Of poetry, pain, and survival: Al Purdy, Charles Bukowski, and Rodney DeCroo

    1 of 11 2 of 11

      You get the feeling that Charles Bukowski has stopped being cool. Maybe it’s down to Nick Cave, who famously said, back in 1994, that high school kids should “should stop reading Bukowski, and they should stop listening to people who tell them to read Bukowski.” But his star seems to have fallen since the days when there was a Vancouver hipster bar named after him, plastered with his image everywhere, and filled with people Bukowski would have vomited on if he’d had the chance.

      But anyone who spent time with Buk’s novels, stories, and poems has been influenced by them in some way. At the very least, it’s hard not to have a particularly satisfying beershit without a flickering memory of the poem “The 9 Horse”, where he drops his wallet into the toilet (“hot, glorious, and stinking”) at a racetrack stall. I mean, what other poem comes to mind, ever, when defecating?

      And it’s not just Bukowski’s cranky, alcohol-steeped humanity and willingness to rail against pretension that stay with you, either, but in some cases, it’s his literary recommendations. Buk is where I discovered Robinson Jeffers (whose “The House Dog’s Grave” is a must-share with anyone whose dog dies. Buk got me briefly into John Fante and, if memory serves, Nathaniel West. And Buk is also where I first heard of Al Purdy—a Canadian poet that Bukowski praised, admired, and corresponded with (some of which was published as The Bukowski/ Purdy Letters).

      Purdy, it turns out, was a far better poet than Bukowski ever was, with a greater range, a more complex command of language, and an equal, if less omnipresent, sense of raunchy humour, including at least one poop poem of his own, “When I Sat Down to Play the Piano”, about having one's feces snapped at by hungry dogs when crapping outdoors in the Arctic.  

      Purdy’s life and work will be celebrated at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre on November 22, at an event timed to honour his 100th birthday, coming up this December. (Purdy was born in Ontario on December 30, 1918, and died in the year 2000 on the North Saanich peninsula on Vancouver Island.) It also marks the publication of Beyond Forgetting: Celebrating 100 Years of Al Purdy, released through Harbour Publishing.

      Proceeds from the night will go to the Al Purdy A-Frame Association’s writer-in-residence program, and various poets will be reading, including Purdy’s publisher Howard White.

      Key to the night, however, will be Rodney DeCroo, a fellow admirer of both Bukowski and Purdy, and one of Vancouver’s more potent singer-songwriters. DeCroo will be performing with his band the Wise Blood, including several new songs, which I haven’t yet had a chance to listen to, but not from lack of interest.  

      There are other common fondnesses between DeCroo and myself, and at least one other local poet in common (the pony-playing, Petunia-collaborating Al Mader, also known as the Minimalist Jug Band, whom we hope will also be on hand at the Cultch). There’s lots more to say about Al Purdy, but this can all be sorted out as you read the following interview with the Pittsburgh-born DeCroo.

      AM: So, Al Purdy is someone who I came to through Bukowski. How did you get into him? Were you reading Purdy before you came to Canada, or is he someone you discovered here?  

      RD: I didn’t know anything about poetry until after I came to Canada. When I was a kid in the USA I’d have these spells that involved me almost frantically filling pages with something like automatic writing. The writings didn’t appear to make sense. But for me I felt like they did, but in a way I couldn’t understand. Once, I hid a couple pages in my desk in junior high school and a teacher found them. She made a big deal out of it in front of my English class and called it poetry. I was horrified. About the only thing I knew about poetry was that it was effeminate. It was for girls. And in my redneck town in the early ’80s, that wasn’t a good thing. I mean guys played football, drank beer, fought, and they definitely didn’t write poetry. After that class I got into a fight with the first guy to make fun of me over it. I wanted to put as much distance between poetry—whatever it was—and myself as I could. 

