GREATNESS IN POETRY

Colleen Thibaudeau Reaney has died. She passed away Feb. 6. You may not know the name. Some say she was the most under-appreciated poet. Her son says she was London’s greatest poet. But the fact is that poets all across this country knew this gentle and funny and sensitive writer from London, Ontario. And they got letters from her. They got cards, and broadsheets, and sometimes she might telephone … And if you haven’t heard of Colleen, then you should go and find her books. Colleen was a poet, a storyteller, a mother to writers everywhere. She worried about others and sent remedies through the mail. She also dispatched poems and Christmas cards. And she readily welcomed you to her house on Huron Street in London, Ont. I first went there in 1967 or 1968 after a reading I done with a number of other poets. We were all just starting out as writers. Young, brash and arrogant we all were, and we figured we knew everything about the world. Then we stepped into this colourful house one summer night for some wine and cheese. Colleen was effusive, engaging, the living, breathing “real” poet. The words she spoke were exciting, different, tinged with an edge that told me this woman wasn’t someone who scratched out the occasional line, but was someone whose life was lived with that deep lyrical impulse. That’s also when I met her husband, James Reaney, one of Canada’s greatest playwrights and greatest poets. I didn’t realize then I would get to know both of them much better. James and I worked on a play together, and we collaborated on other projects, and in the midst of all this, Colleen once came down to stay with us at this one-room schoolhouse we owned near Coatsworth. She had an amazing presence in our lives. Always encouraging. Always insightful. She talked a hundred miles an hour, the stories brimming with bizarre characters, down-to-earth details that sometimes would baffle and confound, but always entertained. She was a gem. She was a poet right to her fingertips.

What follows here is her son’s blog. It says it all:

BY JAMES REANEY, LONDON FREE PRESS

Once again, I have sad but not tragic news about our family. My beloved mother, Colleen Thibaudeau Reaney, died this morning at University Hospital. Mom was 86 & recovering from a stroke.

Her last hours were peaceful & quiet with a beautiful morning unfolding behind her. Thanks to everyone for their love & support. Mom knew you were there for her.

Mom would never agree when I called her “London’s greatest poet” — but she never told me to stop repeating the phrase. She had said to stopstopstop about some other details of her life, such as her gallant charge up to Irving Layton. The Montreal sage had sneered at academic poets (ie. my late father) just once too often at some reading in the 1960s. If that story of poet v. poet vs. poet isn’t quite true, it should be.

My sister in Vancouver remembered mom as the great one while we shared the news this morning. We thought of mom’s many greatnesses . . .poet, story-writer, soulmate, sister, daughter, in-law, community leader, NDP lifetime member, Acadian exile, wit, raconteur, letter-writer & much more.

Mom was/is London’s greatest poet (my dad always said so, too) & I am grateful to so many of her champions like Jean McKay, Stan Dragland, Richard Stingle & Peggy Roffey for helping me see her greatness.

Toward the end of her life, mom came to resemble both her parents . . . her scholarly, reserved & distinguished Markdale father Stewart and her dynamic, distinguished and extroverted Belfast mother Alice. She was born on Stewart’s birthday (Dec. 29) & he always said she was his best birthday present. (My parents were also married on Dec. 29, 1951.) Her mother was a brilliant bridge player & Elgin County’s most ferocious Liberal. Mom inherited neither passion. Mom & her mother argued about politics over the decades, CCF-NDP vs. Liberal, without truce or either asking for quarter . . . until they found a common foe, Brian Mulroney. Mom & grandma were delighted to discover they both detested the PM. They would still disagree . . . about which of the two worthies detested Mulroney more. Alice & Colleen, we miss you both!

The shock will have to wear off a bit more before I can recall Mom in truer detail. She was remarkably generous . . . here’s an anecdote from 2007 I complete forgot until this morning when our friend Mr. Google showed me how Mom’s generosity made her instantly identifiable, even if she were only being misidentified to her amusement as “an elderly lady.”

There was a v. sweet letter to the editor in Saturday’s Free Press (April 2007) from Gloria Williams, who had just returned to Sydney after being here with Team Australia for the world synchronized skating championships.

Gloria’s letter thanked the John Labatt Centre for its sympathy and kindness to the team following a boating tragedy in which skaters, judges and friends had died.

She also wrote this: “Another gesture from an elderly lady who approached us in the street confirmed my thoughts that the people of London have warm hearts.

