So what’s all the fuss about Lesley Strutt. A poet has died, not one who had published a hundred books, or even poems, or been awarded any of the great prizes. A poet who does not yet have a trade collection out. We haven’t seen or heard from her much recently.
And I say there hasn’t been enough fuss yet, there hasn’t been a parade, balloons or banners strung across roads.
I say bring on the parade. The drum majors and majorettes, the floats, the banners.
I wasn’t fortunate enough to have known her for a lifetime, only since 1998, but since then on so many occasions we would sit and catch up with each other. I had to pry things out of her, because she wasn’t one to spend time talking about herself. When we talked family or relationships, we delved deep. Perhaps I knew more about the interior Lesley than the exterior.
Lesley was, for several years, the Associate Members representative on the League of Canadian Poets council. There’s not enough being done for the associate members, she declared and so started Fresh Voices, a space on the League’s website for poems only by associate members. She was one of its first editors, and then found others to keep it going. The League council never knew what trouble she would stir up next, trouble meaning the council’s work to get her ideas going. She had a way of expecting that you would do what she suggested, but it was always for the good of the League. Her voice was strong in the League’s Feminist Caucus.
Outgoing, she struck up conversations with poets at League conferences. Joanna Lilley of Yukon was struck by her vivacity and vibrancy. Alice Major wrote that Lesley has been a gift to this world; Brenda Siberras, League of Canadian Poets representative from Manitoba wrote to Lesley ‘what an impact you made in this world. You will be missed and thought of often’. Lynn Tait, a poet from Southern Ontario wrote that now Lesley is part of everything, which is perfect, because that was her ultimate goal, to be one with the earth, the sky, the universe.
Ottawa poets have loved Lesley for many years. Nina Jane wrote about the little conversations they had about poetry in cramped book stores. Doris Fiszer wrote of the impact she made on everyone who knew her. Sneha Madhavan-Reese said Lesley was one of the most beautiful and compassionate people she knew.
Another League council member says that she was a powerhouse, and I know that from experience. Lesley had an idea to have the League representative of each province edit a section of poems on trees, and that the books would be sold with profits going to The League of Canadian Poets, and Heartwood: Poems for the Love of Trees was born. She went on to launch it with a film by Diana Beresford- Kroeger, Call of the Forest: The Forgotten Wisdom of Trees where many included Ottawa poets read their contributions. She knew Ms. Beresford-Kroeger and asked for a blurb for the cover of Heartwood. She gave a presentation online recently; on the shelf behind her was her copy of Heartwood, which Lesley saw when she was at a low point. It was exactly what she needed, she said. Lesley supported TreeSisters, an organization that plants trees all over the world. Please feel free to leave a donation at https://treesisters.org.
Lesley won the Tree Reading Series Chapbook Contest in 2015 with Small as Butterflies and was a featured reader at Tree. I have an elegant handmade chapbook, White Bowl, printed in New Haven, a series of poems about her parents.
She and Chuck had joined Kado, Ottawa’s Haiku group, for a while. They both had haiku hearts, and wrote haiku, but the reason they left it was because they had discovered how difficult and how long it would take to learn to write a good haiku, and they wouldn’t do it unless they had a chance of writing good poems. She knew herself so well, and made wise, thought-through decisions. Haiku was not her form. She had other things to do.
Other projects involved going to reading series and launches, and spreading poetry in the community she then called home. She held workshops in Merrickville for poets, started a poetry group, produced a chapbook of their work, and made plans for further workshops and readings. She and I and Jessica Heimstra also formed a group we called Poets Three that was so stimulating I would drive home in an almost euphoric cloud.
Inanna Press published her Young Adult novel, On the Edge, in 2019, and she blogged about the research she’d done for it. I read the novel and was entranced even though I know nothing of sailing. I suggest it to anyone, not only young people, who are interested in sailing, as Lesley has done a great amount of sailing in her life. She knew the sea and what to do when one is on top of them.
