Sunday, February 24, 2013

aka bpNichol: a speculative biography

Last week I finished aka bpNichol, a preliminary biography by Frank Davey. I can honestly say that it was probably one of the strangest texts I've ever read on the subject of another person's life, and so I am now only thinking of it as a "biography" - just like that, in quotes. This is not to say that it was not interesting to read, but it should probably not be read as a biography of Nichol. Throughout the book, Davey discusses a number of intriguing things - the invention of the author persona by an author, for example, or the concept of a "psychotherapy poetics." Even the minimal historical context Davey provides about the rise and fall of The Coach House Press phenomenon makes the book worth reading, and given the climate of our current poetry culture, there is some worthwhile discussion about the anxiety that may or may not be produced when an author tries to produce both "honest" and "original" work under the weight of the cultural milieu in which they live. But in order to discuss these things, I don't think it was necessary to use a biographical framework of bpNichol, especially given the fact that Davey speculates so much about so many things. That and why Davey has chosen to focus in particular on embarrassing material about Nichol's early childhood is what sends the whole narrative off into questionable territory. What makes it all untrustworthy is Davey's choice to use, for the most part, Nichol's notebooks written as an adult, a recent history of Therafields, & Nichol's own poetry as evidence (Davey quotes nearly 600 lines of the Martyrology throughout the text, not one of which was asked for permission to use, I understand) to support his speculations. In fact, Davey didn't appear to talk to anyone who knew the man, and only quoted written . So, a "biography" aka bpNichol will have to be, now and forevermore. I would go so far as to call aka bpNichol a "speculative biography," which is a term that perhaps Nichol would appreciate, but maybe only the version of Nichol that Davey has presented his reader.

The question that remains is how to deal with this weird book moving forward. A biography of bpNichol was way overdue, but now that aka bpNichol exists, will anyone be able to work past it and create a more accurate picture of Nnichol's life and contribution of Canadian poetry? Probably the correct response would be a biography of bpNichol composed by a community of those who know him.


  1. David Rosenberg10:30 AM

    Jay, your resentment against bpNichol and Frank Davey is shocking in one with such a finely tuned ear and avant-garde sensibility as you possess. I had no idea you were so deeply anti-psychological and mob-oriented ("a biography of bpNichol composed by a community of those who know him")? Frank talked to just about everyone who knew bp throughout his entire life--even me and the rest of the Coach House cohort--and he himself was closer to bp than just about anyone in the lit commune you reference. Frank also talked to those who knew Barrie in his everyday life, especially the ones closest to him during his 17 years with Therafields. And yet you write: "In fact, Davey didn't appear to talk to anyone who knew the man." Jay, what could possibly have driven you to the outright lies about Davey's book you pile up?

    I suppose your resentment is fascinating, in a way--assuming it's not merely a product of the gossip of said "community of those who know him" on a less critical, if not hagiographic, level, and who wish to guard a more superficial or iconic version of their hero. But read Barrie's journals in the Simon Fraser archive, as I have done, and as Frank has done, and you'll understand that Barrie would have hated such idolatry.

    You write: "I don't think it was necessary to use a biographical framework of bpNichol" to discuss "nearly 600 lines of the Martyrology." Jay, you seem to think The Martyrology was not an (auto)biographical work--please, start over, you owe it to yourself and your community. Frank argues passionately for a one-vol M just so poets like you can finally get a grasp of it. Yet you seem to have no care at all for it--again, I ask, from whence comes this resentment? Perhaps you just can't stand the idea of exploring a writer's childhood--but that is exactly what Barrie has done, perhaps better than any writer of our time, and not just in The M but in the documenting of his own psychoanalysis,

    So that's perhaps why you want to taint Frank for considering "embarrassing material about Nichol's early childhood." Hey, how about the embarrassing material in the bio of James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and just about every other writer of worth? Should we just leave their family and childhood out of it? In the great new bios of Joyce and Proust, the authors certainly had no chance to talk to their immediate families, since they're all dead--so let's just throw them out the window and get together a "community of those who knew him?" Do you really think that those who knew Joyce in Dublin or Proust in the countryside had the greatest insights into what made him a great writer? If I was going to write a bio of you one day, is it more important that I talk to your parents or siblings than your writing contemporaries, many of whom I already know? As for your psychotherapist, I doubt you have had one or you could not have written such an embarrassing phrase as "embarrassing material about Nichol". In fact, it is not so much his childhood but rather his early youth that Frank Davey explores, the exact same terrain as the early books of The M and much else (eg "Monotones," "Journal,"


