Nationality: Canadian. Born: Toronto, Ontario, 5 May 1950. Education: York University, Toronto, 1968–72, B.A. in English 1972. Career: Editor, McClelland and Stewart, publishers, Toronto, 1973–75. Since 1975 literary coordinator, Harbourfront, and since 1980 artistic director, Harbourfront International Festival of Authors, Toronto. Awards: Ontario Arts Council grants, 1975–84; Canada Council grant, 1975, 1977; City of Toronto Arts award (literature), 1989; League of Canadian Poets Honorary Lifetime Member, 1991; Jack award for lifetime promotion of Canadian books, 1994. Agent: Lucinda Vardey Agency, 36 Maitland Street, Suite H-2, Toronto, Ontario M4Y 1C5, Canada. Address: c/o Harbourfront Reading Series, 417 Queen's Quay West, Toronto, Ontario M5V 1A2, Canada.
Rondeaus for Erica. Toronto, Missing Link Press, 1976.
Adrienne's Blessing. Toronto, Missing Link Press, 1976.
The Brown Stealer. Oxford, Avalon, 1977.
The Salmon Country. Windsor, Ontario, Black Moss Press, 1978.
Growing Still. Windsor, Ontario, Black Moss Press, 1981.
Toronto: A Literary Guide. Toronto, McArthur, 1999.
Editor, 52 Pickup. Toronto, Dreadnaught Press, 1976.
Editor, Whale Sound: An Anthology of Poems about Whales and Dolphins. Toronto, Dreadnaught Press, 1977.
Editor, Whales: A Celebration. Toronto, Lester and Orpen Dennys, and Boston, Little Brown, 1983.
Editor, The Definitive Notes. Toronto, Montblanc, 1991.
Editor, The Wild Is Always There. Toronto, Knopf Canada, 1993.
Editor, The Very Richness of That Past. Toronto, Knopf Canada, 1995.
Translator, with Irving Layton and Francesca Valente, Selected Poems, by Giorgio Bassani. Toronto, Aya Press, 1980.*
Critical Studies: Reviews by John Bemrose, in Globe and Mail (Toronto), 20 February 1982; Chris Hume, in Toronto Star, 2 October 1983; in New York Times Book Review, 20 November 1983; Bernard Levin, in The Observer (London), 11 December 1983; Maclean's (Toronto), 12 December 1983; The Weekend Australian (Sydney), 3–4 March 1984.* * *
Greg Gatenby is, after Margaret Atwood and Robertson Davies, possibly the best-known Canadian writer abroad. It is certainly a fact that he is on a friendly and informal basis with innumerable influential authors from almost all the countries of the world. It is a sad fact, however, that he is recognized not for the individuality of his own body of writing but rather for his unselfish promotion of the work and careers of fellow writers in Canada and around the world.
Gatenby has directed the literary reading program of Toronto's Harbourfront cultural complex since 1975. At first he worked to bring nationally important poets and fiction writers to that reading venue. He then branched out and began to introduce visiting foreign writers, especially those on book promotion junkets. Almost single-handedly, he sought funding from corporate, commercial, and cultural bodies for what is now the prestigious Wang International Authors Festival. The festival is held in the fall, in the spring there is the International Poetry Festival, and throughout the year there are nightly group readings.
All of this activity has taken time and attention away from Gatenby's other interests. Indeed, he once admitted to a journalist at the Toronto Globe and Mail that he regards himself as a poet who works as an artistic director rather than as an artistic director who writes poems.
Gatenby is also a controversialist. In print and in public forums he has decried the heavy hand of the academy on the literary and publishing scene, the arbitrariness of national literary awards programs, the lack of generosity of public funding organizations, the failure of the federal government to further the country's arts on a global basis, and the grants programs of arts organizations.
Given the outspokenness of the man, it is not surprising that his poetry is strong and vigorous. Wit is one of the characteristics of his work, which has appeared in five volumes of poetry published over a five-year period beginning in 1976. Gatenby's best-known poem is the loud and amusing satire called "Academic Report on Literature III," an extended comparison of Canadian literature with the stock market: "Major U.S. indicators continue to outstrip Canadian futures… the interest rate in academic continued to decline …."
Urbanity is another quality of the man and his métier. Stanzas in "The Sophisticates" suggest a metropolitan temperament ill at ease with local, provincial, and intellectual pieties:
… and outside I take a deep breath
of the dirty smog of the city
and note for the first time
how much I need to enjoy it.
It was Northrop Frye who observed that Canadians live in a land that just seems to be emerging from prehistory. Gatenby's work occasionally suggests the coexistence of the unhistoric past with the unheroic present. He wrote in "The Salmon Country,"
May Sisyphus stay a European visitor;
these stupid fish make a tale primeval
are endemic to this land, this nation, us.
This perspective has been employed with great success by the poet Al Purdy. Gatenby uses it effectively in "The Narwhal," which describes an Inuit, or Eskimo, village and its chief product, sculptures:
Each village of 300 kills a thousand
and you can smell the extinction
in every sculpture the city dwellers buy
for the primitive art, for the natives,
There is evidence in his later poetry of a trying truce between the hard-nosed poems that satirize cultural and national concerns and the melodious lyric poems about life and love. "Reunion" presents love as "what once was intimate, / cedilla soft." This last phrase echoes throughout the poem, even to its ending: "Is now a furtive child, cynic hardened, lonely."
One of Gatenby's happiest poems, "Screen Siren," recounts how by chance he encountered his favorite movie star, the Quebec actress Carole Laure, in New York:
I made her
hear my love for dolphins, talked of books still to come—
any nonsense to protract her present, to let me
repose fluid kite tail dancing and happy.
Gatenby has a poetic voice that is characteristically his own. Whether his poems are by turn gritty and gruff or graceful and giving, characteristic of all of them is the sense that life is "once forever" and that the world as we know it does not measure up to the world as we could remake it.
—John Robert Colombo