But there seemed to be also significant gaps, perhaps only noticeable to someone who hoped to write a Nichol biography. There was very little from the early years of his life, other than the recollections he had recorded in his
Many researchers who are interested in the material aspects of literary production – how it can be limited, directed or enabled by economic factors – would have hoped to find some financial records – pay stubs, bank statements, income tax records. In the Nichol fonds there are no such records except for a few very brief entries in his early notebooks about the salaries of Therafields workers and comments in his correspondence about being short of cash and about the importance of the income he received in the 1980s from writing scripts for children's television.
Part way through my five weeks in the SFU Nichol collections, I drove to Victoria where Eleanor Nichol generously showed me various materials which Simon Fraser had declined to acquire from her. Here were his high school yearbooks, scrapbooks that he had created during his years as a teenage track star, a random accumulation of Therafields publications, and his personal collection of photographs – all of archival significance, at least in light of contemporary understandings of biography. I asked about his psychology and psychotherapy books and Ellie explained that, being short of money immediately after his death, and with no one expressing interest in his library, she had sold all of bp’s psychology books in a block to a Toronto bookseller, and thought that they had then been resold individually. I was not surprised – librarians do not always anticipate the value such collections can represent to researchers. Family members often have limited, if any, awareness of such things as Bourdieu’s “rules of art,” or of postmodern theories of biography in which there is no autonomous subject, only subjects produced by congeries of accidents, conflicts, coincidental readings and other events both material and psychological. Nichol’s early letters to his parents seem not to have been preserved; their replies, which Nichol did preserve, show no awareness of how those in different value communities were regarding him, with his father on one occasion reminding him that poetry such as his could never appear in a high school anthology and his mother usually more concerned that his hair be neatly cut than that he have literary success.
But imagine if one could read Shakespeare’s letters home, or view his library, or even a catalogue of it. Less than a year before my five weeks at Simon Fraser, in March 2010 Robert Creeley’s library, had been dispersed in an on-line sale by Granary Books. I had quickly made copies of the on-line catalogues that at least indicated what books and magazines he had owned. The catalogues seemed to me at least as valuable as any single one of the books.
The Therafields archives, which Nichol had helped collect and preserve, were destroyed in the mid 2000s, partly because of confidentiality concerns, once Nichol’s old friend Grant Goodbrand had made a quick survey of them for the book he was then writing about Therafields. Understandably, no one involved considered that the archives might have literary interest or considered separating out materials that could illuminate the administrative role that Nichol had played, or the positions he had taken in the organization’s internal debates. In fact very likely no one involved had at that moment a conception of “literary interest” or – like his parents – a consciousness of the different bpNichols which other cultural communities had experienced.
One irony here is that Nichol was an amateur archivist as well as an avid collector and packrat. He had worked to build the SFU Nichol fonds – the contents of all but the posthumous deposits probably reflected his wishes much more than the advice of archivists or researchers. He appears to have deposited every surviving scrap of notebook, manuscript and correspondence that he no longer was using in his writing. He had even preserved for Simon Fraser pencilled love-notes on scraps of paper that an embarrassingly despairing 1960s girlfriend had shoved beneath the door of his room. He had spoken enviously of the Olson archives and of its preservation of O’s library. I’d guess that if death hadn’t surprised him he would have arranged to leave a much more extensive archival remnant, perhaps even that seemingly dispersed library, much as he had worked to do at Therafields.
As readers of aka bpNichol will know, a related complication for me was a very non-postmodern belief about biography among some of those who had known him that his childhood, family life, personal life, financial circumstances, and employment life should have no relevance to the story of his literary creations. There were unfortunate events in his past, they thought, that were ‘better’ left unmentioned – even if Nichol himself hadn’t treated them as unmentionables. Like his mother had urged her son, my book should have a neat and sensible haircut. As awareness of my project spread, it became increasingly difficult for me to seek private recollections of such matters, and my gratitude to bp and Simon Fraser for those extensive archival deposits grew.
Of course it’s not unusual for biographers to run into bourgeois reservations about their research – Ekbert Faas reports encountering something similar in his biography of Creeley, as have scholars who currently work on Lucy Maud Montgomery and at times need the help of her family. My understandings – which I believe Nichol shared – that the self is neither stable nor autonomous, that poetics is not only politics but ethics, and that both the Therafields psychotherapy commune and Nichol’s personal psychological struggle were projects in poetics as much as in psychotherapy – were greeted at times during my research with unhappy incomprehension. That was unfortunate, although it has little to do with official archival collection policies or with who were the various bpNichols. As for the archives themselves, they mostly show what they have come to contain – they may have been shaped partly by oversights and accidents, but the surviving materials are never pained, angered, embarrassed or regretful. In Nichol’s case, none of the deposits appear to have been edited, manipulated or expurgated – most likely not even read or re-read before the deposit. I wished they had been even more extensive, but they were informative interviewees.
I am hoping that some of this material may be able to appear on the new website akabpNichol.