Friday, October 30, 2009

John Raulston Saul

Canada is a Metis nation, says John Raulston Saul.

He makes the startling claim in his book A Fair Country (Viking, 2008). It was also a thesis prominent in a lecture Saul gave this past Wednesday (Oct. 28, 2009) at the Art Gallery of Ontario, where he gave the 17th annual McCready Lecture, which I attended.

The lecture was ostensibly about visual art and architecture ... Canadian style. Saul structured it around a slide show of scenes and art from the new Frank Gehry-designed AGO.

It was the first time I had been to the new gallery since it re-opened late last year. It was, as all reports had promised, spectacular. And Saul began the lecture saying as much. And saying that everyone had said as much.

But, he said, he didn't think that people had really understood why it was so spectacular. Then he outlined his thesis.

It was because, he said, Frank Gehry, who had grown up around the corner from the Dundas Street gallery in downtown Toronto, had absorbed into his subconscious the culture of the orginal inhabitants of Canada, the Aboriginals, the First Nations, the Indians.

Just look at the staircases. They serpentine, Saul said. Snake-like. And we all know what snakes represent, don't we? They represent evil -- and knowledge. The Adam and Eve story says so. Except these staircases aren't evil, so they come from a different cultural tradition. One that sees snakes as benign. As welcoming and integrated with our human experience.

Saul went on to say that the Group of Seven aren't post-impressionists. They shouldn't be viewed as a failed extension of a dying European tradition. The Group of Seven are "all about movement," just like Gehry's snake staircases ... and the Aboriginal cultural tradition.

European "rational" art, Saul said, is about statis. Standing outside of nature. Rousseau's view of nature was going out into his ordered garden and viewing the moutain in the distance. Tom Thompson in Algonguin Park was trying to get in touch with a different tradition, a different reality. Not nature as something apart.

Saul showed an image of a sewn Iroquois pouch, depicting a "lake panther," a cat that lived in the water and stirred up storms with his tail. This is the creature, and the stormy water, that was stirring Thompson's imagination, Saul said.

He showed various slides of the art currently in the gallery, art from various Aboriginal communities, Canadian artists (hey, Emily Carr's paintings look a lot like Haida totem poles), and European traditions.

Then he came to Henry Moore. Now, anyone my age (41) who grew up in Toronto remembers going to the gallery and seeing the Henry Moore statues. First of all, there's a big one on the corner outside the gallery. There's also "The Archer" outside City Hall at Nathan Phillips Square.

Moore, we were told, was a great artist. A world-renowned symbol of Toronto-born success.

And he is all these things, Saul said. But in the old days one walked into the Moore gallery pretty much directly after entering (or so it seems in the foggy morass of my memory). One came upon Moore through the context of the Western tradition, said Saul.

Now the only way to get to the Moore gallery is after passing through the First Nations exhibits. One sees Moore as the culmination of an entirely different tradition.

Like Picasso, Saul said, Moore was trying to break the Western Tradition and take it new places. He was trying escape the Western Tradition ... and he did it (as much as he could) by reconnecting to the natural tradition of this land.

We are Metis nation, said Saul. He owe our true identity to our shared heritage with this country's Aboriginal people.

How do you like them apples?

Saul didn't address the fact that the "Metis" are included in the Constitution Act, 1982, which includes:

35. (1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.
(2) In this Act, "aboriginal peoples of Canada" includes the Indian, Inuit, and Metis peoples of Canada.

Which means, if we're all Metis, we all have "Aboriginal rights."

I'd be interested to know if Saul addresses this thorny question in his book.

In the meantime, I report that it was a provocative lecture. The audience listened keenly and responded warmly. The questions were respectful, perhaps too much so.

When Saul was asked how people had responded to his book, he said that he'd expected the Aboriginal community to be silent and the non-Aboriginal community to be outraged. Neither happened. (How he expected the Metis to react, he didn't say.)

Saul said that the book had been warmly treated by many Aboriginal leaders, and that the two most common responses to the book were:

  • "I've always thought that, but didn't know how to say it"
  • "I've never thought that, but I think you're right"

Saul said he thought that the country was held back by a lack of language to articulate its dept to the Aboriginal traditions which are part of our broad collective unconscious.

I confess that the slide show as interesting and compelling. I also confess that I agree that the country needs better words to admit its debt to the many diverse Aboriginal cultures that have grown, struggles, sustained themselves, died, revived and evolved as Canada has slid from colony to Empire to nation state to near dissolution to post-modern whatever we are now.

Somewhere out there Crow is laughing.

If you are Canadian, you need to know what this means.

At the same time, there's something wishy-washy about this thesis, too. I can readily agree, for example, with Saul when he says that Canada only survived its first couple of hundred years because the Aboriginal population helped sustain the Europeans in their midst.

Saul said, for example, that Canada's official military policy before about 1820 was based on the assumption that the country could not be held, because there were just too many damned Indians. Without First Nations military allies, Britain would have lost Canada to the United States in the War of 1812, for example.

Earlier, the Iroquois were rewarded with the Halidmand Tract for staying loyal to the Crown after the American Revolution of 1776. The Tract has more recently been in the news as the source of controversy in Caledonia.

This earlier graditude and dependency of the Europeans towards the First Nations, of course, gave way to policies of cultural eradication, Victorianism, and general stupidity. Which only in the past couple of decades have we begun to work ourselves out of.

Saul showed a painting of William (or was it Robert?) Baldwin, whose 18th house abuts the AGO, and who represented the European Tradition in 19th century Toronto. It was a painting of a Victorian gentleman in fine clothes in a fine chair. Saul said the painting was saying, "I'm not here." I'm not sure where I am, but I'm most certainly not in Algonquin Park. I'm not in nature, not part of nature; I am apart, away. In London, likely. I am there in my mind, if nowhere else.

This is a painting about the Family Compact, Saul said. The cultural elite that has never really left Toronto, though the new AGO is a sharp stab in its heart.

Toronto is like a little Belfast, Saul said. Strict, straight, plain. Presbyterian.

At this point, my interest was starting to wane. Saul, while an innovative thinker, was showing his age. My high school had 75 ethnic communities represented. That was more than 20 years ago.

Still, Saul had a point when he said the Family Compact lost political power, but maintained its cultural control. It packed the universities with its presidents and chancellors. It controlled the dominant strains of thought. It sought to align Canada with the European traditions. It didn't give a rats ass about Aboriginal cultural traditions or developing a unique made in Canada philosophy.

The made in Canada philosophy basket is where Saul has placed all of his eggs. He's been critiqueing European rationality his whole career, from Volataire's Bastards (1992) on, but A Fair Country has pushed his far more into the open, in the new, than he has ever been before.

