A major windstorm and ensuing power outages have put me behind schedule and I’m still recovering from, and cleaning up after Saturday’s festivities, a tribute to Irving Layton as part of nationwide and international centenary celebrations. We celebrated my birthday as well, still substantially less than 100 years ago, and it was quite the bacchanalia, entirely fitting we all agreed. I made cassoulet, Thesa (Pakarnyk) brought butter chicken and Kyle (Hawke) brought a huge, fantastic pumpkin cake in the shape of a book, left page with Layton’s The Improved Binoculars painted upon maple icing, the right with the title poem from my book, Three Blocks West of Wonderland. I can’t stop eating the damn thing! I must stop eating the damn thing!
And I must confess it was for sentimental reasons that I hosted the event. Or perhaps pure nostalgia. As a teenager, Irving Layton was one of the poets who inspired me to write and then I met his son Max one summer while hitchhiking all over BC with my best friend Cathy. We were so resourceful, I swear I left with $50 and returned with $50. And I can’t believe we did that. Survived! Ah, the resiliency of youth, and if I believed in the supernatural, I’d swear that we’re blessed with guardian angels.
So the two of us wound up in Campbell River once. I recall meeting a crew of boisterous loggers in the bar. Are they called crews? Anyway, the lot of them snuck us into camp and brought us heaping plates of steak and potatoes. We were always hungry. A handsome, talented young man appeared and serenaded us on guitar. A romantic figure, Max Layton grew up surrounded by artists and poets including Leonard Cohen, who gave him guitar lessons in exchange for one of his mother Betty Sutherland’s paintings. I never saw him again but thanks to social networking, Max and I reconnected. When he told me about the centenary, I was happy to participate, to gather with friends on Bowen Island, across Canada and around the world paying homage to an icon of Canadian literature.
Irving Layton may have been a bohemian, an advocate of sexual freedom, but let’s face it, the guy haboured a very bad attitude toward women. But, all grown up now I’m able to separate the man from the work, the poet from politics. I love his way with words, his lust for life. As with many other male writers–Henry Miller only one of my guilty pleasures—I must pacify my inner feminist for I am a sucker for language, its power. And obviously I’m a sucker for silver-tongued devils and troubadours.
I read from the same book I had back in high school, Periods of the Moon. I am no less passionate about poetry and Cathy is still my best friend. Some things endure, the important things, like love and literature.
A lively group from various backgrounds, we featured a mix of Bowen Island and Vancouver poets and writers. Dennis E. Bolen is primarily a novelist but writing his autobiography in verse. He observed that he couldn’t lift the cake, so read what is perhaps Layton’s most famous work, The Improved Binoculars in his inimitable way and then If I Lie Still.
Bowen Island poet Lisa Shatsky’s first collection Do Not Call Me By My Name on Black Moss Press came out last year. She shared how Al Purdy introduced her to Layton’s work after meeting him in Montreal at the age of 18, having snuck into a bar. She pondered over Layton’s depictions of women, decided to find a poem that she actually liked and then write one in response. There was a lot of banter between audience and poet at this shindig; Julie (Vik) asked her how long it took to find one. Lisa said Berry Picking jumped out at her and read it beautifully. Her Letter to Irving Layton succinctly addressed his misogyny. Women as “muse and executioner at the same time . . . You must have longed to be delicate in another’s hand” and imagined meeting him at an outdoor café. She nailed it.
Sylvia Taylor, author of the forthcoming Fisher Queen and ever the teacher brought handouts featuring fifteen of Irving’s pithiest quotes and read Layton’s The Wave. Resplendent in fuscia pink leather Barbie driving gloves that surely would have driven Irving wild, Sylvia said, “To commemorate how he equally adored and despised women.”
In a powerful voice, theatre director Don MacLean delivered one of Layton’s most searing and disparaging-of-poetry-and-poets poems, Whom I Write For.
My friend Thesa Pakarnyk hitchhiked from the ferry to my house with her friend Sabrina Prada (resourceful and independent) read a lovely Thesa poem, African Violets and then in stark contrast, O Jerusalem and Dialogue, both about Layton’s perspective on Christians and Jesus, (sent to her by Max Layton. Again, resourceful girl.) Thesa, a whirling dervish of talent, whose professional work includes animation and music, is currently putting together a live poetry/singing/performance jazz group. I’ll stick out my thumb for that show for sure.
Lastly, and by no means leastly, my dear friend, former band mate and fellow book lover, singer-songwriter extraordinaire Julie Vik surprised us with a reading and related how, like Lisa, she had been turned onto Layton by Al Purdy, who had come to her high school. She delivered On Obsession with aplomb, from a Layton collection she’d had since her teen years.
Then we ate cake! Amongst other things. A fantastic night. A night to remember. A la vida! Long live verse. And versifyers!