Pacific Rim Review of Books

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An Interview with Colin Browne

By Peter Grant

The Shovel (Talonbooks, 2007, 189 pp.) is Vancouver writer Colin Browne’s second collection of poems in the mold of Ground Water (Talonbooks, 2002, 207 pp.) The entire text of the first page:


something moving about in the dry arbutus leaves at dawn
something trying to get through the fence

I leafed through the book, trying to make sense of it, until a familiar name startled me into focus. The poem “Over Oleans” begins thus:

As it was related to me by my great aunt Marjorie Acland on Salt Spring Island…

It was a name that transported me to a magic kingdom of my childhood—the splendid Acland’s Guest House on Booth Bay, and the English proprietors, Marge and Bevil Acland. Avidly I read the poem, the story of Dick Ritchie, the grandfather of a family friend of Browne’s, who was dispatched on an ill-fated mission to Iraq during World War I. The storyteller was not the sweet, kindly Marge Acland dear to memory. The jaw-dropping climax, 145 stanzas later, I will let the reader discover.

Questions multiplied. Where does such a poem, at once so familiar and so outrageous, originate? I resolved to interview the writer. We talked for nearly two hours about poetry and poetics. The following account has been edited from a much longer transcript.

PG: Where are you from?

Colin Browne: I was born in Victoria, but I’ve lived all over Canada. My father was in the Navy.

PG: Where are your people from?

Colin Browne: Various mongrel parts of the British Isles.

PG: What is the geography of your being?

Colin Browne: If you look at Ground Water and The Shovel, the historical family geography is the inside coast of Vancouver Island, as I came to know it, or as I’ve imagined it. The poem “The Shovel” takes place on the east coast of Vancouver Island, and there’s a long sequence in The Shovel called “Naughts and Crosses.” Each of those little pieces “takes place” on that part of the island, as do sequences in several of the other poems.

The Okanagan is also important. I discovered an affinity—perhaps an ancestral affinity—for the Okanagan through my great-grandfather’s ranch near Kaleden. That’s what my film White Lake is about, in part, the discovery of that very open White Lake grassland landscape that I still write to. That landscape hooks into the Middle East for me.

PG: How important is place?

Colin Browne: Absolutely crucial. Because all that I write takes place in landscapes.

Poetry has become a way to articulate what I actually perceive—to find a way to enter the simultaneity of the world. You’ll see in the poems, especially in The Shovel, that I’m trying to have many events happening simultaneously. I carry different landscapes around in me, as maybe you do, and those landscapes are nudging me all the time. I don’t mind bringing some place near the Dead Sea into something about White Lake. To me they’re both in place in the same place—simply because they’re in me in that way. Is place actually out there? Or is place what you take in and then make?

I’ve also been exploring a way that I can sew, into the narratives, many times and many places simultaneously. What that means is being able to identify the temporal and geographical intersections I’m the sum of; intersections, by the way, that continue to accumulate, voluntarily and involuntarily, and which are inseparable from language. “Identifying” is a word that James Reaney used in the late 60s. He called poets “identifiers.”

PG: The inside coast of Vancouver Island does not include your home, Vancouver.

Colin Browne: No. I’ve never written much about Vancouver. I’ve done a lot of work around the history of Vancouver, but it has not, until recently, been the place of my imagination. A new poem, “Kingfisher Annex,” is set in Vancouver and the North Shore.

PG: You have quite a diverse CV—poet, editor, filmmaker, teacher, film archivist. You compiled a catalogue of film in British Columbia—

Colin Browne: Yes, up to 1941. I still add to that catalogue. People send me details, and I make annotations or notes….

PG: And you enact?

Colin Browne: I sometimes perform…

PG: A performer of masques and things…?

Colin Browne: I haven’t done any for a while. Martin Gotfrit and I did a performance piece for music and text, and I hope to do more.

I am writing for composers now.

* * *

PG: When did you become conscious of poetry?

Colin Browne: I think pretty early. I vividly remember nursery rhymes. The first thing I self-published—do you remember a book called 1066 and All That? Why we had a copy of it will give you a sense of my background, the Britishness…I wrote a parody of it and bound that into a book.

PG: How old were you?

Colin Browne: Probably 12.

PG: Do you remember any of it?