      But when I was in Grade 12 I took an English-literature class with a teacher named Mr. Fossey. I was living in Cranbrook at the time with my father. He was managing a rundown hotel named the Tudor House. We lived in the hotel. It was the place where the local alcoholics drank, and they booked these awful country bands to play there. I was depressed, already drinking nearly daily, and I had no friends. I probably made it to school three days a week, because I was usually too hungover, but my father didn’t care if I went to school or not. The only class I tried to get to regularly was Mr. Fossey’s class. I liked him and I liked his enthusiasm. He loved teaching that course. It was all English poets starting with Chaucer and ending with the Romantics. I didn’t understand most of the poetry we read. But I was excited by it. I loved the sounds and the feelings that the language evoked in me. I was hooked. So I became obsessed with writing awful poetry that was meant to sound like what I was reading, which it didn’t. I still remember a few god-awful lines:

      “How long must I be captive of myself,

      trapped in the vast brooding halls of my mind?

      Where lie relics old brought from battles old,

      where maidens flit within the gloom

      and sad, strong voices cry impending doom.

      Must I walk these halls alone!?"

      Just dreadful, dreadful stuff. I was a weird young guy. A deeply traumatized, angry, budding-alcoholic, drug-addict redneck with a penchant for violence and destined for the street, who also quoted English poets and made people listen to his horrible rhyming poetry that sounded like something written for a bad fantasy novel. Before the year was over, my dad moved to Wells, B.C., and left me in Cranbrook. I had a few hundred dollars, so I caught a bus to Vancouver. A year or so later I was at a house party talking to this guy. I told him I was a poet and recited a couple of my poems. He laughed at me and asked if I knew anything about Al Purdy. He told me about contemporary poetry, free verse, and gave a book of Purdy’s poetry. It blew my mind. The Purdy poem that changed everything for me was called “Piling Blood”. 

      When I first read it alone it made me cry. For a young guy from a poor working class segment of Pittsburgh, it seemed to speak directly to me. I mean, I was a highly traumatized young man and I was also doing these degrading, hard physical jobs. I felt like both the speaker and the slaughtered cattle in the poem. After that, I read everything I could find by Purdy. Bukowski came a little bit later. I’d read that he and Purdy had a long correspondence. Then I met this guy at a restaurant where I was bartending and he turned me on to Bukowski. For several years they were the only two poets I read. I wanted to be a combination of Purdy and Bukowski.

      AM: Did you follow any of Bukowski’s literary recommendations? I used to kind of enjoy his curmudgeonliness towards “great literature” and his willing to call a lot of writers boring and pretentious—the “Great Poets Die in Steaming Pots of Shit” element, y’know? And back in the days of my avid Bukowski fandom, I read any writer he praised. I didn’t get as much out of John Fante as I’d hoped—maybe I read the wrong one—but I did appreciate finding out about Al Purdy and Robinson Jeffers through Buk. There are probably others. You?

      RD: I was only really interested in Purdy and Bukowski at first. But I did read John Fante. I got a lot out of him. I think he is still a vastly underrated American novelist. Ask the Dust and Wait Until Spring, Bandini are two of my favourite novels. I also enjoyed Bukowski’s contempt for “great literature”. I’ve outgrown that to a certain degree, obviously, but there are some poets I still feel that way about. For me, poetry was about survival. It kept me alive. So poets that didn’t speak to that need in me were objects of contempt, they were pretentious, sell-outs, et cetera. I know academic poets who would roll their eyes at the idea that poetry “saved me”. I’m still not above wanting to punch assholes like that in the face. It’s funny you mentioned Robinson Jeffers. When I first read him I was intoxicated with the wildness of his poetry that emanated out of what he called his “Inhumanism”. Like Purdy and Bukowski, he was utterly unique. I love his poem “The Vulture”.  

      AM: I don’t know it, I’ll check it out. But having brought up Jeffers, any time friends of mine have a pet die I share Jeffers's“The House Dog’s Grave”, which never fails to get tears streaming down my face; I am an easy mark for sentimentality, but I find it a very touching poem, and I don’t mind poetry that goes straight to the heart. Do you have any poems or poets like that? (Purdy is sometimes like that, too—there’s that poem that ends in an image of his holding his sick wife’s hand and not going away, because that’s all he can do, that I find quite moving.)

