The Isolator
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These to be relayed back in time to a writer starting out.

i Interest is never enough. If it doesn’t haunt you, you’ll never write it well. What haunts and obsesses you into writing may, with luck and labour, interest your readers. What merely interests you is sure to bore them.

ii Let failure be your workshop. See it for what it is: the world walking you through a tough but necessary semester, free of tuition.

iii Embrace oblivion. The sooner you quit fretting about your current status and the long shot of posterity, the sooner you’ll write something that matters—while actually enjoying the effort, at least some of the time.

iv Allow yourself to enjoy it. Squash the temptation to accentuate, poeticize, wallow in the difficulties of the writing life, which are probably not much worse than the particular difficulties of other professions and trades. Take a tradesman’s practical approach to your development: quietly apprentice yourself to language and the craft, then start filling up your toolbox, item by item, year after year.

v Ignore Byron who wrote that “We of the Craft are all crazy.” He was largely right, of course; ignore him anyway. To romanticize The Writer as pursued by furies, enthused by Muses, beset by demons—this is nothing but professional self-importance and self-pity. Writers have no monopoly on poverty, humiliation, self-doubt, or aggressive inner demons. Close your door and get on with it.

vi Momentum and enthusiasm can mean pretty much the same thing. When working on a longer project, ruthlessly guard and prolong the momentum.

vii In writing, as in life, “personality” is not character. Never try to be cute, to be winning, to audition for the reader.

viii Never try to be cool. A writer afraid of seeming square will never write anything truly cool. The purest definition of cool, after all, is not caring what people think.

ix Stand on the side of artifice—of worked and earned, elaborated form. Life gives us enough of life. We approach art for something different: more distilled, catalyzed, charged, and signifying.

x Avoid earnestness and solemnity—those Upper Canadian birthrights—by cultivating a grown-up, crap-detecting irony. But don’t always use it. Irony is effective only in balance with other modes and tropes. Much current discourse renders itself void and dead by the ceaseless, indiscriminate use of irony.

xi Don’t be afraid to be earnest, either, if the work demands it (see viii, above).

xii Stop straining to be “original” and, with luck and applied time, it just might happen.

xiii You can only write authentically within the bounds of your own sensibility, but you can read and appreciate far beyond them. To develop a broad and generous vision, you’ve got to.

xiv You don’t “graduate” from poetry to short stories, or get promoted from stories to The Novel. The only graduation is to better writing.

xv Careerist writers don’t have friends, only allies. This is reason enough not to be careerist.

xvi Careerist writers don’t confront and relish challenges, they crash into obstacles, which they naturally resent and fear. This is reason enough not to be careerist.

xvii There can be just one final arbiter of your work. Refuse to appoint anyone else as your judge and appraiser, executioner, potential approver—the one reader, fellow-writer, critic, editor, or publisher whose acceptance of your work will stand as an ultimate verification, a proof of arrival, relieving you of that impostor-feeling that every artist knows. (A feeling that signals only that your esthetic conscience is still active.) Resign yourself to the road, there’s no arrival. There’s no map either, come to think of it, but the sun is rising and the radio is on.



Adapted from a paper delivered May 5, 2006, at the University of Ottawa symposium “Al Purdy: The Ivory Thought.” The paper’s author did in fact deliver it while wearing a loud blue polyester shirt that had belonged to Purdy.


