As It Happens

'Full of wonder': Friend remembers late Canadian poet David McFadden

David McFadden, who wrote insightful and surreal poetry even after his Alzheimer diagnosis, has died. He was 78.

'You find yourself being drawn into something that's magical,' says Stuart Ross

David McFadden with his wife, Merlin Homer. The famed poet died on Tuesday, he was 78. (submitted by Stuart Ross )

David McFadden's poems about the mundane were able to draw his readers into the "magical" and "surreal," says his friend and editor Stuart Ross. 

The Canadian poet died on Tuesday. He was 78. 

Over his long career, McFadden published more than 30 poetry collections, which were often snapshots of Canada. In 2013, he won the Griffin Poetry Prize for What's the Score?

McFadden was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease in 2012, which he wrote about for Toronto Life. But that did little to interrupt his writing. His final collection, Abnormal Brain Sonnets, which addressed his disease was published in 2015. 

Ross spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about McFadden and the legacy he leaves behind through his poetry. 

Here is part of that conversation. 

When you hear [David McFadden] reading [Secrets of the Universe], what effect does that have on you?

First, there's that incredible voice. It's just sort of so calm and full of wonder. It's almost as if he's discovering his own lines as he reads them.

I think that poem in particular, it's so much about embracing wonder, embracing paradox, embracing the idea that we don't really know what's going on.

It's a very benign scene, isn't it? Waiting for a bus and then he takes it the next step to encountering somebody and then the next thing you know, you're on other planets. That's kind of Dave McFadden's poetry in a nutshell, isn't it? 

There's something about Dave that's just sort of the quiet, suburban fellow telling this story and then, yeah, somehow you find yourself being drawn into something that's magical or bewildering or surreal.

David McFadden won the Griffin Poetry Prize in 2013 for What's the Score? (Griffin Poetry Prize)

You wrote this morning: "Canada's greatest poet is gone."  For you what made him the greatest?

I discovered his work first when I was about 15 years old. I was playing hooky from school up in North York and went into the library.

The first thing that grabbed me was how conversational his poetry was.

It was like sitting down and talking to somebody. And he was writing about really serious things, but in this often very funny and conversational tone.

How did you become friends then after that?

I was probably 20, 21 around then. We both, I think, wound up at a reading at the Idler Pub.

I remember in fact, that I had a poem about David McFadden lying in an intersection stopping traffic. And the end line is, "it's not often that a Canadian poet stops traffic." 

 I decided I would keep reading that at every reading I did until David McFadden happened to be in the audience. And I think that was the readings at which he was.

In the mid 2000s Paul Vermeersch, who at the time was editor at Insomniac Press, came up with the idea of doing a selected David McFadden, and he asked me to edit that book.

So, I went from David McFadden being my absolute hero as a teenager and biggest influence in poetry, to becoming a friend and then, in addition to being his friend, becoming his editor. 

He was losing his memory for a while. He wrote about it for Toronto Life. He was talking about his diagnosis with Alzheimer's. How did he grapple with being a writer and poet as he had fewer and fewer words?

The book that he won the Griffin Prize for in 2013, it's called What's the Score? A lot of that was taken from old journals of his.

And he moulded those journal entries… into poems.

The sentences became shorter and shorter. He couldn't really do a long, long sentence and keep track of where he was.

I know he was frustrated, absolutely, with losing his words and forgetting, but he had these three or four projects that he still wanted to get through and out into the world after his diagnosis.

In 2014 he wrote about his disease, he made a poem out of it. He said "No one knows for sure where my disease will take me. Maybe I'll never write about, but why do we worry? We're only leaves on a tree. Let the tree worry."

That's one of his most fantastic haiku. It's so beautiful. It should It should be inscribed everywhere.

What will you miss the most about your friend?

His quiet presence I think is the thing I'm going to miss the most.

Q&A edited for length and clarity. Written by Sarah Jackson with files from CBC Books. Interview produced by Chris Harbord.