If award-winning poet and literary journalist Judith Fitzgerald couldn't write, she'd have no reason to live (nor continue to give).
"I wouldn't be here, that's for sure; I'd be pushing up doozies. I was always a writer; I cannot recall a time when I didn't write or think of myself in any other terms. From the moment I was conscious of the fact language existed, I was a goner for life, in life. It flooded me with love for it, for its sounds, for its arrangements, for the beauty of these gorgeous linguistic protections or glorious perfections. I'm synaesthetic; so, words taste, smell, and feel for me. I would not — could not — exist without them. More to the point? From the moment I understood language was a gift, I concurrently understood I was a conscripted lifer; I never had a choice nor did I even require one; after all, who was I to question Him? It would be immoral or unethical if I didn't honour His blessing. I know somewhere, some way, somehow, this fait accompli destiny had next-to-nada to do with anything nor anyone earthly, especially yours truly."
Driving by her modest "shack" in "The Beautiful Downtown Middle of Elsewhere" (as she calls it), no one would guess the petite future poet laureate of the Near North, dressed in black leather pants and tank-top, lives behind locked doors, smoking countless cigarettes while working on her next book. "I can't think without a cigarette," says she, lighting another. "On the other hand, I quit drinking 9 June 1982; so, really, I do need some kind of vice, right?"
Above the kitchen table on the stark white wall? There's a black felt-marker inscription: "It is not business as usual."
"Ah, that," she demurs, "I wanted to be able to read the writing on the wail, right? My work, particularly my poetry, involves the act of accurately reading the writing on the wall; and, for the first time in my life, because I own the wall — well, the bank owns it, actually — but, really, because I finally didn't have a landlord and could do whatever I wanted to do, I made my little marks; and, well, now? Now, I can read between the lines of the writing on the wall. Especially when it comes to poetry, the art and craft of shaping it. I know only this: Poetry is not business as usual (despite what my accountant, God bless her, tries to tell me): Roses are red. Violets are bold. The writing's on the wall. Don't say you weren't told."
She is a writer of complex poems, a literary journalist, a baseballogist, and one of three biographers of Marshall McLuhan officially sanctioned by the Estate of the media giant. She has written insightful and controversial columns about literature, sports, culture, technology, and music. She served her "wonderful time" as writer in residence at the Hamilton Public Library, the University of Windsor, Algoma University College, Le Salon Sensu (in Nice, France), and Laurentian University (where she also taught creative writing), to name but a few institutions. "I love teaching," she says, "almost as much as I love writing; and, when you're truly doing your job, you're simultaneously learning. That's the beauty of the enterprise."
The author of twenty-odd collections of poetry, she recently completed a four-volume long poem, The Adagios Quartet, which took her a decade to write and which, according to highly respected literary scholars both here and abroad, constitutes the first successful epic penned by a woman in the history of the English-language literary tradition. One such scholar, Dr. Thomas Dilworth, the offical biographer of Welsh poet David Jones (1895-1974), remarks that Fitzgerald "is probably a genius; but, that word's so devalued, it holds almost no currency." Another, Dr. David Staines, praises her gifts without qualification; and, Dr. Bruce Krajewski, in an essay discussing her intellectual leanings, marvels at her grasp of history, mythology, philosphy, physics, religion, archaelogy, sociology, and cultural anthropology.
She shrugs when queried about the depth, scope, and wide-ranging breadth of her knowledge. "Search me," says she mischievously, "I just work here . . . but, you know, actually, I'm a sucker for a pretty book; and, there are pretty books in so many disciplines, I'd be a fool if I limited myself to one. Besides, although I seem to recall that I was once married, I spend a great deal of my time in solitude, a good kind of solitude, in a world that begins and concludes with books, books, and more books. I don't own a television; so, what else is there? More importantly, why should there be more than this incredible world which nourishes and utterly sustains me?"
