The impact of water and writing
MRU prof wins Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry for latest book
By Jolene Rudisuela, Web Editor
Growing up in Toronto, nature to Richard Harrison was confined by the blocks of the city. But when the rushing waters of the Bow River swept through his Calgary home in 2013, nature became unavoidable.
This experience is at the centre of Harrison’s book, On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood. In late 2017, this collection of poems was awarded the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry — an award Harrison refers to as the “Stanley Cup” for literature.
Many of Harrison’s belongings were carried away in the current, and when he couldn’t find his father’s ashes, he expected the worst.
“My dad’s ashes were downstairs in the basement — I didn’t know exactly where they were, but even if I had known where they were, lots of things got toppled,” he says. “They could have been on a shelf and then fallen and then away they went.”
Before the ashes turned up, Harrison spent two full days believing the last remains of his father had been lost forever.
Harrison calls this event the “catastrophe” that after nearly 10 years of work, turned his book on its head.
“It changed how I saw the world, it changed how I saw writing, it changed how I saw myself,” he says.
On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood started out as a book of poems about poetry, but as his father’s dementia worsened, Harrison began to write about his own experiences dealing with his father’s illness and eventually, his emotions following his death. Ralph Harrison died on Nov. 1, 2011 and six years later to the day, it was announced that the book had won the Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry.
“A poem isn’t about what you experience, it’s about what you learn from that experience,” says Harrison.
After the release of his book, Harrison began receiving a flood of support from the public. Following readings, he would have people come up to him with their own stories of loved ones who had passed away and he even signed copies of his book dedicated to late family members or friends.
“People hold on to this urn or box or jar and they feel a connection with the deceased,” says Harrison. “I know it’s true of the art form that poetry has that bridge between memory and experience, between the dead and the living, and some of these poems found that bridge.”
At the end of November, Harrison, along with the rest of the Governor General’s Award winners, met in Ottawa to receive their awards and celebrate Canadian literature.
In front of 500 people in Rideau Hall, the Governor General, Julie Payette, presented him with his prize, but Harrison says the ceremony was about so much more than the award.
As part of the Governor General’s Literary Awards, the recipients went to the parliamentary gallery to be acknowledged for their accomplishments. The recipients all received a standing ovation from members of parliament, but Harrison says the most memorable part was hearing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau give the apology to LGBTQ2S civil servants who were persecuted by the government from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Harrison says there were many people sitting in the gallery wearing their military uniforms, decorated with rainbow patches or flags, and openly weeping as Trudeau gave the apology.
“Those are… moments that I’ll never forget and they’re both very complicated moments because both of them are built on the fact that very terrible things happened in the past,” he says. “And we’re acknowledging them and we’re trying to find a way to move forward.
“What’s most important now, it’s those stories.”
Harrison says the Governor General’s awards are significant because they acknowledge the work of Canadian writers, but they also acknowledge the ideas that these writers bring forward into the national consciousness.
“To me, that’s the message in this— you’re part of the national discussion,” he says. “So thank you, I really appreciate that everyone is happy for this [award], but it doesn’t stop there.”