One afternoon some time in 1983 or ’84, Dr Leslie Monkman of the Queen’s University English Department managed to bring both Al Purdy and Earle Birney into our Canadian Literature class for a reading. I was in my early twenties, just beginning to write poetry, and in awe of both poets. Birney, tall and cadaverous, read first, in a croaky voice, ancient and wavering. He read for about twenty minutes and clearly it taxed him. He had a heavy cold. He seemed to grow smaller and more concave as the reading went on. He left immediately afterward on the arm of a beautiful young Asian woman who looked as though she could have been a student in our class.
When Al Purdy got up for his turn and peered down at us, the crown of his head almost grazed the bank of fluorescent tubes on the ceiling, or so it seemed to us—or seems to me now. In a big, barging voice he prefaced his reading by asking what we had thought of Birney’s performance. Nobody spoke. Purdy’s high, sunned forehead was stamped with a scowl and his shaded glasses made it hard to decode his expression or even to know exactly where he was looking. After some moments of laden silence I put up my hand and offered that I’d liked the reading, but had hoped Birney would also read from David, his famous long poem. Purdy stared at me with an unamused grin. A few long moments more and he said, “Yeah, sure, nice old man like that comes here to read, what else are you going to say.” And took the toothpick out of his mouth and launched into a long reading, brilliant and riveting.
If I was surprised that Purdy would crack wise about a fellow poet who’d just left the stage—in fact, an older poet, and one who, I later learned, had influenced and encouraged him—it was because I was naïve then, maybe a bit wilfully, about a natural and unavoidable aspect of the literary world: the competition. Every poet wants to loom tall. Fiercely competitive poets like Al Purdy aim to loom tallest.


How do we come to wear the shirts of mentor poets? Is it a good thing, bad? Is it a gesture of loyalty or a ghoulish appropriation? Or is it neutral—utterly beside the point? I’m going to talk here in an impressionistic, non-syllogistic way about wearing the shirt of an admired older poet while trying to fill it out in my own manner.


I’m interested in how envy and the competitive urge can undermine the work of certain poets, while pushing others to new heights of achievement. Irving Layton wrote wonderful poems in the 1950’s—his neglected masterpiece “Cemetery in August” is a case in point—but then became a celebrity and funnelled most of his immense vitality and talent into his persona instead of his prosody. Somehow Al Purdy was different. He could be refreshingly frank, both in person and on the page, about his egotism and competitiveness, yet it didn’t make him lazy and vain. He got better through the sixties and seventies. He may have kept one eye on the competition, but he also kept a hand on the Muse—that principle of energy that clearly resents a lack of attention and turns away from all neglectful poets. Al, somehow, never stopped paying attention.


I met him and Eurithe Purdy a few years later, at the famous A-frame in Ameliasburgh, in the summer of 1988. He seemed if anything to have grown taller. Over the preceding years I’d gotten to know his poetry well, this process having begun with an essay I wrote about his Arctic poems soon after he and Earle Birney gave that reading at Queen’s. Now Tom Marshall and David Helwig had brought me and a couple of other young poets out to meet him. We sat in a circle of chairs on the deck in the sloping afternoon sunlight and we drank beer and talked. David and Al talked, mainly. Al had only a vague memory of his reading at Queen’s and when I reminded him of what he’d said about Birney, he smiled wryly as if to suggest, “I don’t remember saying it, but it sounds about right.”


Recently I happened on a fact that at first I doubted: in the morning, when you get out of bed, you’re almost an inch taller that you will be at nightfall. I supposed that if it were true, it must be owing to the nightly relaxation of the cushioning tissues around the vertebrae and joints, while the body is more or less free from gravity’s tight-wound guy wires. So that you get up tall, but then, throughout the day, gravity slowly compresses and slightly shrinks you. As if a day were a sort of re-enactment, or pre-capitulation, of a lifetime’s trajectory; the life-impulse boosting you upward as far as it can, and then, after a point, gravity starting to work you back down to the ground you sprouted from years before. With a tape measure I marked out six feet on the inside of a doorway—whose shape and size, come to think of it, are pretty much the same as a coffin’s—and got my daughter, standing on a chair, to measure me in the morning and then again after dinner. And it was true. I was an inch closer to the earth.


Martin Amis puts it this way in The Information, a novel about a writer who is shrivelling on all fronts: “Gravity... wants you down there, in the centre of the earth.” To say it another way, gravity wants you under the ground. Gravity is the principle that resents our fleeting verticality—envies the passionate aberration of our being. In fact, gravity seems to take our upright posture personally. Maybe the horizontal hours of sleep are not just a pre-enactment of our eventual state, but a sort of daily gravity tax.
In her novel A Game to Play on the Tracks, Lorna Jackson observes of one of her characters that “Like most men, he is just under six feet but claims to be six feet tall.”


