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George Bowering: Vocal Laureate

james hörner

george Bowering recently became the country's first Poet Laureate. while this post, combined with a couple of Governor General's awards, might make a lesser writer steer clear of controversy, Bowering has no problem speaking his mind. whether in writing poetry, fiction, memoirs or history, he tells it like he sees it. he took some time in between travelling back and forth across the country to tell us what's what.

cancon
i guess the obvious first question is about your being canada's first poet laureate. what are your thoughts on the post and what it means for you as a writer?

George Bowering
I find it hard to gather, as they say, my thoughts about this one. One of the curious facets I have paid notice to is the question of being in the establishment as against being in the opposition. Is there something about being a "poet" that makes it possible to be a shit disturber in the palace? Well, I have to say that the Parliament of Canada is getting their PL for a rock-bottom price. The first TV appearance I gave after the position was filled was on "ZeD," where I proposed having sex with chickens. That did not get me into trouble. But saying "horseshit" to the idea that Slam events can make a city's greatness in poetry caused a storm, as the publicity-seeking slammers and the controversy-seeking press got together and scratched each other's nuts. But this job does make it odd to be a writer. I have been too busy to be much of a writer. Maybe you sacrifice yr writing time for a couple years in order to have a chance to make Canadians think for 10 seconds a week about poetry.

cancon
you were born a shit disturber. what's the worst trouble it's gotten you into so far?

George Bowering
A lot depends on your decade and perspective. For example, I was always getting into trouble at school, which was worse because my father was the Chem teacher there; I was not a hoodlum type, though. I got into trouble for my principles. For example I was expelled for the last month of grade twelve because of my campaign against the recognition of the English monarch in Canada. Now I am her poet, or something. Well, in the meantime I have learned that the real campaign should be against the US takeover of our country and the minds of our young, who now seem to say, for example, Mawm instead of Mum.

cancon
how has this attitude, or take on the world, helped your writing?

George Bowering
If you are a person inclined to be oppositional, and you are a poet, you are likely to be oppositional in terms of aesthetics and prosody, etc. That means being oppositional to the current practices most favoured by the bourgeois forces in one's society. This, for example, means trying not to write anything like the way the winners of the novel contest write.

cancon
i have to return to the slam poetry kerfuffle for a moment - what exactly was that all about? i read about it in the paper, but suspect that wasn't the whole story.

George Bowering
I find that that whole thing is a bore, and has had more ink than it deserves. Some person phoned me and asked me questions for a piece about poetry in a Toronto newspaper, if I remember rightly. When she posited that Vancouver's prominence in poetry was a result of slam or spoken word or something, I said no, in a comic fashion. The poetry contestant crowd milked the situation for all the publicity they could get, that being their metier, I guess.

cancon
i've been talking to people about the poet laureate position, and they (all quite literate) struggled to name poets that could have even made the laureate finals. most of the poets they came up with unfortunately died within the past decade or so. where does this lack of knowledge about contemporary poets stem from? and an even more ridiculous question - what do we do about it?

George Bowering
There is an opposite and equal phenomenon I have noticed a few times. On a big e-mail list for discussion by poets, I find that a lot of the members can run off the names of pop music individuals.

cancon
were there any other contenders you thought might beat you out?

George Bowering
Not that I know of. My only fear was that Don McKay would nose me out again.

cancon
what is your mandate as poet laureate?

George Bowering
I have not been given one.

cancon
they didn't give you a mandate?! what are your personal objectives surrounding the position?

George Bowering
My main point at the beginning was that I am not Ottawa's poet laureate but Canada's poet laureate. So I have some projects, which I don't want to describe fully, but will do later, especially after my home page ort whatever the right term is, gets up. A lot of people have asked me whether my plans will include reading & writing by young people, and the answer is yes. My partner Jean Baird is an expert in this area, and she will keep me on the path.

cancon
do you have any events or anything else in the works?

George Bowering
Oh, yes. I will be having lots of meetings with people in Ottawa an elsewhere. I am hoping, in my short time as PL, to get a few programs off the ground; they may include stamps, wine and anthologies.

cancon
how have your notions of poetry shifted over the years?

George Bowering
When I was 21 I was a big Modernist fan, though I am not sure that I knew the term. I went around publicly agreeing with Pound's dismissal of the Romantics. When I was 27 Allen Ginsberg and others converted me to a fan of the Romantics. In high school I thought that Hart Crane was great. Later I kind of ignored him. A few years ago I thought again that he is great, though he does not resemble Charles Olson much at all. I have never thought that Ted Hughes is great.

cancon
enjoying "retirement" from academia?

George Bowering
Yes, I am. The only thing bad about retirement is that you have to wait till later in your life. I still poke my nose into a university from time to time. But I don't mark papers, and I don't go to department meetings. I will tell you the best part: now when I am among people, they are likely to be people who are interested. At university it was so sad to be in a literature class in which the majority of the "students" did not care all that much about literature, and to see that English professors do not go to poetry readings or subscribe to literature magazines.

cancon
there are a lot of programs and grants out there to support canadian writers, but this varies heavily from province to province - in general, how do you rate support for writers in canada?

George Bowering
There is a lot of support from governments and not much from private foundations, I think. In Toronto you can get grants from the city, the province and the country. In BC you are shit out of luck if you don't get a national grant. There is also less visible help for the writer, as the grants to publishers make his publication more likely. We have one hell of a lot of writers, almost all of them voluntary. I think that they have been encouraged as much as they need to be. If you are a poet in Canada, it is hard NOT to get published.

cancon
when you were starting your career what did you hope to accomplish?

George Bowering
I was tooling along with two sets of expectations, I guess. I thought that I was in a life drama in which I would become a well-published writer. But I also thought, ah no, you Okanagan Valley hick, you are never going to get anywhere. But I cannot imagine that I would have lived without writing, reading, buying, and editing books.

cancon
what are you working on at the moment in your own writing?

George Bowering
I am writing my first book review in years and years. And I am writing it for a magazine that hardly anyone reads.

cancon
as a poet you were swift to step up and voice your thoughts on the war by allowing your poem "Good Prospects" to be reprinted, reminding us of the important role writers have in social change. what responsibilities do you see yourself, or writers in general, as having?

George Bowering
Writers, I think, have a responsibility to the language, not to shame it, not to misuse it, to do as well as they can with the gifts that language brings, if that is not sounding overly la-dee-daw. Human beings have a responsibility to other human beings, especially those that need help. If those human beings are writers they can help in the normal ways and also, if they are lucky, through their skill and faith in the language.


james hörner edits canadian content.

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