Author Tags: Fiction, Mexico, Poetry
"To sit with George... takes one into the ancient world of oral recounting, as the tales of Irish life pour out in an Ulster English as soft as rainwater, the voice rising and falling, sometimes as low as a whisper." -- George Woodcock
Born in Belfast on September 26, 1939, George McWhirter was raised in Shankill Road district and received his B.A. from Queen's University in Belfast, where his classmates included poets Seamus Heaney and Seamus Deane, and Robert Dunbar, the Irish children's writer. He taught at Kilkeel, Bangor, County Down (1962-1965) and at the University of Barcelona's Escuela de Idiomas (1965-1966). He came to Canada in 1966 and first taught high school in Port Alberni, living in a log cabin by Sproat Lake. He has lived in Vancouver since 1968 and received his M.A. from UBC in 1970.
McWhirter's first book, Catalan Poems (Oberon, 1971), shared the 1972 Commonwealth Prize with Chinua Achebe’s Cry Soul Brother. His introduction to Catalan Poems states: "This book is a hybrid. Like both my children, it was definitely made in Canada, conceived there and delivered--but it is the product of experience on another continent. The book is half Spanish and half Irish. Pio Baroja said somewhere that 'the Irish are honorary Spaniards.' In my turn, I found the Spaniard an extraordinary Irishman, and Catalonia, where I was staying, strangely analogous to Ulster, where I was born, but surreal (super-real if you like), painted garish red, white and blue by sun and weather, not politics. (Politics in Spain are red and black.) The Catalan struts and sags, he grows belligerent, ebullient, boasts of his separatism and is by nature extreme, anarchic and materialistic all at once, self-conscious, different from everybody. His roots sink deep into Church and family. He is, in short, the kind of contrary beast I had grown up with. I wrote one poem about a man, Eduardo, who embodied all this; later, in Canada, I gave him a family and named it Valls. The substance of his world became the image of my poems. He eats and in turn is eaten, his appetite for life is a vengeance,and always--like Adam's curse--his mortality is the substance that baffles him."
McWhirter's books of poetry after Catalan Poems include Bloodlight for Malachi McNair (Kanchenjunga, 1974), Queen of the Sea (Oberon, 1976) and Twenty-Five (Fiddlehead, 1978). Recent titles include The Book of Contradictions (Oolichan, 2002); Eyes to See Otherwise: The Selected Poems of Homero Aridjis (Carcanet/New Directions, 2002; co-editor & principal translator), Incubus: The Dark Side of the Light (Oberon, 1997); A Staircase For All Souls: The British Columbia Suite (Oolichan, 1996); The Incorrection (Oolichan 2007) and The Anachronicles (Ronsdale, 2008). He edited The Verse Map of Vancouver (Anvil, 2009), with photos by Derek van Essen [SEE REVIEW BELOW]. The Incorrection was shortlisted for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize.
McWhirter and his wife Angela (Mairead Coid), whom he married in 1963, have a son, Liam, and a daughter, Grania. The couple has maintained ongoing literary associations in Mexico with writers such as José Emilio Pacheco, Homero Aridjis and Gabriel Zaid. McWhirter published an award-winning translation of Selected Poems of José Emilio Pacheco (New Directions, 1987) and he was editor and chief translator for an anthology of Mexican poets, Where Words Like Monarchs Fly (Anvil, 1999). Its title refers to the annual migration of monarch butterflies between Mexico and Canada. Mexican poet, novelist and environmentalist Homero Aridjis launched an English version of his new Solar Poems (City Lights Books) at the famous at City Lights Books in San Francisco on April 6, 2010 with City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti and the book’s translator George McWhirter.
McWhirter's novel Cage (Oberon), about a B.C. priest in Mexico, won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize in 1988; and he has received the League of Canadian Poets Canadian Chapbook Prize (for Ovid in Saskatchewan, 1998), the F.R. Scott Prize for Translation (1988), the Commonwealth Poetry Prize (1972), the Macmillan Prize for Poetry (1969) and a Killam Prize (1998) for his teaching. He edited Words from the Inside (a Canadian Prison Arts magazine) in 1974 and 1975.
George McWhirter was Head of the UBC Creative Writing Department from 1983 until 1993, and he has been editorially linked to PRISM International magazine since 1968. When George McWhirter retired from the University of British Columbia's Creative Writing department in 2004, he was feted by former students and colleagues at a large reception that included the launching of a limited edition book of appreciative essays in his honour dubbed The BOG (The Book of George).
