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the stone-boat heart: letters to Andrew Suknaski

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There is nothing flashy or sensational about these poems, no verbal surprises or gymnastics (apart from the elasticity of time), and certainly no overt struggling on the page to make poems out of what might seem most unpromising material. But there is a sense of place here that I find unequalled anywhere else. It is a multi-dimensional place, with an over-riding feeling of sadness because so much is lost.

– Al Purdy, “Introduction,” Wood Mountain Poems (1976)

 

August 18, 2005
Ottawa Ontario

Dear Andrew Suknaski,

I’ve been reading your poems again lately in preparation for the new Selected Poems of yours I’ve been editing, moving further and further into your work these past five years. How does a Selected begin? It feels strange, working so hard to get to know a poet who hasn’t existed in twenty years or more. Who are you now? Where is the poet who wrote when I was still in public school, or before I was even born? Where is that poet who rode the bus from Regina to Vancouver, only to come home again?

I feel like an archeologist, digging through your past.

In your essays you wrote a lot about Eli Mandel and John Newlove. You knew them both, and even gave them Ukrainian names; you wrote them Saskatchewan though they had long left the province. Old Wowk, you called Mandel, calling him “bear.” Nevwlief.

A few years ago, Susan Newlove told me a story about you and her late husband. Apparently the two of you had spent a great deal of time together in Regina, perhaps, when he was writer in residence at the university there. Its easy to spot the poems you wrote each other. How John had never had a photograph of his mother. How you had heard this, and went back to Kamsack, Saskatchewan, where John's mother had taught in a one-room school, and somehow found a photograph to mail back. Is that how it happened?

I later found the poem you wrote about it, from the collection Dennis Cooley edited, In the Name of Narid (1981), the poem “LETTERS BETWEEN TWO PRAIRIE FRIENDS,” that begins:

dear john
         i’m sendin you a contact print
from some photographs         found in the album
of an 80 year old widow
my mother shared a house with her
a few winters    in assiniboia
told me about her recent fall
spoke of kneelin among scattered
japanese oranges    down in the cellar

Later writing:

     with the bottom of stairways
     where our lives   cross
                             anyway   the story is
     your mother   an laura   taught at tolstoi
     manitoba 1916
     their school house    was called chervona
     ‘the red one’
     they shared a thatched roof    teacherage
     an after they went    their separate ways
     they always wrote letters
                            i remember
     the old widow sayin     that last time

     ‘when she married
     an had her first son
     she sent me this photograph
     she sometimes wrote
     about those years
     often nothing but bread
     potatoes an tea
     on the table’

     that one photograph   john
     your mother    a beautiful young
     woman then      hair combed    straight an simple
     a single lock  covering her right eye
     an curving down   to meet smile
     forever there   over her son
     sleeping in the carriage
     where one can almost smell   the lilac hedge
     bordering the crunch    of gravel walk
     and the long dress she wears
     brightening    those black shoes
     that mirror the sky
                          anyway   john
     i’m sendin you this print
     an keepin one for myself
     pinned directly    above a family photo
     me standin against the lilies
     on my sixth birthday    before we all left
     the farm an father   for good
                                   i send you these
     prairie icons    for the possible
     poem     they may unlock

However it happened, it is a photograph she still has. Susan speaks well of you, for that.

*

 

August 20, 2005
Ottawa Ontario

Dear Andy,

I have always been interested in substantially active poets who, for whatever reason, suddenly stop. I have no idea why. I have always been interested in what happens on the sidelines. In my reading of Canadian poetry I have compiled a list from peripheral vision; from the 1970s that includes you, Artie Gold, David Phillips and Peter Van Toorn. I have since found them all, met them all, heard some of their stories. I do not feel as though I am finished listening to your stories. Suknatskyj.

It seems as though you invented the prairie vernacular; but so much that comes after you simply falls flat. Scobie talks about it at the beginning of your previous volume of selected and new poems, The Land They Gave Away (1982). Dennis Cooley knows. He was one of the few who knew how to listen.

I’ve been told that by the early 1980s, you had already begun to lose interest, let editors do with what they wanted with the selection of your manuscripts, your books. Had you lost interest in the writing, or the entire process? What happened to you out there?

When Gary Hyland took me to see you in Moose Jaw in 2001, I was already a year into collecting your writing for a new selected and/or collected poems. We were there to see what you thought of the idea. We were there to convince you. I had a list of names of people I had already spoken to, and books I had found, citing John Newlove, Dennis Cooley, Four Parts Sand, Catherine Hunter, Robert Kroetsch, Leaving, Robert Currie, Barry McKinnon, New Directions in Canadian Poetry. You were an older version of the man on the back of In the Name of Narid. More withdrawn, head down for much of the conversation. A quiet rural man, like my father. I grew up with men like that; never knowing what to say. I understand men like that. We picked you up at the group home where you live. But why am I telling you this? I’m sure you remember. Why wouldn’t you remember?