Recently, one of her early poems, "Mouth-to-Mouth Recitation" (1983), was featured on the website of the Parliamentary Poet Laureate (George Bowering). Beside the inscription on the kitchen wall, next to an actual Chinese fan given to her by one of her best friends for her fiftieth birthday, there are several framed letters from individuals she calls her "fan club" whose members include, among others, Stompin' Tom Connors, Anne Murray, John Newlove, Owen Bradley, Irving Layton, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Daphne Marlatt, Michael Ondaatje, George Jones, Lenore Langs, and Leonard Cohen, many of whom remain dear friends she declines to discuss further (although she points out the rings on her fingers — one a silver hummingbird, another an interlocking gold heart — were given to her by one such fan); however, that particular piece of fan mail (written in support of a fellowship application and signed, "Sincerely, L. Cohen")? It contains, in part, the following lines of praise:
"I am very familiar with Judith Fitzgerald's work, and I support her application for the Chalmers Arts Fellowship without reservation. Her poetry is remarkable. It is stunningly original, distinguished by wit, beauty, and a powerful sense of language. I believe this project to be truly worthy of the financial support for which she is applying. I know she will complete The Adagios Quartet. I have complete confidence in her ability to do so. And it will be done according to the high standards of integrity and craftsmanship which inform all aspects of her admirable literary enterprise."
Fitzgerald was made a Fellow of the Chalmers Poetry Foundation in 2003. "Why me, Lord," she asks of the honour. "Much of my work was that of an apprentice. I don't think I really started writing until Ultimate Midnight (1993); or, perhaps, Diary of Desire (which came unbidden five-six years earlier)."
Although considered "difficult," Fitzgerald believes her reputation's an accurate one. "My work is difficult," she asserts. "Please, show me where it is written that poetry mustn't be difficult; I could write little lyrics, of course; but, why would I want to do so? I'm always thinking of what I call 'The Book of Eternity,' that illuminated volume where I would like to leave my name. If that makes me difficult, so be it; and, as far as my reputation for being difficult goes, it depends on the motives of the individual designating me as such. A lot of that bullshit's simply projection; and, some of it's driven by simple malice; but, does it really matter when it comes down to it? Who really cares? Definitely, I'm decisive; and, that scares some people (which says more about them than it does about me). But, generally, I'm no more nor less difficult than any other human being on this planet. Still, because I am a poet, I am held to a different standard; and, if I colour outside the lines, I'm difficult, insane, crazy, and yadda-yadda-yawn.
"Show me a woman poet who, at one time or another, hasn't been viewed that way. It's an entrenched part of the job description; but, because I don't consider what I do to be a job, I don't really give a damn what anyone thinks. You cannot win if you stay within those lines; and, you cannot win if you don't; but, you know what? I don't want to win or lose, I just want to have the luxury of being able to continue doing what I cannot but do. Period. So, no. I'm not difficult; I'm decisive. Also, I put poetry first; and, that's my cardinal sin. I'm supposed to kiss the right asses and rah-rah-rah writing I don't consider to be poetry, let alone rah-rah-rah worthy. It's been a difficult journey; but, I elected to take it and I accept responsibility for it. For me, the greatest challenge is how to stave off the cynicism; to rise above the fishbullshit in which I'm supposed to wallow. Ain't gonna happen. Like the man said, I'd rather die on my feet than live on my knees."
Fitzgerald rarely consents to interviews and definitely doesn't care about the press-package aspect of her work. "I work in media; it's my avocation; and, over the years, I've learned I must be passionate about what I'm writing, the work I consider praise-worthy or, sadly, I cannot endorse it; I hit that ol' brick wall, the one with the writing on it." And, although she is one of the few writers in the country to actually manage to make a living doing what she loves, she points out "poets don't have retirement plans, do they? Well, this one doesn't, at least. I'm not a materialistic person; I don't care about making tonnes of money, I'm too busy worrying about making it through the month and keeping my weight above 80 pounds."
She worked in the trenches "learning to swim with the sharks" for a quarter-century before she could negotiate rather than beg for a column. It took her 20 years to save $15,000 for the down-payment on her "starter / retirement home; but, the price you pay to stay true to yourself and your values isn't worth the price you pay. It's exacting; and, I've often been forced to use foodbanks and live on social assistance. I pay for the privilege of telling my truth, believe you me."
