“aka: bpNichol” Biography by Frank Davey

aka bpNichol by Frank Davey (ECW Press, Toronto, 2012)

pb, 338 pps. ISBN 978-1-77041-019-0 also issued as a PDF & ePub

Frank Davey seems in an ideal position to write a biography of the late bpNichol. He knew Nichol personally in the ‘70s and ‘80s; Davey’s wife Linda acted as Nichol’s agent for a period; Davey was aware of the Therafields psychoanalytic/social community of which Nichol was an important part; Davey and Nichol associated with many of the same writer/peers; Davey has written critically on the work of Nichol.

Davey has produced what is subtitled “a preliminary biography,” leaving room for much more to come, possibly, from his pen or from others.

Any biographer must determine an approach to the life examined and written about. Frank Davey has chosen to put heavy emphasis on a psychoanalytic approach, playing, to a degree, analyst to bp’s psyche. The temptation to this approach is understandable, as Nichol was openly involved in Therafields, a Toronto psychoanalytic community, first as a client of founder Lea Hindley-Smith (no relation) and then later as a therapist with, and vice-president of, the Therafields organization. Davey interprets much of Nichol’s writing as a clear window into, and reflection of his psyche, perhaps understandably, as bpNichol foregrounded autobiography in his poetry.

aka bpNichol is already a controversial biography. According to Davey’s notes, bp’s wife and custodian of his literary rights, Eleanor Nichol, at first collaborated in the research for the book; however she eventually withdrew support over disagreements in interpretation of bp’s works and notes. Davey says: “One of Ellie Nichol’s principal objections to this book is that it takes seriously Barrie’s various declarations that much of his work is built on autobiography” (p. 302, n.7). As a result, Eleanor denied Davey “permissions . . . to quote or include photographs of previously published Nichol material, including most of the material in his numerous notebooks and extensive correspondence (p.viii).” Though many friends and associates of bpNichol assisted Davey, others have, reportedly not done so, taking issue with Davey’s interpretations.

Several writers before bp – for example Fernando Pessoa and Gertrude Stein – have played with autobiography in an artistic way, employing details not always to be interpreted as fact. Obviously this can create difficulties. Such ambiguities are found in Nichol’s work, and can even be found in aka bpNichol. For instance, Davey quotes a late passage from The Martyrology which at first seems to reinforce bp’s biographical insistences: “It is what binds books together, these motifs and concerns, the trace of a life lived, a mind” (p. 298 – emphasis mine). But how factual can a trace be considered to be?

Nichol left a surfeit of ‘life notes’ behind, a rich repository which, of course, invites interpretation. Nichol was an avid note-taker, keeping notebooks, jotting down ideas, concerns, projects, dreams, and drawings. Davey has accessed and perused these notebooks (mostly held in Simon Fraser University’s special collections) thoroughly, it seems, despite lacking permission to quote directly. He tracks Nichol’s emotional matrix as presented in notebooks as well as in the finished poetic work itself. From these sources he makes many deductions about the content, context, and influences in Nichol’s works. It is worth noting that Davey offers a kind of dual Nichol: Barrie (Phillip) Nichol the person and bpNichol the writer. I’m not sure that the split can be so distinct, so clearly delineated, as in whatever setting, Nichol was known interchangeably as Barrie, bp, Beep, Beeper, though his authorial name was always bpNichol.

I too was associated with Therafields for about six years, and am aware of many of the analytic processes applied there, as well as the community’s aspirations and its flaws. I was a good friend of Nichol, and considered him a mentor. I was a part of ‘artist marathons’ led by bp and fellow therapist Grant Goodbrand, and I had a relationship with Nichol that was based on both literary and therapeutic concerns.

The Therafields foundation was centred in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood from the early ‘60s to the mid-‘80s. Nichol was involved with Therafields from 1964 to 1986. Therafields operated with Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theories as the primary influence, but with other psychological and social thinkers of the late 20th century woven in, including Edmund Bergler and Wilhelm Reich. Clients of the therapeutic process explored their ‘family dramas’ and repressed emotions (due to traumatic childhood incidents which our psyches couldn’t cope with) and the (mostly negative) influences of those on our present lives. Sessions took the form of client-therapist one-on-ones, group sessions, and retreats.

