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William Hawkins: a Unique Voice in Canadian Poetry
Editors Note: A version of the following essay appears as the Introduction to Dancing Alone: Selected & New Poems, William Hawkins, from Broken Jaw Press, released in April 2005.
It was poesy, as we mockingly called it, that brought Hawkins and me together. The year was 1962. We were an unlikely pair. Not long before, Id been playing fullback for my Ottawa high school, trying for straight As and a university scholarship. Bill had been doing time in Quebecs Val Tetreau correctional institution for some misdemeanor involving other peoples cars. He had the tattoo to prove it a pattern of five bluish-black dots on the back of his left hand, the mark by which alumni of the prison system recognized each other.
By then, Bills felonious past was more or less past. But, in my naïve, romantic, middle-class view, he still lived dangerously. He took drugs, drank too much, insulted important people. In fact, he insulted most people, important or not, more or less on principle. A few exceptions earned his respect artists of one kind or another who were his close friends. Somehow, I became one of those. I was flattered. I was eighteen, and Bill, at twenty-two, was the nearest thing Ottawa had to an authentic contemporary poet: the genuine article.
In Bills early poetry, you could detect his influences Blake and Whitman, Irving Layton, and, most strikingly, the Beat bop prosody of Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. But, Hawkins was no slavish imitator waiting for his adult identity to arrive. He was precocious in already laying claim to a distinctive voice and vision. His rhetoric was extravagantly theatrical, with a dark, disturbing undertow never far from the surface. Just listen to this remarkable line from "A Monsters Travelogue," one of his delightfully bizarre King Kong poems:
Battered & ball-wracked, immense pilgrim snug in his cups of horror
In life, too, Bill was an original at least in Ottawa terms: his publishing method, for example. I was taking the conventional route, mailing my poems off to little literary mags like Evidence, The Fiddlehead, Canadian Forum. Although I had some success, Bill was doing something edgier and more enterprising. He collaborated with other local artists the painters Andries Hamann and Christopher Wells, the printer-printmakers Robert Rosewarne and Fran Jones to create poster poems: arresting visual settings of his poetry in linocut, printed on big sheets and sold for beer money, or simply posted around town in busy public places. These artifacts were artworks in themselves. They were also bold statements about taking poetry out of the libraries and lecture halls and sticking it in the public square, right in peoples faces. As a measure of the distance society has travelled since then, particularly in the staid capital city, taking poetry to the people was an insolent, radical, unheard-of act. I was captivated.
To enter Bills circle was to discover, amazedly, that Ottawa had its own bohemian underground. The hub was Le Hibou, a coffee house managed in the early days by Hawkins himself. Later, Le Hibou would relocate to grander, street-level quarters in a heritage building on Sussex Drive, but in 62 it was a small, dark, narrow boîte in a Bank Street walkup near Laurier Avenue, where folksingers and poets appeared on a tiny stage in front of tables holding candles stuck into Chianti bottles.
That little candlelit room gave local musicians their start, and once played host to an all-star poetry series featuring readings by Layton, Louis Dudek, Raymond Souster, Gwendolyn MacEwen, John Robert Colombo and Peter Miller. Hawkins, aided and abetted by his wife Sheila Hawkins, opened and closed the place every evening, ran the kitchen, introduced the acts and looked after visiting musicians the likes of young Gordon Lightfoot, Mark Spoelstra and Ramblin Jack Elliott, which usually involved putting them up on their living room couch. Bills biggest challenge in the job was the necessity to curb his tongue a little. It almost mellowed him.
In summer 1963, when I returned home from my first year at the University of Toronto, Bill badly needed a break from Le Hibou and the confines of the hometown. By now, he and Sheila had two children. He became enormously excited about a summer writing course being offered by the University of British Columbia English department: an intensive program for aspiring poets, who would be juried into the program on the quality of their work. The program offered the chance to work with an absolutely astonishing "faculty," including Allen Ginsberg, Charles Olson, Robert Duncan and the programs organizer, Robert Creeley. Sheila was willing who knows, maybe eager to let Bill go. All he lacked was money and transportation.