Hyland warned: you will only get twenty minutes of his energy, before he wears down. He said it was all you ever had. We brought you the two-volume collected by your late friend and mentor that had come out the year before, The Other Harmony: The Collected Poetry of Eli Mandel (2000). I brought a stack of small publications I’d been (somewhat) responsible for, including a chapbook of new poems I’d published by John Newlove, THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems (1999). We could see the sparks in your eyes, and the lift in your voice, even if half of what you said got caught in a mumble, trailing off. After an hour, you were still animated. You said, go ahead. Nodded. Said through a smile, go through my agent, and gestured toward Hyland. Said you were tired, finally.

Why are so many of the stories I’ve heard about you told in your own words? The photograph you found; the church you accidentally burned down (after the grassfire got away).

As we drove you home in Hyland’s car, and you told him the two of you should go to the tavern next week. Play a game of pool, I think you said. He couldn’t believe your energy; how well it had gone.

*

Of this collection Andrew Suknaski has written: “For me Wood Mountain Poems is a return to ancestral roots in my birthplace, after seventeen years of transience and aberration in numerous Canadian cities–and of trying to find the meaning of home.” The poems also deal with “a vaguely divided guilt; guilt for what happened to the Indian (his land taken) imprisoned on his reserve; and guilt because to feel this guilt is a betrayal of what you ethnically are–the son of a homesteader and his wife who must be rightfully honoured in one’s mythology.” The book celebrates a third group, “the memorable characters who people my boyhood memories and whose Sioux, Roumanian, English, Ukrainian, or Serbian pride moved them to tell a well-remembered story.”
“About the author," Wood Mountain Poems (1976)

 

August 21, 2005
Ottawa Ontario

Dear Suknatskyj,

I am interested in your guilt, your geographic guilt, and how you dealt with it. I don’t think my area ever dealt with ours, our Glengarry county. As part of the tail end of a heavy Scottish immigration that started around 1770, my branch of McLennans took a land grant in 1845 on what is known as “Indian lands,” former Mohawk land that made a two-mile wide swath from the St. Lawrence River to the south, all the way up to the Ottawa (when it was still known as the Grand River). Where we were then and are now, a land grant after the ninety-nine year lease to the British from the Mohawk had expired, as the land newly “acquired” as crown. And as I write, I realize I too, am nearly seventeen years past my own home. Wondering if I might ever return. If even I'd want to.

You even wrote about that guilt, talking about Barry McKinnon’s I Wanted to Say Something (1975), in a review of the collection reprinted in Dennis Cooley’s RePlacing:

I Wanted to Say Something, the book McKinnon wrote, bears this gnawing guilt (what poet Gary Snyder pinpointed as “that something gnawing away at the conscience of America – what we did to our Indians”). McKinnon fusing photo icon and word. Geddes following with Snakeroot, another book with photo as Prairie icon. Then Mandel – the Prairie graveyard as field, the Prairie vault as catalyst for pamiat’ [Russian for orders, instructions, and injunctions], and further photos as icons to illuminate interwoven text.

How we exist in our own stain, our own stories. Appropriating.

One of my family even went close to where yours did, in those Saskatchewan beginnings. In 1907, my great-grandfather’s oldest brother (born in 1851, the first of our family born in Canada) moved second wife and four sons to a parcel of land halfway between what is now Earl Grey and Craven, mere miles away from you. Slowly changing McLennan to MacLennan as they homesteaded. Slowly forgetting the rest of us, living still in old Glengarry.

They say your sister still buried there, on your father’s former land.

What you were doing at the time, and Newlove did too, would now be called “voice appropriation,” telling native stories around you from the land. The stories of the land, including yours and those that were not yours. Because they were not yours to tell. What kind of issues does this bring up for your poems? What does this mean to me, a reader, just scant decades later, reading them through this newly-formed stain?

A story of Wood Mountain, that you sold your literary papers for the same amount that your father received for his homestead, finally. Five thousand dollars. Hearing this, I wasn’t sure whether to be happy or sad. I didn’t know which to react to first.

*

 

August 22, 2005
Ottawa Ontario

Dear Suknatskyj,

I’m thinking about your unpublished manuscript, Suicide Notes, Abandoned, from the late 1970s, subtitled "prairie book of death, humour, and difficult joy," a manuscript discovered and salvaged a few years ago by poet and then-MA student Nathan Dueck. He found it at the University of Manitoba, where your papers are buried. What were you writing yourself into? Were you leaving the notes for yourself or for someone else to discover? Were you writing your own way into oblivion? There was an earlier publication, but I have yet to find a copy, your self-published Suicide Notes, Book One (1973). The manuscript includes this, and three other books, dated June 23, 1977. How many years were you thinking about dying? Was that even the point?

coffee break
in the cabin
alone

and smoking a cigar

thinking of those
at sunrise in the morning
enjoying their last smoke
forever

look up at the small vial
of faint blue pills

a thought …
there are enough of them there
and it would be
so easy
so easy

the only distraction
a nearby book called
THESE LOVED, THESE HATED LANDS

so narrow
the thread dividing
the staying
and the thought of leaving…
a hair
that could never have slid between our flat bellies
after we made love
you on top of me
as often it should be
falling into sleep
   -- "NOTE 26," Suicide Notes, Abandoned

or writing:

what seems to be the problem?

doctor...
...
my woman has left me
to sleep with other men
and i must work with her in the same place
observing this folly
...
have you ever thought about suicide?

sure .. at times?
no more than people do
at times
but don't worry
i intend to be writing better poems
when i'm a hundred and ten

  -- "the doctor's office," MSS 125 Box 16 Folder 3

If you read John Newlove’s THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems, you can see he worked a version of the same, closing off his career in a selection of a little more than a dozen pieces. Every kind of poem he wrote through the decades is represented in that collection, missing only the “dear al” of the 1960s hitchhiking letter-writing poem. That too, in the end, boiled away to its essential materials.

