Don Gutteridge is the author of more than fifty books, including poetry, fiction and scholarly works in educational theory and practice. In 1972 he won the President’s Medal at The University of Western Ontario for his poem "Death At Quebec". Among his best-known poems are the mythic tetralogy: "Riel: A Poem For Voices," "Coppermine: The Quest For North," "Borderlands," and "Tecumseh." Gutteridge is best known across Canada for his historical fiction. He has also recently produced a series of mystery novels, The Marc Edwards Mysteries.
Don Gutteridge was born in Sarnia, Ontario in 1937, and was raised in the nearby village of Point Edward, Ontario. His high schooling took place in Sarnia and Chatham, Ontario. He attended the University of Western Ontario (UWO), where he graduated with a BA Honours in English in 1960. Gutteridge then taught high school English for seven years before joining the Faculty of Education at UWO in 1969. He is currently Professor Emeritus. He lives in London, Ontario with his wife Anne. He has two children, John and Kate, and six grandchildren.
For My Brother Bob, in Loving Memory
Now that you are gone
I think of all the questions
I meant to ask and never
did, and I stare at these
of our shared boyhood
immortalizing the memories
I must muster alone:
the way you hung upon
the words of my stories and brought
them alive in your eyes
that will not brighten again
at my preposterous plots
and characters carrying on –
now that you are gone.
(Guelph: February 1961)
That night the snow
fell as soft as rose
petals on a bride’s veil,
and we walked through the
brightening air, hand-
in-glove, our dreams aloft,
while flakes feathered your lashes
and left your eyes aglow,
as if the world were there,
without preamble, to welcome
lovers and their slow, passionate
THE VILLAGE WITHIN
We all have a village within,
a place where we go
when the world fails us,
the home-ground where every
face is familiar and child-
size, where the streets welcome
our walking and each house
is a variation of our own,
its idiosyncrasies known
and loved just for being
there from the beginning
when our eyes were
as wide as any horizon, when all
was new and unrehearsed:
O the tug of the town
that gave us birth is one
of the sweetestjoys we know.
Inundations, your most recent collection of poems, seems by its title to address the excess of stimuli in the world right now. Was that your intention––and if so, why?––or are inundations for you of a more internal sort?
Inundations is about the inundation of memories that inspire the poems in Part One. As I grow older I return evermore to my childhood days in the village of Point Edward, which has taken in my mind almost a mythical quality. I do memory exercises in which I sit in my study and try to remember images, sounds and events from my past. They have been flowing for the past several books: The Way It Was, Tidings, Inundations and a forthcoming book, The Blue Flow Below.
The term “cartographer” appears in Tidings, is as a theme much expanded upon throughout A True History of Lambton County, and implies itself through “The Village Within”; and in an essay called “History as Public and Private Metaphor” (19..), we find: “Much as the sense of place does, the figures and events of our historical past become part of our psychological ground.” Too, we come across in “Teaching the Canadian Mythology” the phrase: “In a sense one can only know as much about one’s country as one knows about one’s self.”
Is there a way in which, for you, returning through Tidings to the land of your childhood had been a process of personal cartography? Does this sense of mapping psychic geography combine with, influence, foster, or compel your sense of myth making?
Yes, my journey back has the appeal of a personal cartography It is similar to my earlier mythmaking in which the stories of Riel and Maquinna and so on resonated with something personal as well as historical and the two got fused somehow. I have always cheered for the underdog and the historical figures that attracted me – Riel, Matonabee, Maquina and Tecumseh – were all underdogs, trying to survive and maintain their culture just as the poet strives to maintain a sense of his inner self. I still feel I am mythmaking, even though the recent poems are all personal, because the personal is projected onto the “mythical” village of Point Edward (of which I have written probably a hundred poems, starting with The Village Within back in the 60s.
Have you returned lately to any poems or works of fiction and, in doing so, noticed that their meaning has changed for you?
I rarely re-read any of my earlier works, afraid of what I might find.
A lot of your writing features a stark awareness of time, whether it be “Year by year / I sit / in the sun’s thinning / my age growing around / me…” in “Death at Quebec” or the deep meditation on time in Tidings, with poems like “Time Was” where you are aware of the time “whittling / down the days one / by one”, or “Memory” in which you acknowledge the failure of memories to be a substitute for the past, and “An Odd Thought” in which you strikingly state “I am now an old man”. You also explore, manipulate, and re-create time in your works like Borderlands, Tecumseh, and The Village Within. The back cover of Tidings credits you with a “balance between nostalgia and ironic distance,” and, since you outline the sorts of things which time has taken away from you by recollecting or reiterating memories in your poems, I wonder, what has time given you? With both nostalgia and an ironic distance, how do you view the earlier trajectory of your work?
My early work was all about objectifying my own thoughts and feeling onto historical figures, which back then was really, in part, attempting to fill the fairly unoccupied space of Canadian Literature in general (There wasn’t very much until the 1960s: the landscape, both literally and metaphorically was barren. It took Atwood, Birney, Purdy, Munro and others to start filling in the spaces, and I was very much influenced by these pioneers and hoped to be among them. (My comment about ironic distance on the blurb of Tidings was a bit misleading: I feel passionately about my village characters and events but try to avoid sentimental nostalgia. That’s all I meant. Irony is a bit too strong. Time gives you both perspective and the past – yours to mine as you wish.
Referring to Riel: Poem for Voices, you write that, “the poem took its own final shape––which turned out to be quite different from what I had initially envisaged.”
And, elsewhere, “The words are the poet’s, but they belong to others as well, as they mean in ways beyond his control.”
