FRIESEN, Patrick

Author Tags: Poetry

Born in Steinbach, Manitoba on July 5, 1946, Friesen has Mennonite roots in Northern Europe. He graduated from University of Manitoba in 1969 with B.A. (Hons.) in English Literature. He has had various jobs, including driving cab, working on a highway crew, working in a window-making factory, and teaching various levels of school. Aside from his books of poetry, he has written songs with Cate Friesen (unrelated), Big Dave McLean and Jim Donahue, written text for modern dance, written documentary film scripts and radio plays and he continues to work with improv pianist Marilyn Lerner with whom he has released a CD entitled Small Rooms. He has also worked on translations of Danish Poets, including the selected poems of Ulrikka S. Gernes, entitled A Sudden Sky (2001), co-translated with Per Brask. His book Blasphemer's Wheel received the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award in Manitoba.

Once in a rare while a jacket blurb competes for resonance with the book it endorses. Sharon Thesen describes Patrick Friesen’s creation of a soul-searching, eccentric, wild woman and trickster for his 16th book, a short history of crazy bone: long poem (Mother Tongue 2015), as “at once a performance of the archetypal feminine forever at odds with patriarchal order and a libretto for the wayward, solitary, and vulnerable spirit of art, passion and expression.”

Patrick Friesen has two adult children, Nikolaus and Marijke. He moved to Vancouver in 1996 and has since taught Creative Writing at Kwantlen University College.


A short history of crazy bone (Mother Tongue 2015) $19.95 978-­1-­896949-­49-­9
A Dark Boat (Anvil Press, 2012). $16
Earth's Crude Gravities (Harbour, 2007). 978-1-55017-399-4
A Ragged Pen: Essays on Poetry & Memory (Gaspereau, 2006). With Robert Finley, Aislinn Hunter, Jan Zwicky. $22.95. 1554470307.
Interim: Essays and Mediations (Regina: Hagios Press, 2005)
The Breath You Take From the Lord (Harbour, 2002)
Jumping in the Asylum (Quattro Books, 2001)
Carrying the Shadow (Beach Holme, 1999)
St. Mary at Main (The Muses' Company, 1998)
A Broken Bowl (Brick Books, 1997)
Blasphemer's Wheel, Selected & New (Turnstone, 1994)
You Don't Get to Be a Saint (Turnstone, 1992)
Flicker and Hawk (Turnstone, 1987)
Unearthly Horses (Turnstone, 1984)
The Shunning (Turnstone, 1980)
Bluebottle (Turnstone, 1978)
The Lands I Am (Turnstone, 1976)

Small Rooms (CD of spoken text and improv piano with Marilyn Lerner, 2003)


Shortlisted, Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize, 1998
Shortlisted, Governor General's Award for Poetry, 1997.
Winner, McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award, 1994.
Shortlisted, Milton Acorn People's Poet Award, 1996.

[BCBW 2015] "Poetry"

Carrying the Shadow (Beach Holme $12.95)

British novelist and critic B.S. Johnson once insisted that narrative poets are literary flat-earthers, that when storytelling passed on to other forms, poetry was able to get down to what it did best, the short, concentrated lyric. He was reiterating Edgar Allan Poe’s old contention that the long poem is “simply, a flat contradiction in terms.”

Imagists and minimalists did a service to poetry by ridding it of discursiveness and what Pound called “emotional slither,” but the price of this paring down was high. Robinson Jeffers called the result “poetry by amputation” and he rejected the new reductive mode, insisting on story as an essential ingredient in all writing.

I agree. I’m one of those who rejoices in the expansive mode. After espousing a tight-assed poetics for ten years, I stumbled on an interview with French author Patrick Grainville, whose novel Les Flamboyants, based on the life of an African dictator like Idi Amin, was rejected by Gallimard publishers but went on to win the Prix Goncourt.

Asked how he could write such a vast, sprawling epic in an age that valued economy and restraint, Grainville replied: “A baroque adventure novel, flamboyant, superbaroque. I’m not afraid of bad taste. It emanates a kind of jubilation, surprise and delight in style you don’t get from good taste. Sometimes I look at my excesses and I say to myself, why not? Literature is made from gifts, not refusals.”

Patrick Friesen knows something about gifts; he’s been giving us almost a book a year. His latest, Carrying the Shadow (Beach Holme $12.95), is about memory, about how to live with the dead and let them live through us.

“Memory,” he says, “is the door / left ajar.” The voice wonders “who will hold the story / of the boy gone bad.” The poet’s task is “whispering old stories,” burying and grieving and being an apologist for the dead. It’s a job of long-standing: Milton, Keats, Shelley, Yeats, all great elegists.

“Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well,” Hamlet says, holding the skull of an old friend lovingly in his hand. Hamlet, caught up in his own drama, is the prototypical elegist, lamenting those gone before, his father amongst them. Keats was “half in love with easeful death” and Beckett defined life in terms of its entrances and exits: “We give birth astride a grave.”

Friesen is no ghoul. Like Oliver Goldsmith before him in “The Deserted Village” and Edgar Lee Masters in Spoon River Anthology, he speaks for those gone to ground, giving them a memorial beyond the tombstone’s painfully cryptic notations: Wife and Mother, Husband and Father, Beloved Daughter.

Instead, he creates a song to capture something of their essence: “I bury the dead / and grieve them / and slowly / learn the stories,” he tells us, for the dead have “earned / a blackbird singing / on a fencepost.” He writes about the midwife, the crazy woman on the backroads dressed to the hilt, who mysteriously vanished, the poultryman whose task was gruesome but whose life was anything but paltry.

There’s something wondrously compulsive about Friesen’s work, an outpouring not just of poems but also of books. It would be as pointless to suggest he slow down as to tell a river to stop flowing or a blackbird to refrain from flight; it’s the flow that defines the river, the writing that keeps this flying thing aloft.

Friesen is able to joke about his own compulsiveness: “But never mind me, I like to tell stories. My daughter says the only way they’ll know I’m dead is when I stop talking. As if that will stop me.” If I have a reservation, it’s that I would like those precious bones to be given more flesh—fewer stories with more substance. I feel the loss of those whom Friesen mourns, but I don’t know any of them well enough and don’t feel the poet does either. 0-88878-401-5

by Gary Geddes

[BCBW 2000]

A Broken Bowl (Brick $12.95)

Poet and documentary filmmaker Patrick Friesen, a longtime Winnipegger, has been transplanted to Vancouver prior to the release of A Broken Bowl (Brick $12.95), his incantatory lament about the burden of history and moral decay. 0-919626-93-9

[BCBW 1997]