Fieldhouse of Dreams: Allen Ginsberg in Thunder Bay

Poster advertising Allen Ginsberg's reading at the Lakehead U Fieldhouse.

Poster for the Ginsberg reading, “Groove on Ginsberg,” Courtesy of the Ray Shankman Fonds, Jewish Public Library Archives, Montréal.

Gary Genosko

American poet Allen Ginsberg’s Canadian itinerary of readings throughout 1969 brought him to a number of major urban centres, including Montreal and Vancouver. For instance, at the end of October and beginning of November in Montréal, Ginsberg read at Sir George Williams University, where he was introduced by poet George Bowering; he then read at McGill University in an event sponsored by the Hillel Jewish Students Society and Debating Clubs. These readings and question and answer periods are archived online on The Allen Ginsberg Project,

However, this article concerns a visit Ginsberg made to a regional Ontario city earlier, in March of that year.  Ginsberg performed in Thunder Bay (then Port Arthur), Ontario on Friday, March, 14, 1969, singing Buddhist chants and reading from his soon to be published collection, The Fall of America, at Lakehead University (LU).  The leading idea here is to build up a small archive of materials related to this under-documented visit. This will not only assist Ginsberg scholars, but it will assist local cultural historians by filling out some elements of the event, while acknowledging Ginsberg’s own cultural and religious affiliations and the roles they played.

Ginsberg’s performance was supported by The Alma Mater Society (1965-1981), as the student association was then known before incorporating as a non-profit under the name Lakehead University Student Union (LUSU). These were early days at LU, under President William Tamblyn (1965-72), and the student newspaper, The Argus, then edited by Ron Baker,  announced the poet’s visit in an issue published the day (March 13) before the event. On the front page, an unattributed article, “Ginsberg Reading,” sets the anticipated staging: “Incense, electronic music and subdued lighting will provide the appropriate atmosphere for the reading. Ginsberg will present his poetry from a central, raised platform covered with oriental rugs. The audience will be seated around him on the floor and in the bleachers.” The attention to atmosphere and to mise-en-scène, frames the countercultural bona fides of Ginsberg as the supposed “flower power poet of the hippy generation.” Obscured are his older, Beatnik credentials and open queerness, but it seems that his advocacy for the legalisation of marijuana, and public protests against the Vietnam War, and commitment to Buddhism, were overwhelming markers at the time. Tickets for the event could be had for just $1.00 at the door.

Unfortunately, no follow-up review of the event appeared in The Argus. The annual university yearbook, Nor-Wester ‘69, did carry two photographs of Ginsberg on a dais, seated with his hand harmonium on his lap, microphone festooned with flowers; in a further photo, taken from behind him, shows his crutches laying on the stage. He was still dealing with the aftermath of the broken hip he suffered the previous year in a car accident.  Reviews of the event were, however, found in the Fort William and Port Arthur daily newspapers, respectively the Daily Times Journal and the News Chronicle — these separate would eventually amalgamate into the Thunder Bay Chronical Journal. Before we get to these not very flattering reviews, it would be prudent to explain how Ginsberg came to arrive at Fort William Municipal Airport.

A list of Ginsberg’s poetry reading itineraries can be accessed through the holdings of the Special Collections at Stanford University; the interface is at the Online Archive of California. The period concerned, March 1969, displays an interesting series of connections and contacts. It appears that the Lakehead reading was originally scheduled for early March, with travel arranged from Buffalo, NY, via Toronto, to Fort William. However, this is rescheduled in handwriting for the 14th. The typescript explains that the contact person was Ray Shankman, Lecturer in English at Lakehead, and the sponsor is listed as the Department of English.

Ginsberg was scheduled to visit Vancouver, sponsored by the alternative newspaper The Georgia Straight, and hosted by  Dan McLeod, cofounder and publisher of the paper, prior to his rescheduled Lakehead visit, and he arrived there on March 9, reading at University of British Columbia on the 11th, at Simon Fraser University on the 12th, and in handwritten script, he not only attended the solo Phil Ochs concert at the PNE Garden Auditorium on the 13th, but performed for one song, playing the bells on “The Bells,” an homage to Edgar Allan Poe. According to the report in the Vancouver Sun (March 13, 1969), about 700 students attended the SFU event, and some 1500 were at UBC.

On March 14, Ginsberg departed Vancouver, and flew with a stopover in Winnipeg, to Fort William, arriving in the late afternoon. He reading was at 8:00pm the same day.  His local contact, Shankman, met him at the airport. The following day, March 15th, a Saturday, saw Ginsberg leave Fort William and fly to New York (Kennedy) via Toronto.

Port Arthur News-Chronicle staff writer Ian Pattison, in his review “Way-Out Poet Has a Message – Some Students Rave, Some Adults Leave,” described the spectacle of the “shaggy-haired” poet, using crutches to mount a small raised stage, among an audience of 500-strong, as he read from his previously published book Planet News, unpublished notebooks (some very recently composed), and from William Blake. The audience were described as “long-haired intellectual” types, pre-adults, enamoured with the countercultural messenger. Pattison then focused in on the thoughts of one “young girl” about Ginsberg; she extolled his child-like character “untouched and unspoiled” by parent inculcated self-control. Instead of staying with the event, Pattison drifts into thoughts about the famous Ginsberg poster, in which he wears a  hand-drawn “Pot is Fun” sign around his neck. With almost de rigueur nods to the Hells Angels, LSD trips, New York, finger cymbals, and to Ginsberg’s interest in the aforementioned Poe, the poetic medium of the messenger is stated as “off-beat.” In a final paragraph, Pattison returns to the voice of a different “young girl ,” how “fabulous” Ginsberg was, with her boyfriend exclaiming that no matter how liberal one is, it probably would not be worth it to spend another $1300.00 to bring him back (this amount is unverified). This defense of the sceptical diminishes youthful enthusiasm and supports a conservative status quo of father knows best vintage. Pattison enjoyed a 50-year-long media career in the city.

