14 September 2011

John Robert Colombo!

Had an excellent time at Wordstock in Collingwood last weekend, where I gave a one-hour seminar on self-publishing that went extremely well. Also was able to catch excellent readings and onstage interviews with Wayne Johnston and Camilla Gibb, as well as a great reading by Randy Boyagoda, who I hadn't been familiar with.

The nicest surprise was getting to see a reading by John Robert Colombo. Now, way back when I was about 14, I was a page at a library at Bathurst and Lawrence in Toronto. A fellow page, Annette, pointed out a poet who came in regularly. So I read a few of Colombo's books of that era: Neo Poems, Abracadabra, and The Great Wall of China. Next time he came into the library I introduced myself as a young poet and told him I liked his books. I guess he was the first "real writer" I'd ever met.

John suggested that what a young poet should do is apprentice an elder poet, so I took the job, and for the next few years I helped John put together his Concise Canadian Quotations (well, I snipped quotations from the big Colombo's Canadian Quotations and put them in enveloped]s divided by subject). I proofread a few of his poetry collections (I think The Sad Truths and Translations from the English were among them, and also a collection of translated Bulgarian poetry, perhaps called Under the Eaves of a Forgotten Village). I got to hang around the home office of an actual working writer, and he critiqued a pile of my teenage poems.

Through John, I also met another real writer: the science-fiction legend and anthologist Judith Merril. John loaded me up with all her anthologies and sent me off to her Ideas office at CBC Radio, where I photocopied all the text by her in the anthologies (introductions and prefaces and so forth). She was pretty intimidating, and smart and funny.

So right, back in Collingwood: I went to a small gallery on the main street and there was John, a little older (like about 30 years) but still the same John Robert Colombo. The gallery was packed and John was just beginning: "I don't do spoken word," he said, "and I don't do rap." And then he proceeded to read a whole set of unpublished poems he'd written since the beginning of the year. Many of them were aphoristic and philosophical; I could see heavy Eastern European influences that I never would have noticed as a teenager. John is a wit, a charmer and a showman, and the reading was absolutely enjoyable.

When he was done, I went over and introduced myself and he looked a little surprised. It had been a while.

Then both of us fled before the spoken-word event that was following in the same venue.

Over and out.


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