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Q&A: filmmaker Brian D. Johnson on Al Purdy, poetry, and persona

Al PurdyAl Purdy is packing the house, or houses. There are the two sold-out screenings of Brian D. Johnson’s documentary, Al Purdy Was Here at the Toronto International Film Festival. Then there’s the Al Purdy A-Frame Association’s writers’ residency (which is accepting applications for 2017 residencies until Oct. 17), where authors can spend up to three months at the recently restored A-frame house that Purdy — who died in 2000 — and his wife, Eurithe, built in 1957 in Ameliasburgh, Ontario. The historic home on Roblin Lake in Prince Edward County has already hosted several young poets. Katherine Leyton, Toronto poet and founder of poetry vlog howpedestrian.ca, was the first. Her arrival and work at the A-frame in summer 2014 are glimpsed in Johnson’s documentary.

A veteran and recently retired film writer for Maclean’s, Johnson calls the A-frame the “armiture” of the doc. “He found his voice by building the A-frame and exploring the legacy of his immediate ancestors in Prince Edward County,” says Johnson.

Shortly after talking with Q&Q about the film, Johnson was off to talk to prospective international distributors. In Canada, Films We Like (whose co-founder, filmmaker Ron Mann, also executive-produced Al Purdy Was Here), will distribute the film to theatres. It will later be carried by the CBC’s Documentary Channel. AL+&+friends+at+the+A-Frame

What led you to make Al Purdy Was Here? My wife, Marni Jackson: she brought Al Purdy into our home. I’d never really read him. I wasn’t really familiar with his life or work. She scripted the Koerner Hall gala [in Toronto in early 2013 in support of the A-frame’s renovations] and asked me to cut a montage of archival material to show at it. That’s a hobby of mine: I’ve been cutting montages for the Toronto Film Critics Association gala for almost a decade. I was completely enchanted by Al. He’s not just a good poet; he’s a great character.

Two days before the benefit I asked if they were shooting it. But I didn’t plan to make a movie about Al Purdy.

Watching the film, I got the sense people were ready – eager, maybe even relieved – to talk about Al, at long last. Was that the case? It wasn’t hard to get people to talk. It was especially amazing to meet younger people who discovered Al Purdy as teenagers. [Indie musician] Doug Paisley discovered him in a bar in Peterborough and became a lifelong fan and has something like 40 books, including rare editions, of Al’s. His song in the film is distilled from countless poems. You need a literary forensic investigator to figure out which poems of Al’s are used in his song.

Tayna Tagaq and Joseph Boyden

Tayna Tagaq and Joseph Boyden

What do you think accounts for the connection that musicians, such as Sarah Harmer or Gord Downie, both of whom appear in the film, feel with Purdy? Poetry has an obvious music to it. I’m a musician, a percussionist. Whether I’m writing or making a film, it’s all about the flow, rhythm, the music. But also the A-frame is a great metaphor for people coming together in a kind of collaboration. You see that now in the music and the literary communities. Sarah Harmer’s song, “Just Get Here,” captures that.

The archival footage [readings, media interviews, some of the many visitors to the A-frame] helps create that rhythm, or flow. For example, there are some simple but moving scenes, such as Purdy and his friend, poet Milton Acorn, treading carefully on a frozen Roblin Lake.

How did you decide what to use? It’s a brutal process. You’re constantly winnowing down. Purdy wrote what he saw, and what he felt. He wasn’t creating elaborate constructs that had to be decoded. His poetry was a kind of reportage with rhythm, with cadence. Poetry is writing in its purest form, in terms of its economy, its need for truth, and its insistence upon beauty. There’s something about poetry that as a film writer I’ve always been drawn to. I think poetry and dance are both exquisite, somewhat abstract forms. When I read poetry or see dance I find them both to be very cinematic. When I first read Dennis Lee’s Yes/No, I had these flashes. [Johnson turned that book of poems by Lee, who appears in the Purdy documentary, into an experimental short film.]

Were you inspired by Purdy as you were making this film? I did worry about the film becoming hagiography, the fact that it grew out of the A-frame [restoration] campaign, which is all about celebrating Al Purdy. A documentary which does nothing but celebrate its subject is not a good documentary. And it will get attacked for being hagiography. Al Purdy hated flattery. It would be untrue to his spirit if we did not have some dark matter.

Without exposing here the specifics of that “dark matter” before audiences see the film, is it fair to say he struggled with being a father? The question of how much weight to give it was a critical creative question. In our second interview, Eurithe [who was married to Al for several decades] said again about him not being a good father. And then she said, “Well don’t use that.” But I said we already talked about that and it’s not a big secret that he wasn’t a good father.

Eurithe Purdy

Eurithe Purdy

What was it like sitting and talking with Eurithe? Eurithe was the revelation in the film for me. She stuck through it with Al and is the custodian of his work and his legend. We ended up interviewing her four times. Although the film is a celebration, it’s a sad story. It’s about what gets left behind by the artist. Without Eurithe’s sacrifices, tolerance, and compassion, there’d be no Al Purdy. But what’s great is how unsentimental she is. He denied creating the public persona [of beer-swigging, scrappy poet] but Eurithe says, “No it was a persona.”

You had to have the persona back then. You couldn’t just create the poems. But she’s such a strong, smart, honest, no-bullshit woman who finds it an absolute horror to talk about her life with Al. It was my job to try to get her to open up. But at the same time I respected her desire to not want to dish even 15 years after Al’s death. Her loyalty on that front is really admirable.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

This Q&A was updated Sept. 15, 2015.