Boldness about oldness

Brett Josef Grubisic’s latest, highly inventive novel, Oldness; or, the Last-Ditch Efforts of Marcus O, is flippant and learned, and exhaustively current, according to reviewer Dustin Cole. REVIEW

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George Woodcock prize speeches

July 16th, 2018

Lorna Crozier (r) with Ann Graham Walker (l).

Ann Graham Walker, president of the Federation of British Columbia Writers gave the following introductory remarks at the 25th George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award ceremony on June 28th for this year’s recipient, (followed by Lorna Crozier’s acceptance speech).

“On behalf of nearly eight-hundred emerging and professional writers across BC who belong to the Federation of BC Writers – a provincial non-profit that began here in Vancouver in 1976 – I feel honoured to have been asked to introduce Lorna Crozier, the twenty-fifth recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award.

Lorna is a national treasure. Even people who thought they didn’t like poetry have enjoyed hearing her on their car radios, driving home, because she’ll pop up on CBC, and what she has to say is universal and engaging. Fearless too. Powerful. Often hilarious. Reading her poems, she’ll write about onions and carrots, aging sex, she’ll have you in stitches – then on the next page devastate you with a few stanzas about grief. Spare, elegant, her precise words land in the human heart, not just here in Canada. In 2018 she was awarded a prestigious international poetry prize in China and she traveled there to receive it.

There is so much to say about Lorna, and yet I feel like I’m talking too much already. I will pause to rejoice in her own, ineffable words:

You don’t know what light feels or how its thinking goes. You do know this is where it’s most at home. On the plains where you were born, there are no mountains to turn it back, no forest for it to shoulder through. A solitary tree marks its comings and goings like a pole sunk in the shore of the ocean to measure the tides. Here, light seems like another form of water, as clear but thinner, and it cannot be contained. When you touch it, it resists a little and leaves something like dampness on your skin.  You feel it the way you feel a dog’s tongue lick your cheek in the early morning:

The first hundred-and-fourteen words of her memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, published in 2009.  I find it just such a wonderful and curious way to begin a book that tells the story of a life. You don’t know what light feels or how its thinking goes.

What is so compressed into that ineffable image is reality itself. Light is absolutely central to the memoir, to the story, to the place.  Lorna’s memoir an evocation of Saskatchewan, where she grew up.

Her life led her to BC to teach writers at the University of Victoria. Retired not that long ago, she has been a dedicated teacher both in that university setting and in retreats and master classes where I have been incredibly fortunate to work with her, along with my poet friends. I contacted a few of them and we pulled together some of our scribbled notes from her workshops, just to give you an idea of the beauty and brilliance of her teaching.  Here are some inspiring snippets (not Lorna’s exact words but close):

Poetry begins in the place of no words and leads to that same place. The words we find can only come close.
We listen with the third ear for what is beyond the obvious.
A good poet knows what to leave out.
Leave the silence in the poem. Honour the reader.
Re-write the ancient song. Poetry strives to get back to that ancient song.

We are so lucky that whilst all the time publishing – I don’t dare to count but it’s more than twenty books, many of them winners of Canada’s major awards — Lorna has spent her time living on Vancouver Island with her life partner, celebrated master poet Patrick Lane, both of them devoted to teaching. (I’m very mindful that Patrick is ill right now and Lorna has briefly left his bedside to be with us here tonight. Lorna our thoughts are with you and they are also with Patrick).

In recent years, Lorna’s students Anne Marie Turza and Garth Martens were both nominated for the Bronwyn Wallace Award. Her student Arleen Pare won the Governor General’s Award for poetry.

I’m sure there are others.

Arleen worked so closely with Lorna, as an adult poet in the Master’s program at UVic.  I asked her to write a few words about Lorna to share with you.  These are Governor General Award winner Arleen Pare’s words:

Lorna is, above all, emotionally honest, which is what I believe all poets need: the courage to allow themselves to be exposed for the sake of their art. Her memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, is one of the most compellingly honest accounts of a young life that exist. Lorna is joyfully enthusiastic about the excellence in the poetry of others and she is never parsimonious in her praise. She is a dedicated and gifted teacher who encourages her students to reach for their best work. And she involves herself in the whole student. When I was her student she noticed I was in a sweater I wore probably too much, large holes at both elbows. She gave me the name of a seamstress in town.

Small Beneath the Sky is a wonderful title for a memoir, but small, we all know, Lorna is not.  As the 25th recipient of the George Woodcock Lifetime Achievement Award, Lorna Crozier has in no SMALL way joined an elite group of writers the City of Vancouver has loved at a cellular level, honoured and celebrated with this lifetime achievement award that comes with a plaque in the Writers Walk, beside the Vancouver Public Library at George St. That’s not Westminster Abbey or Hollywood’s Walk of Stars. It is our Writer’s Walk and how we mark the life and work of the wonderful writers who have told our stories and touched our hearts with their own unique perfection.

When you get your own stone in a walk, you’re not just an honoured writer. You become the future’s archaeology. That’s big, Lorna.

