How We Imagine Ourselves, by Howard White

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"I started incubating a theory of literature which held that mastery of expression could occur as readily in an upcoast bunkhouse as in an ivory tower in some great city in a past age."

—Howard White

At the second Geist Evening of Dinner and Diversion held in February 1994, Howard Whitefounder of Harbour Publishing, author, and Officer of the Order of Canada—gave a talk that Geist later published and which knocked the socks off a good many people. "How We Imagine Ourselves" is one of those pieces of thinking and writing that has never left us—it remains a stunning articulation of why place-based stories are so important to how Canadians understand ourselves.

We are delighted that Geist has given us permission to publish "How We Imagine Ourselves" here. 

*****

When Geist first approached me with the idea of speaking here, I made it known that of all the things I ever wanted to be when I grew up, being an after-dinner speaker was very low on the list. They took this seriously and called me up a few days later to say that they had taken care of the problem by arranging for me to give most of my talk before dinner, which was not quite what I was getting at, but there’s not much I wouldn’t do for Geist.

I grew up in a logging camp in Pender Harbour, B.C.—I want to say that at the outset so people can adjust their expectations—where I wasn’t exposed to that many after-dinner speakers. The general rule in our cookhouse was to get in and get out as fast as possible, and not speak unless you were spoken to.

This is not to say I was without instruction in the effective use of language—there was a great tradition of talk among the loggers of the coast in those days, and few were more adept than my father’s old drink­ing partner, Panicky Bell. Most bush apes gained their reputations by jumping off the tops of spar trees and the like, but Panicky’s feats were all performed with the English language. Once the hiring agency in Vancouver sent in a rookie high-rigger who took so long to climb his first spar tree that everybody on the crew knew before he reached the top that Panicky would be sending him out on the next plane. The guy finally got the top chopped off and while he paused for a breath before climbing the 150 feet back down to the ground, Panicky yelled up to him, “Hey, can you see Vancouver from up there?” The guy peers off into the fog and yells down, “Gee, no I can’t, Mr. Bell.” Panicky yells back, “Well, you’ll see ’er tomor­row.”

People find a logging camp a strange place to breed cultural awareness, and they’re right.

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People find a logging camp a strange place to breed cultural awareness, and they’re right. In many ways I see my struggle as a writer and as a person as a struggle to be able to imagine myself as who I really am rather than the way Madison Avenue or Holly­wood or Toronto or my old schoolteachers imagine me. And I see our struggle as people here in B.C. in the same terms. It is because of our inability to imag­ine ourselves clearly as an equal province of Canada that we continue to get 3 percent of federal spending in this week’s federal budget, instead of the 12 per­cent we deserve, or the 85 percent that goes those two poor have-not provinces, Ontario and Quebec. And it’s our inability to imagine ourselves clearly as a nation that allows us to elect and re-elect Quislings who systematically sell out our country through pro­grams like the FTA and the NAFTA. On the world scene, it was the Soviet Union’s inability to go on imagining itself as a great world power that caused it to collapse overnight, without a shot being fired.

Growing up in the kind of place I did, I experienced the same kind of identity anxiety kids probably do in many parts of this country, but in a more concentrated form that might have made it harder for me to miss.

It was the fifties, and I was a boy growing up in my dad’s logging camp on Nelson Island and I used to think nothing we did quite counted. I owned a bit of a reputation around camp for the way I could skip across a slimy boomstick, but when I looked in the grade one reader my correspondence course provided, which I did almost monthly, the boys and girls there walked on sidewalks. All mention of boomsticks was carefully avoided. I could run the camp tender home from Garden Bay when the men got too drunk to do it themselves, but Dick and Jane could run elevators in apartment buildings, some­thing I was sure I could never manage. Their fathers worked in offices, not under broke-down logging trucks.

You can see I was bugged by this thing. For years, that’s all it was—a seed planted in my mind that somehow I was being cheated out of a rightful place in the world, and this sense grew as my family moved to Pender Harbour to be near schools and I eventu­ally went off to complete my education at the Uni­versity of B.C., where various enthusiasts tried to get me interested in the literary classics. But every time Professor De Bruyn pointed out a great line by Milton I heard echoes of my old logger friends back in the bunkhouse of my dad’s logging camp, and it seemed to me their good lines were good in exactly the same way Milton’s were. In either case you had a wordslinger whose aim was to score a knockout punch with the audience by choosing just the right word in just the right place, who spent a lot of time perfecting their skill, and who got damn good at it. In fact I was pretty sure that if Frost or Shelley showed up at one of those bullshitting contests, they would have their hands full keeping up to old Panicky Bell, for sheer invention, drama and texture of language. Especially Shelley, with his Silk scarves and fey affec­tations, he’d be hooted out of the bunkhouse in the first round. Thus my defensiveness about the people and ways I had grown up with back on the rural B.C. coast took on a literary dimension. I began experi­menting with this idea in some poems which took ordinary storytelling technique of the kind I’d heard so long before back in the big bunkhouse, and fash­ioning it into poems.

