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Peter Trower

A Poet of the People - The Globe and Mail

It isn't often that you come across a poetic voice that truly reflects the history and feeling of the land and its folk - a poet of the people.

In Vancouver, a group of writers, poets, actors, friends and fans believe they’ve found one: former lumberjack and West Coast poetry icon Peter Trower. Haven't heard of him? That, they say, is the problem.

Despite more than 30 years as a professional poet and author, with fans such as Al Purdy, Earle Birney, Patrick Lane, Dorothy Livesay, Jim Christy and countless others, Trower has remained virtually unknown outside his home province and has received no honours or awards until winning a B.C. 2000 Book Award this year.

"Peter Trower is British Columbia poetry," Olafson said. "No other poet around represents the wilderness and the urban streets better than Trower. His poetry is at the same time tough and tender, [he is] one of the most eloquent poets you'll ever find and yet largely looked over."

So, on Sunday, at least 100 people flocked to Bukowski's, a trendy hangout for new and old breeds of local poets, to wish Trower a happy 70th birthday and present him with the first annual Peter Trower Alternative Poetry Award.

It was standing room only as 16 people got up to read their favourite Trower poem. And while every presentation ended with a "Happy birthday, Pete," all spoke of the evening not only being a celebration of a man, but the miracle of poetry when crafted to near-perfection.

Trower admitted he was at a rare place in life - a loss for words.

"This is all mind-boggling," he said later. "I'm touched. All I can think is, do I really deserve all of this? There is nothing better than friends who believe in you - apart from that, I'd have to say that I can't think of words to describe the way I feel about this.

"I'm a poet, probably always have been and always will be - it's a great feeling knowing that my name is going to be associated with an annual award. What more can I say?"

Trower ended the night with a reading of "Rainbows, End Horizons" from his forthcoming poetry collection A Ship Called Destiny.

The idea for the event and award came when author/poet Jim Christy was talking to Victoria's Ekstasis Editions publisher, Richard Olafson, bemoaning the fact that Trower didn't get nominated for a B.C. Book Prize or any other award for Chainsaws in the Cathedral, Collected Wood Poems.

"The more we talked, the more we were astounded that even though this man has this huge body of work and has so much respect from other writers, the so-called 'establishment' has forgotten about him," Christy said.

He said they decided not only that a roast should be held in Trower's honour (his birthday was Aug. 25), but a new award established to recognize poets who might be considered on the fringe of "establishment" Canadian literature. As a result, the first annual Peter Trower Alternative Poetry Award was born, with Olafson presenting Trower with a unique trophy made by Christy - flashing lights, beer cans and all. Winners' names will be added each year.

Christy is the first to admit that he has no idea why his long-time friend has been mostly ignored in Canada. "I have no idea, all we could come up with was that maybe he just doesn't play the games or get into all the politics....

"But Pete is accessible, writing about the land, the forest, work, sex, people and love. He is valuable." When asked what makes Trower valuable, Christy quickly added, "What is valuable about Pete is what is valuable about poetry. It's probable that Pete is the main male poet there is in all of Canada, his only peer being Patrick Lane."

And Patrick Lane makes no beefs about his confusion over Trower's absence from nominations and awards in this country.

"Trower has been around forever and I can honestly say I've learned a thing or two from the man, and I can't say that about many people. Both Al Purdy and I always acknowledged the huge level of talent and the debt that is owed to the man," Lane said.

Lane's personal theory is that the reason for this lack of interest doesn't rest with the people, but rather those who make the decisions about who is going to be pushed forward and who isn't.

"Trower has been writing for about 50 years and over 30 years as a serious writer and poet but the body of his work has focused mainly on work and the people who do hard labour. This is a world that the so-called establishment and intellectuals have no idea about and likely little interest in but he is writing about the common man, about love and sex and death. Terrific stories. Beautiful poetry."

Lane notes that, while for the past 20 years Trower's fame has diminished, in the 1960s and 1970s, a time when writing about the power in people and the land was in vogue, Trower had a lot of attention. "But I guess it could be said that culture has moved on. Trower’s a remarkable writer with a huge body of work that really should get the attention it deserves. But perhaps when the majority of the population works in little cubicles in offices now, in cities far from the land and the forests that his poems and stories talk of, it may not be a surprise that he doesn't get noticed like he deserves. But I will always be a huge fan."

Howard White, who printed Trower's second book of poetry Between the Sky and the Splinters 1974 and numerous others since then through Harbour Publishing, still has faith that his old friend will get his due.

"When I realize that Pete is turning 70, I really am amazed that knowing the kind of life he has led, not only has he made it this far but is producing some great books, two coming out this year. It's a miracle.

"Pete is a guy who hasn't had a easy life, surviving 20 years working as a logger - the world's most dangerous job - and writing steady all that time up to the present. He gives me hope and really is a testament to what can be done if you just do it - while it has been slow in the coming I am sure that the Peter Trower Alternative Poetry Award is just the first step in a great deal of recognition that he will be getting in the very near future."

However, White agrees with Lane's theory that the literary establishment has just looked right past Trower.

"I really believe that the literary establishment on the whole don’t really care about the common working people. They want the 'Can-Lit standard’ and if you don't fit in, you just don't make the money, the prestige - or the cut. I don't think it is right, but I think that is the way it is. But with people like Al Purdy and Pat Lane as undying fans and boosters, Pete couldn’t do much better. Pete has remained the poet from Gibson's Landing BC, writing about the bush and the people from the bush. He hasn't moved to Vancouver or Toronto. He has been ignored. All I know is that we should do better for our writers in this country - they are valuable beyond measure,” White added.

Trower was born in St. Leonards on England's southeast coast in 1930 and came to Vancouver with his brother and widowed mother in 1940.

They moved to Gibson's Landing and, in 1949, Trower quit school and found work in his first logging camp, a move that would forever change his life. With nearly a decade in the bush, Trower decided to make a break from the logging industry. In 1958, he enrolled in the Vancouver School of Art. But his future as an artist wasn't sidetracked when Trower happened across a jazz magazine called Downbeat with a story in it by Jack Kerouac about Charlie Parker. After reading the story, which to this day Trower says made him want to be a writer, he dropped out of art school and hit the streets of Vancouver, sleeping in cheap rooms and hanging out with bums, prostitutes and assorted characters who would later make it into the pages of his poetry and prose.

By 1963, the street life had become too much and Trower headed back to the bush to make money as a logger and write poetry when he could.

Trower's first book of poetry, Moving Through the Mystery, was published. in 1969. Since then Trower has been a constant in the B.C. literary scene, publishing six books of poetry and three books of prose. He even played himself in the CBC film based on the book The Diary of Evelyn Lau as the mentor he has been for so many Canadian writers.

A book of poetry, A Ship Called Destiny - Yvonne's Book, dedicated to his partner of many years, Yvonne Klan will be out in September, and a novel, The Judas Hills, the third in a series of stories about West Coast Logging, will be released in October.

-James Eke, Globe and Mail