Ken Belford: A Personal and Literary Reminiscence

I knew Ken Belford through Barry McKinnon, my longtime colleague in the English Department at the College of New Caledonia (CNC). I was only an acquaintance, at first. Later, when Belford retired and moved to Prince George, I and my wife Vivien Lougheed became friends and neighbours.

McKinnon regularly included Belford in his series of Canada Council readings, a series that started in 1969 and ran into the mid 1980s. Starting in 1972, I worked as McKinnon’s factotum in this enterprise, arranging rooms, doing some of the Canada Council paper work, and picking up and dropping off readers. I also helped with the production of posters, as well as the chapbooks and broadsides that McKinnon usually printed as handouts for the audience and gifts for the readers.

McKinnon wrote an account of his first meeting (1969) with Belford:

A big man in the shadows getting out of a cab by the side of our shack on Queensway street in Prince George. He had phoned earlier to say he’d read my poems in Talon, that he was on his way to Vancouver to read in Al Purdy’s class at Simon Fraser University, and wondered if he could crash for the night. Hell yes! I said.  

After that, Belford always stayed at McKinnon’s place when he was in Prince George. If he was in for a reading, this saved him the money the Council gave him for accommodation. Often after a reading he went on to Vancouver, usually to visit his parents, so his travel allowance was also used efficiently.

These would be necessary economies at the time; Belford made his living sporadically as a laborer on survey, highway, ranch and forestry crews — all jobs he wrote about. In 1977, he and his wife Alice started a fishing camp on Blackwater Lake up the Nass River, a business that had a difficult start but that ultimately survived and is still in operation.

McKinnon wrote about these early years of his friendship with Belford: 

We always kept our friendship and connection via sporadic visits, letters, phone calls, and various publishing projects. I would occasionally go to Ken’s homestead outside of Smithers, or later to his camp in the Blackwater. He would come to Prince George to visit and read at the college. During those visits in the 70’s and 80’s, Ken would give a poetry reading and stay in town for a few days. We’d yak endlessly, smoke, drink, tell stories and laugh — but mostly talk and talk about poets, poetry and poetics, and the nature and wonder at our persistent occupation in its activity.

McKinnon and Belford also spent time together printing chapbooks and broadsides — poems and manuscripts written by themselves and others. All of this activity McKinnon has documented; he had to keep detailed accounts of readings and writer-in-residencies for the Canada Council anyway, and he had a correspondence with each of his readers that in most cases went far beyond the mere setting up of events. He wanted to share this information, this gossip and this talk of poetics. McKinnon’s article in SFU’s Line magazine, “The Caledonia Writing Series: A Chronicle” (#2, Fall 1983), lists what he and Belford, as well as he and a long list of other visiting writers, produced during his first decade at CNC.

I appear in this account because I brought a small magazine and publishing house with me when I came to CNC, along with some printing equipment. That equipment joined McKinnon’s in the creative writing / printing space that the college had set up in 1971. Later, I moved an entire antique print shop from Barkerville to Prince George. McKinnon had purchased it when, in 1980, the college cancelled “creative printing” and got rid of its equipment. The Barkerville equipment went into McKinnon’s basement, and the Caledonia Writing Series gave way to Gorse St. Press.

The social life (outside the print room / basement) associated with McKinnon’s reading series involved a lot of pub-schmoozing — intense sessions dedicated to literary gossip and poetics, sessions in which students and interested members of the general public were welcomed. Belford was a good drinker and could hold it well. He wasn’t manic at all at these sessions, not the way most of us were. He was polite, formal — the word might be “laconic.” He seemed to weigh his words carefully, speaking slowly and quietly. He commanded attention, and he was well read.

The high point of McKinnon’s reading series was the Words / Loves conference of February 7, 8, 9, 1980. McKinnon brought Robert Creeley, probably the poet who most influenced his and Belford’s generation of poets, and he surrounded Creeley with old friends and fans — poets like George Bowering, Robin Blaser, David Phillips, Brett Enemark, David McFadden, Eleanor Crowe and George Stanley. One of the high points of Words / Loves: Creeley went up to Belford after Belford had read, and said, “I hear your music, man.”

Many of McKinnon’s activities were rooted in the Vancouver poetry scene. Most of the writers that came to PG on reading tours and to Words / Loves were, like Belford, from Vancouver or environs or, like McKinnon, had in the past spent time in Vancouver for work or school. Many were published by Talonbooks, which had started as Talon, a small magazine (last issue 1968). Both McKinnon and Belford appeared in the magazine before their books were published by the press. The first ever Talonbooks poetry publication was Belford’s Fireweed (1967). Three years later the press issued The Post Electric Cave Man (1970) and the year after that McKinnon’s The Carcasses of Spring. Talonbooks remained committed to both McKinnon and Belford right into the new millennium, with a big “selected poems” by McKinnon in 2004, called The Centre, and Belford’s Decompositions in 2010.

