William Hawkins died yesterday, July 4 2016, at age 76. He spent a short time in the hospital, and his passing was both a surprise and not a surprise–it was expected but not expected quite so soon. It hasn’t yet been 24 hours, but I wanted to try to write something. Apologies for the disorder of these thoughts.
I’m sitting in my office surrounded by Bill and his work. One of the poster poems, “Postage Stamps,” is above my desk. A different poster for a reading at Le Hibou hangs on the adjacent wall above a bookshelf (with a little handout made by jwcurry for Bill’s 65th birthday tucked in containing a Frank Zappa quote with a nod to Bill). All of his books and assorted other ephemera are on the shelves in their right place. Just yesterday a really lovely tribute poem to Bill by Neil Flowers arrived in the mail (Taxi Cab Voice, published this month by above/ground press). The tribute record, Dancing Alone, is running in the background. Only a few weeks ago he passed me a binder full of old photos to scan and put online. He’s everywhere.
I last saw him on Thursday, and had made a plan to visit him again likely today (when he was supposed to be out of the ICU). I was looking forward to talking about the Wimbledon results with him (he’d be delighted that Roger and Milos are still in it, and I know he was happy to get the news that Novak went out on Saturday). I first met Bill while working at Octopus Books in 2009. We had corresponded over email and he swung by the store to say hello. He ordered some books and was as kind and charming as ever. My partner Jenn has known him for much longer. Her father, Mike, met Bill in the 1970s, the two of them working as cab drivers in Ottawa together for four-plus decades. The first barn that Jenn ever got up on a horse at was one owned by Bill’s family. In turn, Jenn’s family turned Bill onto Czech beer and to the end he went back on forth between Pilsner Urquell and Kozel depending on his mood. The first book of Bill’s I got was his 2005 selected, Dancing Alone, that I’m pretty sure Jenn got signed for me by passing it through Mike to Bill.
Bill was a good friend to me, and his work and support meant a great deal to my own writing and sense of being a poet in Ottawa. I’ve written and spoken about Bill’s work a number of times in different places over the years. I don’t want to repeat myself or others here. My favourite piece of writing on Bill is Roy MacSkimming’s introduction to Dancing Alone (followed by rob mclennan’s talk inducting Bill into the Verse Hall of Honour).
It was such a joy to spend some five or six years putting together his Collected Poems, published just last June (read my introduction here). That project followed the publication of a long-lost poem, Sweet & Sour Nothings, as well as a descriptive bibliography that was part of my ongoing attempt to find as much of his work as possible. Bill was always receptive and appreciative of attempts to find and make available his work, if not a little skeptical of the whole thing. He said to me more than once that his Collected probably shouldn’t be done until after he died, but he seemed happy to have it in his hands once it was published and I’m incredibly happy that he got to hold it. He even managed to give one final reading at The Manx last November to celebrate the publication of the book. It was filmed (I can’t remember who by, but thank you!) and you can watch it if you never had the joy of seeing him recite his poems from memory and delight a crowd. I can only imagine what his readings were like in his prime in the 1960s. You can also hear him recite a few poems and answer some questions from Alan Neal for All in a Day here.
The stories of his life and work are well rehearsed these days–the legendary posters stapled to telephone poles and otherwise sold for beer money; driving across the country with Roy MacSkimming to attend the era-defining 1963 summer poetry seminars at UBC (and Robert Creeley paying to have their car fixed when it broke down en route home); appearing in Modern Canadian Verse (edited by A.J.M. Smith) on the strength of his work in the Souster-and-Coleman edited New Wave Canada from Contact Press; the time in Val Tetreau Correctional Institute as a young man; travels through Mexico on a Canada Council grant, and various drug related mishaps; the songs, beloved and recorded by others; his work at Le Hibou, hosting poets and musicians in the heart of the 1960s. Nelson Ball, publisher of Weed/Flower Press (and thus of Bill’s Ottawa Poems), credits Bill with turning him on to imagism. He was in the important mags and anthologies and published by important presses. He played with and inspired important musicians (Bruce Cockburn says that he began writing songs to put music to Bill’s lyrics). His songs were featured in the 1967 NFB documentary Christopher’s Movie Matinee, a film in which cameras were “put in the hands of a few young people [to make] this film about themselves and their world.” His writing anticipated and engaged with the currents of 1960s small press poetry in Canada, moving through free verse experiments, historiographic longer forms, projective verse, 1960s lyric poetry, as well as the concrete and visual experiments of the poster poems, and his efforts as a songwriter.
Bill was a radical force in Ottawa, and despite his occasional travels elsewhere he returned to and remained in Ottawa. His bio in New Wave Canada, ending “Living now in Ottawa,” feels as much like a confession as a statement. He would probably be more well and widely known if he had up-and-moved to Toronto. And for all this, somehow, Ottawa celebrated him, giving him an “Outstanding Young Man Award” in 1966, perhaps not fully aware of Hawkins’s entire lifestyle. This was the same man who only a few years earlier had been institutionalized for “some misdemeanour involving other people’s cars”; the same man whose name was on graphic and obscene posters stapled to the city’s telephone poles; the same man whom collaborator and peer Roy MacSkimming describes as follows: he “took drugs, drank too much, insulted important people. In fact he insulted most people, important or not, more or less on principle.” Years later, in 2012, Bill was inducted into the Verse Ottawa Hall of Honour by rob mclennan, a gesture befitting his importance to poetry in Ottawa, one celebrating the way that his work has resurfaced periodically over the years and found new writers to influence despite his near silence between 1974 and 2005.
And the work really does endure. The poems, like the songs, are funny and sad and sometimes dark and sometimes sweet and (almost) always full of love. I don’t know how to excerpt his life’s work, but here are a few that I particularly love:
The last poem in his Collected is an elegy for a friend that died (“In Memoriam (Sandra Jane Sutcliffe)”) that feels sadly appropriate today, and the next-to-last poem (“Memories Memorial”) feels closest to the Bill that I came to know over the last seven years.
I didn’t know wild Bill of the 1960s. I knew Bill later in life, full of memories and regrets and sad stories and happy stories and crazy stories and poems and songs. I know less about his life in music, and sadly never had the joy of hailing a cab and finding Bill at the wheel, though we did spend plenty of time sitting in his car in front of the house. It’s nice to think of the thousands of people that crossed his path in that cab, and at shows, and readings, and in books, or stumbled on a poster in 1962 and were baffled or delighted. If you don’t know Bill’s work, there are lots of places to find it: The Collected Poems of William Hawkins, Dancing Alone: Songs of William Hawkins, Time Capsule: The Unreleased 1960s Masters by The Children, or spend some time looking through his website. I’ve also got two copies of Sweet & Sour Nothings left that I’ll happily give to anyone interested, just send me a note [both have since been claimed–sorry!].
Thank you for everything, Bill. I can’t believe you’re gone, King Kong-ing off to whatever-comes-next. Send us back a poem. I love you and I miss you.