Writing on Coast Surreal Territory: An Interview with Garry Thomas Morse

Kevin Spenst interviews Garry Thomas Morse, whose most recent book is Discovery Passages.

Kevin Spenst: One of the pleasures of Discovery Passages was following the unique development of several core concepts: trees, fish, masks, mythic creatures, the Kwakwaka’wakw and the Western take (read: theft) on native culture from the “Indian Agent” Willliam M. Halliday to Duncan Campbell Scott, the poet/Deputy Superintendent of Indian Affairs and finally to Franz Boas, early “ethnographer of bifurrrrrrrrrrrrrcate tongue.” Out of these concepts and people you develop a narrative that is strikingly unique and powerful. Did your writing process follow a chronology of material from the past into the present?

Garry Thomas Morse: I am rather leery about the term “narrative”, particularly when it comes to poetry, since this was a process of discovery for myself as well as the reader, rather than me itching to insist anything to the reader. Much of the work and imagery arose from a trip I took in a northernly direction among our beautiful islands in BC. Islanders gave me a great deal of information in their own voices and images presented themselves, whether it was seeing the totems of mourning that are left to rot and die, or the dog named Samson that runs up and down the main road. This book, rooted in history and place, for the most part, wrote itself. I served as the medium.

I would venture the same approach was taken toward relating any aspects of history which are often generalized or glossed over. The key point to remember in this case is that the potlatch ban was orchestrated by (or could not have been brought about without) a few individuals. There is some evidence that the City of Vancouver and some of the government officials were at the very least indifferent to the activities of natives in their own homes, and that they did not approve of some of the Indian Agent’s actions, whom they refer to as the “grand poohbah of Alert Bay”.

William Halliday, as Indian Agent in 1913, was eager to stamp out the “savage ways” of the Kwakwaka’wakw and what he called their “evil potlatch” and replace it with good old fashioned religious values. However, he wasn’t getting anywhere with his divinely appointed mission until Duncan Campbell Scott became the Superintendent General of Indian Affairs. Halliday was then made a Justice of the Peace and many arrests started taking place. Natives were given the “choice” of serving jail time for potlatching or signing an agreement whereby they would relinquish their paraphernalia (masks, coppers, etc), which Halliday would promptly sell to collectors and museums.

The poem closest to an invective, styled somewhat after Wayde Compton’s poem for James Douglas, is “Hot Blooded, A Love Poem for Duncan Campbell Scott”. Here is an often celebrated figure who as a poet with his verses was always trying to romanticize First Nations people out of existence while with his legislation, he was a thousand times worse than Halliday. You only have to consider him writing about his “Onondaga Madonnas” and openly lamenting their “vanishing waning race”, while actively working toward threatening and breaking up families, seemingly intent on their extinction. And from 1913 to 1932, he was head of what has been called the most repressive and brutal assimilation programs Canada ever enacted against its native inhabitants.

As for my last word on the practices of Ottawa and the government, to appreciate the relationship of a First Nations person to many national interests, one only need read the quote from John A. MacDonald, in which he calls my mother’s people “the most savage and uncivilized in the province”, indicating that the “evil potlatch” was constantly being held by them. Beyond land claim talks and bureaucratic apologia, although I am perhaps not the best person to ask, since I am not a cultural theorist, I suspect that these subconscious cues remain in our political organization in such a way that while they are likely not actively roused with much conscious energy, because of their elusiveness they linger, as in the case of Stephen Dedalus as Irish subject living with the aftermath of British rule, finding that “history is a nightmare they are trying to wake up from.” To make any kind of sincere reparation, we (meaning everybody) would have to dismantle this system and perhaps all systems. That would be a starting point (meaning for everybody), but since this is an impossibility, due to the divisiveness and self-loathing these processes can lead to, I believe more can be accomplished through language projects and new artistic works.

