Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Upon choosing an epigraph from Gwendolyn MacEwen

"Something has come to pass, you think, something
more important than a mere flight over the ravine."

Gwendolyn MacEwen, "Fragments from a Childhood"

This thoughtful sentiment is the epigraph to my new novel, The Strange Gift of Gwendolyn Golden. Many thanks to the author's family for kindly permitting me to use it. 

I've been thinking about Gwendolyn MacEwen a lot lately. She died 27 years ago next month (November 1987), at the age of 47. She was a Toronto poet who I really admired.  I often walk through her park at Lowther just north of Bloor and say hello to her statue. 

As an undergraduate English student at The University of Western Ontario in 1985, I saw her perform her work a few times. She was writer-in-residence there at the time, and she held a few readings at the local student centre. Then a few years later, when I was a graduate student at the University of Toronto, she was again writer-in-residence. I never missed an opportunity to see her perform and to glimpse those deep green eyes, listen to that lovely voice. At one reading at  U of T she performed a poem, The Compass, which inspired me to volunteer for literacy programs for years afterward. 

One night in May 1987, Gwendoyn MacEwen visited my graduate poetry class. We had a good night, just nine Canadian poetry students and the Professor, discussing art, life and poetry with her. She was charming, warm, down-to-earth, a wonderful storyteller, and very smart.

I lived in the Annex neighbourhood of Toronto as a graduate student, and often saw her riding her enormous, flower-strewn bicycle along Bloor Street. A few times she said hello and waved at me. I was so surprised but I always managed a smile and a hello back, for days afterward wondering how she knew me, but then my student life mirrored her writing residencies and we were at the same universities at the same time so maybe it's not surprising. But that was one of her many gifts, she made people feel very present. At least, she always made me feel very present. Her work inspired me in many ways, and I was very sorry when she died, far too young, and just a few months after her visit to my class.

Years later, I published a book with her name in the title, not even consciously realizing it at the time. I was going for alliteration of the hard "G," Strange/Gift/Gwendolyn/Golden, but when I realized I had used her name, I went and revisited her work. How delighted I was to rediscover "Fragments from a Childhood," a magical (and frankly hilarious) poem about a child's gift of imagination, and that delicate moment when new truths about the world and about ourselves are revealed. I felt it perfectly described my Gwendolyn's dilemma: how a gift can set us apart, open our eyes, and change us forever (whether we decide to fly or not). At least that's my interpretation, yours may differ. As the young speaker of the poem says about her former heroes, "Are they really interested in their marvels?" 

I am. I always will be.  I hope you take a moment to read Gwendolyn MacEwen's lovely poem, too.

3 comments:

Wendy McGrath said...

Philippa, I love Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetry and still lament her life and work ending far too soon. The epigraph for my first novel "Recurring Fictions" is from her poem "The Yellow House." You are lucky to have met her and heard her read.

Philippa Dowding said...

thank you for the comment Wendy, I'm very grateful and lucky to have met her. She was warm and funny, how interesting that we both chose her work as epigraphs! Her family very graciously gave me permission to use the work, which makes the book extra special to me.

Philippa Dowding said...

thank you for the comment Wendy, I'm very grateful and lucky to have met her. She was warm and funny, how interesting that we both chose her work as epigraphs! Her family very graciously gave me permission to use the work, which makes the book extra special to me.