How I Wrote It

How Richard Harrison wrote a poem for his father and won a Governor General's Literary Award

On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood is both an elegy for his father and a love letter to their shared language: poetry.
(Keeghan Rouleau/Wolsak and Wynn Publishers Ltd.)

In 2013, Richard Harrison worried his father's ashes would be swept away in Alberta's flood. This crisis naturally made it's way into Harrison's long-simmering poetry book about his father's final years, blighted by dementia, and their shared love for poetry. On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood is a personal, moving elegy on Harrison's relationship to his father and a love letter to poetry.

Harrison won the 2017 Governor General's Literary Award for poetry. In his own words, Harrison discusses the personal and technical aspects behind writing On Not Losing My Father's Ashes in the Flood.

How poetry brought father and son together

"My father was in a lodge for the last eight or nine years of his life because he was suffering from vascular dementia. He maintained a lot of his memories, certainly his identity, for quite a long time. The last decade of my dad's life was one where he was confronting his mortality. He and I had some important conversations and reconciliation over our past. We reconnected through one of the most primitive connections that he and I had, which was through poetry. He was raised in that English school system where you memorize the great poems of your language. He would recite poetry when I was a kid, and I would learn it and recite the lines back. No matter what was going on, we always had that connection. I look at the book now and think, 'These are the last things my father had to teach me about poetry before he died.' The last conversation I had with my father on his deathbed, he was still teaching me about poetry.'"

Write by walking away

"There comes a time in the writing when I'm just staring at the page, looking at the words and talking them out loud. I still can't figure out how it's supposed to go. So then I leave. You have to trick yourself to walk away from the poem in order for the poem to sort out its own problem. Sometimes I'm shooting baskets or walking my dog or walking the hill around myself, and that's part of the process."

A life-changing moment

"I was very young and I already had one book. I wrote a second that was not very good because it had been written out of desperation for another book. It had all the wrong motives.

"William Stafford, an American poet, was a big presence at the Banff Centre when I was up there. I wasn't even supposed to be in his studio, but I wanted somebody to give me some guidance. Well, actually, what I wanted was approval. I worked my way up to giving him my first book and then he read my manuscript.

"So here's the scene: He's sitting at a desk. I'm sitting on the other side of the desk and he's got the two piles of paper. One is my first book. One is the manuscript. He's an Oregon farmer. His face is lined with all the winds of the world. He's a great poet, and I'm there all young and eager.

"I said, 'What do you think?' He tapped my book with his hand and said, 'There's a voice here.' 

"Then he moved his hand over to my manuscript and said, 'But it's not here.'

"I didn't get it. I said, 'Yeah, this one is more emotional. It's more passionate.' He looked at me and went, 'There's a voice here. But it's not here.'

"I still didn't get it. I said, 'Yeah, but I have friends who tell me that this new one is better.' He said, 'They're not your friends. I'm your friend. There's a voice here and it isn't here.' And that was the end of the conversation.

"Time affirmed what he was saying, that I'd missed the boat entirely. So I tossed the whole thing and started over."

Richard Harrison's comments have been edited and condensed.

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