Post Your Opinion
The Way They Were
You thought all those shining literary superstars were overnight successes? Read on, aspiring writers, and take heart ... For this 20th anniversary issue, we`ve asked some of Canada`s finest writers to help us celebrate by taking a look back at what they were up to when they were 20. What that usually was, it turns out, was poetry; and, as our contributors are more than ready to admit, these initial forays into verse weren`t exactly earthshaking. Here`s the evidence, in their own words. MARGARET ATWOOD What was I doing when I was 20 or 21, back in 1960-61 ? Going to university, wearing Existentialist Black, drinking draft beer at 10 cents a glass or could it still have been five? - at the King Cole Room in the basement of the Park Plaza Hotel in Toronto, reading (rhyming, metrical) poetry at John Colombo`s Bohemian Embassy coffeehouse poetry evenings, thinking I would be dead by 30. I later revised this to 40, and have since moved it on a little further. I was publishing my poetry under initials, like T S. Eliot, and so people wouldn`t know for sure that I was a girl. There seemed to be something vaguely disreputable about being one - in the literary world, at least - although I was not yet sure what it might be. This poem appeared with two others in the Autumn, 1961 issue of The Tamarack Review, when it was being edited by Robert Weaver. Nothing has since matched the thrill of opening the acceptance letter. What was my big fascination with women on the subway, especially those with many shopping bags? Probably the fear that I would change into one. They turned up in stories I wrote about that time, and the same image reappears, I note, in the second chapter of Cat`s Eye. Plus ca change .... WOMAN ON THE SUBWAY Her parcels merge into her cloth of hands that cuddle them like flesh; her plastic-hard face reflects her thoughts; her shopworn mouth wears out the winter months from sale to sale, smiling only when some friendly drugstore thinks to give her two for one, or when in her extremest daydreams, the man comes who`s fool enough to take old lamps for new; and when she has bought out this day`s delight, she`ll turn to her billboard of a home; her mate (got at half-price, in spring), will open up his thin buy-now pay-later little arms, receive her to their bargain-basement bed and kiss to rest the nickels of her eyes. HUGH HOOD When I was 21 I knew I had to write something, but I was loaded down with term papers and a doctoral thesis that kept getting longer. I ought to have written stories but there wasn`t time and at least I could complete poems in not too much time. I wrote dozens of them and tried them on all the magazines, in the end publishing, I think, three of them. I wasn`t a poet and my poems were clotted, over-written and catachrestical. All I can say, looking at these specimens 40 years later, is that they were the best I could do at the time, every writer`s excuse and salvation. Capital letters at the beginnings of lines, rhymes both internal and external! What was I thinking of? BARBARIAN INVASION Cordial essence of sweet cream Barbara burns me Gilds with the falling glitter of her skull, her hair, My endangered arm and shoulder, turns me, My photographic self-imagining aware, Into a spoiled negative. We blur afire. Horizon-rimmed the empty plains incite no fear, Excite no images of warriors, no Gothic ire. I stare beyond my lover`s curly ear and Her circling syrup comforts me. So we respire In perfect unison. Our hearts, astonished, blend. TINY TRAGEDY Today the candy counter coruscates Chromium in the confectionery store. The child`s eye sufficient calculates The distance from the counter to the flour. Caramel is everything to him. Nice neat Oblongs of fudges steal his easy eye. He reaches and the sweetnesses retreat. The cases on the counter are too high. AC-DC Ecstatic shining crystal-water-clear The light melts down around me. Over thereAcross a polished parquetry of fear Shines my love`s light. Between us jumpy air Bums an electric charge and crackles where I stand. A single term in the design -Term of a circuit, half a polar pairHow shall 1 close the circuit, draw the line? IRVING LAYTON At 20 or thereabouts, I was an idealistic, magnificent loafer. I was very confused, very romantic, and wildly susceptible to female endearments. Everything I saw, heard, and touched excited me: from the raised hemlines just then swinging into popularity to the party line my Y.C.L. friends told me to watch carefully in order to foretell the exact day of the Messiah`s coming. "Vigil" remains one of my favourite poems, perhaps because I