(The following interview with P.W. Bridgman by Bill Arnott originally appeared in Bill’s Artist Showcase Newsletter and is reproduced here at TMR with Bill’s kind permission.)
Okay, P.W., you go ahead and enjoy my pint. I’ll just ask for another. In the meantime, welcome! Please tell our Showcasers a bit about your work as a writer.
(P.W.) I write fitfully, mostly in my study atop my house in bohemian East Vancouver, a ten-minute walk from The Drive. My selection of poems, entitled A Lamb, was published by Ekstasis Editions in 2018. It was preceded in 2013 by a selection of short fiction entitled Standing at an Angle to My Age (Libros Libertad). My writing has appeared in Grain, The Antigonish Review, Canadian Poetry Review, The Moth Magazine, The Ekphrastic Review, The High Window, The Glasgow Review of Books, The Honest Ulsterman, The Galway Review, Ars Medica, Poetry Salzburg Review and other periodicals and anthologies. You can learn more about my writing life at www.pwbridgman.ca
Q. (Excellent publications.) What do you feel you’re best known for?
A. For being largely invisible. I began writing fiction and poetry under the Bridgman pen name in the mid-1980s when I was an articled student-at-law. Believing that it would be easier for everyone—me included—if I kept my writing and professional personae separate and distinct, I continued in that fashion for 20 years while practising as a lawyer and for another 12 years while serving as a judge. So. Head down. Under the radar. Sempre sotto voce. But I retired from the bench in late 2019 and, thus, I have relaxed a little now. (For example, I have added mention of my real name—Tom Woods—on my website.) However, because my poetry and fiction are identified with my pen name, I’ve decided to continue writing creatively as “P.W. Bridgman”.
Q. (As you know, I enjoyed reviewing A Lamb here for TMR, referencing your “double life” identity, which—obviously—is like a crime-fighting superhero. A superhero I still suspect you of being.) And what brought you here?
A. I have always loved to read and, from a relatively early age, to write as well. It seems to be “in the blood,” as they say. Reading the written work of those who have obvious talent has always inspired me to strive for excellence in my own writing. All writers must first be discerning readers, I think.
Q. (That love shows in your writing.) Who’s a role model or mentor to you?
A. I have been fortunate to have had a few. Since you are asking about one only, I will mention George McWhirter—a dear friend and, to be sure, a fine mentor. He writes absolutely beautiful poetry and fiction, so he sets a fine example. But, beyond that, he is very generous with his advice and his gentle and insightful criticism. I will forever be in his debt. George is a member of a small writers’ group to which I have belonged for a long time and his guidance, along with that coming from other members of the group, has been very important to my own development (such as it has been) and that of the other members in our little salon.
George’s short story, “Flags,” sits alongside a handful of others in my personal, literary pantheon. It can be found in his book Coming to Grips with Lucy (Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1982) and I commend it to anyone wishing to closely examine the many intricate, carefully engineered, moving parts of a brilliantly crafted short story, all whirring, spinning and ticking along in perfect synchrony. If ever I manage to write a short story that could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with “Flags,”—a vain aspiration, I know—then I will feel that I have, at last, gotten to the place I have been aiming to reach since I first began creatively putting pen to paper.
Q. (A fond memory was seeing you read alongside your mentor at a Vancouver event. Your mutual respect, and talent, shone through.) What’s your favourite: book, album, movie, and food dish?
A. I am very wary of declaring favourites. It is to be hoped that, as time passes, we all evolve and, through continuing exposure to what’s new (and old), our tastes will be broadened and shaped. So, what may loom large amongst our enthusiasms today may recede into the background tomorrow. In any event, with that caveat:
Book: I know this will sound pretentious but I must take that risk and be truthful. My choice is Joyce’s Ulysses. I read it every 10-12 years and am currently on my fourth pass. (What better way could there be to fend off COVID-19 ennui?) Ulysses is, at once, exhilarating and infuriating. It must be read differently than other books, with the eye and ear tuned to the musicality and percussiveness of the prose, its humour, its tender sensuality, its garrulousness, its irreverence, its argumentativeness and its total, freewheeling abandon. And one must be prepared sometimes to glide over cultural/biblical/mythological references which, without a great deal of research, one cannot hope to understand or “get”. But Ulysses is a rich and complex tapestry that rewards the considerable effort (and it is considerable) that Joyce demands of his reader; new passages at which one marvels are revealed on every re-reading. Ulysses is a joyous, lifetime project that stirs that part of my blood that can be traced to my Irish forebears in a very primal way.