It was The Post-Electric Cave Man and its poems about the Smithers-Hazleton area that started the legend of “Wilderness Ken.” The cover photo on that book shows Belford and poet-publisher Pat Lane in an alpine area, hunting. Both are staring intently into the distance, no doubt looking for something worth shooting at. Both are holding rifles. Both look rugged. Belford is wearing a cowboy hat and has a mustache and a thick beard. It was this image of him that was, for me, dominant for over 30 years, until he retired (in 2000) and came to Prince George to live.

I suppose if you wanted to criticize those early Talonbooks lists, or maybe the entire Vancouver-Prince George literary scene, you’d say it was incestuous, and you might add that Barry McKinnon was one of the most important facilitators of the incest. But that would be stupid. Poets all through history have worked, and often had to, in localized groups. Only successful novelists can afford to be loners. Because novelists have (or used to have) more readers, they’ve also had lots of reviewers and other feedback to help them keep their heads above the water.

When poets are working well, their circles widen. In 1969, Talonbooks published West Coast Seen, an anthology of 28 poets. It was edited by Jim Brown and David Phillips, and included Belford, McKinnon, the Lanes (Red and Pat), and Phillips. It included Creeley-influenced poets (like the above) and also university and creative writing department poets like John Hulcoop (a UBC professor), Stephen Scobie (a graduate of the UBC English department, and Seymour Mayne (a UBC student in Creative Writing, originally from Montreal and an acolyte of Irving Layton). There was probably the predictable bad blood between these two groups of poets, but that seemed to end when it came to fraternizing (as at the Cecil Hotel) and publication.

The circle widened considerably when, in 1971, McKinnon, Belford, Phillips and Lane appeared in Storm Warning, Al Purdy’s anthology of the new, Canada-wide generation of poets (most under 30 years of age). They, as Purdy put it in his usual arch manner, would “supplant (though not necessarily eclipse)” Purdy’s generation. Each of the poets got space for three or four poems, a photo, a statement, and probably less welcomed, a serving of Purdy’s awkward version of “Coles Notes” topics for discussion.

Belford’s picture in Storm Warning was the next, and even more gripping, visual-image of “Wilderness Ken.” It shows him sitting on the porch of a cabin. He’s wearing moccasins, what looks like buckskin trousers and jacket, and the sort of hat that Grey Owl favored. He looks like Jeremiah Johnson, the Robert Redford version. In the background is a chopping block with an axe buried in it, and beyond that is the bush. Belford’s statement was:

Poetry for me is like a keyhole, something I can drain myself through, really another world on the other side of the door.

I believe I have eaten winter at Takla Landing . . . a dog in that country is a buck . . . pumping his heart . . .  I had to shoot three horses . . .  something that I had to face . . .everything seemed to go wrong . . . the lantern fell apart . . . all I had left was a flashlight — that’s when I started to write the good poetry.

What we have here, in the first part, is cryptic on the precious side. In the second part, we see Belford himself working up his wilderness image. That image obviously attracted Purdy, who himself cultivated much different but equally recognizable self-images of the country bumpkin, the domestic Dagwood, and the working stiff. Two of the four poems were by Wilderness Ken: one about killing his dog by feeding him wine as a joke, and one about hunting Arctic grouse.

As time went on, the Storm Warning poets were included in other anthologies — anthologies being a measure of a poet’s status and, in that they are sold mainly to students, his teachability — centrality to what critics and teachers considered at the time the dominant issues of Canadian poetry.

The biggest acknowledgement came from Margaret Atwood. Belford, with McKinnon and Phillips, made it all the way, in 1982, into her New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in English. Atwood liked Wilderness Ken as much as Purdy had, but focused more on his writing style: “Belford is a delight; he has his language under control, and such poems as ‘Carrier Indians,’ ‘Stove,’ and ‘Omega’ read with the kind of inevitability of image and rhythm that makes other poets grit their teeth in envy.”

I was conscious through the 1970s and into the 1980s that I was hanging out with a crowd of guys — more on that later — who were enthusiastically involved in writing, publishing, and self-publishing, and they were getting somewhere. My plan was to ride to whatever fame I could on McKinnon’s coattails, which I sort of did. In 1988 McKinnon pushed my first story manuscript, Small Rain, onto his Toronto publisher, Coach House. They accepted the manuscript, but then they ran out of money.  McKinnon, through George Stanley, moved me on to New Star Press in Vancouver. New Star did my first three books.

Belford never sent any of his poems to my magazine, Repository. But in 1979, a small book by Belford that I co-published with McKinnon, Sign Language, appeared, dedicated to a friend of Belford’s from Smithers, Rudi Bisenberger. McKinnon did all the grunt work on this book; I earned the status of co-publisher by providing the paper. McKinnon also did most of the editorial, which was tricky because of Belford’s isolation. McKinnon describes it as follows:

I’d notice obvious inconsistencies — upper case “I” in some of the later poems, lower case ”i” in others. Ken would say “leave it inconsistent — as is.” But without face to face contact, phone or email connections — Ken was way off in the mountains — and because his light pencilled script had peculiarities, I’d have to guess at certain words while setting type, and being slightly drugged by nicotine, ink, and blanket-wash fumes — hope to hell I was right. I do remember one or two calls from his radio- phone but the medium was useless for any conversation about editing.