A scene from the early nineties, one of our by-now annual summer visits to Al and Eurithe Purdy in Ameliasburgh. Al has taken me into his windowless, clammy, mildewed writing shed. It’s above ground but feels like a root-cellar. Still air, muffled sounds. From one of the bookshelves he pulls a slim volume—his first published book, The Enchanted Echo, from 1944. “Here, have a look at this poem.” Al has shown me new work before—and an hour ago, in the house, he showed Tom Marshall and my wife Mary and me a broadsheet that Irving Layton had just sent him from Montreal, then watched us as we read it. You could feel the concentrated, impatient attention behind his dark lenses. I had mixed feelings about Layton’s poem and said so, although I told Al I did like the final image. He seemed irked by this imprudent diplomacy and said, “Aw, hell, I don’t think it’s any good at all!”
Now, out in Al’s creative sanctum, I felt I was being tested again. An awkward moment. These were Al’s first published poems. I’d heard he’d disowned them, more or less, but maybe he’d had a change of heart, or had always retained a private affection for the one poem he was now asking me to read. It was clumsily rhymed doggerel, a sort of Edwardian pastiche. I hadn’t known Al long enough to be frank. “Well,” I said softly, “I think there are some nice sounds in it, but I guess on the whole I prefer your more recent work.” Something like that. Al snorted, grabbed the book away and bellowed, “NOW DON’T BE SO GODDAMN MEALY-MOUTHED—IT’S A PIECE OF GODDAMN SHIT!”


Maybe that was the secret of Al’s continual improvement. He wasn’t just in competition with others, he vied with himself. Was hard on himself. I believe it was Jakov Lind who said that a good writer is somebody who hates himself and loves the world.


I never saw Earle Birney read again after that one time at Queen’s. He died in the autumn of 1995, I heard, after climbing a tree and falling and breaking a leg or arm or hip, then going into a downward health spiral, as nonagenarians will after a bad break. Apparently he’d been trying to impress his young lover and companion. “My love is young & i am old/ she’ll need a new man soon...”
A good story, but it turns out to be wrong. The fall from the tree happened some years before. All the same, the poet’s late climb stands out as another assertion of verticality, a gesture of ascent, in defiance of the way time and gravity are hauling one steadily downward. The sort of defiance that male writers, especially, always seem determined to play out.


Evelyn Waugh, toward the end of his life, replying to a letter from an old friend who had, he felt, damned his latest novel with dim praise, complained about her “loathsome note” and accused her of spelling out what he already knew too well—that his “powers [were] failing.”


Nobody fears death like an egoist. And nobody is better equipped than an egoist to write about that fear that each of us harbours to some degree.


Robert Kroetsch, in his novel The Words of My Roaring, suggests that a potent erection is, for a man, the supreme assertion of verticality, a graphic challenge to the homicidal gods, like a fist or the Finger shaken at the sky.
Stand tall.


To generalize is be an idiot, wrote Blake, but then he generalized too. So, for what it’s worth: Male writers are driven primarily by a fear and hatred of mortality, women writers by a deep awareness of it—an awareness that does involve fear, to be sure, but also a kind of creaturely acceptance of the inevitable.


I remember saying to Eurithe Purdy, shortly after Al’s death, that I thought Al was a man who had always taken death very personally. And she said, “Yes, I think that’s true.” I will add that I think his life’s work in poetry was a way of talking back to death, to time and gravity—the gradual attrition of the flesh. In fact Al competed with death—and not just with other poets, mentors, and himself. I sense that for him this vying with death was the ultimate competition. And the beautiful fuel of his poems.


