canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

On (not) Being an Alberta Writer: or, anticipating UofA

rob mclennan prepares to go back to school as the writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for the 2007-08 academic year.

Well, some years before, Mr. Salter, who was here in Edmonton, and who read the manuscript of The Double Hook, had said to me, "There's something that bothers me, there's no such thing as a double hook. There are triple hooks, but there are no double hooks." It was always very dangerous to challenge Professor Salter on any point of detail, because he usually knew what he was talking about. He used to lecture me every once in a while and say, "The way you write a novel, the way you put a novel together is the way you put together a pigpen—you do it with craft and skill, and in an orderly fashion." He read the manuscript and he combed it through trying to find that the roads didn’t go in the right direction or the people had on the wrong clothes or the clock was telling the wrong time of day, because he thought, well somehow this must happen in a novel that was written in this way, there must be some slip. Professor Wiebe tells me he's found some: he's never told me what they were, so I live now in constant fear. [Laughter.]

— Sheila Watson, "What I'm Going To Do," Open Letter

What do I know about Alberta? It's something I've been thinking about, since I got the official notice that I'm going to be writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton for the 2007-08 academic year (it's already been suggested by one person, in jest, that I’ll start writing poems about urban sprawl and oil). For the past six or seven years, I've deliberately worked to expand my literary knowledge of the country through approaching prairie, not only through reading but travelling such, and various pieces have come out of my travels, including the long poem Manitoba highway map (1999) and further pieces in various other collections, with John Newlove's Saskatchewan poem "Ride Off Any Horizon" running through my head the whole "Manitoba highway map" trip. In early 1998 on a reading tour with Brenda Niskala, Joe Blades, D.C. Reid and Anne Burke, we drove the equivalent of Paris to Moscow, driving from Regina to Winnipeg, to Saskatoon and back to Regina, before Calgary and back in a day-and-a-half. Can we call it coincidence that it was in Edmonton years later that I found a second-hand copy of Newlove's Black Night Window (1968), the collection where this poem first lived, as a two dollar library discard? As a passenger in Niskala's car, it was recalling the constant of Newlove's rhythms that kept me sane, and gave a perspective to that endless line across unbroken prairie:

Ride off any horizon
and let the measure fall
where it may―
on the hot wheat,
on the dark yellow fields
of wild mustard, the fields
of bad farmers, on the river,
on the dirty river full
of boys and on the throbbing
powerhouse and the low dam
of cheap cement and rocks
boiling with white water,
and on the cows and their powerful
bulls, the heavy trucks
filling with liquid at the edge
of the narrow prairie
river running steadily away.

Writing is made out of any author's particular place, a combination of influence of point of origin and point of residence, even if the writing itself might not refer to those places. Writing, as a point of resistance. Am I finally starting to agree with Alistair MacLeod's assertion a few years back at the ottawa international writers festival, that all literature is "regional literature" (and why doesn’t Ontario have such a thing as "Ontario literature," or does it?)? From where I'm situated in so-called "Central Canada"/eastern Ontario, part of the idea of "prairie" as a singular unit becomes hard to distinguish as separate provincial units (partly through the self-definition of the "prairie poem"), and I've been slowly working my way through the literature of the prairies over the last decade through Robert Kroetsch, Dennis Cooley, Aritha van Herk, Andrew Suknaski, Barry McKinnon, John Newlove, Eli Mandel, Douglas Barbour and so many others before learning further through my contemporaries such as derek beaulieu, nicole markotić, Julia Williams, Jon Paul Fiorentino, Rob Budde, Jill Hartman and Sylvia Legris. It's helped that there have been a few anthologies lately to make the process that much easier, from Srdja Pavlovic's Threshold: An Anthology of Contemporary Writing from Alberta (1999), Robert M. Stamp's Writing the Terrain: Travelling Through Alberta with the Poets (2005), Fiorentino and Kroetsch's Post-Prairie: An Anthology of New Poetry (2005), Birk Sproxton's The Winnipeg Connection: Writing Lives at Mid-Century (2006), and Barbara Klar and Paul Wilson's Fast Forward: New Saskatchewan Poets (2007), as well as Alison Calder and Robert Wardhaugh's collection of essays History, Literature, And the Writing of the Canadian Prairies (2005). Not to mention the whole slew of earlier anthologies, such as Laurence Ricou's Twelve Prairie Poets (1976), Dennis Cooley's Draft: an anthology of prairie poetry (1981) and Daniel Lenoski's a/long prairie lines: An Anthology of Long Prairie Poems (1989). What is it I think I've even learned? As Aritha van Herk wrote in her essay "(no parrot/no crow/no parrot)," responding to the works of Sheila Watson, Robert Kroetsch and Michael Ondaatje:

It's all the fault of the Battle River, sneaking around Alberta, making assignations with creeks and valleys. A misfit river, groping through the parkland with a quiet ableptical convolvement, flexuosity devouring its own rivulation. And fish, Kroetsch, did you fish (no parrot/no crow/no parrot)? Suckers and mud-heads, thick-mouthed and spiney but alive in that green water, nibbling the grassy banks that rolled up to the knees. The Battle, Kroetsch, the Battle. There wasn't anything else, no summerfallow or hiproofed barns, no chokecherries with their dark sting. The Battle (no parrot/no crow/no parrot) was all and enough on its own.

Well, you could say that it taught me to drive, me steering this speedskater toward the only arena I know, the valley a beveled jackpine stadium perfect to observe his race. And this rink ― no, this tortuous course inviting collision, those sweet collisions of thighs. Do speedskaters ever fall? Their runners turn in? Bad ankles, Kroetsch, Hans Brinker be damned, I can't skate, all the fault of the Battle River, its knobbled ice, its jerky freezing. I cross it with my car, bridges that I long to blow up behind me, those solid, trusty, green-painted Alberta Highways bridges (no parrot/no crow/no parrot).

