An Interview with Dorothy Livesay

Conducted by Doug Beardsley and Rosemary Sullivan

Interviewer: Dorothy, you’ve published 14 books of poetry in the last 45 years, the first being Green Pitcher in 1928 when you were nineteen.  Could you tell us how that first book came about? What were the contacts that you had at that time, if any, with other writers in Canada, and what was it like to be a woman poet in those years?

Respondent: Well, I had an unusual background because my mother Florence Randal was a poet.  She began to write when she was about twenty and she published in a magazine called Masseys Magazine, in Toronto, in which you will find Archibald Lampman, Charles G.D. Roberts and Bliss Carman.  She wrote poems but she got no recognition from anybody, certainly not from her widowed mother or younger sisters and brothers.  But she apparently had this great urge; and goodness knows how it arose because she had no background except Compton Ladies College, which was a rather well known Anglican school.   She never talked to me about those early years, so it was a tremendous shock for me to find her poems in this magazine.

Interviewer: How old were you when you found them?

Respondent: Oh, I found them a few years ago.  She died in 1953 and I’d never known about her poetry.  I always thought she was a journalist.  But in Masseys Magazine there were also short stories written by “Florence Hamilton Randall” So she had ambition as a very young girl, but she knew no literary people.  However, she must have had some newspaper connections because she got a job on the Ottawa Journal as women’s editor — society editor.  This obliged her to go to all the openings of Parliament and all the “do’s.”  Then she got her chance towards the end of the Boer War, 1902.  Ottawa asked for 30 Canadian teachers to go and teach Boer children English in the Transvaal.  So Florence went to Johannesburg, and then Middleburgh where she spent a year teaching.  As well, she wrote regularly for the Ottawa Journal and also for the Winnipeg Telegram I think it was.  When she came back to Canada, about 1904, some of the family had left Quebec and gone out to Winnipeg to look for jobs.  That was what brought Florence to Winnipeg and to a job as secretary for Sanford Evans of the Winnipeg Telegram.  One of the reporters she met was J.F.B. Livesay, my father.  Recently I went through all the files of the newspapers in Winnipeg, The Free Press and Telegram and so on, and I found an extraordinary Christmas page about Canadian books — book reviews — and one of them was about Archibald Lampman and Duncan Campbell Scott who were cited as examples of a Canadian Literature that was beginning to develop.  The article was signed “Frederick Bligh.” My father was named John Frederick Bligh Livesay! So before I was born they were both interested in the Canadian scene.  It was rooted in them.  Although he was an immigrant from England, she was obviously teaching him.

Interviewer: Did your parents give you Canadian books to read when you were a child?

Respondent: Oh, yes.  My father was of an English family and had emigrated as a young man of twenty to relatives in Ontario, but he really wanted to go to university and be a historian — he was mad about history, but instead he went farming and harvesting and all the usual.  Eventually, because he understood British soccer, he was given the job of sports editor on the Regina Leader Post.  And then he moved to Winnipeg and the Telegram where he met Florence Randall.  That’s a very long beginning to tell you how I came to write in the twenties!  But my mother was an extremely interesting person.  Not only was she writing poetry and sketches for several Canadian papers and magazines, she had a column in the Free Press as well.  These columns show that she was having to adapt to speaking of frivolous women’s affairs but all the time being really interested in the psychology of parents and children and so on, especially after her marriage in 1908.  In Winnipeg she also got very interested in several ethnic groups.  She received letters and corresponded with many Indian children in Manitoba.  Also we had these — servants they were called — immigrant girls who came to learn English and agreed to spend a year as a domestic.   They were mainly Polish and Ukrainian.  And when my mother heard these Ukrainian girls singing their folk songs as they did the housework, she got a Ukrainian Baptist minister (who had been a socialist) to come and translate the songs that she liked, in rough prose.  She then rendered them into English verse.  Her translations were published in Poetry Chicago, alongside Ezra Pound’s work.   All during World War I she was doing this for a collection called Songs of Ukraina, which was published by Dent and she received very good acclaim in The London Times.  So you see the whole atmosphere was one of writing.  Before I could read or write she encouraged me to tell her stories.  She’d write them down on a typewriter and because she ran a children’s column she put my stuff in the Free Press.  Later, because she had received recognition for Songs of Ukraina, she began to subscribe to the American liberty magazines of the time — The Dial, and Harriet Monroe’s Poetry Chicago.  We had these all the time in the house.   That was how, from the beginning, I was influenced by imagism and by Amy Lowell, “H.D.”, Williams, Pound. . . .

