Acclaimed poet Phyllis Webb has lived her life fearlessly and on her own terms


Poet and host Phyllis Webb in 2004.Blaise Enright Peterson

She was a poet, capable of handling poetic forms from the villanelle to the ghazal. She was also a seeker of justice, a fearless intellectual, a sexual rebel, winner of a Governor General’s Literary Award, and co-creator of one of the CBC’s most enduring radio shows.

Phyllis Webb’s first verse book Even your right eye appeared in 1956 to be followed over the years by nine more collections of poetry and two of essays. Critics have noticed the musicality and intellectual play of his work.

She tended to speak lightly about her career as a broadcaster, as if it had been an inevitable interruption in her true vocation to write poetry. But she might have touched more people with it Ideas, CBC’s nerd series she and her colleague William Young launched in 1965, the title initially The best ideas you’ll hear tonight. Despite having, she said, a “horrible start”, the show has found its feet and is alive and well after 56, drawing an estimated 1.5 million listeners five nights a week.

Ms Webb died with medical assistance on Remembrance Day November 11 at Lady Minto Hospital in Ganges, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia at the age of 94. She had been hospitalized since July and she died alone, when she wanted to.

“She was the most independent and intelligent woman I have ever met,” her niece Star Webb said.

Phyllis Jean Webb was born April 8, 1927 in Victoria, the third child and only daughter of Nova Scotia native Mary Webb (née Patton) and Alfred Webb, a former cavalry officer in the British Army. Alfred was employed by the Bank of Canada and moved the family from Victoria to Vancouver when his job required it. The parents divorced in the 1930s. When the father moved to Ottawa, Mary Webb returned to Victoria with her children and Alfred gave up their lives.

“I was poor and didn’t have a daddy,” Phyllis Webb later recalled. She found herself drawn to father figures. World War II also marked her – she thought it was madness. When Walter, the eldest of her two brothers, enlisted at 17, she never spoke to him again.

She then discovered socialism, pacifism and the CCF (precursor of the NPD). In 1949, aged 22, she ran for the CCF in the provincial elections, the youngest at that time to run for elected office. That same year, she received her BA in English and Philosophy from the University of British Columbia, where she was part of an off-campus writing group led by Earle Birney.

Her political leanings led her to meet and fall in love with the poet, law professor at McGill University and political activist FR Scott, then national president of the CCF. He was 28 years his senior and was married. In 1950, after having taken a secretarial course to support herself, she moved to Montreal at the request of Mr. Scott and was welcomed into its bohemian circle of established poets and artists, including Louis Dudek, Irving Layton. , Miriam Waddington, Eli Mandel and, later, Leonard Cohen, who encouraged and mentored her.

“Frank Scott has influenced my life enormously,” she later told Eleanor Wachtel TV station.

In Montreal, she lived a patchwork life with little money, working as secretary to the principal of Macdonald College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue and later to the Chair of the Department of Biochemistry at McGill. She also enrolled in a graduate preparatory program at McGill and took the opportunity to travel to Dublin, London and France.

“She wanted Frank Scott to marry her and gave her an ultimatum. And then she left for Paris,” said Sandra Djwa, Mr. Scott’s biographer, in an interview. “He was unwilling to leave. his wife and it was heartbreaking for her. “

A government grant in 1957 allowed him to live in Paris for a year and a half, doing a study of avant-garde French theater. Here she was dogged by illness and depression, but managed to write the poems in The sea is also a garden, his next book. After Mr. Scott visited her, she captured their unraveling story in her poem, A walk along the Seine, in which a couple holding hands observes the fishermen:

But you and me slow down

our words in a dull tone

(because beauty silences the horse-drawn carriage

coaches of wisdom), mesh

light and leaves in this imperial notion

of stasis and dream, move and stay upright,

like love and death, by the river.

Back in Canada, she found freelance work as an editor with publisher McClelland & Stewart in Toronto and as a screenwriter at CBC. Ms Webb moved to Vancouver in 1960 to work as an English teaching assistant at UBC and became a member of a group of young academics including John and Sally Hulcoop, the gay novelist Jane Rule (with whom she had a liaison) and Ms. Webb. Rule’s partner, Helen Sonthoff – all that is important in his future life.

She attended the famous 1963 summer poetry conference at UBC, which brought together experimental poets from San Francisco and Black Mountain – Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Denise Levertov and Allen Ginsberg – on the campus for poetry readings and seminars. They championed new ways of writing poetry that followed the breath and was closer to contemporary language.

The following year, she accepted a job as a CBC radio host and moved to Toronto. She ran a show called Air University, which had a conference format. His colleague William Young had a similar show, named The learning phase, until they are urged by management to merge the two into something more alive. The result was Ideas, which began on October 24, 1965, with a program on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

“Phyllis told me she didn’t expect the show to last longer than a few years, so when she saw that she was thriving 40 years and 50 years later, she was surprised,” said Bernie Lucht, who was the program’s executive producer from 1984 to 2014. “The show has changed over time. He wasn’t caught in a mid-60s time warp.

During Ms. Webb’s tenure as executive producer, from 1967 to 1969, she hired Lewis Auerbach, a recent Harvard graduate, as a program producer. He recalled her openness to new ideas, the breadth of her interests and a vinyl record that she brought to the studio to share with her team. “It was Leonard Cohen’s very first record, yet to be released,” said Auerbach. “She had been in love with Cohen in Montreal and he had sent her a copy ahead of time. She put it on and it was the first time I heard Suzanne. “

In 1969, she abruptly resigned from Ideas and fled to British Columbia after receiving an Arts Grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. In the same decade, his frankly lesbian love poems appear in the collection Naked poems.

“I grew up on an island – Vancouver Island – and my only ambition as a teenager was to leave the island… then halfway through my life, my ambition was to come back to an island”, she explained later. She discovered Salt Spring Island in 1967, while on a six-month vacation from Ideas, and eventually settled there, leaving only to work, attend international poetry conferences or receive one of the prizes that appealed to him in his later years. She won the Governor General’s Prize for Poetry in 1982 for The tree of vision, and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada a decade later.

Of the location she chose, she wrote, “Salt Spring Island is a great place to stargaze and belly button, a pretty, shy corner of the universe that doesn’t claim recognition or glory.”

For the rest of her life, she occupied herself with freelance writing, broadcasting and short stays teaching creative writing. In the 1970s, she won a discrimination case against CBC Vancouver when her application to become a summer relief announcer was rejected because the station only wanted male advertisers. She has taught at the University of Victoria, UBC, the Banff Center and the University of Alberta in Edmonton, where she was writer in residence from 1980-81.

Then in the early 1990s, around the time of her mother’s death at age 101, she told her friends that “words had left her.” She stopped writing poetry and started taking photographs, which she then cut out and pasted. From there she moved on to painting.

His last post was Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb, in 2014, edited by Prof. John Hulcoop.

Stephen Collis, her friend and executor, recalled that as an artist she had only one exhibition, and never looked for a dealer, having no ambition to sell her paintings. She had no formal artistic training but had had many painter friends, including Joe Plaskett who painted her portrait in Paris; his younger brother, Gerald, was a gifted artist.

“I think she always considered herself an ‘amateur’, or at least a companion,” recalls Mr. Collis. “I visited him regularly for almost 20 years. She was always surrounded by her own paintings – on all of her walls, stacked in the corners. “

Ms. Webb was predeceased by her brothers, Walter and Gerald Webb. She leaves her nephew, Bruce Webb; and nieces, Paola Unger, Sarah Webb and Star Webb.

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