"We are a Metis nation" is an unsustainable conclusion, in my opinion, but the basic structure behind that thought is sound. The Aboriginal cultural tradition ought to be ground into all of us. It ought to be alive in all of us.

If Saul is right, maybe it already is. It's just waiting to be given words.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Richard Van Camp

The Moon of Letting Go (Enfield & Wizenty, 2009) is Richard Van Camp’s second short story collection and his latest work to explore (in words borrowed from the back cover) "the notion of healing through individual and community bonds."

By which I assume the publisher meant "good sex and big laughs," because that’s what these stories are about. They’re also about honouring the "magic" of stories in those old time Indian ways.

I know some readers may stop at this word, "Indian," finding it incorrect. But I have chosen it deliberately and use it with the deepest respect. The alternatives – Aboriginal, Native, First Nation – do not convey the connotation I want.

I do not mean to convey the simplicity of stereotype or anthropological curiosity. I also do not want to convey a patronizing urban, modern smugness of knowledge about "the other."

What I want to convey is that while these stories depict contemporary situations, they also reach back to a mysterious kind of storytelling.

They honour the "magic," a word Van Camp uses in this book over and over.

Magic is something that cannot be explained; it is something by definition anti-modern, outside of reason or rationality. It operates by logarithms only understood by magicians. In this case, storytellers, of which Van Camp is clearly one.

Here is where I confess that Van Camp is also a buddy of mine. In 2007, he, Harold Hoefle and I took a trip to New York City. Richard and I went to Starbucks in Trump Tower. We walked through Central Park. We saw a punk band from mainland China play in a cave of a club in Greenwich Village (the opening band played Ramones covers; it was almost 1970s).

We also scooted all over town looking for Star Wars toys. We went to FAO Schwartz, one of the largest toy stores in the world, where Richard was unimpressed: "Is this all you’ve got?" He told me later: "You can get all that same stuff in Vancouver."

We wandered through Times Square, visited the World Trade Centre site, and went to the Museum of Modern Art, which had an airstream land yacht in the lobby (which reminded me of Ken Babstock) and an exhibit by Canadian photographer Jeff Wall. Walking around looking for a place for lunch, we passed HarperCollins. We took a group picture. Our future publishers, hey. (Give us a call, NYC!)

Okay, maybe this tangent into travelogue isn’t necessary, but the afterwords of The Moon of Letting Go includes a list of dudes who Richard says he "adore[s for] welcom[ing] me into the full grace of the blood in men." Harold and I are on the list. The fact that there is a list is testament to the type of man and the type of writer that Richard is. His stories are about "healing through individual and community bonds."

Hey ya hey. Let’s get on with this review.

The Moon of Letting Go includes 12 stories. The table of contents divides them into four sections: healing, medicine, teachings, and love. While this is a useful organizational structure, as a reader I found the categories blurry. Virtually all of the stories are about all four of those things, and more.

Like Van Camp’s earlier works – the novel The Lesser Blessed (Douglas & McIntyre, 1996) and Angel Wing Splash Pattern (Kegedonce Press, 2004) – this new book largely revolves around life in Fort Smith, North West Territories. It’s about First Nations people and communities in the north. It includes drugs, alcohol abuse, domestic violence, and talking animals. It includes medicine men. It includes three buddies running naked down the highway after dark, honouring one of their friends who committed suicide.

As that image indicates, these stories often juxtapose humour with a slow boiling terror. The reader is left with the impression of a community struggling to find the right way forward. A struggle that is especially evident among the young people. There is a reaching back to the past (the traditional ways) as a means to find a path to the future. It is a path lit by stories, lighted by storytellers. Van Camp himself is deep in this role, telling the stories of his people caught in a moment of tremendous transformation.

I saw Richard talk about his writing once, at a First Nations cultural festival at Harbourfront in Toronto, and he spoke about the stress of modernity on Aboriginal communities in the north. His stories attempted to capture that. I told him afterwards that I had seen Mo Yan say something similar about his work. It was about capturing the stress of modernity on rural communities in China. Yan had said he had learned to write about that partly from William Faulkner.

Strange connections? Not at all. I keep going back to Richard in FAO Schwartz, looking for Star Wars toys, and asking a clerk at one of the largest toy stores in the world: "Is this all you’ve got?" What would Faulker say? Maybe, "The past is never dead. It’s not even past." The future forces change upon us, and we must manage our legacies.

There’s a lot going on in The Moon of Letting Go. The stories are often fun to read. They are full of humour and optimism. But they are often raw, sexually explicit, darkly violent. The combination creates complexity – a high literary quality. The stories are not easily reduced or paraphrased. Ponder them with care.

With this book, Van Camp has continued to expand his vision and rededicated himself to an important project. Telling the stories of his people. Promoting the healing of individuals and communities. Creating literature worthy of readers, here, now, tomorrow, everywhere.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Trudeau, Bono, Updike

[First published in The Danforth Review, 2006]

by John Updike
Knopf, 2006

In conversation with Michka Assayas
Riverhead Trade, 2006

Young Trudeau: 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada
by Max and Monique Nemni (translated by William Johnson)
Douglas Gibson Books, 2006

Teenage boys play at revolution. Not all wish to blow themselves up. Some go on to be rock stars and statesmen. This past summer (2006), I read three books and was startled by the interconnections.

In the first, John Updike decided one is never too late in life to strike out in a bold new direction. His new novel Terrorist imagines a teenage boy in New Jersey allows himself to be persuaded to drive a truck carrying a large bomb: twice the size of the bomb that brought down the federal building in Oklahoma City.

In the second, the front-man for the Dublin-launched, international super-group, U2, allows himself to be interrogated over a period of roughly two years by a French journalist with long-standing ties to the band. The result is as intimate a portrait as has yet emerged of the globe-trotting, world-saving, spectacle-wearing activist/singer.

The third book is Young Trudeau: 1919-1944: Son of Quebec, Father of Canada by Max and Monique Nemni, a vivid, densely researched biography of Canada's late Prime Minister. The authors had access to Trudeau's private papers, previously unseen, and what they uncovered was as shocking to them as it is strangely thematically linked to Updike's new novel.

No, the Nemnis don't suggest that Trudeau was a terrorist. But they do uncover evidence that Trudeau was a revolutionary, and not just a vague "pinko" as his critics in the 1970s used to call him. "Oh, yes. All that was known a long time ago," someone said to me, when I discussed what the Nemnis reveal in this book. No, actually; it wasn't. Trudeau had warm relations with Castro, yes. But what the Nemnis found in Trudeau's private papers was that he was, as they say in their title, a "son of Quebec." A nationalist, plotting Quebec's separation from Canada. By violent means if necessary.

