Al Purdy: Saving the A-Frame

Submitted by libbairdca on
Filed under Library News:  Archives & Research Collections

"So we built a house, my wife and I
our house at a backwater puddle of a lake
near Ameliaburg, Ont. spending
our last hard-earned buck to buy second-hand lumber
to build a second-hand house"

On a recent vacation to Prince Edward county, I couldn’t help but notice that Purdy’s home is in danger. There is a concerted effort to save the A-Frame and turn it into a writers’s retreat. For sale at the local bookstore in Picton was The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology, edited by Paul Vermeersch with an introduction by Dennis Lee. Two magazines had articles about Al. “The House that Words Built” by Marnie Woodrow is in The County Grapevine (Spring/Summer 2010) while “In Search of the Voice of the Land” by Martin Avery appears in County & Quinte Living (Spring 2010).

All three publications make similar points. Al was a lousy poet until he and his wife, Eurithe, spend what little money they had to buy materials and build the A-Frame in 1957. It was there that his creative juices started to flow, turning Al into the great poet who won the Governor General’s Award in 1963. And it was also there that he welcomed his fellow writers, including Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence and Michael Ondaatje. Although he wrote in isolation in a work-room at the A-frame, when he was not writing he thrived on the company of his fellow writers. Conversations went long into the night fuelled by beer and Al’s home-made wine made from wild grapes.

Not only did writers visit the A-frame, Al welcomed filmmakers, photographers, and others. Al wrote to them all, keeping in touch and encouraging multiple visits. Although Al’s archives are at Queen’s, McMaster has hundreds of letters and poems Al sent to his fellow writers whose archives are here: Nelson Ball, Pierre Berton, John Robert Colombo, R.G. Everson, Doug Fetherling, C.H. Gervais, David Helwig, Pat Lane, Gary Lautens, David McFadden, Eugene McNamara, Farley Mowat, Susan Musgrave, H.R. Percy, Stephen Reid, Peter Stevens, Fraser Sutherland, and John Terpstra. There are also letters in the McClelland & Stewart and Writing magazine fonds. Every time a new accrual of a Canadian writer’s archive arrived, it was almost a given that there would be more letter s from Al.

Al Purdy was a larger than life character. He signed all his letters in big bold letters with the “A” emphasized. His many friends and fellow writers want to keep the A-Frame going in his memory. He died in 2000 and is buried in Amelisaburg at the end of Purdy Lane. Donations can be sent to Jean Baird, the A-Frame Trust, 4403 West 11th Avenue, Vancouver, BC, V6R 2M2.

by Sheila Turcon

See also the case study about Al Purdy on the library's Historical Perspectives on Canadian Publishing website.