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Writer reflects on time at Al Purdy’s house ‘at a backwater puddle of a lake’ in Ameliasburgh

Damian Rogers, Al Purdy A-Frame writer-in-residence, spoke about her stay at the historic cottage in Ameliasburgh.

Story and photos by Sharon Harrison
When writer-in-residence Damian Rogers spoke about her recent stay at the historic Ameliasburgh home of Al and Eurithe Purdy, she shared the stage with a few friends.

She told of her experience recently at an event at the Drake Devonshire in Wellington held as a fundraiser for the Picton branch library expansion project.

Rogers, a poet herself, reflected on her five-week stay at the Purdy A-Frame; the inspiration she gleaned from the building and Roblin Lake, as well as Purdy’s collection of books.

Her readings and observations were interspersed with musical interludes by Kate Boothman, Sarah Harmer and Jim Bryson, with Stew Jones assisting with the technical work.

The A-Frame will host four writers-in-residence in 2019.

Barbara Sweet, PEC Public Library CEO chatted with Rogers about Al Purdy and the library expansion, which will see the Picton branch library grow from its current 5,000 square feet to more than 10,000 square feet. The expansion will include more public space, meeting rooms, performance space and a children’s area that will double in size.

When Rogers asked how the expansion idea came about, Sweet said, to great applause, “The Picton library expansion project started out when we really felt our washrooms were deplorable, and we wanted to improve the washroom situation.

“It grew from there and when you get into a project like that, you may as well make it really count, so it went from washrooms to getting more space.”

She explained that the library branches across the County see 120,000 visitors each year, with about 15,000 attending programming last year.

“On a typical week, we would see upwards of 500 people coming through the library,” said Sweet. “It promises to be a wonderful project and we are very close in reality – we are 80 per cent of the way,” and hopes ground will be broken this year.

The enormously-talented Kate Boothman sung several songs including “I am an Animal” with acoustic guitar accompaniment. Her powerful, yet gentle, voice was mesmerizing against the lapping water heard from the open doors of the pavilion.

Singer/songwriter Kate Boothman performs at the library fundraiser.

Rogers describes Boothman as, “an incredibly gifted songwriter and singer” and someone she has known more than 20 years. “She has really found her own way; her own voice in a way that dovetails very beautifully with the spirit of Al Purdy.”

“I think all of us as artists work towards that to find the space that allows you to create the kind of work that you want to bring into the world.”

Rogers noted she noticed the close relationship among the libraries, specifically mentioning “the very sweet and small library in Ameliasburgh”, situated close to the Purdy A-Frame.

“When I knew I would be staying at the Al and Eurithe Purdy A-Frame this summer, I knew I wanted to do something in the community here,” she said. “I didn’t realize how attached I would be to the community here; how deep my experience was going to be, even in terms of buying vegetables. It was just such a beautiful experience being here, and looking at the history.”

Rogers, who lives in Toronto and is originally from the United States, called the legacy of Al Purdy’s work amazing.

“Being in this home and looking at his library, looking through his modern work and reading and thinking about the history of where he was from… the whole experience has been a deep and meaningful one for me.”

When Rogers asked Sweet how the library got involved with the Al Purdy A-Frame Association, Sweet said it started when one of the Friends of the Library in Ameliasburgh suggested the branch be named after Al Purdy. Sweet said council was approached and the name was officially changed and it grew from there.

Rogers spoke to Roblin Lake and Purdy’s relationship with the lake, saying, “It seems to me, it is a very special part of the County”. Sweet spoke to her relationship with Roblin Lake where she spent whole days in and out of the lake when she was about 12-years-old, in a leaky row boat which was often patched up.

“I used to row from our end, which was the east end, and with my dog Gypsy, we would row over to the general store and then row back. It was wonderful. Those are my fondest memories.”

Rogers said she spent some of her time quite quiet and insular, and some of the time with lots of company. “My six-year-old son was there, so it’s been a very lively residency.”

About 30 people gathered in the pavilion to hear Rogers talk and enjoy the musical entertainment, giving it the feel of an informal chat with friends in an intimate setting.

Rogers quoted from Purdy, including a few lines from his “Spring Song”. She described his humour, his expansiveness and the grand masculinity in his poetry as refreshing.

Canadian ‘singer songer’ and record maker, Jim Bryson, a friend of Rogers’ for a few years, happened to be in the County with his family and agreed to drop by the event for a couple of songs, including “Ontario”.

Rogers went on to describe how she was interested in Purdy and the lake and enjoyed seeing the references in his books.

“I wrote down every time he mentioned the lake. I started reading his memoirs and everything he said was about water, so I put together a found poem,” she said. “These are Al’s poems from many different sources thinking about water, entitled ‘My Lake is not a Lake’.”

In the second half on the evening, Juno award winner Sarah Harmer performed several songs, including one she wrote, called “Just Get Here” from The Al Purdy Songbook. Harmer also spent some time at the A-Frame with Rogers.

Singer/songwriter Sarah Harmer performs at the library fundraiser.

“It was just such an amazing time to get to know Damian; a wonderful writer and person, we had such a good time in beautiful surroundings,” said Harmer.

Harmer also performed “Little Frogs”, a song she wrote last summer after finding a list of things she didn’t want to forget about last summer, and some things she really, really enjoyed.

“What a treat it is to be in the audience and listen to her play,” added Rogers.

She thanked everyone for buying tickets to the event in support of the Picton library expansion which she called an important project.

“I can’t tell you what a pleasure it has been to be able to share some of the experiences of being in the house with you. It’s such a wonderful room and it is such a deep listening collection of souls.”

“Libraries are important to all communities and this whole process, coming here and spending time in the house and having people come through, to being here with you and sharing; to me, it’s all about community put together with words, music and friendship.”

“This has been a lovely way to end my time in the County,” she added.

Poetry readings at the Purdy A Frame in 2015 – Sue Capon photo

“So we built a house, my wife and I
our house at a backwater puddle of a lake near Ameliasburg, Ont.”
— Al Purdy, “In Search of Owen Roblin”

Al and Eurithe Purdy

The A-frame was built in 1957 by Purdy and and his wife Eurithe, and over the years welcomed Canadian literature greats including Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee and Margaret Laurence, among many others.

The A-frame was where Purdy created his best work. He published 33 books of poetry, along with a novel, A Splinter in the Heart (1990); an autobiography, Reaching for the Beaufort Sea (1993); and nine collections of essays and correspondence. The Cariboo Horses (1965), won the Governor General’s Literary Award and his Collected Poems (1986) won a second Governor General’s Award.

Purdy died in April, 2000 in Sidney, B.C. (He was born in Wooler.) Thanks to the generosity of Eurithe Purdy and donors from across Canada, the A-frame was acquired in 2012 by the A-frame Association to promote Canadian literature and to preserve it as a retreat for future generations of Canadian writers.

The Al Purdy A-Frame Association will hold an open house at the Gibson Road property Sept. 21-22. For details, visit: alpurdy.ca/purdy-a-frame-open-house-september-21-22/.

To donate to the Prince Edward County Picton branch library expansion project, visit peclibrary.org/expansion.

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  1. Howard says:

    This is the kind of lively cultural event the A-frame association was hoping we could bring to the area, the kind we hope will be repeated many times over the years. In addition to the Open House, the A-Frame will host another exciting event this fall: Eurithe Purdy herself, the great poet’s 94-year-old widow, will return to the residence for the first time since moving away in the 1990s. She will be in residence for a month starting Sept. 16 and welcomes county neighbours to drop by for tea to visit the site and check out the new Purdy display she is creating in an outbuilding.

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