Writings / Essay

*Andrew Suknaski, Poet of the Prairies

Rob Mclennan
lanterns dealing with metaphysical concerns (where reality begins, or ends). only creative writing course ever taken – sometime in the late sixties, a UBC seminar “… man, you young city poets wanna know where reality begins? you oughta go out there in the wilderness, a while – where the batteries in your flashlight slowly go dead … where your horses slowly die, one by one, while your lantern falls apart … then maybe you’ll know what survival is all about” said the wilderness poet/guest – bushed after merely an hour of ramblings by the naïve students. in my good student nigger’s [sic] silence, i agreed – even though seven students suicided that year at the university, which finally led me to wonder about the relativity of the places we inhabit – in our mind, or actually out there in a physical geography we see. wondered about survival, the temptations of the wilderness beyond the last city bus stop, and the journey home. i don’t know … but am grateful for the poem, ken. the poem leading me home (“… back to the simplest things last of all” as charles olson said – a simple, ordinary truth … far from simple, once you get into it).

– andrew suknaski, october 28/77, st john’s college

Known for over three decades as "the poet of Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan," Andrew Suknaski was born on a farm near Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan in 1942 of Ukrainian and Polish decent, left home at 16, returned and left home again. This binary of travel repeated over the next twenty years of his life, before he finally to Regina, and then to a group home in Moose Jaw in the late 1980s. In the years that followed his first departure, he worked as a migrant worker, travelled through Europe and Australia, and attended Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, eventually falling under the wing of Vancouver poet Earle Birney. He also studied at the Kootenay School of Art in the British Columbia interior, as well as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Art and Design. Through heavy amounts of publishing in small press publications and elsewhere starting in the late 1960s, as well as his own Elfin Plot Press, he caught the eye of Ontario poet and editor Al Purdy, who included Suknaski's poems in his first Storm Warning Anthology (1970), before editing what would become Suknaski's first trade and most famous poetry collection, Wood Mountain Poems (1976). He was the subject of a documentary film by Harvey Spak for the National Film Board, and was writer-in-residence at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg in 1978. Anyone in the prairies older than their mid-40s not only knows of the work of Andrew Suknaski, but might even consider him an influence, through years of his work being taught from out-of-date anthologies. Until his first trade collection Wood Mountain Poems, edited by Al Purdy for MacMillan, was reissued by Regina's Hagios Press as a thirtieth anniversary edition in 2006, almost everything of Suknaski's had long been out of print. Working through Andrew Suknaski's poems, the collection Wood Mountain Poems wasn’t a beginning, as many readers have come to see it, but almost a mid-point in his writing career, moving into text and away from the visual poems that made up a large part of his first decade. Still, despite his years of producing visuals and chapbooks and publishing and distributing across the country, the first few lines of his long poem "Homestead, 1914 (Sec. 32, TP4, RG2, W3RD, Sask.)," the first poem in Wood Mountain Poems, and reprinted innumerable times in anthologies (much the way George Bowering's poem "grandfather" had been, from a decade earlier), was the first, and sometimes only reflection that any reader saw of the work of Andrew Suknaski.

for the third spring in a row now
i return to visit father in his yorkton shack
the first time i returned to see him
he was a bit spooked
seeing me after eleven years –
a bindertwine held up his pants then
that year he was still a fairly tough little beggar
and we shouted to the storm fighting
to see who would carry my flightbag across the cn tracks
me crying: for chrissake father
lemme carry the damn thing the
train’s already too close
!

For years starting in the late 1960s and further into the 1980s, Andrew Suknaski was one of the most prolific, energetic and influential poets in the prairies, travelling and writing, making poems out of drawings and words and cigar tubes and kites, and producing chapbooks and magazines as he went. What happened, you might ask? He was a combination of friend and contemporary, student and mentor to more than one generation of writer across the country, including Eli Mandel, Barry McKinnon, Gary Hyland, John Newlove, Patrick Lane, Al Purdy, Kristjana Gunnars, Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch, Mick Burrs, Dennis Lee, Tim Lander, Mike Olito, Robert Currie, Catherine Hunter, Jars Balan, bill bissett, bpNichol, George Morrissette, Stephen Scobie, Smaro Kamboureli, Linda Rogers and so many others. As an author, he produced eight trade poetry collections and dozens of chapbooks; as a publisher, dozens more. Suknaski's poems were written as stories about the land and the people that lived there, working their way toward myth, and the myth of the place, even as he told the "real story" of various residents of the village of Wood Mountain. Like his friend John Newlove, Suknaski was one of the first too write any stories about the Native peoples in that part of the country, well before it would have been considered "voice appropriation," and helped more than a few other writers open up to tell their own stories down the road. There is a particular kind of deceptively simple prairie plainspeak that Suknaski seemed to perfect in his poems, and one that is repeated by many of the writers that came after him, but often without the kind of nuance that Suknaski was known for, through his series of seemingly endless departures and returns. As Scobie wrote in the introduction to Suknaski's previous selected poems, The Land They Gave Away (1982):

