The Canadian Art Database

Gerry Gilbert

Laughter: Four Conversations with Roy Kiyooka (1975)

artscanada #202/203, winter 1975-76
[ 3,964 words ]

ROY KIYOOKA: 25 YEARS, a major exhibition of painting, sculpture, drawing, prints and photography, is being presented this winter at the Vancouver Art Gallery, the University of Calgary Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Windsor, and the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa; and it is suddenly evident that the body of Roy Kiyooka's work forms a focal point of Canadian art — a standard wherever you stand. Roy Kiyooka's new book, transcanada letters, has just been published by Talonbooks. It is based on more than a decade of his correspondence with friends. I hope every Canadian writer will read it, simply to enjoy the language — and complexly to be part of the humanity — and honestly to be subject to the intelligence: of this man.

These conversations were recorded and edited in the few weeks before the Vancouver opening of the exhibition and the publication of the book. The people present are those friends we found in when we went looking. Roy wanted me to seek out the places on the ten hours of tape where we were all being most personally ourselves together — but, as representative of the reader, I have translated that as the title; and searched instead for a statement of — and it is a good word — culture, the place we can grow. Everything that follows isn't necessarily in the sequence it was said and it isn't everything but I hope it sounds that way.

'...the totality of what I've been into these past few years is to attempt an account of all the essential aspects of my life to date.'

Alvin Balkind Roy, what are you in search of?

Roy Kiyooka I looked over at that book on the shelf and I first read its title as 'The Cloud of Peru' and then I read it as 'The Cold of Peru' and then I looked at it again and saw it's 'The Gold of Peru.' Well, I'm looking for those things, any one of those three ....

AB 'Only those who play are serious types,' Le Corbusier said. I find that play is a more and more important part of my thinking . . . .

I think there is nothing more exhilarating than to have a form within which to work, to expand within. It's a glorious feeling of personal accomplishment.

RK The dilemma that I've come to in terms of art is simply that I no longer know the form of anything. There isn't a form, a container, a structure, per se, that is given, that has been given to me, incrementally through all of the past, that at this moment I can say of, 'I'm going to use that as the form of what I'm going to do.' In that sense I've come to a most curious place, and that is: everything I'm going to make will have to find its form.

AB But you are after all gathering your letters together and that's a form. You are finding a means of presenting them and editing them and that's working within the form, and expanding within it.

RK It's an attempt to create a form, because the intent of the letters is not simply the fact of letters. It's an attempt to create some kind of space whereby the actual occasions of one's lived life from day to day can be given a relevance at that time in one's life, rather than in the future.

AB You don't see your letters as a summing up, do you?

RK No I don't, though the overview would propose that as some kind of a possibility, but in actual fact it's too fragmentary. I've got a jigsaw puzzle, which I don't know the extent of, which I've started piecing together, that's all.

AB What is there about the letter form that makes your letter writing I don't know if it's more intense than your poetry — perhaps as intense in a different way?

RK For me, the letters in some actual sense supercede my poetry. Addressed on each occasion to a particular human being, and gathering the recipient's energy into the letter, enabled me to speak at levels my poems left out. My poems are notable for what they leave out. They don't include much of the actual events of my life, which my letters hopefully do . . . .

Usually the last things that get published it mostly happens posthumously — are the letters. The old morality postulated that letters were of a 'personal nature' — therefore discretion, particularly as it affected one's contemporaries, was of the utmost importance, etc. What I'm doing with my letters is releasing them as contemporaneous as possible with the events they are talking about. The psyche as muse.

The people I have written these letters to may regard them as personal. Some may think I violated a trust, but in my own mind, and I've gone over this time and time again, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not doing that. I seem to have come to some sort of place where I don't literally know what the borderline is, between an utter personalness and what is or purports to be or is thought of as public. I don't know where the line is and I don't really care.

AB I observe the proprieties, now and then, more or less: but not in my mind. In my mind there is no distinction to be made.

