Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

The Essentials, with Robert Gibbs

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Robert Gibbs

Robert Gibbs spoke with Open Book about the moment he knew he was a poet, the importance of the The Fiddlehead magazine and growing up without reading contemporary poetry. Robert lives and writes in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

Writer Brian Bartlett has compiled the finest of Robert's work for The Essential Robert Gibbs (Porcupine's Quill), a collection of poetry released this month. Brian describes Robert's life work as being, "an attractive mix of the casual and the polished, the idiomatic and the freshly turned."

By Ashliegh Gehl

When Robert Gibbs was nine years old he didn?t have aspirations to be a doctor, a lawyer or an astronaut like most boys. He knew he had the makings of a poet.

Even his elementary school teacher recognized his talent, placing a big star on a Mother?s Day poem he wrote.

?Mother dear I love you so, tell me things I need to know. You always help me when you can and I?ll help you when I?m a man,? the 82-year-old recited in a telephone interview.

Robert was born in Saint John, New Brunswick, in 1930. His earlier writings, written during WWII, were filled with patriotic verse. At the time, his brother operated The Booster, a small paper made from the jelly pad of a hectograph. It was the first publication Robert?s poems appeared.

In high school, his enthusiasm for poetry waned, but when he started at the University of New Brunswick he rekindled his love for the genre. Up to that point, modern poetry was elusive. He was never exposed to it before his post-secondary studies. Maybe Robert Frost, he said, but certainly nothing written in a contemporary idiom.

?I remember reading 'The Hollow Man' by T.S. Eliot and all of us laughing at this. It seemed so ridiculous,? he said.

A graduate student overheard the laughing and was quick teach the young men a lesson.

?He came in and very, very sober he said, you know, you don?t laugh at T. S. Eliot. He?s probably the greatest living poet.?

Having been exposed to the classics for so many years, it took some time for Robert to adjust to the newfangled work his university education placed before him.

?It?s was like somebody who had never seen a modern painting being exposed to Picasso,? he said.

University did more than open his eyes to contemporary poetry. It introduced Robert to the Bliss Carman Society in the late 1940s; Don Gammon, Elizabeth Brewster, Fred Cogswell and Alfred Bailey ? the founder of The Fiddlehead magazine ? were his mentors.

Having a poem published in The Fiddlehead was an important milestone, a mark of success for budding poets.

?You had to have a poem counted worthy to be published in their magazine,? he said. ?It was like a workshop, really. You wrote your poems and they met. We read to each other and there were some very distinguished people.?

In 1949, Robert?s poetry started to appear in The Fiddlehead. He started teaching Canadian literature at the University of New Brunswick in 1963 and became involved with editing the magazine. He went on to be the director of the creative writing graduate program and retired from the university in 1989.

From studying classics to experiencing contemporary poetry for the first time to teaching, Robert defines the work of today?s writers as being very individualistic.

?You do have reactions. You have people that sort of react by wanting to do something more traditional. But, they?re in a minority. It?s very individualistic. There?s been a tremendous emphasis, especially in poetry and fiction, in finding your own voice. Finding your own way of doing things.?

When it comes to current work, Robert is close to completing another collection of poetry.

?I think I?m doing something different,? he said. ?I won?t say it?s better, but I think I?ve moved on. I?ve sort of felt that throughout my career, that I can?t keep doing the same old thing.?

Ashliegh Gehl is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist.

She has written for the Women's Post, Montreal Gazette, Quill & Quire,, Northumberland Today and The Intelligencer newspapers.

Between countless cups of oolong tea, Ashliegh has been busy working on two books. Visit her website for more information.

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