I forwarded the manuscript to Hyland, at 164 pages, to see if he considered it publishable, but he said it holds too many difficult things; things you might not want to be reminded of. I am waiting to hear back from him before I consider anything happening to the collection, or the third that should probably be cut.

In your “Mandel Memoir” you wrote:

It was finally nightfall. Eli, you can’t imagine how strange one’s saliva tastes as one goes about tending to final things. Addresses, phone numbers, and that final fragment of communication in the open cigar box, I began to lace up my winter boots – put on coat, toque, scarf. And then I paused, completely immersed in the deepest sense of peace (even made the orthodox sign of the cross three times – Life, Death, Resurrection – in front of my icons). I picked up my mitts and two heavy locks – then flipped the light switch (locked both doors of my binary flat that had seemed to grow into something doubling for the human brain). I then began the descent down the stairway (Eli, it was then that my saliva began to taste a bit like bile). Outside and walking south on McIntyre, I remembered you once at a party somewhere in Banff – after I’d read at the Banff Centre a number of years ago. You warned me: “Andy, I loved your Wood Mountain Poems, but these Suicide Notes you’re writing now . . . Andy, abandon the project. If you don’t, I’ll live to someday drink wine and dance on your grave.”

Eli, as I begin to pass the Bergman Apartments, your words faded in that coldest of all cold nights I’d ever known, I didn’t look right to what had once been your windows. I did remember, again, how you once talked of seeing your double at the Cave n’ Basin Hot Springs that one summer. I think it was about then – as I looked back once at the place that once doubled for home to you – that your dead ringer began to peel my name off the cold aluminum sky illuminated by the city’s light: “Andyyyy! Andyyyyyyyy! Stop! Don’t do it!” It didn’t stop me. What actually slowed my pace were the faint words of a woman I once loved. Miraculously, her words surfaced again in my memory: “Andy, whenever I thought of you somewhere, I imagined this Towering Spirit moving across the Prairie . . . .”

I am thinking about, as you coded it, the stone boat heart.

*

Born at Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, Andrew Suknaski has studied at Simon Fraser University, British Columbia. His work is very imaginative and diverse so the printed page offers only the smallest glimpse of his activities as an artist and "happener." He has published in magazines like The Canadian Forum, and Ganglia Press has contracted to bring out a collection of his poems.
Under the title "Elfin Plot Publications," Suknaski has moved poetry into non-poetic areas. He has turned poems into kites and flown them; he has made "poem candles" and left them to burn on beaches; he has placed poems in canisters and abandoned them in mountain passes; and he has folded poems into paper airplanes and dropped them from real airplanes flying at a height of ten thousand feet.
    -- John Robert Colombo, "Andrew Suknaski," New     Directions in Canadian Poetry (1971)

 

August 28, 2005
Ottawa Ontario

Dear Suknatskyj,

I am still thinking about your stone boat heart. I am wondering if you know about the recent long poem, Stone Boat (2004), a first collection by Winnipeg poet Kristen Whittman; a long poem from the voice of Franklin, an old man in failing health, “a deft poetic biography of a man who has lost all to the modern world,” looking back to his own beginnings:

i lie awake
waiting for death
who will not come
now that he has me
he teases me, like a lover
leaves me
to search for the secrets
of others

in the silence
i hear the sounds of the ice on the lake
from a distance
crickling and crackling
mice running in a thousand directions

the Icelandic River will flow
for a thousand days
bearing its secrets
over the pebbles
to the lake

Your talk of prairie graveyard reminds me of that astounding Aritha Van Herk poem, “Calgary, this growing graveyard” that originally appeared in NeWest Review, but was rewritten and subsequently reprinted in editor Daniel S. Lenoski’s a/long prairie lines: An Anthology of Long Prairie Poems anthology (1989):

And stones will work their way to the surface, no matter how buried
  and buried again. Rocks clattered onto the stoneboat hot
  August afternoon out in the summerfallow behind your
  father’s and brothers’ overalled legs, the little ones were yours
  while they levered the heavy ones with a crowbar.

When you get old you get to carry the crowbar.
(You’ve got one now, in your garage, because it’s a crowbar)

You carry stones home with you, the flutes of pebbles ground soft
  by tide, knife stones from the Indian quarry, you lay on   your
  back to chip them from the roof. A small coffin that. The  house
  is full of rocks shining in corners. Enough to cover a  grave, and
  heaped up too.

Well yes, it’s death that makes a place its own.

