Illustration by: Ann Mikolowski

Borderlines 1960/70

by Richard Hornsey, 2003

During 1967, Canada celebrated its 100th Anniversary with "Expo" in Montreal and a national outpouring of cultural sentiment that verged upon patriotic frenzy. Canadians were refreshingly proud of themselves, sure that they, for the first time perhaps, possessed a unique identity and vitality. This seemed especially evident in the arts - particularly in the growing popularity of their poets. It was also the time of the North American folk-music revival: Gordon Lightfoot in Toronto, Tom Rush in Ottawa, Bob Rozicka in Edmonton, Joni Mitchell and her husband Chuck in Detroit.

Leonard Cohen read and sang his subversive lyrics to hundreds of twenty-year-olds at the Expo Youth Pavilion with incense tapers glowing in the darkness. Irving Layton outraged embarrassed parents whose sons and daughters were reading the social diatribes and the sexually explicit love poems which were ironically making him a household name, and the little, personalized, sometimes mimeographed pamphlets and poetry "magazines" which had begun to appear here and there across the country a few years earlier were drawing writers together into a community of correspondents who could encourage the exchange of ideas and publish one another's work. Smart editors tried to be deliberately controversial without taking themselves too seriously. Generating interest was what they cared about. Ray Fraser, for example, published his little magazine Intercourse for two years in the 60's with a reply page for readers' responses to the question: "What do you think of Intercourse?" Those who read it, including well-known Americans and established Canadian poets such as Earle Birney, replied that they would subscribe to it as long as they were able.

Such enthusiasm was present across the country in publications sponsored by, or in association with, the universities: Canadian Literature and Tish in British Columbia, Alphabet from London Ontario, Quarry from Queen's University at Kingston, and The Fiddlehead from the University of New Brunswick at Fredericton in the far east among them. However, it was the young people, often on the periphery of academia, who seemed to provide the poetic energy of the 1960's. In this regard none were more active than those in Windsor, which shared the river at the Michigan border. There, in 1967, while Canada celebrated its confederation, the streets of Detroit were snapping with gunfire and neighborhoods burned in an explosion of rebellion which had been smoldering with America's cities for many years.

This was the particular cultural atmosphere in which Windsor writers lived during the 1960's. For them, unlike most others in Canada, the America to the north was a fact - a reality one could see and hear just across the river. Canadians were closer to the city center than Americans in the suburbs. They knew it personally. If, however, Canadians were at all smug with their own sense of peace and serenity, the Western Separation movement and the F.L.Q. soon changed that. Just thirty-six months later Pierre Trudeau invoked The War Measures Act, sending military troops into Montreal and Quebec City to crush those bent on destroying the confederation so recently celebrated.

In the early 1960s, poetry readings were held and music was played at The Purple Onion near Brush and John R Streets; Verne's Bar over on Forest between Cass and Woodard, the Classmate and The Raven Gallery. Windsor held them at The House of Ameen, The Blue Banana, and later at The Dominion House, as well as occasionally at Willistead Art Gallery or Peter Ryan's Shop on Goyeau across from the tunnel entrance.

Most of the writers were influenced by the current trends, of course. The University of Windsor's Eugene McNamara, now Professor Emeritus, had arrived from Chicago in 1959. He became a mentor, whose interest in the writing style of Charles Olson and Robert Creeley showed young poets the value of the short line based upon breathing used in ordinary speech. This led to a minimalist technique, which proved very helpful in developing the concrete image, short phrase and concentrated expression rather than the long adjectival line. The poems themselves, however, were often romantic in inspiration, emphasizing individual emotional responses to general social circumstances as well as internal exploration of personal human relationships - sexual, familial, social, and otherwise. Often the poems were confessional. Here, for example, is McNamara's "The World Transformed By Joy" from the April 1969 issue from Mainline:

…What is it I wonder
that makes a stone hard
defiant to the touch
or water so yielding?

And the air-
delicate, quick, or drab
why does it please us?

And I wonder about
bread rising
and a child's dreaming
shouts in the alley
trains in the mountains
yearning to me

And the gift of you
how you surround me
and make all this new.

Romantic and confessional; tender and caring. What he taught at the time -"not my best work" he would say now, but such a good way to lead toward economy, sincerity and grace. Be he was not a "pied piper."

Writers at the time followed their own directions as well; Len Gasparini, founder of Mainline and now reviewing books for the Toronto Star, compelled by poetry then, took his from Irving Layon, Charles Bukowsky, John Keats; Dorothy Farmiloe's toughness came from deaths in the family, the woods of Northern Ontario, or the immediacy of domestic life. Social worker Don Polson, one for the most sensitive artists, admired the now forgotten banker-poet Raymond Souster as well as Alden Nowlan.

By 1966, John Ditsky and Joyce Carol Oates had arrived in Windsor from the University of Detroit; Peter Stevens from the University of Saskatchewan with his continuing editorship of Canadian Forum came in 1969 with Alistair MacLeod who, by way of Cape Breton, St. Francis Xavier, Notre Dame, and the University of Indiana at Fort Wayne, began establishing himself as one of the best teaching writers that Canada has ever produced.

It is interesting to note the many direct ways in which Detroit and the U.S. in general were part of the subject matter of Canadian poetry at the border. Those, however, are part of the overall emphasis upon urban subject matter and the "angst" associated with city life. The bucolic poems, of which there are many, suggested a need for escape to the freedom of backyard gardens, the rooftops, the woodlots and open spaces which were never far away. But simple, even mundane, observations such as the following by John Grube seemed somehow important: There is a cafeteria/opposite The Detroit Institute of Arts./ A lad I met there introduced me to his friends./ It was a remarkable evening./ He had been convicted of armed robbery/ and was a part-time student at Wayne./So were his friends. Perhaps he was also a poet.

The wish was to "get the poem outside" into the streets where it could be read by clerics, teachers, gang members, nuns, factory workers, fishermen, students, or bank robbers. This was the idealism, perhaps, which brought little publications like Mainline into being and encouraged the creation of others. In 1968 C. H. Gervais, who had come from Toronto a few years earlier to meet the "Windsor poets" began his own little magazine, Black Moss, with a similar purpose in mind. He later became the journalist "Marty" Gervais whose Black Moss press still produces at least one book of poems or stories per year from its Windsor office.

Since the 1960s, hundreds of poems, stories, novels and essays have come from the Windsor/Detroit area. The University of Windsor established one of the first creative writing programs in Canada partially because of the accidental convergence of talented academics from both sides of the border who eagerly shared the literary enthusiasms of the local community. McNamara's humorous "manifesto" in the first number of Mainline speaks of the need to "Get Hung Up On Poetry". The belief is that poetry has the power to "change our lives…So that civilization will be more than Pound's few thousand battered books and a few broken statues. Or 'automobile graveyards'." And to make his point more forcefully, he says: "Poets should stand on street corners, thrusting their poems into people's hands, jamming them into their dull mouths…Poetry should be now. It should be throwaway even, stuck under windshields in supermarkets, neon plazas, glued to billboards, read on the radio between hard rock solos…There should be readings in Laundromats, during lunch hours in factories, in bars before closing time and on the curb outside, after."

One laughs at the hyperbole - but the sincerity of purpose is evident: art should be experienced by everyone whether they like it or not. Pedestrians should be dragged up the stairs of the Detroit Institute of Arts and forced to view the ballerinas of Degas. The 1960's and 70's were confusing, complicated years for everyone: sadness, joy, affection, hatred, pacifism, and violence were all part of the international mixture out of which local writers tried to make art. Many of them did then and continue to do so now along both shores of the river which separates and joins them.

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