Saturday, August 15, 2009

Phyllis Webb

I have just acquired a copy of Phyllis Webb's Wilson's Bowl.

Selections from "Letters To Margaret Atwood"
Peggy they say yours is an 'astonishingly cruel talent" and that you have very little love for anything. They are wrong...

Dear Peggy: I have news for you. The Stone Angels are crumbling in the cemetery. The Ice Virgins melted last year and became a deep pool of rainbow trout which they are trying very hard to love...

Peggy: Sometimes I hear you screaming between the paragraphs and poems. That doesn't really bother me. Screams should be heard and not seen...
And from "The Bowl"
This is not a bowl you drink from
not a loving cup
This is meditation's place
cold rapture's.
Moon floats here
belly, mouth, open one-eye
any orifice
comes to nothing...
You can find a copy of the original broadside printed by Oolichan Books, Lantzville (Hi Ron!). The poems of Webb's that I'm most familiar with don't come until the mid-80s. Particularly the ghazals, or anti-ghazals as she called them:

I watch the pile of cards grow.
I semaphore for help (calling the stone-dead John Thompson).

A mist in the harbour. Hydrangea bloom turns ink.
A game of badminton, shuttlecock, hitting at feathers!

My family is the circumstance I cannot dance with.
At Banff I danced in black, so crazy, the young man insisting.

Four or five couplets trying to dance
into Persia. Who dances in Persia now?

A magic carpet, a prayer mat, red.
A knocked off head of somebody on his broken knees.

Phyllis Webb, from Water & Light

The 70s was in fact a decade that saw only the publication of a collected, but what seems to have been happening during that time is a relocation and shifting. A move to the west? A movement toward poetry's sister art. Well, I have my reading cut out for me, and hoping that you do to, which is why I offer this taste of Webb today.

Here is an annotated lecture on Webb, bare bones indeed, but useful, and here is a link to Phyllis Webb and the Common Good: Poetry/Anarchy/Abstraction, Talon Books, by Stephen Collis, recently published and on my list of books to read. An interesting discussion by Pauline Butling in Seeing in the dark: the poetry of Phyllis Webb, in which she explores the possible reasons for Webb's lack of critical reception, a lack of "egotistical self," a lack of "individualism" and other essentialist epithets. Sadly I don't have Butling's book and need to find it.

There is an essay by Liza Potvin online that traces Webb's developing feminism:
Once she dismissed Buddhism and any notion of a transcendent truth, Webb severed all attachment to organized religion:

My antagonism toward conventional religions of all kinds is focussed on the patriarchal structure. I don't want to become more involved with that, thank you. I want to become less involved. (Wachtel 13)

Webb next shifted her allegiance to feminism, which seems to have replaced religion for her; she states that she was "intuitively" a feminist as early as the 1950s:

But I never questioned the patriarchal order when I was at the beginning of my writing life. I was surrounded by all these super-brilliant men and they allowed me in. It didn't feel sexist at the time. But now when I look back on the way that the history of Canadian literature has been written, it's been documented mainly by Frank Scott and A.J.M. Smith themselves and they have created their own little history . . . I lost my father through divorce at an early age so I gravitated to men, to fatherly figures. (Wachtel 13-14)

The reader of Webb's poetry sees her gradually shedding her privileged position in the patriarchal world, needing the approval of fatherly figures less and less. The move away from fatherly literary figures is paralleled by Webb's loss of interest in God the Father, described in her poetry as a kind of death.

I also found this little bit of trivia:
In 1982, because Wilson's Bowl (1980) had failed to win even a nomination for the Governor General's Award, a group of poets led by Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, bpNichol, and P.K. Page, collected $2,300 which they sent to Webb, stating that "this gesture is a response to your whole body of work as well as to your presence as a touchstone of true good writing in Canada, which we all know is beyond awards and prizes. --John F. Hulcoop.
Finally I have to post part two of this interview Webb did with Nichol and bill bisset--looks more like 60s--and who knew Webb was so hot? My god. They're all compelling, yes. Fresh faced boys. Here is part one (thanks to Peter Culley). Oh, and apparently one needed to smoke in order to write...or move for that matter.


Amanda said...

i'm really enjoying this series. thanks for writing and posting it.

Lemon Hound said...

Hi Amanda,
Thanks for saying so. Such a silence out there.

anneswannellart said...

L.H. Could you please, please post part 2 of the webb/nichol/bisset interview ?

And maybe you could tell us where you got it ? Phyllis tells me that this is only 1 program of a 13-part series she did for CBC in 1967. I"d like to see them all....Leonard Cohen and Gwendolyn MacEwan et al!
Anne Swannell

Lemon Hound said...

I wish I had the entire 13 part series, I would post it all. The two parts are available on youtube, which is where I got them.

Rob W said...

Hey Sina. Just found this interview. Awesome stuff. Thanks!