By Lesley Kenny
In 1957, Canadian poet Al Purdy and his wife Eurithe Purdy built an A-frame house on the shores of Roblin Lake, in Ameliasburgh, Ontario. Al made it from plans he bought and wood he salvaged and the general consensus is that it was never really finished. There the Purdys entertained some now well-known writers over the years, including Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Laurence, Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood, George Bowering and Lynn Crosbie. The outhouse is said to be inscribed with a literary who’s-who of initials. After Al’s death in 2000, Eurithe eventually put the property up for sale and Jean Baird spearheaded the launch of the Purdy A-Frame Association, a not-for-profit association to raise money to fix up the house and fund a Writer-in-Residence program. The first annual Purdy Picnic was held at the A-frame in 2013.
On January 21st, 2014, the A-Frame Association announced the names of the first seven writers who will take up residency in the much-rehabilitated house, starting this summer. Each resident is awarded a monthly stipend of $2,000 as well as a $500 travel allowance. Residencies vary from one to three months.
CWILA’s first Critic-in-Residence, Sue Sinclair, is among those seven but Toronto poet Katherine Leyton will be the first one in the door.
Congratulations on being the first recipient of the Al and Eurithe Purdy A-Frame Writer-in-Residence award. When Karen Solie made the announcement Monday night, she said that there were many strong applications from across the country. What did the judges say about the work you submitted, and did you have to make a link from Purdy’s work to your own?
They said, somewhat unbelievably to me, that my work is sharp, ingenious, politically charged and personal. I don’t think I had to make a link to Purdy, but I have always been inspired by his work. I like poetry that speaks to the reader’s gut and causes a very visceral reaction – and Al’s work does that very well. That’s what I try to do in my own poetry. I may have said something to that effect, and that his work inspired me in this way. I also have a connection to the area around Ameliasburgh because my mother’s family is from around there and I spent a lot of time there as a child. I feel very connected to the landscape and I think that will have a positive effect on my poetry while I’m there.
How would you describe your poetry?
That’s a really hard question to answer. It’s lyrical and quite sparse. A lot of what I find myself doing is making observations of everyday life — of moments that everyone accepts as normal but where I see something disturbing, or something feels wrong about them. In my poetry I’m often trying to reveal this hyper reality below the surface. That’s why I write a lot about feminist issues because usually what I’m concerned with is that hyper reality of sexism or discrimination in our everyday that we just accept as normal.
Who are the major influences on your own work?
Anne Carson has been a big influence, and Anne Sexton, Michael Burkard, Tomaz Salamun, Eileen Myles. And Sylvia Plath — especially when I was younger.
Would you say that you came to poetry, or that poetry found you?
I would say that poetry found me! I got into it really early, in middle school. I’d always written stories but in middle school we did a unit on poetry and I was basically hooked after that. I stopped writing anything but poetry. Also, music inspired me – as a teenager I always found myself focused on lyrics when I was listening to music and it motivated me to write poetry.
What kept you going as a poet?
I honestly feel crazy sometimes. I would say that I can’t stop and, rationally, I’ve always recognized this wasn’t going to be any sort of lucrative career, if a career at all, but I just couldn’t stop. I also knew I didn’t just want to write it for me, I wanted to write it for others, I wanted that connection. I’ve had every job you can imagine and I’ve never cared about any other work like I’ve cared about poetry. I’ve never cared about working this hard at anything else either.
How did you come to know Purdy’s poetry and what elements of your own work relate or speak to Purdy’s?
I can’t remember how I first came across him. Probably in university. He’d also been mentioned in my family when I was growing up because he was born in the same town my mother grew up in and I believe he went to public school with my grandfather so I was already aware of him through my family.
In terms of how my poetry relates to Purdy’s, I’m aiming for conversational style, that direct conversational style, and I’m not afraid to use language that some people may find offensive, or talk about topics that are a bit gritty.
