Monday, April 11, 2011

An Interview with Randall Maggs, author of NIGHT WORK: The Sawchuk Poems. 1 of 3.

Terry Sawchuk won eighty-eight games in his first two full seasons in the NHL. By the latter part of that second season, a rival GM declared him the greatest goalie to ever play. He led the Red Wings to a Stanley Cup that year, setting untouchable marks by winning eight straight to sweep both rounds of the playoffs, allowing only five goals in eight games and not a single one scored at home.

In a turbulent, injury-riddled career he set marks for wins (447) and shutouts (103) that went untouched for generations, but his play and his lifestyle left him bitter and damaged. He died as soon as his NHL career did, from the results of injuries incurred in a scuffle with a teammate just after the end of the season.

He encompassed wild extremes, and along with other violent heroes such as Ted Lindsay, Maurice Richard, and Gordie Howe, Sawchuk exists as a symbol of the romantic and brutal era of hockey history in which he played.

This is the subject matter of Night Work : The Sawchuk Poems, by Randall Maggs. Maggs is a Canadian poet and until recently was a professor of English Literature at Sir Wilfred Grenfell College of Memorial University, in Corner Brook, Newfoundland.

As a hockey book, Night Work is unique. It combines aspects of biography and sports history, but it is, after all, a collection of poetry. The dichotomous nature of the project was what drew me in, and when I was finished it I understood that I had something to say about the game as well. It was this book of abstract thought that was the catalyst to my becoming a blogger.

I met Randall, I think in 2008, several months after Night Work had been released. The Globe and Mail had an extensive review of the book, and the photo they chose for the cover of their Saturday book section was arresting: it was a sepia-toned newspaper photo of Sawchuk from the 1967 playoffs when he and Johnny Bower carried the Maple Leafs to their most recent Stanley Cup. The photo showed Sawchuk slumped on the bench in the dressing room after the game, his sweater off but still wearing his thin, much-abused chest protector, a cigarette dangling from his lips. The wrinkles and scars are so apparent on his face that he almost appears like a player from a silent era film.

It was the photo that drew me in to read the review, and then the book. I was soon after trying to cajole others into reading it as well. When I briefly spoke to Randall that winter, he told me a little about the genesis of the book: why Sawchuk? Why poetry? What could compel you?

A year later, I started Frozen Sheets Hockey. A year after that, I approached Randall's publisher, Brick Books to try and arrange an interview for my blog. A year after that, the interview finally took place. I spoke to Randall from his home in Newfoundland on Saturday, April 2, 2011.

Nolan: The last time we spoke, I asked you where the idea for all this came from, and one of the things you mentioned was taking a bus trip across Saskatchewan.

Randall: I said a bus trip?

Nolan: Maybe a car trip. Driving across Saskatchewan, anyway.

Randall: You've got two things there, which of course this is what the goddamn book is about, about how things are based on story, conflicting things, when you think back on the past.

What I probably told you about was when I was doing a reading in Saskatoon, and I stayed with a friend of mine in a town called Allan, Saskatchewan. We were driving to Saskatoon and we went by the town of Floral, which is not even really a town, it was just two grain elevators and two or three houses.

Floral, that was Gordie Howe's birthplace, and that was really well known that that was his birthplace. So when I saw that name up on those wine-red elevators, Floral, that just took me right back. And I hadn't been on the prairie at that point in a long time. That's where I'm from. My father comes from Alberta, Vermillion, just east of Edmonton there, and I lived on the prairies quite a bit: Winnipeg, Edmonton, but I hadn't been there in a long time, I'd been living in the East. So it was like going back to the world of my childhood. When I saw that it was just like this illuminating moment.

The other thing, you mentioned the bus, where this whole thing came from in the first place was my brother was always telling me stories. [Randall's brother Darryl played 135 games in the NHL with the Chicago Backhawks, California Golden Seals, and Toronto Maple Leafs, as well as spending time with six different WHA teams.]

My brother's a very quiet guy, but very observant, a very good story teller. But essentially it's his ability to observe thing that I'm struck by.

He had just gone up with the Blackhawks and they were in Halifax, this is a story he told me. They were in Halifax to play an exhibition game against the Canadiens, and they were on a bus, the team bus. They were stopped beside the public gardens.

Bill White was a real good friend; he became a really good friend of Darryl's. At that point he'd hardly have known him. They were parked beside the public gardens and it was autumn of course, the preseason, and the boys were raking up the leaves in the public gardens and burning them.

Bill was really quiet and someone said Bill, what's on your mind. Bill was a real popular guy with that team, too. And he said something about the smell of burning leaves always makes me think of home. It was quiet for a moment and then then whole bus just broke out laughing at that. [Described in the poem, "The Season of Wayward Thinking."]