Not only did I feel there was an unsung way of life here as unique as anything to be studied in Elizabe­than London or Faulkner’s deep South, I started incubating a theory of literature which held that mastery of expression could occur as readily in an upcoast bunkhouse as in an ivory tower in some great city in a past age. And why not? The idea that un­tutored people could develop rare forms of intelli­gence in working the soil or solving problems of natural science was fairly commonplace. Why wouldn’t this also apply to handling the language, something every person does from the time they’re born to the time they die, all day long, practising it perhaps more than any other human activity? Why shouldn’t there be natural masters, “Undiscovered Miltons” as Thomas Gray said, and lots of them?

I’ve been pursuing that belief for twenty years now and have a large warehouse full of books to prove it. Most of the authors in that list certainly fit the undiscovered category although I will not go so far as to claim they’re all Miltons. But people like Bus Griffiths, the logger–cartoonist who wrote the picto­rial novel Now You’re Logging, boilermaker Bill White, who told the story of early West Coast labour in A Hard Man To Beat, Jim Spilsbury, the pioneer with a grade four education who spawned a whole series of books about his escapades up and down the B.C. coast, or Clayton Mack, the ancient Bella Coola Indian storyteller who saved our bacon last season with an oral history bestseller called Grizzlies and White Guys—each in his own way these untutored writers helped inhabitants of the B.C. coast to imag­ine themselves in a distinct and original way. That to me is what culture ought to do, and my experience has been that if we as writers and artists make that effort to reach out and touch people where they live and speak to them in their own words, they will respond. The sales figures for some of these books would make them bestsellers in the U.S. and they’ve sold almost entirely within the confines of B.C.’s tiny regional market. When the Knowledge Network broadcast a film of Spilsbury’s book last year, it drew the highest weekday audience the network ever had. When our logger poetry roadshow, Caulk Boots and Marlin Spikes, went to Port McNeill last November, it filled the high school auditorium with the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen for a poetry event, in Port McNeill, Vancouver or New York. The interest is out there, if only we make the effort to reach it.

The problem is, we have developed a strangely limited idea of culture in our society which causes work of this kind to be dismissed. This is reflected not only in the attitudes of critics and reviewers, but also in government cultural policy and in the way our schools and colleges teach literature. I was reminded of this not so long ago when an old school friend who got on steady at the local college was good enough to invite me over to her class to read some of my poems out loud. After I’d read everything I’d written in the last ten years, which took us up to the first smoke break, one of the students put her hand up and said, “That was rilly good in some places, Mr. White, but how can you tell what you write is poetry and not prose?”

Damn. I could remember discussions of what makes poetry poetry being carried on with some heat in my own school days, replete with belligerent fac­tions armed with slogans: “Poetry is language charged with meaning to the utmost possible degree”; “Poetry is news that stays news”; “No ideas but in things”; “Two legs good, four legs bad.” Even with the omniscience of youth I had trouble picking who was right, and the relentless mass murder of brain cells which had taken place in the intervening years didn’t make my position any easier. Still, I felt I owed it to the reputation of Living Authors to attempt some sort of reply.

“Prose doesn’t have rhyming words at the ends of the lines.”

“But neither does your, ah, writing.”

She had me there. I had no choice but to escalate the discussion into a consideration of poetic measure and how it can be discerned in a given composition. First you must carefully examine the text in order to ascertain where the poem in question begins and where it ends. Then you measure the entire distance between those two points using a good quality ruler. If it’s over 18 inches (46 cm) long, the thing is almost guaranteed to be prose. If it’s under that you can take chance on it being poetry—unless it’s obviously a grocery list.

Interestingly enough, it was a Palestinian poet by the name of Fawaz Turki who helped clear up my thinking about our approach to poetry and culture in general.

