25th Trillium Award

Profile on William Hawkins, with a few questions

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William Hawkins

By rob mclennan

What had she, Queen Victoria, in mind
naming this place, Ottawa, capital?

    Ah coolness, he said,
    who dug coolness.

This crazy river-abounding town
where people are quietly
following some hesitant
form of evolution
arranged on television
from Toronto.

where girls are all
possible fucks
in the long dull summer nights

& Mounties more image
than reality.
    Ottawa Poems

To introduce their short conversation with William Hawkins in Ottawa?s Sparks: Poetry Newsmagazine (January 1978, Volume 1, No. 11), the anonymous interviewer wrote, ?When you think of William Hawkins, you think of many things. Mordant wit. A presence in the Oxford Book of Canadian Verse. Ottawa. Some would add a certain madness.? From 1964 to 1974, William Hawkins was a considerable presence in Ottawa, from publishing poetry, writing songs for the band The Children (which included a young Bruce Cockburn) and organizing events at the infamous coffeehouse, Le Hibou. Since then, Hawkins has published sporadically, yet has influenced numerous writers and musicians across the country. Now approaching his 73rd birthday in May, Hawkins becomes one of the first two inductees to the VERSeOttawa Hall of Honour, alongside Greg ?Ritallin? Frankson, at a ceremony as part of the third annual VERSeFest Poetry Festival on March 17, 2013.

Hawkins? exploits are as legendary as they are apocryphal, including tales of facilitating Jimi Hendrix?s recording of a Joni Mitchell performance at Le Hibou on his reel-to-reel (later recording Hawkins performing a new song on guitar at the after-party), a run-in with Mexican police at the Mexican-American border involving a pickup truck of weed (and Trudeau?s subsequent interventions on their behalf) and a day-long reading at the site of a former hotel in Ottawa?s Lowertown. Another story has Hawkins sitting on stage reading quietly to himself in a rocking chair during a performance of The Children at Maple Leaf Gardens, as they opened for The Lovin? Spoonful.

Hawkins and Roy MacSkimming raised funds to get themselves out to Vancouver for the sake of the infamous Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963, asking his friends and enemies alike for money to help him leave town. Once there, he was able to study with and engage with Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and Robert Duncan, returning home with an Olson edge and incredible energy, producing, reading and publishing, it seemed, non-stop for a number of years. During that period, his poetry appeared on a series of poetry posters around town (often traded for drinks, the series was recently reissued by Cameron Anstee?s Apt. 9 Press), in Raymond Souster?s seminal anthology New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry (Toronto ON: Contact Press, 1966) and A.J. M. Smith?s Modern Canadian Verse (Toronto ON: Oxford, 1967). His books include Shoot Low Sheriff, They?re Riding Shetland Ponies! (with Roy MacSkimming; 1964), Two Longer Poems (with Harry Howith; Toronto ON: Patrician Press, 1965), Hawkins: Poems 1963-1965 (Ottawa ON: Nil Press, 1966), Ottawa Poems (Kitchener ON: Weed/Flower Press, 1966), The Gift of Space: Selected Poems 1960-1970 (Toronto ON: The New Press, 1971) and The Madman?s War (Ottawa ON: S.A.W. Publications, 1974). His poems in New Wave Canada sat alongside the work of Daphne Buckle (later Marlatt), Robert Hogg, bpNichol and Michael Ondaatje, who later included his own ?King Kong meets Wallace Stevens? poem in Rat Jelly (1973), influenced, perhaps, by Hawkins?:

King Kong Goes to Rotterdam

Why now King Kong me
Me silent seeker of the Rotterdam of pussycats
Me troubled watcher of St. Orlovsky?s bear
I?m in the ice-bags of tomorrow?s girl
My endless aspirations of Holland won?t save me
I?ve seen the blond girls of Rotterdam copulating
Oblivious of world sorrow
But ecstatic for corduroy trousers

