the stone-boat heart:
letters to Andrew Suknaski
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
August 18, 2005
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.”
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:
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
with the bottom of stairways
where our lives cross
the story is
your mother an laura
taught at tolstoi
their school house was
‘the red one’
they shared a thatched roof teacherage
an after they went their
they always wrote letters
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
woman then hair
combed straight an simple
a single lock covering her
an curving down to meet
forever there over her
sleeping in the carriage
where one can almost smell the
bordering the crunch of
and the long dress she wears
that mirror the sky
i’m sendin you this print
an keepin one for myself
above a family photo
me standin against the lilies
on my sixth birthday
before we all left
the farm an father for
send you these
for the possible
However it happened, it is a photograph she still has. Susan
speaks well of you, for that.
August 20, 2005
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
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
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
August 21, 2005
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
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
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
August 22, 2005
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?
in the cabin
and smoking a cigar
thinking of those
at sunrise in the morning
enjoying their last smoke
look up at the small vial
of faint blue pills
a thought …
there are enough of them there
and it would be
the only distraction
a nearby book called
THESE LOVED, THESE HATED LANDS
the thread dividing
and the thought of leaving…
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,
what seems to be the problem?
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
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
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
to search for the secrets
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
And stones will work their way to the surface, no matter how
and buried again. Rocks clattered onto the stoneboat
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
You carry stones home with you, the flutes of pebbles ground
by tide, knife stones from the Indian quarry, you
lay on your
back to chip them from the roof. A small coffin that.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Church,” the ghosts call you poor
Stories, they say, that will always return to their original
forms. But where have they disappeared to.
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
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
September 22, 2005
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,
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
September 30, 2005
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.
in a junk/
sifting ... through
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
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,
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
in the narrow
to the glaring
of a garage
Andrew Suknaski, "Tony's
Crabapple Tree / 1982 In Regina,"
Canadian Literature #100
October 17, 2005
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
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
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
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
Andrew Suknaski, "afterward to
"WRITING ON STONE (POEMDRAWINGS
1966-1976)," Writing on Stone (poemdrawings
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
as countless mornings
Lips full and "sweet"
a word I only want to use
the raspberry part of
ms. found in a bottle
the weightless ingredient
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,
Geddes, Gary. Snakeroot. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 1973,
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,
McKinnon, Barry. I Wanted to Say Something. Prince George
BC: Caledonia Writing Series, 1975; Red Deer AB: Red Deer College
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,
________. “Mandel Memoir,” Essays on Canadian
Writing (Eli Mandel issue), 45-46. Toronto ON, winter/spring
________. "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,
________. 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,
________. 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
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
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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