In the summer of 2003, Albertan poet Tate Young was driving a borrowed car southbound from Edmonton when he was blindsided by a truck. He remembers chatting to the ambulance driver before passing into a coma.
Nine days later, Young was released from hospital, alive but with a new vision. Canadian poetry, he now realized, was in a desperate state of emergency. Something needed to be done—fast. Pushed into action, he became a character called Mingus Tourette, an avatar of flowing jazz and spontaneous, dirty wordplay. He attended an automobile auction and successfully bid on a one-ton, fully functional 1986 Chevy C-30 ambulance. He drove it home, painted it shocking pink, stencilled “write the nation” in white letters on the side, and fixed a vanity plate to the back that said “MINGUS.” And then, like one of the fearless characters in his poems—“a Molotov cocktail in one hand/and a pitchfork in the other”—he set out on a three week, 12,222 kilometre, zigzagging cross-Canada tour.
The road, like poetry, requires stamina, gas in the tank, and blind faith in movement. The road also required of Tourette an endless amount of coffee and cigarettes, and at times it would leave him “naked and drunk/face down on somebody’s lawn.” It would also bring him “close to the ground and invincible.” These lines are taken from Nunt, a collection of Tourette’s poems published during his journey. On the cover is a young nun wearing high heels and a gas mask; she is lifting up her habit to display nylon-clad thighs. “Knee-jerk offensiveness masquerading as a philosophical stance,” wrote the Calgary Herald. The Winnipeg Free Press was less dismissive and would have reprinted lines from the book had it not been for “the sheer volume of profanity and graphic sexual content.”
But Tourette had passed beyond the censure of the tongue-clucking media. He was transformed. He was now “a notorious drunkard and effervescent fuckaroo, purveyor of fine apostasy, a thanophobic bastard and emphatic graphomaniac and chronic neologist.” He was also behind the wheel of a one-ton pink ambulance, barrelling east along the great Trans-Canada Highway.
In the spaces between small towns, the poet shot long looks out the window at the prairie barns and their gambrel roofs. He whipped through the grand city of Winnipeg, nosing the wide windy streets beneath the rusticated temple facades of the old commercial buildings, run-down beer taverns, taking mental note of the signs: “Chicago Style Blues,” “30-dollar-a-night rooms (No guests, no bathroom).” His ambulance plodded along to Portage la Prairie, where a fifty-foot Coca-Cola can towered over the town. He saw massive cattle farms and old grain elevators. Then he tumbled into mixed, gnarly bush, dimpled with dunes, eclipsed by a massive junkyard of scrapped cars. On the north side, eight black horses danced on the prairie, then a cloud of rooks, suspended in mid-air, expanded and shrank like a jellyfish.
At times, Tourette was depressed by the sheer numbing conformity of the highway signs’ commercial idioms—dead talk on billboards obscuring the land, his land. “WE PUT THE WIN IN WINNIPEG.” Who writes this stuff? he wondered, and why are they not taken out and shot? Everywhere the same towering signs promoted the same automobiles, the same lube jobs and muffler repairs. The same fast food joints had metastasized from Toronto to Sicamous, BC. The desperate “Family Restaurants” shouted their obligatory alliteration: “Chicken Charlie’s, where it’s always happy hour!” Tourette stopped, only to discover that Chicken Charlie’s was not so much happy as it was miserable. The food was miserable, the waitress was miserable, the little throwaway vinegar and ketchup sacks, the little plastic buckets to sit in—all miserable. Everyone in the place was miserable, and it was all made more miserable by the signs that insisted how wonderful it was. The cruellest desecration of all—Tourette had always known this—was the desecration of language.
But eventually the highway language diversified and a billboard caught his eye: “Raid Kills Bugs Dead.” Tourette grinned, remembering American poet Lew Welch, who, as the story goes, penned Raid’s slogan. Lew Welch reminded him of the undying legacy of the beat poets, of Welch’s friend Gary Snyder, of Allen Ginsberg and of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. They were road freaks, every one of them. The beats, and the beat beat beat of the miles as they knocked beneath them, brought Tourette around to his Canadian colleagues. He thought about the hitchhikes of Stompin’ Tom Conners, of Al Purdy and of ct staples, the inventor of the can-opener alarm clock and composer of the fragmented beat verse “Cathartic Reflections in a 3 am Greyhound Window.” He was a poet whose “many waltzes with death” included “…being thrown thru/a car window/in the mountains of Idaho.”
Staples had once tried to travel north hobo-style, but had hopped the wrong train and ended up in the southwestern United States, where he had himself cleansed in a Navajo sage ceremony. Tourette thought of the many thousands of miles they had all logged, and recalled a line from F.R. Scott’s poem “Trans Canada”: “I have sat by night beside a cold lake/And touched things smoother than moonlight on still water.” He wondered, like Scott, whether all roads led to the sun.
As he travelled across the country, Tourette’s pink ambulance became a trans-Canada versification-mobile, picking up poets, runaways and self-described “independent literary editors.” With Tourette at the wheel, the new passenger would settle in beside him and the pair would engage in the intimacy of two people in the front seat of a moving vehicle. The passenger might insert a CD, twiddle the radio dials for reception, roll a joint or snap the lids off take-out coffees. But soon enough the mood would modulate itself to the passing landscape, time meshing perfectly with the kilometres tapping like a metronome in time with their conversations. Tourette’s mother had a phrase for these long leisurely drives: “windshield time.” There was nothing she liked better than to share some quality windshield time with a friend. Tourette thought about his mother, wondering whether it was her, not him, who was the poet.
For three weeks, Tourette covered mad and inspirational distances. His pink ambulance stopped at places called The Dreg’s Café, Modern Fuel and The Ghetto Lounge. Poets he had picked up along the way spilled out of the ambulance and read from books titled Velocity, Any Place Beyond Ourselves and Wonder Walker. He read in Montreal on a Friday and in Brandon, Manitoba, less than forty-eight hours later. Then to Toronto, back and forth on Queen Street, sharing the road with bicycles, streetcars, skateboarders, policemen on horses, girls on Rollerblades with MP3 players attached to their biceps, tacking right and left, their hips and hair swaying, elegant as schooners—the poetry of city streets.
The pace of his trek was as gruelling as that of the voyageurs on their fur-seeking sweeps from Montreal to the Lakehead, paddles hitting the water at sixty strokes per minute, eighteen hours a day, all portages taken on the run. And like the priests who accompanied the fur traders, Tourette was crossing the highways of Canada to spread the word of a mysterious God. It was a fight for the souls of the people, and he knew, as did the old Oblates, who sent their doomed missionaries by foot and by dogsled into a vast land, that “souls cost dear, and they have to be purchased one by one.”
And so Tourette did what he was born to do. He sat at the wheel with a microphone in his hand, broadcasting his message into the teeming streets: “Poetry, poetry, free poetry coming at you. Tonight, the Gladstone Hotel, free poetry, poetry.” In Toronto, the police grinned at him, and to Tourette this demonstrated an agreeable height of urban sophistication. It is, after all, illegal for a non-emergency vehicle to be equipped with a red light and a working public address system. But the road, he thought, like speech itself, should always be free. “Free poetry,” he boomed, “coming at ya.”
Adapted from Hard Surface by Peter Unwin, to be published by Key Porter Books in Spring 2008.