Stan Dragland
Stan Reading (CBC Books & Book*hug Press). Calgary-born, St. John’s-based writer and publisher Stan Dragland died Aug. 2, 2022, at the age of 79.

– for Marshall Soules –

By J.S. Porter

Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got
Till it’s gone
– Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi”

On May 25, 2020, my friend Marshall Soules introduced his friend Stan Dragland to me via e-mail.  I didn’t know at the time how privileged I was to carry on a two-year correspondence with a Newfoundland and Canadian luminary, who belongs on the same shelf as George Woodcock and Hugh Kenner—didn’t know what I had till it was gone.

Dragland’s reputation preceded him, of course. He was a man of letters: critic, novelist, storyteller, poet, publisher, editor, and a musician. I knew he was the co-founder of Brick Books, still publishing some of the finest poetry books in the country, and the founder of Brick magazine, still printing some of the finest writing in the country.  I had read his “Bees of the Invisible: Essays in Contemporary English Canadian Writing,” and knew he was a friend and mentor to many writers. I hadn’t yet read his great coffee-table book on the Newfoundland artist Gerald Squires.  That gift came later in the post as part of my Newfoundland education.

I should have been intimidated, scared even—a Nobody writing to a Somebody—but I wasn’t, whether due to stupidity or an inflated sense of self-worth.  I wrote to him as someone who had read some of the same books he had read.  And after a few e-mails, the back-and-forth seemed relaxed and easy, partly because it became clear to me that Dragland had, as part of his DNA, Whitman’s code:

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Stan wrote to me as an equal as if I were on his level, no claims of superior enlightenment, no pulling of rank, no I-know-what-I’m-talking-about-and-you-don’t. I should have known that a man who collects junk and makes snakes out of driftwood and fabric wouldn’t put on airs.

He wrote warmly, encouragingly, right from the start: “Enjoyed the Bolano piece very much. I can see it will always be worth reading your blog, but I’ll space it out.  It seems to me, having read a bit of Porter so far, that one word we share is love. I’ll have to consider whether that is the word for me, but I do keep coming back to it… You have a wonderful voice for sharing and I do think that if you hadn’t settled on the triple word of your title [spiritbookword], love might well have been the one for you.” I think his word was love.  He was a lover of books, song and people.

His Credo statement in “The Difficult” underscores it:

If our criticism doesn’t spring from a desire to make our writing worthy of writing we love, there is something parasitical about it. Engaging analytically with any worthy book is like wrestling with an angel.

I thanked him for sending me the book (by this time in our connection we had developed a book exchange as well as an exchange of ideas on what we happened to be reading at any given time), and thanked him for his word “meanderthal,” which I took to be his style of reading.  Like a child who doesn’t walk linearly, in his reading Stan would take side-trips, wander off, take his time, “picking up this and that as he goes.”

I told him that meandering was how I read and meanderthal was who I aspired to be.

He wrestled with Dennis Lee’s “testament,” as I did, and came out of the match ingesting Lee’s cicada words BURROW AND SING, which he carved out and put on a walking trail. And: “My daughter was just visiting and showed me some of her recent work in pottery, so I commissioned two mugs to say “Burrow and Sing.”

I responded: “If I had a bumper sticker, I’d use another Leesian phrase, “Sizzle of Is” or “One-day Tremendum.”  If I abandoned Lee, I’d turn to Beckett: “Fail Better.’”

Then we turned to his beloved Newfoundland in our conversation.  “I’m reading Robin Blaser’s collected poems, The Holy Forest, and a poem called “The Mystic East,” a list of historic Newfoundland place names.  Are there still places called Bread Island, Cheese Island, Ha Ha Bay, Sacred Bay, Bad Bay, Ireland’s Eye, Nick’s Nose Cove, Bay D’Espoir, heard as Bay Despair, Blow-me-down, etc.?”

His reply: “Yes to all the names, and you may add Dildo, St. Jones Within, Bristol’s Hope, Come By Chance, Bumble Bee Bight, Happy Adventure, Heart’s Content, Heart’s Desire, Little Heart’s Ease, Joe Batt’s Arm, Leading Tickles, and Nameless

Stan was a bricoleur; in other words, a scrounger, a scavenger, a beachcomber, a magpie, a mongrel who read and wrote mongrel works.  My favourite among his books is “The Bricoleur & His Sentences,” and there is no better review of it than that by Susan Olding in “The Malahat Review,” Spring 2015.  She catches the movement of his mind.
“There’s fun in finding Christopher Smart in bed with Gertrude Stein; Warren Zevon wedged between Margaret Avison and Seamus Heaney; Ken Babstock on the same park bench as E. B. White. ‘It’s a lonely activity, writing. Even the most successful of us, doing what we feel called to do, may feel like orphans unless we chance to happen upon our spiritual family.’”

“Reading this bricoleur’s accumulation of sentences, I felt companioned. I’d wander with him anywhere in the fields of language. Erudite, yet earthy. Confidential, yet not confessional. Part commonplace book, part essay, part memoir, part literary appreciation, “The Bricoleur & His Sentences” is as playful, perceptive, and profound as the spirit that animates it.”

That’s who Stan Dragland was for me—playful, perceptive, and profound— in the short time of our correspondence. I continue to wander in his fields of language.