bill bissett 2007
“bill bissett is a one-man culture… he is a lesson to us all.” — James Reaney
“bill bissett is my astral twin” — Margaret Atwood
“The greatest living poet today” — Jack Kerouac on bill bissett, Paris Review
After 45 years as a writer and publisher, bill bissett became the 13th recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for outstanding contributions to literature in British Columbia in 2007.
From a literary/historical perspective, bissett took off in British Columbia where Earle Birney left off. Fundamentally Left Coast, but more recently bi-coastal, bissett has written more than 60 books that are immediately identifiable by the incorporation of his artwork and his consistently phonetic (funetik) spelling. As an energetic “man-child mystic,” bill bissett is living proof of William Blake’s adage “the spirit of sweet delight can never be defiled.” His idealistic and ecstatic stances frequently obscure his critical-mindedness, humour and craftmanship.
bill bissett was born in Halifax on November 23, 1939. He spent much of his teen years in hospital for treatment of an abdominal condition, peritonitis. His mother died when he was 14 in 1953. During this period he became deeply immersed in movies, to the consternation of his father, a judge, who hoped his son would follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer.
While attending Dalhousie University in 1956, bissett ran away with a preacher’s son to join the circus, ending up in Vancouver in 1958 (“either 1958 or ’59”). In the early 1960s, bissett worked at the Vancouver Public Library and UBC Library while experimenting with language and drugs, chiefly with Lance Farrell and Martina Clinton. The latter was bissett’s partner for much of the 1960s, from 1961 to 1967, and became the mother of their daughter, Oolijah, born in 1962.
While the TISH poetry movement was forming at UBC, bissett, according to his Talonbooks publisher Karl Siegler, was “universally recognized as one of the grooviest, stonedest, weird freaks–one of the great Olympians of the Kitsilano hippie scene.” From 1963 to 1965, bissett also attended the University of British Columbia where he met professor Warren Tallman. During the early 1960s bissett also met fellow poets such as Patrick Lane, Judith Copithorne, Jim Brown and Maxine Gadd.
In 1962, encouraged by fellow writers Robbie Sutherland and Lance Farrell, bissett randomly picked the name for his mimeograph publishing imprint, blewointmentpress, by blindly picking a word from the dictionary [dicksyunaree]. The ointment described in the dictionary entry was a medication for the treatment of crab-lice. He now recalls the first issue of his blewointment poetry magazine appear in 1962. Other early literary cohorts included Kurt Lang, with some support from Earle Birney and Dorothy Livesay.
“in th beginning,” he writes, “othr magazeens n publishrs wud not publish us as we wer the downtown oets n mostlee vizual non linear n not cumming from aneewhee n mostlee left wing politikalee… so manee politikul trubuls sew manee wundrful times thousands uv dayze n nites being coverd with ink lettrs spaces within the phrases.” In 1965, bissett co-founded Very Stone House with Lane, Brown and Seymour Mayne. In 1966, he published his first two books, fires in the tempul OR the jinx ship n othr trips (Very Stone House/blewointment) as well as we sleep inside each other all (bp nichol’s Ganglia Press).
Also in 1966, after speaking out against the Viet Nam war on a CBC-TV documentary, bissett began to be followed. He claims he was beaten up and harassed by police. Two social workers bought $800 worth of his paintings and advised him to leave town or else he and Martina Clinton wouldn’t be allowed to keep their daughter.
In 1968, bissett co-founded a cooperative art gallery, Th Mandan Ghetto, with Joy Long and Gregg Simpson, and he was busted while taking marijuana to a Powell River commune. He spent a few weeks in the winter of 1968-69 at the Oakalla prison farm, plus some time in jail in Powell River, Vancouver and Burnaby. He was fined $500 but federal authorities vowed to appeal the ruling, wanting a stiffer sentence. During this period he also released a 12-inch vinyl LP, produced by Jim Brown, in conjunction with his book entitled awake in the red desert (Talonbooks).
