See my earlier post for part one of this fascinating interview with Canadian poet and author Tom Wayman.
Joyce: What I find fascinating is that if you look south of the border now, you see people like Ferlinghetti, who’s still going, still being very radical in a lot of his writing. And Wendell Berry—all through the Bush regime Berry was cranking out stuff that was very openly critical of the regime yet still really well-crafted poetry. And then you have Pulitzer Prize winner Mary Oliver; and these are all very, very different kinds of poetry than what seems popular in academic circles in Canada right now.
Wayman: The academy is not a monolith, but yeah there’s a kind of academic poetry that’s determinedly non-linear, that’s designed not to make sense. But then you have poets like Billy Collins who has a huge following and does have something to say and says it directly. So of course some people don’t like Billy Collins because you can understand it. But that’s the way it’s going to be, there’s always going to be those tensions.
I’m not going to give up arguing for what I want, or what I believe, but I think what’s hip, cool and in fashion today looks old-fashioned faster than anything now. And already, there’s lots of cracks in the stuff that called itself post-modern. There’s just not much more you can do with it. How many books can you write about the fact that language is bad, it’s no good, it’s rotten? Okay, we’ve had lots of that; but it’s so narrow… eventually it’s boring—you’ve heard that.
One of my colleagues was in a thesis defence and the student was starting in the same tired way. And this is a guy who’s a real expert in post-modern criticism. But he said to the student, he asked, ‘What ideas about Canadian literature do you think your views hide?’ And I thought it was such a good question—the student could not answer the question. Because in fact it’s true that by academia concentrating on a very narrow kind of poetry, it hides the entire world of where that stuff came from. But also where it’s going, because it ain’t gonna stay like this.
Joyce: There was a great article in Maisonneuve magazine after Irving Layton’s death. I thought of all the eulogies written about Layton it was absolutely the best because what they pointed out was how the literary establishment was rushing to embrace him with these tributes after his death. When, while he was alive, he was almost constantly at war with them, because of the fact that, in his view, he was trying to disturb the established complacencies and they were constantly resisting him. (Laughs) So there was this irony of them lionizing him after his death. And also the marginalization of figures like MacEwen—
Wayman: But he isn’t the first guy to have that happen. Just in a ’60s context, every American city now has a Martin Luther King Drive, you know, or a Martin Luther King Avenue. But when King was alive, at that time in the ’60s he was wildly hated. You know, J. Edgar Hoover and all that stuff about him being this horrible communist, and he was denounced and pilloried and people hated him. But once he’s safely dead then you can refashion him as this apostle of peace and harmony and that wasn’t what he was at all. He led those protest marches that were bitter and people got killed and beat up and the whole nine yards. He disturbed—I like that phrase of yours, disturbed people in such ways that they reacted—but now it’s all Martin Luther King Drive. It just stuck.
I can’t think of a really good Canadian example—well I guess the Louis Riel thing. It used to be you could talk to people on the prairies—older people—who hated and feared Riel and now he’s a postage stamp and a statue and everybody loves Batoche and stuff like that. But he was a figure that disturbed, he said what’s going on isn’t right and I’m prepared to do something about it.
Joyce: So do you think that—given that these trends come and go and eventually burn themselves out—we might see a return to respect for some of the so-called Canadian people’s poets like Milton Acorn and Layton himself? And maybe to a lesser extent but still relevant I think is Gwendolyn MacEwen, because she often gets pilloried as this kind of quasi-Celtic priestess, which seems to be very unpopular with certain segments of the literary community. And yet she was brilliant—she won a Governor General’s Award for God’s sake! So do you think we might be on the cusp of returning to re-appreciate that?
Wayman: I think that will happen but I won’t go so far as to say we’re on the cusp because I’m a notoriously poor predictor of events. Almost anything I end up announcing is going to happen, doesn’t happen. But yes, I believe that attention will swing back to embracing a broader range of poetries as worthy of people looking at; and new poetries coming out of a broader range than at present. I think the rewards of reading ‘head’ poetry are so small that… I just don’t think there’s enough there to sustain over the long haul. So I think it will widen back out.
One of the problems is, if you’re a young academic training in this kind of writing, you’re not going to abandon what you know instantly. When I was a young English student T.S. Eliot was everything and you had to constantly quote Eliot no matter what you were writing about. And now that’s gone so completely you don’t even find Eliot in some anthologies. Yet anyone that was trained as an Eliot critic isn’t going to give that up.
