25th Trillium Award

On Writing, with Frank Davey

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Credit: ECW Press

Frank Davey is a widely published author and literary critic. He has taught at York University and the University of Western Ontario, where he held the Carl F. Klinck Professorship in Canadian Literature. In today's On Writing feature, Frank talks about his new bpNichol biography, aka bpNichol (ECW Press), the spookiness of writing the biography and his relationship with bpNichol.

Open Book:

Tell us about your new book, aka bpNichol.

Frank Davey:

In some ways aka bp is a conventional biography—it starts with his birth and moves chronologically toward his death. But it also moves from there into his literary afterlife—into a growing history of the post-1988 writing and talk about his work, including disputes about who he really was. And it?s also a biography of a bunch of different lives that Barrie Nichol himself led, sometimes didn?t want to lead and almost always had to choose among: son, bohemian, performance artist, psychotherapist, visual poet, lyric poet, conceptual poet, business administrator, 'pataphysician,' comic strip collector, parent, sound poet, teacher, loyal friend, children?s writer, playwright, editor, husband, television writer, collaborative artist, cultural archaeologist. The identity question of who ?I? was or might be energized his life and kept refocusing and complicating my book. I found that I had to repeatedly link my narrative to that question?s uncertainties.


How did you approach the challenge of writing the biography of a writer who was so self-conscious of autobiography and biography?


I read that self-consciousness as a self-confident anticipation—and perhaps a resignation—that he would inevitably become the subject of a biography. I opened his first of some twenty-odd notebooks, the one he began in 1963 when he was 19, and after reading only a couple of pages found him becoming anxious there about what a future ?theoretical biographer? would think of what he?d just been scribbling. And that?s me, 37 years later, who has become the theoretical biographer, reading his first notebook just as he had anticipated. Spooky. In this first notebook he was also very quickly imagining trying to do the biography job himself. He wrote that he hoped he might write a life-long autobiographical novel, one that only his death could end. That sounds quite a bit like his long poem The Martyrology, many would say. Among the unpublished novels that he later does write is a ?bpNichol by John Cannyside,? in which various characters, including a bpNichol, compete with one another at writing the bpNichol story, arguing violently about who he was or is. He was very aware that there were multiple possible versions of bpNichol and Barrie Nichol, and that these might puzzle or bedevil any ?theoretical biographer.? So I interpreted all of his rather obsessive concern with biography as both permission and advice.


Tell us about your relationship with bpNichol. How did you two meet, and how did your relationship change over time?


We met in Toronto in 1970 when I approached him for information about visual poetry, which I needed to write about in my book on Earle Birney. He was pleased and somewhat surprised that I would be so reasonable as simply to ask him. Within two years we were collaborating on issues of my journal, Open Letter, and my partner Linda was his literary agent. Within five we were meeting informally every week, usually at my home, reading to each other our newest work, and doing the majority of the Coach House Press editing. Within a few more I had persuaded him to teach in the York University creative writing program that I had designed and share my university office.


What inspired you to begin the project of writing bpNichol's biography?


It was Jack David?s idea—he had written about bp, had interviewed him and followed his work. His ECW press had recently published Grant Goodbrand?s history of Therafields, a book which opens up a large, previously little-known area of Nichol?s life. Jack thought that a similar history of bp could now be written while many of the people he had collaborated with were still alive, and that someone like me would know where to begin, who to ask, where to look, be able to read Nichol?s handwriting and identify his correspondents and contemporary literary references. So Jack ?inspired? me—but also Barrie of course and the friendship we?d shared. In a way I felt I owed it to Barrie because, as Jack was arguing, it was a project that various coincidences had prepared me to do.


You suggest that bpNichol's writing can be viewed as his own "psychoanalytic client." Would you explain what you mean by this?


I was referring mostly to middle and later books of The Martyrology, where one finds that many of Nichol?s lines are re-examinations or queryings of immediately preceding ones so that a kind of dialogue between Nichol and the poem develops. Each line in turn seems at first to be Nichol?s but, when he re-examines it, he in a sense moves on past it—it becomes no longer his line but the poem?s, and available for him to question, re-interpret, or challenge—as an analyst might question a client.


How would you describe bpNichol's influence on Canadian poetry today?


Some of it?s a negative influence—writers can find his work so uniquely diverse and unrepeatable, or so open to innovation, that they want to avoid writing anything which might resemble it. I can?t think of anyone, except Ken Norris, who is currently attempting a life-long poem. Some of his real influence is toward conceptual poetry—not the most well-known area of his work but the one which seems to offer current writers the most leads onward.


What are you working on now?


I?m wrapping up a slightly humorous conceptual poetry project, titled ?The Fears of Charles Darwin as Confessed by the Blogosphere.? And I?m starting work on a London, Ontario visual poetry project that I see as a 20-year-anniversary homage to Greg Curnoe.

Frank Davey is the author of How Linda Died (ECW Press) and Mr. and Mrs. G.G. (ECW Press) and is a professor of literature at the University of Western Ontario. He is author of Reading Kim Right (Talonbooks), Karla's Web (Viking/Penguin), and numerous books of poetry and literary criticism. Davey is also founder of the literary magazine Open Letter. He lives in London, Ontario.

For more information about aka bpNichol, please visit the ECW Press website.

Buy this book at your local independent bookstore or online at Chapters/Indigo or Amazon.

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