Interviewer: What age were you, around fifteen or sixteen?

Respondent: Yes.  In Toronto.  We had moved there in 1920.

Interviewer: How did you come to publish the first book at 19? Did you send out the whole collection?

Respondent: No.  There again my parents, I’m afraid I was horribly over taken by them — I mean I never showed my mother my poems.  I hid them in a drawer, but she found them.  I was furious.

Interviewer: Were you scared?

Respondent: Oh yes, very shy.  I just wrote them for myself.  A bosom friend at school read them.  However, my mother sent one or two out to newspapers.  The Vancouver Province published the first poem, sending me a cheque for two dollars.  I was about fourteen or fifteen, so this was quite a thing at school.  Anyhow it was the whole Imagist Movement that started me off.  Mother had some good friends who were poets, the imagist Louise Morey Bowman, who has almost been forgotten but who was one of the first Canadian imagists; and then W.W. Ross.  And she got to know Robert Finch and Raymond Knister, because she decided to publish an anthology of contemporary Canadian poetry about 1927 or 1928, when I was starting university.  Robert Finch would come over to have afternoon tea with her, and talk about his poems and play the piano.

Interviewer: Your parents figure in A Winnipeg Childhood and in some poems. . .

Respondent: I felt guilty about never having included my mother in any poems.  You see, in later years, I felt very hostile to my mother.

Interviewer: I remember a phrase where you speak of “hating the chains that parents make.”

Respondent: She was a very W.A.S.P. type of person.  We had to go to church every Sunday and to Sunday school.  Everything was very moral and upright and all that kind of thing.

Interviewer: I remember the scene in A Winnipeg Childhood where Jove and Juno go upstairs to the bedroom.

Respondent: Well, you see my father couldn’t have been more different.  He was a complete iconoclast, anarchist, and agnostic.  So the two of them were strangely unsuited to each other.

Interviewer: The fact that you were reading things like Poetry Chicago accounts for the sophistication of your work from the very beginning.   We were amazed to see the free verse forms you were using in poems like “Impuissance” and “Gulls.”

Respondent: I found it impossible to write in the stanza form.  I’ve never been able to write a rhymed sonnet.  My mother was open to all these things and moreover, she was very adept at all the techniques — she just loved the ballad, the triolet, all the French forms.   She did them very well but she could never persuade me try them.  I just revolted.

Interviewer: The fact that you were a woman writing in those days never aroused any anxiety about inadequacy?

Respondent: Well, my mother was a woman!  And my father was an enthusiastic advocate of women as creative artists.  He got me every possible book by every possible novelist, starting with Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte.  He was devoted to the work of Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson, and he had all their first editions that he had got from England.  I remember him giving me A Room of Ones Own, and saying “Go thou and do likewise.”  But he and I probably thought the only thing to do was to be a novelist and I really wanted to write prose very, very much.   My first novel, or novella, I wrote in France in 1929.  I took out two chapters and they were printed as short stories in Northern Review.  “The Climb” is about Provence.

Interviewer: We want to ask you a general question about literature in Canada at that time.  Reading your work and other contemporaries it doesn’t seem that Eliot had that much influence.  We were talking to Robert Kroetsch whose theory it is that Canadian literature moved from the Victorian period into Post-Modernism, and never went through the period of Modernism we associate with Eliot and Joyce.

