bill bissett, the Canadian poet known for his unconventional poetry, read at UFV this past Monday, the 22. bissett, whose name is intentionally written in lower case, is the creator of blew ointment, the underground press that published such notables as Cathy Ford, Maxine Gadd, Michael Coutts, Hart Broudy, Rosemary Hollingshead, Beth Jankola, Carolyn Zonailo, bpNichol, Ken West, Lionel Kearns, and D. A. Levy. Furthermore, bissett has published more than sixty volumes of his own poetry.
Carl Peters, a professor of English at UFV and the man responsible for bringing him to the Abbotsford campus, introduced him and asked the full theatre in B101 to “Look, listen, bill bissett.”
bissett then took to the stage and, after a brief hello, offered to sign books and chat with members of the audience after the reading in the fishbowl. In his typical fashion he asked the crowd, “Do you know where it is? I do now, but we’ll see if I can get there. Sometimes knowing how to get there and getting there are different things. Sometimes they’re the same.”
bissett then read from his poem “embrace,” which was written for Canada Speaks. “This version,” bissett said, “is much slower.” bissett read the poem with images of his artwork playing on the screen before him. The combination of the visual art and poetry made for an interesting and evocative performance. bissett’s paintings are single-line paintings that he describes simultaneously as “hallucinogenic” and as “meditation objects.”
Known for his unconventional sound and concrete poetry, the beginning of bissett’s poem had a surprisingly traditional style, with a rhyme scheme, but soon turned into a bluesy, psychedelic mixture of song and concrete and sound poetry.
For portions of his performance, bissett explored the effects of sound in language (i.e. sound poetry) with lines like “The future is now / shouts ring out / ow ow,” that emphasize one particular sound (ow in this case) to link words thematically. For all this experimentation, there were still memorable lines for those more traditionally inclined, such as, “She loves the sky bleeding like that. I like it too.”
There is no doubt that bissett is an interesting and unique personality. During explanations of his work he would often trail off before cackling loudly and asking the audience “That’s good, isn’t it?” and praising each good thought with a hearty “excellent.” Eccentric to be sure, bissett shared with the crowd gathered his likely co-dependency, interferon use and hypochondria (which he qualified saying it’s OK if you actually do have a lot of health problems like he does). It is easy to view bissett’s work through the lens of his health problems, but it would be missing the point.
“[inspiration] always goes on if I let go of conscious control,” says bissett. In its most pure concept, his work can be seen as intentionally infantile, or rather, unintentionally intentionally infantile. By letting go of creative drive, it seems that bissett has been able to take on a very simple and innocent approach to art that has given much of his work a clear-cut view of the world.
Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss bissett for his childishness. bissett completed the coursework requirements for a master’s degree in English and philosophy and referenced Plato and Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.
After the show, the poet made good on his promise to meet and greet his fans in the fishbowl in UFV’s cafeteria, what he redubbed “The Owl Room.” bissett’s appearance at UFV was not only a great opportunity for young students to learn from one of the local scene’s most unique poets, it is also another sign that UFV is quickly becoming one of the hippest places for writers in the province.