Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft Interview: George Bowering

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George Bowering with Spider Robinson

This spring, Toronto high-school students from two Writer's Craft classes conducted interviews with some of Canada's finest poets. The interviews will be posted on The Great Canadian Writer's Craft page on Open Book in June and July 2011.

Rebecca Tuck:

Hi George. Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions.
Ever since I was young, I have been fascinated by Greg Curnoe’s work and life. When we were assigned the project in writer’s craft of questioning a Canadian poet, I wasn’t sure whom I was going to pick. I mentioned this to my Mum in passing, and she reminded me that I had used a book called The Moustache in a previous group project I had done involving Greg’s work. I immediately made the connection and revisited the book. I was very pleased to be able discover a Canadian poet to whom I already have a connection through Greg’s work.

From reading your book The Moustache, Greg Curnoe was a very important person in your life. In what ways did Greg’s work influence you and your writing, and what pieces or period of work in particular stands out for you?

George Bowering:

In 1966 I moved from the west to London, Ontario, and my writing had to undergo a change, because until then it was based, theoretically and otherwise, on my location, on what I and my friends called locus. Being back east, and away from the ground I understood, I needed something else that would give me direction or a handhold. Now, Greg was all hot about what he called (sometimes with ironic defensiveness) “region.” We had many arguments about that: I didn’t like “region” because it was a word used by outfits who considered themselves the centre of the world — like Toronto, or the usual university poetry anthologies. Blah blah blah. Well, Greg and I stayed up till early mornings, drinking incredibly black coffee and talking. We were both interested in jazz, for example, but I had let my jazz connection lapse during my three years in arid Calgary. Greg got me back up to snuff (along with the poet John Sinclair in Detroit) and introduced me to the secondary figures in Free Jazz (whom I still love), such as Albert Ayler, Roscoe Mitchell and Archie Shepp. He also taught me a lot about art, and more and more our arts tended to resemble one another, especially as I enjoyed a Curnoe-like “literalism” in my composition. I am crazy about every period of Greg’s work and have works from many years on the walls in my house. Of all the Curnoe works I am surrounded by, the greatest is The Woolworth’s Rattle, which is part of a four-painting series executed in, I think, 1966.


In a lot of Greg’s work, he combined aspects of prose and poetry. I am familiar with quite a bit of this work, and in particular “Blue Book 8.” Did you ever discuss each other’s interest and explorations in writing, and how do you think you and your writing influenced Greg and his work?


In the big room in Greg’s house, there was a pretty darn good bookshelf, and it contained books that were also vital to my own life. For example, Ezra Pound’s Cantos and Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems. I have no notion of my own writing influencing Greg’s work. But if I remember rightly, I introduced him to David McFadden, the great Hamilton poet, and after that they collaborated on several books, Greg doing the visual work in them. McFadden and I have always sprinkled our books of poetry with each other’s names, since we first met through the mail in the early sixties. Greg, of course, did several covers for my books. We did not write like one another, but we sure understood each other’s brain meat.


Did you ever collaborate with Greg on some sort of writing/art piece, and if so what was the experience like?


Oops. I see that I have almost answered your question already. Well, I was publishing a poetry magazine called Imago, for instance, and every third issue was a little book. When I did one by the great Toronto poet Victor Coleman, Greg did the drawing of Victor for the cover. I introduced Greg to Victor, too. There are Curnoe works on the covers of several of my books: the novel A Short Sad Book, the book of poems Blonds on Bikes, the memoir The Moustache, of course, and others. While I was living in London, though I was pretty darn busy, I also worked with Greg at the 20/20 Gallery, where one of our masterly shows was a series of drawings by John Boyle. I also worked with Greg on the arts journal 20c Magazine. I drummed with the Nihilist Spasm Band until I was thrown out for keeping time. But I have the great honour of having played guitar with the Nihilist Spasm Band three times since Greg’s death. I also worked as Greg’s assistant in putting up the ill-fated giant mural at Dorval International Airport during Expo. And so on.


On page 43 of The Moustache you said, “I could write this stuff down, but what would that have to do with remembering?” Did you edit your writing after initially putting your memory down?


