A celebrated Nova Scotian poet, whose roots date back to the black Loyalists' migration to the province in the late 1700s, Maxine Tynes published her first book of poetry in 1987 to critical acclaim.
Borrowed Beauty, which received the Milton Acorn People's Poetry Award, was an anthology of her many different voices. In the opening piece, Tynes, who died in Halifax on Sept. 12, writes passionately about the role that poetry, race and womanhood played in both her life and work.
"Women are always looking into mirrors, looking for a mirror to look into, or thinking about, regretting, sighing over or not quite believing what they've seen in the mirror.
"We're looking at ourselves; looking for ourselves. The girls we were, the women we are, and what we will become. Searching, always searching in mirrors.
"For people of colour, for Black people, for this Black woman in particular, the search is the same, but different. We are constantly looking for who we are. So many of the signals have been lost, historically and culturally, along the way. … My poems, my poetry, are like mirrors reflecting back in great or subtle beams and shafts of light and words and images that are womanly and Black and brown and tan and full of the joy and pride in femaleness and in Black womanhood that I am."
Born in Halifax on June 30, 1949, Tynes was one of 12 children raised by her parents, Joseph, a shipyard worker, and Ada, a homemaker, in a small house in Dartmouth, across the harbour from Halifax. At the age of 4 she contracted polio. The disease left her paralyzed from the hip down on her right leg and both feet deformed. She walked with a cane. In her poem The Woman I Am In My Dreams she writes about her physical challenges:
"The woman I am in my dreams
is taller than I am
and sees the world as she walks
unlike me with eyes on every step
with eyes ever and always on the ground
… The woman I am in my dreams
breaks all the rules about shoes
wears them high and red
with killer spike heels
moves from Nikes to spikes
and the kind of pumps
that go with a dress
and having your hair done…"
In high school, Tynes started to write poetry, expressing the rebellious time of the 1960s. She told Dalhousie University's alumni magazine in 1988 that she was "Dartmouth's resident flower child." She got her education degree from Dalhousie in 1975 and while there won the Dennis Memorial Poetry Prize. In 1986, she became the first African-Canadian woman to sit on Dalhousie's Board of Governors, serving until 1994.
Describing the 1980s as a bit of black cultural renaissance in Nova Scotia, Lesley Choyce, the publisher of Pottersfield Press, contacted Tynes to ask if he could publish her work in an anthology of black writers. She agreed, marking the beginning of their publishing relationship.
"Her poems resonated with people. Her poems were very powerful and personal," said Choyce. "She had a raw honesty in her poetry."
Other collections of her poetry include Woman Talking Woman, The Door of My Heart and Save the World For Me, a collection of poetry and fiction for young people.
"Maxine's poems were not elitist," said Choyce. "She used simple language in an evocative way."
Her books sold steadily and had a wide appeal, he said. "It's generally hard to sell poetry books, but Maxine was the exception."
When not writing poetry, Tynes was an English teacher at Cole Harbour High and Auburn Drive High schools for 31 years. She was also one of Peter Gzowski's favourite poets on his popular CBC radio show Morningside and frequently appeared on CTV's Canada AM, where she would talk about popular television shows and other media.
"She looked like a performer. She thrived on performing," said her friend Wayne Thompson.
Dressed in colourful, long skirts, bright hats and lots of jewellery, she wasn't afraid to wear matching makeup around her beautiful, dark eyes. "I see the lights in the bathroom aren't working again," Thompson teased his friend referring to her colourful choices.
Tynes loved to give readings and to appear at book signings. "The remarkable thing about her poetry was that it sounded best when read by her," said former teaching colleague Ray MacLeod. "She had a fantastic reading voice."
Choyce remembers her almost magnetic draw at public events. "She had this connection with people and made people light up.
"You looked at Maxine's eyes and you saw this tremendous energy and passion for life," he said. "She really was the people's poet."
After the 1990s, she stopped publishing poetry and moved out of the public eye. As her health deteriorated, she focused on teaching and writing for school textbooks. She continued to write almost until the end of her life. As a teacher, she encouraged her students to write poetry of their own and would read her poetry in class on occasion. She also liked to share her love of poets like Maya Angelou with students.
"She always insisted that the material she read in class was multicultural. She made sure the kids didn't just read old, dead white men," said MacLeod.
A dedicated teacher, she was adored by many of her students, but had little time for those who didn't want to work or weren't interested in literature. "You never saw her alone in her classroom. She always had a group of kids around her," said MacLeod.
She wrote passionately not only about her own life and concerns, but about social issues such as the racism experienced by earlier generations of black women, famine in Africa and the prostitutes working at night in Halifax. She communicated a sense of hope and the beauty of the human spirit.
"My poems are great shouts of the joy that I feel and share; the deep passion that rocks and caresses and embraces me and all that is part of my world and my life. The laments for lost heritage are there; but, then, so are the feelings of having found a centre and a self-acceptance and an identity in this Black and woman's skin that I so joyfully wear.
"I wear it joyfully. I wear it big. I wear it womanly. And I wear it Black. Black. Black. As night, deep and soft and endless with no moon. Just black and perfect splendour in life and in being a woman in this world," she wrote in Mirrors.
Tynes, who had been diagnosed with post-polio syndrome, leaves siblings Josephine, Joan, Margaret, Lynda, Patsy, Dianne, David, Charles, Andrew and Timothy, as well as several nieces and nephews. She was predeceased by her brother Douglas.
Special to The Globe and Mail