Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Profile on Henry Beissel, with a few questions

 
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Henry Beissel

By rob mclennan

I was first introduced to the poet, playwright, editor and critic Henry Beissel when I was still a teenager. Despite having little overlap in terms of poetic style, he quickly became an important figure in my development as a writer (along with, around the same time, another poet local to my Eastern Ontario: Gary Geddes), predominantly for the permission to continue pursuing the serious task of writing. The father of one of my younger sister’s classmates, Henry Beissel headed the Creative Writing Department at Concordia University, and I spent much of my late teens and into my twenties visiting him at his home near Dunvegan, Ontario. Originally hired by Sir George Williams in 1966, which later became Concordia, he established the Creative Writing Department that same year. Founder and editor of the controversial political and literary journal Edge, which he founded in Edmonton and edited from 1963 to 1969, he later co-edited the Festschrift for Irving Layton, Raging Like a Fire (Vehicule Press, 1993) and two anthologies of plays for High Schools. His correspondence with the expat Canadian poet Edward Lacey was compiled by David Helwig as A Magic Prison: Letters from Edward Lacey (Oberon Press, 1995).

He is the author of eighteen volumes of poetry, including Cantos North (Penumbra Press, 1982), Coming to Terms with a Child (Black Moss, 2012), Seasons of Blood (BuschekBooks, 2012) and Fugitive Horizons (Guernica Editions, 2013), as well as the author of six plays, writing both for adults and young audiences. The most successful of his plays, Inuk and the Sun, has been performed widely since premiering at Stratford in 1973. His own work has been translated into more than a dozen languages, including French, German, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, Polish and Turkish, and he has translated works of poetry by German poets Walter Bauer (1904-1976) and Peter Huchel (1903-1981), as well as plays by Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen (1828-1906), Polish dramatist Slawomir Mrozek (1930-2013), German playwright Tankred Dorst (b. 1925) and ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles (496 BC- 406 BC), into English. In November 1994, Beissel was awarded the first Walter-Bauer Literaturpreis in Germany for his translations of Bauer’s poetry.

Beissel retired from Concordia in 1996, and currently lives in Ottawa, where he is involved with Third Wall Theatre, and continues to write and translate. His most recent book is Coming to Terms with a Child / Ein Kind kommt zur Sprache (2015), published in a bilingual German/English title by German publisher LiteraturWissenschaft.de. As the blurb for the new collection writes:

In this long poem, Canadian poet and dramatist Henry Beissel, who was born in Cologne, Germany in 1929, reflects on his youth during the German Third Reich and the Second World War. Beyond coming to terms with his own past, Beissel’s intention is to explain this past to his recently born grandchild. The fourteen sections of the poem describe stations of Beissel’s life ranging from childhood memories beyond school attendance in Nazi Germany to his work as an interpreter for the Allied Forces after the war and, finally, his decision to leave Germany behind to become a professor of English literature in Canada. This edition brings together the poem’s original version in English with a German translation or re-interpretation, the writing of which brought to life many other memories and voices of the past.

In honour of his 85th birthday, the University of Toronto founded a new scholarship in his name, the Henry Beissel Creative Writing Award, in March, 2015.

rob mclennan:

I’m curious as to how, after more than fifty years of publishing, you feel your work has progressed? What do you see yourself working towards?

Henry Beissel:

To answer this question fully would take more time and space than we have at our disposal. Besides, I prefer to leave it to posterity and literary critics to define the progress in my work, whatever that may mean. I’m more interested in getting on with it, especially as time is running out for me. Where the work will take me, only time can tell.

But there are three gifts the years of writing have bestowed on me for which I am very thankful. The first of these is a greater command of literary skills. Not only have I been able to hone these skills but to internalize them.

The work for which I was given the Epstein Award for Creative Writing at U of T in 1958 was a cycle of 15 classical sonnets, all written in iambic pentameter with a sixteenth century rhyme scheme; the fifteenth sonnet is composed entirely of the first lines of the 14 others. It was a tour de force in craftsmanship, a performance in poetic acrobatics. I’m not very proud of it, and I hope the text got lost. Each of the sonnets sprang from my thinking cap. I worked hard and very consciously over every line, over every word and image. I suppose it was an apprenticeship piece from which I learnt more than I realized at the time. The one redeeming feature of the cycle is that, though I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time, I was dealing with a trauma of my childhood, the one I had to revisit in the recent autobiographical cycle, Coming to Terms with a Child.

