An Interview with B.W. Powe

Michael W. Higgins and John S. Porter interviewed Bruce W. Powe on August 22, 1996 in Hamilton, Ontario.

Grail - Bruce, you have been called a visionary writer. Is that a useful tag to pin on your work? And as a follow-up to that, what in your mind is visionary writing? Is it an attitude? Is it a style?

Bruce W. Powe - The second question is easier to answer than the first. The first response I would have is that it’s not a label that I would use for myself. Those are things that other people have said. I think it comes in part from the fact my books are difficult to classify. Nobody knows how to categorize them. Nobody knows quite what they are. You know, fiction and non-fiction; they mix poetry and prose; they mix speculation, philosophy. The books are surges, they emerged from necessity, from a very intense engagement with the subject. They tend to be extremely charged. So people call my work visionary because I think there is an attempt in the books to break through to some kind of language that really communicates in a different way. Each book is quite different from the other because I think there is a kind of radical transformation going on in each book, a kind of re-evaluation going on in each book. As for whether - “are they visionary works?” - I think there is more and more in my work, and it’s clearer in Outage than in anything else that I’ve done, an attempt to break through into language that illuminates and of vision that brings insight. Some kind of grasping of the hidden harmonies at work in the world…

Post modernism,
so far as I
understand it,
seems to be most
with the idea of

And that leaves the other question about visionary literature. Many of my favourite writers, Blake and others, are called visionaries. Blake was very explicit about being one and saying that he lived by insight and imagination. And insight and imagination then lead to a transformed and transcendent way of looking at things. Which is an experience of all life being permeated by vision, by light, by energy, by spirit that is greater than ourselves. And I think there are certain kinds of writers, certain kinds of visionary writers like Kierkegaard and Blake, who break literary forms in order to find some new way of describing and evoking that experience of raw vision, of raw insight. And these writers don’t fit; they never seem to fit in any kind of tradition, even though you can talk about Swedenborg with Blake and all the mystics. There are all kinds of things in the Romantic tradition that obviously fit with Blake. There are other visionary writers in the 20th century. Milosz, Czeslaw Milosz, is a writer I admire very much and Visions from San Francisco Bay is a wonderful visionary book. Would he have accepted the term of visionary? I don’t know. I think what he was doing was probing — pushing the limits of his form, trying to find it. I guess another thing too is we’re very uneasy now talking about the imagination. Post modernism, so far as I understand it, seems to be most uncomfortable with the idea of imagination. And when you are dealing with what you call visionary literature, I think what you are really looking at is literature that exalts the imagination over all other kinds of considerations and the imagination is connected to the infinite and the spiritual.

G. - You seem uncomfortable with the term “visionary” applied to your own work.

If there is no reader
for the literature,
then you are an

B. P. - I am not uncomfortable with the idea of declaring that for myself. Kafka, for example, has been called a prophet. One of the great 20th century prophets. But very clearly in all his writings and his letters he pushes that away. And yet he talks like a mystic taking on the darkness of the age within himself in order to write about it and cleanse it and purify it and I think in many ways in the writers that I admire — and Kafka would be another — this attempt to take on the light and dark of the age is for me what is essential.

G. - But I think that is also a religious undertaking…

B. P. - Of course it is. And I think that is one of the realizations that is beginning to unfold in my work quite mysteriously. If you had done this interview with me two years ago, I don’t think that I would have been able to say explicitly that there is clearly a spiritual unfolding going on and, indeed, the new work that I am planning, the trilogy The Forking of the Ways, explores that even more directly. I don’t think if you look for that kind of charge you would see it necessarily. Perhaps in bits and pieces. Maybe in some of the desperation that underlies The Solitary Outlaw. The final declaration at the end “Are you there, are you there, are you there?” is not only a cry out for the other, a cry out for the reader, but it is also a spiritual cry. And I didn’t realize that so much at the time. It’s a cry out for love; it’s also a cry out for an understanding reader. If there is no reader for the literature, then you are an outlaw. You are on your own. Who are you speaking to? Then you are in a void. And I think what happened at the end — unknown to myself in some ways, was this crying out, and I think the other books A Tremendous Canada of Light and Outage, which I see as twins, as it were — were attempts to explore what was in that void.