Rudi Bisenberger became a friend of mine, and he was a source of stories about Wilderness Ken’s exploits in the bars, back-alleys and logging camps of the wild northwest. Bisenberger held a sort of key to that image of Belford’s: it had to do not just with the backwoods, to which Belford, unlike Bisenberger, was a fairly recent arrival. It also had to do with Belford’s being a large, very buff guy who liked to drink and who was also (and not so incidentally) a wrestler of some status . Vivien’s ex-brother-in-law, Ray Lougheed, who came in 8th  in wrestling at the Rome Olympics in1960) was one of his instructors.

Bisenberger said that Belford was very aware that when he walked into a bar he was a walking challenge to anyone looking for a fight. There’s status, I guess, in taking on the big guy in the room, which Belford usually was.  Bisenberger, who was barely five feet tall, said he felt safe being in a bar with Belford, or at least he did until one night he asked him, “would you back me up if I got into a fight?”

Belford said, “Only if it was really obvious that they were close to killing you.”

Bisenberger and Belford were hauled in by the RCMP at least once: the bar had closed, they were still thirsty, so they broke into the liquor store. Or, in another version, they got into a fight, got thrown out of the bar, etc, etc.

Belford reflected later about the events Bisenberger was turning into myth: “I used to drink myself stupid / And wander through the towns looking lost (Lan(d)guage, 2008). “I pissed out the windows of my friends, / I puked on the doorstep of my neighbour, / and drank in the local dive” (Decompositions, 2010).

In Decompositions, Belford writes about “competing narratives” connected to him as a poet and a man, saying he takes full responsibility for these narratives, though he paid a price for creating them because people (everyone from Bisenberger to Purdy) were able to “impose” them on him as the only narrative. Belford makes it clear that Wilderness Ken isn’t the only Ken, and never was. He’s right. Really, the majority of the poems in his first two books, and indeed in most of the other books, could be summed up as anthropomorphic nature poetry at its most sensitive, the mode in which Wordsworth blew the widest range of stops, up to his own time: “And ’tis my faith that every flower / Enjoys the air it breathes.” This Ken, the observant, sensitive and often nervously shy ruminant, not Ken the predator, is dominant.

I have my own, less grand mythology of Belford, a sort of private add-on to Wilderness Ken. Belford’s image for me also had to do with taking a route out of Vancouver that had nothing to do with academia. The big rush of poets into the universities started in the 1940s in North America, and created a split that meant and still means nothing important to the themes, images and quality of the poetry, but much in terms of the sorts of tensions involved in finding a community and an audience. McKinnon, who often acted as a bridge between Belford and academia, talks about this:

Despite the visibility of occasional publication, other aspects of literary life and work did not open, especially in Ken’s case. In the 70’s, 80’s and most of the 90’s, Ken was not invited to give readings or attend conferences, unlike those writers solidly connected to academic institutions or eligible for Canada Council grants. I’ve been more visible as a poet because of my activities as a college teacher, small press publisher and literary organizer; I’ve read at various Canadian and U.S. colleges, universities, coffee houses, libraries etc., and have attended several festivals and conferences. Any invitations Ken did receive usually came without a realistic sense of the time and adequate funding it would take to get him south, east or anywhere. When I invited him to be a featured reader at the Words/ Loves Conference, I got him as much Canada Council and college money as I could, but even with that amount and because of bus scheduling, he had to hitch-hike to Prince George.

Of the poets I’ve mentioned, Belford, Lane, Fawcett, Phillips and Purdy were outside the academic pale when it came to the way they made a living. Certainly these non-academic poets gave readings, almost entirely to students and writer-professors because there was no other audience (apart from other poets), and occasionally they took teaching positions as writers-in-residence or sessional professors, and sometimes (like Lane) they became professors when they got famous enough. But they were never quite part of the academic system. They mostly worked at other jobs, and they acquired pensions (if any, apart from the Canada’s universal Old Age Pension) elsewhere. And most of them looked askance at the university. As Randall Jarrell, a prominent U.S. poet-critic-professor once quipped: “the gods who took away the poet’s audience gave him students.”

Some deal. The professor-poets got security in a big way. They got time to write, and were paid for that time. But they also got the infantilizing of poetry, the sort of thing Purdy was trying to contend with in his notes to Storm Warning. And they got marking and grading student papers.

This is not to say that Belford wasn’t comfortable in the classroom. For one thing, his ontological certainty, his cryptic manner combined with his anthropomorphic wisdom, made him seem like a guru, a kind of gigantic Yoda. Students tended to be silent around him, out of respect for what at least sounded like wisdom. For another thing, he never appeared in costume, like say, Archie Belaney (Grey Owl) did.  This made Belford seem particularly genuine. He didn’t carry a rifle to readings because he didn’t need to, and he didn’t dress like Belaney because he would’ve looked silly, and he knew it. In the classroom, McKinnon and I probably looked rougher and talked tougher than Ken did. Or maybe we looked and talked like we were trying to be tough.

