At first I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It’s the exact opposite of what I’m used to in poetry books (the black words on white paper, and the slow, intense struggle getting through them). This one is mostly pictures with a few words
The pictures are all enlarged postcards of London in the early years of the 20th century. One actually has a postmark on it, dated 1908. It’s of ‘English Street Looking South, East London, Ont.’ showing a row of nearly identical two-storey houses all with carefully-mowed lawns and in front of each house adults posing primly on chairs and stoops in their Victorian finery. There’s not a child in sight, I suppose because they wouldn’t be able to hold still for the camera. Like all the postcards in the book, this one is hand-tinted. The lawns are green, the sky light-blue and the roofs brown. There are two rows of large, teal, block letters over the top third of the picture: Ì’M THINKING LONDON DIDN’T HAVE A CHINATOWN.
It’s as if the words had fallen onto the page right out of the whimsical thoughts of someone in the present who has just discovered these postcards in the attic. Many of the pictures are like that. But in others that person has slipped back into the past and is tossing his whimsy forward from there instead.
A steam train is taking on passengers at a cute little station out in the country (The card, at the bottom, says, ‘London East’.) WE WERE JUST NIPPING DOWNTOWN.
My favourite is ‘Victoria Park, London, Ont., Hydro Electric Lighting’. It has tall, darkening green trees over park pathways enclosed by a single-rail fence in front and, on either side of the entrance, a lamp post topped by a white sphere. Between them, and between the trees, poking through nighttime clouds, is the white moon. I SAW WHAT YOU MEAN.
I showed the book to my wife. She's a totally visual person, a floral designer, with no interest at all in poetry. I thought she might like the pictures. I was right. She was fascinated. She got excited, said you could sell the book in antique stores. She wanted to frame some of the pictures. I asked what she liked about them. Well, first, the old pictures. She loved them. Then the tinting. (She's very into colour.) Then I said, "I guess, if you could just take the words off them, they would be perfect." She surprised me: "No! You have to leave the words on! They would be boring without the words. They make the pictures interesting." She was really lit up now. She said, "I really like his idea, his concept. It's great." Well, the odd thing is she never talks that way: 'Concepts'. So I told her about Davey being into something he calls 'conceptual poetry', and how the concept comes first, and that these pictures are so interesting because they are all composed of opposites: present and past, the free thinking of the observer, the rigid formality of the past that is being observed, the colour overlaid on the black and white, the large, blocky words on the fine detail of the photos, and the words on the images, which, we both realized, represented a major opposite between the two of us, me a word person and her a visual person, and that we both came at the book from those extremes in us and met in the middle, both of us seeing it the same way! Each page was a poem.
I asked Frank Davey if he had been aware of these opposites. And about the gorgeous tinting.
He said, ‘’I was aware of trying to get the disconnection you noticed between the crude lettering and the fine visual detail. I liked that you noticed. Most of the tinting of the images was done way back when -- that was the only way they could get colour a century ago. Sometimes you can find the same postcard photo with different tinting -- even the same photo looking like a sunny day and looking like a moonlit night. I use Photoshop to remove coffee stains (unless I like the effect the stain creates!) or to repair rips and creases. Sometimes I'll tint a black & white card, but none in this book. I can increase the resolution & sharpness -- colour printing back then was done with overlaid screens which look like dots under a magnifying glass, and resulted in many fewer dots per square inch, and thus lower resolution, than a cheap digital camera produces. My Iraq war book was the most difficult because Iraq 1900-1920 postcards are extremely scarce and the photographic quality often very low.’‘
Four (from a different series) have been exhibited at the Simon Fraser University art gallery, and a dozen had a two-day exhibition at the Sorbonne, in Paris.
See the bottom of this page for one of the pictures from inside the book.
by Stan Burfield,
London Open Mic Poetry Night organizer
See Our Frank Davey Interiew
See Four Poems by Frank Davey
About Frank Davey
Strathroy resident Frank Davey grew up in BC and studied at UBC where in 1961 he co-founded with George Bowering and Fred Wah the influential and contentious poetry newsletter TISH. His first volume of poetry, in 1962, was described as ‘the act of the moment’ rather than poetry as the commonplace attempt 'to express ... feelings.' In 1965 he launched the avant-garde poetry and criticism journal Open Letter, and, with the assistance of bpNichol, developed it into what many still see as Canada's most important forum for discussion and examination of innovative and experimental ideas and texts.
Davey obtained his PhD from the University of Southern California in 1968. With the encouragement of George Woodcock, he began writing literary criticism, a body of work from the 1970s to the ‘90s which would be described as 'the most individual and influential ever written in Canada.'
His most important early contribution was his withering 1974 critique, 'Surviving the Paraphrase,which discredited thematic criticism in Canada, including that of Northrop Frye, D.G. Jones and Margaret Atwood.
From 1975-1992 Davey was one of the most active editors of the Coach House Press. In 1984 he co-founded the world’s first on-line literary journal, Swift Current. In 1986 he became the chair of the English Department of Toronto’s York University, where he quickly assumed a nationally influential role. Then, in 1990 Davey came to London, where he was appointed to the Carl F. Klinck Chair of Canadian Literature at UWO. Here he began a new writing phase involving analysis of various Canadian cultural scenes—from literary criticism to politics, celebrity, and popular crime writing. These studies have given him much fodder for his poetry.
Over the years, the stance Davey has taken in his criticism has occasionally put him into conflict with the Canadian literary establishment. For example, he has described Canadian literary and academic prizes as institutional rewards for 'banality and careerism'. On the other hand, he has often been seen as a 'poet’s poet'.
Through his books of poetry, his literary and cultural criticism and his rich range of essays on diverse topics, Davey has been a major figure in introducing the idea and practice of postmodernism to writers in Canada.
So far Davey has published 27 books of poetry, six since 2000, the latest being ‘Spectres of London, Ont’ (2012), which we will be reviewing here. He also has numerous non-fiction titles.
About Our Special National Poetry Month Event:
Tom Cull will be a featured poet, along with Frank Davey. Cull was born and raised in rural Southwestern Ontario. He is on the board of Poetry London and is a co-facilitator of their poetry workshop. Tom holds a PhD in English Literature from York University and is an adjunct professor at the Centre for American Studies at Western University. Tom created and runs Thames River Rally, a volunteer group that meets monthly to clean up garbage in and along the Thames River. His first book of poetry, What the Badger Said, will be published by Baseline Press in September 2013.
OPEN MIC: We will have our traditional open mic for part of the last hour. As usual, readings will be five minutes maximum, and will be randomly chosen. They will end at 9:00
MUSIC: From 6:30 to 7:00 we will open the event with live music: Bernie Koenig on vibraphones and Emma Wise on cello. See: more info and a sample.
RAFFLE PRIZES: Donate for a raffle ticket. Three prizes include Brick Books (the best Canadian poets) and two include a book by Frank Davey plus a frameable 'broadsheet' of one of his poems. See: Where Our Income Comes From
WHERE: The event will be held in the Landon Library in Wortley Village, in the large basement room where Poetry London holds its readings. (We return to the Mykonos Restaurant in May.)
WHEN: 6:30 to 9:00 pm on Wed. April 24th, 2013.
NOTE: This month only: APRIL 24TH, AT LANDON LIBRARY, in Wortley Village.
Afterwards, many of us retire to the Roadhouse Pub across the street to wet our whistles.