Celebrating Robert Kroetsch (1927–2011)

A disclaimer: This is not a biography. It is a gesture toward a portrait, which I take to be quite a different kettle of fish.

When Robert Kroetsch died in a car accident in June on his way home from the Artspeak Festival in Canmore, Alberta, the Canadian writing community collectively mourned. Kroetsch was a poet, novelist, critic, trickster, teacher, mentor, friend, and father. He was an immensely important figure in the development of Canadian literature because of his own award-winning poetry and prose and because of the support he gave others. On hearing the sad news of Kroetsch’s death, critic and mystery writer (and my father) John Moss responded that “Robert Kroetsch was the singular most influential Canadian writer of the twentieth century. Not as celebrated as some, nor as widely known, he was a writer whose voice echoes through the poetry and fiction and criticism of innumerable others, who sometimes in spite of themselves picked up his profoundly whimsical cadence, his startling syntax, his innovative and illuminating turns of logic, his radiant capacity to make story from the world we live in and turn everyday experience into astonishing poetry.” I agree. Kroetsch’s sense of place and sense of play have permeated Canadian writing, for the better.

In the sadness of his passing, it is comforting to think of how fitting and even beautiful it is that Kroetsch was celebrating literature and being celebrated until the final days of his life. He had just spent five days at a writers’ retreat with emerging and mid-career poets. For someone invested in digging through the sedimentary stories of place, particularly Alberta, it seems fitting too that he died not many miles from where he was born. I think Kroetsch would have appreciated the symmetry.

Growing up in the farming community of Heisler, Alberta, Kroetsch once remembered how he “loved listening in on adult conversations. In a rural area there was a great oral tradition of tall tales, gossip, that kind of continuous flow of language that came to fascinate me.” Those tall tales infused his fiction and informed his poetry. He made an art of eavesdropping, quotation, ventriloquism, and gossip, but he also drew on a vast knowledge of world literature: classical, canonical, experimental, and doggerel. His writing is replete with intertexts, mythic resonances, magic realism, and parodic undertones. Kroetsch could put Homer in Alberta, Foucault on the prairies, or Aritha van Herk in designer jeans, without dissonance.

It is hard not to be self-reflexive when thinking about the man Linda Hutcheon called Mr. Canadian Postmodern. I wrote part of my Master’s thesis in the early 1990s at the University of Guelph on “historiographic metafiction,” Kroetsch, and Badlands. I still remember the jolt of rec- ognition when I read “On Being an Alberta Writer” (I am from Ontario, but still…), especially his take on the “model of archaeology, against that of history.” Kroetsch argued that “it is a kind of archaeology that makes this place, with all its implications, available to us for literary purposes. We have not yet grasped the whole story; we have hints and guesses that slowly persuade us towards the recognition of larger patterns. Archaeology allows the fragmentary nature of the story, against the coerced unity of traditional history. Archaeology allows for discontinuity. It allows for layering. It allows for imaginative speculation.” I embraced the fragment and the specula- tive (it was the 90s after all) and started to dig through what Kroetsch called “particu- lars of place: newspaper files, place names, shoe boxes full of old photographs, tall tales, diaries, journals, tipi rings, weather reports, business ledgers, voting records.” Through this process, Kroetsch introduced me to the local archive, post-structuralism, print culture, thing theory, and the idea we are surrounded by stories, all through his Albertan archeological deposits. Kroetsch could tell the lived experience of a place through an object: a stone hammer, a seed catalogue (especially a seed catalogue), a ledger, a lemon, a crow, a bee, a studhorse.

In speaking with several literary friends in the days after his death, I heard Kroetsch’s generosity mentioned repeatedly. Nicole Markotic, who emailed me and a group of writers to tell us the sad news, wrote that “Kroetsch was infinitely important to writ- ers across Canada, and some of us were lucky enough to know him personally. He was ever supportive of others’ writing, and constantly engaged in an investigation and celebration of the word.” He showed the process of the engagement and reciprocity in his own work. In “January 11: After a Visit to Nicole’s Manuscript Class” in The Snowbird Poems, for instance, he chews on the line “the mountains wear a diadem of lambent sky” for the rest of the poem as he draws together the Rockies, Persian miniatures, a memory of his mother, and a pen-hoarding coffee barista. We see the archaeology of thought in action.

I once watched Kroetsch watch a young man give an academic paper on Kroetsch. It was mesmerizing. Instead of having an objective or even dismissive face (as I have, on occasion, seen on other authors in the same position), he beamed his infectious smile the whole time. It wasn’t that it was a particularly laudatory (or even good) paper. It was that Kroetsch seemed to genuinely enjoy watching this young person engage with his work. He got a kick out of it and he took it seriously. Dawne McCance once lovingly described him as “a man of great optimism, one who offers encouragement in many ways.” About his own writing, Kroetsch has said, “For me, to rewrite is to re-imagine the possible poem. I doodle. I dawdle. I dare.” I think he must have appreciated the daring of anyone who made him- or herself vulnerable through the act of public writing.

How do you grow a poet?

My friend Angela Chotka was introduced to Canadian literature as an undergraduate student at the University of Manitoba in a class taught by Kroetsch. She remembers that he “brought real living authors into the classroom to read to us and talk about their writing. Wonderfully unpretentious, he enthusiastically encouraged creativity and freedom. Literature and those who created it? They are alive!” This perhaps is one of his most important legacies. He wanted to bring Canadian creativity to life, to share it with others, and, as he said, to make it real.

Kroetsch was also a friend to Canadian Literature. He first published a poem in our journal in 1981 and continued to publish poetry with us for the next two decades. He also published an article (“The Grammar of Silence: Narrative Patterns in Ethnic Writing” in 106 [1985]) and a note (“Dorothy Livesay, 1909-1996” in 155 [1997]). In 2009 when Matthew Gruman was creating CanLit Poets, he worked with Kroetsch on his entry. When the site was awarded the 2009 Canadian Online Publishing Award for best cross-platform, Matthew sent out a bulk email to the featured poets telling them about the award. Kroetsch wrote back with: “Matthew, Congratulations. You are original, being originating, showing poetry into the new, rewriting the writing into the writing. Thank you. Robert.” As Matthew said, “it was a thrilling and humbling response from someone of his calibre. In every email he thanked me for the archive, even though he was the one giving us his time and work.” A man of generosity, originality, and enormous talent, Robert Kroetsch will be missed by us at the journal and by the whole Canadian literary community.

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