THERE’S A JOKE I HEARD ONCE ABOUT TWO IRISH BROTHERS on their way to the station to meet a long-lost cousin returning to Ireland after decades abroad. “Do you think we’ll recognize him?” one asks. “I’m not sure,” his brother answers. They continue on but the first brother is still anxious. “Do you think he’ll recognize us?” His brother turns to him, amazed at this. “Sure, and why wouldn’t he? We haven’t been anywhere!” When I think about my relationship with UVic, it’s a bit like that old joke—except, in this case, it’s as if the campus has somehow done all the changing, and I’m the one who hasn’t gone anywhere.
After graduation in 1975, I chose to stay in Victoria. Having fallen in love with the beauty of the city, and with many local friends, I settled in to work and pay back my student loan. My fine arts degree in theatre didn’t go as far as my typing ability when it came to employment. Two years of uninspiring clerical work followed, but an early passion for writing, particularly poetry, resurfaced. One evening, sadly looking over a stack of my poems, I realized I had no idea whether they were any good. Nor did I know anyone who even wrote poems—except one man. His name was Robin Skelton, and I’d met him years before when I’d had a small part in a play he’d directed. I knew he taught in UVic’s creative writing department. I gathered my poems and my courage and applied to take his third-year poetry workshop. It was one of the best decisions I ever made.
Skelton’s class opened a new world for me. Week after week, my classmates and I strove to create poems worthy of our teacher’s praise. A master craftsman, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of poetic forms, he often sat back with a beatific smile and let us dissect each other’s precious works, the good and the downright awful, as we struggled to pinpoint why some poems “worked” and others, well, didn’t. When we disagreed too loudly, or strayed from our appointed task, he would, with a chuckle, ably guide us back, pointing out elements we most certainly would otherwise have missed.
But if Skelton’s influence as a teacher was inimitable, his real importance in my life was on a more personal level. At one of the gatherings Robin and his wife, Sylvia, held regularly at their home—to which students were always welcome—Robin enquired what I did outside of class. When I confessed I was currently between jobs, he kindly offered to “put in a word” with a local firm looking for copy editors. Within a week I had a new career. The man who hired me was Charles Lillard, a poet and historian who’d once taught at UVic and who had once been assistant editor of The Malahat Review under Robin’s editorship.
Years passed, as did my 20s. Some pursuits didn’t work out, but some did. I ended up marrying Charles. For almost fourteen years our lives were happy and busy as we set down roots even further in our adopted city. There’s nothing quite like raising a family to really know a place—its schools, parks, little league teams, and emergency wards. Throughout the early ‘90s, with considerable moral support from the recently retired but seemingly tireless Robin, we published a series of chapbooks by mostly local authors, some well-known and some we thought ought to be, as a way of promoting “our” community. When both Charles and Robin died, just months apart, in 1997, that same community was united in its grief as tributes poured in.
And now, a decade on, it would seem that some things have come full-circle. I drive to the UVic campus with my son who will graduate soon. I am the assistant editor of The Malahat—the position my husband once held. Last summer, the office moved to new digs in Clearihue, the scene of my poetry class with Robin. My colleague, editor John Barton, was also in that class, and this year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the journal co-founded by our former teacher and friend.
There’s a particular stairwell in Clearihue; some of you will know it. With its distinctive ’60s-style sculpture spanning three floors, and well-worn steps, I cannot set foot there without a strange and strong sense of something like reverse déjà vu. I wonder if it’s the university recognizing me?