I met Fawaz at a big Amnesty International writer’s jamboree in Toronto a few years ago, and one of the things that intrigued me about him was a rumour that he might be reduced to chopped liver by a Mossad hit squad at any time. I found it invigorat­ing to think that I was sharing the planet with people who cared enough about poetry to shoot someone because of it, and I made use of a bar break to ask Fawaz if his notoriety wasn’t maybe to do with some­thing besides versifying, like bombing busses.

Any damn fool can chuck a bomb, he said, but it takes brains to write a poem.

Fawaz was piqued by my suggestion. Any damn fool can chuck a bomb, he said, but it takes brains to write a poem—and the Palestinian people under­stand this. Back in Jordan it was nothing to have a crowd of several thousand gather on a few hours’ notice to hear him at an open-air reading. When he appeared in public, throngs of grown women fol­lowed him around ululating and fluttering their hands like leaves, chanting his name. His broad­sheets outsold newspapers. Poets like him and his buddies Mahmoud Darweesh and Fawazi el Asmar were far more important to the Palestinian cause than bomb-throwers, and far more worrisome to the authorities, and this, Fawaz said, was because of their ability to express the feelings of their people. That is why so many of the poets known to Amnesty were behind bars, not only in Palestine but around the world.

Later I listened to Fawaz and some of his friends reading their poetry. I wanted to know what special powers made their poetry so dangerous, and was surprised to learn that it was the plainest stuff you could imagine.

I hate nobody
I rob nobody
but when I starve
I eat the flesh of my marauders
Beware my hunger

A lot of their poetry had been written for special occasions—a treaty signing, the loss of another leader, a meeting to warn illiterate mothers against Nestle milk nurses, etc., and I was astonished by the bold way they used the poem as a tool of public communication—flexible, effective, unpretentious, but with a certain disposable quality that didn’t come across very well in a high-toned literary event in downtown Toronto. Fawaz started out with a good audience but it was half gone by the time he finished up: the Can Lit crowd was prepared to overlook a little terrorism but they drew the line at news that didn’t stay news.

At a bull session later some Can Lit prof asked why poetry was less marginalized in so many devel­oping countries and a dozen third-world poets began talking all at once. Their general drift was that West­ern poets have done it to themselves because all they do is write for each other—they consider it corrup­tion of true art to write for common taste, but they’re never done complaining that the public fails to appreciate them. And even when poets from devel­oping countries show how well the public responds to writers who write for the common taste with serious purpose, Western writers fail to get the mes­sage. Somebody tried to make a case that Western writers didn’t have the kind of big social challenges poets in developing countries did, but gave up when somebody else said, “Try taking your culture back from Hollywood and Madison Avenue!” As evidence of American poetry reaching out to common people, someone pointed out they were putting poetry on subway posters in Chicago. Someone else said that wouldn’t help if nobody on the train knew what the poems meant. The air was thick with metaphors aimed at convincing Western writers that what they called serious literature was just one kind of serious literature among many, and the pursuit of usefulness could be at least as valid as the pursuit of timeless­ness, but it was a bit like describing colour to the blind. I forget what all was said but somebody—it might have been Fawaz—summed it up by saying literature in the West was like a wheel in which all the spokes had been busted out except one, but the owner didn’t see anything wrong because he figured the spoke that was left was the best one. And that’s just it. I wouldn’t try to say there is no place for the kind of poetry or the kind of art which is normally thought of as serious writing or the kind of art which is normally thought of as serious art in modern western societies. What does seem to have happened to us is that in accepting a few highly evolved, highly specialized forms of expression as the only legitimate concern of the serious artist, we have lost sight of the wholeness of cultural activity, which ought to include many more forms that would appeal to any one segment of society.

Like many people who work in what is variously called the arts or culture or the cultural industries—I just do it. I did it for years without ever stopping to think what consequences my efforts might have for the nation, the region or the GDP. I did it because I grew up wanting to be a writer, and became a pub­lisher when I found there was no other way to get writing about this area into print. It was only after I had been doing what I wanted for my own entirely selfish reasons for a decade or so that I was called upon to justify it in terms other than my own irra­tional desire to put things down on paper. Probably this objectifying process began with some grant form or other, and I am sure the process of self-examina­tion I went through is similar to what others involved in the arts have gone through, at some point or other, whether struggling with their own conscience over the purchase of a Joe Fafard print, or struggling with city council over funding for the Fringe Festival. We all agree culture is important on some level, but is it important enough to spend the grocery money on? Is it important enough to compete for general tax reve­nues with sewers and streetlights? The first job is to straighten out one’s own thoughts on the matter. Then there’s the job of convincing city council.