Album: Easy. Miles Davis and Gil Evans’ Porgy and Bess. It was recorded in 1958. I have it in vinyl and in digital form. There is no album I have listened to more often than this definitive version of Gershwin’s masterpiece and every squeak, honk, bass arpeggio and drum fill has, accordingly, been hard-wired into my brain permanently. Like Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Miles’ Kind of Blue, this is an Olympian classic of which one never tires. Musical manna from heaven.
Movie: Night on Earth, directed by Jim Jarmusch. My wife Lydia—a true cinephile with much more knowledge in this area than I have—introduced me to this film and to other work by Jarmusch. It defies description. Night on Earth is darkly comical, clever, and very, very strange. But it is as good as it gets in cinema, I think.
Dish: This, too, is easy. Lydia’s pasta with anchovy sauce. Marrying into the Italian culture has enriched my life immeasurably. The best Italian cooking, especially from the North (Lydia’s family comes from a town quite near to Venice), is distinguished by its simplicity. This sauce has only four ingredients. Pure, unalloyed magic.
Q. (Magnifico! I’ll spare readers details of our culinary conversations.) And what’re you currently working on?
A. I’m making the last edits to a new book of poems (Idiolect) and a new book of short stories and flash fiction (The Four Faced Liar) before I turn both manuscripts over to a talented editor friend for her smart catches and suggestions (always a good idea!). The first of those titles has been promised to a publisher for the end of the summer; the second has been promised to a different publisher by about the same time. Beyond that, I’m writing and publishing more poetry than fiction at the moment. My readership has always, for some reason, been strongest in Ireland and the UK, and this year I am trying harder to break into some of the more highly venerated Canadian poetry magazines. It isn’t easy.
Q. (Good luck with final edits. I look forward to both new books!) What’s your advice to others?
A. I am hardly qualified to give broad, general advice to others about the craft of writing. But since you’ve asked, I would first repeat what I said before. Read, read and read. And I would also say that it can be immensely helpful to find a mentor whose work you admire and who is willing to give your work a close reading and then render a candid assessment of it. And I do mean candid. Pats on the head are for spaniels.
Otherwise, I would say don’t worry too much about “succeeding” by some external standard. Give voice to the things that matter to you in writing that reflects your own aesthetic and your own, individual sensibility. Seamus Heaney’s poem, Station Island, is divided into 12 sequences. In Sequence XII, he encounters a shade—generally believed to be an invocation of the spirit of James Joyce—who gives Heaney an exhortation in essentially those terms as he (Heaney) is coming to the end of the famously gruelling Loch Derg pilgrimage:
… ‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you must do must be done on your own
so get back in harness. The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night
dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,
let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note’…
I don’t think it can be said better than that.
Q. (Beautiful.) Now for our Quirky Q. Make a choice: Pirates of Penzance or Pirates of the Caribbean?
A. Neither. (Bill interjects, “Wha?!!!”) Instead, I choose Ricki Lee Jones’ fantastic album, Pirates. (Ah! Bill says with a nod, while P.W.’s expression takes a decidedly “Let me finish!” look.) Especially track 4, “Woody and Dutch on a Slow Train to Peking”. The slap bass that introduces the song will quickly take you right back to 1981, the year the album was released. Remember 1981? Samuel Beckett still had eight years to live, Mike Harcourt was the mayor of Vancouver, Jared Kushner was a mere newborn and Donald Trump was just a cocky and rapacious landlord then. Imagine.
(It does leave one to wonder, and I DO love a little slap bass. Great interview P.W.. Thank you again!)
Thanks, Bill. This has been a blast.
(Click the image for P.W. Bridgman’s A Lamb at Ekstasis Editions.)
Photo of P.W. Bridgman taken by Lydia Lovison at Muriel’s Bar, Church Lane, in Belfast, 2015.