THE EARLY YEARS

  Stephen Morrissey

The four years, 1969 to 1973, when I attended Sir George Williams (now Concordia University) as an undergraduate were wonderful years for me. It was a creative and expansive time, for me personally and for poetry in Montreal. Two professors in the English Department organized a poetry reading series and I tried to attend every reading they put on during my undergraduate years. I heard American poets Robert Creeley, Jackson Mac Low, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Diane Wakoski, and many others. Canadian poets who read their work included Alden Nowlan, David McFadden, Patrick Anderson, Michael Ondaatje, Roy Kyooka, George Bowering, and Gerry Gilbert. Over at McGill University I heard W.H. Auden read to a packed auditorium and met F.R. Scott at the McGill Faculty Club after another reading.


While at Sir George Williams a high school friend asked me for some poems for a chapbook. Another friend typed the poems on an IBM Selectric typewriter and had the chapbook printed. Poems of mine had been published in my high school’s literary magazine and school yearbook. My first chapbook, entitled Poems of a Period, was published in 1971. Around that time I also remember meeting Endre Farkas for the first time. I was impressed that he was already editing a magazine. Since then, Endre has become an integral and important part of the poetry community in Montreal.


I met Guy Birchard, a poet from Ottawa who later became a friend, at one of the readings at Sir George Williams. Guy introduced me to the poet Artie Gold. Artie was intelligent, intense, humourous, and dedicated to poetry. Artie’s favourite poets were Jack Spicer and Frank O’Hara. Artie also led me to American poets that were new to me--James Schuyler, Bill Knott, and Larry Eigner come to mind--as well as to the music of Charles Ives, a composer whom he mentions in one of his poems. I particularly remember visiting Artie Gold at his flat on Lorne Crescent during the spring and late summer of 1974, the year I also spent six weeks in Europe. As soon as I met Artie, I felt he was an original poet and someone I wanted to know.


I also took Richard Sommer’s creative writing class at Sir George Williams around 1972 and it was there I became good friends with Keitha MacIntosh. Later she published a little magazine, Montreal Poems. In 1973 I began my own magazine of experimental and concrete poetry, what is. Richard Sommer helped by giving me an extensive mailing list of poets, many of them in Vancouver, who might be interested in receiving what is. Those were the years that I was most interested in experimental poetry. My writing was influenced by William Burrough’s “cut-up technique” and John Cage’s writings on Eastern philosophy and randomness as a way of making art. The readings I gave during those years reflected these interests.


By 1977 the concerns in my writing changed. I lost interest in both concrete and sound poetry. I felt that a good graphic artist could produce better visual poems than I was capable of creating. I remember Artie Gold commenting that there were so many concrete poems you could fill a room with them. The important breakthrough in my writing was my long poem “Divisions”, written in April 1977. I found that I could address my concerns best in confessional poetry. This became the main focus of my writing for many years, including The Shadow Trilogy, published in the 1990s, comprised of The Compass (1993), The Yoni Rocks (1995) and The Mystic Beast (1997) all published by Empyreal Press in Montreal.


Later, in 1978, I began publishing The Montreal Journal of Poetics. I felt there was a need for critical writing on our work; sharing of ideas regarding poetry and poetics; and reviews of poetry books. All of the Vehicule Poets published in one or the other of the two magazines that I published and The Montreal Journal of Poetics didn’t cease publication until 1985. My literary papers from 1963-1998; back issues and papers relating to both magazines; my memorabilia of the Vehicule days, including numerous photographs of poets, tape recordings of readings, posters for readings; and all of my manuscripts for those years, are placed at the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections at McGill University and can be consulted for research.


Richard Sommer had a student in one of his classes, Bob Morrison, who published a literary magazine, Anthol. There was a meeting of the contributors at Richard’s flat on Draper Avenue that I attended. That was when I met Tom Konyves. It was a few years before the stunning performance of his poem “No Parking”, accompanied by a musician playing the cello, a poem that reflected the influence of Dadaism in Konyves’ work.


Next door to Richard Sommer’s home was where Marie Brewer lived. Her daughter, Diana Brewer, later married John McAuley. I met John McAuley and at one point we organized the poetry series at Vehicule together. I organized readings for the American poet Clayton Eshleman as well as the Toronto poet bpNichol and The Four Horsemen. Tape recordings and numerous photographs of these and other readings are in my literary papers housed at McGill.


The first poetry reading I gave was in early 1973 at the Karma Coffee House, in the basement of the Sir George Williams’ Student Union building at the corner of Crescent and de Maisonneuve Boulevard. I was influenced by bill bissett at that point in my artistic career, and performed my sound poems as well as read other poems I had written. My first reading at Vehicule Art was later that same year. I met Claudia Lapp and Ken Norris at Vehicule. It was Claudia who helped bring in Ann Waldman from the United States, and I remember talking with Ann Waldman on the phone before her visit to Montreal. Ken Norris, during his years in Montreal, encouraged and supported many poets. Many of us have benefited from Ken’s dedication to poetry and to poets. Ken Norris’s multi-volumed Report on the Second Half of the Twentieth Century is an important contribution to Canadian literature.


