SCOBIE, Stephen

Author Tags: Literary Criticism, Poetry

Stephen Scobie was born in Carnoustie, Scotland in 1943. He gained his M.A. from the University of St. Andrews and came to Canada in 1965. In the late 1960s he managed a small Vancouver imprint called Hairy Eagle Press. He acquired his Ph.D from University of British Columbia and then taught primarily in Alberta. He received the Governor-General's Award in 1980 for his poetry collection McAlmon's Chinese Opera and the Priz Gabrielle Roy for Canadian Criticism in 1986. A founding editor of Longspoon Press, he has been co-chairperson of the League of Canadian Poets and a member of an experimental sound poetry group called Re:Sounding with Douglas Barbour. His literary criticism includes books on bp Nichol, Leonard Cohen, Sheila Watson and Bob Dylan. Formerly based in the prairies, he now teaches at UVic. He wrote The Ballad of Isabel Gunn, about a Scottish woman who disguised herself as a man in order to work in the fur trade, prior to Audrey Thomas' novel called Isobel Gunn. In McAlmon's Chinese Opera, he adopted the voice of American expatriate author Robert McAlmon. Long obsessed with Bob Dylan's music and his lyrical guises ever since he heard 'Blowin' in the Wind' in 1963, Scobie released Alias Bob Dylan on Dylan's 50th birthday, May 24, 1991. Scobie had travelled to Hibbing, Minnesota to see Robert Zimmerman's bedroom, having first written about the singer in 1965 when he sent a letter to the editor of the Glasgow Herald defending 'Bringing It All Back Home' against a hostile review. "The simple strategy of disguise by which the young Robert Zimmerman attempted to make a name for himself (literally) has turned into the lifelong core of his invention of himself," says Scobie.

The Measure of Paris (University of Alberta Press, 2010) is a series of studies of Paris as presented through the eyes and works of mostly Canadian writers including John Glassco, Mavis Gallant and Lola Lemire.

At the limit of breath: Poems on the films of Jean-Luc Godard (University of Alberta 2013) celebrates the French movie director Godard as one of the greatest film makers of his era with original poems by Scobie that respond to 44 of Godard's films from his first film Breathless, with Jean Seberg, to later works such as his documentary on the Rolling Stones.

Described as a spy novel in the tradition of John Le Carre's The Russia House, Stephen Scobie’s The Griffin in the Griffin’s Wood (Ekstasis $29.95) takes the reader to East Germany in 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A Canadian intelligence officer, Frank Carpenter, survives in an espionage jungle prior to German reunification. It’s a marked departure for Victoria-based poet and critic Stephen Scobie who plays with the genre conventions of the spy novel while convincingly portraying a critical juncture in European history.

[Author photo by Raymond St Arnaud]


The Griffin in the Griffin’s Wood (Ekstasis 2016) $29.95 978-1-77171-105-0
Stanzas (Ekstasis 2015) $23.95 978-1-77171-121-0
At the limit of breath: Poems on the films of Jean-Luc Godard (University of Alberta 2013) $19.95 978-0-88864-671-2
The Measure of Paris (University of Alberta Press, 2010). 978-0-88864-533-3 $29.95
Intricate Preparation: Writing Leonard Cohen. ECW, 2000.
And Forget My Name. Ekstasis, 1999.
Earthquakes and Explorations: Language and Painting from Cubism to Concrete Poetry. U of Toronto Press, 1997.
Gospel. Red Deer College Press, 1996.
Taking the Gate: A Journey Through Scotland. Red Deer College Press, 1996.
Willow. Reference West, 1995.
Alias Bob Dylan. Red Deer College Press, 1991.
Remains. Red Deer College Press, 1990.
Signature, Event, Cantext. New West, 1989.
Dunino. Signal, 1989.
The Ballad of Isabel Gunn. Quarry, 1987.
bpNichol: What History Teaches. Talonbooks, 1984.
Expecting Rain. Oolichan, 1984.
Sheila Watson. ECW Press. 1984.
McAlmon's Chinese Opera, 1979.
Leonard Cohen. Douglas & McIntyre, 1978.
The Rooms We Are. Sono Nis, 1974.
Stone Poems. Talonbooks. 1974.

[BCBW 2015] "Poetry"

The Griffin in the Griffin’s Wood by Stephen Scobie (Ekstasis Editions $29.95)
Review (2017)

from Cherie Thiessen (BCBW 2017)
Wikipedia will tell you, a griffin is a mythical creature with the head and wings of an eagle and the body of a lion. It is typically depicted with pointed ears and with the eagle’s legs taking the place of the forelegs.

In northern Germany, on the shores of the Baltic, Greifswald is a university town named after a legendary Griffin who lived in a tree in the town, seizing and devouring children and eventually chased away centuries ago by monks.

Hence Greifswald in English means Griffin’s Wood.
In that town lives Helga Brandt, a university employee and informer for the Ministry for State Security in East Germany. She believes the Griffin has returned to devour the next generation—only it has resurfaced under the guise of a dicey nuclear reactor in nearby Lubmin.

In Stephen Scobie’s ‘spy fantasy,’ The Griffin in the Griffin’s Wood, the fate of Europe, and perhaps even humanity, hinges on events arising from that modern, technological griffin. It’s 1989. The Berlin Wall is coming down. There is confusion and intrigue in the two Germanys.

Frank Carpenter, spy, is a relatively new Canadian intelligence officer based in West Germany who has recently been assigned to Group 7, a bungling attempt to coordinate intelligence operations along the Baltic Coast for France, the USA, Western Germany, Britain and Canada. No one takes Canada’s role seriously, including its young agent.

The tale begins on a dark and stormy night in Lübeck as a captured western agent named Peter Felsen is about to be released from the eastern side of the infamous border. Group 7 has gathered to receive him. Shots ring out.

It appears Peter Felsen has been killed. But who fired the shots and why? It becomes the inexperienced Carpenter’s job to go under cover into East Germany to find the answers. But before he gets there, he falls in love, survives an attempt on his life, is betrayed and disregards orders.

Ultimately Carpenter will meet up with a family member whose shadow has always loomed large in his life.

This novel is dark, funny, and—at times—intentionally predictable. Scobie skillfully empowers the reader with information the characters don’t have. (We know the history of the Berlin Wall; they don’t.)
Mostly I enjoyed being immersed in a realistic sense of place. Greifswald, where Carpenter spends much of his mission, is portrayed with precision and empathy. That’s partly because Scobie visited Germany several times in the 1980s and ’90s as a poet/lecturer and guest professor of Canadian literature.

“At first, these visits were mostly to Kiel,” he says, “but later concentrated on Greifswald. And I have been to Lübeck, and to the border site, which is the setting for the first and last chapters of the book. I was also in Lübeck for a weekend just two weeks after the Wall came down.”

Scobie has returned several times since. “Both Kiel and Greifswald are cities very dear to my heart—due perhaps to their proximity to the sea, and the cleansing effect of the Baltic winds.”
Stephen Scobie has been invited to speak abroad because he is diversely talented as a critic, scholar and poet who won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry in 1980. He has also written critical studies on Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.

Scobie is not known primarily as a novelist. Tense and wisely drawn, The Griffin in the Griffin’s Wood is his first and probably only novel, he says.

That would be a shame.


Cherie Thiessen reviews fiction from Pender Island.