As It Happens

How Patrick Lane helped a 'know-nothing student' find her true calling as a poet

If it weren't for the tutelage and encouragement of Patrick Lane, B.C. writer Carla Funk never would have written five books of poetry.

The award-winning B.C. poet and novelist has died of a heart attack at the age of 79

Patrick Lane, award-winning Canadian poet and novelist, has died at the age of 79. (Chris Hancock Donaldson)
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If it weren't for the tutelage and encouragement of Patrick Lane, B.C. writer Carla Funk never would have written five books of poetry become Victoria's first poet laureate. 

Lane, an award-winning Canadian poet and novelist, has died of a heart attack. He was 79.

His accolades include the Governor General's Award for Poetry, the Canadian Authors Association Award and three National Magazine Awards.

He was also Funk's first poetry teacher.

She spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about the impact Lane had on her life and her work. Here is part of their conversation.

How would you describe his poetry?

For me, his voice has always been one that forces, in a beautiful way, the mind to wake up and pay attention to the reality, the realities, of what's around us.

What was he like as a person?

My first impression of Patrick was one when I was 18 years old and a student at the University of Victoria. It was my very first creative writing class, and he was my first poetry instructor.

I knew nothing about anything. I knew nothing about poetry. All I knew is that someone had said to me, when I said, "Oh my poetry instructor's name is Patrick Lane," they sort of fell back a bit and said, "Patrick Lane?!"

So I knew there was this poet who was very important, and when he walked into the classroom, he had this swagger about him, and yet such kindness.

So my first impression was that he was a man of juxtaposition. He was both tough and tender. He had swagger, and yet he was so kind and completely honest and absolutely authoritative in his assessment of a situation and an assessment of a poem.

Carla Funk is poet on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. (Lance Hesketh/carlafunk.com)

It's interesting how you described those different sides of him, because he grew up tough, didn't he? He drove a truck. He worked at a saw mill. He would be the first to admit that he was hard-drinking. And yet, this is the same man who was crafting these lush and beautiful poems. He was a bundle of contradictions, wasn't he?

He was that, and that was so apparent in the way he presented poetry to us.

I recognized in him, from the first class that he taught when I was this know-nothing student, that he was so familiar with the world I'd grown up in, which was a small town, blue-collar little town in Vanderhoof in the middle of British Columbia.

And I'd never heard anybody give permission that that was content to be written about.

He was the instructor who pushed me toward that, coaxed me and guided me and encouraged me toward this way of poetry, which was a different way of looking at the world, a different way of being in the world.

Tell us a bit more about that. What influence did he have over you as a poet?

Well, that first-year class, one of the first poems I submitted, it was a terrible poem.

He encouraged us to write about the things that were hard for us and the things that maybe had some violence and brutality — not for the sake of violence, but to go to those places that were difficult and find something redemptive or something beautiful, or to look at it with this unflinching honesty.

I was trying to muster what was difficult, and I thought, oh, that time my dog got run over by a woman who was driving a low-bed.

It was a terrible poem. It was a bad idea. But he still found something good in it.

But the last two lines were so terrible, he'd crossed them out with this black flash of ink, and beside it he wrote "Nope."

That was it. Nope. 

As soon as I saw his flashes of ink and his "Nope," I knew he was he was absolutely right.

And I remember taking the poem back to his office after hours and saying, "What can I do to make this better?"

And we chatted a bit and I remember him asking, you know, "What do want to do with your life?"

And I didn't know, but I thought maybe I would become a lawyer. 

And on my next poem I submitted, he wrote in the margins: "Why law? Why not try poetry?"

And I did.

I kept going with it. And I think, what if he hadn't written that? Where would I be now?

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Allie Jaynes. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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