Author Tags: Cariboo, Literary Landmarks, Poetry
LITERARY LOCATION: Klaustrið (the Monastery), Gunnar Gunnarsson House, 701 Egilsstöðum, Skriðuklaustur, Iceland
Harold Rhenisch successfully applied for a writer-in-residency in Iceland when he outlined familial connections to Gunnar Gunnarsson's books in his application. Harold Rhenisch's father was a German immigrant raised in Germany on stories and films of farm people in much same vein as Gunnar Gunnarsson's stories, "if not directly influenced by him." Harold Rhenisch's writer-in-residency in Skriðuklaustur and his journeys around Iceland with his wife, picking bilberries for lunch, resulted in his book, The Art of Haying: A Journey to Iceland (Ekstasis 2015). "I have no Icelandic ancestry," says Rhenisch, "but you could say I grew up in Gunnar Gunnarsson's books. His books sold millions of copies in Germany in the '30s and '40s, and he missed the Nobel Prize by a hair. The Black Cliffs was universally praised in 1932 and it was the first Icelandic crime novel."
Rhenisch and his wife Diane made three trips to Iceland, initially because she had always wanted to go there. A day after their arrival in July, 2010, she sat on her bed and announced she never wanted to leave. He felt much the same way. Iceland transformed him--took the intellectual outside and beyond his bookishness--to produce a very different kind of book with more than 200 photos.
"This is a love story," he says, "for a country, for a woman, and for a way of life in which the old is new and the new is old and a man frees himself from the walls that books have made in his mind — walls that he previously didn’t know were there. It’s a scary thing, to have been kept by books my whole life, and then, one day, to step outside their pastures, but that’s what happened."
The Art of Haying, according to Rhenisch, is about drawing a line through grass and making a new beginning from it. "I learned that one of the ancient arts, older than poetry but as old as the art of knitting, is the art of haying," he wrote on his blog. "...Horses have human souls here. If you’ve never met an Icelandic horse, that might seem merely a poetic device."
After visits in summer, winter and spring, Rhenisch wrote his travel memoir in which he chats with ravens, learns about knitting traditions and describes his month at Skriðuklaustur, writing about the modern Icelandic sagas of Gunnar Gunnarsson.
Klaustrið (the Monastery) is a residence managed by The Institute of Gunnar Gunnarsson. It is situated at Skriðuklaustur Culture Center in East Iceland in Gunnarsson's former home that he built in North East Iceland in 1939, next door to the farm on which he was born. In 1940, Gunnarsson went on a "politically complex" speaking tour in wartime Germany.
"The Nazi connection with Gunnar's House was difficult for me," Rhenisch says, "so, at first, I was thinking there's no way I would stay there. But then I realized, who better, especially as he was no Nazi. It turned out to be a profound homecoming of sorts. The creative culture in Iceland is extraordinary. Plus, there are horses and rowan forests and extraordinary light. What's not to love!"
Born in Penticton on January 5, 1958, Harold Rhenisch was raised in the Similkameen Valley where his family farmed and managed orchards. He subsequently worked as a nurseryman, tree grafter and pruner before he studied drama and writing in Victoria, acquiring writing degrees from UVic and UBC. He later lived in the Cariboo for fifteen years, producing 'bioregional' essays and numerous books of poetry.
In 2005, Rhenisch won the ARC Magazine Critics Desk Award and the Malahat Review Long Poem Prize--and received the Malahat Long Poem Prize again in 2007. A seven-time runner-up for the CBC/Tilden/Saturday Night Literary Contest, he eventually won second prize in 2007 for “Catching a Snare Drum at the Fraser’s Mouth,” a series of pow-wow poems inspired by his years in 150 Mile House. He won the BC & Yukon Community Newspapers Association Award for Best Arts and Culture Writing in 1996 and the Confederation Poetry Prize in 1991. Tom Thomson's Shack was nominated for two B.C. Book Prizes in 2000. Eventually Rhenisch received the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in 2007 for his book, The Wolves at Evelyn, also shortlisted for the Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize.
Until he moved to Campbell River on Vancouver Island in 2007, Rhenisch lived in 108 Mile Ranch and 150 Mile House in the Cariboo--a region that he says begins at the auto-wrecking yard just north of Hat Creek. "The Cariboo is not a place but a state of mind," he wrote in Winging Home: A Palette of Birds (Brindle & Glass, 2006). His affinity for the B.C. interior led him to contribute to Chris Harris' book for the Grasslands Conservation Council, Spirit in the Grass: The Cariboo Chilcotin's Forgotten Landscape (2007). He has continued to collaborate with environmental photographer and publisher Chris Harris, with work on Motherstone: British Columbia’s Volcanic Landscpe, and a forthcoming book on the Chilcotin Arc. He continues his bioregional interests in an environmental blog called www.okanaganokanogan.com. “The Okanagan Valley,” he says, “has a border running right through it. This blog is about erasing that artificial line.”
Rhenisch has since moved back to the Okanagan grasslands, an area he describes as Iceland without rain. “My Canada is built out of fruit trees and black spruce and the Chopaka All-Indian Rodeo,” he wrote in Tom Thomson's Shack (New Star, 2000). In 2014, he was the inaugural writer in residence at the Okanagan Regional Library.
