Andy Suknaski, 30 July 1942 – 3 May 2012
I was very sad to learn today of the death of Andy Suknaski.
Suknaski was a profoundly important and influential—though not influential enough—poet of the Canadian prairies. His Wood Mountain Poems (1976, reprinted in 2006) is a Canlit classic; Montage for an Interstellar Cry (1982) and Silk Trail (Nightwood, 1985) are vital extensions of the poetics of the long poem that engage the contemporary world and the story of Chinese immigration to Canada, respectively; his East of Myloona (Thistledown, 1979), among other works, gives voice to the inhabitants of Canada’s North. At present, the single most generous collection of his work is the new and selected poems edited by Stephen Scobie The Land They Gave Away (NeWest Press, 1982). Since most of his poetry, including his selected, is out of print, perhaps his passing will prompt Chaudiere Books to issue its long-awaited volume of selected poems.
So much one can gather from the various reference sites online, but I was lucky enough to have met the man. John Newlove, then patiently indulging and guiding my first, faltering poetic attempts in his role as the public library’s writer-in-residence, introduced us. I was young, younger than either of them guessed, still in high school, but Suknaski greeted me warmly in his small, cluttered Regina home one summer afternoon, offered me a coffee, and deepened my initiation into the art of poetry. The walls were covered in notes and artwork and ideograms that would compose, I guess, Montage or Silk Trail. All I can remember of that first conversation, besides his soft, respectful voice and pipe, was his asking which poets I was reading and, when I answered Pound, he remarked he’d read the Cantos three times. At that first meeting, he also learned my father’s mother-tongue was Hungarian, and from that time on, whenever we met over the years, he called me simply “Magyar”.
The last time I saw him must have been in 1989-90 when I was the administrative assistant for Grain in Regina. It was soon after, at the age of 49, he dramatically quite Canlit, poetry and art. If any further poetry would come out of him, he said, it would come out only “as voice or to sing a song for friends around a campfire, or wedding, or a ranch party in Wood Mountain.” And voice was the breath of his art, for Suknaski was the Projective poet par excellence, whose ear attended carefully “40 hours a day” to the talk around and whose intelligence showed in the dance of the syllables as they stepped down his pages measuring the syntagmata of what he called “normal human language” in all its infinitely various accents and cadences. But, unlike Olson’s Projective verse, that scores “the breathing of the man who writes,” Suknaski’s poems give voice not only to himself but much more, and at no small cost to himself, to those too many—Metis, immigrant farmers, Chinese coolies, and others—whose voices and very lives go unheard and unacknowledged. At this, he was and will remain an undisputed master.
photo: University of Manitoba archives