Ottawa poet, essayist, critic and mentor Barbara Myers died on May 10, 2020 and will be much missed in the writing community.
For me, she was almost like a much-admired and emulated older cousin, who did All The Things, and made me want to do them too. She served (for eight years) on the Arc Poetry Magazine board, she attended the Banff Wired Writing program the first year it was offered, and travelled to Chile for the first writing retreat Susan Siddeley organized at Los Parronales near Santiago; she attended the Dodge Poetry Festival in New York State, and was a long-time volunteer at Ottawa’s literary festivals. In large part because of Barbara’s enthusiastic reports and her warm encouragement, in time I went on to experience each of these.
Somewhat incongruously, I first got to know Barbara not through poetry but in a fiction writing class at the Maritime Writers Workshop in Fredericton. When we were back in Ottawa, I was invited to join a fiction group that Barbara was part of, and our friendship grew from there.
Short stories were my main focus at the time, but I was interested and very impressed that Barbara was a member of the Fieldstone Poets, and had already published in literary magazines and anthologies, had garnered several awards, and had a chapbook of her own. When Stephanie Bolster moved to Montreal, she entrusted Barbara to take over as facilitator of an existing poetry class, the Wellington Street Poets. I remember Barbara explaining to me at the time that she saw teaching as service, as almost an obligation: she said it was her turn to give back because she had gained so much from poetry.
When I turned my hand to writing poems, one of the learning opportunities I sought out was Barbara’s weekend workshop at the former Bridgewater Retreat Centre. Later I joined the gatherings of the Wellington Street poets. Each session with Barbara was very much focused on craft. We learned about tone and diction, about ekphrasis and anaphora, were encouraged to write ghazals and glosas. But Barbara also wanted us to work with mindfulness, and very often urged us to take a poem deeper.
Later still, I was privileged to engage with Barbara for several years as a member of the writing group sometimes known as the Other Tongues and, for a wonderful six months or so last year, when she joined the Ruby Tuesday collective until her worsening health prevented her continuing.
As a mentor and peer, Barbara’s approach was supportive and gentle but she could also be (as one poet friend said) “tough in the best of ways”. She would often follow up after group sessions with an email to provide further thoughts on a poem that had been workshopped, and to offer encouragement. She was involved in many collaborative projects, as contributor to the Fieldstone Poets’ publications and as editor on chapbook anthologies for the Wellington Poets and the Other Tongues.
Barbara was a true student of poetry who deeply researched schools of poetry, and writers she admired, and wrote in a variety of forms, always attempting to reach deeper and more nuanced understandings. She was the one who told me about the Modern and Contemporary Poetry course that Al Fireis at University of Pennsylvania offers online. She studied with Don Domanski and A. F. Moritz and expressed great gratitude for what she had learned from each of them.
Her background as a journalist informed her writing, as did the research skills she employed as a writer/researcher on two of the most important federal government commissions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, and the LeDain Commission on non-medical drug use. She was keenly interested and highly engaged. Her poetry explored philosophy and spirituality alongside current affairs and science, with the personal and the physical always at the fore. She deftly brought to life family scenes and youthful situations from her upbringing in Halifax, juxtaposing them with heady philosophical concepts such as the nunc stans (eternal present) and intimations of ecological catastrophe.
Barbara published only one trade book, Slide (Signature Editions, 2009), which was a finalist for the Archibald Lampman Award. Barbara launched the book at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and I remember her pride at sharing the festival stage with Karen Solie who she greatly admired. In reviewing the book, Brenda Leifso noted “it’s rare to find a new book so grounded in and formally reflective of philosophy” but which “surprises and startles with unique and well-executed use of images and senses”. Leifso also observed that Slide seeks “to capture the formlessness, ever-presence, ever-motion and ultimate un-capturability of the human experience and consciousness, memory and future: ‘sliding back into / your spine, your blood / always the same age / they ever you ever were.’ ”
Ronnie R. Brown said in reviewing Slide that it is “a collection filled with well-crafted, well-honed poems written by a thoughtful and mature poet … Myer's images are unique and sparking” and “a strong and ambitious first book that will take your breath away over and over again” Don Domanski said “The intensely crafted beauty of this work illuminates and makes more brilliant the already shimmering answer to what it means to be human.”
Barbara read widely and many topics and themes fascinated her. Poems in Slide about Marilyn Monroe "in full colour/arcs of blue red green radiance/ a rainbow blooming from a raindrop's/ reflected light.", about Barbara’s observances of ceremonies while traveling in India where “things are too humble to be boundless / but absence stretches out forever”, and about the “near and silent past” of the graveyard that lies underneath the MacDonald Gardens park in Lowertown were samplers of what she had intended to be longer sequences. She had been working on a new book for several years and, while her long illness prevented her from completing and sending out the manuscript, I am hopeful that her later writing, including poems I was privileged to see in workshops, might ultimately appear in book form.
Barbara reviewed many books for Arc, as well as writing about poetry for the Globe & Mail and other publications. She was seen as gentle but could be uncompromising in defending the things she believed in. A community activist, she was part of a citizen’s group that successfully protested the practice where numerous buses would lay up, engines idling, along King Edward Avenue where she lived.
She was a proud mother and grandmother and an equally proud Maritimer, with Nova Scotia often the setting of precisely-detailed and evocative poems. She loved to laugh and expressed herself with joy and occasional silliness. She was a good friend, and in particular shared many adventures in poetry with her companion-in-writing Margaret Malloch Zielinski.
One of our last exchanges was a few months ago, just after my new poetry book came out. Barbara asked that I mail her a copy. I offered to drop it off instead, so we could catch up in person but she replied that she wasn’t ready for visitors “yet”. I had no idea that she was so near the end though it doesn’t surprise me that, even very ill, she remained interested in what her friends were doing, and reached out with generous-hearted support.
Referring to Slide, Don Domanski also said “Our lives are made richer because these poems exist, because their elegance and strength becomes part of us.” Many lives were made richer because Barbara Myers was in them, and I am certain that the elegance and strength of her words – and her person – will remain part of me.
Frances Boyle is the author of two books of poetry, most recently This White Nest (Quattro Books, 2019). She has also written Tower, a novella (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2018) and Seeking Shade, a short story collection (The Porcupine’s Quill, forthcoming 2020). Frances lives in Ottawa. For more, visit www.francesboyle.com.