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  From the
  The great ones are always unflappable
Margaret Atwood discusses Canada's 'strange' literary past
  Sharon Dunn,
National Post

[Photo: Sharon Dunn,
National Post]

Margaret Atwood and Scott Griffin, owner of Anansi Press, at the AGO.
I ran into Margaret Atwood and her partner, Graeme Gibson, at the Art Gallery of Ontario at the opening of the Gauguin to Matisse exhibition.

I'd heard through various grapevines that she can be tough and cold, but nothing could be further from the truth -- even as I persisted in following her around as "we" viewed the art. She even humoured me by posing with an oil she particularly admired, titled Large Pine near Aix-en-Provence. "I'm pretty fond of Cézanne," she explained, "because for nine years I lived in the region where he was painting."

More to the point, she's also fond of a new book in which she had a hand. It's Ground Works, published by Anansi Press, the amazing Canadian house where she cut her literary teeth way back when, and edited by Toronto poet Christian Bok. It is a collection of experimental fiction, written between 1965 and 1985, and includes work by such luminaries (now they're luminaries, then they were just getting started) as Michael Ondaatje, Leonard Cohen, Graeme Gibson and Matt Cohen.

In her introduction, Atwood wonders why '60s Canada was such a fertile ground for interesting writing, then offers her theory: "Partly because it was a stranger place in many ways than is often supposed -- who remembers the LSD that flowed so freely in London, Ont., in the 1950s -- well before the age of Timothy Leary -- not to mention the orgies in the cathedral? It was strange in a literary way as well. What other country would have produced a set of Spenserian eclogues spoken in a farmyard by a flock of geese?" (That appeared in A Suit of Nettles, written by James Reaney in 1958.)

"I was never a radical," Atwood told me, "and now I'm too old to be a hippie. The book is not about radicalism," she added. "It's about conservatism gone astray."

It's clear in her introduction that she harbours great affection for those days, and she gave me permission to quote a representative chunk from the introduction:

"Many but not all of the writers sampled here [in Ground Works] were also poets. The overlaps -- poets publishing poets in presses devoted to poetry -- were considerable. Michael Ondaatje was for years a member of the Coach House collective; I myself worked as an editor with House of Anansi Press. Andreas Schroeder worked with Sono Nis, George Bowering was associated with Tish; and these are just a few examples.

"This scene was not idyllic. In my own experience, small-press publishing was a hotbed of jealousy and intrigue and puddles of blood on the floor, second only to Rome under Caligula. Coach House Press got around this in the early days by consuming large amounts of mellowing substances - 'Printed in Canada by mindless acid freaks,' read their logo, right alongside 'Copyright is obsolete'; -- but at House of Anansi it was not so much drugs as drinking, and no one got out of it without a knife between their shoulder blades. No one but a lunatic, or someone brainwashed by the Girl Guides into thinking she had to do Good Deeds For Others, would have stayed in this situation for long. Which was I? A little of both. But that's another story."

Before leaving Atwood, I mentioned to her that her book, Bear, had a big impact on me many years ago.

"Actually, I didn't write that, Marian Engel did."

I blushed. She laughed.

My horrendous gaffe didn't offend her a bit. That's what it's like when you're the best in the world; unflappable.

As for me, well, that's another story.

  Last update: May 6, 2009
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