It’s different in the trades. If you have a gas ticket you have to constantly re-learn gasfitting as new technologies come along and new tools are invented. But with a lot of academic studies once you get your degree you never have to re-learn anything, really. So it’ll go through someone’s whole career, and to a greater or lesser degree that will be their outlook. I’m not saying people can’t change, but there’s often no impulse to change.
But I think a social milieu makes a difference. Until the women’s movement became active, those writers who had been accurate about describing the condition of women were marginalized, they were not considered important, mainstream writers. But the moment there was a social movement, there was an interest in that and those women became central and people did do theses on them, discussing them and quoting them.
I think the same is true about work writing, until there’s a social change component in unionism again; or some kind of labour movement that sees that you have a right to be free at work as well as a right to be a citizen off the job. Until that happens this stuff will always be marginalized. But it’s no reason not to write it any more than women who were accurate writers about their condition should have stopped writing about it. That’s why I think it’s important that people just keep writing what’s important to them. Everything else is just luck—if you happen to be born at a time when something is valued that’s great but if you happen to be born at a time when it isn’t it’s not the end of the world, unless people are shooting at you for your writing.
Joyce: Or people being driven to suicide because they feel their work is undervalued, which of course is a common theme throughout art history.
Wayman: I publish my poetry mostly with Howard White at Harbour Publishing who used to drive Cat all the time. He always takes a dim view of writers—especially poets—taking that stuff so seriously that it affects their life. It’s not that it’s not important but you need a sense of perspective. Why did people feel they needed that positive reinforcement from outside in order to keep writing? Unless they were being beaten up or shot or something. The indifference of society is not the same as oppression. It can feel oppressive if you let it but it’s something different.
Let me come back to your wonderful thing about ‘disturbed.’ There was an English author Joyce Cary—Anglo-Irish—who wrote that book The Horse’s Mouth. And in it he said an artist exists to disturb society. He said, ‘if they don’t put you in a sack and throw you in the ocean, you’re doing pretty well.’ Because here you are, you’re trying to shake things up and society doesn’t want to be shaken up particularly. So the fact that you didn’t get in this art show or you didn’t win these prizes or you didn’t get this grant—it’s just luck, it’s a lottery and most people’s luck is bad.
Joyce: There’s an interesting book I thought I’d mention, Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. He talks about how we have this myth in our culture of the ‘self-made man.’ And what he does in this book is deconstruct that myth by pointing out that anybody like that—whether it’s Bill Gates or Bono the rock star from U2 or anybody else—there’s a combination of factors that go into making their success. Gladwell starts with something as basic as when they were born, where they were born, the culture they were born into, the support network they had around them—whether it was in computers or art or music or whatever—and luck, blind luck. All these different things that go into making someone a ‘success.’
Wayman: I can feel depressed about things the same as anybody. But then I live in one of the most beautiful places on the whole planet, I have good friends, I eat good food, I drink clean water. What does it matter that I got turned down for a BC Arts Council grant or a Canada Council grant? It would be nice to get them, but really I’m living the life of Riley.
Take a writer like Neruda, someone I really admire—a constant inspiration. But his worldwide fame was due to the fact that he was in the Communist party and they selected him—he wrote poems in praise of Stalin. So he was a good, safe party guy and he happened to be a good poet too. But that worldwide exposure, as opposed to just being a Chilean poet who had done really well, that in part was because he lucked out at a time when the party had worldwide influence. And in every country in the world there were party members, so once the word went out that this was the kind of poet you should invite, things took off. And it’s not to take away one iota from his strengths as a writer but that’s just luck! That’s all it is. That makes me sound like I’m putting him down; I’m not putting him down. I really admire what he wrote—not about Stalin, but the other stuff, and we’ve all written stupid poems, so him too. But so much of his career was luck, and the same with so many people who ‘make it.’ They were there, in the right place at the right time.
But there’s two parts to that, and the other part of that is, we’re in the right place at the right time. And we get to live in the Kootenays. You can’t underestimate what a blessing that is. Yeah, it means we can’t go to the right cocktail parties in Toronto and schmooze and get published by McClelland & Stewart. But which would you rather have? These are life choices and you live by them and you try not to feel bad about the choices you made.
An article on Wayman’s new book Woodstock Rising is forthcoming in this blog.