Does it help that I never learned to skate either, another victim of perpetually-weak ankles? Somewhere around 1993, Winnipeg's Turnstone Press had a sale on some of their backlist, offering nineteen titles for a dollar each, advertised in an issue of Kingston, Ontario's Poetry Canada Review; when I finally met managing editor Manuela Dias in Winnipeg on a western tour some years later, she told me, of course I remember you. Apparently I was the only person who had ordered all nineteen titles (I don't think I'd heard of a single one of the authors at that point). One of my early entry points into prairie was through Newlove and Mandel, from Mandel's Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970 (1972), a book given to me by the future mother of my child, when we were but seventeen (the woman who suggested I read Sheila Watson's The Double Hook around the same time; throughout our high school years, she was constantly feeding me reading material). Previously appearing in his Selected Poems, 1956-1968 (1968), one of my favourite Leonard Cohen poems still resides there, in that paperback collection:


Edmonton, Alberta, December 1966, 4 a.m.
When did I stop writing you?
The sandalwood is on fire in this small hotel on Jasper Street.
You've entered the room a hundred times
disguises of sari and armour and jeans,
and you sit beside me for hours
like a woman alone in a happy room.
I've sung to a thousand people
and I've written a small new song
I believe I will trust myself with the care of my soul.
I hope you have money for the winter.

Even though it deals more specifically with Calgary, George Bowering's Rocky Mountain Foot (1969), moved as much through the province as a whole, and gave me some of my earliest images of the province of Alberta through literature, written while Bowering was a student at the University of Calgary. It was one of the first Bowering books I picked up, after discovering him in Mandel's anthology.

the road tells

"Tell us
about Alberta."
I am writing,
I am trying to write
in the snow.
I am small
driving thru the Rockies
the green icicles beside the road,
frozen waterfall over rocks,
are big.
They tell,
& the long
looping descent into Alberta
tells better.

Prairie, and therefore, Alberta; writing new frontiers, native story, European immigrants, American cowboys and so much open space that I could not comprehend, even as I began to slowly inch across. What I could not see for the shape of it, the scope. Or Saskatchewan, with roughly the same population as the City of Ottawa; how could I not associate with the rural when I arrived? What do I know about prairie, sheltered eastern Ontario farm boy? I can't skate, can't swim, and seem to avoid everything relating to water, whether pools, rinks, lakes or cheap beer. It would be a few more years before I discovered that it was worth trying to own every title in the Red Deer College Press 1980s poetry series "Writing West," with authors such as Winnipeg's Dennis Cooley, or Smaro Kamboureli and Cecilia Frey, and Drumheller, Alberta's Monty Reid (years before he ended up moving to the Ottawa area) that I discovered there for the first time; it would be even more years before I discovered that the series was named after an essay by Eli Mandel on the Saskatchewan poet Andrew Suknaski. For a long time my favourite Reid and Cooley titles resided there, including Reid's These Lawns (1990).

Sometimes a man steps into the same river more than once.
It is the same because he steps into it.
Sometimes a man steps into the same river only once.
It is the same.
In April the ice went out. It broke and its echoes split
against the rocks. A thick green water ate its belly.
Every hunger is the same as this.
— Monty Reid, "Sutra for Brinkman in Nepal"

But what do I know of Alberta writing? As editor Srdja Pavlovic writes in the introduction to his Threshold: An Anthology of Contemporary Writing from Alberta:

The effort of Alberta writers to reshape the influences they encounter appears to have the same purpose: to define various senses of identity and explore the traditional knowledge of history through the prism of a post-modern literary approach. This often entails writing about intimate, even sordid, everyday rituals. It means being able to walk through the outer regions of awareness, consciously off-centre, along the edges of experience. All of it has to do with the lyric intensity of a narrative consciousness that refuses to be limited to a single identity or a single form of expression.

It's a strange thing to contemplate nearly a year away from my own geographies, and learning the geography of a different place in a whole new way; some have said my writing is obsessed with geographies. I've toured Canada nearly a dozen times, up to eight weeks away from home, but never more than a week in any given place. I've probably visited Vancouver, Edmonton, Calgary and Winnipeg on tours at least once a year since 1997, and done writing from the same, but this is different; this is an extended period of sitting and working, and working to learn. Even before this came up, I'd realized over the past year or so that I've done more at the University of Alberta in Edmonton over the years than just about anywhere else in the country, whether readings on-campus through Douglas Barbour, kath MacLean, Andy Weaver and Thomas Wharton, or through the Olive Reading Series (founded and run by University of Alberta grad students), as well as whatever else I've done around town, reading at Grant MacEwan College (once with Ken Norris and a couple of years later with Stephen Brockwell), and at the various locations of the now-late Orlando Books on Whyte, among other Edmonton-related experiences. Does this mean anything?

In 1997, during a month-long reading tour from Ottawa to Victoria, I spent my first four days in the City of Edmonton (until the next train west), spending two nights at poet Michael Londry's house, and two more at Tim Bowling's house, with an afternoon in the middle with Douglas Barbour in conversation talking just about everything. I learned about Whyte Avenue and the temptation of prairie tavern glasses and The Wee Book Inn. During my time with Londry at his mother's house near the university, he and I published a broadsheet each at a photocopy shop somewhere on-campus that we later took with us to the Strathcona Tavern on Whyte Avenue, for drinks with future poet and editor Lori Emerson; I later reprinted his poem in Groundswell: best of above/ground press 1993-2003 (2003). "The Strath," as it's more commonly known, has since become my favourite tavern in the country (second only to Ottawa's Carleton Tavern in the Parkdale Market area). My joke at the time was that I was only giving Londry's poem away to boys, and my poem to girls. Wonderfully earnest, he asked me, but don’t you think girls would like my poem too? Oh no, I said (managing a straight face). Girls wouldn’t like your poem.

