Bob Stallworthy's "Reading about Life"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Annie Vigna (aka Wesko) ran her bookstore on 16th Avenue North between 1996 and 2007. The widening of the avenue in 2005 contributed to her decision to wrap up the business. Annie's Books lives on in the hand-crafted lectern at the  Alexandra Writers' Centre.  (Photo: Annie Wesko)

Annie Vigna (aka Wesko) ran her bookstore on 16th Avenue North between 1996 and 2007. The widening of the avenue in 2005 contributed to her decision to wrap up the business. Annie's Books lives on in the hand-crafted lectern at the Alexandra Writers' Centre. (Photo: Annie Wesko)

Sixteenth Avenue North: a 26.5-kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway, an urban artery, and in the 1990s, on a few blocks near 10th Street West, a neighbourhood of bookstores. Bob Baxter was first on the block, opening his used bookshop in 1960. In 1996, Annie Vigna, with a degree in Russian literature in hand and a sense of entrepreneurial adventure, bought the shop and made it her own – a place for bookhounds, Red Hatters and writers. On a spring weekend, poet Bob Stallworthy takes us inside a literary reading at Annie’s Book Company where art mingles with the avenue.

 

in a bookshop on sixteenth avenue

we spend the first nice Spring Sunday

poets tell us about somebody else’s life

 

hell there is life here too

the shelves in this store are stacked

floor to ceiling with it

 

we take it all very seriously

words in shouts    squeals   whispers

from the mouths of readers

backdropped by the street

that screams in blue and red flashing lights

going east

rumbles in eighteen forward gears

heading west

 

while quietly shelved second-hand words

and windows focus sunlight

from out there

on our word dust

hanging in the air in here

 

Bob Stallworthy, Optics (Frontenac House, 2004)


Nancy Jo Cullen's Pearl

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Pearl Miller ran her brothel in this house at 526 - 9th Avenue SE in the late 1920s. Today, Loft 112 remembers Miller with its Pearl's Place Creative Residency, a program that operates in the Loft's literary/creative space located directly behind what used to be Pearl Miller's house.  (Photo:  Calgary Public Library )

Pearl Miller ran her brothel in this house at 526 - 9th Avenue SE in the late 1920s. Today, Loft 112 remembers Miller with its Pearl's Place Creative Residency, a program that operates in the Loft's literary/creative space located directly behind what used to be Pearl Miller's house.  (Photo: Calgary Public Library)

“I don’t suppose it’s a surprise,” poet Nancy Jo Cullen writes in her preamble to Pearl, “that the details of a whore’s life have been lost to history but I find her story emblematic of the renegade individualism Alberta claims to love.” Calgary-born Cullen imagines the life and times of Pearl Miller, a legendary brothel owner, madam and early Calgary entrepreneur. Miller arrived in the city in 1914 and embarked on a 28-year career operating a string of city bordellos, including one near Calgary’s posh Mount Royal neighbourhood. Around 1926, Miller purchased a wood-frame house on 9th Avenue East. In 1942, after three months in jail, Miller’s career shifted: she spent the remainder of her days saving women from a life of prostitution. Miller died in 1957 and her storied house was demolished sometime after 1971.

  

Oh fairest house to shelter easy girls,

That thereby carnal lust shall never die,

And thy parlour shall host the tender churl,

Who leaving wife at home with whore doth lie.

Six hundred square feet and no mortgage due,

Although the city starves, thy walls shall flourish.

Harlots give proof of what man will pursue

Though work be lost and children be malnourished.

 

An excerpt from Nancy Jo Cullen's “526 – 9 Avenue SE,” Pearl (Calgary: Frontenac House, 2006)


Louis de Bernières' "A Brit Falls in Love with the 10th Street Bridge"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary through the eyes of writers

The Hillhurst (Louise) Bridge continues to carry the name of the deceased daughter of William H. Cushing, mayor of Calgary in 1900-01. According to the Calgary Herald of the day, Louise Cushing was considered "one of the best known young ladies of the city." (Photo: Calgary Public Library  Alison Jackson Collection )

The Hillhurst (Louise) Bridge continues to carry the name of the deceased daughter of William H. Cushing, mayor of Calgary in 1900-01. According to the Calgary Herald of the day, Louise Cushing was considered "one of the best known young ladies of the city." (Photo: Calgary Public Library Alison Jackson Collection)

When it comes to the bridges spanning the Bow River, the poet notices the LRT crossing – “its whimsical red contraptions… perky, and adolescent, cheerful and innocent” and the Centre Street bridge and its lions, waving him “into Chinatown with ironic politesse.” When he notices the understated structure we call the Louise Bridge, he begins to fall in love. 