I wear corduroy trousers
Yet I am a billion miles from pigtails

From there, he didn?t publish another book for more than three decades, before I saw the publication of his second selected poems through my Cauldron Books series, Dancing Alone: Selected Poems (Fredericton NB: Broken Jaw Press, 2005). A double album of the same name appeared a year later, including nearly two dozen covers of Hawkins? songs by various friends and admirers, including Lynn Miles, Murray McLaughlin, Sandy Crawley, Ian Tamblyn, Suzie Vinnick, Neville Wells, Sneezy Waters, Bruce Cockburn and others, as well as a new song performed by Hawkins himself. Without Hawkins, Bruce Cockburn has said, he never would have started writing songs.

More recently, there?s been a resurgence in Hawkins? work, with the publication of a chapbook of recent poems, the black prince of bank street (above/ground press, 2007), as well as the release of Wm Hawkins: A Descriptive Bibliography (Ottawa ON: Apt. 9 Press, 2010) by Cameron Anstee?s Apt. 9 Press, as well as the simultaneous Sweet & Sour Nothings (Apt. 9 Press, 2010), a ?lost? poem of Hawkins? from the 1970s. Held together as a folio, Wm Hawkins: A Descriptive Bibliography lists Hawkins? work over the years in trade, chapbook and broadside form, as well as a list of anthology publications. As Anstee writes in the introduction:

The writing, of course, stands up today. His poetic accomplishments were consolidated in the 2005 selected poems, Dancing Alone. However, the details of his publishing intersect with a broad cross section of people and events that made invaluable contributions to the development of Canadian Literature. Shoot Low Sheriff was published in the wake of the famous 1963 UBC conference where Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, Charles Olson and others influenced the next generation of Canadian poets. Ottawa Poems was published by Nelson Ball?s now legendary Weed/Flower press. Hawkins? inclusion in the Raymond Souster edited New Wave Canada not only saw him published by Contact Press, but also published alongside early work by Michael Ondaatje, bpNichol, Victor Coleman and Daphne Marlatt (then Daphne Buckle) among a long list of others. See Roy MacSkimming?s excellent introduction to Dancing Alone for further description, but these details of Hawkins? publishing life are important. They place him in significant currents and developments in Canadian poetry. Yet, the specific details of this publishing activity have remained scattered.

rob mclennan: After such a long period of relative silence, how difficult or easy was it for you to start composing poems again, let alone publishing or performing publicly?

William Hawkins: Well no, getting back into writing again was made much easier by meeting you! It came as quite a shock to discover the vibrant poetry scene happening under my nose. I made my living driving taxi & don?t believe I ran into another poet. As to performing I?ve always been a ham.

rm: The publication of Dancing Alone: Selected Poems was a big event, as was the release off the double CD a year later. How did seeing these two releases change the way you saw your work? Were there any surprises?

WH: I was surprised by the interest when I read at the Writers Festival where I think 300 people showed up. Having Bruce Cockburn, Sneezy Waters, Sandy Crawley & Neville Wells sing my songs helped considerably. I was grateful for the CD of the songs because I wanted them to live & be heard. I have Harvey Glatt, Peter Bowie & Ian Tamblyn to thank for the product. Of course the artists as well. It changed me in a strange way. It was a humbling experience. As Irving Layton wrote in his introduction to Red Carpet for the Sun, the man who wrote these is dead. Dead man walking & writing?but differently.

rm: How do you think your writing has changed over the years?

WH: I was greatly influenced by Layton, of course, but later by Creeley & that tended to a leaner style. I should also mention Raymond Souster as an influence & Louis Dudek as well. Tis hard to get away from Leonard — so I don?t try!

rm: How do you feel about your Hall of Honour award from VERSeOttawa?

WH: Being in the Hall of Honour is a wonderful thing. I hope I deserve it?

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than 20 trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2011, and his most recent titles are the poetry collections Songs for little sleep, (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2012), A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011) and kate street (Moira, 2011) and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). 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.

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