Author and poet Robert Kroetsch was a week away from his 84th birthday when he was killed in a car accident, June 21, on his way home to Leduc from a Migratory Words Writers’ Residency at the end of the Canmore artsPeak Arts Festival.
Robert, a Governor General award-winner, Officer of the Order of Canada, and recent recipient of the Alberta Writers’ Federation Lifetime Achievement Award, was leading an Italian P.hD student who was studying the role of place in his novels through the badlands when they were T-boned by another vehicle.
Five others were injured and Robert was killed on the scene. This loss was a shock to the national literary scene and a reminder of how lucky we were to have Robert with us for artsPeak 2011.
I’ve got to put all this down before the world slips any farther away. Robert’s gone and I saw him the second-to-last night he was alive. And how alive! He closed the festival with a great reading of poems from his last book, Too Bad: Towards a Self-Portrait, at the Canmore Miners’ Union Hall, received a standing ovation, and then it was off to the pub with fellow writers Laurie Fuhr, Bob Sandford, Sid Marty, Tim Murphy, and myself where he joked, laughed, ate, and charmed the young ladies at the table. “I’m still available,” he winked.
The man in the moon -
Robert Kroetsch lived on poetry. His spirit was light and his mind was sharp. He was an explorer and a mentor; a dreamer and a doer; a master and a child at play.
It’s not that he was a tangle of artistic contradictions, no, it’s that he was a man. And that’s just the way we’re built, being different things from different angles. Over the week of June 14-19, Robert worked closely with Laurie Fuhr, Chris Masson, and myself to show us the different angles our poems already contain. His insights were lucid and penetrating, his generosity staggering. With humility, humour, and grace Robert would prod us young writers to greater awareness with questions that aimed at the heart of the matter. His final judgment of our work was faithful: “the future is in good hands.”
Stars for supper,
When I first asked Robert to participate in the Migratory Words activities for artsPeak he said, “I’d be delighted! I never turn down an invitation with the word festival.” Robert reminded us at our opening event that festivals are traditionally a time of turning the world upside-down. Over the week, we shared meals, poems and scenery. I learned many things from the man, the first of which is simply the intangible flavour of his soul.
The second lesson is that writing is strongest when we use our most natural voice: never adopt the voice of poetry, it doesn’t exist. One afternoon, when I drove Robert back to the Banff Gate Mountain Lodge in Harvie Heights, we parked and watched clouds caught-up in yellow sunlight spill over the top of Mount Rundle, like heaven descending towards us.
Neither of us tried to capture the moment in words, neither of us tired of the sight, sitting in silence. Believe you me, it takes a powerful force to shut up a pair of writers parked beside the Trans-Canada Highway, and we were exposed to a powerful force in that moment.
Hunger all day,
Is there a lack of appropriate sadness in my tone? I don’t know that sadness is required here. It was a great honour and inspiration to work with Robert Kroetsch, all the more so now that he’s gone. He touched the lives of dozens of writers while in Canmore, visited high-school students, signed books, saw art exhibitions, and marveled at the scenery and wildlife we encountered.
So often he began his sentences with “I’m fascinated by...” It’s not that I have a lack of sadness, it’s that I have an urge to celebrate! Robert wouldn’t want us to dwell in mourning him, rather, we ought to take his death as a reminder to cherish those we love while they’re still here and to cherish our lives while we still have them.
The sense of tragedy of his passing is mitigated by the knowledge that he was living the life he wanted to live, up until the very end, in the company of other artists, eager to learn from him.
Here is the last poem Robert wrote, during a Haiku workshop just three days before his death:
The man in the moon –
Stars for supper,
Hunger all day.