 

But once upon a morning, early, I noticed the 10th St. Bridge. I woke to the line of her arches flattened and softened, like breasts of a woman reclining, the line of her span, the modest curve of the shy girl who hunches her shoulders, and wears loose clothes, the better to hide that new paradise, that New-grown-land that mens’ eyes seek in passing. She is named Louise, she is prone to sulks, she is suspicious of flattery, she is easily hurt by teasing, she is wary of boys and confiding with girls, she doesn’t wear make-up because she has puritanical leanings, and at her age it’s self-defense, but really she wants to, and she will when she’s older, laughing, and saying “I’m not so serious now.”

 

Louis de Bernières, “A Brit Falls in Love with the 10th Street Bridge,” (Alberta Views, 1998)


Pauline Johnson's "Calgary of the Plains"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the eyes of Writers

Pauline Johnson's costume was an integral part of her "Indian princess" stage persona. Her outfit remained largely the same over the course of her career. Johnson willed the costume to the Museum of Vancouver.  (Photo:  Wikimedia Commons )

Pauline Johnson's costume was an integral part of her "Indian princess" stage persona. Her outfit remained largely the same over the course of her career. Johnson willed the costume to the Museum of Vancouver.  (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The acclaimed Mohawk poet-performer, Pauline Johnson visited Calgary early in her stage career. In July 1894, during her first cross-Canada tour, she played two shows in the city. Calgary audiences were treated to her two-act recital: in the first, Johnson appeared in an elaborate buckskin costume; in the second, she stepped onto the stage in an evening gown. As Johnson traveled across the “velvet browness” of the prairies she was moved by the Western landscape and by its cities. She would return to Calgary several times before she retired from the stage, finding Western audiences more welcoming that those back home in Ontario. On a least one of her visits to Calgary, she stayed at the Alberta Hotel where she likely reconnected with Bob Edwards, the notorious Eye Opener editor she met while performing in High River in 1902. She experienced “the steam-pipe breath of the Chinook wind,” and connected with members of the Blackfoot nation when her train broke down at Gleichen. Not long before she died, she wrote, “I have always loved Calgary, and how it is loving and loyal to me.” It is unclear when Johnson penned this Calgary poem, but she chose to include it in her final volume of poetry, Flint and Feather.

 

Not of the seething cities with their swarming human hives,

Their fetid airs, their reeking streets, their dwarfed and poisoned lives,

Not of the buried yesterdays, but of the days to be,

The glory and the gateway of the yellow West is she.

 

The Northern Lights dance down her plains with soft and silvery feet,

The sunrise gilds her prairies when the dawn and daylight meet;

Along her level lands the fitful southern breezes sweep,

And beyond her western windows the sublime old mountains sleep.

 

The Redman haunts her portals, and the Paleface treads her streets,

The Indian’s stealthy footstep with the course of commerce meets,

And hunters whisper vaguely of the half forgotten tales

Of phantom herds of bison lurking on her midnight trails.

 

Not hers the lore of olden lands, their laurels and their bays;

But what are these, compared to one of all her perfect days?

For naught can buy the jewel that upon her forehead lies –

The cloudless sapphire Heaven of her territorial skies.

 

E. Pauline Johnson, “Calgary of the Plains,” Flint and Feather: The Complete Poems of E. Pauline Johnson (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1912)


Stuart Ian McKay's "Weaselhead Variations"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

A downy woodpecker in Calgary's Weaselhead flats. Said to be named after a Tsuut'ina chief, this 237-hectare park borders the west end of Glenmore Reservoir.  Between 1908 and 1998 the Canadian Armed Forces used the area for military training. The park is now a haven for wildlife, birders and poets. (Photo: Dan Arndt,  Birds Calgary )

A downy woodpecker in Calgary's Weaselhead flats. Said to be named after a Tsuut'ina chief, this 237-hectare park borders the west end of Glenmore Reservoir.  Between 1908 and 1998 the Canadian Armed Forces used the area for military training. The park is now a haven for wildlife, birders and poets. (Photo: Dan Arndt, Birds Calgary)

On a March morning, the poet opens his senses to the Weaselhead flats along the Elbow River at the southwest edge of the city. He observes flora and fauna, mud, breeze, and “the waking river.” A landscape caught in the slow motion of a Calgary spring.