The major disaster–or turning point–in bissett’s life occurred during this period at a Kitsilano house party in 1969. Having performed earlier in the evening at a concrete poetry show, bissett fell through a folding door that was supposed to be latched shut–and plummeted 20 feet to the concrete floor in the basement, severely injuring his head. “Or at least that’s what they tell me. Those brain cells have gone.” (The door had been unlatched to let the cat downstairs for its milk. A two-year court case was won by the insurance company and bissett never received any compensation.)
bissett was paralyzed and catatonic, about to be sent for Riverview for electric shock treatments, when an interning neurologist rescued him by correctly diagnosing his inter-cerebral bleeding. After an emergency operation, bissett couldn’t communicate and he suffered from edema and aphasia (memory loss). “So I was like a write-off.” The neurologist was the only person who believed he might recuperate. Stirred by visits from poetry comrades such as Warren Tallman and Gerry Gilbert, bissett confounded the older physicians by relearning body movements and speech with the aid of the young neurologist who brought him balls to squeeze, taught him the alphabet and insisted he try to paint again.
Gradually his combination of aphasia, edema, paralysis and epilepsy abated–and bissett was able to see and paint auras. The near-death experience and second long-term hospitalization heightened his appreciation for life and also spared him from returning to prison. When federal authorities arrived at the hospital to serve notice of appeal within a prescribed 30-day period, the head nurse advised them bissett would be dead within a week. Their case was dropped.
bissett’s poetry was the subject of a six-month brouhaha in Parliament in 1977-78 over the fact that taxpayers were subsidizing allegedly profane poetry. A nucleus of Conservatives led by Fraser Valley West MP Bob Wenman complained to the Canada Council about grants to bissett’s main publishers since the mid-1970s, Talonbooks. The controversy arose from material in a book by CJOR hotliner Ed Murphy called A Legacy of Spending in which bissett’s work was reprinted without permission. “I’m a taxpayer, too,” bissett later responded, “but I don’t tell an engineer how to build a bridge.”
UBC poetry professor Warren Tallman and Talonbooks organized benefits with poets that included Allen Ginsberg and Margaret Atwood. bissett recalls, “th censorios n akusing buzzards wer kept at bay 4 ovr 2 yeers warren held a yeer uv huge poetree reedings dfending my self n othr poets n blewointent n othr small presses n great lawyr friend sid simons prepared writs 2 serv.” Hundreds of supporters lent their names to a full-page ad in the Vancouver Sun. The defence of bissett and Talonbooks was a galvanizing factor in the emergence of the literary culture in British Columbia.
Experimentation was validated and the ‘arms-length’ integrity of the Canada Council was reinforced.
To silence their critics, bissett and Talonbooks filed suit in the Supreme Court of B.C. on June 23, 1978 against eight Conservative MPs, seven newspapers and 13 others for libel and violation of copyright, but bissett himself never benefited from the controversy. Don Precosky has provided the best journalistic summary of this literary tempest, available elsewhere on the web. He also effectively discusses how academic and mainstream critics such as Al Purdy have chronically skewered bissett with their condescending praise.
Neither bissett nor his own press received any funding from Canada Council in the year of the upheaval. Eventually Canada Council reduced funding support for blewointmentpress by 42% in 1982. bissett went into debt–again. He was exhausted. BC BookWorld publisher Alan Twigg contacted Harbour Publishing’s Howard White and together they paid off bissett’s creditors in order to keep blewointment afloat.
bissett no longer wished to manage blewointment so Twigg and White briefly shared ownership of the imprint on an interim basis until Twigg gave away his share soon thereafter (it went to Harbour employee Marisa Alps). After 20 years of Vancouver-based activity, the press was moved to Ontario under the stewardship of White’s brother-in-law, David Lee, in 1983, then subsequently moved back to B.C. as Nightwood Editions. The press continues to publish poetry, mostly by younger poets, and has been chiefly managed by Silas White.