Respondent: Well, the reason is very interesting.  I think he’s right that the twenties were mainly influenced by the American movement — Carl Sandburg, Vachel Lindsay.   Lindsay came to Hart House and my mother told me about his climbing on a table, blowing balloons around.  Then she showed me his poems.  So it was almost entirely the American poetic influence that I had, and not the Modernist or British.   Of course I had been given presents of contemporary British poetry; mainly that of the Georgians.  I did not care for the sentimental school of English war-poets, but Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Edward Thomas (a lyric nature poet) were great favourites.  About this time I also discovered Robert Graves, Laura Riding and the imagist “H.D.”.  And I was especially drawn to the free rhythms in Katherine Mansfield’s and D.H. Lawrence’s poetry.  These were all “outsiders” I would say, not in the Pound-Eliot stream.   And I only came to read Eliot in my fourth year at the University of Toronto.  That was in 1931, when a very erudite Dutchman came to the University of Toronto to teach economics.  He was a Marxist and had been to Russia and he just had flocks of students in his apartment because he was the only person who was really a free mind on the campus.  I remember him as a completely sophisticated European — he had records of all kinds, he had books of all kinds we’d never seen.  You know what you learn in English courses at Toronto.  They end at 1850 or something!  So there was this book on the shelf “Ash Wednesday” and I said “Oh what’s this?” “Oh”, he said.   “This is a great new poet.  You ought to read him.”  So I began to read and said “Oh yes, this is lovely.”  So he said “Take it”, signed his name and gave it to me.  I still have that little book.  That was my first contact with Eliot.  When I went to the Sorbonne that winter and did the “Diplome d’études supérieures” I decided to do the Symbolists and Metaphysicals, using Eliot and a Sitwell and also Huxley’s poetry.

Interviewer: But somehow one never feels that Eliot influenced you.

Respondent: No, I was very critical of him, you know.  I thought he was horribly derivative.  I was reading all the great French symbolists, especially Laforgue, and I saw Eliot just picked up phrases from them. . . .  I thought “O, the wretch.” But the odd thing was I never came in contact with Pound until many years later.  The strange thing is that Pound at that time didn’t seem to be known or talked about.

Interviewer: He wasn’t making any real impact on Canadian poetry —

Respondent: Well, or even in France that year and in England when I went to study at the British Museum, to study the Sitwells and so on, there was no feeling of Pound’s impact.  There was Yeats of course, and then it was the Sitwells who simply took over.  I was absolutely entranced by Edith Sitwell’s use of language and music.  I think in a poem like “Fantasy in May” you can feel her influence.

Interviewer: I sensed that the famine you were working on were symbolist but I was tracing it back to the work of a writer like Emily Dickinson, not as an influence but almost as a kindred spirit.

Respondent: I did indeed come to her as I finished university.  Although Elinor Wylie I’d known before that.  This bosom friend of mine and I would just go round in a daze after reading Wylie.  But Dickinson influenced me, I guess, in a kind of slow way through the years.  I did a whole script on her for the CBC.

Interviewer: I feel you have a strong wit in your poems.

Respondent: I wouldn’t have realized that I have much of that; but that year in England I just soaked myself in the seventeenth century, in Donne, Marshall, Herbert.  I just loved Herbert.  And at the Sorbonne I had an oral to do, translating Donne into French!

Interviewer: I’d like to ask you about being in Paris as a student in the twenties.  What was it like?

Respondent: Well, I didn’t know anybody of that famous group — Callaghan and Glassco.  I came after them, so I missed all that; it was just a kind of an echo when we’d go to those cafés where they had been.  But we had a new group, you see — Leon Edel was there doing his first work on Henry James and we were very close friends in Paris that year.  In fact, at one point, four of us Canadians lived together in an apartment at the Porte D’Orléans.  And the other influence was Stanley Ryerson, who was doing a thesis on Vico.  All he had learned about symbolism through Vico I would mull over.  And then we both got extremely involved in the left wing political movement.  And that changed all one’s perspectives on literature and art.

Interviewer: I was interested in the fact that you were a social worker in the thirties.  Was that a direct consequence of your interest in Marxism?