Some time in the early nineties John Metcalf sent me a photocopy of a now-notorious comic poem, a piece much in the spirit of Amis’s The Information. This poem, by Clive James, begins “The book of my enemy has been remaindered/ And I am pleased.” It proceeds in that spirit for another fifty-four lines. I thought it was hilarious and mailed a copy to Al. In his quick response he said that he found the poem in bad taste, unnecessarily crass and cruel. I’m still a bit surprised by his reaction; it must have had something to do with how the poem’s journey to him had started at the desk of John Metcalf, a writer whom Al quarrelled with on and off over the years. But I didn’t think about it again for some time. Then, around 1996 or so, I got a typed letter from Al that included, among other things, a copy of that same masterpiece of exuberant envy. Found this under a pile of papers on my desk, Al wrote. Don’t know where it came from, but think it’s pretty damn funny and thought you might get a kick out of it.


Does wearing the shirt of an older poet, now dead, demonstrate a sort of filial loyalty, or is it a gesture akin to the bear hunter wearing the pelt of something he has outlived? The truth is, poets are not just competing with members of their own age-gang, they compete also with mentors and pupils. And Gore Vidal has spoken of the “instinctive human will to prevail.” But I don’t think that’s the issue here. The mentor-apprentice relationship is competitive in the same way as a parent-child relationship. The child wants to grow tall, to grow clear of the parent’s epic shadow, while still being held, at times, in the parent’s embrace. A part of the child instinctively wants to grow stronger than the parent, while another part fears the achievement of that aim. As Homer Simpson says, “I think the saddest day of my life was when I realized I could beat my Dad at most things.”


Al’s best poems, I think, are unbeaten—or, as the saying goes, they stand up. Maybe I’m just making a case here for aesthetic emulation, since the competitive urge is dangerous to a poet’s growth only when its object is status rather than achievement. And the two things are not the same. They rarely equate as they ought to. The media (for instance) will never care much about actual achievement—only about status and rank, hype and buzz, scandals and angles.
It’s utterly natural but slowly damaging to yearn for plaudits another poet has enjoyed; on the other hand, it’s utterly natural but aesthetically healthy to read a good poem and then set out to write one as good, or better. It was the second of those urges, I think, that most drove Al’s writing.


Why wear the shirts of a mentor poet if one’s goal is not to write poems like his? My own poetry is increasingly different from the work of this poet I’ve learned from. So? I wear this shirt because it was a sort of deathbed gift, much as Al’s mentorship was a gift to me. So this shirt embodies the support and encouragement he gave. I wear this shirt because it’s my connection to a mentor who understood that I not only loved his best work but envied it, vied with it, took inspiration from the challenge of trying to stand equally tall. I wear this shirt because it’s a reminder of all that can’t be kept but must be passed on. And to be part of a tradition. And, to be sure, out of love.
And I always envied Al his shirts.


For the record, I’m still astonished that Al himself could ever have worn this shirt. He was a bigger man than I am, taller, broader, thicker-boned. How did he ever fit into it?


In 1997, in Kingston, I got to read with Al for the first and only time. I was opening up for him. The audience packed into the Sleepless Goat café was there for him, of course, but an audience that size will straighten any performer’s spine and the atmosphere in the room was thrilling, so I was stoked to go. In a photograph taken outside the café just after the event, in front of 350 ½ Princess, Al looks as tall and dominant and self-contained as ever, but in a second, candid shot, taken briefly after, he looks smaller, receding into himself now that the energizing gaze of the crowd has been withdrawn. He looks thinner than I remember, and his short-sleeved, collared white shirt looks baggy, like the skin of somebody who has just lost a great deal of weight. I sense the fatigue in his posture and behind those big shaded glasses. He’s almost eighty years old and has just read his poems for thirty-five minutes in a room sweltering with a dense crowd and its enthusiams, its mobbish yearning to converge on celebrity.


