MONTREAL THEN (AND NOW): Montreal, City of Poets

Montreal Leonard Cohen Montreal Leonard Cohen

It was back in 1976; we were graduate students, and a friend and I had just been named editors of McGill’s Literary Journal, which we promptly made our own and independent, renaming it Atropos after one of the Three Fates, the one who (symbolically) cuts men’s lifeline with her shears.  We decided to give the magazine an international aura by soliciting submissions from Canadian and American poets of fame and renown.  My idea began with Robert Creeley, the American poet who had won both the Pulitzer and Bollingen Prizes.  All of this was hatched with my best pal, Carl, fellow American exile and lover of literature, over a couple of beer and shots of Wild Turkey in my basement apartment in the Plateau.  Having audited Creeley’s Creative Writing class at the University of Buffalo shortly before I was drafted to fight in Vietnam and fled to Montreal, I knew he was a night owl, so it seemed perfectly natural to phone him at 2:30 a.m. Creeley answered the phone on the second ring, and he patiently listened to my plea to come to Montreal, give a reading, and then submit to an interview for our fledgling rag.  Despite the fact that his reading fee was $1000 plus expenses, he agreed to come for $300, all that I had in the bank.  We were both elated and dreamed of future literary fame and fortune.

Creeley did show up and gave a memorable reading in McGill’s Leacock 132, the grand amphitheater. We charged $2, and the place filled up quickly, mostly through word of mouth advertising.  After, we went for drinks at the Ritz on the proceeds of our take and, later, up to Creeley’s hotel room where we talked late into the night while Carl’s camera clicked away, bearing witness.  Creeley was generous beyond words, and he gave us first rights to his now famous poem, an ode to his dying mother, G. J. Creeley.  He also gave us the home addresses of writers like Denise Levertov, Robert Kelly, Ed Sanders, and Anne Waldman, among others.  We wrote to them asking for (unpaid) submissions, and they all replied sending us wonderful poems that we published in our first issue of the magazine.  Along the way, we discovered other local talents, top among them Montreal writer Jack Hannan, whose poetry was to be picked up by Cormorant Books, and whose recent novel appeared through Linda Leith Publishing.   Friendships were forged.  We were young, and we believed poetry could change the world, that it meant something to everyone… our dream.  And for a brief period, it did.

Montreal, city of poets.  In the 1970s and early 1980s poetry was everywhere.  There was the Vehicule Gallery where poets came from all over Canada and the U.S. to read among the pieces of art that littered the gallery, among them the goats’ hooves that protruded from the ancient wooden beams lining the space.  We heard N.Y. poets Kenneth Koch, Ed Sanders, Kenward Elmslie read, and San Francisco poet Robin Blaser, then living in Vancouver, whose entourage included two men in drag in full nuns’ habits, complete with hairy chests and rosaries, and Anne Waldman, newly appointed director of The Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics in Boulder, Colorado (the Naropa Institute).  Waldman read from her marvellous collection, Fast Speaking Woman, dancing while she read in carnal flamboyance, rocking the audience with the It of her presence.  I took a young woman, a fellow student, to see her; it was our first date; we were both awed by Waldman’s charisma and passion and excited by her blatant sexuality. 

We are still together after over forty years. Such powerful magic endures and breeds a time line of its own.

And today?  Take a walk along Sherbrooke and turn onto rue Crescent, just by the entrance of the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montréal.  Look down the street and then up.  There, in all of its splendor, is the portrait of Montreal’s favorite son, Leonard Cohen, taking up the entire space on the side of a high- rise building– gigantic, glorious.  It is a portrait taken by Cohen’s daughter, Lorca, and shows the artist in his favorite fedora, impeccably turned out in a gray, form-fitting suit.  Cohen, the man of class, poetic genius, singer, troubadour of the soul, gracing the skyline of our city forever.  A friend, recently visiting from the States, saw this as well as the Cohen exhibit from last summer and said to me: “You have a great city, made greater by the veneration you have for poets and artists.”

And it is true.  I have had the privilege of attending two of Cohen’s concerts.  The first one was in 1993, just days after the Canadiens had won the Stanley Cup.  The town was in an uproar of joy and celebration.  Victory was in the air, as was the prospect of yet another Quebec Referendum on Sovereignty that was to be enacted in less than two years, a time when Canada was almost torn apart by the rabid, myopic vision of Bouchard, Parizeau, and the Parti Quebecois.  French-English tensions were at an all time high, yet there, at the old Montreal Forum, Anglos and Francophones lined up together to celebrate Cohen latest album, The Future (what irony!) and his earthy performance.

Cohen knew how to play to the crowd, and he came out near the end of a memorable three-hour set wearing the Canadiens jersey.  All of the audience went wild.  And then, just before he launched into his fourth and final encore, Cohen addressed the crowd in French, then English saying: “One great culture respects another culture and learns from it, learns to cherish it and incorporates it into its heart.”  You could hear a pin drop.  Cohen had done the impossible: bridged the linguistic and cultural divide that had been fracturing our wonderful city for decades.  When he finished, he got a standing ovation, the crowd cheering him in both French and English.

There was something special, thrilling in the air.  Poets, as Shelley had written, may be the unacknowledged legislators after all.

I turned to my neighbor, a francophone, in the seat next to mine and said: “Un véritable artiste; un vrai homme d’esprit.”

He smiled and answered in perfect franglaise :  “Oui, ‘e’s one of us, une montréalaise sans aucun doute…..”

There was nothing else to say as we went our separate ways into that magical Montreal summer night.

1 Comment on MONTREAL THEN (AND NOW): Montreal, City of Poets

  1. Quite a wonderful read! Thanks.

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