Ken Belford

🕔Dec 15, 2009

How can one describe the life and work of poet Ken Belford, in a few words? Where to begin, without waste?

There are no real beginnings or endings in Ken’s newer work, and no clear dividing line between his poetry and the person he is. The poems in his most recent collection, lan(d)guage, have no titles.
They are what he calls sequences, each poem telepathically linked to the others, and also plugged into powerful sources beyond the poem which reside in language organs and the systems of nature. His worldview, like his poems, is open-ended. He is not, in his own words, “an either/or kind of guy.” He’s developed fresh models for understanding the world, though he certainly isn’t about to force them on anybody.

What would Ken say if he heard about wasted words? He might point out that we waste much else besides words. At various times a hunter, a logger, a fishing guide, an urban bohemian, Ken is now, in his mid-60s, content to nourish himself on high-protein grains like quinoa instead of meat, to adoringly observe the salmon instead of harvesting them, and to mosey to the Second Cup near his home in Prince George for a poetry rendezvous rather than idle at a drive-through.

Responding to a typical Can Lit interview question (Like, “How does sense of place inform your poetry?”), Ken will quickly turn the question on its head: “I’d have to say I’m not sure about it. I mean, are we talking about the same place as a Gitxsan would know of? Or the poor, who can’t afford a piece of place?”

Ken doesn’t use the name Bulkley Valley much when he writes of the 35 years he has spent in the Northwest; rather, it all comprises “Skeena Country,” which “goes on from the headwaters of Morice Lake, right around Hudson Bay Mountain and Seven Sisters to Rupert, and even takes in the coastal saltwater island zone, and the Nass.”

Ken has spent his life remapping both internal and external geographies like an explorer bent on “un-discovering” the land; to spark fresh perspectives through poetry, and undermine preconceptions about identity; to virally corrode the cultural coding of “vertical histories” where the language spoken is used to reinforce a standardized version of reality.

Cold mountain poet

Existing as a poet in the North hasn’t always been easy for Belford. In fact, it’s often been a pain. He has found himself performing in situations that would make less hardy writers melt into their shoes and never even whimper a poem in public ever again. Like a presentation he gave in McBride when, after sharing his most profound poems, he was asked by an audience member if he could please recite some Bliss Carman instead.

Despite the bewildered reception that his progressive poetics have at times received, he is “not ashamed to be a poet.” In fact, he is healthily proud to be one. He currently leads the life of a professional poet: attending poetry conferences, presenting his poems at readings all over the country (15 in the past year alone), and facilitating workshops. Ken says his poetry world is “tribal, complex, and very fun.”

Like the ancient Chinese poet Han Shan, who poet Gary Snider mythologized and translated for the West in his collection Cold Mountain Poems, Ken has lived a kind of solitude that replaces town square with an opening in the trees, and human crowds with ungulate herds. It was alone in the presence of the wild that he developed the wisdom systems that are his poems. It was while living on remote Takla Lake that he wrote most of The Post-Electric Caveman and Fireweed, and the Driftwood River merged with his creative currents to become Pathways Into The Mountains.

Adopt a poet

Publishing a literary work is, for Ken, a “social process,” not an advertising campaign. According to this theory, the dissemination of literary texts happens through a dynamic that Ken has termed “adoption.” A reader makes a studied assessment of a poet’s work, and then the reasoned, very important decision about whether to adopt him or her. To adopt a poet means that one is now committed to supporting their projects, to obtaining and reading their poetry collections, and disseminating it to new ears.

And Ken’s poetry is certainly adoptable. If poems could become immortal, then surely his would be, because they are built to last. They are like stones to other poet’s handfuls of duff. Reading lan(d)guage is like staring into a river: when you look away from the pages, you will notice everything rippling with what you just read.

The guy’s got style

It is frequently taught that the form of a poem should structurally and/or visually reflect its content. What’s interesting about Ken’s poems is that they have a form of content that reflects forest succession and hydrological cycles. His style does not echo the famous poetry in the Anglo-Saxon tradition; instead, it takes the Mississippi-delta blues as a model for breath, intuition, and spontaneity. One might compare him to, say, William Carlos Williams, but such a comparison would only apply to his older stuff; at this point Ken seems to have moved onto a different map.

Living alongside and within First Nations communities is another influence. The surreal humour and pranksterism of his poems can be traced to the joke-loving culture that he was a part of for many years. This again resonates with the Han Shan tradition, the wise (cold) mountain poet who was also quite a prankster.

In a Ken poem, a single letter out of place could change the entire scope of the poem. The same is true in an ecosystem. “Nature becomes structureless when/ catastrophe occurs and an animal disappears,” he writes in one of his lan(d)guage sequences.

Belford has transformed over the decades, and so has his writing. From his first major collections, Fireweed (1967) and The Post-Electric Caveman (1970), which were very much of their day, to the short lines and muscular minimalism of The Repository (1979) and Pathways into the Mountains (2000); an arc that leads to his latest work in lan(d)guage (2008) and decompositions (forthcoming, 2010), which reawaken the generosity of line length in Fireweed, and its penchant for abstraction and river-wise surrealism. (For example: “An ice octopus drapes one more arm downward”.) Whereas his middle work seemed to take Williams’ maxim “no ideas but in things” very much to heart—like the hope embodied in a pot coming to boil on a woodstove—his later work shows him working at times in the realm of pure concept.

Although Ken is a northern poet, he has come to define “North” as something other than latitudes on a map. To be a “northern poet” is, for Ken, to explore “that unroaded land that begins at the edge of the rancher’s field”; to offer poems that express “what it is to see from the forest, looking out.”