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Portraits of Canadian Writers by Bruce Meyer  

In Portraits of Canadian Writers, Bruce Meyer shares the portraits of some of Canada’s most beloved writers alongside anecdotes that reveal their personalities.

Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Ray Robertson, Bronwen Wallace—these are just a few authors whose unforgettable words have made them icons of Canadian literary expression. In Portraits of Canadian Writers, Bruce Meyer presents his own personal experience of these and many more seminal Canadian authors, sharing their portraits alongside amusing anecdotes that reveal personality, creativity, and humour.

Meyer’s snapshots, both visual and textual, reveal far more than just physical appearance. He captures tantalizing glimpses into the creative lives of writers, from contextual information of place and time to more intangible details that reveal persona, personality and sources of imaginative inspiration. Through these portraits, Meyer has amassed a visual archive of CanLit that illustrates and celebrates an unparalleled generation of Canadian authorship.

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What takes the collection to an exceptional level is Meyer’s devotion to and passion for Canada’s literary legacy.

Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers compiles nearly two hundred photographic portraits of literary notables from Canada’s various provinces, combining intuitive camera work with short anecdotal or biographical profiles.

Though Meyer is primarily a writer, poet, arts advocate, and educator, his photographic skills are enhanced by his own knowledge of the writing life, as well as an insight into the complex, often evasive nature of his fellow wordsmiths.

Meyer began work on this collection of portraits and their accompanying interviews in the early 1980s, using a Pentax camera and black-and-white film. Natural light prevailed over the brightness of flash, with the resulting photographs varying from striking to somber, warmly candid and intimately accessible to determinedly detached and distant. The portraits are paired with brief yet distinctive pages of text by Meyer, generally a personal connection to or memory of meeting each particular subject.

Among the more famed names are novelists Margaret Atwood and Joy Kogawa, poets Dorothy Livesay and Elizabeth Smart, and troubadour/author/musician Leonard Cohen. Cohen graciously offered "a spread of schnapps, matzah, kosher dills and Montreal smoked meats" and played a song he was working on at the time. This "pop song about holiness," as Cohen described it, would ultimately become the haunting ballad "Hallelujah." Cohen posed for three portraits, offering glimpses of his deeper artistic side along with a somewhat more jocular showmanship.

From Lorna Crozier’s standing before a fruit and vegetable stand in honor of her erotic poetic parody "The Sex Life of Vegetables" to Austin Clarke’s fondness for London gin martinis, Portraits of Canadian Writers brings life and intriguing detail to these contemporary literary figures. Meyer notes how Neil Bissoondath had the tenacity to wake before dawn and methodically craft a first collection of short stories before heading to his day job. The intense poet Milton Acorn often stayed at a run-down Toronto transient hotel, his room unusually "bright and sunny" amid the otherwise hellish corridors. Catherine Owen’s smile seems serenely untroubled, yet her work is expansive and mystical.

Portraits of Canadian Writers could be described as an admirable project, but what takes the collection to an exceptional level is Meyer’s devotion to and passion for Canada’s literary legacy. His impressions of and meetings with these portrait subjects are memorably joyous, quirky, respectful, and poignant by turns, with his ultimate goal being to bring well-deserved recognition to such a diverse group and all "the dreams they put into words."

—Meg Nola, Foreword Reviews

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‘[T]he world being created in this fascinating collection is very much a memoir of sorts, through the eyes of Bruce Meyer, the author of nearly 50 books of non-fiction and poetry. We learn much about him, what attracted him to these writers, but more importantly, as anyone who has done interviews realizes, we discover what follows from these interactions is that we come away with a veritable sense of something more intimate, more personal. That couldn’t happen without Bruce Meyer, without his perspective, his curiosity, and his camera. This book serves as a significant document that in a way taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that the twists and turns our literature has taken has its origins here in the lives of these individuals. In that way, Portraits of Canadian Writers is a trusty guide to our writing, and maybe explains why it has blossomed.’

—Marty Gervais

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‘Yes, this is a book that should be in every Canadian library for reference but it is also a book that should be read and discussed. Not in a critical way but one that starts thought process and spawns reflections and considerations. It is a gifted read. And charming one at times.

‘Bruce Meyer has given us readers a serious bit of enlightenment for our minds with his Portraits of Canadian Writers. The combination of writing and images engage any reader’s complete psyche and give insight to some of Canada’s greatest wordsmiths.’

—Steven Buechler, The Library of Pacific Tranquility

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‘Chock full of lovely verse, laughs, and a lot to learn...’

—Jessica Raven, The Baron

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‘Bruce Meyer’s Portraits of Canadian Writers [is] the fruit of an impressive three decades worth of encounters, collaborations, and friendships with some of Canada’s most celebrated authors. The book’s documentary aspect is made clear in the introduction, where Meyer reminds us that many of those portrayed here, in photographs and textual vignettes, have passed on, leaving an indelible mark on their followers....

