“Wherever I am is the place I am, I’m passing through. Some places you stay 30 years and some you stay two or three. Either I’m not an exile at all or I’m an exile everywhere. Wherever I am there’s also a feeling of restlessness.” — Patrick Friesen
The first time I spent any time with Patrick Friesen was on a three-hour car journey to Minnesota where we were both reading at Concordia College. On that occasion we spoke about bringing up children (something about which he knew a great deal and I nothing), jazz (ditto), reading as a concise passion, winter, and the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. A couple of years later we found ourselves fellow passengers on a train bound for Montreal and on this occasion we spoke of mutual friends, baked onion soup, the Canada Council, men’s cologne, and Akhmatova. So one can se that my knowledge of Patrick is bound up with traveling and talk, at both of which he excels.
Two years later, I found myself a sojourner in Vancouver where he had already spent some three years, and it was not surprising that the talk turned to the role of landscape in writing, weather, place, and the more general difficulties of living in the world as if it were home. This last does not seem to present any particular difficulties for Patrick: “I don’t feel I belong to any city or town. Whatever room I’m in is where I belong. And I quickly establish myself in the room or apartment I plan to live, it’s my space”.
As a wandering Jew nostalgic for roots I am anxious to learn how he achieves this. With books and CD’s, he replies, by writing and taking part in the writing community, as he perceives it. The first year he was in Vancouver, Patrick took charge of the annual Poetry Bash at the Vancouver Reading Festival and while teaching creative writing he runs a regular reading series in the city. At the same time, a new book of poems, Carrying the Shadow, is to be released from Beach Holme Press in early August.
But don’t you look forward to being a citizen, I ask, I mean the first time you don’t get lost in a new city, when a tourist finally asks you for directions, or when you actually remember your new phone number without having to look it up? He laughs: “Thirty years of Winnipeg and I didn’t particularly feel like a valid citizen. I don’t think I’m very good at partaking of the civic life of a place . . . Perhaps I was born into the wrong place. I loved growing up in Steinbach and I loved Winnipeg as a city, still do. No, maybe I was born in the wrong climate since I always had trouble with humidity and mosquitoes. When I was a kid I used to faint all the time from the heat. My mother would find me out cold on the sidewalk, heat just overwhelmed me.”
Turning my mind reluctantly from this last fascinating image I ask him if what a Winnipeg friend calls “the sunless, scurvied life of a coaster” suits him better. Much better, he replies, because of the rain: “I’m a pretty wired person and I find that rain is one of the few things that calms me down, gives me serenity. Nothing nicer than working late at night and hearing the rainfall through the open window.”
Rain or no rain, as a traveling writer one is always conscious of the other place, the next town, the importance of being elsewhere. As someone who has made and perhaps outgrown her own romantic choices in this matter I ask Patrick which place most obsesses him. He picks the Northern countries for climate and language but the country that has most fascinated him all his life is Ireland: “That came about because of my name. My mother was a romantic and gave all her children names from far away, non-Mennonite names: Germaine and Marcella and Patrick. As a result I was convinced I was adopted and that got all tied up in my head with music and writing. You know, maybe I really was Irish because of my name and that boded well for a career as a poet.”
That and a perfect recall of the intimacy of a child’s eye view. When I ask Patrick what place he remembers best from childhood, he replies unhesitatingly: “The garden. I know the 1950 layout of our garden perfectly. I can remember where the peas were, where the raspberry canes grew and where we planted the rhubarb. I’d lie amongst the canes for hours watching people pass by and they couldn’t see me. There was a maple tree in our front yard. In my memory I spent whole days sitting up there in the leaves watching people down below who didn’t know I was up there. Watching the airplanes heading toward Winnipeg.”
After this intriguing portrait of the poet as a young voyeur we talk about the places we have each lived and how they accumulate in us like rings in a living tree trunk or, as Patrick puts it, like a grid of memory across the body: “I think of each place I’ve lived, including my home town, as a grid that I absorbed into me. So I started with the Steinbach grid which included the town and the surrounding countryside, then I moved to Winnipeg and after thirty years a new grid grew over top of the old one. And now I suppose after three years there’s a Vancouver grid forming. It’s a kind of cross-section, a pattern of layers.”
I think of a wonderful poem by another Winnipeg poet, Catherine Hunter, in which she writes of the seven layers of the city: “white airplane streaks across thy sky, / the telephone wires, bridges, avenues, the pipes / shot through with gas and water, the dead / with gold rings on their skinny fingers, / their hair still growing underground.””* Like Patrick, like Catherine, I have begun to think of place in longitudinal sections, as a layering within memory through which we pass on our way to the next place. And if we carry cities in us folded up like maps then perhaps the city also remembers all its lost wayfarers and travellers, citizens and tourists passing through or moving on or just staying put. There’s this intersection on St. Mary at Main, Patrick tells me, that he’s rather fond of. I know what he means, I’ve been there too.
*Catherine Hunter poem “Seven Arteries” from Latent Heat (Nuage Editions)