Purdy was considered “the people’s poet.” He wrote about everyday work life, alienation, moving, trying to settle, making a home. He was also an educated and well-read man, particularly about Canadian history. How would you say your education has influenced both your poetry, and how you think about literature in general?
My undergrad was in English lit. In some ways it was the typical canon – a lot of male authors from a long time ago. It was the same in my other courses as well. I came across it in grad school again. I loved reading these authors, but I think that my own poetry reacts to that. I now read a lot of, probably predominantly, women. I’m interested in exploring less traditional and more subversive forms of expression. I felt pressured when I was younger to write in a certain way – I wouldn’t say it was a masculine way necessarily, but I’d say it was a voice and style influenced by a predominantly male canon. I don’t know that I ever actually was writing that way, but my impression was that it was the way to write. I rebelled against that feeling. I wanted to write in a way that felt more authentic to me.
My education has made me understand literature as a conversation. I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true. Because I experienced, and felt locked out of, so much formal literature, I really wanted my writing to be accessible. This is another reason I love Al. His poetry is filled with wonderful revelations and he made them accessible to everybody. That is definitely something that I strive for in my own poetry. I would like to be speaking to everyone. I really hate that some people seem to be afraid of poetry, or think it’s not for them. I mean, poetry is about the human condition, it has the capacity to make us feel less alone, to connect us. This is why I started my HowPedestrian project, which was an online initiative with videos of people I had accosted in public places throughout Toronto, and then other cities, and asked them to read poems on camera. The idea was to provide the online public with a fun, easy way to explore poetry, while simultaneously making the argument that poetry could still be relevant to the everyday.
Do you think of Purdy’s poetry as being gendered in any particular way?
Some of his poems discuss worlds that are exclusive to men, at least traditionally – seedy bars, drinking beer, violence between men, and a lot of that work is his most famous – “At The Quinte Hotel,” for example. But really, I’d say most of his work is universal.
I don’t think his style is gendered. No matter what his line is like, whether short or long, they have this nice rhythm and they just flow.
What are your thoughts about poetry reviews in Canada, lately, from a political standpoint?
I definitely think there aren’t enough reviews of women’s work. I really think we need more balance there. Reviewing in Canada does seem to be very political. I think a lot of the prominent reviewers that are published in major outlets are male and that’s certainly a problem. I don’t know why more women reviewers aren’t getting the attention they deserve. I don’t have the answers, but something needs to shift.
We are living in very conservative times. Between deep cuts to the Arts as well as to a number of women’s programs, it is, to say the least, a challenging time for women writers in particular. How do you imagine the role of the poet when it comes to these political issues? What role do you think poets, particularly women, can or should play?
I think that poets can play a really important role. I think we can persist in writing about issues that affect women and speak up to defend our role in the arts. That’s going to get harder to do — to get more, and more female voices out there – if arts funding continues to get cut. But we also now have the ability to make our voices heard via the internet and social media – and women are doing that, and are holding members of the literary community accountable for silencing or ignoring women.
Poetry can definitely be political and have a real effect. It doesn’t even have to necessarily be explicitly political.
What will you be working on during your residency at the A-Frame?
A manuscript of poems for my first book. The working title is “Action Figures,” which speaks directly to the content, much of which is about questioning and subverting some of the traditional roles women are scripted to play. It’s not concept-driven though, it’s something that has grown organically from poems I’ve written over the past several years, though some of the same themes definitely appear over and over again.
Do you plan to leave a poem buried in the floorboards of the Purdy A-Frame?
Well I hadn’t thought about it, but now maybe I will!
Katherine Leyton‘s poetry and non-fiction have appeared or are upcoming in The Malahat Review, The Edinburgh Review, Bitch, and This Magazine. She is also the founder of the highly unorthodox poetry blog HowPedestrian.ca. This summer she will be the first Writer-in Residence at the Al and Eurithe Purdy A-Frame. You can read some of her poetry here and here.
Lesley Kenny is a Toronto-based writer. She is a co-editor for Descant literary quarterly, and writes the Descant blog.
Published January 23, 2014