Your Traveller’s Patience

Your traveller’s patience may not be enough. Perhaps we should ask that the
announcement be made earlier, even earlier. The daily availability is only a detail. I miss
your belly--my palm is empty--and your lips at my ear. I walk a less jaunty pace. Even the
air in my room is fat with thirst. I promise you this: your nearness will speedread my
heart, gaudy with truth, jungly with colour, even as we sleep back to back.
— Michael Londry

I have already pointed out some of the Alberta poems I've written over the past few years, writing Alberta, Calgary, Banff, Edmonton and Frank Slide in "some notes on narrative & the long poem: a sequence of sequences," an essay that appears in my subverting the lyric: essays (2007) later this fall, writing of what, for a few years, had become

a series of compositions built while in Edmonton, Alberta; built during my annual (or so) touring through the western provinces that bring me to stay with poet Andy Weaver; now-familiar haunts, with the drive down to Calgary with Weaver to read, just before or after a similar event in his city, and a few days spent with him before the next train arrives, to take me either further east or west. Almost every trip, a self-contained project written at the Second Cup and/or the University of Alberta grad lounge, waiting for the inevitable delay. Drinks at the Strathcona Hotel. "The Strath."

The city can't hold the same, now that Weaver has moved to Toronto to teach at York University; but I suppose, nothing lasts forever. Will Douglas Barbour provide the same when I return? T.L. Cowan? Jenna Butler? Or former Ottawa resident Kristy McKay? It gives me an interesting impetus to complete my varied projects before I leave the house, to keep an open mind for new ones; what will my writing begin to ask? Here's a little poem I wrote in the Second Cup on Whyte Avenue (82nd Avenue and 104 Street, but you could probably have figured that out) during my last visit to Weaver's Edmonton in 2004:

82 ave + 104 street

the uncle alberts grease fire, where
a chili house grows
a past tense pancakes, steak
on the corner, the fluff dog
loses her collar, stays
the remaining eye of measure
one foot, & one foot,
a blind stick taps
i am working against description
on the construction site, i am
two feet of plywood
in the long wind

I wonder, will anyone even notice that the origins of my prairie-novel-in-progress Missing Persons, with lead character Alberta (actually named after actress Alberta Watson), predate my Edmonton residency by half a decade? What do I know about Alberta writing? Not just writing Alberta. Not just writing about geography for the sake of it, but writing inside a geography; inside a particular point-of-view outside of my very own. One can't help but be influenced. Where will it take me, and what will I end up bringing home? Is this just history I already know?

When thinking of writing Alberta it's hard for me not to think first of Kroetsch and van Herk; old standards, I suppose. The obvious that come to mind, working their aesthetic space through the whole of the province and not just their individual places, individual spaces. But Alberta is not Edmonton, Alberta is not Calgary. What is that line? "Every retriever is a dog, but not every dog is a retriever." When I think of writing Calgary it becomes a whole other kind of list, from Hartman to beaulieu to Mayr to Cabri, and Edmonton a whole separate list as well.

What do I know of writing Edmonton? With some of the same problems that Ottawa has, with two publishers notably "prairie" as opposed to specifically "Edmonton." There might be a Calgary, but is there an Edmonton aesthetic? Not just the old standards, but the Edmonton Douglas Barbour has been writing since the late 1960s, teaching at the university in the English Department until he retired a couple of years ago; not just Edmonton or Calgary but Charles Noble in Banff and Sid Marty as well; who else writes poems of Medicine Hat?

Tumbleweed Harvest

Tumbleweed harvest
under an autumn moon
See how they blow like ghosts
to pile up on barbed-wire fences
and choke the mouths, and the creeks
of the coulee
Late in the year, they catch
the driven snow
make hills and windrows
out on the baldheaded prairie
They pile up in the doorways
of ruined farms
They buffet the unwary walker
harried by wind in the darkness
driving thorns through clothes
which reach the skin
and draw blood

And more recently, poet Kimmy Beach in Red Deer, between the two centres. Just how many writers are out there? Red Deer, Alberta, perhaps the only place where two Sun newspaper boxes beside each other aren’t competing: one Calgary, one Edmonton (a fun game is to see how often the two cover photos are the same). Outside the restaurant in Red Deer where I had to stop for breakfast, driving our way south to a reading in Calgary in mid-November 2006, Douglas Barbour pulling the car to a stop. It reminds me of bpNichol's own Red Deer poem from the 1980s, his "read, deer" from gIFTS: The Martyrology Book(s) 7& (1990), that begins:

july 2nd
at Sylvan Lake
sun going down
old hotel behind me
not a memory of
but the recollection
my parents dancing here
their honeymoon
Uncle Earl playing in the orchestra
what song? what tune? what music
drifts across the water
all water
the self-conscious act of
a life, love, the i is born out of
songs play
are replayed
the dance goes
on goes on


In 1981 Smart met Patrick Lane, then Writer in Residence at the University of Alberta, at a poetry festival in Cambridge. He suggested that she should succeed him, and she arrived in Canada in July 1982, finally accorded honour in her own country. With her, she brought many of her diaries and notebooks from the last 40 years and the still strong resolve to write her autobiography.

September 12, 1982

In Edmonton.

The courage to be—whoever you are.

But some kind of connectedness is necessary—something to release things within. So isolated, how do they manage anything? I'm trapped in a limbo here, in a padded cell. A drink at the Faculty Club from 4:30—7 & then alone here—slightly drunk—nowhere to go, unsatisfied, the horror of alcoholic coitus interruptus. Fear & caution—the surface affability slithers away—doesn’t come out to meet. I prowl around my thick carpeted rooms, blank, caged. Turn on the radio—TV—get disgusted. O God O God.

"You're supposed to be getting on with your writing," they say. But I'm whirling around in sterile space. I'd do better in the vast formidable emptiness of Greenland's icy mountain that I saw from the aeroplane—Here, I was expecting people, planning how to keep them from eating up my life—was expecting to correct the excesses & temptations of an Ego Trip: Here I am about as far from an Ego trip as it's possible to be. I miss the edgy desperation of other people with nervous systems like mine. I miss a neutral ground on which to communicate.

The sunsets, the sunrises, & one morning a gigantic rainbow without rain or sun. But the hideousness of the buildings, muddy parking lots, trim, unwitty parkland around the University. One day, I ventured a few yards down the ravine looking for mushrooms—& found some—& felt happy to have twigs tearing my hair & a whiff of wilderness.