This is the same Trudeau who out-manoeuvred Quebec's other favoured son, Rene Levesque, to repatriate the Constitution, following the defeat of the 1980 referendum on sovereignty association. The same Trudeau who championed the rights of individuals over the rights of majorities, specifically ethnic majorities. The same Trudeau who always claimed he had from the beginning gone his own way, had never accepted received opinion, had been from the earliest a rebel at heart. It is this last myth that the Nemnis dismantle most severely.

Trudeau, amazingly, apparently kept boxes and boxes of his schoolwork. He was Jesuit-trained as a teenager in Montreal, where he was a star student, routinely at the top of his class and rarely in trouble. His father died before he finished what we would now call high school, but the family was well taken care of financially by the inheritance his father left behind. Trudeau's life-long bond to the Catholic Church began early in his childhood, and his education was traditional for the period: highly religious. The Nemnis also find evidence that Trudeau submitted himself to the direction of church authorities well into his twenties, when he was at Harvard and still writing to the church for permission to read "banned books" (i.e., books placed on restricted reading lists by Rome).

Most shocking is the period between 1939 and 1944, when this books ends, just as Trudeau heads out of province to Harvard to continue his education. These years, of course, correspond with World War II, which, in Quebec, was a divisive, unpopular conflict. In particular, it was unpopular with the Catholic Church in Quebec, which was heavily tempted by fascist ideologies. "Corporatism" is the term the Nemnis tells us was the euphemism of the period, and Trudeau, by the evidence of his own notes, compares it favourably to democracy, which was considered weak, ineffectual, morally corrupt.

Now we are starting to align with the Updike's narrative in Terrorist.

Convinced by the Jesuits that the Allies were no more morally sound than the Axis Powers, Trudeau actively campaigned against conscription in 1942, making a fiery speech at a by-election rally that caught the attention of the press. The Nemnis argue that by this time Trudeau was against more than conscription; he was part of an underground network that was planning violent revolution. Thankfully -- and somewhat comically -- the plot disintegrated, and Trudeau stopped writing political articles and started writing about the joys of canoeing. He also went back and read Adam Smith again, and this time discovered currents in The Wealth of Nations that had been denied him by the Jesuits. He was on his way to becoming a Liberal Prime Minister, much later than anyone had ever expected.

The Nemnis have written a startling book, one all the more startling given the temptations towards violent political/religious action Muslim teenagers in Mississauga apparently face. I'm speaking, of course, of the recent arrests in the alleged plot to behead Prime Minister Harper, blow up the Parliament Buildings and cause other mayhem. When these arrests hit the newspapers, it was reported that John Updike said the arrests reaffirmed for him that the plot of Terrorist was plausible.

That a novel's plot is plausible is no doubt a good thing. The overall quality of the novel, however, is measured on other scales. How is the writing in Updike's new novel? I must say it's marvellous. I haven't read an Updike novel in years, and I will certainly be reading more. His prose is first-rate. His evocation of current reality is jarring for being so contemporary. Is it because it's Updike, and when I think of Updike, I think of the 1960s? Yes, I think so. Oliver Stone just this month (August 2006) is releasing a movie about the Twin Towers. We've already had a movie about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania, following a revolt by the passengers over the 9/11 hijackers.

Either history is passing more quickly into art, or I'm not used to living in interesting times. As a GenX-er, I'd been raised on Baby Boomer nostalgia. Everything interesting has already happened. Everything of importance has already gone down. Evidently, not so. (Though I did see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in Toronto in July, and they sang 40-year-old anti-war songs and sounded very urgent and earnest and out-of-tune.)

Where is Terrorist weak as a novel? Some of the characters seem half-formed. Strangely, not the youthful Muslim protagonist. This character Updike has imagined in startling detail and his judicious quotations from the Koran show Updike has been diligent in his research also. The Secretary of Homeland Security, however, is a cardboard cutout, as is the Secretary's secretary. There is also an implausible connection between all of the key characters that is key to the resolution of the narrative. But the story, per se, is not why you should read this book. You should read this book for the beautiful prose and for the journey through the mind of the protagonist; to imagine with him what it's like to be a Muslim true believer in the homeland of the Infidel. A true believer and not a terrorist, because this boy is not converted to the cause until very late in the book, and only then through a bit of trickery. Would he have taken that step eventually, on his own or under the persuasion of a different leader-figure?

Interestingly, both Trudeau and Updike's protagonist are fatherless youths. Trudeau was led towards fascism by his teachers, both the individuals and the overall Quebec culture of his youth, yet he learned to read Adam Smith through re-opened eyes and eventually gave Canada, and the world, his towering legacy, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. At the end of Terrorist, ... well, do you want to know?

Stop here if you don't.

At the end of Terrorist, Updike's protagonist is not incinerated along with his cargo and dozens of innocents. His future is open to many options. One suspects, however, he will never be a rock star.

To some, Updike's novel has been controversial. The novelist Amitov Ghosh, for example, wrote in The Washington Post (re-printed on

With innumerable lives at stake, when Jack Levy finds himself faced with the task of giving Ahmad a reason to live and let live, he says: "Hey, come on, we're all Americans here. That's the idea, didn't they tell you that at Central High? Irish-Americans, African-Americans, Jewish-Americans; there are even Arab-Americans." Not a word about humanity, family, friendship, sport, poetry, love, laughter.

It is as if a belief in American multiculturalism is the only good reason a human being could have for staying alive. Why indeed do the billions of non-Americans who walk this Earth refrain from blowing themselves up? I suspect that Updike really cannot see that they have any good reason not to.

This is, in my opinion, unnecessary mean-spiritedness, "as if" nothing less than an overt denunciation of American exceptionalism is what is required. At the point in the novel highlighted by Ghosh, the protagonist does not want to remain alive, and it is not Jack Levy who convinces him to change his mind. It is the children playing in the back seat of the vehicle travelling beside him. The children who would be among those who would surely die if he triggered his bomb. Updike, the novelist, uses the children as a symbol of universalism -- not American multiculturalism -- as the saving grace. Shame on Ghosh for missing this point. The children must live. All children must live, including those tempted with blowing themselves up.

Which bring us to Bono: In Conversation.

"I'm all about the big idea," Bono tells French journalist Michka Assayas, stating the obvious: billions of dollars of debt relief, cheap AIDS drugs, food for all affected by famine, U2's Zoo Tour: "I still haven't found what I'm looking for." Yes, we know. Bono is all about the big idea. Make Poverty History. Je me souviens.