McKinnon has described Ken’s outfitting business in detail—the details based on a fly-in to Blackwater Lake. By the time McKinnon did this, the business was about 25 years old, and mature and relatively picturesque. McKinnon saw a well-established, well-run operation, with which clients (like the ones he flew in with) were happy. After retirement, Belford told the local paper, “I didn’t hunt or guide hunters.” In Lan(d)guage he says:

The Blackwater is good to look at

And has been a good investment for my Daughter

I see good in what she is doing . . . .

My Ex is well behaved and obedient on the river . . . .

I took the good with the bad

Some of the assholes were always good for a laugh . . . .

In the winter months I helped the bourgeois

Organize their thoughts and make decisions

On the river I gave good advice . . . .

The fact is I never had it so good.

If you check out the advertising for the Blackwater and Damdochax River lodges (there are now two “partnered lodges”), you can see the extent of the accomplishments of the three Belfords (Alice uses “Williams,” her maiden name). You can see why Belford was so proud of what was accomplished. There are pictures of the infrastructure that they built, a history of how the family came to the Blackwater (written by Hannah), and a list of services—Alice teaches meditation, wild-plant medication, and self-healing, and Hannah is the head fishing guide.

Once, in the early 1980’s, on a midwinter day with the temperature at about minus 30C, McKinnon and I visited the Belfords. Ken and Alice were back for the winter, living as close to civilization as they ever got, in a mobile home on their homestead. This was a few acres of bush on Highway 16, somewhere between Smithers and New Hazelton. They had a pig in the mobile who, Belford explained, was a personable and companionable pet but also, as future bacon, had to be kept from freezing to death.

I was there to buy a platen printing press. I don’t know where Belford had acquired it or when, but he’d had in mind doing McKinnon’s thing, some publishing or self-publishing. The press had been there a long time, outside on a platform covered with a tarp, and its bushings were seized. I got a shop instructor at CNC to fix it for me, got bored with setting type, and sold the press to John Pass, who took it to the Sunshine Coast and started High Ground Press.

This visit was the only time I ever saw Belford in his natural habitat.

The agreement that resulted when Ken and Alice sorted out their separation and divorce (she and Hannah bought the fishing camp) provided an income that supported Belford after his retirement to Prince George in 2000. There were tax troubles connected to the sale that Ken described to us later, when he became a friend and neighbour, but it seemed that he had a steady income.

I’m not sure exactly why Belford came to Prince George to live; his parents and his publisher were in Vancouver, and rents would be more inexpensive in Smithers or Hazelton. McKinnon, of course, would have been one big reason; after Sign Language, McKinnon had done Holding Land (1981) another beautiful chapbook. Another reason Belford moved to Prince George might have been that McKinnon had arranged for a local press, Caitlin, to publish Belford’s first trade book in almost two decades, Pathways into the Mountains (2000).

Caitlin was Prince George’s first commercial publishing house. It specialized in “local color” histories and biographies by ranchers, hunters and foresters, but also had a literary list, at the top of which was McKinnon’s Pulp Log, 1991. The book was, as the back-cover blurb announced, McKinnon’s first commercial publication since The the (Coach House) a decade earlier.

Unfortunately for McKinnon and Belford, the same comedy of errors took place with Caitlin as with Sign Language, but one infinitely more complicated because Caitlin had hired a new poetry editor out of the Writing and Media Technologies program at CNC, and that editor while enthusiastic, was completely inexperienced in formatting poetry. This is why McKinnon, along with George Stanley, are acknowledged in the book as “editorial assistants” — probably at their insistence in order to distance themselves from the typographical and design bungling. Also, McKinnon’s design for the cover was rejected by the new editor and replaced with a sort of parody of the image of Wilderness Ken.

Belford was upset, but he gamely went on the mandatory book tour — to McBride, Fort St. John, Quesnel, etc, and (more on this later) he was very much the gentleman in his subsequent relationship with Caitlin’s owner, Cynthia Wilson — the sister of Howard White of Harbor Publishing, the company that distributed for Caitlin. In 2008, Caitlin, under a new owner, did lan(d)guage.

Soon after he settled in Prince George, Belford did a reading at the town’s new university, the University of Northern British Columbia (UNBC). The reading was staged by Rob Budde, himself a published poet who had been hired in 2001 to teach creative writing. Legend has it that, at the reading, Belford met and fell in love with a professor of women’s studies and social work, Si Transken. Transken has said (in print) that for her part, “It was love at first sight,” and Barry told me that it did seem to be exactly that on Ken’s part.

