Continuing the backward gaze at my pre-Internet writing, here a notes and quotes from the 1980s. The period runs from the lunar eclipse of 1982 to the lunar eclipse of 1989.
Nothing is real but the present moment, some say. The past? The future? They don’t exist; you can’t touch any part of them.
That may be, but fast-forward a week or a decade and today’s sharp edges will have blurred. Then a new present will be called the only reality, and our memory of today will be foggy, our judgment uncertain.
As when the full moon is eclipsed by the earth, the present casts a shadow over the past. Yet the past was once the present, bright and shining. Though faded, it still exerts a tidal influence on today. It falls to those of us who were there to remember as clearly as we can, before the memory fades to black.
The object is not to bring back what has passed, but to acknowledge that what was done is just as important to the whole story as this present moment, which too is quickly passing.
I am speaking of the writing life, the literary community that I became a part of, in Ottawa, Canada, in the 1980s. It was a time very much like the present, with important differences, which will become greater as it retreats further into the shadows. Here is one view of that time and place, seen through the rather narrow lens of my experience. Something was beginning then that we can see evidence of all around us; something was ending that is no longer much noticed but remains part of the story.
November 1981. Our first week in Ottawa, we lived in a bare house while our furniture made its way from Vancouver. My wife Mary Lee was at work in her new government job; our son Jeff was at school in first grade. I was left at home with little more than a sleeping mat and the manuscript of the novel I had been producing at the rate of 20 pages a week for our last few months in Vancouver. Our 1975 Toyota Corolla was also en route, being driven from Vancouver for a fee by students who, when they arrived, left it smelling of marijuana and needing a valve job. During my week stuck in the Riverside Park house, I received a phone call from ACCESS Alberta, offering to pay me residuals for continued use of the script for a video on Alberta artists I had begun two years earlier when I lived in Edmonton and completed after our January 1980 move to Vancouver. Of course I welcomed the bit of income.
During less than two years in Vancouver, the house we had bought there had earned more money than I had. But I had managed to finish my first book of poetry, In Transit, which was about to be released by Saskatchewan’s Thistledown Press. A second phone call, from the press, advised me to book a flight to Saskatoon right away, so I could be there for the launch of the new book. It was a great launch, my book coming out with Monty Reid’s and Tom Wayman’s, because the Saskatchewan arts board had finally agreed to help fund books written by poets from outside the province. It may not have anticipated, though, that between acceptance and publication this particular poet would have moved from Alberta to B.C. to Ontario.
While in Vancouver, I had made a few contacts in the literary community, mainly through the walk-in Literary Storefront, run by Mona Fertig with support from Cathy Ford, Maxine Gadd and others. Jan Conn was among the volunteers who hosted open readings on Sunday nights, and soon I was another. I was included in the Storefront’s New Works/New Voices festival in the summer of 1981, and it was about that time that Mona and Cathy returned from a cross-Canada reading tour. When I mentioned that I would be moving to Ottawa, they exclaimed that the literary scene here was remarkable for all the Chilean writers living here. Otherwise, I knew only of the university poets Seymour Mayne and Christopher Levenson, and from little magazines, Cyril Dabydeen. I found it a bit intimating to arrive in yet another new city claiming to be a writer, but this time I had a new book to prove my bona fides, and I brought it to a reading in the Tree series. Then in its first incarnation, Tree was being run by founders David Freedman and Marty Flomen – who would soon break away to start his own Orion reading series – along with Marcus Jokinen, the “resident Friend” who lived in a small apartment adjoining the Friends’ Meeting House on Fourth Avenue. Tree readings were held at the Meeting House, in the “fireplace room.” This was a comfortable square room large enough for the audience of twenty or thirty who regularly gathered on Tuesday nights for poetry and prose readings, usually with a musical interlude provided by singer songwriters such as Wayne Rostad and Michell Kaplan.
A red brick fireplace with mantel dominated the west wall, and a large paper ornamental lantern hung from the ceiling. I often showed up to read in the open set and show off my new book, In Transit. On one early occasion I introduced some of the concrete and sound poems I had been creating for a few years. I asked listeners to imagine that the white globe of the paper lantern was the moon, and on it to imagine the well-known yin-yang symbol, half black, half white, with the word “lune” printed in white on the black background, the word “loon” in black on the white background. I had never successfully turned this image into a sound poem, but using that paper prop seemed to create a poetic background for my reading, one that was memorable for poet Susan McMaster, who later invited me to join the performance group First Draft. Susan and I would end up performing together regularly for five years and collaborating on a range of creative projects over the next quarter-century.
July 1982. Our first summer in Ottawa, my family loved the warm, clear nights, in contrast to both the rain of Vancouver and the chill of Calgary, where we had spent most of our lives. We found it a great joy to walk out with no jacket or umbrella, enjoying the aromatic air of roses and lilacs in the gardens around our home near Mooney’s Bay. One night, during a visit from my wife Mary Lee’s mother, we stayed up late and roused our young son Jeffrey from his bed to observe a total eclipse of the moon. Within a few days I had written a poem about the eclipse, and Jeff’s down-to-earth response to the experience, which I took to my first meeting of the Ottawa Poetry Group, a monthly workshop organized by Christopher Levenson. This was my introduction to many of the Ottawa poets who would make up my social circle for the rest of the Eighties and beyond. Here is the poem as it was later published, first as a poster in Patrick White’s Anthos poster series, and later in the book How to Be Born Again from Quarry Press:
Way past midnight
I wake you, brushing fingers
across your gleaming forehead,
slide you into slippers
and steer you outside
Night roses, pale red echoes
of the moon’s blue,
blown lilac scent,
deep sigh of a city asleep
Grandmother, mother, father and son,
we bundle in blankets,
pace the backyard with hands in pockets,
as the moon, ripening, reddening,
enters earth shadow
Before the end it is grey as a cloud
but, straight from dreams, you’re not easily impressed
Your grandmother’s smiling eyes
excite you more than the smoked‑glass
ghost of a moon up there
and down here in the grass!
Gleefully you cup your hands
round a fading light
and later, when you crayon a picture of the eclipse
you call it, The night I saw the glowworms.
For the next part of “Between the Eclipses” go here.