Only 2 people have mentioned my work, but everybody refers to the Books in Canada piece, & the Radio interview. Time will unfold, no doubt.

— Elizabeth Smart, AUTOBIOGRAPHIES

Writing comes from writing, as Toronto writer David W. McFadden has said, somewhere. But what do I know about Alberta? Am I writing the world or writing myself into the world? What is the land where we are living, becomes the constant question; it's not just a matter of any particular place being read or being seen, but being known beyond the immediate, as Winnipeg novelist Margaret Sweatman suggests in her interview in Speaking in the Past Tense: Canadian Novelists on Writing Historical Fiction (2007):

I keep going back to Irene Spry, a historian at the University of Toronto. She writes about history as real estate and land use as our key signifier for tracking historical change. I find that really, extraordinarily compelling and useful, central to my ideas of how to write history. Another place where I got that preoccupation with land was from studying with Robert Kroetsch, let's say "Stone Hammer Poem," for example. In that one very short poem he covers the whole issue, tells the whole story right there, in that astonishing masterpiece. It's fascinating too the way the land is haunted by prior use. There's a terrible amnesia evoked by the Holiday Inns, and that is a political, totalitarian force—to knock stuff down and put up Disneyland.

If writing is part of the land, then I have not spent enough time. Related to same, here is a fragment of Robert Kroetsch's essay "On Being an Alberta Writer" from his collection of essays in Open Letter (1983), writing:

My sense of the gap between me and history was growing. History as I knew it did not account for the world I lived in. Present here in this landscape, I was taking my first lesson in the idea of absence.

There was, half a mile south from our farm, a ring of stones in the prairie grass. My dad and the hired men, strangely, plowed around it. One day, again when I was a child, I ran away from home; instead of going to a neighbor's house, where I could play, I went to that ring of stones … and again I began to wonder. I went back home and asked my mother about those stones. She had, then, never heard of a tipi ring; she said the stones were magical. I suspect now that her notion of magical went back two or three generations to the forests of southern Germany, surviving that long transcription through Wisconsin and Minnesota to the District and then the Province of Alberta. The connection between the name and the named ― the important and the failure of that connection ― is one of my obsessions.

I was that day on my way to embracing the model of archaeology, against that of history. The authorized history, the given definition of history, was betraying us on those prairies. A few years after I sat in that tipi ring and cried and then began to notice and then began to wonder, a gang of dam-builders from a Battle River site came by and picked up the stones, and my father broke the sod. If history betrayed us, we too betrayed it. I remember my father one night at supper, saying out of nowhere, he'd made a mistake, letting those men pick up those stones. For reasons he couldn’t understand, he felt guilty. Where I had learned the idea of absence, I was beginning to learn the idea of trace. There is always something left behind. That is the essential paradox. Even abandonment gives us memory.

I had to tell a story. I responded to those discoveries of absence, to that invisibility, to that silence, by knowing I had to make up a story. Our story.

How to you write in a new country?

There are so many echoes here in how I have approached my own landscapes, growing up on a 150-year-old fragment of a two-mile swath of land from the St. Lawrence River north to the Ottawa known as the "Indian Lands" overlapping both Glengarry and Stormont Counties. This was land "acquired" by the British Government from the Mohawk after a 99-year lease around 1840, five years before we took a land grant on Macdonald's Grove. I could tell you about my own stones, and the trace of a building once a school on the corner of my sister's property, surrounded by apple trees where our paternal grandfather was student, or the mound of reclaimed earth once his sugar-shack not a hundred feet to the north, re-appropriated by bush. I could tell you about the school house that once sat half a mile to the east, where his wife and her sister spent her student days, forty years after the man who became the novelist Ralph Connor, the Rev. Charles Gordon, spent his own school days there, basing his novel Glengarry School Days (1902) on his experiences there; the school house now sits near Morrisburg, Ontario at Upper Canada Village. I could tell you of the other one-room school that sits on the next road north from my parents, where my grandmother taught before she married, or the Presbyterian Free Church at St. Elmo in our family for over a century. I could tell you of noting my own absences, wondering the traces of landscape that once supported the Mohawk in my corner of Ontario I have yet to find, yet to know, pushed north from Mohawk Valley, New York to the river, and pushed south by the same to St. Regis, an island between the American and Canadian borders at the International Bridge from Cornwall, Ontario to Massena, New York. I know my history through these markers that exist, even as absences; even if I never go home again. What did Leonard Cohen once write? Returning regularly to Montreal to renew his neurotic afflictions…

Did the Mohawk hunt on the land that is now my father's? Where I was innocent, sheltered and unaware of the world outside my immediate borders; a disconnect between the world in the media (books and television and National Geographic) and the world I grew up in.

What do I know about Alberta? What the prairie, situated between the rocky mountains and the Canadian shield; unlike what Andrew Suknaski suggested with the title of his collection of self-published visuals, Writing on Stone: poemdrawings 1966-1976 (1976), referencing, perhaps, the Writing-on-Stone National Park 200 km south-east of Lethbridge; not writing on but between. What do I know about writing Alberta? A foreign correspondent in a culture not foreign but a land that is, from my Glengarry green wood or conservative National Capital Region. Oh, to live for a while in a province where you can purchase alcohol to take home at the bar, or the corner store; to live in a part of the country not founded and run by the dour moralities of Scottish Presbyterianism. To see how the other sides live.

Even though I'm about half-way through Bill Waiser's massive Saskatchewan: A New History (2005) that was published for the centenary, I haven’t yet seen copies of the two-volume Alberta equivalent published around the same time, or the other by Aritha van Herk. And then there's the second edition of Robert Kroetsch's Alberta (1968) that came out in 1993, including a new introduction "Alberta, Twenty-Five Years After Alberta:" (that tells a story of creative writing students, one of whom became Calgary poet Weyman Chan), that writes:

We were on the farm owned by Aritha van Herk's parents, near the village of Edberg, in central Alberta, just south of the Battle River and Driedmeat Lake.

"My shoes are heavy with mud," Lauralyn said, delighted again. "Is this what you call gumbo?"