  2. David Rosenberg10:32 AM

    (con't from previous comment)

    Could it also be that you resent Frank's quoting "600 lines" of The M when you or any of Barrie's former colleagues have hardly quoted 60 in your own critical work? Not to include, of course, Doug Barbour or Stephen Scobie, who have endorsed Frank's book wholeheartedly on the back cover and have written their own books on him, though without the benefit of exploring his daily life.

    Finally, your half-blind pose of Canadian righteousness peters out with:
    "The question that remains is how to deal with this weird book moving forward. A biography of bpNichol was way overdue, but now that aka bpNichol exists, will anyone be able to work past it...?"
    I think that's actually a good question, Jay, and my answer would be: No, this bio will be read for decades to come not just because it's about Barrie Nichol but because it's just about the most exciting portrayal of a major writer of our time to come down the pike. Nevertheless, as one--perhaps unlike you and his so-called friends--who considers bpNichol to be probably the best poet in the English lang of our time, bar none, it's evident to me that sooner or later there will be a one-vol of The Martyrology and tens of thousands will be discovering it for the first time. Where in hell did such a great poem come from? they may ask. And then they'll find Davey's superlative more-than-a-bio--whatever pietistic and conventional bios are still to be written by those who hardly knew him (even when they knew him).

    Jay, please, try to put your resentments and anti-psychological literary prejudices aside and read the book with an open mind. You deserve it.

    David Rosenberg

    1. Hi David, thanks for the response/s. To be honest I had no idea anyone ever read this blog.

      It's been a few weeks since I read aka bpNichol and posted what is more or less an immediate response to reading the book. I will confess that now a little time has passed, I do recall reading the book with fondness; as I said, there were many things that I enjoyed about it as a text, and I still think it is a worthwhile text to read for a number of reasons, if any to have the opportunity to think and talk about Nichol and his work as we are doing here. At the same time, I also recall a feeling of uneasiness -- a mental space in which I can't say I completely trusted what I had read. Which is an odd feeling because I never met Nichol and admire his work greatly. (Frank's work too, for that matter.) For me, Nichol is entirely a textual being. This being the case, to finish a book that is, as near as I can tell, a text about Nichol's life presented through the framework of, for the most part, an **interpretation** of selected texts, was a curious feeling, and why I think of the book as speculative.

      I don't think these things with any resentments or prejudices toward Nichol or Davey -- it is how I reacted to reading the book, which makes your response very interesting to me. Perhaps it has something to do with a division between those who knew Nichol and those who have only had the opportunity to read him?


  3. Anonymous3:57 PM

    Jay, it will be interesting to see if I or you can create links to your blog that will draw more comment. I gather from your new comment that you've started to read aka bpNichol again, and hopefully that will lead to reading The Martyrology--it's not that "600 lines" of it cited by Davey were too much; on the contrary, 6000 would have been even better for a work that encompasses 600,000 lines in toto (just an exaggerated guess). Not to mention your rereading of "Journal," "Monotones," By "you" I mean those descendants of Nichol in particular who continue to write work of their own, For some strange reason, you claim that being a descendant who hasn't met Nichol, you're at some disadvantage about his work. Is that crazy, or what? Even those who knew him intimately such as Frank Davey or Fred Wah still need all their interpretive powers to focus on the work. What Davey offers uniquely, is the added interpretive power of the life, which should be celebrated as a further aid to reading the work. Instead, you have much whining and bitching! Don't you see the pettiness of that? Especially when Nichol's work still needs to break out to a wider English-language audience. P.S. You still haven't engaged the critique of your initial "review," and that might be a useful starting point--or rather, one starting point for now.