What we perhaps didn't know is that Bono was a motherless son, whose father had been a wanna-be musician who became (even before the death of his wife) a bureaucrat instead. His father equally tried to scale back his energetic son's ambitions: a job at the post office or the like. Nothing big. Nothing fancy. Don't expect too much from life. It'll help you survive. By the time he was twenty-one, Bono had blown that strategy to bits a million times over.

These micro-details about Bono's early life were new to me, as was the depth of Bono's Catholicism. For example, as a teenager Bono lived in a house run by the Church. It was home to a number of youths who were led in Catholic practice by a live-in Priest. The problem was, Bono had this little side gig: the band, U2. The Priest wanted him to give up the band and devote himself fully to the household and its mission: good works to the community et al. What's clear now, decades later, is that Bono has maintained the same pattern of living, even though he left the house of the Church for the house of rock and roll. He has gone from being a teenager in a garage band who helped with social causes around the corner to being the face of the world's biggest touring band and helping with some of the largest social causes around the globe.

As a social activist, Bono is surprisingly polite. Yes, he says history will judge the West harshly for its inadequate response to the AIDS plague in Africa. But one of the more compelling sub-plots of this book is Assayas' attempt to get Bono to say something nasty about George W. Bush. Time and again, Assayas offers Bono the opportunity to put-down the U.S. President, but Bono skirts such contemporary issues as the "War on Terror" and the war in Iraq and U.S. foreign policy in general by saying that Bush has stepped up to the plate on AIDS in Africa: "He gets it."

While it's easy to say that history will judge Bono harshly for oversimplifying his relationships with the rich and powerful, one anecdote might prove illustrative: Bono tells Assayas a story he heard from Harry Belafonte. Apparently Belafonte was part of the group around Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s when Bobby Kennedy was named by his brother to be the Attorney General of the United States. This was seen as bad news to those in the civil rights movement, because Kennedy was considered to be regressive on race issues. So there was much grumbling in the group around Martin Luther King. But King quickly put a stop to that: "Hasn't anyone got anything good to say about Bobby Kennedy?" No one did. So King told them to go away and not come back until someone had found something good to say about Bobby Kennedy. And what they found good to say about Kennedy was that he was close to his Bishop back in Massachusetts. The Bishop would be how they would get to Bobby Kennedy. The King group talked to the Bishop and the Bishop talked to Bobby Kennedy, and by the time Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 he was one of the leading figures fighting for civil rights in America.

In other words, people can change, if you give them a chance. It's a very Christian, forgiving approach; this belief in transformation. Bono has clearly taken it to heart, in every way that cliché implies. He is willing to take his message of the need for transformation into the corridors of power around the world, pleading his case with hard-line partisans of many stripes. He is a true evangelist, full of fiery truth and fed by the belief of the justness of his cause. Which is based on a universalism others fired up with big ideas (Bin Laden comes to mind, substitute also Updike's youthful protagonist and the Jesuit-brainwashed Trudeau) can't quite seem to grasp. He tells the story, for example, of visiting U.S. senator Jesse Helms, a hard right Republican. He had been told the visit would be a waste of time. He came away with an admiration for the man and a new ally in his cause.

Transformation is possible! That is the message of Bono's life. The other is that transformation is the goal; the Gospels of Jesus are the guide. The third message is that it's okay to party and live like a rock star (albeit one who married his high school sweetheart and speaks to former U.S.S.R. surpreme leader Mikhail Gorbachev "every couple of months"). Yes, he is a man of contradictions, our Bono: Paul Hewson. Acting out on Shakespeare's stage: the world. Playing it large. Not backing down.


Before I sat down to write this review, I didn't realize that each of these books was about someone who'd lost a parent. I wonder what that means. What I had wanted to do was connect the threads of these books: Trudeau's plotting with Updike's imagined terrorism, the confused nationalism of Quebec circa 1939-1945 with the confused ethnic "Islamofascism" that we've learned can germinate in places as odd as Mississauga, the transformative spirit that animates Bono with the "re-born" Trudeau post-1945 and the hope for Updike's protagonist at the end of the novel, which is the hope of all of us: that the children will live.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Leaf Nation

I wrote the below after a trip to the U.K. in 2004. I thought of it this morning after waking up to find the Toronto Maple Leafs winless in their first seven games this season, a new record in futility.


To be a Canadian tourist abroad is to confront a common question: "Are you American?"

Recently, I was in Oxford, England, and a homeless person asked me this.

I had just given him the two pounds ($5 CDN) he said he needed for a bed for a night at the local shelter.

I said, "No. Canadian."

"Right," he said. "Cheers then."

It had been twelve years since my last trip to the United Kingdom. On that trip, the only mention of Canada in the newspapers had been a story about a British tourist mauled by a grizzly bear in Banff National Park.

On my recent trip, Canadian wildlife was again in the headlines.

HARVEST OF BLOOD was the headline in the Daily Mail, referring to the Ottawa-sanctioned killing of 350,000 seal pups in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence.

That article ended by recommending Britons hit "the Canadians where it hurts – economically, by banning seal products or boycotting their country."

British tourism is worth about $2.5 billion, the article said. Profits from the seal slaughter were expected to be about $25 million.

At Paul Martin’s coronation last fall, Bono proclaimed, "The world needs more Canada."

The Irish rock star may feel that way. One must question, however, what the average Briton thinks of our country when the headline writers obviously can’t see beyond the stereotype of Canada as a massive nature reserve.

Thank goodness, therefore, for Canadian artists.

Doing a quick survey of an Oxford bookstore, I found titles prominently displayed by Margaret Atwood, Guy Vanderhague, Jane Urquart, Austin Clarke, Rohinston Mistry, and Yann Martel. Actress Neve Campbell graced the cover of the Sunday Times Culture magazine.

A Times feature on actress Isabella Rossellini highlighted her recent role in an avant-garde film by Winnipeg’s Guy Maddin.

Another article highlighted Vancouver’s jazz crooner Diana Krall.

Bono spoke about Canada as a beacon of light in the world. Spearheading the fight for cheap AIDS drugs in Africa. Leading the fight against landmines and helping debt-ridden countries find financial stability.

These roles do not garner Canada international headlines. A quiet, effective, internationalist approach to public policy is difficult to "sex up."

Canadians are famously proud of their hockey and slow to define their national identity.

No, we are not Americans.

Yes, we are a country with vast wilderness and abundant wild nature (except for the species we’ve wiped out, or nearly extinguished).

Before an evening at the theatre in London’s west end, I saw a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey for sale in the window of a shop near Covent Garden.

"The world is getting more Canada," I thought. Leaf Nation is expanding.

Thursday, October 8, 2009


The following is a short story I wrote a number of years ago. Probably about 2001.