 

shine toppled trees roots gesturing exposed and worn down

in the intimacy of river, wind, seasons, as the wrinkles

around a woman’s eyes are to the land itself touched

tenderly, even to the formed spaces where anchoring roots

ache in the remembered river bank soil, defying birds,

leaving footsteps venial, as if to say an eternal thing was

 

 

Stuart Ian McKay, “Weaselhead Variations,” in Writing the Land: Alberta Through its Poets (House of Blue Skies, 2007)


Weyman Chan's "Calgary in February"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

The Plaza Theatre by Calgary artist, Stan Phelps (Photo: Arcadja Auctions)

The Plaza Theatre by Calgary artist, Stan Phelps (Photo: Arcadja Auctions)

For the poet in inner-city Kensington, “pastorally winter sucks.” A “sparrow-thing” offers a small comfort as it dives into a Japanese lilac, “dune frost pampering each blow.” But it is the street that captures his attention. A girl in Hello Kitty western boots skipping with her mother “like fire-eaters/toward the hurdy gurdies at Livingston & Cavell.”  Hipsters in fedoras “chatting up graces of the vexed/and crawly eyed.” The marquee at the Plaza Theatre announcing its latest offering.

 

Across the street the world’s

best commercials are at two

well you can put a price on just about

anyone’s salted butter lavished

over the dark I’m in, thin, screamy,

and now the curtains unfold

to my astigmatism

looking out for itself

 

Weyman Chan, “Calgary in February,” Chinese Blue (Talonbooks, 2012)


Rosemary Griebel's "Walking with Walt Whitman Through Calgary's Eastside on a Winter Day"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

South Bank of the Bow River near the Langevin Bridge, December 30, 1954 (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

South Bank of the Bow River near the Langevin Bridge, December 30, 1954 (Photo: Glenbow Museum)

The poet walks through Calgary’s downtown east side on a bitter winter afternoon. The 19th century American poet, Walt Whitman is on her mind, and his Leaves of Grass, poems that celebrate the world. Beside her, the Bow River “churns and smokes/as the city rumbles, economy chokes and bundled homeless/build cardboard homes in the snow.” In this bleak, frigid landscape where “crystal/meth is more common than a leaf of grass,” the poet reaches for Whitman’s “relentless cheer” and his “great capacity for wonder.”

 

There I quaffed the sharp chiseled air, the slow, sad light

of merciless winter and said, yes, this world is for my mouth forever…

And I am in love with it.

Yes.

 

Rosemary Griebel, Yes (Frontenac House, 2011)


Maxwell Bates's Far-Away Flags

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Maxwell Bates in his studio (Photo: University of Victoria)

Maxwell Bates in his studio (Photo: University of Victoria)

Maxwell Bates, one of Canada’s preeminent modernist painters, was also a poet. Born in Calgary in 1906, he grew up in a cultivated English home across from the Lougheed mansion on Thirteenth Avenue West. Like his paintings, Bates’s poetry shows a preoccupation with human presence in the landscape. In an early poem, the fifteen-year-old Bates listens to Calgary through his bedroom window. “The city murmurs” not only with the sound of bird song and barking dog, but with the “faint sound of hammer.” In a poem written his early twenties, Bates explores the city’s industrial landscape of “moulder and decay”: workers’ shacks and brick kilns, railway tracks and smoke stacks that “smudged the sky.” In a later poem, he considers “the great, human stain of the city.” He see himself as separate, but connected: “I belong to those streets.” In “Intimations,” a poem written in mid-life, he finds not only inspiration but transcendence in the city where he grew up and later returned to live.

 

Upon the houses

Black and beautiful,

Light of the moon

Shadowed dim silver;

And in my soul,

Feelings of some scarcely perceptible

Great beauty,

Some words of God,

Not quite invisible.

 

Maxwell Bates, “Intimations,” Far-Away Flags (1964)


P.K. Page's "The First Part"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Elbow River looking west from Weaselhead Flats, toward the old Sarcee Camp (Photo: City of Calgary website)

Elbow River looking west from Weaselhead Flats, toward the old Sarcee Camp (Photo: City of Calgary website)

The poet P.K. Page spent childhood summers along the banks of the Elbow River, a few miles southwest of the city centre. In the 1920s, her father served as an officer in the Lord Strathcona’s Horse. In the summer, the Pages would move from their Calgary home to Sarcee Camp, on the perimeter of the Tsuu T’ina Reserve, where her father participated in military exercises. Page’s time in this landscape, her biographer writes, provided some of the poet’s most vivid childhood memories. Decades later, when Page was living in Australia, she gave a talk about Canadian cities. When she spoke of Calgary, she recalled its “glass air” and its “limitless grassland wrapped in light as clear as cellophane.” In a late autobiographical poem, she reflects on the role this landscape at the edge of the city played in shaping her artistic sensibility.

