In Conversation: Bruce Hunter
Bruce Hunter grew up in Calgary and studied film and humanities at York University. After graduation he taught at Humber College, York University and Banff School of Fine Arts. In 1986 he joined Seneca College teaching English and Liberal Studies. He is now retired. Bruce has published five books of poetry: Selected Canadian Rifles (unfinished monument press, 1981), Benchmark (Thistledown Press, 1982), The Beekeeper’s Daughter (Thistledown Press, 1986), Coming Home from Home (Thistledown Press, 2000), and Two O’Clock Creek (Oolichan Books, 2010). His works of fiction include a book of linked short stories Country Music Country (Thistledown Press, 1996) and a novel, In the Bear’s House (Oolichan Books, 2009).
Joan Shillington: Bruce, I think it’s interesting how you write in both poetry and prose genres. Reading your work it seems seamless, but of course, all writing is a lot of work, time and commitment. More and more writers are crossing genres so I’d like to focus on that aspect of your work.
Two O’Clock Creek is one of my favourite poems and when I read the chapter describing Trout’s trip with Uncle Jack to the Creek in In the Bear’s House, the sign: Two o’Clock Creek … nailed to a creekside spruce, was one of the few details the poem and novel’s chapter about the creek had in common. In the novel you added the carcass of a bull moose a bear had been feeding off, the dog, Junior, winching the truck across water, a pika, description of the valley below, Uncle Jack’s history as a boy in Scotland and many more details. Can you talk about the different process between writing a poem and a novel?
Bruce Hunter: Joan, you are a very fine poet yourself. And I share your passion for the wilderness and Russian history. So, thank you for the compliment.
For me, if the poetry is an impulse, a novel is a sustained series of impulses moving in a narrative arc. The initial impulse arises from a simple desire to sing or pray, cry or shout, reflect or mourn, bless or curse, rant, recount, or engage in dialogue, often simultaneously. Play comes into it too: our impulse to make believe, to razz, to banter.
Then there is truth and the question of fact and fiction, which for me is the heart’s reckoning with reason to come to some emotional or social epiphany. In In the Bear’s House, the young deaf boy thinks, “All adults lie.” It’s an emotional and social truth, at least for him.
In the mid-seventies when I studied with Irving Layton at the Banff School of Fine Arts, he spoke of the role of the poet: “Bring me your facts, your precious facts and I’ll tell you the truth.” Whether I write non-fiction or fiction, it comes from the same impulse as poetry. I enjoy non-fiction as it often has a finite length or purpose, whether it’s a review, an essay or presentation. If poetry is the sprint, memoir and novels are the marathon. It’s the long haul, the slap of the foot on the pavement—all rhythm and pacing and sometimes the endless grind—the necessary madness in the process when you start counting your words, your footsteps. The secret is to keep going.
And if you hit the wall, you pray for a second wind. Everything aches. People stop taking you seriously. You obsess over this no-yet-realized thing—and the finish line keeps moving just as you get to it. People avert their eyes, when you start sentences with “My novel…” Some days you have a flawless run, light of foot and breath. Most days, it’s hard, hard work and others, you’re in pain, wondering why you started this craziness. And like a fool, you return each day hoping for that flawless run, that idiot joy, to paraphrase Eli Mandel.
JS: Do you think that as a poet you have a certain strengths that writers of fiction may not have?
BH: Restraint and clarity are both strengths critics have identified as common to my poetry and fiction. As a deaf person, I know why I strive for verbal clarity—I’ve seen this obsession in the work of other deaf writers—because it is so rare in my life and certainly in what I hear. Mercifully, in writing, clarity is earned through revision. And to continue the running metaphor, if you gaze too long on the beautiful things along the path, you stumble and take your reader with you. But craft is what saves us. I try to honour the original impulse through restraining the lyrical—and through relentless revision.
I had an early version of the poem “Two O’Clock Creek” in the manuscript for Coming Home From Home when, just before going to press, Barry Dempster (my editor with Thistledown Press) told me, “I think there’s more to this poem than you are letting on.” Something a writer does not want to hear. I fumed for about half an hour and then started laughing. He was absolutely right—445 pages more!
I learned from Irving Layton to let go—totally—of my early versions and went back to the manuscript version of the poem and wrote six or seven complete revisions in two days, mining details for the novel; many are fiction, some are factual. I’m meticulous about social and natural history, but I invent characters and scenes to get at an emotional truth. “Two o’Clock Creek” was the “Seed” poem that started the novel and the novel then became the “research” for the now revised poem which was first published in Coming Home from Home, and again in Two O’Clock Creek (Oolichan Books, 2010). In fact, my very humble first book, Benchmark, which quite literally m eans the starting point of a survey, laid out a map of everything I’ve written since.
Irving Layton’s mantra to us was revise, revise and revise. Not what we wanted to hear. No one does. But one afternoon, someone challenged him on how many times he had revised his famous poem, “The Bullcalf”. ” I don’t know,” he said and looked away. Aha, we thought. We waited. Then he told us, “If it’s a minnow of a poem, 19-20 times, or more. If it’s a barracuda, 90-100 times or more. Whatever it takes.” Whatever I takes.
Who would want to submit their meager poems after hearing Layton reading Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty”? But we did anyway and Layton was eqqually generous and specific with his praise, when warranted, as he was with his criticism. One class he read one of my poems aloud. “Listen to the music of this,” he said. My face flushed in gratitude. Emboldened by his praise, two days later I submitted another poem. “Listen,” he insisted. Again he read my poem beautifully. Then he paused before the class and pronounced, “this is a per-fect ex-ample of a so-what po-em,” enunciating each syllable precisely. I’ve never forgotten that lesson. I heard that! Thankfully, Layton had already shown us how to gut our poems. What was left often bore little resemblance to the original creative impulse. Some of my classmates were aghast, I was not. At that point in my life, I wanted someone to tell me the truth. I knew my effort was just a beginning. I gutted and revised that so-what poem six time sover several days and resubmitted it to him privately. He nodded as he read and smiled over his half-frame glasses, “You’ll make it.” I don’t know about that, but as I look back 40 years since, he prepared my for everything that followed: both the praise and the stinging criticism, often for the same poem or story.
