25th Trillium Award

rob mclennan on John Newlove at 76

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By rob mclennan

On June 13, 2014, Saskatchewan poet John Newlove would have been seventy-six years old. He died the morning of December 23, 2003, two years after an initial stroke that he expected not to live through. Soon after the stroke, he told me that he knew something was coming, but he?d expected it would have taken him out. He even seemed surprised.

After stints in Vancouver, Toronto, Regina and Nelson, John Newlove and his wife Susan moved to Ottawa in 1986, the same year his trade collection The Night the Dog Smiled (ECW Press) appeared. He lived his final seventeen years in Ottawa, and yet, he always considered himself a Saskatchewan poet. Once here, he didn?t publish another trade book during his lifetime, save the second of his three volumes of selected poems, Apology for Absence: Selected Poems 1962-1992 (The Porcupine?s Quill, Inc., 1993). In Ottawa, where he remained, he once wrote in a bio, ?for his sins.?

For well over a decade, I saw John Newlove on a regular basis, whether around Ottawa?s Chinatown, where we lived but a fraction of a block apart, or on Bank Street, near his office at Official Languages. When we?d encounter each other on the street he always took the time to wave, or tell me a story of obscure Greek history. Once, he gleefully recounted a somewhat inappropriate story of himself as a young man at a party at Jane Rule?s house. It took time for me to realize that John didn?t deliberately stay away from people, he just happened to. Through shyness, he developed the habit. Aware through others of his discomfort with people, I did my best to leave him alone, slipping envelopes of chapbooks into his mailbox for years without any expectation of response. I simply wanted to pass along what I had produced, as author and publisher both. I wanted to give thanks, in my own way. Occasionally, he would even respond. Once, a postcard arrived that said: ?If I didn?t thank you for the books, I do. JN.? A week or so after I told him I was enjoying the poems in The Cave (McClelland and Stewart, 1970), a book I had borrowed from the library, a hardcover copy arrived at my doorstep with the inscription, ?would it be more vain to rip out the bad pieces or to leave them in? Jn.?

During the time we corresponded, my favourite had to be the twenty dollar cheque he mailed, having to travel further to a post-box than simply slip into my own mailbox. A thanks for the books, I suppose.

In 1999, he allowed me to produce a small chapbook, THE TASMANIAN DEVIL and other poems, through above/ground press, his first publication of new work in fourteen years. He launched it as part of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and later, in Vancouver, where he had to be convinced to read anything but what he considered his long-published ?hits.?

Soon after his stroke in June 2002, at his wife Susan?s insistence, I went to visit him at the Civic Hospital. On entering his room, I said something along the lines of, geez, John, you must have to see a bunch of people now. No, he shook his head, and held up two fingers, for myself and John Metcalf.

When I was seventeen years old, the first poem of his I read of John?s came from ,em>Contemporary Poets of the 1960s, edited by Eli Mandel. It was an important book for my future considerations, after my eventual ex-wife gave me a copy, where I was introduced to the work of John Newlove, George Bowering, Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen and others. It was the variant on one of John?s hitch-hiking poems from the early 1960s that first struck me, composed when he was still travelling back and forth from the prairies to the west coast, the first of many of his poems to do so. Originally published in his collection 7 Disasters, 3 Theses, and Welcome Home, click., it?s the last poem of his in the anthology.

Everywhere I go

What are people talking about. Everywhere I go they whisper.

They stick their eyes at me, right at the base of the breastbone,
when I?m not looking.

The breastbone seems flat, pointed like a dagger to the top of my

O, my stomach, my stomach . . . when the knife rips you open it will
find coffee and four strips of bacon, pieces of chewed beard and a
handwritten note saying I have left town forever again.

There are poems that stick with you, long after you?ve read them, which might just be the mark of a great poem. Or perhaps that?s a flimsy argument. There are more than a couple of poems by John Newlove that have stuck with me at various points over the years. For a couple of stretches throughout my twenties, I used the poem ?Concerning Stars, Flowers, Love, Etc.? from The Night the Dog Smiled almost as a blueprint for how to approach my own writing. While driving the prairies during a reading tour with Joe Blades, Brenda Niskala, Anne Burke and D.C. Reid in May 1998, I rode the highway to the endless beat of his ?Ride Off Any Horizon.? Driving across Manitoba, Saskatchewan and into Alberta, there was just something about the poem that made a new kind of sense. I carried his books around with me, while alternately amazed that most writers my age hadn?t even heard of him.

John Newlove was a friend of mine, I said at his memorial. Brief weeks after John died, Randall Ware and John Metcalf organized a small event at the Manx Pub in Ottawa, and a dozen or so friends and admirers read poems and told stories to a packed crowd. At the end, Susan said that John would have hated this. She added: But I really appreciate it.

John Newlove has long been hailed as one of our early masters, ?the best lyric poet in Canada? from 1964 to 1974, somehow emerging fully-formed as a poet in the early 1960s, and capable of such incredible precision and brevity. Despite his shyness, he also managed to live in the prairies more than once during interesting periods of prairie writing, and living in Vancouver as one of the ?downtown Vancouver poets? (a loose grouping that included Judith Copithorne, Roy Kiyooka, Maxine Gadd and Gerry Gilbert) alongside the emergence of TISH. There are stories of Newlove?s days working at the UBC Bookstore, stealing reams of paper and tossing it out the back door to a truck of TISH poets, waiting to haul it away to produce a new issue. By the opening of the 1970s, he was in Toronto working as an editor for McClelland and Stewart, in the heyday of the new generation of Canadian literature. Somehow, this shy poet happened to be at the right place at the right time far more than once. And yet, once he made Ottawa, he was happy enough to fade quietly into the background, writing occasionally, and corresponding with numerous writers, students and others (even now, Montreal critic J.A. Weingarten works to finalize editorial work on a selection of letters for publication). The poems that emerged were rare.

When we were putting together A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove (ed. Robert McTavish, Chaudiere Books, 2007), we were only able to discover some twenty-four pages of work that hadn?t yet been collected into a trade work, since the publication of Apology for Absence. We kept hoping for more. Perhaps greedy.

I recently heard from the poet John Pass, asking me about Newlove?s poem ?The Grass Is A Reasonable Colour,? a poem not included in our selected, and one I wasn?t previously aware of. At least, not consciously. As Pass says, ?Can?t go far wrong with Newlove.? A poem he doesn?t recall seeing in print since the sixties, possibly ?in mimeo form in Bill New?s Canlit class,? and one he?s toying with reissuing as a broadsheet if any of us can get our hands on it. After some digging, I discover the poem in Moving in Alone (Contact Press, 1965; Oolichan Books, 1977). It includes lines that feel familiar to any reader of Newlove:

There is a time for everything.
Mistakes are explainable.

Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include the forthcoming notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the poetry collection Songs for little sleep (Obvious Epiphanies, 2012) and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at http://robmclennan.blogspot.ca/.

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