A Pilgrimage Through East Germany

The poet Daniela Elza has generously invited me to continue a conversation about books, called “The Next Big Thing.” Her opener is here. This is the Fourth of six projects in response, and the one I’ve been working on the longest.

 What is the working title of your next book?

White Noise



Barbarossa Monument, Kaiserslautern

Out front of just one of the Holy Roman Emperors camelots that were on the pilgrimage path.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was in Germany in 2003 and visited the former East Germany for the same time. A young man walked past me on the street, with a lot of body piercings, the German imperial eagle tattooed on his chest, with flaming pink hair and army boots. I wanted to know what he was doing in the town in which Luther translated the Bible.

 What genre does your book fall under?

Non-fiction, literary nonfiction, innovative fiction, drama, script for the book, history.



Be Brave! Don’t Look the Other Way!

Anti-nazi street art, Jena, Germany

What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

This IS the movie rendition, just screened within the pages of a book.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Deep in East Germany, the third section of the play Faust takes place during the demonstrations that led to the reunification of Germany in 1990 and the growing neo-Nazi movement of the present.



Anarchist Street Art, Jena

No God, No State, No Partriarchy!

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?


How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

4 years and counting. I am rewriting the manuscript as a pilgrimage, on the ancient pilgrimage path, to see whether it’s really two manuscripts, with different purposes.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Faust, parts 1 and II, by Goethe;  Danube, by Claudio Magris.



Harold and Goethe, Ilmenau

The poor guy looked like he needed some cheering up.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

It struck me that much of German history happened along one ancient road, now called the B4, but previously called the via regia, or the King’s Way, which is the northern part of the Camino that is so well known in Santiago de Compostela, in Spain. I wanted to know why Germany happened along this main road to Minsk, and so I went to find out. It changed my life. Nothing was ever the same again. When I lost my photographs due to a computer failure, I went back, and did the route in the reverse, not from France to Poland but from Poland to France. Outside of Dresden in 2003, I had visited the town of Pirna — a visit interrupted by the unexplained panic of my guide, who bolted. I went back to finish the exploration…and discovered why he had bolted.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

It’s funny, and full of beautiful and surprising things.


Two East German North American Indian Children (Whew!)

From the Karl May Indian Museum in Radebeul. During the East German period, half a million Germans dressed up like this and took to the woods every summer. It was one of the few ways of escaping the totalitarian state.

Next, a book about Iceland.



Walking the Path of the World

The poet Daniela Elza has generously invited me to continue a conversation about books, called “The Next Big Thing.” Her opener is here. As this book is a collection of long poems, I hope it can join the conversation. The conversation takes the form of an interview by a text of a human talking about a text as if the human wrote it.

What is the working title of your next book?

Northwest. Here’s one of my co-writers …


A Buck Swims the Hanford Reach…

towards the reactors.

 Where did the idea come from for the book?

I was at the League of Canadian Poets convention in the Canadian city of Vancouver in 2008. The Canadian poet Nancy Holmes admonished all present to learn what she called “your history.” She went on to quote a long list of important, historical Canadian poets. I realized that I was in the wrong room, as “my history” and my land (the Okanagan, Okanogan, Sinlahekin and other valleys and deserts that make up the Northern half of the Columbia Plateau) is part of the Northwest. It belongs more to Oregon and Washington and Idaho than to Vancouver or Canada. I also realized that my poetic traditions predate the arrival of Canlit in British Columbia in the late 1970s. Even seminal “Canadian” events like the War of 1812 entered my country through the U.S.A., rather than from Ontario or Quebec, through the filter of refugees from such battles as the Cayuse War, the Yakima War, and the Nez Perce War. I left the conference, drove down to Astoria, Oregon, and followed my river, the Columbia, home from the sea, like a salmon. The book came quickly after that.


Almost Home …

The Similkameen, near Nighthawk, Washington. The sacred peaks, Hurley Peak and Chopaka, are in the background.

 What genre does your book fall under?

I dried to drop it, but it flew. It’s the kind of book built out of words. The words are poetry. The lines are long. The language is oral, in both Chinook trade jargon and English. The book sings. It chants. It howls. It speaks the real names of this place. It praises, above all. It is about the salmon coming home. It is about living in one country without borders. If it has a genre, it’s a Northwest book of Shanties, to use the Chinook word for songs.


