The first thing one notices when meeting bill bissett is his incredible youthfulness.
With his wide-eyed innocence and the almost childlike tone and rhythm of his speech (peppered, legendarily, with utterances of “cool,” “excellent,” and “raging,” which he was using well before they became part of late 20th century valley-boy vernacular), it’s almost impossible to believe that he is only four short years from 70.
“Well [my birthday] is actually November 1939, so it’s actually four-and-a-half years,” responds bissett with his trademark laugh, a laugh as singularly goofy as Eddie Murphy’s. “I do tai-chi every morning. I want to be optimistic all the time. I want to be polite and loving all the time. I want to have fun all the time. I want to do my art all the time. So I think when we’re doing what we want it gives us a feeling of timelessness, and a feeling of capable energy, and I think that’s helped a whole lot.”
And bissett certainly isn’t lacking in energy. The author of over 60 books of poetry and several thousand paintings, bissett is unquestionably one of Canada’s greatest and most prolific artists, an artist of international stature (Jack Kerouac called him “the greatest living poet”), and a bona fide counter-cultural icon.
His famously goofy persona has frequently obscured his staggering achievements, not to mention his razor-sharp critical mindedness and wide-ranging intellect-both of which are very much in evidence during this interview, in which he glides from topic to topic, from literature, visual art, history, film, theatre, philosophy, politics, linguistics, with awe-inspiring ease and suppleness.
Having lunch with me in his small apartment near Barclay and Chilco (which he calls home for half the year-he divides his time more or less equally between Toronto and Vancouver), bissett explains that his poetry’s defiance of conventional syntax and grammar is a result of a larger world view shared by artists who came of age in the 1960s.
“We were sensing that in large measure grammar, traditional grammar, was connected with imperialism, and we used to make those connections frequently. And so people were being born and growing up with the sense that people were doing things onto other people, which was normative, and we were trying to let that idea dissolve and present other ideas, more collective ideas, more ideas vis-à-vis sharing and stuff like that, and using grammar in other ways.”
And what about all those weird spellings? At first, he says, he was using only syllables and partial syllables in his poetry, “and then I thought, hmm, if I do whole words, I want them to be different. I want them to have a tactility on the paper, that will reveal maybe truth…
“So I thought, another way [to reveal truth], besides avoiding grammar, would be to spell phonetically, so that sound would be a big element, and then that would be like a pre-literate kind of urge being shown.”
Bissett’s story follows that of many ’60s radicals, railing against and finally escaping the conservative, bourgeois milieus in which they were born and bred.
Born in Halifax in 1939 (Hollywood’s greatest year, the year of Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, which may explain his intense, lifelong love of Hollywood movies), he was the son of a judge, who wanted him to follow in his footsteps and become a lawyer; young bill wanted to be a ballet dancer or figure skater.
But peritonitis put an end to these aspirations-between the ages of 10 and 12, he had 12 operations. “I was always supposed to be dying all the time or whatever, and I was determined, like, not to,” bissett explains.
He recovered and returned to school, only to experience more challenges: “I was trying to do as well as I could, and getting snowballs thrown at me with rocks in them because I was gay and I was getting beaten up and having really no friends,” he says, some residual pain creeping through his usually jovial exterior.
At 17 he ran away from home with his boyfriend, arriving in Vancouver in 1958. “I had seen this documentary in Halifax about how much drugs and sex there was in Vancouver, and I found that incredibly appealing.”
In Vancouver he quickly became recognized, in the words of his publisher, Karl Siegler, as “one of the grooviest, stonedest, weird freaks-one of the great Olympians of the Kitsilano hippie scene.” He spoke out against the Vietnam War and in favour of sexual liberation and legalizing drugs, landing him in trouble with the police, who bissett claims frequently followed and harassed him.
Then came yet another brush with death: at a Kitsilano house party in 1969 he fell through a folding door that was supposed to be latched shut, plummeting 20 feet to the concrete floor of the basement, leaving him severely paralyzed.
Most people thought he would die, but bissett’s will to live once again proved too strong: he re-learned body movements and speech and, miraculously, made an almost complete recovery.
Having come so close to death on two separate occasions may explain why he seems so perpetually in love with life.
Despite his preeminence in the larger culture, bissett without hesitation calls himself a gay artist. “It’s what I’ve always wanted to be: a gay artist. I knew I was gay since I was seven. I’m very interested in being outspoken in my romantic poetry, that it’s [addressed] to guys. It took a while for me to get there, but I have been consistently trying to use the male pronoun for a long time now so it’s clear to everyone.”
Bissett remains as politically engaged today as he was in his ’60s heyday. “I go on peace walks, even ones in Toronto when the temperature is 45ºC below. I’m a member of Amnesty International. I vote NDP.”
His stance on same-sex marriage may be surprising coming from a ’60s radical: “I think it’s totally great. It’s a matter of human rights.”
To fellow ’60s radicals who oppose same-sex marriage on the grounds that it mimics heterosexual reality, bissett replies, “I see gay marriage as equalizing gay and straight people vis-à-vis benefits, and I think it’s only fair that same-sex people can get married if different-sex people can; it’s a human right.
“And also I do believe that it may trickle down bigotry, and if gay people get married it might normalize things across the board in society,” he continues. “So people like Aaron Webster don’t get beaten to death, or it may happen less.
“As we get closer to [legalizing gay marriage] it may happen more, because of the backlash,” he notes, “but once we cross over into equality I think there will be less beatings, because people can get used to something if they’re allowed to, and say, ‘What was the big deal?'”
Bissett’s latest book, narrativ enigma/rumours uv hurricane, continues the formal innovations of his earlier work while questioning the “efikasee” of narrative, which bissett believes invariably and inevitably deviates from and skews the truth.
The “rumours uv hurricane” are the forces of chaos and irrationalism seething beneath, and threatening to destroy, the tidy constructs of our everyday narratives.
The book is classic bissett-daringly eccentric, but generous in its humanity and completely accessible.
Four-and-a-half years short of 70, bissett shows no signs of slowing down. He continues to paint at a restless pace and has yet another book of poetry coming out next year.
His love of life and of what he does is evident not only in his work but-as is very apparent when one meets him-his every move and gesture. He radiantly personifies William Blake’s famous maxim: “The spirit of sweet delight can never be defiled.”