This piece first appeared in the September 2011 issue of the Quill and Quire. The text below is slightly longer and less edited:
ROBERT KROETSCH: ONLY HIS BOOKS
Jon Paul Fiorentino
Summer Literary Seminars. Montreal, Quebec. June 22, 2011.
Tonight I read with emerging writer, Tom Burke, American novelist, Kevin Canty, Montreal poet, Katia Grubisic. The DeSeve cinema amphitheater was over half-full. I always count the audience (it calms my nerves). Tonight there were 58 people in the room: participants and instructors from all over North America, here In Montreal to study and write in a new context. There were people I loved, people I wanted to impress. I read from new work -- a comedic text--and I struggled. I flubbed lines, failed to convey the rhythm of the prose, apologized to the audience, and did pretty much everything else you aren't supposed to do when you present your work. When I was done with the new stuff, I felt relief and regained my composure. Then I read some selections from a text I had been reading all day: “Towards an Essay: The Upstate New York Journals” from Robert Kroetsch's The Lovely Treachery of Words. I wasn't ready to read Seed Catalogue (my favourite). But I needed to share with this audience a sense of the man. The journal is not that long. It documents a time in the 1970s when he was teaching. Some the entries are matter-of-fact. Most contain gems: his brief encounter with Basil Bunting and the secrets Bunting revealed about his own poetry and about the title of a certain TS Eliot text, the image of Gwendolyn MacEwen at the 1969 Governor General’s Literary Awards ceremony, sitting alongside her young Greek lover alongside, George Bowering with his green velvet suit and extravagant silk shirt, so many small ruminations, striking in their intellectual acuity. I read a passage where Kroetsch had just found out that he was to receive the GG for his novel The Studhorse Man and he proceeded to recall 20 years earlier when he received first ever acceptance letter for a story (to be published in The Montrealer.) Then I read my poem "Civic Poem" which is inspired by and dedicated to him. When the reading was over. I swiftly exited the theatre without looking anyone in the eye. I ran to my office and cried.
I found out via text message that morning that Robert had died in a car accident. Once I could confirm it, I broke down instantly. Never has anyone been so encouraging, kind, and inspiring to me as Robert Kroetsch. It was enough that his books taught me so much, but the fact that he took a particular interest in me and my writing was astonishing. I am aware of the fact that he had similar relationships with countless other writers. If you were a reader or a writer, he had time for you. We met around 11 years ago. In Winnipeg. I remember sitting across from him at the restaurant in McNally Robinson. I was in awe. I had some poems I wanted him to look at and to my surprise he had brought me some poems of his to look at too. I remember thinking, "Why on earth would he want my opinion on new poems?" I had just started volunteering for Matrix magazine in Montreal, and he asked if I might like to publish them. The poems were exquisite of course. And being the young, hyper-ambitious guy that I was, I insisted that he let me interview him as well. Obviously, he said yes. He always said yes. In 2007 he said yes to lending his name to my fledgling literary press, Snare Books. The Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry was established. My favourite annual email was the one he would write after he reading the latest winner. His enthusiasm for new poetry, for new ways of poetry was awe-inspiring. As our friendship grew and our conversations became more sophisticated, he kept telling me: "It's your turn to talk." (And I tried. And I'm trying.) But it always provided more pleasure, more bliss, to listen to him.
In the upstate journals, Kroetsch writes about Charles Olson's passing, observing that he “is only his books." The elegance of Kroestch. The staggering peculiarities of his language. The way he changed our language. The imperceptible ease with which he articulated so much wisdom. He was always fascinated with the poem he "could never complete." But the truth is, he was the complete poet. The complete writer. He approached language and life with a sense of rigorous play. Now he is only his books. I will visit him there for the rest of my life. You will too.
Jon Paul Fiorentino is the author of Stripmalling, Indexical Elegies, and the editor of Matrix Magazine and Snare Books. He lives in Montreal.