Nothing normal about this lifestyle [column in Charlottetown Guardian, Nov. 29/04, by Mike England]


'Wanted: Airline baggage handler in the Canadian Arctic.Would interest student looking for challenge.'

It was that kind of ad that first caught the attention of Zachariah Wells, who spent three summers working in the North earning money to finance an English literature degree in the 1990s.

But his first 12 weeks of working as an airline baggage handler could easily have been his last. Mental and physical exhaustion may have had a lot to do with his reluctance to return. He had been working every day of every week.

"After that summer I didn't think I would be able to go back. But it was a good job in terms of paying for my tuition and helping me to make it through the school year, so I went back because of that, and it gradually grew on me," says Wells, who went on to spend a total of seven years working intermittently in Iqaluit and Resolute Bay. As he reflects now on that whole experience, he recognizes the ambivalence he felt about it.

"The thing about being up North is that it's very hard to be indifferent to it. You either love it or hate it, or spend your time alternating between the two poles." He has also come to realize that he takes pleasure and satisfaction in pushing himself to the limits of his own endurance. It all ties in with avoiding pre-planned routes. "When I take a tangent I tend to follow it fairly far."

He even went to extremes to earn the acceptance of his fellow workers when he first started work in the North.

"I was very conscious of being a student. Some called me the professor. It made me work that much harder because I felt I had more to prove. I might have this cerebral element to my life, but (he thought), 'Goddam it. I can work too'."

Although he often worked long hours, Wells found time to pen poems. His job, which some might have found mind-numbing, even proved conducive to creativity.

"In many ways it was mind-liberating, because you didn't have to think. Once you've got the job down, you don't have to think as much about what you're at any given moment. You can perform the tasks of your job while thinking about something else altogether. A lot of poems germinated from that."

Many of the poems he wrote while living in the North appear in his first full-length book entitled Unsettled, which was launched recently on P.E.I. While few Canadian poets have written about the northern experience, Wells insists that his work is not autobiographical.

"My book is based on experience, but I would not call it non-fiction. There are some non-fictional elements to it, but it has some really fictional elements and some mythical elements. It's a mix of things."

Trying to capture the spirit of the place and its many facets is, he says, a huge task.

"You cannot do something that big, because it is that big. It's too big. It's overwhelming. My response to that has been to distil and to zoom in on little things and situations and individuals. The details add up, I hope, to a mosaic, a collage."

Many of the people who appear in his poems are, like Wells, from some other place. Sharing that transient identity helped him to make connection with them. One man in particular stood out because he had been returning repeatedly from his home in the Ottawa valley. Wells was so struck by this, that he composed the poem 17 years as a tribute to the man's endurance.

Social interaction with his co-workers inspired his writing in other ways. "Their metaphorical manners, their idiomatic expressions were some of the richest stuff I'd ever heard - far richer than you see in a lot of poetry. There were many great storytellers and joke tellers. And that's something that's lacking in a lot of contemporary literature - a sense of story and humour."

One of the reasons he left the North was because of the strain it placed on his long-term relationship with partner Rachel.

"It's hard to make something like that work when you're constantly back and forth. You can't have any semblance of normalcy in your everyday life with that kind of rotation (six weeks on and three weeks off)."

Nowadays normalcy involves being away from the home he and Rachel have established in Halifax for only three days at a time while working for Via Rail.

Too much normalcy, he says, can be a detriment to a poet's work.

"It's good to leave oneself open to unexpected avenues, to pursue opportunities when they arrive and not overlook them."