RK The letters have been a very thorough involvement since the fall of '71 — that is, the actual editing, revising, rewriting and re-ordering of them. They're not letters in the simple sense of having written to someone and subsequently retrieving the letter and publishing it. I kept carbon copies because I was putting almost all of my writing energy into letters and my best ideas got into them. Several years ago George Bowering asked me for a book for the Georgia Straight Series and I thought 'I'll collect my letters, why not?' When I got into them I discovered fragments of an autobiography and decided to bring that out. It took four whole years. The Intersections piece in the catalogue for my exhibition is the tail end of that same energy. And what I'm trying to get at here is how astonishing it's been trying to get a handle on my first 49 years. The retrospective I'm having will be the visual evidence of 25 years but the totality of what I've been into these past few years is to attempt an account of all the essential aspects of my life to date. This was not given me to do at 35 or even 40. It has pre-eminently to do with 50 . . . .

AB W. H. Auden said that no matter how old he got, and no matter in what company he found himself, he always felt like the youngest person there.

Alvin Balkind is Chief Curator at the Vancouver Art Gallery.


'...every occasion its own artifact. It doesn't need to go through an artifice to be something.'

RK Our physicality is such an extraordinary thing Gladys: I know the distances and the proximities between you and me, and you're not the kind of person who I, without thought, throw my arms around. There are parameters that get established in our relationships to particular people, which one essentially abides by through time. Remains, I might add, obedient to.

Gladys Hindmarch Some of the strongest images I have of you physically are of my lying in bed and your being on a chair right next to it, pulling the chair up very close to the bed. We've had many very funny conversations that way. Although we aren't being sexually intimate we are very intimate. That seems to be a good distance for the two of us. There's always the distance, it's created by how relaxed each of us is.

RK That's perfectly true, Gladie, and I've got to add here, curiously, that I thought of it as a bestowal of a confidence in me on your part. My own impulse was to honour that. I never had an impulse to jump into bed with you, even though you were only a foot away. Maybe it's that early Gospel Hall Fundamentalist thing working through me — a sense of honour. Ha! It's precisely when I've violated it that I've felt most miserable.

Gerry Gilbert A sense of art.

RK Art and honour? I don't know about honour but art is the instance of an actual communication you can walk away with. It's something given which you didn't have before. The meaning, the communication, is in the actuality of what's literally happened at that moment. It's art as it is, every occasion its own artifact. It doesn't need to go through an artifice to be something. Ideally . . . .

I've been trying to remember when I had the first real sensation of an acute pain in my life. It goes all the way back to my childhood: pain is an actual physical and psychic threshold I touched a long time ago and I know it deeply in myself. One is given, through whatever traumas they have in their life, to coming back and having a recognition of that, that deep hurt. Some of us find ourselves into something deeper than we would've wanted and in the act of extricating ourselves, really get hurt.

GH I'm curious about illness, as a time when you have that body-state to think in other modes. Were you sick as a child, for quite a while?

RK When I was very young I had my back burned, from the back of my head to my ankles. There were skin grafts, etc. My mother burning both hands putting out the fire, me. Her interminable year attending to a child in a delirium of pain, moving him from bed to bed, turning him over, changing his bandages, peeing him, etc. That pain became some sort of a threshold in my life, and I see that I've been there many times since in different ways.

I've been looking at my poems again — I might as well as I've been examining everything else retrospectively — and I see now I was writing poems ten years ago I literally didn't know the meanings of. I'm thinking about the poems in Nevertheless These Eyes. I thought I knew what was happening, or I thought that the poems would tell me what they were about. But no — they took on a shape / a content that I wasn't aware of at the time of their writing, etc. I can see quite clearly now that I was trying to tell a mythology centred on a goddess-figure. In the key poem, 'The Visitation', the actual physical form of the goddess is a woman I had fallen in love with. I was fascinated by her, haunted by her. Everything I have made has an intricate connection to the very fabric of my life. And I see now how a poem uses the real only to propose something other than that. Another order of the real.

I've been talking about two things which I want to bring together for you. One is that whole dimension of pain, the actual pain, in the flesh of the world. And the other is the notion of a mythology centred on a goddess — or muse-figure. How they come together in N.T.E. is that my own childhood pain, the remembrance of it, up until this very moment, the accretions, if you will, becomes the most noticeable attribute of my poem's goddess. She is the scarred one. Her whole credibility is in precisely that fact. She's been shat on, kicked in the teeth, raped, thoroughly abused. But her total credibility consists in the fact that she is therefore more than beautiful. Her beauty has compassion etched in it. It's her pre-eminent quality. I can see this quite clearly now. I couldn't then.