We were twenty-three writers on a tour. We were in Alberta, and our intention was to find Alberta. "What are we talking about when we talk about place?" Fred Wah had asked, one winter afternoon over a beer. And there we were on an April day, twenty creative writing students from the University of Calgary, their instructors, the poet Fred Wah and the novelist Aritha van Herk, and I. We were on the road, travelling in three vans.

Mrs. van Herk, gracious, elegant, eloquent, had prepared a lunch that was a feast. We left our twenty-three pairs of stained and muddy shoes at the back door and crowded into the van Herk's spotless new kitchen. We heaped our plates with Dutch-style open-faced sandwiches and homemade pickles and squares of cake. We crowded into the living room and filled the chairs and the sofa and the floor with our presence. We ate heartily and went for seconds. But the talk was still of the beauty of hogs. And the question of turning hogs into poetry.

Brian Stanko, guarding a rock he had found on the van Herk farm, a granite fragment he would deliver to a poet in Drumheller, quoted the opening sentence of Aritha's famous first novel, Judith: "Pig shit and wet greasy straw were piled high in the wheelbarrow."

The optimistic energy that abides in Alberta's two and a half million citizens was there in the van Herk house in the persons of twenty student writers. The group included undergraduates, a graduate student, an architect, two lawyers, a philosopher, teachers, administrators, a bill collector, busy mothers whose husbands were at home looking after the kids. The group included people born in Texas, in Winnipeg, in Japan, in India, in small Saskatchewan towns, in Africa, in something called Toronto. There were even two writers who were born in Calgary.

We were all Albertans. That was agreed upon and taken for granted. The catch was: where to find Alberta?

There are the points that I ask myself, how will a simple farm boy from Glengarry fit in? Perhaps this is my preoccupation with Kroetsch's Alberta, or even Andrew Suknaski's Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan; the framing of descent from ethnic immigrants and homestead into a sense of leaving and becoming urban, and what became poems, poems and more. Something you don’t find on the west coast, or in Toronto; happening less as the family farm dies and the rest of us age, moving further and further away from the actual land that brought us, borne.

On the same first trip to Edmonton in 1997, sitting in Douglas Barbour's car driving along Whyte Avenue, telling me of the years of nights with Bob Kroetsch at the "Strath," pointing out the diner that had burned down two previous days, where he and Kroetch had gone for breakfast just a week before. Wondering out loud, perhaps, once Kroetsch had entered the building, the diner had begun to deconstruct itself. I remember thinking that enormously funny when I first said it out loud; I remember being extremely envious of Barbour, with the opportunity to spend that kind of time with Kroetsch. Does every argument here begin to similarly break down?

It is this page
as I choose to see it.
It is what I want
to say.
That the white spreads
before my eyes, expands
through dimensions
I dont even believe,
wipes me out
or could, that power is on it;
unless we define the
by the black borders
of the letters
of each alphabet we meet,
White emptiness, the page
you read / I write
the page / filled
and your hearts.
— Douglas Barbour, "First Snow"

In his own interview in Speaking in the Past Tense: Canadian Novelists on Writing Historical Fiction (2007), Edmonton writer and University of Alberta professor Thomas Wharton talked about the land, saying:

I think it goes a long way back in the history of writing about mountains, thinking about mountains. For a long time in Europe, mountains were thought of as frightening places; you stay away from them, right? They're just dangerous and scary, and that gradually becomes this notion of the sublime, something that's terrifying and awe-inspiring about nature and that mountains are a very powerful example of. That goes way back, and you can see that in their writing as well. They're allowing themselves to be overcome by that at times. I know, in a sense, that whole thing has been deconstructed as a kind of a cultural—

HW Construct.

TW Yes, but at the same time I feel that it's real, too, in a way, that I have felt those feelings, right, before I'd ever heard it—

HW Deconstructed.

TW Or whatever. And so, as I said before, I just have a sense of sympathy with these people, a sort of understanding.

Thomas Wharton, who had helped get me my residency. In the shadow of those mountains, turning what I know of home to molehills, the Gatineau Hills a northern stretch of the American Appalachians, moving from the Blue Ridge north across the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers into Canadian Shield. I could talk about later reading tours to Alberta, and the girl who broke me slowly, turning that break into three manuscripts, two of which have already appeared as paper hotel (2002) and whats left (2004); wandering our days into Banff, and what happened there; who took me from Calgary to Banff and then Edmonton on a five-day first date. What do I know about Alberta? I could talk about the evenings in the Strathcona Hotel Bar with her and others, Paul Dechene and Andy Weaver and Tim Bowling, and the claw machine for stuffed toys I made Weaver give me a dollar for. I'm not wasting my money on that shit, I said. It had been there only a few weeks before me, and only a few weeks more, before never being seen again; Weaver told me later, I was the only person he'd seen win anything in that machine. I could talk about the stuffed purple vampire of some sort I won from the machine that she kept in the back window, she claimed, of her car for weeks; the wrong end of a too short road.

sex in the prairies

is like love at seventeen, it plies
deep in the solid bone
at the banff springs hotel, five days
in alberta we can never return to
the days are long & yr letters few,
& geography plots against me
a degas painting isnt enough,
even on a greeting card
it gives no greeting, it only reminds
of the separations to come (paper hotel)

I could talk of fall 1998, entering Edmonton by rail, as part of the VIA Rail Great Canadian Author's Tour, organized by the ottawa international writers festival. What does this have to do with anything? Travelling west for readings with David McGimpsey, Anita Rau Badami, Susan Musgrave and Robert Hilles, and showing up late to our reading at Greenwoods Bookstore, thanks in part to kath macLean and an afternoon of vodka paralyzers. What does this have to do with anything? Or the day I saw Klondike Kate open the triple-A ballgame a few years later, hooting and hollering with Weaver, Adam Dickinson and how many others in their crew, despite not caring which team won. I had decided the beer too expensive, so I waited till after (they lost 14-0); I don’t need a drink in me to holler like a fool. There are some parts of Scottish Presbyterianism that just didn’t take. What does this have to do with anything?