In appreciation of one of his mentors in Victoria, Robin Skelton, Harold Rhenisch has edited In This Poem I Am: The Selected Poetry of Robin Skelton and he has also edited various non-fiction memoirs including Phyllis Nackomeckny’s Vidh, Lorne Dufour’s Joseph’s Prayer and Vangie Bergum’s Bestamor and Me.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
Out of the Interior: The Lost Country
Rocksalt: An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry
Winging Home: A Palette of Birds
The Art of Haying: A Journey to Iceland (Ekstasis 2015) $33.95) 978-1-77171-125-8
“Okanagan Apples”, Nature Morte, Christos Dikeakos et al. Kelowna Art Gallery, 2014. $20 189674870-4.
Two Minds: (Frontenac House 2015) $15.95. 978-1-927823-36-1
The Spoken World (Hagios Press 2011) $17.95. 978-1-926710-12-9
A Recipe for Perry, Okanagan Institute, 2011. $5
Motherstone: British Columbia’s Volcanic Plateau (Country Light 2010. With photographer Chris Harris.
Spirit in the Grass: The Cariboo Chilcotin’s Forgotten Landscape (Country Light, 2008). With photographer Chris Harris.
Return to Open Water: Poems New and Selected (Ronsdale, 2007)
The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys Through a Dark Century (Brindle & Glass, 2006)
Winging Home: A Palette of Birds (Brindle & Glass, 2006)
Living Will: Shakespeare After Dark (Wolsak and Wynn, 2005)
Linda Rogers: Essays on Her Works (Guernica Editions, 2004) (Editor)
Free Will (Ronsdale, 2004)
Tom Thomson’s Shack (New Star, 2000)
The Blue Mouth of Morning (1998)
Taking the Breath Away (Ronsdale, 1998)
Dancing With My Daughter (1994)
Out of the Interior (1993)
A Delicate Affair (1989)
In This Poem I Am: Selected Poetry of Robin Skelton (Dundurn, 2007). Selected and edited by Harold Rhenisch.
[BCBW 2015] "Poetry" "Cariboo"
Carnival (Porcupine’s Quill $15.95)
“Every visitor to the orchard that was my childhood home heard the stories of a boy and his best friend coming of age in Kuppenheim, a small town across the Rhine from Strasbourg, during the Second World War...
“The Germany they described, a world of castles, wild boars, and escaped French POWs, as well as the life of heroism and total disregard for authority they set within it, took on a great importance in our childhoods...
“My father was justly renowned as one of the great story-tellers of the Okanagan Valley. Then came the abandonment of alcohol. The stories shrank overnight to simple narratives of concrete facts, narrated like newspapers reports...
“In 1984, I recorded my father telling his stories, in a last hope of capturing their quality of continual transmutation. After we had filled eight hours of tape, my father sat back in his chair, tears running down his face, his voice cracked, and said, “Good. I don’t have to remember all that anymore.” He never told the stories again. During those eight hours, however, he gave me stories he had never shared before, including the terrible stories of the gang rape and bloody death of his childhood sweetheart, Maria, the horrific retribution for her death, and the story of his abject fear while being hunted by an American in a fighter plane, just for sport...
“For the last eleven years I have lived with these stories as my own... My father and I, who have quite differing personalities, occasionally share one in this book... many passages, some long, some short, are in my father’s own words. This is, however, above all, a work of fiction, and its story, of the forces unleashed in 1930’s Germany and of their terrible retribution...is a story, as my father well knew, that has needed to be told for 53 years.”
[BCBW AUTUMN 2000]
Interview with Harord Rhenisch by Don Gayton.
from BCBW 2001
It’s a beautiful day in the Cariboo, full of sunshine, colour and wind. Turning off Highway 97 towards 108 Mile—-formerly a religious housing project financed by Block Brothers Realty—-I am struck by the horizontality of the landscape, the rolling grasslands, the shallow lake, the low trees in the distance. Having lived previously in the Okanagan and Similkameen Valleys, Harold Rhenisch, father of two daughters and author of eleven books, has had a long and fruitful association with B.C. Interior landscapes and orchards. Having studied Creative Writing at UVic, he’s not a city guy—by choice—and was born in Keremeos in 1958. As I drive into the spacious yard, I see evidence of Rhenisch the horticulturalist. Fruit trees, ornamentals, flowerbeds and berry patches grow in seemingly careless profusion. The disorder of the yard extends to the burgeoning disorder of the lakeshore, full of willows, bulrushes and red-winged blackbirds. On the covered deck that overlooks the lake, we sit on creaky but comfortable wooden chairs, sharing the deck space with several boxes of Okanagan apples.
GAYTON: What’s it like being a full-time writer in 108 Mile?
RHENISCH: It feels like sacred country, like a lost land in an Edgar Rice Burroughs novel. It feels like Coyote and all the old Shuswap myths are still alive around me. Which they are. I can easily imagine writing in other parts of the province. But the 108 is full of light. I’m living in the sky here, high up on the plateau. The land falls off to the Fraser 50 miles to the west and to the Thompson, 50 miles to the east, and storms come in across the Chilcotin, smelling of the sea. I think Horsefly would be a great place to write. So would many places in the Chilcotin, or somewhere on the Nicola. Keremeos and Hedley were wonderful.