Van Herk writing about Calgary the same way; she would have known of your poems. She must have; the size of prairie literature is large enough, but not enough to cover you. The editor even includes a piece of yours, the long poem “Homestead, 1914,” the first from your Wood Mountain Poems. In the introduction to the collection, Lenoski wrote:

Like professional explorers and archeologists, the poets in this volume not only stride through time, moving back and forth along the energy lines between their discoveries and themselves, but they also find naming and travelling through space crucial to their discipline. In fact, Arnason, van Herk, Hawley, Cooley, Kroetsch, Whyte, Kelsey and Crozier seem almost obsessed with both. Arnason travels west on the Trans-Canada Highway from the Maritimes and southwest from Iceland to Gimli, naming as he travels. And an entire section of his poem does almost nothing but name things indigenous to the shores of Lake Winnipeg. Such naming confers existence on the west as a cultural entity of value and dignity.

They say all any of us are doing is searching for home, and you did, hitchhiking west and then east before you rediscovered Wood Mountain in your first trade collection. You mourned for what was no longer there for you, for the natives, and your own family; and later on, for what was no longer there for yourself. Pined. I think I understand this; I have left my own skin behind as well. Where I sometimes can't bear to be but I expect I might end. If there is anything left for me to return to, when I do.

There is such a sense of self in the prairies that I haven’t seen anywhere else in the country, overlapping provinces and being more than just a sense of a particular town or a province; Cooley and Mandel writing Estevan, Newlove writing Kamsack, David Carpenter and Glen Sorestad writing Saskatoon, or Kroetsch out of any part of Alberta. There isn’t the same feeling in the writing in Ontario (but for, perhaps, Phil Hall writing Bobcaygeon, or Don McKay writing Long Sault, and his Williamstown autumn); the same sense of community, living as I am in the only province in Canada without a provincial writers guild. If you live in Toronto, you’re accused of being too Toronto-centric if you work on the local, and anywhere else in the province, you drift.

I know about the church at Wood Mountain you accidentally burned down; I know about the pile of manuscripts and letters you deliberately torched; and with the ash, made bread. You even wrote about them yourself, in essay and poem form. Even the Old Gods knew about fire; the accidents and the cleansing rituals. What were you clearing out of yourself; were you removing yourself from the poems? Were there even any other poems composed after such a deliberate act of cleansing? The countless packages of paper and bread you kept sending to Kristjana Gunnars. Was it the poems from you that you were removing?

*

Small towns, with their knowledge that they do not control everything, admit the tensions and thus re-create a place for the subject, perhaps articulate the subject in a new way, rifted by tensions it cannot control but dreaming nonetheless of meanings. Or they may provide a model for the subject as some other social context, marginalized but neither cynical nor indifferent. The subject's place must necessarily be created before the reader can again be engaged, can find a place for identification.
     Such a place cannot be something as abstracted as 'prairie.' It is not a state of mind, or a statistical probability. It is a location with its own weather, its own history, and insisting on its own responsibilities. In fact, place does not exist, only places do.
     To find such places is the problem within my work, and in the work of many contemporaries. Look at the anguished search for home in Andy Suknaski's recent poetry, the displacements in Claire Harris' books, the clearing--of plot, desk and mental space--that Lorne Daniel has been undertaking for the last several years, Bob Hilles' quiet and insistent probing.
     We're not looking for paradise. But we went places that allow us, enable us, engage us--places with a past and a future. Without such places, there aren't any places at all.
   -- Monty Reid, "Small Town, Small World," Trace:    Prairie Writers on Writing (1986)

 

 

August 29, 2005
Ottawa Ontario

Dear Suknatskyj,

I am thinking about ghosts, if your search for home brought up more ghosts in the end than you wanted; than you could handle. I am reading your collection the ghosts call you poor, and reading the stories you have collected, of the dead and the dying, of a way of life simply slipping away.

smuts
every business place boarded up
every house abandoned
the only sign of life the
big ukrainian church
towering against a blue autumn sky
above the hill on the edge of town
        “Smuts,” the ghosts call you poor

So much of what you needed and had seemingly abandoned, before you returned again, only to find it slipping away. The land eats these stories alive, don’t they, Suknatskyj. The new story of Saskatchewan of boarded up towns and dusty, unused roads, so far removed from the expansive and immediate present that your parents entered in 1914, on that homestead.

across from the churchyard ending at the gridroad
métis children play among poplars
on the nearby farm
still unabandoned
like others along the road
where defeated men women and children
left for other places
the ancestral spirit crushed
by the undertow of the new
and by white men with money
     “Abandoned Métis Church,” the ghosts call you poor

Stories, they say, that will always return to their original forms. But where have they disappeared to.
*

*Statement

My poems are not my life; they are not even part of my life. A poem is a sniper ready to assassinate everything worth believing in -- or living for. The logic of poems and men is capable of anything -- even genocide. I would not want anyone to make his life a poem (or a novel), that could only end in the creation of a way of life where one moves like a Frankenstein monster. Do not believe in my poems, or ideas therein -- if there are any, do not believe what I write at this moment -- even suspect yourself at this moment if you feel yourself moving into another consciousness. If my poems can possibly make you feel uneasy (even conscious of your unconsciousness), then that is all that matters.

