by Emma Rhodes
When Andrew Sisk visited my class on January 31st, he introduced himself as “a nerd when it comes to Canadian poetry.” Immediately I was interested because I too am a nerd for Canadian poetry. Hence my excitement when I got my hands on Collected Poems of Alden Nowlan AND heard about Andrew Sisk’s musical tribute to Alden Nowlan in the same week! It was a good time for Canadian poetry.
Andrew Sisk came to speak to my interdisciplinary literature class on “Love and Friendship” before his evening event. Sisk first encountered Nowlan when his roommate at St. Thomas University had a small but influential book on his shelf. This book was Nowlan’s Between Tears and Laughter. From that first encounter to this day, Sisk said that “Alden Nowlan profoundly inspired [him].”
Andrew Sisk is a musician from New Brunswick and a St. Thomas University alumni, who now lives in Montreal.
Alden Nowlan (1933-1983) is widely recognized as one of the most brilliant and sensitive voices to emerge in Canadian Poetry. Born in Stanley, Nova Scotia, Nowlan moved to New Brunswick when he was nineteen. Publishing his first chapbook with Fiddlehead Poetry Books (which later became Goose Lane!), he went on to write poetry, fiction, non-fiction, and plays. He was Writer-in-Residence at the University of New Brunswick from 1968 until his death in 1983. Over his lifetime, he won the Governor General’s Award (for Bread, Wine and Salt) and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
Nowlan grew up in an incredibly religious and difficult environment, which he wrote about in many of his poems. His poetry portrays relationships that carry love, but that love is in conflict with the enforced shame and abuse that was the reality of his childhood. Nowlan’s poem “Beginning” is about how he was conceived outside of marriage. He compares his parents’ choice to have sex before marriage to “looters in a burning town.” “[Never] in making was there brighter bliss, / followed by darker shame. Thus I was made.” This type of oppression and its relationship to love constituted his childhood. Nowlan taught himself to read by hitchhiking to the public library in Windsor, Nova Scotia, taking out many books, and reading them on his way hitchhiking back home. What inspired Sisk so much about Nowlan’s background was the fact that he “had every reason to be bitter and hateful, but instead became an advocate for love and compassion and humanity.”
Nowlan’s poetry often tells stories of people he knew and places he’d been. All these poems offer compassionate and honest portrayals of the human condition, and in plain and accessible language. Sisk said that one of the reasons he loves Nowlan is because of this plain language; there are no barriers between the readers and his message. His poetry works to eliminate barriers between people, because we all have a shared humanity that we don’t often recognize. In “Answers to a Small Child’s Question,” Nowlan reminds us that we’re not so much different or better than children:
What would I do?
What would I do?
What would I do, you ask, if I suddenly knew
the world was about to blow up?
I would shut my eyes
and cover my ears
the same as you.
For Sisk’s evening tribute, he had three main goals: 1) to provide an opportunity for others to experience Alden Nowlan’s poetry, 2) for others to fall in love with Nowlan’s poetry as he did, and 3) to share the ways in which Nowlan inspired him. Now reflecting on the event, I would say Sisk accomplished his goals. In true Nowlan fashion, there was beer provided by Graystone Brewing available for attendees to drink and enjoy themselves. To further the tribute, the night concluded with an invite to The Grad House — which was Nowlan’s home and is now a campus bar dedicated to him. The event opened with a video of Nowlan reading his poem, “It’s Good to Be Here,” and as the audience sat and listened to this, it really was good to be there.
Most of the night consisted of Sisk reading some of Nowlan’s best work and then playing songs that were inspired by the works. The first song played was called “Subject to Change.” Sisk said that he loved Nowlan’s poetry from the moment he read it because it resonated with him, and the refrain in this first song was “you know I felt the same.” The entire event reflected this very feeling. Sisk was also inspired because Nowlan’s poetry made him feel a sense of community — a sort of connection to Nowlan himself — and an evening of drinking with music and poetry in a public library was exactly that: community.
If you want to be inspired just as Sisk was, and experience Alden Nowlan for yourself, you can find much of Nowlan’s work here.