Outside of our families and friends, it is often teachers that have a great impact upon our development and how we feel, hear and see ourselves and the world. As someone who encourages the writing of “love letters” to those who have made a difference in our lives, today I dare us all to search up that teacher that changed things for us in a positive way, and write to them. I’ll start.
Today I want to send some love out to my former professor, Don Summerhayes and his family.
Don led an American Poetry class I took at York University. This was a course I hadn’t chosen, but was funneled into because my chosen class was full. I wasn’t happy. Poetry wasn’t my thing, even though English was my best subject. I was told too many times in high school that my interpretation and analysis of poems was “wrong” and I received my lowest marks on these assignments. Poetry was boring and difficult.
Well, Don changed all of that forever, and along with it, my relationship with words, with writing, and with myself. He had us not only read the poems, but also really listen to them. We wrangled with them, challenged them, combined them, rewrote them. He burst open my notions of what poetry’s role was, and what I, as reader could glean from it. And at the same time, he made a poet out of me.
In times of deep, intense emotion, writing poetry gives my feelings a voice in a way that’s lyrical and full of imagery and truth. During the year that my sister wasn’t well because of her brain tumour, and the year following her death, I wrote lots and lots of poetry to cope with the ongoing grief. When my Dad died in 2009 (before I became a Celebrant) I was so burnt out I had decided not to speak at his memorial. But the morning of the service, I woke up and a poem just came out of me, and I am so very glad I was able to honour him by reading it that day.
Sometimes poetry is the only way I can really express the truth of what is on my heart. And sometimes I find another poet that has put my truth, or something I really need to hear into words. It is like coming home.
After reading Sara Callender’s terrific blog post yesterday about her foray into teaching poetry, I thought of Don and looked him up online, only to find that he had passed away of cancer in 2007. The sharp sense of loss that accompanied this brought home the fact that I never thanked him for what he did for me. By giving me the gift of loving poetry, he changed my life…something I didn’t fully realize until that moment.
I believe that it is never too late to express love and gratitude. I often write and talk “to” my dear ones that have died. And I now make a better effort to express my love and appreciation to those who share this journey of life with me.
So Don, here is your “love letter” – in the form of a poem of course. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
For Don Summerhayes
You entered the room with a portable cassette player and said
I refuse to explain this. I just need it today.
You pressed play
and our American Poetry class
unfolded to the rhythm of a drum song.
I hadn’t even asked for this course
In fact I wanted out
Until I heard your voice, saw your pathway into
The landscape of verse.
You dispelled my fear and resistance
Like a good-humoured hand
Waving off the silliness of misdirection
that stood in my way
Of a magnificent vehicle for truth.
You split the mysterious and untasted fruit of poetry
Open into seeds and song and sweetness
You dared us to tear down any imagined
Idea that poetry was untouchable, pretentious and unknowable
Only for the upper crust cerebral few in on the secret code
Of literary devices and omniscient knowing.
Poetry was something to tumble with, to rumble with.
We could choose the words
that mirrored something inside of us,
And ditch the rest.
It was a tool, a companion, a gateway,
You split open the fruit of poetry
And invited me to the table.
And as I sampled and savoured,
I knew that I wasn’t just a guest,
I was a gardener
Tending the orchard of my heart’s words
Coaxing them to ripen.
You will never know the importance of
This sanctuary you revealed to me,
How many days a poem found me when I most needed it
Or poured out from my grieving hand
like light onto a dark page.
I didn’t ask for it. In fact, I wanted out, until
I heard my voice and saw my path into this landscape
Of words and images and love
And knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
And for that I will forever thank you.
Photo by Pascal Debrunner