Persuading me to go with him solved the latter problem, since I owned a sort of car a quaint, arthritic Morris Minor convertible, a model now prized by connoisseurs. To scrounge the necessary cash, Bill decided to stage a fundraiser at Le Hibou under the rubric "Help Get Hawkins Out of Town." It featured, in addition to Bill and me reading from our work, performances by a bluegrass duo calling itself Peter and Nev (Peter Hodgson, later renamed Sneezy Waters, and Neville Wells, both of whom would become country singers), and a shy, solemn eighteen-year-old guitarist named Bruce Cockburn, who played some Spanish classical pieces rather beautifully.
Fortunately, the UBC program accepted us both. The Morris Minor broke down beside the Blackfoot reserve at Gleichen, Alberta, and barely made it over the Rockies. But, once in Vancouver after sleeping in a tent every night, Bill and I had a variety of life-changing experiences. For a month we hung out day and night in classrooms and readings and parties with other young poets, mainly from the west, some of them terrific among them George Bowering, Lionel Kearns, Fred Wah, Jamie Reid, Robert Hogg, David Cull and Dan McLeod, future publisher of the Georgia Straight.
But, it was the faculty, in reality exemplars and inspirations, who remain most vivid in memory. Ginsberg was a sweet-souled miracle. To lounge in a group with him on the campus grass was to glimpse the possibility of serenity. Olson was a powerful intellectual presence, whose poetry I found overly cerebral, but whose monologues on history and poetics were rivetting. Duncan read his own long poems like an angel. But he who engaged us most deeply, through his work as well as his personality, conversation and readings, was Bob Creeley a lovely man full of self-doubts, honest hesitations and humorously generous impulses. For Bill, especially, Creeleys artistic impact was profound. Creeleys short, rue-filled lines measured to his breath patterns flooded Bills cortex in ways that would change his poetry for good. It was too synchronistic for words that when the Morris collapsed again on our return trip through East Wenatchee, Washington, Creeley materialized over breakfast in a Chinese café and paid the mechanics bill we couldnt afford.
After our transcontinental adventure, Bill entered a prolific creative period. Over the next seven years, 64 to 71, hed publish five collections of poetry, appear in two landmark anthologies, and start to become recognized nationally. Hed also have a major impact on the Ottawa music scene as a singer-songwriter and instigator of adventurous new bands. And, at the end of that period, like Rimbaud, whom he resembled in more ways than one, hed more or less give it all up not announcing it or anything, just wandering off and subsiding into other obsessions.
Bills first two books were self-published collaborations quite different in style and substance. With me, he put out Shoot Low Sheriff, Theyre Riding Shetland Ponies (Ottawa, 1964.), a 56-page, stapled paperback with droll cover portraits of the two of us by Chris Wells. Half the work is mine, the other half Bills: a striking group of 23 poems, mostly from his Beat, pre-Vancouver period (all the King Kong poems are there), but also a few later pieces starting to show his transition to shorter lines, less florid rhetoric and more personal themes. Bill and I peddled Shoot Low for a dollar to bookstores in Ottawa and Toronto until our friend Bill Roberts of Shirley Leishman Books, for whom Bill later worked, took over distribution. At last report, a few remaining copies of this modest volume are available at lavish prices from rare book dealers.
Bills second collaboration was with another Ottawa poet living in Toronto, Harry Howith. Two Longer Poems (Patrician Press. Toronto, 1965.) consists of Howiths "The Seasons of Miss Nicky" and Hawkins "Louis Riel." Moved by George F.G. Stanleys biography of Riel, Bill identified intensely (I believe) with the doomed Métis leader, and wrote a 36-page sequence of meditations on Riels visions, madness (the poems term) and execution. Although it doesnt finally succeed, to my mind, as art, the poem contains brilliant flashes of insight and imagery, and stands as a rare and gutsy example of applying Ezra Pounds and Olsons poetics to Canadian history.
