Now retired from teaching in the English department at Capilano University, George Stanley is the author of At Andy’s (New Star, 2000), Gentle Northern Summer (New Star, 1995), Opening Day (Oolichan Books, 1983), The Stick: Poems, 1969-73 (Talonbooks, 1974), You (Poems 1957 - 67) (New Star Books, 1974), A Tall, Serious Girl: Selected Poems 1957-2000 (Qua, 2003), Vancouver: A Poem (New Star, 2008) and After Desire (New Star, 2013). Vancouver: A Poem was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Prize. In 2006, Stanley received the Shelley Memorial Award from the American Poetry Society, and in 2011, The Capilano Review produced their “George Stanley Issue.” His newest collection is North of California St. (New Star Books, 2014).
California St. is one of the major thoroughfares in downtown San Francisco, the city where George Stanley was born in 1934, and left at age 37 to move to Vancouver. Associated with the “San Francisco Renaissance” in poetry, moving in circles that included Jack Spicer, Robert Duncan and Robin Blaser, Stanley had won a reputation as an exciting young poet. But it was his move to Canada, and particularly his fifteen years teaching literature at Northwest Community College in Terrace, BC that marked a profound turn in his poetic practice.
North of California St. collects 53 poems, all written between 1975 and 1999, that mark Stanley’s maturity as a poet. Originally published in four collections, all now out of print — Opening Day, Temporarily (a chapbook; Gorse Press, 1986), Gentle Northern Summer and At Andy’s — the collection includes the Stanley classics “Mountains & Air,” “Raft,” “The Set,” “The Berlin Wall,” “For Prince George,” “Terrace Landscapes,” and the 16–part poem “San Francisco’s Gone,” including “Veracruz.”
this interview was conducted by rob mclennan over email in August-September 2014
Q: I’m very much enjoying North of California St., your new “Selected Poems 1975-1999,” constructed from Opening Day (1983), Temporarily (1985), Gentle Northern Summer (1995) and At Andy’s (2000). How did this project first come about, and who made the selection?
A: Rolf Maurer and i realized that all these books were out of print. Two of them (Gentle Northern Summer and At Andy’s) had gone OP because the back stock had been destroyed by water damage after the firebombing of New Star Books’ warehouse a few years back. Rolf and i each made our initial selections and then compared them and found there was very little disagreement between us. Sharon Thesen, who wrote the introduction, also gave us some input on the final contents.
Q: What was it about these four titles that made them feel like a coherent unit?
A. The poem ‘Opening Day’ was a breakthrough for me; it was the first poem where i began to deal with my life in San Francisco. The book Opening Day, including that poem and the ones where i began to write poems about Vancouver, and then the North, was my first book in ten years, so it is a kind of beginning of a central (chronological) period in my writing. The books after At Andy’s relate more to my post-North years in Vancouver, and they are all still in print.
Q: You famously emerged from, in part, a workshop led by Jack Spicer. What do you think you learned from him, and how much of it still carries through in your writing?
A. Spicer is a great poet, in the same league with Dickinson or Rimbaud. I think i knew that then. The main things i learned from Jack were a) dictation – his version of the muse – listen to the poem coming through to you (like a distant radio station), get all the stuff that you want to be in the poem out of your mind, and (2) the serial poem – which Jack always credited Robin Blaser as being the co-inventor of: ‘a narrative which refuses to adopt an imposed story line, and completes itself only in the sequence of poems’ – Blaser. In the new book, examples of the serial poem are ‘San Francisco’s Gone’ and ‘Mountains & Air,’ and one poem that is completely dictated is part 16 of ‘SF’s Gone’ – ‘Veracruz’.
Q: I’ve heard that “Mountains & Air” also had a great deal of influence from the Canadian iteration of Spicer’s long/serial poem, ie. as practiced at the time by poets such as Fred Wah, George Bowering, bpNichol and Barry McKinnon. What changed with the way you saw a poem once you finally crossed the border north?
A. Well there are several threads in this question. Let me pick them out.
First, i don’t think i’ve really changed the way i see a poem since i began writing poetry under the tutelage of Spicer. Being open to dictation is important to me, but i also do a lot of revision. Spicer once told me there is no conflict between dictation and revision: you may have to revise in order to get the irrelevant stuff of your own that’s in the poem out of the way, so the poem can come through.
Second, i don’t think my poetry has been influenced in any way by Bowering, Wah, or Nichol (although i admire and respect all three). With McKinnon, on the other hand, we have had a close poetic friendship since the 80s – we have seen each other as fellow northerners (this is true as well of my friendship with Sharon Thesen). The relation between Northern BC and Vancouver in poetry is something like that between Scotland and England in literature generally.
Finally, crossing the US/Canada border was no big thing. Vancouver is a city very much like San Francisco or Seattle. I adapted easily. The big change for me was when i went north, and encountered a wholly new world – Canada – that i had to deal with in my poetry. Aboriginal people, bears, fundamentalist Christians, small planes, angry, militant trade unionists, none of which i had ever encountered before. And snow.
Q: What I find interesting is that North of California St. isn’t the first work of yours put together, as Sharon Thesen suggests in her introduction, out of a frustration over a lack of attention to your work. How did your American selected poems, A Tall, Serious Girl: Selected Poems 1957-2000 (2003) that Kevin Davies and Larry Fagin edited, originally come about? And how do you feel now about the collection, more than a decade later?