Franz Boas is a more ambiguous figure, at times a means of cultural preservation and at other times a means of distortion. It’s a bit like those Icelandic sagas that were subject to religious alteration, where you can’t always tell what was from the original tale and what morals have been tacked on. To be fair, some of the stories may not have been ready for prime time, and startled the prudish sensibilities of the anthropological team. It is difficult in our era to figure out the motivations of any given individual in another time. I have observed the recent academic trend is to criticize Boas, although the most comprehensive lambasting is often by non-Aboriginals, which does not take into account the value his records might have for present and future generations, as in some cases, even as an observer, however inconvenient, he is a kind of witness that can be called forth. I also think it is more often an unconscious fault on the part of non-Aboriginal academics when they begin to speak on behalf of Aboriginals and their issues, although this is a real muddying of the waters in trying to explore any kind of historical truth, or in the process of understanding some of the characteristics of a people. My take on it is that if you play enough theoretical games, you can entirely abstract out the experiential—you can make just about anyone disappear…

The poem you refer to, “Interpretative Dance”, is a reworking of two texts by Boas, one describing a multicultural fishing community and one that is a story from my familial group, the Assu family from the Wewaikai First Nation. And while it is not my place to discuss or formulate the characteristics of a people, since I not an ethnographer, I am beginning to recognize a few traits I recognize and hold dear, particularly among the descendants of Chief Billy Assu, who is my great-grandfather. This is part of the “discovery” in my book.

I found the juxtaposition of these two texts by Boas interesting, and this part of the book was also influenced by Daphne Marlatt’s wonderful work about the fishing community in Steveston. The family story is rather open ended and is more in keeping with fiercely held convictions about everything from aesthetics to personal conduct—there is something familiar here, something being uttered about the energy that might be roused in the wake of an artistic act, although that is only my interpretation. And I am hesitant about attempting to speak with any authority about anything that appears to me self-evident and intuitive. However, I would find it interesting if any of these points would help to stimulate further study and discussion.

KS: A number of poems in Discovery Passages cascade across the page. At times I wondered if they were strips of bark off trees, strips of flesh, waves, an “interpretative dance” across the page. Could you tell us about the shape of your lines?

GTM: I get this question a lot. I think Elee Kraljii Gardiner said it best in that she sensed in many of my lines this yearning to reach far beyond the confines of the page, or something to that effect. As I do not consider myself a visual artist or very much of a conceptualizer, and do not write square little poems about my rather droll domestic realm, I find I am left with hand-me-down lyricism I enjoy


which is another way of saying the kinetic movement and musicality of the style in work by William Carlos Williams and also what has been called my “tendency towards epic”. What I like best is find there is cohesion in a work—that its parts relate to the whole and so on. But you are right in this case, as a lithe animality presented itself to me, as well as a world of wood and stone and water, and this influenced the way I wrote some of the book. Also, there is some element of Ezra Pound talking about Henri Gaudier-Brzeska planning sculpture while the bullets are whizzing past. Not really. But that’s where my automatism kicks in. I do a lot of things unconsciously, which is another way of saying I steal. Another way of saying I steal stuff back!

I have also learned a fair amount about lyric sensibility from the work of George Bowering, not to mention his overview of Canadian Literature, his last course at SFU that I had the chance to take. I recall being interested in Al Purdy, Louis Dudek, Irving Layton, and Lola Lemire Tostevin at the time. And that was before I had heard of Artie Gold. Incidentally, the first poem I wrote for Discovery Passages is based upon a poem by George Bowering in The Gangs of Kosmos (Anansi, 1969) about “Kwakiutl cannibal societies”. In those days, I think it was in vogue to get in touch with your inner “Indian”.

Nowadays, Bowering says “another book by Garry Thomas Morse?!?” and Morse says “Hell yeah, mofo!” or something, ahem, to that effect.

KS: I love how the different sections of your book bump up against each other in such surprising ways. “The Document” section contains a series of stripped down quotes from letters made about the practice of the potlatch. From the last three words of that section


the reader turns the page to “The Indian Picture Opera” which inflates to “In the Land of the Head Hunters (based on a true people)” a spoof of a big, schmaltzy Hollywood style production. Did these different sections come first as framing ideas or did they emerge from within the practice of writing?

GTM: Although it has been mistaken as merely a form of currency or status, even by Boas, the copper for the Kwakwaka’wakw people also serves as a document, something like the wampum of Natives across the “imaginary” 49th parallel. What I did was take the actual letters between the Natives and government officials and apply an erasure poetic, a kind of reverse whitewash if you will, to erode away all the flowery language and develop a sort of pidgin language that expressed what was really going on, while at the same time subjecting a few bureaucrats to something like the popularized stereotype of First Nations characters—Tonto and so on…

For me, the most poignant part is where a Native man is asking permission to perform a potlatch for his daughter who has just died, even quoting the Bible to try to evoke sympathy in the official. And I think the official reply, a refusal, is devastating.