The year 1966 was Bills annus mirabilis. Within twelve months he produced his two finest individual collections, and appeared alongside some of the best young poets of his generation, in Ray Sousters classic anthology New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry (Contact Press. Toronto, 1966.).
At 52 pages, Hawkins (Nil Press. Ottawa, 1966.) collected Bills short poems from the previous three years, post-Vancouver. Cleverly designed by Bob Rosewarne at his Nil Press, the poems looking raw in typewriter font, as if yanked straight from the manuscript, the book again received distribution through Shirley Leishman Books.
Ottawa Poems was in fact published elsewhere (Weed/flower Press. Kitchener, 1966.), by the poet, publisher and antiquarian book dealer Nelson Ball. These poems are ruminations on identity and meaning in the context of a life in
This crazy river-abounding town
where people are quietly
following some hesitant
form of evolution
arranged on television
Because they belong to a loosely linked sequence, these are more abstracted and discursive poems than the tighter, imagistic, self-contained pieces in Hawkins. And, perhaps because they often look outward to the surrounding society, theyre also more anxious and fearful, occasionally just a touch paranoid:
rivers & jails,
the dawn cant
When Souster was deciding which poets to include in New Wave Canada he relied for suggestions on Victor Coleman, the poet and editor at Coach House Press. Coleman hadnt attended the UBC poetry program, but many of his fellow travellers in Black Mountain poetics had; the anthology included Cull, Hogg, Reid and Wah, as well as Hawkins and MacSkimming. Others among the seventeen contributors included Daphne Buckle (later Marlatt), George Jonas, Barry Lord, bpNichol, David McFadden, Michael Ondaatje and Coleman himself.
For Bill, appearing in Sousters anthology helped give his work national recognition, and provided an unexpected consequence. The establishment critic A.J.M. Smith was assembling an anthology for Oxford University Press of outstanding Canadian poetry since the rise of modernism in the 1920s. Smith happened upon the page proofs of New Wave Canada (Coleman was working at Oxford University Press at the time), and Hawkins was one of four poets from the Contact Press book who caught Smiths eye. Three poems of Bills duly appeared in Modern Canadian Verse (Oxford University Press. Toronto, 1967.), tucked between work by Margaret Atwood and MacEwen.
This was heady recognition for a twenty-seven-year-old graduate of Val Tétreau. But, Bill was already veering away from poesy toward another, parallel career. Folk and pop music were both passing through incredibly fertile periods. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell were poets in their own right. Bills sometime friend and fellow acid-tripper, Leonard Cohen, was taking the opposite route, from literature into music. Bill did likewise.
Hanging out with musicians at the relocated Le Hibou, he got to know not only visiting stars like Cohen, Judy Collins, John Hammond and Tim Hardin, but locally based talents such as Cockburn, David Wiffen, Colleen Peterson, Amos Garrett and Darius Brubeck, son of Dave. Bill started putting bands together. His force of personality, worldliness and relative maturity made him a natural leader. Just as importantly, he was writing plenty of strong, original material for his musicians to play and sing. And, always, Harvey Glatt, then owner of Treble Clef record stores and concert presentations, and later founder and principal owner of CHEZ-FM, was there in the background, advising them on artistic, legal and financial matters, investing in their talent, giving them a chance. Harvey was, and remains, a quietly influential animator of Ottawas artistic life, an entrepreneur with soul. He was always a supporter of Bills peculiar genius.
