Katy Clark on “The Beckwith Connection: An Afternoon of Big Hits from the Reaney and Beckwith Songbook”

November 5, 2023 — Thank you all for coming to Wordsfest at Museum London to hear Dr. Katy Clark and ensemble perform selections from John Beckwith and James Reaney’s musical works, including four operas, poems set to music, and radio collages.

Dr. Clark drew on her research from her thesis on “Regionalism in the Operas of John Beckwith and James Reaney” to eloquently lead us though the six decades of Beckwith and Reaney’s musical collaboration.

Congratulations to the singers — Katy Clark (soprano), Paul Gambo (baritone), Charmaine Iormetti (soprano), and London Pro Musica — and musicians — Charmaine Fopoussi (piano), Gary McCumber (clarinet), and Patrick Theriault (cello) — for their wonderful work on these selections:

The Great Lakes Suite (1949) — Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Huron (poems by James Reaney)
“Serenade” (1950) (poem by Colleen Thibaudeau)
Night Blooming Cereus (1959) — A Plant Song, Houses in Heaven, Scene 3 Recitative (James Reaney)
The Killdeer (1960/1961) — Waltz, Excerpt from Act 2, Scene 4, Credits music (James Reaney)
Twelve Letters to a Small Town (1961) — To the Avon River above Stratford, Canada, Instructions: How to Make a Model of a Town (James Reaney)
The Shivaree (1979) — Daisy’s Aria (James Reaney)
Crazy to Kill (1989) — Down the Avenue of Trees (James Reaney)
Taptoo! (1994) — Loyalists’ Song (James Reaney)

Our grateful thanks to Wordsfest’s Josh Lambier and Greg de Souza and Museum London’s Lisa McDougall for their expertise and support. Happy 10th anniversary to London’s Words Festival!

A link to the live-stream recording of this lecture may be available later. For more about John Beckwith and James Reaney’s musical partnership, see John Beckwith’s lecture “James Reaney and Music” from November 5, 2016, and his 2012 autobiography Unheard of: Memoirs of a Canadian Composer.

The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.

Tales for a Reaney Day: Two Great Writers, Three Short Stories at Wordsfest 2021

Sunday November 6 at 2:00 pm EDT — Join us at Wordsfest for this year’s James Reaney Memorial Lecture and celebrate the short stories of Southwestern Ontario writers James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau.

Kydra Ryan and Adam Corrigan Holowitz of London’s AlvegoRoot Theatre will perform two of James Reaney’s short stories“The Box Social” and “The Bully”, as well as Colleen Thibaudeau’s story “Wild Turkeys”.

Host Carolyn Doyle will lead a discussion of these three stories written when James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau were in their early twenties. 

Registration is free for this Zoom presentation: https://westernuniversity.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_1o-GLvU0RO2Atk8HAbdDig

Colleen Thibaudeau and James Reaney, 1949

More about James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau’s short stories

James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau met in 1945 at the University of Toronto and they both had poems and short stories published in The Undergrad, the University College magazine. Both had common background in coming from outside Toronto to attend university and having grown up in smaller communities. James Reaney grew up on a farm near Stratford, Ontario, and Colleen Thibaudeau grew up in St. Thomas, Ontario and also in Markdale, Ontario, where her father’s family had a farm.

Colleen Thibaudeau’s story “Wild Turkeys” was published in The Undergrad (II, 1946-47, pages 22-27). James Reaney’s story “The Box Social” also appeared in this issue (pages 30-31).

New to big-city life themselves, it is not surprising that their early writing features characters who struggle to move beyond the limits of rural society. Like the people they write about, they found solace and inspiration in the world they knew best.

All three stories (“Wild Turkeys” (1947), The Box Social” (1947), and “The Bully” (1950)) deal with family life in rural communities and the challenges social isolation brings to advancing one’s social and economic position. 

In Thibaudeau’s “Wild Turkeys”, Aunt Belle has the love and support of her family to guide her through her youthful romance in 1880s Grey County. Many years later she sees her niece trying to stay immersed in her university studies, and she shares the story of her heartbreak to help her niece gain a new perspective and a new resolve to put her own budding romance second.

Such open communication is not possible for the heroine of Reaney’s “The Box Social”, and she must go alone to the social event at the school to confront her former lover and make his betrayal public. The family in “The Bully” approves of the hero’s wish to be a teacher, but expects him to solve all the difficulties he faces as a shy newcomer in the unfamiliar environment of the high school.

