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36 Cornelian Avenue by Christopher Wiseman

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36 Cornelian Avenue by Christopher Wiseman

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In his tenth collection of poetry, 36 Cornelian Avenue (Véhicule Press, May 10 2008), Christopher Wiseman writes about his wartime childhood in England, and revisits the streets, shore, and woods that belonged to the resort town of Scarborough where, his father away fighting, he and his mother lived.

In clear, quick-moving colloquial poetry, Wiseman explores how the Second World War affected his neighbours, turning some into curmudgeons, others into compassionate heroes, and how the experience toughened the frightened women and children into survivors, waiting for their men to come home.

Part novel, part memoir, part passionate recollection, 36 Cornelian Avenue presents these townspeople, often in their own words, as they were then, caught in the heartbreaking hardship of those years. Mines on the beach, air attacks, hostile neighbours, and cruel school teachers are among the many vivid, brilliantly textured memories recreated in this book, the most astonishing Wiseman has ever written.

Author Note

36 Cornelian Avenue was published in 2008, but I knew long before then that I would have to come to terms with my wartime childhood sometime, as, even after becoming Canadian and living in Calgary for 43 years, I still dream about the frightening things I experienced during the war. I  have come to realise that what happened then, from the age of 3 to 10, was responsible in a huge way for shaping who I am.

I had stayed in touch with one friend from those years, and through him began to re-connect with others of us kids who lived in this small district on the Englsh North Sea coast during the war. Eventually, I tracked down a lot of my old friends, and, by mail, email, and interviews with them in England, I came to record their memories and experiences of those very stormy years and to compare them to my own.

I thought I might do a prose account of the war, but gradually poems, in a loose and fairly simple style, started presenting themselves as I took episode after episode to my writing table. I believe that all the poems put together in the collection are sort of all one poem, deeply and unashamedly autobiographical, which incorporates a wide range of feelings from terror, to humour, to learning to cope with my father away at war in a street full of mothers and other children. It was a rich experience in some ways, though horrible to be bombed and shot-up with cannon fire. There was much freedom to play and we lived by the sea. Some friends lost parents. Some of us were lucky. But none of us escaped the terrors and the occasional joys.

From many more poems than actually ended up in the book, I put together those which I thought might recreate something of those times and, by doing so, I learned a bit about myself and why the intensity of those years has never left me.

There have been several reunions in Scarborough, England, where I and my friends grew up, and I attended one of them and read some of these poems to my childhood friends, now in their 60s and 70s, and yet recognisable still. It was the most difficult reading I’ve ever given in my life and I don’t know how I got through it. About 20 of us, many with spouses, all with the deep common bond of the second world war and our memories of it, and there were tears, and smiles, and, back in Canada I have had letters and comments since then, all saying how deeply the poems had made them reach into their memories, and what they had brought back.

36 Cornelian Avenue is the only thematic collection of my ten books of poetry, and I have since written more poems from that time as I’ve corresponded with others and remembered more myself, and it has elicited very emotional responses, many too private to share. I am not the only kid whose whole life was shaped and changed by that bitter war, though our mothers were the heroes, keeping us going on hardly any food and wondering if they’d ever see their husbands again.

Author Bio

Christopher Wiseman has received numerous prestigious awards for his writing, his founding of the University of Calgary Creative Writing program, his mentoring, editing and other contributions to Canadian literature, as both a poet and professor.

In September, 2012, he received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal from the Lieutenant-Governor of Alberta, and in 2010, he was elected to the Order of Canada.  Prior to that, Wiseman won other awards–the Alberta Order of Excellence, the Writers Guild Poetry Award, the Alberta Literary Arts award, the W.O.Mitchell City of Calgary Award, and a Teaching Excellence Award at the U of C.

He was Founding Vice-President, and later President of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta, and has done much jury work in Alberta and for the Canada Council. His papers are lodged in Special Collections in the University of Calgary Library.


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