Daphne Marlatt (b. 1942)
Daphne Marlatt was born in Perth, Australia, spending her childhood in Penang, Malaysia until
she immigrated with her family to North Vancouver in 1951 at the age of nine. Marlatts writing
about her own biography suggests that from an early age differences of culture, class, and races
were present and powerful, even as she tried to erase her own difference from other residents of
Vancouver, BC, differences that registered in her vocabulary, accent, and cultural expectations.
In 1951, you must remember, the idea of multiculturalism was not yet a Canadian
reality. Instead, Marlatts surrounding culture attempted to present a vision of cultural and
ideological homogeneity. In Entering In: The Immigrants Imagination Marlatt writes:
Looking back, i think that most of my writing has been a vehicle for entry into what was
for me the new place, the new world. I immigrated to Vancouver from Malaysia as a child
age nine and spent many years trying so hard to assimilate, to speak and dress and behave
as a West Coast Canadian, that when people asked where i came from i would say Oh,
North Van. Though my parents house was filled with furniture and curios and articles of
clothing from Malaysia, though they both spoke with British accents and shared a common
wealth of memories from Penang days with us.... For the sake of entry and acceptance i
denied for years my history and that of my parents. (18)
Marlatts early history, then, is one of dislocation and disavowal. Separated geographically from
the childhood world of Penang, she works to separate herself too from the complex colonial past
embodied in her parents voices, in their accents. In order to construct a sense of being at home
on the West Coast, Marlatts autobiographically inflected writing explores her relationship with
various geographical locales.
Marlatt uses her writing to explore her relationships to the West Coast region and to
explore the ways in which a gendered subjectivity is oriented in this space. The trajectory of
Marlatts writing has taken her into a more overtly sexualized and bodily aesthetic -- in such
works as her first novel ana historic (1991). As she tells Eleanor Wachtel -- my region, i mean
the region im writing out of, is not so much place or landscape these days as life as a woman
(Marlatt qtd in Wachtel 13). Nevertheless, she comes to this awareness of her own subjectivity
after years of writing her way into and through geocultural place, returning to the changing
subject to fix it again and again in time and space.
Like Bowering, Marlatt discovered the strength of her connection to the West Coast when she
moved away from it. Unlike Bowering, she does not define her poetic in opposition to a central Canadian canon. When he questioned her on this subject in Given This Body, an interview
that Bowering conducted in 1974 and published in Open Letter 1979, she replied, First of all
Im a local writer, Im a west coast writer. I dont have any sense of what [even] a B.C. writer is
(32). While Bowering returns to this question in various guises as part of his own interest in
establishing East/West differences, Marlatt always returns to the body as her main site of
writing: I think the connection is a connection with the body, & that avant-garde is simply
writing as close as you can to what youre actually experiencing at any given point (33).
Bowering and Marlatt are interesting writers to compare as they both come out of UBC
and the Tish collective at approximately the same time, they both write long poems, and they
were both influenced by American poets such as Charles Olson, but theyre attitudes towards
writing and themselves differ substantially. This may partially be due to the gap Marlatt felt
between her and the other male writers who were part of the writing scene in Vancouver. One
indicator of her burgeoning feminism is her interest in the body, although this interest is also the
influence of Charles Olson.
Like Bowering, Marlatt was influenced by the speeches and writing she got from UBCs
speakers including Robert Duncan, Robert Creeley and Charles Olson. Steveston has been
justifiably compared to American poet Olsons Maximus poems, his continued process poem
about the seaside town of Gloucester, Mass, and also to another American poet, William Carlos
Williams Paterson, his long poem that delves into Paterson, New Jersey. In Steveston Marlatt
follows Olsons dictum to dig into place, history and locus as part of the poets project. Olson
writes that the [b]est thing to do is to dig one thing or place or man until you yourself know
more abt (sic) that than is possible to any other man. It doesnt matter whether its Barbed Wire
or Pemmican or Paterson or Iowa. But exhaust it. Saturate it. Beat it (306-7). Marlatt was
able to dig into Steveston through her relationship with the UBC oral history project.
Steveston the place
In the 1970s Steveston became a suburb of Richmondthnow a suburb of Vancouver, but it was anth
important fishing village from the end of the 19 century until toward the end of the 20 century.
Steveston was the salmon capital of the World in the late 19 century, but with depleted
salmon stocks it has become a tourist-driven relic of a prosperous past:
At the turn of the century, Steveston was the busiest fishing port in the world with 14 fish
canneries packing more than 195,000 cases of salmon each year. Every summer, the silver
harvest of salmon would see the community swell by the thousands as Native, Chinese and
Japanese laborers sought seasonal work. More than 10,000 people would crowd the
boardwalks between saloons in the boomtown. BC Packers, for decades one of the largest
local employers, closed its fish processing plant in 1992.
(http://www.fraservalleyguide.com/Article.41.html)When Marlatt returned to Vancouver in 1971, her UBC connections helped her to hook up with
W.J. Langlois, who initiated the larger B.C. Oral History Project from the UBC Main Library in
1972, a project designed to create an extensive collection of oral information regarding the
contributions of various cultural communities to the economic and cultural development of the
province (RRAS Publication n.p.), including Steveston.
What is oral/aural history?
Oral or aural history aimed to record the stories of communities before they were lost through
cultural change. Marlatt came to Steveston as a community due to her participation as a member
of a research team, which included artists and photographers, who accompany[ied] interviewers
into the field, and record[ed] informants during interviews to have a complete impression of
the informant in his milieu (n.p.). Marlatts poetic collaboration with photographer Robert
Minden comes out of the Oral History programme, engaging with this community as settlement,
boomtown, and backwater, with its history of industry and global markets, and its reality in the
1970s of declining industry and simultaneous corporatization.
Marlatt writes about collaboration in her short discussion of Steveston in Michael Ondaatjes The
Long Poem Anthology as a result of being part of the oral history process:
I didnt set out to write a long poem so much as explore the place Steveston through a
lengthening line. Hearing it push time that came first.
I suppose, looking back on it, the lengthening line & the long poem wer