In 2007, George McWhirter was named the City of Vancouver’s inaugural Poet Laureate. George McWhirter has also been involved with Vancouver Pacific Swim Club (now the Pacific Dolphins), acting as its treasurer for 1992-93, and is an honorary member of CIVA (Canada-India Village Aid).
In 2014 he was as busy as ever, publishing a new collection of short stories, The Gift of Women (Exile Editions 2014 $19.95 978-1-55096-425-7). Two of the stories, “Tennis” and “Sisters in Spades.” were finalists for the Gloria Vanderbilt Short Story Prize and appeared in the CVC Carter V Cooper Anthology Series. McWhirter read part of another story, “Arrivederci”, at the Vancouver Writers’ Festival in October, 2014. He continued to translate Mexican poets including Homero Aridjis, with Tiempo de ángeles / A Time of Angels (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica / City Lights: San Francisco 2012) and Gabriel Zaid, with Poesía selecta de Gabriel Zaid / The Selected Poetry of Gabriel Zaid (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2014) with fellow translators Eliot Weinberger, Margaret Randall and Daniel Hoffman, among others.
Review of the author's work by BC Studies:
The Anachronicles & The Verse Map of Vancouver
[BCBW 2014] "Fiction" "Poetry" "Mexico" "Translation"
Where Words Like Monarchs Fly (Anvil $14.94)
In 1968, George McWhirter was asked by editor J. Michael Yates to make contact with a visiting Mexican poet at UBC. Being shy, McWhirter wrote a letter, even though José Emilio Pacheco’s office was only a few hundred paces away. That year McWhirter translated three of Pacheco’s poems for a Yates’ anthology called Volvox. “When José Emilio departed homeward, my letters often vanished into the maw of Mexico City,” he recalls. “Stamps would get torn off—they were often more valuable than pesos.”
McWhirter met Pacheco at the Hotel Geneve in Mexico City in 1975. “This huge man bustled into the lobby of the Hotel Geneve with books which he switched from hand to hand and brought close to his nose, like smelling salts to revive him. He apologized more than a Canadian, and when he ate, our children, Angela, and I watched in wonder at the speed of his spoon and the intake of soup. He said he was making up for 400 years of hunger. Pacheco said he had inherited the empty stomach of every Mexican that the Spanish had starved since 1500, but his craving for books was even greater.”
Ten years, a peso collapse and an earthquake later, McWhirter reunited with Pacheco for translations of Pacheco’s Selected Poems. With the blossoming of a friendship, the Mexican invited the Canadian to meet his fellow poets such as Gabriel Zaid, a Mexican Christian of Palestinian extraction. Zaid had compiled an anthology of younger poets. They met in the lobby of the Hotel Reforma where splashes of water and little bird notes percolated through their greetings and introductions.
“A man in a brown, double-breasted business suit, whose voice was hard to separate from the fluting of the water, led Angela and I past the fountain,” says McWhirter. “He had large hands, or very visible hands, which rose as though to conduct his words and fell when he stopped speaking. Over and over again, like books, the palms of both hands were opened to us.”
McWhirter liked Zaid’s poetry and wanted to translate it. McWhirter sent a letter to other Mexican poets whose books he had read. He received a letter from Homero and Betty Aridjis, asking him to translate some of Homero’s poems for the Latin American Book Fair in New York. (Homero’s translator, Eliot Weinberger, had become the exclusive translator for Octavio Paz. Most of Mexico’s poets are influenced by Octavio Paz, Mexico’s best-known poet. McWhirter met frequently with Paz at his penthouse apartment on Calle Lerma when the McWhirters were living in Cuautla, Morelos, on a sabbatical year.)
George and Angela McWhirter first met New Yorker Betty Aridjis and Homero Aridjis—president of Grupo Cien, ‘one hundred artists for the environment’—at their large home in Mexico City. “Homero sprinted down, shook hands, and talked to us rapidly,” McWhirter recalls, “as if something elsewhere was about to call on him. Unlike José Emilio, he was unintimidated by his own size. He had no fear of crushing us in a mad Mexican murder of affection and solicitation when he embraced us and reached up to slap our backs. He became a commission of kind inquiry during dinner, so much so that Betty badgered him about remembering to eat. We glimpsed 400 years of roving impatience in the man. Son of a Greek father and Mexican mother, he quests the world and only rests in Mexico.”
Among the ten writers translated by various Canadian poets—Kate Braid, Karen Cooper, Caroline Davis Goodwin, Sylvia Dorling, Arthur Lipman, McWhirter, Raúl Peschiera and Iona Whishaw—McWhirter might have unwittingly crossed paths with one of the poets before.
