When Tish Happens

  • When Tish Happens: The Unlikely Story of Canada’s “Most Influential Literary Magazine”
    by Frank Davey
  • Words, Words, Words: Essays and Memoirs
    by George Bowering

Reviewed by Nicholas Bradley

          

 

 

 

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?

Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Literary journals come and go; few of them become legendary. The founders of Tish were precocious students at the University of British Columbia in the early 1960s. They conceived of their magazine as a venue for an innovative strain of Canadian poetry that followed directions set in the United States by Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, and Robert Creeley. Tish is often considered to have launched the careers of George Bowering, Frank Davey, Daphne Marlatt, and Fred Wah -- illustrious poets and novelists who as students were among the journal’s instigators. They enjoyed a connection to the American poets in the form of Warren Tallman, a professor in the Department of English and an impresario who made of his home a salon at which students and visiting writers congregated. In a spectacular scholarly extravagance Tallman once described Creeley’s influence on the young Bowering as nothing less than a laying on of hands: “in February 1963 in Vancouver, when George Bowering was still struggling to realize the possibilities of his life in poetry, Creeley leaped up suddenly, grabbed him by the shoulders, not a fight but a direct exchange. And because Bowering is so open a man, it went in, the exchange, and he has ever since possessed a Creeley-in-himself” (boundary 2 3, 1 [Autumn 1974]). This account is both memorable and preposterous. Tallman was nearer the mark when he described the literary scene at UBC as “a wonderfully garbled, goofy, and in many ways ludicrous Vancouver version of the poetics Duncan had turned loose” (Canadian Literature 24 [Spring 1965]).

Tish is now such a famous part of the history of Canadian postmodernism that its gimcrack nature is easily forgotten. It was in truth an ephemeral magazine that published poems of varying quality written by members of a coterie who were undeniably still beginners. Nineteen issues were published between 1961 and 1963 -- “a wild, disciplined and impulsive run,” Davey writes in When Tish Happens (320). The timing was right: The New American Poetry, Donald M. Allen’s heralding anthology, had been published in 1960. But the ultimate significance of Tish probably consists less in the issues themselves than in the broad influence on Canadian letters that the protagonists exerted. Davey notes that Tish -- the scatological anagram suggesting both provocation and fertilization -- placed an emphasis on “process and provisionality, on attending to language before ‘content’ and on ascertaining one’s locus in a variety of dimensions, on the self as a consciousness in process rather than a stable persona, on language that is multi-discursive, on forms that are dialogical and self-interrogative, on writing that is thinking rather than thought” (321). The forms of writing that emerged from the extended Tish network were typically imagined as alternatives to mainstream Canadian literature -- a staid, politically conservative, parochial enterprise that was resistant to experimentation. Or so the story goes.

When Tish Happens evokes the insularity of the Canadian literary world and the bumbling character of the academy in the 1950s and 1960s. The literary community at UBC was marked by machismo and at times by overt sexism. Women were part of the Tish circle, but from the outset they were consigned to the periphery; the editors were men, with Davey at the helm. (On the cover of When Tish Happens is a photograph of a gang of male poets assembled around Davey’s Triumph TR4.) The memoir is also full of gossip. Icons of CanLit are subjected to various scurrilities: Robin Skelton is pretentious and effete (249), F.R. Scott is embittered (272), and Earle Birney is lecherous (90), unsupportive of the nascent Tish (182), and a poor speller. Davey also writes that he and Birney were sometimes alarmed by the similarities between them: “we both were disturbed by the thought that I might be a younger version of him” (183). It is a humorous instance of self-awareness.

