canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

TDR Interview: Gregory M. Cook

Poet, journalist and novelist Alden Nowlan challenged the apparent disadvantages of poverty, and a mere four grades of formal education, to publish 25 books, including three plays. Gregory M. Cook, the author of five books of poetry, became a close friend of Nowlan during the last 20 years of his life. 

Cook, a journalist, former teacher and arts administrator, and one of three poets in his immediate family, has made writers and their survival a professional and personal study, which includes his biography of a close friend of twenty years, One Heart One Way / Alden Nowlan: a writer’s life (Pottersfield Press, 2003). Cook served as the charter chair of the Nova Scotia Writers’ Council, Chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada, board member of the League of Canadian Poets and Writers’ Development Trust, and first secretary of the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (now Access Copyright).

Songs of the Wounded (Black Moss, 2004) will offer Cook’s new poems as well as selections from his previous five books, including Untying the tongue (Black Moss, 2002). Greg will edit and introduce a collection of essays on Nowlan’s works for the Guernica Editions "Writers Series" in 2004. More information: 

Michael Bryson interviewed Gregory M. Cook by email in November 2003.

Your new biography of Alden Nowlan has been a labour of love (as well as a challenge and a frustration). Perhaps the best place to begin is a summary of your relationship with Nowlan and how this book came to be.

Alden’s first letter to me on New Year’s Day 1963 carried a postscript: "Hope you’re raising literary hell at Acadia [University]. It needs it." Five years earlier, the editor of the student newspaper and a writer had been given – by the university vice-president, dean of arts, head of the history department and Mayor of Wolfville – twenty-four hours to get out of town. The charge was "blasphemy."

Alden agreed to an interview for the student literary quarterly Amethyst, which I had helped found a couple of years after that fiasco. So we met at the offices of the weekly Hartland (New Brunswick) Observer where he was in his eleventh and last year as a reporter and editor. It was his first magazine interview to be published in Canada. At this point his first four books had been published, including the pivotal The Things Which Are (Contact Press, 1962). We became fast friends for the next twenty years, corresponding and visiting each other. 

Not long after my two-year residency at the University of Waterloo, I decided to write a biography of Alden. I was pleased when Lesley Choyce (Pottersfield Press) asked me for the manuscript this spring. Lesley published in Pottersfield Portfolio the last interview with Alden before he died in 1983. 

Several people in One Heart, One Way express in their own words the magnetisms of Alden’s presence – his intellectual breadth and depth, his sense of real time (the continuity in which all the dead are his ancestors and the unborn his children), and, most of all, the generosity of his empathy. For me, he becomes an ideal older brother who knew I would write his biography. Yes, in that sense, the book is "a labour of love." After all, "objectivity" is a myth of science. So, I adopted a genre proposed in a letter Alden wrote to the author of a history: "affectionate scholarship."


My "challenge" was to recognize that omniscience is the privilege of fiction. My book is a document and, in part, a memoir. But only in part, because I adopt Alden’s understanding of "living memory." The oral history of our elders becomes so vivid in our consciousness that it is as though we experienced time and events before we were born. The concept is close to that of duree – or real time – in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution, which Alden felt was the most under-rated book he had ever read. (I hope the day is not far around the corner when a graduate student of literature will examine Alden’s works in light of the 1927 Nobel Laureate and ancestor of post-modernism.)


The only "frustration" I faced was the result of the rather pathetic realities perpetuated in the cultural politics of Canadian publishing and education. Perhaps we still live in a young country, because there seems to be an adolescent phenomena of hanging out with an "icon" in the group until he graduates (or dies) – in a kind of self-aggrandizing way – and then the magazine or anthology editors (often a contemporary poet or writer) and publishers – begin looking over their shoulders for a new pony to ride.

A senior editor in Toronto explained to me that her publishing house was populated with young people who don’t know who Alden Nowlan is a decade after his death. I find that a self-condemning admission on the part of an industry charged with the responsibility to mirror who we are.

