Part 8. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
The Three Roberts, Norman McLaren,
and Glenn Gould
Robert Zend the Nomad
gazing in like an acrobat
at the window in the sky.
This installment will conclude the sections on Zend’s Canadian affinities. The next ones will look at some significant international collaborations, notably with Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges and French mime artist Marcel Marceau. I’ll also show some Italian connections, such as his interest in experimental playwright Luigi Pirandello and cynical poet Giacomo Leopardi. And I’ll demonstrate the influence on Zend of Belgian artist René Magritte as well as Japanese traditions such as haiku and origami.
But first . . .
The Three Knights of a Roberthood:
Priest, Sward, Zend
During the 1980s, Zend participated in a remarkable collaboration with two Canadian poets who were also fellow immigrants: Robert Sward, an American poet from Chicago who lived in Canada from 1969 to 1985, and Robert Priest, a British poet who moved to Canada. Picking up on their admiration for one another’s poetry and the fact of their identical first names, they began performing together in poetry reading tours, calling themselves “The Three Roberts.” They also published a series of poetry anthologies of their work in themed collections: Premiere Performance, Childhood, and Love (fig. 1).
Sward and Priest performed their poetry together at CBC radio, where they met Zend. Sward recalls that Zend’s cosmopolitan outlook drew them together and inspired them. He relates that the sense of humour and playfulness of their personalities and poetry allowed them to play off one another during their performances and to serve as muses to each other.1
Each of the Roberts has a recognizable voice: Sward often writes from a personal and familial perspective steeped in his Jewish heritage; Priest’s poetry exhibits a zany sense of humour and the influence of popular British music such as the Beatles; and Zend explores the personal and fantastical with a cosmic vision. There is a warm accessibility to the work of the three that creates a coherence in their anthologies that, as Sward observed, placed them a bit outside the mainstream of Canadian poetry during that time.
Below (figs. 2 and 3) are a photograph of the three looking rather like a jolly barbership trip, and a set of silhouettes created by Zend to commemorate their friendship.
One of Robert Sward’s poems in Premiere Performance captures the spirit of good humour, rapport, and mutual inspiration of the “Roberts . . . / Robertness . . . / Three Knights of a Roberthood.” The following is an excerpt:
Robert Zend phones Robert
Sward. Ring, ring.
“Robert, this is Robert.”
“Is this Robert?” “This
is Robert, Robert.” “Yes,
Robert?” I say, “This
“is Robert, too.” “Ah,
excuse me, I need
to find a match,”
says Robert Zend putting
down the telephone
and rummaging for matches . . .
. . .
Zend translates serious things
into funny things
and funny things
into serious things.
He also translates himself
into other people, and
other people into himself —
and where does one of us end
and the other begin?
And where does Zend begin
and where do I zend?
I mean, end?
And what about Robert Priest?
Is he a visible man?
An invisible man?
Or the man who broke out of the letter X?
Is he a spaceman in disguise?
A blue pyramid? A golden trumpet?
A chocolate lawnmower?
An inexhaustible flower?
Or a reader who escaped
from some interstellar library?
Rock Musician in residence
at the University of the Moon?
And meanwhile Robert Zend
looks into his mirror
and sees not Zend
But Chicago-born Uncle Dog;
Half a Life’s History;
Mr. Amnesia; Mr. Movies; Left to Right;
Mr. Transmigration of the Soul;
The poet as wanderer;
A forty-nine-year-old human violin . . .
Robert Zend the Nomad
gazing in like an acrobat
at the window in the sky.2
Their first performance, at Grossman’s Tavern in Toronto in January 1984, was reviewed by Sheila Wawanash of Shades Magazine, a punk rock magazine:
[Their] poetry reading . . . was especially fine (by which I mean fun). . . . Three voices — and quite different kinds of approaches — broke up hieratic monotonies in “poetry” “readings,” while their (rough) conjugation of themes circled round and took off. Of course, it helps that they are all worthy poets and readers and much else besides; in their concluding, separate sections/performances, Priest sang some of his songs (which survived a solo acoustic rendition) and Zend showed the slides illustrating his long and abiding obsession with “action word” doodles, some of which were remarkably funny and beautiful.3
Although their collaboration was cut short by Zend’s untimely death in 1985, while they were together they formed a vibrant part of the Canadian poetry scene. And the sympathetic vibrations among the three during their performances and in their three anthologies is testament to their creative rapport and close friendship.