But the true woman behind the goddess of the poem is my older sister, Mariko. It's through her telling me in 1963 of her wartime experiences that I was given an early intimation. She is the true image in the human sense precisely because she doesn't wear a mask. Her pain is never apparent, it's a deep thing within, through which she has been given her own absolute recognitions of the world. She is a medium for the real and a very deep woman in my life.

Gladys Hindmarch is a writer.


'The essential condition of an artist is to be lean in the world ....'

Taki Bluesinger If Roy and I want to do something together, the easiest and most interesting idea would be to go to Japan together.

RK The first week I'm there I won't be able to say anything, because every time I open my mouth I'll think that Taki is going to laugh at my Japanese.

TB In Japan, Roy would have to ask me a lot.

RK And the point is, I will — but Taki doesn't ask me very much about being here. We don't have much to do with each other. We see each other a few times a year, and never intentionally . . . .

GG Taki, your coming to Canada after having finished school has meant that you have avoided being taught art by Roy; and Roy, your form of collaboration has been your teaching.

TB Yes, exactly. When I talk to Roy just like I talk to you, Gerry, Syuzo gets uptight, because for him Roy is a master.

RK Syuzo Fujimoto is the most recent artist I've worked with. I've worked with many others. Chris Hayward helped me to make the fibreglass sculptures in Montreal. Gerry and I worked together on the 'artscanadafloat', BC Monthly. Maurice Joslin and I worked and lived together in the early 60s, etc. Syuzo helped me on the Expo 70 Osaka sculpture and the Cedar-Laminates. Syuzo's relationship to me was of someone who had just graduated from art school working with someone who had been making things for a number of years. It's a very traditional relationship that he understood. I mean, Kyoto is full of such relationships.

TB I have someone from Japan doing my assistant job now. We get a project to do, he sets all the equipment up and hands me the camera. I say, 'No, you did everything else, why don't you take the picture too, and print it?' And he can't believe it. 'Me?' he says. He's just out of school in Japan and his skill and technique are expert, but he has really gotten confused here. I want to collaborate. It doesn't matter if it's his name or my name on the work my name is not that heavy yet. It's better if he gets a chance. I said to him that we should have a show together, but his mind is completely unready for that. I asked him what pictures he's been taking since he's been here, and he has nothing to show. He is used to being told what to do.

RK The way I teach is to give the best students — and it's always the best, really, who can do anything with it — the competence to be absolutely themselves, at all times, and to be singular rather than collaborative, because that's the way I grew up. It was always the image of the solitary painter doing his thing. If a collaboration happens it's because I have established a very particular relationship with another human, etc. In Japan, teaching is very hierarchical.

GG The teacher works on the thing with the person.

RK I tend to work on the person, or through the person - to the images. I think of the artist the photographer, the poet, the painter, the musician, the dancer . . .

TB It's interesting that you counted the poet on your missing finger!

RK (It should have been my longest finger!) . . . everyone of them, one way or another, is an image-maker. For myself, the recognition of certain kinds of images is very important my whole life is about that. I'll go out and pay ten dollars to hear a concert if I can get 30 seconds of astonishment, or I'll buy the glossy magazine I'm thumbing through at the corner drugstore if there's an image in it that turns me on, etc. The image is valuable to me in that way, but it hasn't a value larger than that. I'm talking about utterly personal recognitions, in and of the world, and I don't give a damn if it means anything to someone else . . . .

TB I asked some sculptors at the Stone Symposium whether they found the stone first or the idea first, and they said 'Both.' I think that's right.

RK Yes.

Taki, we are the complement of each other. I was born here, and I reached through the North American experience for the Orient, and you do exactly the opposite. We are the two sides of the Japanese in the world today.

TB When you were in your late twenties or early thirties, did you still have a consciousness of being Japanese?

RK Yes and no. I didn't really know it till I was fifteen. It didn't matter. I thought of myself as just another Canadian boy, etc. World War II ended that, that innocence, painfully. Since then I have been both, concurrently. Japanese was my first language. I learned English on the streets of East Calgary.

TB Until I came to Canada I had no consciousness of being Japanese, because Japanese are everywhere in Japan.

RK Coming from Tokyo to Vancouver — the coolest place in the world! Vancouver is like Kyoto.

TB Here I've found that the biggest gap between person and person is the space gap, like between freak and not-freak. In Japan, artists and business people fit in very well together. But they've got a time gap, the generation gap. And maybe you and I scare each other a little bit, Roy, just as with Syuzo.