I wrote it as a kind of challenge to myself. Could I write a story about a two-year-old protagonist? What kind of inner-conflict or dramatic tension does a toddler have?

The action in the story is partly based on my observations of my nephew, who was about that age at the time (and nearly eleven now).

The story is included in my new book, due out next month: The Lizard and Other Stories (Chaudiere Books).


The boy pointed at the boy on the bike and said, "Boy! Boy!" His mother smiled: "Yes, that’s a boy, isn’t it?" The boy didn’t think of himself as a boy. He was not yet two and all he knew of the world was love.

His left hand held a stick. He poked it into the ground and twisted until the earth turned over. He was in the park near his house with his mother, a park he visited at least once a day. He didn’t think any more of the snow that had covered the ground. It had come and gone before he had words. He thought only about the world and all of the things in it, each of them a wonder. He liked everything and was rarely tired.

The boy laughed and pulled the stick from the ground. A piece of dirt jumped out of the small hole and over the grass. The boy followed it with a quick twist of his head. He laughed again and stuck the stick back into the hole. The boy was always laughing, always learning new tricks. At daycare he’d learned to slide his little fingers into the corners of his mouth and pulling back against his cheeks. Over the past two days he’d performed this trick two or three dozen times, accompanying himself with a low growl.

Suddenly he pulled the stick from the ground and began to run. "Aiya-aiya-aiya-aiya!" he yelled. His mother chased him. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and the boy hadn’t had his nap. His mother wasn’t worried; she rested when he rested and soon he’d need a rest. "Aiya-aiya-aiya-aiya!" the boy yelled. He ran in a crooked line, stomping his feet as if he were a monster or a giant.

Besides pointing to boys on bikes, the boy liked to point at dogs. His mother worried about the dogs. Some barked; some ran at the boy as if they were about to attack; some licked his face. The boy grabbed the hair of the long-haired dogs. "Woof!" he said. "Woof! Woof!" One dog ran circles around him as the boy laughed, spinning to see the dog. Inevitably he fell down. He fell down often. Today the park had no dogs. The boy ran with his stick. "Aiya-aiya-aiya-aiya!" he yelled.

His mother chased after him.

The day before, the elderly woman who lived next door to the boy had told the boy’s mother that she had cancer. The doctors thought it was operable but they weren’t sure. The elderly woman had a daughter in Vancouver and a son in Indiana. The elderly woman’s husband had been dead five years. She often invited the boy and his mother into her house for afternoon tea. She didn’t have grandchildren and she told the boy’s mother what a pleasant young son she had. She bought the boy toys and knitted him sweaters.

The boy’s mother had told her husband about the elderly woman’s cancer when he got home from work. The boy sat on his lap. His father had just kissed him on the mouth. The boy’s mother said the elderly woman’s cancer might be operable.

The boy’s father asked, "What’s the prognosis if it isn’t?"

"I don’t know."

All of the boy’s grandparents were still alive. They all loved the boy tremendously and the boy’s father feared the day any of them might die.

The boy’s mother watched the boy run across the park. "Aiya-aiya-aiya-aiya!" He waved his stick, threw it, then fell forward onto his face. The boy’s mother waited for the wail. The boy was tired and she expected him to start crying soon. The boy lay on his stomach, silent. He rolled over and laughed as his mother approached.

"Had enough?" she asked, picking him up.

He laughed again and kissed her. Then he slapped her cheeks.


Saturday, October 3, 2009


Instead of a review of Quickening by Terry Griggs (Biblioasis, 2009), I offer a reading of the title story, "Quickening."

A first-person monologue, this eight-and-a-half page story recounts a childhood of disaster and self-discovery on Manitoulin Island.

The female narrator, who is unplaced in time (we don't know how old she is, where she is, or why she is telling this story), begins by telling us when she was five years old her cat Remy was reduced to a pile of ash by a devil.

Or as she puts it:

A creature burrowed up through the earth, pushed into the lodge through a loose floorboard in the closet, and walked down the hall into the living room breathing balls of fire that landed like tossed sunwheels on the couch, in the curtains. I was five and carrying my losses to date lightly, easily. Then something got Remy. A grey tabby dispersed like ash. That he had "wandered off" was the official word. I couldn't believe it. Not Remy. Not from me.

The truth of the "official word" and the children's truth of the imagination is the central tension of this story, which recounts a number of incidents but has only a vague plot.

If there is a "story" to this story, it's about the narrator's family's ill-fated luck. And the narrator's position and growth within it. Loss is the repeating image of the story. Remy, the cat, is lost, but so is the lodge, their livelihood. Then the grandfather gets married, silly old fool.

Here's a cluster of words from the story I underlined in search of a pattern: wayward, guilty, troubles, disgrace, descent, failure, muted, deleted, gone, lost, vanish, cruelty, raging, black, choking, fiery, wrong, hopeless, lose, inedible, disturbing, bizarre, unreliable, horrified, scary, not to be fathomed, infiltrator, unholy, missing, sorrow, clouds boiling black and murderous.

A number of times, the narrator asserts how wise she was at five: "I was five but I wasn't a fool -- what the years add to knowledge of cruelty is only detail."

In other words, reader, you can trust this story. It is truthful, not fantasy.

Yet it is rich with the magic images of childhood. It includes a baby snatched up by a bald eagle, who's shot out of the sky by the baby's mother. It includes a boy flying a kite that gets caught up in the propeller of a low-flying aircraft. The boy is lifted into the high limbs of a nearby tree.

The narrator tells us:

Don't be deceived by childhood. You can be five and know that something is about to be born, something scratching inside you, batting around your insides like a cat playing with your guts. ... You will be delivered of yourself, you think, but this takes years.

The story ends with the narrator leaving childhood forever. She begins school:

I didn't want to go. ... No amount of begging brought me my passage back home. No one came to rescue me, not even my grandfather who could usually be trusted in matters of rebellion and escape. I was powerless, as we all were. Even though our cheeks were still masked in baby fat, sorrow was plainly visible on them.

This is a quirky story made delightful by the odd perspective that frames all of the action. We don't know where this narrator is now, but we know she experienced a great loss. Her story is told with lively wit and keen self-assurance.

But one wonders if there isn't an element of self-deception also.

Why "Quickening"? Two definitions from Wikipedia:
  1. Quickening is a phenomenon in the Highlander films and television series. When an Immortal is beheaded, there is a powerful energy release from their body which is called a Quickening
  2. In pregnancy terms, the moment of quickening refers to the initial motion of the fetus in the uterus as it is perceived or felt by the pregnant woman. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to "quicken" means "to reach the stage of pregnancy at which the child shows signs of life."

