McFadden & Bowering @ Concordia
Last Friday's Concordia event with Dave McFadden and George Bowering was a pretty darn magical night. It was amazing that it marked only the second time these two literary giants — and close friends — had read together.
The readings were marked by their contrasts: George was boisterous, performative, talkative, funny. David was contemplative, understated, funny, and poignant. Both readings were magnificent. And sitting off to the side of the podium was Jason Camlot, inserting audio clips from Concordia readings of McFadden in 1971 and Bowering in 1974. So great to hear the voices of then and now all in one reading.
There were so many good moments, by both writers, that night, but the one that stands out most for me — and certainly resonated with the audience — was Dave's reading of his long poem "The Death of Greg Curnoe." It was a real journey, that poem. People were still talking about it the next day.
Here's the introduction I read for Dave — including one paragraph I edited out on Friday.
It’s a pleasure to be here and to take part in this historic evening featuring two of my heroes. Thanks so much to Jason Camlot, Deanna Fong and the SpokenWeb team that made all this happen.
David W. McFadden, now in his sixth decade of writing, is that impossible mixture: he’s not only a people’s poet — writing accessible, enjoyable works — but he’s also a deeply serious writer. Somehow he manages this without pretension or obscurity, and his readers never need a degree in literary theory to derive huge amounts of pleasure from his writing. In fact, David is one of those rare poets whose work appeals not only to poetry lovers, but to those who think they don’t like poetry.
David was born in Hamilton, Ontario, on October 11, 1940 — he turned 72 yesterday, in fact. As a youth, he painted, played jazz music, and wrote poetry, and soon poetry won out over the other disciplines. As a teenager, still in high school, David corresponded with the legendary Beat writer Jack Kerouac. In the 1960s, he worked the night shift as a proofreader for the Hamilton Spectator, where he later covered the crime beat. About the same time, he began a great mimeographed literary magazine, Mountain, in which he published work by some of the most important poets working in Canada.
His poetry soon began appearing in both pamphlet and book form, as well as in literary journals across the country, including the influential journal Tish. By the mid-seventies, David had become a full-time writer, and though his eventual output would include novels, travel books, and short-story collections, it is to poetry that he has devoted his life.
David has been shortlisted four times for major poetry awards: The Art of Darkness, Gypsy Guitar, and Be Calm, Honey were all shortlisted for the Governor General’s Award; and Why Are You So Sad? Selected Poems of David W. McFadden was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. Although the juries keep goofing up, he is perennially a people’s favourite.
I first came across David’s poetry in a North York library when I was about sixteen and playing hooky from high school one afternoon. I had already been writing poems for several years, but when I opened the pages of Intense Pleasure, and later A Knight in Dried Plums, I saw something I had never seen before: I saw that poetry could be conversational, and funny, and about ordinary things and ordinary people, and at the same time be magical and profound and transformative. Reading David McFadden changed my own poetry forever.
Now in my fifties, I teach poetry workshops to high school students across the country. I often read them works by contemporary poets I feel will excite and inspire them, and among these are David McFadden’s poems. Poems like “Secrets of the Universe” and “Thirty-Seven Lines about Horses” never fail to amuse, enthrall, and enchant the student audiences, and they plunge into their own writing with perhaps the same kind of liberation I felt as a teenager when I first read David’s work.
What makes David McFadden’s poetry so universal and so beloved, I think, is his fascination with — and curiosity about — everyone around him, with people: the writers, artists, and musicians, but also the guy working at the convenience store in downtown Toronto, the woman on the bus in the east end of Hamilton, the stranger he encounters on a street corner in Cuba, or Newfoundland, or Scotland — or wherever he happens to be. David’s poetry is deeply social, and this socialness seems to arise from a deeply humanistic impulse.
In his work, David often acknowledges sadness — the tragedies of mortality, missed opportunity, war — but then he revels in a delight and wonder in even the most ordinary things, and in the privilege of being alive and getting to look at clouds, read books, drink tea, watch movies, listen to Ella Fitzgerald, walk through a new neighbourhood, and talk to strangers in bars and cafés and movie lineups. Even as a mopey teenage poet, I saw this love-energy in those fantastic McFadden books I stumbled upon in the public library.
David has given dozens of workshops and hundreds of readings; he has been a writer in residence in libraries and universities; he has consistently encouraged his fellow writers, both established and emerging; he has read his fellow writers voraciously; and, perhaps most importantly, he has offered his own life as a model of an artist wholly devoted to his art. I believe he sees his artistic calling as a duty.
David McFadden’s magic may derive from his humbleness before language, before poetry. Every line he writes is a celebration of the very fact that poetry exists, that we all exist, that we have language, that we can share our experiences. In “I Don’t Know,” he writes:
Before a long poem
a poet can only stand in stupid ignorance,
knowing only kindness must be shown to words,
his mindlessness steeped in a simple divinity.
Poetry is a man sitting alone in a room
with a ticking clock, the poet the mere tip
of an ancient pyramid.
He is indeed kind to words; he seems almost grateful to them. And especially in his many long poems, David approaches the page with a clear mind, a mindlessness, and lets his breathing and the words carry him, likely to a place that surprises him as much as it surprises us.
The judges of the 2008 Griffin Poetry Prize wrote, among other things: “[McFadden] is the most readable poet on the planet. Like his hero William Blake, he lives at ease among the most supernatural of events, and gazes in wonderment at everyday things. If there is any such thing as an essential poet, here he is.”
When I first read Dave McFadden’s poetry as a teenager, I never imagined that a few decades later I’d be his friend, and I’d have worked with him as editor on four of his books. And these experiences, most recently with his 2012 collection What’s the Score?, were more like getting writing lessons from a master than doing editing. Over and over, in what I thought was already a perfect poem, I watched David chop off a stanza here, replace a word there, add a new ending, rewrite what seemed to be a perfect line — and the poems only got better.
David told me in an interview for my magazine Syd & Shirley in 2005, “From Grade 11 till now I’ve been writing poems every day, or thinking about it a lot on the occasional day I’d miss. To me an artist had to work every day, it had to be his entire life, or he was a fake. Feel that way even more today.”
It’s a great honour to introduce to you — David W. McFadden.
Over and out.