Denise Bukowski Reminiscence

The United Nations declared 1975 International Women’s Year, and Jack McClelland decided he had to do something about it. So he put out a public call for poetry by Canadian women, in aid of producing an anthology of the best of it. And he volunteered Al Purdy and me, his editor, to make the selection. Both of us heard about it first in the press, whereupon Jack also volunteered me to spend a long holiday weekend at the A-frame, sifting through the submissions. The irony of Jack McClelland choosing Al Purdy to compile a collection of poetry by women was lost on us all at the time.

I was married then. On a Friday night in the summer of 1974, my husband and I chugged east along the 401 toward Ameliasburg in our black Volkswagen beetle, weighed down with bags of female verse gifted to us by Jack. When we arrived at the A-frame, Al and Eurithe were there to greet us. Stalwart Eurithe would keep us well stoked with good food for the next three days and nights while Al and I took on the daunting task before us.

The house’s stunning views over Roblin Lake — and breaks to canoe its rosy, mirrored surface at dusk — provided our only other solace.

The first thing I discovered was why so many people have war injuries from their visits to this famous abode. I had assumed that the consumption of large amounts of alcohol was to blame, but I quickly learned that it was hard not to hurt yourself while sober. For the house was truly cobbled together, with no two rooms on exactly the same plane, and few surfaces level, especially when it came to the outhouse. Tripping over doorways was a way of life; you had to learn to do it balletically — and to remain seated after Al broke out his wine.

Al’s hang-dog mug grew longer and longer as the hours ticked by. He was definitely not amused by the new piles of envelopes that appeared every time we cleared one heap off the dining room table. We made three stacks: Yes, No, and Maybe. Al would make the final selection. My main job was to count lines and determine when we had enough to fill a collection.

The No stack soon was immense. After 24 hours we weren’t exactly sure how some of the poems got into that Yes pile. We started to announce the choicest bits aloud to entertain our spouses. By day 2 we were giggling. By day 3 the home-made wine appeared soon after breakfast. (I don’t recall what my ex-husband did with himself all this time; he may have been off in the bush considering his options, because by the end of 1977 we had separated.)

Al and I discovered some marvelous hidden gems among the dross, but by Monday morning the marathon task had reduced us to quivering lumps. After we packed the Yes pile in the trunk of the VW Bug and were ready to leave, Al gave me a specially inscribed copy of his 1962 collection, Poems for All the Annettes, in gratitude for my assistance.

I have been as far as China; I have also been to India and all the countries between here and there. But nothing compares to my poetic weekend in the house that Al built.

–Denise Bukowski