Born and raised in the seemingly normal confines of Halifax in the post-swing, pre-beat era, bill bissett (his name purposefully de-capitalized like fellow poet e.e. cummings) nevertheless ran away from home (ostensibly to, yes, join the circus) at the age of 17 into an extremely compelling artistic life. He eventually landed in the burgeoning underground arts scene of Vancouver, for which he became a sort of political, social, and literary figurehead, even serving a short stint as the poetic focal point for a ragtag assemblage of avant-garde rockers who tagged themselves Th Mandan Massacre.
bill bissett's initial teenage whim led him, à la Jack Kerouac, to the wide-open North American road, on which he eventually hitchhiked his way to Vancouver, where he settled in Kitsilano, the hippie ghetto section of the city, and a sort of San Francisco North. There he became a main player in the birth and growth of the countercultural scene that would soon explode in the city during the early years of the swinging 1960s. By 1964 he had founded a publishing company, blewointment press, and had begun putting out a mimeographed but influential experimental magazine, which lasted until his first book of poetry appeared in 1967. bissett had soon earned a relatively immense amount of acclaim in the underground art communities of Canada and the United Kingdom, not only for his wildly inventive poetry, which took its cues from Dada, the Beats, and modernists like cummings and Charles Olson, but also for his acrylic paintings. But it was the writing that created the biggest stir, as it stripped the English language of its traditional rules of syntax, grammar, and usage, in fact reimagining it almost as if it was a foreign tongue that could be rebuilt from the ground up without the burdens of linguistic convention and inherited meaning.
bissett's poetry and art were soon bleeding into each other, and he found himself at the head of the cutting-edge concrete poetry phenomenon of the era, while an avant-garde literary scene also grew up around blewointment press. In the late '60s, he began utilizing both forms of art in the course of his readings, which began attracting a loose circle of musicians. Eventually the collective became known as Th Mandan Massacre, named after an event staged at the cooperative art gallery known as Th Mandan Ghetto, which bissett himself had helped to found. Soon, with the help of the Massacre, bissett was incorporating music -- from full combos with decidedly rock elements (guitar, drums, keyboards) to stark raga backing -- into his live performances, which grew into wild, near-shamanistic events complete with chants. In 1968 bissett and Th Mandan Massacre entered the studio to record their debut album, awake in th red desert, a spontaneous amalgam of avant-psychedelia, performance art, and spoken word weirdness that was released by See/Hear Productions with a companion book edition printed by Talon Books in a limited run of 500 copies.
After his flirtation with the rock world, bissett remained a major figure on the Canadian and alternative poetry and arts circuits, publishing more than 60 books by the end of the century and winning the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize at the 1993 British Columbia Book Prizes.