 What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

Yellow Wolf and Joseph of the Nez Perce, even if they have to show up only in spirit. Ian McKellen. Adam Beach. Evan Adams. Irene Bedard. The sound track would be Tsinuk drumming tracks, worked into a score by Michael Nyman.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

After thirty-five years, a poet and his friend Coyote follow the salmon home to write the book that Pound might have written had he gone to the Northwest and done the real work.


Ancestor, Okanagan Falls

The Okanagan Salmon are barred from the valley at the dam at the bottom of Dog Lake, just a kilometre south of this point.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It will be published by Ronsdale Press. 

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Thirty-five years. 16,000 years. A lifetime. Every poet tries and tries to write one poem. This is my poem.


Early Draft of Northwest

Then it found its words.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

The ancient stories of the Northwest. The Cantos, by Ezra Pound. Zone Journals, by Charles Wright. Voice, My Shaman, by Charles Lillard. Deathwatch on Skidegate Narrows, by Sean Virgo. Axion Esti, by Odysseus Elytis. The stories of Harry Robinson.


Who or what inspired you to write this book?

That’s a better question. Sherman Alexie’s The Pow-Wow at the End of the World. The writing of Motherstone: British Columbia’s Volcanic Plateau, in which I found the bones of this land. My old walking buddy, Coyote. The Sugarcane Father’s Day Pow-Wow of 2007, which brought me a second place prize in the CBC Literary competition (which is in this book). On the Mysteries of the Egyptians, Chaldeans and Assyrians, by Iamblichus, a revised translation of which won the Malahat Long Poem Prize (large sections of it are in this book as well), before I was barred from entering the contest for winning twice. With no more outlet for long poetry, I wrote this book of long pieces instead. The University of British Columbia, for presenting a view of poetry as a personal, lyrical, global project, drawing exclusively on North American English speaking traditions, that drove me to write instead what I knew: a land and its people across time and space. Janice Frank, for welcoming me into her Secwepemc language class (for two years) in 100 Mile House and showing me the true meaning of respect. Ultimately, Charles Lillard, who showed us the way but died too young, before he finished, and Robin Skelton who worked with him on the Northwest Renaissance project. This is a part of that project, a few decades after Canadian Literature took over the helm in this place. Pound, always. The Columbia Plateau. St. Mary’s Mission in Colville, Washington, and the Kettle Falls that are no more. The ecologist Ordell Steen, for taking me out to the Junction Sheep Range and showing me the story I already knew, about the grass, and finding words for it, together, in Spirit in the Grass. Long talks with Van Egan, Roderick Haig-Brown’s friend in Campbell River, about becoming the river, which became the text of the first Roderick Haig-Brown Memorial Lecture. The Last Great Sea, by Terry Glavin. The Earth. All the ancestors.


What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Raven sings.

raven Raven, Columbia Gorge


The discussion is set up as a game of tag, in which each human gets to tag another human to be interviewed by the text. I’m going to use the opportunity to tag five other books. Rather than having them interview humans, I will interview them instead. These are:

The Art of Haying, about the world past the age of the book. Meditations. and An Expedition to Iceland, about Old Norse and English. Poems.

The Book and the Goat, platonic dialogues between a book and its critic. Philosophy.

White Noise, a pilgrimage on the Camino through East Germany. The third volume in the Faust trilogy. The other two were written by Goethe. At the middle lies Buchenwald, which was built to imprison Goethe. Really.

Atomic Okanagan, or Back to the Interior, a memoir built around the effects of the Manhattan Project of the Central Columbia on the Okanagan Valley (in territory claimed by Canada).

Planet of the Sun, a book of environmental science and writing, built around the explorations here, and its companion, The Terroir of Riesling, part of a project of transforming literature into agro-ecological writing.

I know that to follow the rules of this game I should be tagging poets from my country and my culture, who are going to be the Next Big Thing. I would love to meet such poets. As for the Next Big Thing, I lost my identity in East Germany and have spent four years now building a new one. It doesn’t include the ability to turn myself into an article of commerce anymore. My trip became a pilgrimage, not through identity but through the world, deeply immersed in the communist-post-communist-and-capitalist nuances of the fall of East Germany. I found my way home in No Man’s Land between them, but it was touch and go. Each of the books above has been written by a different person. I am none of them. So it is in my country. I hope it will do, Daniela. Blessings.