This is where our unexamined belief in the vague benign-ness of things cultural suddenly gets put to the test, and far too often fails, as the struggling arts com­munities can testify. The argument used by provincial governments is the same as the one used by the federal government to justify abolishing regional program­ming at the CBC: money is tight. But even when money is tight there are choices to be made, and each one of the new destroyers the federal government is build­ing to chase Russian subs that no longer exist will cost more than all the money saved by gutting the CBC.

What we are seeing today, on national and local levels both, is not so much a process of money being tight as cutural programs being sacrificed in favour of programs that are more popular with the people who have their hands on our money.

This is nowhere more evident than in the case of B.C. provincial spending on culture. B.C. has the third largest and hands-down healthiest economy in Canada. Even with the brakes on spending, the gov­ernment still spends $20 billion each year, but only New Brunswick and Newfoundland spend less per capita on culture than B.C., which would have to more than double its support to the arts and cultural industries just to come up to the average spent by other provinces (requiring some $48 million per year of new money). How does one make a case for cul­ture that will stand up in the bearpit of hardball politics? How do you make politicians see that our nation’s cultural infrastructure is at least as import­ant as the physical infrastructure the federal and provincial governments have just announced a $600-million joint program to improve?

One of the ways cultural advocates try to fight back is by turning the economic argument around and trying to prove culture is good business. The facts are pretty impressive on the surface: cultural activities contribute $16.5 billion to the GDP nation­wide. But ultimately the culture-as-industry argu­ment breaks down, because if you make money the prime rationale, well you don’t print books of poetry, you print Harlequin romances. You don’t make NFB documentaries on forest management, you churn out pseudo-American schlock like Meat­balls. You can’t get around the fact that quality culture still costs more money than it makes. Virtu­ally every civilized country in the Western world has accepted this fact, and most every country has put in place certain mechanisms to support their own cul­ture.

The best reason for doing so is not the tourist dollars it brings in or the jobs it creates in the short term, but the strength it gives the country. The new Czech president Vaclav Havel, himself a play­wright in private life, acknowledged this when he said modern governments will pay a higher price for their neglect of culture than for any other shortcom­ing. What he meant was a country with a healthy culture knows its place in the world, and has a spirit which neither tanks nor poverty can ultimately beat down.

All of this is much on my mind these days because of my ongoing battle, as co-chair of the NDP cultural committee, to try to explain to the Harcourt admin­istration what culture is and why they should get serious about it. The NDP I’m finding even harder to deal with than the Socreds because culturally illiter­ate public servants at least feel a little bit guilty about their ignorance and you can sometimes use this to lever a few crumbs out of them. The NDP are differ­ent. As urbane, educated modern major generals they feel quite comfortable around culture and therefore have no guilt whatsoever about steadfastly ignoring it. But of course they only think they know what culture is. In real terms they don’t understand it any better than the Socreds did.

Their cultural thinking still hangs up around things like the inefficiency of having three symphony orchestras in one city. Meanwhile the latest polls have shown committed support for the NMI slipping under 20 percent and what pollsters call the NDP universe, which includes all the people who could vote NDP shrinking to less than 40 percent. And among those 40 percent who might consider supporting a progressive political option, the two top issues are: crime in the streets and welfare abuse. This is the pro­gressive side of the political spectrum we’re talking about; you don’t even want to know what the reac­tionary side thinks.

Culture is not the symphony, any more than transportation is a Lear jet.

This is a cultural issue. The symptoms are politi­cal, but the causes are cultural. The reasons our most thoughtful citizens imagine the two most crucial issues affecting their lives are welfare abuse and crime in the streets are all cultural reasons, and they come right back to the fact that we do not have enough Fawaz Turkis—or enough Geists—out there balancing the cultural influence of hysterical talk show hosts and the Fraser Institute. Culture is not the symphony, any more than transportation is a Lear jet. Culture is what is left when countries are bombed into physical and economic oblivion as Japan and Germany were in World War Two, and culture is the spirit that allows such countries to pop back up and reclaim an even bigger place in the world a few brief decades later. Culture seen from this perspective is the ultimate force in a society, the thing that must be there before economic and politi­cal strength can be built. Culture is that whole com­plex of shared history, thoughts and feelings which gives people a sense of distinctive community and provides the impetus for collective activity. Which is a long-winded way of saying it’s how we imagine ourselves.

 

*****

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June 3, 2014
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