BOOKS

Man of (many) letters

An author writes comic odes to everyday life

CHRIS WOOD August 1 1994
BOOKS

Man of (many) letters

An author writes comic odes to everyday life

CHRIS WOOD August 1 1994

Man of (many) letters

BOOKS

An author writes comic odes to everyday life

For the benefit of students of Canadian literature for generations to come, The Poet is explaining one of the quirkier themes in his expanding oeuvre: the issue of manly facials. “I don’t much like getting older, and that’s the truth,” volunteers Bill Richardson, Vancouver radio broadcaster, book author and mockingly self-styled poet laureate of Canada. Being a man of action as well as words, Richardson, 38, has taken up countermeasures. “Every now

and then,” he confides, “I’ll go out and buy a facial preparation of some kind, avocado, oatmeal or something like that, and just slap it on and sit back and try not to laugh till it hardens. Then you take it off,” he concludes, his voice rising into a campy inflection, “and for about 20 minutes you’re a creature of pure ravishment.”

Such are the minor domestic triumphs that inspire Richardson—and delight his many admirers. Host of a summer program on CBC Radio and the author of four volumes of light verse and prose, the Winnipeg-born Richardson is transparently satiric in his claim to be the nation’s poet laureate. There is no such office, for one thing. But if it did exist, Richardson’s growing legion of fans would surely insist on his candidacy. And indeed, what better qualification could there be for such a post than an ability to extract deeper

meanings from the small crises, trivial disasters and incidental victories of daily life? It is a transformation that the prolific Richardson, who also writes a weekly column for The Vancouver Sun, accomplishes with self-deprecating modesty, like a shy suburban alchemist spinning gold from polyester.

Richardson got his start in broadcasting in 1984, reading a Hans Christian Andersen tale on air for the local CBC Radio station in Vancouver. Eventually, he landed a full-time

job as a story producer on CBC’s Gabereau show, the two-hour afternoon talkfest hosted by Vicki Gabereau. For the program, Richardson turned out comic odes to everyday dramas, poems that found obsession in dustballs, personal fulfilment in topiary and true love in small appliances. Many of them found their way into Queen of All the Dustballs (1992), a collection of what Richardson describes as “doggerel verse.” Last year, he published Bachelor Brothers’ Bed and Breakfast, which grew out of a series of letters that Richardson wrote to Gabereau from Hector and Virgil, a fictional pair of fiftysomething unmarried twins. In April, it won the Stephen Leacock Medal, Canada’s 48-yearold award for humor writing, putting

Richardson in the company of W. 0. Mitchell and Farley Mowat. Meanwhile, Richardson’s own radio show, Crosswords, is back for the third year as a summer replace ment for the first hour of Gabereau’s regular afternoon time slot.

Last week, Richardson brought several of his multiple roles together, taking Crosswords on the road for a taping before a live audience in Orillia, Ont., at the invitation of organizers of the town’s annual Leacock Festival. The program, to be broadcast this week, was recorded across the street from Leacock’s former home in the Ontario city.

It was an appropriate setting: there is something appealingly old-fashioned in Richardson’s preoccupation with the small, salutary victories of everyday life, in his evident love of the vanishing art of correspondence. At heart, Crosswords is an exchange of letters among scattered friends, as loyal listeners share their reflections on daily life and

often idiosyncratic musical choices. And Hector and Virgil’s (sadly) fictional bed and breakfast, “an out-of-the-way little place, inhabited largely by eccentrics,” in Richardson’s own description, clearly shares spiritual co-ordinates with Leacock’s turn-of-thecentury Mariposa.

In at least one respect however, the droll, reedy writer is every inch a man of the Nineties. Richardson, a slight figure who of ten aims his wry humor at him self, is openly gay. He makes his sexual orientation clear in a hu mor column that he writes for XTRA West, a Vancouver gay and lesbian biweekly. And in the text for Guy to Goddess, a collaboration with photographer Rosamund Norbury due to be published in October, Richardson explores the origins of drag queens. He ac knowledges that homophobic let ters to Crosswords are "not infre quent." But he claims to have little interest in the political agenda of

many gay activists. “I think it is good for people to know that is the way I live my life,” says Richardson, who shares a condominium in Vancouver’s west end with his partner. “But I don’t want to be identified as a gay writer.”

There seems to be little chance of that. Richardson’s fascination with the small change of ordinary life simply runs too wide. He is more intrigued by why a passion for books and a fondness for cats should so often be “points of intersection on the Venn diagram of personality,” as he writes in Bachelor Brothers, than with the genesis of sexual preference. “If I had led an extravagant life, I’d write about it,” he says. “As it is, what I write about is just the everyday.” A modest smile lights up the poet’s smooth face, incurring only the faintest of lines in the well-toned skin.

CHRIS WOOD in Vancouver