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James Reid (1941-       )

James (Jamie) Reid was born in Timmins Ontario on April 10, 1941.

"Earliest memories of the forest and mountains around Banff. Became an urbanite at the age of seven when my mother moved our family to Edmonton, and have remained an urbanite since. My first experience with poetry was on my mother's knee. She used to recite from memory to me. Her favorites were The Ancient Mariner, Horatius at the Bridge, Casey at the Bat, and The Cremation of Sam McGee. I loved the Ancient Mariner and its weird language ('Unhand me, greybeard loon!').

      Wrote my first short story in Grade 3 about Cowboy Bob, who unaccountably rode off into the sunset one day and was never seen again. Then there was that lion that slithered away into the jungle foliage.

      The first poems I remember writing came when I was in Grade 13 at King Edward High School in Vancouver. They were both political - one for the Cuban Revolution, one for Boris Pasternak. I won a prize that year for poetry, and my poems were published in the school's annual. This was the only prize I ever won, except for the one I won at the age of twelve for reciting Bliss Carman's 'Bloodroot' in an elocution contest sponsored by the Edmonton YMCA. In those days, I would have preferred to be a football player.

      When I escaped high school and went to UBC, I met up with Warren Tallman and the boys who later became the TISH poets and through them learned most of what I knew about poetry.

      My first book, The Man Whose Path Was On Fire, sponsored by a Canada Council grant, was published in 1969 by the then fledgling Talonbooks. By that time I was already embroiled in politics, two years after Jack Spicer had told me, during a seminar in Vancouver, that everything in life was connected in one way or another with politics. The first time that I ever had any sense that I had found a poetic method of my own was when I wrote the poem called 'Saturna Island as Vietnam', subsequently published in New Wave Canada (1966).

      After nearly twenty years of writing nothing but political cant, I returned to the West Coast, and private life, and published Prez: Homage to Lester Young (Oolichan, 1994).

      My third and final book so far, Mad Boys, was published by Coach House Books in 1997.


I became a poet because I couldn't be anything else. I was born colour-deficient in both eyes, tone deaf in at least one ear, and flat in both feet. I couldn't paint, I couldn't play music and I couldn't be an athlete or a dancer. I needed a fast tongue to overcome the slowness of my other faculties. I learned to speak before I was twelve months old. My aunts and all my relatives recognized I had the gift of the gab when they noted that I was saying 'engine,' 'boxcar' and 'caboose' while the other kids my age were still saying 'choo-choo'. This poor little idiot had to grow up to be a poet or maybe a lawyer. I knew the names of things even if I couldn't figure out how they worked.

      My mother began my training: as I sat rapt beside her, she would charmingly recite Horatius at the Bridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and Casey at the Bat, and sometimes The Cremation of Sam McGhee. I was always impressed with the way that The Ancient Mariner fixed his eye on the wedding guest: 'He holds him with his glittering eye / The Wedding Guest stood still.' This story of sin without redemption appealed to me tremendously. The Ancient Mariner seems to me now a closer role model than either Horatius or Casey. Now he could get people to pay attention.

      When I was a teenager in King Edward High School in the fifties, I didn't know that people who weren't sissies still wrote poetry. One day a councillor read all of Earle Birney's David around the camp-fire at Camp Howdy and made me weep. Just as the hand of The Ancient Mariner gripped the wrist of the helpless wedding guest, the rich language of that poem gripped my young consciousness. I decided and vowed I must try to become a poet.

      My earliest public life began in Banff, Alberta, where, as a six-year old, I joined a sleigh race, uninvited, in my own neighbourhood. I was mystified: why was everyone shouting at me as I fled down the slope on my sleigh? Though I finished dead last in the heat, my name was nevertheless the only one mentioned in the Calgary papers which recorded the event the following day. I have never recovered from the thrill of seeing my own name in print. A certain genius for publicity continues to haunt me to this day.

      When I first came to Vancouver from Edmonton as a thirteen year old, I organized and coached one of the very first bantam football teams the city had ever seen. I was a spectacular success -- at the end of our final game of the season (the only one we ever lost), the entire team jumped me, took off my pants, and hung them on the goalposts as a memorial.

      At the University of British Columbia, I met Warren Tallman and the boys who later became the TISH poets.

      In the latter half of the 1960s I won my fifteen minutes of local fame: I became known as the organizer of Vancouver's first Human Be-In, in imitation of an event in San Francisco where the great poet Allen Ginsberg had presided. When I stood in front of the Parks Board commission in my hippie's flowered shirt to ask their permission to hold the event, the stiff-faced commissioners were not at all impressed. They told me the event would only be held, over their dead bodies. I told them I couldn't prevent the event from happening even if I wanted to, and I really couldn't. It happened in spite of all of us, but they survived and so did I. During the 1960s, I lived in a house on West Pender with a spectacular view overlooking Coal Harbour, Stanley Park and the North Shore mountains. I sometimes paid $60 a month for rent, and sometimes didn't. Today the rent for the buildings on that spot must be nearer to $60 a day. There were many parties there, attended by many local and international poets and artists, and many intoxicating substances were there consumed, and in 1963, many famous North American poets visited the place. During those years, I somehow managed to complete a degree at U.B.C., where I majored in personal chaos. Along with the Tish poets and others, I learned what I could about the art of poetry.

      By 1967 I was ready to withdraw to the countryside in the Okanagan where I wrote my first book of poems with the aid of a Canada Council grant. The Man Whose Path Was on Fire was published in 1969 by Talonbooks, now a respected local publisher, then an upstart fledgling. Subsequently, my old high school burned right down to the ground. Later still, the house by Fish Creek near Summerland where I wrote the book also burned down, shortly after being occupied by Pat Lane, another B.C. poet. None of this was what I wanted or expected when I named the book, but I do believe that poetry inherits the kind of truth that appears mostly by accident and unbidden.

      Because I came to believe, in the political atmosphere of the 1960s, that in order to be true to itself poetry had to involve itself in human politics, I travelled to central Canada and became a fierce communist for almost twenty years. I ran for the House of Commons at least three times, winning a total of just under 400 votes. I went to prison as many times, allegedly for assaulting policemen. I was so much smaller and thinner then than now, I must have been much braver, if we are to believe the police. In jail and on the hustings I learned many secret matters about the workings of our Canadian democracy which otherwise I might have never known.

      I finally resigned from politics and wrote a second little book called Prez: Homage to Lester Young, which was published by Oolichan in 1994. Coach House Books in Toronto published Mad Boys in 1997.

      For the last four or five years I have been indulging my taste for Dadaism and literary anarchism by publishing a magazine of local and international avant garde writing called DaDaBaBy. In a city which pays its hockey players five and six million dollars a year, DaDaBaBy, a merely cultural entity, was left to starve -- one of the many reasons why I continue to believe that contemporary economic and political arrangements need to be radically disrupted and rearranged. All my poetic activity is directed toward that end.

      The curiously named B.C. Ministry of Small Business, Tourism and Culture gave me $5000 two years ago to work on my current book of poems and memoirs about Vancouver poets and poetry. I am still trying to break through to a new poetics that became required during my twenty years of absence from poetry in politics. One day I hope to write a poem or a book that will hold everyone's attention and finally perhaps redeem my life on earth.

      Jamie Reid, September 1999