Transken is both a poet and a visual artist, and as outgoing as Belford was reticent. Together, they proceeded to add a lot of color to the literary and cultural life of Prince George. Transken got attention because of her job teaching in UNBC’s social work program, and also because of her activism as a feminist and what she calls a “social justice advocate.” She has volunteered at the Northern Woman’s Centre, where she founded the Woman’s Circle of Creativity that gives art therapy workshops there and (more recently) in a dedicated studio at UNBC. She often displays at the Two Rivers Gallery, in the UNBC concourse, and at Artspace (above the local book store). She volunteers at AWAC, a homeless shelter for sex-trade workers and drug-addicted women and participates, sometimes as an organizer, at events like Take Back the Night and International Woman’s Day. In all these roles she appears regularly in the papers and on local TV and radio as a spokesperson for women.

She also organizes and presents at academic conferences. March, 2002 saw the Little Rebellion conference in honor of Bridget Moran, organized by Transken, her colleague Suzanne LeBlanc, Vivien, and a group of Transken’s students. It was staged at CNC and UNBC. She presented at the 2005 Writing Way Up North Conference, a paper entitled “Creating Community Differently.” In this paper, she describes the Prince George poetry community, as she found it on arrival in town, as “different”—i.e., welcoming and supportive. Belford, McKinnon, Fawcett and Budde, along with local female writers Jackie Baldwin, Jorge Kelly and Dee Horne, are cited as examples of supportive community.

As a poet, Transken has appeared in Canadian Women’s Studies, Azure, and Unfurled: Northern BC Women Writers. Her poems have appeared alongside Belford’s in Capilano Review 2004, and she has done readings and workshops with him at the Women’s Centre and at UNBC. She writes protest poetry — for example, most of the poems in Capilano Review, including the rather dramatic “How Senior Academics May Gang-Rape Your Mind,” deal with feminist, environmental and social-justice issues. In her numerous academic publications, she applies what she teaches, which is something called “autoethnographic research,” to prove the value of various features of her “social justice agenda.”

For example, in her paper about McKinnon, Belford and the PG writing scene, she describes the traditional, non-cooperative community of writers that, she affirms, is predominant in places other than PG. Those communities are dominated by what she calls, ironically, “real writers.” The “image” of these real writers is “white, Anglo, middle-aged to mature male, slightly tortured by the vastness and burden of his incredible and rare talent. He is drug-abusing / alcohol abusing / women abusing emotionally volatile person .  . . . This ‘real writer’ is someone who wears tweed, loves being at an academic podium, has no other duties (except for those maniacal or manic ones mentioned above).” There was some discomfort among Fawcett, McKinnon and me while Transken was sketching this “real writer”. She was (depending on how you define “abuse,” “tortured” etc) describing a person that seemed quite similar to us, and to Ken Belford.

Transken seems to have been expressing, in an odd way, a familiar female perspective on that Vancouver poetry scene of the 1960s and 1970s. That scene, becoming prominent in the early sixties with Tish magazine at UBC, has since been attacked as patriarchal by many female, and some male, writers. The Tish poet Daphne Marlatt has claimed to have been traumatized by the magazine’s “male ethos.” George Bowering’s wife Angela, and Pauline Butling, Fred Wah’s wife, backed her up in different ways and to different degrees. Butling also accused McKinnon of downplaying, in his Line article and his later book Poets & Print (1988), the contributions of women to BC poetry and publication.

Transken, in her public relationship with Belford, has sometimes been delightfully innovative. For example, on his July 10, 2004 birthday, she purchased an ad in the Free Press that featured a large picture of Ken with the announcement, “If you see this man do NOT wish him a happy birthday . . . or buy him an organic blueberry bar at Starbucks.” Belford at that time liked to hang out at the local coffee franchises, especially Starbucks and Second Cup, but also Tim Horton’s (when it involved meeting McKinnon, who still has a lot of the Alberta wheat farmer in him). The newspaper ad then provided a deft specification of what his friends should buy for Belford on his birthday.

McKinnon and I seldom saw Belford with his new companion (he always said, sometimes with amazement, how busy she was), but our poetry/poetics schmoozing continued, now in those coffee shops. Belford had quit drinking, and increasingly, McKinnon and I indulged only at home, safe in our recliners. A couple of times, Vivien and I hiked the trails east of town with Belford, with him and I always bringing up the rear, speculating on the limits of our massive doses of testosterone. Also, Belford had chronic pain in his feet, a common sign of onset diabetes. Not long after, he got a membership at Gold’s gym and we never saw him on the local trails again.

He had a formal quirk. Whenever we had him over to the house he would send an email message thanking us soon afterward. Or, in the mail, a chapbook inscribed with a nice message would appear. One of Belford’s notes (May 3, 2003) seemed to apologize for his not being that convivial in groups, or for not being that intimate with me in the past, or for something I wasn’t entirely sure of: “John,” the note read, “I also wanted to thank you for your previous support. When I was up on the Blackwater, I lived a reticent and far-away life. My shift in the bush is over.”