I remembered that story he told me, and really what I was doing with that poem, because I had no idea of writing a book of poems about hockey or about Sawchuk, that story was sort a metaphor for distinguishing between the two worlds, the one that I'd grown up in out west, and the one that I was living in, not even so much in Halifax but in Newfoundland. I was living in Newfoundland at the time.

I have a Celtic background. The family is probably Welsh, but Maggs is like a Celtic variant of Saint Margaret, so I have a Welsh background. I never really felt entirely comfortable on the prairies, which I see as essentially Scottish, which are Celtic people as well, but more Lowland Scottish as opposed to Highland, and that comment that Bill made, and the response to it, that's the world I grew up in. That's not something that you would ever want to say on the prairies. Do you know what I'm getting at?

That kind of thing, if it involves feelings, and any kind of sensitive way of expressing yourself, or more, even a way of thinking like that, it's not permitted on a hockey team, or in that world I grew up in on the prairies. But that's very much a way of distinguishing between that world and Ireland, and Newfoundland, which is of course Ireland's only colony.

Feeling is fine in Newfoundland. To talk about feeling is fine, to express feeling is fine, to write about it is fine, which is why I think there are so many bloody writers here. And then I started spending time in Ireland and everything just started to fall into place... my own identity, and the difference between Ireland and Newfoundland and the prairies. So that was really what that poem was dealing with.

And then after that, not long after that, I went back to the prairies to do the reading, so that would have been '95 or something like that, maybe even '94, so that started me thinking about that world and of course Sawchuk, you probably know that Sawchuk is from Winnipeg. And of course I'd had this fascination with him in the beginning.

I think around that point something else happened which is totally unrelated to hockey: there was a drug killing in British Columbia. I've forgotten the name of the town. It wasn't Hope, but it was in that area. And there was a woman on talking about it. She was a police spokeswoman, her name was Ellie Sawchuk, and hearing the name sort of just took me back.

All these things converged to get me back looking at that whole period. Then I got interested in Sawchuk's story, because I was always fascinated with him.

We used to go up and play, when we played our minor hockey in Winnipeg we played on the rinks, Elm Vale and West Kildonen where he played and we were acutely conscious of that, though he would have been fifteen years older than all of us, you knew that was Sawchuk country. He had a very striking aura about him. And when I was actually living there, and I'm talking about in the fifties, that was when he was making his mark with Detroit. So I guess it just took me back into that period.

I started working on the thing about his death, because nobody really understood what happened to him at the end. It was always kind of hazy, and I started looking into that and I started thinking, my god, something was covered up here,there's a conspiracy. I got quite caught up in all of that, but I really wasn't working on it too long before I realized that wasn't the case, there wasn't any conspiracy at all.

I'd been working at the Hockey Hall of Fame. The guys at the Hockey Hall of Fame had been wonderful with. I worked there ten years.

Phil Pritchard, who was the head of the resource center at the time, he's the Vice President of the Hall now, got hold of the autopsy and police report for me to look at, so that's when I got a good background on what had really happened, but by then I was writing poems without any particular plan in mind, just whenever something would strike I would write it. I had no particular plan of how I was going to put it together as a book, that came later. That's where it started.

Nolan: And then there is the excerpt from the autopsy report at the beginning of the book, which is really just a description of the scars on Sawchuk's face.

Randall: Right. When I saw that, I thought Jesus, what am I doing here? I'm just writing the story behind all this, because you've got that cold, dispassionate, clinical, objective language, hammered out on a typewriter with all kinds of idiosyncrasies, which was of the age. The machine reflected the attitude toward those things, and that was something I was trying to get at too.

Think about the nicknames. Ulcers McCool. That age was a different world altogether, so I started exploring that world as well. It's a pioneer world, and I think that's what the game reflects is that pioneer period.

It's interesting to watch... you obviously have some thoughts on this whole concussion thing. There wasn't as much of that thing back in the fifties and sixties. I'm not saying the game was any less brutal, but the head shot is kind of a relatively new phenomenon.

I see the game as a repository of the kinds of survival values that would have been encouraged in the early twentieth and nineteenth century, and I think the reason people are reluctant to take any of that out of it is that it threatens something really important in our culture... though people probably don't even realize that.

I may be too far down the path on this one, but I think that's why people are reluctant to change it.

[Click here to read part two of the interview, but if you want to read part three, click here.]

1 comment:

  1. Really great interview so far, Nolan! I really like how unstructured it is, more of a conversation really. What an interesting man; I'm looking forward to reading more!