In New Denver, a village on Slocan Lake in the B.C. Kootenays, I met an interesting writer. He does poetry and performance art, along with historical writing and journalism, and his project is to revive mythological epic poetry writing and find a place for its practice in contemporary poetry culture. We met on a sunny fall morning on New Denver’s four blocks long “Main Street”: the sun rays lit up the Valhalla mountain ramparts on the other side of the lake as we talked.
We met again some weeks later at a local café called “ The Cup and Saucer”, and we— his name is Art—talked about the writing life here in the B.C. Interior where cosmopolitan life is framed by watersheds, glacial age valleys and backcountry trekking. Art had a strong track record in publishing and I had done my bit and conversation moved smoothly. I was touched when Art showed me a book he had recently published that recalled the history of the refugee British orphans who were sent to the Canadian prairies as indentured farm labourers from 1869 til 1949 . Art’s grandfather was among them. There’s no record of what became of them and their offspring.
In November Art staged a major performance art piece in New Denver’s Bosun Hall, a union meeting place from the region’s mining years, and the evening featured poems spoken by Art, music provided by a man named Noel Fudge, an extended, amazingly choreographed dance performed by Art in full costume and voice. A large part of the New Denver population was present and I felt I was not in a theatre but something more like a long house in which a B.C. First Nation potlatch was underway. I felt I was “here,” in an event not made for observers and audiences but for participants in a cultural rite. Outside the lake and the mountains kept silent watch. I thought of Buddhists who experience a “here”and live in its “now.”
At potlatches I’d attended in Haida Gwaii people called the procedures “doings”: song, dance, speech, masks, costumes, ritual regalia and, most important, gifting names. In Art’s doings here in the Bosun Hall naming was also central, albeit in a different way. The key protagonist was called “Dead Crow,” a character, real and fictional, invented and discovered, alien and human. He was Art’s alter ego, and was a voice that spoke Art’s poems and reports. As described in the event’s program hand out, theirs is “a medicine story that tells of Crow’s fascination with his own shadow. He kept looking at it, scratching it, pecking at it until his shadow woke and became alive. Then Crow’s shadow ate him. Crow is Dead Crow now.” Art, throughout the doings gave further descriptions and spoke Dead Crow’s words and sounds and Dead Crow mimicked him. Or was it vice versa…?
I felt in a world here of the trickster, shape shifter, medicine man, witchdoctor, and yes, poets, those early ones who in eastern and western ancient worlds became the authors of founding myths and epics, foundational narratives that, via voice and later on text , started off early civilizations. We are talking here about the Homers, the authors of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Irish Lebor Gabala Erenn and other foundational bards, including, yes, the First Nation poet who sang Raven stories on the B.C. coast and was both life creator and trickster. Art wants such minds and hearts and spirits to return and reawake a human spirit and inspire such doings to reenter the world of today.
Here are some poems from Art and Dead Crow as spoken and heard in a Slocan Valley potlatch:
Birth: Why? Why here? on this planet?
Creations womb swells
black blood drop
falling through space
is blessed by light
and becomes thought
into earths atmosphere
thought is blessed by air
and becomes feather
to skiff the pounds of heaven
Exile: You want my name? Which one? I’m known by many names: Dead Crow. Jackdaw crook. Split-toughed muse. Dark rook in bleak rain. “What’s in a name? Only millennia of lives lived. I’ve been here so long I’m starting to look human. Time has filed down my voice with a rasp.
Art and I met semi regularly after the Dead Crow evening and I felt friendship awaking. We spoke over lunch in a place in New Denver called “The Apple Tree” and we discussed the various philosophers, writers, discourses, contemporary political-cultural movements and debates that connected us. Art gave me some of his writings and I sent him a few of my stories and poems and I thought of myself as a back country intellectual. Art was and is deeply engaged in local politics as well as in art, gives regular reporting in the regional Valley Voice Newspaper, one of the last independent newspapers in western Canada; he set up regular poetry readings and book launchings, and established a publishing imprint, and I thought of him as a back country Homer in a new global age.
Art is a great fan of the Swiss psychiatrist Karl Jung and we discussed the key terms: the collective unconscious, the mythic archetype, the shadow self, the idea that there is such a thing as a “mythic template common to human consciousness” and that there are forces at work that we can intuit but not know. The philosopher Wittgenstein steps into the conversation here. Art’s dislike of postmodern discourse and the shallowness of current self indulging lyric writing is on the table, and we discussed the problems that Marshall McLuhan had when he became a media celebrity. Art brought up Canadian poet Gary Geddes, guru for contemporary writers of epic narrative poetry and poetics and is Art’s chosen mentor. Even German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche came into range and I brought up Heidegger, the world-known philosopher who lived and thought and wrote in a log house in the south German Black Forest back country.
The 1846 USA-Canada border Treaty, and the 1964 Columbia River Treaty, caused the indigenous Sinixt First Nation tribes that had lived in the Slocan Valley for 10,000 years to disperse and leave their historical land. In 1956 they were declared officially extinct by the Federal Government. Some Sinixts people are now returning to their Slocan homelands and requesting their historical rights. I’m tempted, (speaking from the hidden shadows of past/present worlds), to think that the recent arrival of the Art-cum-Dead Crow and vice versa duo, is a trickster-style revenge prank that is going to change the character of the local-plus-global atmosphere.
Meanwhile Art—his full name is Sean Arthur Joyce—is gathering the Slocan art and life doings into a soon-to-be book called Dead Crow & the Spirit Engine: a Fable in Stories & Poems, and when it’s found a publisher we can relive the evenings that converged past and present into a reality that bonded time and place and made a new here and now.
Sean Arthur Joyce can be reached at