“All my life I have disapproved of myself for being so idle, for fiddling around when I could be writing. Sometimes it feels as if I have published more than I have written. Now that I am an old dink, I experience that common feeling that someone must have helped me to get all this done. Still, I kick myself for not being more disciplined, more industrious. Damn, it seems as if my parents and teachers were right all along.” ––GB
This overview of GB’s writing career is a compilation written by many others.
George Bowering is a major Canadian literary figure and one of the most prolific writers in the country: there are more of his books published to date than anyone bothers to count anymore, not including editions he has edited or contributed to, or the chapbooks. He is a two-time winner of the Governor General’s Award and has been short-listed for the Griffin Prize for Poetry, BC Book Prize, Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, and the BC National Non-Fiction Prize. In November 2002 he was appointed the first Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate. That same month he was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. In 2004 he was awarded the Order of British Columbia. In 2011 he received the Lt-Gov Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts and the UBC Alumnae Achievement Award. He is a respected poet, novelist, essayist, critic, teacher, historian and editor. Bowering, as poet, is one of the pioneers of a poetics that allows you to measure your particular place in the world through verse. Bowering has published 36 books of his own poetry and has edited dozens of books by other poets. The accolades and awards these books have received—including the 1969 Governor General’s Award for Poetry for Rocky Mountain Foot and The Gangs of Kosmos—speak to both the quality of the work and the influence of the poet.
Bowering has also been a tireless champion and mentor of other writers. In the early 1960s, he was a founding editor of Tish, a publication that dramatically changed the course of Canadian poetry and announced a new generation of poets. Later, editing Imago, Bowering provided a much-needed forum for the long poem. The university anthologies he edited-Fiction of Contemporary Canada (1980) and The Canadian Contemporary Poem Anthology (1983) gave first university anthology publication to Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, Barry McKinnon, Brian Fawcett, George Stanley, Gladys Hindmarch, Christopher Dewdney, David Young and Robin Blaser. He has played a crucial role in the shaping of literary communities through his Poetry is a tradition, in the classical sense, and as such needs progenitors and progeny. While his own career was in its infancy, he was busy encouraging the new voices of others, among them Red Lane. In the early 1970s, Bowering edited Vibrations: Poems of Youth, a collection of poetry by high school students. More recently he helped to edit Tads, a Vancouver publication which is an outgrowth of a group known as Dads and Tads. The Dads are senior writers who met regularly in person and on-line with the Tads, young aspiring writers, to discuss writing and review work in progress. He was also an invaluable source of literary advice and encouragement for In 2 Print Magazine (a national magazine that published work by high school students) and regularly attended its galas to meet with teens, and chat about their work. There is always something playful in the way he approaches literature, but something intensely serious, too, always encouraging younger writers towards a greater consciousness about their own writing.
His involvement in the avant-garde writing community of the 1960s and 1970s has made him a lifetime champion of the small presses in this country. Bowering’s support of small presses spans seven decades. A magazine publisher relates the following story: “In the mid 1990s after a poetry reading, I was asked by two young people from St. Catharines, Ontario if I would introduce them to Bowering. They were a bit nervous but he quickly put them at ease. They explained that they were writers trying to start a literary journal in the Niagara Region and thought that a contribution by Bowering, because of the influence of his name, would help them. Not only did Bowering agree to their request but also spent an hour discussing the project, giving them some editing and publishing tips and bountiful praise and encouragement. Less than a week later one of the young men phoned to say he had received George’s contribution (unpaid) for their first issue.” This anecdote is not an isolated incident; it illustrates a commitment and mindset that have shaped Bowering’s dealings with all aspiring writers. It also indicates his support for the small presses and small magazines, understanding their vital and endangered contribution to culture. To date, Bowering has published books with 66 publishers, from small chapbook publishers to the large houses. Bowering’s career as a prose writer—both novels and short stories—matches the scope and impact of his poetry career. It is worth noting that he was the first English writer to be honoured with a Governor General’s Award in both the fiction and poetry categories. He received the GG for Fiction in 1980 for Burning Water. Since that time, only two other writers have been so honoured, Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.