‘Seldom relying on props or arranged settings, and shot in the writers’ houses, backyards or other cherished spaces, [the photographs] instantly communicate a sense of individuality and passion, fully justifying Meyer’s claim that "a successful portrait ... becomes a text" and "acts as a work of criticism."’

—Krzysztof Majer, Canadian Literature

Excerpt from book

The odd thing about author interviews is that authors always manage to reinvent themselves as they wish to be seen no matter how hard we worked to phrase our questions to reveal something other than the self-aware persona that emerges from the printed page. If an author, such as Al Purdy, expressed both raucousness and profound spirituality in his poetry, the persona he presented to us during the interview only reinforced that perception. What struck me each time we sat down with a writer to discuss his or her work was that they were assured about who they were and how they wanted to present themselves. They were image-conscious, but at the same time disarmingly unaware—if they could be that—of the extent to which they were living the idea of themselves they created to create the work. In some cases, that self-perception was far different from the writer’s day-to-day life. What I learned is that it is hard, if not impossible, to separate the author from the author’s persona. That persona, the voice in the work and the voice behind the work, was more than an expression of a person writing about what they knew. It was the presence of a personality on the page and in the room in front of us that continually sounded its unique qualities. I soon realized that my duty as a photographer—not just an interviewer, critic, or reader—was to articulate that voice that I was hearing in their answers. After each interview I would ask the writer to take me to the place where they felt comfortable and where their imaginative work took shape. Some simply stood still. Others would lead O’Riordan and I to a study or to a back porch or a bay window. That is where these photographs were taken.

Listening to the authors was essential. When I looked through the view-finder of my single-lens reflex or scanned a contact sheet with a slide magnifier (I worked, and still work in black and white, with film, 400 ASA, all natural light, no flash permitted), I realized that what I had to do was more than record the personality I heard or even capture the likeness of the person. I wanted to understand how the words, the personality, and the appearance all fit together like pieces in an elaborate puzzle. Authors are the sum of all these elements and something more that I cannot name but I always sensed was there. Perhaps it was the sense of self-integration that enabled them to do one of the hardest things possible for a human being: to imagine themselves. I realized I had to see them as more than just faces or I would be doing them and their works a terrible disservice. I wanted my portraits of them to be memorable and in order to understand what makes a portrait memorable, I began a study of portraiture.

I realized that portrait is, arguably, the hardest of all the visual arts to learn. This fact struck me when I poured over the works of such contemporary literary photographers as Jill Kremitz (the wife of Kurt Vonnegut), Christopher Barker (the son of Elizabeth Smart and the English poet George Barker), and earlier portrait photographers who had chosen writers as their subjects: Julia Margaret Cameron, Alvin Langdon Coburn, Yusef Karsh, John Reeves, Arnaud Maggs, and the great Nineteenth century French photo-biographer, Nadar. What struck me was that their images were not just snapshots of the person, but serious extensions and reinventions of the art of portraiture, and critiques and interpretations of the authors’ works. That’s a tall order.

(... Continued in Portraits of Canadian Writers)


Credit: Doug Crawford

Bruce Meyer has spent most of his life in an on-going conversation with Canadian literature and Canadian letters. Known across Canada for his broadcasts on the CBC with Michael Enright on The Great Books, A Novel Idea, and Great Poetry: Poetry is Life and Vice Versa, Meyer is author of 49 books of poetry, short fiction, non-fiction, literary journalism and pedagogy. With Brian O’Riordan he produced two books interviews with Canadian authors: In Their Words (1985) and Lives and Works (1991). As a poet, he won the E.J. Pratt Gold Medal twice, the Gwendolyn MacEwen Prize for Poetry, and the IP Prize in the United States, and was runner-up for the Indie Fab Award, and the Cogswell Prize. Among his poetry books are To Linares (2016), The Seasons (from Porcupine’s Quill, 2014), The Madness of Planets (2015), The Arrow of Time (2015), Testing the Elements (2014), The Obsession Book of Timbuktu (2013), A Book of Bread (2012), Mesopotamia (2010), Dog Days (2010) and with H. Masud Taj Alphabestiary (2012). His 2000 book on the Great Books, The Golden Thread, was a national bestseller, and was followed by Heroes (2007). With Barry Callaghan he was co-editor of the landmark anthology, We Wasn’t Pals: Canadian Poetry and Prose of the First World War (2000, 2014), and with Carolyn Meyer was co-editor of the groundbreaking anthology The White Collar Book (2011). Meyer is professor of Creative Writing and Communications at Georgian College in Barrie, and an Associate at Victoria College in the University of Toronto where he teaches in the prestigious Vic One Program. He was the inaugural Poet Laureate of the City of Barrie, and lives there with his wife, Kerry and daughter Katie.

The Porcupine's Quill would like to acknowledge the support of the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council for the Arts for our publishing program. The financial support of the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund (CBF) is also gratefully acknowledged.

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PHOTOGRAPHY / Subjects & Themes / Portraits


ISBN-13: 9780889843967

Publication Date: 2016-10-31

Dimensions: 8.75 in x 5.56 in

Pages: 208

Price: $22.95