#531 J. Michael Yates (1938-2019)
J. Michael Yates (1938-2019)
An obituary by Alan Twigg
Creator and manager of Sono Nis Press from 1966 to 1976, J. Michael Yates has died in Vancouver General Hospital on April 17, 2019 from a variety of ailments. He was one of the most influential literary figures in British Columbia during the 1970s when he was regarded by some as one of Canada’s most determinedly experimental writers.
J. Michael Yates was born in Fulton, Missouri on April 10, 1938. (In Skookum Wawa, edited by Gary Geddes, Yates’ biographical entry states he was born in 1938 on Victoria Island in the Northwest Territories.) After studies at the Universities of Missouri and Michigan, he received his Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
Having taught in Ohio and Alaska, Yates arrived in Canada in July of 1966 and remained on the staff of the Creative Writing Department at UBC from 1966 to 1971, meeting Charles Lillard there in the fall of 1967. He participated in the founding of Contemporary Literature in Translation with Andreas Schroeder in 1968 and co-edited Volvox: Poetry from the Unofficial Languages of Canada (with Charles Lillard) in 1971. Partly influenced by Lillard, who was born in Alaska, Yates became one of the first of numerous urban writers to try living on the Queen Charlotte Islands, moving there in 1971 while operating his Sono Nis Press.
The name Sono Nis was derived from the name of a character in the first book that the press published, J. Michael Yates’ own Man in the Glass Octopus. [Sono in modern Italian means “I am”; Nis in Anglo-Saxon means “are not”] When bills were unpaid, Richard Morriss of Morriss Printing gained ownership of Sono Nis in 1976 and moved its headquarters to Victoria.
After living on the Queen Charlotte Islands for the three years, the locale gave rise to one of his books of poetry, Insel, in 1983. Yates was later involved in the founding of Burnaby-based Cacanadadada Press, both naming it and acting as its editorial director, but he was not its owner. [Founded my Margaret Fridel in 1988, Cacanadadada was later sold to UBC English professor Ronald Hatch who changed its name to Ronsdale Press, an amalgam of his first name and his wife Veronica’s maiden name, Lonsdale.]
In 2007 Yates resurfaced as Senior Editor of Libros Libertad, owned by Manolis Aligizakis of White Rock. Publicity material stated Yates and Aligizakis “formed an international team to reinvent book publishing and promotion.” During its first year of operation, the press released a collection of poetry by the company’s owner, El Greco – Domenikos Theotokopolous (Libros Libertad $14.95), with an endorsement from Yates on the jacket, “I think Manolis Aligizakis is the best immigrant Greek writer in Canada and I welcome his return to publishing.”
Simultaneously the press released J. Michael Yates’ 548-page collection of his stage, radio and television plays, The Passage of Sono Nis: Collected Plays by J. Michael Yates (Libros Libertad $34.95). Largely comprised of one-act plays, the collection also included some works previously published in book form such as Night Freight, The Net, Search for the Tse Tse Fly, The Calling and Quarks.
Yates books of sometimes impenetrable poetry have included Nothing Speaks for the Blue Moraines and Breath of the Snow Leopard. Earlier prose works such as man in the glass octopus and the abstract beast were followed by two collections, Torque and Torpor: Collected Fiction, 1960-1987, Volume 2.
An SFU Ph.D candidate in Criminology, Yates began working as a Canadian prison guard in the 1980s, resulting in a book about prisons, Line Screw: Memoir of a Prison Guard (McClelland & Stewart, 1994), with editor Douglas Gibson. He worked for seventeen years as a Maximum Security Prison Guard.
A Canadian citizen since 1972, Yates once said he spent a portion of almost every year collecting imagery “in the bush” of British Columbia, the Northwest Territories, Alaska, and the Canadian high arctic, Iceland, Finland, Russia, Norway, Sweden and China. After ten years “in the bush living in the Coast Mountain Corridor” (Squamish), he returned to live in Vancouver.
AWARDS: Major Hopwood Award for poetry 1964; Major Hopwood Award for Drama 1964; Authors Anonymous Competition Winner (poetry 1956, fiction 1957); University of Missouri at Kansas City Poetry Prize, 1960.
SPIRAL OF MIRRORS (poetry, Golden Quill Press, 1967)
HUNT IN AN UNMAPPED INTERIOR (poetry, Golden Quill Press, 1967)
CANTICLE FOR ELECTRONIC MUSIC (poetry, Morriss, 1967)
MAN IN THE GLASS OCTOPUS (fiction, Sono Nis Press, 1968 & 1970)
THE GREAT BEAR LAKE MEDITATIONS (poetry, Oberon, 1971)
PARALLAX (poetry, Sono Nis Press, 1971)
THE ABSTRACT BEAST (fiction and drama, Sono Nis Press, 1971)
NOTHING SPEAKS FOR THE BLUE MORAINES (poetry, Sono Nis Press, 1973)
BREATH OF THE SNOW LEOPARD (poetry, Sono Nis Press, 1974)
NIGHT FREIGHT (Drama, Playwrights Canada, 1975); THE QUALICUM PHYSICS (poetry, Kanchenjunga, 1975)
FAZES IN ELSEWHEN (fiction, Intermedia, 1976)
ESOX NOBILIOR NON ESOX LUCIUS (poetry, Fiddlehead Books, 1978)
FUGUE BRANCUSI( poetry, Sono Nis Press, 1983)
INSEL: The Queen Charlotte Islands Meditations (poetry, Penumbra Press, 1983)
VARIOUS NORTHERLY MEDITATIONS (poetry, League of Canadian Poets, 1984)
THE COMPLETELY COLLAPSIBLE PORTABLE MAN: Selected Shorter Lyrics (poetry, Mosaic Press, 1984)
OITO POEMAS, tr. Rosa and Eduardo Bettencourt Pinto(poetry, Lisbon, Sete Estrelo, 1985)
SCHEDULES OF SILENCE (poetry, Pulp Press, 1986)
TORQUE (fiction, Pulp Press Book Publishers, 1988)
TORPOR: COLLECTED FICTION, 1960-1987 (fiction, Cacanadadada Press Ltd, 1989)
LIGHT LIKE A SUMMONS, ed. (anthology of five poets, Cacanadadada Press, 1990).
LINE SCREW: Memoir of a Prison Guard (McClelland & Stewart, 1994)
DURING: a book of interrogatives (Alsop Review, 1999)
HONGYUN: New and Collected Shorter Poems 1955-2005 (Author House, 2005).
THE PASSAGE OF SONO NIS: COLLECTED PLAYS BY J. MICHAEL YATES (Libros Libertad, 2007). $34.95 978-0-9781865-3-1
— Alan Twigg