BC BookLook celebrates Phyllis Webb

On the occasion of the publication of the softcover edition of Phyllis Webb’s collected poems, Peacock Blue, we look back to last year, when Webb attended two significant events – at the Vancouver Writers Festival and on her home turf, Salt Spring Island – that celebrated her oeuvre and her new collection.

Below is the nearly full text of an article published on BC BookLook from this time last year, republished now on Meta-Talon with permission. Fellow Salt Spring Island poet Diana Hayes wrote a touching personal response to Webb’s importance as a mentor, and BC BookLook contributed an encyclopedic entry about Webb’s life and career. Both are below.

A Tribute
by Diana Hayes

As I prepared for the celebration of Phyllis Webb for the 2014 Vancouver Writers Fest and the launch of her collected works, Peacock Blue, published by Talonbooks, I came across a postcard from Phyllis dated June 2, 1980 from the Great Canadian Poetry Weekend in Collingwood, Ontario.

I was 25 at that time, on the cusp of entering graduate school at the University of British Columbia and had nervously written a letter asking if I could visit while next on the island.

Salt Spring had often been a place to retreat for writing. I would pack up my Underwood and a stack of books and rent a cabin on St. Mary’s Lake, sometimes for two weeks at a stretch. I was working on a long poem that summer and wanted to ask Phyllis for some help. My need for mentorship was stronger than my reluctance to bother her with my fledgling poems. I took a chance and her postcard arrived shortly thereafter. It was a lovely print of Picasso’s “Pigeons”, 1957; two birds on a railing with a bright Mediterranean sea beyond. “Yes, do please come and see me,” she said.

I was thrilled. We met for lunch that June afternoon at her home on Morningside Drive in Fulford Harbour; Leo and Isabel, her beloved cats, joining us. We talked about poetry and life on the island and cats and friends and broken hearts and the poet’s need to retreat.

The next year my need to retreat from the city became a yearning to move and Phyllis helped me to find my first island home – a 400-square-foot cedar cabin on the east bluff of Ganges Harbour overlooking the Three Sisters Islands, heated only with an antique Franklin stove. This cabin had been home to Phyllis for a number of years in the 1970’s. How lucky I felt to inhabit this special space which provided me with many years of contemplation and my second book of poems.

We met now and again for lunch to talk about poetics, the long line and the importance of writing from an authentic voice. Her work continues to provide me with much inspiration and a renewed belief in the beauty of language.

When I was asked to read from Phyllis’s work for the Vancouver Writers Fest event, I chose three poems that reminded me of those first years in the cabin on Salt Spring. Wilson’s Bowl had just been published and I can still hear the conversations we shared and the grief surrounding the devastating loss of her friend, Lilo Berliner, who committed suicide by walking into the sea. All these years later, after a decade of swimming year-round in the ocean with the Salt Spring seals, I have occasionally set off from Churchill Beach, not far from Wilson’s Bowl.

“The Bowl” was published as a broadside in December of 1981 for Island Magazine, and Phyllis inscribed a copy for me – “successor to the cabin”. Many poems and conversations took place in that cabin on the bluff overlooking the harbour. I was honored to carry on the tradition and felt that I was finally home.

A Summary
by Alan Twigg, in BC BookWorld

In 1999, Phyllis Webb received the fifth George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia. She also received the Order of Canada in 1992 and the Governor General’s Award for Poetry for her Selected Poems: The Vision Tree in 1982.

Phyllis Webb was born in Victoria on April 8, 1927 to Mary Patton and Alfred Wilkes Webb, the youngest child and only daughter in a family of three. Her parents later divorced. She joined the provincial CCF party in 1945 and graduated from UBC with a BA in English and Philosophy in 1949. In the same year she ran as a Victoria CCF candidate in the provincial election, becoming the youngest person in the Commonwealth to seek office in a Legislative assembly. In 1940 she attended the national CCF convention where she met FR Scott, her most important early literary influence, having participated in an off-campus writing group led by Earle Birney.

In 1950 Webb moved to Montreal and completed a year of graduate studies at McGill. Between 1951 and 1956 she lived in Montreal, associating with fellow writers Louis Dudek, Eli Mandel, Irving Layton, Miriam Waddington and Leonard Cohen, and had her first book of poems published in 1954, including poems by Eli Mandel and Gael Turnbull. It was published by Raymond Souster’s Contact Press in Toronto. She also lived and worked in England, Ireland and France. She received a Canadian Government Overseas Award which enabled her to live in Paris for a year-and-a-half until 1959.

Webb returned to Canada and worked as a freelance copy editor for McClelland & Stewart, publishers of her 1956 collection Even Your Right Eye, and also read scripts for CBC. She moved to Vancouver in 1960 and began working as a teacher’s assistant in English at UBC in 1961. Inspired by a 1963 poetry conference at UBC, Webb was influenced by the West Coast experimentalism of San Francisco and Black Mountain poets such as Charles Olson, Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley, and Allen Ginsberg (all of whom she interviewed). In 1964 she accepted a job as Program Organizer in Public Affairs for CBC Radio and she moved to Toronto. During this period, with her colleague William A. Young, she instigated the still-running program Ideas, the most distinguished series of programs of its kind in Canadian broadcasting. From 1967 to 1969 she was the Executive Producer of the program.