Of course, it plays itself out closer to home. I recently visited a high school in Fredericton (the day before I had participated in the kick-off reading for the third Alden Nowlan Festival in the newly renovated quarters of the University of New Brunswick Graduate Student Association – called "The Alden Nowlan House," where he spent the last fifteen years of his life). I asked the assembled sixty students if any of them knew who Alden Nowlan is. Not one student did.

The Toronto editor’s recommendation was that I look to a Fredericton-based publisher, which had "staked a claim" on Alden Nowlan. And that raises the ugly head of another beast in the cultural politics of Canada – and one that threatened to drive Alden to distraction – the balkanization of the country. It’s the same creature by another name that acts itself out in Parliament in the Reform/Alliance (or whatever is this week’s brand name for disaffection) and the Bloc Quebecois.

The poetry: American poet Robert Bly states in his foreword to the biography that Nowlan is the greatest Canadian poet of the 20th century. For those unfamiliar with Nowlan's work, could you briefly state the case in favour of Bly's proposition?

Yes, Robert Bly, provides a sensitive preface, "The Nourishing Voice of Alden Nowlan," for my book. As a poet, psychologist, political activist and translator, Bly is well positioned to make his claim. I suppose the only person in Canada to imply the same is novelist David Adams Richards. Perhaps most Canadian contemporary Canadian poets and critics are still defending their own turf, although in my book I name several Canadians who are Alden’s senior and who said – or predicted – almost as much.

Bly’s search for truth knows no borders. In his five decades of publishing, he has introduced Scandinavian, South American, European, Indian and Middle Eastern poets to readers in the United States. Among them is Pablo Neruda, whose lines from the poem "Don’t tell me" in Epic Song -- "I soothe their wounds and close them. / This is the work of the poet" – I intend to borrow as an epigraph to my Songs of the wounded: selected and new poems (Black Moss 2004). My brother, poet Harry Thurston, said to me one day, "Bly looked south and saw Pablo Neruda. He looked north and saw Alden Nowlan."

I make the case for this claim quite simply. 1) The classic simplicity of Alden’s poetry is the secret of his accessibility. Perhaps no other poet in Canada is as versatile by genre (poetry, fiction, journalism, history, drama for stage, radio, film and television and political speech writing) and as prolific as Alden. There are 12,000 leaves in his correspondence, for example, in his papers at the University of Calgary. 2) His eclectic devouring of available libraries (private and public) since he was a child allowed him to avoid the pitfalls of formal education – the most critical pitfall being the standardization of our thinking (brainwashing). 3) He had an immense capacity to identify with the "other." In fact, it is so powerful that the poet himself becomes the third person, the "other," as he says in his notebook pages, in his work and in his life. This last feat is his most complex feat, but he achieves it with a magical simplicity that nearly defies analysis. Of course, empathy (entering) is the antithesis of analysis (circling around).

The life: Nowlan is remembered not just for his work but also for being a man of near mythological proportions. Nowlan's life, his story, if it's possible to separate the biological being from his literary production, resonates as a metaphor of his time, place, and gender. What sort of a man was he? And why is he often remembered, revered and feared so fiercely?

Alden’s life is a manifestation of mythological proportions – his omnivorous reading, his connectedness to all that is, his insatiable curiosity, and his absolute faith in his craft. Add his humility before his art and you have the ingredients of prophecy. He is remembered because he fulfilled the prediction he made for himself. Early (before he has turned thirty years of age) in his correspondence with novelist Raymond Fraser, he wrote:

I am fairly confident that [if] I keep living and growing and developing I will be considered Canada’s greatest living poet by the time I’m 40. But it won’t mean anything really....

All we can do is write the best we can. Saroyan says it is a fatal mistake to strive for greatness: he says a writer should concentrate on making whatever he is writing here and now the best of which he is capable....

In my realistic moments I think that the best I can hope for is to be a footnote in a history of Canadian Literature published 2062 A.D....