As with poetry, the novels and short stories explore language as form and narrative strategy. The works show Bowering’s meticulous attention to the detail of his craft, his ongoing experimentation with language and structure, and always the relationship with the imagination and the reader. The prose works have explored an extraordinary variety of forms and genres: western, spy thriller, science fiction, historical and travel novels. Bowering again challenged possible assumptions about his writing by publishing a collaborative novel, Piccolo Mondo, and several young adult novels. A recent book, Pinboy, written as a novel then published as a memoir—illustrates his ongoing challenge of genre writing. And Other Stories updated Likely Stories, edited by Bowering and Linda Hutcheon. As he states in the introduction, it “offers not just more stories of difference, or other-ness and the race, gender, class and politics of the other, but stories where our most talented writers become, and reflect on being, other(s).” Over the years the collections and anthologies edited by Bowering have celebrated current writers but also included past writers who are sadly not often remembered these days, as well as introducing new voices being published for the first time. His appeal and great influence lie in his decision to work consistently against the grain of dominant aesthetic conventions and expectations. He has been an exemplary writer precisely because of the innovative writing practices that he distinctively situates in the nexus of language and the local. It is hard to think of a more “living” writer in our national midst, which is to say, a writer who has lived and continues to live so intensely our literary culture.
As an editor, essayist and teacher, he is passionate about promoting and encouraging other writers. At Sir George Williams, University of Calgary, University of Western Ontario and Simon Fraser University he has championed Canadian writing and writers, organized conferences and readings. At SFU he developed a favourite course with students about BC literature. A real literary globetrotter, Bowering has given readings and participated in conferences throughout the world including Australia, South Africa, Germany, Denmark, Italy. He has taught in Germany at the Frei University of Berlin at the Kennedy Institute. In Denmark, he taught at Aarhus University. He has also been writer-in-residence at Sir George Williams in Montreal and University of Rome in Italy. He worked with David Young, running workshops with high school students––a program that later evolved into WIER, Writers in Electronic Residence, connecting Canadian writers with Canadian schools. Bowering’s commitment to teaching extends far beyond the classroom. Teaching has provided a way to inspire and share his passion for literature. Although he is now retired from Simon Fraser University, professor emeritus, his commitment to teaching continues and he acted as the writer-in-residence at The University of Western Ontario in 2003/2004, Victoria School of Writing in 2006, and in 2012 gave a week-long workshop in the new Robert Kroetsch Writers’ Workshops. There are a great number of writers and teachers in Canada who maintain what is most recognizable and familiar in the canon. Bowering has never been one of them. For example, Bowering played a significant role, along with Fred Wah, in developing an English-Canadian readership for the now celebrated Quebecois poet and novelist Nicole Brossard. Bowering’s dedication in reading every one of Brossard’s books as it was published, in talking and writing about them in Vancouver, and in lobbying for the readings that were arranged for her in BC in the late 1970s—Brossard’s first in English-Canada—were key not only to Brossard’s break-out to readerships in English Canada and the US but also to her influence’s being available to numbers of young BC women writers. Bowering’s advocacy of her work pre-dated by five years her discovery by English-Canadian feminists such as Marlatt in 1981 at the York University’s dialogue conference.
Bowering’s interest in Canadian history is evident in the novels, the shorts stories and the popular histories, Bowering’s BC, Egotists and Autocrats: The Prime Ministers of Canada and the most-recent Stone Country, a history of Canada (which was short-listed for the Stephen Leacock Award for Humour). But Bowering has also chronicled our literary history through such books as A Short Sad Book, Curious, and A Way With Words as well as hundreds of articles, essays and reviews. As critic, novelist, poet, essayist and friend, Bowering has created a remarkable record of our Canadian literary figures. He has encouraged and nurtured many of those voices by editing, teaching and advising. The work he has done in his long career has in many ways made it possible to think about alternative versions of the history of our country, and to think about history not as a monolith but as a set of stories sometimes harmonious and sometimes contradictory. Bowering has always been there with a new piece of the story, some obscure reference, some new perspective. Roy Miki in A Record of Writing: An Annotated and Illustrated Bibliography of George Bowering has documented the history of Bowering’s own remarkable literary output. The very existence of the bibliography, (a rare thing for any living author) itself an award-winning text, is a testament to Bowering’s stature and influence. His writing constitutes an invaluable doorway into the literary sphere of contemporary Canadian writing. It is not only the spectrum of his small press publications and his appearance in all the cutting edge journals throughout the years, though this aspect is daunting in itself; more telling is the remarkable pattern of interchanges, including a voluminous amount of correspondence which he has forged with old and young writers all over North America. The material weight of these interchanges is evident in the Bowering Papers housed in the National Library and Archives Canada.
George Bowering approaches literature as he does life: with a playful gravity and a grave merriness that makes intellectual life and writing seem at once attractive, unintimidating and remarkable. He dispels the myth of literature being hard or tricky, and demonstrates, as he reads and chats, the accessible and enriching nature of great literature. He is generous with his time and that generosity has touched lives and launched careers.