 Lorna’s list of formal and literary achievements, her list of publications is long and amazing. I can only touch on some highlights.

She’s a lifetime member of the League of Poets of Canada, as well as the Federation of British Columbia Writers. She won a Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize in 2010 for Small Beneath the Sky.  A Dorothy Livesay Poetry Award in 2000 for What the Living Won’t Let Go.  She received the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary Excellence in 2013, I think a total of three Pat Lowther Awards, two Governor General’s Awards and another Governor General’s nomination in 2017 for What the Soul Doesn’t Want. In 2011 she became an Officer of the Order of Canada – with her life’s companion of forty years, Patrick Lane balancing things out by picking up a matching one the following year.

In recent years, she has devoted herself to bringing us to that point of realization about the extreme fragility of our environment, through her writing, her world travels and her public speaking. I’ve heard her say that The Wild in You, her collaboration with astonishing wilderness photographer Ian McAllister, is her favourite book. “I want to make a case for each of us doing something to battle climate change, for we know that the earth’s enemy, and therefore poetry’s, is us,” she said last year, at an International Poetry Festival in China.

I’ve lost track of the Honorary Doctorates, but if you start to add up how many Lorna and Patrick have collected, cumulatively, you potentially end up with a hilarious skit like the one two of our FBCW poets wrote and performed at our 2014 AGM in Vic where we celebrated Patrick and Lorna and awarded them their Honoured Lifetime memberships for their achievements as writers and as teachers.

And, by the way, Arleen Pare played Lorna, dressed in Lorna’s own red boots and dress which poet Rhonda Ganz had cleverly retrieved from a thrift store.  It was a very funny skit where Patrick and Lorna called each other Doctor Doctor Doctor over morning coffee and searched for shelf space to put all the awards they happened to have won that year.

 Writers are wonderful, gifted, sometimes dangerous people. In the history of writing you won’t find many life companions who both write at the Order of Canada level and have been life and creative companions for forty years, actually living under the same roof and sharing a garden and cats.

 As someone who is also blessed with a life partner of forty years, I feel tonight’s honouring of Lorna would not be complete without taking a moment to also honour Patrick Lane and expressing gratitude for Patrick and Lorna’s companionship.

 A line from Rainer Maria Rilke, one of Lorna’s favourite poets:
I hold this to be the highest task for a bond between two people: that each protects the solitude of the other.

I first “met” Lorna through Patrick’s eyes, at Glenairley and Honeymoon Bay poetry retreats where he spoke of her daily, just so comfortably and naturally, the way close companions talk. I knew from him that she was a brave writer who will take on virtually any subject, that she lives life with fierce passion, that she brings cats home from shelters, that she is near-sighted and he is far-sighted – or is it the other way around – either way, he made a funny joke about how they compare notes on the poetic detail they observe. And I knew, just hearing the man who loves her, that if I ever got to meet Lorna I would admire her very much.

I shall give the closing words to Arleen Pare:
Lorna is a compassionate human being, who cares for animals and for the natural environment, sometimes to the point of tears. She loves life, as is completely evident in her poetry and in her presence.

 Thank you, Lorna, for translating that compassion and joy into such an astonishing body of work, and for all you have done and continue to do to teach us, and to protect the environment for future generations. And congratulations on receiving this very important award.”

*

Lorna Crozier’s acceptance speech

I’m very pleased to be sharing this evening with Travis Lupick [winner of the Geroge Ryga Prize for social awareness in literature].

Besides those of you who’ve come out tonight for me and Travis, I feel I’m in the company of hundreds of poets I’ve worked with through my many decades of teaching though most are not present in their physical form. What a privilege it’s been to sit around a table with the brightest, the most curious of minds, poets in mid-life whom I’ve engaged with at places like Banff, Naramata, Honeymoon Bay, but also students I met when they were 18, kids really, who chose creative writing for their four-year degree over business administration or law. Crazy, eh?  How lucky to walk with them, just as they were starting out, into the enchanted, the necessary, the terrifying, world of poetry. Listen to these lines from a few of the extraordinary writers who blessed me with their words:

Anne-Marie Turza: “In my country we admire the ambitious dust: long into the night,/ for endless hours, it practices such gentleness on the window’s sill.”

Brad Cran: ‘In the Rome of my youth I wore a paper hat./ They said ‘bebop’ and  I knew what they meant,/ danced the foxtrot and called my friends “buster.”

Melanie Siebert: This river takes other rivers in its mouth./ Your mouth to its mouth. / The other rivers of your mouth.”

Steven Price: “What you feel is love: how all things that live have inner halls light knows nothing of.”

Getting an award called Lifetime Achievement—and it goes without saying that it’s a great honour— signals to anyone that the recipient will be long in the tooth.

It doesn’t seem that many years ago that I was the youngest poet on the stage at literary festivals, now I am the oldest. Seventy seems a good time to look back and evaluate how I’ve spent, some might say how I’ve wasted, my life. I can honestly claim that since my mid-twenties, a day hasn’t gone by when I haven’t been in the company of poetry. It helps that my husband of 40 years is also a poet, many say Canada’s finest, but I can’t blame him for my obsession.