Her critical work has made her many enemies, a fact she says she finds astonishing. "They're my enemies; I'm not theirs." Nevertheless, the young woman who received the Fiona Mee Award for her literary journalism a couple of decades ago does admit her hard-scrabble hand-to-mouth existence has taken its toll: "It's costly, it has cost me, and it continues to cost me daily. They said, when I began in that business, they wanted a critic with teeth. Now, I know why: So they could kick them all out, which they've done. I have six left. I'd like to hold onto them if I can."
Fitzgerald's childhood resembled a "torture chamber." She lived with her biological "monster" and stepfather where she was physically, psychologically, and sexually battered and abused beyond belief. "My mother, a real pro, had twelve chidren because baby bonus and welfare paid more," she explains. "I remember her outright selling three of them, though. One girl and two boys. I was barely out of toddler-hood; but, I knew what she was doing with those transactions; not immediately; but, soon after, I put the pieces together and, in so doing, was further horrified by her incomprensible actions."
On 26 April 1966, she was made a Crown Ward of the Province of Ontario. "My body is a roadmap of scars," she says softly. "I could never go swimming nor wear a bikini, for example. Not that these were big priorites in my world. From the age of five, I was my biological monster's 'side dish,' so to speak. When I was removed by the police from their house a couple of years later, I had to have my right arm re-broken because it had set incorrectly from one of his beatings. Now, it aches during rainy weather; but, it's my right arm and I'm a southpaw; so, pas de sweat. I had scurvy, believe it or not; and, now, the results of that extreme deprivation are rearing their uglies, especially in terms of osteoarthritis, etc. I used to pray to die; but, I was so Catholic, I couldn't commit suicide; and, I believe, even at that young age, my faith saved me from a fate worse than fate. My faith, my language, my music . . . I'd like to say I grew up reading the backs of cereal boxes; but, we never had cereal; we were lucky if we were fed at all most of the time. I was the oldest. I used to go up and down Queen and Shuter Streets going through restaurant garbage bins looking for enough scraps of food to feed my younger brother and sister as well as myself. I was their care-giver. She never had either the time nor the inclination to notice us except when she needed to beat us up.
"I got lucky. I was bright and demonstrative. After a couple stints in a couple foster homes, I was adopted and I did receive extensive therapy throughout my tweens and early teens; but, for many years, I couldn't speak about what had happened to not only me but my younger siblings as well. They're all lost. It's almost 50 years ago, now. I'd never write my life story because it's unbelievable and would out-Dickens Dickens. Besides, I don't dwell upon it; and, I don't believe in the past which, for me, doesn't exist. The truth is, not even God can change it; I can only accept it and let it go. I don't want to dwell upon it and consider myself a victim. I'd rather consider myself Bob's 'Little One' or June's 'JudyGirl,' the only two people I ever allowed to call me Judy. Now, both my parents are deceased; and, when someone does call me Judy, it still kinda hurts. My mom and dad were both extraordinary in their own ways; and, because I was their only daughter, I was kinda spoiled by them; they loved me unconditionally. Lord, I was so — am so — blessed. And, lucky. Lucky to escape the foster-home environment; in fact, that was nothing short of miraculous in its own way, I guess. I was their daughter. I am their daughter. There is such comfort in even saying those words, you have no idea . . ."
Although Fitzgerald had written poetry prior to 1966, her earliest surviving poem, "Foster Animals," is dated 1969. She came to own a copy of it when an old friend from school contacted her as an adult. When she learned Fitzgerald had lost all her work, she sent her a copy of it. "While living in one of those foster homes, I was accused of stealing money but I hadn't," she says. "My punishment was to take my poetry — upon which I had wasted so many hours — and matches, and watch this foster parent as she smirked while I burned them all, one by one by one. It angered her even more that I didn't beg nor plead to save them," she says. Six months later, her foster mother found the money Fitzgerald had allegedly stolen. "It was hidden under a coffee jar, one of her regular hiding places. She never apologised.