I am not sure how to approach the transition between sections in the book, but I would like to explain that the idea for the next section came from another rather ambiguous figure, who incidentally didn’t exactly get along with Boas. I am referring to the title subject of the play by Marie Clements and photographic critique by Rita Leistner called The Edward Curtis Project (Talonbooks). Edward Curtis wrote the original metamyth called In the Land of the Head Hunters, which is a fable loosely based upon ways of the Kwakwaka’wakw people.

The reason I consider him ambiguous is that while he produced beautiful photographs, there are many questions of authenticity about them, and also his depiction of Natives across North America as a “vanishing race”. On the other hand, his personal obsession was also a kind of campaign to raise awareness about the condition of Aboriginals. In hindsight, some folks are appreciative of his role as a record keeper and others are outraged at his portrayal of Native people. The thing to remember is that while instinctively we want to think poorly of him, there are individuals and families who now appreciate having such grand evidence of their relations and in some cases this has helped to spark a cultural restoration.

“The Indian Picture Opera” was actually the title of Edward Curtis’ travelling slide show to promote his book (In the Land of the Head Hunters). For a number of reasons, I thought it would be incredibly ironic to write a performance piece to promote my own book. I was quite excited to be invited by Joanne Arnott and Russell Wallace to perform this at the Talking Stick festival in Vancouver, because the audience was so fired up and everyone began to tell some story or other about Edward Curtis.

This piece re-appropriates highly romanticized lines from the book by Curtis and also references the movie of “In the Land of the Head Hunters” he made with Kwakwaka’wakw actors, the highlights being how in the face of on-set cases of the giggles, he didn’t want “his Indians” to laugh and the fact that they had to rent a whale from a neighbouring group of Natives, which quite naturally led to my Gilbert and Sullivan whale song. On some level, I feel this taps into the impressive and flamboyant theatrical nature of the people themselves, not to mention the self-promotional tendencies of my familial line.

KS: The poems in Discovery Passages retrace Captain Vancouver’s route from Alert Bay to Malcolm Island (where the town of Sointula was founded by Finns with Utopian ideals). At times we’re in the poet’s imagination, at other times in conversation with people on various islands and then we’re also reminded that we’re on a ferry moving from island to island. From how many places did you write Discovery Passages?

GTM: Did I mention my book is currently available on BC Ferries? You can read it moving from island to island…

For quite some time I was under the impression that the Kwakwaka’wakw were there to meet Captain Vancouver, but apparently it was the Salish before the Kwakwaka’wakw pushed them out through battle and intermarriage. It’s fun to mention this in Vancouver directly after all the customary tributes to Coast Salish territory because I get booed. It’s like being a character in Aboriginal wrestling. I mostly like to mention this because it adds another level of complexity to the stereotypical view of Native people only as vanishing, as victims, etc. Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are Salish! My point is really that no one should be simplified out of existence just because the truth or essence of things is too complicated to turn into a sound bite.

I wrote the poetry for the book in Vancouver, in Sointula, in Alert Bay, in Campbell River, and in Quadra Island, where my mother is originally from, although she as a girl, she used to be a cook on a fishing boat with her father journeying along the Fraser River, and spent part of her early years in Steveston, also working in the cannery.

The trip to the Finnish museum on Sointula was a surprise. It was quite the plot twist for the book and it was exciting to learn about this early community with its Utopian and Socialist ideals, and also to consider the result after the community became divided over some kind of “operatic free love triangle”. The woman at the museum told me how they were forbidden to speak their own language at school, so they used to gab in Finn together under the bleachers.

KS: Are there any lines from an early draft of any poem in Discovery Passages that you’d like to share? What ideas, principles or gut feelings guided you through those changes?

GTM: Although I’m not necessarily a first through/best thought flunky, I’m not exactly like Wordsworth, wanting to do four different versions of The Prelude and so forth. As the Kwakwaka’wakw believe in a kind of intuition that is also a power called NWALUK, what you might call gut (or spirits), I don’t really grasp the editorial process in terms of my own work. In this case, I can only defer to the opinion of a truly brilliant editor, since Karl Siegler, for three books now, has demonstrated the utmost confidence in my work, and has on more than one occasion expressed that in my own crazed esoteric way, I know what the **** I am doing, and that is good enough for me.

And I would like to take a second to thank Karl Siegler, Daphne Marlatt, and Roy Miki, because it was their continual encouragement and interest and unwavering belief in this project that led to it being realized as a book. Also, in addition to the kindnesses shown by Williams and Williams and the rest of what Sachiko Murakami calls the Talonbooks family, which it is, I would like to acknowledge the efforts of my colleague Gregory Gibson, who helped me track down and obtain the appropriate permissions for archival photographs, since I have learned that when an artefact has been confiscated from your family, you still have to pay a museum for the rights to show other people a picture of what it looks like.