Today most of the craftsmanship in a poem has become a subconscious part of my art. I know the right way to say something – most of the time – without having to analyze form or structure. They come with what the poem has to say. This means that I can focus on what the poem wants to say rather than how to say it. Naturally, I look for the right word and polish the form, all that sort of thing, but for the most part it’s enough for me to listen inside myself to know if I’m on the right track.

The second gift, that years of writing my poems have surprised me with, is a growing clarity about the function poetry in my life and in what direction I must take it. Life for me is a journey of the mind, and writing poetry is for my mind what breathing is for my body. Just as I can’t survive without breathing I would lose my mind without writing poems. In more ways that I can elaborate here, the world is such an utterly absurd place that I need poetry to create a space in which I can sustain an element of sanity.

As for the direction in which I have taken poetry and poetry has taken me, that is probably determined by my make-up and my experiences as a child. I became aware of that in the fifties in Toronto. Working in the CBC studios in the early days of television, I hung out with a bunch of guys who were all budding artists of one sort or another – film makers, jazz musicians, writers. We smoked reefers and showed our work to each other. We all had nicknames for our artistry; mine was “the four-last-things poet”. It took me a long time to realize how true that was – and still is. Nothing engages me more passionately than the four ultimate questions: Who are we? What is the nature of the universe? What is the meaning of life? And where is everything headed?

Some of my friends think of me as a scientist manqué, and they’re right. If I had to live my life again I would study astrophysics or quantum physics, but I would still be a poet. Art and science are complementary ways of examining and understanding the world. Just like a scientist in his/her experiments, I write to discover a truth about the world. I write not because I have some wisdom to share but because I don’t know or don’t understand. Ignorance is the driving force and writing is a mode of understanding. As I said before, time may tell where it will ultimately take me in my poetry. It’s a grand adventure.

rm:

You’ve spoken recently of a “life-long” poem you’ve been working on for decades. How is such a project constructed? Do you work individually in book-length units, or as a single extended poem? Does the project have a trajectory that includes a completion, or is it open-ended? Is there a difference?

HB:

The poem I was referring to is Seasons of Blood. That cycle started as a single poem which, you might say, forced itself upon me in March of 1981. I was working on a translation of Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler at the time. The director, Per Brask, was impatient to get the final text because he wanted to go into rehearsal for a production at the Saidye Bronfman Centre in Montreal. One morning when I entered my study, a small hut I had built for myself on a hundred acres of bush in Glengarry county (you will remember it because that’s when we met for the first time after my daughter had brought your first efforts as a writer to my attention; you were high school students at the time) – anyway I would go there early in the mornings to write. This March morning I couldn’t focus on the Ibsen translation. It was as though there was another presence in the hut. It was a hard struggle to get on with my translation, but Per was waiting. This went on for several mornings – until I suddenly realized there was a poem that demanded to be written. I had to get it out of my way. So I interrupted work on Hedda Gabler and spent a couple of days writing a first draft of what I called “The Ides of March.”

After I had completed my Ibsen translation, I returned to the poem to finish it. Little did I know that I was launched on a journey that would last for the rest of my life. Some time after I completed “The Ides of March,” a long poem (520 lines) in its own right, I realized that the vision it opened up embraced the whole season of spring. So I wrote two more poems of more or less the same length and published the three as Season of Blood (Mosaic Press, 1984).

I had hoped that would be the end of it, but I soon realized that I had no choice but to continue what I had started and not finished. Spring is followed by summer, so I wrote the three summer poems over many years, each of them being as long as the entire spring cycle. The whole cycle of more than 6,500 lines was published under the title Seasons of Blood (Buschekbooks, 2011). By that time, I knew that this poem still wasn’t finished, that there were two more seasons to deal with, and that the poem would never let go of me because the ground to be covered had, by then, become global and embraced all of human history and science – a preposterous proposition, I agree, but the poem had taken hold of me, not I of it.

To explain the many complexities that took me from one stanza to another, from one section to the next, from Ontario to El Salvador, Africa and Japan – all this is beyond the scope of this interview. Let me just say that as far as structure is concerned it is perhaps helpful to keep in mind two very basic aspects of the world: music and dialectics.

I started life in a cradle under my father’s grand piano as he practiced for his recitals and concerts. He worked the pedals with one foot and rocked the cradle with the other. I imbibed music before I knew the word. Not surprisingly, music has provided much of the form and structure to my poetry, sometimes so much so that I can sing my texts. I hear rhythms and melodies as I write, though I can’t always tell whether they come from the poem or from me. I was first made aware of this when Northrop Frye, who was on the jury for the Epstein Award I mentioned earlier, took me aside and said: “Henry, you have an unfailing ear.” I was quite taken aback, but then I realized how right he was. Music having been a mainstay of my life from the beginning, how could it be otherwise?

