Frank Davey. When TISH Happens (ECW Press 2011 [$19.95])
Subtitled ‘The Unlikely Story of Canada’s “Most Influential Literary Magazine,’ When TISH Happens is a savvy mixture of memory, archival reconstruction, history, & high quality literary gossip, rendered in Frank Davey’s coolly analytic yet slyly witty style. Davey displays the wit from the very start, in his epigraph, from bpNichol’s The True Eventual Story of Billy the Kid: ‘eventually all other stories will appear untrue beside this one.’ That’s both an invitation & a warning, but perhaps the invitation is most important.
Of course, it eventually attempts to tell the story of TISH & how its original editorial board (Davey, George Bowering, David Dawson, Jamie Reid,& Fred Wah, with help from the beginning from Gladys Hindmarch & Daphne Marlatt [then Buckle]) slowly gathered & came to similar conclusions about what their poetics should be, & then decided to start a magazine; but it begins, & mostly continues, as a memoir of Davey’s first 34 years. Because it concerns his growing awareness of writing as important to culture & society as well as his eventual meeting with the people who became, & remain, so important to him as both friends & fellow writers, it widens its focus to narrate a version of the history of TISH & eventually a personal vision of the larger literary history of Canada over the past 5 decades.
‘Part One The Tiger on the Mountain (World War 2, Postwar, Pre-Tish [1942 – 1957])’ starts with his 2 two-year-old sense of place & family, & continues to narrate his life growing up in Abbotsford BC, a solid West Coast kid with superior intelligence, a work ethic, & lots of, as one of his friends would later tell him, good luck (in choice of friends, support from adults & even institutions, & somehow being in the right places at the right times). The format is interesting throughout, but especially in this first part, as he utilizes apparent monthly journal entries in the first person (of course they cant be; but the format allows for a fairly consistent time-line throughout), followed at the end of each part by a questioning afterword of sorts that looks back over the period just covered & fills in some of the unavoidable lacunae. A further narrative ploy, especially in this first part, is what might be called an ironic prolepsis where he tells us about one of the others whom he will not meet for years while admitting he shouldn’t be doing so. Oddly, this demonstrates the kind of writing open to the moment that they would learn during the TISH years. The tale is a fairly usual one, for bright young men of the time: he finishes school early, gets admitted to UBC, works at various summer jobs & learns a bit about the world outside books, & reads, a lot. It’s well done, & whets the reader’s appetite for the meetings & events to come when he finally gets together with his fellow writers, looking for a way to express their unique place & time in Canada.
In ‘Part Two Listen to the Sound of It (Studying Poetry, First Meetings, First Commitments [1957-1961]), the shortest chapter of When TISH Happens, Davey gets to UBC, eventually chooses English as his major, meets some other writers & joins a writing club, takes a course from Warren Tallman, & eventually meets some of the people who will be his life-long friends & companions in poetry. Tallman is very important to what happens next: first he invites Robert Duncan to his house, where he reads, among other things, ‘Poem Beginning with a Line by Pindar.’ Davey remembers: ‘a stunning text which he says he began by listening to, and following, the rhythmic and tonal implications of the Pindar line – “The light foot hears you and the brightness begins.” The “brightness” that I sense is the opening of new possibilities of poetic form and ways of writing.’ there are 2 other important events, especially for Davey: his infatuation with Daphne Buckle leads to his hosting a ‘Projective Verse’ party, which she & most of the other future TISH editors attend; their continuing arguments over the essay at the Tallmans’ push him to suggest they invite Duncan up to give some lectures on the new poetry & poetics. The bits Davey quotes from these lectures just begin to suggest how exciting they must have been (Duncan’s enthusiastic sense of what he & his colleagues are doing remains infectious today). By the end, Fred Wah has suggested they start a magazine & eventually the 5 ‘guys’ whose names appeared on the first masthead would do so (in another kind of prolepsis, Davey notices, from a much later & perhaps more enlightened site, that ‘The apostrophe-s of Fred’s ”Let’s start a magazine” hasn’t been a shifter that necessarily addressed Pauline, Carol, Gladys, Judith, or Daphne.’ He will append other such reminders of the sexism of the day as the narrative proceeds.