Also, I take poetry seriously to the point that it is like a belief system that I am rather cagey about. And this is not to say in Dantean fashion I make a trumpet of my ass and it comes out like flowers every time. For all the writing I do, there are many false starts and dead ends, left behind in the mausoleum of abandoned things. Just as I hate to rehearse anything that would interfere with the so-called pseudodivine act of recitation which is the only thing in the world that seems to make me tremble from the sheer release of frenzied energy, I hate to revisit something I’ve abandoned. It’s like an old romance. Like old cabbage.

So no, I’ve blithered on and I have nothing to show you. It all came out like stone and water and trees and animals and maybe sometimes Orphic flowers…

KS: What are your thoughts about the current poetry and/or literary scene in Vancouver?

GTM: Recently, Lemon Hound referred to Vancouver as a poetry hub, and I would have to agree. Most of all, I am constantly impressed by “the kids”, as I playfully call those around my own age or younger who are part of this “ass-roots” movement (as in up off the ass kick ass movement) to create their own literary scene, one that is both informed by tradition and also opening up new avenues of expression.

Sadly, this comes at a time when the g(local) media and our realized Society of the Spectacle (Guy Debord) is all caught up with images of violence from the sporty riot in downtown Vancouver. I have heard many different theories about the causes, although I think it is a gross error to place too much significance in this particular event, since it does a disservice to all legitimate protesters and activists to confuse this riot with other politically motivated riots and protests in not so distant Canadian history. What was apparent was not so much the actions of the same troublemakers who always go to these things looking for destructive opportunities or the alcohol fuelled tweens trying to recreate some sort of primitive ritual involving fire, perhaps in the hope of being initiated into manhood, but in fact the number of people with live streaming gadgetalia who did not even attempt to turn around and head home when asked to by police, which presented difficulties in dealing with some of the primary agitators. And I think the aftermath has shown that no matter what we think about it, it has become a kind of grotesque tourism to use technology to nourish this sorry spectacle. This is simply the dynamic collective psychic energy that is not being put to any good purpose, the kind of thing that can be misused or easily manipulated by those in power and by commercial interests, and this has repeatedly happened throughout history. It is disappointing that such energy could not be put into either bringing about political solutions, or preventing our food from being genetically modified, or questioning more ardently what is in our water, and more importantly, what may be in our waters very soon if we continue to build crude pipelines and nuclear reactors and the like. What we did was buy a t-shirt to show we cared and took our own photo in front of an exploding car.

That said, this does nothing in my eyes to tarnish Vancouver’s growing reputation as a literary hub, where every night there is at least one event and often three or four events, all relating to writing and books! What is more, recent writings and workshops show hands-on engagement with the community, and there are excellent projects such as Megaphone Magazine that gives helpful opportunities for independent street vendors in the Downtown Eastside. Off the top of my head, I would say that individuals such as Alex Leslie, Cecily Nicholson, Mariner Janes, Sean Condon, Joanne Arnott, Aubyn Rader, Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Christine Leclerc and Daniel Zomparelli, through written work, through various forms of community-oriented employment, through organization, through publication, and most of all through all of their time given to local projects, are revealing to me the kind of literary community I want to live in. There is not a day I do not wake up excited to consider that I may have my own very small part to play in this surreal new city, that is, after all, my own birthplace.

KS: The Vancouver Art Gallery has a few Kwakwaka’wakw figures in their Colour of my Dreams exhibit, which suggests some influence of tribal practices on the surrealism movement. Was this ever acknowledged by any of the surrealists?

GTM: Yes, upon entering the Vancouver Art Gallery to see the Colour of my Dreams exhibit, I was startled to encounter a Kwakwaka’wakw figure tucked behind the liminal. I was also pleased to discover that in this wonderful curation by Dawn Ades, a respectful sensibility had been achieved, which I find rare in the positioning of such artefacts in various museums and galleries. There is a grandeur and solemnity to this welcoming creature of wood, and one feels its open mouth is inventing whatever is to follow. I was also awed by the Kwakwaka’wakw heron juxtaposed with Edith Rimmington’s The Oneiroscopist. Here, I believe the surrealist augury is self-explanatory.