G. - Is that a religious undertaking in its own way or does it have theological ramifications for you? Kierkegaard, for example, works with his own theology in addition to…

I think I’m
a theology
for myself. I’m
to feel that.

B. P. - As did Blake.

G. - Exactly. Do you see yourself undertaking the same kind of thing?

B. P. - Yes. I think I’m reinventing a theology for myself. I’m beginning to feel that. Yes, I believe that so many of my interests are eschatological. Even a split in the work between Apocalypse and Metamorphosis, which is a very deep and real question to any religious sensibility, is a central one to me. But I think I’m also inventing, reinventing, rediscovering a theology for myself. I was not raised in a religious family. Quite the opposite, in fact. I did not grow up in my teenage years in any kind of religion. I have always felt that there was something in my life that was stronger and greater than what I am. But there have been many periods in my life when I did not know what that meant and avoided it, resisted it and eluded it. Now I’m seeing that it is the core of what I’m about, and I think Outage ends on that note.

G. - In The Solitary Outlaw, Bruce, you look at five visionaries: Trudeau, Lewis, Gould, McLuhan, and Canetti.

B. P. - Yes, I suppose you could argue that this very choice of the people tips the hat, doesn’t it? I mean, they are all visionaries to one degree or another.

G. - Yes, and it seems that some of the most powerful books written in this country have come out of what we could call visionary literature. They’ve been in non-fiction as opposed to fiction or poetry. I wonder if you could comment on why you think that’s happened in our culture, that some of the strongest visions have not come through story or poem but through spiritual investigation or philosophical inquiry.

They would go in
directions that I
could not control and
I’ve learned enough
about my own work
to know that if I try
to control it, then I
stop, paralyze myself
and I cannot go on.

B. P. - Well, it’s a question that certainly perplexes me because again Outage is not a book that necessarily can be defined as a novel. It has all kinds of things going on in it. And so people have struggled to say what kind of book it is, and in many ways it breaks the rules, breaks down barriers and tries to move into new forms. I should say explicitly that one of the reasons that happened was that I kept trying to write a conventional novel. I have always tried to write my books in a conventional way. I always started off with the idea that I wanted to be accessible to the common reader. What I always set out to do was to try and communicate as directly as possible. But what would always happen is that the books would explode on me. They would go in directions that I could not control and I’ve learned enough about my own work to know that if I try to control it, then I stop, paralyze myself and I cannot go on. So I have to let my books move in whatever direction possible. So it seems to me that a lot of visionary literature — the great visionary literature we’ve already talked about whether that of Blake or Kierkegaard or Whitman or others — has always had to invent form for itself. And it seems to me that a lot of the literature in Canada, very good literature in poetry and fiction, is conventional literature. I mean, it accepts the conventions. And that in fact can be very good. With Alice Munro for example, it’s chamber music and it’s very good chamber music, but it accepts the structure of chamber music and it will never go beyond that. Personally I find her work terribly claustrophobic because the spiritual breakthrough is not in that work. You are always stuck with these people in their neuroses and she describes them with exquisite precision and with a kind of Flaubertian cynicism, I think, behind it all. And you need that. Hers is a literature of exposure rather than of consolation or healing. But it seems to me that a lot of the visionary literature you talk about in Canada, particularly in McLuhan and Innis, in Arthur Kroker and in some of R. Murray Shafer’s writings — comes from isolation. And again, Canada is a country that is open to reverie. And I think that reverie permits exploration. But it also permits, or introduces rather, the idea or necessity of breaking the barriers, of breaking the bonds, that you cannot write in the old ways. Now, I think every country struggles for a national literature. They all struggle for a voice that comes from where they are and what they have experienced. Canada is still a very young country. We’re still very much experiencing and exploring many of the things that will either make us or break us. There is a literature that has already been inherited, and there is obviously a literature of exploration. I think a lot of the visionary literature comes from being receptive to the possibilities of a country where there is solitude and reverie. And McLuhan and Innis and Grant and all these people were in many ways extremely isolated people, and I think their visionary qualities come from that in part and from their kind of interior imaginative world.

