Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Former poet laureate not yet ready to rest on his laurels

The writer George Bowering poses for his wife Jean Baird in a photograph she titled, "Geezer at Giza."

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
April 20, 2011


The writer George Bowering puts the pro in prolific.

At 75, the poet, critic, playwright, essayist, and novelist continues to crank out works of merit with astonishing regularity.

He is “author of about a bazillion books,” notes New Star Books, one of his several houses, “virtually all of them good-to-excellent.”

On Thursday, he will receive the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, an honour bestowed in part for his “remarkable literary output.”

He has more than 80 titles to his credit, and counting.

In the past 18 months, he has had published The Box (a collection of stories); Horizontal Surfaces (criticism); A Little Black Strap (a chapbook); My Darling Nellie Grey (a book-length poem); and, The Heart Does Break, an anthology of Canadian writing on grief and mourning co-edited with his wife, Jean Baird.

Two more titles are to be published later this year — Pinboy, a comic memoir about his sexual coming-of-age in the Okanagan, and Diamond Alphabet, a collection of essays about baseball, a Bowering obsession.

Where does he find the time?

“What I’ve done most of my life is not have a social life,” he said. “My social life is mostly made up of going to baseball games and poetry readings. That’s about it. So, I get to write books.”

Mr. Bowering has been on the road in recent days to promote the B.C. Book Prizes with readings in Kamloops, Kelowna and Vernon. He will return home to Vancouver to receive his latest literary gong at a gala. He is also nominated in the poetry category for Nellie Grey, but he has yet to win a B.C. Book Prize and is not expecting to break his streak this week.

On hot summer days, Mr. Bowering can be found hollering from the grandstand behind home plate at Nat Bailey Stadium. The management of the Vancouver Canadians, the local minor-league baseball team, has designated the poet their Official Loudmouth Fan, as he is described on business cards which he distributes to headache-enduring seatmates.

It is an honour he seems to relish as much as having been named Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate in 2002.

Baseball cranks like trivia and statistics, so here’s some about Mr. Bowering. He was the first writer in English to receive a Governor General’s Award in both poetry (Rocky Mountain Foot, The Gangs of Kosmos, 1969) and fiction (Burning Water, 1980). (The achievement was later matched by Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.) He co-founded a literary journal called TISH, a cheeky anagram. He writes so much that Roy Miki’s annotated bibliography of the Bowering canon ran more than 401 pages. And it was published 22 years ago. Mr. Bowering has played sandlot baseball for such amateur teams as the Zunks, the Paperbacks, and the Granville Grange Zephyrs, a career described in his 2006 memoir Baseball Love.

Mr. Bowering considers himself to be the utility infielder of the Canadian literary world.

“I write just about every kind of book there is — novels and histories and poetry and non-fiction, baseball. So, I can play a little bit of shortstop, a little bit of first base, a little bit of second, etc.”

Mr. Bowering likes to tell a story.

He is traveling across the continent with Ms. Baird a few years back. The pins on their map include such baseball hot spots as Idaho Falls, Idaho,and Bozeman, Mont. They make a quick detour north for a reading at Moose Jaw, Sask. On returning to the frontier, they stop at a building no larger than a shack with a crossing-gate arm barring their entry to the United States.

They have not seen another car for an hour. With the car engine turned off, it is a moment of great prairie stillness in the midday summer heat.

After a minute, a door at the shack swings open and a uniformed border guard steps up to the car.

What is your citizenship? Canadian.

Where do you reside? Ontario.

What is your occupation?

Mr. Bowering glances at his companion before looking back at the guard.

He has been waiting for just this moment.

“I am the Poet Laureate of Canada,” Mr. Bowering bellows.

Please step out of the car, sir.

The guard roots through the trunk, spots a cardboard box.

What’s in there?

My latest book, Mr. Bowering replies.

He opens the box, hands the guard a copy. It is a re-issue of Baseball, a book-length poem originally published by Coach House Press back in Centennial Year. It is thin. It has a green cover. It is also triangular, shaped to look like a baseball pennant.

The guard turns it over in his hands, like a piece of contraband.

He says, “You call this a book?”

Everyone’s a critic.

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