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Excerpts
introduction by rob mclennan -
There Is No Mountain:
Selected Poems of Andrew Suknaski

Nebulous Medicine: Andrew Suknaski

For instance, Andrew Suknaski is a nationally recognized writer who has detailed in his poems the lives of Ukrainian settlers in rural Saskatchewan. Because of this effort, Suknaski's work has been received with enthusiasm by many members of the Ukrainian-Canadian community. But when Suknaski turns to address the general Canadian population, not as a representative of a minority but simply as a poet, he faces the same unease and scorn that greets the rest of Canada's literary practitioners.
— Tom Wayman

Andrew Suknaski was born on a farm near Wood Mountain Saskatchewan in 1942. He left home at the age of 16 and since then, as he states, “have been trying to come to terms with myself and the prairie experience.” During these years, he has worked as a “migrant worker” (his descriptions), traveled in Europe and Australia and studied at various universities. Suknaski’s poetry does not need a literary interpreter. He is a narrative poet, whose stories of the ordinary, hardworking homesteader or his urban descendant are readily understood by all the readers. Although the poems printed here are all thematically Ukrainian, they are not the only subjects for his poetry. He writes as he says of all the people—Serbian, Sioux, Métis, Romanian, Dutch and so forth, who “people my boyhood memories.”

However, for Ukrainians, his poems evoke a strong emotional response for our people with whom we share a common heritage if not a common birthplace and experience. To me at least, he is giving shape to the Ukrainian prairie society that is finally emerging as a literary reality. — Anna Balan

"The home place" in Prairie usage is a synonym for "homestead." It suggests that home is singular and locatable—pinpointable—in space. Kroetsch gives us the precisely detailed legal address of his family homestead, but, like the police looking at Suknaski's ID, his birth certificate, we ask what all the letters and numbers mean. Kroetsch tries to help. A more casual description this time, a relative placing. All measurements of time and space, according to Einstein's theory of relativity, are relative to some arbitrary chosen frame of reference—there is no "absolute position" or "absolute space": if a ping-pong ball bounces twice on the same spot on a ping-pong table on a moving train, it looks as if it happened in the same place for someone on the train, but for someone watching from outside the train the ball bounces at a very different place the second time, somewhere down the line (Hawking 17-18). You start from where you're at, from what you know, and work from there. Along the correction-line road, Kroetsch says, the line drawn on the land to correct for the effects of imposing a square grid on a round globe, dividing up the prairies into equal-sized parcels for settlement. The correction line and the physicist's relativity both function wonderfully as metaphors for the fundamental instability of our notions of place, of the way we impose various and changeable perceptual grids on space.

"Is this all you have?" the police ask Suknaski, and his long poem answers no, tells us his memory of the family history centred on his birth place, around the address given on his birth certificate. The meaning of the space itself is dependent on Suknaski's relationship to it, the time that has passed and the events that have taken place there. Created place there, rather, which is space inscribed by cultural, psychological, and social significance.
— Deborah Keahey

Andrew Suknaski was a major cultural force in the prairies, and his work was terribly important in shaping regionalism in the 1970s and 80s, and is important far beyond his particular historical time and place. Starting with small self-publications throughout the 1960s, and coming to maturity throughout the 1970s and 80s, Andrew Suknaski, poet of Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, was a subtle and astute critic of the cultural economies of the world around him. When other young prairie poets complained that there were no publishing options for them (not living in Toronto, after all), and railing against the central Canada monopoly on literature, he was doing something about it: starting a number of small chapbook presses and magazines, and publishing the early work of a number of poets, including Gary Hyland, Robert Kroetsch, Robert Currie, John Newlove, Linda Rogers, and Tim Lander. While he was active publishing his contemporaries, he had his first major collection, Wood Mountain Poems (1976), edited with an introduction by Al Purdy published by MacMillan, including his first major collection, Wood Mountain Poems (1976), edited with an introduction by Al Purdy. That’s quite an accomplishment, and Purdy had included Suknaski’s work in the first volume of Storm Warning anthology (1970). Today, though, all but one of his books are out of print, and have been for years, yet his work is still being taught, from what can be found in out of date anthologies.

One of the first concrete/visual poets of the prairies, he had his work included in John Robert Colombo’s anthology New Directions in Canadian Poetry (1971) along with, among others, Steve McCaffery, Judith Copithorne, David UU, bill bissett, and bpNichol. He was also included in Four Parts Sand (1971), a collection that brought together the visual poetry of bissett, Copithorne, and Earle Birney. In his introduction to the section of Suknaski’s visual pieces, Colombo wrote: “Under the title ‘Elfin Plot Publications,’ Suknaski has moved poetry into non-poetic areas. He has turned poems into kites and flown them; he has made ‘poem candles’ and left them to burn on beaches; he has placed poems in canisters and abandoned them in mountain passes; and he has folded poems into paper airplanes and dropped them from real airplanes flying at a height of ten thousand feet.”

Andrew Suknaski emerged a few years after Canadian Literature had started discovering itself; Suknaski emerged in the prairies during a time when the prairies were getting their own sense of themselves , during a time when it seemed that the combination of geography and finding voice, when the central concern was place, through considerations of cultural identity and what would evolve into Pierre Elliott Trudeau's notion of multiculturalism. Poet and publisher Andrew Suknaski, through the essays, letters and reviews he wrote, was heavily engaged in the conversation of writing and identity in the Canadian prairies, including through his personal touchstones and contemporaries John Newlove, Eli Mandel, Robert Kroetsch, Kristjana Gunnars, Myrna Kostash, David Arnason, and later on, Barry McKinnon; he engaged with the avant-garde poets and publishers in other parts of the country, engaging with the works of George Bowering, Margaret Atwood, Susan Musgrave and Tom Wayman, and with concrete/visual poets bpNichol and bill bissett, as well as with older writers such as Al Purdy and Earle Birney. His reviews, essays and other critical pieces appeared regularly in publications such as Canadian Literature, Brick: A Journal of Reviews, The Albertan and The NeWest Review. His central concern was the poetry and cultural identity of the prairie, but was larger than that as well, moving into a more national sense of what writing had to offer, and where it was going. Even as Bowering a decade earlier became the token British Columbia poet in all the anthologies, Suknaski quickly became the same for the prairies generally, and Saskatchewan specifically.