Indeed, much the same is found in Bryan Eddington’s account, “Ginsberg Appears To be Out of Date,” in the Fort William Times Journal. Eddington was a long-serving reporter for the Times Journal, and editor at the Chronicle Journal. From the opening line, Eddington frames the poet as – “pitifully anachronistic” – Ginsberg is a “dated minor poet” whose sex and drug messages still appeal to youthful followers, but whose once “biting criticism” of the establishment “have lost their value” since they have apparently been accepted by those at whom they were once directed.   Emphasizing the poet’s appearance, his attire (“flashy”), hair, singing and chanting, Eddington concludes: “The only thing left with which  Ginsberg can shock is his open support of LSD and marijuana. I am afraid his poems are no advertisement for either.”

In our era of legal cannabis, and once again, growing support for controlled use of psychedelics, looking back at a poet of the people advocating on behalf of a few choice substances, does seem prescient, and avant-garde. But whether this was the case by 1969 is a question begged by the local media coverage of Ginsberg’s visit to Lakehead University. It was perhaps a truism that Ginsberg, best known for his seminal mid-fifties works like Howl, was smoothly uploadable into the psychedelic scene of late 60s youth culture. Yet his work spanned and outlasted the Cold and Vietnam Wars, flower power and Reaganomics, and he lived a long productive life as a writer, photographer, and throughout maintained his commitment to public protest, standing at the forefront of a number of key social issues through his lifetime.

What is missing from these reviews, then, beyond the preponderance of psychedelic references in media accounts of a scruffy poet, is a sense of how Ginsberg’s ecumenical intertwining of his Jewish roots and Eastern spiritual traditions inspired his works like Kaddish, a poetic prayer written on the occasion of the death of his mother, integrating his family, his faith, into this art. And this is where it is useful to turn to a further archival source, the letters by his local contact at Lakehead University, Ray Shankman (1940-2016), then a Lecturer in English.  Shankman’s Fonds (Papers) are held by The Jewish Public Library in Montreal. While Shankman’s long academic career began at Lakehead, he is best known from many years of teaching at Vanier College CEGEP in Montréal.

In a detailed letter to his parents dated March 1, 1969, Shankman explains that Ginsberg is coming, not on the 4th, but on the 14th; that he is keeping busy, getting teaching “‘experience’ rolling,” skiing, and attending events in the local Jewish community. He notes specifically the visit of traveling folksinger Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach,  whose synagogue was in San Francisco, and “has converted lots of Jewish hippies to the spiritualism that true Jewishness can give … and this has nothing to do with observation….” Carlebach sang and played acoustic guitar and regularly appeared at folk festivals in southern California during the late 1960s. Attached to this informative letter is a handmade poster for the Ginsberg event, titled “Groove on Ginsberg,”  with graphical flowers, hand lettering with a musical motif, and a modified photograph of the artist in a pop art explosion shape. The original scheduled date earlier in March is crossed out.

While Shankman testifies to the vibrancy of the Jewish community at the Lakehead at the end of the 1960s, the impact of Ginsberg’s visit on the local arts community has been broached, as well, by director and producer Paula Thiessen in her documentary history, Kam Theatre Lab: The Old Same Story (2024). This Thunder Bay based experimental, touring theatre collective imported European performance traditions and adapted them for northern contexts, using improvisation and mask-work, bathed in alternative social practices and politics.  The catalytic effect of Ginsberg’s appearance on some members of the group, notably co-founder John Books, is an important part of the event’s legacy. The new details about the Ginsberg event brought together in this article, and linked to Thiessen’s documentation, will help to fill out the picture of countercultural Thunder Bay that is long overdue for recognition.

Gary Genosko spent his early academic career at Lakehead University where he held a Canada Research Chair in Technoculture from 2002 to 12. He is now professor of Communication and Digital Media at Ontario Tech University in Oshawa. He retains a keen interest in the cultural politics of post-industrial regional cities in Ontario.


This short study was inspired by Paula Thiessen’s documentary film project about the Kam Theatre Lab of Thunder Bay. I am grateful for the materials she provided to me on the Ginsberg visit to Thunder Bay.

I am also grateful for the assistance of Peter Hale, The Allen Ginsberg Project; Erin Thajudeen, Special Collections, Stanford University; Janice Rosen, Canadian Jewish Heritage Network, and Sam Pappas from the Jewish Public Library. I would also like to thank David Peerla for his research contributions.


The Allen Ginsberg Project,

Allen Ginsberg Papers, Online Archive of California, Manuscript Division, Stanford University, “Series 4, Business Records, Gigs and Itineraries, Box 18, folder 6, Buffalo, Baltimore, Biddeford, Maine 785285, 1969 Feb 27 – March 15th, 1969.

Anonymous [Staff], “Ginsberg Reading,” The Argus 3/20 (1969): 1.

Anonymous (Staff), “Ginsberg Tours U.S. In Poetry – SFU Session,” Vancouver Sun (March 13, 1969): 17.

Eddington, Bryan, “Ginsburg Appears To be Out of Date, Fort William Times Journal (March 15, 1969): np.

Nor’ wester ’69, ed. Norma R. Ray, Port Arthur: The Students of Lakehead University.

Pattison, Ian, “Way-Out Poet has a Message,” Port Arthur News Chronicle (March 15, 1969): np.

Shankman, Ray, “Letter to his parents,” (Franny and Ray to Mom and Dad, 1 March), Ray Shankman Fonds, File 51. Courtesy of the Ray Shankman Fonds, File 51, Jewish Publish Library Archives, Montréal.

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