Friday, September 02, 2011

ERNEST HEKKANEN: SOCIAL HISTORIAN and RENAISSANCE MAN

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Ernest Hekkanen is one focussed writer. I was just at an event at the Nelson Municipal Library where he launched not one, but two books: a collection of gritty short stories and story autopsies, All Night Gas Bar; and Wintering Over: Poems Strewn on Snow.

Being of the poetic persuasion myself, I was first drawn to the poems, which I have been dipping into. I am inevitably rewarded with some wonderful lines and images, as from The Surreal Frozen Landscape —


The warming trend continues one degree
at a time, and now arpeggios of snow
cascade with musical precision
from boughs bent severely earthward.



or this, from a poem called Winter Morning, Warm Thoughts —

III

O, to feel the sun's warmth
kiss my skin
one more time.
To feel it infuse
every cell
of my body.
I would give anything
to be caressed
like caramel
against the roof
of God's mouth.
Savored,
just savored
for being me.

Ernest told us that he wrote the poems during the winter when he was dealing with depression, something many of us can relate to when it comes to day after day after soul-sucking day of low-hanging clouds and darkness. I just know that, come about February, unless I've managed to shake off winter in some far-off sunny clime, I will be returning to this book for comfort. Safety in numbers.


The short stories are something else again. In the early seventies, shortly after he arrived in Canada as a war resister like so many other young Americans did, Ernest had a variety of jobs, all of which he credits with providing him with something to write about. For three years he worked graveyards as a gas station attendant in Vancouver's infamous downtown Eastside at Hastings and Semlin. He jotted down notes about his experiences — being held-up was a fairly regular occurrence — and turned them into short stories which he tried to get published with very little success (although in 1976 one of them made it into Prism International). He finally stuffed them into a box, which in the way of writers he kept all these years until he rediscovered them during one of those rigourous clean-outs many of us have from time to time (especially, speaking personally here, since the proliferation of TV shows like Hoarders). Reading them over, he found they took him back to the time they were written, so he typed them into a machine, did a soup├žon of editing, and then came up with the "story autopsies" idea, in which he wrote about the writing of the stories and interspersed the results with the stories themselves. It makes for a fascinating look at a time, not that long ago, when life was just a little bit different. Having read his depiction of the hazards of working at a gas station at night, I no longer wonder about the validity of the recent BC law that requires people to pay for their gas before filling their vehicle. All Night Gas Bar is a fascinating look at the Vancouver of yesteryear.

Ernest's partner and muse, Margrith Schraner, looked after the book table. Margrith is a writer herself, notably of the short story, Dream Dig, which was published in The New Orphic Review and subsequently included in 2001's Journey Prize Anthology, and of a biography of Ernest, The Reluctant Author: the life and literature of Ernest Hekkanen, New Orphic Publishers, 2006.





















Sales were brisk, and Ernest signed a lot of books.

Both All Night Gas Bar; and Wintering Over: Poems Strewn on Snow are published by New Orphic Publishers, Ernest's publishing imprint. He and Margrith edit The New Orphic Review, a literary magazine that comes out in the spring and the fall (and one in which my own work has appeared).

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