GAYTON: Do you feel isolated in 108 Mile?
RHENISCH: I used to dream of getting out, of going to a city, and living in the wealth of a university, but the land always kept me here. Over the years I have made peace with my literary isolation. This is home. The libraries here are of little literary use. Film, theatre, and dance are almost nonexistent. There are no literary readings. There are no publishers. If you want to know what Canada would be like without the Canada Council, this is pretty well it. What we have here is an oral culture, without written traditions of history, philosophy, or literature, but it is my culture.
GAYTON: Most writers seem to grow into a single genre, but your work ranges through poetry, short story, essay, autobiography, humor. How did that come about?
RHENISCH: The short answer is that I learned about pacing and plot from writing long poetry. The more detailed answer is that it came about because I was a nut for Ezra Pound, who did all these things at once (except the humour). Pound maintained that the epic of our time had to contain history and economics. His is a mess, of course. So was mine. But it was a way forward from writing wild, dionysiac, and lushly romantic poetry. With Pound in my mind, I wrote from the principle that if all forms of writing had come from poetry, poetry could still contain them all. I incorporated history, essays, autobiography, humour, myths, stories, philosophy, metaphysics, politics, and economics into my poems. I made several good books this way, but I also made every mistake imaginable. I wrote long poems of 50 and 100 and 350 pages and worked on them for years, only to be left with a few scraps.
I taught myself to write Hemingway’s simple declarative sentence. That took a decade. But by that point, I had learned thousands of things about writing, which had no outlet. Over the next ten years I was to learn that success often comes not through force, but by writing where the words flow, not by inventing but by sharing. If you use Shakespearean England, or the Ireland of James Joyce as a measure, today’s BC is a place that shows little interest in its own writers. Yet you take writing completely seriously, valuing local writers, their ideas, and the works they produce. Where does that come from?
Most of the world literature that I care about is regional writing. One Hundred Years of Solitude and The Songlines are regional books. Peter Handke and Charles Wright are very regional writers. Yet these regional books and writers belong to a vibrant tradition of world writing. It’s no different here. Shakespeare and Joyce knew much about the imagination and how it uses local material to create the universal. You can only do it if you accept everything and celebrate that house just outside of Lac La Hache with the two snowmobiles on the roof. Until I did realize that, until I learned that literature is a celebration, I often did feel alone in the Interior.
I even published a poem called Visiting Yeats, in which I lamented Yeats’s ability to walk through the municipal gallery in Dublin and see all his old friends, while I could only go to the cold room down the hall and look at his books, unless I learned to talk about my country. I learned. Writing is a cultural celebration.
GAYTON: So the size of the audience doesn’t matter?
RHENISCH: George Seferis said of 1930’s Athens that it was a good feeling to have only sold six copies of his book, because he could imagine having all of his readers over for dinner. He went on to win the Nobel Prize, for just those poems. So no, it’s not the size of the audience that matters to the creation of a work; it’s the size of the community.
GAYTON: You’re fluent in German. Do you keep up with contemporary writing in that language?
RHENISCH: Yes. I spent 1990-1995 reading nothing but German books. Only slowly have I managed to return to reading English ones. It has been a hard journey. I’ve been translating Stefan Schuetz’s radio play Peyote. It’s set in Banff and explores with ruthless humour and unflinching detail the meeting of an old native shaman and a German tourist. It unfolds on many different levels and ought to unsettle our ideas about native and European cultures for decades.
GAYTON: Your book Tom Thomson’s Shack, is a collection of
short pieces mined from your experience in the Interior. In each new chapter, you start off by throwing a number of balls in the air—characters, plot twists, asides and so on. As you began writing these chapters, did you know which ball you would finish it with?
RHENISCH: Not at all. But that’s the whole idea. Coyote would laugh at a question like that. He laughs all through this book. As I wrote it, Tom Thomson’s Shack quickly ceased to be a record of what I wanted to write about and more a record of what I hadn’t seen before, even though it was right in front of my face. Also, I wanted to have some fun. Dreadful, dull, “serious” literature and philosophy gets to be a bit much sometimes. In my world view, clowning is very important, and writing works best when it transfers energy between the rational and the irrational, or between oranges in a juggler’s hand and the grass they fall on. I want to bring the written and oral parts of our culture back together. When it works, it’s wonderful.
GAYTON: What are you working on now?
RHENISCH: Right now I’m working on a big Shakespeare project. I’ve made new versions of all of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, putting them into colloquial language, and bringing the love and sex right to the surface. I’m really excited about this. I’m also working on a collection of poems I call Punching Shakespeare, which is an equal mix of Punch & Judy skits and revisions of Shakespeare’s tragedies. I’m also finishing up my spoof of Pound’s Cantos and a prose book of landscape sketches of the Cariboo, all with birds. I’m finishing up my translation of Schuetz’s Peyote and I have the beginnings of a prose book about Germans in the Okanagan and the United Fruit Growers movement of the early ‘70s.
I’ve come to see the early ‘70s as a pivotal piece of history, in which European immigrant orchardists rose up against English immigrant orchardists and traditions, demanding independence. It was one of the most important events to happen in the Okanagan this century, and a whole culture passes through it and is transformed.
