Hornbook #84

Why don’t you close doors? Rita once asked me, when I indiscreetly left a door open behind us. I was born on a raft, I replied.

I knew how to irk her and at times couldn’t resist. Rita Kleinhart was persuaded that her notion of collective biography—the expression is mine, not hers—could not be located in a system of beliefs or a narrative of origins. It could only be located, literally and momentarily, in back doors.

Her fascination with back doors—of houses, of apartments, even of garages and barns and public buildings—announces her interest in collective biography. Her brief but eloquent poems on the subject of the back door speak to and of the pathetic beauty of that we create by way of rejection and something that one might call denial. Back doors are, she proposes in her notebooks, the escape from transcendence. They are also the escape from so-called good neighbors and possibly from language itself. […]       The Hornbooks of Rita K, by Robert Kroetsch


I first met Robert Kroetsch as part of a fiction writers’ road trip through central Alberta in April 1992. Professors Aritha van Herk and Fred Wah were along for that trip through the coulees, the hoodoos, the banks of the Battle River, the endless stretches of prairie. Between 1992 and 1995, I met several of Kroetsch’s former students at the University of Calgary. Rob Budde and Nicole Markotic (now professors themselves) are two such contributors. We attended launches, readings, parties, and writers’ retreats together. We formed a literary community based, in part, on our affiliations as Western Canadians. Professor Susan Rudy wrote about the women in Kroetsch’s poetry. She and Aritha van Herk were among my earliest feminist influences. Their feminism embraced and grappled with the speakers who inhabited Kroetsch’s literary worlds. In a sense, Kroetsch was always part of my academic history. Long before I met the man, I knew the people who studied his writing and cared about how (and if) his words represented our landscapes, our dreamscapes, our conflicted and plural Albertas.

I last saw Kroetsch at a conference in Edmonton in September 1996: “de:Scribing Albertas: A Conference on Contemporary Alberta Writing.” By then, I was living in London, Ontario and attending graduate school. I knew of Western’s acclaimed Canadian Literature scholar, Frank Davey, but was afraid to take courses with him. I was afraid of not being perfect. And maybe I was afraid of studying Can Lit with someone who wasn’t Albertan. Yet when I emailed Davey out of the blue several years ago, he replied with what I asked for: a poem about Kroetsch. Here, Davey’s done it again, only far more expansively.

My friend Matthew Friedman, founding editor of The Typescript, helped me launch the first Kroetsch tribute back in 2018: “Car Poems for Robert Kroetsch.” We flew by the seats of our pants, emailing potential contributors and preparing their work for publication. At the time, I asked myself: “Why? Who is this for?” Those questions remain.

I suspect that the impetus for this project lies in that idea of and desire for “collective biography.” Our contributors have life stories that are discrete yet somehow connected. We met Kroetsch through one another, or know each other now because of our encounters with him or his work. I’ve only met Dennis Cooley, Garin Cycholl, Amanda Earl, Lea Graham, Jeremy Stewart, and Robert Hogg via email or social media. Yet their contributions to this collection have alternately made me laugh and cry. Their writers’ voices, each so distinct and unique, are also familiar somehow. We have something, someone, in common.

For people reading this project and wondering “How Can I Submit?” there is no secret code. Just email your piece to carpoemspl@gmail.com. We will try to publish all pieces received by July 15th 2020. If you’re not ready with a piece by that date, save it for next year in June, when we publish the next Kroetsch memoriam. We are not gatekeepers or cheerleaders. We invite texts with teeth. We invite texts that pose tough questions. We invite sad texts, mad texts, glad texts. Egad texts! Whatever you may want to say, feel free to send it our way.

Raymond said Rita K proposed that back doors are “the escape from transcendence.” I don’t know about that. Back doors are useful, though, for getting back in the house. If ever you lock yourself out, always try a back door.

Why don’t you close doors?

Because I prefer to leave them open.

You never know who might wander in.


Photo © Matthew Friedman