In the spring of 2000 I saw him for the last time, dying at home in Sidney, BC. Jay Ruzesky and I drove up from Victoria and sat at his bedside for a couple of hours, talking with him and at times just sitting there as we waited for him to wake from another short nap. At one point he tried to eat a piece of bread we brought him, but he couldn’t manage. Some people may die in their boots, but no one really dies on his feet. And no eighty-two-year old, horizontal for the last time, exhausted and unable to eat, rages at the dying of the light. That, after all, was a young poet’s prescription. A heroization of the mechanics of dying. Or, as Al himself put it in his de-poeticizing way in “How a Dog Feels to Be Old”: “[This is] as good a way / to leave as any / (Dylan notwithstanding)”. So that this poet who took death very personally appeared at the end to have made a grudging peace with it...
And what do you, the apprentice, feel now in watching the mentor leave? Along with the inevitable sense of loss, you suddenly feel (like a child watching a parent die) much older. You sense how promise is no longer enough and it’s necessary for the real work to begin. You feel the truth of George Eliot’s insight—that it’s never too late to become the man you might have been. Death as the gift of a call to life. Seems the front-line trench, long occupied by elders, who stood between you and mortality and other apparent failures, has suddenly been vacated. You and your generation are going to have to fill it, as you’ll have to fill, or try to fill, the shirts of those who came before.



(commissioned by The New Quarterly for a feature in which novelists discussed how and why they settled on their books’ opening line)

An Esquimau playing Mendelssohn is a tremendous novelty.

The setting of Afterlands’ opening chapter is an auditorium in Hartford, Connecticut, in September of 1876. Yes, this is another historical novel. I tried not to write one but I did. For reasons I won’t get into here, I avoided the genre for a long time, or, when I played with it in short fiction, tried to complicate my uses of the material. And I kept things brief.

Then I happened on a historical incident that intrigued me so much that I felt I had to explore it in a larger work. In the aftermath of a failed Arctic expedition in 1872, nineteen men, women, and children of diverse nationalities were cast away on a large ice-floe, which then began to shrink steadily as it drifted south in the Arctic seas, through the darkness of an Arctic winter.

So here was both microcosm and stage. A captive cast. A nice parable of nationalism. A fragmenting tribe of stranded folk plotting to steal from each other, kill each other, eat each other, have sex with each other. And the event was poorly documented, leaving me plenty of latitude to riff and improvise. Still, as I’ve said, I wasn’t partial to the idea of writing historical fiction; I decided that if I wasn’t going to teleport the story into the present day—and there were a number of reasons not to do that—then I must find ways to make my historical novel a thoroughly modern one, though without being patently postmodern either, if only because that vein has already been worked so well by other Canadian writers (e.g., Douglas Glover in Elle, Leonard Cohen in Beautiful Losers, George Bowering in Burning Water).

That opening line is meant to establish the pitch, the tonal register of the narrative voice—a voice given to cruel truths, a voice skeptical and ironic, though not as self-consciously and obtrusively as in a postmodern historical romp. In other words, this is still a sort of realism, but with attitude. My inspirations included Conrad’s Nostromo, Doctorow’s Ragtime, Sontag’s The Volcano Lover, and Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica.

The first line is a sort of translation of the collective mood of the upper crust audience in a Hartford auditorium. They are watching a small Inuit girl perform at a grand piano. The notes of irony here, of bitter, rueful humour, are my way of agreeing with Primo Levi, the Auschwitz survivor, who once remarked that the problem with most outsiders’ fiction about human ordeals is that they lack humour and irony. Of course, humour and irony are essential devices for real-life victims/survivors. But artists who were not there feel such an urge to be respectful toward the suffering of the dead and persecuted that, unless they’re Roberto Benigni, they can’t bring themselves to approach the material with anything but reverence. Hence the tone of most fiction about historical ordeals: solemn, earnest, mythically poeticized. It’s understandable. But a relentlessly solemn novel about, say, the death-camps is less than human, less than true.

Above all I wanted to make my book a true one—a historical adventure, yes, but for adults.