“As the event was about to commence, we did not have time to get her name or address, so are unable to thank her for the thoughtfulness she showed. This lady had purchased postcards for each of the girls and also stamps for as many as she could afford.

“This gesture, along with that of the John Labatt Centre management, only confirms the caring nature of the people of London, Ontario.”

At least two people instantly recognized this “lady” (quotation marks necessary, in my view) as the giver of the postcards and the stamps: my mother, London’s greatest poet Colleen Thibaudeau Reaney (age undisclosed, mom has been counting backwards in recent years), and me, her loving son.

Yes, it was she . . . the Acadian exile on Huron Street . . . and someone who has made acts of spontaneous generosity a life work.

For the record, mom was v. touched to be remembered in this way and somewhat amused & bemused at being described as) elderly and b) a “lady” – she is truly a woman of the people.

She also stresses that the skaters were far more generous than she & gave her a wonderful pin & brooch (kangaroo and koala bear respectively, I think) as keepsakes. She is a little embarrassed that she only rounded up two stamps to go with the postcards

But there is no denying it. Mom, you are a beauty.

Gloria Williams, thank you. And best wishes to Team Australia, a truly classy and brave band of sisters.

Mom, goodbye.

TALKING DERBY

Kate Hargreaves is someone you are going to hear a lot about in the future. She is a dynamo. She’s an editor, graphic designer and a graduate student in English at the University of Windsor. She has just re-designed The Windsor Review magazine, and has done some editing and design work for Black Moss Press.  But she is also a gifted poet and writer … and roller derby enthusiast. That is what I am about to deliver to you here, a sample of what she has to say about this rough and tumble sport.

In July 2010, Kate helped form her local roller derby league and laced up her first pair of roller skates. Since then, she’s spent all her free time practicing, playing, watching, researching, and generally devoting her life to the sport of women’s flat track roller derby. You can find her writing in publications across Canada as well as the U.S., including filling Station, Room, Rampike, Carousel, Windsor ReView, Off the Coast, and forthcoming in The Antigonish Review.

What you will see here is a sample of what she has written about Roller derby. This piece should appear in a book somewhere down the road. The book is tentatively called Talking Derby: Stories from a Life on Eight Wheels. It is Kate Hargreaves’ love letter to the sport of roller derby.

A skater with an emerging league, Kate a.k.a. Pain Eyre takes readers behind the scenes, both on and off the track, into the fast-growing sport of roller derby. Her vignettes incorporate derby’s unique terminology and culture, as well as a glimpse into the very real athleticism of its players. Talking Derby thrusts smelly gear under the readers’ noses and proudly displays its bruises. 

Enjoy. And the photo here is one that I captured of Kate outside the offices of The Windsor Review …

Excerpt from Talking Derby: Stories from a Life on Eight Wheels

Nov. 29th, 2011

Ibuprofin. Water gulp. I toss my water bottle into my gear bag side pocket, zip, and throw the strap over one shoulder. Slam the front door and sidestep down three porch steps. Right leg limp. My skates have been stinking up the closet for over a week and it’s been two since the initial pull. Fingers and toes crossed, my hip flexor flexes tonight as it should. What better way to find out than three hours of travel tryouts? But, I’m going to take it easy. Sure you are. Whisk’ya Sourz rolls her eyes from the driver’s seat. Seriously, I’m going to take it easy. No point in injuring myself further. My name and number are already drying on my red shirt for next week’s Santas versus Elves scrimmage, and I refuse to stay on the bench.

But…Whisk’ya raises one eyebrow. But…there’s a contest: first skater to 32 laps in 5 minutes. On the line: a free team t-shirt at next week’s Derby World Cup. I’m going to take it easy, but with a competition to raise the stakes, I know I won’t be able to skate my 25 laps and be content. 25 in 5, the much-groaned-about roller derby staple: 25 standard track laps in five minutes or less. On basic skills testing, full points for speed and endurance are only awarded to those who hit 25, and breaking through is a big turning point for a lot of skaters. Some of the top American leagues like Gotham and Oly are rumoured to demand 35 in 5 minimum for their travel teams: a solid seven laps a minute. Unlikely on our ice rink of a concrete floor. 32, though, is a distinct possibility. My last attempt maxed out at 31.5, and with a free Team Canada shirt on the line, why not try? Whisk’ya reminds me that there are several reasons why not, including a not fully recovered muscle pull, an impending holiday scrimmage, and the risk of limping my way through the Christmas break. But a challenge is a challenge.

