Last winter professor/philosopher/author Terry Barker began lobbying me to feature the life and work of seminal Canadian poet Raymond Souster at our annual August Purdy Country LitFest (PurdyFest) gathering. Terry explained Souster's key roles in creating a modern Canadian poetry, and the major roles he played in founding the League of Canadian poets and in reinvigorating public Canadian poetry readings.
Of course I was quickly won over, but Terry persisted in advocating for Ray. I learned Terry was visiting Ray on a regular basis in his nursing home, as were poets James Deahl, Kent Bowman, Donna Dunlop, Mick Burrs and probably others. And at 90 years old, Ray was publishing another collection, BIG SMOKE BLUES.
And so Terry and poet Anna Yin gave presentations on Ray at this summer's Symposium at PurdyFest #5. Anna's powerpoint display was a nice counterpoint to Terry's academic overview of Ray's work and historical importance to the CanLit scene. But it seemed a pity that only 13 Purdyfesters, gathered in the rural Ontario Marmora Public Library meeting room, had the opportunity to share in their enthusiastic knowledge.
I suggested they should repeat their performance in Toronto, while Ray is still alive, and where Ray lives. Thus was created the idea for last night's heartfelt tribute to Ray at the Runnymede Public Library in west end Toronto. Unfortunately Ray was unwell, on antibiotics, and unable to attend. But an intimate gathering of 60 filled the pleasant meeting room on the library's upper floor to hear tributes from poets Ray has influenced.
Helen flint, the new Runnymede Head Librarian, warmly welcomed us, and introduced poet Allan Briesmaster, who hosted the tribute. She noted Runnymede Library has been Ray's lifelong branch of Toronto Public Library, and that preliminary meetings of the League of Canadian Poets were held nearby.
I didn't take notes, being eager to listen without distraction, so this is a subjective report on the evening, rather than a journalistic one. Apologies for names omitted or misspelled. Toronto Star columnist Joe Fiorito was one of the speakers, and I suspect Joe will write a more professional report on events. Joe also gave one of the most striking tributes. He told of arriving in TO from Fort William, an eager and naive young poet, eager to meet established poets. After much hesitation, Joe found Ray's number in the phone book, and finally screwed up his courage to call. Ray's wife answered, and upon learning Joe is a 'good Italian boy', she encouraged a reluctant Ray to meet the neophyte poet. Ray took Joe to lunch, and complimented him on his poetry. Joe's advice to young poets having lunch with their idols, 'Don't order soup - it's obvious your hand is shaking with each spoonful'.
John Robert Colombo told another favourite tale. Although the creator of public poetry readings in Canada, Ray left much to be desired as the host and emcee. 'He was a bit stiff, as if still in the bank teller's cage where he worked. And he was very shy'. JRC listed the poets in one of Ray's rosters, each one now famous. 'Ray admired maritime poet Alden Nowlan (as do I), and brought Nowlan to TO for a reading, at some considerable expense. After the audience had settled, Ray stepped forward to shyly announce that unfortunately the feature poet hadn't arrived. A hand went forward from the back of the room, and an even shyer voice managed to speak up, Yes, I'm here!'
Each presenter gave a brief and heartfelt tribute to Ray. Greg Gatenby, founder of Harbourfront's world class International authors series, told of how Ray inspired him to found the series. Poets Mick Burrs, James Deahl, Kent Bowman and Norma West Linder gave emotional tributes which caused small gasps in the audience.
Novelist Hugh Cook drove from Hamilton to reminisce about writing his master's thesis on Ray's work, and how surprised he was that Anna Yin had somehow discovered this lost treasure in university library archives.
Ray's close friend Donna Dunlop closed the evening with another sign of Ray's generosity and love and support of poetry and the poetry tribe. She drew tickets from a coffee cup, each of the 5 winners receiving a collection of 5 of Ray's signed poetry collections.
* I believe it was poet James Deahl who told me that Toronto People's poet Ted Plantos referred to the poets he knew as a "tribe".
signing off for now for dinner ... maybe more later, with possible revisions, but wanted to write this while the memories of last nite are so fresh
... and Chase ... wrffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff!
Thursday, Nov. 24/11
A few more thoughts on Tuesday's Tribute to Ray Souster.
At the Tribute I learned why Ray Souster named both his reading series and his mag/imprint "Contact". Ray wanted to make contact with his readers, something which now sounds so obvious, but in the 1940s & '50s, when elitist & academic poets were in the ascendancy, writing and READING poetry to, for and by 'the masses' was a novel idea.
People's Poetry (Canuck)
Souster's concern and leadership with writing & reading accessible poetry led the way for the creation of Canadian People's Poetry, as exemplified by poets such as Milton Acorn, Al Purdy, Ted Plantos - indeed, according to James Deahl, the majority of Canadian poets now consider themselves to be People's Poets. So in some respect, most of us are the poetic children and grandchildren of Raymond Souster.
A toast to Ray
After the Tribute, about a dozen of us wandered Bloor Street West until we found a pub with enough room & tolerance to accommodate our motley throng. First order of business: a hearty toast to Ray and his productivity and longevity!
'thank you!' to everyone who participated in this Tribute to Ray
note to Conrad - I'm still in TO, but I'll ask Terry Barker if he can recommend a collected of Ray's poetry
Hi again Conrad,
Terry Barker and I chatted last nite about your request for info on a collected of Ray's poetry. Terry knows more about CanPo than any other person I know. Terry informed me Ray's longtime publisher, Oberon Press, published a multi-volume set (6?) of his complete works some time ago. But Ray is so prolific, there will be hundreds, if not thousands more of his poems now. Terry also told me Bruce Whiteman has published an entire book just of Ray's titles and annotations - again, this would be missing the many more recent publications by Ray.
The shy man was absent
(Raymond Souster Tribute, Nov. 22, 2011)
The shy man was absent
from his own poetry tribute
sixty plus of us crammed
the second floor of Runnymede Library
the shy man's bookish retreat
for most of his 90 years
The shy man's imprint was Contact
(irony universal in poetry's ascent)
he made contact with poetry readings
poetry magazines and poetry organizations
poetry of the best, by the best
but poetry for everyone
The shy man slipped his teller's cage
miraculously to birth, with a few close friends
the modern age of Canadian poetry
A bank teller, for God's sake
who never swore, womanized
stole a dime, overwrote a line
Will he even show up for his own funeral?
will we file past an empty casket
the shy man busy elsewhere, composing perhaps
When the shy man passes
to join his legion of friends
in the Canuck poetry pantheon
we earthbound ones will need
a statue or two
to fix his shy spirit a place
beside bronze Al in Queen's Park?
(Al shy? - all poets are shy)
or comfortable yards apart
from an even shyer genius
Glen on his permanent bench
outside CBC quarters?
until the time of bust in bronze
poet after poet visits Ray
in a nursing home just around
Runnymede's comfortable corner
But tonight the shy man's legacy connects
a tribal gathering of poets his tribute
not one empty chair
Pape and Queen
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Nov. 25, 2011