Poetry and Piss-takes: At the Al Purdy A-frame Show

The auction opens an hour before the tribute begins. The perimeter of Koerner Hall’s austere lobby is lined with Al Purdy’s life in artifacts. It’s mostly photographs, notes, and first editions. There is also a white Mexican shirt. A few people mill quietly about, but it’s clear that we in the earliest wave of the audience are more likely to look than bid. A crowd examines the various posted floor plans of Purdy’s famous A-frame; it’s the reason why we’re here—to ensure the modest cottage continues its legacy as a place for poets and writers to go and take the work of making literature as seriously and joyously as Purdy did.

In 1957, Al and Eurithe Purdy spent the last of their savings, around $800, on a piece of land near Ameliasburg, Ontario. And then they built a house. In the years to come, writers from all over the country, at all levels of public success, would make the trek to see the house and to meet him. But at the time Purdy was 39, and, as Michael Enright would later tell us, considered himself a failure.

More arrive and soon the lobby is full. People are ordering drinks from the bar, but the beer is served in bottles and even though I look real hard I don’t see any flowers. I’m standing by myself, caught between my competing desires to walk over to the bar and order a glass of wine and stay where I am, blatantly eavesdropping as one man, talking to another, affixes some names to some faces in the big room. “Over there,” he whispers in a hoarse and frankly loud way, “That one with the beard, he’s Douglas Gibson. He was Al’s first publisher. And that’s George Bowering’s wife, over by Al’s shirt.”

Once in our seats, our various devices silences, the lights go low and Purdy’s voice from beyond fills the room. It seems right to let the man open his own tribute. Gordon Pinsent, who played Purdy in a biopic, walks onto the stage and picks up immediately where Purdy’s disembodied voice leaves off, reading “The Country North of Bellville”—he’s not quite doing it in the character of Al Purdy, but there is an eerie resonance all the same. Then he breaks. “Hello,” he says. The audience bursts into applause.

Gord Downie strides on stage. He says he didn’t really know Al, and that he’s always been a bit scared of poets. He reads Purdy’s best known poem, “At the Quinte Hotel,” which Downey helped popularize in an admittedly pretty good short film for Bravo. Then he sings a song, and I wish I’d had that glass of wine.

Steven Heighton comes out and reads from an essay he’d written about wearing one of Purdy’s shirts. There is a sweet anecdote about visiting the A-frame as a young man; Purdy asked him what he thought of Purdy’s very first book, and Heighton mumbled something about preferring the man’s more recent work. Purdy mocked the younger man’s politesse, and said that those first poems were “Goddamn shit!” Heighton muses that such an attitude was perhaps what made Purdy capable of making great art; he offers a quote from Jakov Lind: “a good writer is somebody who hates himself and loves the world.” It’s a very good line, but seems to fit the occasion and the man being honoured just as awkwardly as Purdy’s old blue polyester shirt hangs from Heighton’s somewhat smaller frame.

Some younger poets are invited to read a musicalized version of Purdy’s “The Enchanted Echo” alongside Robert Priest. They also read “In Search of Owen Roblin”—the poem about the very house we’ve gathered here to save. A high school student gives a spirited reading of “Thanks God I’m Normal.” It’s nice. But then Dave Bidini comes out, with his band and a quartet of women, The Billie Hollies, and put a little magic in the air. They perform a musical version of “The Names,” layering ethereal vocal harmonies over the rich reverberating chords arranged for the cello, bass, and Bidini’s guitar. The sound fills the room and it feels good.

After intermission, things pick up speed. There’s a short video montage, clips from documentaries and biopics arranged to present Purdy as a loquacious genius in one light, and a garrulous crank in another. There are more reading from poets Phil Hall, Karen Solie, and George Eliot Clarke, plus another musical interlude. Michael Enright returns to the stage and introduces Margaret Atwood; they sit down to have a short discussion. He opens by asking about that bottle of beer Atwood poured on Purdy’s head the first night they met. “That wasn’t very nice,” he prompts. Atwood flips a quick rejoinder: “He wasn’t very nice to me. He called me a very bad word.” Enright wonders if she could share that word with us, or if it’s too scandalous. “I shudder,” she says. “He called me an academic.” There is a round of laughter. “We talked about poetry after that,” Atwood remembers. “After we dried off.”

Atwood keeps calling Purdy a terrible tease, and recalls the time he, drunk and thinking it funny, peed on her car. Enright asks if she cleaned it up, and she sensibly says, “What clean? It was just pee!” Everyone laughs, and she says something about rain eventually falling. Atwood tells us one of her favourite stories about the six-foot poet. “I was in Montreal working on a screenplay with an English producer,” she remembers, “Al happened to shamble along the street. He was wearing galoshes—it was winter—and they were unbuckled.” Atwood imitates, for a second, the rhythm of clomping around in unbuckled boots. “He had a mermaid printed tie that he got at the Sally Anne, and a great baggy overcoat.” She introduced him to the stuffy Englishman, who, after Purdy had ambled away, said to Atwood, “Now that is a real Canadian.”

Enright introduces the poet Dennis Lee, who was a long time friend and occasional editor to Al Purdy. He’s also one of Purdy’s greatest champions. “If Al was here tonight,” he tells us, “he’d find a way to take the piss out of the proceedings.” I wonder what Purdy would’ve made of the handful of cracks that were made earlier about how frequently he lived in poverty, and I think about some of the auction bids—when I looked at the end of intermission, there were thousands of dollars pledged. He might not have liked the night’s event, but he would be thrilled to be leaving behind the house as a residency for writers. It’s ultimately better that the piss stayed mostly in.

At the end of the night, George Bowering comes out. He walks to centre stage, carrying a cane. He doesn’t seem to lean on it, not even one time. He calls out all of the poets who’d already read, and together they tell us “The Names.” On the stage are three generations of poets, and some of Al Purdy’s closest and longest held friends. It’s sweetly sentimental. We are all moved, and our applause lasts a long time.

Photo of the A-frame from Ancestral Roofs/In Search of Al Purdy