One time Vivien and I drove Belford to and from his parents’ place in Vancouver. On the way back, in the Fraser Canyon, a truck-trailer ran over a medium-sized black bear. The bear got wedged under the trailer hitch and was dragged. We stopped to see if we could help, but the bear was dead and the driver of the truck was on his cell to BCAA. Belford quickly turned towards the bush and disappeared, and was gone so long we went looking for him. “He had a stash back here,” said Belford when we found him. I wanted to see, so he led us into a small depression littered with bags, boxes, clothing.

“Any remains of hitchhikers?” I asked.

“Doesn’t look like he got that lucky,” said Belford.

The first big occasion after we’d gotten to know “Bohemian” or “Urban Ken” — the Ken of the coffee shops and back decks (at our place and Barry and Joy’s) — was a sad one, the death of Cynthia Wilson in 2005. Publishing a book with her was, as Barry and George Stanley found out, an adventure. Vivien knew this too; Caitlin did her adventure-travel book Forbidden Mountains (about Tibet) in 1996, and her book of local trails, From the Chilcotin to the Chilkoot, in the year Cynthia died.

Vivien and Belford put together an obituary and organized a reading for which he did the poster (he was getting good at computer design). He chose a great caption for it, a saying by Wentworth Dillon, “Choose an author as you would a friend,” indicating that Cynthia did treat her writers as friends. Belford talked on local CBC about Cynthia, and he and Vivien worked, with the public library, on a memorial event that would include the White family.

Belford arranged for the flowers. He wrote to Vivien on June 8: “Maybe the garden center at Pine Center has something. Hmmmm. There was a lovely pot of mixed flowers there a couple of days ago, but my hands were full of groceries and . . . Damn! I should have bought the thing and gone back later. . . .I’m heading to bed for a nap right now, but I’ll check in for mail later. Yes, I think we have done a good thing. You are a good neighbour. Here’s to you!” He also designed the brochures, and insisted on paying the cost to have them printed.

In a Christmas letter in 2006, Belford told us he’d been officially diagnosed with type 2 diabetes and connected it with the pain in his feet. He said he wasn’t surprised by the diagnosis; there was diabetes on his mother’s side of the family. He was determined to bring down his blood sugar levels and lose weight: “John,” he wrote, “I want to get skinny like you.”

He spent more time at Gold’s; he took herbs and supplements to ease the circulation problems the diabetes inflicted, quickly becoming an expert in naturopathic medicine. He affirmed that his condition wasn’t taking all his attention: “I’m not far away from finishing off a mss for Nomados Editions” [When the Snakes Awaken, 2007], a 30-page chapbook, and I’ve finished a book of 100 pages [likely lan(d)guage] a new kind of poetics, but it’s still Belford by Belford.”

Also at the time, he and Transken were moving into a new house. The old one they’d rented had been up by our place on the northwest side of town; the new one they bought was closer to McKinnon’s, which is across town to the southwest.

They got married on April 21, 2007. Guests got personalized email invitations from Belford. Ours read as follows:

I hope you have nothing planned for this coming Saturday the 21st at 1:00 because that’s when me and Si are getting hitched. I’d like to invite the two of you to the Bentley Room . . . for our two-hour marriage event. There will be some yummy finger food, some music, and an open mike . . . . We are not dressing up in formal wear but I will be wearing a jacket and dress pants and Si will be wearing a red dress and shoes. I’m nervous but I’m not sure why. Think it has to do with my previous marriage being so difficult for so many years. But I’m not going to run. My daughter Hannah will be there as well. Anyway, I hope the two of you can be there. I realize it’s not traditional to send an email as invitation and not do the Hallmark thing, but . . .

Barry and Joy McKinnon threw a party for them in their back yard. Beford turned up, with Hannah, but Transken had gone straight from the wedding to bed, feeling tired or sick, apparently.

A few years after the wedding, things started to change between Belford and us and (more importantly) between Belford and McKinnon. I’m not eager to talk about that change, but if I don’t, people will wonder since I was involved and since the change and my part in it made literary news because it was written about by locals in places that went well beyond Prince George. Around 2010, someone designated this change a “poetry war.”

Through most of the time this poetry war has been happening, Belford was fighting another war, this one against colon cancer. This fact increases my anxiety. Will I be seen as trying to cast a shadow on his accomplishments, which would be like Salieri complaining about how the dead Mozart had treated him at social events or Hazlitt accusing Coleridge of betraying the radical cause or Robert McAlmon bitching about the writing habits and styles of Hemingway and Joyce (“the office-boy’s revenge,” as Joyce put it) or Chinua Achebe pointing out what he sees as Conrad’s racism in Heart of Darkness? It’s not a good idea, especially in terms of one’s relationship to posterity, to do things like this when the supposed guilty party is sick or not alive to defend him or herself, and is a better artist than you are.