Canada is a
country that is
open to reverie.

G. - Are you still seeing Canada as one of the few countries left in the world where the interior life can thrive?

B. P. - It’s not a country that is completely devoted to commercial spectacle, and most of the Western societies have gone that way.

G. - You call Trudeau and company solitary outlaws.

B. P. - If they were married they’d be solitary in-laws…

G. - Are you a solitary outlaw?

I think McLuhan is a
deeply contradictory
figure which I think
is good but I think he
had an orthodox
Christian life. I think
he had a completely
unorthodox, possible
heretical, “small c”
catholic imagination.

B. P. - I guess you’d have to ask my neighbours. I have a great love for privacy, a great love for solitude. I need long periods alone to meditate, reflect, think. I need to have the noise stilled around me so I can contemplate and dream and write. I don’t know whether I would dignify what I do with an outlaw standing. Someone called McLuhan a rogue intellectual, and what I think that means, to a certain extent, is that even though he was in the university, he was not of the university. I feel to a certain extent the same way in that I am in these institutions but I’m not necessarily of them. I have a certain stubbornness, pride, a certain amount of arrogance, a certain amount of determination to find out things in my own way and also beat a path that is my own. There is nothing else that you can do about it. At a certain point, you just realize you’re on a path by yourself and you either decide to go on with it or you don’t. Am I a solitary outlaw? Well, I could say I was the marshal. I ran all the others out of town.

G. - Something which seems to me that you’re trying to explore and explode is the conventional McLuhan. But he was utterly orthodox.

B. P. - I would disagree with that. you see I think there is a great contradiction in McLuhan. I think McLuhan is a deeply contradictory figure which I think is good but I think he had an orthodox Christian life. I think he had a completely unorthodox, possibly heretical, “small c” catholic imagination. I think they were at odds with each other. And having been a student of his and watched him at work I can attest to the fact that he would frequently spew things. This was the source of the comment about his being a Delphic oracle. That he would simply start talking, and it was spontaneous and random and digressive. What he seemed to do was allow forces to speak through him. I’ve regarded him for a long time as a mantric thinker. I think he was radically at odds with his Catholic background.

G. - How do you figure that?

…he needed the
Catholic tradition
and structure in
order not to go mad.

B. P. - Because I think he needed the Catholic tradition and structure in order not to go mad. This was a man who was beginning to see a great deal of the madness in the age…

G. - Do you think he was also a mystic?

B. P. - I think very much so. And I think that what reconciles the marriage of heaven and hell for him is his mysticism. And that the mysticism anchored him. I think there’s a deeply paradoxical side of McLuhan which has not been fully explored. That paradoxical side is this split where on one side he anchored himself with a thoroughly traditional Catholic background and another side of him was visionary, was breakthrough thinker, was iconoclastic, was smashing things up, was trying to find ways to say things that no one had said before, was saying things that no one had said before. And I think it came in spite of himself.

G. - I think that is very good. I think McLuhan is engaged in a kind of Blakean task as is Thomas Merton. These thinkers have to root themselves in a conservative Catholicism, in part to keep the madness out but also to ground their visionary Catholicism because the doctrine is a slippery thing.

B. P. - It is. Well, I am a great fan of Merton, a great lover of Merton’s work. Merton has become extremely important to me recently. I think Merton is another visionary writer. I think he is another one who does not fit very well. His literature, his poetry, his philosophy, his speculation, his autobiography, his memoirs, all kids of things mixed together but primarily he is a very great visionary artist. But there is a severe and powerful split in his work between the orthodox and the political radical, which is one of the things I find most seductive and attractive about him. One of the things I did not find seductive and attractive about McLuhan was his political conservatism. Yet at the same time McLuhan was a great supporter of Trudeau and was ostensibly a liberal. So, there are all these kinds of seemingly irreconcilable strands in his work. I mean on one side during the fifties, I believe, he and Innis fell out over a discussion of the Spanish Civil War where to Innis’ horror — Innis being quite a leftist — McLuhan supported Franco and the Right because of his Catholic background, and Innis, I believe, never spoke to him again after that. Being around McLuhan was fascinating because he was a poet. I think of poet in its root sense meaning seer, visionary. He broke through into a new kind of language where the imagination was driving him. And once the imagination becomes the key, you begin to transcend normal categories and single vision and begin to see things as wholes and contraries. As Merton himself says, the key to the universe is the harmony of contraries, which is a Blakean notion again. No structuralist or deconstructionist is thinking right now that there is a place for the visionary or the transcendent. But they’re all wrong. They’re on the wrong track.

