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Saying Goodbye to the Poets Who Gave Me My Life

Lane, Leggo, Rosenblatt, Merwin — how do I repay such a large debt?

By Luanne Armstrong 19 Mar 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Luanne Armstrong holds a PhD in education from the University of British Columbia. She has written 21 books, and has co-written or edited many other books through to publication. She mentors emerging writers from all over the world. Her most recent book is A Bright and Steady Flame: The Story of an Enduring Friendship, from Caitlin Press, 2018.

The poets I revered, and who mentored me, keep dying.

On Friday morning I woke to news of the massacre of Muslims at prayer in New Zealand, images of children marching to save their futures, and then the news that W.S. Merwin had finally slipped from a coma into death.

Patrick Lane and Carl Leggo both died March 7, and Joe Rosenblatt died March 11. Their deaths do not directly impact my life, but the voices and work of these four poets meant everything to me. How do I mourn them?

Poetry first entered my life in a real way in high school, where, lost and friendless, I hid in the library at lunch hour. Some long ago librarian had acquired a whole shelf of poetry books. There were no stamps on the book cards. I took them out, read them and fell in love. Lines from Dylan Thomas, Carl Sandburg and T.S. Eliot ran riot in my head. From then on I memorized poetry for fun because I wanted to say the words over and over, like chewing caramel, endlessly sweet and satisfying. I went on reading poetry when I could find it, which later, as a lonely single parent on a farm in the Kootenays, was difficult.

Somehow I stumbled over Patrick Lane. There was a time when Nelson had three bookstores, and in one of these I found him. I was initially attracted to his work because he had been born in Nelson. He was a Kootenay guy. And he had lived in a trailer with a wife and kids and written poetry, late at night, after the kids were in bed. As I did.

But it was also poetry I understood, about things I knew — about animals and the land and working and being always just a bit desperate and a lot sad. I fell in love with the astonishing detail in his work, etched with diamond-clear perfection. But I had no idea how to do it myself.

And then finally, the craziest and most wonderful thing I have ever done. I got myself off welfare and into the creative writing program at the University of Victoria, where I met such great instructors as Robin Skelton, Bill Valgardson, Dave Godfrey and Derk Wynand. I loved every class, but most of all I loved poetry class. I wrote poems and even began to publish them.

And lucky for us we had Joe Rosenblatt, who was hired for one year to teach poetry. Joe was a funny, grumpy, grumbling, muttering instructor. He had just moved from Montreal and was upset to find out he couldn’t get a smoked meat sandwich at three in the morning.

Every afternoon before class my friend Nadene and I would go find Joe, wandering the halls of the Clearihue Building where all of us got lost at some point. One night, Joe came running into class, red-faced and shaking. “It’s the end of the world,” he said. “Look, time is running out.” Someone leaned over, punched a button on Joe’s watch, and time stopped running out. Joe had just bought a brand new watch and had somehow gotten it into the stopwatch function. Joe loved cats and lizards and frogs; he drew enormous pen and ink drawings to go with his poetry. Unfortunately, he couldn’t stay at UVic, but he landed in Nanaimo, where he happily grumbled and drew and visited with many former students.

And I discovered W.S. Merwin at UVic. I read his poems over and over, and with each reading a new meaning evolved. Much later, my daughter Dorothy Woodend and I watched the film about him, Even Though the Whole World Is Burning, and we sat together and cried at the sheer beauty of his words, and the beauty of his steadfast life.

When I finally got into the University of British Columbia creative writing graduate program, I thought I would sit quietly in class, write poems and stories, get my degree and run home to the Kootenays as fast as possible and keep writing.

Instead I found a raucous, raunchy, opinionated, loud bunch of new friends. I signed up for George McWhirter’s poetry class. During the first class, George asked each of us to say something about our poetry. And one by one we’d say what we thought we were doing wrong and what we needed to improve. George smiled and nodded and muttered things in his incomprehensibly thick Belfast accent. It always took a new student a little while to be able to understand George, who would grumble along and occasionally peer at us and ask, “What am I saying?” Sometimes one or two of us knew. After a while, each of us began to decipher George’s accent and realized he was giving us genius insights into our work.

In the second year, Carl Leggo, a man with long grey hair and a kind face joined our class. Towards the end of term he asked me one day, in a casual conversation, whether I had considered doing a PhD. The sun was shining; we were outside drinking coffee. I wasn’t sure what to say. When I first went to university I was 18, and I thought of it as a golden heaven, a place I would do anything to be in, but where I could never, ever belong. Farmer girl, forest girl, poor hillbilly chick from the depths of hippie Kootenays would never fit there.

“Sure,” I said cautiously.

“We would be honoured to have you join our program,” he said. Ten words that changed my life forever.

“What would I have to do?” I asked.

“Whatever you’d like,” he said.

“I want to write another book,” I said, thinking he would laugh.

“That would be fine,” he said.

I went home on the B-Line, got to Cambie and Broadway Streets and walked up the hill, still puzzled. But I wrote the application letter, thinking that would be the end of it. Leggo emailed and asked me to come to his office. I found it, after some searching, down the hill under the trees. Language and Literacy, it said on the door. I realized he was the department head of language and literacy in the Faculty of Education.

I went in and we talked briefly, and he held out his hand and said, “Welcome.”

I went home, completely dazed. And then I began a PhD program in the faculty of education. I was still suspicious. People talked funny. They threw around huge words as if they were pieces of candy, hermeneutics and phenomenology and narrative inquiry. Narrative. I knew that word. Narrative I could do. Once I figured out what I might be able to do, I asked Carl to be on something called my “graduate committee.”

He said, “Of course.”

I asked George McWhirter. He said, “Sure.”

What was wrong with these people? Couldn’t they see that I didn’t belong here? That I didn’t know enough?

Regardless, I wrote a memoir and then I wrote about writing memoir, something like 450 pages altogether. I wrote and studied and stayed late and talked theory with my friends. I spouted new words every day like a fountain gone mad. I knew this language. I knew what it meant. I knew how to speak it, and write it. And one night, just as I was finishing my thesis, I had a little tiny dream where the farm and the university were side by side. And I could live in both of them.

And then it was done and I handed in my thesis and defended it and people applauded and then I went to see Carl and say goodbye.

I asked, in some wonder because I had just spent four intense years working with this brilliant, kind man, if he would miss us when we all graduated.

“No, of course not,” he said with that huge generous smile. “You all become my colleagues.” I could have fallen apart right there, but instead I left, happy, sure of myself at last.

How do I mourn these poets, who gave me my life? Or Mary Oliver, who left in January, whose words I have tasted like the best, sweetest wine. Or Ursula K. Le Guin, who taught me the true lyricism of prose. I honour them by teaching, as much as I can to as many people as I can. I remember their kindness and generosity, and I work with anyone who asks me. And I read. And I listen. And I write.

Such great kind poets. Deepest gratitude to all of them.  [Tyee]

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