As for the dialectics, all I can say it that experience has reinforced my mind’s propensity for seeing the world as essentially contradictory, paradoxical. Perhaps my experience as a child in Nazi Germany has something to do with my seeing reality as the dynamic and often brutal interplay of opposites. Whatever qualities I can identify in an object or event, I can see at the same time the contrary qualities, even though they seem mutually exclusive. Nature, for example, is the source of exquisite beauty and has the most imaginative creativity; but she is also an ugly, cruel and bungling bitch. The dynamics of this bipolar vision informs much of my poetry and accounts for some of its astonishing shifts in tone and structure. It is also the root of my work as a dramatist because a play is an enactment of conflict.

I remember Wilfred Watson, the author of Friday’s Child, for which he won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1956, say to me in the staircase of the Arts Building of the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 1963: “Henry, you’ll end up writing plays.” – “Why would you say that, Wilfred?” I asked, somewhat puzzled. “Because all your poems are written for voices,” he replied. A very perceptive observation and in fundamental respects correct. Perhaps my poetry is a form of drama. But that’s another story.

rm:

Your more recent work, such as the Archibald Lampman-shortlisted Fugitive Horizons, engages with the expansiveness of science. As Rob Thomas described the collection in his Apt613 review: “Beyond the furthest point that you can see. What exists there? Can it be captured? Can it be measured? Can it be understood? What about the furthest point you can imagine? What exists beyond that horizon?” Do you feel his description fits with what the book was attempting?

HB:

Fugitive Horizons was shortlisted for the Ottawa Book Award, not for the Archibald Lampman. It is a collection of seventy short poems that explore the apparent contradictions between reality as we experience it and the nature of it as science sees it. I find Rob Thomas’s review very perceptive because in juxtaposing these paradox visions I want to take willing readers to the horizon of the knowable and point them in the direction of the mystery at the heart of existence which may turn out to be unknowable. Most people are not conscious enough of the enormous absurdity of the world they live in where nothing is what it appears to be. I remember my difficulties in trying to explain to my children, when they were still very young, that the chairs they sat on and the table they ate from were really vast empty spaces in which some tiny energy particles whizzed about at mind-boggling speeds. It awes and humbles us to be aware of this astonishing fact, and awe and humility are perhaps the most important qualities in being human. Again and again, my poems try to awaken this fundamental realization, applying my motto: Words point to what cannot be said.

rm:

The University of Toronto launched the Henry Beissel Creative Writing Award in March. How did the award come about and how do you feel about an award named after you? What does the award consist of?

HB:

The HB Scholarship in Creative Writing at U of T owes its existence to the initiative of a friend of mine, Dr. Richard Thain. It was a gift to me on my 85th birthday, and took me completely by surprise. When one of his charming daughters read his laudatio, announcing the scholarship at my home on the afternoon of my birthday, to tell the truth, I broke into tears. It was the last thing on earth I expected. I had reconciled myself to the fact that with advancing years I had disappeared from the poetry scene in this country. Writing poetry in Canada, I once explained, is like hurling harpoons into snow-banks: there is a short hiss followed by eternal silence. And here was a magnanimous gesture from a friend to prove me wrong.

As for the scholarship having my name, I feel humbled by it and am more determined than ever to continue writing. But one mustn’t overrate such naming. Things must have names. In due course their significance is forgotten. When I received the Epstein Award, I had no idea who Norma Epstein was. So, those who are awarded the scholarship may not know who HB is. The curious ones may end up reading some of my poetry, and that is good.

It’s an honour to have my name associated with University College at U of T because that’s where my own journey as a poet began. But what matters is that many young struggling writers will be reassured in their commitment and given some financial assistance to live by it. The scholarship will be awarded annually to a graduate student in Creative Writing. The amount and the terms are still being worked out. I understand the minimum award is $1,000, but it depends on how much money the award finally attracts; contributions are still coming in.


Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa with his brilliantly talented wife, the poet, editor and bookbinder Christine McNair, and their daughter, Rose. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014), The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He also curates the weekly “Tuesday poem” series at the dusie blog, and the “On Writing” series at the ottawa poetry newsletter. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com. He currently spends his days full-time with toddler Rose, writing entirely at the whims of her nap-schedule.

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