I think the meaning is this story is closer to #2 above. At five-years-old, the narrator is telling us, life began:

When I was five, birds appeared to me as lightly dressed miracles. Though even they had bodies made real by accident or disease: lung worm, heart failure, broken wings, severed talons, slashed eyes. It makes you wonder. We have all this material wound around us, this long constricting scarf of skin. Taut across the belly, holding in a rushing red sea.

Yet, with the beginning of school, we suspect that the narrator's magical life is also unfortunately ended.

This is a complex story and for some readers it is likely to be an unsatisfying one. It has one of those ambiguous endings that many readers find off-putting.

Readers who take pleasure in the intelligent use of language and who like to puzzle out meaning will be eager to look up more work by this author.

It's a worthy adventure.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Polanski etc

Geraldine Ferraro was the Democrat Party's vice-presidential candidate in 1984. Recently, she wrote:

Polanski was convicted of a serious crime in the 70’s. He chose to abscond to France and because he had money and connections, has lived a charmed life, unhindered by his obligations to society. The message is, rich guys can get away with anything … or wait — is it only rich guys with friends in Hollywood? The statute of limitations for rape does not toll simply because 31 years has passed. And victims cannot “forgive” the rapist. The criminal justice system is meant to protect all of us.

Ferraro led off her comment piece this way:

“A male is guilty of rape in the second degree when, being eighteen years old or more, he engages in sexual intercourse with a female less than fifteen years old. Rape in the second degree is a class D felony.”

That is the current law in New York. When I was prosecuting these cases in Queens in the 70’s the law required that the child be less than 14. The legislature tightened it. But there is no doubt that California had the same protections for children when Polanski was prosecuted in California for having intercourse with a 13-year-old girl. It still does.

This isn't the usual type of topic for this blog, but two weeks ago I went to work. It was a normal day. I took a bit of a different route, got on a streetcar, and picked up one of those free newspapers.

There was a story on the first page about a 10-year-old who had been sexually assaulted. Someone had been arrested. There was a photograph.

"Merde," I thought. I know that guy.

His case is now before the courts. One can presume innocence, but it's hard. It messes one up.

Quick on the heels of this, Polanski was re-arrested. His case is international.

I hadn't realized that once upon a time, he'd pled guilty. And I'm uncertain what to make of most of the commentary. The New York Times blog debate, for example, that the Ferraro quotation is lifted from, began by posing this:

While it’s clear that the film industry forgave Mr. Polanski long ago, should society separate the work of artists from the artists themselves, despite evidence of reprehensible or even criminal behavior?

This strikes me as the wrong question at the wrong time. His re-arrest isn't about his art; it's about criminal acts he pled guilty to three decades ago.

At the same time, Polanski has unanswered legal questions that he'd like to see answered by the California courts.

Thirty-one years after his confessed criminal acts, due process has not unfolded.

If he had Michael Bryant's PR firm (and is it a stretch to say the ex-AG's integrity?), he would return to California voluntarily and let the process complete itself, fighting vigorously for his freedom, as he has every right to do.

Should we separate the work of artists from the artists themselves? Yes, of course.

But you don't get a pass on criminal action because you're an artist on the scale of Roman Polanski, or on the scale of the other dude.

The work can be assessed and reassessed over decades or centuries. But as individuals, we live in real time, and are accountable for our actions.

For the past three years, I've been tinkering away on a novel, and the justice system is a key element. The protagonist is a judge. He's old, weathered, tired, but he still retains his ideals. He believes in justice, but also that justice is flawed.

When I think about the justice system these days, I often find myself looking at it through the eyes of my protagonist. Or at least asking, "What would the judge think?"

About Polanski and the other newly accused he would think, let's test the evidence. Bring it forward and test it against the rules of the law. Do not try to win freedom through evasion. Be honest, steady and true.

Likewise, he would say that art based on lies is not good art. But art that tests the boundaries of truth may well be excellent.

He would say, "At the end of the day, a decision must be rendered."

Justice can be mean, cruel, and over-simplified. Or even just plain wrong (setting free O.J., for example). But within its boundaries, its systems of signs and laws, it imposes meaning. Art is a constantly shifting conflict of floating, destabilizing signifiers.

Art is about complicating meaning; the law is about clarifying it.

Do I have a point here? I wish I did.

Maybe it's: If you did the crime, you must do the time.

When in doubt, resort to cliche.

I keep seeing that headline about the 10-year-old girl. It makes me retch.

A police source said the victim was alone in the laundry room of a building shortly after the dinner hour Monday when she was allegedly taken into a stairwell.

"She fought tooth and nail as he tried to cover her mouth," a source said. "She put up quite the struggle."

I confess to wondering if it isn't all a misunderstanding. But the reporting so far points to other conclusions. I have met him and enjoyed talking to him, but I fear I don't know him.

The judge would say, that is what the justice system is there for. To sort shit like this out.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Alden Nowlan

In 2003, I interviewed Alden Nowlan's biographer, Gregory M. Cook. It remains one of my favorite interviews, and for some reason I thought of it today, so I've dug it up and here it is.

Greg was writer-in-residence at the University of Waterloo when I was there in the early 1990s. I like his answer to the final question, about what Nowlan would have to say about the 21st century.

I had forgotten this quotation, supplied in that final answer, but it's a good answer to why Nowlan is still bouncing around my brain:

Oh, admit this, man, there is no point in poetry
if you withhold the truth
once you’ve come by it.


Your new biography of Alden Nowlan (Pottersfield, 2003) has been a labour of love (as well as a challenge and a frustration). Perhaps the best place to begin is a summary of your relationship with Nowlan and how this book came to be.

Alden’s first letter to me on New Year’s Day 1963 carried a postscript: "Hope you’re raising literary hell at Acadia [University]. It needs it." Five years earlier, the editor of the student newspaper and a writer had been given – by the university vice-president, dean of arts, head of the history department and Mayor of Wolfville – twenty-four hours to get out of town. The charge was "blasphemy."

Alden agreed to an interview for the student literary quarterly Amethyst, which I had helped found a couple of years after that fiasco. So we met at the offices of the weekly Hartland (New Brunswick) Observer where he was in his eleventh and last year as a reporter and editor. It was his first magazine interview to be published in Canada. At this point his first four books had been published, including the pivotal The Things Which Are (Contact Press, 1962). We became fast friends for the next twenty years, corresponding and visiting each other.

Not long after my two-year residency at the University of Waterloo, I decided to write a biography of Alden. I was pleased when Lesley Choyce (Pottersfield Press) asked me for the manuscript this spring. Lesley published in Pottersfield Portfolio the last interview with Alden before he died in 1983.

