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Monday, 20 January 2014

Ray Souster Tribute Launch - Patrick Connors

Under the Mulberry Tree

New Book and Launch event Honour Raymond Souster
Patrick Connors – Toronto:  On Wednesday, January 15th, Quattro Books released Under the Mulberry Tree, a book of poems celebrating the life and legacy of Raymond Souster.  A true “People’s Poet”, Souster passed away in Toronto last year at the age of 91 after a lengthy illness.  This tribute to his work and personality was edited by longtime friend James Deahl.

James Deahl with Quattro Books employee Kristen Blank – Photo Credit: Anna Yin

“Even if Ray Souster had never written a poem, edited a literary magazine, published a book, or hosted a public reading, he was a truly great and honourable man,” Deahl said. “Ray showed how to live a life of grace and compassion. It was a privilege to know him.”
“I first encountered Ray Souster’s poems almost half a century ago,” said Norma West Linder, a contributing poet to the anthology. “Seeing the way he made the ordinary into the extraordinary with the art that disguises art, I was inspired to try my own hand at writing poetry.

In all, there are 35 poets to the book, paying affectionate and admiring tribute to Souster, widely considered one of the most important figures in Canadian poetry in the second half of the 20th Century. He was a groundbreaking poet of wide-ranging influence who distinguished himself as an editor, publisher, readings organizer, and mentor. The contributors include some who knew Souster personally and others from younger generations who are extending the tradition of modernist “People’s Poetry” in a Sousterian spirit.

“When I consider the mutual friendship I had with Ray, I’d have to say serendipity and pleasant fortune is my connection to him,” said Michael Fraser, another contributing poet, and a co-ordinator of the excellent Plasticine Poetry reading series.  “I was immensely fortunate to have been welcomed into his house and have the opportunity to bask in his brilliance.”
14 of the contributors appeared at the launch event, held in the upstairs of Tequila Bookworm, located at 512 Queen Street West.  One of them was noted Toronto-based poet and editor Mick Burrs.

“2 years before Ray passed away, James Deahl told me that I lived in the same neighbourhood as Souster,” Burrs said.  “In fact, I had been for a number of years.
“He was a major Canadian poet, and I got to meet one of my idols in person, although it took 70 years!

“After James introduced me to Ray, I in turn introduced him to Kent Bowman, who is also in the anthology.  Ray and Kent were jazz afficionado’s, and could talk about music for hours.
“Also, we would always talk poetry with Ray, sharing our poems with one another.  In general, he stood by a lot of poets, encouraging them, even starting the League of Canadian Poets.
“I felt saddened when he died.  You just enjoyed being with him.”

Burrs poem, “Basho Watching Baseball”, appears in the anthology, and marked the beginning of the reading.  “Another thing Ray and I talked about was baseball.  We would discuss it on the phone, how the Jays were doing, during commercial breaks.”

The second stanza is simply:

“During a dull night game
 at last the dome opens –
     ah, the full moon!”

“This is something I experienced at a Jays game, and, of course, many others have, as well.  Inside the climate-controlled environment of the Rogers Centre, you are not experiencing the reality of the outside world.  The shock of the last line, the appearance of the full moon, is what makes it a haiku.

“Whenever Ray was talking about something he was passionate about, whether it was jazz, baseball, or poetry, he forgot he wasn’t feeling well.  In turn, we forgot he wasn’t feeling well.”
The launch event itself included stories of Souster’s influence on the presenters, both personally and poetically.  It was emotional without being maudlin, and brought everyone in the crowded room into a kind of communal participation, whether they knew Souster or not. 

“I think one measure of the success of a book launch is the number of the writers in attendance who are not there to read their own work or promote themselves, but to celebrate the poetry of some other writer,” Deahl said. “More to the point, there were about 15 people in the room I had never seen before. When people attend a poetry event who you did not personally invite, that is amazing. It demonstrates the respect people have in their hearts for Ray Souster.”

Also, the service at Tequila Bookworm was very good.
In 2012, there were revivals of the extraordinary work of Irving Layton (, as well as Milton Acorn (  I am hopeful that 2014 will see a compilation of Souster’s work released—or at least set in motion—to bring his work and his place in the Canadian literary canon to a new generation of readers.
with files from Quattro Books

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