(November 17, 2015 – Toronto, Ontario) – This is a biased look at a new documentary. It’s titled Al Purdy Was Here and it’s about the Canadian poet the film’s director Brian D. Johnson calls “one of CanLit’s early coureurs de bois.” Why is this biased? By way of explanation, I too am a writer, recently accepted into the League of Canadian Poets and fresh from a reading at a small LCP event this past weekend. I am not comparing myself, but like Purdy, I consider myself a champion of a distinct Canadian culture and this website is just one example of a commitment to support that dates back almost 50 years. Like Purdy, I too began writing poetry in my teens and neither of us grew out of it.
Al Purdy was born in Ontario in 1918, survived the Great Depression, enlisted in the Air Force in 1939 and being unfit for a role in combat ended up posted to various bases in British Columbia. After the war he had all kinds of menial jobs. He was also constantly writing. I learned from the documentary he had more than 1000 unpublished poems he thought were not worth the paper they were written on. It was after he and his wife, Eurithe built an A-frame cabin on Robin Lake in Ameliasberg, Ontario that he finally began producing poetry worth paying attention to. His breakthrough came in 1962 with the publication of Poems for the Annettes. He would go on to write 39 books of poetry, a novel, two volumes of memoirs and be recognized with two Governor General’s Awards and an Order of Canada.
Johnson, whose name you should recognize, is one of Canada’s leading film critics. He is president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and was, from 1985 to 2014, a Senior Writer at Maclean’s magazine where he remains a Contributing Editor. He is also an author, musician, broadcaster and filmmaker.
As he admits in press notes from film distributor, Films We Like, the Al Purdy story came to him thanks to his wife, Marni Jackson. She had started writing a play about Purdy and became involved in an effort to preserve and restore the A-frame that had become a Mecca for generations of Canadian writers. Johnson became curious. As he says, “Purdy was new to me.”
I ran into Brian Johnson at a preview screening of his film before it had its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year, where it received 2nd Runner-up for the Grolsch People’s Choice Documentary award. Like the output from the subject of his film, Al Purdy Was Here is a visual piece of poetry. It unfolds in carefully crafted stanzas, intercut with archival footage of the often rowdy writer to the relaxed, formal on-camera contributions from a long list of writers who all owe their success in no small way to the foundation Purdy built for Canadian writers in general and poets in particular.
With apologies to those not mentioned, writers Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee, Steve Heighton and George Bowering add their voices and their words to a script cowritten by Johnson and his wife Marni Jackson. Leonard Cohen adds his voice with a reading of Purdy’s poem The Necropsy of Love.
If you’re thinking this is all talking heads and old, shaky 8mm film, there is so much more. Gordon Pinsent, who portrayed Purdy in a 2006 CBC production, appears when he read Purdy’s The Country North of Belleville at a fundraising event in Toronto in 2013. Singer-composer Bruce Cockburn performs a ballad he composed for the film. Gord Downie makes an appearance and there are throat-singers.
As I said, the production is a well-crafted work of visual poetry. It is a celebration of Purdy’s life and long contribution to Canadian writing, but it is also an introduction to someone you wished you had known, wished you had visited at the fabled A-Frame.
I never met Al Purdy. In my earlier career in radio I interviewed 50 or 60 writers over the years, but never Purdy. That said, Al Purdy Lived Here made me feel as if I not only knew the man, but could have called him friend.
Al Purdy Was Here opens in Toronto at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema on Friday, December 4, 2015 with special guests at a number of post-screening Q & A’s. It will also have its B.C. Premiere at the Whistler Film Festival on the same day.
Ralph Lucas is the Founder and Publisher of Northernstars.ca. He began reviewing movies in the mid-1970s when he worked in radio in Montreal.