    1. I would love to see a larger discussion, but I don't think people want to talk about it "publicly." At least not yet.

      I don't believe that I have a disadvantage with regard to Nichol's work, that's not what I meant. But I might have a disadvantage in reading Davey's 'biography', yes. At least with how you are implying that I *should* have experienced it (gospel truth). I will say this: reading aka bpNichol did make me want to immediately turn to Nichol's work -- which I did, picking up a fresh set of the Martyrology for starts -- unlike the sense of the biographical I was left with in reading Davey's biography, I feel I trust Nichol's own texts more.

      I'm still mulling over your "critique" of my review.

  4. Anonymous2:58 PM

    Hello Jay – it’s Frank. What I’m still doing is wondering whether you did actually read the book – or whether your comments were repetitions of things you'd heard from somewhere else. Your line “Davey didn't appear to talk to anyone who knew the man” particularly troubled me – it’s so obviously untrue. One can’t read the book and not notice the interviews and consultations with, and often quotations from, Nichol's brother, his sister, a high school classmate whom I preferred to leave anonymous, Andy Phillips who mysteriously decided to stop speaking to me during the writing, Paul Dutton, Gerry Shikatani, Steve McCaffery, Sharon Barbour, Grant Goodbrand, Ron Mann etc. Are you suggesting these people didn’t “know” him? If you did read it, Rosenberg’s comment that you wrote “outright lies” seems fair. And then would come the question why – why would you lie? Or, if you didn’t read it, why would you write something that you could not personally be sure was true? I am perplexed.

    I don’t understand what the stakes are that would make you take such risks. There indeed seem to be things here that are not being said “publically.”

    The talking-to-someone-who-knew-the-person question itself looks like a red herring. Rosenberg is correct that many fine biographies have been written about people who died so long before that there were no friends or relatives still alive and available for interview. But I am sensitive about the matter because obtaining interviews for the book was difficult – perhaps due to uneasiness around the Therafields history – and became unexpectedly more difficult during the writing, as I mentioned in the last paragraph of page viii. But you may not have read that page?


    1. Hi Frank, thanks so much for the response. Isn't it interesting who is posting here? So far there have been over 250 views of this post, and here we are: Frank Davey (author), David Rosenberg (editor) and myself (one reader). At any rate, as to reading the book, I can truthfully say that I did. Writing about something one hasn't experienced first hand would the ultimate exercise in fantasy!

      But upon reflection, you're right. That particular sentence you point to as a red herring is awkward and vague and it needs to be revised. Which I shall do. And so, yes, it is true that people who knew Nichol are referenced in various ways throughout the book. So I will retract said red herring. Equally interesting are the number of people who are not referenced or mentioned in the book -- I would say that for each person that you list above, there are 3 or 4 people who are not present. I was surprised at their absence, which is perhaps why I came up with the particular sentence in question, and why I wondered how a communal biography might add to the narrative you have presented.

      While it is true that your introduction prepares the reader for such absences by saying you were blocked from certain materials and conversations, it is certainly striking, and likely nagged at me throughout the text despite being "prepared" for it. This, combined with another peculiar question that I didn't state before, are perhaps the largest issues about my experience of the text. They are likely interconnected forces that, working as a sort of chicked-egg mashup, resulted in the version of aka bpNichol that I read. That question is: why in the early 21st Century did you choose to give a Freudian reading of various texts and materials to frame a biography?

      All the best

    2. Anonymous5:29 PM

      Hi Jay – Are you suggesting that Nichol didn’t understand his life and writing in Freudian terms?


    3. Hi Frank -- Oh no, of course not. I'm sure that Nichol understood his own life and writing using whatever terms he understood, and Freudian terms I'm sure were part of that vocabulary.

      But at the same time, bpNichol didn't write this biography of bpNichol, and a Freudian framework is just that: a Freudian framework, one framework among many that could have been chosen. It is a curious choice to me, I'd love to hear more about why you chose it.