I’ve found by experience that it is a mistake for one to study his own motives too closely....

The aspiration is the joy, the striving, the dreaming just as love is the desire rather than the fulfillment.

Alden wrote to me that most literary criticism seems to be based on the fallacy that the writer writes his life, yet he also wrote to me that when people ask him what he writes about, he replies: "What it’s like to be Alden Nowlan. The poor bastard is all I’ve got to work with." He is revered for the courage to write – and live, as few can – with such honesty.

Feared? Fear is so often a manifestation of self (a projection), involving hypocrisy or envy – at the very least a lack of humility, which any artist must learn. Alden’s definition of a hypocrite was clear and probably the key to why people feared him. A hypocrite is: "one who is too kind to be wholly honest and too honest to be wholly kind." Such a person can get close enough to another human being to be wounded. In fact, I don’t know of any relationships where the parties don’t get wounded.

Alden’s publisher, Bill Clarke, speaks it well when he explains that if you are truly yourself with Alden you had nothing to fear. Many of us understood this and weathered his wrath when we let him down. Our education – both formal and social – conspired to encourage us to be what others expect us to be, rather than who we are. It’s a disastrous recipe for a poet, or any human being.

Regionalism: Northrop Frye once said that Canada had no east coast. Immigrants rode up the St. Lawrence, docked at Montreal and headed for Toronto. The silliness of this statement is evident to anyone on the Atlantic seaboard, but the statement is also profound because it clearly illustrates (among other things) the distortions that the cultural centre in this country inflicts on the margins. Nowlan lived and wrote outside the centre of cultural power. I imagine this was both a blessing and an irritation to him. Perhaps you could say about the friction between "down home" and "away" in Nowlan's life and work.

Frye was speaking the accepted norm – the status quo – of neo-Canadian cultural politics and commerce, all of which he found appealing because he is attracted to myth. I use the term "neo" because any of us who are seen to live on the so-called "margins" of those myths may understand Derek Walcott perfectly when he reminds us that civilizations don’t crumble – or, I suppose, we could say therefore are not born – at the centre, but from the margins. I believe this is central in Alden’s consciousness. In "The Migrant Hand," one of the Romanian poems he translates, it is clear that the Pharaohs of any society don’t build its centre or centerpieces – the "marginalized" do:

For how many thousands of years, for how many millions
of baskets and wagon loads and truckloads of onions,
or cotton, or turnips has this old man knelt
in the dirt of sun-crazy fields? If you ask him,
he’ll put you off: he’s suspicious of questions.
The truth is that Adam, a day out of Eden,
started him gathering grapes: old Pharaoh
sold him to Greece; he picked leeks for the Seljuks,
garlic for Tuscans, Goths and Normans,
pumpkins and maize for the Pilgrim Fathers,
has forgotten them all, forgotten all of the past, except
the last ten hours of blackflies and heat,
the last two hundred barrels of potatoes.

These are Alden’s people, to whom he was faithful without idealizing them. Perhaps poet Thomas R. Smith, Alden’s U.S. editor, best understands this quintessential Nowlan view of class – a view most North American poets, Smith argues, shrug off or flinch from. It takes too much courage to write what conventional myth denies.

In Canada we all know that Ottawa, like Fredericton, for example, has a "marginal" existence. After all both capital cites were established as "retreats" or "havens" – removed from the military avenues/borders and the centers of commerce. Alden was born in a margin of such a retreat thirty-two kilometres from Windsor, Nova Scotia – that location of the first agricultural fair in North America. How so? Because Windsor was an imperial Block House (secondary fortress) on a sailing escape route, should Halifax (the garrison city) be overrun by the enemy. In other (domestic) words, Windsor was the idyllic setting at the eastern end of the Annapolis Valley, where the gentry could raise their horses and their daughters at a safe distance from all the kings horses and all the king’s men.