During a leave-of-absence from CBC, she travelled to the Soviet Union and also discovered Salt Spring Island as a place for writing and revitalization. She became intrigued with the anarchist movement, beginning work on her ‘Kropotkin Poems.’ Increasingly drawn to her own writing, Webb resigned from CBC, having interviewed writers on television (including FR Scott, Dorothy Livesay, Margaret Atwood, and bill bissett) and moved to Vancouver, to ‘save her soul.’ She published her Selected Poems 1954-1965 with Talonbooks in 1971. The next year she received the BC Library Association Prize for her role as “the writer who has made the greatest contribution to the poetry of BC in the past five years.”

The suicides of her friend Lilo Berliner (in 1977) and the anthropologist Wilson Duff (in 1976) intensified her writing and furthered her explorations of West Coast imagery and mythology. Prior to her death, Berliner left her correspondence with Wilson Duff about Haida mythology on Webb’s doorstep. Between 1976 and 1979. Webb taught Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia and the University of Victoria. She was Writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta (1980-1981) and published Wilson’s Bowl in 1980. According to John Hulcoop, when the book was passed over for a nomination for the Governor General’s Award, a group of fellow poets – led by Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, bpNichol, and PK Page – collected $2,300 and sent it to Webb, stating that “this gesture is a response to your whole body of work as well as to your presence as a touchstone of true good writing in Canada, which we all know is beyond awards and prizes.”

“My poems are born out of great struggles of silence,” she once wrote, “… wayward, natural and unnatural silences, my desire for privacy, my critical hesitations, my critical wounds, my dissatisfactions with myself and my work have all contributed to a strange gestation.” Webb taught briefly at the Banff School of Fine Arts and also the University of Victoria, then moved back to her Salt Spring Island home in 1990.

Webb initiated a chapter of Amnesty International on Salt Spring Island, protested alleged sexist hiring practices at CBC and decried alleged gender bias in Canada Council awards in the 1970s and 1980s.

“Phyllis Webb is a protean writer of lambent sensibility,” George Woodcock wrote, “The shifts in her style, like loops of a spiral, are always introducing us to something new; and usually to something better.”

“Phyllis Webb is one of the finest poets now writing in Canada,” wrote Stephen Scobie. “In fact, dropping the academic equivocation, she is the finest.” Scobie has claimed Webb’s writing “has always been distinguished by the profundity of her insights, the depth of her emotional feeling, the delicacy and accuracy of her rhythms, the beauty and mysterious resonance of her images – and by her luminous intelligence.”

In “Evensong” she once wrote, “Tending towards music / the artist’s life tends towards solitary notes / slips of the tongue, hand, eye eerily like / intelligence of higher orders.” Webb published two collections of non-fiction and has had her work translated into Urdu, Dutch, German, French, Swedish, Finnish, Gujurati, and Spanish. The Vision Tree: Selected Poems received the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry in 1983.

Having edited and written the introduction for Phyllis Webb’s Selected Poems (Talonbooks 1971), John F. Hulcoop has stayed the course, contributing a book-length study, Phyllis Webb and Her Works (ECW Press, 1990). Fortunate to have such a devoted critic as the nineteeth-century poetry scholar Hulcoop and such a devoted publisher as Talonbooks, Webb has now re-emerged as a poet after a hiatus of more than thirty years with a single volume of all her published, unpublished and uncollected works, Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb (Talonbooks, 2014), once again edited by Hulcoop. She attended an event in her honour at the Vancouver Writers Festival, in conjunction with the launch of the book, in 2014. The all-encompassing overview of her work came thirty-four years after the eminent Ontario critic Northrop Frye hailed her collection Wilson’s Bowl as “a landmark in Canadian literature” in 1980.

Books by Webb:
Trio (with Gael Turnbull and Eli Mandel), Contact Press, 1954
Even Your Right Eye, M&S, 1956
The Sea Is Also A Garden, Ryerson Press, 1962
Naked Poems, Periwinkle Press, 1965
Selected Poems: 1954-1965, (edited by John Hulcoop) Talonbooks, 1971
Wilson’s Bowl, Coach House Press, 1980
Talking, Quadrant Editions, 1980
Sunday Water: Thirteen Anti Ghazals, Island, 1982
The Vision Tree: Selected Poems (edited by Sharon Thesen), Talonbooks, 1982
Water and Light Ghazals and Anti-Ghazals, Coach House Press, 1984
Hanging Fire, Coach House Press, 1990
Nothing But Brush Strokes: Selected Prose, NeWest Press, 1995.
The Griffin Poetry Prize Anthology: A Selection of the 2004 Shortlist, Anansi, 2004. Editor.
Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb, Talonbooks, 2014. [hardcover]

Books about Phyllis Webb include:
Phyllis Webb and Her Work by John Hulcoop (ECW Press, 1991)
Seeing in the Dark: The Poetry of Phyllis Webb by Pauline Butling (Wilfrid Laurier Press, 1997)
Phyllis Webb and the Common Good by Stephen Collis (Talonbooks, 2007)