wrote it after spending a very passionate, very chaste night with my first amour who, though two years my junior, introduced me to the plays of Bernard Shaw and the incendiary pamphlets of Trotsky. "Vigil" contains the line about trees swaying "like graceful nuns in a forbidden dance." The ended night has a "yearning stillness;" and the moon is "comfortless." That poem showed me very early in my career that poets are liars and that poems conceal by means of metaphoric revelations, thus giving profitable work to hordes of honest critics. "Winter Scene" and "Masquerade" reflect the troubled mind of a young impecunious poet adrift in a world he never made. They were written just before the onset of the Depression. Of course I read all my early poems with mixed feelings of delight and grief. I have the sensation of swimming underwater and holding my breath. How safe is it to surface? I`d like to believe that both youthful poems still keep their appeal. Insincerity, the psychic companion to ambivalence, has not yet hardened into that universal hypocrisy without which social intercourse is impossible. The pain of self-knowledge combined with incompleteness is what, I think, I was trying to convey. In "Masquerade," the disguise I put on was that of a troubled woman. Long ago I stopped wondering how many persons were deceived by it. VIGIL Evening ...the feathery grass ...boughs That coldly lift a silent offering; The shadowy swaying of trees Like graceful nuns in a forbidden dance; The yearning stillness of an ended night, And clouds the colour of oyster shells Clustered about a comfortless moon. Dawn. A crayon held in a master`s fingers Pencilling in soft outlines the earth. The hills. Humps that tell laconically The labouring age of earth; And suns that turn the wayside streams To moving panes of light. MASQUERADE That night you said the strangest things; And somehow words were mixed with wit; I wondered vaguely why birth brings Such crazy lines so sprawling writ; Such fever burning in your brain, The mute unneeded pain. You answered that the stars were one, And coming from one mammoth light, Were waiting for the April sun To shyly lift the hem of night, These are the syllables I caught The rest I forgot. WINTER SCENE Almost any half-lit street compromised by snow is a portent for wit or a lady`s cameo. Consider the white ramparts shielding doors and stairs, the chill when the lamplight suddenly flares. Disciplined armies without haste, without rest; stars the bayonet points seeking your breast. Organized, astounding, can the cellulose forget the self-anointed fear, those points, this parapet O consider this mind on any gusty night cursed by division half darkness, half light. AL PURDY It`s somewhat chilling for me to take a look at a poem I wrote not long after I was 20. I was so smug and self-satisfied at the time of writing, that poem casts its shadow over me even now. I think-to be satisfied with yourself and what you`ve written is fatal to excellence. What you can or might achieve is always a gleam in the distance. There is no now, as far as your best is concerned. I saw the milkweed float away, To curtsey, climb and hover, And seek among the crowded hills Another warmer lover. I think, when that verse was written, my badness was truly cerulean (and now I`ve got to look that word up - well, pure and deep blue badness. Okay?). The entire poem is called "The Enchanted Echo," which is also the title of the book, published in 1944. 1 paid 200 bucks to have 500 paperback copies printed in Vancouver. Maybe 75 to 100 escaped the printer and got distributed. I never went back to Clarke & Stuart for the rest of the books because I was afraid I couldn`t pay storage charges. Years later when other books had caused this first one to be slightly overvalued, it occurred to me that I could pick up those old books and sell them, using the proceeds to live on an offshore island with dancing girls. When I called at the printers on Seymour Street, they said they`d thrown out all the books a couple of weeks previously. Which is why I`m still lonesome for female company. M O R D E C A I R I C H L E R It is sufficiently unsettling for me to reread something I wrote last month, never mind 40 years ago. I have also managed to keep my highly derivative first novel (The Acrobats, published in 1954) out of print all these years. But, for the record, my first publication was in a Paris little mag called Points in 1951. The occasionally sober editor of Points was a good fellow named Sinbad Vail, the son of Peggy Guggenheim and Lawrence Vail. He foolishly paid me $10 for some pretentious claptrap that I