In a lot of my writing, fiction or non-fiction or poetry, I do plenty of research. But in this instance to do so would have been to violate the principles by which the “I remember” book as invented by Joe Brainard was formulated. In such an “I remember book” what gets written down has to be what the great U.S. poet Philip Whalen called “a graph of the mind moving.” So, even if you make a mistake in memory, you have to keep it — though you will likely mention that you have made that mistake, etc. So, you don’t edit a book like The Moustache, except for typing errors, etc. The same thing applies to my “I remember” book about my parents, Eggs in There (2006).


After recently facing the near loss of a friend who had been seriously injured in an accident, I discovered after several days of not playing my flute that once I returned to it, how much better I felt. After Greg’s death, how did you cope? What part did your writing play in the process of grieving, and by writing your memories down, how did it affect you?


Through my life, it seems, best friends and former girlfriends have been dying. Apparently after the poet Red Lane died on my 29th birthday, I was not talking to people much for a year. When Greg died I flew across the country. When I heard that bpNichol had died I continued to play the ball game I was playing. On it goes. But I continued to write. I really can’t say how much the writing was part of the grieving. In Greg’s case, it would seem that it was at least a major pathway, wouldn’t you say? Last year Jean Baird and I edited the anthology The Heart Does Break, in which well-known writers write their experiences of grieving their loved ones. Readers always tell us how much the book means to them during their own grieving.


I know from your book, other people’s recollections, and exhibitions of Greg’s work that his studio was very layered, and full of “stuff.” I’m curious to know where you make your work, and how this place affects your writing.


You know, looking at the surfaces around the machine I am now writing with, I see something that resembles Greg’s studio. In fact Jean was just here making suggestions about clearing space for the much bigger machines that are scheduled to find some space here. Greg’s studio was not so much “layered” as it was a delicious chaos. The last time I visited it, Sheila showed me the twisted bicycle that Greg had been riding on his last day. I am so glad that it was still in that place, along with the other bicycles that Greg had collected, along with antique toys, a complete taped record of the Anglo-Argentine war, antique soda pop bottles with the pop still inside them, half-finished art works, such as the famous teepee with images of the NSB members on it, hundreds of jazz and blue records, lacrosse equipment, Big Little Books, a drum kit, brightly painted wooden kitchen chairs, boxing gloves, giant watercolours, colour wheels — and if it was layered, that’s only the first layer. There was a cat with no tail somewhere, too. I totally understand Greg’s sense of order. You would agree if you could look around the room I am writing this in. I will mention seven things (random number): the teak table that the late Warren Tallman had to pile yellow manuscripts or great deli meats on, and which Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley wrote at. A plush Hello Kitty doll (which, come to think of it, Warren Tallman’s daughter Karen, who is now a psychologist, gave me recently). Four framed drawings by Greg Curnoe in bright-coloured frames. A Hello Kitty Pez dispenser. An enormous pile of cables and mouses and so on from former computers. Three hundred cassette tapes and three hundred CDs, mostly jazz and R&B. A photograph of my daughter, Thea, when she was one hour old.

George Bowering grew up in the Okanagan Valley of B.C. and has lived in six Canadian provinces. He has won lots of awards and prizes, and is an Officer of the Order of Canada and an Officer of the Order of British Columbia. He has written novels and short stories, histories and other non-fiction books, and lots of poetry. He also writes books about baseball. His newest baseball book is scheduled for Fall of 2011. It is titled Diamond Alphabet. His next novel will be entitled Pinboy.

Rebecca Tuck was born in the remote village of E Flat Major where everything was, as you might have guessed, in the key of Eb. She now resides in the town of Diminished 7th, just below minor 7th, where she happily writes her world famous magical fantasies including the renowned Book of the Ear Award winner, Harry’s Lost Underwater World of D Double Sharp. Her hobbies include reenacting “The Planets,” including such battles as “Mars, the Bringer of War,” and taking long Andante’s on the beach.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

The Great Canadian Writer's Craft

Each year, students from Malvern Collegiate Institute's Writer’s Craft class interview Canadian poets as part of a class project. The students study Canadian poetry under the collaborative tutelage of teacher John Ouzas and poet a.rawlings. We are delighted to feature the interviews on Open Book.

Go to The Great Canadian Writer's Craft’s Author Page