Honouring Our Mentors

Copyright © Jakub Krechowicz/Shutterstock

Copyright © Jakub Krechowicz/Shutterstock

by Susan McCaslin

From the moment I heard poet Robin Blaser lecture in my first graduate course at Simon Fraser University in 1969, I was drawn like a moth to the strings of a piano, to borrow a metaphor from his well-loved “The Moth Poem”:

The moth in the piano
will play on
frightened wings brush
the wired interior
of that machine

I said, ‘master’[1]

Coming as a callow graduate student from Seattle to SFU at the age of 22, I found that Robin had only been teaching there since 1966.  Like me, he had emigrated from the United States, and similarly (though I had no idea then), we both were to become Canadian citizens and remain permanently in Canada.

It was one of the most fortunate days of my life when I walked into Robin’s course on classical backgrounds. Robin was impeccably dressed, with silver hair, aquiline nose, dark brows, and an elegant bearing.  He seemed more European than American; yet was, strangely enough, originally from Idaho (though part of the San Francisco poetry Renaissance).  I had been reading fairy tales and myths since I was a young child, but he opened ancient myth for me in a radically new way.  Robin made it clear that graduate school was not about just credits or jobs, but about soul-making.

For my first graduate seminar I chose to write a paper on Olson’s poem “The Praises.”  Putting off my presentation till the very last, I rushed through my reading hurriedly, not once looking up or making eye contact with either instructor or class, struggling through an agony of shortness of breath.  Finally, when I finished, a long uncomfortable pause ensued; then a single word floated miraculously on the air from Mr. Blaser’s lips:  “Maaahvelous!”   I was hooked on Olson, writing, and Blaser’s seminars.

I have to confess, I quickly became a Blaser groupie, or as they were called then, a “Blaserite.” Someone joked we should be called “Blaseriods,” a troop of blazing asteroids.  Sometime afterward I summoned the courage to approach the poet’s office, the door of which was always open, and ask if he’d consider being my thesis advisor on Edgar Allan Poe.  After finishing my course work, I visited Robin fairly regularly to talk about Poe, Blake, Coleridge, Shelley, and the Romantics. I took a year off grad school to work out some personal difficulties, but returned and finally completed the thesis under Robin’s guidance in 1973.  Always ready to meet, never intrusive or controlling, Robin allowed me to flounder a bit and eventually find my own voice.

In later years, even after the self-consciousness of youth wore off, I didn’t look Robin up as much as much as I wished to, partly because my aura of shyness remained.  Though he wasn’t at all intimidating, he was so erudite I feared I would betray my relative ignorance or what I felt were great gaps in my knowledge.  I had come from a family where I was the only one who ever read much of anything besides the newspaper, and had not attended even a play or symphony growing up.   Robin had an encyclopaedic memory and a way of being able to pull together wisdom traditions from many eras and cultures.  In comparison, my cultural exposure and word-hoard, though expanding, seemed small.

When consulting the revered man about my thesis, I screwed up the courage to present him from time to time with a few of my early poems.  He always took these embryonic efforts seriously and retuned them with detailed commentary, praising one and offering valuable suggestions for another.  Though SFU didn’t offer a program in Creative Writing, having Robin for a professor was like getting a two-for-one deal, as he took the poetry just as seriously as the academic papers.  Looking back at my raw juvenilia, I marvel at how gently he responded, and how much he shaped me as a writer.  Writing was serious business, the process as important, if not more so, than the product, though he was rigorous about insisting on the exact word and line break.  He corrected more by example and through the kind of poetry to which he pointed me, than by overt criticism.

I inherited from Robin the sense of poetry as a high calling.  Throughout a long teaching career as an English professor at Douglas College, marriage, and raising a child, this sense of poetry as my essential vocation has remained. Because of his influence, at the end of my life I will not ask whether I have succeeded, but whether I have been obedient to my poetic calling.

Once Robin spoke about the importance of honouring one’s teachers in the context of his own early mentors.    A teacher who transmits not only the love of his subject but a lifetime of inspiration is an honour to celebrate.  If this tribute seems unrelievedly laudatory, it is not because Robin, like all human beings, didn’t have his faults or shadows, but that my slowly awakening interior poet found him unstintingly supportive and nurturing at a crucial stage in my life. The number of his students who went on to become poets themselves is evidence of his ability to transmit creative fire.

Robin has now permanently entered the realms of the great companions” like Dante, Blake, and Shelley; therefore he becomes for me another of the luminous companions as I continue to encounter him through the legacy of his living words where, as he said, the “truth is laughter.”[2]

[1] Robin Blaser, “The Moth Poem” in The Holy Forest, 40.

[2] See Robin’s “The Truth Is Laughter Poems“ interspersed throughout The Holy Forest.  A number of them appeared first in the volume Syntax (1983).

Susan McCaslin is a Canadian poet and Faculty Emeritus of Douglas College in Westminster, BC where she taught English and Creative Writing for twenty-three years.  She is the author of ten volumes of poetry, including her most recent, Demeter Goes Skydiving (University of Alberta Press, 2011).  The latter was a finalist in 2012 for the BC Book Prize (Dorothy Livesay Award) and the first-place winner of the Alberta Book Publishing Award (Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award). Susan has recently published a volume of essays, Arousing the Spirit: Provocative Writings (Wood Lake Books, 2011). She has edited two anthologies and is on the editorial board of Event: the Douglas College Review.  She lives in Fort Langley, BC with her husband and an active Australian shepherd. www.susanmccaslin.ca


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Categories: Art and Music, Arts, Featured, Inspiration and Meditation, Susan McCaslin


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