Suknaski has had an immense influence upon the development of Prairie poetry over the last ten years. This "anecdotal" style has become an orthodoxy, and, in the hands of less skillful writers, a cliche. Suknaski's best work retains the energy and vitality of the speech he is quoting - but the danger of the style is that the poetic rhythms will go flat and dull, producing only some mildly interesting short stories which might just as well be told in prose.

His poems reference a world that no longer existed, as well as skim a series of worlds, at the time of his writings, sat on the edge of becoming history. In the poem "Ajiman" from The Land They Gave Away, he wrote of the Ojibway keeping alive the memory of something by not calling it destroyed, but simply saying that it no longer existed, and thus keeping it alive through memory, and its own absence:

the floating stone
that still
teaches
deadringing

for what no longer
exists
though still
remains
in living
memory…

Suknaski's poems continually return to that edge to acknowledge the stories around him that might otherwise have been lost, writing of his own family histories and those of friends and neighbours, to various of the other nations and nationalities around him, including the immediate Sioux (ever aware of his immigrant guilt), the Chinese, Polish and Ukrainian immigrants, and various others of the native peoples. It is important to note that the word "honour" is repeated throughout his poems, as is the word "remember." Suknaski does remember, including stories of Big Bear, Sitting Bull and Crowfoot, Gabriel Dumont and the Teton Sioux, much in the way other writers, such as his friend, the poet John Newlove also did, another Saskatchewan poet who left the land, but, unfortunately, was unable to return (he considered himself a Saskatchewan poet for the rest of his life). For Suknaski, perpetually leaving and returning, the land itself is important to him, from his father and mother as well as the physicality of his home base of Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan (elevation 1,013 metres), close to the Cypress Hills (the highest point between Labrador and the Rocky Mountains), site of the infamous Cypress Hills massacre.

The question any book such as this is forced to answer is, does a selected poems work as a "best of" what the particular poet had published throughout their career, or does it work from a series of threads, of range moving through their poems over the space of years and various collections? The selection There Is No Mountain: Selected Poems of Andrew Suknaski moves from his early years as a concrete/visual poet through his seminal collection Wood Mountain Poems, and further, through a selection of poems that found their ways into magazines and anthologies by the end of his writing career, but had not yet been collected in book form. I wanted to show the range of Suknaski's concerns throughout his writing life, broader perhaps than the selection friend and editor Stephen Scobie made for his first selected poems, The Land They Gave Away (1982). Even just from his published work, that's a lot of material to go through. Since he self-produced his own collection of selected visual poems in 1976, publishing Writing on Stone: poemdrawings 1966-76 the same year Wood Mountain Poems appeared, it seemed reasonable to simply take him at his word, and include it here as a whole. It always begs the question, was his selected visuals named after Writing-on-Stone national park in southern Alberta, or did one have nothing to do with the other? One of the first concrete/visual poets of the prairies, he also had work in John Robert Columbo’s anthology New Directions in Canadian Poetry (1971) along with Steve McCaffery, Judith Copithorne, David UU, bill bissett and bpNichol, among others, and was part of the four poet Four Parts Sand (1971), publishing the visual works of Suknaski, bill bissett, Judith Copithorne and Earle Birney. As Columbo wrote to introduce Suknaski’s section of visual pieces, “Under the title ‘Elfin Plot Publications,’ Suknaski has moved poetry into non-poetic areas. He has turned poems into kites and flown them; he has made ‘poem candles’ and left them to burn on beaches; he has placed poems in cannisters and abandoned them in mountain passes; and he has folded poems into paper airplanes and dropped them from real airplanes flying at a height of ten thousand feet.” As he says himself, far from simple, once you get into it.

