When Tish Happens, by Frank Davey, 2011, ECW Press, 330 pages, pb. $19.95
If we’re to take the narrative conceit of Frank Davey’s new book, When Tish Happens, seriously, he has kept detailed diaries from the age of two, which is the age at which he appears to have reached full intellectual maturity. Age two is where his private history of the “Tish Movement” begins and since the book maintains an unbending present-tense stream-of-self-consciousness from start to finish, what other conclusion can one reach? Well, I can think of a few others, also on the evidence presented: that Frank Davey was Tish, and that Tish was and is Frank Davey. And really, never mind those other people who helped things along from time to time.
But what, you may be asking, was the “Tish Movement”, and why should anyone care about it? The answer isn’t simple, because Tish was and is many things to different people. To some, it’s a minor movement in Canadian poetry indebted to the New American Poetry movement in the U.S, while to people like Robin Mathews, it’s a nefarious agency of American cultural imperialism planted by Yankee professor Warren Tallman in the minds of some talented-but-easily-led young poets with fascist tendencies. It’s been a vehicle for lucrative academic careers for Davey and to a lesser extent for several of the others involved in the movement; and it has been an industrial resource pit that several generations of CanLit academics (Davey makes a point of quoting the off-shore ones) have made careers out of mining—usually with the encouragement and sometimes supervision of Davey himself. And, Davey reminds us from time to time, subtly and always with his tongue firmly in his cheek, “Tish” is a transposed spelling of the word for that brown stuff that comes out of our posterior parts, ha, ha.
The important artifact of the Tish movement is a 19 issue mimeographed (and later in the run, offset) poetry magazine produced monthly between the fall of 1961 and the spring of 1963, when the principal participants dispersed across the country to begin their (mostly) academic careers in which they disseminated what Mathews and a few other crazy people believed were UnCanadian Ideas to the unsuspecting students of the nation. After 1963, the magazine continued to appear irregularly until 1969, when Stan Persky somewhat hilariously euthanized it with a short series that parodied both the magazine’s ambitions and those of the generation of academics who by then desperately wanted publication in it to pump up their CVs. If you believe Davey, it and the Tish poets then went on to profoundly influence the subsequent history of Canadian writing, acting, both critically and creatively, as its anti-authoritarian Avant Garde.
The reality is somewhat less grand. Tish produced just one major Canadian poet: George Bowering, who would have turned into a major Canadian poet anyway. A group of poets of lesser talent got their starts in its pages: Fred Wah, Daphne Marlatt, Davey, Lionel Kearns (who was the purest intellectual among them, and always had his own projects elsewhere), David Bromige, David Dawson, Robert Hogg, Dan McLeod and others. Gladys Hindmarch, a prose-writer of considerable early concentration was there from the beginning, and Jamie Reid, who joined the Maoists in the mid-1960s and denounced the whole enterprise as Leftist Hegelian counter-revolutionary corruption, got his start there, too. As far as I can tell from Davey’s account, Fred Wah did most of the actual work of producing the magazine. Davey was sort of the rich kid of the movement, providing the red TR-4 for the boys to ride around in while he pined for Daphne Marlatt. Bowering wrote his poems willy-nilly, and the others did whatever they were able to get away with, which in those days was pretty well anything.
The best thing to be said about Tish is that it was exactly what young writers ought to do when faced by an older and mostly untalented and conservative generation of writers and teachers: it provided a work-space for experimentation and for imitating the best of the elders, (who, hoping for acolytes to secure their legacies, were generous with advice and sometimes facilities and funds.) It’s also what young writers have done since the beginning of the 20th century. Davey doesn’t admit this, but Tish wasn’t the only game going in those days. San Francisco’s Open Space published a magazine around the same time, edited by Persky and under the guidance of Robert Duncan, Jack Spicer and Robin Blaser, all of whom traveled to Vancouver to talk to the young poets during those years. The primary intellectual presences were Duncan, and the work of Charles Olson, particularly for his seminal essay, “Projective Verse”, which provided alternate goals and compositional processes for poetry. But mostly, Tish was about a group of personable young people having fun while they learned their craft and kept one eye on possible entry points for careers.
If there’s anything unique about Tish and the Tishites, it’s that they were in the right place at the right time: the universities were expanding, and the careers were there for the taking. In some respects, it is curious how few of them actually did land in the upper echelons of Canadian academia. Reid, as mentioned, joined the Maoists, Dan McLeod, with Pierre Coupey and others, was instrumental in creating Vancouver’s alternate newspaper, The Georgia Straight, Red Lane died young, and Wah and Marlatt were in and out of teaching most of their careers. Neither of them got much of anywhere until they began to explore, respectively, the powers of ethnicity and gender. Several Tishites landed in proletarianized teaching jobs in small colleges, and only Davey and Bowering ended up in major Canadian universities on tenure track; Davey was a conventional academic, while Bowering managed to make it on talent, never quite having to stoop to becoming an English Department hallway samurai.
