George Bowering, OC, OBC, poet, fiction writer, editor, critic (born 1 December 1935 in Penticton, BC). An Officer of the Order of Canada, winner of the Governor General’s Literary Award in both Poetry and Fiction and founding editor of the literary magazine Tish, George Bowering is one of Canada’s most broadly influential writers. He has published over 100 books and chapbooks and, from 2002 to 2004, was Canada's inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate. He was the first English language writer to win the Governor General’s Literary Award in both Poetry and Fiction; the only two other writers to have done so are Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje.
Education and Early Career
After serving as an aerial photographer for the Royal Canadian Air Force, Bowering attended the University of British Columbia (UBC), where he received a BA and then an MA. At UBC, he met fellow poets such as Frank Davey, David Dawson, James Reid, and Fred Wah, and he studied the new poetics of American Black Mountain School poets Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan and Charles Olson. Upon starting his MA in 1961, Bowering co-founded the poetry newsletter Tish along with Davey, Wah, Reid and Dawson. In 1963, American-born UBC professor Warren Tallman organized a Poetry Conference in Vancouver, which brought together important American writers — such as Denise Levertov, Charles Olson, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Duncan, Louis Zukofsky, and Philip Whalen — and Canadian poets such as Margaret Avison and Phyllis Webb and the young Bowering and Wah. Tallman also hosted poetry readings in his home in Vancouver, where San Francisco Renaissance poet (and close friend of Robin Blaser) Jack Spicer delivered a series of legendary lectures on language and poetry.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Bowering remained affiliated with academia: in 1963, he started teaching at the University of Calgary and remained there — while travelling and beginning to publish chapbooks and books of his poetry — until commencing his PhD at the University of Western Ontario in 1966. He left UWO a year later for a writer-in-residence position at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University, where he met eastern Canadian poets and writers such as A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott, Louis Dudek, and John Glassco. In 1971, thanks to a Canada Council grant, he returned to Vancouver to write and then, in 1972, teach at Simon Fraser University.
Poetry, Fiction and Criticism
George Bowering’s career has been prolific. He has published over 100 books of poetry, including Rocky Mountain Foot (1969) and The Gangs of Kosmos (1969) — which together won him his first Governor General's Award — as well as Autobiology (1972), The Catch (1976), Selected Poems: Particular Accidents (1980), West Window (1982), Kerrisdale Elegies (1984), Delayed Mercy and Other Poems (1987), Urban Snow (1991), Blonds on Bikes (1997), Vermeer’s Light: Poems 1996-2006 (2006) and The World, I Guess (2015).
Like the work of American poets William Carlos Williams and Robert Creeley, Bowering’s poems, even at their most extended and philosophical, use vernacular, everyday language, and concretely focus on immediate aspects of everyday life. In “Passport Doves,” from The Gangs of Kosmos, for instance, he begins, “The pigeons followed us / from city to city / their wings caught / between the pages of my diary—”.
The much later cycle of poems, the Kerrisdale Elegies, is a “translation” of Rainer Maria Rilke’s great and supremely difficult Duino Elegies (1923) into contemporary Kerrisdale, a Vancouver neighbourhood. Exploring universal themes of loss and mourning, as well as the Canadian poet’s place within the Eurocentric literary canon, the poems retain a close connection to the ordinary. The last lines of the Kerrisdale Elegies famously encapsulate this paradox: “the single events that raise our eyes and stop our time / are saying goodbye, lover, / goodbye.”
Of his fiction, A Short Sad Book (1977), Burning Water (1980) — a novel about George Vancouver’s voyages of discovery, for which he won his second Governor General's Award — and Caprice (1987) stand out. He wrote another "historical metafiction" concerning the infamous half-Shuswap bandits, the McLean Gang. Along with his wife, Angela Bowering, he wrote the semi-autobiographical novel of 1950s Vancouver, Piccolo Mondo (1998). He continues to write fiction prolifically, publishing, for instance, Attack of the Toga Gang and Writing the Okanagan in 2015.
While Bowering has undertaken long historical narratives in both his poetry and fiction, he regards his work as “post-realist,” a vein of post-modernist writing practice which challenges the representational assumptions involved in much writing. In his essay “The Painted Window: Notes on Post-Realist Fiction,” collected in The Mask in Place, he likens post-realism to a collage: “If [the reader] lives in the city, as most contemporary readers do, he is living in a collage… a laundromat will be flanked by a Greek restaurant & a Chinese curio shop. Where unlike things are stuck together they create a new reality.”
George Bowering has published seven collections of critical essays: A Way with Words (1982), The Mask in Place (1983), Craft Slices (1985), Errata (1988), Imaginary Hand (1988), Left Hook (2005) and Horizontal Surfaces (2010). He has also published five memoirs, three books of historical nonfiction, and six plays.
The best introduction to George Bowering's work is Robin Blaser's essay in Particular Accidents, a volume which, because it casts so widely over his previous work, grants readers a privileged overview of his development. Roy Miki's 1990 annotated bibliography of Bowering's work and criticism, A record of writing: an annotated and illustrated bibliography of George Bowering, while dated, also provides a thorough groundwork for his early work. Burning Water remains his finest novel, not least for the way it insists on the emotional integrity of its characters even as it simultaneously insists that we read them as fictional constructs. Similarly, Kerrisdale Elegies, sharp and witty, stands as Bowering's finest extended poem. Translated into Italian in 1996 and reissued in 2008, it has also been recognized by scholars as being one of his more influential works, being one of the long poems considered in Smaro Kamboureli’s On the Edge of Genre (1991) and the subject of numerous academic papers.
In 2001, Bowering retired from Simon Fraser University, where he taught for almost 30 years. For the next two years, he was the inaugural Parliamentary Poet Laureate. He has also continued writing prolifically, publishing the book-length long poem My Darling Nellie Grey (2010), the memoir Pinboy (2012), the poetry collection The World, I Guess (2015), the short fiction collection Ten Women (2015), the novel Attack of the Toga Gang (2015) and the non-fiction volume Writing the Okanagan (2015)..
Governor General’s Award for Poetry (1969)
Governor General’s Award for Fiction (1980)
bpNichol Chapbook award for poetry (1991)
bpNichol Chapbook award for poetry (1992)
Canadian Authors’ Association Award for Poetry (1993)
Honorary Doctorate, University of British Columbia (1994)
Parliamentary Poet Laureate (2002–2004)
Officer, Order of Canada (2003)
Honorary Doctorate, University of Western Ontario (2003)
Order of British Columbia (2004)
Shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize (2005)
Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence, BC Book Prizes (2011)
The Pandora’s Collective Distinctive Body of Work Award (2011)