In her last weeks she arranged with Inanna that I would see the publication of her new collection, Window Ledge, accepted recently, through its last steps. Imagine my answering a phone call from this amazing woman who was barely able to speak for the cancer taking over her throat, asking me if I would do her that favour. Yes, Yes, I’ll crawl up mountains for you…
Louise Schwartz wrote of how Lesley contributed a piece on James Strutt’s Magical House, on the Mountain Road, for a History Journal called Up The Gatineau, how Lesley was exceptional and such a pleasure to work with.
Friends wrote that they felt blessed to have known Lesley and the bright, beautiful light she was. Another friend who had met Lesley while they were becoming certified as journey practitioners, wrote of how they recommended books to each other, how Lesley shared wisdom and knowledge, how she always found ways to include laughter, how they would laugh and laugh until they cried. Another tells how Lesley’s lovely energy held her in a warm embrace through difficult times, another wrote that she was encouraging and illuminating, still another notes how selfless she was and generous, full of consideration of others.
How many people referred to the light in her. Jazz musician Alrick Huebener wrote that she was a literary and loving light.
Mike Beedell, internationally known conservation photographer, wilderness guide and outdoor educator, writes that when he was working with the film maker John Houston developing a virtual reality platform celebrating the Arctic world, Lesley brought together professors and departments, and sought funding. He was amazed at her energy and commitment, saying she was a fount of ideas.
Nate Mayer told how he and Lesley worked together at the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. As Program Officer, her role was to go over grant applications from the top Canadian minds in Social Sciences. Her extensive knowledge and brilliance in literacy was invaluable, that she had made him, as a young man, feel at ease and comfortable in the corporate world, making sure his voice was heard.
Heather Sims tells of Lesley’s being Program Officer for the Canada Research Chairs Program, a government funding agency, how she had such excellent relationships with colleagues and stakeholders, and always welcomed new staff with open arms, just a sweetheart of a lady with the kindest soul and amazing spirit.
I was at Lesley and Chuck’s wedding, held in their beautiful back yard. Nearly the whole town was there. I heard comments such as She should run for town council! Because having moved there, she and Chuck became so involved in community activities, and were especially active in the Merrickville Artists’ Guild (MAG). Chuck is a photographer, while Lesley constructed intricate painted paper vases that contained poetry. She had a leading role in organizing literary events for MAG.
The Guild has started the Lesley Strutt Poetry Prize fund, and I’m pleased to be associated with that project. Should anyone wish to contribute, please go to the MAG Facebook page.
Lesley had a PHD in Linguistics and taught sessions at the Ottawa Universities, but her heart lay in counseling. She started a new blog in the last two years. In Living Starts with Love, the publication now on Kindle of her blog posts, she offers suggestions for when we feel life is perilous and full of disappointment. She’s had much of that in her life too, but suggests that life is an incredible adventure, and we can live it fully. She believed that to her last morning.
And I am devasted, lost. My hours with her when, perhaps we talked poetry and read it or listened to her daughter Dee Dee Butters’ latest recording, perhaps played with Farley, her dog or discussed the birds in her garden, were almost magical.
Her husband, Chuck Willemsen, wrote that she gave to all who asked of her willingly with kindness and grace which they gave back in abundance. She lived her life filled with joy and love in her heart. He wrote that her joy was infectious, that she never ran out of it. Two days before her planned medically assisted death, I texted her that I would give anything to see her face once more.
Her answer was Me too! Me Too! followed by three heart emojis, and a smiley face.
Years ago, a friend of mine was dying from cancer. She and her husband had loved New Orleans music and so, in her memory, a New Orleans Brass Band made up of musicians from all over the city, along with hundreds of friends, paraded along Bank Street.
I say bring on the bands and the balloons and the floats. Parade to be held when the pandemic is over. Or for now, let’s have that parade in our minds.
Claudia Coutu Radmore is a publisher and poet from Carleton Place, Ontario. Her last two collections are rabbit (2020, Aeolus House Press, Toronto) and Park Ex Girl: Life with Gasometer (2020, Shoreline Press).