titled "Shades of Darkness (Three Impressions)." However the same issue of Points carried poems by David Gascoyne as well as a short story by a new Irish writer, Brendan Behan, who was described as follows: "27, Irish. Born and raised in the Northside Dublin slums, (he) is one of the few living Gaelic poets to have been translated into English; has contributed to Republican and Communist journals ...Has been arrested several times for activities in the Irish Republican Army, which he joined in 1937, and in all has been sentenced to 17 years in gaol, has in fact served about 7 years in Borstal and Parkhurst Prison. Disapproves of the English prison system. At present working as a housepainter on the State Railways:" My own author`s note, compared to Behan`s, was insufferably boring. It read "Born Montreal. Has done newspaper work in Canada and working on a play." What play I`d like to know. Other little mags coming out in Paris at the time included New-Story, edited by David Burnett (son of Whit Burnett and Martha Foley, editors of the original Story), and George Plimpton`s Paris Review, the only one of the mags to have survived to this day. Oh, one thing more. My so-called "newspaper work;" prior to leaving for Paris, consisted of pieces I wrote for the now defunct Montreal Herald. I pasted these pieces on sheets and presented them to a cashier once a month. He paid me two cents a line, which was less than I earned spotting pins in a bowling alley. On the other hand, it was cleaner work, so I stuck with it. RUDY WIEBE For me at 20 the intensities of writing were stimulated by the younger English Romantic poets - stimulated to the point of copying. I scrawled lengthy verses which began intensely (I thought then) with lines like "You walk in / Beauty;" the apostrophe and break marking my burst of originality. There were also plenty of images like "(Your) melody of voice, like dancing wood-nymphs dressed in silken slips:" Though sometimes a necessary prairie world bumbles in: "The wind-blown order of spun wheat gold hair." Impossible to say aloud but not unattractive as an idea. The scrawled revisions of these particular re-workings and discards do hint at occasional traces of critical judgement. Lines like "Then clasping you - my all - I could bestride / A Swan and rise to Paradise" seem to have bothered me. Perhaps it was that suggestive "bestride" in relation to the significant, pure, capitals of both "Swan` (inverted Yeats?) and "Paradise"-because in a later version these become "Then clasping you, I could arise / Upon love`s heavenly swan to the fulfilment of its paradise:" I am speaking here of writing in the rural 1950s and, as I recall now, these words circled about the memory of a girl not in any way available in body. As a result, to my imagination she was infinitely more desirable than any literal fact could have attained: a stimulus for verse perhaps unknown in the urban 1990s. In any case, the imagined radiance of her (imagined) flame drove me to a climactic Canadian (I thought then) image: Your beauty radiates, with a moon-like glow From inner fire of soul; like prairie nightThe troth of unknown charms, lit with a silver light. Please note: lower-case nouns all the way. Don`t get me wrong: my creative life at 20 did not consist solely of acceptably (for me) sublimated libido. I also had a social conscience, and if Byron and Yeats did not escape my imitative scrutiny, neither did Shelley or even Milton. I conclude with a verse dated November 25, 1955, when I was seven weeks into 21. The original subtitles it "an abused sonnet": GLASS TOMBSTONE "My boy, before to spreads a matchless sight Man`s full subjection of the natural law! Where pagan [ ! ] fires glowed darkly in the night But eighty years ago, we stand in awe Before man`s nightless city and his jet-borne flight. That skyscraper of glass has gowned our every feat. Behold the thousands, who, gaping at man`s might, Crowd round to see. Man`s rule of nature is complete!" He stopped. The flashing, dipping jet now hung, As in salute, above the marvelling mass, An instant poised, then from the crowd a howl Of fear as it dropped dead upon them. Crash! A vast erupting hole; the giant shook, yet stood; It`s [ !] face scrawled o`er with countless names in blood. There you have it: sufficient evidence that, whatever else I may have become in 36 years as a prose writer, at least I have spared the world one more sincere and excruciating versifier.

Home First Novel Award Past Winners Subscription Back Issues Timescroll Advertizing Rates
Amazon.ca/Books in Canada Bestsellers List Books in Issue Books in Department About Us