June 8, 2005

Writing the Place Awake: Culture in a Northern City

by Rob Budde

And so the north moves north.
--Ken Belford

Economies, ecosystems, and writing all begin from the periphery,
the outside. The outside can be many places: the hinterland, the
outback, the north, the edge, the rez, the gateway, the bush, the
back country, the borderland, the in-between, the small town, the
headwaters, the forgotten places, the mountains, Third World,
nowhere, nature, the middle of nowhere, God's country, the interior,
the coast, the boonies, etc. You know the place. It's not where it's at.

But it's where we're from, where it begins. And it is a place the
centers of power necessarily silence.

Economies depend on these places for raw resources but the
relationship to the center has to be one of extraction not reciprocal
recognition or nurturing. Outside is outside because the inside
depends on it. The discourses of power must construct the outside
as outside in order to fully realize the (artificial) potential of the
inside. The outside, as a construct, is built to disavow itself. It is
self-deprecating and without a strong identity. It lacks self-awareness
and has low self-esteem. Its history is erased and its culture

But while this imaginary identity is instituted as a grim map of Northern
BC, the place's real living goes on underneath it. And it is rich.

American writer Wallace Stegner wrote "a place is not a place until it has
had a poet." Stegner was writing about the American west, but that sense
of 'frontier' space still exists in terms of cultural representations and
stigma. What is at issue is the power of representation and who is doing
it. Place-making can occur from without or within and the imaginative
creation of a place is a crucial focus of power. It seems a kind of
territoriality but it is also a empowering act of self-reliance and self-
awareness. We need to create an imagined Prince George of our own.

Around 1970, Barry McKinnon began the Caledonia Reading Series
which later became Gorse Press. He produced hand-made chapbooks
by poets of this place and handed them to people. Today, Prince George
is known for its chapbooks and the nation knows Barry McKinnon
is here. This, dare I say, entrepreneurial spirit is what creates the culture
of (and for) a place. It is this kind of activity Prince George is starved for.
Recently, a symposium in Prince George ("The Writing Way Up Here"
March 30, 2005), a conference panel ("Writing the North" AWP
Conference, Vancouver BC, April 1, 2005), and the launch of two
watershed books, Ken Belford's Ecologue and Barry McKinnon's
The Centre: Poems 1970-2000
, have all contributed to a resurgence
in Prince George cultural pride. And it is pride, in the sense of William
Carlos Williams' "local pride" as an essential attribute for the contemporary
poet. "Pride" as a kind of recognition, a refusal to disavow place and
embrace where you are.

You are here.

In terms of regional politics, this empowerment would involve value-added
industry, decentralized decision-making, and resources for local initiatives.
In terms of culture, it means creating art in Prince George and affirming it.


Jill said...

When 'outside the centre' becomes its own centre, there is a danger of losing that unique outside perspective. I'm afraid of too much of a spotlight on this place, and the headwaters, and the back of beyond. Though a surge of backwoods pride of place and a little light shining on northern BC is deserved and a long time in coming, my instinct is to keep it low-key, so the good stuff still flows, if a little secretly.

Rob Budde said...

Good point. What's the point of resisting a 'centrism' if you become that 'centrism'. Might be the difference between a quiet pride and vitality, and blowing one's own horn too loud eh. rb