a private life
I want to build houses in the dusk
of a late century
mud pits smudged with human feet
sawdust grain cupped in my eyes
soft drywall smooth on beams and posts
– Julia Williams, MY CITY IS ANCIENT AND FAMOUS
For years I’ve been interested in how various poets across Canada, through individual poems or collections, write their own geography, and increasingly over the past decade or two, writing their cities as opposed to bare country; even writing their suburbs (not just ryan fitzpatrick's Ogden or Jon Paul Fiorentino's Transcona; does anybody remember John McAuley's most brilliant Nothing Ever Happens in Pointe-Claire? (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1977)). To write of any location enters that place into myth, the myth of the city. There is the city, and then there is the dream of the city. And aren't these definitions of self always self-definitions? Where does a book or a writer hold their boundaries? As Monty Reid wrote in his essay "Small Town, Small World" from the anthology Trace: Prairie Writers on Writing (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1986):
"Small towns, with their knowledge that they do not control everything, admit the tensions and thus re-create a place for the subject, perhaps articulate the subject in a new way, rifted by tensions it cannot control but dreaming nonetheless of meanings. Or they may provide a model for the subject as some other social context, marginalized but neither cynical nor indifferent. The subject's place must necessarily be created before the reader can again be engaged, can find a place for identification."
In Vancouver, it includes Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems (Toronto ON: Ryerson Press, 1972), George Bowering rewriting Rilke’s Duino Elegies into his Kerrisdale Elegies (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1986), or his time at Sir George Williams at the tail end of the 1960s in his collection The Concrete Island: Montreal Poems (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1977), and more recently, Meredith Quartermain’s Vancouver Walking (Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2005). bpNichol wrote Toronto streets more obviously throughout The Martyrology Book V (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1982); and then there’s Stephen Cain’s Torontology (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 2002), Joe Blades’ own song to the St. John River (the river that runs through the city of Fredericton) in the collection River Suite (Toronto ON: Insomniac Press, 1998), and Leonard Cohen, through almost every collection, who worked his own magic around Montreal streets, cafés and back alleys. Even more recently, Calgary poet Julia Williams, a few months before her collection The Sink House (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004) published MY CITY IS ANCIENT AND FAMOUS (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 2004). In his essay "Mapping Raymond Souster's Toronto" in The Canadian Modernists Meet (Ottawa ON: The University of Ottawa Press, 2005), Stephen Cain writes "That the city is an essential component of literary modernism–as image, as cite, as trope–has long been accepted in modernist studies. As Michel de Certeau most succinctly notes, the city 'is simultaneously the machinery and the hero of modernity.'" He goes on to say:
"For much of the modernist period, this city appears absent from Canadian poetry, and it is not until the rise of postmodernism, post-colonialism, and feminism that sustained and concrete examinations of Toronto and its districts begin to appear: Joe Rosenblatt's Kensington Market, the Annex environs of bpNichol's The Martyrology Book 5, the punk bars and Queen Street watering holes of Lynn Crosbie's "Alphabet City," and the city centre of Dennis Lee's Civil Elegies.
Yet, long before Lee was officially made the poet laureate of Toronto, Raymond Souster was the acknowledged poetic chronicler of Toronto. Indeed, Souster has been represented, in both the popular media and in academic criticism, as the poet of Toronto for much of the twentieth century. While certain other modernist writers have occasionally used Toronto as a subject for their poetry–such as Miriam Waddington, and Dorothy Livesay in her "Queen City" suite–it is only Souster who has consistently returned to Toronto as subject and inspiration for his verse over a lengthy poetic career of nearly half a century. In doing so, Souster has created a significant body of work that explores the site of urban modernism, and an investigation of his work raises questions about aesthetic representations of the city and its functions in the context of Canadian literary modernism."
