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.