Whisk’ya presses the buzzer and the heavy wood door swings open. Drop Dead Alice steps out from behind, sporting a paper number 8 taped to the front and back of her helmet. She points at the stack of numbered papers starting at 15 on a table next to the door. Travel team only takes 14 skaters from tonight’s tryout, so we’ve already hit the maximum with more people emerging from the nippy outdoors by the minute. I swipe number 16 and dump my bag by the wall, drop down to the floor for a good stretch to gauge the state of my hip. Tight, but not too bad. No limp, a slight tug. 32 laps? Maybe.

Number 14. We hockey stop. We pack skate. Number 15. We plow. We jump. We block. We recycle. Number 16. We run through all the advanced drills the coaches and reffing staff can recall as they stand, whistles between their teeth, clipboards in hand, calling us to demonstrate our abilities one by one. And then, the last water break before 25 in 5. Five skaters at a time, spread out across the track, one person counting laps for each. I’m assigned the second shift so I grab my water, try to guzzle as much as possible before my five minute sprint-a-thon. Pain, can you count for Paulapalooza? I sit down and hurdler stretch on the inside of the track facing out towards Paula. In between sips of water as she passes by I scream 5 laps, awesome! Great pace! Keep it up! and Push it, push it! Only a minute left! Finish strong!  As the thirty seconds-to-go mark arrives, I stand and start to loosen my muscles. Go go go! Counters scream One more lap, you can do it! The five-minute whistle blows and the skaters finally relax; some take a knee and slide to the ground as the coaches yell for them to skate it off slowly, don’t let your muscles seize up! I’m ordered to the track, and…Damn! I sprint over to the coach I’msorryIgottapeedoIhavetimeI’llberightback! I dash to the bathroom, pulling off my wrist guards, and toss them outside the door as I skate onto the damp tile. As I’m washing my hands, I hear my derby name called out from the warehouse, PAIN! PAIN! I stumble down the bathroom step. Ears burning, I strap on my wrist guards, rush to the track—the whistle goes and I’m off running on my toe-stops.

At the minute-mark, I’ve only hit six and a half laps and I’m bound to slow down. My quads are already howling at me and side-stepping inside! to pass a slower skater tugs at my hip. Almighty Dollar is counting my laps in a low voice, but as I hit 10 and then 15 well before three minutes, he starts to push me onward. Go, go, you can hit 32! I pass the 25 marker, thighs smoldering, chest heaving. Gulping air in hungry mouthfuls, I can barely force out inside! as I screech up behind other skaters. Crossing over with choppy strides, I’m bent too far over at the waist. Bad form. With 30 seconds to go, I’m at 29 laps, and desperate to push out a few more. I try to pick up the pace but my legs resist. The ten second countdown starts and I finish lap 31, heading toward Dollar, my marker for 32, when he blows the whistle. 31 and three quarters, goddammit! I can hear Victor Won in his microphone announcing that we are waiting on the final verdict on my laps. I was probably two seconds away. Two. damn. seconds.

I coast to the centre of the track, hands on knees and spin the cap off my water. The last drips slide off the plastic. Shit. Screeeee! A whistle catches me on my way to refill as Dollar waves me over to the jammer line. An impromptu race. Winner takes shirt. Three minutes recovery and then a two-lap sprint. Against a ref. Can’t I just admit defeat by quads and concrete floor? No shirt, no race? Cut off one sleeve for the missing quarter lap? Standing on toe-stoppers, a blister burns along the edge of my big toe. Two short whistle blasts. Animosity Al jumps off the line early. Yields advantage. I swing past onto the inside and hug the apex. My boots lean hard on loose trucks. Blister pressing against damp leather, I stagger down the straightaway and cross the line with Al steps behind. A free shirt from a false start. Panting, I grab for my empty bottle and drift toward the fountain for some water. A whistle shrieks. Time for scrimmage! I turn, tighten one knee pad, adjust my helmet, and head for the bench. Someone tosses me the jammer panty. Shaking out heavy legs, I stretch my arms behind my back. Bend one knee and pull my right leg up to my chest. Hip twinges. Toe burns. Water sloshes in my belly. 5 black shirts on the track! Tryouts aren’t over yet.

Globe and Mail

Judith Fitzgerald has put together a wonderful piece on the work that was recently previewed in Descant’s Winter edition. Take a look at this. It is really about my good friend, Pat Sturn, who passed away in March 2011. She was an amazing photographer, a great inspiration to me personally. Read what Judith has written.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/arts/books/in-other-words/