Colin Browne: I wish I did. I wish I had a copy of it, too. We moved too often for my mother to keep things. We often moved three times a year. We’d arrive in a place, there’d be the anguish of moving in and going to school for a while, and whoosh—we’d be gone again. My sister and I would have to find a way to steady ourselves in this gale.

No one in my immediate family read much, or wrote. There were to my knowledge no stories in the family. You were on your own. I don’t recall meeting anybody who knew anything about poetry.

I was fortunate, however, when we moved to Victoria, to have had a friend named Terry Burnett. Terry and I, and his brother Ian, became close friends. I moved there in Grade 11. They were in Grade 12. Terry was a visual artist, very skilled, with a wonderful eye. I’d grown up in a haze of print. The two of us would go for long walks together. We walked around with boaters on and pipes in our mouths, and for reasons which had to do with living in Victoria, we took on the personae of old men. Terry would say to me, “Look, look there.” I’d look around and see what somebody might call nothing. He’d say, “Look at that shadow,” or “Look at the different colours in that piece of wood.”

This looking energized me; it was thrilling. It was a great gift Terry gave me. I learned to look and began looking and engaging myself, and that was one of the places where the poetry came from. Starting to look, starting to see, is a way of engaging words in a different way. The world became sensual, the eye came to life.

PG: Who were your poetic influences?

Colin Browne: The poet who attracted me when I was a kid was Dylan Thomas, because of the great jangle of music. I would read “Fern Hill” over and over, and I took those sonorities in.

In high school I found a recording of Kenneth Patchen reading to jazz. Al Neil was playing on that record —

PG: The legendary Al Neil, Vancouver’s own —

Colin Browne: When I was at Oak Bay High School I took that record out every week. I’d play it all night long. I bought a copy of Journals of Albion Moonlight.

Robinson Jeffers touched me early on with his poem “Roan Stallion.” He’d lived in Big Sur, built his own stone house. Critics and readers had turned against him, which attracted me to his work. Why would such a thing happen? What had he written that was so dangerous? I was attracted to the long poems, the epic reach, and fascinated by his retelling of Greek tragedies. I hadn’t known anyone could do that, to set the plays of Aeschylus or Biblical stories on wild, fierce Big Sur coast and in that wild scrubby inland, back around the turn of the 20th century. I responded to Jeffers very strongly. “Poetry,” he said, “is not a civilizer, rather the reverse.” That got to me as a high school student.

* * *

Colin Browne: I was in Victoria for two years, then went to College Militaire Royal de St. Jean, and then to Royal Military College. I didn’t have enough money to go to university. I wanted to learn French, and I wanted to leave home and to live in a different place. I thought I’d meet beatniks in Montreal.

When I got back from military college I had no job, nor did I ever want one again. I’d had it with being places on time. I lived in a little cottage at Mount Newton on the Saanich Peninsula and also started working at the Saturna Island Free School. I became a Gulf Island person for a while. I scratched along to make a living. I did the census in 1971 for Saturna and Pender Islands. I started a little press called Granny Soot Publications. It was named after a witch in the novel Mulata by Miguel Angel Asturias. I published a few little books, and met poets living at that time in Victoria—Dorothy Livesay, P.K Page, Maxine Gadd were there, and, earlier on, Gary Geddes, Robert Sward, Sandy Hutchison—a wonderful poet, who returned to Scotland.

PG: In the anthology Vancouver Island Poems (Soft Press, 1973) you’re described as living “in a quandary.” What does that mean?

Colin Browne: As I think about it now, I really had no home. I’d moved a lot, and I was used to moving. To give you a sense of the state of mind I was in, I was reading Malcolm Lowry at the time and wishing more than anything that he was my father. I completely ignored his chaotic life, his obsessiveness, his alcoholism; I just thought he had a wonderful mind. I even wrote Margerie Lowry to tell her that I wished Lowry had been my father, and she wrote back. What was I thinking? I was confused. My mother said, “You were seven years in military college and in the Navy, so I knew it would take seven years to get it out of your system.”

I started working for the Provincial Museum. I had pals who were working there, painting walls and that kind of thing. That’s where I met Karl Spreitz. He was a great mentor—another huge person in my life. He was also a mentor to Eric Metcalfe and Michael Morris and Glenn Lewis. Karl has the Austrian sense of humour, which is to turn everything upside down. That’s the gift he gave to us all.

