The poet Douglas Lochhead died this week. He was a friend, and a gentleman, and he’ll be greatly mourned and missed by all who knew him.
I first met Douglas when I was an undergraduate. The head of the English department, another poet, Michael Thorpe, snagged me in the hall one day and told me I should go see the university’s writer-in-residence. I was a bit wary, as I had enrolled in a creative writing course the year before, and then withdrawn after about six weeks, having been told by the instructor, disdainfully, “You don’t need character development in science fiction.” I wasn’t much interested in university writing instruction after that. But I dutifully went along to see Professor Lochhead, who was actually head of the Canadian Studies department, during his Writer-in-Residence office hours.
Somewhat to my surprise, this charming, white-haired professor was delighted to see me and eager to take home and read whatever I wanted to show him. I gave him what I had on hand, which was a science fiction short story that I think I’d written for some contest or other. (Come to think of it, that won something called the Graham Atlantic Creative Writing Award at the university, and then was accepted for publication by a small sf magazine in the US, which, of course, proceeded to go out of business before publication. Too bad, as it was about a race of alien shapeshifters, one of whom was a sort of sleeper agent on earth, her past forgotten. The title was “Changeling” and this was some years before Deep Space Nine was on the air.)
Anyhow, the next day I got a note, written in red ink on a sheet torn from one of those soft, canary-yellow scratch-pads, saying, “Congratulations, I have just read a professional short story …”
That was the start of a long relationship, which turned into friendship along the way (during which time I learned to appreciate some contemporary poetry, too). Professor Lochhead supervised a summer project for which I’d received a grant; the project was to complete a fantasy novel I’d been working on fairly steadily since grade eleven, when time allowed. My father had just died and the other man who was to have such an influence on my self-confidence as a writer, the biologist Dr. Allen Keast, didn’t at that time know I wrote fiction. (However, he had had me — it’s now safe to tell this — editing and revising a paper or two submitted for a multi-author work on forest bird-communities; I was a mere child of twenty, officially a research assistant doing scientific illustration, and it was felt that the publishers, and possibly the authors of the papers, would not approve if this hatchet job by an undergrad became known.) I would have persevered in writing stories even without Professor Lochhead’s encouragement, but it was so, so important, at that point in my life, to have someone else outside my own head confirming to me that I could write, and write well. He patiently read drafts of this novel (full of shapeshifters, demons, politics, and war — and no, it wasn’t the ur-Blackdog) as it developed, telling me what seemed muddled and confusing, what could be tightened, and, very importantly, what was done well and why.
I went off to U of T the next year, but we kept in touch, and eventually, when I ended up back in Sackville, our friendship was renewed. We exchanged books and had the occasional glass of wine together, and talked about writing and gardens. I was living in the heart of his landscape, the marshes he wrote about in so many of his collections, and his words helped me to see this flat, sometimes barren and bleak, little part of the world in both finer detail and impressionistic sweep of colour beneath the sky. Earlier this morning I had an email from a friend in Ontario talking about her visit down here, saying, “the landscape was enriched for us, … by the way Prof. Lochhead had described it in his writing — we think of the marsh as his marsh.”
I think Douglas has done that, made the Tantramar his marsh, and it will remain so. No-one, having read his poetry, will be able to enter this landscape without having his spare word-painting, bold outline and fine miniature, an added layer of sight enriching their own vision.
If you’re not familiar with Douglas’s poetry, you can hear a reading recorded at the launch of his last book of poetry, Looking Into Trees. Douglas’s health kept him home on that occasion, but various of his friends (including myself) read for him. It was recorded for CHMA and is available through his publisher’s website here. There is also an interview with Douglas about his life and work, here.