Sunday, September 24, 2006

Al Purdy: Poet, Idol, Man

I've already posted about how this blogging thing is making me smarter; well it was more about making me want to write poems and make photos again. But I think it is making me smarter. I think this is partly because the Canadian mommy bloggers I've been reading lately are all not only ridiculously well educated but they still read good literature. I don't do this. It's chicklit all the way for me anymore. Maybe this is changing though.

When I was 19, I was offered the opportunity to write a review of Canadian poet Al Purdy reading in my very own town. This was promptly followed by an even better opportunity to see a tribute to him at the 1996 (I think) International Writers' Festival at Harbourfront. Then came something even better: an interview with the man himself in his own home.

The review was supposed to be published alongside the interview in IN2Print magazine, now defunct, which was a magazine for young artists. Sadly, by the time I interviewed him and wrote up the interview (like a year after the first event), the review wasn't published. The interview has since been republished in a high school anthology by Pearson Education. I thought I had lost the article for years but found some drafts when I went through my old filing cabinet just before Ezra was born.

Now I am going to publish it here, in all my 19-year-old glory. Well, ok I added a few comments, which are italicized in square brackets.

Warning: this is a long post.

I have read Al Purdy's poetry for four or five years now, nearly idolizing him, so when I heard he was reading at the Albion Hotel here in Guelph, I was nearly bouncing off the walls waiting for the big night. I already own two books signed by him, one my brother gave me after a book signing in Victoria, BC, the other picked up at a used book store, already signed, for a scandalous two dollars. But I planned to have my Collected Works signed personally by him (“To Kate With Love” would be nice). Shortly after discovering Al's imminent arrival in Guelph, I heard I would also be attending the tribute to him at the International Writers' Festival at Harbourfront on October 24, 1996 (?) with the Editor of In2Print magazine. I reopened my collections of his poetry after a bit of a hiatus in my excitement to hear him read.

My idolatry of Al began only recently, although I have always loved his poetry, and I'm not sure exactly why my feelings have exploded so suddenly; I only know that they have. I love his down-to-earth tone, spiced with incredible, piercing imagery, and the musicality of his words. But especially, I love the way he leaps across space and time, finding history in everything present. This is an idea very close to my heart, and I guess part of my enthusiasm for Al is that it's so liberating to read a piece that articulates my own personal philosophies. My admiration for Al grew even further when I began reading about his life for a presentation in my poetry class this semester. (Since then, my classmates have taken to referring to me as the Purdy Girl.) In my research, I learned how Al dropped out of high school in grade ten and hopped freight trains across Canada, working low-paying jobs, as well as for the Royal Canadian Air Force until he began earning his living entirely by his typewriter. Although I would love to be done with school, and cross Canada via free train rides, I think that in these economic times, it's not only an impractical aspiration but an impossible one [I have always been pragmatic]. So for all these reasons, I couldn't wait to see the flesh of the voice.

Unfortunately, when he first stepped on stage, I had a hard time identifying the boisterous voice I so admire with the [ok, I didn't want to say it then but I will now: he was downright old] man standing on stage, carrying a plastic bag of potential poetic treats, and looking a little out of his element standing on a stage that had just been rocking with the sounds of local trio, Us and Wilbur. They played until Al stepped onto the stage and said, “Ok, that's enough. I'm going to read now.” But once Al began reading, his voice was deep, like the youthful poet so evident in his poems. I was struck by the timelessness of poetry and was faced with the immediate importance of his words. Forgetting my initial difficulty, I realized that poetry denies age, while at the same time embodying all of history, and here it was, standing on stage with a microphone.

It was a very intimate, informal reading, with only about 50 to 100 people of all ages: like a grandfather opening his bag of tricks, and telling stories at a family gathering. He started with some older poems, from Wild Grape Wine (1968) and Poems for All the Annettes (1968), which was exciting for me because I got to hear poems that I had only read on paper. Then he pulled out his big black book, and began reading older poems that he's now revised, like “Transvestite” and “My Grandfather's Country,” and some new ones like “Lament for Bukowski.” Definitely, the highlight of the evening for me was his reading of “Necropsy of Love,” a poem I have loved since I first read it when I was 16. Actually there was an even bigger highlight for me during the intermission, when I timidly approached Al to sign my book. Much to my breathless, heart-pounding excitement, he signed, “For Kate Best Wishes Al Purdy.”