Respondent: It was a direct consequence of the Depression.  All of us, including Leon Edel came home from Paris very alienated and there was nothing — there were no academic jobs; I had thought I’d be a lecturer in French, you see.  That’s why my father subsidized me to go there, so that I could come home and teach.  I had graduated in Honours French and Italian.  But there were no jobs at all and by this time, in Paris I had got very interested in Marxist theory and the Depression just proved that everything was right that Marx had said; capitalism was collapsing.  So I decided I wanted to get as close as I could to the whole thing first hand.  I think they were just beginning to open a social science diploma course at the University of Toronto — under two very interesting men — one of them was Harry Cassidy who eventually became Minister of Welfare of B.C. and who was very interested in government welfare and all that kind of thing: the whole social organization of society and problems of poverty and wealth.  He was very knowledgeable but he wasn’t a Marxist and I would have great arguments with hm.  He was a close friend of Earle Birney.  That’s how I came to know Birney, through this professor, Harry Cassidy.

Interviewer: And did you gradually become disenchanted with that or was that still an influence when you later wrote “Poems for People” and your documentary “Call My People Home” in 1947?

Respondent: You see the first poems that came out of the thirties were all in Day and Night.  And many of them were not actually published in it.  The Montreal experience came out of the fact that at the School of Social Work we were allowed to do one year’s apprenticeship and then get a diploma.  And so a friend and I went together to Montreal and lived on St. Denis in the French area and worked for the Family Welfare Bureau or whatever it was called — Family Service Agency — which worked with Protestant families, French and English.  We were paid sixty dollars a month each.  My friend went her way, which was not Communist at all, and I went my way which was very active in that direction.   It was about the worst possible year in Quebec for police attacks on the unemployed.  The Theatre of Action had been very excited about what happened to a worker named Nick Zynchuk, who was innocently getting his belongings out of a house where he was being evicted and the police shot him and killed him.  The Theatre group wrote an agit prop play on Zynchuck and then in Toronto they did Eight Men Speak, about the eight Communists who were put in Kingston Penitentiary.  I was active in this whole cultural movement started by the Theatre of Action.  So it must have been after they had performed the Zynchuck play that I wrote the poem called “Nick Zynchok,” but it was never published at the time.  That whole era was one of interest in poetry and oral poetry and a Brechtian or “guerilla” theatre.  There was a strong cultural movement in Canada.  The “Theatre of Action” became a part of the Progressive Arts Club and we had writers’ groups, drama groups, music groups, dance groups and so on right across Canada.  And out of that eventually grew, from the early sectarian magazine called Masses (which I think was flourishing about ’32,) New Frontier which came out in ’36.  The whole emphasis across Canada on a cultural, social revolutionary kind of art carried me, as one of the editors of New Frontier, right out West.  We stopped off in several cities giving lectures on the new poetry of Auden and Spender and so on.  E.K. Brown was then head of English at Manitoba and I remember he organized a meeting for me.

Interviewer: Was Birney doing much at this point?

Respondent: Oh no.  He was immersed in Chaucerian studies and Trotskyism; he wasn’t writing at all.  He started writing much later.

Interviewer: I suppose the next important change in your career was your trip to Africa and the writing of “The Colour of God’s Face.”  Africa seems to have had a considerable fascination for Canadian writers when you think of Margaret Laurence, Dave Godfrey.   Was yours an interest in Africa as an emergent culture, in other words, a political interest?

Respondent: Well, I didn’t know what I would find but I had had a year in Paris with UNESCO, mostly in the Education Section, and I saw there was a great need for English teachers so I applied and eventually got there myself.  It was very fortunate for me that I hit the time and the country, you see, that was going to be able to move over into independence without violence — which was northern Rhodesia.  But there were very tense situations in Nyasaland and Southern Rhodesia you know.  The whole thing was very close to eruption but fortunately, because there was such a large black population, the British government dealt with them sensibly and said “You may have the referendum — one man, one vote”.  The impressive experience for me was the fact that we had fought all through the thirties for a changed society — we thought the War would bring an entirely new social world into Canada; soldiers would come back and would refuse to be treated as they had been before and we would change society — then it all collapsed.   Nothing happened except the Korean War — a terribly dark victory.  So we felt we had lost on all those fronts.  The thing about Rhodesia for me was the fact that I was living through a complete change in society which succeeded; of course it didn’t succeed in being socialist, but it took the first step of being nationalist and free from colonial chains and we had been very much under colonial chains in Canada.  So it was a great psychic release for me to be close to these people who were changing their society.  And they achieved it — they got their freedom and now of course I still am most happy because Kaunda is doing such a fine job.  He is a marvellous man.  He was a follower of Ghandi.  I met him when he was one of the teachers on our staff, near Lusaka.