Several people in One Heart, One Way express in their own words the magnetisms of Alden’s presence – his intellectual breadth and depth, his sense of real time (the continuity in which all the dead are his ancestors and the unborn his children), and, most of all, the generosity of his empathy. For me, he becomes an ideal older brother who knew I would write his biography. Yes, in that sense, the book is "a labour of love." After all, "objectivity" is a myth of science. So, I adopted a genre proposed in a letter Alden wrote to the author of a history: "affectionate scholarship."


My "challenge" was to recognize that omniscience is the privilege of fiction. My book is a document and, in part, a memoir. But only in part, because I adopt Alden’s understanding of "living memory." The oral history of our elders becomes so vivid in our consciousness that it is as though we experienced time and events before we were born. The concept is close to that of duree – or real time – in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, which Alden felt was the most under-rated book he had ever read. (I hope the day is not far around the corner when a graduate student of literature will examine Alden’s works in light of the 1927 Nobel Laureate and ancestor of post-modernism.)


The only "frustration" I faced was the result of the rather pathetic realities perpetuated in the cultural politics of Canadian publishing and education. Perhaps we still live in a young country, because there seems to be an adolescent phenomena of hanging out with an "icon" in the group until he graduates (or dies) – in a kind of self-aggrandizing way – and then the magazine or anthology editors (often a contemporary poet or writer) and publishers – begin looking over their shoulders for a new pony to ride.

A senior editor in Toronto explained to me that her publishing house was populated with young people who don’t know who Alden Nowlan is a decade after his death. I find that a self-condemning admission on the part of an industry charged with the responsibility to mirror who we are.

Of course, it plays itself out closer to home. I recently visited a high school in Fredericton (the day before I had participated in the kick-off reading for the third Alden Nowlan Festival in the newly renovated quarters of the University of New Brunswick Graduate Student Association – called "The Alden Nowlan House," where he spent the last fifteen years of his life). I asked the assembled sixty students if any of them knew who Alden Nowlan is. Not one student did.

The Toronto editor’s recommendation was that I look to a Fredericton-based publisher, which had "staked a claim" on Alden Nowlan. And that raises the ugly head of another beast in the cultural politics of Canada – and one that threatened to drive Alden to distraction – the balkanization of the country. It’s the same creature by another name that acts itself out in Parliament in the Reform/Alliance (or whatever is this week’s brand name for disaffection) and the Bloc Quebecois.

The poetry: American poet Robert Bly states in his foreword to the biography that Nowlan is the greatest Canadian poet of the 20th century. For those unfamiliar with Nowlan's work, could you briefly state the case in favour of Bly's proposition?

Yes, Robert Bly, provides a sensitive preface, "The Nourishing Voice of Alden Nowlan," for my book. As a poet, psychologist, political activist and translator, Bly is well positioned to make his claim. I suppose the only person in Canada to imply the same is novelist David Adams Richards. Perhaps most Canadian contemporary Canadian poets and critics are still defending their own turf, although in my book I name several Canadians who are Alden’s senior and who said – or predicted – almost as much.

Bly’s search for truth knows no borders. In his five decades of publishing, he has introduced Scandinavian, South American, European, Indian and Middle Eastern poets to readers in the United States. Among them is Pablo Neruda, whose lines from the poem "Don’t tell me" in Epic Song -- "I soothe their wounds and close them. / This is the work of the poet" – I intend to borrow as an epigraph to my Songs of the wounded: selected and new poems (Black Moss 2004). My brother, poet Harry Thurston, said to me one day, "Bly looked south and saw Pablo Neruda. He looked north and saw Alden Nowlan."

I make the case for this claim quite simply. 1) The classic simplicity of Alden’s poetry is the secret of his accessibility. Perhaps no other poet in Canada is as versatile by genre (poetry, fiction, journalism, history, drama for stage, radio, film and television and political speech writing) and as prolific as Alden. There are 12,000 leaves in his correspondence, for example, in his papers at the University of Calgary. 2) His eclectic devouring of available libraries (private and public) since he was a child allowed him to avoid the pitfalls of formal education – the most critical pitfall being the standardization of our thinking (brainwashing). 3) He had an immense capacity to identify with the "other." In fact, it is so powerful that the poet himself becomes the third person, the "other," as he says in his notebook pages, in his work and in his life. This last feat is his most complex feat, but he achieves it with a magical simplicity that nearly defies analysis. Of course, empathy (entering) is the antithesis of analysis (circling around).

The life: Nowlan is remembered not just for his work but also for being a man of near mythological proportions. Nowlan's life, his story, if it's possible to separate the biological being from his literary production, resonates as a metaphor of his time, place, and gender. What sort of a man was he? And why is he often remembered, revered and feared so fiercely?

Alden’s life is a manifestation of mythological proportions – his omnivorous reading, his connectedness to all that is, his insatiable curiosity, and his absolute faith in his craft. Add his humility before his art and you have the ingredients of prophecy. He is remembered because he fulfilled the prediction he made for himself. Early (before he has turned thirty years of age) in his correspondence with novelist Raymond Fraser, he wrote:

I am fairly confident that [if] I keep living and growing and developing I will be considered Canada’s greatest living poet by the time I’m 40. But it won’t mean anything really....
All we can do is write the best we can. Saroyan says it is a fatal mistake to strive for greatness: he says a writer should concentrate on making whatever he is writing here and now the best of which he is capable....

In my realistic moments I think that the best I can hope for is to be a footnote in a history of Canadian Literature published 2062 A.D....

I’ve found by experience that it is a mistake for one to study his own motives too closely....

The aspiration is the joy, the striving, the dreaming just as love is the desire rather than the fulfillment.

Alden wrote to me that most literary criticism seems to be based on the fallacy that the writer writes his life, yet he also wrote to me that when people ask him what he writes about, he replies: "What it’s like to be Alden Nowlan. The poor bastard is all I’ve got to work with." He is revered for the courage to write – and live, as few can – with such honesty.

Feared? Fear is so often a manifestation of self (a projection), involving hypocrisy or envy – at the very least a lack of humility, which any artist must learn. Alden’s definition of a hypocrite was clear and probably the key to why people feared him. A hypocrite is: "one who is too kind to be wholly honest and too honest to be wholly kind." Such a person can get close enough to another human being to be wounded. In fact, I don’t know of any relationships where the parties don’t get wounded.

Alden’s publisher, Bill Clarke, speaks it well when he explains that if you are truly yourself with Alden you had nothing to fear. Many of us understood this and weathered his wrath when we let him down. Our education – both formal and social – conspired to encourage us to be what others expect us to be, rather than who we are. It’s a disastrous recipe for a poet, or any human being.

