In 1962 a 19-year-old youth fresh from Dulwich College, a school for the genteel boys of upper-crust England, followed his brother to Canada. The youth had grown up in Ceylon among an affluent family of landowners and tea-planters. He had never written a poem. Five years later, by then a teacher at the University of Western Ontario, the husband of a Canadian artist and the father of two children, Michael Ondaatje published his first book of poems, The Dainty Monsters. Its pages were alive with articulate and jagged accounts of animals and family, violence and myth. Ondaatje has not looked back.
“I try not to talk about the writing,” he says. “There’s so much ego involved. Writers who are ‘personalities’ drive me up the wall.” Ondaatje, soft-spoken and witty, has a courtesy and gentleness of manner z that seem to belie the ferocity of his art. % (“Nothing is more irritating,” he once * wrote, “than to have your work translated ¿ by your life.”) The heroes of his prose— x Billy the Kid and jazzman Buddy Bolden— are savage, inventive, solitary and doomed. But even as he presses raw chunks of history into literature, Ondaatje is a re-visionist, making our past as luminous as fantasy, offering the sustenance of imagination amid "the desert of facts.”
He spends part of the year teaching English at York University in Toronto. Spring and summer let him retreat to a farm in eastern Ontario where he writes at a table in the barn. Occasionally Ondaatje works in more exotic locales; his novel Coming Through Slaughter was edited in
the dining car of a CP train going west. He's currently preparing a stage version of Slaughter for Theatre Passe Muraille. He has, like his wife Kim, also made films, and recently turned Robert Kroetsch’s novel Badlands into a feature-length screenplay. If a producer would only take it up, Ondaatje notes, the casting would be simple: Northrop Frye (as a vicious miner) and Eddie Shack could play the leads, with a brothel scene full of the League of Canadian Poets.
Although Norton in the U S. and McClelland and Stewart here have taken up his work, Ondaatje remains loyal to the small presses of Canada which, he insists, “are still our main source of good poetry.” In his spare time he edits books for Coach House Press. A world away from “the milk floor of ocean,” the plantations and pariah dogs of childhood and Ceylon, Ondaatje has come to see our landscapes and people with the predatory eye of a photographer. “Photos,” he says, “are places to interpret things.” So are his poems.
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