      RD: I think Wallace Stevens said that sentimentality is a failure of feeling. So I’m guessing you’re not an easy mark for sentimentality, Al, but that you appreciate poems that express and evoke deep feeling. For me, that’s the definition of poetry and why I needed it so desperately. I was riddled with trauma—I was suffering from C-PTSD, alcoholism, and addiction to other drugs. I was literally in a state of shock and profoundly detached from any real connection with myself or others. The sort of poetry I loved—poetry that dealt in lived experiences and deep feeling—gave me a sense of connection to my own inner life and to others (at least in the context of the experience of reading the poem) through language. Poetry was a way inside for me that was safe. It took the pain and turned into something that was still dark, still sad and painful, but also somehow beautiful and meaningful. Let me add here that I’m poorly educated. Most poets would roll their eyes at what I’m going on about here. They would find it problematic and they’re probably right to a degree.

      I’ll put it this way. I lived in a constant state of trauma as a child. I was powerless to do anything about it. These powerful beings—my parents—harmed me both physically and emotionally on a daily basis. The pain of being badly hurt by people who are supposed to love you, of being constantly in fear as a child, is the worst pain I can think of. And I blamed myself because I couldn’t confront them. The reason this is happening must be because I deserve it. I’m not worthy of their love and protection. I deserve to be hurt, abused, molested. That pain was worse than anything I suffered as an adult through my addictions and the abuse I heaped on myself. But that idea, that I was to blame, was easier for me to accept than the idea that maybe there wasn’t an answer, that this abuse wasn’t connected to a reason, it couldn’t be explained. So when I read César Vallejo’s poem (in translation, of course) “Black Heralds”, it seemed to say everything, to express the very experience of trauma, but with compassion and understanding, with love. Nothing else, movies, novels, paintings, connected with me at this level. Sometimes music did but in a less articulated way.

      Black Heralds

      There are blows in life, so powerful…I don’t know!

      Blows as from the hatred of God; as if, facing them,

      the undertow of everything suffered

      welled up in the soul…I don’t know!

      They are few; but they are.… They open dark trenches

      in the fiercest face and in the strongest back.

      Perhaps they are the colts of barbaric Attilas;

      or the black heralds sent to us by Death.

      They are the deep falls of the Christs of the soul,

      of some adored faith blasphemed by Destiny.

      Those bloodstained blows are the crackling of

      bread burning up at the oven door.

      And man.… Poor…poor! He turns his eyes, as

      when a slap on the shoulder summons us;

      turns his crazed eyes, and everything lived

      wells up, like a pool of guilt, in his look.

      There are blows in life, so powerful…I don’t know!

      There are so many, many poets that have written poems that connect with me to varying degrees. I mean I can go all the way back to Ovid. But I want to talk about Al Purdy. I guess we’re moving into your fourth question now—my favorite Purdy poems. There are several of his poems that are special for me: “Piling Blood”, “Transient”, “The Machines”, “The Country North of Belleville”, “Late Rising at Roblin Lake”, “Postscript (1965)”, “Arctic Rhododenrons”, “At the Quinte Hotel”, “Lament for the Dorsets”, “Death of a Young Poet”, “Married Man’s Song”, “Say the Names”, “The Dead Poet”, “Red Fox on Highway 500”, “My Cousin Don”, “Horses”, “I Think of John Clare”, “Naked With Summer in Your Mouth”, “In the Desert”, “On Being Human”, “Listening to Myself”, “Necropsy of Love”…  And this list changes every time I read his poetry.

      AM: Are there ones that don’t move you, as well? Again, I feel like I reveal my vulgarian side but I actually greatly prefer his funnier, more direct, maybe more “Bukowski-like” moments—“The Wine Maker’s Beat-Edude”, “Flat Tire in the Desert”, “When I Sat Down to Play the Piano”, that sort of thing. Some of his pieces, the ones filled with references to the ancient world and classical mythology and such, sort of just slip by me, but I don’t try very hard, I must admit. 

      RD: I like all the poems you mentioned here, but they’re not my favourites. Oh yeah, he wrote a lot of poems that don’t move me. But writing poetry is unbelievably difficult. Great poets who produced thousands of poems in a lifetime are only remembered for a handful. Poets write many more mediocre and bad poems than they do good ones, never mind poems that succeed at the highest level.

      AM: What are your favourite canonical works of Canadian literature? I mean, of the heavy hitters, who have you read, and who did you enjoy most? Are there famed Canadian poets or novelists you return to? Or are there more Canadian writers you like who are not canonized? I mean, I have plenty of Canadian writers on my bookshelf, but none of them are the famous ones.

