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Peter Culley, Pleasure Poet


1851_commercial_jl_13Because he lived there for a while, Peter Culley would usually end up back at 1851 Adanac Street at some point whenever he was in Vancouver. And because I happened to be there one night for a party at Lisa Robertson and Dan Farrell’s place after a Kootenay School of Writing event some time in the early 1990s, we happened to meet. Someone said something about the music, music was something that Peter happened to know quite a lot about, I liked that he talked about Funkentelechy vs. the Placebo Syndrome as if was uncontroversially capital-A Art, we got onto something else, and the conversation and friendship went from there, episodic but continuous, until last week.

Not just our musical tastes, but a certain otherness too that we must have sensed in one another brought us together. Just the fact of it; our othernesses were of a different order. His was expressed in an unease in Vancouver (that never left him) and the KSW writing scene, and grew out of his working-class, Army brat, Nanaimo-Harewood background, which seemed to make him feel more of an outsider in Vancouver than being a poet and intellectual ever did in South Wellington.

I had read and been thrilled by his two 1980s chapbooks, Fruit Dots and Natural History, and so I was a bit of a fan too that night. (A long time later Culley allowed that he had been embarrassed by my praise and hadn’t felt able to tell me then that “he hadn’t written a word” of the poem I was raving about, Fruit Dots, that the entire thing had been composed of phrases lifted from a 19th century botany text. Well, Miles Davis didn’t write most of the songs on those LPs either.)

Culley’s poems, which counted on the reader’s sheer pleasure in the text for their effect, stood out against the Spartan architecture of much of the work issuing from the poetic avant-garde whose Vancouver outpost KSW was, and it felt like a guilty pleasure. The room that Culley gave in his poetry for pleasure, and for the pleasures afforded by an “older” poetry, had a parallel in the way another poet in the room, Lisa Robertson, infused her own work with beauty and the personal. Both writers were bending if not breaking clubhouse rules; I wonder if that was an element in the improbably solidarity between these two rather different writers. In any case, over the years Robertson proved one of Peter Culley’s best readers (a new essay, “Interval, Diastem: Politics of Style in Peter Culley’s Parkway,” can be read in Toward. Some. Air., edited by Fred Wah and Amy De’Ath, from Banff Centre Press).

Peter Culley emerged from, instead of into, the West Coast literary mainstream, in the early 1980s. Jack Hodgins had been a high school teacher, and early mentor; Mina Totino the painter and Kevin Davies the poet were classmates. His elders saw Culley’s promise and his first book was named Twenty-One in part because that’s what he was when Oolichan Books issued it. Culley later more or less disowned that book, not because of any bad publishing experience, but because even as it was going to the printer his poetry was turning away from the first-person I of those poems to the camera I at the centre of all his later work.

Culley moved to Vancouver with Kevin Davies in the late 1970s where they encountered Gerry Gilbert and through him generally fell in with what their Island preceptors would have thought of as a very bad crowd, presumably their purpose in moving to Vancouver in the first place. That Prince George poetry conference with Robert Creeley in 1981 was another big thing. Culley started associating with the Kootenay School of Writing (behind another important conference in 1985) and its Artspeak offshoot (at first), and the constellation of artists, writers, teachers, publishers and curators that thrived in those spaces.

Susan Lord and Lary Bremner published chapbooks, Natural History and Fruit Dots, which I encountered at Octopus East on Commercial Drive. Steven Forth was set to launch his new press, Leech Books, with The Climax Forest, Peter’s new book and his first since Twenty-One fifteen years earlier. This would have been in 1995; something shifted in the world; after only a few boxes of The Climax Forest were shipped the rest of the stock went into storage in an industrial park near the Fraser River. A distribution deal with New Star got a few more cartons into the world before one day the calls for more books from storage went unanswered.

