Q: Looking through Hawkins’ entire body of work, what sort of patterns have you seen emerge? How has his writing progressed over the space of fifty-plus decades?
A: Formally, he has covered a pretty remarkable range, especially during his most productive years in the 1960s. There are the early free verse experiments of Shoot Low, the attempt at a historiographic long poem in Louis Riel, the Olson-influenced projective verse of Ottawa Poems, the characteristically-1960s lyric work in Hawkins, some of the energy and fantasy drains out in the 1970s in The Madman’s War giving way to a more plain-spoken lyric form, and his return to writing in the 1990s and 2000s saw a deeper interest in rhyme and more traditionally structured lyrics.
In terms of content, I think one constant is a desire to roam, to project parts of the self outward, while simultaneously exploring the home place of Ottawa and at times feeling resigned to being here, to inhabiting the contrasts of a life in art in Ottawa. His work returns again and again to an attempt to achieve some kind of innocence, to locate and mark beauty (the innocence is more pronounced in his more recent lyrics and their use of simple rhymes), but always aware of loss and death. Roy MacSkimming has described the “perversely compelling, idiosyncratic wonder” of Bill’s work, and I think that stands as a good description of Bill’s work over fifty-plus years.
Q: One thing that has always been clear about Hawkins’ history has been the influence he had on writing and music, both in and beyond Ottawa, and just how well respected and regarded he and his work continue to be, even though he’s barely published since the 1970s. To what might you attest such considerations?
A: Bill’s life and work lend themselves to myth, to legend. His behaviour and his art were defiant, often aggressive, but his work was also tremendously readable. His collaboration with other writers, artists, and musicians broadened the pool of those he influenced and was influenced by, exposing different dimensions of his practice to different communities. His withdrawal from those same communities in the 1970s was undoubtedly felt acutely in Ottawa (and by those aware of his work elsewhere). He left behind a substantial body of the work in the 1960s followed by twenty or so years or near silence that in some ways marginalized his work and in others created room for his legend to grow. If your eyes were open, it was possible to hail a cab and find the legendary outlaw poet of 1960s Ottawa sitting behind the wheel.
More from Cameron Anstee:
I am deeply proud to have worked with Bill Hawkins. His contributions are important in Ottawa and in Canada but he remains largely unknown among the current young generation of writers. If you are a poet living and writing in Ottawa, track down Ottawa Poems (published by Nelson Ball’s unparalleled Weed/Flower Press in 1966) and then find the rest of Hawkins’ books. His work continues to offer us much and a devoted following awaits his next utterance.
I want to toughen
& make a few statements
to the crowded busload.
(Ottawa Poems. Kitchener: Weed/Flower Press, 1966)