’s baby.  Was my original line, “a baby dies from bad milk” really the improbable cause as I remember it being told?  Not being sure, I changed the line to “a baby dies” in the revised 2nd edition (Red Deer College Press, 1990).  Here is my grandfather’s account that now indicates the change I have to make in the new web version of the poem. A version of “bad milk” goes back in. 
Our first boy Clare was born in 1910.  When he was 14 months old, Jessie was in     the hospital with a pregnancy.  I took him over the Philip’s but the Phillip’s cows     got out and were gone two or three days.

Their first milk when they came back didn’t agree with Clare and he was soon a very     sick boy.  Dr. Salmon said he would have to get to the hospital immediately, so I     took him on the train carrying him on a pillow.  We took a taxi from the station to     the hospital.  The hospital wasn’t able to save him and the next morning he died.
I might place some of this new material in footnotes or an addendum where I can expand his experiences: i.e. his 5 year court case and loss to the J.I. Case company, his orphan and work experience as a child labourer, family survival during the flu epidemic in 1917, and his other remembrances re. the 30’s drought etc. etc. 

Either way, I’m trying not to alter the poem’s overall balance by over-filling these gaps and therefore, lapsing into a longer prose narrative that risks losing the energy of what’s implied / what’s unsaid.  
And yes, there is a direct comparison between from The Field and I Wanted to Say Something. Both poems share subject matter and the memory of growing up in the late 40’s and 1950’s in Calgary and the prairie farm at Strangmure 40 miles east.  I’m still going back to those roots /that particular space and time.     

Added note:  My friend Brian Fawcett, who recently died, was an intelligent, harsh and great editor.  When he first read I Wanted to Say Something his one comment that sticks with we was that he was interested in how I as writer was “struggling with sentimentality” – that risk a writer takes when writing about complex family issues that might end in euphemism or cliché. As Wallace Stevens sd, to this effect:  sentimentality is the failure of emotion. This truth should be a consideration of any writing that is generated by what otherwise is deeply felt but shallowly described.

Only emotion endures

Ezra Pound

Q: Given the length and breadth of your publishing history, how do you feel your work has developed? Where do you see your work headed?

A: In the long run that gets shorter at this point in my life – I have to guess where the work will go.  Where it came from is easier to determine.  In my writing, each poem informs and projects a way to the next.  In between, however, there is the continual need and necessary study of poetry and its various approaches - and to keep learning from the influential poets I’ve been attracted to.

To go back, my early work in the 1960’s - as is the case for most poets of my generation - comes from a lyric urge.  Young writers don’t tend to write epics, though their lives might seem large and dramatic enough to make the brash W.C. William’s pronouncement: I am a poet, I am a poet!  I stand reaffirmed!. The shame comes later. 

In 1970 I wrote my first long poem, I Wanted to Say Something – a poem that more or less set the form for work to come.  The poem opened a large space to write in - my grandparent’s pioneer history on the prairie – 61 pages with old photos, transcribed stories, and the early family memories of growing up in an urban and rural landscape of the late 40’s early 50’s. 

Moving to Prince George in 1969 was a crucial move in terms of developing a poetic to match the harsh and often abrasive industrial context I found myself in.  So much for the lyric poet, as Brian Fawcett might say, “moonily looking into space” while the house you’re in (as happened in the Giscombe mill town in the early 70’s) gets literally bulldozed over- night.  Prince George became one of my muses and opened a new range to include politics, economics, geography – a complex mixed landscape of dark and light.  My inspirators at this point were Brian Fawcett who preceded me in Prince George, my friend and colleague John Harris, and the visiting American poet Paul “Red” Shuttleworth (also one of the great characters in my life - pro baseball player, college teacher, play write, and now at the age of 77, started a boxing career with two wins in his two first fights).  