For 22 years I have moved from room to room in a few schools and universities whose teachers proposed to educate me; moving, a growing lonelier than Judas after the kiss, among those masses of people, I suspect I maybe have been de-educated -- and many have to spend the next 28 years of my life, now 28, trying to find my heart and soul. If I could have the chance to betray myself again, I would learn the alphabet at thirty-three, after listening to grizzlies turn stones for ants in the high mountains where, of course, I would have worked as an illiterate mountain guide living on goat's milk and wine.
-- Andrew Suknaski, "Statement," Storm Warning (1971)

 

 

September 22, 2005
Ottawa Ontario

Dear Suknatskyj,

I am realizing more and more that your Wood Mountain Poems weren't the career beginning that so much of your attention suggests, but the mid-point of a flurry of activity. Certainly it exists as a marker, there is no denying that; but I wonder about the years and books of visuals you published before Al Purdy put your work together for Macmillan. I wonder why neither of you worked to include your visuals. I am disappointed, too, that there are no letters to you in his collected letters, Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy (2004). Considering how important he was to getting a larger attention to your poetry, I would have expected a letter directed to you, although you are mentioned twice: in a letter to George Woodcock in 1974, and in a letter to Dennis Lee in 1980:

[…] In your essay, you talk about the "emerged" writers, altho just slightly emerged in some cases. Newlove and I have been trying to have McStew publish Trower, his best stuff since he's very uneven. And Suknaski definitely ought to have a book out by some publisher who would showcase his best stuff. Lane already has, at Anansi--altho I have the feeling that Lane won't improve much, will stay just as he is in the "Oh what a terrible world!" genre.
   -- "To George Woodcock (Vancouver), from    Ameliasburgh,    October 5, 1974"

It's interesting to see the progression to when he talks of you to Lee (April 12, 1980), writing:

Yeah, it's good Suknaski took your criticism the right way. It might well be that he can write better poems, since he was writing different stuff before all the hoopla about Wd. Mtn.

Lately I’ve been going through some reviews of prairie poetry you published in old issues of Brick, from 1980 and 1982, when I was ten and twelve years old, respectively; listening to the movement of your speech and thinking, and seeing where your mind moved, old Muzhik, old self-defined peasant.

By that time you had moved from visual poems to visual art, a record of which has been harder to locate. Where did the page go for you? How is it they became filled with only words? Words, and the occasional Chinese character.

I have been working on a novel set in Saskatchewan, and am sprinkling the flavour I find in your poems throughout my text, or at least trying to. Writing Saskatchewan without wanting to say it out loud, or make it too obvious. Fictionalizing a memory of a part of the province you would probably know, nearly an hours drive east and a bit north of Regina, just by Lumsden. Where Joe Blades and I filled envelopes with sage in the spring of 1998, during a break while touring Open 24 Hours. That was before I had really heard of you, not knowing anything about Wood Mountain, or that you were a two hour drive to the west. I was the same age on that Saskatchewan hill that you were in your statement for Storm Warning. So far still at the beginning.

*

Most of all, I think I'm moved and fascinated by the idea of the story, the eternal story that is being told. If there is a singular influence beyond all else, it's got to be Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner". That guy with his skinny hand clutching the Wedding-Guest's wrist. The Ancient Mariner … he's got to tell that story, on and on. That's all of us. We're all eternally the Mariner, the Eternal Mariner. We've got to hold someone's willow-thin wrist and keep telling our story, and keep re-inventing ourselves, re-creating ourselves, expanding our lives, on and on. And I think that's the magic of it. That story is growing, eternally growing, and it shapes and reshapes us forever.
   -- interview with Andrew Suknaski, by Doris    Hillis    (1988)

 

September 30, 2005
Ottawa Ontario

Dear Suknatskyj,

Reading through your Silk Trail, I can't help wondering about the small moments, wondering where the line went, a pendulum of text moving back and forth, the "loping coyote lines" that sprawl across your later page. Was this a break of the line, or a breaking down. Phil Hall wondered out loud about alcoholism, how the breakdown on the page could easily come with the body breaking down from drink, but I know that isn't it. Was it simply the line that took you. Was it simply the line.

                   drifting
NW
   in a junk/
              the land
   he named
             slowly
                    receding

     fu sang
             "many
                   voice
             wind"

     sifting ... through
                         his lonely
     memories
              ———————— filaments
                               of song

                     ————————  ming sha
                     ming
                           sha

In your interview with Doris Hillis, you said that Silk Trail (1985) was part three of a project started with Montage for an Interstellar Cry (1982), a life-long project called "Celestial Mechanics." Are there completed volumes we haven't seen, or even incomplete? Where did the rest of it go? Brantford, Ontario poet Kemeny Babineau found a poem or two, hidden deep in old journals, but so far, little more. What happened, and what were you waiting for? As you said to her, in part of the interview:

Well, I think it's just playing around and experimenting. I didn't make many copies of those collages. I sent them to a few friends before Christmas, gave a few away. No, it's just passing time till I do some real art. I'd like to do some more drawing similar to the East of Myloona ones. Would like them to be about the Romanian people. I've been working on a book about the Romanian people for about six years and I'd like to use drawings to separate the chapters. I would use drawings of people in the same way I used them in East of Myloona, and I'd also use things from the landscape: trees, buildings, images of abandoned places, abandoned machinery, old wells, ploughs. But I have to rewrite parts of the Romanian book. In Search of Parinti: A History of the Romanians of Western Canada, do some fine tuning … and that's going to be a lot of work.

