News: A short interview with Barry McKinnon - #3

2013-01-27 21:39:PM ago by jen.spruit

Read part one and part two of rob mclennan's interview with Barry McKinnon.
rm: You originally moved to Prince George to teach at the College of New Caledonia. What have you learned over the years as a teacher, and what benefits has it brought you as a writer? Obviously, Prince George is a rough town, but I know there have been writers that have emerged from your classes over the years. How does that add to your experience or knowledge of writing?
BM: When I arrived here in July of 1969 fresh from UBC, I was in a panic for many reasons. Prince George looked rough and the air stunk. Joy wanted to turn around and go back to Vancouver, but I don’t think the ’57 Plymouth would make it. The so-called college consisted of a few portable trailers in a muddy parking lot behind the local high school. The first principal had a “vision” inspired by high art and high purpose that seemed appealing, but his “passions” turned out to be narrowly defined. He fought with the Nazi’s in WWII, spent time in a prison camp, moved to Canada after the war, and was eventually hired to run a college back east. He was an interesting man, but insistent in a way that rubbed most of us, and the town, the wrong way. We were called “masters” and had to follow a strict dress code – jackets and ties and were often reminded to get out hair cut. He insisted on a formality that didn’t fit the place or the time. After a reading I gave to the new faculty – we were all asked to give an informative talk – he bluntly said to the effect: “I didn’t think you wrote poetry like that!”
I had never taught before so I was confronted with developing a syllabus for 3 courses, and the anxious question of how to teach, stay ahead of the students and appear that I knew something. What might have saved me is that my diffidence was misread as me being laid-back. In reality, I was an emotional mess. Before my first class I vomited. Charles Boylan, also hired to teach English and to become a close friend, walked me to that first class and said: “You’re a likeable guy, you’ll do fine, man!” And I did, despite my nerves, do well because the students in most of my classes sensed that my lapses and stumbles were an invitation for them to talk, discuss, go off topic, and take-over. I liked them and got to know them better as friends during the many nights we went to the Inn of the North bar after class. In “The Barn” the class conversations continued: art, poetry, school and town politics, world affairs, gossip and questions like:   “What’s up with the weird principal?”
I started to see that the lyric mode I was practicing wasn’t adequate for what I began to experience in Prince George. The town was once described as “peeled back”; beyond the surface I began to see what realities it revealed; it became visible via its many dimensions: social, political, economic etc. and that many of us as writers, academics, and students now had the job of defining and revealing what we saw and felt beyond the Chamber of Commerce clichés. The college was changing the town in important ways. The students wrote articles about the local pulp mill pollution, reviewed the poetry readings, published student poetry, protested the Vietnam War, started a literary magazine, and overall shit-disturbed the established order. I think, too, that the town sensed that things at the college were out of control. Too many lefties, hippies, artists, and troublemakers. The College Board fired the principal at the end of his second year. Life at the college somewhat calmed down as we entered the more benign ’70’s, but got worse, beginning in the early ’80’s – a complicated and unhappy decade ahead that I’ve begun to document in detail in Chairs in the Time Machine.
Many students became friends. They wrote and published chapbooks, helped me organize the poetry readings and run the Caledonia Writing Series Press, kept me on my toes with their intelligence, curiosity, and tenacity. Names that come to mind: the poets and writers Harvey Chometsky, Bill Bailey, Alice Wolzak, Connie Mortenson, Meryl Duprey, Sharon Stevenson, Barbara Munk, John Oscroft, Randy Kennedy, Steve Stack and many, many others I could list. Two other writers I need to mention became dear friends and colleagues that kept me straight on the writing path: The great Western American poet Paul “Red” Shuttleworth, who taught a course with me, and John Harris, whose books Small Rain and Other Art tell the college story in all of its ironic, humorous and dark dimensions. I need to add that anyone interested in Prince George must read all of Brian Fawcett’s books. 
Whatever tradition there is for writing in Prince George now continues with the many writers and artists I’m glad to hang out with: Graham Pearce, Matteus Partyka, Alex Buck, Arianwen Geronwy Roberts, Ryan White, Greg Lainsbury, Sarah de Leeuw, Paul Strickland, David Ogilvie – and the many other writers who read and participate in Graham Pearce’s yearly Post North series of readings.
But, yes, those first years were exciting and inspiring and provided content for various poem/sequences. I’m referring to the long poems in The the. that bpNichol published at Coach House Press. The town for me became a kind of chimera, an interesting tattered muse. Later in the ’80’s during the darkness described earlier, my writing became as W. C. Williams once said – a way to ease my mind. Writing The Centre saved me at the time; it was a daily articulation of a kind of breakdown, but also a poem that defined for me the irony, ambiguity, cruelty and hypocrisy of the college administration. I think the metaphor it projects is a large one and includes the larger world. Pulp Log during this same period became a log in 52 parts that again traced the daily shifts, changes and confrontations I found myself in. My “subject” was the institution itself and what it was, beyond what it appeared to be. 
rm: In the afterward to Into the Blind World, you write:
This poem/fragment is based on a selection of lines sent to me by Arianwen Goronwy Roberts, a young student, poet, and artist who I jokingly referred to as Virgil one night when she soberly drove me home after a drunken literary event in the fall of 2009. I got Arianwen curious to read Dante’s Divine Comedy and at some other drunken literary event asked her to send me the Dante lines or sections that she liked or stood out for whatever reason. This she did from an on-line translation ( -7/inferno-dante-alighieri: The Divine Comedy: Hell - no translator given). Within those stanzas, verses, and narrative fragments I could see certain words/phrasings and images that prompted my own “translation” and improvised responses.
How did you approach the shift of “translating” the poem into a piece by Barry McKinnon? Did you approach it as a rewriting, akin to George Bowering’s Kerrisdale Elegies (1984)? How important was it for you to keep some of the original ideas and cadences?
BM:It’s interesting that writing poems for me can be prompted by a range of various conditions and sources. Here is my introduction for The Centre: Moving North:
          The eleven sections in this collection contain experience and language informed by a range of places in this urge to reveal a world in relation to all that is / was to become a life: family, work, sex, friendship, health, the politics of person and place – these large complex inaccurate dissolute human categories as prompts for whatever the poet is given to reveal. The particulars of these contexts and places I hope I partially found / made visible – as they sought me in the poems that follow.
Into the Blind World began capriciously with an odd request for Arianwen (“Virgil”) to feed me lines from Dante’s Hell via email for what then became a serious writing/collaborative project. This was the first time I’d ever put another person to use for the possibility of writing a poem. I would read each of the Hell cantos, think/meditate, and if I could see a connection to my own thoughts and emotions, scribble a note in the margins or on post-it-notes. Arianwen’s lines, in most cases, would throw my mind from what I was thinking, into other considerations – make me risk what became fast and often puzzling lines. If they rang true and kept me wondering about what the hell they meant, I kept them. Here’s an example of my decision-making: I wrote the early line, “some corrupt” and was bugged by how soft it was. What are those moments worth for a poem when you say fuck it! and revise to : all corrupt! – the divine comedy for all time that we have lived in.  
W.C. Williams once said that each poem must sum up the poet’s life to that point. Into the Blind World was both solipsistic, a “translation” from English to English, and a summation of whatever it is one can “know”. Here is Bob Hogg’s email to me that might partly answer your question (underlines and italics mine):
Liked the play you did with Dante’s Inferno, drawing is diction in translation into your own voicing, wch it very much fits in the short fragment rob sent along to us all. 
Rilke in Kerrisdale? Why not Dante in Prince George. You gotta see, also, the bold presumption and humor in all of this. 

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