I remember walking up Mansfield Avenue in downtown Montreal one evening discussing Louis Dudek with Ken Norris; this was around 1975. Ken’s literary career in some ways follows Dudek’s career; both believed that poets should have a hands-on involvement in publishing poetry books and literary magazines. Ken was one of the younger poets who helped get a new generation excited about Louis Dudek’s poetry. Louis realized that the poets at Vehicule Art had the same inclusive approach to poetry that he had and his openness to us resulted in the collaboration found in A Real Good Goosin’, Talking Poetics, Louis Dudek and the Vehicule Poets (1981). We Vehicule poets were outsiders to the literary establishment in Montreal, and Robin Blaser, in his introduction to Louis’ Selected Poems, has described Louis as “a walking loneliness”. In retrospect, Louis Dudek was one of the few older poets who was supportive to us and many of us will always be in his debt.


I was a student in one of Louis Dudek’s graduate seminars at McGill University in 1974-1975. I visited Louis in his office in January 1975 and he read my new poems. He said that he liked the poems and that if he were still publishing poetry books he would do a book for me. Louis told me I would make a name for myself. I remember leaving Louis’ office that afternoon and walking across the campus to Sherbrooke Street. Something lifted from my shoulders at that meeting. I was elated that Louis Dudek, whom I had known of and respected, since first reading his poems while I was still in high school, had affirmed my writing. When I wrote “Divisions” Louis Dudek offered to publish it in book-form.


Every Sunday afternoon for several years I was at Vehicule Art. Those were wonderful afternoons of meeting poets, hearing poetry being read, giving poetry readings, and associating with other like-minded poets. Then Artie Gold, Ken Norris, and Endre Farkas became poetry editors at Vehicule Press and asked me for a manuscript. They published my first book, The Trees of Unknowing (1978). I remember meeting one evening in Artie’s kitchen while Ken Norris selected the poems for the book. Louis Dudek wrote a short preface to my book. The book launch was at Powerhouse Gallery on St. Dominique Street: I remember glancing across the room at a group of people that included John Glassco and Marian McCormick.


Other memories of those early years include hearing the British critic and poet William Empson lecture at the Vanier Library of Loyola College. Empson spread his voluminous notes on a table in front of him. He came across as quite eccentric. I heard Frank Davey read in the same auditorium at Loyola; a few years later Davey edited my second book, Divisions (1983) published by Coach House Press. I also heard Earle Birney read his poems at Loyola College and at a reception after the reading I enjoyed a long conversation about poetry with Birney.


Artie’s Gold’s flat on Lorne Crescent was dubbed “Fort Poetry”. Poets who met at The Word Bookstore on Milton Avenue often continued their conversation at Artie’s. West Coast poets Carolyn Zonailo and Cathy Ford met Artie Gold and Ken Norris at the Lorne Crescent flat during the weekend of the League of Canadian Poet’s Annual General Meeting in 1978.


In 1988, Carolyn Zonailo edited and published Tom Konyves’ collection of poems, Ex Perimeter with her Caitlin Press, in Vancouver. She also edited and published my third poetry book, Family Album (1989). It wasn’t until 1991 that I met Carolyn Zonailo while she was at John Abbott College for a meeting of The Writers’ Union of Canada. We have rarely been apart ever since, and we married in 1995. During her twelve years in Montreal Carolyn Zonailo has edited several of my poetry books, including The Shadow Trilogy and Mapping the Soul: Selected Poems 1978-1998. Empyreal Press published three of Carolyn Zonailo’s books during the 1990s here in Montreal, Nature’s Grace (1993), Memory House (1995), and Wading the Trout River (1997). Carolyn Zonailo and I divide our time between Vancouver and Montreal. This experience has allowed us both to develop a national perspective in our writing. Our poetics differ but our collaboration through giving poetry readings, traveling, and knowing poets across Canada, is a rich addition to my Montreal perspective.


The Vehicule years were a time of community, poetry, and creativity. This time allowed for the meeting of other young poets, as well as meeting older and established poets. These were my apprenticeship years of learning the craft of poetry. A few years ago I met poet Tim Lander in Vancouver. After reading my book Mapping the Soul: Selected Poems 1978-1998, Lander stated that I had entered the canon. This had never occurred to me before; but Tim was right. The Vehicule Poets have entered the canon of Canadian poetry. Most of us have continued writing, building a body of work, publishing poetry collections, and living the life of poets that we began so many years ago.