Bill Bissett 1939–
Canadian poet and performance artist.
A prolific and innovative poet, Bissett has been a vital force in Canadian literature since the mid-1960s. In addition to penning numerous volumes of poetry, many of which he has illustrated and printed himself, he has performed his poetry for audiences internationally. Bissett is best known as a romantic, visionary poet whose disregard for rules of spelling, grammar, and syntax follows from his belief that institutions hamper human freedom and communal vitality.
Bissett, who spells his name entirely in lowercase letters, was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He attended Dalhousie University for one year, then moved to Vancouver, British Columbia. There he briefly attended the University of British Columbia and held a variety of jobs before his marriage and the birth of his daughter. In 1966, Bissett published his first volume of poetry, we sleep inside each other all, and soon afterward cofounded his own publishing house, the blewointmentpress. NOBODY OWNS TH EARTH (1971), his first work with a major small press, was edited by the esteemed Canadian author Margaret Atwood. In the late 1970s, Bissett received attention in the mainstream press when his poetry became the subject of a controversy regarding the merit of certain works produced with the assistance of the Canada Council, a government body that distributes funding for the arts. The Bissett anthology SELECTED POEMS: BEYOND EVEN FAITHFUL LEGENDS was published in 1980. Since that time he has continued publishing and performing his works at festivals in North America and Europe.
Bissett first gained attention with his collections lebanon voices (1967) and awake in th red desert (1968); the latter was accompanied by a recording of Bissett reading his work. These and other early works drew praise for their incorporation of chant and rejection of conventions of grammar and spelling. NOBODY OWNS TH EARTH contains some of his most celebrated poems against authoritarianism, while 1972's pomes for yoshi comprises a volume-length narrative about a troubled relationship. MEDICINE my mouths on fire (1974) includes an audio recording and contains several of his
concrete or "sound-vizual" pieces. SELECTED POEMS, which Bissett edited and arranged, offers a sampling from the first decade of his career. Prominent among his literary subjects is the search for religious experience through sexual connection, communal life, and natural surroundings. Of Bissett's publications since 1980, Northern Birds in Color (1981), Seagull on Yonge Street (1983), and Canada Gees Mate for Life (1985) are among the most admired.
Throughout his career, Bissett has earned praise for his romantic vision and stylistic experiments, though even his most ardent admirers admit that his output has been uneven. During the Canada Council scandal, Bissett was scorned by some as an illiterate hippie getting a free ride from national arts funding. Yet many literary commentators find Bissett's idiosyncratic, fiercely individual style a continuation of the English Romantic tradition of William Blake, William Wordsworth, and W. B. Yeats—an inspiring effort to imagine humanity unconstrained by convention and authority.