PF @ 40 Part 4: Prairie Fire by Patrick Friesen

Aug 10, 2018

It took me a few years to get to know anyone in Winnipeg. I had arrived in 1965 from Steinbach, the small town where I was born, to attend university, but what was just as important as that education was the anonymity and solitude I craved. After a while I began noticing a few names, poets and fiction writers, literary organizers, and another while to actually meet some of these people. I remember hearing about a writing group that met regularly, and about a literary magazine that emerged from that group. Kate Bitney, Elizabeth Carriere, and Andris Taskans, were three of the names connected with that magazine, Writers News Manitoba.

Looking back, time does strange things. Some years stretch out long and thin, others are compacted into a lump. Just now I was thinking it was just a matter of two or three years from arriving in Winnipeg to getting to know the people around Writers News Manitoba. In fact, it was closer to a decade I think. I was working out some problems with my writing. I had come to realize that I didn’t read my poems aloud the way they were on the page. What to do about this?

I stopped paying attention to line endings, or at least to the line endings I had assumed were the way to go. I remember some prose writing began to have an influence, prose by Jack Kerouac for example. Certain biblical passages, that Elizabethan imagery and rhythm, played a part too. I knew the Bible very well, having been brought up on it. Some of Kerouac’s writing was biblical in rhythm. And I was listening to Bill Evans a lot, his long flowing lines.

I slowly worked my way toward a long line that served my breath when I read aloud. It took some time, but I understood that there was a connection between my breath, the way my thinking worked and how the line should develop. It had to become a “thinking line,” and thinking was related to breath. I wanted that unity. Poetry came out of the body, at least it did with me. I used caesura instead of punctuation for a while. Parallel to this development of the line came the tactics to sabotage the brain’s railroad track. I had to be able to leap sideways.

At one point I understood that I had to “go 180 degrees”; that is, when I found myself blocked, rather than banging my head into the wall over and over again, I could turn 180 degrees, go opposite. I was amazed to find that often my true thinking was the opposite of what I had begun with. It was my escape from received wisdom, from imposed theory. At any rate, I now had a door I could open any time I wanted to.

And, it was around this time that I decided to send several poems to Prairie Fire, as Writers News Manitoba had renamed itself. But how could the typical magazine page accommodate these long-lined poems. Well, someone at Prairie Fire worked it out. When the poems came out, they were printed on a long page, which was stapled sideways into the middle of the magazine. “Esther Warkov’s Dream” is the poem I remember being on this page. I knew this wouldn’t happen again, so I developed an indented line, the indent suggesting it was still part of the long line. For me, this was

probably the first time I had experienced such direct help from an editor, in fact from a literary magazine. It played a significant part in the process I was engaged in.

That was January 1983, and I felt released. The line’s length helps shape one’s thinking even as it is a reflection of that thinking. It’s interwoven. The forms I had learned in school had worked against my innate rhythm of thinking. Once I had spent time with the long line, and its possibilities, I could sometimes return to the shorter line, playing with punctuation.

Well, I’ve gone off the track here, thinking of the long line, Prairie Fire, and the people who started it, those who have helped keep it going over the years. I’m not great with names, but aside from the three who began the magazine, I do remember a few, like Pat Sanders, Arthur Adamson, and Heidi Harms, all connected with this wonderful literary magazine, a magazine that has helped so many writers get a start in the world of publishing.

Patrick Friesen lives in Victoria, BC. He has published over a dozen books of poetry, a book of essays, stage and radio plays, and has co-translated five books of Danish poetry. His co-translation, with Per Brask, of Ulrikka Gernes’s Frayed Opus for Strings & Wind Instruments (Brick Books) was short-listed for the 2016 Griffin Poetry Prize. His latest book of poetry, songen, came out with Mother Tongue Publishing in early 2018.

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