Al is a poet known for his sense of humour and self-mockery, and with his low-key, conversational way of reading, he kept us laughing, usually till the end of a poem, when he would zing us with a great line. For example in “About Being a Member of Our Armed Forces,” Al mocks his demotion after demotion, and his inability to scare even ducks, then closes with:

Not that the war was funny ...
too close to tears for tragedy
too far from the banana peel for laughter
and I didn't blame anyone for being there
that wars happened wasn't anybody's fault then
Now I think it is.

Another zinger closed his poem, “Lament for Bukowski” with (I'm not sure of the line breaks [because it was unpublished then]) “Bukowski in his coffin, reaching for his last beer, and just about making it,” which was absolutely arresting when Al read it.

Overall, Al's reading was an amazing evening that I don't think I'll ever forget, feeling the same way as... well, I can't think of any other situation that make an aspiring artist feel the way I felt that night.

Equally unforgettable, but in a more nostalgic way, was the Tribute to Al Purdy at the International Writers' Festival at Harbourfront. It was a wonderful evening. First, Al's writer friends read their prose pieces about Al and his accomplishments. Amid tales of Al's now famous wild grape wine, his indecipherable handwriting, bad pool playing, and reliving drunken incidents (such as Al supposedly having urinated on Margaret Atwood's car), Al's friends painted a portrait of Al the Man, while accolading Al the Poet. Margaret Atwood felt “we should name an escarpment after him” in order to do justice to both the man the poet. The last speaker, after Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, Patrick Lane, Dennis Lee and Janet Lunn, was Sam Solecki, the 'token academic' who addressed the problem of the Obituary Note in doing a tribute like this evening, and decided to do a mini-roast instead; I nearly busted a gut.

Once the audience had a clear portrait of Al in our minds he came on stage for an interview, gnawing a toothpick, and wearing the same brown blazer as at the reading in Guelph. The unpretentious, funny, gruff, sentimental, overpowering Al that his friends presented was apparent. As he sat down to begin the interview, his comment was, “Well I'm sure this will be an anti-climax,” and when asked if he had any comment on the testimonials, he replied, “Hell, no.”

We also learned about his passion for collecting signed books, and that he only stayed with the League of Poets until he got all his books signed. After frustrating the interviewer completely, Al stood behind the lecturn and spoke about poetry in general and its ability to allow readers to reach back across time through someone older -- exactly what I'd felt at his reading! As an encore, he recited, “Necropsy of Love” (Wow!) and to acknowledge the audience's applause, he gave us yet another zinger: “Thanks for bearing with me.”

The interview came several months after this when I visited my brother in Victoria. Some things that didn't get included in the published interview:

I asked my editor what kinds of questions I should ask or how I should prepare for the interview. She said, “Oh don't worry. Al will just start talking once you get there; you won't need to ask him anything.”

When I got there, Al made me a cup of loose leaf tea, which I'd never drank before and didn't quite know what to make of the floaty bits. We sat down in a sunny room on the second floor and he asked me, “So, what do you want to know?” I stammered and stuttered, totally unprepared, until he took pity on me and just started talking.

I felt quite privileged when Al shared with me a poem he was just working on, like he was sharing a secret with me. It was on a single sheet of paper, just off his typewriter. Especially because it was about his grief at losing three friends in a short space of time. It was a beautiful poem and was published in (arrgh... can't find that book; I think it's the one Al signed “With a fading memory of red,” when I couldn't make it to the Eden Mills Writers Festival he read at a year or two after the interview. I got my friend to get it signed) To Paris Never Again.

When I asked the editor how long the interview should be, she said just include whatever you think is important; no word limit. Well, it got cut and without any input from me. I wish they had come back and told me to cut out what I thought should be cut, but oh well. Now I will have to have a look through the transcription of the interview.

Al Purdy died in April, 2000. Until that time I had always called him my favourite living poet. His death put him in with stiffer competition but he remains my favourite.

PS - here is a radio clip of Purdy reading a poem about Margaret Atwood.

PPS - "Necropsy of Love" is reprinted at the bottom of this page. It still gives me chills.

PPPS - I didn't really grieve when I heard he had died but I am now, reliving the passion of my youth and searching the web for materials to support this. The most haunting: a radio clip of the very tribute I went to, including Al Purdy's speech and reading of Necropsy of Love at the end.

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