When TISH Happens tracks trailblazing Canadian poets

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      When TISH Happens
      By Frank Davey. ECW, 330 pp, softcover

      At this late date, it’s like tracking a party of travellers from the ashes of their long-dead campfire. Or glimpsing the wind, to quote George Bowering, by observing “her dance partners.”¦that swaying willow, that white plastic grocery bag among the high wires”.

      In the absence of the primary documents—the 19 issues of TISH, Western Canada’s pioneering literary magazine, that were printed between 1961 and 1963—making sense of When TISH Happens is an exercise in inference and deduction. It’s not an unpleasant one; Frank Davey’s anecdotal style ensures that anyone interested in West Coast writing, Canadian literature, or culture in general will glean much of interest here. But it’s work, nonetheless, and before suiting up for the job prospective readers should know that this is a book full of old feuds, ancient gossip, dead ends, and unsubstantiated claims.

      Not, as they say, that there’s anything wrong with that.

      It helps that the principals—including Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Fred Wah, and Davey himself—were feisty young intellectuals alive at a time of cultural ferment: the pre-hippie 1960s. It helps that they were all enrolled at UBC in the middle of its literary golden age, during which a degree in English was seen as a far more glorious thing than one in forest management, say, or forensic accounting. (It’s telling that audiences of 300 to 800 were not unusual for visiting poets.) And it helps that Davey frames his story as autobiography, beginning with the first glimmerings of his artistic consciousness—Abbotsford in 1942, with the gift of a colouring book—and ending in 1974, with his ascension to the editorial board of Coach House Press. All make the story of how TISH happened quite fascinating.

      Why TISH mattered, and matters still, is perhaps less well-explained. “An unmeasurable something is being left behind,” Davey asserts, before complaining that this legacy has been diminished by CanLit’s supposed move “away from writing and toward social representation”. Equally possible, though, is that TISH’s emphasis “on the self as a consciousness in process rather than a stable persona” has become the norm in Canadian poetry and indeed in much Canadian fiction—a significant contribution, and one that’s worth celebrating, sooner rather than later, with a comprehensive TISH anthology. When that happens, this book’s worth will only increase.