Story by Cameron Anstee
rivers & jails,
the dawn can’t
(Ottawa Poems. Kitchener: Weed/Flower Press, 1966)
In 1966, William Hawkins received an “Outstanding Young Man” award from the city of Ottawa for distinguished service in the community. Hawkins was described in the Ottawa Citizen that year as “Canada’s own Bob Dylan”; a songwriter and poet moving freely within the visual art community. He published books, he organized poetry readings and concerts, and he collaborated with artists to produce large format poster poems that were stapled to telephone poles in downtown Ottawa.
The 1960s were fertile years in Canadian poetry, but discussion largely focused on activity Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. Though still in his mid twenties, Bill Hawkins was not only at the centre of remarkably vibrant Ottawa scene, but also factored in with significant movements in Canadian literature in the following years. Hawkins became—and remains—an important voice coming out of Ottawa.
I discovered Hawkins through undergraduate course work in Canadian literature. Regrettably, Hawkins was not being taught, but Contact Press was. Contact was the first writer-run literary press in Canada, founded by Raymond Souster, Louis Dudek, and Irving Layton in 1952. During its fifteen active years, Contact nurtured a great number of young Canadian writers who grew increasingly influential in the years that followed (names such as George Bowering, Al Purdy, Phyllis Webb, and Margaret Atwood). One of Contact’s final publications was the anthology New Wave Canada: The New Explosion in Canadian Poetry (1966) featuring seventeen young Canadians, including Michael Ondaatje, bpNichol, David McFadden, Daphne Buckle (later Marlatt) and Bill Hawkins. Hawkins’ bio in the book stated unapologetically that he was “Living now in Ottawa.” This sounded very much like a call-to-arms to my developing little magazine/small press sensibilities. To discover that an Ottawa poet had been involved in these important movements in Canadian modernist and post-modernist poetry was stunning, unexpected, and inspiring.
Winter is on this land
Laying down endless quilts of quiet sadness
Flowers being good flowers must die in sadness
(“A Song of Flowers.” Shoot Low Sheriff, They’re Riding Shetland Ponies. Ottawa: N.P., 1964)
Hawkins’ directness was embodied in the creation and distribution of the collaborative poetry posters. The majority were produced in 1962, involving a cast of significant Ottawa visual artists of the day, including Christopher Wells, Robert Rosewarne, Fran Jones and Andries Hamaan. An Ottawa Citizen article from February of that year told of how the collaborators used a “huge 130-year-old Washington Press” to produce the posters. The full-colour originals measured approximately two feet by three feet. Hawkins recalled in an email to me that they “were started by Andries Hamann and meself [sic] wanting beer. It worked, but got arty after that.”
The posters were an aggressive declaration of an art community in an otherwise conservative city in these years. The vibrant artwork, in some cases bordering on obscene, offered a stark contrast to a place that seemed to have a slightly delayed experience of the sixties. Hawkins recalls that Ottawa in the sixties was “a sleepy English village. [Poetry] was not something you talked about.” While the thriving poetry community had to be sought out, the posters confronted the public with their mere presence. Christopher Wells reflects.
“Did the poster poems have an impact? I suppose in the way that they made it possible for us to buy an occasional case of beer. But also, the ‘60s were in full flower—San Francisco, Yorkville, dope, LSD, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Carnaby Street, provocative music and all that—and [Bill was] the face and voice of that cultural phenomenon in Ottawa … Whether they had an effect on the literary sensibility of the public at that time is doubtful, but the fact they are now treasured by those who own them is testimony to their impact.”
The posters indicated how Hawkins was at odds with staid, middle-class Ottawa. In the years preceding his Outstanding Young Man award, he spent time in the Val Tetreau correctional institution in Quebec for what he calls “some misdemeanour involving other people’s cars.” Infamously, the award plaque was quickly adopted as a cutting board for hash.
Roy MacSkimming, a local Hawkins contemporary whose work was also included in New Wave Canada, recalls that “he took drugs, drank too much, insulted important people. In fact he insulted most people, important or not, more or less on principle.
