Peter TrowerErnest Hemingway wrote quite famously that he was once very poor and very happy.
He did so at a time when he was very rich and very unhappy. Poverty and hardship it seems, like quarrelsome ex-lovers, are best remembered and romanticized from a safe distance.
At 73, Sechelt Peninsula author and poet Peter Trower has reached that place where he can look back and laugh at the bad old days. When he does, however, it is not with braggadocio but with genuine astonishment. His odyssey has been an especially punishing one and the fact that he has emerged -- if not unscathed, then at least alive -- is hardly cause for idle boast. He is, in fact, deeply thankful.
"Because my father died when he was young, I thought I was going to die when I was young," Trower says, reflecting into a glass of amber ale at North Vancouver's Sailor Hagar's pub, a stone's throw from the home of his longtime partner and fellow author Yvonne Klan. "My poor father died in a plane accident in Belgium in 1935. He was a test pilot, 35 years old. One day he took one up and brought it down too hard.
"I'm twice his bloody age and I'm still here," he adds with mock defiance and cackles gruffly. "And I've lived a dissolute, wretched life."
The truth is, Trower has led a singular and colourful life, albeit an often rough and riotous one. Not unlike the late author and street poet Charles Bukowski, with whom his work has been favourably compared, Trower has become increasingly productive and prolific since hitting so-called "retirement" age (though he is quick to quip, "It just looks that way"). What's more, he has finally been awarded long-overdue recognition in the hallowed halls of academia over the past few years. With a new book of poems (There Are Many Ways, featuring illustrations by the late Jack Wise) and a spoken-word/jazz CD (Sidewalks & Sidehills) on the shelves, Trower is preparing to commence work as "technical advisor" on a $20- million feature-film production of his 1993 novel Grogan's Cafe. The official launch party for Sidewalks & Sidehills is Sunday, Nov. 23 at the Railway Club.
Plans are in the offing for an album of original blues and R 'n' B tunes (he's got a killer yowl, somewhere between Howlin' Wolf and Tom Waits); Harbour Publishing, the principal champion of Trower's work for the past three decades, is preparing a selected-poems anthology due out in the spring; and Simon Fraser University recently plunked down a hefty sum for his archives. More than a dozen boxes of letters, journals, photographs and papers were retrieved from beneath Trower's stairs and meticulously catalogued over an eight-month period by SFU assistant professor Geoffrey Madoc-Jones.
"When I first read Pete's work in the 1970s, what struck me was how much it reminded me of Georgian poetry," says Madoc-Jones, referring to the genre of pastoral British verse created between about 1910 and 1922. "He has always remained very much a maverick but now has a position within the academic world. He is securely part of the canon of Canadian West Coast culture -- which is much safer than being stored in boxes under the stairs."
Trower calls himself "solvent" for the first time in his life. "Hey, man, it's the best thing that ever happened to me," he says of the fiscal windfall, "but it really didn't change anything. I've learned to live on the cheap for so long, I don't need to go out and buy a lot of stuff. A few clothes, a lot of CDs and books. But I've been a scuffler forever."
Born in St. Leonards, England, in 1930, Peter Trower spent his early years in a tiny rural village outside Oxford. With his mother and brother, the nine-year-old Trower crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a British orphan ship at the outbreak of World War Two, enduring German U-boat sightings and high seas on the way to Canada where the familly settled in the pulp-mill town of Port Mellon on B.C.'s Sunshine Coast. It was there at age 14 he first met Yvonne, the future love and light of his life. Some hard years would pass, however, before the two truly found each other.
"My mother was an elocutionist," Trower says, explaining his lifelong fascination with words. "When I was a little kid she used to read me poems all the time so this stuff sort of settled on my brain." Early on, he was smitten with the works of Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas, British poet laureate Sir John Betjeman and American poet Theodore Roethke.
He would later bond personally and literarily with giants of Canadian verse such as Al Purdy, Earle Birney and John Newlove. In between, he would work the hazardous hills of B.C.'s coastal logging camps.
In 1949 Trower began a series of tours to the woods that lasted, off and on, for 22 years. "When I was young, you could go down to Carrall Street and hire out for a logging camp --nobody asked you any questions, you didn't need any references. You'd just head up to a logging camp, you were gone for a while, you made some money, and then you'd come back into town and spend it all. It was a whole different universe. The camps were an escape. There were guys there who were on the lam, who had just knocked off a bank or just gotten off a criminal charge and needed to get out of town for a while. The cops would give them what they called a 'floater,' meaning they couldn't be charged with anything but they'd be well advised to stay out of town for a year or so. These were really rough guys."
