Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Canadian or American? Saul Bellow, Chicago and the University of Victoria














Jack Foley, in his Introduction to The Collected Poems, calls me "in truth, a citizen, at heart, of both countries. At once a Canadian and American poet, one with a foot in both worlds, Sward also inhabits an enormous in-between," he writes.

As an epigraph to his Intro, Jack quotes Saul Bellow saying to me, "You don't look like a Canadian." I was setting up recording equipment in Saul Bellow's office at the University of Victoria. He was Distinguished Visiting Writer in Residence, and I was interviewing him for Quill & Quire, a national trade publication for Canada's book industry. Bellow had recently won the Nobel Prize and The Dean's December was his first book following that announcement. The Dean's December was getting negative reviews and Bellow speaks about the novel's reception. (Note: This 1982 interview appears on my website, http://www.robertsward.com - Click on Poems and scroll down for Interviews.)

Anyway, there we were, two Chicagoans. Bellow, though born in Montreal, looked "Chicagoan." He had that look. And, for myself, I suppose I hadn't lost the "Chicago look" either. But did he mean Jewish? Or did he mean something else?

Although gone so many years from the States, at that moment I wanted nothing more in life than to go back to the U.S. Seeing Bellow made me homesick.

My wife once asked, "What was it like anyway, teaching at the University of Victoria?"

"Well, I remember the first faculty party,
September, 1969. I found myself talking to this portly, red-faced, jowly, steak-and-kidney pie academic. Head of the University's freshman English program. He asked what I thought of Victoria. 'Provincial, quiet, friendly... clean... and, strangely, every home I've seen so far has a well-tended flower garden." No accident, either, Victoria being home to the famous Butchart Gardens.

He seemed pleased to hear I'd been living in New England--writing at the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire.

"My family moved here from New England, too," he said. "We left because of the Revolution."

What? At first I thought he was saying he too was a new arrival. Maybe someone who, in 1969, in the midst of the Vietnam era, had grown fed up with Nixon, and decided America was on the brink of revolution. There were some at the time who thought that way.

"What do you mean, Revolution?" I asked.

"The American Revolution. My ancestors left America after the Boston Tea Party. We're United Empire Loyalists."

Suddenly America seemed really very far away.

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