Friday, January 02, 2009

Billy Little (1943-2009)

Mere months after the release of Vancouver poet Billy Little’s St. Ink: Selected Poems, selected by Jamie Reid and George Stanley (Vancouver BC: Cue Books, 2008), comes this sad note from Jamie Reid:

Billy Little: October 14, 1943 - January 1, 2009

Our dear comrade and brother poet, Billy Little, slipped away from this life at about 5 AM on New Years Day. It almost seems to me as if he were imitating one of his idols, dada hero Tristan Tzara, who died on Christmas Day in 1963. For several days he had been telling his friends that each day might be his last, but he hung on and continued to breathe one day after another for several days, until finally he lost the ability to speak and passed away. Billy spent his last days on his beloved Hornby Island, surrounded by his friends.

He had been resigned to this final result since hearing from his doctors last January that the abdominal cancer through which he had endured several rounds of chemotherapy and surgery would finally take his life in a matter of months rather than years. He lived the months that were left to him with great courage and good humour, sometimes in tears, he told me once, that he should have to leave the world, the life and the people that he loved with such passion and devotion. The people at his bedside near the end, his son Matt Little, Gordon Payne and his caregiver, Colleen Work, confirmed that through his last hours, though he could not speak, he was clearly smiling.

Billy’s son, Matt, will be inviting friends to the Hornby Island ball park on Sunday, January 4. In commemoration of Billy’s life-long devoted attachment to books and ideas, Matt will be handing out items from Billy’s book collection.

Further notice of an expanded memorial event will be posted later.

Typically, Billy left his life with a jest, a protest, leaving behind his own obituary:


after decades of passion, dedication to world peace and justice, powerful friendships, recognition, being loved undeservedly by extraordinary women, a close and powerful relationship with a strong, handsome, capable, thoughtful son Matt, a never ending stream of amusing ideas, affections shared with a wide range of creative men and women, a long residence in the paradisical landscape of hornby island, sucess after sucess in the book trade, fabulous meals, unmeasurable inebriation, dancing beyond exhaustion, satori after satori,
billy little regrets he's unable to schmooze today.
in lieu of flowers please send a humongous donation to the war resisters league.

I'd like my tombstone to read:

billy little
hydro is too expensive

but I'd like my mortal remains to be set adrift on a flaming raft off chrome island

A poet, activist and small publisher in BC for decades, his St. Ink not only collects a selection of Little’s poetry over the years, but includes a selection by admirers such as Lionel Kearns, Gordon Payne, Goh Poh Seng, George Stanley, Renee Rodin, Pierre Coupey, George Bowering, Judith Copithorne and Trudy Rubenfeld. As Kearns begins his piece, “Postscript to Bill’s collection”:

Billy Little’s biography has been around. It seems to start up very young somewhere in America. It hangs out at the New York City Public Library and poetry readings down at St. Mark’s. It swings up to Buffalo, where the action is. It loiters among the poets in San Francisco. Eventually it pushes on north to Vancouver, and ends up in Nowhere B.C., the only absence with a Canadian postal code (V0R 1Z0). These days it seems to be located on an island. You can tell by the images: cormorants, ferry line ups, fish boats, salmon chanted evening.

Billy has always been a full time poet, although from time to time he has held outside positions such as editor, publisher, gallery manager, book store owner, impresario, teacher, student, public speaker, commentator, reviewer, lover, partner, father, and grandfather. Many years ago I caught him with each of his hands on the handles of a wheel barrow, though I doubt if he would admit such a thing now: help the planet he counsels us: stop working/ don’t succumb to the addiction of employment. Nevertheless, poetry is the job he works at all the time. Whenever it’s happening, there he is, the most committed poet I know.
But I will leave the last words for Billy Little, himself:

for david phillips

I remember how frustrated Jesus got
building those tacky villas for the roman yuppies
gentrifying the Sea of Galilee
how his tongue became
myriads of venomous snakes
how he ate mouse sushi
for weeks on end
you could sell him two bushels of mint
it wouldn’t be enough

2. The Satin Man
“where’s the man could ease a heart
like a satin gown?” – Dorothy Parker

remember that halloween,
jesus put on the red mask
tied the pointy tail to his plaid pants
hoist the rusty pitchfork
and went out trick or treating in the treetops

where the shrieking primates
tosses polished acorns
at his swollen red scrotum

that halloween jesus changed the maples leaves
into currency
made the blue bummed orangutans
eat swimming pools of money pudding

after His tracheotomy
His lips spelled
everything He didn’t say

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