RK Syuzo, as a more traditional-minded Japanese, accepted me as a more experienced older brother or teacher. But you, Taki, have rejected that possibility. It's that hierarchical thing again — I'm older than you, that's all, and you won't genuflect whereas Syuzo will, as it were.

GG Are you interested in there being a hierarchy here in ten thousand years?

RK In my imagination, there are those who have accomplished things that I truly admire. They are the ones who constitute a hierarchy above myself. Though I would quickly add that they are all around me. But the contrary is also true in that I also have a basic belief in a proletarian art. Like everybody is an image-maker and does have to find his images, etc. But everybody is not equal in their image-making abilities. Not because I say so nobody makes those kinds of decisions for another. The essential condition of an artist is to be lead in the world, to retain his agilities.

GG Zen.

Taki Bluesinger is an artist.


'... you want to do this thing that existed prior to it all.'

RK I want the whole thing, rather than being always the contrary to something, or having something always be the contrary to myself . . . .

The treachery of being a civilized man today is how is it possible to go through the drag of civilization, carrying the burden of it on your back, and still postulate for yourself that you want to do this thing that existed prior to it all? I'm talking about primitive in the sense that any person any place in time can know ....

Jock Hearn I tried to get back to the basic elements. I did a lot of direct drawing from stuff varying from Egyptian art through Melanesian through Sumerian and so on and what struck me was that the closer you got to the basic primeval forms the more strength of expression there was. It's like Malraux said, that the African sculptor derived the spirit antelope from the animal's essential geometry, not the reverse. He doesn't distort the antelope, like the European artist very often does. That's what I found when I was interested in Cubism: it wasn't analytical Cubism, the breakdown of forms — but rather it was synthetic Cubism, where something was being built out of a kind of geometry, which I saw existing in a lot of so-called primitive art. Power of expression resulted from basic formal means, the work being brought just as far as the artist wanted to take it out of the primal forms. If the works remained in the primal form they would be non-objective; perhaps becoming symbolic as they began to take on some reference to actual objects.

RK I like Paul Wong's [proprietor of Bau-Xi Gallery] sense of abstract art. He says it is an attempt to make a sign of the emptiness that is at the back of the head. His notion is that a visual artist working with abstract ideas must give, however futile the act may seem, some signification of the reality of that domain which is in fact unspeakable. Like you can't get a handle on it, but you are nonetheless a witness, etc.

I think that all of the signs and symbols we are a witness to are fundamentally primal images. Through time we play infinite variations on them but at the deepest level they are primal, signifying things that existed prior to language.

JH I'll tell you briefly what I encountered in the course of having spent a good many years in a discipline of steady meditation. The first thing — and I think the really key thing, not only from my own experience but from what I've heard from others who have done the same thing; and not only in this particular tradition, but in a number of other possibly related ones — the first thing is that thinking gets cut. The first time I ever had a profound experience of this, what I noticed particularly was that the mind suddenly stopped. It went, 'kaaa!' It stopped totally, with no inner buzz at all. No thinking. No sound. The background, the 'crazy radio' some people have called it, that chatter in your head, absolutely stopped. And then the thing I was looking at was shown in naked confrontation, as it were, a bare reality, in front of me. It was very remarkable. I felt so moved by it, it was as if I had been struck dumb. It seemed to come at the same time speech was finished, when there was no more saying anything. This lasted for several minutes. It wasn't hallucinatory in the sense of something appearing in a supernatural or visionary way: it was just a group of trees. But it had such a remarkable quality, as if a previous veil had been ripped off it. I knew something which I couldn't describe, a direct knowing — AHA! — and nothing could be said but there it was ....

GG Is a painting a holding onto something?

RK No it can't, finally. No, not really.

JH I think the painting itself is a surprise to the painter, when it's finished. It has its own life.

RK If it doesn't in someway astonish you in what it reveals of and through itself, then you haven't made a painting. You have simply copied some tracing that you are already familiar with in your mind.

Jock Hearn is a Korean Zen Buddhist priest.

artscanada #202/203, winter 1975-76

Text: © Gerry Gilbert. All rights reserved.

The Centre for Contemporary Canadian Art
The Canadian Art Database: Canadian Writers Files

Copyright ©1997, 2020. The CCCA Canadian Art Database. All rights reserved.