Toiling his way up from whistlepunk to chokerman, hooktender to rigging slinger, Trower experienced all arenas of the often fly-by- night, poorly managed and mortally treacherous "gyppo shows" that lined the province's heavily timbered fjords throughout the 1950s and 1960s. Trower discovered a world of dichotomies in the camps, not merely between brains and brawn, the city and the bush, but of awakening environmental concerns brutally juxtaposed against raked moonscapes and eroding hillsides. "In those days the general thinking was that the trees would go on forever," he says. "We'd never even heard the word 'environmentalist.' " Men needed employment and mills needed timber. A dilemma forged itself in Trower's mind: he had grown up in the woods yet he was party to their pillage. He found catharsis in writing about it -- stirring narrative verse, resplendent with stunning imagery, larger-than- life characters and firsthand observations.
"I knew I was on top of a major myth with the logging poetry and that somebody had better bloody well record this stuff because I could see that it was already starting to gradually phase out," he says. "So I began to write poetry with the idea of capturing and preserving that history, that era, but also with the idea of writing it as modern poetry rather than doggerel in order to appeal to academics -- who at that point completely ignored me."
Though his literary self-education was arduous, Trower understood its value, even if it took others decades to catch up. "I wrote little poems as a boy going to grade school but it was all very naive," he says. "Then I went to Kitimat to work in the mill in the late-'50s and started trying to write adult poems but I didn't know how to do it. Though I used a lot of the same subject matter I still use, it was really rinky-dink crap at first.
"I was interested in Robert Service and started writing narrative type stuff, which was alright in its day but it's pretty corny and old-fashioned now. So I taught myself how to write free verse, which took quite a while. You break the lines according to breath lengths. The first several times I tried it the results were more like broken- up prose. But once you learn where to break the lines, you can write pretty clearly."
Likewise a gifted visual artist, Trower spent much of his downtime sketching cartoons in the sprawling and unruly Kitimat Hotel Pub, then the largest watering hole in Canada capable of holding 2,000 inebriates at any one time. "You could barely see from one side to the other," he says, "especially if you were loaded." A baldheaded beerslinger nicknamed "Neanderthal Abe" --admired in certain circles for his ability to balance pint glasses on his head - - was immortalized first in a Trower caricature and later a poem. "Everybody who hung around the bar knew I was drawing these cartoons except the bosses," he says of the wonderfully executed but darkly humourous and less-than-flattering depictions of mill-town life. "If they'd found out, I would have been canned."
Instead, Trower fell into an inheritance bequeathed by a relative in the U.K. and "bought my freedom," he says, returning to Vancouver to attend art school to study graphic design. Yet he had experienced a profound revelation in Kitimat when the jazz bible Down Beat published a story called "Jazz of the Beat Generation" by American writer Jack Kerouac. The piece, a spontaneous, impressionistic and highly rhythmic depiction of sax great Charlie Parker working his magic on a nightclub audience, suited its subject matter perfectly. "It was amazing," Trower says. "Kerouac's writing almost sings. That was what really turned me on to writing."
Though not exactly disillusioned by art school, the 28-year-old Trower was acutely aware of being a decade older than his fellow students and far better acquainted with the real world. "That's when the writing gradually took over," he says. "But to this day I use the essentials of painting to write poems -- I kind of paint my poems."
What followed was a time in a wilderness far different from the woods. "I had about three real bad years of living on the streets," he says. "But I just wanted to be a writer and I didn't give a shit about things like paying the rent." He ran errands for hookers, drank bad hooch by the gallon and drifted into a life of squalor. "That area was nowhere near as sinister as it is now," he says of the Downtown Eastside. "Woodward's was still there and there were a lot of regular people around -- it wasn't full of junkies, bums and gangs. The changes over the past 30 years have been monumental."
Long before catchphrases like "renewable resource" became fashionable, seasonal loggers treated their bodies more or less the same way they treated the woods -- with little thought or care for the future. Yet even as Trower bounced between flophouses and bunkhouses, he was honing his craft. His first collection, Moving Through the Mystery, was published in 1969 and he established a reputation, not entirely respectable, as a street poet who wrote about the woods. The leading poetry circle of the time -- UBC's Tish group, founded in 1961 and dedicated to the ideals of North Carolina's Black Mountain College experiment -- shunned him like a rabid cur. "The big thing at the time was this stuff with no imagery that was just broken-up prose," he says. "I never could stand the goddamn stuff but it was all the rage back then. These days, some of those guys are friends of mine but then there was a schism. I sided with the guys who preferred the streets to the groves of academia. We were the outlaw poets."
