Archives & Poetry Symposium turns over pages from the past Event brings together writers, scholars, bookworms

As Canada’s first Parliamentary Poet Laureate, an Officer of the Order of Canada, and author of more than 100 books, George Bowering was the special guest at the Archives & Poetry Symposium in late October. The symposium was held at the University of Manitoba’s Archives and Special Collections.

The symposium examined the intersections of Canadian poetry and archives with leading scholars, poets, and archivists, including Dennis Cooley, Warren Cariou, Barbara Romanik, Shelley Sweeney and Jean Baird. A related event on Nov. 5 included a reading and discussion by Winnipeg-based poets Méira Cook, Jennifer Still, and Kegan McFadden.

As Bowering has been an inveterate list-maker and avid baseball fan since childhood, it is perhaps no coincidence that Library and Archives Canada has collected 22.7 metres of his notebooks, draft manuscripts and correspondence – almost enough to stretch from home plate to first base on a baseball field.

Like most archival collections, Bowering’s are mostly paper. But Baird explained that an archive can also be a house. Baird heads the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, a non-profit group that is preserving poet Al Purdy’s hand-built A-frame house in Ameliasburgh, Ont.

It is an “archival house,” she said, that is “off the charts in terms of being of heritage importance.” For Baird, preserving the house as Purdy arranged it means that the house is a “living poem.”

Shelley Sweeney and George Bowering. Photo by Mary Horodyski.
Shelley Sweeney and George Bowering. Photo by Mary Horodyski.

Romanik, a recent PhD graduate from the English, film and theatre department at the University of Manitoba, connected with the late indigenous poet, playwright, and artist Marvin Francis through the U of M archive of his work.

Romanik’s dissertation explored Francis’s work and his relationship to the indigenous writing and artistic community in Winnipeg. As Romanik showed at the symposium, Francis’s archival collection is emblematic of the way “his form, technique, and content went hand in hand.”

Francis’s archive includes comics and drawings, poems written on cigarette packages and an “arrow poem” written on the back of an Aero chocolate bar wrapper.

Romanik admires Francis’s archives as a rare example of indigenous material collected with the support of the indigenous community. She extended a challenge to Western-based archival practices and suggested that bringing material from indigenous people into archives is not enough; when possible, archivists should venture out into communities and learn on indigenous ground.


Cariou also questioned how standard archival practices of preservation relate to traditional indigenous storytelling. Cariou teaches at the U of M in the department of English, film and theatre and directs the Centre for Creative Writing and Oral Culture.

Although the centre stores over one terabyte of storytelling recordings, Cariou wondered whether archiving oral stories is always appropriate. For some indigenous storytellers, the act of storytelling may be part of ceremonies where digital recording is prohibited and so important contextual traditions related to the stories cannot be saved to the digital archive.

Although Cariou believes that audiovisual recordings are useful “to capture the physical presence of the storyteller, their cadence and expressions,” he is concerned that the digital recording fixes the performance as singular and definitive and therefore the archive fails to include the fluidity of meanings that emerge each time the story is told.

For senior scholar, poet, editor, and publisher Cooley, archives can enhance the meaning of poems by allowing exploration of poets’ lives. Cooley described how his research into the Robert Kroetsch archives at the University of Calgary revealed hidden pain and emotion behind some of Kroetsch’s most well-known work.

Poets and posthumous privacy

But not all poets want to have their draft manuscripts and correspondence archived. Cook, an award-winning poet, novelist, and literary critic who read at the poetry event on Nov. 5, said that after the first part of the symposium she went home and burned all her papers, “including some I hadn’t even written on yet.”

Her tongue-in-cheek response reveals her discomfort with publishers and correspondents who choose to archive early drafts of books or personal letters without the express permission of the poet.

Sweeney, head of Archives and Special Collections at the U of M, said that in her experience, there is often “a push and pull between what the writer wants to reveal or conceal,” but archivists try to be very mindful of donors’ privacy.

Jan Horner, coordinator of collections management for the U of M Libraries and an organizer of the symposium, noted that within the collections held in archives “what might be truly interesting is not necessarily personal; it might be what they reveal about the influences upon them, what they reveal about their fellow writers, the subjects they write about, or what they reveal about the community they live and work in.”

Feature image credit: Dennis Cooley and David Arnason, 1977. Photo provided by U of M Archives and Special Collections.

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