The long poems that followed went in several directions generated by various subjects/conditions:  Arrhythmia (heart fibrillations), a sex series written every 7 years, various “traumatic monologues” (as one woman called them) dealing with authoritarian management systems during stormy teaching years, love and the threat of its loss, drinking in down and out dives, the students who fed me many lines in Pulp Log:  I am writing this so Barry McKinnon will understand ...  I wasn’t talking, only moving lips.

Other aspects, as I look back, are the long poems I wrote when I was a foreigner in foreign places. I didn’t travel a lot, but when I did, new measures of the world, if lucky, appeared.  I remember Al Purdy saying that he had to travel in order to keep writing.  Thus we get his North of Summer poems and many poems that refer to places he’s been.  Likewise, my initial banal/quotidian notebook entries while in Bolivia and Peru, became the long poem Bolivia/Peru after we were mugged in Lima.  I had to assess this traumatic experience in terms of what a young Peruvian waiter said to us:  In life there is good. In life there is bad. Overall, you end up being glad for these experiences and what they teach - and the writing they might produce.

Likewise, I spent long stretches in California and Arizona and over 5 years wrote the series Gone South recently published as a chap book in rob mclennan’s above/ground press series.  

Always, the prompts of place and circumstance.

Where is it all headed?  I go long stretches not writing and cannot predict the situations that produce it.  One of Robert Creeley’s last books Life & Death gives the most generalized sense of subject and condition at this point in my life.  Then there is W.B. Yeats:

Horseman pass by, cast a cold eye ...

until something more can be said.  

Q: What particular works can’t you help but return to?  

A: Here’s a paragraph from my essay did you real all these books:

Anyone with a working library (writers, teachers, scholars and researchers) develops diverse ways to read depending on immediate requirements.  Some books I need as reference sources, some I skimmed or partially read and then shelved for later reading, some I knew would take a lifetime to read and reread and that I’d have to return to for both work, knowledge and pleasure (William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Emily Dickenson, et. al.), some I had to read for exams and term papers in college and because of that pressure didn’t really absorb their total weight, beauty or importance.  In the last three years, however, I began a project to reread every word of the books I earlier found long, intimidating and difficult: Joyce’s Ulysses, The Canterbury Tales, Beowulf, The Inferno, Moby Dick and Louis Zukosvsky’s epic “A” - and a stack of others also sit on the “to read” list.  

As I grow older I sometimes think of culling the whole thing down to one six-foot shelf.  On other days to grab only those few to fill a hobo’s knapsack.  But given my habit, it’s more so, that for now - I’ll keep em all! –  these friends, and measures as source for inspiration.

What thou lovest well remains/ the rest is dross.  

(Ezra Pound, Canto 81)

Q: Finally, who do you read to reenergize your own work? What particular works can’t you help but return to?

A: This is a photo of one book shelf of 5 in my study.  It contains biographies, poetry anthologies, 2 shelves of Canadian poetry, and 2 shelves of American poetry.

Early on I was reading the City Lights Books from San Francisco: Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti et.al. – and various other books I’d get from Evelyn De Mille’s independent bookshop in the centre of downtown on First Street and 7th Avenue, I was also inspired to write after hearing T.S. Eliot read on CBC radio.  I had no clue about what he was saying, but the rhythm and seriousness captured me and I brashly thought: I can do this too! Apropos of Eliot’s formal and religious tone, I was reading Norman Mailer’s Deaths for the Ladies (and Other Disasters) – quick, quirky, funny poems as reactions pricking at the social world. I can do this too!  My other important reading source was the Safeway Dictionary that came in cheap installments with grocery purchases (a dollar a section, I think). My mom would bring the various sections (grouped ABC...DEF...etc) home with our groceries, and I would then slot them into its huge fake leather covered three ring binder that would grow and expand over the months – finally to XYZ and its full bulk of six or eight inches. I would open the dictionary randomly, read daily with fascination - this world of words defined to become a prime source for reference and energy in one’s writing. 