Norman McLaren: Musical Geometry
I cannot end the installment on Canadian influences and affinities without at least a mention of Zend’s admiration for the experimental films of Norman McLaren. Zend, who had worked in film in both Hungary and Canada, was fascinated by McLaren’s artistic and sometimes abstractly geometric animated films. Zend’s Linelife, a work that I featured in Part 1, most obviously shows Zend’s interest in McLaren’s avant-garde animations. As well, Zend dedicated to McLaren “The Three Sons (a fable of geometry),” involving the progeny of “Father Circle and Mother Circle.” The admiration was mutual: McLaren called Zend “a sorcerer par excellence.”
Zend’s experimentation with geometrical animation was brief and not sustained. However, the little gem of Linelife is one piece in the overall picture that I wish to build of Robert Zend’s openness to many different influences. Indeed, this little piece of animation bears an affinity not only with Norman McLaren, but also (as I will show in a later installment) with Marcel Marceau.
In addition, McLaren played a role as a kind of tutelary spirit in Zend’s development of his typescapes. In his creative essay “Type Scapes: A Mystery Story,” he imagines McLaren as a guiding force, encouraging him to overcome difficulties in his struggles to “tame” the typewriter. After some trial and error, Zend becomes frustrated:
I remember taking a coffee break. While sipping coffee and smoking my cigarette, I sulked: “Why do I have to make mistake after mistake?” Then suddenly Norman McLaren’s face leapt into my mind’s eye. I saw him bending over a “mistake” on a piece of film, with a loving smile on his face. What was this? I’d never seen Norman working with film, where did this memory come from? Then I knew. Last summer, I made a radio series consisting of 5 programs in which Norman not only spoke about his life, but every night a guest speaker talked about Norman’s art. The last of these speakers was NFB executive producer Tom Daly who gave a beautiful talk about the various worlds Norman had created in each of his animated shorts. Among other things, he said that whenever Norman made a mistake, he wasn’t angry, as people usually are, but that he contemplated the mistake and tried to take advantage of it so that many times a small mistake became the source of a great innovation.4
Zend had the epiphany that like McLaren, he could use his mistake to his advantage. He experimented by superimposing characters to create an almost infinite variety of textures, each with “a different soul” (fig. 4):
With this revelation, inspired by McLaren’s process, he went on to produce, in a feverish and concentrated period of creative energy, scores of typescapes whose hallmark is their subtle and overlapping textures with delicate shadings.
A Glenn Gould Scherzo:
Where to Put the Zend?
An admirer of Canadian pianist Glenn Gould, Zend dedicated his poem “Symphonie Fantastique” to him; one of his doodles below (fig. 5) also pays tribute to Gould. His esteem was reciprocated: Gould called Zend “unquestionably Canada’s most musical poet.”5
And to conclude my installment on Zend’s Canadian lineage, I’d like to quote Gould’s homage to Zend in the following humorous quandary about the resistance of Zend’s work to categorization. Zend was not quintessentially Hungarian or Canadian or any other nationality. As Gould suggests, Zend is akin to many, yet he also “stands alone.”
If I were a gallery curator, Robert Zend would pose a problem.
“Where do you want the stuff to hang, boss,” my assistant would ask, “in with the Mondrians, maybe?”
“No, I don’t think so—the sense of line is similar, but there’s more sense of humour in Zend—so try wedging them between the Miros and the Klees, and better set up an exhibit of Saul Steinberg in the foyer as a teaser.”
If I were a symphony manager, the problem would be similar.
“Out of ze question,” Maestro von Zuyderhoffer would declare. “I conduct no Zend before Bruckner, not even mit Webern to raise curtains.”
“But, maestro, Zend takes the cosmos for a plaything, as does Bruckner, and wrings out of it an epigram, like Webern. However, I suppose we could try him on a chamber concert with early Hindemith, maybe . . .”
“. . . and then, perhaps, Kurt Weill . . .”
“. . . and finish off with Satie.”
“Nein, kein Satie. Zat vun is not knowing secondary dominants, und ze vork of Zend is full of modulation.”
But if I were a book publisher, no such problem would exist.
Robert Zend could stand alone—his cynically witty, abrasively hedonistic, hesitantly compassionate, furtively God-seeking poems could mingle with each other, find their own program-order, and settle among themselves the question of what goes where and how much wall-space will be needed.
Gee, what an easy life book publishers must have!6