Cecil Giscombe June 22, 2024 at Barry McKinnon's Memorial in Prince George, BC (Photo by Donna Kane)

Cecil Giscombe Interview

July 1, 2024
Attending a memorial always has its share of grief. Some memorials more than others. The life of Barry McKinnon was celebrated in Prince George, British Columbia, Saturday, June 22, 2024. (I will write in more detail about Barry before too long. Poetry Postcard Fest duties are taking the most of my bandwidth. Have you signed up yet? It’s crunch time.)

One of the joys of my visit to Northern BC was meeting Cecil Giscombe. Barry had talked about Cecil many times. I think for years Cecil was Barry’s connection to the literary community in the U.S. Cecile talks about Barry, about the connection between US and Canadian poets and about his own work in this discussion, which took place at the Coast Prince George Hotel on Sunday, June 23. An excerpt:

PEN:                             Tell us how you got connected to Barry.

C.S. Giscombe:              I believe it was 1989 or 1990, I had decided that I needed to come to Northern British Columbia to see the places that an arguable distant relative had gotten to, in a location that seemed very unlikely. He was a Jamaican. His name was John Robert Giscome. I needed a university sponsor for a fellowship that I was applying for. I called up the College in New Caledonia, which was the only university or semi-university in the region of some named places of the geography that were named Giscome, which is a West Indian name. And I told whoever answered the telephone what I was looking for. Whoever answered the phone said, “Oh, so it’s a poetry project, right?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “I’ll let you talk to one of our poets.” And he gave the telephone to Barry McKinnon. I said, “I’m Cecil Giscombe, and there’s a place called Giscome outside of Prince George.” And Barry said, “Oh, yeah, Giscome, I know it. Yeah.” And I said, “Okay, can you guy sign a couple of documents so I can just come up there and do some work, do some field research?”

And Barry said, “Sure, we can do that.” But Barry had no authority, of course, to do that. And apparently he got in some trouble for having agreed to sponsor me. There was no cost involved to the College of New Caledonia, but there was still a hierarchy there, which I became aware of over that year and the succeeding years when I was actually… Was it five years later, I suppose? 1995, I had a Fulbright Research Award. This is a different award, Fulbright Research Award to come and take up residence in Prince George and work on the book, which became… work on two books, one of which became Giscome Road, the poetry book. The other became Into and Out of Dislocation, a prose book. I’d first come to Prince George, as I mentioned the other day, in 1991. My wife and daughter and I were living in Vancouver at the time. I was on leave for my job at Illinois State University. Normal, “Go Redbirds.”

PEN:                             Doug Collins’ alma mater.

C.S. Giscombe:              Doug Collins? I don’t believe I know him.

PEN:                             Coach of the Bulls for a time.

C.S. Giscombe:              All right, yes. I was very good at applying for fellowships back in those days, but the aid of a number of fellowships and a sabbatical leave from Illinois State, we arrived in Vancouver, took up residence there. I went up to Prince George and to Giscombe, I had figured that some kind of excess was called for to pay homage to this place in the north where my arguable kinsman had got to. And so I decided I would bicycle from Vancouver to Prince George, which was about 500 miles, which I did, and it was a very pleasurable trip. And got to Prince George, as I said yesterday. Barry met me in the parking lot of the fleabag hotel I was staying in downtown, the Downtowner as people called it. And we talked and we began the conversation that lasted until Barry died last year. It’s 30 years then of talking back and forth…


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