bill bissett, an artist living in Canada

Kathleen Reichelt
May 2017

bill bissett performing in Kingston, 2017, photo credit Kathleen Reichelt


It’s easy to fall in love with bill bissett.  There is a quality to his nature that is rare.  A quality that I have known in a small number of people, who are genuinely present and authentically aware.  On the last day of March 2017, I am in bill’s studio, located on the east side of Toronto, Ontario.  bill is so cool and easy to talk with, I forget that I am with a “national treasure”.  Though he might not think of himself this way, bill bissett’s contribution to Canadian art places him in a special realm.

bill is a poet, visual artist and performer who has published over 60 poetry books, cds and numerous other projects, making him a major contributor to modern, post modern and contemporary poetry. bill founded blewointment press in 1962 which was sold and later revived by Nightwood Editions, who honoured the poet with a tribute in 2006.  Margaret Atwood and Leonard Cohen were two of more than 80 writers who contributed to this honour. In 2007 bill’s sound poetry was sampled by The Chemical Brothers on their CD We Are The Night, and in that same year, bill was awarded the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to literature in British Columbia. bill started writing poetry early in life, and in 1968 Jack Kerouac was famously quoted in the Paris Review as naming bill bissett one of the “great poets”. bill continues to be a great artist who is neither pretentious nor withdrawn. bill is extremely sophisticated in his ideas, totally chill under his trucker hat, the epitome of cool in his street vernacular, all of it his own.

In bill’s studio, the light of uncurtained windows fills the space. His work is full of vibrant colours, dancing brush strokes, faces and figures, abstract lines, expressive and intense. There is much in common between bill’s paintings and his poetry. At their core, both are performative. bill’s use of phonetic language and marks on canvas function as modes of expression, relating the changing, shifting, audible movement of being. bill uses phonetic writing in his poetry, his emails, in all of his writing, including translating interview dialogue, and his movement and being in the world mirrors the dance of his visual art.  In an email exchange, I ask bill about his approach.  bill writes:

th 7 plus approaches2 writing poetree – sound vizual narrativ
non narrativ metaphysikul spiritual
politikul his her storikul fuseyun poetree chant song dreem spirit reeching in2 our dailee lives how that
is found n conseptual  poetree love n
romantik n erotik poetree thees n othrs mor cum 2 mind i have gemini rising n multi voices orchestraysyun poetree

It is interesting to me that bill uses pronounced lines in his visual art, when his writing, thoughts and feelings seem to be in the process of dissolving lines.  There also does not seem to be a line between bill’s life and art making which becomes more apparent to me as the weekend rolls on.

After the studio tour we are on the road, headed out of the city for a weekend adventure that has been planned with our mutual friend, the poet, performance and visual artist, David Bateman. We are going to Beat Manor, located in the ‘middle of nowhere’, or, halfway between Toronto and Montreal.  This is where I live with my partner Wes Rickert, and where we invite artists to stay with us, record, film and collaborate on art. It is where artists can detach from the idea of place and go to float and sink and bounce in abstract discussion and performance. We have studio recordings planned for our weekend, and an event at an artist-run centre in Kingston, Ontario.

During the drive, bill is a steady stream of thoughts, ideas, observation and enthusiasm. He expresses awe at the snow-mist-rain that we move through on highway 401.  Sailing past the shifting scenery of diminishing high rise buildings replaced by fields and iconic red barns, we see deer feeding themselves from the remains of winter’s cornfields, birds migrating above as we follow the path of traffic heading east.  bill’s gratitude is constant, he finds magic all around and there are no complaints about the last days of winter that linger on our backs.

After we’ve been on the road for a while, we pull over to lunch at an En Route, typical of Ontario’s 401 truck stops. The food options are corporate, limited, the drone of popular music pipes through the hidden speakers. bill draws attention to the architecture of the building.  It feels like an alpine ski lodge, he says and I laugh and nod, because it does feel like that, and wonderfully unfamiliar with him. Seeing the mundane and everyday with new eyes is what an artist does, and bill is steadfast in this. At 77 years of age, bill has a lot of practice being present and optimistic, and an incredible amount of energy sustains him.

While munching on sandwiches and chilli, we talk about our mutual love of film noir, friendship and bands. bill has recorded many albums, both spoken word and music. One of his bands was The Luddites, an alternative rock band that played from 1986 to 1991. bill tells us about the instruments, including a vibraphone that one of the band members made by hand.  He tells us that one day a band member was suddenly married and living in London, England to someone they’d never met.

a band realitee is veree interesting

Suddenly you’re in a relationship and then you’re not, right?

i know copee copee veree

Friendship is like that too, right?

yeah copee copee

We talk casually for some time, moving with conversational intuition, shifting through topics, relating and weaving personal experiences. We are rabbits jumping from one idea to another, which tires our friend David. He wanders away and back again. When I bring up one of my planned interview questions, I ask both bill and David to answer.

Do you think of yourself as a Canadian artist?

thats a great qwestyun mostlee
i dew

No, I don’t. 