No structuralist or
deconstructionist is
thinking right now
that there is a place
for the visionary or
the transcendent.
But they’re all
wrong. They’re on
the wrong track.

G. - Well, I agree with you.

B. P. - You know, just because we didn’t get anywhere doesn’t mean the journey wasn’t interesting. But Derrida and Foucault and all these people simply are on the wrong track. They’ve asked some very good questions. They were questions that simply had to be asked and I think that a lot of the things that Derrida asked, particularly about the split between the oral and print, are important questions. There is a obscurantist side to Derrida, however, which is conveniently overlooked by a lot of deconstructionists because I think he’s much subtler than they often think.

G. - He’s less sure.

B. P. - Yes, and I rather like that. I think it’s civilized to be that uncertain. I’ve met him once, and I thought he was very charming and very funny which is something that I don’t think comes across in his writings.

In one of her recent books Linda Hutcheon, the University of Toronto professor, dismissed my work utterly as neurotic and subjective. I was going to write her a note and say thank you!

All right, okay. You deconstruct, and deconstruct, and put the irony in and you satirize and you parody and you destroy and you break down, but then you come to the zeroing. Boy! you better be honest when you get to that zero! And then they think that they are being courageous. Have a look at Rimbaud who was honest and went to become a gun runner because he understood if you come to that zero point you stop.

Having been
suspended over the
zero most of my life
I can tell you what
you do.

G. - Not one of the deconstructionists that I know in the academy has ever touched zero base.

B. P. - Well, having been suspended over the zero most of my life I can tell you what you do.

G. - They wouldn’t know the still point either.

B. P. - No. And that’s what one finds or one struggles to find. Is the still point in that… Well, let’s first of all… it’s hard to communicate with anybody when you’re trying to go across abysses. And I think that what the deconstructionists have fundamentally misunderstood is that any communication is difficult. And so trying, trying to reach another human being, just trying to contact the soul of another human being, could take all your life. And I don’t see that what they’re asking is the right question. Chris Dewdney did a review of Outage recently and said my work is among the only work in the country that is truly mystical. And I asked him why he said that and he said, “Well, you’re struggling to that. You’re moving towards it.” I don’t know whether a literary artist can ever be a true mystic because there is always the struggle with form, and as long as that’s the case there is always going to be a material argument that as a literary artist is moot. I think you might go beyond, you’d have to go beyond that and do something else. If I had another incarnation I would make it of service, not of writing. I don’t believe there is such a thing as judgment. The God that I believe in is not one that damns. If you have children, the first thing that you see is that their soul is fresh and true. No God I think would ever judge that. We judge ourselves and whatever hell we make is the one we make on our own.

I don’t know whether
a literary artist can
ever be a true mystic
because there is
always the struggle
with form, and as
long as that’s the
case there is always
going to be a
material argument.

G. - I didn’t believe in judgment until I became a dean.

B. P. - Well, grading and judgment are two different things.

G. - They are.

B. P. - But I do believe, if I were given the choice, I don’t know whether I would come back as a literary artist. It would be to come back to be of service. If my writing is regarded as visionary, it’s because I think what people respond to and see is the terrible struggle to try and break through to something. Not only to the reader but to some essence, to some core of meaning. My work assumes meaning so there is faith. But it also struggles for meaning and a friend of mine, a new friend, just finished reading Outage and she said it was unnerving. I asked why and she said: “Because it’s so raw.” And I said that is what I intended, and she said most people just don’t want to get that raw. They don’t want the nerve ends exposed. But in a sense, I think it is essential for me as a writer, as an artist, as someone who is beginning to feel that the real core of my work is theological.