The title provides a somewhat misleading sense of the book, which covers a broader range of subjects than Tish alone. It begins in 1942, when Davey was two years old, and concludes in 1975, when the poets’ successes had brought them “as close as we may get to a golden age of Tish” (313). Frankland W. Davey was a child of wartime and a student during the Cold War. The title of his first collection of poems, D-Day and After (1962), signalled a temporal influence on his imagination, even as he defined the term in this case as “destroy old poems day.” He spent his youth in Abbotsford. The town then seemed further from Vancouver than it does today; his book is among other things an interesting description of life in the Fraser Valley in the 1940s and 1950s. Davey began his studies at UBC in 1957, met Bowering in 1959, and in 1960 encountered Marlatt, with whom he was instantly smitten. D-Day and After begins with an epigraph taken from Hopkins’s “The Windhover” -- “Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then ….” It is a nod to Davey’s vain amour: Marlatt’s surname then was Buckle (124-25). In Davey’s account his infatuation precipitated the events that led to Tish, while D-Day and After was “an attempt at a new post-D, post-Daphne, beginning” (200). Whatever energies gave rise to the journal could not prevent its quick decline. Olson, Duncan, Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Denise Levertov, and Margaret Avison gathered at UBC in July and August of 1963. Their meeting was in many ways the culmination of the avant-garde moment on campus. Tish had been on hiatus; Davey, Bowering, and Wah left Vancouver at the end of the summer. (In the longer second chapter of Tish [1963-69], the contributions of Marlatt and Gladys Hindmarch were more visible.) Davey went to Vancouver Island, M.A. in hand, to teach at Royal Roads Military College in Colwood. He was determined “to find out all I can about Victoria” (205), which he describes as “a self-contained place, surrounded on three sides by the sea, and inwardly focused” (211), and as “a lot like [Creeley’s] Mallorca -- comfortable, inbred, a long way from everything” (216). Davey’s self-education led to City of the Gulls and Sea (1964), a collection of sixteen poems on local themes, and The Clallam, or Old Glory in Juan de Fuca (1973), a poem about “the 1904 sinking in the Strait of Juan de Fuca of the American steamship Clallam” (279). The dissolution of his first marriage, the inception of his second, and his eventual departure from Victoria marked the end of his 1960s.

“But look where sadly the poor wretch comes reading.” When Tish Happens is tinged with dissatisfaction despite the conviction with which Davey asserts the achievements of the Tish authors, which in his view are not sufficiently acknowledged. Bowering, in contrast, looks merrily upon his life in Words, Words, Words. After an absence from Vancouver in the years following Tish, Bowering returned to the city in 1971; he taught at Simon Fraser University until 2001. He has been a vital literary presence in British Columbia and indeed in Canada. He was the first Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2002-04), an office later held by Wah (2011-13), a second leopard in the temple. Words, Words, Words collects twenty-seven short essays on literary and autobiographical topics, including the works and personalities of bpNichol and Al Purdy -- and the subject of baseball, Bowering’s great extra-vocational avocation. He is a literary knuckleballer and the self-described “official loudmouth fan of the Vancouver Canadians” (95). “Vancouver Canadian” describes Bowering well. He is nationalistic and suspicious of things American, yet also passionately regionalist, quick to quibble with anyone who would assume that things appear from Penticton as they do from Toronto. Bowering’s charm is winning, his tone comical throughout. “I was a young heroic writer on his way to the pantheon,” he observes in the book’s first essay (5). But a funny thing happened en route: he became an “old coot” with an eclectic body of works that perhaps his younger self could not have envisaged (84, 88). His book thus meanders through a long and varied career.

The first phase of Tish concluded half a century ago. The squabbles among its editors, rivalries literary and romantic, and other pettinesses have faded into the past. The outlines of the story are well known, but When Tish Happens and Words, Words, Words supply invaluable details. The literary histories of the province and the country will be understood more fully as a result. Nonetheless the lively period that Bowering and Davey have inimitably chronicled awaits fresh examination; its achievement requires new assessment and appreciation.

Words, Words, Words: Essays and Memoirs
George Bowering
Vancouver: New Star Books, 2012. 234 pp. $19.00 paper.

When Tish Happens: The Unlikely Story of Canada’s “Most Influential Literary Magazine”
Frank Davey
Toronto: ECW Press, 2011. 342 pp. $19.95 paper.

BC Studies 183 (Autumn 2014)