 

Backdrop: the cordillera of the Rockies.

Infinity – slowly spinning in the air –

invisibly entered through the holes of gophers,

visibly, in a wigwam’s amethyst smoke.

 

Eternity implicit on the prairie.

One’s self the centre of a boundless dome

so balanced in its horizontal plane

 …

 It was a landscape in which things could grow

enormous.

 

 

P. K. Page, “The First Part,” The Hidden Room: Volume 1 (Porcupine’s Quill, 1997)


Cecelia Frey's "Ode to Fireworks During Stampede"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Fireworks over Calgary (Photo: Calgary Public Library, Postcards from the Past)

Fireworks over Calgary (Photo: Calgary Public Library, Postcards from the Past)

The poet sits atop Nose Hill watching the Stampede fireworks. She surrenders to the “electric air,” sees in the darkness “night flowers/blossoming/gone.”

 

I imagine the trillions of human beings

that exist, have existed, will exist

marching through pre-history

history, post-history

imagine them as spurts of colour

jetting into the sky

flowering, facing

disappearing

as black takes them

absorbs them

but there is always another

another

and another flower opening with such intensity

 

Cecelia Frey, “Ode To Fireworks During Stampede,” Under Nose Hill (Bayeux Arts, 2009)


Dymphny Dronyk's "What Beer Can Do"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Stampede square dancers, 1982 (Photo: Rainer Halama, Wikimedia Commons)

Stampede square dancers, 1982 (Photo: Rainer Halama, Wikimedia Commons)

Nashville North. The air is thick with the “sweaty cologne of drugstore cowboys/with undertones of puke,” and she’s dancing.

 

Shine my buckle, baby, he yells in my ear,

pulls me tight against him,

and two-steps me around backwards,

sloooooooow, sloooooooooow, quick-quick

one body with too many feet

we stumble, no gliding here

 

Dymphny Dronyk, “What Beer Can Do,” The Calgary Project: A City Map in Verse and Visual (Frontenac House, 2014).


Catherine Moss's "Ruby Wedding Anniversary"

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Heavy horses at the Calgary Stampede (Photo: Shelagh McHugh Cherak)

Heavy horses at the Calgary Stampede (Photo: Shelagh McHugh Cherak)

At the gates, the young woman waves them in – free Stampede passes for the couple in their fortieth year of marriage. They make their way through “a clamour of fried onions” toward the Big Top and the “sweet hay-sweat/of Percherons dappled and black.” When the heavy-horse show is over, her husband jumps from the bleachers.

 

I watch him drop

stumble

on a cardboard box

lurch backward

two inch bolt

slices

scalp

wound flows

into a bystander’s pack of tissues

my hand

sticky and scarlet

his shirt soaked

blood

dropping on straw and the upturned brim

of my new white

cowboy hat

 

Catherine Moss, “Ruby Wedding Anniversary,” Swallowing My Mother (Frontenac House, 2001)

 


Yvonne Trainer's Tom Three Persons

by Shaun Hunter


Calgary Through the Eyes of Writers

Stampede Corral (Photo: Shelagh McHugh Cherak)

Stampede Corral (Photo: Shelagh McHugh Cherak)

On Labour Day weekend 1912, six hundred First Nations people arrive in Calgary for the first Stampede. The impresario Guy Weadick has persuaded the authorities to allow Indians off their reserves to participate in the six-day celebration. Among them is Tom Three Persons, a young Blood man from the Standoff Reserve southwest of Lethbridge. The poet Yvonne Trainer sees the Stampede through Tom’s eyes. Walking through the streets of Calgary, he notices the electric lights shining in windows.

Power

in Calgary

and none of it

carried in the bag

of the Medicine Man

or in the wisdom

of the chief

On parade day, Tom canters down Eighth Avenue on horseback.

Painted faces       war-whoops

and feathers

we rode like burning hell

through the streets of Calgary

We were stared at with wonder

 

and with more than a little fear

At the rodeo, all eyes are on the gifted Blood horseman. He mounts a black bronco named Cyclone, an outlaw horse known among cowboys as the Black Terror.

everyone was standing hands clapping

stone to stone

Then I knew

and walked out lake-quiet

into the shadows

of the motor-cars

 

but someone with a box camera

came and drew me into the sun

and I couldn’t help

smiling a little

when he snapped this picture.

 

Yvonne Trainer, “1912,” “Calgary Stampede, 1912” and “Snapshot,” Tom Three Persons  (Frontenac House, 2002)