Margaret Avison was a highly regarded Canadian poet who saw poetry as her life's vocation but shied away from being publicly labelled a poet. She has been called reclusive, introspective; her poetry difficult and demanding. And yet, as shown by her enigmatically titled autobiography, I am Here and Not Not-There, she was also a woman with a lively curiosity and a real love for the world.
The daughter of a Methodist minister, Avison grew up in a stable and happy home during the unsettled interwar years and the Great Depression. She began writing at an early age, and in high school received valuable guidance from a teacher who led a poetry group. That story, and the teacher's advice - "For 10 years, do not write any poem with any first person singular pronoun in it" - come up repeatedly; this was clearly a defining experience.
After studying literature at the University of Toronto, Avison worked at a variety of jobs: proofreader, freelance editor, librarian, social worker, among others. But whenever a job was on the verge of turning into a career, she moved on. Preserving her reading and writing time was always a concern.
Beginning in the early 1940s, her poems appeared in several anthologies and periodicals, not prolifically, but enough to firmly establish her reputation. Her first collection, Winter Sun, published in 1960, won the Governor-General's Award.
This caused Avison some difficulty. She was gratified that people had read her book, and pleased she could reassure her father that, despite her apparently unstable life, she was producing something demonstrably good. But she was also uncomfortable because her winning meant others had to lose, and extremely apprehensive at having to attend a public ceremony (in fact, she admits to being awkward and unappreciative about it).
Her second Governor-General's Award, for No Time in 1990, is barely mentioned.
Publicity just did not appeal to her; she said in an interview that she wished it could be "deferred until after people are dead." When she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1956, she felt uneasy at being singled out for this honour when so many others were not.
Avison was also well known as a Christian poet, and her conversion at 45, after having drifted away from the faith, is a central point in her story. Anyone who has seriously considered what it means to be a Christian has undoubtedly felt some fear - fear of losing themselves, of having to surrender everything. That was a real fear for Avison too. On the verge of saying yes to faith, she addressed Jesus: "I'll believe, but oh, don't take the poetry." Yet, in the end, she gave in, throwing her Bible across the room with the exclamation, "Okay, take the poetry too!"
The consequence was, as she put it, "a new design" coming into her life, a reorienting of the familiar. She found that her senses were enlivened, poems came thick and fast, and "any minute might bring a new discovery."
Her experience speaks to another fear some Christians have: the feeling that the only safe art for Christian consumption is art by other Christians. Avison found, on the contrary, that her subject matter was enlarged, not constrained, by her coming to faith. "If God is anywhere, if He is present," she told an interviewer, "you can study anything."
Avison comes across as a charitable person who saw and acknowledged others' shortcomings without dwelling on them or condemning them. She seems to have been content to live an austere life. She mentions only in passing the physical limitations of old age; if they bothered her - and cataracts must surely have been a trial - she doesn't say so.
Avison was not able to finish her autobiography; her narrative leaves off with her winning the 2004 Griffin Prize (for Concrete and Wild Carrot). Stan Dragland, her editor on that book, and Joan Eichner, her long-time friend and editorial assistant, had worked with her as she wrote and revised, and it was they who prepared the book for publication after her death in 2007.
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But they did not attempt to finish her story, nor to incorporate the additional materials that Avison had wanted to somehow include (fragments of memoir, letters, essays and interviews). Rather, they included all those documents in an appendix almost half the length of the autobiography.
This does make for some duplication of material. The documents are worth including, though, because they offer alternative perspectives on some events and make explicit what is only implied in the autobiography. We also get to hear more of Avison's ideas about the writing process, the place of poetry in our culture and how her poetry related to her faith.
The book's title comes from a question raised at the Vancouver Poetry Conference in 1963, where Avison was a panelist: "What makes a poet's language distinctive?" Avison's eventual answer was: "It is saying 'I am here and not not-there.'" She leaves the reader to figure out what this means.
Joanne Epp is a Winnipeg writer who reviews poetry and prose for a variety of publications. She once lived in Margaret Avison's neighbourhood without knowing it.