What do I know about Alberta? The difference between showing and knowing, or seeing and feeling. Perhaps not a single thing, not yet. The Alberta of Robert Kroetsch, Shane Rhodes, Aritha van Herk, derek beaulieu, Suzette Mayr and Monty Reid; the Edmonton of Sheila Watson (I'm thinking of turning her desk in the University of Alberta Humanities building into a small shrine) and Henry Beissel and Marilyn Dumont and Douglas Barbour and Andy Weaver; the histories of previous writers-in-residence at the University of Alberta, including Karen Solie, Thomas Wharton, Elizabeth Smart, Fred Wah and Phyllis Webb. How could one not want to be influenced?

Cue Cards
Fabulous fold of the gray cloud
over the banked white one ―
Stolen thunder. Stolen gold.
Heart of the jungle darkness.
Hot death. Rousseau and Conrad
meet at the river bank
stare at their outstretched hands
that hold no clues.
Clueless. Monsieur Rousseau
falls down in a faint
seeing stars and shepherdesses.
And Mr. Conrad stumbles on
lured by drumbeats.
Half dead at the end of
his story, he leaves his trail ―
and another Rousseau, Henri,
paints stripes on a large cat
as it royally passes through customs.

— Phyllis Webb, Hanging Fire


If the Canadian home is less often a literal "mobile home" than the American, perhaps because of the generally harsher northern climate, it is just as often a figurative one. The fact that so many selves have placed themselves, or been placed, in motion, moving from one place to another, raises the question of whether it is possible to go one step further and "place" the self in motion, while in motion, rather than merely leaving one home and establishing another. This home is not a centre of gravity that is other and outside the self but something inside of or identical to the self. Or, perhaps, even more radically, something that "resides in" or is constructed by movement itself. Such a notion goes beyond home as verb, "to home," for that still implies an object or goal of the movement; it redefines home as a dynamic noun, a process, an experience, the flux and flow of matter turned into energy.

Robert Kroetsch's collection of long poems Completed Field Notes, Aritha van Herk's novel No Fixed Address: An Amorous Journey, and Fred Wah's Alley Alley Home Free all react to some sort of radical displacement, an uprooting ― geographical and/or familial ― by embracing a process-approach to matters of home. In Kroetsch's text, the lost (sold) home place and the absent mother figure appear in ghost form through his continual dislocation in and among space, language and relationships. In van Herk's text, the protagonist's unhappy childhood family life leads her to reject any traditional sense of home, and to opt instead for continual movement, placing herself in and with a car, hotel rooms, anonymous lovers and the open road. In Wah's text, a referential sense of external space is abandoned entirely, and place is redefined as body, so that the movement of perception itself becomes a dynamic "homing" process.

— Deborah Keahey, Making it Home: Place in Canadian Prairie Literature

So much of this is placing, replacing and removing myself from my comfort and into a context of other; it's one thing to tour, and to know I can go home again (you can't go home, again). Another example of writing my way into being. I know the hot wheat and I know about the homestead and the opening space (but not the degrees); I know about the sweat and the hurt that go into every stump and stone, every acre. This is where I acquire the new mathematics of acre to quarter, and whatever else that the space will allow. Of my own McLennan folk who headed west to homestead in 1904 in the Longlaketon District, between what is now Craven and Earl Grey, Saskatchewan. The two brothers who left the home farm (where my parents remain) and the one who returned a few years later, to work again making cheese.

How do you grow a past/
to live in
— Robert Kroetsch, Seed Catalogue

The northernmost major city in North America, covering an area larger than Chicago, Philadelphia, Toronto or Montreal, without any natural barrier of mountain, water or next city over to keep it from spreading. The oil trade, Hudson's Bay and the North West Company, or stopping point toward the 1897 Klondike gold. What do I know about Alberta?

Even by leaving do we talk of home, from Andrew Suknaski's Leaving (1974) and Leaving Wood Mountain (1975) to Dennis Cooley's Leaving (1980), or everything else Ralph Connor wrote of Glengarry years after he left for Winnipeg, never to return; what I've worked for years in poems in various collections writing Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, Ireland, England, Maine and New York City. How else does a body compare? What do I know of writing Alberta, or writing Edmonton? Arguably, only an hour away from home, what do I really know of leaving? Planting posts in the ground and doing hay; picking stones and clearing stalls, all I could see in front of me was space; space I didn’t even have a name for, but home, that sprawling invention of fields and trees and gravel roads, and two hundred years or more of history that could be looked up. The history of the word "Alberta" is so much younger, but the history, the stories of the land about the same. What is it I think that I've learned, or could ever want to?


sepia stands
she makes her getaway slips
cuts her foot on the chain-link
binds it with a ragged
ribbon footprints paint
the town red, serif droplets dripped
sanskrit, a mannered script
call it style.
cachet heavy as an elephant
— Jill Hartman, A Painted Elephant

It's only by leaving home that we can know how to shape it, seeing the boundary lines from the outside. It's why the question "What does it mean to be a Canadian writer?" in recent issues of CV2 have baffled me; how many even know the difference? Margaret Atwood, perhaps, or Robin Blaser, Dennis Lee, Elizabeth Hay and Maggie Helwig; more recent expats such as Sina Queyras, Anne Carson, Steve McCaffery, Kim Morrissey, Lisa Robertson and John Stiles. What does it mean to be prairie? As Jon Paul Fiorentino wrote in the introduction to the anthology Post Prairie: an anthology of new poetry:

Robert Kroetsch and I wanted to document and celebrate the poetry of the prairie as it is being written now, in the new century. We soon discovered that the prairie was missing, or perhaps the prairie had become in many ways unrecognizably present in this new work. The poets we have gathered here (both poets of the prairie and poets of the prairie diaspora) are speaking in new voices, and their "home place" of the prairie has become less unified, more urban, technologically adept, and theoretically informed. To put it another way, the "home place" is where it's not: there are elements of a vernacular inclusion project in this anthology. The inability of many readers and literary scholars to see an emerging poetics of a new prairie, the post-prairie, should not be surprising—there is a reason the prairie is thought of as the domain of the rural, the wheat field and the grain elevator. This most obviously has something to do with its history, but the persistence of this imagery also has something to do with cultural capital—that is, there is a marketplace-based reason many people continue to think of the prairie as a fixed notion of "traditional" landscape. Perhaps it's easier to sell the prairie as a simple place, located in some past golden age of a "simpler" life. In order to desimplify this notion, to figure out what we were getting at by gathering the elements of this anthology, where we were getting to, we, the editors, needed to dialogue.