As I look back on those days, I see that valuable personal truths were revealed to many of us, but the term ‘drama’ could most certainly be applied. I now think that some of those emotional complexes were overdramatized. Hence I think that bp’s musings and note-takings at the time have to be taken more lightly today. Davey gives bp’s ‘life notes’ more weight than they ought to bear, especially those probings into Nichol’s ‘family drama’. As I got to know Nichol in the early ‘70s and ‘80s, he was more concerned with and engaged in the present than the past. I felt uncomfortable reading some of Davey’s profiling and deductions recording Nichol’s psyche. For example, Davey makes much of Nichol’s fear of being in a relationship with a woman, and relates this to childhood fears Barrie apparently had around his mother Avis. I recall a time when such fears were a big theme in relationship analyses in Therafields. It seemed that we all had this condition, or we thought we did, and maybe we did, or maybe not. I observed only complete comfort and dedication in bp’s relationship with his wife Ellie and daughter Sarah whenever I visited them in their home.

Davey deals extensively with problems in the Therafields organization, which most certainly affected bp significantly, and accurately portrays the resulting stresses in bp’s life – stresses more wearing than I or many who knew him were aware of. As the Vice-president of the Therafields corporation, Barrie was often the man-in-the-middle, trying to resolve opposing forces, trying to keep the entity together – trying to facilitate accord between the group of disaffected therapists, and the growingly dysfunctional corporate structure. This is the role Nichol took, too, in The Four Horsemen sound poetry group, and with Coach House Press as group dynamics in those places disintegrated. Davey covers these disintegrations well. Nichol was the ultimate diplomat, working with his humour and personal skills to solidify the whole. It is painful to read accounts of such efforts and to recall the toll it took on bp and his artistic work. Yet, somehow through it all, bp still managed a prodigious creative output.

I found Davey’s representation of the evolution of bp’s works to be the most valid and essential part of the book, but felt it deserved even deeper critical investigation by Davey. I was reminded of and amazed by the restless range of bp’s artistic imagination and his ideas for projects. That work ranges from the multi-book poem The Martyrology to the ‘cartoon’ drawings, the concrete work, the critical explorations (mostly with Steve McCaffery), and the sound poetry (mostly with The Four Horsemen). Then there are the television scripts (Fraggle Rock, Blizzard Island, etc.), the publishing endeavours (Coach House Press, grOnk, Ganglia, Underwhich Editions), the ‘transcreations’ such as Translating Translating Apollinaire, musical theatre scripts scores and productions (‘Group,’ ‘The Gargoyle’), “Pataphysical explorations, children’s books, and even his ideas for board games.

Davey’s interpretation of Nichol’s mythic, poetic ethereal home – Cloudtown and its saints (St. And, St. Ranglehold, etc.) and sacred poetic material – words – and the evolution of this paradise and its inhabitants is perceptive. I must say I was completely surprised to learn of Nichol’s fixation with completing the manuscript ‘John Cannyside’, which would remain incomplete and unpublished. Davey notes “Barrie’s devotion to this repeatedly uncompleted Cannyside project, and to autobiography in general, was now close to obsessive” (p. 240). Can we take this as evidence of Nichol’s intention to telling his own story in all his writing? I think not, just as we cannot take The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid as autobiography; it is the product of a creative imagination.

For me, much of reading aka bpNichol involved reliving aspects of my life in the ‘70s and ‘80s – those lived in the circle that bp touched. This included, of course, events leading up to bp’s death. Davey’s reports the development of bp’s back ailment.

I recalled bp’s days of discomfort and the concern that many of us had for his condition, never realizing then the price that would be paid for a faulty diagnosis. I also recall how Nichol laughed through much of that time, how he gave his energy generously to other writers, and how he kept fuelling his creative processes, despite his agony. Throughout aka bpNichol Davey neglects to discuss Nichol’s prodigious generosity, how he could deeply touch or affect writers wherever he appeared, and how his confident humility made everyone he met feel engaged and comfortable.

