In the Summer of Bowering, Geist blogger and Poetry Is Dead magazine Editor-in-Chief Daniel Zomparelli reviewed George Bowering's latest poetry collection, My Darling Nellie Grey. The collection is divided into twelve chapters, named for each month of the year, and Zomparelli reviewed one chapter a week all summer long. To finish the summer off, George Bowering agreed to an interview.
One summer afternoon I met with George Bowering for a quick cup of coffee. When I arrived, he was already sitting down, wearing an old Boston Red Sox hat and a motorhead t-shirt. We instantly got to talking, and before I knew it, Mr. Bowering was making fun of me for not knowing all of the cities in interior British Columbia. What ensued was a flash interview, proving his age hasn’t slowed him down.
Daniel Zomparelli: Word on the literary street is that you're a terrible bowler. Is that true?
George Bowering: You've either been talking to my wife or Charles Demers. Charles Demers may have had a better score than me, but I'm a better looking bowler. When I was up there I looked good. And I know how to bet on horses.
DZ: Your style changes in each chapter of My Darling Nellie Grey. It has also changed from book to book during your writing career. Do you think you have stylistically changed over the years as a poet?
GB: I always say once you've done something and it works then don't do it anymore. In My Darling Nellie Grey some of the chapters are maybe extensions of what I've done before, but once I'm done with something I move on. I admire painters who do that, who get a serial going and do everything they can with it, then try something different. I always admired that. I always hated it when creative writing teachers said to find your voice. Worst horse shit I ever heard.
DZ: What are you working on now?
GB: Jack Spicer says you should always work on one thing at a time, but I can never do that. Writing an essay/prose piece on D____ M________'s poetry. [He/She] doesn't know that. I'm trying to destroy a long poem by a French guy you never heard of. Also working on a short story and play. Nothing I can tell you about, but it has nudity, but the nudity has no redeeming quality.
DZ: Do you find it easier to work here or back east?
GB: Makes no difference to me. I'm not one of those types that can carry a notebook around and write. Some poets like Allen Ginsberg would be able to write in cars, but I can't. I never write in airplanes. The only way I could write in airplanes is to write about airplanes in airplanes. Now that's a project.
Main question I ask myself before writing is, "I wonder if I could get away with it?" Some writers approach a topic with, "I wonder what it would be like to go there" but I figure you could just go there. I'd rather not get into that.
DZ: You're a big baseball fan, so who's your favourite baseball team?
GB: Favourite team was the 1948 Red Sox. I love baseball. Jean [George's wife] and I go on baseball trips all the time.
DZ: Where do you two go on baseball trips?
GB: Went to Italy last year, went to see the Maui Warriors this year. We've driven all over the states for baseball games.
DZ: I was recently at a Canadians game and was learning the art of heckling.
GB: George Stanley came up with the rule, "You can holler anything you want at a baseball game." So sometimes we just yell adverbs or prepositions. I want to write more stories and books about baseball but I'm afraid I'll be referred to as that guy who writes about baseball.
DZ: I highly doubt that.
GB: But it's fun. And I should get to have a little fun at this age. I'm not going to write about hockey or the BC Liberal party!
(Jean enters and very cutely interrupts our talk.)
Jean Baird: Do you want to have someone shadow you from the Vancouver Sun during the next Vancouver Canadians game?
GB: Sure, you coming?
JB: Ill come if you stop yelling at Douglas.
GB: He's a great player but has a bad attitude.
(Jean gives George a stern look. She walks to the exit of the coffee shop.)
GB: You been working hard? (yelling after Jean)
(Jean gives another stern look, doesn't answer and walks away.)
GB: I used to like Gordon the best. But now I like the shortstop. He's my favourite. Can't remember his name.
DZ: What advice would you have for young poets?
GB: If you fuck up, screw 'em. Actually I was talking to a 15 year old poet, and the father told me to give him advice, and I said "stop writing poetry and go do something sensible." He'll either stop writing poetry, or continue to write poetry and that's that. Oh, also another piece of advice, read 100 books for every poem … and write a poem every day. Ha!
DZ: In your book My Darling Nellie Grey, did you edit the poems afterward at all?
GB: Some yes, but mainly no, but the most editing I did was for "Montenegro 1966." That was because I was already working off a text. That was my first trip to Europe and I took my typewriter with me, I wrote every day. About 16 to 17 hundred words of prose, two letters, and one page in my journal. So I wound up with a travel book that I never published, but then along came this poem.
DZ: Was there anything else you wanted to be, besides a poet?
GB: There were two things I wanted to be, a professional ball player and a jazz saxophone player. I blew my chance because when I was 14, my cousin died and he was a saxophone player and his mother offered all of his instruments, but I was too upset. Now I wish I had taken her up on the offer. I could'a been a contender.
When I was a young guy at UBC, all us young poets played saxophone, except me, I played the tuba.
(A friend of George's walks by and waves.)
GB: That's a friend of mine from Iran. He's a poet. He was in jail when he was in Iran; now he's trying to learn English and write poetry in English.
DZ: If all the poets in Vancouver were in jail, half of Vancouver would go missing.
GB: Closest I came to going to jail for poetry was at a reading with Al Purdy and Milton Acorn, in a lane in Toronto and it was broken up by RCMP. I think it was around 1968; the reading was supposed to be in a shop but we couldn't have it so we all moved to the lane. I was only in jail a couple times, but it had nothing to do with poetry.
When we finished the interview, we fist punched goodbye. The giant ring on his finger hurt my knuckles, and in an instant, he was gone.
“In the song 'My Darling Nellie Grey', there's a reference to a red canoe. I didn't know that but that's why there's a red canoe on the cover. Now everyone is having red canoes on their covers, but I did it first.”—George Bowering