      All the best

    4. Anonymous1:21 PM

      I’m not sure what you mean by “framework,” Jay. Do you mean that book is chronological, and proceeds from Nichol’s birth to his death, & after? Yes, that was one convention of biography that I couldn’t see it useful to break with. Or are you referring to the epigraphs at the fronts of each chapter? They do “frame” each chapter, & thus the book. They were my “frame” in a way, although I’m not sure that readers like you see them. I don’t think these are at all Freudian (or are you using “Freudian” as a synecdoche, and viewing all psychoanalysis as Freudian? – I hope not!) – they are more part of what some areas of contemporary psychoanalysis understand as posthumanist, in which the self is not a fixed ego but a shifting position constructed in language (see 161-62). Although Nichol didn’t make it to the 21st century, this was a shift in psychoanalytical thought that he too was very much aware of. His references to it were not just language games.

      But Jay, your suggestion that “Nichol understood his own life and writing using whatever terms he understood, and Freudian terms I'm sure were part of that vocabulary” is so vague it is useless. He was what he was, is it? As well, you seem to be making serious mistakes in your readings of both the book and of Nichol’s 1960s self-analysis – in both cases confusing description with prescription. Those mistakes are similar to various misreadings of Freud himself as having theorized the nuclear family as a timeless human social structure rather than as a nineteenth-century Western middle and upper-middle class social institution with particular consequences. While Nichol and the Therafields community accepted Freud’s description of that institution – Nichol even had dreams of himself as trapped within a Freudian understanding of family dynamics – ‘official’ Therafields also looked for a way of living in larger and richer social structures. I note that Nichol, even as Therafields was collapsing, appealed passionately to its community to re-embrace its “revolutionary” goals to create and live within an “emotional environment” larger than the nuclear family (214). In many ways these goals resembled Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of the family in L’Anti-Oedipe (1972) (a book however not available in English until 2004, and not listed by McCaffery in Rational Geomancy), where they view the family as an instrument of individual repression and capitalist production, and recommend that it be subversively opened onto larger social structures. However, I think it is also notable that Nichol himself very soon reverted to the Freudian nuclear family (his “petite famille” [233, 237]) after the Therafields break-up, and casually dismissed the communitarian dream in his August 8,1986 letter to Phyllis Webb (258) as something he’d done and could now move on from. And became a contract worker for various commercial entertainment enterprises.

  5. Anonymous6:38 PM

    Jay, great to see you've turned to and opened a fresh set of The Martyrology! Hey, that's a most public text, so we are to talk about it in private? So no one who is not a reader will be offended? Now, of course, you'll see that the despair, isolation and pain in the early books, resulting from the psychosis engendering fantasies of the saints, belong not to a cartoon or mythic character but a very real one in Barrie Nichol. His struggle with the verbal hallucinations of "saints" finally results in recognizing their "deaths"--and more intricately, their sublimation into language, words, letters, in the later books. Finally, thanks to Frank's bio, we'e able to face the incredible courage and brilliance of bp's having found a way to confront his own biography, his autobiography, in The Martyrology. Frank didn't need to speculate on most of this because it's already there in the Martyrology and now it's time for readers to have the courage that bp had, in reading it--and honoring the incredible honest of bp in making autobiography crucial.

  6. Anonymous6:50 PM

    Jay, another thing about your last comment is that you accuse Davey of adding researched biography to interpreted literary criticism of The Martyrology and other works. I think the reason you are thrown off kilter is just because of the uniqueness--the avantness--of Davey's groundbreaking work. You know, the old saw about how genuinely new work appears "ugly" at first, because it doesn't fit expectations? What the Davey bio does is reveal how Barrie in the M merges his own psychoanalysis with a dramatization in poetry like no other. You don't need to talk to anyone alive or dead to see this at work in the M, but the fact that Davey had the guts to do it when everyone else is sitting on their hands is amazing and should be honored.

  7. Anonymous5:27 PM

    Jay, one further comment anent yours: I didn't see your "Hi, Frank" until now. Your last sentence: "Why Freudian frame a biography?" Again, it's stunning in its admission, because the whole bio is informed by Barrie's autobiographical concerns, which includes a lifetime of his own psychoanalysis and himself being a lay analyst for many decades. You seem to suggest that autobio and analysis are passe in the 21rst century??
    Are you drinking enough coffee when you write these comments?
    P.S. you refer to David Rosenberg as an "editor," which I haven't been in decades, and as if this makes me a biased "reader" of bpNichol. Gosh! My current Guggenheim bio is describes my lifelong devotion to autobiography (!) and the question of authorship (i.e., yes, I was influenced by Barrie way back in the early '70s. Couldn't help it. That's what happens when youj rub shoulders, however briefly, with great poets.

