Phyllis Webb 1999
In 1999, Phyllis Webb received the fifth George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia.
She was born in Victoria on April 8, 1927 to Mary Patton and Alfred Wilkes Webb, the youngest child and only daughter in a family of three. Her parents later divorced. She joined the provincial C.C.F. party in 1945 and graduated from UBC with a B.A. in English and Philosophy in 1949. In the same year she ran as a Victoria C.C.F. candidate in the provincial election, becoming the youngest person in the Commonwealth to seek office in a Legislative assembly.
In 1940 she attended the national C.C.F. convention where she met F.R. Scott, her most important early literary influence, having participated in an off-campus writing group led by Earle Birney. In 1950 Webb moved to Montreal and completed a year of graduate studies at McGill. Between 1951 and 1956 she lived in Montreal, associating with fellow writers Louis Dudek, Eli Mandel, Irving Layton, Miriam Waddington and Leonard Cohen, and had her first book of poems published in 1954, including poems by Eli Mandel and Gael Turnbull. It was published by Raymond Souster’s Contact Press in Toronto.
She also lived and worked in England, Ireland and France. She received a Canadian Government Overseas Award which enabled her to live in Paris for a year-and-a-half until 1959. She returned to Canada and worked as a freelance copy editor for McClelland & Stewart, publishers of her 1956 collection Even Your Right Eye, and also read scripts for CBC.
She moved to Vancouver in 1960 and began working as a teacher’s assistant in English at UBC in 1961. Inspired by a 1963 poetry conference at UBC, Webb was influenced by the West Coast experimentalism of San Francisco and Black Mountain poets such as Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Allen Ginsberg (all of whom she interviewed).
In 1964 she accepted a job as Program Organizer in Public Affairs for CBC Radio and she moved to Toronto. During this period, with her colleague William A. Young, she instigated the still-running program Ideas, the most distinguished series of programs of its kind in Canadian broadcasting. From 1967 to 1969 she was the Executive Producer of the program.
During a leave-of-absence from CBC, she travelled to the Soviet Union and also discovered Salt Spring Island as a place for writing and revitalization. She became intrigued with the anarchist movement, beginning work on her ‘Kropotkin Poems’. Increasingly drawn to her own writing, Webb resigned from CBC, having interviewed writers on television (including F.R. Scott, Dorothy Livesay, Margaret and bill bissett) and moved to Vancouver, to ‘save her soul’.
She published her Selected Poems 1954-1965 with Talonbooks in 1971. The next year she received the B.C. Library Association Prize for ‘the writer who has made the greatest contribution to the poetry of B.C. in the past five years.’ The suicides of her friend Lilo Berliner (in 1977) and the anthropologist Wilson Duff intensified her writing and furthered her explorations of West Coast imagery and mythology. Prior to her death, Berliner left her correspondence with Wilson Duff about Haida mythology on Webb’s doorstep. Between 1976 and 1979 she variously taught Creative Writing at UBC and UVic.
She was Writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta (1980-1981) and published Wilson’s Bowl in 1980. “My poems are born out of great struggles of silence,” she wrote, “…wayward, natural and unnatural silences, my desire for privacy, my critical hesitations, my critical wounds, my dissatisfactions with myself and my work have all contributed to a strange gestation.” Webb taught briefly at the Banff School of Fine Arts and also the University of Victoria, then moved back to her Salt Spring Island home in 1990.
Webb initiated a chapter of Amnesty International on Saltspring Island, protested alleged sexist hiring practices at CBC and decried alleged gender bias in Canada Council awards in the 1970s and 1980s. “Phyllis Webb is a protean writer of lambent sensibility,” George Woodcock wrote, “The shifts in her style, like loops of a spiral, are always introducing us to something new; and usually to something better.”
“Phyllis Webb is one of the finest poets now writing in Canada,” wrote Stephen Scobie. “In fact, dropping the academic equivocation, she is the finest.” In ‘Evensong’ she once wrote, “Tending towards music / the artist’s life tends towards solitary notes / slips of the tongue, hand, eye eerily like / intelligence of higher orders.” Webb published two collections of non-fiction and had her work translated into Urdu, Dutch, German, French, Swedish, Finnish, Gujurati and Spanish. The Vision Tree: Selected Poems received the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 1983.
Trio (with Gael Turnbull and Eli Mandel), Contact Press, 1954
Even Your Right Eye, M&S, 1956
The Sea Is Also A Garden, Ryerson Press, 1962
Naked Poems, Periwinkle Press, 1965
Selected Poems: 1954-1965, (edited by John Hulcoop) Talonbooks, 1971
Wilson’s Bowl, Coach House Press, 1980
Talking, Quadrant Editions, 1980
Sunday Water: Thirteen Anti Ghazals, Island, 1982
The Vision Tree: Selected Poems (edited by Sharon Thesen), Talonbooks, 1982
Water and Light Ghazals and Anti-Ghazals, Coach House Press, 1984
Hanging Fire, Coach House Press, 1990
Nothing But Brush Strokes: Selected Prose, NeWest Press, 1995.
The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology: A Selection of the 2004 Shortlist, Anansi, 2004. Editor.