I was on this esoteric path before we met, and in fact, it was poetry that introduced us. But I have to wonder, with some amusement, why I chose an art form that most people find arcane, possibly elitist.

I come, after all, from a family of very ordinary, hard-working Saskatchewan people. My mother cleaned houses and sold tickets at the swimming pool. My father drove a back-hoe and was laid off during the winter when the ground froze.  When that happened, my parents worried about paying the rent. Our house had only three books, a bible, one volume of a set of The Book of Knowledge and a Zane Gray novel the mice had chewed. That library expanded after I’d left home and started getting published.

The pride of place in my parents’ living room was a two-tiered, maple coffee table. On the bottom shelf my mother accumulated Patrick’s and my books that we dutifully sent to her. On the top of the same table, crouched a big plastic lobster my father had brought back from a visit to my brother who was a helicopter search and rescue pilot in PEI. Neither of my parents would eat the crustaceans when they were on the island, but my father couldn’t get over the fact that Maritimers, including his son and grandkids, devoured them with gusto. The lobster stretched out in its place of honour above our books until my father died and my mom got rid of it. Our books stayed.

My mom was proud of my achievements but she had no idea where this poetry part of me came from. Nor did I. What I think now is that there was something inside me that needed out and that could only be said in poetry. It wasn’t going to slip into any conversation that went on in our house. It needed words of a different ilk. Words that had passed through a flame and held their form, words that were washed in a cold, dark water. Gwendolyn MacEwan said it right, “Now I know a language so beautiful and lethal my mouth bleeds when I speak it.”

The other day on the radio, I heard playwright Corey Payette who’s written a musical about residential schools describe musicals in this way: “When you cannot talk, you sing.” That singing for me has been poetry.

It’s an art form that has few readers, I believe, not because it is more difficult to grasp than other genres, but because the best of it allows no escape. It takes us into the deepest part of our being, into places our everyday language doesn’t go.

That’s why silence is more important to poetry than to any other verbal art form. Like animals who dwell in the forests or the grasslands, the words come with hesitancy, syllable by syllable, and if we make a false move, they quickly slip into shadows.  The wild is poetry embodied. “A bird is a poem,” Patrick Lane writes, “that talks of the end of cages.”

Why have I have spent five decades wrestling with this demanding, dangerous angel? At seventy, still smitten, I have to say that it’s also poetry’s uncanniness that attracts me. It knows things before I do—the breakdown of my first marriage for instance was forecast in my early poems. Poets were writing about climate change long before those words were coined; they were praising the natural world and damning our part in its destruction.

My poems are smarter than I am, more inventive, badder, more daring, wittier, less needy. Not many poets can live up to the integrity you find in their work.

The form itself doesn’t allow falseness, bombasity, ego posturing, righteousness, though there are many things I personally feel I must fight for. Poetry thrives on questions, not answers, on ambiguity, on the deep truths that lie like bedrock under the shakiness of modern morality and politics. With love and sorrow and exultation it praises the magnificent like spirit bears and Orcas but also the small, common things of the world, and in so doing, hopes like a shaman to cast a spell that will protect spiders and bees, meadowlarks and swift foxes, and the dragonfly called Black Saddlebags Skimmer. What good company poetry keeps, what good company it insists on.

I’m going to close with a few poems I’ve plucked from decades of dedication to this craft and sullen art, as Dylan Thomas calls it. I’m starting with 1985 and will conclude with something from my new book, God of Shadows, to be released this fall.

PROLOGUE: AND GOD SAID

Who is the god who utters you? Is it the lame god who drags his foot down the road and the dust rises, fills your lungs and makes you blind?

Is it the god who runs her tongue over the morning, and you smell her breath

like horse-chewed fescue, except it’s not that smell. It’s the scent of yourself on your fingers

after you scratch your head, the whiff of hair and scalp and your clearest thinking.

Most days, it’s surely the god of the mind that utters you. The heart and gut are another affair.

You want to hear them, too, their syllables of blood and fecal matter, but that needs more of you than you can give right now

and any god can only say so much. Whichever one, her own name is what she utters when she utters you. His own name is what he

utters when he pushes you from his nothing-womb into the ruinous noun-thick world.

GOD OF ARITHMETIC

Most children no longer know who this god is. For one thing, he uses chalk as if time does everything but erase. In abandoned country schools, he prints columns of numbers on the blackboards. There are no pupils to add them up and call out the answers though his pockets burn with stars to give away. His worshippers, in danger of dying out, recite the timetables like Hail Marys under their breath to prove their minds are still okay. No matter what they’ve lost—the word geranium, the birth dates of their children—they can do their sums. He wanted his only commandment to be included on the tablet Moses brought down from the mountain, but the others, bartering for space, thought it was only about arithmetic and left it out. It would have changed the world. It would have made us kinder. Thou shalt carry the one, he intones to the small desks in empty classrooms, carry the one.

 

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