Nobody’s really interested in the details of who fired the first, second, third, etc. shots in the poetry war, who unfriended who etc, so I’ll go straight for the analysis, the retrospective view. There are two versions by other people than me, both I think objective and smart, and each choosing to support a different side. The first analysis to appear was by Brian Fawcett who, born and bred in Prince George and, having acquired a fame at least equal to that of McKinnon and Belford, retains a more than forensic interest in the lives of those in his birthplace. On 12 April, 2012, Fawcett published “A Poetry War in Prince George” on his Toronto-based dooneyscafe.com

Recognizing that the idea of a Prince George poetry war as a matter of serious consideration would seem ludicrous even to most locals never mind the moderate international audience commanded by dooneyscafe.com, Fawcett asserts: “The poets are fighting over what people are allowed to imagine and speak about, and why. And because that is the central cultural battle going on across Western civilization right now, it matters, and not in a small way.”

That larger conflict, Fawcett goes on to explain, has been going on for about three decades, at first in the English and Liberal Arts faculties of universities, and then trickling down, and finally cascading out, into society. It’s between two views of western art, culture, science and politics. The two views are, first the liberal-humanist one that argues for commitment to the values of a common humanity and therefore of secularism, democracy, canonical art and science — and the capitalist economy that seems to go with humanism. The second view is the poststructuralist (postmodern, postcolonial), that argues that there is no common humanity and that capitalism, democracy, canonical art and science are patriarchal plots against women, non-whites, the trans-gendered, the indigenous, the poor and the natural environment.  Postcolonialists argue that western democracy, science and art are a patriarchal, sexist, homophobic insult to conscience and must to be eradicated.

Fawcett admits that there are arguments on both sides, but fears the violent implications of postcolonialism, whose political agencies tend to mirror the methods and values of soviet bolshevism, where the party always knows what’s best for its designated clients. The appeal to individual conscience is the appeal of Fascism, Communism and religious fundamentalisms. Therefore he fears the platforms (the battle plans), of the poststructuralists and postcolonialists.  They have, he says, no positive vision of what will replace western civilization; at most they come up with some sort of “return to nature,” or anarchistic, vision of the future. Their plans seem to be apocalyptic ones; destroy it all, and something good will emerge.

Fawcett’s examples of local warriors on the postcolonialist side are Rob Budde and Si Transken; he provides a description of who they are and what they have written. On the liberal-humanist side are, of course, McKinnon, me, Paul Strickland (a retired newspaper journalist who writes poetry), and several younger writers.  The two sides are neatly fortressed in two institutions, UNBC and CNC — where my and Barry’s successors are, supposedly, carrying on our work.

Ken, in that view, aligned himself with the postcolonialists.

I have no problem with Fawcett’s premise that Prince George is a small but strangely representative crucible in a larger culture war. West of here, on the Morice River Road, a standoff between the forces of Chevron and the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en, has been going on for eight years. Belford had much to say in support of the Unist’ot’en. On their side too are, among many others, Budde and Transken, who raise money and go out regularly (with their students) to person the blockade. Nationally, even provincially, for all those eight years the blockade made few headlines, was considered a strictly local phenomenon.

Earlier this year that blockade suddenly exploded into cross-country protests, occupations of legislatures, and in-solidarity blockades of railways, ferries and highways across Canada. Politicians were surprised at the numbers of young, non-aboriginal people who were willing to shift what was for them a localized environmental struggle into a struggle for what was essentially a new (as far as post-settlement politics is concerned) style of aboriginal governance — governance by traditional elders. It wasn’t just a shift of convenience; these young, mostly white protestors were absolutely convinced that the elected chiefs (the people who sign resource extraction deals and negotiate treaties) were government lackeys, Uncle Toms being bribed with their own money and property.

Ellis Ross, the aboriginal MLA for Skeena (Belford’s old stomping grounds), has voiced his frustration with this intrusion into aboriginal politics. It’s just another form of colonization, he argues. He’s also crystal-clear on the force behind the non-aboriginal protestors: “professors.” Three decades of postmodernist theory in universities, teachers teaching teachers and other professionals how to write and think, students right down to the early grades absorbing the postcolonialist message, he argues, have had an effect. Young people (alongside their teachers) have demanded the removal of statues of John A. McDonald, Judge Matthew Begbie, etc from public places, they’ve demanded the enforcement of gender-neutral pronoun laws, washrooms for the transgendered, the prohibition of speech and assembly for any persons (vide Jordan Peterson) or groups that they otherwise disapprove of or are triggered by, and they want an end to all resource-extraction projects and to the use of sexist and racist structures in English including inductive logic.

