Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

THE SAWCHUK SESSIONS

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THE SAWCHUK SESSIONS

Nathaniel G. Moore dissects the poetry book with guts: Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems (Brick Books) by Randall Maggs. Nathaniel G. Moore's Conflict of Interest column appears bi-weekly.

"You mean the whole f---ing book is poetry?" (Maggs’ brother on learning Night Work was not going to be a novel or a biography but a poetry book)

When Martin Brodeur eclipsed Patrick Roy’s all-time win record last month, internet search engines were ablaze and debate grew to rabid levels for hockey geek boys young and old. Some delved into the midnight hour, defending their airtight thesis as to why Roy, Brodeur, Sawchuk, Plante, Hall or Dryden was the greatest of all time.

Personally, and I’ve stood by this since 1991 for different reasons, the three greatest goaltenders are Plante, Sawchuk and Hall. No one dominated and played so well at that level from the 1950s through the 1960s than those three men. I was obsessed with Plante: he was a diva; he was neurotic; he knitted toques to calm himself, faked illnesses and was loathed by his coach. He was experimental, egomaniacal and cocky. When I read Maggs’ book I saw a different side to Sawchuk, someone who always seems to be called the greatest over Plante, someone I didn’t want to like. But Maggs made me at least understand the man, more so than the cursed records he will forever hold above my hero, Jacques Plante.

So when I arrive at Toronto's Hockey Hall of Fame in early 2008 for the launch of Randall Maggs’ Night Work, at first glance I think I’m at an induction ceremony at some posh New York NHL head office corporate event. With a slew of well-dressed literati and sports journalists, and a fantastic spread, it’s a special way of launching an epic novel-like poetry book about Terry Sawchuk. Even the Stanley Cup is a few metres away from the podium. There’s a short film adapted from the book being put on by Judith Keenan at Book Shorts and, in general, the evening resembles nothing you would imagine (if ever you did) finding at a lowly Canadian poetry launch.

When I meet up with Randall a few months after his launch in April 2008, we delve into the gritty world of the 1950s NHL. For some reason I know everything about these men. I should. In the early 1990s I was obsessed with 1950s hockey, the Original Six and Sawchuk, of course. I was all over this period. I even wrote one of his contemporaries, Glenn Hall, a letter and he sent me back an autographed postcard. I would go to tradeshows and get more and more autographs, watching the little shrinking hockey stars holding pens, waiting to sign shirts, jerseys, cards and books. These were real gentlemen, gangsters who appeared to have survived a war. One casualty, however, was Terry Sawchuk.

April 2008

NGM:

How do you feel this book works for the poetry fan, and the hockey fan? How did you come to put this book together?

RM:

My hope was that the more open-minded hockey fans might overcome their indifference to poetry. I think there were things inside me that got shocked out. I was out west to do a reading and driving past a small town, two or three houses, and I see the name Floral up on the one grain elevator. That kind of shocked me back to my own upbringing in the West. Floral was where Gordie Howe was from and probably the best known hometown of any player in the country up to that point. That was in the nineties and I'd really gotten away from the game after 1967. I watched a bit when my brother went up with Chicago in the seventies. But that name up there, after all that time, that got a lot of things going through my head.

NGM:

Did you grow up with the game?

RM:

My dad and I would listen to the games on the radio. My father disliked the Montreal Canadiens, to the point where after the game, if the Habs won, he’d disappear into the barn not to be seen ‘til the next morning. He got so caught up in it.

***

Maggs says that, in Canada, poets are "much better off financially than fiction writers," because poets don't have any illusions that they might live off their writing and seek out some additional job or profession to pay the bills. He describes how the public attitude for poetry changes from place to place. For example, Maggs states, Newfoundland is very receptive to the arts, compared to Western Canada, where he’s from.

When it came to putting the book together, Maggs says he never lacked confidence: "I don’t know why, I wasn’t thinking of myself ... I was just writing poems about something I wanted to write poems about."

His family and friends would often come and read pieces from the work in progress, wondering when in fact it would be complete. "My son is a classical pianist and he said to me, ‘Dad, why are you turning this book into poetry? Why don’t you write a novel?’ And my brother is a hockey player and (he) said the same thing."

Maggs recounts how, every once in a while, he’d send his brother a poem and say, "You know, I’m getting closer to having this book done." One day, after a moment of silence on the phone, his brother exclaimed, "You mean the whole f---ing book is poetry?"

***

NGM:

Writing about hockey, and putting it into the genre of poetry, was there any hesitation? Did you think you were doing a disservice at all, I mean, is there a stigma attached to poetry?

RM:

I think this book kind of drew people in, I don’t think they’re hostile to it. You can have a certain hostility to poetry like Shakespeare just from high school, and then you never see it again.

NGM:

Why do you think people are so anti-poetry?

