kim hart macneill
The ramshackle A-frame house Al Purdy built still stands by the lake in Ameliasburgh, Ontario. A place “so far from anywhere,” he wrote, “even homing pigeons lost their way.”
Inside, it’s nearly as it was when he died 10 years ago. His drawers and cupboards still hold the flotsam and jetsam of a well lived life.
Outside, wild grass has reclaimed a shed that was once a guest house for young poets like Michael Ondaatje. Purdy’s writing room, another shed, sinks slowly into the muddy earth. The main house is badly in need of a new foundation.
That’s where the Al Purdy A-frame Trust comes in. A collection of poets, authors and CanLit lovers want to raise the money to buy the land, save the house, and start writer-in-residence program in the A-frame.
“Nurturing young writers was a second vocation for Al,” said Jean Baird, the project’s head. “And he was blunt!”
Canada hasn’t done a great job of preserving its physical literary history, Baird says. The childhood home of author Joy Kogawa is preseved in British Colombia, but 60 years passed between it being her family home and becoming a historic site. Purdy’s house is still owned by his wife Eurithie, and remains largely untouched since his death.
The book The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology is an amazing piece of Canadian literary history, and a fundraiser for the project.
The anthology has the same cobbled-together yet built-to-last feeling as the A-frame itself. It’s a summer scrapbook of essays, poems and pictures by authors including Denis Lee, F. R. Scott, and Margaret Atwood. Purdy’s own essays and poems flesh out the famous cottage that was once CanLit’s own homemade-wine fueled summer camp and setting for many of his poems.
The A-frame was the go-to spot for aspiring Canadian poets and acclaimed wordsmiths alike for 40 years. Many of the aspiring poets, like Ondaatje, later became the acclaimed in part due to their visits to the A-frame to hone their skills.
Many of the book’s contributors, including Eurithie, credit the house as the catalyst that transformed Purdy’s writing from his awkward early attempts to the beautiful and often brash verses he wrote in his middle years about the land and our history.
So we built a house, my wife and I
Our house at a backwater puddle of a lake
near Ameliasburgh, Ont. spending
our last hard-earned buck to buy second-hand lumber.
-Al Purdy, from “In Search of Owen Roblin”
Baird says it’ll cost about $900,000 to buy the house, upgrade it to current safety codes, and establish the writer-in-residence endowment. So far, most of the money the trust has received has been in $10 and $20 increments from poetry-loving Canadians. The push is on now to get several large donors to really get things rolling.
For more information about the project, or to make a donation, visit Harbourfront Publishing’s website.