And my main dilemma now is trying to finish off a long poem called "Divining West". That is my nightmare, that poem, because it's such a spread-eagled poem. It keeps going off on tangents. Sections of it get edited and published somewhere but there's no end in sight for it yet. I first thought of that title as a tribute to Margaret Lawrence … The Diviners, and the old idea of divining -- divining for water, divining for your own soul, or someone else's. But it's an exhausting project and I've deluded myself into thinking that I have to write long poems. Someone explained to me -- I think it was Stephen Scobie -- "Suknaski, you don't have to write long poems. Some poets are writing short poems and still call it all, the long poem." So I think I'm going to mine some shorter poems out of those long sections.

And then "Divining West" is actually a section of a life-long project I call "Celestial Mechanics" … part two, I think. Part one is Montage for an Interstellar Cry, and Silk Trail, … I think that's part three of "Celestial Mechanics". And part four is something I've had in mind for ten or twelve years called "Ussuri Line," about the experiences of Chinese coolies working on different continents -- in eastern Russia, Australia, California and British Columbia. That's something for the future. I don't know if I'll ever finish it.

So much of your story, Suknatskyj, seems unfinished, and almost abandoned. Who will be telling the rest of your story? What happened to that story you were meaning to tell? At the back of the book, quoted from Contemporary Authors, Volume 101, you wrote:

My deepest wish is to always retain a sense of place informed by innate duplexity where art emanates from my awareness that the greater possibilities and strength lie in dream time founded on a guilt vacillating between profound respect for the autochthons who first inhabited Turtle Island (or 'The Great Island,' as North America was first named) and my indigenous ethnicity predestined by a double code: the mythic mainsprings of a Slavic pantheism vis a vis the white Anglo-Saxon/Judeo-Christian cosmology. Believing my mythic origins and dream time to be twofold, I -- through birthright -- claim the inalienable right to honor both the aboriginal and white ethnic peoples who were mutually victimized by the white supremist. The obvious price of this art, built on the sentient wish to never fully empathize with a single people, is a guilt anchored in a deep sense of betrayal.

As a Canadian writer, I am mostly concerned with finding a cipher that will decode a fourfold dream: the Anglo Saxon's dream and search for the Northwest Passage to further expand the British Empire (the human toil among many peoples being the price of that dream); the European immigrant's dream of a New Jerusalem in the new life (a second chance) in the New World; the Chinese dream of the 'Golden Mountains' in California, or the 'Gold Mountain' in Canada's West (the only chance for three hundred dollars and passage back home to be reunited with one's family and find another home elsewhere beyond crowded cities and states); and finally the Amerindian dreaming of homeland, Manitou's abundance to keep body and spirit where no boundaries are ever drawn -- except by migration of game, and alluring mythical places where the gods impart their secrets.

Where are the secrets you were trying to keep, the needle you were using to tie together all those prairie threads? What was the haystack that took it?

There is something about the line you wrote, the unfinished line.

*

now it all begins with a weakness
for tall girls
and tall boys that tony
tomato master
from odessa
prunes
perfectly
in the narrow
garden
next
to the glaring
white wall
of a garage
and summer
     Andrew Suknaski, "Tony's Crabapple Tree / 1982      In Regina," Canadian Literature #100

 

 

October 17, 2005
Ottawa Ontario

Dear Suknatskyj,

As Kristjana Gunnars, reviewing The Land They Gave Away in The Dinosaur Review, wrote:

It is evident that later books, especially Wood Mountain Poems (Macmillan, 1976), The Ghosts Call You Poor (Macmillan, 1978), and Montage For An Interstellar Cry, are lacking in the freshness and trust in the reader that mark the early chapbooks. Instead the poetry is polished and selected with the help of outside editors and we have something more formally acceptable. Acceptability as such may run against Suknaski's narrative grain, however, and the question remains whether editors have not done more to edit out the answers the narrative so desperately seeks. The voice occasionally appears to come from behind bars in these later books, and the search is suspended until it turns into a form of despair, something that looms large in Montage For An Interstellar Cry.

Later in the review, she goes on to say that:

It is with this 1976 publication of Wood Mountain Poems that we see the end of the insistence on being. The next four books (The Ghosts Call You Poor, East Of Myloona, In The Name Of Narid, Porcupine's Quill, 1981, and Montage For An Interstellar Cry) usher in an acceptance of despair in the narrative that culminates in Montage For An Interstellar Cry. Affirmation of life, human bondage, possibilities of love, give in to various forms of, or narrative fascination with, failure, treason, cruelty and a 20th century death of the spirit. The narrative seems to contain an awareness of what Merton saw so clearly; that for being, success in the world is the first step to failure. In the wake of an apparent giving in to spiritual failure, there grows a converse interest in violence and torture which is contradictory to the entire poetic impulse of Suknaski's work. That linguistic and ideological adjustability, flexibility and openness bespeaks a form of true nonviolence, where the narrative does not try to convince and change the reader, but instead enters the subject and humanizes both the subject and the reader. The final concern with nuclear megadeath and torture in Montage For An Interstellar Cry is not so much a bid for peace as it is a poetic collapse.