From modernism to post-modernism, then, as cities are less the machinery that surrounds than a part of the environment itself, that includes the author and whoever else exists in the world. For Winnipeg-born Montreal author Jon Paul Fiorentino, writing the Winnipeg suburb of Transcona as a thread through all of his poetry collections. In a recent issue of dANDelion (Number 2, Volume 29, “the poetic project.” Calgary AB, 2004), Fiorentino writes specifically of the piece “Transcona lol” from Hello Serotonin (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2004):
I officially began my obsession with my hometown of Transcona with the publication of Transcona Fragments (Winnipeg: Cyclops Press, 2002). My Transcona poems are nostalgic and digressive–heavily influenced by Seed Catalogue by Robert Kroetsch and Paterson by William Carlos Williams. Transcona lol uses the idiom of the internet chat room as its primary rhetorical strategy. It fits well into the larger Hello Serotonin project, which is immersed in the language of brain chemistry, pharmaceutical recreation, and geographical mythology. Transcona, a slowly dying railway town, persists in this collection–it is my Paterson.
In the capital, less known but no less important, was William Hawkins’ own Ottawa Poems (Kitchener ON: Weed/Flower Press, 1966), a small chapbook of twenty poems on the city he’s lived in his whole life.
What had she, Queen Victoria, in mind
naming this place, Ottawa, capital?
Ah coolness, he said,
who dug coolness.
This crazy river-abounding town
where people are quietly
following some hesitant
form of evolution
arranged on television
where girls are all
in the long dull summernights
& Mounties more image
– William Hawkins, Ottawa Poems
When I first entered Ottawa at nineteen, a young know-it-all buck wandering Bank Street and filling notebooks with reams of bad poems on city streets, the poems of Michael Dennis, for example, were extremely important to me. Here was a poet just a decade or two ahead of me, writing poems on the same Ottawa streets, giving me a sort of permission to do the same, whether in his wayne gretzky in the house of the sleeping beauties (Toronto ON: Lowlife Publishing, 1987), what we remember and what we forget (Hull QC: The Bobo Press, 1993), or bookstore window project, poems for jessica-flynn (Ottawa ON: Not One Cent of Subsidy Press, 1986). I can still remember the stacks of jessica-flynn that sat on the shelf in the early 1990s, hidden in a corner of the second floor with all the other poetry, in the now-defunct Food for Thought Books on Clarence Street. Only three dollars each; I wanted to purchase the whole lot, and give them to friends.
They say, to understand a place, you have to know its stories. Other authors have taken geographic ownership of their cities, and in Ottawa, the fiction on the city nearly abounds, working from Elizabeth Hay to Elisabeth Harvor to André Alexis' two Ottawa books, the short story collection Despair, and Other Stories of Ottawa (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1994) and Childhood (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1998), and in Colin McAdam's novel of Ottawa's 1960s in Some Great Thing (Vancouver BC: Raincoast Books, 2004). In poetry, Ottawa for the longest time has only been claimed in the most subtle ways, existing more in occasional pieces by writers such as John Newlove, Judith Fitzgerald, John Barton and Eli Mandel. I wonder in part if this is because of the supposed transient nature of the City of Ottawa; how many writers can even claim Ottawa as home and birthplace? William Hawkins and Blaine Marchand were born here, but only Hawkins has produced a book lately, his first collection in thirty-one years (spending his days as a Blue Line cab driver since the early 1970s), the collection Dancing Alone: Selected Poems 1960-1990 (Fredericton NB: Broken Jaw Press / cauldron books, 2005). Other writers, such as Norman Levine, Elizabeth Smart, Nick Power, Gail Scott and Margaret Atwood were born and sometimes raised in the Capital, but more often than not left as soon as it was possible. I was born here, but almost immediately left (put up for adoption through Cornwall Children's Aid), and didn’t “return” until I had completed high school as yet another sheer accident of geography; but one grade thirteen credit short of getting into Concordia University in Montreal, I sat three hours in Henry Beissel's office, watching his frustration on the phone, as the administration repeated to him how they couldn't let me in the school to participate in the Creative Writing program. Where else but go to Ottawa; with the more open-door policy of Carleton University (I lasted three weeks), moving two hours west to follow a girl. There was no consideration of returning home. It could easily have been so very different.
