Under the neon: The life and times of Downtown Poet Curt Lang

At the World's Edge: Curt Lang's Vancouver 1937-1998 by Claudia Cornwall (Mother Tongue Publishing, 2011).

TWELVE years in the making, give or take a few stops and starts, Claudia Cornwall's biography of the late, great chameleon Curt Lang has to be one of the artistic highlights of the past year.

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At the World's Edge: Curt Lang's Vancouver 1937-1998 introduces readers to a man who made a huge impact on people's lives whether they knew it or not. Lang's restless M.O. was to start things up and then move on to something else. Cornwall had her work cut out researching the life of this underground renaissance man and she does an admirable job of piecing together the puzzle that was Curt Lang. She talked to the North Shore News last week after her book was launched at Presentation House.

North Shore News: Some of the interviews you did for the book took place over a decade ago.

Claudia Cornwall: He died in 1998 and I thought this is the time I want to do a book about him. I began interviewing some of his friends, relatives, colleagues and so on and then I wrote about three-quarters of the book at that time but couldn't find a publisher who was interested. People said it was an interesting subject, interesting book but not for us you know that kind of reaction and then I put it in a drawer and did other things. Last fall Mona Fertig of Mother Tongue Publishing, who knew I'd worked on it, approached me and said, 'I'm interested in that book that you've got what's the status of it?' I sent her some of it and she said she wanted to publish it and then I began interviewing again. Some of the people that I'd missed the first time round. It was an interrupted 12 years.

North Shore News: Curt Lang had many sides or at least people read him in different ways.

Claudia Cornwall: Absolutely, it was amazing. People would tell me, 'Oh he was quite the ladies man,' other people would say, 'He didn't like women at all.' In many ways he was very multi-sided in terms of his personality and his effect on people and also of course he was multi-sided in the many things that he did. He was a poet who published poetry when he was 15, 16 years old, he painted and exhibited his paintings in the Vancouver Art Gallery. He took many photographs of Vancouver and those are in the Vancouver library and he started a book store which is still going today. He built boats and some of them are still plying the waters. He started a number of high tech companies and some of them are still around under different names. His last company he started, Industrial Metrics, which was located down on Crown Street near Second Narrows Bridge is still there but was bought out by the Holland Company. When Curt died my husband (Gordon Cornwall) took over Industrial Metrics until 2008. It's still there. It's a branch of a huge company. At least in terms of Industrial Metrics, it has 400 employees. They took it over and are continuing with the work that Curt started way back when.

North Shore News: That's when you first met Curt isn't it - when your husband applied for a job?

Claudia Cornwall: Curt, at that point, had a company called Western Softworks which was doing contract programming. They did a lot of school scheduling software and my husband was a programmer. He applied for a job and got it. It quickly became apparent that Curt was a businessman but he was a businessman with a twist. We had dinner together many times he would talk about his past about fishing and boat building and log salvaging and all the things that he learned while doing that. We became aware that he had quite an interesting past.

North Shore News: His trek to meet Malcolm Lowry in Dollarton kicks off the book.

Claudia Cornwall: That was quite amazing. He had a teacher called Kirk Downie at Gladstone secondary in East Vancouver and this teacher had a cottage at the Dollarton flats. That was kind of a cottage country at that time. Kirk Downie met Malcolm Lowry who also had a cottage there. Malcolm lived there year round Kirk just used it as a summer place. Curt heard about this and he knew that Malcolm Lowry was a famous novelist and he'd written Under the Volcano which was a famous celebrated novel at the time. Curt was at that time friends with Al Purdy whom he'd met at a science fiction club. They became friends and Curt had this idea to go and meet Malcolm Lowry and he persuaded his teacher to arrange a visit so he and Al Purdy and Kirk Downie went to visit Malcolm and his wife Marjorie.

North Shore News: Later on one of Curt's other friends, Al Neil, lived on the mudflats as well.

Claudia Cornwall: Curt met Al at the Cellar which was a jazz hangout. At the time I think Al lived in the sort of beatnik enclave where Curt also lived with Fred Douglas on Pender Street near the park. That was an area where a lot of musicians and artists and ne'er-do-wells lived.