  8. Hi David, thanks -- but I was asking Frank.

    I could ask you this though: I'd be curious to hear your thoughts about avantism, which you mention above.

    As for editor, I heard that from others, that you had edited several drafts of the book. I wonder why they would lie about this?

    I guess that's two questions.

    All the best,

    1. Anonymous5:15 PM

      Hi Jay -- Frank again. I sent various drafts to more than half a dozen people, including Ellie Nichol. I suppose I may hear some day that she edited the book too. Of those readers I consulted, she did have ultimately the most influence on it.
      As for your question about lying, I don't know -- the motive is usually specific to the person.


  9. Anonymous10:33 PM

    You're right, Jay. Something is kerflooey in truth testing when it comes to Barrie as a real person and not a wishful statue. Why would would anyone lie about my "editing several drafts of the book"--when in face I did not edit even two words? (I did read the ms but so did several others). I'm starting to guess why the lies, as you will eventually see yourself. It's a kind of coverup, and it comes down to the paranoia of Barrie's widow, Ellie. Even Lori Emerson just onfirmed this to me. Poor Frank! All he did was devote two years of his life to illuminating the genius of his friend bp, and now there's a pack of lies from who you identify as "others." So Jay, won't you come clean and tell us who these "others" are??
    [As per question on post-Avant, check my book "See What You Think: Critical Essays for the Next Avant-Garde" (Spuyten Duyvil). More simply, check my capsule bio on Guggenhem website next week, where I also mention bp. Just got the one in nonfiction. And even more simply, love your books, about the best avant publisher going!]

  10. Anonymous10:42 PM

    p.s. As I said in very first comment to this thread, it's still shocking how this cloud of lies hangs over Barrie Nichol's life and work. I'm more shocked than Frank, I guess, perhaps because I'm not in Canada?

  11. Bryan Smith of Sweaburg6:55 PM

    Contention among poets and authors! It reminds me of the time I was a guest at a United Church event where people from various churches seems ready to take each other on or to pieces over what would be an appropriate response to poverty in cities, etc.

    That we have people interesting in reading poetry and reading about poets seems like a good thing to me. That the group is so small in this particular blog is sad. I do think, however, that if poets can't agree among themselves about the meaning, purpose and quality of poetry, that...... rather than questioning poetry's claim to these three, it allows readers like myself and others to take from them very different things. So this is liberating.

    I read the recent biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins with mounting alarm about the consequences of his decision to adjure his faith and adopt a life of poverty - see I'm back to that theme - as a Catholic while being a poet. I'm not sure if the bio helped me understand the poems any more or less, and better or more superficially, but it did cement my view of Hopkins as figure deserving sympathy.

  12. Jack David12:07 PM

    Hi everyone. Let me add that I asked Frank to write the book because a) we had finally published a history of Therafields, b) Barrie's life in Therafields is central to his writing, and c) Frank is a terrific writer and critic in addition to knowing Barrie well.

    Remember the subtitle: this is a provisional biography. Stan Bevington said to me that Barrie's life was much more interesting than what appears in Frank's book, but that's not the point. This is a book about his writing life; if he weren't bpNichol the writer, would anyone want to read about him?

    We sent the manuscript to Ellie Nichol, and she objected strongly, and was unable to finish reading it. Frank was very kind and circumspect about her opinions. But this is a book about a guy who had a complicated writing life and simultaneously and complex life working as the VP and therapist at Therafields. One side feeds into the other. In the end, no one can read bp any longer without considering Frank's research and criticism. That Jay went back to the text is all the evidence I need that the book works.

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  14. good excellence to hear from you, Claudia. I enjoyed meeting all and sundry and learning about the assortment of association members' works. We are all learners and teachers. Biography