KEARNS, Lionel

Author Tags: Poetry

Born in Nelson in 1937, digital poetics pioneer Lionel Kearns pursued a career in hockey before he moved to Vancouver to work on CPR trains and enrol at UBC where he became associated with the TISH poetry newsletter in the early 1960s. His writing teachers included Earle Birney, Warren Tallman, Elliott Gose, Ron Baker, Jake Zilber and Dorothy Somerset. He accepted his first teaching position at SFU in 1963, the year he published his first poetry collection, Songs of Circumstance. Kearns moved to England in 1964 to study structural linguistics in the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University. After a year in Trinidad, he returned to teach in the English department of Simon Fraser University from 1966 to 1986. He took one year off during that period to be writer-in-residence at Concordia University in Montreal from 1981-1982. He has the distinction of the being the first 'Writer-in-Electronic Residence' for the Wired Writers project in Canadian schools, as well as being the only British Columbian to have played a game of baseball with Fidel Castro in Cuba during the 1960s. [See below]

In 1986 Kearns stopped teaching English at Simon Fraser University and has taught an online computer-mediated graduate course entitled "The Cybernetics of Poetry" for ConnectEd, the on-line facility of the New School for Social Research, New York.

Critical response to Kearns' writing include:

George Bowering. "Metaphysic in Time: The Poetry of Lionel Kearns", in A Way With Words. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1983, pp. 101-120.
L. Moyse. "Dialoguing the Monologue of History and Lyric: Lionel Kearns' Convergences" in Open Letter (Summer 1989), pp. 15-27.
G. Williams. "Reading Against Consumption: Metafiction in Lionel Kearns' Convergences" in Canadian Poetry (Spring, 1991) pp. 40-53.
Manina Jones. "Log Entries for Lionel Kearns" in Beyond Tish. NewWest Press 1991. pp. 222-234.


Songs of Circumstance (Vancouver: Tish Press, 1963)
Listen George (Montreal: Imago Press, 1965)
Pointing (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1967)
By the Light of the Silvery McLune: Media Parables, Poems, Signs, Gestures, and Other Assaults on the Interface (Vancouver: Daylight Press, 1969)
The Birth of God (cine-poem, 16mm., sound, 3 1/2 min.) with Gordon Payne, 1973
About Time (Prince George: Caledonia Press, 1974)
Negotiating a New Canadian Constitution (cine-poem, 16mm., sound, 3 1/2 min.), with Gordon Payne. (National Film Board of Canada, 1974)
Practicing Up to be Human (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1978)
Ignoring the Bomb: New and Selected Poems (Lantzville: Oolichan Press, 1982)
Convergences (Toronto: Coach House Press, 1984).
A Few Words Will Do (Talonbooks, 2007)

[BCBW 2007] "Poetry"

The Day I Caught Fidel
BCBW essay (2005)

You can't play ball with the Commies ---that's what they used to say when I was a kid growing up in a little town in the interior of British Columbia. They weren't really talking about baseball. It had more to do with Igor Gouzenko’s defection in Canada, Joe McCarthy’s witch hunts in the U.S. and that big shift in attitude that went with the Cold War.

But there I was, a few years later, squatting behind the plate, squinting through the bars of a catcher's mask, the sweat running down into my eyes, as Fidel Castro fired the old pelota down on me from the pitcher's mound in the sports stadium of Santiago de Cuba.

It was the summer of 1964. I was en route to London on a Commonwealth Scholarship, with a few stopovers along the way. Some weeks earlier
I had been staying with my old poetry buddy, George Bowering, in Mexico City. He and Angela had rented a little apartment on Avenida Béisbol. Baseball Street! How was I going to top that one?

I had come to Mexico to join a group of other students from various parts of Canada. We had all signed up to participate in a work project in Cuba, but there were no direct flights from Canada at that time. Three years after the Missile Crisis, and two years after the abortive US sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion, Cuba was not a popular tourist destination. However, we found the island full of students from all over the world. Some of them were studying at Cuban schools and universities, and some, like us, had come for shorter visits, invited by the government to witness the Revolution first hand, in order to counter the bad image it was getting in the Western press.

