Saturday, August 15, 2009

Gerry Gilbert 1936-2009

Like the population of Nanaimo, the population of poets has just about quadrupled since I came on the scene in the mid 1970's. It's a lot tougher out there, the suburbs are full of rocks & unfriendly stares. Years of Creative Writing degree programs, MFA programs, workshops, boot camps, festivals & glittering awards nights have swelled the population of poets and their retainers at the same time as both quantity & quality of attention have palpably declined. The organised world of poetry has become entirely subject to the same codes of deference, decorum, complicity & conformity as the academy where it now mostly resides. And however opposed various schools of "quietude" & "post-avant" might be in matters of style & technique their approach in most other matters is indistinguishable--one hand still washes the other, the forelock is still ritually tugged. Caste systems & contests, 25 dollar bribes paid to poets you wouldn't read to read you. Gatekeepers on both sides squat imperiously; as remote, arbitrary in judgement & drunk on power as any CEO, surrounded by office seekers and supplicants, dispensing favours and punishing dissent. The trickle-down, the hidden hand, the arm's length. In the past couple of decades this state of affairs has become so total and so deeply entrenched within the larger decline of all democratic forms & institutions that one could safely assume that this is the way it must always have been, so best set up another tent among the ruins & hope that some one uses your ghazal for a toilet paper commercial or something. Internalize your oppression. Or better still, set up a revolutionary cell within the English department & wait for the pillars to start dropping. Describe but don't prescribe. Or wait around for a quick huff off the American oxygen tank while no one's looking. The market is the universal gravy, poured over every dish. Dissent is the sand at the picnic, the fruit fly swallowed with the wine. The price of doing business. Doing more with less. If good poetry can & does still get written, it is under a steady, morbid & undesired constraint.

The proof I can offer that this was not always entirely so is the life & career of the man we have gathered to celebrate today.

For what Gerry was able to offer to me as we became friends in the early 1980's----which included amongst other things publications, introductions, a trip to New Hazelton, the privilege of denouncing Expo 86 on CBC Montreal's Brave New Waves the month it opened, a roof (if sometimes leaking) in the heart of the city at any time & under any circumstance (insert anecdote here), Woodward's Food Floor Peanut Butter & Vancouver Vocational College wheat germ Loaf, a fried tofu & potato with vinaigrette thing I've been trying to reproduce for decades, access to the Vancouver airwaves on any Sunday at 9 pm , 45 rpm pancakes, the thrift shop 8-tracks of "Fear" & "TV Eye" &c &c--depended on a number of circumstances far beyond the undoubted generosity of Gerry's nature, the fragility of which were only to become apparent later. At the time for me it just seemed the normal way of things, something to which I was entitled. I never thought about it much one way or the other. How could Gerry be wrong? But from the grim vantage of 2009 the early 80's in BC now seem a time of comparative enlightenment, the reviled Socreds Medicis in comparison with the thugs now in control. And would an NDP victory, nay a string of NDP victories return the welfare rates to their former levels? Never. Who do I vote for to get the cars & cops off the street, to shut down the Olympics? No one.

Federally, the repressively tolerant arts policies of the Trudeau era were by the early 80's a battered but still effective conduit of cultural energy: one way or another enough money flowed so that a poet like Gerry could survive as an independent artist. Honest poverty, it shocks me to remember, was once considered an equal ground from which to address the pretensions of authority--Gerry's legacy is offered as proof once again. In return for some acts of mildly benign state intervention (not really a pension as would have been proper & persuasive, but grants & welfare which were arbitrary & meagre & thus purchased no potentially befuddling loyalty) Gerry acted as would any of God's natural anarchists, any true modernist, he took the money where he could & made a full time job not only of his art, but of biting the hand that fed him deeply, loudly & at every opportunity. An air force cadet as a teen, Gerry was a patriot all his life, which for him meant both due gratitude for whatever freedom & tolerance he enjoyed but a mandate, a duty to call things as he saw them, to place the power of his expression at the service of the polity. And always from a position of complete equality, equality always a more active & fruitful principle with Gerry than difference.

Such a practice categorically refused both the comforts and protections of marginality. Gerry's generosity--& on this I can speak with authority--came without any sense of quid pro quo. Beyond clumsily collating a few pages of BC Monthly from time to time & helping out with radiofreerainforest Gerry didn't let me lift a finger; I have no recollection of so much as making coffee at New Era. I wouldn't have done it right anyway, for if Gerry was as open & clear as a window in argument, in the managing of domestic & professional details he was of the wrong way & my way school. But again, he was never really wrong about such things in any way that I ever saw much indication of. You get a lot of advice as a young poet; Gerry taught me how to cut up an onion. He always treated the vaguely sordid networks of favors & debts that bind up & marinade the literary world as a bit beneath him, which might have been a mistake. Gerry's undimmed pride & iconoclasm--never cantankerous or ornery but always pitched hard & at worst a little arrogant--did not allow him to think necessary the cosy fallback plans or exit routes that undergird bourgeois life: he mistook his natural ebullience & optimism for the fact of the world's incremental improvement, as if the immense service he had rendered his city & community took some permanent form, as in a culture worthy of the name it would. Time will reveal that permanence, I think--for we have, in a run of activity that began in the early 1960's & didn't halt until the last months of his life, the record of an acutely perceptive & observant human's journey through space & history unequalled in our literature--but this will occur much too late for his city & community to indicate to him its profound debt. For when calamity & misunderstanding overwhelmed Gerry's life that community for the most part turned away and the city whose most communally active poet he had been could barely rouse itself from Olympic dreams to notice his death. Long before Gerry died the powers that be decided that the kind of check against arbitrary power & irrational judgement his practice represented was something it could do without. Vancouver has been deeply diminished by its repudiation of what Gerry stood for, another indication (if one were needed) of the moral deterioration that has accompanied its financial ascension. But we needn't be, and this gathering is start.

Monday, August 10, 2009