Regionalism: Northrop Frye once said that Canada had no east coast. Immigrants rode up the St. Lawrence, docked at Montreal and headed for Toronto. The silliness of this statement is evident to anyone on the Atlantic seaboard, but the statement is also profound because it clearly illustrates (among other things) the distortions that the cultural centre in this country inflicts on the margins. Nowlan lived and wrote outside the centre of cultural power. I imagine this was both a blessing and an irritation to him. Perhaps you could say about the friction between "down home" and "away" in Nowlan's life and work.

Frye was speaking the accepted norm – the status quo – of neo-Canadian cultural politics and commerce, all of which he found appealing because he is attracted to myth. I use the term "neo" because any of us who are seen to live on the so-called "margins" of those myths may understand Derek Walcott perfectly when he reminds us that civilizations don’t crumble – or, I suppose, we could say therefore are not born – at the centre, but from the margins. I believe this is central in Alden’s consciousness. In "The Migrant Hand," one of the Romanian poems he translates, it is clear that the Pharaohs of any society don’t build its centre or centerpieces – the "marginalized" do:

For how many thousands of years, for how many millions
of baskets and wagon loads and truckloads of onions,
or cotton, or turnips has this old man knelt
in the dirt of sun-crazy fields? If you ask him,
he’ll put you off: he’s suspicious of questions.
The truth is that Adam, a day out of Eden,
started him gathering grapes: old Pharaoh
sold him to Greece; he picked leeks for the Seljuks,
garlic for Tuscans, Goths and Normans,
pumpkins and maize for the Pilgrim Fathers,
has forgotten them all, forgotten all of the past, except
the last ten hours of blackflies and heat,
the last two hundred barrels of potatoes.

These are Alden’s people, to whom he was faithful without idealizing them. Perhaps poet Thomas R. Smith, Alden’s U.S. editor, best understands this quintessential Nowlan view of class – a view most North American poets, Smith argues, shrug off or flinch from. It takes too much courage to write what conventional myth denies.

In Canada we all know that Ottawa, like Fredericton, for example, has a "marginal" existence. After all both capital cites were established as "retreats" or "havens" – removed from the military avenues/borders and the centers of commerce. Alden was born in a margin of such a retreat thirty-two kilometres from Windsor, Nova Scotia – that location of the first agricultural fair in North America. How so? Because Windsor was an imperial Block House (secondary fortress) on a sailing escape route, should Halifax (the garrison city) be overrun by the enemy. In other (domestic) words, Windsor was the idyllic setting at the eastern end of the Annapolis Valley, where the gentry could raise their horses and their daughters at a safe distance from all the kings horses and all the king’s men.

As you say, it appears Nowlan lived and wrote outside the centre of cultural power. But the problem, Alden would say, is in the eye of the beholder. He knew the assumptions of the centrists are false. He never had any doubt that the centre of the universe is where one lives. You see, he would understand completely the success of what will be the 5th Annual Northrop Frye Festival (which honoured Alden and Antonine Maillet two years ago) is where a good number of people in the "margins" of Moncton are correcting the myth that Frye is more honoured in Italy than in Canada. You see, Frye was of a generation that needed to be accepted by the so-called "centre" of power. The organizers of the festival, however, are not in Toronto. They know Frye is one of the 20th century's leading intellectuals, literary critics and educators. They know Northrop spent his formative years in Moncton and the festival celebrates his legacy to the Atlantic region. People like Alden Nowlan don’t hold it against Frye that he lived in Toronto.

Alden reminds us of what is too easily forgotten. As my biography points out, he lived in two / both worlds, as he said, "working for a weekly newspaper in Hartland, N.B., and publishing verses in New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, and Lamoni, Iowa, or was it Lamoni, Idaho?" He becomes representative of what he will call a type of person, like his friend Richard Hatfield, who becomes Premier of the province. Such a person, he wrote for MacLean’s magazine, is

found more often in the Atlantic Provinces that anywhere else in Canada: one who combines what William James called "cultural immersion" in a particular region with full membership in the global village. In his own very different way the novelist Ernest Buckler is another such man, writing articles for Esquire in the parlour of the Nova Scotia farmhouse where he was born [where he lived most of his life]…. So is the painter Tom Forrestall, riding his bicycle along the elm-shaded streets of Fredericton one day and arranging an exhibition in New York the next.

A question about your own poetry. How your work been influenced by Nowlan's and by your relationship with Nowlan?

My own poetry, like that of a number of writers who were influenced – or encouraged – by Alden speaks of what I know. And I try to be faithful to the lines of his poetry I quoted to introduce my 1963 interview with him:

Oh, admit this, man, there is no point in poetry
if you withhold the truth
once you’ve come by it.

In other words, he has encouraged me to trust my ear and remain faithful to the oracular wisdom of my people.

The state of the nation: What does Nowlan have to say to us in the 21st century? I hate to ask you to distill Nowlan's legacy into a sound bite but I'm going to anyway. I imagine Nowlan would find much to rage about and much to be pleased about in today's world. Yes?

In the 21st Century Alden says, a preoccupation with form over (or without) content in poetry is the same as running the world on ideological principles enunciated by political "spin doctors."

He says that the international sport of torture yields no truth – only what the torturer wants to hear.

What might please him about today is the technological ability to communicate (by e-mail, for example) and "travel" (on the net), although he would probably agree with Appollonia Steele’s e-signature – Steele is the head archivist at the University of Calgary, the major repository of Alden’s papers – Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? – T.S. Eliot.

As a communicator extraordinaire, Alden boasts that his best line in a magazine piece on Hartland, New Brunswick, reveals that the collective consciousness has prophetic powers: "The power of collective conviction in small towns is so powerful that sometimes by a process of constant, almost telepathic pressure it brings about events it seems merely to anticipate." In a global village with today’s means to communicate, one would think such "telepathic pressure" might have avoided the invasion of Iraqi. He would be disappointed that it didn’t.

Of the radical fanaticism of so-called "terrorists," Alden would probably remind us that there may be nothing more terrifying than unfettered capitalism/consumerism. Or, if that sounds too much like Greg Cook speaking, then let Alden speak for himself about the dangers "of what can be achieved by absolute self-assurance and absolute self-righteousness when it turns from theology to commerce."

From his experience of a small town, he would say of the so-called "clash of civilizations" being discussed in the "power centres" of today’s global village, as the United Church clergyman of Alden’s Hartland years tells me Alden explained to him: "If you talked about religion you had nothing but problems. If you just talked about other things in the community – that’s where Alden said – ‘the natural goodness of the people overcame their religion and we got along as good friends.’"

[This interview first appeared in The Danforth Review]