Davey has done his research. He covers the scope of bp’s engagements in many projects and communities, with accuracy and economy. The problem is that Davey fails to separate fact from fiction, reality from imagination, in a satisfying way.

When Davey becomes the psychoanalyst, he treads on questionable ground. Nonetheless a reader senses that Davey does hold Nichol’s work, and the man, in high regard. As this biography concludes, one detects a mildly honorific tone to Davey’s words, suggesting that bpNichol and his work lay claim to a significant place in poetry’s history.


A Visit to Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Poetic Garden

Little Sparta formerly known as Stoneypath, is a work of art and a garden—seven acres set in the rolling Pentland Hills about forty kilometers outside of Edinburgh, near Dunsyre, Scotland. It was a long-term project of Ian Hamilton Finlay, the reclusive Scottish artist and poet, who died in 2006, and it now lives on through the Little Sparta Trust. The garden combines tended and wild grasses, plants, and water with what can only be described as language events—poems, names, citations, and images set on or into physical structures and sculptures large and small. Artistic, poetic, moral, historic, and philosophical themes run through the garden landscape as readily as the streams and ponds that flow and ripple across the countryside. More than 275 artworks blend with the landscape and create a multi-dimensional experience. The visitor’s eyes stir with the views, and the mind resonates with meanings and associations evoked by shape and language in this intersection of words, sculpture, and horticulture. It is an all-natural, awe-inspiring experiential poem.

Finlay created this garden over twenty-five years after moving there with his wife, Sue, in 1966. His vision of the place was realized in collaboration with Sue who was the garden’s planter, and with stonemasons and letter-cutters. Within the site there are ten distinct areas, including the Roman Garden, tree-shaded and with six stone works on plinths; the Temple Pool Garden, with two stone temple buildings, and Finlay’s former residence, and a nearly still pool that mirrors the foliage and the art works surrounding it; and the wilder Lochan Eck Garden which edges on the pond where Finlay’s white dinghy still sits among the shore grasses – along with a wooden rail inscribed with the word “PICTURESQUE.”

I wander the natural paths and come upon a stream. I cross it on a pair of parallel wooden planks, each about six feet long, and each with the words “THAT WHICH JOINS AND THAT WHICH DIVIDES IS ONE AND THE SAME” running in opposite directions. I come up over a rise to encounter a series of six stone walls, each about six feet long and waist high, with a line of a metamorphosing poem embedded into each one. The poem ends with “HORIZONS LONG” and “FOR LITTLE FIELDS.” I discover a low white-clapboard beehive inscribed with “SWEET PROMISE” on a top board beneath its low-peaked roof. I find a flat slab of smooth square gray stone set in the grass inscribed with a lovely sonic verse: “THEY LIGHTLY SKIM / AND GENTLY SIP THE / DIMPLED RIVER’S BRIM.” These are just a few of the discoveries that await the visitor on this transcendent afternoon – moments of peace, awe, wit, and wonder, and moments beyond verbal description.


This excerpt is from “Growing in a Poet’s Garden: A Visit to Little Sparta” by Steven Ross Smith, was first published by Poets & Writers Magazine (January/February, Volume 43, Issue 1, 2015). Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Poets & Writers Inc., 90 Broad St., New York, NY, 10004. www.pw.org


New Poetics Reader Just Published

About four years ago in my role as Managing Editor of Banff Centre Press, I attempted to initiate a book on poetics to augment the writing art & craft ‘how-to’ books already published by the Press. I had a few conversations with potential editors, but to no avail … until Vancouver poet Fred Wah agreed to take it on. He brought on British poet Amy De’Ath (now living in Canada) as co-editor as he wanted to include a younger sensibility with another perspective besides his own. The result is more even comprehensive and exciting than I envisioned.

Toward. Some. Air., published this spring, in 343 pages, features more than 40 pieces by over 50 writers, Canadian and international, pondering the art of poetry through many lenses – social, aesthetic, interventive, indigenous, digital, conceptual, and more.

