Don Precosky's Introduction,
INTRODUCTION: North of What?
THE BUSES DON'T RUN ON TIME IN THE WINTER BECAUSE THE schedules were drawn up in an office in snow-free Vancouver. Whenever CBC radio is running late, they leave the Chilcotin-Cariboo/Central-Interior out of the weather report before the 10pm news. If BCTV can't sell any advertising time on its robot Prince George affiliate, it treats us to three minutes of local colour, usually a melange of snow banks and pulp mill stacks. Welcome to BC's northern half, where everyone is a logger or a welder or a miner (or married to one). Where we live hard and die young, or work like devils, save our money, and get out. No room for introspection here. No need for poets.
Cultural cliches are hard to escape. We've been taught them from both inside and outside our communities. "They can't be real poets," say the southerners. "They live there." "They can't be real poets," say the locals. "They live here." Wrong on both counts. They are poets. They are here; they would be poets anywhere.
Barbara Munk was born in Prince George and raised in Quesnel. Her maternal grandparents were the Hubles, a pioneering family in the Prince George area. Munk grew up with the CBC and read everything she could get her hands on. She wrote secretly, hiding what she wrote.
Barry McKinnon's creative writing class introduced her to modern poets; she drove 150 mile round trips from Quesnel to Prince George to attend the weekly meetings. In 1975 Munk moved to Prince George where she has become a successful real estate agent. She has two daughters, a son, and eleven grandchildren.
Munk credits Barry McKinnon and George Stanley for encouraging her to get her work into print. She cites Lew Welch, W.C. Williams, Jack Spicer, the Beat Poets, and Old English verse as important influences on her writing.
Munk's poetry is characterized by an imagistic clarity of presentation and a powerful use of contrast as an organizing principle. She creates a deceptive simplicity in her poetry. It is the kind of pared down delivery of just the essentials that takes a lot of work to achieve:
In Prince George there is a heat wave.
The tent caterpillars have eaten
the leaves of the poplars.
The hills are brown
with the skeletons of trees.
A swarm of motor cycles
roars across the Nechako
Her suite of poems, Ambrose Jackson Buxton and King Thomas, focuses on individuals at the opposite ends of life's spectrum. Ambrose Jackson Buxton is a centenarian when the poems begin and "King Thomas" is a baby who is the cynosure of his doting grandmother's world. The suite opens with Buxton's one-hundredth birthday and ends with his funeral, and in between Munk uses contrast to explore the vastly different realities of these two individual lives. Furthermore, the "Thomas" poems develop a powerful contrast between the fragile, innocent environment that the family provides for the baby (and he for them) and the larger, often violent world of the daily newspaper and television news.
Barbara Munk has published one chapbook: Riverboats.
Ken Belford was born to a farming family in Debolt, Alberta and grew up in East Vancouver. He was one of Talonbooks' first writers, publishing Fire Weed in 1967. In the late sixties he moved to Smithers, B.C. where he homesteaded with his wife Alice Williams. They later operated a guiding/outfitting business specializing in wilderness excursions based at Blackwater Lake in the Nass watershed. Belford is concerned with preserving the wilderness experience despite the pressure of development. When not guiding, he spends his time writing in Vancouver or Smithers. He has a daughter, Hannah.
Most of the Ken Belford poems presented here make a social comment. He is an eco-poet who examines the archetypically Canadian conflict between development and preservation. In the Northern Interior we live at the battlefront. Belford's precise attitude varies slightly from poem to poem, although it is obvious that he favours the preservation side of the conflict.
In some poems he feels that his way of life - his very continued survival - implicates him in something about which he should feel guilty. The food he eats, the house he dwells in, and the oil that keeps him warm are all products of the development that is destroying the natural habitat.
The poems capture, in one consciousness, both sides of the contemporary debate: the need to develop vs. the urge to preserve. Living up here it's not theoretical. In "Holding Land" he says:
Always I have been afraid of this moment: breaking the land.
His personal dividedness is representative of the much larger social division. His attitude is not always this unsure. In several poems, Belford is loudly critical of development and its effects. In these more militant poems development equals exploitation equals destruction:
this is the song of the loss
of the land
so busted and open
no cover no more
bulldozers cresting the hill
nothing's too high
nowhere too far
rootsmell on the wind
cedars sold for dope
so overloaded with shit
the river going by
is deformed and undone
but going by anyway
right to the end
-"A Loss and a Classical Ship"
And in "I Really Want a Girl" he issues a poignant invitation: "If you will come with me / to my cabin on the Blackwater / I will show you / a used-to-be enchanted place." Finally, for Belford, development means sadness, loss, and bitterness.
