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North Lake fisherman’s poetry tells stories through rural dialect

Chris Bailey reads poetry included in his upcoming book, “What Your Hands Have Done,” at the P.E.I. Writer’s Guild Open Mic June 14 at Receiver Coffee in Charlottetown.
Chris Bailey reads poetry included in his upcoming book, “What Your Hands Have Done,” at the P.E.I. Writer’s Guild Open Mic June 14 at Receiver Coffee in Charlottetown. - Tony Davis

Editor’s note: Foul language is used near the beginning and end of the written article.

Chris Bailey always knew he was not destined for his family’s life of fishing.

“I was eight years old and I knew I could get out.”

Now at age 27, Bailey has taken some steps towards that way out. His book of poetry, “What Your Hands Have Done,” comes out Sept. 8.

Fishing is isolating, it is not as idyllic as it is sometimes made out to be, Bailey said. Every day he sees the same people, says the same things, sails the same sea.

Bailey felt even more isolated in his fishing community where he says literary skills are not particularly valued.

Bailey remembers coming home after one of his first readings in Charlottetown. He put the piece of paper on the table. His brother picked it up and read his poem.

“People actually want to read this shit?” his brother said.

Bailey didn’t know he had a gift for writing. While studying science and psychology at UPEI he stumbled upon a book by Charles Bukowski: “You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense.”

Looking at the style, it dawned on him: poetry can flow and take different shapes.

“I read a lot of stories, I figured I could make a few up.”

So, he signed up for a creative writing elective.

Keith Burgoyne, a member of the P.E.I. Writers Guild, was in the same writing class as Bailey.

“I love (Bailey’s) style, not a lot of people do it. They shy away from the Island dialect. He’s not trying to be flowery, he is being real, and it makes his writing stand out. He has that great Souris accent.”

Bailey’s driver’s licence says Souris, but his home on the Elmira Road is about 20 minutes away. “If you’re goin’ the speed limit,” he said.

After studying at UPEI and attending the fundamental arts program at Holland College, Bailey

graduated with a master’s in fine arts and creative writing from the University of Guelph. But when he couldn’t find a job in Ontario, he headed back to P.E.I. to work with his family.

“My parents have been good to help me or any of my siblings out with money. I may as well be earnin’ some of it.”

Though fishing isn’t Bailey’s first choice to make a living, he respects it. Fishing allowed him to study, he said.

His father just told him the other day: “There is not a roll of pennies that went through the house that didn’t come from the boat.”

Sayings like this are what Bailey is trying to preserve.

“When I was in Toronto, I realized people of a rural background have a more interesting way of speaking. There is almost a poetry in the language,” he said.

“I had a UPEI professor say they were surprised at how well my grammar was because of where I’m from.”

The authentic, colourful language Bailey writes has put some publishers off.

“I just had my thesis novel rejected because of the language – too many curses,” he said.

His writing can also offend the very people he’s writing about.

“I am always scared they will take that line and remove the context and all the sudden they are missing what the poem is about.”

When that happens, he says he has to take his uncle’s advice. It’s on the inside jacket of his book.

“Sometimes it’s about doing what you can and fuck the rest.”

What the critics say
“Chris Bailey canvasses easily – adroitly – that difficult, hard-luck ports and hard-living, hard drinking fishers, the epicureans of cynicism and the aesthetes of brutalism. The dominion’s one where funerals are festive, and the clear-eyes must enjoy adultery and the clear-headed must tolerate suicide. These spare, sharp lyrics well suit the subject: Folks getting by the best they can – or trying to, and sometimes lulled into acceptance of hardship by the occasional sweetness of love, the occasional bliss of familial connection. Think E.J. Pratt meets Charles Bukowski.”
George Elliott Clarke

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