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Brian Brett was a poet, critic, farmer and philosopher. When his oncologist and cardiologist both told him in 2019 that his condition was terminal, he responded characteristically. In a poetic, harrowing, hilarious personal essay published in The Tyee, he confessed, “I am a predator of beauty.” Faced with dwindling time – and a string of bad luck that began in 2015 – he was stopping to steal the roses.

Stepping out of his cardiologist’s office after one gloomy report, he noticed how stunningly blue the sky was and how beautiful the plants were blooming all around him and suddenly developed a floral compulsion. “My last flowers!” he wrote. “The deranged flower prowler was unleashed.”

“At first I nabbed them mostly with permission from people’s yards, or off the boulevards. My bedroom became thick with magnolias, camellias, quince and crab-apple.”

When describing Mr. Brett, his friends often use the words “passion,” and “driven.”

“I don’t know when that guy ever took a rest,” said author Andreas Schroeder, a long-time friend. “He worked and accomplished enough for several of himself.”

Mr. Brett died of sepsis on Wednesday after a long stay at the UBC Hospital’s Purdy Pavilion, according to Chris Oke, his friend and literary executor. Mr. Brett was 73.

Almost 20 books of fiction, poetry and memoir feature Mr. Brett’s name on the cover, not to mention the dozens of poetry and fiction pieces in anthologies. He was an instructor or writer-in-residence at 10 colleges or libraries from Campbell River, B.C., to Toronto, and he appeared at almost a dozen writers’ festivals. He organized and often hosted local public events, some with the Vancouver Writers’ Festival, such as the 2016 celebration of Robert Bateman’s birthday. He was chair of the Writers’ Union of Canada and served several times on its National Council.

In 2016, the Writers’ Trust of Canada awarded Mr. Brett the 2016 Matt Cohen Lifetime Award, honouring his dedication to writing and his body of work, to go along with his 2009 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for his memoir Trauma Farm: A Rebel History of Rural Life. Including the 2012 B.C. Lieutenant-Governor’s Prize for Achievement in the Arts and Cultural Service, he won nine major literary awards.

Brian Brett was born April 28, 1950, in Vancouver to an Italian mother and a Cockney father. He was born with Kallmann Syndrome, an extremely rare condition defined by no sense of smell and an endocrine deficit that stopped him from entering puberty.

Although he wore a boy’s clothes, he was hairless and very slender. His body did not make testosterone, stunting his growth until he was prescribed steroids in his 20s. Mr. Brett wrote that he was first assaulted at the age of 13.

“Brian showed me pictures of himself as a child,” said Deborah Windsor, former TWUC executive director. “He was a very pretty boy.”

Mr. Brett wrote in the award-winning Uproar’s Your Only Music that, “I wandered lost, and sexless through adolescence, dreaming of being a real human being, or at least a definable one.”

Mr. Brett’s tough-minded father sold potatoes and got around on a prosthetic leg. In his poem Tall Tales, Mr. Brett wrote about his father’s bragging:

The giant octopus was always

dragging your boat sideways;

the shark swimming away with your amputated leg.

You made my world into your myths; archetypal – chthonic [dark] stories for the child I forever became.

Mr. Schroeder said that when he first met Mr. Brett in the 1980s, back in their university days, ”He loved to be the elephant in the china shop, especially when it came to politics.” But “he was a lot smaller than he is now.”

“At 20, he was only 5 feet 7 inches and weighed 114 pounds,” Alan Twigg wrote in BC BookWorld, “but with the injections he reached 6 feet by age 30. With his lifelong diet of testosterone, Brett has now [2012] ballooned to 230 pounds.”

“He grew four times as fast as the rest of us,” Mr. Schroeder said. Suddenly, “he looked like a biker, like one of those military biker types. I suspect that he got away with a lot of stuff because of his size.”

Quebec author and long-time friend David Homel said that when he met Mr. Brett 30 years ago, “I was afraid at first, because he’s a very big guy, big in presence too.”

While earning a degree in literature at Simon Fraser University between 1969 and 1974, Mr. Brett also joined forces with Allan Safarik in 1970 to co-found Blackfish Press, which went on to win a Governor-General’s Literary Award. Mr. Brett was deep into the psychedelic culture at the time, taking LSD to keep himself awake to work with large printing presses. “I was a dangerous man in those days,” he told BC BookWorld. “That’s around the time I shot my finger off.” The injury was the result of a duck hunting accident.

In addition to his editorial duties at Blackfish and other small publishers, Mr. Brett worked as an independent journalist and critic. Until the 1990s, most Canadian small cities had their own newspapers and big cities often had two or three, with large book review sections. Mr. Brett provided columns and book reviews – by mail – to newspapers throughout British Columbia, at first, and eventually throughout Canada. Almost all the glossy magazines featured his essays. Writing or not, though, he often got into trouble.

In 1980, when Mr. Brett lived in White Rock, B.C., he wrote a passionate broadside against a proposed development – which led to him being elected alderman, twice. Losing the third election by 11 votes, he blamed his loss on a campaign against him by one of the local papers. Suing the paper, he won enough compensation to pay off his debts and to buy his parrot, Tuco, who lived in a cage in Mr. Brett’s study for 20 years.

When Mr. Brett wasn’t producing poetry or prose, he kept busy working around his affectionately named Trauma Farm, a 10-acre hobby farm at the south end of Salt Spring Island.

“He had a sculpture garden, a big vegetable garden, fruit trees, and animals – peacocks, chickens, geese, a horse, a few sheep,” Mr. Homel said. “My family made regular visits to Trauma Farm and my kids were fascinated by him.”

Indeed, usually dressed in jeans, shirt, suspenders, leather vest, and leather hat, with a tendency to call himself a “sheep farmer,” Mr. Brett had an appearance that belied his intellect, his vast oeuvre of published work, his pan-Canada involvement in professional organizations, and his depth of knowledge. Mr. Schroeder called him an encyclopedia, “a walking reference work.”

“His volatility came from his passion,” said Ms. Windsor, who confessed to having had some apprehension about working with Mr. Brett when he finally became TWUC chair in 2005. “But Brian knew his limitations.”

Soon she looked forward to his phone calls every workday morning at 9:05 a.m. Toronto time (6:05 a.m. PT). “I enjoyed that year,” she said. They became close friends, and he invited her to Trauma Farm.

Mr. Brett wrote bitterly in The Tyee of the events of July, 2015, a time he described as brutal. “I lost my health to one of those ferocious hospital bacterias. I also lost the love of my life [Sharon Doobenen], who changed her mind about me after 38 years. We had to give up our farm paradise with its orchard and large garden that I’d dreamed into existence when I was 17 years old.”

Mr. Brett leaves his brothers, Leonard and Bill Brett; his stepsons, Chris and Roben Doobenen; grandchildren, Kylie, Jenna, Ajra and Aubrey; former partner, Ms. Doobenen; and extended family.

Although he would have preferred to be remembered for his work, Mr. Brett did tell an interviewer he knew he was in a unique position. “Like Tiresias, I’ve seen glimpses of the female and the male in one body,” he said. “ … They are astonishing. And although I don’t believe these glimpses gave me any more wit or intelligence or prophecy, they did give me a varied perspective.”

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