An especially memorable meeting of minds took place at a Kitsilano house party around this time. Leonard Cohen, whose reputation was still largely literary in the late-1960s, was in town promoting his debut album and a shindig was held in his honour. "George Bowering, Milton Acorn, all those guys were there," Trower says. "I walked into this place and somebody said, 'Cohen is sitting in a corner by himself all pissed off because he really wants to smoke some dope and nobody has any.' I'd just happened to cop so I said, 'Well, I do.' So Cohen and I sat in the corner, smoked grass and talked about songs. He read my stuff and said, 'You've got this musical quality -- you should write song lyrics.' It took me years to follow his advice but eventually I did. So I got my initial directive to try music from Leonard Cohen. How's that for namedropping?"
High-flying acquaintances and publication in top-rung literary magazines such as Poetry Chicago, however, failed to establish Trower's name and he reluctantly returned to the woods. "I'd published a book, got a lot of press and had a hit," he says. "I figured I'd be rich and famous but it never happened. I went back to the woods in 1970 and kept having closer and closer shaves. Finally I thought, 'Man, my luck's run out,' and I'm sure it had. I knew if I worked one more year in the woods I'd be dead."
Saviours appeared in the forms of Harbour Publishing founder Howard White, who launched Raincoast Chronicles in the early 1970s, and visionary Vancouver magazine editor Malcolm Parry, neither of whom was afraid to publish and support Trower. Books of his logger- poetry began seeing the light of day -- 1974's Between Sky and Splinters, 1978's Ragged Horizons and 1978's Goosequill Snags, to name a few -- and Trower's stock was on the rise.
"I first met Pete about 30 years ago, probably in the Marble Arch," says George Payerle, a fellow Sunshine Coast author and poet whose works include Unknown Soldier and The Last Trip to Oregon. "Before it became a strip joint, it was a bar where guys who were working in the bush would stay between jobs, as well as students and writers and counter-cultural types. We had similar attitudes toward drinking mass quantities of beer and some whiskey and remaining relatively sober. If it was necessary to pick up a chair and knock somebody out the door before sitting back down and continuing our conversation, it was considered part of the normal fabric of life."
Then in 1979, Trower's mother fell seriously ill. "I didn't know how to cope with it," he says. "I didn't know who to turn to. Yvonne was good friends with my mother so I phoned her up and said, 'Look I don't how to handle this.' She came up and helped me through my mother's death. I bonded with her completely and eventually, after all that time, we got together and we've been together 23 years. Longer than most marriages.
"Without her, I would be dead. I used to drink all the time but I realized if I kept showing up drunk, she was going to forget about me. She caused me to clean up my act. Hell, we've known each other all our lives. It's an incredible romance and she is definitely my soulmate. If you don't have that, you're just totally involved with yourself. You just don't care about anything else."
Described by Trower as a "demon researcher," Yvonne Klan's own book, tentatively titled Sad Voices, is slated for spring 2004 release. An historical anthology of obscure B.C. poets dating to the mid-19th century, Klan's book resurrects works from long-lost newspapers and magazines such as Westward Ho which came out in the early years of the 1900s. "She's taken the best of them and written introductions, explaining who all these people were," says Trower. Among the poets is one John Fraser, son of Simon, who gambled away the family fortune during the Cariboo Gold Rush and wound up committing suicide at age 32 in 1865. "He cut his throat," says Trower. "But before he did, he came up with a few good poems."
Fate has been kinder to Peter Trower, though he has certainly tempted it from time to time. "You can't get life experience from watching movies or reading books," he says. "You've got to get out there and get hurt a bit. If you don't do that, then you don't really know about life."
With a dozen books of poetry and a trilogy of novels to his credit, he sees the CD and film projects as natural extensions of his craft, not cumbersome concessions to technology. The old logger even has his own website.
"I'm just thankful to be alive and still be able to do these things -- I never thought it would happen. I thought I'd be scuffling all the way to the grave." Again, he coughs up a raspy cackle. "I'm probably the last of my breed."