      RD: Well, these are the Canadian poets I find myself going back to again and again: Al Purdy, Alden Nowlan, Milton Acorn, Susan Musgrave, Margaret Atwood, Russell Thornton, Tim Bowling, David Zieroth, Patrick Lane, Lorna Crozier, Raymond Souster, Irving Layton. Most of these poets are canonized in Canada or will be eventually.

      AM: Was thinking of this the other day: there are certain writers who I really, really would like to read deeply, but who are just too emotionally scarring, too damaged, too terrifying to spend a lot of time with. I am glad I read Hubert Selby when I was young, because I just couldn’t take it now, I don’t think. (“Song of the Silent Snow” is another work that gets me crying profusely.) And I have tried Harry Crews a couple of times. I have had people (the cartoonist ARGH!, actually) say that I should try this Crews or that, but I never get far. Any writers like that, for you? Do you actually seek out emotionally difficult/challenging work still? 

      RD: Yes, I still read emotionally difficult and challenging work. It’s what I want from writing. I have yet to find an author that I’ve turned away from for that reason. There are two books that were devastating reads for me. The first was Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I read it when I was quite young and it changed me. I also found myself crying frequently while reading The Diary of Anne Frank. I think it’s one of the hardest books I’ve read. Some of Flannery O’Connor’s stories fuck me up. They tap so directly into the deep sickness of racism and hatred and religious fanaticism. Oh, and Alice Munro, her stories are very sad and full of such suffocating and quiet loneliness, loss, and grief. As far as poems go, Paul Celan’s “Death Fugue” is a powerful but unbelievably painful poem for me to read.

      AM: I don’t know who the Wise Blood is [DeCroo’s backing band], but I recall you casting about for a name for the Old Tenement Man band: is this the one you arrived at, or is it a different unit? Who is in the band, what else are they known for? And cool to hear you’re a Flannery O’Connor fan. (“Everything That Rises Must Converge” is one hell of a story. I can see myself in it far too easily.)

      RD: The band I regularly play with in Vancouver is the Wise Blood. I love playing with them. I’ve been playing with them since before I released Old Tenement Man. I think I talked to you about finding a name for the band I toured with in Eastern Canada. I ended up calling that band the Tenements, which were Bryce Jardine on electric guitar, David Newberry on bass, and Molly Davis on drums. I had a great time playing with them and hope to again someday. The Wise Blood were originally Ed Goodine on drums, Phil Addington on bass, and Brian Barr on electric guitar. Ed and Brian still play with me, but Nate Dillon is now playing bass. Yep, I’m a huge Flannery O’Connor fan. Obviously, that’s where the name the Wise Blood comes from.

      AM: Spinning off Flannery O’Connor, are there any American writers we should mention as favourites? Poets, novelists? You ever do Nathanael West’s Miss Lonelyhearts?

      RD: Oh I don’t know. To be honest, Allan, I’ve always hated this type of question. I don’t know why. It’s a perfectly reasonable question to ask, but I guess I feel like I’m being tested to see how cool I am or to test my party loyalty. I’ve always fucking hated those Facebook posts that ask people to list their favorite bands. And I’m convinced no one gives a shit what I read. But okay, I know you ask it out of genuine interest. Here are some American writers I would call myself a fan of (novelists, poets, short-story writers) in no particular order and it’s a grab bag of sorts: Cormac MaCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, John Irving, Ottessa Moshfegh, John Steinbeck, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Sherman Alexie, Louise Erdrich, Michael Chabon, Herman Melville, Tawni O’Dell, John Updike, Mark Twain, Philip Roth, Charles Bukowski, Kurt Vonnegut, J.D Salinger, John Fante, Jonathan Franzen, Raymond Carver, Jack London, Stephen Crane, Jack Kerouac, David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, William S. Burroughs, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Sharon Olds, Anne Sexton, Philip Levine, Galway Kinnell, Larry Levis, Wallace Stevens, William Carlos Williams, Richard Hugo, Hart Crane, Allen Ginsberg, Theodore Roethke, Jimmy Santiago Baca, Martin Espada, Jack Gilbert, Linda Gregg, Denise Levertov, and man, I could keep going on. I guess the truth is that I read American writers/poets much more than Canadian writers/poets. But in my defence, there are so many more American writers, period.