“now publishing in bc is huge,” he writes, “totalee multifasitid vigourous n prinsipuld n tho th forces against art n kultur may try 2 stamp us out we continu on with sew manee voices sew manee platforms ull uv wch is totalee necessaree 2 a civl n demokratik societee without support uv th arts a countree will sink in2 brutalitee…. th rite wing nevr sleeps.”
Powers-that-try-to-be in Canada have often looked askance at bissett, as if he can’t be for real, but when he’s gone, we’ll safely pronounce he was a national treasure. Meanwhile bill bissett has humourly written that he was “on th first shuttul uv childrn from lunaria 2 erth i was with th othr childrn combing th orange lite evree morning the main sours uv enerjee on lunaria i came 2 b heer on erth as part uv a reserch teem 2 undrstad erth wayze iuv bin heer 300 yeers in lunarian time n am getting nowher…” bissett’s first collected works appeared as NOBODY OWNS TH EARTH (House of Anansi, 1971), selected by Dennis Lee and Margaret Atwood.
A second collected edition was Beyond Even Faithful Legends, Selected Poems 1962-1976 (Talonbooks, 1980). He has twice won the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize (in 1993, for inkorrect thots, and in 2003, for peter among th towring boxes) and he received the Milton Acorn People’s Poet Award in 1991. He was one of the Writers-in-Residence in The Capilano Review’s Writing Practices Program and the Capilano College publication devoted its 25th anniversary issue to bissett in 1997, edited by Patrick Friesen, in concert with a tribute at the Vancouver Writers Festival.
Since the 1990s, bissett has divided his time between the West Coast and London, Ontario (“Centralia”), where he was the vocalist for a rock group, The Luddites. As much a painter as he is a poet, bissett has largely supported himself since the 1960s by selling his paintings and by reading poetry. The Vancouver Art Gallery hosted an extensive one-man show of bissett’s art, curated by Scott Watson, in 1984, called fires in th tempul. “The magical world of the child,” wrote Watson, “with all his libidinal precociousness, is what bissett is after in his painting…” That’s a bit much. Sometimes he’s trying to make a buck or two in order to eat. But there’s no question that bissett has been one of the most original and widely appreciated poets Canada has ever produced.
Following an art exhibition and performance of bissett’s concrete poetry entitled The Writing on the Wall, curated by Lenore Herb, in Vancouver in 2004, editors Jeff Pew and Stephen Roxborough solicited poems for a tribute volume about bissett entitled radiant danse uv being (Nightwood, 2006), a blewointment book. Also in 2006, he was the subject of a Bravo film, heart uv a poet, written and produced by Maureen Judge. bissett has released at least five CDs. Everyone who meets him soon realizes he repeatedly uses the words “Excellent!” and “Raging!” in his conversation.
fires in the tempul OR Th Jinx ship nd othr trips: pomes, drawings, collage. Vancouver: Very Stone House, 1966.
we sleep inside each other all. Toronto: Ganglia Press. 1966
what poetiks. Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1967.
Th Gossamer Bed Pan. Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1967.
where is miss florence riddle? Toronto: Fleye Press, 1967; Vancouver, blewointmentpress, 1973.
heat makes th heart’s window for Martina. Broadside. Toronto: Coach House Press, 1967.
lebanon voices. Toronto: Weed/Flower Press, 1967.
Gertrude Stein. Toronto: Gronk Press, 1967.
Awake in the Red Desert. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1968.
sunday work (?) Vancouver: blewointmentpress. 1968.
Wagon wheeelsss. Broadside. Vancouver: Western Press, 1968.
Of th Land/Divine Service. Toronto: Weed/Flower Press, 1968.
liberating skies. Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1969.
lost angel mining co. Ed. Freda Nobbs. Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1969.
s th story i to: trew adventure. Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1970.
tuff shit: [love pomes]. Windsor: Bandit Press, 1970.
Tell me what attackd yu. Broadside. Vancouver: Pulp Press, 197-?.
why dusint the League of Canadian Poets do sumthing nd get an organizer for cross country poetry reading circuit: [sic] press release/chapbook. Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1970.
blew trewz. Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1971.
dragon fly. Toronto: Weed/Flower Press, 1971.