“The Bully” and “The Box Social” have been called “the first examples of a modern tradition called Southern Ontario Gothic because of “their use of Gothic elements of the macabre.”[1] “What makes this locale so prone to Gothic tales is the failure of communication between family members or social groups. In the absence of communication, strange projections and psychological grotesqueries spring up and rapidly grow to unmanageable proportions.”[2]

For poet Jay Macpherson, Reaney’s “The Bully” “turns on the contrast between crushing reality and the liberating dream.”[3] It is the hero’s ability to dream his way out of his prison that saves him from being destroyed by having to withdraw from the school. The heroine of “The Box Social” also finds redemption by confronting her oppressor and realizing she can get past her hatred for him. 

In Thibaudeau’s story “Wild Turkeys”, the passage of time helps Aunt Belle overcome her sadness about her schoolteacher suitor moving on. “After all I had been raised barefoot in a log house, but there was no need to make things harder for us all. I learned the millinery and then your uncle Peter Martin came along. He had a new barn and three hundred acres…” (WT 26) She looks back on her life on the farm as idyllic despite all the chores and racing after the errant turkey hen: “In the old days it seemed as if all the mornings were like the first morning of the world, and I could have run forever through the tall grass. Run and not wearied….” (WT 25).

In a later story “The City Underground” (1949), Thibaudeau does have a theme of a child’s imaginary world helping him realize the need to fight against bullies in the real world, but it does not have the uncanniness and distortions that Reaney’s characters experience. [4]

Notes and references

[1] The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, page 511. William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.
[2] Michael Hurley and Allan Hepburn in The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, pages 593-594. William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011. (For more about Southern Ontario Gothic and James Reaney’s neo-gothic stories, see the September 3, 2021 post on Tales for a Reaney Day.)
[3] Jay Macpherson, The Spirit of Solitude: Conventions and Continuities in Late Romance, Yale University Press, 1982, pages 262-263. (See also James Reaney’s article on Macpherson’s poetry: “The Third Eye: Jay Macpherson’s The Boatman in Canadian Literature, No. 3 (1960), pages 23-34.)
[4] Colleen Thibaudeau, “The City Underground”, Canadian Short Stories, Robert Weaver and Helen James, Eds., 1952, Oxford University Press, Toronto. (“The City Underground” was also broadcast in 1950 on the CBC radio programme Canadian Short Stories.)

“The Box Social” was originally published in 1947 in The Undergrad at the University of Toronto, and then in the popular magazine The New Liberty. Here’s what James Reaney had to say about why he wrote the story in his autobiography from 1992:

“Out of the deep past it somehow came to me, I think from my mother talking about the way men treated women in our neighbourhood. They never struck back; well, in my story one of them did.” (James Crerar Reaney, Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Volume 15, page 304.)

“The Bully” was broadcast in 1950 on CBC Radio and later published in Canadian Short Stories (1952) edited by Robert Weaver. While at university in the late 1950s, Margaret Atwood remembers discovering “The Bully” in Weaver’s anthology. “It made a big impression on me — it seemed a way of writing about Canadian reality that did not confine itself to the strict social realism that was mostly the fashion then. [Excerpted from Margaret Atwood, “Remembering James Reaney”, Brick Issue 82 (Winter 2009), page 160.]

“The Bully”is included in The New Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English, Oxford University Press, Toronto, 1996. It is also collected in James Reaney’s The Box Social and Other Stories (1996), published by Porcupine’s Quill.

The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.

We are honoured to dedicate the 2021 Memorial Lecture to the late Catherine Sheldrick Ross (1947-2021), a former Western University student and colleague of James Reaney’s.

James Reaney: Words and Music with Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead

Sunday November 15, 2020 – Thank you all for joining us at Wordsfest via Zoom for James Reaney: Words & Music. You can view an archived version of the event here: https://fb.watch/1NryVbGfTv/

Stephen Holowitz, Sonja Gustafson, Oliver Whitehead, and Ingrid Crozman at Aeolian Hall, October 18, 2020

A big thank you to Sonja Gustafson (soprano), Ingrid Crozman (flute), Stephen Holowitz (piano), and Oliver Whitehead (guitar) for your wonderful performances of selections from James Reaney’s poem “Brushstrokes Decorating a Fan” and Colleen Thibaudeau’s poems “Watermelon Summer” and “Lullaby of the Child for the Mother.”

