25th Trillium Award

If These Walls Could Talk: The Story of Al Purdy's A-Frame and the Effort to Save the House that Built CanLit

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The A-Frame in 2008 (photo credit: Julie Wilson)

By Erin Knight

Even Al's outhouse inspired Canada's writers. "Many a Can Lit / Kilroy / honoured that bagel-shaped seat," writes Seymour Mayne, and they were instructed, by Purdy, of course, to sign their names on the wall of that tilting dunny on their way out.

Few structures in Canada are so embedded with stories of the growth of our literature as Al Purdy's A-Frame on Roblin Lake, near Ameliasburgh in Ontario's Prince Edward County. Michael Ondaatje was paying visits to the modest cabin before he'd even published a book. Margaret Atwood remembers the particular potency of Al's wild grape wine (also the title of Purdy's 1968 collection). John Newlove, poet and editor at McClelland & Stewart, broke his ankle in a mysterious kitchen flood. As Jean Baird, President of what has now become known as the Al Purdy A-Frame Association remarks, it often seems that more writers have visited the A-Frame than haven't. She recalls a week-long visit with her husband, George Bowering, during which not a day passed that someone didn't come calling, either a friend of Eurithe Purdy, who has kept the sense of hospitality that surrounds the house alive since her husband's death, or a stranger inspired by Purdy's poetry to take his or her own A-Frame pilgrimage. Soon after the poet's death, the A-Frame faced demolition. Now, with the help of the Al Purdy A-Frame Association and the hundreds upon hundreds of writers, readers, academics and youths who have been touched by Purdy's work, the A-Frame is on track to become a writer's retreat, tourist destination and community centre — in short, the vital hub of literature that it has always been.

Four years ago, news broke that Eurithe Purdy was going to have to sell the A-Frame she and her husband had built. There was little hope that any prospective buyer would do anything other than tear the place down, which even in its heyday was known as the house that was never finished. But what Eurithe hadn't counted on was the incredible resonance of the Purdy name. Jean Baird and Howard White, Purdy's long-time publisher at Harbour Publishing, quickly banded together to organize a grassroots fundraising campaign that would raise money for the purchase of the A-Frame. Their vision was (and remains) to "care for the property and increase awareness of Canadian writing by maintaining the house as a place to generate words and ideas." They aim to build a writer's retreat that is inclusive and flexible, and that will provide opportunities for writers at the point in their careers when they most need it. As Jean so succinctly puts it, they plan to "honour the hospitality of the house."

They quickly came to realize that Purdy had made an impression on writers and readers from coast to coast. Jean and Howard began by raising awareness about the possible loss of the A-Frame with a petition that included hundreds of carefully selected signatures from some of Canada's most revered writers. After four more years of steady slogging, their fundraising efforts began to pay off, and they started to hope that the purchase of the property might be possible. Even more remarkable than this hard-won success was the fact that nearly every one of their major donors had a direct connection to Al Purdy. Leonard Cohen, Purdy's contemporary from 1950s Montreal, donated $10,000. A cottager on Salt Spring Island who had once heard Purdy read made another significant contribution. The Metcalf Foundation, a Toronto charity whose goal is to "help Canadians imagine and build a just, healthy, and creative society," put forth funds in part because one of the board members had never forgotten a reading Purdy gave at his high school. Even English departments (not typically known for financial largesse), from Memorial University in Newfoundland to the University of Victoria in B.C., donated to the cause. Shrinking violet Al was not.

Although the initial fundraising campaign was successful, the purchase of the property was not without its complications. Eurithe Purdy was committed to preserving her husband's legacy, and had generously agreed to reduce the sale price. But in the fall of 2012, Eurithe was facing surgery. She needed to finalize the sale of the cabin by October 9th, so the A-Frame defenders kicked their efforts into high gear, calling upon volunteers to help them with everything from filing as a charitable organization to conducting the necessary legal arrangements for the sale. Even lawyers, they found out, are fans of Purdy's work. It was at this time that the group Jean and Howard had founded was officially established as the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, and though they've come a long way to preserving the legacy of the house, there are many more hurdles to overcome.