It becomes an interesting argument that Gunnars brings up, the difference between writing and publishing for your own interests and purposes, to starting to work with editors. It's something I'm sure a good number of us have had to get used to, after years of self-production, whether myself, Barry McKinnon, derek beaulieu, Nelson Ball, Victor Coleman and who knows how many more. Cooley has suggested (and I think Hyland too) that you gave complete control to the editors of your trade collections. Was it a lack of confidence or lack of interest that compelled you? Or was it complete trust? What would your collections have looked like had you compiled them yourself? Would the answers that Gunnars suggest have remained in the text? Would your cry have been answered before it would have built, before it needed to escape?

Did the death of this spirit coincide accidentally or deliberately with your movement to trade collections, from your oceans of self-produced chapbooks?

It begs the question: was Purdy actually doing you a favour when he discovered your work, and wanted to take it somewhere further?

Was it the lack of (perceived) control? Was it simply out of your hands?

*

i grew in WOOD MOUNTAIN/ saskatchewan. men living around WOOD MTN named the land ten miles SOUTH of town. they named it THE BENCH because streams flowing SOUTH became the EAST POPLAR RIVER serpen-ting into MONTANA. streams moving NORTH-EAST and in TWELVE MILE LAKE-- the lake between WOOD MTN and STONEHENGE. th SUN always ROSE for me slightly to the right of STONEHENGE.
  -- Andrew Suknaski, "statement/," ROSE FAR IN THE EAST   (1971)

 

 

October 12, 2005
Ottawa Ontario

Dear Suknatskyj,

To understand any of this, they say, you always have to go back to the beginning. The beginning. In his infamous essay on your Wood Mountain Poems, "Writing West: On the Road to Wood Mountain" (originally published in Canadian Forum in 1977), Eli Mandel wrote that his

image for the prairie writer, then, at least as a point of beginning for this account, is not necessarily the one who is in the west, or who stays here, but the one who returns, who moves, who points in this direction.
    I know this too can sound heretical or like special pleading but it fits very closely my own sense that it is not place but attitude, state of mind, that defines the western writer -- and that state of mind, I want to suggest has a good deal to do with a tension between place and culture, a doubleness or duplicity, that makes the writer a man not so much in place, as out of place, and so one endlessly trying to get back, to find his way home, to return, to write himself into existence, writing west.

In his essay "Cultural Orphans and Wood Mountain: The Poetry of Andrew Suknaski" in Prairie Journal, Michael Q. Abraham talked of your beginning, writing:

Born in 1942 to a Ukrainian father and a Polish mother, Suknaski's childhood was a turbulent one. Apart from the struggle of school and learning English, Andrew Suknaski Sr. was prone to fits of violent rage, often venting it on his wife and family. Suknaski ran away from home in 1959 at the age of sixteen, and spent the next seventeen years traveling around Canada and the world. His first major book of poetry did not appear until 1974. The aptly-titled Leaving chronicles Suknaski's departure from Wood Mountain and his travels. The collection appears as part memoir and part commentary, the travels are presented as an extended search for identity.

But it could never be that simple, to be sure. Almost any writer, it could be said, is searching for their own way home; searching for a sense of self through the pain, and sometimes, being ruined by it. You left home and then longed for it; and by the time you returned it was gone. Doesn't this seem too easy?

In a package from Babineau are a pile of photocopies of Blind Man's House, and Writing on Stone (poemdrawings 1966-1976), as well as a number of essays and other pieces on your work and by you. He included a single poem by Al Purdy, "FLOATING DOWN THE NORTH / SASKATCHEWAN RIVER / (For Andy Suknaski)," from a chapbook of Purdy's that Suknaski illustrated, On Being Romantic & 5 Love Poems. The poem references one of Suknaski's guerilla publishing activities, that Purdy was involved with. As you even wrote yourself, at the end of your selected poemdrawings:

once i published poem kites by wind gave them away to grateful children and suspicious parents one vancouver sunday along english bay / the complete issue of ELFIN PLOT 3 i floated down the north saskatchewan al purdy provided the empty cigar tubes which became waxsealed envelopes bearing missives to the sea others i planted in cairns on mountains i climbed that summer still another time i folded a hundred poems by friends and a friend dropped them from a small plane at 10,000 feet north of edmonton alberta he said 'as i tossed them out of my window i sort of fell slantdiving so they wouldn't get battered in my tail and tail wings'
    Andrew Suknaski, "afterward to "WRITING ON STONE     (POEMDRAWINGS 1966-1976)," Writing on Stone     (poemdrawings 1966-1976) (1976)

In a note on the side of the photocopy, Babineau writes, "It's a bad copy, but the poems are worse -- this is all I copied," as Purdy's short poem for you ends, with:

Your chin is rounded
which most chins are
hence unremarkable
as countless mornings
Lips full and "sweet"
a word I only want to use
the raspberry part of
Catalogue
ms. found in a bottle
containing also
the weightless ingredient
pain

Works Cited:

