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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.