The dismaying thing about When Tish Happens is that this review has already laid down more hard information and analysis than Davey provides in his entire impressionistic 325 page self-advertisement. Sure, some of the pictures Davey sticks in to spice up the narrative are fun: his 47 Ford “chick magnet”, his 57 Ford convertible, the red Triumph TR-4, what appears to be a 1967 Mustang convertible, a number of author photos of varying attractiveness, and even pictures of Davey in mid-career with a very large dog and still larger horse. There are childhood scenes from Abbotsford, B.C. where he grew up, pics of various relatives, a picture of Fred Wah doing the work on Tish’s offset printer, and quite a few of Bowering. In most of the Bowering photos, he is waving a drink at the camera while surrounded by women, which is presumably indicative of the way Davey perceives him. What we’re looking at, in other words, is autobiography and self-advertisement dressed up as literary history. And since autobiography and self-advertisement are very bad intellectual partners, there’s very little literary history here that can be trusted. But never mind that. Frank Davey has had a good life, a lucrative academic career that took him to hundreds of conferences, and this book is his proof of it. It was, in Davey’s eyes, a glamourous life—so much better, as he puts it, than Emily Carr’s, and we should be gratified that Frank Davey could be at the centre of it all, even though not all of his collaborators seem to have noticed how much smarter and talented he was than they were.
There are some entertaining anecdotes along the way, not all of them intentionally framed that way. Davey, for instance, seems to have come close to a career as a semi-professional poisoner, having nearly killed a number of Tishites with his home-made saki, of which he appears to have produced several tanker-trucks worth over the years. We see Lionel Kearns at the hospital getting his stomach pumped, Jamie Reid barfing on Warren Tallman’s sidewalk, and seemingly the entire population of Pincer Creek, Alberta laid low, prevented from forming a lynchmob only by their head-splitting hangovers. There are also, to Davey’s credit, occasional passages of credible analysis, such as his description of the fission Charles Olson’s work created in the minds of the Tishites, which makes a lot of sense even though Robin Mathews won’t believe it.
Alas, that analytical passage is instantly followed by a dismissive critique of what others involved with Tish believed was the source and/or expression of its central energies. He’s particularly dismissive of Fred Wah’s understanding of the Tish Movement, pointing out several possible errors in fact Wah makes, and it doesn’t seem to register on Davey that since Wah did most of the work, he’s probably in a better position than anyone to get it right. No, in Frank Davey’s mind, the crucial energy came from his (evidently unrequited) passion for Daphne Marlatt, and his drawing her into the circle made it all happen. Davey sees this as getting him some feminist brownie points, somehow not noticing that it wasn’t exactly Marlatt’s mind he was most interested in.
The biggest weakness of the book, aside from it being relentlessly self-serving, is that it is mean-spirited. There are a thousand small digs at and diminutions of others, particularly the ones aimed at Fred Wah, who Davey evidently views as his main competitor, and Bowering, whose smooth charm and easy talent Davey clearly envies and therefore demeans at every opportunity, always stopping just short of overt insult. Bowering comes off as an amoral hoser who should have acted and written better he does, which is (the latter without a shred of textual evidence) less brilliantly than Davey himself does. Davey even runs down the Governor General’s Award for poetry as a corrupt crapshoot, probably because both Wah and Bowering have won it, and he hasn’t. He does rather like Barrie Nichol, who in Davey’s account agreed with him on virtually everything. Nichol, unfortunately, isn’t around to corroborate.
He’s a little more generous with the women, or maybe it’s that the demeaning is more subtle. He insults Gladys Hindmarch only by proxy, quoting Warren Tallman’s goofy odes to her, and he presents Daphne Marlatt as hopelessly obtuse, which is accurate enough if for the wrong reasons: she just doesn’t get Davey’s geeky and seemingly undying passion for her, insisting on treating him collegially at every encounter. One suspects she understood more than she let on, and was exercising a kindly discretion. Margaret Atwood, who doesn’t seem to have liked Davey much, is dismissed as an authoritarian Yeatsean, while Angela Bowering comes off as a eccentric with “really cute breasts”. If you were to trust Davey’s judgment, the most interesting woman in the book is his late wife Linda, who evidently had a bawdy common sense that made me wish I’d known her. Davey does admit that she helped his career even though she doesn’t seem to have curbed his passion for Marlatt.
The book contains predictable advertorials for Davey’s post-Tish projects: Swift Current, which he describes as “the world’s first online literary magazine”, was merely a primitive chat-line for poets. If Davey approved of what you were saying, you got to yap, and your contributions landed, I suppose, in York University’s archives as a tax break for Davey. If he didn’t like what you said, you got shouted down or kicked off. The impact of Coach House-produced Open Letter, which made the dubious contribution of introducing the post-structuralist vocabulary to CanLit, is likewise much inflated in the book’s pages, as are the various anthologies that Davey edited or approved of, all of them dovetailed into the Tish hagiography he wants readers to believe in. Whether Tish was a legitimately influential movement or a retroactively glamourized transport vehicle for Davey’s academic career isn’t convincingly argued in the narrative, mainly because Davey constantly undercuts his own believability by trying to kneecap his collaborators and settle old scores. It leaves those who care waiting for the definitive book on the Tish movement—not quite a tragic circumstance, but regrettable.
What else can I say? I can testify that the group of student/writers I came up with a half decade later in Vancouver completely ignored Tish and the Tishites, and not out of malice or envy. We produced our own magazines, were less ambitious than the Tishites were, less prone to manifesto-making, and, with Robin Blaser instead of Warren Tallman as our mentor and the revolution of the 1960s in full swing, slightly more political, less career-oriented, and intellectually more heteroclyte. We never quite formed a gang: the closest we came was a baseball team, which we called The East End Punks. It eventually amalgamated with the team several of the Tishites played for, actually. We also didn’t have to deal with anyone like Frank Davey thrusting stilettos in our backs, on or off the ball-field. I feel lucky about that. On the evidence provided by When Tish Happens, with friends like Frank Davey, you really don’t need enemies.
2123 words, June 8, 2011