GAYTON: Toronto also seems to loom large in your literary consciousness.
RHENISCH: Toronto is huge. The 401 Freeway roars through Greater Toronto in its 16 lanes of carbon monoxide and decibels. You could lose 100 Mile House in a mile of that. You could lose every other town in B.C. in the rest of its 100 some-odd miles and still have room to spare. And that’s just the Freeway, not the streets. Toronto can be a beautiful and vibrant city, sparking with life and energy, but it is so vast and so out of touch with the earth it has sprung from, that it doesn’t really deserve to be our national cultural capital. There are, after all, parts of the country in which a relationship to the land is far less abstract.
When I wrote Out of the Interior, about the Okanagan, I was appalled to find it was available in only one of Kelowna’s three bookstores. The other two did their purchasing from Toronto, and stocked books about Hamilton and the Niagara Peninsula instead. No offence to Jackson Triggs wine, but that is shameful.
Toronto flows through Tom Thomson’s Shack because I want to show how Toronto appears to an outsider. I believe that might be useful. I want to show how its definitions of Canada just don’t fit out here in our mountain valleys and plateaus. I set up some alternative visions of Canada. Liberating ones. Ones with a future and open to possibility.
[Don Gayton is a writer in Nelson.]
[BCBW 2001] "Interview"
The Puck stops here
Back in 1975, before he became an author, Harold Rhenisch took leave from the orchards of the Similkameen Valley for six weeks to perform the role of Puck in Shakespeare’s Midsummer’s Night Dream at the Phoenix Theatre in Victoria. Twenty-eight years later, haunted by the trickster role in his dreams, Rhenisch has fused his sense of theatre and clowning into a Fellini-esque suite of poems, Free Will (Ronsdale, $14.95), inspired by the Great Bard—who appears as a character..
Free Will is an exuberant amalgam of Punch ‘n’ Judy puppets, vaudeville antics, stand-up comedy, feminist rewrites of the Great Bard’s tragedies, 10,000 monkeys writing Hamlet—and Puck’s irrepressible wit. Here Rhenisch recalls the genesis of his lyrical and satiric work that illuminates our modern world—from the Cariboo to Chernobyl—as a tragic-comic version of theatre. 1-55380-013-3
This book began in 1975, when I drove off the farm to Victoria in a 1957 Ford Sedan with four colours of paint and a bullet hole in the back window. Who knows where the bullet hole had come from. I bought that old beater off my brother for $150. He used the money to buy himself a Honda 450, with a crash bar and lots of chrome. He was into Easy Rider. I was off to play Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, on the strength of a passion for the absurdist theatre of Ionesco. I thought it best not to ask about the bullet. Slipping the blue toque off my long golden hair and clearing my head of Leonard Cohen’s “Songs of Love and Hate,” which were rolling around in there like a piece of gravel in a hubcap, I thumped around a minimalist set for six weeks, speaking spells, making magic, and acting that I was acting.
Fifteen years later, I woke up with a start in the middle of the night, sweating, repeating lines from the play, but this time voicing them as they cried to be voiced — singing, laughing them out, teasing, calling, taunting. The dreams, if they were dreams, continued for years. I was no longer acting. The result is this book. Shakespeare rattles around in it, as he does in my head, with his fools and lovers, his cross-dressers, his heroes who aren’t heroes, his tragedies that aren’t tragedies, his comedies that often have more in common with Monty Python and La Cage aux Folles than with high art. Ionesco is never far behind. The whole avalanche of poetry that has come down off the mountain of Purgatory with surrealists skiing madly before it, absurdist playwrights digging up somnambulist lyricists, and visual poets and sound poets tramping in with their dogs and their barrels of brandy, end up tumbling into the après-ski chalet of this book, where Puck tends bar. Here, though, their stunt acts and special effects, a world of hallucinatory dreams and silent-movie utopias, are brought back to the world of reason, and bed it. Puck is a fairy, a trickster, the one who stands outside of all stories and causes them to take place, capriciously. He is also a trick himself, a piece of sleight-of-hand. Shakespeare-Houdini, that master of mirrors and disguise, set up his sonnets as Chinese boxes. The only escape from them is the point at which physical and spiritual love cross. In the same spirit of pulling rabbits — or himself — out of hats, Shakespeare set up his plays as mazes of mirrors, out of which there is only one avenue of escape: theatre — a thing as light as air. Rapacious, driven, compulsive, unpredictable, impulsive, vital, frightening, transient, sexually ambiguous, and dangerous, Puck is the creative imagination itself. The card huckster that is Puck has his own mirrors, too: Lear, who mocks himself; the sinister but smiling Iago; the indecisive Hamlet, who plays his own fools. They differ from Puck only because the space created for them forces their energy into different straight jackets, as our different bodies do to our own souls. United by an urge to live, and to live freely, these characters fight their fate — Will Shakespeare, who penned them in. By pulling the rug of tragedy out from under their feet, he is forcing them, the actors who play them, and any of the others of us who let them pound the boards in our minds, to think for ourselves, and to free him, Will, from death. The plays are great, complex, incantatory and alchemical engines. God help us all.
