Published at poets.ca, 2013
Review of Laurence Hutchman, In the Writers' Words, Conversations with Eight Poets
Guernica Editions, Toronto, 2011
By Stephen Morrissey
Laurence Hutchman's In the Writers' Words, Conversations with Eight Poets is a valuable addition to our knowledge of modernist Canadian poetry. The poets interviewed in these conversations are Ralph Gustafson, George Johnston, P.K. Page, Fred Cogswell, Louis Dudek, Al Purdy, Anne Szumigalski, and James Reaney. All eight of these poets have made important contributions to Canadian literature—they are all distinguished members of the Canadian poetry canon—and several have also contributed as translators and publishers.
There is an easy intimacy between Laurence Hutchman and the poets he is interviewing. It feels as though we are listening in on good friends having a friendly but serious conversation on a subject about which both of them are passionate. Each interview is prefaced with a vivid and detailed description of the poet's home or place of work where the interview took place. When Hutchman is invited into Ralph Gustafson's Eastern Township's home he sits by a warm fire in late December; he describes the "chilly November morning in Saskatoon" when he rode a borrowed bicycle to interview Anne Szunigalski and entered her home where he admired paintings "everywhere on the walls, mostly done by her own family."
Just before the interview which takes place in James Reaney's university office, Hutchman notes, "We sit on a green couch for the interview. On the wall facing us there is a painting of Reaney's, of The Nihilist Spasm Band. Above us is a picture, 'A Well Organized Athletic Meet on Centre Island, 1907 two women carrying eggs on a spoon.' Above those are topographical maps representing Grand Bend, St. Mary's and Stratford." Hutchman's awareness of the minutiae and detail of the place where the interview takes place enhances each interview that follows. In these interviews we are invited to know the human side of the eight different poets. Indeed, these conversations are an invitation for new readers to explore each poets' work.
Scholars will find In The Writers' Words, Conversations with Eight Poets a valuable source of insight into these poets' work; recent criticism I've written on Louis Dudek's major long poem "Continuation" has been deepened by reading the interview with him. I can hear Dudek's voice—engaging and inquiring—in his discussion with Hutchman; Dudek states,
In Continuation 1 and Continuation 2, I at last found a voice where I could say exactly what I want to say, and everything I want to say, in the most amazing fragmentary way... you have to take risks in poetry. What is poetry trying to do on the page? It's trying to represent the poet's thought.
Many of us have fond memories of having met these eight poets. I remember meeting James Reaney at a League of Canadian Poets AGM in Toronto; he was wearing a tie decorated with books that I liked so much it took me a year before finding a similar tie for myself. In Edmonton, a few years ago, Mark Abley's excellent keynote address at the League's AGM was on Anne Szumigalski and it brought her life and work to a new audience. Elsewhere, I heard Fred Cogswell and Ralph Gustafson read their poems and from time to time corresponded with them. I sat and talked with Al Purdy after one of the times I heard him read. Louis Dudek, besides being my professor, was a friend until the end of his life. I remember being a first year graduate student at McGill University and walking into the English Department's staff lounge and seeing Laurence sitting discussing his own poetry with Louis Dudek. Dudek's DC Books published Hutchman's first book, Explorations (1975). George Johnston was a good friend, we both lived in rural south-western Quebec after he retired from teaching at Carleton University. In addition to many discussions on poetry George taught me the basics of the art of bee keeping which I did for many years. George and his wife Jean were both good friends and warm-hearted people, over the years of knowing them I also got to know some members of their family. During their careers all of these poets that Hutchman interviews readily made themselves available to newer poets. Reading Hutchman's conversations with them reminds me of the generosity and welcoming spirit of this modernist generation of poets, many of whom made an indelible impression on me.
All eight of these poets began writing and publishing during the 1930s to the1950s. Individually and collectively they made a significant contribution to Canadian poetry. P.K. Page, reminiscing about when she lived in Montreal, reminds us of poets we may have forgotten but who are still important for their role in Canadian literature, they include Patrick Anderson and John Sutherland. She also remembers with fondness Montreal poet A.M. Klein; Page says,
... he was only nine years older than I but he seemed to belong to a different generation. This had to do with a series of things, I think, with the fact that he was married, had children, and a law practise. He was already established as a poet... I find him a wonderful poet and can't think why people today don't see it. But they will again.
In his interview George Johnston discusses the literary scene back in the 1930s when he was a student and had just begun writing; Johnston states, "To tell the truth, I was hardly aware of a literary life in Toronto, except at the university. There was one intellectual sort of magazine which came out once a month..." This comment by Johnston reveals to us how far Canadian literature has progressed over the last sixty or seventy years.
The eight poets Hutchman interviewed spent a lifetime writing poetry and thinking about poetry; theirs was a life centered on literature and poetry. The New Brunswick-based poet Fred Cogswell, who did a tremendous service for poets across Canada during his many years of running the literary small press, Fiddlehead, makes this statement on "the philosophical nature of ... poetry":
The particular philosophical nature of poetry is that its function is to illustrate the qualities of the human mind that are the basis for the attitudes we have as human beings. Keep going farther than you've already gone, or you become a victim of what you've written up until that moment.
In the interview with P.K. Page, living at the west coast edge of the continent, in Victoria, BC, a clap of thunder is heard as the interview comes to an end. PK says to Hutchman, "You're conjuring up gods that we don't normally have." This is what Hutchman does in all of these interviews. He conjures the gods of poetry. Hutchman's interviews with each of these eight poets is an intimate conversation with each individual. We hear their voice, their commitment to poetry, and their example of a life lived for poetry. Hutchman's book stays vivid and lively and brings the reader directly into the personality and writing of each of the eight poets. For anyone of any age, either scholar or reader, who is interested in the modernist poets of Canada, this book is an indispensable companion to the poets' collected works. That is part of the magic of this book.
Montreal, September 3, 2013