* * *

Colin Browne: When we moved to Victoria in 1960, my mother took me over to meet Marge Acland, my great aunt, who lived on Salt Spring Island. I’d been taken to Acland’s when I was three and four, and Marge told me how she and I had walked up the road to the mailbox at that time. She used to call me Buttercup.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s I visited Marge and her husband Bevil as often as I could. She intrigued me. She intrigued everybody. Do you remember how open and curious she was? You could say anything to her. I formed a very strong bond with her. I’d go over and cut the alders out of the ditch and split wood. I became the handyman. That gave me a chance to hang out with her. She’d tell me stories; for the first time in my life I was exposed to the stories of my family. Those stories are the source of what became the writing out of family mythology and landscape. I wrote a long poem called “The Marjoriad”—terrible name. It’s based on the story Marge told me about Cowichan Bay the night before Canada declared war on Germany in 1939. It was broadcast on the radio on CBC years ago but has never been published. The incidents have also been worked into a screenplay. I have to do a rewrite. While I was in St. Jean, my parents often attended the year-end parades and ceremonies, and on one occasion they brought an English boy with them named Colin Ritchie. If I have a brother, it’s Colin. We’re very close. He lives in Alert Bay and owns lots of old buildings. In 1974, or 1975, Colin came back from England with a photo album, and as I glanced through it I saw photographs of my grandfather and grandmother on a ranch named Strathyre near Kamloops. As far as I knew, my grandparents had always lived in Scotland. I said, “Ritchie, what is this?” He said, “This was the ranch.” I asked Marge about it, and she said, “We really didn’t visit at that time, but this is what I know....” Then she told me the story of Dick Ritchie getting engaged to Enid Stuckie on that ranch, and his posting to Iraq. It’s the final poem in The Shovel. My grandmother Nora, who was British, and my grandfather Colin — Scottish — met in British Columbia, and they got married here. Nora had a friend in England named Enid who she’d gone to school with. Nora wrote her a letter and said, “Why don’t you come out to Canada?” Enid had an ulterior motive. She fancied a young guy who she’d met on family ski trips in Austria, Dick Ritchie, who at that time was working as a cowboy in Burns Lake. With the declaration of war, Dick took the train down to Kamloops. He came out to the ranch and asked Enid to marry him on Hallowe’en weekend, 1914, and left the next morning for England to sign up. Enid followed later. They got married, moved in together, enjoyed six weeks of married life, and off he went.

My first film was called Strathyre. Strathyre is about Colin Ritchie and I going to look for that ranch.

* * *

Colin Browne: had gone as far as I could on my own. I was beginning to feel antsy and, much as I love Karl, I was craving more intensity in my artistic life.

I decided to study with Robin Blaser and George Bowering and Lionel Kearns at SFU, urged on by Peter Quartermain at UBC.

PG: How did you come to Blaser and Bowering?

Colin Browne: I was reading The Capilano Review, reading their books. I’d also been coming over to Vancouver with Strathyre. The National Film Board was assisting me, and while I was waiting for the bus out to the ferry I’d prowl around in Bill Hoffer’s and Don Stewart’s bookstores.

PG: So you moved to Vancouver and went to Simon Fraser?

Colin Browne: Did my MA there. Studied with Robin and George—it was a wonderful two years. I was directing films for the Film Board while I was doing my MA.

After that, Peter Buitenhuis, head of the English department at SFU, offered me a chance to teach in Cranbrook for a year and a half. From there I met Fred Wah. When Fred and Pauline Butling went to live in Japan for a year, I became the director of the writing program at David Thompson University Centre (DTUC) in Nelson. I lived in Fred and Pauline’s house.

DTUC was housed in the old Notre Dame University. Selkirk College (in Castlegar) and UVic had agreed to provide post-secondary education in the West Kootenay. You could get a four-year degree there by doing two years through Selkirk and two years through UVic. Fred had cooked up a Writing program. UVic would fly writers in to teach. Sean Virgo used to come in every fortnight, and John Newlove was there.

It was a heady experience. DTUC was probably the closest thing in Canada to Black Mountain College. For writers it was immersive. Our students were publishing books and magazines. We had our own journal, Writing. There would be 60 people at the lunchtime poetry readings every Wednesday.

PG: Was that the Kootenay School of Writing?

Colin Browne: No. The Kootenay School of Writing was created when the provincial government shut down DTUC in 1984. A group of us came down to Vancouver and set up shop here, defiantly.

PG: Describe the scene in Vancouver after you relocated.