I believe that this influence was acknowledged in some way by the Surrealists. In a strange coincidence, in an excellent piece by Colin Browne in the Vancouver Art Gallery catalogue, I discovered that the American collector, George Heye, who happened to purchase my familial frog from William Halliday and is parodied in Discovery Passages, also acquired a Kwakwaka’wakw headdress that ended up in Andre Breton’s study. Although this was returned to the U’mista Centre in Alert Bay by Breton’s daughter, it is being generally referred to as Breton’s headdress, although it was almost assuredly obtained indirectly by the means I have described at the beginning of this interview.

At the gallery, I was trying not to take things too personally, although to my astonishment, the exhibit made me acutely aware of a connection between at least two of my literary interests and creations, and therefore revealed a not so tenuous bridge across my subconscious interior (where much of my work gets done). I was intensely aware of something I had been trying to express about not just the Kwakwaka’wakw but my own literary ideas and forms of expression and suddenly I realized that this exhibit might help to provide a dream vocabulary of sorts, at least to explain what I have accomplished thus far and what is soon to follow.

KS: The French proto-surrealist Comte de Lautréamont in Les Chants de Maldoror describes a boy as “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella!” Is there enough surrealism in contemporary literature? Are there enough sewing-machines and umbrellas on dissecting-tables?

GTM: I am really glad you mentioned Maldoror, because this has also influenced a series of novels I am writing called The M Trilogy.

In order to appreciate French surrealism, I think that one has to understand what you call the proto-surrealists. I realize that much of the discussion tends to lead to Breton, although in my opinion, one of the worst aspects of his contradictory nature was the way he became a proponent for some fantastic artists and then later denounced them over the most petty of issues, whether it be what he perceived were social or political affiliations. Therefore I was disappointed by his surrealist manifestoes, which strike me more as a who’s who of surrealism, or a gossip column about people he is hanging out with.

The other thing Breton does is to try and imitate his predecessors, including Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Gérard de Nerval, and the self-styled Comte de Lautréamont (Isidore Ducasse), praising them when it suits him to do so, and distancing himself from them when his own literature does not measure up, insisting that they failed to become a surrealist like himself. Actually, I believe he makes an exception for Maldoror, which he manages to read between writing manifestoes, but that is beside the point. I find that his description of a trip to Quebec reads like a watered down version of Nerval’s fascinating works, who was a pioneer in the field of creative non-fiction and fictive journalism.

In my view, concepts of writing collectives and audience appeasement and what is more, creative writing factories and the hyperactive marketing of books, do not lead to the degree of social invective and criticism to be found in Maldoror. Whether it is surrealism or not, in Gogol and Genet and de Sade and Bataille and sometimes even in Balzac, there is a decadent pseudoreality that presents the strangest of characters in such detail that the reader is compelled to come to grips with this altered reality, to ultimately identify with it in some way.

And I think there is a difference between adding surrealism to a writing technique as one adds a sauce to a dish and exploring surrealism as a way of communicating one’s own personal vision of the city, world, universe, etc. The point of a personal vision would be not to reach a potential audience but rather to invent it in the most munificent shades and textures.

KS: Next year you have a book of fiction coming out from Talonbooks which includes a reworking of concepts rooted in the surrealist movement. Could you tell us how you came across the idea for this book?

GTM: The first two volumes of my novella series The Chaos! Quincunx are forays into the surrealist and speculative genres, if there are such things. The first volume, Minor Episodes, is a reworking of a surrealist novella by a French poet named Robert Desnos called La Liberté ou l’Amour ( Liberty or Love! ). As Breton originally suspected, I believe Desnos to be the literary genius of the surrealist movement, and I was inspired by his take on consumerism as the new form of religion and with his exploration of the philosophical or metaphysical erotic in a narrative that continually reinvents itself. And there are hints of Kierkegaard and Kafka and other names that start with K.

I consider my own first volume a serial novella, as it borrows techniques from serial matinees and the surrealist cinema of Luis Buñuel and deals with the episodes of the protagonist Minor, whose very existence seems to involve the instantaneous commercialization of anything and everything on a metaphysical level.

The second volume Major Ruckus is also surrealist in flavour (more sauce!) but it is leaning more in the direction of the speculative genre. In this, I also took two stories from my very own Death in Vancouver and expanded them and gave them mail order extensions. And due to popular demand, I wrote more adventures for the Canadian porn censor characters that give the Aboriginal erotic genre a run for its money…

Stay tuned!

This interview was posted on June 24, 2011 on Kevin Spenst’s blog.