25th Trillium Award

bill bissett and Eric Schmaltz Want to Tell You Love

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bill bissett performing his poem "embrace" at a Grey Borders Reading Series event in 2011 (Photo Credit: Barsin Aghajan)

By Jeremy Colangelo

bill bissett is one of Canada?s most prolific poets, having published nearly one book per year since the mid-1960s. His style, in speech and writing, has been imitated by numerous others, and his impact on Canadian poetry has been great enough that, in 2006, Nightwood Editions published a tribute to his work which included pieces by some of the country?s most respected authors. In the same year he was the subject of an episode of the television series Heart of a Poet. Writers and artists like Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen and George Bowering have expressed their admiration for his work, which continues to be published to no less acclaim than ever.

But in 1965 none of these things were true. At the time, in fact, bissett had published no books, and was an utter unknown in Canada?s literary community. It was lucky, then, that the young bissett had managed to make the acquaintance of Milton Acorn — at the time one of Canada?s most well known poets.

?Milton created the first time I ever got published,? said bisset, referring to a poem called ?The Body.? ?Milton bought the first painting I ever sold in my life.?

Though their styles were extremely different — Acorn writing in sparse, Imagist lines, with bissett?s production being much more ?florid? (as he would later describe it) — the two writers had become friends, and had agreed to produce a book of poetry together. The project was meant to respond to the Vietnam War, which both were against, and their very different writing styles were largely the point of the book, as they were supposed to demonstrate how two very different sensibilities could coexist within the same text, how ?two very different people could still love each other,? as bissett told me. The result was a manuscript of poetry and artwork called I Want to Tell You Love. Acorn took the manuscript and tried to leverage his literary connections to get it published, but after six months of rejections, almost all the result of the poets? dissimilar writing styles, they gave up. bissett would publish his first collection of poetry on his own in 1966. While the poems from the collaboration were printed in magazines and anthologies, the manuscript would languish among bissett?s papers in the York University Archive and with Acorn?s papers at the Canadian National Archives.

?I think,? said bissett, ?that there?s a spell in people to look for things that are more homogeneous [...] but I think that in today?s world it would be more accepted.?

It is the acceptance of ?today?s world? that Eric Schmaltz, a Master?s student in the English department at Brock University, is depending on in order to publish his Major Research Project — a re-edited version of the manuscript, ready for publication. Schmaltz is no newcomer to the Canadian poetry scene. A poet himself, Schmaltz has for several years been the curator of the Grey Borders Reading Series in St. Catharines, Ontario. bissett performed at the series? inaugural reading in 2010 alongside Phil Hall, Catherine Owen and Terry Trowbridge. It was here that Eric met bissett for the first time, having been introduced by Gregory Betts, a poet and an English professor at Brock who is currently Eric?s faculty advisor on the project. The conversation eventually turned to the old manuscript, and the remaining possibility of getting it published.

?I have had the privilege,? Schmaltz told me, ?to work with and receive training from a scholarly community called Editing Modernism in Canada, which consists of the best scholars, graduate students, and editors in the field — including Dean Irvine, Zailig Pollock and Smaro Kambourelli, among many others.

?I am writing what will become a critical introduction [...] [that] will tell readers the story of the collaboration and offer perspective on a piece of important Canadian literary history that has been displaced.?

Eric and bissett have collaborated on the project as closely as possible, but the lengthy period between the collection?s production and its re-editing has made the work more difficult. In our interview, bissett lamented his inability to remember the poetry he wrote in any specific detail, saying that he was looking back on them through ?a Pre-Raphaelite haze? — though he was able to remember much of its composition and a few of Acorn?s pieces. Since then, he and Eric have visited the York University Archive to look up the manuscript, but the difficulties involved in reconstructing a nearly 50-year-old project persist. Still, bissett was able to remember a great deal about Acorn, who died in 1986, as was eager to reminisce about their friendship:

?He [Acorn] would talk a lot, he would smoke amazing cigars, he would conjure, he would think of many amazing things. [...] The university people didn?t like him so much and he didn?t like them so much. They didn?t understand his socialism; he lived closer to the bone.

?I liked him enormously.?

The current project is quickly becoming a mirror image of its predecessor. In 1965, bissett?s literary reputation was minimal, and the book would have been published largely through the strength of Acorn?s reputation. Though Acorn remains relevant, it is bissett who is now the acclaimed contemporary writer, and it is the prospect of a ?lost bissett collection? which is responsible for the buzz it is generating in Canada?s literary community. Likewise, bissett?s position in the new partnership is the reverse of the old. Now it is he who is the older, more experienced writer working with a younger poet with a less extensive literary reputation. However, the two partnerships have more in common than just the manuscript. Just as Acorn and bissett worked together out of friendship and mutual respect, the same is true for bissett and Schmaltz.

?I consider bill to be a dear friend,? said Schmaltz, ?he is one of the nicest and most generous people I have ever met.

?I am absolutely grateful to have the privilege to work on this project, and to have bill to talk to about it and to learn from.?

Though there is still much work to do before the collection can be published, bissett?s assessment of the industry may be right, and the manuscript may yet escape the archives. Publication would be vindication: proof that Acorn and bissett, though their styles were discordant, could still write in harmony.

Jeremy Colangelo is an author and journalist living in St. Catharines, Ontario. His work has been published, or is upcoming, in several magazines, including The Dalhousie Review, Steel Bananas and The Incongruous Quarterly, and he has published two chapbooks of poetry with Grey Borders Books. Jeremy has an degree in English and History from Brock University. He is currently working on a novel.

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