“somewhere to live/for everyone. inside the language.”


It was 43 years ago today that a friend called and asked if I’d like to join him and another poet for dinner before a reading that evening at Open Space down on Fort Street. The other poet was part of a benefit reading, organized by Warren Tallman, for bill bissett, who’d been vilified by a group of Conservative MPs and who’d lost arts funding as a result. ( As well as a writer, bill was publisher of blewointment press.) I said sure I’d join them. The other poet was John Pass. At the beginning of the evening, we didn’t like each other. Part way through the reading — and I am trying to remember who else read: bill for sure, but who else? Maybe Judith Copithorne –, I listened as John read love poems for the woman he was living with, and I realized I felt kind of. . .jealous? Later, he confessed he was wondering how I felt as he read them. By midnight, we’d decided to spend the rest of our lives together. (This is only a slight exaggeration.) It wasn’t without its difficulties, its sadnesses. There was the woman he was living with to tell. There was a man I loved in the west of Ireland where I’d been living and was planning to return in, oh, two months’ time. Our extrications caused pain to others and I regret that. But somehow we found a way to make a life together. In the photograph above, taken about a year and a half after we met, we’d bought the 8.39 acres we live on today, we were expecting a baby the next spring (I think it’s the last time I wore that dress. . .), and the rest of our 40+ years were unrolling before us like an intricate carpet, maybe the carpet John wrote about in his book, Port of Entry (Repository Press, 1975), still on the floor in his study in North Vancouver when that photograph was taken one floor below, but too tattered to pack when we moved two years later to the house we built on our land.

                                                  no records remained,  no evidence but
the requirement of a history
a carpet, on the forest
floor, to calm the sea

a history to be contrived
to accommodate. somewhere to live

for everyone. inside the language.
–from “The Carpet”

Was it one of the poems he read that night at Open Space? I don’t recall. But in those hours, a history began, continued, remains, its evidence in poems, photographs, our books, a house, our children. A carpet, spread out on the beautiful earth of our lives.

On Salt Spring Island…

When John and I first met in 1979, I moved to his house in North Vancouver. I was 24, beginning my life as a writer, and at first I felt a little bereft. In Victoria, the city I’d left, there was a lively literary culture and if I wasn’t exactly at the centre of it, I did attend readings (John and I met at one of those, a grand benefit for bill bisset at Open Space), and I belonged to a small writing group.

Not long after i’d moved to North Vancouver, we went to something — I forget what, exactly — at the Literary Storefront on Cordova Street, a wonderful centre or nexus for readings, workshops, launches, parties, and any other kind of literary activity imaginable. I wonder if i’m remembering correctly when I recall hearing Stephen Spender there? Anyway, the Literary Storefront was founded by Mona Fertig and in the way circles complete themselves, she is now my publisher. And on November 7th, I will be launching my new novella on Salt Spring Island, home of Mona’s Mother Tongue Publishing, alongside Trevor Carolan, who has just published a history of the Literary Storefront. I think it will be a fabulous evening! If you’re on Salt Spring, come help us celebrate!


“I wish I had all this to do again” (for John)

On this day, thirty-five years ago, I married John Pass in a small ceremony which we wrote ourselves and which was officiated by a Unitarian minister at the Latch in Sidney. I wore a gauzy hippy dress and a wreath of yellow roses in my hair and John wore very wide corduroy trousers and a Harris tweed jacket. Our families, a motley group, attended the wedding itself and a luncheon afterwards; then friends joined us for champagne in one of the Latch’s beautiful reception rooms. Our parents hadn’t met before the wedding and John’s father, estranged from both John and his mother for at least ten years, charmed us all by telling jokes during the lunch, mostly ethnic jokes. I remember my father saying, after each of them, “Ben, I’m Ukrainian.” “Ben, I”m Polish!”. And so on.

We’d met eight months before. John was participating in one of the readings Warren Tallman organized as benefits for bill bissett when a couple of MPs felt that his work — as a writer and a publisher — shouldn’t receive government support. This one was at Open Space in Victoria and a mutual friend, Doug Beardsley, wondered if I’d like to join him and John for dinner before the reading. John and I didn’t like each other at first but during the reading, I had the sense that he was reading his poems for me, and at the end of the evening, he walked me from Doug’s place on Burdett to my flat on Fort Street, past the sleeping Art Gallery of Victoria, where he kissed me and told me I made him feel 16. So that was the beginning.

We were both entangled in relationships. His was in North Vancouver. Mine was in Ireland. I was in Victoria that winter, having spent time in the west of Ireland, and I was planning to return. I did go back, for three months, in part to finish Inishbream, the novella I’d begun to write. After three months, John joined me in Dublin and I took him back to the little caravan in Aughris for a week, the one the cows rubbed themselves against at night so that it rocked back and forth on its concrete blocks. Its saving grace was its position on the very edge of the Atlantic.

At the very beginning of our relationship, we knew we wanted to find a place that was our own. Not Victoria, not North Vancouver. Maybe one of the Gulf Islands? By then, property on the more accessible ones was expensive. What about the Sechelt Peninsula, wondered John. I’d never been but we came up and camped on Ruby Lake. And we bought eight and a half acres near the lake late that first winter. We’d never built anything in our lives other than book-shelves (and with the guidance of a friend, I built a filing cabinet out of half-inch plywood…). But I told John I was sure we had vestigial knowledge in our hands and when the skills were needed, we’d discover we had them. Ha.

We did build a house, this house —


— and we had three children in fairly quick succession, these children —Scan— who have all grown up and gone out into the world. I can’t imagine another life. Or wait, maybe I can. There were things I’d dreamed of doing. But I wouldn’t trade any of what I have for those. It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 35 years. We still find each other interesting. He’s tolerant. I’m, well, stubborn. This summer we were lying in our bed listening to Swainson’s thrushes in the woods just beyond our bedroom and John said, I wish I had all this to do again. We probably don’t have another thirty-five years — I’m 59 and John is nearly 67 — but oh, ten? Twenty?

Tonight we’ll have our favourite dinner — duck breasts with cherries soaked in port. Maybe roasted pears for dessert. And a Desert Hills wine — not sure which one — in the Waterford glasses John gave me for my fiftieth birthday, still remarkably intact.