The next step, already in progress, is to refurbish and update the A-Frame. For this stage, too, the Association is calling upon dedicated volunteers, just as Purdy made use of the help of friends for his own updates of the home during his time. Right now, Jean is looking for skilled electricians and plumbers, as well as anyone with a strong back. For there is lots of work to be done. The barn-board that makes up the siding of the house needs to be replaced, and the back deck that had been removed during the initial upgrades needs to be rebuilt. Many years ago, the building at the back of the property that served as the guesthouse and garage burned down in a lawnmower incident. The Association plans to rebuild this structure to serve as a Literary Pavilion: a gatehouse where visitors can congregate so that the current Writer in Residence can continue to work without interruption — though of course, that writer may feel inclined to wander down and shoot the breeze with whichever curious reader happens to have made the trek that day, just as Al might have.

Meanwhile, the planning for how the A-Frame will work as a writers' retreat continues. To ensure that this retreat will be inviting and conducive to creativity, four writers with a range of experience and with different connections to Purdy were invited to contribute their ideas on how the program would work. Kingston's Steven Heighton, who was like a son to the Purdys, collaborated with Griffin-Prize winner Karen Solie, B.C. poet Rob Budde and Al's old friend David Helwig to create a model for the program that is based on their own substantial experience, as well as on a close study of writers' retreats from elsewhere in Canada and around the world. The Purdy A-Frame retreat will accept applications from writers of all genres, but unlike many other such places, it will turn an especially kind eye towards poets and emerging writers.

Al Purdy was a poet of the people. Even in these early stages, his beloved A-Frame is already a site that encourages young people and members of the community to explore poetry's possibilities. Students from Belleville and from the nearby Trenton High School (whose library has been renamed the Al Purdy Library) take fieldtrips to the poet's home and help with maintaining the grounds. The world of literature opens up when a young person can make a personal connection with a writer, and the students' participation in the revitalization of Purdy's home is an experience that will encourage them to see poetry at work in their own daily lives. In the future, the A-Frame will be open to the public as part of the region's Heritage House Tour, and fundraising and education will continue through an annual picnic and events at the town hall and the Doors Open festival.

Jean Baird has been a tireless advocate for the Purdy house from the start. She's known the Purdys for years — long enough that she isn't surprised to learn something new about Al every time she attends an event or meets a new member of the volunteer-run Association. After the most recent fundraising event in Toronto, the Al Purdy Show, she knows even more tales about the man and his writing, and about Canada's literary scene in the 1960s and 1970s. "Canada hasn't done a very good job of preserving its literary heritage," she remarks. "People don't know the stories." But with Jean's help and the help of the dozens of board members, hundreds of volunteers and thousands of readers of Purdy's work, the little A-Frame in Ameliasburgh will remain a modest but resonant symbol of the reach of those stories, and of the words and poetry that make them. We may not be able to get the walls to talk, but we can stand within them and do what Al would have most encouraged us to do: imagine.

Photos courtesy of the Al Purdy A-Frame Association.

Jean Baird is President of the Al Purdy A-Frame Association. Originally from Collingwood, now of Vancouver, she is often described as an escaped academic. Jean has been involved with numerous arts-based projects, including directing Canada Book Week for the Writers' Trust.

For more information about the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, please visit their website.

Find out more about the Al Purdy A-Frame by visiting our Literary Landmark Page.

Erin Knight is Contributing Editor for Open Book: Ontario. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Chaser (House of Anansi Press, 2012), and The Sweet Fuels (Goose Lane Editions, 2007). Her work has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award and the CBC Literary Awards. She lives in St. Catharines. @erinksknight is one of Twitter's quietest participants.

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