By 1973, Hawkins needed a change in his life and found himself in rehab in Toronto feeling “fragile” and “paranoid.” He withdrew from publishing and began driving a Blue Line cab in Ottawa (recently he semi-retired from this line of work), a change that he once called “going into hiding.”
I HAVE LOST MY SMALL WAR WITH GOD STOP I WRITE
THIS SO AS TO SUE FOR PEACE STOP KNOWING UNCON-
DITIONAL SURRENDER THE ONLY TERMS AVAILABLE STOP
I ACCEPT STOP
(“Declaration of Dependence.” The Madman’s War. Ottawa: S.A.W. Publications, 1974.)
In 2009, Apt. 9 Press launched its first titles: poetry from Monty Reid, Sandra Ridley, and Justin Million. Apt. 9 publishes crafted, handmade books in limited editions by unknown and established writers, with an eye on the current Ottawa scene. After the first handful of books, I began to want Apt. 9 to document Ottawa’s literary history alongside its contemporary movements. To this end, I began researching and writing a bibliography of the work of Hawkins, who seemed the source of modern poetry in this city, or at least the source of a radical, outsider poetry. As the bibliography grew to respectable proportions, I sent it along to Hawkins to gauge his reaction. He responded that he was about to get his hands on copies of some of the original poster poems. With Hawkins’ blessing, the project expanded and Apt. 9 had the privilege of re-publishing four of the original 1960s poster poems.
Today, the Hawkins legacy has been consolidated in several large projects. In 2005, Broken Jaw Press published Dancing Alone: Selected Poems under the Cauldron Books imprint edited by rob mclennan. This built on the 1971 selected Hawkins poems, The Gift of Space. The newer book includes a passionate introduction from Roy MacSkimming that balances personal and literary histories to situate Bill carefully in Canadian letters:
“The poems in [Dancing Alone] are undeniable evidence that here is a distinctive, inimitable voice in Canadian poetry. Taken together, Hawkins’ work is almost unbearably poignant in its existentialism verging on nihilism. It expresses a felt beauty and innocence that must remain unattainable, insisting on the ultimate certainty of loss, emptiness, death. Yet somehow the poet can’t help betraying a mordant love of the whole ironic process.”
In 2008, True North Records released Dancing Alone: Songs of Williams Hawkins, an impressive double CD set featuring 23 covers performed by a variety of notables including Bruce Cockburn, Sneezy Waters, Kellylee Evans and Sandy Crawley. The introduction, again by MacSkimming, includes a note from Crawley that describes Hawkins as “a little Blake and Yeats, a little Carmichael and Ellington, both Williamses: Hank and William Carlos.”
Closer to home, my own Apt. 9 Press published two Hawkins titles in October 2010. The first, the Wm Hawkins Folio, collects the descriptive bibliography discussed above with four of the poster poems from 1962, a further poster poem from 1980, a pair of newspaper articles from the sixties and an old advertisement for the posters from Alphabet magazine. Since publication, new material has been forwarded to me at an alarming rate, suggesting that a second volume or a companion piece will be necessary. In tandem with the folio, Apt. 9 published Sweet & Sour Nothings, a lost Hawkins book dating from 1980. The collection was to the poet’s seventh but saw only limited exposure in magazines. Our reissue helps bridge a gap of publishing silence in Hawkins’ body of work between 1974 and 2005.
I am deeply proud to have worked with Bill Hawkins. His contributions are important in Ottawa and in Canada but he remains largely unknown among the current young generation of writers. If you are a poet living and writing in Ottawa, track down Ottawa Poems (published by Nelson Ball’s unparalleled Weed/Flower Press in 1966) and then find the rest of Hawkins’ books. His work continues to offer us much and a devoted following awaits his next utterance.
I want to toughen
& make a few statements
to the crowded busload.
(Ottawa Poems. Kitchener: Weed/Flower Press, 1966)