Every good interview series demands a catchy title, so I’ve decided to give mine one so I can pretend 🙂 From this point forward my interviews will be labeled under the name “Wordsmiths,” as I highlight some of the work of up-and-coming writers like me and any renowned greats that I can convince to join in.
The third installment in this series is one of those greats: Bruce Meyer, professor of English at Georgian College and poet laureate of Barrie, Ontario. Bruce has been involved in the Canadian literary scene for several decades, both as a writer and editor. It was in the latter capacity that I first met him, when he accepted one of my first short stories, “The Black Room,” into the anthology The White Collar Book: Poetry and Prose of Canadian Business Life (Black Moss Press, 2011). His newest collection, Time of the Last Goal: Why Hockey is Our Game, looks at Canada’s long-lasting obsession with hockey, and it is my great pleasure to present my Q&A with Bruce on this most recent piece.
So I have to start by asking: why do you think hockey is so important to Canadians?
Climate has partly to do with it. But more so, I think it has to do with an unrealized and unspoken mythology at the core of our national psyche. We love the idea of questing knights. Bernard Malamud has to push the idea on Americans in The Natural. In Canada, the link to Arthurian literature hasn’t been developed but it is a genuine fit. I mention, at one point, the dormer windows in Ontario farm houses. There is one across the road right now. The idea is that Canada came out of the Medieval revival of the 19th century and not the Enlightenment. It is a considerable difference. We make the world of our game out of ice. We dress our players as knights. And what is even more important is that when we crown a champion, they celebrate the eucharist from a cup — not just a trophy in the shape of a baseball stadium or a football. We drink spirits from a cup. The Stanley Cup is our Grail.
You’ve stated that this collection took fourteen years to complete. What was the nature of your process?
The book opens with an account of a meeting I had with the former Leafs goalie, Al Smith. Al, at the time, was driving cab for Beck in Toronto. He was also putting on a play, Confessions to Anne Sexton, which was a financial disaster. What Al wanted to know about was tragedy. I had been doing the broadcasts on the CBC on the Great Books with Michael Enright … We talked about tragedy for about an hour. Several months later, I heard that Al had passed away. That is when I started thinking seriously about a hockey book. Some of the poems, “Road Hockey,” for instance, date from as early as 1991. What brought the whole project together was a phone conversation I had with Marty Gervais about 2007. We started talking about hockey. We were just shooting the breeze, something we often do. Marty said I should write a hockey book. The project evolved from there, but it was only when I saw a very clear thesis emerge that the manuscript took shape. The thesis is that hockey is our game because of the nature of the founding text or Great Book behind Canada. We are different from the U.S. Their founding text is the Aeneid. Ours is Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. The book that starts off in the back of a downtown Toronto cab ends with a discussion about what makes us unique as a nation.
Having been involved in academia and Canadian literature for several decades, what do you think is the greatest thing about contemporary Canadian literature, and what do you think is its greatest challenge?
The greatest thing about our literature in Canada is that we haven’t written it yet. We have written a great deal but we have not really begun to write it because we got hung up on a landscape mythology that is a bit of a deke. At our core is something far more profound and spiritual than just rocks and trees. The landscape is not merely time or space but a testing ground of sorts — and not a testing ground in the physical sense. I see it as a testing ground for our souls. We do not really like to talk about our souls — we dismiss that kind of talk as religious. The soul, however, is not a religious question. Religion has addressed it. But the soul is a much larger question that goes beyond mere eschatology. It is not a battleground between good and evil as it is a place where we discover something else. I had no idea just how much lives inside us until I converted to Catholicism about ten years ago and had my first confession. The confessional is like stepping inside one’s own soul. It is dark, vast, scary, and an infinite question. We haven’t begun to ask for answers yet and because of that we have not begun to write our literature. That is, perhaps, a very strange answer, but it is where we have to go if we are to become a mature literature. And what is the hallmark of a mature literature? Tragedy. We have no tragedy in Canadian literature. Al Smith tried to write one. He failed but he may have been trying to articulate something no one could understand … and the great struggle in Canadian literature, from the lost trench literature of World War One that I took fifteen years to find and bring into print to the literature of our actuality — hockey — has always been to find the imaginative means to access what our language will not permit us to see or understand. Because our language fails us, like a candle going out in the dark inside the darkness of the soul, we will not see just how much we can say about ourselves. That is where our future literature is waiting for us.
What do you consider to be particularly unique about Time of the Last Goal?
I would have to say it is the thesis. The book is part memoir, part literary treatise, part paean to the game. It is structured like a playoff game with four chapters — one for each period and then a sudden death. In between periods, just as one sees on hockey telecasts, there are feature items. These are the poems and the short stories. The book is my little attempt at post-modernism. In the end, however, everything adds ups. All the pieces come together. It becomes a statement that explains why hockey is not just my game but our game.
What piece of writing are you most proud of? Are there any published works you wish you could take back?
I once asked Ralph Gustafson what his favorite book of his was. He said he couldn’t say because they were all his children. I would have to say that I do have favorites. The Golden Thread is probably my favorite. Testing the Elements is a book of poems I am proudest of. Hard to say, though. Poets are always proudest of their latest work or their next work. Walter de la Mare has an anecdote to that effect. In it he says his best poem is the one he hasn’t written yet.
Has anything you’ve written ever surprised or scared you? If so, what?
Yes, I have scared myself several times. Well, I wouldn’t say scared. I would say surprised. I once sat up all night on my back porch in Toronto and learned to write a sestina and when the dawn broke I had a sestina. I’ve dreamed entire poems, word for word, that were published. I am working on a book of ghost stories at the moment and some of those have scared me because I have been forced to confront some personal demons in writing them. I would have to say that the scariest thing was writing the final 75 pages of Heroes, which I did at one sitting. I began at noon on a Good Friday. I had to finish the book by the Monday. I took my hands off the keyboard at 2:30 am on the Sunday morning and I had my seventy-five pages. I had not gotten up the whole time and the tips of my fingers were bloody. That was scary because I zoned out completely in a very heavy state of concentration.
You’re exiled to a faraway moon until the end of your days. What are the five books you bring (excluding the obvious survival guides)?
- The Bible (King James version)
- The Oxford Reference Dictionary
- Remembrance of Things Past by Proust
- A New Book of Forms by Lewis Turco
- Legenda Aurea by Jacobus de Voragine
What do you consider to be the mark of writing success?
The mark of writing success is being able to continue to write because it means that no matter what I have written I am still curious to want to learn more. The rest of the stuff — awards, blah blah from here and there is all meaningless. The only thing that counts is the desire to write something else and learn something new in the process.