I originally did this interview with Prince George poet Barry McKinnon for the Prince George issue of filling Station. The piece was posted in four sections on the filling Station blog (one, two, three and four) as an online extension of the recent Prince George, British Columbia issue, but I thought it might be worth posting the entire interview here as well.
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 1080. 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, Gilliam 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 50 writers to write letters in my defense), another 12 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 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 a 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 & 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.
rm: What is it about the form of the long poem that still appeals after all these years?
BM: This is a Note I wrote for Sharon Thesen’s The New Long Poem Anthology, Coach House Press, 1991.
In the spring of 1970 while revising a short, unfinished poem, I sensed that the subject was too large for the kind of lyric I was in the habit of writing. The urgency, impulse and push of its untold story kept me writing steadily for the next three weeks. The route this little fragment opened seemed to say: you can sum up your life to this point if you keep at it. Yet, I was afraid that this emerging long poem with its complex set of elements and conditions (fragments, images, ideas, and memories based on a series of my grandfather’s photographs and stories about his life at the turn of the 20th century) – would fail and end nowhere. The pleasure of the writing, however, was to be in a poem with such a large context of space and time – to be in a form that, paradoxically, gave me new energy and confidence. I didn't know what I was doing but I was doing it. The result was the book-length poem, I Wanted to Say Something.
Since then I've been writing the long poem /serial sequence, a form that gives me the necessary range in which to articulate the poem's central truth from various and variable angles and perspectives.
I would like to add that during a conversation with Rober Kroetsch some years ago – always a taciturn experience until the beer kicked in – I asked if it took a long time to write a poem that is also relatively short in length, does the temporal measure qualify it as “ a long poem”? I can’t remember if Bob answered but do remember his slight smile as some kind of agreement. My new work Into the Blind World runs about 6 or7 pages for each of the 2 sections. Two years of reading Dante, thinking, and writing words on post-it-notes got me a total of 13 pages. A long poem?
A Note On Arrhythmia for Sharon Thesen’s The New Long Poem Anthology, Coach House, 2001.
When I started writing at the age of 16, I wrote fast, filling boxes with quickly scribbled lyrics dashed off with a sense of excitement and risk. I never knew what I was about to say or where the page was to take me. Now I’m 68 and the energy and pleasure of the writing process hasn’t really changed, but I wait much longer between poems. I’ve had to learn patience. Much writing and thinking for me is practice in preparation for the event when the poem arrives.
I’ve also learned to live with another paradox of its activity: The poem simultaneously identifies its writer to the world, but only comes into being when the writer, so to speak, is out of the way. What a strange occupation and process that requires obliteration of self at the same time that it reaffirms it. I think I knew this early on.
When I wrote the sequence, Arrhythmia, I literally had the sensation that my time on earth was shortly up. Arrhythmia is a condition of irregular heart beats (“glandular prosody” as I joke in the poem) that, in my case, created a great sense of anxiety that didn’t lift until I was diagnosed – thus the poem’s final line of release and relief: “knowing is paradise”. Poetry, in many ways, has saved my life, given it to me.
The composing principle for Arrhythmia, and I hope all of my work, was in line with W.C. William’s dictum that each poem must sum up the poet’s life to that point. I wrote Arrhythmia daily with the sense that if I had anything more to say I’d better get at it. If the word “subject” is still in the post-modern lexicon, I believe the poet’s subject is time – and that language discloses the actualities therein. Emotion is the poem’s fact.
I’ve always needed the accumulation of experience and a push from some unexpected angle (a political/ social/personal condition, the corporeal – a heart condition) to throw me into the process of the poem. A woman I met in Hamilton asked me at a reading if I wrote traumatic monologues. I had to agree, instantly, yes! and therefore with her slip on the word dramatic, created a close description of what I do.
As D.H. Lawrence writes: “We’ve got to live no matter how many skies have fallen.” I believe the poem helps us live because it also contains our affirmation, hope, and joy.
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 WW11, 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 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 myself 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 & 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 (http://www.readprint.cm/work -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 his 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.