Any combination of reason and unreason is absurd, of course. The city of this book is populated by clowns and fools. Punch, Coyote, Charlie Chaplin, Robin Goodfellow, Black Adder, Marcel Marceau, and the shriners on their scooters in small town parades, all take their turns behind the camera, directing a scene from the show. The tragedy is common to them all —Shakespeare and his audience trapped within the house of mirrors of their minds, finding escape by putting on masks of themselves. In each scene, the mind shows up in a different mirror, each poem a different glint of light cast off a forest leaf or a stream in moonlight. In irreverent reverence, every poem collected here circles around, fills, and ultimately retreats from silence, a finger on its lips. Randomness, and the ability of the mind to outrun its snapping jaws, to dance around it, daring it to do its worst, is all. Reason, in this universe, is not a prison. This vision of Puck has roots in the old definition of infinity: if you were to lock 10,000 monkeys in a room with 10,000 typewriters, they would eventually write Hamlet. In this book, they do — and a lot of other plays besides: comedies, tragedies, romances, histories, gallows humour, the works. These lab chimps finally get their own say, free of surgical implants and doubleblind controls. In their plays, though, as in Shakespeare’s own, the tragedies are not about tragic heroes. Instead, they detail the repercussions of tragedy upon people, how it constrains them, and how, by joy, delight and by playing roles they can be released from the cage of living alone in a vast, unknowable universe, where scientists wear identification badges and white coats and bring medications on steel trays. Hamlet is not Hamlet’s play, for instance, but Ophelia’s. Her play appears here, stripped of Shakespeare’s distorting lens that gave us Hamlet’s story instead. Iago’s play is here as well. So is Puck’s. And Desdemona’s. Here, too, are actors identifying with their parts until the two are indistinguishable. The stage becomes the audience, the audience the actors on the stage. A new sequence is added to Shakespeare’s sonnets, bringing them into the world of prime time sitcoms and cop shows. The major genres — and some minor ones — of western literature are put on stage, to do their vaudeville act, and Puck makes his magic, or reaches out his hook. In this universe, the subconscious mind will not be contained and takes equal stage with its conscious twin. I call that art. Shakespeare appears, dressed in the monstrous garb of free will. It is the choice he can offer. The magic is real. In offering my version of Shakespeare’s choice, I have followed Puck’s lead.
Welcome to the show!
Ostensibly about the avian behaviour of blackbirds, eagles, robins, martins, swallows, loons and the like, Harold Rhenisch’s essays in Winging Home: a palette of birds (Brindle & Glass $24.95), illustrated by Tom Godin, are also about the Cariboo and Rhenisch’s poetic responses to it.
“The Cariboo is not a place, but a state of mind,” he writes. “In the fall the rusted tangles of junk in the ranch yards among the jackpine and the alkali lakes are covered with the heart-shaped sulphur-yellow leaves of the trembling aspens.”
The birds in Winging Home are clearly part of a master plan that Rhenisch figures out on a daily basis. “We are the new kids on the block,” he says. “With our mammalian squeak and roar we are just learning the ropes.”
Asked by a new neighbour where the heck the Cariboo begins, Rhenisch suggests it doesn’t really start at Cache Creek. He suggests the Cariboo starts at the auto-wrecking yard just north of Hat Creek, with the collapsing fence, across from the cedar house that advertises worms and fishing information. There is no thought given to where it ends because it’s endless.
George Ryga Award
press release (2007)
HAROLD RHENISCH NAMED WINNER OF COVETED RYGA AWARD
The winning book for this year’s George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in
BC Literature is The Wolves at Evelyn: A Journey Through A Dark Century (Brindle & Glass) by versatile, poet, essayist and fiction writer Harold Rhenisch.
Runner-up manuscripts were Nobody’s Mother, edited by Lynne Van Luven with a foreword by Shelagh Rogers, and Red Light Neon, A History of Vancouver’s Sex
Trade, by Daniel Francis. This year’s final Judge was Professor Sharon Josephson, who teaches Communications and Media Studies at Okanagan College.
North Okanagan College Dean, John Lent, one of the preliminary judges of
the 20 books submitted by publishers from across western Canada, said “I’m not surprised at all. Harold Rhenisch is increasingly recognized as one of the best writers in the country. Sharon has made a wonderful choice.”
The 4th Annual Ryga Award presentation to Harold Rhenisch will occur at a gala award ceremony, in Vernon, on Friday, July 27th, at 8 p.m., hosted by CBC Daybreak’s Marion Barschel—coincidental with the late George Ryga’s 75th birthday.
Featured entertainers for this special evening at Vernon’s Powerhouse Theatre will be the Okanagan-based musical maestros Rob Dinwoodie & Dogwood Road. The Ryga Award recipient will once again be presented with The Censor’s Golden Rope, a unique piece of sculpture recreated annually by Armstrong sculptor Reg Kienast.
The George Ryga Award is sponsored by The George Ryga Centre, Okanagan
College, BC BookWorld and CBC Radio One, Kelowna. . For more information on Harold Rhenisch and George Ryga, visit www.abcbookworld.com.
Tickets for the July 27th event at The Powerhouse Theatre are now available
at The Bean Scene in Vernon (558-1827) and The Brown Derby Café in Armstrong
George Ryga Award
Judge's Commentary (2007)
The three finalists for the fourth annual George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in B.C. Literature (July 2007) are The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys Through a Dark Century (Brindle & Glass) by Harold Rhenisch, Red Light Neon: A History of Vancouver’s Sex Trade (Subway Books) by Daniel Francis, and Nobody’s Mother: Life Without Kids (Touch Wood Editions) edited by Lynne Van Luven.
