“So we built a house, my wife and I …” wrote iconic Canadian poet, Al Purdy. The small A-frame, a cottage really, was built in 1957 from salvaged wood and windows, but it was, like Purdy’s poetry, an ongoing project. Long after the indoor toilet was installed, Purdy preferred to use the outhouse.
Purdy’s persona was that of a working class, tough-talking, hard drinking man; but this belied his interest in Canadian history, his avid reading and his active support of emerging poets. He and wife Eurithe Purdy welcomed new and established poets into the A-frame. Dennis Lee, Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, Steven Heighton, Lynn Crosbie and, some say, hundreds of others. Apparently Purdy encouraged his literary visitors to mark their names on the outhouse wall.
Years later, one of those visitors named a character in his second novel after Purdy. When Caravaggio escapes from prison, it is a boy, Alfred, sitting outside a door factory, that helps him: Michael Ondaatje’s nod to Purdy.
(I’ll save you the time: it’s on page 181 in my 1996 copy of In the Skin of a Lion.)
Imagine a crisp fall night, talking poetry with Al Purdy, before there were smart phones, twitter feeds and Wikipedia. There you’d be, drink in hand – Purdy’s own wild grape wine — beside that “backwater puddle of a lake” (Roblin) listening to Purdy’s stories, his thoughts on poetry and, if you were brave enough, his opinions on your own attempts.
Purdy said that much of his early work wasn’t good (“crap” he said). Some critics said that the first 40 years weren’t good. But he and Eurithe persisted and in 1965 he won the GG for The Cariboo Horses and again in 1986 for The Collected Poems of Al Purdy. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1982 and called “the people’s poet” by poets and readers alike.
He could write a line like this:
“beautiful as an angel’s ass without the genitals”
But also this:
“and me/ in Paris like a smudged Canadian postcard”
What made him Al Purdy is that these lines, from his poem Song of the Impermanent Husband, come one right after the other.
I heard Al Purdy reading at a gathering in Victoria, BC, hosted by Vicki Gabereau, a few years before he died. He took such obvious pleasure in reading to us. I remember that, collectively, we would laugh at a particular line (his delivery could be comic) but suck in our breaths at the next and feel ashamed we’d just laughed.
You can hear him read his poem Transient here. The line “naked with summer in your mouth” is from that poem and it’s the title of one of his collections.
Purdy died in BC in 2000. In 2008, when the house and property became too much for Eurithe, the Al Purdy A-frame Association was organized with the purpose of buying the house, fixing it up and maintaining it as a literary centre.
Organizers are setting up a Poet-in-Residence program … “Pending successful fundraising.”
(Hmm. Sounds like a book title — Pending Successful Fundraising: Arts and Culture in Canada. Just sayin’.)
Next Saturday, July 27th, the First Annual Al Purdy Picnic will be held in the hamlet of Ameliasburgh, a 2 hour drive east of Toronto. You can even buy a picnic bag lunch when you get there.
I spoke with Jean Baird who helped organize the trust fund that led to the A-frame Association. Jean is a self-professed escaped academic and the wife of Canada’s first poet laureate (2002-2004), George Bowering. She is also a very big fan of Al Purdy.
“What’s interesting to me is how much interest there is in this place. Usually preservation concerns are just of local interest. But we’ve received cheques from people across the country. Even from academics in English departments!”
The financial and physical support for the project ranges from a generous cheque from Leonard Cohen and established foundations, to the manual labour of local high school students. And the lawyerly help? Pro bono from an Al Purdy admirer.
There is even a lighthouse keeper who sends a yearly cheque. Someone please write a poem about that.
The Al and Eurithe Purdy A-frame will be open to the general public for the first time at the picnic next weekend. According to Jean Baird, the inside is “the same as it was the last time Al left the building.” You can find the A-frame by looking at a map (Ameliasburgh is near Belleville), or, do as Jean says others have done in the past and find it by reading Al’s poetry. For more background information, check out Lindi Pierce’s blog, In Search of Al Purdy.
I’m going to the picnic and not just because it’s being held in a hamlet. Turns out the infamous outhouse was restored by students and teachers from Trenton High School. I’m going to the picnic because I want to see whose names are inscribed on those salvaged boards.
*photos by Eurithe Purdy