His life story alone would make for great reading.
Part of the Montreal literary circle that included Irving Layton, Leonard Cohen and Louis Dudek, award-winning poet Avi Boxer stirred things up with his forceful, almost-to-the-breaking-point writing style.
His poetry reads like barbed wire and Molotov cocktails compared with Cohen's archeological attention to detail or Layton's sparseness. It's fascinating to think of Boxer and his hard-hitting words ("I was sure she was chewing/on some rusty razorblade,/so I kept watching/waiting for the blood to come") co-existing with the works of his famous colleagues.
Then there was the time Boxer left, with Layton's wife Betty Sutherland and his own wife Val, for a short-lived bohemian existence in San Francisco, according to an essay written by Boxer's son Asa.
But despite being part of such a pivotal literary group, Boxer is all but forgotten, a fact that the influential, Ottawa-based Arc Poetry Magazine hopes to remedy.
With its summer issue, Arc drops its usual format of publishing new poetry and instead devotes itself to lost and neglected Canadian poets of the past. The special issue has been attracting attention outside the usual poetry crowd, not only because of the trove of poets it uncovers, but also because of the hidden corners of the country's cultural history that it touches.
"When you look at Avi Boxer's writing, it's great. It's so full of vitality," said Matthew Holmes, co-editor of the issue. "And the circle of friends that he had, Leonard Cohen and these people in Montreal at the time, it's fascinating. It's so incomprehensible that we've totally left him behind, when we revere everybody else in his circle. Just historically speaking, he adds so much to our understanding."
In addition to Boxer, the magazine discovered other forgotten poets: Take Paul Potts, a B.C. native, who was a close friend of George Orwell and was embraced by Britain's literary set, where he added his abrasive, unfashionable and straightforward style to the mix. Potts lived in squalor in London and depended on the help of Orwell and other friends to survive.
Yet another intriguing figure was Cheng Sait Chia, a Chinese-Canadian poet who lived on the East Coast and experimented with the same kind of sparse imagery found in the work of American poet William Carlos Williams. She might be seen as a leading light if she were read more widely. Instead, most Canadian poetry experts have never heard of her.
"She wrote quietly and privately. She didn't publish until after she died, and she was Chinese and kind of on the wrong coast to be noticed as a Chinese author," said Arc editor Anita Lahey. "She's just a find out of the blue. The poetry is so bizarrely there . And we never would have heard of this woman."
The fact that Arc even found many of these poets was often a matter of chance. The editors simply sent out a call for essays about dead and forgotten greats.
A number of poets eventually included in the issue were widely praised in their day, winning prizes, Governor General's awards and the Order of Canada.
"When you look at [poet]Audrey Alexander Brown, she was revered," Holmes said. "Prime Minister Robert Borden sent her an inscribed book with his regards. These weren't people that were failed writers. They failed to be honoured and remembered as writers."
But there's a larger issue here, Holmes added, noting an essay in the journal by writer Aislinn Hunter about Louise Morey Bowman, who was one of the earliest modernist poets publishing in Canada.
"Yes, it's about poetry and how we've forgotten some and left others behind," Holmes said. "But it's really about how we identify ourselves culturally and historically, how we trace a path that leads us to the scene where we are now.
"And so [Hunter's]call is a really powerful one in the journal. It's really saying that we need to know. We need to have those collections of letters in our libraries. We need to know where the person lived. We need to know that we can go and find their journals somewhere and read about their lives. That is really important and it goes way beyond just poetry."
Arc's editors also found a pattern with the forgotten poets. Some weren't writing according to fashion. Some lived abroad. Typically, there was some extra factor working against their continued memory.
"We weren't choosing ethnicity and gender and sexuality," Holmes said. "We weren't trying to tick off any boxes. But that's what we started to see in front of us, that there was often something else about these writers that would maybe encourage the neglect or make it a little easier to neglect them. That included immigrants and minority Canadians. It included people that went out of Canada, ex-patriots. So people that were living in the States or the U.K. would not really get any attention back home. And it included in certain instances sexuality and other elements like that.
"I wouldn't say necessarily they were the reasons these poets were neglected," Holmes added. "We just started to see a pattern. There was often a certain minority status that had these people on the periphery of the central cultural society."
But not always. Established, historic figures of the 19th century such as Thomas D'Arcy McGee and Joseph Howe, who strove to establish a Canadian literary identity, even fell into the neglected category.
McGee and Howe were big players in Confederation. They were both newspapermen, as well as published poets, Holmes noted. "They had a very specific idea of what they were doing. It was very intentional. They said outright: We want to create nationality, and the way to do that is to establish literature and culture right at the centre of our government and our politics and our economy."
So forget the artists and their works, and we forget ourselves.
But as Holmes also said about the impetus for the special issue, "We weren't doing it to be corrective. We were doing it because we felt there is this stuff out there and it would be really interesting to get into it, let the whole issue be taken over by it."