The American blockade of the island was still in effect. We could see the US warships on the horizon when we walked down the Malecon on the Havana sea front. US fighter jets buzzed the city every day or two just to shake things up, and U-2 spy planes flew high overhead. On the ground there wasn’t much food or luxury, but there was great enthusiasm.

Our group spent a week in Havana and then began moving east through the island, sometimes in a green Czech bus, sometimes in the rusty bucket of a big Russian dump truck. Other international student invitados, including a group of Americans, were doing the same kind of thing. We would meet them here and there along the way. Everywhere the Cubans welcomed us, and told us about what was happening and what they were experiencing and expecting. I was glad that I could speak Spanish.

As it turned out, we did not make it to the cane fields. Instead we spent a week doing manual labour on a school construction site in the Sierra Maestra mountains. It was not easy. It was very hot. We worked and lived side by side with the Cubans, most of them regular labourers, a few volunteers from urban areas, a few students from other countries. The menu at the camp was basic: fruits and vegetables, sausages, nothing fancy, not large rations, but enough to work on. At night we socialized and tried to get enough sleep to prepare us for the next day’s exertions.

By the fourth week we had reached Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city, in the eastern part of the island. We arrived in time for a traditional street carnival that coincided with the anniversary of the Fidel-led insurgent attack on the Moncada police barracks, a national holiday celebrated as the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. The carnival activity in the streets was intense, with dancers and musicians everywhere, everyone in crazy costumes.

We were staying with the other international students in the residences at the University of Santiago. One morning a jeep roared into the plaza beside the cafeteria. Something was happening. I grabbed my camera. We all crowded around. Fidel’s younger brother Raúl Castro was driving, and Fidel was standing up shouting a welcome to us. Then, in English, he said:

“I understand there are some North Americans here, and I understand that North Americans think they can play baseball. Well! I challenge you to a game!”

Later that day a combined team of Canadians and Americans were playing baseball. The opposition was the regular University of Santiago team with Raúl Castro inserted at second base and Fidel pitching. I was catching for the North American team.

The Cubans, of course, were much better players, and by the second inning they were far ahead. To even things up, the teams switched pitchers, with Fidel coming over to our team, and our pitcher going over to them. For the rest of the game I caught Fidel.

I had not worn catcher's equipment for a few years, but I held my mitt up there in the right place and managed to hang on to whatever Fidel threw at me. He did not have excessive speed, but he had plenty of control. His curve broke with an amazing hook, and his knuckle ball came in deceptively slow. However, he paid no attention to my signals. At one point I called time and went out to the mound to confer. I thought for sure that someone would snap our picture as I stood there in my dusty catcher’s outfit, glove in one hand, mask in the other, while Fidel told me, quietly, “Hoy, los signales no están importantes.” Apparently he did not take direction from other people, not even from his catcher. And as far as I know, that photo, famous only in my imagination, was never snapped. Even so, with Fidel’s help, our team managed to hold down the opposition to one or two more runs.

Near the end of the game Che Guevara put in an appearance. He stood there in his olive green fatigues, smoked a cigar, and watched. As an Argentinean, he was not such a committed baseball aficionado.
I had once seen a CBC television documentary on Cuba that featured Che extolling the theory and practice of voluntary labour. The camera had caught him standing amidst the high cane, machete in hand, answering the interview questions in halting English. Che had defined Socialism as the abolition of the exploitation of one person by another. That had made a lot of sense to me. I too was ready to swing a machete in the tropical sun to further such ideals. In fact, that was the reason I had applied to come on this student work visit to Cuba. I had not guessed that Che would be standing over by the dugout watching me play baseball with his pal Fidel.
The night before the game I had been in the bleachers of this same stadium watching the Cuban National Ballet performing Coppelia. The day after the game I would listen to Fidel make an impassioned four hour speech to a throng of almost a million people standing and cheering in the 98 degree sun. At the end, we would all link arms and sing The Internationale.

