B.W. Powe celebrates Marshall McLuhan’s legacy

Two events this year have thrust B.W. Powe into the public realm once again: the publication of his novella, These Shadows Remain: A Fable, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Marshall McLuhan.

By far, the most consuming for Powe are McLuhan 100 activities. The York English professor was a student of the communications visionary, wrote his dissertation on McLuhan and Northrop Frye and continues B.W. Poweto be inspired by these two giants of Canadian literary cultural theory. He helped plan Toronto’s celebration of McLuhan’s centenary and kicked it off in January with an on-stage conversation with Douglas Coupland  at York’s Founders College about the Gen X author’s new biography of McLuhan.

Right: B.W. Powe. Photo by Patrick Vannan

Since then, Powe has spoken to audiences in Barcelona, Naples and Bologna and has been interviewed for stories in The New York Times and the Toronto Star. In April, he gave the keynote address on McLuhan and Frye at the international Frye Festival in Moncton. In June, he talked about McLuhan at Moses Znaimer’s ideacity. This November, he will be speaking at the McLuhan 100 conference at the University of Toronto.

“McLuhan 100 extends through Europe to a remarkable degree,” says Powe. McLuhan famously coined “the medium is the message” and “global village” and his speculations about the impact of television and electronic media still resonate today. “European intellectuals regard his communications theory as just as revolutionary as deconstructionism and postmodernism were in the sixties, seventies and eighties.”

Powe (BA ’77, PhD ’09), a poet, novelist and essayist based in the Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies, has written extensively about McLuhan and is currently at work on another book, Apocalypse and Alchemy: Visions of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye, distilling his dissertation for a broader audience.

Those who invite him to give talks do it as much for his scholarship as for his insider’s perspective. As a master’s student in English at the University of Toronto in the early 1980s, Powe was one of only six members in the last class McLuhan ever gave. He went on to write his dissertation on McLuhan and Frye, and his pursuits as novelist, poet, essayist and lecturer remain deeply influenced by the media visionary. “I have a witnessing aspect to my work,” says Powe, who is also a These Shadows Remain book coverfriend of the McLuhan family. “It’s part of why people ask me to talk.”

Meanwhile, he has been promoting These Shadows Remain, his 11th book, released this spring by Guernica Editions. A fable about cartoon characters who want to step off the screen into the real world, it hints at McLuhanesque themes.

In a promo blurb, Marshall Soules, a former English and media studies professor at Vancouver Island University, called it “a caring and inspiring story that reflects directly on our confusion over fantasy and reality.”  Author Charles Foran said he is haunted by the book. Its form is fascinating and “likewise, its themes, or preoccupations, with how we’ve been so altered, chemically, spiritually, by those toons, those simulations…. An enigmatic, striking piece of writing, one I shall return to.”

On sabbatical this year, poet Powe – whose The Unsaid Passing was shortlisted for the Relit prize – also plans to complete another collection of poems. And he has started writing Opening Time, a book of nonfiction in which he explores neuroromanticism and speculates about a new kind of consciousness emerging in the 21st century.

“I would regard all of my work as a footnote to McLuhan,” admits Powe. “He has brought a source of energy and inspiration to my life.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer