"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"