As a boy, Gary Hyland won a poetry book at a bazaar. It was a reject copy that had some blank pages and missing endings. The boy, who had begun to write creatively, eventually filled in that white space with his own poetry, his words standing next to Wordsworth's and Tennyson's.
Hyland had a knack for filling in welcoming blank pages. He founded more than a dozen cultural organizations, mostly in Moose Jaw. He brought teenagers' issues to a Canadian poetry scene that had too often ignored the rich awkwardness of adolescence, and the characters who peopled his work saw him welcomed as a writer who rose above easy solipsism. He helped mint poetry connoisseurs in the high school English classes he taught. And as his communication skills diminished, he worked hard to have poetry continue to fill his life.
Hyland died on April 5 at the age of 70 in Moose Jaw from the neurodegenerative disease, ALS.
While both his poetry and his teaching won him several awards and influenced many, it was his arts advocacy that left a legacy to his beloved Moose Jaw and the province of Saskatchewan. From 1991, three years before he retired from teaching, to 2007, when his "galloping" illness (he said he would have preferred a more benign metaphor) sapped much of what until then had been a boundless energy, he either spearheaded or was instrumental in the founding of a writer's retreat, an art school, both a literary and an arts festival, an arts advocacy group and a cultural centre, not to mention getting Moose Jaw named a cultural capital of Canada in 2007 and volunteering for a few other organizations.
One of the most successful of his organizing endeavours began in 1974, when writer Hugh Hood told him that he and his fellow Saskatchewan poets should start their own publishing house. The following year he and friends Bob Currie, Barbara Sapergia and Geoffrey Ursell began Coteau Books on $135 from each writer. (It was also fuelled by the occasional bottle of rye.)
For 12 years Hyland helped shepherd Coteau, which has come a long way from shipping books out of his house. The company is now an important Regina-based publisher of Canadian fiction and poetry, with a Saskatchewan-heavy catalogue and a couple of Governor-General's Award-winning titles to its name.
His other cultural feats were founding the Saskatchewan Festival of Words in 1996, convincing Moose Jaw, with a current population of 35,000, that it could sit through free verse, storytelling and other genres. He managed in 2000 to attract public and private funding to transform the derelict and once-beautiful Capital Theatre into the Moose Jaw Cultural Centre, now one of the town jewels and a concert venue lauded for its acoustics and restored frescos.
"Throughout his life, Gary was the kind of guy who dreamed big dreams, and then worked his butt off to make those dreams come true," Currie said at Hyland's funeral. Donna Lee Howes, who has been executive director at the Festival of Words since Hyland handed over the reins in 2007, also talked of dreams when she talked about Hyland. "A lot of people dream, but few dreams bear fruit like Gary's."
Gary Hyland was born on Nov. 25, 1940, in Moose Jaw, the first of two boys to parents James Kenneth and Iris (née Bourassa) Hyland. His father, who went by the name of Teck, mostly worked in the rail yard pumping gas into dining car tanks, while his mother brought in some money as a hairdresser, usually cutting hair at her clients' homes.
Times were tough, as Teck drank heavily and Iris tried to make sure the bills were paid. Without enough money some days for heat, Gary and his brother would sneak off at night to the rail yards to look for coal that had spilled out of boxcars. On one of those occasions, Gary jumped into a boxcar he thought was full - it ended up being empty - and he broke his foot.
When Gary was 10 he wrote and delivered his own version of a local newspaper, which he named after the street he lived on. The hand-written Home Street Clarion didn't make it past the third issue. His mother put an end to it after he revealed that a neighbourhood couple were part of a nudist colony.
In high school he enjoyed his English courses, thanks mainly to an influential Catholic nun known as Mother Ida, who taught him for four years. While he was active in football and basketball, he spent a lot of time reading - everything from comic book versions of classic tales to more advanced books, such as Dante's The Divine Comedy, which he praised for its "snazzy lingo."
Many of the characters from his childhood and adolescence, with nicknames like Scrawny, Deke and Zip, lived a second life on the page. Poet Lorna Crozier, a good friend who had been a member of his long-time writing group, the Poets' Combine, remembers coming across the character Deke, which she and others believed Hyland based on himself. The boy in the poem is bored in class but imagines he's Icarus flying over Moose Jaw, his wings stuck on to his back with Juicy Fruit gum. He wants to land only once he's in his twenties.
"Nobody does a better job of writing what it means to be an adolescent," she said, adding that capturing the teenage voice was certainly helped by his teaching high school students for 30 years, but also came from triggers in Moose Jaw. "You turn around the corner and your 14-year-old ghost is there for you to see."
The city shaped Hyland's poetry and was its subject too. "I still gauge distance from your boulevards," he wrote in the poem Home Street.
Hyland left Moose Jaw briefly in the early 1960s to attend the University of Saskatchewan, where he graduated with a Bachelors of both arts and education and helped found the university's radio station, CJUS.
He did in fact spend the rest of his life in Moose Jaw, often having to defend the town's reputation as a place for an artist to live. Many people told him and his friends that if they wanted to make it as writers they'd have to move to Toronto. The answer: "We preferred to develop in our own place in our own way and to help others do the same."
He began to write professionally after submitting poems to a Saskatchewan teachers' newsletter in the late 60s. Wanting his work to be accessible, his style could be placed in the same category as Canadian poets such as Al Purdy and Alden Nowlan. Coteau and Thistledown Press would become his main publishers. He was also published in periodicals such as Prism International, Grain, Prairie Fire, Canadian Forum and Capilano Review. He would go on to publish eight books of poetry and two chapbooks, as well as editing two humour anthologies and two poetry collections.
The poem most talked about by friends is his boxing sequence, published in After Atlantis. The five-poem sequence about a brain-damaged boxer offers points of view from the boxer, his trainer, doctor, opponent and manager.
"That left of his would stop a garbage truck," says his coach, at one point in the poem, adding later, less optimistically, that "the poor guy don't know if he's inna fight or gone to Milwaukee." The doctor in the poem later declares: "No more boxers for me. I'm a neurosurgeon not a bloody botanist."
But a lot of writing time was sacrificed for cultural work. After retirement, he spent many hours on grant applications and board meetings, financial plans and written proposals. He got speeding tickets, racing from one volunteer gig to the other. "He also just loved speeding," Crozier said.
His friend, Jeff Beesley, a Moose Jaw film and television director, put together The Last Word from Moose Jaw, which ran on CBC TV's 1997 Rough Cuts and documented the beginning of Hyland's fight to build the Festival of Words. He said Hyland was a visionary who could see 10 years ahead and do what was needed in order to have the dominoes fall into place. But he and others also knew that a lot was sacrificed. "Had he put 100 per cent of his time into writing, he would have won the Pulitzer Prize."
Among the many who sent condolences to Hyland's family was the former premier of Saskatchewan, Lorne Calvert, who had been one of his students. "In his classroom he shaped our lives; through his writing he shaped our spirits; by his labour he changed our city and province; with his passion and love he inspired us. Gary Hyland lived life well and we are the beneficiaries," he wrote.
Hyland leaves his wife, Sharon Nichvalodoff, his three sons from a previous marriage, Mark, Michael and Miles, his brother Jherryd Jhordynn and five grandchildren.