(pause, bill and David laugh)

It’s not that I resist the definition, I just don’t think of myself in nationalist terms. So certain things about my art that are a product of living in this country, that are both positive and negative.  For example if I critique certain colonialist practices in my work, because my work sometimes does that, then those practices probably have something to do with the place that I live which calls itself Canada.  But as an individual artist I don’t know that I’m conscious on the surface of being Canadian when I’m making art.

same heer as a prson we have
medicare a slitelee mor equitabul
societee thn sum countreez not
sew much mor  we have sew
much mor 2 dew heer whatevr
heer meens  it mite meen kebek
indiginous peopuls n canada n
all th othr peopuls heer threding
within each othr as well calld
canada it mite b at leest three
major parts cumming 2gethr
with mor othr parts sew manee
 from evreewher knitting all thees
parts 2gethr n separatelee being
fluid n respektful equiteez n
individual  sovereignteez ther is
 still a terribul defisit uv equitee
 heer  wundrful medicare heer
wch ium veree grateful 4 as iuv
bin mostlee alwayze sick sum
uv th time sins iuv bin ten we
have wundrful hospitals heer
 iuv bin in a lot uv hospitals a
lot uv peopul have n thats what
i think uv whn i go thru th world
healthcare 4 evreewun thats
what we have n no ium not
nashyunalistik or patriotik thos
dynamiks also breed mor

I turn the recorder off at this point and consider their responses. Is it more accurate to say we are artists living in Canada, than Canadian artists? We gather up our belongings and head back out to the highway. We are close to Kingston now, and the red rock of the Canadian Shield is jutting up and out from the sides of the road. It is here that we start to see jack pines high up on the rocks, bent with the wind coming off the impressive St Lawrence river.  In Canada, jack pines are part of the iconic imagery that many school children absorbed as nationalist symbols, as seen through the paintings of The Group of Seven. When a jack pine is spotted against a moody sky on a day like today, it is difficult not to recollect the work by these painters and what many consider “Canadian art”.  At the same time, it seems somewhat antiquated to identify as an artist of a country in this century. And yet, like the Olympics, identity through geography persists in art. Consider the biggest film festivals and biennales around the world. Consider the focus on Paris, New York, and Berlin as the epicentres of the arts. What does it mean for an artist to be from somewhere? From the middle of nowhere? To be from another planet?

bill grew up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, during a time when French and First Nations heritage was considered a disadvantage or something shameful.  bill tells us that his father claimed Scottish descent, rather than French, and that his mother’s relatives were unclear about their Metis roots.  bill doesn’t refer to these distinctions in his written bio, which focuses on his origins from the planet lunaria. David and I ask questions about this planet and the relationship it has to his phonetic style of writing.

do you think lunarian is related to the phonetics?

i dew i hadint originalee whatevr
originalee meens thot uv it that
way  i was dewing things with
th idea uv words  th way they
look on th page 2 thees ears or
sum wun elsus ears  i phonetisizd
without being accurate 2 phon
etiks  its driftid in2 mor lunarian
originalee i just droppd th “e” in
“the”  n thn ths langwage phon
etisizing was creeping in a gud
way in2 evenshulee evree word
ther is still room 2 grow n go
with that  its calld organik
gradualism n molekular dissolv

do you remember when you first started using phonetics as a way to describe your page poetry?

Ii red evreewun that was avail
abul 4 me 2 reed during th
yeer i startid reeding  mostlee
writrs in english or writrs trans
latid in2 english  probablee
th most influenshul prson 4
me was gertrude stein  i realizd
i didint need punkshuaysyun
as gertrude stein sd if peopul
dont undrstand what yu ar
saying without punkshuaysyun
they wunt undrstand with it  sew
i let punkshuaysyun go

How long were you on lunaria before you came through your mother’s womb?

sum 400 yeers

Do you think that some people think its a joke?  Who don’t take it seriously or don’t believe it?

sumtimes  lunaria was a veree
beautiful societee egalitarian
veree equitabul  they didint have
2 worree abt fossil fuels  all th
enerjee was providid by ths
mirakul uv goldn coppr lite that
was in strategik places  alredee
ther  we childrn wud play with
th lite like playing th harp n that
made all th enerjee 4 fires 4
cooking n 4 heet  ther wer sum
 places on lunaria that wer
what happend in my life time
that was veree serious was that
th oxygen ran out
i was on th first childrns shuttul
2 erth  i dont kno how manee
othr shuttuls ther wer  i think
they sent all th childrn out first
i dont kno if all th othr childrn
went 2 erth  or if ther wer othr
places they went  lunaria was
int hugelee populatid

We exit the main highway and take the back roads.  Out here the sky is huge and the fields wide.  There are no street lights on the gravelled roads, there are pot holes, pockets of forest mixed with farms and long intervals between houses.  These are the roads locals know.  Roads that take longer to navigate, are more scenic, less travelled.  In the era of digital mapping, it is hard to get lost, to drift.  I reflect on bill’s description of lunaria, his connection to a place that no one else may be able to understand.  We are all the tellers of our own personal mythology, and though most people may identify themselves by the place they were born, doesn’t an artist have the opportunity, maybe even responsibility, in being the creator of their own beginnings? Aren’t we as artists the vanguard for dreaming, inventing, reclaiming the imagined, the irrational, the radically mysterious?  Can we resist the urge that everything be known, understood and assimilated to a same-same experience?   Doesn’t our era have enough limitations?  Enough “reality”?

