A near-legend, William Hawkins may be one of Ottawa’s most important and influential poets and songwriters to date. Yet many outside the artist community do not know his name. Many do not know that, for example, in his most productive and prolific decade, the 1960s, he appeared in a Contact Press anthology alongside bpNichol, Michael Ondaatje and Fred Wah, to name a few. At the time, Ottawa’s poetry scene, like Hawkins, was overlooked. His work — marginalized and previously scattered in self-published books, small press publications or emerging little magazines from the 60s — was remembered only by a handful of presses, poets and artists that he collaborated with.
Hawkins’ poetry was avant-garde in many ways. Experimental, brilliant, sensitive and at times coarse, Hawkins’ work stands out for its scope and variety. The collection includes an ambitious long poem, free verse and lyric poems. In my opinion, had he not put down his pen in the 1970s, he would be considered a major figure in Canada’s poetry scene.
This collection, edited by Cameron Anstee and published by Ottawa’s Chaudiere Books, is an attempt to situate his work within the Canadian literary landscape. The introduction and notes were meticulously researched and crafted with such sensitivity that they effectively contextualize the poet, his circumstances and work.
Anstee, who runs Apt. 9 Press, and is also a poet and scholar at the University of Ottawa finishing a doctorate in English Literature, spent six years working on the collection.
“When the work started in 2009, I had no sense that it would end up being this book,” he said. “I tracked down Bill’s books out of interest because I wanted them.”
He went on to publish a chapbook of Hawkins’ poetry through Apt. 9 Press in 2010. After years of collecting Hawkins’ poetry, researching in libraries and writing letters to publishing houses and book sellers, he decided that it needed to exist as a collection.
Hawkins’ Ottawa Poems are captivating and relevant. They are some of my favourite. Accessible, thoughtful, witty and frankly politically incorrect, the poems resituate Ottawa as a place of radical, experimental poetry in the 60s:
4What had she, Queen Victoria, in mind naming this place, Ottawa, capitol? Ah coolness, he said, who dug coolness. The crazy river-abounding town where people are quietly following some hesitant form of evolution arranged on television from Toronto. Where girls are all possible fucks in the long dull summernights & Mounties more image than reality.
Bracketing the fact that, like many others in the 60s, he openly objectifies girls (perhaps even infantilizing women, depending on the age of the girls), I am fascinated by the way he questions authority figures, particularly historical figures that have influenced Ottawa and Canada. A recurring preoccupation in his work, it’s as if Hawkins instinctively mistrusts the politicians and leaders of the country, past and present.
His use of language is especially striking in “4.” He shifts tones as quickly as he shifts moods, and in such few lines. What he says about Ottawans is still held in the perception of some, though I suspect it was truer in the 60s than it is now.
Are we quietly following some hesitant form of evolution arranged on television in Toronto, or even Montreal and Vancouver? Or do we have our own cultural legacy, dating back to the 60s, when adventurous artists like William Hawkins emerged? Obviously my answer to this question is biased. I am part of Ottawa’s artist community and think it’s not about size but about quality. I wonder what those looking at the scene from a distance see? Do they realize they are neighbours to vibrant literary micropresses, artist-run galleries and talented musicians?
Whatever the answer may be for you, don’t miss the opportunity to attend the book launch of one of Ottawa’s most elusive living artists. Due to health issues, Hawkins will not attend the event and Anstee will read in his place. The launch is on Thursday, June 18 at 8 p.m. at Raw Sugar Café.