Or, as he wrote at the beginning of his "prairie long poem" from Transcona Fragments (2002),

i have read seed catalogue and the wind is our enemy and fielding and still
i will fail to present you with this prairie long poem because if anything
they have taught me to write against this form and to be discursive and
elusive and most of all they have taught me to desire each other and so
to perpetuate an incestuous notion of poetry which is discretely referred
to as intertextuality.
write fragments. not full sentences. but most of all disobey all
instructions toward poetry.


I remember on one of her last visits—in the summer of 1983—she read at Harbourfront in connection with the publication of an anthology of Canadian literature edited by Donna Bennett and Russell Brown. It was an afternoon reading followed by a reception, and I remember that Sheila read "Antigone," and P.K. Page, who also read, said to Sheila that she would have given all her own work to have written "Antigone." After the readings, as we drank wine and ate cheese among large cardboard advertisements for the anthology, Elizabeth Smart, accompanied by an Antigone-like granddaughter, made her determined way to Sheila—they had never met—and attempted to kneel in homage before her. Sheila was startled and perplexed, as were bpNichol and Philip Marchand who were talking with her at the time. bp fell back, taking one of the advertisements with him. I remember Sheila and I remember Elizabeth Smart's determination and her granddaughter's poise in the midst of this slapstick and strangely moving scene.

— F.T. Flahiff, always someone to kill the doves: A Life of Sheila Watson

This eastern Ontario line so established as self and home base that it becomes difficult and even essential to leave, if just for a little while. By the time I walk into Alberta, the Writer-in-Residence Program at the University of Alberta will be entering its 32nd year, and, as other programs fall away and shift (even as new ones have been established at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, as well), this is the longest lasting program of its kind in Canada, hosting such writers as Matt Cohen (1975-76), Marian Engel (1977-78), Phyllis Webb (1980-81), Elizabeth Smart (1982-83), Daphne Marlatt (1985-86), Ray Smith (1986-87), Fred Wah (1988-89), Kristjana Gunnars (1989-1990), Don McKay (1993-94), Olive Senior (1998-99), Tim Lilburn (1999-00), Marilyn Dumont (2000-2001), Thomas Wharton (2002-03), Myrna Kostash (2003-04), Karen Solie (2004-05) and Camilla Gibb / Catherine Bush (2006-07). Even during my tenure, the University of Alberta will be celebrating their own centenary, in 2008. Alberta, province of boom and bust and boom, air inflating balloons to burst.

The writing that happens when you're away. George Bowering, who wrote The Concrete Island (1977) during his Montreal years, writer in residence at Sir George Williams (what later became Concordia University) before remaining to teach a few years (and teaching a number of those who would become the original Vehicule Poets), or Montreal poet (originally from Calgary) Erin Mouré doing her Pessoa transelations, Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person (2001), from her equivalent position at the University of Toronto.

XXXI If at times I claim flowers smile and rivers sing

If at times I claim flowers smile and rivers sing
It's not from thinking there are smiles in flowers
And songs in fast currents…
I'm out on Vaughan Road where Taddle Creek runs under me
Duped men drive past me honking, I want to show them
The small buds just now in leaf alongside rivers,
and they want to get fast to Bathurst and St. Clair.
Who can blame them.
So I write, as if they'll read me, and even I fall at times
In love with their stupid feelings…
I'm against it but I forgive myself
Because all I am is Nature's guidepost, and if I don’t get
Their attention, they won't see Nature's language
For Nature has no language ever,
Except maybe a e i o ssssshh .

Adrian King, owner and operator of The Word bookstore in Montreal, once told me a story of John Newlove, during his year at Concordia, who regularly came in with a six-pack of beer, sat in a chair and read for hours, until he had finished his beer; when Newlove wasn’t at The Word, he was apparently doing the same in his on-campus office, frightening faculty and students alike. Stories of Andrew Suknaski during his time as writer-in-residence at St. John's College, University of Manitoba, 1978; stories that he even wrote himself, in poems and essays. Yann Martel at the Saskatoon Public Library right after he won the Man Booker Prize. What kind of footprint would I want to leave, or have the province leave on me? How much do I get to even choose? In her introduction to Sheep's Vigil by a Fervent Person, "Notes In Recollection," Mouré wrote:

The anonymity of the civic grid parallels the anonymity of fields. When I was a child, I was also a bird. A bird and a fisher. Then I spent a winter on Winnett Avenue in Toronto where a small creek crosses, nameless, flowing under the road into Cedarvale ravine near the Phil White Arena. A manhole cover, the real McCoy, marks its passage. A portal, round of fer forgé. In Montréal these covers would say Montréal égouts, or aqueduc, or égout pluvial, in accordance with their function; in Toronto they read McCoy, after their foundry. Or just bear a year, 1965. Beneath them, I started to find creeks, riding my bike that spring; for on a bike, you can hear the water. Travelling up Wychwood past the old shut streetcar barns, the sound of Taddle Creek can be followed all the way up to Vaughan Road before it's lost. And on a bike, you're instantly aware of topography. At night from downtown, the craggy Lake Iroquois shore just above Davenport in Toronto is a dark line: to rise out of the vanished lake into it is to enter a lung. In such a place, I first translated the words of Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa. Or, more properly, Alberto Caeiro.

There was Robert Kroetsch himself, after years in Winnipeg, spending the half-term of winter/spring 2002 at the University of Calgary, where he wrote his Lines Written in the John Snow House (2002), later included in his collection The Snowbird Poems (2004). What do I know about Alberta? How much do I still have to learn?