RM:

It’s not that they hate poetry, they just don’t even think about it. I think the whole spirit of the age is a short attention span. It’s like classical music: people aren’t willing to put time into something. This [the book] kind of draws them in and it’s relatively accessible because the language I settled on had to be something that worked with the subject. But I wasn’t trying to write stuff that people would read, that wasn’t on my mind at all.

NGM:

Does it upset you at all?

RM:

I’m not hostile about the situation. We have been a pioneer community where the arts were not well regarded; now we've moved into a techological era. Somehow we've missed the period where we've had the opportunity to develop an appreciation of the arts.

One Year Later (April 2009)

NGM:

What’s new? It’s been almost a year since we’ve spoken. Any new developments, beyond the recent Winterset Award win which I’ll ask you about shortly.

RM:

Ron Hynes, the great Newfoundland singer and songwriter, has written a Sawchuk song in response to the book! Steve Brunt emailed me recently to tell me that he and his crowd had gone to hear Ron sing at some Toronto club and Ron talked about the Sawchuk book and sang his song, which was 8 minutes long. Got a message from Ron a couple of weeks ago that he was really pleased with it and has given me a co-write and wants me to join SOCAN so I that I would get a share of the play money. I guess I'm sort of answering your first question here. The book does seem to be getting a second wind or even better, "getting traction" (to use an expression of the present Leafs' coach). Dave Stubbs, the excellent Gazette sports columnist who has an extensive knowledge of sports literature, said once that it was in his top three with Andy O'Brien's Scrubs on Skates and Dryden's The Game. If it turns out to have the longevity of those two books, I'd be delighted. It's also being used in several university courses and that's a promising development.

NGM:

Anything else?

RM:

What I have enjoyed most in the last year, though I had no thought of any of this when I was writing the book, is having found that many hockey people have gotten into the book even though they were initially wary of the poetry; and that many arts-oriented people have come to have a little greater understanding of the game itself. Heartening to find so many open-minded people.

Stubbs is a Brodeur fan and I gave him a copy of the book last spring. I used to watch the TSN highlights and the New Jersey game just to see the first goal scored on Brodeur…and the hallowed shut out record intact. I feel differently now. Brodeur will break the record and good luck to him. He's an entirely admirable person and a great goaltender. My god, when you think about what he has done in international play for Canada ... yes, good luck to him. As to who's the best, impossible to say, really, as the game has changed so much; the gear, the defensive play. I'd say you can only judge who's best in his own age and Terry has sufficient competition with his own contemporaries.

NGM:

The home team so to speak, Newfoundland, really seem to love the book. What do you make of the fanfare?

RM:

The local people that I talked to, the Newfoundlanders, have loved it and I've made a bit of fuss about them in reading locally. My brother, the hockey player, was skeptical at first (as was my son the classical pianist). Darryl once said to me on the phone, after a bit of a pause, "You mean the whole book is f---ing poetry"? But, he loves it now and keeps a copy on the bar at his Chrystola Inn, which is in Colorado at the base of Pike's Peak. He called me last week as Corb Lund (and the Hurtin’ Albertans) were playing there and Corb wanted a copy. He loves the game, it seems, and I see he's released a version of Stompin Tom's old hockey song.

NGM:

Beyond those you spoke to while compiling the book, have any NHLers contacted you about the book? Have you followed up with anyone you talked to during your creative process?

RM:

I really haven't gotten back to the pros yet. It's only now I'm getting breathing space and I'll certainly call Bill White, Ralph Backstrom, Glenn Hall, Johnny Bower and Ken Dryden, all guys who were a big help to me. Of course, the Hall of Fame people; Phil Pritchard and Craig Campbell remain my close friends and big supporters. Phil sent Craig up to Orillia with the Vezina when I read at the Leacock festival last summer. What's that kind of friendship and support worth? Phil's working on a Canadian embassy visit to Washington among his many other planned ventures.

NGM:

If you could read or show one poem to Terry, what would it be?

RM:

The one poem for Terry. Hmm. Remember, he hated the limelight. And he was a westerner. There's that poem based on an incident where the reporter wants to make a fuss over his protecting ... was it Toppazinni's face in the crease with his trapper? Terry'd probably say the same or worse to me. But if I could send him one piece, maybe it would be “Things in Our Day,” where he might secretly enjoy the unheroic portrait of himself and, I'm sure, the players' respect for him that Bergman, wonderful guy, really conveyed to me.

NGM:

Congratulations on the Winterset Award. What was that experience like?

RM:

I did mention in an interview down here on that subject that having to suffer through the March Music festivals with my kids over the years made me very skeptical about mixing the arts and competition. Nonetheless, the recognition certainly does give me great pleasure. I think too that the jury showed their courage and openness in giving the award to a book that deals with a subject such as mine. I know the arts world well enough to be pretty certain that this would not have been a popular decision with the more "rigorous" faction in that world.

Randall Maggs

Nathaniel G. Moore

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