Through his poetry, he predominantly told the stories of the myths of his home territory, Wood Mountain, Saskatchewan, most obviously in his seminal Wood Mountain Poems (1976), considered the central point of his writing career. Through all of his work, there exists a kind of nostalgia for a prairie that might never have existed, almost immediately out of reach just behind him but there, just in front of him. Suknaski was in many ways the diviner, mixing his brand of old world magic and charms to a world that had thought itself done with such tricks, reminding readers that, in fact, the old world magic still had its place, and its purpose. Even his last project, the unfinished "Divining for West" four volume work…

Considered his best thinking form, many of Suknaski's essays read like letters, whether actual letters, such as the piece "Conference call letter to several friends, 1985" I found in his archive at the University of Manitoba (originally sent to a list of writers and filmmakers and their partners, including Harvey Spak, Phil Piffer, Sid Marty, Mike Olito, Robert Kroetsch, Smaro Kamboureli, George Morrissette, Catherine Hunter, Charles Noble and Kristjana Gunnars) or other pieces, such as the piece he wrote for Brick magazine in the early 1980s, as a letter directed to Brick editor Stan Dragland, who, in the final version that appeared in the magazine, added his own commentary to highlight some of Suknaski's own points. One can't help but respond to the personal aspect of Suknaski's writings, whether poems or essays, both of which were often interchangeable with letters to his friends (and were often composed as such). Robert Kroetsch once wrote that literature is a conversation, and I can't imagine any Canadian poet who understood that better than Andrew Suknaski, but for Roy Kiyooka, perhaps, through his two published volumes of letters, or Toronto poet Ed Lacey, who abandoned poetry altogether for the sake of expansive letters to Henry Beissel, David Helwig and others, resulting in the posthumous collection of letters A Magic Prison (1995).

Suknaski's format is informal, even argumentative and I've worked hard to keep his inconsistent spellings and odd formattings, but for the places here and there that it actually begins to interfere with the comprehension or flow of each individual piece. I have worked to keep these pieces in a chronological order, appearing here in the order they appeared in the world. His letter to Robert Kroetsch even follows the form of Kroetsch's then-newly published poetry collection The Sad Phoenician (collected since in his Completed Field Notes), following the form of the repeated "and" and "but" weaving across the page, or his piece on a group of writers including Barry McKinnon, "The Prairie Graveyard," that repeats his version of McKinnon's central line from I Wanted to Say Something.

Any uniform theme to the collection comes through the first of his concerns, from that of the new immigrant story, capturing the prairie sensibility from the point of view of both the Ukrainian/Polish experience, but the Canadian concerns, through his poetry, of the Ukrainian/Polish, Chinese and native populations that lived around him. Suknaski, through his writing, speaks to the Ukrainian/Polish-Canadian in a voice where there was little before, and give the prairie poet a home to write their shape into, and even out of. Suknaski explored the Slavic connections between the immigrant population and other new Canadians, against what or wasn’t belonging to the land, outside of the Scottish/English/French, but Eastern European through his parents, and the natives through time. Through the language, the name he gave himself, Suknatskyj, writing through poems, became Muzhik in his letters and essays, alongside the names he gave those around him, including Wowk for Eli Mandel, Old Coyote for Robert Kroetsch, Loki (and sometimes Odin) for David Arnason and Nevwlief for John Newlove, each their own variation on trickster-god, or, as Stan Dragland wrote, "trickster shape-changers." When he wrote about the prairie, these were the touchstones for his pieces, the audience he wrote with in mind, each one playing their own tricks on themselves and on each other, through working their vernacular of the prairies and prairie poem.

Barry McKinnon, who he later gave credit for starting what became, in the 1970s, a series of texts writing prairie and history, leading to important early works by dozens of poets including Sid Marty, Monty Reid, and, as Suknaski admits, where his own Wood Mountain Poems emerged.

Suknaski was an important early champion of and challenger to the prairie poem and prairie literature during the explosion that happened in the 1970s, following the small press explosion that occurred a decade earlier in central points such as Vancouver and Toronto and Montreal; the prairie mystique.

The eventual manuscript that became this collection came out of my various researches while working six years on his selected poems, There is No Mountain: Selected Poems of Andrew Suknaski (Ottawa ON: Chaudiere Books, 2007), and further, while editing Andrew Suknaski: Essays on His Works (Toronto ON: Guernica Editions, forthcoming). It was while seeking out lost and errant pieces for both of those that I kept coming across essays and other pieces written by Suknaski, and it made sense to start keeping track of these, to help me get a better sense of understanding about Suknaski and what he was all about. It was simply a matter of time before a manuscript began to shape itself, almost outside of any particular editorial design.

Works Cited:

Balan, Anna. New Perspectives , volume 2, no 1, 29 April 1978

Keahey, Deborah. "Introduction: Homemaking the Prairies," Making it Home; Place in Canadian Prairie Literature. Winnipeg MB: University of Manitoba Press, 1998.

Wayman, Tom. "A House without Books: The Writer in Canadian Society," A Country Not Considered: Canada, culture, work. Toronto ON: Anansi, 1993.


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