Colin Browne: We had lots of allies—everybody but the provincial government. The Canada Council, because it had been so pleased with our program in Nelson, said, “Tell us what you need. We’ll help you get back on your feet.” We said, “We’re going to create an alternative university. We’ll continue to publish Writing, we’ll establish a national and international reading series, we’ll provide post-secondary courses in poetry and poetics, we’ll continue the work we began in Nelson.” There were several younger writers who’d graduated from DTUC who were really key in setting up the school: Jeff Derksen, Athena George, Calvin Wharton and Gary Whitehead come to mind. For these and for other young writers who soon attached themselves to the school, the intensity of the intellectual engagement that followed may perhaps be compared, in terms of engagement anyway, to the early years of the Tish movement in the 1960’s. This expanded to include a profound engagement with the visual arts community, and a powerful interest in the confluence of conceptual art and poetry.

We had an office on Broadway at Oak. Artspeak Gallery started up in the office next door, founded by Cate Rimmer and Keith Higgins. Tom Wayman and I were the older guys.

PG: You found the office space and put it all together.

Colin Browne: It was a collective thing; everybody chipped in to pay for it. We offered courses and we taught them ourselves or hired writers we admired.

PG: You were then the editor of Writing magazine.

Colin Browne: Any literary editor wants to promote a certain kind of writing. It’s a political act, having a magazine. We were actively soliciting and publishing new writing from Canada, the United States and Great Britain which was associated, to a greater or lesser degree, correctly or incorrectly, with what was called “Language writing.” The idea for the design of the issues of Writing I edited was suggested by Steve Osborne. I’m still very pleased with those issues.

Susanna was born in 1987. The money left over from DTUC was disappearing. I was still working at the Film Board, and then I began teaching at SFU.

PG: We’re into the 90s.

Colin Browne: I made a film called Father and Son.

PG: While you were teaching film and making film you were also writing, and that eventuated in Ground Water, which was published in 2002.

Colin Browne: That represented ten years of writing, abandoning much more than I included. The poem “Ground Water” was originally written as a collaboration between composer/musician Martin Gotfrit and myself. “Altar” was the text for a film I planned to make using a photograph of the ship’s company of the H.M.C.S. Mayflower on the dock in Halifax in 1944. Some of the language is considered hermetic; I know no language that is not. I felt when I wrote Ground Water that the text was making visible certain invisible contracts.

* * *

PG: The Shovel is a very diverse work.

Colin Browne: To me it is a coherent book, but you’re right, it contains different kinds of writing. The texts all respond to a single, focused inquiry.

PG: The piece “Roland Barthes in the Kootenays” was a kind of tribute to Fred Wah, suggesting the he’s especially meaningful to you.

Colin Browne: Very meaningful to me as a writer and as a friend.

That piece was an impromptu. It was presented as part of a panel called “Faking It.” When Fred Wah and Pauline Butling retired from teaching in Calgary, there was a big conference in their honour.

Everyone had been there for a couple of days by the time I arrived. I’d come in late, and in the morning was due to speak on the panel. I’d been reading a long interview with Roland Barthes and had been making notes.

PG: Is what appears in the book the transcription of an improvised text?

Colin Browne: Yes. I didn’t let on though, and—

PG: —“’Fred Wah—He’s an Indian?’”—

Colin Browne: Some listeners were convinced that the account was true, and then were upset when they found out otherwise. One person was pretty angry. He said, “You can’t do that.” I said, “There’s a meta-truth to it.”

PG: The Shovel is full of little bits and pieces and fragments, and some of them play with words and verge on nonsense.

Colin Browne: Maybe.

PG: Perhaps that’s your musical sensibility at work?

Colin Browne: You mean, “How come?”

PG: I don’t question it at all. I accept it and like it. Blaser talks about the reversal of language into experience. This is an experience. You’re finding things on every page. Sometimes it gets very lyrical and straightforward.

Colin Browne: There are different modes coming through in the book, aren’t there?

PG: Quite a few. Am I right in thinking there’s an element of randomization and fragmentation?—You kind of throw the whole deck of cards up in the air just to see how it will arrange when it comes down?

Colin Browne: There is fragmentation, but not randomization. One must be vigilant when it comes to preemptive patterns of language trying to assert themselves.