Peter Jaeger writes, in the book’s ‘Contextual Essay:’ “The anthology’s title suggests a sense of movement, a direction ‘toward’ a breath of fresh air – perhaps even toward the sign air as a metonymy for psychological, physical, and social health … this anthology is marked by polyvocality, poetic and theoretical responses to the body, and a shared interest in politics.”

It includes Andrea Brady, Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm, Jeff Derksen, Michael Davidson, Lisa Robertson, Caroline Bergvall, Nicole Brossard, Keith Tuma, Nick Montfort, Stephanie Strickland, Sina Queyras, Daphne Marlatt, Sean Bonney, and more.

Available from Banff Centre Press or Literary Press Group/LitDistCo, or your favourite book seller.

What Poet Charles Noble Really Said

In the interview I did with poet Charles Noble, published in WestWord the Writers’ Guild of Alberta magazine, I inadvertently left our a word crucial to understanding of Charles’ point. The omitted word was ‘myths’. Here’s what the Noble poet, farmer, and weightlifter said:

“So I began jotting in a notebook, while driving the tractor. Finally when seeding was over for the summer I made poems from those notes. The only way you could dramatize Kantian operators behind those situations was for it to come out as zany or surreal or bizarre. So it’s kind of ironic that this surreal aspect comes from a super-rational philosopher—a weird justice nevertheless. In The Raw and the Cooked Levi-Strauss analyzes “crazy” myths as “Kantianism without the transcendental ego.” Then in 1978, the book, Haywire Rainbow, came out with my ‘superpoet’ poems in it.

SRS: While taking all those notes while seeding you must have been cutting some pretty wiggly rows.

CN: Yes there were a few times I had to correct the steering.”



The full interview can be found in the May-June 2015 issue of Westword. Available to members from the Writers’ Guild of Alberta; also available to members in online form. 

(Charles Noble’s most recent book is The Kindness Colder Than the Elements, published by Athabasca University Press, 2011)

First Blog: Thoughts on Writing and Distraction

Many articles have been written on the ways in which being constantly accessible and digitally connected can increase stress levels, at a low and steady rate. One manifestation of stress and distraction – and I’ve done this and see it all around me – is when we pull out our cell phones in ‘empty’ moments between ‘tasks;’ moments like waiting for an appointment, or for a light to change, or when a conversation flags – out comes the smart phone. I think we’re letting ourselves be kept in a state of constant anticipation; and we use our devices to enable escape from our own thoughts or feelings. We tune out of ourselves and into an external channel. Let’s be honest – in that channel messages are not always urgent or memorable. And if we’re not tuning in we get prompted: “Mike has changed his FaceBook profile picture,” or “’Some people you may know on Twitter.” And we tap in. Digital devices can often be much like fast food, quick but nutritionally empty. They keep us in a state of constant arousal and hunger; we’re being conditioned, Pavlovian-style. Our state of hunger is maintained but is not fulfilled. Insatiably, we tune outward and not inward.

Some studies have shown that multi-tasking alters brain chemistry, increasing the dopamine levels and adrenaline. Dopamine initiates feelings of happiness and adrenaline is a stress hormone. There’s a kind of strange artificially stimulated chemical battle going on in our brains and in our psyche that is shaping our habits. And we’re left with little space for daydreaming, pondering, or awakening ideas and associations.

At this point in my treatise I assume digital-defenders are leaping up. I say “Easy, easy.” Of course there are positive attributes of the digi-sphere when used well. But that’s for another essay. (I’m trying to stay focused, right?).

In my yoga practice of over a dozen years, I’ve often heard instructors tell class members what to do when attention strays from the pose (the asana) of the moment, when the mind starts to whine about the difficulty, or when we compare ourselves to some other yogi in the room. The instructor will say, “Just let the thoughts go and bring your attention back to your breath.” People who meditate speak about the same dynamic . . . “bring your attention back.” I understood that, but had forgotten that I needed to engage the same mode in my writing practice. In such a focused mode – simultaneously empty and spacious – we come deeply in touch with ourselves. This contact with oneself – with one’s being – is most important for deep discoveries in mind and imagination. This state, I believe, is essential for liberating a writer’s, an artist’s, creative energy. That’s where I want to be.