Bill Arnott’s Beat: Disguised as Prose

I thought I’d change things up, this time around. A departure. Like most of us who use the term poet to describe ourselves, I’m also a lover of prose. Well-crafted, poetic prose. Which does, often enough, appear in all types of writing, from impassioned YA to some forms of fiction and the most engaging nonfiction. And although I’ve enjoyed creating a range of genres, my most widely read work is what’s generally labelled travel literature, a nonfiction memoir encapsulating personal adventure with history and humour. Armchair escape. Anna Badkhen, Robert Macfarlane and Malachy Tallack are among my nonfiction mentors and literary role models. And one thing, in particular, resonates through their work. An unfailing, consistent element. Poetic voice. Disguised as prose.

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In keeping with this, I’ve been asked to share an example, and at the risk of seeming self-serving, I was asked specifically to offer up a snippet of my own work. And when someone asks something of me, I like to say yes. So here we go, a brief passage from my new nonfiction travel lit memoir, which, to my delight, became a BC Bestseller the moment it was released. The book is A Season on Vancouver Island. “What’s it about?” you might ask. To which I’d roll my eyes. It incorporates mixed media and includes my photos of the three-month excursion which I’ve digitally painted as well, using a series of customized software apps. The result, I believe, is a dreamy, deeply sensory engagement between writer and reader. A connection I feel privileged to foster, and one I consider an obligation for those of us embracing the moniker of artist and poet.

So, for this departure, aptly enough, let’s head out. To the Pacific coast and beyond, with this passage from A Season on Vancouver Island

“I wake at 1:30 in the morning, night sky perfectly clear. Our accommodation has small, solar powered lights on the drive but here by our unit, with a low fence and thick trees, light pollution is nonexistent. I lay flat on the ground, looking up, and a gap in the foliage gives me a sweeping planetarium view. Every constellation, it seems, is up there. I can make out Orion, the Big Dipper, an outline of what I think is Ursa Major (how anyone thought THAT looks like a bear is beyond me) and, as my eyes adjust, the distant, mindboggling smear of the Milky Way.

It shuttles me back to childhood, on the dock that ran from our yard to the lake in two sections, one fixed and one floating. On warm summer nights we’d camp out, “sleeping wild” on the floating part of the pier. Sleeping bags on thick foam, pillows and flashlight. We’d stay awake as long as we could, watching for shooting stars. I don’t remember knowing the fact that late summer is best for northern hemisphere viewing, simply felt lucky to occasionally see meteors. If rain came, we’d wait, see if it was a passing squall or had come to stay, serious downpours that made us laugh and scramble to gather soggy gear and run to the house, towel down and go to bed, proper bed, and try again some other night.

Lying once again on the ground it’s as though I’m back on the pier, next to Dad, occasionally a sibling or mom. Same stars. Same feeling. One of timelessness. And the drifting sense of meditation and utter connection. I watch. And wait. A part of me is aware of the passing of time, that part that too quickly forgets how to be in nature, with nature. The part numbed by devices, elevators and sirens. Until I remember the mindset of fishing. And realize that’s what I’m doing here now. Fishing for stars. And the nagging sense of time dissipates, vanishing into that soupy celestial blur.

Then it happens. A kind of electricity, the internal vibrating hum of an imminent occurrence. Not so much anticipation, as knowing. Like that nanosecond immediately preceding a fish taking the line. When you know, unequivocally. Which is what I feel, and then a meteor whizzes past, just right of centre in my line of view, passing the W of Cassiopeia. Indeed, chalk up a W for the night’s first shooting star. I’m taken aback by the excitement, child-like exuberance. The star flying past lasted less than a second, but I feel a complete absence of time. Limitless.”

Yes, dare I say, poetry in the guise of prose. A literal journey. One I hope every fellow traveller will enjoy. With thanks to my mentors, role models, and all of us known as artists and poets.

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Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of A Season on Vancouver Island, theGone Viking travelogues, andA Perfect Day for a Walk: The History, Cultures, and Communities of Vancouver, on Foot(Arsenal Pulp Press, Fall 2024). Recipient of a Fellowship at London’s Royal Geographical Society for his expeditions, Bill’s a frequent presenter and contributor to magazines, universities, podcasts, TV and radio. When not trekking with a small pack and journal, Bill can be found on Canada’s west coast, where he lives near the sea on Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh land.