In the 1970s the McWhirters visited the house in Coyoácan where Leon Trotsky was killed with an ice pick. The residence doubled as a private museum and was home to Verónica Volkow—Trotsky’s great-granddaughter—who is one of the poets whose work appears in Where Words Like Monarchs Fly. In those days the family museum was tended with no government support, Verónica would have been the same age as the girl, an anonymous party member, who showed us the relics at the table where the ice pick found Trotsky bent over his studies. That house had survived raids and hails of bullets that still pock the walls, brick turrets and the iron door to the bedroom.”
Born in 1955, Veronica Volkow is the youngest of the ten poets in the anthology. With poets Elsa Cross and Elva Macías, she invited the McWhirters to the launch of a friend’s book at the Franz Mayer Museum in Alameda. “Our first course at the soirée was a balalaika trio in the courtyard. A fine quintet of literary peers accompanied the poet’s ten-minute reading with short critiques and memoirs. In the après-launch, Verónica introduced us to her mother and father—who was, someone whispered to us over drinks, Trotsky’s grandson—the aristocracy of the left. Something we were lucky to learn, for until she had established her credentials as one of Mexico’s best poets, Verónica allowed no mention of it.”
Other poets in Where Words Like Monarchs Fly: A Cross-Generational Anthology of Mexican Poets (1934-1955), a unilingual volume, are Carmen Boullosa, Victor Manuel Mendiola, Myriam Moscona and Francisco Hinojoso. 1-895636-18-3
[BCBW SUMMER 1999]
A sense of belonging is also a fundamental tension in Cage (Oberon $29.95 $14.95), the new novel by Belfast-born George McWhirter, head of UBC's Creative Writing department. McWhirter's narrative follows a Vancouver Island priest who has gone from a native Indian parish in B.C. to a native Indian parish in Mexico.
[BCBW Spring 1987]
Selected Poems (Translation)
George McWhirter has edited and translated the first major retrospective, bilingual volume from Jose Emilio Pacheco, one of Mexico's foremost modern writers. McWhirter, a frequent visitor to Mexico, worked in close contact with Pacheco to produce Selected Poems for New Directions Books of New York.
[BCBW Spring 1987]
That's the writer's lot
I ABSOLUTELY AGREE WITH BARRY Broadfoot. You'd think that more of the names in Words We Call Home (UBC Press) would have national reputations. Writers from Creative Writing's English Department days Lionel Kearns, Daphne Marlatt, Heather Spears, even George Bowering; and after independence-the Dennis Foons, Margaret Hollingsworths, Andreas Schroeders. Even more shocking that as writers they can't earn as much as a single mother with a single child on welfare. That's the writer's lot -as lamentable as Barry B. says. Since 1947, a lot of writers have met in workshops put together in the beginning by Earle Birney -forties fellows like Daryl Duke, Bob Harlow, Norm Klenman; seventies women like Roo Borson, and Linda Svendsen, who was featured in the Atlantic's "Best of the Decade" but remains relatively unknown in Canada. The names leading the workshops, writing their way into poverty, haven't stopped. Like Jack Hodgins, some come over from Education to participate. Good writing in a good manuscript is all that's needed to get in. The door is open, the university takes writing seriously and funds it. It is a pity society won't do the same and pay its writers with the attention and money they deserve. The B.C. BookWorld header should have read: "Barry Broadfoot blasts the current state of affairs for writers in Canada." Add my piece of huff to his, please.
--George McWhirter, head Department of Creative Writing, UBC
City announces inaugural Poet Laureate
Press Release (2007)
George McWhirter, Professor Emeritus of UBC’s Creative Writing Program, is named the City of Vancouver’s inaugural Poet Laureate. Mayor Sam Sullivan will introduce McWhirter to City Council on Tuesday March 13th.
During his honourary two-year term, McWhirter will act as a champion for poetry, language and the arts, and create a unique artistic legacy through public readings and civic interactions. With plans to establish a civic web page for poetry and an anthology of local poets, his mandate is to raise the status of poetry in the everyday consciousness of Vancouverites.
A Vancouver resident since 1968, George McWhirter was born in Belfast where he received his B.A. from Queen's University. His extensive teaching experience has taken him from Kilkeel, Bangor, County Down to the University of Barcelona's Escuela de Idiomas, to Port Alberni and finally to UBC, where he was Head of the UBC Creative Writing Department from 1983 until 1993 and where he earned a Killam Prize for teaching. An author of six books of poetry, two poetic works in translation, five short stories and three novels, McWhirter has been the Advisory Editor for PRISM international magazine and has edited several anthologies.