Does the arc or final form of your fictional works often surprise you? And do you, as a poet, ever feel a responsibility to attribute part of your work––its inspiration, direction, or conclusion––to “the Muses?”
Yes, the final draft of a work of fiction or a poem is always a surprise. Writers work incrementally, phrase by phrase or chapter by chapter, each new set of words setting off a fresh range of possibility and some inner sense (all poets have this) that somewhere/sometime a final fully shaped entity will emerge. It is still a mysterious process to me after some 1500 poems. I write a single phrase, and soon further possibilities emerge (influenced in my later lyrics by rhyme and consonance and the drive to make something whole and complete.
Is the experience of writing poetry different now from what it was when you were in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties? If so, in what way(s) is that process different today?
Today I write short personal lyrics, driven by sound and sense. In my early work I looked outside myself to historical figures whose stories resonated with something in me. In my middle period I experimented with documentary material and found poems (excerpts from newspapers, journals and so on). Now I write only brief personal lyrics about both the past and my present life as a father and grandfather and a handful of poems about the creative writing process itself.
In many of your poems you speak with an authority through your characters, specifically Riel and Maquina. You particularly make claims about the Metis culture, masculinity, and the passing down of knowledge and tradition from earlier generations. Ex. “Riel: Walking (Pembina 1858)”:
They were walking as a Metis always walked
Because a man could feel the Mother Earth through the palms
Of his feet, and know the firmness of her flesh
And the great unturning heart at the centre of her,
Were walking because walking told in every stride
Of man’s moving over the earth in a passing as brief
As a footprint, and because a Metis found
In walking a togetherness of spirit,
Of flesh knowing the same earth at the same turning
Of the sun or the season, and a man moving
Was like the wind’s loving of the deep grasses,
And did not stand like the rocks and die with stillness
In the bones, and because walking made spring
Out of muscle and limb, and a man could feel
His body lean as a willow in its long greenness,
And because there was joy in a Metis walking
With himself or his brother. These things had been told
To him by his elders, and he had felt them.
And “Riel: Last Stand” (19) ends with “Because they were a people, and because they knew / what it was to be a man, and make one’s choice, / and stand.”
In Borderlands, you make use of real historical figures and include brief descriptions of their histories in the introduction. What was your process in researching these cultural and historical pieces, and how did you work to reconcile the knowledge that you accumulated with your poetic voice? Were there conflicts and/or discrepancies between fact and fiction? Did you find that you had a lot of room for your own creation of myth within history?
My use of material outside the poetry grew out of my wide reading in historical documents and old newspapers and journals. When I went looking for “found” material to resonate with parts of a longer work I simply read until I could say “Aha!”, this would help to reflect the themes of the longer poem I was working on. I simply developed a sixth sense of what would fit into the poetry and enhance the overall meaning. When a documentary piece is fitted into a longer poem, it becomes not only an integral part of the overall meaning of the work but is transformed by its context into a “poem” itself.
Has your relationship to ambiguity, mystery, or contradiction in poems changed over the course of your years?
My early narratives were straightforward, highly rhetorical with dramatized “voices”. My recent lyrical phase has made my work more subtle land at time ambiguous. In the short lyric there is more word-play, and in my poems about Eden there is an ironic tone.
In response to the unlikelihood of your fearfully returning to read earlier of your works, I’ll just offer that I was recently chastened by the image of a writer chasing her published work like tattoos about the body, the next driven by the desire to distract from the previous.
Do you identify with this sense of functional distancing with regard to your early work? As a fair portion of those who will encounter this interview are largely, so to speak, un-inked, have you any words of advice regarding the pen and its early consequences?
I feel distant from my early works, written forty years ago and in a different style. They are mostly longer-line verse while my current lyrics are all three-beat lines (with a variety of rhythms) Ironically, my lyrics still maintain the narrative spirit, as most of them are a single, continuous sentence with a strong close-out.
In what proportion do you feel your work is guided transcription as opposed to generation?
If I had to choose I’d say generation. I write quickly and usually revise the same day. My novels were all written quickly as well, with a first draft taking up to four weeks. (Further drafts are of course much slower and rigorous)
Are there in the Canadian literary landscape elements whose development has surprised you?
Yes, I am surprised that much modern poetry has become obscure and difficult. My recent work is out of fashion with its use of internal rhyme, consonance, and strong rhythm. I find much contemporary verse rhythmically flat and toneless, although still strong on imagery and voicing.
As a writer, it is nearly impossible to extract oneself from one’s work, and in your poetry there are traces of yourself in the histories of place and memories--whether it be in Point Edward or in the thoughts and feelings of your historical characters. You mentioned the poet’s endeavour to maintain one’s inner self—do the poems themselves function as safekeeping for your thoughts, emotions, and memories?
Yes, the poems are a place of safekeeping for memories, thoughts, and emotions. They also serve to trace my inner development as a human being: father, grandfather, custodian of the family and historical memory.
You mentioned your sixth sense of using ‘found’ material, particularly in your earlier writing, and how a documentary piece can be transformed by its context into a poem. In your opinion, where are the best places to look for ‘found’ material or material that melds well into poetry?
To find found material I search the library for old newspapers and secondly for books that can act as companion pieces to the poetry as it develops. For example, I read biographies of Riel, Matonabee (Samuel Hearne’s journal), Maquinna and Tecumseh and historical materials written about them.
Does the mythical quality of Point Edward hinder or enhance the personal memories that you draw from it?
I’ve created a Point Edward in my memory and given it a mythical quality (as every-village). And such a creation enhances my own memories about the town.