A few years after that game in Cuba, I was back in Vancouver playing ball with George Bowering on the infamous Granville Grange Zephyrs, scourge of the Kosmic League. But that is a tale for another day.

[Lionel Kearns taught in the English Department at Simon Fraser University and has published 11 poetry titles since 1963.]


A Few Words Will Do
promotional copy

These brief but concentrated pieces of literary work seem at first simple in their approach and straightforward in their intent: designed to be read easily and then to be carried away in our memories. As if they were ours. But when one person writes “this is what happened, this is what I remember, this is what I saw, this is what I know,” any reader stands in for and thereby becomes the absent “I” or “eye” of that written text. The deconstruction of this inescapable process of language, metaphor, is what preoccupies Lionel Kearns in A Few Words Will Do.

At first, the narrator seems caught up in the mystery of the unfathomably limitless depth of motherly love in the poem “Dorothy”; with the alchemical marriage of time and space in “Lines for Gerri” (and what are to become the recurrent phases “here to then” and “between now and there”); then he proceeds through naïve realist scenes of family life and birth in “With My Daughter” and “Miracle” to find the ongoing wonder of his father’s unfathomable actions (and the book’s metanarrative) in “Composition.” This celebration of apparent meaning at the heart of the ordinary that opens the book is so accomplished it seems unassailable with the tools of deconstruction. The book’s centre however turns on a selection of hybrid “open source” virtual prose meditations on chaos, chance and consequence, after which the narrator increasingly begins to address the poem itself as the subject, moving the reader into a position of explicit complicity with the writer, a complicity in which “A Muse” cannot escape the irony of its linguistic shadow, “amuse.” There is a materiality to the world over which the greatest abstraction cannot triumph, Kearns proposes here: all abstraction seeks to arrest time; all sentiment seeks to reverse it.

ISBN: 0889225583
ISBN: 978-0-88922-558-9
$16.95 CN; $16.95 US
6 X 9 in.; 128 pp

-- Talonbooks 2007

A Few Words Will Do by Lionel Kearns (Talon Books $16.95)

from Hannah Main-Van Der Kamp
A Few Words Will Do by Lionel Kearns (Talon Books $16.95)

“A fresh cougar skin on the fender / of the old Plymouth, and a boy / about three years old, sitting on it…” An old-timer reminiscing or poems from way back brought out of the photo album? Nelson in the 40s, East Hastings in the 60s, Mexico six decades back. Kearns has been there and done that and his poems stand the test of time with ease, “exploring the circled universe of memory.” The cover photograph of dead cougars draped over a forties car is one of the many memorable features of this volume of selected poems.

“And for those who store these experiences in words on paper, time becomes a line. But do not fasten onto that line. The fascination is in the living.” Kearns is compelled to wonder about time/memory/here/ now. Many of the poems are extended questions about existence that elude answers.

Poem-making itself is often the object of his inquiry including a funny piece in which the poet’s product is likened to elephant turd. In “Big Poem,” Kearns asks for “a literary liposuction or an editor / who chops text like a plastic surgeon,” but these poems are not flabby. Concrete poems from the sixties may look at bit dated now but it’s important to recall how new they were once and that they were composed on typewriters.

A Few Words is thin on the current publishing conventions for a slim volume of poems. There’s no index or dedication, no chronology of the poems and no acknowledgments. The reader has no way of knowing which poems were previously published, when or where. An author bio would have been welcome. Does it matter? Talon Books is a seasoned publisher and would not have overlooked such details. The format’s lack of pretentiousness may be purposeful; a seamless fit with these unpretentious poems. If some of them are new, they fit seamlessly with the old.

In a short poem about wood ducks, Kearns says, “Perfection is being totally adequate / in any given moment.” Maybe they’re not exhilarating experiments with language but these accessible pieces are more than adequate, a reminder of how good poetry hangs in there. And how pleasurable!


--review by Hannah Main-Van Der Kamp

[BCBW 2007] "Poetry"