(commissioned by, Jan. 06)

Duke Ellington once said that it’s good to have limits. He was talking about jazz music, but I think the same can be said about writing. When I write poetry I often use some sort of constraining form—sometimes a traditional form, like the sonnet, sometimes one of my own devising—to help compress and intensify the material and also the medium, language. That’s what the limitations of form are for. Not to provide a stage on which a writer gets to preen and flaunt mastery of the craft; not to promote a “neo-formalist” cultural nostalgia or to express (as some seem to feel) political conservatism. Simply, formal constraints impose a framework that forces the imagination to dig deeper, making the writer compress and intensify the material of the poem—or, sometimes, the novel.

The framework of historical fact I used in writing my novel Afterlands was particularly suited to imposing constraints, and not just formally but geographically. In 1871 the U.S. Navy sent a largely civilian expedition north to the Arctic with the aim of reaching the North Pole and planting the American flag there. But the ship, the USS Polaris, was stopped by the ice, and after a full winter trapped in the ice it was forced to turn back. It didn’t get far. During a storm in which the ship seemed to be sinking, much of the crew—a white American, a black American, five recent German immigrants, a Dane, a Swede, an Englishman, and two Inuit families—were cast away on a large ice floe, which then began to shrink steadily as it drifted south in the Arctic seas through the winter darkness. This microcosm of varied characters soon fragmented along ethnic and national lines, even as the floe’s steady shrinking forced them into ever closer quarters.

From a novelist’s point of view, this ordeal offered many attractions, including all the traditional excitements of a survival tale. Thematically, I saw, it could make a forceful, post 9/11 parable of ethnic nationalism, pack behaviour, and other kinds of extremism. But it was equally attractive in terms of form and structure. For if the floe was a microcosm, it was also a stage. I would have no choice about where to set my scenes. In fact, as the floe got progressively smaller, I would have less and less choice—a lack of choice that would, paradoxically, free me, allowing me to focus wholly on the scenes themselves and my captive tribe of characters. This is a crucial truth about formal limits: By constraining you, they also free you.

The story freed me from anxieties about the overall shape/structure not only in terms of place but also in terms of time, of incident, since what happened on the ice was somewhat documented. The ranking officer on the floe, an American, George Tyson, took rough notes during the ordeal and, after he and some of the other castaways were saved, hastily expanded and embroidered them into a book called Arctic Experiences. When I got hold of a first edition of the book I was as intrigued by the seeming gaps in Tyson’s account as by the account itself. The silence, the virtual absence of many of Tyson’s fellow castaways I found suggestive and eloquent. Tyson generally depicts himself as the One Reasonable Man, while the others neurotically plot to steal, desert, mutiny, murder, malinger, and cannibalize; I couldn’t help suspecting that the castaways, in their hunger and fear and desperation, must all have behaved badly at certain times, and at other times acted nobly, heroically.

I decided to excerpt key passages from Tyson’s memoir and use them in Afterlands as narrative vertebrae, then flesh them out with invented scenes from the viewpoints of two other important figures: Roland Kruger, a rebellious, free-thinking German sailor, and Tukulito, an Inuit woman who was the Arctic’s first professional interpreter. At times my improvised scenes replay Tyson’s own recountings, though from different points of view, allowing me to carry out a sort of dramatic triangulation on events and characters. At other times these scenes imagine what might have occurred in the narrative rifts, those tantalizing gaps in Tyson’s book. In other words I worked with what was recorded, while giving myself the freedom to fill in the silences, to riff and improvise in a way that a jazz musician would understand.

The final part of Afterlands works differently. Here I pursue my protagonists into the aftermath or “afterlands” of their lives, an area for which there is little or no documentation. (In writing Kruger’s coda I’ve resorted to pure conjecture.) Essentially, I use the factual foundation of the ice story as a launching-quay for a sustained, exploratory last trip—or riff. Call it an adventure in pure improv—a shift from constraint and containment into freedom, though a freedom still defined and ordered by the structural and length demands established in the first two-thirds of the book. So even in this final journey into creative freedom, with Kruger in Mexico, I was guided by the sort of helpful limits that the Duke relished when playing or composing jazz.