I read these books while traveling across Canada on a 30-day road trip with my partner and my daughters—Kate, 5 years old, and Thea, 2. Mine is most definitely not a life without children. A long, slow road trip over the Rockies in a VW van, across the prairies, and through the expanse of Ontario made that abundantly clear. My choice of this year’s winner was likely influenced by these circumstances. Each of these books is deserving of the award in different ways; a different reader could easily have made a different choice.
As we made our way through Wawa and Thunder Bay, through Winnipeg and Eriksdale, Swift Current, Moose Jaw, and Morse, Saskatchewan, through Cranbrook and Crawford Bay, and finally home, to the Okanagan, my daughters sang “This land is your land, this land is my land, this land was made for you and me.” And I made my way through the equally rambling terrain of Harold Rhenisch’s The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys Through a Dark Century and I wondered if the song was true.
Rhenisch is this year’s winner.
In “Multiculturalism: Address to Curriculum Conference” (1977), George Ryga writes: "We are all demeaned by half-truths, by abbreviations of reality from out past, by the corporate and official bias which runs through the core of history taught to our children. And worse still, by the growing tendency among our scholars and researchers to deceive themselves deliberately, within the context of the system, to create false expectations on the basis of a false assessment of history."
As the son of Ukrainian immigrants, raised in a farming community in northern Alberta, Ryga understood how history—the history of a family, a people, a country—continues to live and to influence how we see ourselves, how we’re seen by others, and how we see each other. Ryga calls for “honesty—just plain, uncomplicated honesty” and the recognition “that many of our history books are as much myth as they are facts." “Where,” he asks, “is the history of the human experience?"
Harold Rhenisch gives us a history of human experience. In doing so, however, he shows us just how complicated that can be. His book is sprawling; it took me all of Canada to read. It is, in part, an immigrant’s tale. Like Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation: A Life in a New Language, it makes personal what it means to leave home—Heimat—to become “invisible”, to leave behind “family, history, and … language” to “make a new world”, to become “a people of the earth, and only of the earth”.
It is also, in part, a travel narrative, in the tradition of Chatwin and Bowles, a kind of wandering over the earth, a story of a place, of nature, of wilderness, a narrative without hope or fear but not without politics. Rhenisch mourns the loss of the land.
If you go to find that first moment when we lived in the splendour of the land, though, you will only find other people looking for it, building log houses above newly cleared pastures, where they can watch aspens reclaim fields that my mother, for instance, once helped hay by hand; you will find people driving their motorhomes on an endless pilgrimage along asphalt highways, camping in crowded RV parks lying along the rail-line, with thirty-amp power and city water and full sewer hookup.
Exploited, overrun, misunderstood, “[t]he earth,” says Rhenisch, “is invisible."
As I drove across the country, part of that long line of motorhomes, my journey was shaped by Rhenisch’s journey. Is the earth invisible? I wondered. Sometimes a stretch of beach along a lakeshore or an ocean of blue alfalfa on a prairie or a mountain rising hard and grey above a cloud felt like a perfect first moment. How would it have felt had I taken this trip without Rhenisch? Would it have felt like anything all?
The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys Through a Dark Century is about much more than I’m able to say here. It is about history, about home and family, about colonialism and labour, about land, earth, and nation, about Germany, British Columbia, and Canada. It is about Rhenisch’s journey to find “the freedom to re-imagine” a way of being in the world. It may take me another road trip to fully understand.
-- Sharon Josephson
Rocksalt, An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry
from Hannah Main-van der Kamp
Rocksalt, An Anthology of Contemporary BC Poetry, edited by Mona Fertig and Harold Rhenisch, (Mother Tongue $24.95)
In 1973, Robin Skelton of Victoria reviewed the new Oxford Book of Twentieth Century Poetry, edited by Philip Larkin. Some of his comments were “Eccentric, uninventive, superficial, uninformed, trivial, absurd.” Out of 207 submissions, Larkin had accepted six poems each from twenty-two poets. Skelton was not one of them.
In 2008, Hannah Main-van der Kamp’s submission to Rocksalt was rejected. She writes far less peevishly than Skelton.
Putting together the first, extensive anthology of B.C. poets in three decades is an admirable but necessarily precarious project.
It’s impossible to please all readers, let alone all writers, all of the time. Some worthy names will always be left out.
GG-winner Roy Miki but not two-time GG-winner Don McKay? Bowering, Marilyn but not Bowering, George? Were some writers not interested in contributing?
If you’ve been reading B.C. poetry for a long time, you may recognize about half of the poets in Rocksalt by name, but not their poems, because co-editors Mona Fertig and Harold Rhenisch limited inclusions to one “fresh” poem each.
Will there be a volume II? And will it include Bachinsky, Belford, Blackstock, M. Blaser, Bowling, Bringhurst, Brown A., Compton, Cookshaw, Crozier, Kearns, Kishkan, Lane, Lamarche, Lau, Lillburn, New, Owen, Pearson, Price, Rader, Reid, J., Roberts, Shreve, Stenson, Thesen, Tucker, Wakan, Webb, Yates, Zwicky?
