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September 1998

"Write What You Know and Care About"

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For award-winning poet and teacher John B. Lee, it’s writing about hockey, history, the Beatles, hard work and an enduring love of the land.

By Julie Mason

"Sports poetry often deals with a state of grace and the elevated sense of being alive in the here and now of the game," says Brantford poet John B. Lee, talking about the many poems he has written about hockey. "You practice playing in order to achieve an automatic grace. And only once in a while do you achieve that state. Of course, the better the athlete, the more frequent the perfection of play. Writing is like that. The more blessed you are with talent, the harder you work, the more likely you are to achieve those moments when the writing goes well."

Lee has had many such moments. He has published 22 books of poetry, with two more collections coming out in 1998. His work has been recognized with two Milton Acorn People’s Poetry Awards, and in 1995 he won the prestigious Tilden/CBC award for poems telling the history of black settlement in southern Ontario.

Lee’s work shows his broad range of interests – hockey, music, the Beatles, small-town Ontario, the drudgery and dignity of farming and the complexities of a rural childhood.

Many of his poems celebrate men who work the land like Tom, the farm worker in Hired Hands, or Herb Lee, his grandfather, who is the centre of Variations on Herb. "My grandfather was a world-class shepherd. He was honoured and known wherever sheep breeding was acknowledged. At the same time, he was a curmudgeon, a character, difficult to know."


Although doing "real work" always came first when Lee was growing up, there was poetry in his home. "My grandfather had copies of the collected works of Tennyson, Browning and Longfellow in the upstairs hallway bookcase located just outside my bedroom door. My Uncle John, who also lived with us, or rather we all lived together, loves the poetry of Robert Service. He recently gave me the assignment of tracking down Dryden’s translation of Georgics, a long poem about agriculture – my father and uncle are both shepherds, and Uncle John had memorized a passage about raising sheep."

Many of Lee’s poems are centred on the land. "One of the most important things I learned on the land was the value of work. That discipline makes me a committed and hard-working writer. I love to work, really. The second thing I learned, which I cherish as a lesson, is a respect for continuity. We are merely guardians of the earth. It is given us in trust. We have a duty to make improvements."

In Tongues of the Children, Lee’s most ambitious work to date, he turned his attention to the early history of the people of southern Ontario. The work includes the story of the 1837 Western Rebellion in the London District of Upper Canada, the history of Irish immigrants and the tale of blacks in Upper Canada from slave years through the 1850s.

Lee, who is related by blood to Harriet Beecher Stowe, was inspired to "look around for seldom-told stories of the voiceless in the history of early Ontario." He sees this collection as his most and least autobiographical book. "My least in that it is not about my life. My most in that it emerges from a strong sense of conviction that all lives are worth remembering, celebrating and ensouling."


Lee began writing poetry in Grade 11. "My primary inspiration was the poetry anthology I was studying in school. I read it at random and discovered such wonderful poems by Dylan Thomas, Alfred Lord Tennyson and John Keats. Coleridge was a particular favourite." The next year he found Canadian poets, including Irving Layton, who remained a major influence for many years.

High school teachers were important to Lee. "Mr. Cooper, a teacher I had in Grade 12... provided us with a reading list, and I made my way slowly and secretly from top to bottom." In Grade 13, Lee’s teacher "complimented Leonard Cohen by saying that Cohen’s great strength was the originality and freshness of his metaphors. I remember seeing that as a challenge. I injected a kind of temporarily self-conscious exotica to my own exploration of metaphor."

Lee’s first poems were about the Beatles. "My earliest work was really bad. I’m not ashamed of it. It’s like early photographs. If we make fun of ourselves for the way we were, then we’ve forgotten. I like the earnest boy rhyming Ringo-Pingo. He was a good kid. A big fan of the boys from England."

At the University of Western Ontario, Lee studied under Stan Dragland, a professor of Canadian literature. "In addition to being a wonderful teacher of literature, he was also a masterful editor," says Lee. "He encouraged my early work and impressed me with his generosity and his gentle manner. It is no accident that he went on to become the poetry editor of McClelland and Stewart. I also had the good fortune to meet Margaret Avison when she was writer-in-residence at Western. Her enthusiastic encouragement meant a great deal to me when I was young, impressionable and perhaps vulnerable to criticism."


For many years, Lee combined full-time teaching and writing. "I taught high school English and Dramatic Arts for about 12 years, from 1976 through 1989, at a small rural school in Waterford... Since I left teaching full-time, I’ve taught creative writing to students of all ages from K to Grade 13.

There’s No Such Thing
as a Good Master

He may have manumitted his favourite slaves.

He may have treated his field hands well.

Bought them baubles in New Orleans.

Spared the taws and the hanging tree.

Let his children love them like cousins.

Suckled his babes at mammy’s breasts.

Allowed them to marry
whomever they wished.

Released the chains that bound them in coffles.

Purchased a few
to save them from the whip
of Simon Legree.

Schooled the house boys who were smart
and sweetened the scamps with candy.

But there is no such thing
as a good master.

If you would own a man
there is no art in argument
will change the fact that you have collaborated in context with the worst and darkest draconian blot on human blood.

If you would own a man
you owe God an apology.

From "Kicheraboo, We Are Dying" in Tongues of the Children

Black Moss Press, 1996

"I vary my approach according to the age, interest level and ability of my students," says Lee. "The one guiding principle of my teaching is that we read before we write. I base my ideas on the concept that a poem has three components: a form, a style and a content. By form I mean the genre of the poem. By style I mean the elements of individual voice. By content I mean the experience of the poet contained by the poem.

"I very rarely suggest anything regarding content, except to say things such as ‘write what you know and care about. If you don’t care about the sky, don’t write about the sky.’"

Lee’s own inspiration to write begins with the first line. "Even if I want to write about a particular experience, no matter how compelling, I wait until I receive the gift of the line which opens the poem... Metaphor remains important to me. When a metaphor of particular beauty enters the poem, it enriches the experience for me as a writer."

Lee is a staunch supporter of Canadian writing. "I love Neruda, Heaney, Rilke, Milosz, Szymborska, Hughes, Berry, Brodsky, Yevtushenko. But then there’s Layton and there’s Purdy, and Acorn and Birney."

As he does so often in his poetry, Lee turns back to the land. "I think field grown tomatoes produced in Chatham every summer are the best field-grown tomatoes I have ever tasted. Why would it seem unlikely that we might also produce some of the best writers in the world?"

You can find more excerpts from John B. Lee’s books at the Black Moss Press Web site at