Canadian Writers in Person celebrates its founder

On Nov. 2, York’s Canadian Writers in Person course and reading series presented its founder, poet John Unrau. York teaching assistant Chris Cornish sent the following report to YFile.

high above snow-burdened firs,
stroking crisply
through incandescent blue,
raven ascending the mountain
etches her dark wake on my mind

-from “On Lake Agnes Trail”
by John Unrau

A familiar voice filled the lecture hall like a prairie wind, both fierce and gentle as it carried poetry to the hearts of those gathered. John Unrau had returned to Canadian Writers in Person, the reading series he founded and directed for five years, this time reading from his own collection of poetry, Iced Water. At a reception prior to the reading, Unrau was modest in accepting the honours of students, faculty and staff, declaring that the creation of the course “was the most obvious thing in the world.”

Left: John Unrau

It quickly became obvious to his audience that Unrau is as much performer as writer, one student remarking, “I had no idea I would be so entertained by a poet!” His engaging presence was very different from the celebrated visiting poet he writes about, who, as Unrau describes in his poetry  “kills questions dead with bursts of critical jargon fired like Raid to still all undergraduate buzzing. Only by being there could one appreciate the growl of his New-Age Muskie, the humourous gesture of ‘his red-hot baton’, and the despair of Old Maggie itching to get out from behind this shivering hide.”

One consistent theme in Unrau’s work is his distrust of technology and human progress. In the poem “To Wordsworth”, from Ontario, he bemoans the electrical pollution, “penetrating me from every side” as “shades of Future Shop close about my middle age.” Poems like his are juxtaposed with haunting landscapes, “the new subdivision” encroaching on “unspoiled pasture” and “cloudless sky”. Much as his New-Age Muskie is unable to stop its killing lifestyle, Unrau sees humanity on a path to consuming the earth: “it’s almost certainly too late but please somebody stop me.”

In response to a comment about the spirit of his angrier poems, Unrau replied, “Hatred is just as powerful a creative force as love.” Nonetheless, he presented a number of moving tributes in memory of his mother and father, as well as loves both past and present. His poem “Untitled” is about a crush he had on a girl in his Mennonite school in Saskatchewan. She was eventually expelled and ran away to Vancouver “with the aid of a loan I stupidly gave her.” Yet, all the unrequited longing of young love is captured as he hauls “starlight and iced water in a narrow pail.”

In describing his process of writing, Unrau referred to what his mother taught him about perch fishing saying, “All one can do is to ‘dangle a few images close to the water and see what comes’. I can’t make poems. They have to come to me.”

When asked if there was one thing he would like to be remembered for, Unrau quipped, “scoring a natural hat trick.” This was closely followed by “good partner, father and friend, perhaps also for some of my poems.” He neglected to mention his long service to York as one of its most adored professors, winning the Atkinson Teaching Award In 2002. Though he is still teaching as a professor emeritus, Unrau now has more time to devote to his writing.

On this evening, John Unrau will mostly be remembered for his distinctive voice, bellowing his readings of literature both past and present, piercing the pretensions of the modern world and laying bare the beauty of untamed landscapes…but mostly for the laughs. The standing ovation at the end of the reading was well-deserved.

The Canadian Writers in Person series of public readings at York, which is free and open to the public, is also part of an introductory course on Canadian literature. The series is sponsored in part by the Canada Council for the Arts. Author Shauna Singh Baldwin read from her novel, The Tiger Claw, on Nov. 16.