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Looking for Poetry
by J Carpenter

AT FIRST there were the poseurs. The young man with the damaged face. The young woman covered in "cause" buttons. The boy with the black cloak who wanted to be Poe. They were in love with the notion of being poets, but the poetry they wrote and then inflicted on their fellows at Greg Gatenby's Tuesday night "open" readings at Harbour-front, c.1974, was execrable.

Not that anyone paid much attention. We were all there to hear ourselves and were too wound up waiting for our own turns to listen to anyone else. And as soon as our few minutes on stage were finished, our posturing done -- for we were all to some extent poseurs -- and we moved, flushed and full of ourselves, back to our seats, we were too consumed by self- analysis -- was my introduction too long I (it was always too long), did I bob too much? did I enunciate? -- to notice who followed us to the microphone.

But even then we could tell who had promise and who didn't, and it was always surprising that the poet-looking people were awful, and the unassuming types were terrific. Maybe it was because the girl with the buttons despaired of anyone paying attention that she slid herself under the wheels of a subway train. I don't know the fates of the other two, but they eventually disappeared. They were certainly not among the crew who adjourned regularly to the Selby Hotel on Sherbourne Street for post-reading beers.

The conversation at the Selby was never literary, unless you consider a round-table comparison of recent publishing credits literary. More often than not, we talked about sports and sex and people we didn't like. But it was at the Selby that I got to know Greg and M. T. Kelly and Giorgio di Cicco and Hans Jewinski, the poet cop. Hans was the sort of fun-loving guy who would hang around outside the Selby while on duty, waiting for one of his literary friends to stagger out into the night, fumbling for his car keys. Larry Scanlan, currently an editor and writer with Harrowsmith, remembers leaving the Selby one Tuesday night, climbing into his car, and immediately being pulled over. A policeman approached, shone a blinding light through the side window, and told Larry sternly that he was going the wrong way down a one-way street. It was, of course, Hans. He extinguished the light, laughed his booming laugh and told Larry that he was just kidding, and let him go his way. Hans was our guardian angel. Half of him wanted to be inside drinking with us, and the other half wanted to make sure we got home safely.

I remember celebrating Hans's sale of The Poet Cop to New York's Simon and Schuster in 1975. We were in awe of his success, but were dismayed when the book was released with a photo of Hans on the front, in uniform, stooped beside a little girl, with the title scrawled as if with chalk on a red-brick wall behind them, and a subtitle, "Some Call Me Pig," beneath it. The publishers were treating him as a gimmick: a policeman so sensitive he wrote poetry. When the book didn't pan out, they returned his second manuscript unread. It was an insult to Hans, who had a poet's eye for detail and a fine turn of phrase, and as far as I know he never published again. For the rest of us it was edifying: something about "them and us," and having a tough skin.

And I remember celebrating the launch of M. T. Kelly's Country You Can't Walk In in 1979. 1 still have the invitation, designed by Scott Young: "A reception will follow at that famous literary hotel, The Selby...." The old-fashioned booths filled with the smiling faces of our friends. Everyone wonderfully drunk. The little foil-wrapped gifts of Christmas cake Terry had for us. A baby asleep on the lower level of a waiter's cart, beneath the bottles of ketchup and vinegar. Those were the days when Terry lived in a furnished room so small his only valuable possession -- a 16-foot Mad River canoe -stretched from his livingroom window to his kitchen counter. Those were the days when we could drink deep into Wednesday morning and still be at work by eight.

(Out of convenience we eventually changed our drinking spot to the Hayloft on Front Street. Some years later, I was walking past the Selby with two friends and, for old time's sake, decided to drop in. It took a minute for our eyes to adjust to the gloom, and then we saw the tight T-shirts, the little moustaches, the scrubbed took. Another nail in the literary casket. Here where Hemingway drank. And Wyndham Lewis.

In fairness, though, we briefly patronized a bi-bar on Church Street -- Jo Jo's? -- around 1978. It had become hip and liberated to rub elbows, disco-style, with the gay community. We learned how to do the "YMCA.")

Some nights Terry and I would leave the Selby and drift down to the Isabella, a couple of blocks South. On one such occasion, we were standing shoulder to shoulder at the upstairs urinals, peeing and reading graffiti, when one particularly uncomplimentary message caught our eye. It was about Terry -- it named him -- perhaps inscribed by some rival jealous of his rising star. Terry, of course, was delighted, and I was delighted for him. In those days we measured success in unusual ways.