In his afterword to Part Two, Davey looks at others’ memories of how TISH started, & recognizes how each of them has a particularized version of these events. He realizes that the ways they disagree with one another ‘are merely part of the hurly-burly violence of French theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s “field of cultural production” – a violence that most critics . . . like to pretend to be outside of.’ He also acknowledges how important that infatuation with Daphne was to all that subsequently happened, at least as he remembers it (& there the import of the epigraph comes to the fore).
The long ‘Part Three A TISH Story (Going Public, Finding Friends, Making Enemies [1961-1963])’ stretches out & is well worth all the space it takes. It’s full of inside history, which includes lively gossip about all their intertwined lives. As he & Bowering find themselves teaching first year English at UBC & getting various machines to print the magazine, various members of TISH get married, graduate, start thinking about what to do next, & push their little magazine, with its poetics editorials out into the world. Davey still finds much to admire as well as criticize in those statements & especially in the way of thinking, feeling, writing they espouse. He also has interesting things to say about the inferred rivalry between the TISH poets & the ’downtown’ poets like Newlove & bissett, which really never existed in the ways that some critics have suggested. He carefully acknowledges the different kinds of help & support they received, such as Tallman pushing him toward a first book. He also represents the different ways they were trying to write their own versions of projective verse. Another thing he notes, & theorizes now within the narrative, is everyone’s casual sexism, & how it was (is) an aspect of the language we use. There’s also Duncan’s generous views from San Francisco, how much such support meant. Of course, it had to end; they graduated & went off to separate lives. But that, he argues, is the point: ‘Tish for the five of us, as cooperators and as individuals, was a project about moving on, moving onward, moving into the open.’ This chapter is the core of the book, if we take the title literally, but because it also sets up what followed for many of them, the final part also proves important.
‘Part Four Spreading TISH (New Ecologies, Parties, Books, Children, Vendettas, Magazines [1963-1974, & here & there-after])’ returns its main focus to Davey’s life & work, but because of his interest in remaining in touch with the others & in continuing to find ways via magazines to remain in conversation with them, it does gather a lot of information about the whole gang as it has found its place in Canadian writing (I might say ‘Canadian Literature’ but Davey isn’t really interested in that particular ideological construction as such). Robert Creeley comes to UBC but at the time, Davey doesn’t see him much; he meets other writers, including Louis Dudek. He tells of how he came to write certain books, how he kept trying to remain true to the open poetics he first inferred when he heard that Duncan poem. There are the first series of Open Letter when he taught at Royal Roads in Victoria, the later series when he started teaching at York, & all the events in between those two that led from one to the other. It’s a good story, & he tells it well, fully aware of the various people who helped him along the way, & whose support as well as criticism proved important to his continuing development as a writer. There’s loads of documentation for all this too, & Davey uses it to reveal both his strengths & weaknesses. There are also his 2 marriages, & how much his second wife, Linda, contributed to whatever success he has had. There’s a generosity of spirit in his many quotations of poetics letters from fellow writers like Daphne Marlatt & Gladys Hindmarch, as well as that original masthead group. But he also almost gleefully registers his negative response to a work like Atwood’s Survival, the way it seems to him to be a Central Canada text that simply doesn’t get the writing from further west, especially the Coast. So it ends with the publication of From There to Here, his overview of recent Canadian writing in the mid-70s.
In the afterword he takes up cudgels again where he feels it’s necessary, but also takes account of the many ‘what ifs’ that might have prevented TISH from ever happening; again, this includes a generous recognition of all the help he’s had along the way, often from people he’d never have expected it from. He has, like the others, branched out from the poetics of the original TISH, but he also suggests that such a branching out is inherent in that poetics. Intriguingly, he suggests that Daphne & Gladys have remained closest to that original ideal. At the end, he proposes, as he did in From There to Here, ‘that ‘the goal was “the decentralization of human power, whether literary, political, or economic,” to enable a citizen to be “a participant, the normal and desirable human condition”.’ Sadly, as our recent election has shown, that is still more hope than actuality.
In the end, When TISH Happens is so much more than simply a history of a literary movement. It’s such a rich & generous text itself; there is so much information in this book, that all I can say is read it. Read it all.