Excellent adventure

Talking with poet & artist Bill Bissett

When the federal government announced last year that it was appointing a poet laureate for the nation, I foolishly hoped and dreamed that the appointee would be poet and painter Bill Bissett, the delirious shaman of Canadian letters.

Other poets may have more awards, more books in print (although Bissett, who spells his name in all lowercase letters, is up to 40 volumes, last count) and more time logged towards tenure, but nobody is more perfectly qualified, in temperament and aesthetics, to capture our dissonant yet complementary voices, those curiously harmonious fragments that make up contemporary Canada.

Reading Bissett’s poetry is like listening to hip hop on fast forward, or falling asleep in a noisy room. His tasty tangles of words jump from idea to idea with hop-scotch glee, sampling and splicing everything from EB White-like animal stories to bottomless discourses on the Buddha’s incarnations to pretty homo love songs.

Talking to Bill is much like reading his poetry – you have to keep an open and well-lubricated mind. Put bluntly, Bill Bissett is as nutty as your grandma’s butter pecan tarts, and just as sweet.

I caught up with Bissett early one morning as he prepared for January readings at This Ain’t The Rosedale Library and the new Live Poets Society series at Ryerson, and upcoming art exhibits in Toronto and Vancouver. Our conversation quickly turned Bissettian, and I took the path of least resistance.

BILL BISSETT (answering the phone): Raging! Excellent!

XTRA: Hi Bill.

BISSETT: Mr Richard? Yes? Excellent!

XTRA: Tell me about your reading at This Ain’t.

BISSETT: I dunno what I’ll be reading. I’m reading with Miss Patricia (Patricia Wilson) and Mr Somebody Else – I forget, but that’s okay, forgetting is part of knowledge, because our brains are always changing, as you know. When am I reading?

XTRA: The 13th.

BISSETT: Excellent number! But that’s so far ahead.

XTRA: It’s a week from now.

BISSETT: Ages. Hello! That’s ages. Maybe I’ll read one of my paintings.

XTRA: How do you do that?

BISSETT: By feeling the painting, catching the vibe of the painting. Every painting has sound as well as taste. Maybe someone will eat the painting? That would be excellent. But they have to buy it first.

XTRA: How are sales these days?

BISSETT: Raging! I sat in the gallery for five hours yesterday and lots of excellent people came in and had excellent things to say, even when I didn’t sell anything. Then, I was reading poems from my new manuscript and I discovered a new editing guideline for my books: If a poem makes you fall asleep, it’s probably not good for the reader. I practically keeled over reading this one poem of mine. I wish I could remember now which one it was.


XTRA: Any reflections on the new year.

BISSETT: Oh, yes. Millions.

XTRA (long pause): Such as?

BISSETT: Oh, okay! Sorry, lost you there. What’s up with time anyway? Time is great, I think we need it. And space is great – need it too. And gravity. Where would we be without it?

XTRA: Um, 2003? Thoughts?

BISSETT (laughs): Yes, carrying on, yes. World peace will break out this year.

XTRA: How?

BISSETT: By talking the warriors out of it. We’ll just keep yakking until they’re too confused to fight. We’ll talk them into stupidity. Who believes in war anymore? It’s so 19th century. So we should just keep yakking until they give up and take up sewing – which is excellent for the eyesight and finger agility, way better than shooting.

Oh! Look! Excellent!

XTRA: What happened?

BISSETT: I’m finding things on the floor! What’s that? (long pause) Oh cool. Good thing I did my breakfast meditation. Oh, wait what’s that over there. Oops!

XTRA: I guess I should let you go.

BISSETT: Okay! Lots of love and magic rainbows Mr Richard! Excellent! Bye!

* Bill Bissett will read at This Ain’t The Rosedale Library’s closing party for the All-Nepotism show at 7:30pm on Mon, Jan 13; admission is a $5 donation (483 Church St, upstairs). Bissett also reads at the Live Poet’s Society at 8pm on Tue, Jan 21 at Ryerson University’s Oakham House Pub (63 Gould St).

* Look for Bissett’s Visions Of Being show at the Pteros Gallery in April.

RM Vaughan was a Canadian writer and video artist.

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Culture, Toronto

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