A: As of June 2011, Craig Watson, publisher of now-defunct Qua Books, reported that 781 copies of A Tall, Serious Girl had been sold. I was surprised at this high figure. ATSG was a true selected, beginning with my juvenilia of the late 1950s (some of which are fine poems, however). The book as i recall was originally an idea of the late Michael Gizzi (who was Watson’s partner in Qua) and i think Fagin and Davies were involved in the early discussions. I was very pleased with it at the time, but i don’t think it has any particular relevance at present. The title came out of a stoned conversation between me and the late Goh Poh Seng – later there was the question of the comma.
Q: That’s a healthy amount of sales, I’d say. And that, paired with the new collection, make for an intriguing overview of your work. What were the arguments for and against the comma? And who won?
A. I think one of the publishers or editors asked me if the comma was necessary. i said yes, since tall and serious are distinct, unrelated concepts – but i don’t know what rule this follows (or breaks).
Q: In the introduction for A Tall, Serious Girl, the editors describe their frustration at your lack of attention in American poetry over the past few decades, citing not only your move north, but your “inexplicable omission” from Donald M. Allen’s The New American Poetry (1960). Given that “The George Stanley Issue” of The Capilano Review in 2011 featured contributions from American poets such as Joanne Kyger, Beverly Dahlen, Lisa Jarnot, Kevin Killian and Michael McClure, you and your work have certainly maintained a series of relationships with at least a certain amount of American readers. What do you feel your current relationship is to American poetry? Do you still consider yourself an American poet, a hybrid American-Canadian or purely a Canadian poet? Does it matter?
A: i’m certainly an American poet (or, as Bowering says, USAmerican). i’ve recently given readings in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Seattle, and just received an invitation to read in New York (which i probably won’t take up, since there’s no travel funding). i’m a BC poet – i was made welcome from the first day i arrived here by the Vancouver poets. i guess i’m now a senior BC poet. But a Canadian poet? i don’t know – what would it take? i had one reading in Toronto in 1973 and i don’t think i’ve been to Toronto since the 70s. iI read in Montreal in the mid-90s. And i received a Canada Council grant in 2011.
Here’s an anecdote, amusing and maybe revealing. Just after arriving in Vancouver in 1971 i applied for a Canada Council grant. That may seem odd, but lots of Americans were arriving in Canada at the time (mostly to escape the Vietnam war and the draft), and applying for grants. The Trudeau government was quite freehanded with grant money at the time. i was short of funds, and my new Vancouver friends said i should apply. i was turned down. Then, a few years later, i met a Toronto writer who told me he had been on the jury that had rejected me. The vote was 2 to 1, and his was the one yes vote. He told me that one of the other jurors, in explanation of his no vote, said the following: ‘It’s OK to be an American, and it’s OK to be from BC – but not both.’
Q: Your Vancouver: A Poem (New Star, 2008) is one of a long line of poetry books on the City of Vancouver, adding to an impressive array of titles from George Bowering’s George, Vancouver (Weed/Flower Press, 1970) and Kerrisdale Elegies (Coach House Press, 1986; Talonbooks, 2008), Michael Turner’s Kingsway (Arsenal Pulp, 1995), Daphne Marlatt’s Vancouver Poems, and Meredith Quartermain’s Vancouver Walking (NeWest Press, 2005) and Nightmarker (NeWest Press, 2008), among so many others. What is it about Vancouver, in your mind, that lends itself to such an array of physical exploration by poets? Were you aware of any of these works when you began your own?
A. i’ve read all these books, as individual works of course, not as examples of a wave or tendency. i don’t think my Vancouver book is indebted to any of them – well, it’s possible Turner’s book and Quartermain’s first book (her second was published the same year as my book) may have given or awakened in me the idea of a poem that takes place on streets. Why is Vancouver thematized in so many poets’ books? i have no ready answer; it’s a question for literary historians.
The main influences on Vancouver: A Poem (apart from its following my own ‘San Francisco’s Gone’), as a poem where lyrical and prose passages are interspersed, are William Carlos Williams’ book-length poem Paterson, and also Baudelaire’s Petits Poemes en Prose, which depicts Parisian scenes in prose poetry.
Q: If, as New Star Books tell us in the press release, North of California St. marks “Stanley’s maturity as a poet,” how would you describe the work you’ve been doing since?
A. Well maturation must be a slow process indeed if it takes till age 80 to get there!
is getting used
to this scattered country.
(‘My New Past,’ c. 1986)
Right now i’m working on a new long poem, ‘West Broadway,’ which is a sequel, or continuation of Vancouver: A Poem. i’m also working on a long poem i wrote in 1971, ‘Against the Moony Night,’ which i thought i’d lost the ms. of, but which turned up a year or so. it’s a pretty good poem. And i’m continuing to do translations (or in Robert Lowell’s sense, imitations), most recently from the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova and from Baudelaire (some of these appeared recently in TCR 3.23). All of this will come together somehow to make a new book, god willing.
rob mclennan is currently working on numerous projects. This is one of them. His most recent titles include A halt, which is empty (Mansfield Press, 2019) and Life sentence, (Spuyten Duyvil, 2019), as well as chapbooks with above/ground press and Anstruther Press.