IBM (saga uv th relees uv huuman spirit from compuewterr funckshuns) Vancouver: Blewointment Press, 1971.
drifting into war. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1971.
Nobody owns th earth. Toronto: Anansi Press, 1971.
RUSH what fuckan thery: a study uv language. Toronto: Gronk Press, 1971.
Air 6. Vancouver: Air Press, 1971.
Th ice bag (th high green hill, polar bear hunt, words in th fire). Vancouver: Blewointment Press, 1972.
pomes for yoshi. Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1972; Talonbooks, 1977.
Air 10-11-12. Vancouver: Air Press, 1972.
Four parts sand: concrete poems. With Earle Birney, Judith Copithorne and Andy Suknaski. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1972.
th first sufi line. Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1973.
pass th food release th spirit book. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1973.
living with the vishyun. Vancouver: New Star Books, 1974.
MEDICINE my mouth on fire. Ottawa: Oberon, 1974.
space travl. Vancouver: Air, 1974.
what. Vancouver: Blewointmentpress, 1974.
yu can eat it at th opening. Vancouver: Blewointmentpress, 1974.
Vancouver mainland ice & cold storage. London: Writer’s Forum, 1974.
image being. Vancouver: Blewointmentpress, 1975.
stardust. Vancouver: Blewointmentpress, 1975.
th fifth sun. Vancouver: Blewointmentpress, 1975.
venus. Vancouver: Blewointmentpress, 1975.
an allusyn to macbeth. Coatsworth, Ont.: Black Moss P, 1976.
plutonium missing. Vancouver: Intermedia Press, 1976.
th wind up tongue. Vancouver: blewointmentpress, 1976.
Sailor. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1978.
Sa n th monkey. Vancouver: Blewointmentpress, 1980.
selected poems: beyond even faithful legends. Ed. bill bissett. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1980.
Soul arrow. Vancouver: Blewointmentpress, 1980.
northern birds in color. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1981.
Sa n his crystal ball. Vancouver: Blewointmentpress, 1981.
parlant. Translated by Bertrand Lachance. Vancouver: Editions blewointment, 1982.
seagull on Yonge Street. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1983.
Ready for framing. Vancouver: Blewointmentpress, 1983.
Write me an adventure. Toronto: Gronk Press, 1983.
Fires in th tempul. [Exhibition catalogue with poetry.] Vancouver Art Gallery, September 28 to November 18, 1984. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1984.
canada gees mate for life. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1985.
animal uproar. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1987.
what we have. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1988.
Rezoning. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1989.
hard 2 beleev. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1990.
inkorrect thots. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1992.
th last photo uv th human soul. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1993.
th influenza uv logik. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1995.
loving without being vulnrabul. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1997.
scars on the seehors. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 1999.
ekstaseez uv apricots. Writers Forum, London UK: 1999.
b leev abul char ak trs. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2000.
peter among th towring boxes / text bites. Vancouver, Talonbooks, 2002.
narrativ enigma / rumours uv hurricane. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2004.
ths is erth thees ar peopul. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2007.
sublingual. Vancouver: Talonbooks, 2008.
off th road plus. CD with Chris Meloche, 2000.
rainbow mewsik, Red Deer Press, 2001. (CD with Chris Meloche).
unmatching phenomena, volume 1. Blue Loon Productions. (CD with Dennis Cornies), 2002.
rumours uv hurricane. Red Deer Press, 2003. (CD with Bill Roberts).
deth interrupts th dansing / a strangr space. Red Deer Press, 2005 (CD produced with Pete Dako, Sound Poetry; 40-page booklet from Talonbooks).
bill bissett: Essays on His Works (Toronto: Guernica Editions, 2002) by Linda Rogers.
radiant danse uv being (Nightwood Editions, 2006), a blewointment book, edited by Jeff Pew and Stephen Roxborough.
Heart of a Poet (documentary film, 2006 ) by Maureen Judge (Toronto: makin’ movies).