In the Millennium · Prince George (Part One)
for George Stanley
a man in himself is
a city – (W.C.W)
beleaguered/belied the entrance (himself,
in Hade's hot air
memory of that travel
fear to a sense of life ahead: the literal city
busted out - clearing forests/ water/ air
not form but what
the city a body
town tribes -
in their source of
detachment, begin to be
themselves again - hunt/
history, the millennial weight: no clear stream/or abode
these bulldozed souls
no pity or remorse to equal what’s imagined
handouts on 3rd/ the giveaway suits
that clothe them.
oh forest, oh bear - vestigial illumination / the
in simple light
what do we see so clearly in its lack
to see without image / articulation - a reason
malls fill/downtown empties /history (capital / frontier
without human hope: this is the end, we sing ( crows peck puke, buckles in the side walk/holes of asphalt, piles of blood
the man, the city - what parts in
the metaphor, this way of dreaming - is the heart a down
town? 1969: the routes (bakery, bread, meat
balls, a pickle and up 4th to
the Astoria (beer - to the Bay, the Northern, Wally West, I.B. Guest &
down to the corner - 2nd & George, the Canada, the blues,
the sense of here/not here - this want of places to
be, enter & make
libraries are for loafers
no blame to local realities. nothing in the way of what doesn't exist,
in the simple mercantile presumptions
the smell of money - the brushcut hero who could make it
the local ethos: up
before the rest went to bed / with his bulldozer.
and in a dream of this world woke to
every one/every thing: fuck or be fucked
man a city: the female forest -
to imagine the hard/the soft (winter, cycles to summer spring & fall
bleeding to the genderless human want of tenderness.
root hog or die
when a city becomes its coldest hearts
we live in the illusion of its habitat:
the invisible/visible: the city you see/ did good in
becomes an old cliché in the toxic mill cloud that fills the bowl
and drifts with the winds - a swirl of stink in the citizenry /penetrates the corpus while the corporate, that most visible as the source, least accounted for in the non-existent public square.
I can't breathe
a man must speak, to the threat dismissed, diminished,
coerced by need and want
to sing : they think they
do me no harm.
the they. the who, the us in the disintegrated
disintegration - nothing can be known; its own hopeless
statement - the north /everywhere (but not revealed -
in this what? will we only know the hot day in mid
July 69 into the stink, the heat, the Fraser
bridge / 57 Plymouth packed,
I want to go back
to what humans imagine a version: here / the beer
& coming out of the Barn into that heavy light decide
that moment, to stay.
the apt/penthouse - top floor Trojan Manor $300.00
where do you think you're going? don’t want youse types here.
moved to 1902 Queensway across from Marty’s Cafe (shack - 100 a month ( now Assman's funeral
the city: a world
you entered - sensed body/parts
missing in the civic need the forces disallow - & that called specious
what saves us - a clarity / conditions born of fog/
the love and hate of uneasy
marriage (man/woman - a city unto themselves
what is the source of this thinking? ambiguity, contradiction
power, that hidden, conspiracies, pushed
buttons and cliché, until our bodies demotion to banishment.
a shit hole.
when are you going to write something good?
its activity is also its own resistance: what
to say: what subject, or image - what body part contain
the life / what weakness is strength when
the whole body vomits in nadir (the weakest
now culled once defined: a man vomits
in shame that now the city can not be made
this rotten dark soul, a man
a metaphor, a language convinced of its own rhetoric easily believed (men (the city
its self / fooled
by little stakes/little power (that those governed
men will thrust their outlines - will sacrifice the rest. will
others (those sickest
at any scheme sabotaged by its own impossibility - know the inventors require such false faith and fear
the city exists / knows itself/ cannot change
oh corpus of belched noxious gas
oh corpus of the fruitless/oh corpus of malignment oh
generous corpus of the material world oh
industrial corpus behind the corpus oh corpus of the beautiful
& gentle wind oh corpus in our misaligned prayer oh corpus
of promise and care
oh grid of light, muscled male
stomp the tourists head into the walk - that part psycho
path - the city staggers in a hoedown dance/wild
in iconic illusion of how it sees itself - dressed
to kill any thing in sight
arms of the suburbs to father illusion: conglomerate homo unity: turns place /
to no place / same place
to exist only in our attempt to define it
(off Queensway embarrassment, then disgust - teen hookers to cross through
the riven world displayed by its line between: us
little girls, the man, a city - /homeless
why did you stay?
the density of context peeled was revealed to a momentary
sense of simplicity, that it could be known, and therefore, the man
could know himself, being a city: unto himself, - its maps and routes, the air it breathed, capacious unbalance to imply the need for its
opposite: nothing to go on - knowledge without proof /its energy.
a language in its attempt to equal
the anxious swirl in an angular world of charts, graphs - the
gizmoed patter claimed & believed as real - that any power required
subservience to its whacko notions, be revealed as public sense: not
agreement, but truth of ones condition faced: bloody head in its
second of consciousness under the killer’s boot - in metaphoric
be allowed to live.
in the city: Nechako, Fraser
Husky, Canfor, PG Pulp, Northwood, Intercon, Lakeland, CN,
body is thought
through parking lot, plumes
/ polis / man