John Newlove (d. 2003), Colin Morton, John Barton (who left for Victoria, British Columbia in 2004), Anita Dolman and Nadine McInnis all came from the prairies; Michael Dennis and Dennis Tourbin from London and Port Dalhousie, respectively (both by way of Peterborough); Stephen Brockwell came from Montreal; David O'Meara and his friend Ken Babstock grew up in Pembroke, just up the Ottawa Valley; Anita Lahey and Wanda O'Connor hail from the east coast. Is anyone else actually from here?
How different is this from, say, Montreal or Toronto? Read the biographies of the contributors to the annual Headlight Anthology published by the creative writing department at Concordia University, and see the range of the authors' points-of-origin. Is it simply easier to be absorbed into the dynamic of Montreal than it is in Ottawa?
IT’S WINTER IN OTTAWA
The streets are full of overweight corporals,
of sad grey computer captains, the impedimentia
of a capital city, struggling through the snow.
There is a cold gel on my belly, an instrument
is stroking it incisively, the machine
in the half-lit room is scribbling my future.
It is not illegal to be unhappy.
A shadowy technician says alternately,
Breathe, and, You may stop now.
It is not illegal to be unhappy.
– John Newlove, THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems (Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1999)
When I was contemplating my own collection of Ottawa pieces, I considered the anniversaries, including the 150th anniversary of the City of Ottawa in 2005, and the 150th anniversary of Queen Victoria naming us capital city to the Dominion of Canada coming up in 2007. It seemed the most obvious time to push anything Ottawa-related. As much as I consider myself a resident of Glengarry County, where I have not lived since 1989 and might never live again (until I perhaps retire), my personal geography feels split in two, as this the city where I was not only born, but where my adopted mother grew (the first of her family hospital born, in the same building I arrived, nearly thirty years later), and where I have remained since I left home, and feel no need to leave; the city my daughter helps keep me to.
The uncompleted manuscript of The Ottawa City Project works to write various thematic sections in different styles; I wanted the name to reflect the more conservative, even bureaucratic aspects of the city, and the myth of the city, while at the same time working the manuscript as a whole through sections that go completely against it. One section has already appeared as an issue of the long poem journal STANZAS, the 39-part piece "ottawa poems (blue notes)" (2005), and fragments of another section, "shipbuilding," to focus more on the Ottawa River, have started appearing in scattered journals.
you were writing a paper on marriage
& wherein lies the question
, a question of lies
i was working on a poem
on the ottawa river
how you cant step into
the same truth twice
arriving too early for dinner, i read
an essay on homemade beer
by paul quarrington
you couldnt work with me in the room
i tried not to laugh out loud
at the essay, not at you,
half a glass of merlot
i could tell that you
were not impressed
i pictured a lemon, the shape
of an hour
– The Ottawa City Project, "shipbuilding"
My goal with The Ottawa City Project is to reference different aspects of the city, not to attempt to represent the city as a whole. I might live in the city, but I can only be aware of a part; as much living as observing, and both are finite, after all. Compared to me, the city seems infinite, large and almost unknowable in any way but in parts. I am the city, of the city. I have still never stood at the corner of Baseline and Merivale (nor do I feel the need to). Call me, if you need to, a Centretown boy.