Interviewer: Did you feel the pressure of English colonialism in Canada — cultural colonialism?

Respondent: Well, both my parents were very anti-British and very nationalist.  There was a tremendous nationalist movement in Canada in the ’20’s in all the literature and my parents were — my father was one of these Englishmen who was against being an Englishman and wanted to be a Canadian so the whole influence was for independence.  But by the time the ’30’s came there was a great change.  The strange thing was that as soon as the Internationalist Crisis hit the world, everyone became an internationalist.  We were as much at home in New York as in Toronto, as leftists you see, or in Europe or in Russia or wherever.  The whole nationalist thing suddenly fell away completely in the Depression years because we believed that there had to be international revolution which would change every country and make it socialist.

Interviewer: Did you go through a period of disenchantment in the fifties with communism?

Respondent: Oh, yes.

Interviewer: But you would still call yourself a socialist.

Respondent: Yes, I don’t believe in the capitalist system.

Interviewer: Earlier you mentioned different forms of “The Colour of God’s Face.”  It was published as a sequence of four poems in a pamphlet in 1965 and then included in the Collected Poems about seven years later.  You changed the order of the sequence and substituted “Initiation” as the first poem and entitled the whole thing “Zambia”.  What were the reasons for those changes?

Respondent: Well, there’s another version of the poem you know in a magazine called Cyclic published in Montreal.  It’s a middle version.  Well, I came back to Canada not having written for three or four years and I felt utterly out of the scene of poetry.   Moreover, I was not well.  I’d had malaria and other bugs, and I sort of lay around in Vancouver until I recuperated.  So it would have been, I guess, the next summer, ’64 when all that Black Mountain crowd came to Vancouver for about a month.   They were there reading poetry: I think Robert Duncan, Charles Olsen, Ginsberg.   I started going to their readings and I think it must have been that summer that I decided I had to get out of my system what had happened to me in Africa and so I began writing a number of poems which were separate poems, and then I began to think of them as a whole but I was absolutely terrified to show anybody these poems; I didn’t feel that I could write.  I simply thought I had lost it completely.  But I remember Anne Marriott came over one afternoon to see me in a house I had bought in Vancouver and I felt “I’ve got to have the courage to read this to her.  I’ve got to know if there’s anything in it” and so I read through what would become “The Colour of God’s Face”, and she said she liked it — she’s a critic of mine, a severe critic, she doesn’t like my stuff much — but she said she found that very moving.  So I sent a couple of the poems from it to Birney who was editing Prism Intentional and he published the “African Villge” one.  Anyhow, I began to get some confidence but I never could see, never had any one to help me see how it should be arranged together.  So it was just a constant trying to find out what was the best organization for it.  And if you saw the middle one, the Cyclic one it’s probably different there.

Interviewer: That was ’65 and then in ’67 came. . .

Respondent: Well, I must have written it in ’64, but it began to be published in ’65, that’s right.

Interviewer: Then came Unquiet Bed in ’67 — which is one of your most moving books with, I think, some of your best poems such as “Without Benefit of Tape” and “The Emperor’s Circus,” and “The Incendiary.”  You had mentioned in the blurb of that book that you had been influenced by the way the young poets were writing on the West Coast — was that that Black Mountain group that you referred to earlier?

Respondent: Well, it was Tish.  The Black Mountain had come up because of the interest on the part of Tish.  It involved Frank Davey, George Bowering, Lionel Kearns.   I went to Warren Tallman’s poetry evenings and I got Robert Duncan on tape.

Interviewer: Was the “Zambia” sequence written after you’d come in con tact with the Tish group?

