On Saturday, October 1, we’ll welcome Saskatchewan Poet Laureate Gerald Hill to our community. The Town of Creighton, Creighton Community School, and Ore Samples Writers Series worked in cooperation to bring him here through the Poet Laureate program. He’s been invited to give a presentation and reading at the Creighton Community School Library at 2 pm on the occasion of Culture Days. He will also offer a writing workshop titled “Driving That Line” in the Seniors’ Room at the Flin Flon Community Hall from 4:30-5:30 pm.
A two-time winner of the Saskatchewan Book Award for Poetry, Gerald Hill published his sixth collection, Hillsdale Book, with NeWest Press and A Round for Fifty Years: A History of Regina's Globe Theatre with Coteau Books, both in 2015. In the fall of 2015 he was Doris McCarthy Artist-in-Residence at Fool's Paradise, on the Scarborough Bluffs in Toronto. He lives and writes in Regina.
Gerald Hill took the time to entertain a few questions ahead of his visit. Conversation starters, if you will.
“You are entering Hillsdale, a southern suburb of Regina.” The “Foreword” of Hillsdale Book goes on to provide a brief look at your history with the place and serves as a kind of map by which to read the book. In the “Acknowledgements” at the end you address our reading experience: “Readers are advised to take caution, if they don’t mind, with assumptions about the truth of names, events or locations they meet here. This is a work of fact made of fiction and fiction made of fact.” What role does imagination play in the compilation of research, archival documents, anecdotes, stories, and photographs, and in the eventual distillation of the place and its particular truths?
If we accept that imagination is an act of language, then it’s everything. Even facts when set in language, as they cannot help but be, are subject to it. In fact, all of the tasks named in the question go better when aligned somehow with some framework, some lead, some question that has been imagined. At the crossroads of possible routes, like all crossroads bedevilled by an other-seeking spirit, imagination shines.
However, that may not be quite what you mean by the term. I’m willing to make up names (a private joke, for my own amusement, is to use friends’ names, or parodies of their names, in my poems) or events or locations. Such making up doesn’t come at the cost of truth. The truth always needs imagining.
The late Robert Kroetsch is an important figure in Canadian literature and his influence on your work is evident. In your book The Man from Saskatchewan, published in 2001, there’s a section titled “Poems for that Stone Hammer (for Robert Kroetsch)”. In Hillsdale Book, published in 2015, the “Kroetsch Park: A Subdivision” section opens with a quote by Robert Kroetsch. In the poem “Paterson in Kroetsch Park” that follows, the speaker questions Kroetsch “further on the subject of / the docu-autogeography.” Can you tell us what “docu-autogeography” means and how it applies to your writing process?
It’s a gag term. But about ten years ago when I began to make Hillsdale Book, I called what I was doing autogeography—the reckoning of self (auto) in place (geo) in writing (graph). I asked a geography prof I know if he’d ever heard of the term and he said no. For a while, Hillsdale, an Auto-geography was the title of the book (then I labelled the file “Hillsdale book” and kept the label so long it turned into the title of the dang book).
I evoke Kroetsch along these lines because that’s what he did: run with geography (and history and nation and body) as he ran with self. And with the extract you quoted I was thinking of all kinds of work out there, in all kinds of artistic disciplines, that involves the artist offering a version of self-in-place. My book names several of these works from the literary side that inspired me.
Finally, to address your question more directly, I would say that everything I do is more or less documentary, more or less auto, more or less placed. I admit it! I don’t see it as a limit. I see it as all I can do as an artist.
“Sister 2 is hosting Sorority initiation, Stigma Lamborghini Chai.
She’s the President. We’re told not to set foot downstairs.
“Especially you” [to me]. “I don’t want any of your comedy routines.”
This from “What Sisters Have to Say” in Hillsdale Book is a good place to stop and talk about the role of humour in your work. In Heartwood, your first book, playful titles like “Better Poems and Gardens” and “Hill Sides” lure us into the poems. Together the language play and playful line breaks in your book Getting To Know You create captivating energy pulling us ever closer to the speaker and the place, both physical and psychological, the speaker inhabits: “Rock-a-bye, maybe / I’ll fall asleep out here” says the speaker in “I Dreamed I Fell Asleep” from the “Emma by Rowboat” section and there we, the readers, are bobbing along in a life we recognize. In your two latest books of poetry, 14 Tractors and Hillside Book, you’ve gone further, finding humour in the documents and stories you’ve collected and bringing a version thereof to the page, creating a recognizable community, opening and furthering lines of thought, and deepening the experience of place. How does humour drive the way you process the world around you? Does it lead? Follow? Mislead?
I think language use is inherently funny. Since a word can never be the thing it represents, there is always slippage—that banana peel, some poor sap falling on his/her noggin, it might be.
Besides, a laugh means the laugher has gone somewhere new. We don’t laugh much at connections already made (though many is the time I’ve been woken in the middle of the night by my own chuckles, some stupid thing from twenty years ago). Unless it puts us down, humour opens to surprise, open-ness, play—all of this new. Might come in handy when we get to whatever story we’re telling.
But to answer your question, I’m quoting Carole King: “where you lead, I will follow.” Once I’ve made myself laugh at what I’ve written, only hard labour can get me out of it.
“Wind’s a bully and the poets,
like Virgil in Dante’s hell, order it low
in its black boat to wait there till it’s needed.
Poets are lucky to make words
do that sort of thing[…]”
Though published in 2008 long before your tenure as Saskatchewan Poet Laureate began, these lines from a poem called “Just Wind” in your book My Human Comedy can be said to “raise awareness of the power of poetry and the spoken word,” the fourth objective of the Poet Laureate program as posted on the Saskatchewan Writers’ Guild website. I’ve copied the objectives here:
- To celebrate the spirit of the people and place of Saskatchewan
- To raise the profile of writers in Saskatchewan
- To elevate writing as a vocation
- To raise awareness of the power of poetry and the spoken word
- To create a recognized spokesperson for writing in general and poetry in particular who will be a respected participant of festive occasions and official functions in the province
- To be a focal point for the expression of Saskatchewan cultures (time, land, people) through the literary arts
It’s fair to say you’ve excelled at every one of these over the course of your career. Do you have any additional objectives in mind as you go about your official duties?
Here I could re-visit all the terms you’ve raised in your excellent questions. I would like to help re-imagine what the Poet Laureate position can be—more than just what it always was. I’d like to trade places with the Saskatchewanderer program (which runs through Tourism, I think) and be able to roam the province. I’d look for odd stories and see if I could animate communities in literary ways.
This would be about engaging with the local cultures—what people do in their various communities—trying to draw out expressive activities. It would be a mapping, auto-geographies of people where they are in the province.
And I want to play with the position, as in my series of poems that claim nothing but positive effects, from the trivial to the profound, of my becoming poet laureate. As imagined in past years, the position has been a tad ceremonial, which need not, of course, exclude a spot of fun.
I have no illusions about becoming a voice for the advancement of poetry in Saskatchewan. Not enough people pay attention to it. But poetry, like all the arts, can take us to a deeper, more textured experience of being alive where we are. It can both reinforce and transform who we are.