The standard Canadian poetry anthology, edited by Gary Geddes, first came out in 1970. Now into its umpteenth edition, it must still leave a few noses out of joint. He chooses to include less than twenty poets with an average of ten poems per poet, as well as a few pages of bio/poetics.
The 108 poets in Rocksalt represent about one-third of the total number who submitted. B.C. residency was a requirement. The introduction indicates “a new generation” would be welcomed, with an emphasis on “fresh” unpublished work.
True to their resolve, Mona Fertig and Harold Rhenisch have erred on the side of generosity, according space to some less-known writers, but this sampling approach could leave some readers disgruntled. Imagine you are in a coffee shop that offers a huge variety of brews with elegant written descriptions but you may only taste a teaspoon of each.
Speaking of coffee shops, why is there a cover painting of a jaded Viennese kaffee haus? It’s hard to relate the image of a bored, paunchy pianist as being relevant to the Pacific Northwest.
The contributors live in all areas of the province and include First Nations writers. There appears to be a preponderance of poets from the islands, especially Salt Spring, home to the publisher. A significant proportion have MFAs and/or teach creative writing. A few wag against that.
Some readers might have preferred to have more poetry, less theorizing. The latter rarely illustrates the former.
The personal statements of poetics mostly avoid posturing and range from the predictable and pedantic to the original and humble.
One wonders if these statements held equal weight with the poems as they occupy about the same amount of print space.
Catherine Greenwood says that it’s only once in a great while that she is blessed with a moment of “hitting the right note” and confesses, fetchingly, that writing poetry is “quite hard work.”
John Pass volunteers this insight: “I know less and less of what I’m up to, or what poetry might make of me.”
Overall, it’s hard to know
what to make of this collection, mixed as it is, like this review. No anthology of poetry can be representational of all poetry.
Many British Columbians write and never consider publishing. The “Spoken Word” resurgence cannot be conveyed in print. Fine poets take long breaks from writing. Some write in languages other than English and there are no translations in this volume.
But, to its credit, this collection reflects the rich ethnicity of the population with a span of at least six decades between the youngest and oldest. It’s generous, it’s eclectic, it’s welcome; but not all the poems display accomplishment.
An opening Dedication recognizes about two dozen wonderful poets who have passed away. Everyone will recognize their own favourites and loved mentors.
Editing an anthology is like teachers trying to identify their best students: it shouldn’t be done but they can’t help doing it. Somebody has to teach. Somebody has to edit.
-- review by Hannah Main-van der Kamp
by Sage Birchwater
In 2008, photographer Chris Harris and writer Harold Rhenisch set the bar high with their first high-altitude collaboration, Spirit in the Grass: The Cariboo Chilcotin’s Forgotten Landscape, nominated for two BC Book Prizes.
According self-publisher Harris, they have surpassed that effort with Motherstone: British Columbia’s Volcanic Plateau (Country Light $39.95), a coffee table book that portrays the majesty of the Central Interior and invites the reader to take an expedition into time; to peak into our geographical beginnings, and wonder how the landform we call the Cariboo Chilcotin was formed.
Motherstone covers a vast region of volcanic activity from the edge of the Chilcotin Plateau, where it buttresses up against the Coast Mountains in the west, to the sub-glacial volcanoes of Wells Gray Park to the East.
“I’m a mountain person,” Harris explains. “Mountains turn me on. I’ve ridden through these mountain ranges before, but this time I walked through every inch of it.
“When you walk you feel like you’re touching the earth. You feel the energy coming up through the earth.
“I found I was in tears out there. The volcanic landscape is so untouched; so powerful.”
As with most Chris Harris projects, Motherstone began with the germ of an idea years earlier that took on a life of its own. When Harris was on horseback in the 1990s, photographing in the Ilgatchuz Mountains with outfitters, Roger and Wanda Williams, he and fellow photographer, Kris Andrews, decided to take a side hike over a ridge to see what was on the other side. Harris came back with an image of a crater lake nestled in an undisturbed volcanic cone. In fact, it was a tarn in a cirque.
This became the seed for the Motherstone project. “I vowed to go back there,” he says. “It was the heart of the Ilgachuz volcano. How many people go through there in a year? It was a masterpiece of nature. I virtually don’t think anyone has ever been there.”
When he began the actual work of photographing for Motherstone, Harris wasn’t sure what the project was going to look like. “All my books are total exploration,” he says. “I’ve learned to trust the process. Doors start to open. I just like being out there hiking, physical and free, exploring with the camera.”
Harris decided he wanted to walk the ground he intended to photograph rather than travel by horseback. He hired guide outfitters Dave and Joyce Dorsey, and Roger and Wanda Williams to pack his camp gear and equipment two days into the wilderness. They ventured to three West Chilcotin shield volcanoes, the Rainbows, the Ilgachuz and the Itcha mountain ranges, while he and his wife, Rita Giesbrecht, and friend, Mike Duffy, went by foot.
As a hiker, Harris returned to the tarn that inspired the project years earlier, and noted only slight changes to the landscape, caused by gravity and erosion over a fifteen-year span. For the most part, the natural vista was totally undisturbed except for a possible goat or two.