January 26: Sketch for a self-portrait

Would you believe, today I took a bag of garbage out of the back
door and locked myself out of the house. Current temperature:
minus 25. I was wearing slippers, slacks, a t-shirt.
I went to the front of the house. I rang the doorbell. John Snow
installed the doorbell in the basement stairway so that, working
at his lithograph press, he might hear if someone came to the
door. Dawne, I expected, was at work in her study upstairs.
I knocked at the door, the cold numbing my knuckles. Dawne is
writing a book. She is an author.
I went around to the back of the house. I made a snowball with
my raw, bare hands and heaved it at the upstairs window.
Dawne is writing a book. She is an author. Authors, if nothing
else, write books.
The snowball broke on the brittle air. Flakes fell dumbly onto
my stiff ears.
Why, I shouted, at no one apparently, but hoping I might be
heard, why is every author deaf to human need?
Dawne is writing a book. Who am I? I continued, though in a
somewhat muted fashion, to disturb an author who is at work?
Why should I not accept death by chilblains and frostbite as my
contribution in the vicious plot to uncover truth?
I tried to find a stick, a stone, in the deep, blank snow.
Just then I heard a car come to a stop in the street. I rushed again
to the front of the house, intending merely to beg some passing
stranger for mercy and understanding.
A woman was stooping into the trunk of a car.
The woman, somewhat to my surprise, was Dawne. I had not
heard her leave, apparently.
I was holding my hands in my armpits. Where have you been?
She lowered the lid of the trunk. Why are you shouting?
— Robert Kroetsch


Of all of Ulysses' adventures, none is as moving as his homecoming. The sirens, the Cyclops, the sorceress and her spells, are prodigious wonders, but the old man who weeps at the sight of the remembered shore and the dog who dies of a broken heart at the feet of his remembered master seem truer and more compelling than the marvels. Nine-tenths of the poem consists of surprise; the end is mere recognition.

We perceive the world in one of two ways; as a foreign land or as home. We are either surrounded by the differences or comforted by the similarities between places. Wherever it is we make our home we behave either as wanderers or as travellers returned.

— Alberto Manguel, "Introduction: Homecoming," Out of Place: stories and poems

Before I arrive in the province, I want to read Thomas Wharton's three novels; I want to read some Marilyn Dumont, some earlier Aritha van Herk, the further novels of Suzette Mayr. I want to reread Sheila Watson. Is it wrong to admit I've never read the work of Rudy Wiebe?

I have never been good with change; keep my life to a series of standards, routines, and let the writing be where I settle, unsettled; I can't have it both ways. What do I know about Alberta? Having not lived there, perhaps not a solitary thing. As Monty Reid says, you really get to know a place with your feet, with your hands. I have never sat at the foot of a mountain but I admit I've walked by, drove around, and flew over a few (this is not the same). I know I have yet to comprehend what I do not understand. What will I discover when I arrive? Will I learn that Edmonton aesthetic I can't see from here? Add depth to whatever flavour I might already know? Or is it as Manitoba poet and critic Di Brandt suggests in the introduction to her new collection of essays, So this is the world & here I am in it (2007), is the process always to be caught between knowing and unknowing, a life-long process of learning what can never fully be known? 


Works Cited:

Barbour, Douglas. visible visions: The selected poems of Douglas Barbour. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1984.

Bowering, George. Rocky Mountain Foot. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1969.

________. The Concrete Island. Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1977.

Brandt, Di. So this is the world & here I am in it. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press / writer as critic X, 2007.

Calder, Alison and Robert Wardhaugh. Eds. History, Literature, And the Writing of the Canadian Prairies. Winnipeg MB: The University of Manitoba Press, 2005.

Cohen, Leonard. Selected Poems, 1956-1968. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1968.

Connor, Ralph (Rev. Charles Gordon). Glengarry School Days: A Story of Early Days in Glengarry. Westminster Company Limited, 1902.

Cooley, Dennis. Ed. Draft: an anthology of prairie poetry. Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1981.

________. Leaving. Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1980.

Fiorentino, Jon Paul and Robert Kroetsch, Eds. Post Prairie: an anthology of new poetry. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2005.

________. "prairie long poem," Transcona Fragments. Winnipeg MB: Cyclops Press, 2002.

Flahiff, F.T. always someone to kill the doves: A Life of Sheila Watson. Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 2005.

Hartman, Jill. A Painted Elephant. Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2003.

Keahey, Deborah. Making it Home: Place in Canadian Prairie Literature. Winnipeg MB: University of Manitoba Press, 1998.

Kroetsch, Robert. Alberta. Toronto ON: MacMillan, 1968; second edition, Edmonton AB: NeWest Press, 1993.

________. Lines Written in the John Snow House Calgary AB: housepress, 2002.

________. "On Being an Alberta Writer," Open Letter, Fifth Series, Number Four, Spring 1983.

________. Seed Catalogue: a poem. Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1977, 1986; Calgary AB: Red Deer Press, 2004.

________. The Snowbird Poems. Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2004.

Klar, Barbara and Paul Wilson. Eds. Fast Forward: New Saskatchewan Poets. Regina SK: Hagios Press, 2007.

Daniel Lenoski. Ed. a/long prairie lines: An Anthology of Long Prairie Poems. Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press, 1989.

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Mandel, Eli, ed. Poets of Contemporary Canada 1960-1970. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1972.

Manguel, Alberto. "Introduction: Homecoming," Out of Place: stories and poems. Regina SK: Coteau Press, 1991.

Marty, Sid. Tumbleweed Harvest. Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1973.

mclennan, rob. Manitoba highway map. Fredericton NB: Broken Jaw Press, 1999.

________. paper hotel. Fredericton NB: Broken Jaw Press, 2002.

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________. whats left. Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2004.

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Reid, Monty. These Lawns. Red Deer, AB: Red Deer College Press / writing west, 1990.

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van Herk, Aritha. "(no parrot/no crow/no parrot)," In Visible Ink: crypto-fictions. Edmonton AB: The Writer as Critic / NeWest Press, 1991.

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________. "What I'm Going To Do," Open Letter (Sheila Watson: A Collection), Third Series, Number One, Winter 1974-75.

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