When we arrive at Beat Manor, Wes is there to greet us and soon the four of us are in the kitchen, hungry to eat and dive into conversation again.  We move between abstraction and philosophy to our favourite films.  We tell old stories and ones that happened last week.  The energy is high, and we will stay up late to watch Clash by Night and marvel at the talents of Barbara Stanwyck.  But first we head to the recording studio.  bill and David both take part in a recording with Wes and I under our sound project Burning Iceberg.

bill starts with a piece called Alabama and then moves into sound poetry, or as others might describe it “speaking in tongues”.  bill only needs one take.  Here the poet reveals his ability to open up and flow with the stream of the present.  bill’s words, sounds, movement are expansive, to the mind and to the emotions.  We get to witness this again the next night when we are in Kingston, at the artist-run centre Modern Fuel.  In a room full of artists, poets, students and the curious, bill radiates, drawing the audience into his vision and unique language of phoneticized sound.  His expression, melodic at times, may have some commonalities with his unclaimed and uncertain Metis background, but bill is drawing from his lunarian background.  This is the place that connects to his inner world, that he shares with us.

Experiencing bill’s performance, you understand that he is a master.  His skill comes from decades of commitment to his art, and to the experience of performing.  His masterliness also comes from what I perceive to be a commitment to life and imagination.  I have been around artists for decades and have met a small number of masters.  If he tells you he knows nothing, it is this openness and willingness to learn that sets him apart.  bill has a child-like curiosity not to be confused with naivety.  Artists know that a genuine child-like wonder is necessary in creating art, though it can be hard to show this to others, out of fear of being judged or misunderstood.  It is easier to be clever, and while on the surface that is impressive, it is not the path to master.  Spending time with bill reminds me that art in an imagined world, a dream.

After the performances in Kingston we come back to the old farmhouse and stay up late talking.  I ask bill about places he has lived, how those places have or have not influenced him, and what they mean to him.

th karibu in northern bc influences me
all th time  i livd ther 70s 80s erlee
part uv th 90s off n on 4 a long time
naytur is our relees n our home i wrote
most uv my naytur n organik poetree
ther wch still influences me
in my
current home in toronto n my life ther
is also wundrful in othr wayze n i beleev we carree th magik sumtimes uv wher wev bin
with us wherevr we go its wher i am n i dont know th futur i dont know what will happn
next its always sumthing n oftn sumthing wundrful wch toronto is wundrful
4 me we ar not separabul from naytur
or separate from it whethr we ar on
a beech in barcelona or seeing th
art works in th galleree in st petersberg or driving from courteny
b.c. 2 victoria or living in th carlton
arms nu york citee or in mexico or in
london england all thees places n mor
evreewher we go influences us n th
world is biggr n biggr n mor possibul
n enriches us yes

A crescent moon is hanging low over the fields after midnight, directly out the window bill is facing.  bill smiles and relays his love for nature, telling us more about the time he lived in northern British Columbia, with his partner, for a while, and then by himself, up on a hill, with a view of a lake, where he gathered water everyday.  “I still dream of it”, he says, “and wish I hadn’t left”.

With the moon about to set, I reflect again on how place informs and defines us, telling others of who we are.  I wonder on what we chose to say, and the narrative we change as our understanding of place and self changes.  Memories change, even as we rethink them.  It can’t be helped, it is how our brains work.  And knowing this makes the present, and being present with a master of presence, that much more, the point of living.

bill is heading to British Columbia in a few days, on a tour for most of April.  During that time he will be surrounded by fans and friends, poets travelling great distances to experience him perform, to perform themselves, to share in the magic bill creates.  Some artists will see him for the first time.  I ask bill to share what he would tell an artist starting out today.

bill:  i wud say dont give up keep going
b independent totalee whn yu get
thru th diffikult erlee parts stay on
with th call uv yr work n stay positiv
n optimistik as diffikulteez may still
occur  it is can b a long n mysterious
road full uv sequenshul vortexes or
vortices n dont give up

The next day we are back in Canada’s biggest city, laughing and chattering under the bright blue sky of April.  And when we say goodbye on the sidewalk outside bill’s building, my heart is full and also heavy, because I hate to leave friends that I love.  I know that I’ll see him again soon, at the Secret Handshake Gallery in Kensington Market, in downtown Toronto, where he creates and contributes to poetry events, and will return again after his tour.  bill is needed in this community, and valued for all that he teaches to those who have the openness to learn.  bill bissett is a complex genius, with much to give, and that I was able to receive in my time with him.  How fortunate to know that he is only a car ride away.

Recorded live in Studio, 2009
| bill bissett: words | eric schenkman:guitar | ambrose pottie: drums| pete dako: clavinet

bill bissett reading from time at the talonbooks launch in vancouver, 2010

For more on the work of bill bissett click here 

One response to “bill bissett, an artist living in Canada”

  1. Janet says:

    Thanks for this article and these posts – fabulous – so few among us have theh magic – and how we love Bill –