McWhirter will receive an annual stipend of $5,000, which is funded through a $100,000 donation by Dr. Yosef Wosk. Dr. Wosk’s donation, matched by the BC Arts Renaissance Fund and held in trust by the Vancouver Foundation, ensures that the poet laureate position will continue in the City of Vancouver.
The Poet Laureate was chosen by an independent assessment committee from the literary and poetry communities that included Association of Book Publishers of BC Executive Director Margaret Reynolds; City of Victoria’s Poet Laureate Carla Funk, poet and non-fiction author Gary Geddes and was supported by representatives from the Vancouver International Writers Festival, Vancouver Public Library and the Office of Cultural Affairs, part of the City of Vancouver Cultural Services Division.
from Hannah Main-van der Kamp
The Incorrection by George McWhirter (Oolichan $17.95)
“He likens the three Abrahamic religions to the Three Stooges.”
Among some literary poets there appears to be an unwritten rule that forbids poetry from being entertaining. Nobody told George McWhirter.
Storyteller, holy fool, genre-bender, McWhirter is the funniest/serious poet on the current New Titles list.
At 186 pages, divided into four sections, The Incorrection opens with Fluid Places, a series of “slender sonnets,” each followed by a commentary. Slender is the right word. The average number of words per 14-line poem, total, is about forty; sonnets with all the fluff blown out. An unskilled poet taking unearned liberties? No, he’s perfectly capable of the conventional sonnet form as he demonstrates in a later section.
These sonnets are overtly interlinked along with innumerable covert links. Belfast, Jericho Park, coffee, Mexico, pigs, tuna fishing, hats and swimming pools. That’s just a taste of the rich cross-references in the first pages.
In Po-essays, the second section, McWhirter mines The New York Times, The Economist and National Geographic, among other publications and hauls out good ore. These poems are poignant social commentaries and indictments but the charmed hook is humour. He likens the three Abrahamic religions to the Three Stooges.
Speaking of religion, there are numerous mentions of God, (including fishing for God’s bite on a lonely line). “Catholic to the core, but no lover of Rome,” McWhirter spars with God, “the maker of disasters,” but avoids sarcasm or irony.
No sermonizing here and no abstractions. McWhirter is a master of grounded language: cleats, drumlin, podding, whin, mangle, spud, filcher; are they Irishisms? What matters is that the lingua N. Ire-Landica is perfect for this earthling poet’s purpose.
Why no index? This affectation appears to be coming into vogue these days. A note to editors: how is the reader to relocate a poem, especially if the poet sometimes chooses to leave off titles? McWhirter leaves the reader confused with his occasional stubborn refusal to title; one doesn’t know if the page is a new poem or a continuation of the poem that came just before. Provide an alphabetical index of first lines at the least!
Small quibbles. He uses European names for B.C. birds (tomtit?). At least he admits he’s embarrassed he cannot put the right name to the bird. If you are writing about Vancouver, not Belfast, get a local bird field guide!
Entertaining does not denote trivial. There is somber material here on war, addiction and faith. Sport as religion, water wastage, the destruction of the Amazon forest, McWhirter can turn every conceivable topic into a fresh poem.
The love poems to Angela, his wife of more than four decades, are teasing appreciations. His wisecracking about her cooking, gardening and table manners is a tattered camouflage through which tenderness is revealed. (Apologies from the reviewer but without an index, it’s hard to relocate these poems in order to quote from them.)
Besides being the first Poet Laureate of Vancouver, McWhirter also qualifies as the Poet Laureate of Asthmatics, “the constant cranking of my respiration, somewhat antique.” Sans self-pity, the state of the poet’s lungs is just one more allusion in his encyclopedic accounts.
“Orange peels as dropped bloomers of the sun!” McWhirter is a silly, (read blessed) idiot! Eclectic and inventive, these are the most entertaining poems to come along in a long time, seriously. 987-0-88982-234-4
The Anachronicles by George McWhirter (Ronsdale $15.95)
The place itself is La Audiencia Beach in Mexico. Instead of portraying history only from the present looking backwards, McWhirter also has the past looking forward to foresee and comment on what is to happen as a result of the early exploration. Here, Hernán Cortés and his Lieutenant-Conqueror of Colima, Sandoval, appraise the antics of Bo Derek and other stars as they make the movie 10 — on the same beach where four hundred years earlier their crews built three brigantines to explore what is now called the Sea of Cortez. The verse-logs then follow explorer Don Caamaño and his successors up the Pacific Coast to where John McKay (aka Sean McKoy), an Irishman, was left to recuperate from a sickness among the Nootka/Nuu-chah-nulth on Vancouver Island.
