This is going to be a thoroughly personal response, though I suppose 40th anniversaries are occasions for reflection. It’s still very pleasing to see my work published alongside Phyllis Webb’s. In 2002 I had not yet met Phyllis, though I had studied her work as an undergrad, in a Canadian poetry class with Stephen Scobie, in 1993 or 94. My copy of Hanging Fire, which contains Phyllis’s poems reprinted here in the TCR Folio, is inscribed to me by my wife Cathy in 1995—a Valentine’s gift. Phyllis’s work already meant a great deal to me. I think it was the 2002 30th anniversary issue, with its paintings, that got me thinking seriously about writing on Phyllis. It was probably that comment in her “Artist’s Statement,” that “poetry more or less abandoned me,” as well as the calm fatalism of that “I used to write…now I paint.” It seemed an extension of her anarchist-inflected sense of failure, and it appealed to my own, though I couldn’t imagine not writing poetry, or what it would be like to work in and through and beyond that absence.
I got up the courage to call, and then visit Phyllis (through the agency of Roger Farr), in the summer of 2004. I don’t remember much about that first visit, other than the fact that we mostly talked about painting (not poetry). I received a card (with a reproduction of Edouard Vuillard’s “Young Girls Walking” on it) from her on August 22nd (in which she thanks me for the gift of my book Mine, and notes that she’s “been resisting reading poetry”), and I wrote back on August 30th with questions about abstraction and Takao Tanabe. Painting, rather than poetry, would centre our conversation in the first few years of this correspondence—years in which Phyllis was still actively painting and during which I was writing about abstraction and her poetry and visiting her fairly frequently. I sent her poems and draft chapters, and she dutifully responded. When I would arrive for a visit, she would have a stack of things—articles, books she had recently received—ready to discuss. And there were always the paintings, spilling all over the walls and floor of every room. The small kitchen table crowded with brushes and tubes of paint. The bookshelves hidden behind the stacks of canvases leaning against them.
My poem in the 30th anniversary issue, “A Map of Our Failures,” was written in May 2001, in Storrs Connecticut. I was there doing research in the Charles Olson archive, staying at the Altnaveigh Inn, something of an old farmhouse, dating from 1734, and at which Olson had also apparently stayed at some point. The title comes from Adrienne Rich’s poem, “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children,” with its meditation on Joan of Arc and gender politics. “A language is a map of our failures”—I’d long contemplated a poem with this title, and with Emily Dickinson (rather than Olson) in the forefront of my mind (I had been to Amherst in the days before arriving at Storrs, and had been reading Sewell’s biography), I wrote this poem at the Inn, with a few walks through the farmland around Storrs punctuating the breaks in its sections.
In time it was clear that this poem was the real beginning of what I’ve called “The Barricades Project”: a sequence of books written through (as opposed to “about”) the history of revolutionary struggles. The ghost of failure that haunts that history. And the sliver of light that still shines from the door of potential transformations, left just slightly ajar each time the rebellion has been crushed and the rebels driven into the back alleys or the forests.
That I’m given to thinking about emancipatory struggles and failure no doubt set me up to “connect” with Phyllis Webb’s work. Much that I’ve written, between at least 2004 and 2010, has been written with Phyllis in mind as a reader, and indeed much of it has made its way across the water to her island before it found its way into print. I know everything I’ve written is a failure—but that this is the nature of language (and revolutions, so it seems). All we have is struggle. But if we do not struggle…we won’t even have our failures to build upon, and possibly learn from. I suppose Phyllis’s paintings are failures too: they come out of the failing energies of her writing, and, as she herself notes, they are “amateur” work, “pure process,” a late style, a failing finding out. How shocking, to be an old woman just beginning to explore a new practice, making mistakes and mucking about with the possibilities! Apprentice to no one. A journeywoman by self-proclamation. I think, we should all be so lucky. Each time I see my own work in print I think, well that was a near-miss. I hope I get a chance to fail again!
“Oops Pops USA” (pages 38-39) now hangs in my dining room. It’s the largest canvas Phyllis painted. I sit at the table and watch it failing so brightly there. It makes me happy.