Some Notes on the Print History of William Hawkins’ Ottawa Poems

[Originally published at Ottawa Poetry Newsletter, 14 May 2009]

“Give this meaning as you may, or must,”

William Hawkins, #27 (from Ottawa Poems)

Ottawa Poems Front Cover

I’m a newcomer to Ottawa poetry, but by no means a newcomer to Ottawa. I was born here, and raised, and am presently on the verge of completing my “higher” education in the city. I’ve been working to catch up on our literary history, as well as present, and am fascinated by anything that makes an effort to write Ottawa in the way that other cities seem to have been written with greater regularity. Naturally, the first time I came across the title, Ottawa Poems, I set out to find and read it. I’m not going to attempt a critical reading of the poems here. Suffice to say, I love the book and think its poems wonderful. My concern here is with the bibliographic history of the book, and the various incarnations of the poems in Hawkins’ published books. I think that these are fascinating notes from the perspective of book history, and I will resist drawing conclusions from them. I think the print journey of the poems themselves more than justifies a brief account here.

The book was published by Nelson Ball’s Weed/Flower Press in July 1966 (and reprinted in 1967). Weed/Flower had been created the previous year, 1965, and ran for the following eight. Jack David wrote an annotated, descriptive bibliography of the press that was published in Essays on Canadian Writing (Number 4, Spring 1976). According to David, Ball purchased a “pre-WW II mimeograph machine […] for $35” (34), and proceeded to mimeograph everything produced under the name. Along with Hawkins, Ball published the likes of George Bowering, bp Nichol, John Robert Colombo, Victor Coleman, John Newlove, himself, and a score of others.

Like many others produced by Weed/Flower, Ottawa Poems has a wonderful cover design by Barbara Caruso. A series of overlapping, thick black lines look like poorly laid out streets, and two hands offer the only recognizable point of reference on a thick, brown cover stock. The interior pages are mimeographed from a typewriter proof onto brown paper. Hawkins is credited simply as WM HAWKINS.

Ottawa Poems Back Cover

The book is a set of twenty-eight relatively brief lyrics in a mere thirty six pages. Roy MacSkimming, in his introductory essay to 2004’s Dancing Alone: Selected Poems, writes “because they belong to a loosely linked sequence, these are more abstracted and discursive poems than the tighter, imagistic, self-contained pieces in Hawkins. And perhaps because they often look outward to the surrounding society, they’re also more anxious and fearful, occasionally a touch paranoid” (15). This sequence is disrupted and broken differently in all future appearances of parts of the book.

His first selected poems, The Gift of Space (new press, Toronto, 1971), would reprint only twenty four pieces from the book. The twenty four retained would be renumbered sequentially, suggesting a new, coherent and complete edit. The pieces removed were #8 (POEM IN RED INK), #20 (THE LAST POEM FOR PEOPLE), #24 (CHARACTEROLOGY), and #26 (ALMOST A POEM). Interesting, if accidental, #21 (SORRY, THIS IS IT) in the Weed/Flower edition is printed 19th in The Gift of Space, but numbered 21, only to be succeeded by a second #21 (HELLO FROM THE SHADOWS), #23 originally.

A further iteration of the poems comes in 2004 in Dancing Alone: Selected Poems (Broken Jaw Press, Fredericton, Cauldron Books 5). In this edition the original numbers are restored, and the excised poems are left as gaps. This time twenty two poems are printed, removing six. Those cut are: #8 (POEM IN RED INK), #9 (A STUPID CANASTA POEM), #13 (So much of me is not), #20 (THE LAST POEM FOR PEOPLE), #24 (CHARACTEROLOGY), #26 (ALMOST A POEM). The four removed in The Gift of Space are still absent, #9 and #13 have been freshly cut.

As has been widely documented, 1966-67 were landmark years in Hawkins’ publishing career. On top of Hawkins (Nil Press) and Ottawa Poems, he was anthologized in Raymond Souster’s seminal New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry (Contact Press) as well as in the A.J.M. Smith edited Modern Canadian Verse (Oxford University Press).

New Wave Canada came first in 1966. Hawkins appeared in its pages alongside early work from Michael Ondaatje, Daphne Marlatt (then still Daphne Buckle), Robert Hogg, bp Nichol, Fred Wah and Victor Coleman among others. Hawkins’ biography in New Wave Canada appeared in quotation marks, and is reproduced in its totality below:

What’s to say in a biography? All my life I’ve worried about the propriety of our definitions. Because the times are as they are I’ve lived in fear, movies my only escape, economics keeping me from more drugs, booze & girlies than I was able (meagre, really) to steal. I have stolen every single idea I have heard, transposing them into my own terms. A wife & two children share my scene & seem happy. I write poems because I like to.

