As sharp as Homeric tradition

Poet to sign copies of his collections of Haida oral literature

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2004

Growing up, Canadian poet, historian and typographer Robert Bringhurst's education was the same as most North American youth.

"I was taught that North American literature was in English except for the part that was in Spanish and the part that was in French," Bringhurst said. "The 500 languages of North America that we spoke before English and Spanish and French were not mentioned."

It was what he came to see as a "colonial state of mind" or "a state of woeful ignorance." And it only went away as he traveled, first through North America, then to Europe and Latin America.

"I went to a lot of different places, and met a lot of different people - some of them were Native people," Bringhurst said. "So I knew from an early age that what I was taught in school was not quite complete. And the moment you get in touch with a different tradition, whether Mohawk or Cree or Tlingit, it punctures the balloon of stupidity and presumption. You learn that the world is a lot more complicated."

Now living in Vancouver, British Columbia, Bringhurst is one of Canada's top poets and cultural historians. He's written more than a dozen books of poetry, including several translations of Haida oral literature. "A Story as Sharp as a Knife: The Classical Haida Mythtellers and Their World," released in 1999, brought to life notes that ethnographer John Swanton transcribed from Haida storytellers in 1900 and 1901. In the next two years, Bringhurst added two sets of translations of Haida oral poetry - "Nine Visits to the Mythworld" and "Being in Being: The Collected Works of Skaay or the Qquuna Qiighawaay."

Bringhurst's latest book, "Ursa Major," was commissioned by a dance group in Saskatchewan and combines Greek and Cree stories about bears.

He will have a book signing at 3:30 p.m. Saturday, April 24, at Rainy Day Books on Seward Street and will be speaking poetry at 7:30 p.m. that day at Friendly Planet, Second and Seward streets.

"There's a tremendous challenge in learning enough of a language to accurately get a grasp of what is going on," Bringhurst said. "If you're going to learn Greek, you go to a bookstore and you buy yourself a book on grammar and a dictionary. Or you go and see someone who has spent his life working on that stuff."

"If you're working with Haida, you have to make your own grammar and your own dictionary," he said. "If you need help, there's a lot of diplomatic negotiations to go through before you get everything. But the literature is just as rich."

Bringhurst began reading Haida literature when he settled on the Northwest Coast. He was impressed with the storytelling and began studying the language.

"I'm really interested in literature as literature, so I'm really interested in the difference between one individual storyteller's stories and another individual storyteller's stories," Bringhurst said. "Some of the people who study these things are more interested in stereotypes. They don't care about the individual storytellers as much as they care about national characteristics. If I'm going to read German literature, it isn't to find out the nature of German. It's to read a good book."

The storyteller that Swanton met knew the landscape intimately, Bringhurst said. Their stories refer to berry bushes, trees, shellfish, halibut, river otters and spirit creatures.

"Natural history is really important in these stories," Bringhurst said. "You have to know something about where these stories took place in order to follow what's happening."

"A house in ancient Greece is different from what a house is today, so you have to tell people what a house is, what a town is, what's a boat. These are problems translators have been dealing with as long as there have been translators."

• Korry Keeker can be reached at

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