Truth may present itself initially as inconvenient, incoherent, ungrammatical and unbelievable. Revision makes it whole. Layton imparted great wisdom. I’m sure some of my classmates were demoralized—if a great like Irving Layton couldn’t get it right on the first try. . . . But I knew there might be hope for me.
JS: What freedom does the novel have that poetry doesn’t? What constraints?
BH: As a younger writer, I was inspired by the poetic writers of big spaces: John Steinbeck, W.O. Mitchell, and later Jim Harrison (Legend of the Fall) who’s an excellent poet. Wallace Stegner’s Big Rock Candy Mountain was my model for In the Bear’s House. Rejecting the post-modern, I wanted a sturdy frame that could carry a generational story, a traditional novel, as a homage to the city and province of my birth and my mother. And it’s a social history of marginalized peoples, including those with disabilities. Those from the wrong side of everything. Phil Hall calls it an old-fashioned novel fashioned by the old. He absolutely gets it. The old and social history come through in even my earliest poems.
Milan Kundera in The Art of the Novel says the novel is a political document. That thought shaped my selection of the social history and details. I wanted to portray a different side of Calgary and Alberta history, the underground history, the underside, and give voice to those who might not be heard. The interesting thing about deaf people, is that while we certainly want to hear, above all else, we wish to be heard.
But this was not my first attempt at a novel. Part-way through Country Music Country, a series of linked stories. I realized I was writing a novel on the installment plan. Many of the themes, characters and locales kept recurring. It too was a political document inspired first by my reading of Guy Vanderhaeghes’s Man Descending and later Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women. Both books show the lives of working-class men and women in their particular locales. From the title to the individual stories, locale, language and metaphor are crucial as it is in Country Music Country. The freedom in a novel may also be its constraints: the interplay of politics, locales and characters can be treacherous.
JS: If you had to choose between only writing fiction or poetry, which would you choose?
BH: Is that the only choice I get? I’d rather make you a nice Tuscan frittata! Poetry would win, hands-down, not because it’s easier, but I’m at a point in life where mortality is real. The prospect of starting a novel I might never finish, is daunting beyond words. I can finish a sprint, but a marathon is riskier. I do have an epilogue to In the Bear’s House I’m looking at expanding into something larger. Shelagh’s story of an Englishwoman marrying into a Scottish family figures prominently.
JS: Do you have any advice for poets considering a move to prose?
BH: Read, read and read some more. Everyone says that. Read outside of your comfort zone and that of those around you. Read in the sciences, philosophy and history. Try some of the things you write about. I’d never been on a dogsled until I was writing In the Bear’s House. Being cost-conscious, I phoned my accountant—all artists need accountants. I said, if I was to do a dogsled trip, is that expensible? If it’s research, yes, he said. Off to the dogs, I went. I learned how to run with them on the flats, to brake and use body-english on the turns. And that lead dogs were usually female and mine had one blue eye and one brown eye. You can’t Google that.
JS: Clare in The Bear’s House is a strong voice and Aunt Shelagh’s character develops as a strong woman. There are also poems throughout your work about strong women: “Strong Woman Grandma” (Benchmark) where you describer her as a white gloved general, “When Love Was a Fist” (Coming From Home), “The Beekeeper’s Daughter,” “The Young Widow,” Why the Fields Lie Fallow” (The Beekeeper’s Daughter), “The Scottish Grandmothers” (Coming Home from Home), to name a few. What role did strong women play in your life? Did they influence your writing, and if so, how?
BH: As your readers might notice from my reviews in FreeFall and elsewhere, I love women’s voices. I always have. As a deaf kid growing up in Calgary, I was surrounded by the great voices of my great-aunties, aunts and grandmothers. Many were old-timers, pioneer women. Several were Scots. I was immersed in pioneer dialect and Scots’ English. I couldn’t always hear everything, but I could sure feel the soft burr of my name pronounced with four “e”‘s and “r”‘s—weeee Brrrruceee. And when they added Hunter with a glottal stop, I knew I was in trouble. 40% of what we hear is tone and this was tonality!
I hated my name. I had a speech impediment and pronounced it as Buce or Brace when I was a kid. Even after speech therapy, it was a linguistic steeplechase. But when I heard it spoken by my grandmothers and aunties, it was music. And in the weave and rhythm of their speech, they used what Celtic musicians call a Scotch snap, that dramatic snap before the bagpipes skirl or short rap on the boudran to emphasize the long note that follows. And they were storytellers—all their stories full of hope and menace. “Wee Brucie, y’ll not want to be goin’ out on a night like t’night.”
When I came home to Alberta my Scottish grandmother and I often went fishing up on the James River just down from the James River General Store. Everyone hated fishing with us. All we ever caught were stories. We talked all the fish away. Because of those women, my mother, my six brothers and sisters, my family, I was immersed in a language I couldn’t quite hear, and a great cacophony of razzing, bantering, gabbing, and fibbing, I could. And people tell us we talk too much! Never.
From the time I was little, I was schooled as a writer by these women who wore their strengths, and their fragilities, so well. And they knew exactly what they were up to. My grandmother turned to me once on one of our fishing trips and said, “you, you know are our scribe,” here eyes misted then, just as my students tell me mine do when I too tell them stories.
And Joan, thank you for your questions, your research and the pleasure of speaking with a poet I so very much respect.