Living now in Ottawa. (171)

Whether selected by Souster or by Coleman (who aided Souster in the editorial choices of the anthology), Hawkins is afforded 11 pages in the book. The poems included are drawn from Hawkins and Ottawa Poems. However, reproductions from both are marked by changes in numbering. For example, from Hawkins, “Mysteriensonaten” #1, #3 and #4 are reprinted as #6, #10 and #7 respectively. In the case of Ottawa Poems, #5 (how can I describe the anger) is reprinted as #7, #11 (your hair electric) is reprinted as #17, #13 (so much of me is not) is reprinted as #24, and #16 (“BEAUTY WILL NOT WAIT”) is reprinted as #25.

New Wave Canada itself has a convoluted print history (see Bruce Whiteman’s “Raymond Souster’s New Wave Canada: A Bibliographical Note”). His appearance in New Wave CanadaModern Canadian Verse did not reprint any of the Ottawa Poems, but did print three from Hawkins; “Spring Rain”, “A New Light” and “The Wall.” directly resulted in his appearance in Modern Canadian Verse, when A.J.M. Smith “happened upon the page proofs [of the book]” (MacSkimming 15) as a result of Coleman’s work at Oxford UP at the time. These poems are listed as “uncollected” (xxi) in the acknowledgements.

Some of the poems also saw periodical publication before the book proper. #24 (CHARACTEROLOGY), often excised from later versions, was printed in 1966 in IS one, edited by Victor Coleman in Toronto, and signed “William Hawkins, ‘WM’ ”. #26 (ALMOST A POEM) was printed in Volume 63 (edited by Nelson Ball), number 5 (Summer 1966). This is approximately coincident with the publication of the book. Interestingly, in both these cases, the poems are not numbered but rather stand alone, resisting any allusion to the larger sequence. Volume 63 also printed 5 of the “Mysteriensonaten” poems in the Winter of 1965, numbered up to 8, suggesting that a larger sequence existed prior to the edited four poem set that appeared in Hawkins; this potentially solves the problems posed by the “Mysteriosonaten” poems in New Wave Canada discussed earlier.

#5 (how can I describe the anger) was printed as #7 in issue 19 (July 1966) of the magazine El Corno Emplumado, published out of Mexico City. It appeared in a group of thirteen Canadian poets in the issue (alongside George Bowering, Fred Wah, John Newlove, Nelson Ball, Daphne Buckle and Red Lane among others).

Alphabet, edited by James Reaney, apparently printed one, or some, of the poems according to the credit in the book itself, though I have not been able to find the excerpt(s) in question. However, I did find the wonderful ad below for “Poster Poems by the Fabulous WM. Hawkins” that appeared in Alphabet number 5 (December 1962) before a selection of four “King Kong” poems.

Alphabet (December 1962)

I do not have access to WEED magazine, stopping me from chasing down that reference as well. If you do have a set, or know which poems appeared, and when, sent me a note (cameron.anstee@gmail.com) and I will amend these notes. Equally, any information relating to other editions of these poems would be very much appreciated (for example, did any of the Ottawa Poems appear as Poster Poems?)

I think that these sorts of incongruities and inconsistencies make a strong case for the need to pursue bibliographic work on modern Canadian poetry. I think that they make clear the greater arc of a poem, or book’s, life. Certainly, the Weed/Flower Press edition of 1966 is the authoritative printing, but later editorial choices, as well as earlier little magazine publication help to illuminate the development of the poems over a span of forty years. I think that this is especially true in the case of book-length sequences, or longpoems, where small changes alter the whole. The Ottawa Poems did not end conclusively with their first collected appearance. Hopefully they’ll continue to be read and won’t end anytime soon.

Works Cited

David, Jack. “Weed Flower Press.” Essays on Canadian Writing 4 (Spring 1976): 34-41.

Hawkins, William. Dancing Alone: Selected Poems. Fredericton: Broken Jaw, 2004.

–. The Gift of Space: Selected Poems 1960-1970. Toronto: new press, 1971.

–. Hawkins. Ottawa: Nil Press, 1966.

–. Ottawa Poems. Kitchener: Weed/Flower Press, 1966.

Smith, A.J.M. Modern Canadian Verse. Toronto: Oxford UP, 1967.

Souster, Raymond. New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry. Toronto: Contact Press, 1966.

Whiteman, Bruce. “Raymond Souster’s New Wave Canada: A Bibliographical Note.” Papers of the Bibliographic Society of Canada XX (1981): 63-65.

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