The experience seemed to dispirit Culley; so did, over the years, the drip, drip of rejection letters from arts councils; so did the news. The Simpsons helped. For long stretches Peter wrote little or no poetry, turning to art essays (the fine arts juries didn’t have the same problem recognizing him as a writer) on, among others, Claudia Hart, Stan Douglas, Kelly Wood, Carrie Walker, Roy Arden, and Mark Soo, maybe the last piece of writing he completed. For a while he was on PW’s roster of anonymous reviewers, corresponding to a period of renewed interest in the great Cham. It’s entirely possible that in his lifetime Culley was cited as often as “Publishers Weekly” as under his own name.

Peter listened to a lot of music, seemingly able to listen to it in a lot less time than it takes to perform, as if he could listen to it in compressed format too, even as he was watching every interesting movie ever made, usually for the third or fourth time, hanging out with grandchildren, rearranging objects in the house, walking Shasta, or having visitors, which he was constantly. He travelled, when he could.

And he read. His library made you want to spend weeks in it; the fact that he had a good idea of what was in each of those books more so. If he needed something he’d call Daphne, who worked at the university library, and she’d usually have it when she got home around five. This was before the Internet.

Hammertown, when it came out in 2002, reprinted (slightly revised and reordered) the final section of The Climax Forest, the beginning of his long-term “Hammertown” project that he completed in 2013 with Parkway. The new book also contained a suite of six poems, “Snake Eyes”, into which he interpolated a sequence of small black and white photographs. Peter had always been taking pictures, I realized one day; so unobtrusively that it had taken me years to notice. He’d always been interested in the work his artist-friends were doing, and in fine art photography generally; W.G. Sebald was a thing; what might happen if he were to drop a few photos into his poems, not to illustrate them as such but to stand as parts of the poem itself? In time he would dispense with the poem part.

Peter’s practice of keeping the people (just) outside the frame of his photos, which might be seen as an aesthetic move, was for him primarily social and political, and reflected an essential respect for family, friends, neighbours, class mates, solidarities inculcated in him long before I met him. His class consciousness was instinctive, and not ever in his interactions with his South Wellington and Nanaimo neighbours did I detect condescension on anyone’s part. Peter’s occupation and erudition didn’t seem any more remarkable to his neighbours as far as I could tell than if he had been a welder, letter carrier, schoolteacher, a clerk at the Co-op, or unemployed. His make-up included a contrarian streak, and he could present himself as a bloody-minded Tory, foil, or goad, to my own dour Marxist proclivities. But at home he was what I would call a staunch Tommy Douglas CCFer.

An invitation from Reid Sheir to write an exhibition catalogue essay for a show at Presentation House Gallery in 2009 changed Culley’s life in an unexpected way. One result was To The Dogs, a book published by Arsenal Pulp Press. Another, much more significant result was Culley’s decision to acquire Shasta, brindled star of countless Culleys, a kind of Catahoula hound they found on Used Nanaimo. From a cat person to a dog person: there are few bigger life changes.

Peter was pleased by the popularity of his photos but the contrast between his reception throughout his working life as a writer, where he was a truly rare and remarkable talent, and now as an artist must have baffled him, and is surely a thesis topic for a doctoral candidate in sociology.

But those shows at Charles H. Scott Gallery in Vancouver and the Nanaimo Art Gallery did more than gratify. Many more people responded to those shows, and to his stream of photos on Mosses From an Old Manse (and Facebook) than read his, or almost anyone’s for that matter, poetry books. Every artist feeds on that response, which is called “validation”, and in Peter it fed an appetite for trying out new things.

He had the guilty pleasure of seeing peoples’ faces drop when he told them that the Hammertown project was finished with Parkway, while leaving hanging whether he was working on anything at all. In fact Peter in the last few years had entered a new phase of creative energy, much of it flowing into a collaboration with Vancouver-based visual artist Elisa Ferrari. An early shoot from this collaboration appears in TCR 3.23, Spring 2014. The abrupt interruption of their collaboration is one of the more keenly felt losses resulting from Peter’s much too early departure.

[ The Cascadia Poetry Festival, held in Nanaimo just three weeks after his passing, opened with a tribute to Peter Culley. You can watch it here. ]

Revised June 5, 2015.