GREG GATENBY finally ran out of patience with the Tuesday night narcissism and began to hone those amazing entrepreneurial skills that have done more to put CanLit on the world map than anything else. Greg became CanLit's agent. He started by fighting for funding -- enough at first to pay top Canadian writers for featured readings. (On January 15, 1976, 1 was the back-up group for Al Purdy: my notes on the evening inform me that it was a "difficult reading, dissatisfied with performance, muffed lines.. ..Criticism that poems were too dark (esp. after Purdy)." The purpose of this reading, so far as I was concerned, was to promote the release of a chapbook, Nightfall, Ferryland Head, which Greg and Hans's Missing Link Press had published for me. Unfortunately, a flood in Hans's basement the night before the launch ruined all but about two dozen of the 200 copies.)

Those were heady days. For me it meant invitations to read at Hart House and New College and Nathan Phillips Square. (After teaching my morning classes at Leaside High School, I took the subway downtown, walked into the square, mounted the small stage and read a "commissioned" poem about whales into a bank of microphones so powerful that my words rolled around the skyscrapers like a marble in a bowl, while below me hundreds of office workers ate their lunches and a small group of Greenpeacers, their hair dyed lime, nodded gravely. Then I walked back to the subway and returned to work.) I read in restaurants and libraries and private homes and at my alma mater, and I even participated in the World Poetry Marathon (I was Poet #81 and read 20 poems, including five "epics"). A second book, my first "real" book, Swimming at Twelve Mile, was published in 1979 by Penumbra Press, and on March 27 of that year I opened for the British poet Michael Butler: "a good reading, different people favoured different poems, retired later to The Hayloft: sold 10 books." There was a radio interview on Q107 with Brian L. Flack (who would later write the influential With a Sudden and Terrible Clarity), a phone interview with Toronto Life, a visit with Greg on his cable TV "book" show, and appearances in anthologies such as Aurora: New Canadian Writers, which resulted in a memorable supper paid for by Doubleday and hosted by Morris Wolfe at a Queen's Quay eatery; and although it was the lissome Susan Musgrave I sat beside, it was Thomas York I remember best. He was a handsome, burly, John Irving-ish United Church minister originally from Arkansas who had written the engaging And Steep in the Woods. So taken was I by his tortured charisma that I roused myself early several Sundays later to attend his service at the Church in the Round. He was the sort of man-of-the-cloth who had what it takes to run away with a 17-year-old choirgirl. Not that he did. But he had the writer's passion, the writer's belief in experience. His work attracted considerable criticism, but I liked him, and I was grieved when he was killed in a 1988 car accident.

Through Greg's powers of persuasion, writers of international stature began coming to Toronto, writers who were the stuff of mythology to us. Allen Ginsberg, I remember, brought two musicians with him, and the highlight of the evening was his singing of Blake's "The Tyger" to a country and western melody. A. Alvarez, the British writer, talked to us at the Hayloft about Sylvia Plath, whom he had known, and about whom he had written, at least in part, The Savage God, his study of suicide. She was one of my idols, and he demystified her; he described her in terms that made her real to me for the first time. I stopped romanticizing her pain and acquired, instead, some small insight into her vast unhappiness, her basic human despair.

In terms of poetry, however, the most instructive reading for me was Stephen Spender's. It was he who taught me that a poem is never finished. A friend to Yeats and Auden, he was in his 70s when he read at Harbourfront, tall and bent and thin, his white hair a mane. Reading from a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse, Spender breezed 10 or 12 lines into his first poem, paused, furrowed his brow, removed a pen from inside his suitcoat, scratched out a line that had to be 40 or 50 years old, and began again, minus the offending line. "Much better," he commented at the poem's conclusion, and replaced the pen in his pocket. (No, to my shame, I don't know which poem it was.)

There were unusual experiences, too. The poet Robert Priest's bilious attack on Greg at the Hayloft one night. As I recall, it had something to do with the inner circle versus the outer circle, people who were "in" and people who weren't. (Today, Robert is a multi-media poet, and is a regular guest with the Writer's Craft classes at my school. Many other writers have visited as well, including Terry Kelly, David Donnell, Larry Scanlan, Brian Flack, and the aforementioned Susan Musgrave, whose black leather miniskirt at least kept the boys awake, if not in total sync with the poems she was reading.)

And then there was the Swedish woman who wrote mysteries. Following her reading, she accompanied us to the Hayloft where, many drinks later, she buttonholed me. She was lonely, she said. Her husband, who had been her writing partner and best friend, was dead. All she did now, she claimed, was travel. She no longer wrote. Then she told me which hotel she was staying at. When her meaning sank in, I was terrified. She was twice my age and half again my weight -- and she wore white plastic go-go boots. But she had a universal face, beautiful and sad. I mumbled some excuse and fled.

