News: A short interview with Barry McKinnon - #1

2013-01-13 22:03:PM ago by jen.spruit

Due to the unfortunate reality of page limits, fS was unable to publish this interview in Issue 55, but it has found a home here. rob mclennan's interview with Barry McKinnon will be reproduced right here in four parts:
this interview was conducted over email from October 16 - 30, 2012
Barry McKinnon was born in 1944 in Calgary, Alberta, where he grew up. In 1965, after two years at Mount Royal College, he went to Sir George Williams University in Montreal and took poetry courses with Irving Layton. He graduated in 1967 with a B.A. degree. In 1969, he graduated with an M.A. from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and was hired that same year to teach English at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George where he has lived and worked ever since.
Barry McKinnon’s The the was nominated for the Governor General’s Award for poetry in 1980. Pulp Log was the winner of the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award for the B.C. Book Prizes in 1991 and Arrhythmia was the winner of the bpNichol Chapbook Award for the best chapbook published in Canada in English in 1994. His chapbook Surety Disappears was the runner-up for the bpNichol Award in 2008.
His most recent trade collections include In the Millennium (Vancouver: New Star, 2009) and The Centre: Poems 1970-2000 (Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2004). He launched his chapbook, Into the Blind World (above/ground press, 2012) in Ottawa in March 2012 at the second annual VerseFest poetry festival.
rob mclennan: In her review of your most recent trade collection, In the millennium (in The Bull Calf), Gillian Wigmore wrote that “In the millennium is a continuation of Barry McKinnon’s lifelong project to process the meaning of making a home in an essentially inhospitable place.” How do you feel about that description? What does it mean to you as a poet, or even as a resident of Prince George?
Barry McKinnon: There are several levels to Gillian’s statement that interest me; at first it looks accurate but also seems too general given my complex relationship with and in Prince George and given the writing this place has inspired via its “essentially inhospitable” surface. I think wherever I find myself, I’m always confronted by complex particulars and as a poet any sense of “making a home” may seem close at hand, but paradoxically also far off. I feel at home perhaps most in New York City with all that’s available there that interests me, and then at some point sitting in a bar in the Lower East End, begin to miss the mountains of Tumbler Ridge.
I was once asked by a professor if I was interested in being a writer-in-residence at the university here. He later informed me that the Canada Council added a new rule that a writer-in-residence could not live in the same city. I facetiously said: I don’t live here!  but also felt this odd insight: the detached necessary sense of exile that can often prompt the poem. This echoes for me, also, William Carlos William’s line that for the poet there is the literal place, as say, Patterson, but that: “only the imagination is real.” So if one works from that metaphysic, where do Gillian’s statement and your questions take me? The truth of my experience is in the poems: The Centre, The Centre: Moving North, and In the Millennium. With regards to the question here, “Prince George: Part One” is an autobiographical piece that might provide an answer of sorts – fragmentary particulars of my experience in the early days (1969 and on).
But for a literal background, the sociology of Prince George seems simple enough. I’ve been writing a prose book, Chairs in the Time Machine, about my first years here, and a period through the 1980’s when the arts got gutted by a “new vision”.  At the college where I used to work, those with the power and the new management team to carry out their mandate wanted polytechnic trades training – anything technical. Poetry and the arts didn’t fit with this thinking, so we found ourselves clinging to the handful of arts courses left – and limped onward into the hostile ’80’s. This is the story I’m working on now – the nasty confrontations after my layoff on the grounds that creative writing was redundant), pressure to reinstate me (Brian Fawcett and Pierre Coupey got fifty writers to write letters in my defense), another twelve years of survival under the same “management”, and my obvious but paranoid revelation that some of us caused so much trouble to the system in an attempt to save what we valued that I would never get hired anywhere else. 
To go back. In 1969 my initial sense was that the place was, if not inhospitable, at least suspicious, driven by the lumber and pulp industry and populated by mill workers, loggers, and “hewers of wood” (as the clichés have it) and populated by a public initially very suspicious of the proposed college and of the bunch of outsider eggheads who were going to either threaten or change the established order of things. The mayor at the time felt that the trades school was good enough. A college would be a big tax drain. Later on during a referendum for a new library, he quipped: “libraries are for loafers!” The welcome-mat was not exactly out: in the first weeks here an absentee landlord kicked Joy and me out of our first apartment because of my moderately long hair.  
I was aware that in 1968 it had taken two referendums before the city finally voted for a junior college that would offer its citizens, for the first time, university transfer courses. Simply, the town movers and shakers as they’ve been called – those politicians, business men, & assorted other local professionals and managers – wanted, from what I could see, to determine and define a city and its “real needs” in what they claim is the “real world”. But the second vote won. In the fall of 1969 the college faculty moved temporarily into the high school to teach the range of arts and humanities courses, and open new possibilities for hundreds of curious, bright, and a motivated students. So it seemed that at least some people did want poetry, art, music, the social sciences, history, geography, geology, and the range of literatures we were hired to offer. The college, to use D.H. Lawrence’s phrase, became the creation of a “new little habitat” within the larger community. We started a student newspaper, a literary magazine, a small press, a reading series that included over 100 writers (Atwood, Ondaatje, Purdy, Livesay etc – a series that prompted Earle Birney to say that “Prince George is the poetry capitol of B.C.!” ). All of these activities along with our university courses prepared our students for transfer to North American colleges and universities - and the larger world beyond. 
If the idea of home is too static and what that concept might sentimentally imply, I feel okay to say I have, as the poet Lissa Wolsak once put it, “a very full life” here as a poet and citizen – within the wide range of all that living implies.
For Part #2 of rob mclennan's interview with Barry McKinnon, please click here.

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