North Shore News: That would be late '50s, early '60s. Claudia Cornwall: That's right Fred had a studio there 1959, '60, '61. Jamie Reid, the poet, told me It was fabulous living there because the rents were cheap, 60 bucks a month, great location, the views were terrific. The houses were in terrible condition because the landlords were just waiting for the inevitable development. They just didn't care. Jamie said if sometimes he couldn't pay his rent the landlord would say forget it. It was a wonderful place for all these beats to live. They didn't have a lot of money and they weren't interested in working nine to five so it was perfect for them.

North Shore News: Even though Curt was from East Vancouver originally a lot of the story takes place on the North Shore.

Claudia Cornwall: There are a lot of North Shore connections. His best friend was Fred Douglas who had a studio on Pender Street. In the early '60s he married Evelyn and they moved to Lynn Valley into a house designed by Bing Thom. Lynn Valley's an interesting area because you don't usually associate it with the avant-garde but it was kind of an avant-garde place - again rents were cheap so people with not a lot of money could move there. Fred had a house there and he lived there until he died. There were other interesting people living in Lynn Valley and in 1980 Curt moved to Lynn Valley too with his second wife Ruth. He had a house very close to Fred. His first business Western Softworks, the one my husband joined, was established on Crown Street just over by the Second Narrows Bridge and that was the location for some of his later companies as well. He took pictures when he was doing his photography project of the Lonsdale area looking quite rural back in 1972. In his log salvaging days he had a friend who had a cottage in the Ambleside area and they would often use that place to pull logs in. It was a different time.

North Shore News: Did he take photographs outside of the project?

Claudia Cornwall: No. It was a mammoth project. These seven photographers got together and formed this society (Leonard Frank Memorial Society of Documentary Photographers) and got a grant from the government to subsidize them for a little over a year. Curt was the most enthusiastic of the photographers - 12,000 of his images are in the Vancouver library. He took very elaborate notes about everything. Only now are they making these images more available for the public to see. They've put about 300 of them online.

North Shore News: His life seems to play out in very distinct stages: Poet, fisherman, logger, boat builder-

Claudia Cornwall: One of the things that was a constant theme throughout his life was poetry. Three weeks before he died he wrote a very beautiful poem "In Praise of Pagan Women." Even as a businessman he would occasionally write a poem.

North Shore News: It's interesting to think that McLeod's Books is something that he started from almost nothing.

Claudia Cornwall: It was called The Radiant Bookstore and it was on the other side of Pender Street from Mcleod's Books. Don McLeod bought it from him, changed the name and ran it for about eight, 10 years and then sold it to Don Stewart. He kept the name and moved the store a couple of times. There was a fire at one location and then it was moved to where it is now. It was recently described as one of the best used bookstores in Canada by Maclean's ("The Last Great Bookshop" www2.macleans.ca/2011/03/23/the-last-greatbookshop/).

North Shore News: Was that Curt's first business venture?

Claudia Cornwall: It was but it wasn't much of a business venture. He was the kind of person who liked to start things and once it got going he felt he could go on to something else. When he started Range Vision which was maybe his most ambitious venture they were developing a camera that was able to take measurements of things. BC Rail was one of the first customers. They bought a system which they used to measure railway track and that was a very ambitious thing for somebody to build and maybe his interest in photography transmuted into that. That was a very high-precision measuring instrument. The man who became the chief engineer of BC Rail Norm Hooper told me he insisted it had to be accurate within a thousandth of an inch and they delivered.

North Shore News: Considering the sometimes chaotic nature of his life it's surprising how much material still exists.

Claudia Cornwall: That's the challenge when you are doing an underground history. There weren't many secondary sources particularly from the early part of his life. No paper reports, no magazine stories so I had to rely on what people remembered and in some cases correspondence for example I had quite extensive correspondence between Curt and Al Purdy that helped me to piece together what happened. You can't go and look up in Wikipedia what happened.


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- John Goodman


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