Abraham, Michael Q. "Cultural Orphans and Wood Mountain: The Poetry of Andrew Suknaski," The Prairie Journal of Canadian Literature, "Small Press Postcript" issue. Calgary AB: Prairie Journal Trust, 1990.
Colombo, John Robert, ed. New Direction in Canadian Poetry. Toronto ON / Montreal QC: Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, Limited, 1971.
Geddes, Gary. Snakeroot. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1973, 1977.
Gunnars, Kristjana. "Searching for the Ultimate," The Dinosaur Review 6. Drumheller, AB: winter 1985.
Hillis, Doris. "Interview," in Plainspeaking: Interviews with Saskatchewan writers. Regina SK: Coteau Books, 1988.
Mandel, Eli. "Writing West: On the Road to Wood Mountain," Another Time. Erin ON: Press Porcepic Ltd., 1977.
________. The Other Harmony: The Collected Poems of Eli Mandel. Regina SK: Canadian Plains Research Centre, 2000.
McKay, Don. Long Sault. London ON: Applegarth Follies, 1975.
McKinnon, Barry. I Wanted to Say Something. Prince George BC: Caledonia Writing Series, 1975; Red Deer AB: Red Deer College Press, 1990.
John Newlove. THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems. Ottawa ON: above/ground press, 1999.
Purdy, Alfred W. On Being Romantic & 5 Love Poems. (chapbook; illustrations by Andrew Suknaski). Reid, Monty. "Small Town, Small World," ed. Birk Sproxton. Trace: Prairie Writers on Writing:. Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1986.
Solecki, Sam, ed. Yours, Al: The Collected Letters of Al Purdy. Vancouver BC: Harbour Publishing, 2004.
Suknaski, Andrew. In the Name of Narid. Erin ON: The Porcupine’s Quill, 1981.
________. Leaving. Seven Persons AB: Repository Press, 1974.
________. “Mandel Memoir,” Essays on Canadian Writing (Eli Mandel issue), 45-46. Toronto ON, winter/spring 1991-1992.
________. "Statement," Storm Warning, ed. Al Purdy. Toronto ON: McClelland and Stewart, 1971.
________. Suicide Notes, Book One. chapbook. Wood Mountain SK: Sundog Press, 1973.
________. Suicide Notes, Abandoned. Unpublished manuscript, University of Manitoba archive.
________. The Ghosts You Call Poor. Toronto ON: Macmillan, 1978.
________. The Land They Gave Away: New & Selected Poems. Ed. Stephen Scobie. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1982.
________. “The Prairie Graveyard,” RePlacing, ed. Dennis Cooley. Downsview ON: ECW Press, 1980.
________. "Tony's Crabapple Tree / 1982 In Regina," Canadian Literature #100, University of British Columbia, spring 1984.
________. Wood Mountain Poems. Toronto ON: Macmillan, 1976; Regina SK: Hagios, 2006.

Van Herk, Aritha. “Calgary, this growing graveyard,” ed. Daniel S. Lenoski, a/long prairie lines: An Anthology of Long Prairie Poems. Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1989.
Whittman, Kristen. Stone Boat. Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 2004.


Born in Ottawa in 1970, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of twelve trade poetry collections including name    , an errant (Stride, UK, 2006) and aubade (Broken Jaw Press, 2006), he has three more due to appear in spring 2007: The Ottawa City Project (Chaudiere Books, Ottawa), a compact of words (Salmon, Ireland) and avalanche (Outside Voices, US). His poetry, fiction and critical work has appeared in over one hundred journals and anthologies in eleven countries and three languages, and he is the editor/publisher of above/ground press and the long poem magazine STANZAS (both founded in 1993), the online critical journal Poetics.ca (with Ottawa poet Stephen Brockwell) and the Ottawa poetry annual ottawater (ottawater.com/). He edits the ongoing Cauldron Books series through Broken Jaw Press, and edited the anthologies evergreen: six new poets (Black Moss Press), side/lines: a new canadian poetics (Insomniac Press) and GROUNDSWELL: the best of above/ground press, 1993-2003 (Broken Jaw Press), among others, and in 2004, became an editor of the American on-line journal Drunken Boat. In 2006, with Jennifer Mulligan and Carmel Purkis, he started the Ottawa-based literary house Chaudiere Books. Since 1991 he has co-ordinated readings and launches throughout Ottawa, as well as the semi-annual ottawa small press book fair (founded in 1994) through the small press action network - ottawa (span-o). In 1999, he won the Canadian Authors' Association / Air Canada Award for most promising writer (in any genre) in Canada under 30. A member of The League of Canadian Poets, the Peter F. Yacht Club writing group and the Glengarry Historical Society, he is currently completing a novel (or three), editing a series of critical collections for Guernica Editions on the works of Canadian writers George Bowering, John Newlove and Andrew Suknaski, editing a new edition of selected poems by Andrew Suknaski, editing a collection of essays and reviews by Andrew Suknaski, putting the finishing touches on a collection of literary essays to appear with ECW Press in 2007, and working on a non-fiction book for Arsenal Pulp Press, Ottawa: The Unknown City. His online home is at www.track0.com/rob_mclennan, and he often posts reviews, essays, rants and other nonsense at his blog, www.robmclennan.blogspot.com.

 



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