By Gregory Betts
Before you met him, you heard him. His voice carried across a room like a stentorian boom. His stature, his beard, and his electric eyes all suited that lush thunder of a voice.
The first time that I met Terrance Cox was shortly after I moved to the city. A giggle of Brock students had arranged a poetry reading, and improbably both he and I ended up on the same bill. I arrived, for this reason and that, midway through his set, but his voice already filled the outer entryway. I was pulled into the inner room on the moving carpet of his voice and listened to tales of local personalities all expertly drawn.
After the reading, with a beer in hand, he approached me and said, “You are a poet. We need to talk.” He handed me a piece of paper with his phone number. He laughed loudly, wheeled and disappeared into the crowd the way a bear disappears into astroturf. When I called him the next day, he called me over to his house immediately, where we drank homemade beer and talked about poetry, the 60s, and Brock’s general cultural intransigence. I liked him.
I only began to really understand him when we met again at a reading tribute to the late Irving Layton in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I was waxing on about the things I admired in Layton’s writing, but Terrance halted me with a simple wave of his hand, and said, “He wrote here, you know. He lived just down this street.” This street: that was what mattered. Terrance pointed and I swear I could see Layton scribbling away, scowling venomously at this humble retired town. Even if you despise it, write about where you are, that was the thing. Terrance read Layton’s anti-Niagara poems to the packed house that night and everybody hooted and hollered.
I have been thinking about Terrance Cox lately, who died just over a year ago, because of all the discussion about a local poet laureate. In many ways, he already functioned as the poet laureate of the city, the figure who oversaw and tried to facilitate writing here. In fact, according to Rebecca Cann, Cultural Services Supervisor for St. Catharines, he had served as the “poet-in-residence” for the city’s Culture Plan for a brief period before his health turned. They were using the poet-in-residence model as a temporary step on the path towards creating a poet laureateship for the city.
If we are going to earmark a small stipend of the expanding cultural budget for a designated Poet Laureate, Terrance Cox is a great model to bear in mind for the position. Generous, talented, and deeply connected to the local, he was also a recognized participant in the national literary conversation. He chummed with Al Purdy, Irving Layton, Stan Dragland and their ilk. Those were writers consciously trying to build a Canadian local into the vast chambers of literature. You can imagine how well Terrance’s voice would echo around that hall.
There is more than one national conversation happening now, but there are almost no cross-literary-community local conversations happening here in Niagara. It is time to empower a voice like Terrance’s, not to attempt for a big shot heroic writer, but to be more helpful in our domestic milieu and in remaking it anew. And, as our local bard intoned, always remember to pray to your theories, your explosion.
“Tips for Traveller’s Home” (2000)
Never argue with your mother
any aspect of religion — not
gist of big bang theory
Do not ever be seduced by
lucky chip shot nor long
3-wood round dog-leg — golf
is your father’s game
Be helpful: gather up dishes
conspicuous bottles, once of wine
empty, often, covert ashtrays
To rural brother lend a hand
with harvest, last of banner crop
assist your niece with homework
exercise on connotation
Take folded fifty-dollar bill
handshake from your dad
post leave-taking revelation
of his funeral wishes
whereabouts of secret cache
has all important papers
Follow lakeshore, edge of river
back thru blasted pre-Cambrian
alone on two-lane in autumn
peak of deciduous colours
Pray to your theories
Reprinted with the permission of the Estate of Terrance Cox.