My first year college English teacher, Bill Wilson, commented that the poems I submitted to him were Byronesque, whereupon I signed out every book by Lord Byron, including the biographies and stories of Mad Jack, gun running in Greece, and other salacious accounts of the wild and dangerous life of being a poet.  I learned much in Byron’s’ rush of couplets but, in this case, the galloping form was not for me: I went back to read more from the open-verse Beats.

I think it’s interesting that you use the word “reenergize” which assumes work in a kind of stasis that requires outside literary prompts.  I remember brash young poets announcing that they would not read other poets for fear of infecting their “personal style” or endangering some kind of ontological integrity. Once I suggested to one young poet that she should read Charles Olson apropos of something she sd about her own work.  Her response:  “nobody can tell me what to fucking read!” That was the end of that! So many geniuses so easily forgotten.  For the serious others who enter the threshold and open door to that place where there are no half measures or compromises – there is only the real work of writing, reading and infinite study ahead.

In Montréal I met the painter, poet, Roy Kiyooka via Milly Risdevedt, an aspiring young painter who posed nude for Roy’s evening classes.  Milly invited me to the class to meet Roy, and as a young curious poet, I happily and expectantly went.  Roy was a sage, a small and skinny man with a Fu Manchu moustache and long pointed beard. Initially, his tacit demeanor scared me a bit as he quietly roamed the room to watch the students painting landscapes or sketching Milly in her stationary pose. I followed Roy from easel to easel; what initially interested me most was a tape of Robert Creeley reading that filled the studio background while Roy voiced insightful, laconic comments with his occasional and indescribable high cosmic laugh.  

One student was working on a painting of a man on a wharf watching a passing steam ship. To give a lesson on perspective Roy stroked his beard and said,” Thaaat booaat is going to hiiit his heead”!  So it is that whatever hours that student spent on the wharf, they were now for naught.  I think the sketches of nude Milly got either little praise or comment, or worse: complete silence.  For me, it was an auspicious beginning – the privilege to hear abt Roy’s friend Robert Creeley, and to read Roy’s copy of For Love as evidence of great poetry by a writer I would begin to follow for a lifetime.

My poetry professor at the time, Irving Layton, also knew Robert Creeley; they had an extensive correspondence and friendship; Creeley published one of Layton’s books, In the Midst of My Fever, via his Divers Press in Majorca.  I was now entering an interesting firing range as a young poet:  Kiyooka’s praise for Creeley and Layton’s too-easy dismissal of his old friend as a “paranoid mumbler”.  This was a big lesson in how poets reveal their personal judgments and aesthetic measures for a young poet to consider. 

Over the years I came to Creeley’s defense more than once by quoting his poems and essays.    For instance, my friend Al Purdy did not like Creeley’s poetry, Olson and the Black Mountain poets and was very suspicious of their influence on Canadian writing (i.e. particularly the Tish group in Vancouver).  After Al read to a sluggish class of afternoon high school students in Prince George, we went downtown for thrift –book shopping and beer.  Al was quiet and surly.  I asked him what was wrong.  He sd that his reading was awful; the students didn’t like him – and for a great Canadian poet, he was experiencing, what I thought, a big silent ego let down.    I sd Al: “whenever I know what others think of me, I’m plunged into loneliness”.  Al’s scowl disappeared and he bellowed out, “ did you just say that?  Who the hell sd that? Robert Creeley! I said.  Goddamn! Do you have his address? I want to write him a letter - a letter, I assumed, to compliment the depth of Creeley’s accuracy in describing a complex personal event in a very short poem.   

I’ve been mostly happy in this kind of personal contact with many poets who share some sense of the wonder, the beauty and the surrounding political miasma:  we’ve seen and yakked for hours about the Vancouver wars, the Prince George poetry wars, those suspect in their career moves, the politics and controversies of writers who get grants and residencies, gender, age and race issues with ideological agendas, the fights between street poets and university academics, and the proclamations of the new to supplant the old - AND in all of this, to recognize the poets for clinging to their paddles and who have thus, survived.

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