G. - In that sense, doing constructionist reading is very interesting. Are you familiar with the work of Tim Lilburn?

B. P. - No.

G. - He’s doing very much the same kind of thing to understand transcendence in his poetry that you’re doing in your own prose experiments in fiction and non-fiction. His work is influenced by Dennis Lee and more particularly by Margaret Avison. So there is a group I think that is beginning to make these serious explorations you are speaking about.

The desert
is the desert.

B. P. - It’s difficult because the soil is not always very fertile for this and not always very nurturing for this. But, on the other hand, perhaps the soil shouldn’t be. You just simply have to grow where you are and that’s that.

G. - The desert is the desert.

B. P. - And for some people there is only the desert.

G. - That’s right.

B. P. - I actually think that one of the things that happens with a certain kind of writing, and I believe it happens with mine, is that it actually puts people off and in some way scares them. I don’t think they want to deal with things. One has to, one has to approach a strong work with openness, with a kind of humility, with a kind of receptivity. And I think one has to be willing to receive something.

G. - Well, you know, when I read your work, what I find is that the Blakean and Merton parallels can be found not only with your interest in the imagination but with your interest in religion, in spirituality and politics. They are of a piece.

The reason why there
is madness in our
system right now is
because economics is
now the only driving

B. P. - In a revised version of A Tremendous Canada of Light which will be out shortly, one of the things I say is that for me the point of politics is to create a political system that honours the soul. But to me if you degrade the soul, dishonour the soul, dishonour the person, degrade the person, whether you are a government of the left or of the right, you are corrupt. If politics, art, commerce, culture, society are all moving together, or have the possibility of coming together, it is to exalt and honour the soul.

We are in a system right now that is literally unbalanced. That’s why it’s mad. The reason why there is madness in our system right now is because economics is now the only driving force. Economics has always been there and should be there. But it is not being balanced by a countering energy, a countering spiritual question.

G. - There is no equilibrium.

B. P. - There is no equilibrium so the result is elemental injustice. We have a system on fire, and well, there are all kinds of fire. As Heraclitus would say, there is a fire of the spirit, a fire of sexual desire, a fire of electrical energies in the universe. There are all kinds of fire. The fire of economics right now is the heat of the age and what has happened is because the left has essentially dissolved and the Marxist critique has been overturned, there is no alternative. There is nothing to counterbalance all of this. I don’t necessarily believe that a Marxist government would ever do better. In fact, historical evidence points to the opposite … that they didn’t do better. But, to establish, to elevate the market to a first principle which is what has happened, is to put chaos above everything. And chaos without the tension with order, or without the tension of critique, without the tension of kindness, is madness. We are living in a literally mad age as a result.

We are living in a mad age. The imagination does not separate. It always unifies. And the imagination must take in economies and politics. I don’t think politics is above imagination. Politics is a subsection of the imagination. And if one is imagining how the world is and could be, one must see politics within that context. I made the comment earlier that the deconstructionist generation has exalted ideology over imagination. That equation is the wrong order it seems to me. They’re not wrong in asking political questions — not at all. But what they have done is taken those as the only questions and I think that’s wrong — or the wrong track anyway.

Politics is a
subsection of the

G. - What does the religious establishment do with your work?

B. P. - I don’t know.

G. - They haven’t recognized you yet?

B. P. - I don’t think so, because my work is unfolding, because the religious content, the theological content, the content of love and union in the world, a search for those, for love and union and connection is all in the act of unfolding. I think at the end of Outage that was absolutely clear. The narrator at the end of Outage is standing on the Island of St. George which is where one of the great cathedrals is and he’s looking back and in a sense I was almost looking back on all of what I had done too.