Not that the city has never been written of: a number of the Confederation Poets of the late 1800s and early 1900s lived and worked in the city for various government departments, and it held like a bad joke that, if you hadn’t written a poem on the Chaudiere Falls or Rapids, you weren’t really an Ottawa poet. One of the strongholds of poetry in the late 19th century, Ottawa modernism held strong and overstayed its welcome, writing too far into twentieth century. Some of the most interesting poems about the city over the past few decades have been written by non-residents, including Eli Mandel, Judith Fitzgerald and a breathtaking array of Ottawa poems by former resident George Elliott Clarke included in his collection Black (Vancouver BC: Polestar Press, 2006; poems that also appeared in the first issue of the online ottawater), a follow-up to his collection Blue (Vancouver BC: Polestar Press, 2001). John Bell even edited a whole collection of pieces about the City of Ottawa, from both locals and outsiders, the collection Ottawa, A Literary Portrait (Pottersfield NS: Pottersfield Press, 1992), published as a follow-up to a similar book he edited on Halifax (Pottersfield NS: Pottersfield Press, 1990), that included the work of such writers as Norman Levine, Al Purdy, Raymond Souster, Hugh MacLennan and Milton Acorn. As Bell wrote in his introduction:
"Not all the writers – be they short- or long term residents – who have played a role in the literary history of Ottawa have chosen to portray the city in their work. Some, like Robert Stead, George Elliott Clarke, and Benjamin Sulte – and the many other Western, Maritime, and Quebec writers identified with the capital over the years – were, in a sense, expatriates who often found that distance compelled them to write primarily about the communities they had left behind. (Similarly, some of the best writing about the capital has come from writers, such as Robert Fontaine, Norman Levine, and Joan Finnigan, who grew up in the city and then moved away.) Other authors associated with Ottawa, like Wilfred Campbell and Elizabeth Smart, seemed more concerned with the depiction of nature or interiority, and thus offer only muted cityscapes in their work."
Part of that, I think, comes from a general lack of push from residents to celebrate the city in the same way that other cities do. It is a romantic and edgy thing to be a Montreal poet, and quite an impressive career feat to be a Toronto poet. On the other hand, Vancouver was where myths were to be created, and then the prairies, where there exists more heaven above than earth. What does Ottawa have? A Victorian lumber town turned Capital, overrun by bureaucrats and bureaucracy, and the rise and fall of high tech. Where does that leave us? A small town grown only in population? A world-class city combined with provincial backwater? Does having too much Capital cause us to see little else, and give the City of Ottawa a (perceived) lack of local identity?
As Vancouver writer Meredith Quartermain says in an interview published on Alterran Poetry Assemblage:
"Further thoughts on place: Is Canada a place? or a word? The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that the Spectacle is language itself, that the very communicability which humans have can operate as an alienating totalitarianism. Human cultures live in words; words are the quintessential places. Agamben also argues that for the first time humans may now experience themselves as linguistic beings; they may stop looking through language at mirages of things beyond and instead recognize the way language empowers some and disempowers others – the way language controls masses of people without their consciousness.
[. . .]
Geography means writing the earth, or you might say writing the world. It seems to me that the act of writing the world is the act of creating it. As such I would hope that this writing keeps rewriting itself, or that writers, as geographers keep rewriting the world-space, and keep approaching it as an act which must unfold in the presence of a plurality of such actors (geographers), so that there is no definitive world or definitive geography, but rather an ongoing discussion or network of stories. I am at the moment deeply engrossed in Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition, which sets out the ancient Greek notion of a public realm where such a discussion could take place, free of the preoccupations of the marketplace, and free of the necessity of subsistence. She argues that this public realm is now completely filled up with the society of jobholders, leaving no room for world-writing in the way I imagine might be possible as a political discussion. Currently our whole lives are taken up with the two aspects of subsistence and necessity: labour, and consumption, which really are entirely private matters. This is not so because it has to be, but rather because of the forces that have come to dominate our culture. I am indebted to Robin Blaser for leading me to Arendt’s work. Much of what has preoccupied Robin Blaser has been the recovery of such a public world, and of course Hannah Arendt’s work is seminal to his investigations.
As to whether geography can amount to self-definition, I think it’s completely impossible to define oneself in the kind of world-writing in the public realm I’ve described. The whole point of a public interaction between world-writer geographers is a story that must be told by someone else. Who the geographer is unfolds in the interaction. However, that said, I am constantly aware of the geography of language, the contours, rifts, subductions, tectonic plates of the medium in which we exist. A sculpturing of our land-base has already occurred over the millennia of linguistic evolution and we too can erode it, or upheave it, and we can also map it."
Meredith Quartermain poem, "Bird City" published in this month's Walrus Magazine.
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Canada has some amazing poetics.
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