An Interview with Richard Outram, Part 1

Encore will be reprinting sections of Michael Carbert’s 2001 interview with the late Richard Outram, originally published in Guernica’s Writer Series’ “Richard Outram, Essays on his Works”, edited by Ingrid Ruthig. This is the first installment. The interview was conducted in November, at the Arts & Letters Club of Toronto.

Carbert: How did you first begin to write? When did you realize this was to be your vocation?

Outram: Well, I have to go back a little. I graduated from Victoria College in the University of Toronto in the old Honours course,  philosophy with an option in english literature, and it had never occurred to me that I would be a writer, at least not while I was an undergraduate. Most of the other people of my year were scribbling frantically, trying to get things into Acta Victoriana. I never did. There’s no point point looking for juvenilia in the university records because there isn’t any. I didn’t write any. I didn’t try to write. I had enough trouble writing essays and getting them in on time. However, as things worked out, I ended up living in London, England in 1954. I graduated in 1953 and then decided that some time spent abroad might be in order. So I worked for a year to pay off some small debts and save some money, and then I bought a one-way ticked on a freighter put everything I owned into two small suitcases and went off to the UK. In February of 1955 I was sitting in a large virtually empty restaurant area in Brighton, Brighton is a crowded seaside resort in the holiday season, but in February it was bitterly cold and there was almost no one there.

However, I was there, sitting, looking at the English Channel, and I had taken to carrying a notebook, and, suddenly, I wrote a poem. It occurred to me, virtually fully formed and I wrote it down and it was small and slight, but it was an actual poem. I was astonished. Absolutely astonished. It had never occurred to me that such a thing might happen. So it was that abrupt. It would be wrong to call it a conversion experience. It was just a sudden act of realization and no one was taken aback more than myself. Call it love at first sight.

So I set about trying to figure out how to write poetry, and consequently it took a very long time, since I hadn’t bothered to do most of the rudimentary work while I was in the comfortable bosom of the university for four years. I had to start from scratch and out in the cold cruel world, in which I shortly had to earn a living, but I knew nothing of the craft, for instance, just enough to know that one had to learn the craft. You didn’t just do this, contrary to contemporary practice, so, consequently, my first real book wasn’t published until 1966. That was Exsultate, Jubilate, which is my first commercial publication and it took me eleven years to produce it. And it n many ways i’m pleased that it did, because there’s s sense in which I don’t have juvenilia. Generally speaking, many writers are rather embarrassed by their first outpouring and their first books. I’ve been saved that.

Carbert: You are quoted by Peter Sanger regarding your experience as a student of Northrop Frye, at the University of Toronto, that Frye communicated to you the sense that your “ignorance was, with diligence and grace, somehow reparable…” How did Frye communicate this idea to you?

Outram: Well, first of all Frye was not the only one. Emil Fackenheim was an extraordinary exemplar, and there were others. But what Frye was able to do was to demonstrate, conclusively, that I had a heritage of thought and language available to me and it was my right and moral obligation to attempt to become capable of using it as a motive for living a responsible and reasoned life. Like most undergraduates of that time–I can’t speak for undergraduates of today–I had all the anxieties of uncertainty.

As students, we really hadn’t much of a notion as to where we were going or how we were going to there. We did have a strong sense of our own inadequacies, especially in comparison to our professors who were so obviously and zestfully possessed of  vast bodies of erudition and insight and powers of articulation that left us slack-jawed. Fackenheim, for instance, seemed to have all of Plotinus and Maimonides by heart. Well, I couldn’t spell them. And the fourth-year lectures he gave us in the philosophy of history are as crucial to my intellectual life as anything I ever picked up from Frye at that stage, though it was a remarkable event to sit in a Frye lecture, I can assure you.

It was an extraordinarily rich environment in which to overcome one’s sense of being a callow youth. And we greatly respected our professors because they so very evidently respected their field of inquiry. In this sense they were exemplars.

And it was a very tough course. In some ways you suffered for it. i’m seventy-one years old and I still suffer from final examination nightmares. And I can assure you I’m not alone in this. You see, if you failed any one of your honor courses, you had to repeat the entire year. So, everything hinged on these two-and-a-half-hour final examinations written under intense pressure. I had the terrible experience of watching a fellow student in first year have a complete breakdown within the first twenty minutes of an examination on Greek & Roman history. And we never saw her again. As far as we knew, she just cracked completely. I remember I didn’t do very well on that examination. I was trembling. They had to half-carry her sobbing out of the classroom. These were terrible pressures frankly. That’s the way the system worked.

Richard Outram was born in Oshawa, Ontario in 1930 and educated at Victoria College in the University of Toronto. He published more than a dozen books of poetry and won the City of Toronto Book Award for his 1999 collection Benedict Abroad. Outram’s other poetry collections include Exsultate, Jubilate (1966), Turns and Other Poems (1975), The Promise of Light (1979), Man in Love (1985), Hiram and Jenny (1988), Mogul Recollected (1993), and Dove Legend (2001). Outram died in 2005 in Port Hope, Ontario.

Michael Carbert is a past editor of Carousel magazine and currently a contributing editor to  Canadian Notes & Queries. His articles, reviews and interviews have been featured in various publications including Books in Canada, The New Quarterly,  CNQ, The Montreal Review of Books, Maisonneuve and The Montreal Gazette.