GREG'S GENIUS eventually led to the creation of the International Festival of Authors, which celebrated its 13th anniversary this October. Aside from the readings themselves, which can range from spectacular to excruciating -- depending on which sessions you attend, and the comfort level of the individual readers -- the most enjoyable aspect of the week for me was always the hospitality suite. Normally a carefully guarded secret, the location of the hospitality suite was nevertheless sufficiently broadcast so that within an hour of the final applause, the designated hotel room was aswarm with writers, publishers, agents, organizers, friends, relatives, and whichever gate-crashers managed to solve the mystery. Typically, the bathtub was full of beer, and the bed covered with copies of that night's readers' books, which Greg had brought in for signing for his collection. There would be a great deal of mingling and munching, and as the evening advanced and more people arrived, it would become more difficult to move from room to room, the smoke would become thicker, and the tongues looser.

As you wended your way towards the bathroom for another beer, you might encounter the decorous Derek Walcott or the elusive Robert Stone. A Nigerian writer in colourful costume would be holding forth. A Scottish poet in a kilt would be looking for the J & B. Atwood, diminutive and powerful, was always the calm centre of a roiling circle of attention. Then Terry Kelly would call across the crowded room, "Carp, come here! I want you to meet...," who would always turn out to be a doe-eyed editor with M & S or a cub reporter with Maclean's, still wet behind the ears.

At the beginning of the 1984 Festival, Greg asked me to escort John Wain, the British novelist and one of the "angry young men" to a Toronto Maple Leafs game at the Gardens. Yevgeny men, Yevtushenko, the Russian poet, would also be going, and the former Montreal Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden had agreed to act as his companion. We all met at a prearranged spot on the night of the game, and then walked along Carlton Street to the Gardens, where Greg bought four tickets from a scalper. As it turned out, Yevtushenko and Dryden had beautiful eighth-row seats behind the Leaf bench, while Wain and I were perched several kilometres above the end boards. But we didn't mind the VIP distinction, and had a wonderful time -- at the game and later at a wine bar where we laughed about Yevtushenko's silver suit, which was clearly visible, even from our aerie. Later that week, following Al Purdy's upstaging, eight-sheets-to-the-wind translation of Yevtushenko,,, recitation at the Premier Dance Theatre he wore the silver suit again -- I was invited back to Terry Kelly's house for a reception, and it was there that Yevtushenko dictated a poem to me. Tall and formidable, he placed his huge hand on my shoulder and said, "You are Lazarus. / I am a blind old man. You are the conductor of the train. / I have no ticket. / I will give you my so-called childhood / for the gift of your dying cry." With tears in his eyes, he told me that his protegee, Nika, a nine-year-old Russian girl, had written the poem. I asked Yevtushenko to repeat the poem, and I wrote it down on a paper napkin. Then he returned to his date, a Lolita-type he had met in western Ontario the previous week. She was reputedly the daughter of a university professor so flattered by the poet's attentions that he allowed Yevtushenko to take the girl to Toronto with him -- for company. Since that evening eight years ago, I have read Nika's poem over and over, and I still have no idea what the hell it's about.

WRITING, as anyone who has ever tried it knows, is a lonely business. The reason I began going to readings in the first place was to become part of a group of people who would talk about Writing. I wanted company. Twenty years later I can happily claim that some of my best friends are writers, but we hardly ever talk about writing. We talk about which river to canoe next summer, whether or not Alomar should bat lead-off, and which horse we like in the fifth. Writing is still solitary, as it must be.

One evening 10 or so years ago I stopped at the comer of Yonge and Bloor in downtown Toronto to watch a young saxophone player who was playing for the donations people tossed into his instrument case. He was very good and had attracted a sizable crowd of 20 or 30 listeners, who were all, with one exception, standing a respectful distance from him, allowing him the space they felt was appropriate. The one exception was Milton Acorn, his battered face only inches from the musician's, peering into his eyes. Milton was into the last phases of his life -- illness and confusion. His clothes were ragged and dirty, and for all I know the shopping bags hanging heavily from his hands held all he owned. This was the man who had written one of the few great lines of Canadian poetry: "I have tasted my blood too much / to love what I was born to." And here he was on a street-comer in Toronto, solitary, standing apart from the rest of the world, studying the sax player, looking for poetry.


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