George McWhirter presently serves as Vancouver’s inaugural Poet Laureate.
[by Hannah Main-van der Kamp]
A Verse Map of Vancouver
One can’t imagine Prince George or Kelowna or Surrey would have the hubris to generate a coffee table book of “verse geography” such as A Verse Map of Vancouver (Anvil $45), edited by outgoing, pre-Olympic Poet Laureate George McWhirter.
But Vancouver—and Victoria—take themselves seriously as city-states of the mind. Apparently the hip new Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson will be handing out gift copies of McWhirter’s quirky urban atlas to distinguished visitors—and good for him. Because McWhirter has molded a non-self-celebratory, mostly private reflection of a public place.
On a Seabus ride, George Whipple typically describes “20 storey high steel pterodactyl cranes as delicate as dragonflies” and notices “one happy flag having an orgasm with the wind.” This is not an advertisement for a ‘world class city’ to raise the property values even higher. It is a sampling of moments, of minor epiphanies amid the clamour of machines and the distractions of nature.
Instructing contributors to accentuate places (rather than themselves) was a great idea, as was making the poems equal partners to Derek von Essen’s unpretentious urban photographs, but this patchwork of impressions is ultimately illuminating because McWhirter has mostly chosen poetry about how it feels to be a citizen of Vancouver.
Shannon Stewart encounters electric eels and an octopus at the Aquarium. Mark Cochrane describes the banjo busker outside the 4th & Alma liquor store. David Conn has a lovely description of returning home from work to non-descript East Vancouver, “body charged, euphoric, the daily commute an accomplishment.”
Heidi Greco contributes a recollection of being stuck in an elevator of the Lee Building at Main & Broadway. George Stanley recalls the oddity of evacuating his building at 5:30 a.m. due to a fire alarm, “apartment dwellers, strangers, gathered out on the sidewalk.”
When the famously handsome English poet Rupert Brooke visited Vancouver and Victoria in 1913, he wrote, “You think B.C. means before Christ,” he wrote, “but it doesn’t. I’m sitting, wildly surmising, on the edge of the Pacific, gazing at mountains which are changing colour every two minutes in the most surprising way. Nature here is half Japanese.”
By opting not to provide context for the poems (ie. by choosing not to inform the Mayor’s next Distinguished Visitor that Joy Kogawa’s ode to her former home incorporates the painful family back story of forced internment during World War II), George McWhirter’s verse map is, well, half Japanese. Whatever Rupert Brooke meant by that.
There is an element of haunting mystery to this carefully laid-out poetry garden of concrete and cherry blossoms. From VanDusen Gardens, Michael Bullock can see “The distant mountains / veil their sad faces / behind a scarf of mist.” You have to be a Vancouver insider to “get it.” But outsiders are welcome to have a gander, too.
Bernice Lever describes the urban circus of Word on the Street with a knowingly jaundiced eye. Kate Braid describes the architecture of the Science Centre as an “ugly attempt to mimic heaven.” Jancis Andrews ponders a cultural divide when she peers at grandmothers in Chinatown who “seem boneless, these women, twigs of black pants and dragon-embroidered jacket.”
Even bud osborn’s sublime poem about predators in the Downtown Eastside is more poetic than political. The shortest poem is Joseph Ferone’s haiku-like four-liner about visiting the BC Collateral pawn shop. “The bus stopped / before the pawnshop window: / I went to the guitars, / you went to the knives.”
Perhaps some poems about Vancouver from estranged outsiders—views of the Big Smoke from Anne Cameron in Tahsis—would have added a dash of piquancy but it’s silly to dwell on all the poets who might have been included. No Kerrisdale Elegies from Bowering. No Birney. No bissett, etc. Well, that just creates room for newcomers like Elizabeth Bachinsky, Stephanie Bolster and Daniela Bouneva Elza.
Beyond the noteworthy inclusions of George Woodcock, Pat Lowther, Al Purdy and Michael Bullock, this ain’t no dead poets’ society. McWhirter’s Vancouver is mostly contemporary—and also fleeting. The editor’s selectivity has rendered this gathering of “surveyors” into a coherent choir of small voices. 978-1897535-02-8
-- Alan Twigg