As you say, it appears Nowlan lived and wrote outside the centre of cultural power. But the problem, Alden would say, is in the eye of the beholder. He knew the assumptions of the centrists are false. He never had any doubt that the centre of the universe is where one lives. You see, he would understand completely the success of what will be the 5th Annual Northrop Frye Festival (which honoured Alden and Antonine Maillet two years ago) is where a good number of people in the "margins" of Moncton are correcting the myth that Frye is more honoured in Italy than in Canada. You see, Frye was of a generation that needed to be accepted by the so-called "centre" of power. The organizers of the festival, however, are not in Toronto. They know Frye is one of the 20th century's leading intellectuals, literary critics and educators. They know Northrop spent his formative years in Moncton and the festival celebrates his legacy to the Atlantic region. People like Alden Nowlan don’t hold it against Frye that he lived in Toronto.

Alden reminds us of what is too easily forgotten. As my biography points out, he lived in two / both worlds, as he said, "working for a weekly newspaper in Hartland, N.B., and publishing verses in New York, San Francisco, Mexico City, and Lamoni, Iowa, or was it Lamoni, Idaho?" He becomes representative of what he will call a type of person, like his friend Richard Hatfield, who becomes Premier of the province. Such a person, he wrote for MacLean’s magazine, is

found more often in the Atlantic Provinces that anywhere else in Canada: one who combines what William James called "cultural immersion" in a particular region with full membership in the global village. In his own very different way the novelist Ernest Buckler is another such man, writing articles for Esquire in the parlour of the Nova Scotia farmhouse where he was born [where he lived most of his life]…. So is the painter Tom Forrestall, riding his bicycle along the elm-shaded streets of Fredericton one day and arranging an exhibition in New York the next.

A question about your own poetry. How your work been influenced by Nowlan's and by your relationship with Nowlan?

My own poetry, like that of a number of writers who were influenced – or encouraged – by Alden speaks of what I know. And I try to be faithful to the lines of his poetry I quoted to introduce my 1963 interview with him:

Oh, admit this, man, there is no point in poetry
if you withhold the truth
once you’ve come by it.

In other words, he has encouraged me to trust my ear and remain faithful to the oracular wisdom of my people.

The state of the nation: What does Nowlan have to say to us in the 21st century? I hate to ask you to distill Nowlan's legacy into a sound bite but I'm going to anyway. I imagine Nowlan would find much to rage about and much to be pleased about in today's world. Yes?

In the 21st Century Alden says, a preoccupation with form over (or without) content in poetry is the same as running the world on ideological principles enunciated by political "spin doctors."

He says that the international sport of torture yields no truth – only what the torturer wants to hear.

What might please him about today is the technological ability to communicate (by e-mail, for example) and "travel" (on the net), although he would probably agree with Appollonia Steele’s e-signature – Steele is the head archivist at the University of Calgary, the major repository of Alden’s papers – Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? – T.S. Eliot.

As a communicator extraordinaire, Alden boasts that his best line in a magazine piece on Hartland, New Brunswick, reveals that the collective consciousness has prophetic powers: "The power of collective conviction in small towns is so powerful that sometimes by a process of constant, almost telepathic pressure it brings about events it seems merely to anticipate." In a global village with today’s means to communicate, one would think such "telepathic pressure" might have avoided the invasion of Iraqi. He would be disappointed that it didn’t.

Of the radical fanaticism of so-called "terrorists," Alden would probably remind us that there may be nothing more terrifying than unfettered capitalism/consumerism. Or, if that sounds too much like Greg Cook speaking, then let Alden speak for himself about the dangers "of what can be achieved by absolute self-assurance and absolute self-righteousness when it turns from theology to commerce."

From his experience of a small town, he would say of the so-called "clash of civilizations" being discussed in the "power centres" of today’s global village, as the United Church clergyman of Alden’s Hartland years tells me Alden explained to him: "If you talked about religion you had nothing but problems. If you just talked about other things in the community – that’s where Alden said – ‘the natural goodness of the people overcame their religion and we got along as good friends.’"

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review.




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