A poem on Riley Tench by Richard Harrison
I recently published an above/ground press broadside by Calgary poet Richard Harrison, a short piece he wrote on the late Ottawa poet Riley Tench [see my note on him here]. Due to the overwhelming response to the piece, I've decided to post the piece online to give it a wider audience than mere paper and post could provide.
I see Riley downstairs in the Arthur office while I type the first literary section he let me do. I am working on the IBM Selectric – top of the line stuff in those days: New Technology: snap-snap-snapsnap-snap-snap like a
machine gun. Riley calls up, “Hey, Spitfire! It’s poetry, enjoy it!” Riley finding my copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet open at an especially passionate and romantic passage about why the poet writes, and leaving me a note beside it – “That’s Bizarre! You write poems to give pleasure to your friends and pain to your enemies.” Riley on stage giving pleasure to his friends with his Raggedy-Andy hair and wide-eyed yet experienced look that knew the world but could still be amazed by it. What was it this time? “say yuv found this chikn wing in th street,” Riley tipping back like Chaplin, “yur shoin off fr yr frends//walkin fancy, swing it like a cane” – a chicken wing! I bet right now Riley is entertaining the gods of poetry; they’re asking him, “Do that one again, the one about the chicken wing – do you know how long it took for someone to find the poetry there?” Riley in Peter Robinson College’s infamous pub-and-smoke house, giving pain to his enemies who heckled so much I thought the Hangman Poetry Series was done for, Riley jumping up on the table screaming, You think this is just for fun? This … .Is… MY… LIFE!” shouting down an entire unruly bar. Riley sitting me down and talking about where I was and where I might fit into the group of poets he had around him, brilliant poets who gave me the hard gift of being much better than I was. When I finally had the nerve to ask “Mr. Where” about my writing, he said, "These are young and clumsy, but they're poems.” Riley was one of those people who could open your world for you if you listened. Last time we talked, I told him that he had helped make a path for me, and for that I have always been thankful. He gave me that look. And whenever I say farewell, the way I'm saying good-bye to him now, he gave me the image for that, too: "standn alon in the street wavn gudby with th chikn wing.”
Richard Harrison: You asked for a couple of lines on why I wrote this for Riley. That's an interesting question beyond the clear, sad reason we all had to say our good-byes to him. I wrote this to thank him. I wrote this because thanking is a way of holding people in memory. I think, as I age and have a family and teach people as old now as I was when I met Riley, that I've come to appreciate more and more the little moments that point us in the directions our lives end up taking. I respected Riley enormously, and his influence, along with those of the poets whose group he'd become the centre of, helped me get where I am. I'm not saying he made me choose poetry. Only poetry itself does that. I'm saying that a decision to choose what you really want to do -- regardless of any outcome except the doing of it as best you can -- comes at the end of a number of significant nudges of faith from those you admire and who are doing something you need to do even if it forever seems just beyond your grasp.
Richard Harrison is the author of six books of poetry, the latest being his book of hockey poems, Hero of the Play: 10th Anniversary Edition, and Worthy of His Fall, both from Wolsak & Wynn. His book about his daughter's learning to speak, Big Breath of a Wish, won the City of Calgary Book Prize and was nominated for the Alberta Writers' Guild and Governor-General's Awards. Richard currently teaches English and Creative Writing (with specialties in the comic book and poetry) at Calgary's Mount Royal College. Richard met Riley Tench when they were both undergraduates at Trent University in 1976.