Works by Ken Belford include: Post Electric Caveman, Holding Land, and Sign Language.
Barry McKinnon was born in Calgary. He received his BA from Sir George Williams University, where he studied with Irving Layton, and his MA from the University of British Columbia. He currently is an English instructor at the College of New Caledonia in Prince George. He has been published widely. The the was short-listed for the Governor General's Award for poetry and Pulp Log (Caitlin Press) won the Dorothy Livesay Prize (BC Book Awards) for 1991.
Besides teaching, McKinnon has been active in numerous activities. He was one of the key players in the renaissance of the arts in Prince George during the 1970s and has worked tirelessly since to bring poets and writers to that city. He has edited several anthologies of poetry and runs Gorse Press, which specializes in limited edition chapbooks and broadsides. He is a devoted jazz fan who plays drums with a local group and appears bi-weekly on CBC's Daybreak to discuss jazz. His poetry is in many anthologies, including The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse edited by Margaret Atwood.
Barry McKinnon's poems usually begin with a low-keyed examination of intimate personal events and then rapidly accelerate into the realm of the universal. "Bushed" is a good example. Beginning as an apparently personal experience ("I am in a desert / of snow"), it develops into a portrait of action frustrated when faced with a variety of choices and possibilities, none of which can be acted on because conditions are not quite right. Earle Birney, of course, has a famous poem of the same name in which an individual breaks down in a rather grand and bizarre way. McKinnon has the wisdom to know that it is not the grandeur that drives a person over the edge, but the thousand little details that can (and usually do) go wrong.
Jack, main character of "The Organizer", is a kind of small town Prufrock, the guy who simultaneously feels big and small, who will take on the job because it's important, but who secretly fears he can't do it; he wants to be respected, but suspects he's being, mocked. Again, it's the everyday details that do a person in because the mind allows them to grow into something bigger than they really are.
In McKinnon's world, conditions are subject to sudden change. That is why the personal can telescope into the universal, and why Jack the organizer can suddenly become totally disorganized. A reader never knows what surprises lie beyond the next conjunction: "this could be a horrible life but for our unjustified faith" ("A Few Thoughts").
Works by Barry McKinnon include: The Golden Daybreak Hair, The Carcasses of Spring, The Death of a Lyric Poet, Songs & Speeches, I Wanted to Say Something, Sex at Thirty-One, The the (fragments), The the, Thoughts/Sketches, The Centre, and Pulp Log.
George Stanley was born and raised in San Francisco where, in the sixties, he was a member of Jack Spicer's circle. He graduated from San Francisco State University in 1969 with a BA and received his MA in 1971. He soon moved to Vancouver where he became associated with New Star Press, and The Grape (an underground newspaper). Five years later he moved to Terrace, where he was employed at Northwest Community College for many years until his retirement. Today Stanley resides in Vancouver. He lists T.S. Eliot, Robert Lowell, and Charles Olson as important influences.
In contrast to McKinnon, who begins in a low key and slowly builds the emotions in his poems, Stanley likes to start a poem with a fanfare. Indeed, with "Light Up the World With Your Faith," his section opens with trumpets sounding, and his powerful music flows through all of the selections.
Stanley is the most overtly passionate of the four poets. This is not to say that the others are without passion; it's just that his is so strongly apparent and so near the surface of the poems. I think it has something to do with the rhythms that run through most of the lines. Beyond the words and the images there is a rhythmic flow in these poems that gives them a great power. Take, for example, this passage from "The Hangover":
The seasons shock us
w/unbidden power, & we drink
when it thunders;
when the land that spins in the stars
flower & shower
we feel spoken too & drink
& shiver w/the thrill
of the immortal gift
of recurrence as present
enjoyment, as act
but even on long spring evenings,
the day, obedient to the year,
her lips sewn shut & the number off the calendar
pasted on her forehead, steals past
Stanley is a romantic. His poetry uplifts us while keeping us aware of the dangers of the world. And like a good romantic he grounds his writing in the real world, but also points us to some transcendent state beyond the everyday:
Hummingbirds at feeders.
Indian boy, hitchhiking. Bus
trudging through the slush, near Kwinitsa.
From all points
heart of being.
-"Glaciers in the arms of trees"
He can soar from the ordinary to magic very quickly.
Works by George Stanley include: The Stick, Opening Day, Temporarily, San Francisco's Gone and Gentle Northern Summer.