"One thing I've learned? If I make a mistake or hurt someone, I do apologise, willingly. Conversely, if someone offers me an apology, I readily accept it (if it's appropriate, of course). What shocks me is there are those to whom I have apologised over the tiniest of slights or, even, errors committed inadvertently, and they cannot accept my apology and forgive me for being human. Sins of omission, sins of commission, cardinal, ordinal, I know my station. I found myself in a situation recently where someone had misread what I'd written and I still apologised to them; but, they didn't have the class nor the grace to accept my apology. What have I learned? If this happens, it's not me they cannot grant forgiveness, it's themselves. And, that's heartbreaking. I don't hold grudges for the same reason; they cost in terms of time, energy, and effort; ultimately, they hurt the holder more than anyone else; and, they also give the begrudged one power. I'm not interested in diminishing my own strength and faith in Him. I am a practising Catholic; and, I don't mind admitting it. My Bible is called A Course in Miracles; without it, its comfort and joy supporting my vocation, I doubt I'd still be alive. My faith is such an abiding companion; and, I guess, His greatest gift to me. I am blessed; life is a gift; death lasts forever. Halle-flippin'-lujah!
What motivates or inspires her? "Terror," she responds, "terror is one of my greatest inspirations. When I'm working in poetry, though, it's not about me. I can let go; I'm not a narcissist (unfortunately); but, part of the joy of writing involves getting away from the oppression of the ego and the world. Best drug on the planet, if you ask me. In a sense, poetry is prayer. And, as I've said, the difference between the two? The former melts your bones, the latter reconstructs them. That's part of the pay-off; I write to abandon where I am and what I do, to escape into pure bliss, to exist and paradoxically, cease existing, I guess, to locate the still centre where self and ego balance in perfect contrapuntal harmony, if only for an instant."
It has taken Fitzgerald 30 years to feel comfortable calling herself a poet. "I still have trouble answering that what-do-you-do question; but, lately, I guess this comes with age, I say loudly and quietly but proudly, 'I'm a poet' (without wondering where I got the nerve to make such a pronouncement). Poetry is as much a gift as it is a process. You don't simply read a poem; it also reads you; and, in that exchange of energy, light itself shatters. That's an incredibly miraculous mystery; who could possibly ask for more than that?"
Alistair MacLeod — recipient of the IMPAC award and now, University of Windsor Professor Emeritus in English and Creative Writing — asserts that "Fitzgerald's a truly original poet with an exceptionally original voice in this country. I don't think there's anyone in the country quite like her," he adds. "She's so gifted, she's able to take language to new heights and is extraordinarily sensitive to it, all its nuances, all its associations. She's a great poet; and, by that, I mean, she's one of THE GREATS, in that tradition. Absolutely."
But, you won't find Fitzgerald reading any of her own work. "Most of my books? I can neither open them nor read them. I can't bear it; I see places where I ought to have done better; I see the glerrors, as I call them; and, I think, always, in terms of what I could and should be doing. I really don't have much affection for them; and, I have so much anticipation invested in what I know, someday, I will do. They probably feel the same way about me, too."
Fitzgerald, who returned home to the Almaguin Highlands when technology caught up with her, will celebrate a milestone of sorts come January 26: "Fifteen years here, right? I've still got a long way to go and many, many promises to keep; but, I've done this for 15 years and I wouldn't change a thing. Well, okay, I would change one thing: I'd make becoming a local a 20-year term instead of the 25-year one it is now. I love saying I'm from the Almaguin Highlands. It appeals to the poetic side of me, the one that doesn't have to worry about whether the pipes will freeze and burst because I can't afford heating oil, for example. That one, the one who can finally and ultimately say, with conviction, 'I'm a poet,' eh? C'est vrai!"
N. B. Aside from the single poem written in 1969, the writer possesses two other items from her childhood. One is a photograph of herself with her younger brother, Robert Norman Ouellette II, given to her through a series of incredibly serendipitous events; the other is a small article that appeared in The Toronto Star an expert researcher and close friend located for her when she mentioned to him that she vaguely recalled a story being in a newspaper when she was four or five years old.© 2004-2011 Judith Fitzgerald. All Rights Reserved.