Frank Davey - Biography - Academic and Writing Career

Academic and Writing Career

The success of TISH, which the editors mailed free of charge for nineteen successive months to poets, editors, and critics across Canada and much of the US, brought Davey to the attention of the senior Canadian writers George Woodcock and Louis Dudek. Woodcock, editor of the journal Canadian Literature, commissioned in 1962 the first of several essays from him, and Dudek invited him to guest-edit a Vancouver issue of his influential poetry magazine Delta. Woodcock's intervention may have been the more significant, encouraging the young poet to take up literary criticism as well, and from the 1970s to the 90s write a body of work that would be called 'the most individual and influential ever written in Canada.'

Davey published his first poetry collection, D-Day and After, in 1962, with an introduction by Tallman that emphasized how this was poetry as the act of the moment rather than poetry as the commonplace attempt 'to express ... feelings.' It was the first of more than a hundred volumes to be published by the TISH editors. Receiving an MA from UBC in 1963, Davey taught for the Canadian armed forces at Royal Roads Military College in Victoria, BC until 1969, while also working on a doctorate in poetics at the University of Southern California in the summers of 1965 and 1966, and a 1966-67 leave of absence. He witnessed the 1965 Watts Riots from an apartment within the curfew zone, feeling more endangered, he indicates in 'Writing a Life' (99-100) and When TISH Happens (224), by the US National Guard than by the mostly black protesters. It seems very possible that this experience contributed to his later insistence in his political and cultural writings that the Canadian nation-state should be a collaboration open to the meaningful participation of all its citizens. In the fall of 1965 his third and fourth volumes of poetry were published. He also launched his poetry and criticism journal Open Letter that fall of 1965, designing it initially as an open editorial dialogue with former Tish editors Bowering and Dawson. In the spring of 1968 he received his PhD, having presented a thesis on the poetics of the Black Mountain poets.

In the spring of 1969 he was appointed Writer-in-Residence for 1969-70 at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University in Montreal. The following year he joined the faculty of York University in Toronto to teach Canadian Literature and, amid teaching and research collaborations with Clara Thomas and Barbara Godard, quickly assumed a nationally influential role. He published two poetry collections in each of 1970, 1971, and 1972, and a selected poems in 1972. He published a monograph on Earle Birney in 1971, and the widely praised From There to Here: A Guide to English-Canadian Literature Since 1960 in 1974. But his most important contribution in these years was his withering critique, 'Surviving the Paraphrase,' of the thematic criticism of Northrop Frye, D.G. Jones and Margaret Atwood which he delivered at the founding conference of the Association for Canadian and Quebec Literatures in the spring of 1974. That paper, in Stephen Scobie's words 'a vastly influential essay', almost immediately discredited thematic criticism in Canada and, forty years later, reverberates as well within Canadian postcolonial studies.

In 1976 he was appointed Coordinator of the York University creative writing program, and also joined, along with bpNichol and Michael Ondaatje, the new editorial board of The Coach House Press. With the assistance of Nichol and Barbara Godard, he was also expanding the pages and range of Open Letter to give attention to Québécois poets, women writers, and poststructuralist poetics, developing it into what Gregory Betts in The Canadian Encyclopedia would call 'Canada's most important forum for discussion and examination of innovative and experimental ideas and texts.' In 1982 he helped conduct a month-long workshop in Dharwar, India, for young academics many of whom became major contributors to Canadian Studies in that country. Here he wrote one of his most important long poems, the "brilliant poetic commentary on postcolonialism" The Abbotsford Guide to India, published in 1986—one of six poetry books he published in the 1980s. That year he was also elected chair of the York University Department of English. Two years earlier he had published the first study of Margaret Atwood's feminism: Margaret Atwood: A Feminist Poetics.

In 1990 he was named the first Carl F. Klinck Professor of Canadian Literature at the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario, and began a new writing phase in which he adapted discourse analysis to Canadian cultural studies, and examined various Canadian cultural scenes—from those of literary criticism to those of politics, celebrity, and popular crime writing. His new books included Post-National Arguments: The Politics of the Anglo-Canadian Novel since 1967 (1993), Reading 'KIM' Right (1993), an analysis of the public persona of Canada's first woman prime minister, Canadian Literary Power (1994), a study of how Canadian literary reputations are constructed and defended, Karla's Web: A Cultural Examination of the Mahaffy-French Murders (1994), an examination of how newspaper crime writing distorts both victims and criminal justice issues, Cultural Mischief: A Practical Guide to Multiculturalism (1996), a poetry collection that mocked both the sentimentalities of multiculturalism's proponents and the narcissism of its critics, and Mr & Mrs G-G (2002) an examination of Canadian Governor-General Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, writer John Ralston Saul, that accused both of a pretentiousness that misrepresented and stifled actual Canadian realities. As Betts observes with some understatement, this was 'a critical stance that has occasionally put him into conflict with the Canadian literary establishment.' Its consequences are likely reflected in Davey's description in When TISH Happens of Canadian literary and academic prizes as institutional rewards for 'banality and careerism' (304). Meanwhile, in May 1994 he had been elected president of the Association of Canadian College and University Teachers of English (ACCUTE). That November he had led the Association in issuing a controversial and widely publicized 'caution' against the postsecondary education policies of the British Columbia government and the resulting working conditions and quality of education at its recently established University Colleges.

Davey continued his creativity at the expense of currently established critical pieties in the poetry collections Dog (2002) and Risky Propositions (2005), both partly directed at identity politics, the 'flarf' books Lack On! (2009), a mock-Lacanian tribute to Fred Wah, and Bardy Google (2010), part of which was a Dunciad-like send-up of recent Canadian criticism, and the limited edition visual poetry book, Canonical Canadian Literature (2011). Meanwhile, the final years of provincial mandatory retirement legislation ended his Western Ontario teaching years in 2005

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