The other study of the poetry war was presented by Greg Lainsbury in the literary magazine Thimbleweed (Fall, 2018), which is edited by (among others) Budde and funded by (among others) UNBC. Lainsbury agrees with Fawcett’s description of the two sides in the war. He sees the war, though, not as an ideological conflict, but as a turf war: the new guy, Budde, embedded in the new institution (UNBC), a threat to the old guy (McKinnon) in the old institution (CNC). Lainsbury sees McKinnon, from a position of entrenched strength, working to eliminate Budde’s threat, by various means including one that I, in a short story, show McKinnon to be particularly skilled at: ironic insinuation. Lainsbury also points to my story to show how hard McKinnon and I once fought to prevent UNBC being built:

By the time I arrived north in the mid 90s Barry was pretty much boss, while Ken was a more obscure figure who still lived deep upstream the Nass where it becomes Blackwater Lake in northwest BC. Ken was starting look [sic] to make his way back into the literary world, and Barry was his best friend/biggest fan. At the same time UNBC was occupying its new digs atop the mountain, and there was from the beginning a lot of paranoia amongst university transfer instructors at all the northern colleges that they were going to have their work hijacked by these non-union elitists from the universities of Toronto [Transken] and Alberta [Budde]. But Barry’s paranoia was next level, as the kids say — that he was convinced that the university was a 200 million dollar plot hatched by an evil Scots ex-principle of CNC is the central thesis of John Harris’s short story, “The Bjorne-Again University.”

As Lainsbury saw it, Belford, caught in a turf war instigated by his old friend and fan McKinnon for petty reasons, opted for the innocent and helpless parties, Budde and UNBC (Lainsbury doesn’t mention Transken).

Both takes on the Prince George poetry war make sense, and I’m not going to answer Lainsbury by pointing out that McKinnon loved Belford and his poetry and went to incredible lengths to help and promote both. History can always be reinterpreted (did McKinnon insidiously use Belford to further his own career?), and I’m clearly, as Lainsbury says, and as Budde, Transken and Belford himself have said publicly, in the camp of the capital E Enemy.

Belford should have known that no one really cares what a great poet thinks about issues that ultimately boil down to local politics, that poets rarely get famous for incisive social analysis, deep philosophical thinking, and convincing political platforms. T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were all too often found on the dark side of fascism. Yeats believed in fairies and some proto-religious sort of historical cycle. Belford must have known that people care about poets’ politics only if they screw up the poets’ poetry, as they did Wordsworth’s. Belford was never, before the poetry war, a moralizer, and one of the tenets of the whole “scene” of which he was a part was “the thing itself” — no drifting off from the flowers into commandments. But this is what Belford got into.

Lainsbury didn’t talk about this. Presumably he thinks that there weren’t more bad poems coming towards the end, or that what bad poems there were came for the same reasons as earlier bad poems. Certainly a case could be made for that view. But Fawcett and I have both written in detail about a decline in the quality of Belford’s poetry, in reviews of, respectively, his Slick Reckoning (2016), and Decompositions, both on the dooneyscafe.com website. Both of us found good new poems in those late books, but both of us also found a lot of maundering, dull, self-righteous, moralistic and blatantly self-serving poems. We found an attempt to kill off and bury Wilderness Ken, which was a Ken that was sensitive not just to nature but to his first wife Alice and his daughter Hannah, and to replace Wilderness Ken with “Social Justice Ken.”

Of course, as in the case of any serious poet, posterity will weigh in with its own interpretation, and that will override anything being said in the heat of the poetry war. Will Budde and his postcolonialist successors, in the name of political correctness, produce bowdlerized anthologies of Belford — bowdlerized not in the sense of poems modified, but in the sense of poems shunned. The dead dog may have to go; too traumatizing, like Purdy’s use of the word “squaw,” in order to salve the delicate consciences of readers, especially of students who might have to flee to a safe space and work the playdough. Or will future liberal humanists, like Atwood, continue to be entranced and convinced by Belford’s style, and so continue to present Wilderness Ken to the public as a sensitive nature poet?

I have another observation about Belford that is connected to Decompositions. I found that Belford, while he was trying to re-write his image in silly and even dishonest ways, was also and more prominently developing a new and promising mode of seeing, using references to scientific and technological concepts, to write what I called “metaphysical” nature poetry. I quoted, as an example of this, a poem where Belford describes some fish, not just as a sensitive nature poet, but as a sensitive nature poet with a biologist’s eye:

In a small body of slowly moving water,

in the shadow of a balsam sweeper,

laying still in the common supply of

the warmer waters of the lake, five

pairs each a metre long, they’d been

together all their lives, surfing yesterday

up the river in a pod. I knew because

I saw them enter, saw the arrangement,

the awareness, the commodities they

paid for with their lives, and I knew

the price was fixed. But I headed out

because the water was slowing, and

pans were forming in the bay. And then

in May I returned, my shadow on the river

once again. There they were in the rising

water, and I knew they remembered me

because there was something conscious

in that eye-to-eye flicker in the instant

before the waters turned and I carried on.

 

This is the Belford I remember: sensitive and always evolving. Maybe he was pissed off at me in the end. Maybe I was disappointed in him. But I was also excited for and hopeful about his future poetry, and I said so.

That excitement and hope ended, not with his newfound postcolonialism (because you expect poets to experiment), and not with his anger at me (because we critics are used to the cycle of abuse and forgiveness), but with his death this year on February 19.

 

 

April 3, 2020:  8000 words

 

John Harris

John Harris

John Harris is the author of 'Small Rain," "Other Art" and "Tungsten John." He lives in Prince George, B.C.

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