“No one has walked here,” he says. “And with every drop of rain or snow flake, or with every freeze and thaw, the Ilgachuz volcano Gallery is re-hung. Nature has not finished creating this masterpiece of art yet.
“It was totally an amazing experience to be up there and feel that energy coming up through my feet and legs.”
Over a two-year period Harris photographed hundreds of magnificent images, then he handed the project over to Rhenisch who came up with the term “motherstone” as he was driving home to Campbell River from the Cariboo.
“It jumped into my head. The red rock south of Spences Bridge talked to me. It’s nice to feel in this vast, empty universe we’ve got a home. I’m of this place. I am this place speaking of itself. We are this place.”
Going back three billion years, Rhenisch says British Columbia was formed by the drifting of continental plates. Chains of volcanoes formed along stress lines in the western Pacific, drifted east, and smashed into North America.
“Very little research has been done on this region,” he says. “I spent three months researching to find out what the story was. Everything we have in British Columbia is caused by continental plate movement. Rock is a record of a dance that happens in time.”
Motherstone, according to Rhenisch, is essentially the story of going out to the mountains and walking. “We wanted the book to be the art of the mountains, where the mountains are creating the art. The earth is an expression of itself where you can walk across ground no one has ever walked on before. The earth is seeing itself for the first time through your eyes.”
Both Harris and Rhenisch are adept at pulling back the veil of every-day perception to reveal the essence of what makes the Central Interior unique. Rhenisch uses the scientific expertise of UBC professor Dr. Mary Lou Bevier to augment gut-felt romantic impressions to tell the story of this remarkable place.
“It’s an interesting balance—the scientific and the mythological,” Rhenisch says. “We had to have the science right, but at the same time it’s not a scientific book. We had to tell the story of being there. Science couldn’t do that.”
With his tenth book, Motherstone, Harris hopes to once more create an awareness of the value of the natural world and the biodiversity of the Cariboo Chilcotin region. Awareness affects public opinion about places,” he says, “and only public opinion affects change.”
The amalgam of art, science and adventure makes for one message. “The natural world is not something we must set out to conquer and subdue,” says Harris. “On the contrary, in fact it is our only hope for survival.”
After launching Motherstone at a gala reception in 100 Mile House in October, the duo commenced an extensive, province-wide tour and slide show. Seven hundred signed, hardcover copies of Motherstone ($69.95) were made available. For information, visit chrisharris.com
Sc 978-0-9865818-0-9; hc 978-0-9865818-1-6
The Art of Haying: A Journey to Iceland (Ekstasis $33.95)
from BCBW (Spring 2016)
Harold rhenisch and his wife diane have made three trips to Iceland, initially because she had always wanted to go there. Upon their arrival in 2010, after one day, she sat on her bed and announced she never wanted to leave.
Rhenisch felt much the same. Iceland transformed him—it took the intellectual outside and beyond his bookishness—to inspire him to make a very different kind of book, The Art of Haying: A Journey to Iceland (Ekstasis $33.95), with more than 200 photos.
The Art of Haying, according to Rhenisch, is about drawing a line through grass and making a new beginning from it. “I learned that one of the ancient arts, older than poetry but as old as the art of knitting, is the art of haying,” he writes. “...Horses have human souls here. If you’ve never met an Icelandic horse, that might seem merely a poetic device.”
After his first visit, Rhenisch successfully applied for a writer-in-residency in Iceland at the home of Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson. Rhenisch’s father was a German immigrant raised on stories and films of farm people in much the same vein as Gunnar Gunnarsson’s stories, “if not directly influenced by him.” Harold Rhenisch’s writer-in-residency in Skriðuklaustur and his journeys around Iceland with his wife, picking bilberries for lunch, resulted in his book.
“I have no Icelandic ancestry,” says Rhenisch, “but you could say I grew up in Gunnar Gunnarsson’s books. His books sold millions of copies in Germany in the ‘30s and ‘40s, and he missed the Nobel Prize by a hair. The Black Cliffs was universally praised in 1932 and it was the first Icelandic crime novel.”
After visits in summer, fall and winter, Rhenisch wrote his travel memoir in which he chats with ravens, learns about knitting traditions and describes his month at Skriðuklaustur, writing about the modern Icelandic sagas of Gunnar Gunnarsson.
Klaustrið (the Monastery) is a residence managed by The Institute of Gunnar Gunnarsson. It is situated at Skriðuklaustur Culture Center in North East Iceland in Gunnarsson’s former home that he built in 1939, next door to the farm on which he was born. In 1940, Gunnarsson went on a “politically complex” speaking tour in wartime Germany.
“The Nazi connection with Gunnar’s house was difficult for me,” Rhenisch says, “so, at first, I was thinking there’s no way I would stay there. But then I realized, who better, especially as he was no Nazi. It turned out to be a profound homecoming of sorts. The creative culture in Iceland is extraordinary. Plus, there are horses and rowan forests and extraordinary light. What’s not to love!
“This is a love story for a country, for a woman, and for a way of life in which the old is new and the new is old and a man frees himself from the walls that books have made in his mind — walls that he previously didn’t know were there. It’s a scary thing, to have been kept by books my whole life, and then, one day, to step outside their pastures, but that’s what happened.”