PG: A phrase that comes to mind, I don’t know from where, is an uncoupling from meaning —

Colin Browne: Or, perhaps, Keats’ idea of negative capability. You place yourself where you’re outside an irritable, nagging need to make sense of things, and then change position quickly and often. You allow phenomena to reveal themselves without trying to categorize them. This is not to say that a poem does not have an argument; it must. It must also be alive to its present, it must not be illustrative, it must take risks, it must drill fiercely through the ongoing calcification and highjacking of even the most progressive ideas. I like a poem that is always on the edge of escaping itself.

* * *

Colin Browne: here’s a lot of rewriting in the long poems. Those three line stanzas—it’s a bit like cinching a horse. I have the three lines and once they’re “in place” I want to keep the stanzas intact. If I change the words within the stanza, I may still want the same words at the end of the line or the beginning of the next line.

PG: There’s nothing arbitrary about it?

Colin Browne: It’s a narrative poem, but I come to like where the lines begin and end, I’m very conscious of the words or sounds that conclude the lines, and how they move to the next line down. This may be a game I play, but then whatever I’m going to add or change has got to fit into the stanza. That’s where the cinching comes in. It creates a language that is tighter and more sprung. All those prose-like lines are all carefully cinched in.

PG: There’s also a collage of different experiences. You mentioned a plane flight to New York. What governs the flow of that of one thing into another? Is there a conscious composition at work there?

Colin Browne: The poem began on a flight to New York. That flight is the present of the poem through which Marge’s story, and the memories, thoughts and layers generated by the text began to flow. Olean is a place name I saw on the screen on the seat back in the aircraft— we were flying over a place called Olean. It was identified as an Indian Reservation and that made me think, “Okay, now I know whose home we’re flying above.” We were close to Chicago, which reminded me of the horses sent overseas in the First World War, and that took me to the composer Elgar writing about horses. Although these unfortunate horses don’t really fit in terms of telling Dick Ritchie’s story, their presence will resonate later when you realize that the British-Indian expeditionary force was transporting enormous cartloads of feed for the horses, mules and camels transporting the army north toward Baghdad. These horses come in later as resonant fragments.

* * *

Colin Browne: The “shovel” carries the reader through the book. The earth is a grave. Our end is the shovel. The shovel is the humble device which builds and buries, which cuts, which kills…

PG: … which is the agent of colonialism…

Colin Browne: …and the digger for water. The shovel is the agent. When I wrote, “The book is a shovel,”—it seemed to me to be correct. Before literacy, you had to maintain the graves of your ancestors, and, implicitly, their stories, their lineages, their lives. With the development of printing and bookmaking technologies you no longer needed to live near your ancestors’ graves; you could travel. You could in, a sense, carry the graves of your ancestors with you. Their memory—their names and stories, their city’s and their nation’s stories—could be transmitted typographically. Culture—which depends on a profound and continuous relationship with one’s ancestors and with one’s ancestral territory—became portable. There is a tribe of us wandering the earth with books under our arms, books filled with the graves of our ancestors. In our journeying we’ve cut ourselves loose from their graves and the practices associated with them. Many of us have pulled ourselves away from that world. I recently spent two years working on and off with First Nations people on Vancouver Island. I wanted to make a film that exposed the wanton destruction by subdivisions, resorts and golf courses of sacred burial sites. (Eventually the film was shelved.) I was invited to various locations, and was deeply moved to learn a little bit about what it means to live among one’s ancestors; it occurred to me that the majority of the people in the world share their daily lives with their ancestors. It was a humbling thought. We travelled one day to one of the gravesites, and as we motored south in a boat from Chemainus my guide pointed to and named every beach and headland along the way. He told me who’d lived there in the not-so-old days, and who was still present. He told me the name of each place, and translated the names for me. He created in my mind a map that has never existed on paper, a vital map of lived lives. This is what I’m trying to do with my poems — to make a map that doesn’t yet exist, but is there nevertheless. This is why I invite so many disparate elements to flow through these poems, to create resonance. To witness, on multiple, intersecting levels. In The Shovel, there’s a list at the end of “Naughts and Crosses” which catalogues the Royal Navy’s means of surveillance of Cowichan villages in the nineteenth century…

PG: …the list of gunboats…

Colin Browne: …yes. You might think there were, perhaps, one or two naval ships in the area threatening the Cowichans. Then you add them all up… Does the thought of state terrorism come to mind?

There’s a map, but we’re not seeing it.

Peter Grant is an historian and poet who lives in Victoria, BC.