I think all the books
I’ve written up until
this point are very
clearly books about

And there was a bit of identification going on at that moment. This is where I now am and I’m standing looking into the waves as it were. And to my mind that is now where the rest of the work is going to go. When it’s going to unfold and how it’s going to unfold, I don’t know, but I know that that’s the direction. I’ve been studying alchemy a great deal lately. It fascinates me that there are two paths that are very clearly described. One is the way of knowledge and one is the way of love. And the way of knowledge leads towards self-mastery, knowledge of the self. The way of love, which the alchemists describe as quite separate from the other, leads towards knowledge of the other and knowledge of presence, knowledge of how love is to flow. And that split, it seems to me, is the split that was in my work. I think all the books I’ve written up until this point are very clearly defined, people for whom self-knowledge was everything. Outage is a book about self-knowledge. it’s about the turbulence of knowing what the self could be. But there’s something new emerging. And I think that it is the struggle for otherness; it’s moving away from the way of knowledge towards the way of love. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know where it’s going to go. I don’t know why suddenly, here in my fortieth year, that is the path that is very clearly opening. The critique that I know must be made of society is simply that a loveless society is a murderous one. Lack of kindness in society means lack of kin, lack of connection. I may be misquoting, but who said that for him to enter the political world was to make gentle the brutal life of men? That was the reason why he did it. And it seems to me that that’s where my work is moving in Forking of the Ways. One of the reasons I cannot read a lot of contemporary literature is the lack of vision, the lack of love, the lack of need for connection, the lack of singing, the exaltation of irony and despair…

G. - The joylessness.

B. P. - The joylessness of it all, the lack of love for language, the fact that so many contemporary writers just seem to be incapable of singing.

I think spiritual and
emotional nakedness
scares people.

G. - Bruce, an observation here. When you give, you give with both hands, you give everything whether it’s in conversation or in your writing. And it also seems to me that your mode of exploration tends to be emotional. I think what I’m asking you is while that great giving is going on, that nakedness is going on, do you need to work at ways of simultaneously protecting your own soul? Is there a fear perhaps of giving yourself away? Does there need to be something within you that holds back or reserves or keeps in secret?

B. P. - Well, I think spiritual and emotional nakedness scares people. I think it’s one of the reasons my books unnerve people and why there’s resistance. It’s because they are very naked. I give myself when I teach and I give myself when I write and I try to give myself when I’m talking to people and I think it can be extremely difficult for others but it seems to me that somebody’s got to do it. It also seems that for whatever reason such is my destiny. And how do I protect myself? Well, as I get older I find I have less and less insulation. I think I had more at one time. I protect myself in part by my need for solitude, for privacy, and that is part of my protection. I must have periods alone. I protect myself by reading. That is, books become a kind of insulation. I protect myself through music which is deep listening to others. One of my favourite composers is Mahler who just gets deeper and more important to me as time goes on. I just bought a wonderful recording of Bernstein doing the Third Symphony and surely if the universe has a sound it must be a little bit like that. My children are extraordinarily important to me. I have 4-year old twins, a boy and a girl. They don’t protect you. They make you more vulnerable, but I feel like I have company. The search for love I think may unnerve others sometimes because you are asking the hard questions. You are asking hard questions all the time. I ask them of myself, all the time. How that plays out with others makes you perhaps a perpetual outsider. I think for most outsiders that the last thing they ever wanted to be was an outsider. I think the last thing that Merton ever wanted to be was outside.

assumes meaning.
Alienation is

G. - Does an outsider ever want to be an outsider?

B. P. - No. I don’t think so. There are forms of alienation that are good. Alienation assumes meaning. Alienation is important. It does exist. But that means that there’s meaning because you have to be alienated from something.

G. - Kierkegaard understood that.

B. P. - Oh! absolutely. And some kinds of alienation, as Kafka understood, one even has to cultivate in order to see and to become a seer. So, how does one live with that? I don’t know. I think one just has to be naked and one has to stand up in the fire and if that means getting burned up, then that’s the risk that you take. What I love to say is that one should never advocate anyone else doing it. That whatever road you take, it is yours and you should not ask or urge anyone else to take it, but if you do take that path, then you mark it as well as you can for others. How do you protect yourself in the midst of it all? Sometimes just laughter is a good way to do it. One of the things I find, as I get older, is that the people I’m most attracted to are the ones who can laugh. And it dawned on me recently that those who are alive are maybe outnumbered by those who are not. And therefore, those who are alive have a duty or responsibility to find each other.

  • This interview originally appeared in Grail: An Ecumenical Journal, volume 13, issue 1, March 1997.

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