      AM: Out of curiosity, do you read genre fiction? I sometimes will sit down with a crime, SF horror novel. (I could easily imagine you reading Michael Connelly’s Bosch novels, say.) Any favourite writers or novels you’re not embarrassed to mention? (I am kind of embarrassed to have read every Lee Child Reacher novel, when there is so much richer writing in the world that I haven’t read, but... what can I say, I can read a Reacher in a few days and I’ve yet to make it through Moby Dick, so...)

      RD: I don’t know Michael Connelly’s novels and, no, I haven’t read much genre fiction. Again, this kind of question makes me anxious. It’s like I have to try and sound cooler than I am and I’m definitely very not cool. I’m not even really sure what genre fiction means beyond science fiction. My interests are pretty narrow both in music and literature. I mean, I’m not opposed to reading something outside of my usual tastes, but it’s usually because a friend gives it to me. I’m reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Dispossessed right now because my friend David Bloom gave it to me. I’m enjoying it. The only science-fiction books I’ve read more than once are Gibson’s Neuromancer, which I’ve been told is passé now, and John Varley’s Steel Beach. I’m not familiar with the genre really, but I loved those two books.

      AM: Coming back to Purdy, did you ever get to meet him or see him read? Does his having been (sort of) local for a time have any resonance for you? Like, do you ever go to towns he lived in to scrounge for signed books by him or such—does your fandom extend that far? (BTW, without trying, I occasionally, maybe twice in the last 10 years, stumble into signed Purdys in my forays into thrift stores. Is that something I should keep an eye out for for you, if it happens again?) 

      RD: Yes, I had three personal interactions with Al. When I was 26 I looked up his phone number in Ameliasburgh and called him up. A gruff voice said, “Hello!” and I asked if he was Al Purdy and he said, “Yes. Who are you?” I told him my name and that I was a poet. He laughed and said, “Of course you are. Who the fuck else would call me?!” I told him I was reading his new collection Naked With Summer in your Mouth and that I’d read about every other poetry collection he’d published and that his poetry meant a lot to me. He kept going, "Uh-huh," but in a friendly way. Then I told him I’d written a poem called “An Open Letter to Al Purdy” and asked if I could read it to him. He said sure. As I read it he’d chuckle at the funny bits and go "Hmmm" in different places and was clearly listening. When I finished he said, “Well, that’s a helluva poem, Rodney.” Which was kind of him, because it wasn’t much of a poem. 

      But we talked for quite awhile about the questions I’d put to him in the poem. He told me several times the only thing in the end is writing poems. Awards, grants, recognition was all very very nice, but it gets old quick and the only thing that matters was writing the next poem. Now, it’s easier to say that near the end of a pretty illustrious career when everyone is celebrating you, but I knew he meant it, because no one paid his poetry any attention until his late 40s, early 50s. He wrote poetry for a few decades before anyone gave a shit about his work. He wasn’t getting published during that long apprenticeship and he wasn’t getting any awards. He also told me to write about what and how I wanted and not to worry about creative-writing schools or anything like that. He kept saying just keep writing, keep writing, keep writing and also to read as much poetry as I could, but to stick with the poets that meant something to me. He knew that, like him, I wasn’t supposed to be a poet. I came from a background that had no use for poetry and I wasn’t well-educated. I had to find my own way. He knew that.

      After that, I met him in person at a reading at Bollum’s Books in Vancouver. I wrote about that occasion on Facebook. I think you read that post and commented on it. And I sat with him and Eurithe at the Vancouver Press Club. He was reading that night. Al got pretty angry at the organizer and blew up in front of everyone. But he also gave a great reading. The place was packed and everyone was locked into Al while he read. It was probably the most magical reading I’ve ever attended. My poem “Al and Eurithe in Beyond Forgetting” describes that night. I didn’t know Al the man well at all. We only met a few times, he wrote me a letter once and we talked on the phone. My connection to him, what I feel I know about Al Purdy, is mostly through his poetry.

