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Speaking of writing: A Q&A with UFV professor, Trevor Carolan

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Trevor Carolan is a professor at UFV who teaches creative non-fiction, poetry, literary journalism, and other writing classes. He recently published his 20th book, and over the years has written about his travels in Asia, the literature of the Pacific Coast, Eastern philosophy, and books of poems, among other topics. Since reading some of his books, I’ve been intrigued by the breadth of his knowledge. Near the end of May, I paid a visit to his home in the seaside village of Deep Cove, North Vancouver, to inquire further into the story of his life in writing. This sunny and scorching Friday, I walked up the stairs past some fresh bamboo shoots already standing taller than the ornamental bamboo stair railing, and knocked on Carolan’s door.

Carolan played an old-timey Hawai’ian record as we ate haupia, a dessert brought by his friend who had just been visiting from Honolulu. We sat out on the deck overlooking the inlet and considered the writing life.

You wrote the book The Literary Storefront: The Glory Years. The poet Mona Fertig founded the Storefront in Gastown in 1978. Her father, George Fertig, a painter, corresponded with the psychologist Carl Jung. Did you ever read up much on Jungian psychology?

I was introduced to his work peripherally as a student back in the late-‘60s. His idea of universal archetypes was new to me, although it was already becoming mainstream thought. When I returned to England for a time, I had a bachelor uncle who had great amounts of time for reading. He was an autodidact, a self-taught Irish labourer who read voraciously. He had an interest in consciousness and was the first person I knew who actively practiced the use of the I Ching, the ancient Chinese book of oracles. Some say that this is the oldest book in the world, and there’s probably a good argument for that.

Jung was also interested in the I Ching and studied it intensely. With a bit of familiarity, you get to see how it corresponds in some ways with his idea of archetypes. The I Ching (or The Book of Changes in English) is directed toward focus upon synchronicities between corresponding energies/personalities/events/probabilities. The Taoists understand it as a means of consulting the Great Oracle regarding the most appropriate course of action about a specific situation at a specific moment in time. It can be very supportive in helping us to clarify our own mind regarding these same situations. Jung wrote the preface for the definitive Wilhelm/Baynes translation from Zurich of the I Ching in English with Princeton University Press in 1949. All other translations effectively rest upon this work; many other versions offer their readings in simplified forms of English and can be useful too, but the smart seeker always checks back on the Wilhelm/Barnes just to be sure.

What was different about those days when The Literary Storefront was jumping?

My generation was music-centred, that’s what we loved. It was public and communal; there was an interchange. The current generation is anime/digital-computer attuned with a virtual world that is inherently impersonal, solitary. It’s frequently violent and excessively sexualized. It started with Pac-Man and evolves into Grand Theft Auto. Much of it has come from urban Japan, where they know a lot about depersonalized culture. The Lit Storefront scene was feminist-inspired, democratic, and highly inclusive. It was not about the golden cliquey crowd or high-tech gadgets. Everyone got a chance to participate.

Raymond Carver was a highly influential writer with roots in Washington state. He attended the same small university as you in Northern California, didn’t he?

Ray Carver, with his almost confessional voice, was the first really great writer from the West Coast who had to work with New York editors. A profoundly humble guy. He was a West Coast person who saw Humboldt State University in Arcata, where he attended school and found some teaching work, in the benevolent way that many of us see our smaller Cascadia region towns and schools here. Every time he mastered a square in his work, he moved on to something new. This was his achievement in modern lit, and those teachers who chose to follow after him like Jim Dodge got you thinking about your own muse.

I’ve been inspired by innovators like Carver, Grace Slick, playwright George Ryga, and how they open us up to new ways of seeing, of looking in new ways at what we already know, the way that Miles Davis and John Coltrane do in jazz. So part of my ongoing project is witnessing how the Western world’s social and cultural revolution from the 1960s has morphed into mainstream cultural changes—the whole sweep of diversity, multiculturalism, pluralism, interconnectedness. I’m interested in making sense of the changes that are hopefully leading the way toward a new meta-narrative, a new spiritual grounding for the global age. The role of the Beat writers and The Beatles in that transformation interests me as well.

You’re still enthusiastic about the 1960s social activist project?

You bet. Let’s not forget that we’ve been subjected to an unrelenting attempt by establishment culture to beat down and vapourize that whole generational challenge, to pretend it didn’t really happen. Well it did, it was unforgettable, and it’s not finished yet. We believed that we could change the world — make it a more loving place. That’s a big task, and we made the usual stumbles along the way. But we’ve also worked hard to preserve this beautiful planet from humanity’s own worst impulses, and somebody had to take that on. So I’m still with Ringo in the love and peace and harmony mode.

Could you tell us about your West Coast / Cascadia literary and ecological interests?

What’s apparent to me as a writer and scholar from B.C. is how we challenge the East Coast with our ideas. I feel welcome in front of the alternative culture you can find out here, and in my work I’m always interested in bringing news of alternative culture to the mainstream melting-pot. Bioregionalism is what’s percolating up and down the West Coast / western North American region these days. It typically includes the ideas of a new kind of scholar from outside the main parts of the culture, and getting the creative work accomplished normally rests on a certain degree of nature literacy, individual perseverance, knowledge of one’s craft, a kind of intuitive self-awareness, and flexibility about ways of getting things done. Not always so much about ambition.

If there’s a raison d’être in this, it’s that in articulating our experience of living in the Pacific Northwest region / Cascadia especially, we consciously enhance its identity rather than divide it up. We’re not identifying the borders; perhaps we blur the borders in our work and practice. In a tribal kind of way we enjoy identifying the distinctiveness of our West Coast culture. We’re directly addressing our constituents’ issues, and we’re sounding our own voice in acknowledging a cultural ecology that absorbs and respects ideas and traditions from Settler, trans-Pacific, and Indigenous First Nations cultures.

How do you see your own writing? Perhaps your teaching, as you still practice both?

I’ve read that William Hazlitt — the Romantic-era essayist and critic — took a long time to find his real vocation, to discover that he was born to write. Looking back, it was like that for me, although friends tell me that I always knew I wanted to be a writer. After years of reading and experience, Hazlitt finally developed his own “literary colloquial” style of English that some describe as having the effect of good, enlightened conversation. That’s not far off what I aim for.

A good teacher creates the stimulus for us to learn, for guiding the mind on to the next level, like yoga. The Chinese say that “the student is always looking for a teacher, but the good teacher is always looking for a student.” There’s reciprocity involved, so I don’t want to become obsessed by nostalgia, or with putting down the young, the new.

As a teacher, I basically follow what I learned from Sifu Ng Ching-Por, my old Tai Chi master for 23 years, and Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, both of whom I attended workshops with at Hollyhock on Cortes Island. When I was researching and writing my doctoral dissertation in Australia, I came upon an interview with Grace Slick, the charismatic vocalist from the Jefferson Airplane, one of the first major psychedelic bands out of San Francisco. She spoke to the heart of the transformational consciousness idea that I was working with. I remember her saying that with all the blitzkrieg power of the innovative social thinking, art, music, books, and public energy of those times that she genuinely believed you could change people, but how in spite of it all, you can’t. The only person we can really change is ourselves.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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