The personnel in Bills bands constantly shifted and re-formed, according to circumstance and the vagaries of who happened to be in town. They were called The Children (with a nucleus of Cockburn, Wiffen, Wells, Waters, Sandy Crawley and Richard Patterson) and Heavenly Blue (after the morning glory seeds that get you high) and, once, on the occasion of the Queens centennial visit to Ottawa, The Occasional Flash, playing before Her Majesty at Lansdowne Park. They performed Bills music for Pierre Elliott Trudeaus victory party in 1968, and for the National Film Board of Canadas release of Christophers Movie Matinee. Bills songs began to get around. They were recorded by Tom Rush, Brent Titcomb, Threes A Crowd (Wiffen, Titcomb and Donna Warner) and The Esquires. "Its a Dirty Shame," in The Esquires version, hit number one regionally. When Bill went on a reading tour with Layton to Torontos Global Village, the National Arts Centre and elsewhere, he read a few poems but spent most of his time on stage singing his songs, accompanying himself (badly) on the guitar.
Somewhere in there, Bill was selected as one of "Ottawas Outstanding Young Men," along with the developer Bill Teron and the Rough Riders star quarterback Russ Jackson. (Bill was presented with a plaque, which he used for cutting hash.) Eventually, Cockburn, after releasing his first couple of solo albums, told Macleans it was Hawkins who had shown him how to write songs.
By then it was the early 70s. The 60s, with their endless license and love affair with the improvised inspiration, were giving way to a more ordered approach to life. Id been a publishers editor in Toronto for several years and was working as a partner at a small press when we decided to publish Bills selected poems. The Gift of Space: Selected Poems 1960-1970 (New Press. Toronto, 1971.) is a hardcover, unpaginated, with another great cover drawing by Chris Wells: Bill being transported atop King Kongs brawny shoulders. The Gift of Space drew on what I considered Bills best work from Shoot Low, Hawkins and Ottawa Poems. Until now, its been the only substantial, representative sampling of his work.
Bill published only one more collection after that: a slim volume (32 pages) of new work called The Madmans War (S.A.W. Publications. Ottawa, 1974). Many of those poems had been written during a trip to Mexico with Sheila and the children in 1968; others were written later, after their marriage breakup. In its spirit of exhaustion and futility, the work is reminiscent of Malcolm Lowrys Under the Volcano (Reynal & Hitchcock. New York, 1947.). The front cover photo shows a very long-haired Bill cradling a rifle, the back cover photo suggests serious war damage Bill looking wiped out, with a bandage wrapped around his head and the last poem in the book is titled "Suicide Note."
Although Bills private wars took their toll on his body and his writing, hes a survivor. Thankfully, hes still with us: a well-known Ottawa figure behind the wheel of his big Blue Line cab, transporting judges and members of parliament and journalists to their assignations, chatting knowledgeably all the way about politics, literature and life. His work is still with us, too, thanks to the new volume, Dancing Alone: Selected & New Poems, William Hawkins, due out in 2005 from publisher Joe Blades of Broken Jaw Press in Fredericton and his Ottawa-based poetry editor, rob mclennan.
The poems in Dancing Alone are undeniable evidence that here is a distinctive, inimitable voice in Canadian poetry. Taken together, Hawkins work is almost unbearably poignant in its existentialism verging on nihilism. It expresses a felt beauty and innocence that must remain unattainable, insisting on the ultimate certainty of loss, emptiness, death. Yet somehow the poet cant help betraying a mordant love of the whole ironic process. Although his poems often appear casual, constructed of throwaway lines and impromptu endings, the best of them are spare, stark, unadorned gestures, brought off as swiftly and unerringly as a Zen painting. They can take your breath away a quality that no doubt struck Smith when he chose a poem like "Spring Rain" for his Oxford anthology:
This black life
this conversing with shadows
& what about reality
or economic aspects, restricting movement,
or the children in a room apart
are we not mutations
reconciling diverse things?
is not water
a symbol of life
& life of death?
is not that haze
before my eyes
A very welcome volume, Dancing Alone will give a new generation, and those who missed it the first time around, an opportunity to discover William Hawkins poetry in all its perversely compelling, idiosyncratic wonder.
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