Readers of Suknaski might notice that I deliberately didn’t select from two of his trade collections, his Montage for an Interstellar Cry (Winnipeg MB: Turnstone Press 1982) and Silk Trail (Toronto ON: Nightwood Editions, 1985). There are a few reasons for that, including that they were each built as book-length poems, making them hard to select from, as well as that they're both actually still in print, making them easily available to interested readers. A further publication, Octomi (1976), wasn’t included for the same reasons of length and space, making it difficult to excerpt from. Another reason is that they are both part of an unfinished project Suknaski was working on called "Celestial Mechanics," a multiple volume piece, and the unit as a whole might even be worth making into it's own single volume at some point further down the road. Another reason could be that this book was hard enough to keep to the length it already is, without adding more text from yet another book and another book; there is so much material of Suknaski's to go through. On the other hand, I did select from an unpublished manuscript rescued a few years ago from Suknaski's archive by poet and critic Nathan Dueck, his suicide notes, abandoned (c. 1977), a fragment of which appeared as a very early chapbook before he abandoned the project altogether. For the "uncollected" section, I decided to focus only on poems that had seen print, as opposed to what sits in multiple and varied versions in his archive at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg; that could be it's own project, and too large to even begin to enter for the sake of a selected; still, the poems that make up the "floating entries" all seem to be part of that unfinished "Celestial Mechanics" project, that hopefully might see its way into being, if not completed, but at least built into a whole from whatever disperate parts already exist.

There is a line by Eurpides that the late poet Irving Layton referenced when he wrote his "Birthday Poem for John Newlove" that could also apply to Andrew Suknaski, writing "Whom the gods do not intend to destroy / they first make mad with poetry." In her piece "Essay Parcels from Andrew Suknaski" from the anthology Trace: Prairie Writers on Writing (1986), prairie writer Kristjana Gunnars wrote of receiving dozens of packages of poems and bread (made from the ash of Suknaski burning his papers) from Suknaski, the bulk of which she couldn’t even bring herself to open, writing "The artist is a poet. It was as I had feared. The artist was mad." In a piece that doesn’t really show the best side of either, she starts the short piece with:

It was April when the parcels started arriving. The snow was melting. Yellow grass could be seen by the fence. I went home after work one evening. Opened the screen door. Two large thin parcels fell to my feet. The postman hid them between doors.

I did not open the parcels. They went into the basement. Next day four cards in the mailbox. Four more parcels at the St. Norbert post office. I picked them up. Not because I wanted them, but because of the Francophone clerk. He was so excited.

Those parcels went into the car trunk. There they stayed, unopened. When the warm weather came a great perfumed smell arose from one of the packages. When I got into the car it made me think of a field of tulips in Amsterdam.

Andrew Suknaski once said that he got the same amount for his papers that his father got for the homestead (where Suknaski's sister is still buried), a total of five thousand dollars for each. When he began having difficulties in the 1980s, he joined a select group of Canadian writers, poets considered the best at their craft, who, for whatever reason, had stopped writing (or at least, stopped publishing), including Montreal poets Peter van Toorn and the late Artie Gold, the late Toronto poet Ed Lacey, British Columbia poet David Phillips, and Ottawa poet William Hawkins. Over the last twenty years or so, Suknaski has lived in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, not far from his original home of Wood Mountain, and not far from his friend Gary Hyland, who looks after his affairs. It has been said that there will be no other poems, which is disappointing, but one could argue that there are certainly enough poems in Suknaski's archive at the University of Manitoba that simply haven’t been dealt with yet that at least a combination of some other uncollected and/or unseen poems are certainly possible. He might not be well enough to write, but certainly he's well enough to read, and I can only hope that this collection can help to remind him of the best of those days writing Wood Mountain, knowing that a potential new generation of readers can be brought along with him for the experience.

* This is an original introduction to the publication of Suknaski poems, There Is No Mountain: Selected Poems of Andrew Suknaski (Ottawa: Chaudiere Books, 2010).

About The Author

Author

Rob Mclennan was born and lives in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city. The author of some twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections Gifts (Talonbooks), A Compact of Words (Salmon Poetry, Ireland), Kate Street (Moira, Chicago) Wild Horses (University of Alberta Press) and a second novel, Missing Persons (The Mercury Press). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), Seventeen Seconds: A Journal of Poetry and Poetics

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