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.
A BIOGRAPHY: SPORT AND SEED
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
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
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