Respondent: Not really.  It was that summer when they were all reading, but I hadn’t studied their approach.  It was the following winter after I’d studied the theory behind it and Olsen’s Manifesto and all those things.  I went into that very deeply before I began tape recording the poets and linguistically analysing the way they were reading.   All that came after the poem was written.  The rhythms of the poem really related to African rhythms.

Interviewer: To African drum rhythms.

Respondent: Yes.  I knew the students awfully well and they recorded for me and so on.

Interviewer: I was just going to ask you a question about “Without Benefit of Tape.” That’s my favorite poem in The Unquiet Bed.  It begins “The real poems are being written in outports / on backwoods farms / in passageways whose pantries still exist / or where geraniums / nail the light to the window.” I was just wondering if you intended that almost as a manifesto for Canadian poetry?

Respondent: Oh, yes I did, yes.  I’d come back to a new world where suddenly everybody was talking poetry and it was very exciting; not just one or two young poets reading but coffee house readings, you know, three times a week.  Milton Acorn was around too and there was great excitement all the time.  No, I was very exhilarated by this changing scene.  I met Red Lane and I felt that he was really with it; that he, and eventually his brother Pat of course, were not academics at all but were working people who really felt the pulse of the country.  It was the first time I discovered this is Canada.

Interviewer: Yes, you seem to be calling for a sense of place in Canadian poetry.

Respondent: Yes, that’s it, yes.  And almost in counteraction to American Tish thing which was rootless, I think.  But on the other hand I had as my advocate Olsen who said: “Locus, there must be locus.”  We must take the place, the Locus, and dig down into our own place  where we’re born.  I felt the Tish Group needed that lesson.

Interviewer: I wanted also to ask you about that sequence “Ballad of Me.”  You said you spoke to other students about the sequence and told them that it had a certain autobiographical base.

Respondent: Yes.

Interviewer: Is the abortionist a metaphor in the poem?

Respondent: No, but the “born upside down” is a metaphor.

Interviewer: It is puzzling poem though, because it ends with your reference to yourself “No one remembers Dorothy was ever here.”

Respondent: Well now when I read it I leave out that section.  I find the poem ends better without that last section.  Also, David Arniason said to me once: “Why in the hell did you add that business about the moon and a belly.” I said “How did you know it was added?” “Why”, he said, “in the anthology of Milton Wilson those lines aren’t there.” So he said, “I knew that must have been an earlier version.” So then I told him the very complicated story which I won’t bother you with: as to why the moon and the belly got in.  At the last minute just as they were putting the book to press I wired this change to the Ryerson editor.  But Arniason said it spoils it, because all the rest of the poem is very straightforward and personal and suddenly you’re introducing this kind of literary thing.  And of course I find this perceptive.  I hadn’t realized it had this effect.  So the version that you should look at probably is the one in Milton Wilson’s Poets Between the Wars.

Interviewer: When I was reading through the Collected Poems as a whole and read through Winnipeg Childhood — it fascinated me that there were several images that recurred extensively and one of them was the fantasy of flying; it seemed to me that movement somehow worked as a very special metaphor for you.  There’s the one lovely poem titled “Where I Usually Sit” where you talk about “I stay in love with movement” — and how this is a compensation for aging.

Respondent: Yes. The flying goes way back.  That’s a poem several young people have liked best and I’m very fond of it.

Interviewer: In the years from The Unquiet Bed onwards I felt a deepening sensuality in your work.  Reading the poems I felt more and more that you were moving perhaps towards what Yeats called “the celebration of the bodily imperative” as a stay against aging.  I found that the image of nakedness was always present — nakedness as a means to honesty.  Could you comment on that? or add to that?

Respondent: Well, I think that through the earlier part of my life I’d never been able to express the feelings of close emotional relationship in words.  In later life, from having a very colourful and rejuvenating sexual relationship, a love affair with a younger man — I suppose Africa has freed me to be able to speak about it.  That was probably what happened.  It was a great pleasure to be able to speak about it and the poems were written really as letters to the man.  A dialogue by means of poems.  Though you don’t hear the other end of the line!