By Maddie Keenlyside
Sept. 22, 2014
History has been known to repeat itself, but rarely so poetically.
In 700 AD China, poets and close friends Wang Wei and Pei Di penned their famous Wang River Sequence through a series of letters.
The creation of Harry Thurston and Allan Cooper’s The Deer Yard mirrors the ancient work, said Richard Lemm, a professor of English at UPEI and organizer of the Winter’s Tale series.
The authors were to read excerpts from their book on Sept. 22, in the UPEI Main Building’s faculty lounge, and on Sept. 23 in Summerside’s Rotary Library.
It was Cooper’s idea that they stay in touch by engaging in a poetic correspondence, Thurston said
Friends since their twenties, for years they had been meeting to discuss poetry on a monthly basis, usually over lunches in Moncton, he said.
In December 2009, just beginning a Haig-Brown writer-in-residence in Campbell River, B.C, Thurston and Cooper began exchanging poems, from coast to coast. Cooper wrote his friend from his home in Alma, N.B.
“This was a way of staying in touch while I was away.”
The two began writing soon after he arrived in B.C. and the last poem was finished not long before he returned to his home in N.S.
“I had a sense of duty not to let the conversation lapse.”
The Deer Yard, a loosely translated title of one of Wang Wei’s most famous poems, worked as a metaphor to tie the poems together, he said.
Chinese literature has been an influence on both Canadian poets since early in their writing careers, and Cooper said he feels particular kinship with them.
“There’s a luminous transparency in their poems, as if there was no barrier between the human and natural worlds.”
While Thurston and Cooper exchanged letters from coast to coast, Wang Wei and Pei Di carried on their poetic correspondence from 20 different locations, he said.
Cooper said he would respond using a specific image or idea in his poem as a launching point. He wrote his poems swiftly, and revised later. At several points the exchange got a little clairvoyant.
“I was sitting at the computer, wondering what Harry was up to, and an e-mail with his next poem appeared in my inbox. Harry’s poems were more formal than mine, and I find it interesting that my own poems became more formal as I went along.”
Thurston said it soon became apparent something interesting was happening artistically.
“We were drawing things out of each other that otherwise might have remained dormant.”
Both the ancient and modern works focus on nature as a theme, and his relationship with the natural world goes back to his childhood on a farm outside Yarmouth, Thurston said.
Like most children in the 50s, he spent most of his time outdoors, exploring the land on his father’s farm. The youngest of three brothers, he spent a good deal of time playing alone.
“The natural world, animals, trees, flowers, were companions, in a sense. I felt a kinship with them.”
Studying biology in the late 1960s, the growing environmentalist movement set him on a course of writing about threats to the natural world, Thurston said.
“Certainly, our conflicted relationship with the natural world is the defining issue of our time, and future generations will judge us by what we do in response to it, including our writing about it.”
Cooper has long felt a strong connection with Thurston and his poetry.
“One of the early book reviews I wrote was about his first collection, Barefaced Stone. We have a strong personal and poetic relationship, and I treasure that highly.”
A musician as well as a poet, he said his songs and poems are quite different, he said.
“I write more about personal relationships in the songs, although I have written several political songs as well.”
Lemm said both Thurston and Cooper are prominent Atlantic Canadian writers.
“Harry is well-known as an environmental and conservation writer, arguably best known in the Atlantic provinces. And Allan Cooper is a poet, editor, publisher, and a fine musican.”
The men will also present their work Oct.25 at the University of Waterloo’s Sino-Canada Literary Forum: Literature and Our Environment. Some excerpts from their book have been translated into Chinese for the event.