      I have a couple books that Al signed for me. And a couple others that I’ve been given and one that I found in People’s Co-op Books on Commercial Drive. I had to throw a couple other copies he signed for me out because, well, I threw up on them when I was drunk and I couldn’t get the smell out. I’ve never gone out purposefully searching for signed books by Al, but whenever I’m in a bookstore (especially used bookstores) in Canada I check the poetry section for his books. Eurithe also gave me a couple signed copies of Al’s work after he passed away that I treasure.

      AM: So tell me about musical plans for this night. Are there new songs? Are there old ones you didn’t play at your last Cultch show that you will be bringing back? Will you read? Will Al Purdy poems be read, or is that not done? Are there any songs or such you’re going to perform because of a particular tie-in with Purdy?

      RD: I’m going to play some new songs as well as older ones I didn’t play at my last Cultch show. Some of the new songs will be on my next album that I’m currently calling Quitters and some that won’t be. I’m going to read my poem from the Purdy book and maybe my friend Russell Thornton’s poem since he can’t be there that night. I wouldn’t say that any of the songs have a direct tie-in with Purdy, no. Though I will say that Al remains an influence in both my poetry and song lyrics.

      AM: Tell me about Beyond Forgetting: Celebrating 100 Years of Al Purdy. I assume you’re in the anthology. Curious how you got involved with it, what other writers are in it. How it was put together? What did you contribute to it—did you write it for the anthology, with Purdy in mind, or did you have a perfect piece already formed, or...?

      RD: Yes, I’m in Beyond Forgetting! I’m pretty thrilled about that. I didn’t know anything about it until Annie from Harbour Books contacted me because Eurithe had given Harbour my poem “Al and Eurithe”, because she wanted it included in the anthology. I can’t remember if I gave it to her after Al passed away when I visited her in Sidney or if I gave it to Al. I was touched by her gesture because I wrote that poem in 1996, so 22 years ago. I think it’s the only poem from my 20s that has ever been published. And it’s nice to be included in an anthology with my friend Russell Thornton, who is a much better poet than I am, as well as a host of fine Canadian poets: Al Birney, Milton Acorn, David Zeiroth, Susan Musgrave, Tom Wayman, Howard White, Peter Trower, Lorna Crozier, Doug Paisley, and many more.

      AM: Have you been a writer in residence anywhere? Do you want to plug the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, or have any interesting inside knowledge/stories about them?

      RD: Nope. I’m pretty much a no one in the poetry world. I don’t have any particular knowledge or stories about the Al Purdy A-Frame Association other than I’m happy that they preserved Al and Eurithe’s A-frame and that they make it available to poets for residencies. I’m not a part of it in any way except that the proceeds from this concert will go to them.

      AM: Anything else in the works or that we should mention? New books? New songs? New acting projects?

      RD: I’ve halfway completed a new manuscript of poems I’m currently calling Mid-Atlantic Diction and a Nightmare Sow. Which includes a poem mentioning Al Purdy. And man, I’ve got a bunch of projects under way. I’m going to record a new album with Lorrie Matheson in Calgary called Quitters that will be released by Tonic Records. I’m working with director-actor David Bloom and actor-writer Samantha Sue Pawliuk on a new theatre project, Next Door to the Butcher Shop, featuring my poems/songs, with me as the central character-performer. The Cultch has supported the development of this show, for which I’m very grateful.

      I’m also cowriting a two-act play with my good friend, playwright, writer, actor, comedian Gary Jones, called Dischord, which I’ll also be acting in. It’s about a misanthropic, aging alcoholic singer-songwriter who enjoys a lofty position in the pantheon of singer-songwriters, who is knocked down a few pegs by a young woman music critic from a prominent music magazine, but all ends well in the end. And last but far from least, I’m working with playwright-actor TJ Dawe on a one-man show called Didn’t Hurt that I’ll be performing at seven Fringe Festivals this summer in the U.S. and Canada. Oh, and I’ll be playing the character Curly in a production Of Mice and Men in September 2019.

      Thanks to Rodney DeCroo for his answers. Rodney DeCroo and the Wise Blood will perform at the Cultch on November 22 as part of the launch for Beyond Forgetting: Celebrating 100 Years of Al Purdy. For more information, go here