Sonja Gustafson performs “Ernie’s Barber Salon Near the College” from “Brushstrokes Decorating a Fan”

And thank you, Carolyn Doyle, for being an excellent moderator and drawing forth the stories and recollections behind the music. Composers Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead first got the idea to set music to James Reaney’s “Brushstrokes Decorating a Fan” when they were asked to perform at his 81st birthday party on September 1, 2007. Their success with James Reaney’s work led to an appreciation for Colleen Thibaudeau’s poetry and composing the music for Adam Corrigan Holowitz‘s 2013 play Colleening.

Our grateful thanks to Joshua Lambier and Gregory De Souza at Wordsfest for helping us put James Reaney: Words & Music together. 

About the composers: Composers Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead are members of the London jazz group The Antler River Projecthttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hteyhpy3gcM

James Reaney’s Souwesto Home (2005) and Colleen Thibaudeau’s The Artemesia Book (1991) are available from Brick Books.

James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau at the farmhouse near Stratford in 1982.
Colleen Thibaudeau and James Reaney at the University of Toronto, 1949

Earlier Wordsfest lectures on James Reaney:

2016: John Beckwith on James Reaney and Music 
2017: Tom Smart on James Reaney: The Iconography of His Imagination 
2018: James Stewart Reaney on James Reaney’s Plays for Children
2019: Stan Dragland on James Reaney on the grid

The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario.

Our thanks to Wordsfest and the London Public Library for their support of the lecture series, and to Poetry Stratford and the Stratford Public Library for their support in hosting the earlier lectures (2010-2015).

Words and Music: James Reaney Memorial Lecture November 15 at Wordsfest

Sunday November 15 at 3:00 pm EST — Join us at Wordsfest via Zoom to hear James Reaney’s and Colleen Thibaudeau’s poems set to music by London composers Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead. Soprano Sonja Gustafson and flautist Ingrid Crozman are among the performers recorded earlier at Aeolian Hall for this online presentation.

Stephen Holowitz, Sonja Gustafson, Oliver Whitehead, and Ingrid Crozman at Aeolian Hall, October 18, 2020

Following the music, host Carolyn Doyle of the London Public Library will lead a discussion about the relationship between Words and Music, and the stories behind the poems. The theme of Words and Music plays off “Words & Music”, an old downtown London cultural outpost beloved by Colleen and Jamie when they moved to London in 1960.

((o)) Register here for the Zoom Webinar: 


The James Reaney Memorial Lecture series celebrates the life and work of Southwestern Ontario poet and dramatist James Reaney, who was born on a farm near Stratford, Ontario and found a creative home in London, Ontario. 

Songs of London Poetry and Painting with Serenata Music on January 18

Join us on Saturday January 18 at 8:00 pm at Western’s von Kuster Auditorium for a musical evening of “Songs of London Poetry and Painting” by local composers Oliver Whitehead (guitar) and Steve Holowitz (piano). 

Inspired by poems and art with a Southwestern Ontario connection, Whitehead and Holowitz have set to music poems from James Reaney’s Souwesto Home and Colleen Thibaudeau’s The Artemesia Book.

The performers are London musicians Sonja Gustafson, soprano, and Adam Iannetta, baritone, along with  Ingrid Crozman on flute and Patrick Theriault on cello (replacing Christine Newland). 

When & Where: Saturday January 18, 8:00 pm, von Kuster Auditorium, Don Wright Faculty of Music, Western University

Tickets are available at the door or online from the Grand Theatre Box Office and OnStageDirect. Students $20 and Adults $40

For more about upcoming concerts and events, visit Serenata Music: http://serenatamusic.com

Souwesto Home, Brick Books 2005
James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau near Stratford, Ontario, 1982.

The Box Social and Other Stories

On May 30, 1996, “An Evening with James Reaney & Friends” was held  at the G.A. Wheable Adult Education Centre in London, Ontario to celebrate the publication of The Box Social and Other Stories, a collection of James Reaney’s short fiction.

Authors Margaret Atwood, Graeme Gibson, and Colleen Thibaudeau attended, and Margaret Atwood spoke about her discovery of James Reaney’s writing in her college days:

I was a student at the University of Toronto in the last years of the 1950s, and James Reaney — who had been cutting an odd swath there several years before — was still an oral tradition. He was known as an enfant terrible who’d published a scandalous story called “The Box Social,” which dealt with gynecological matters unmentionable at that time, and dealt with them in a shocking fashion. (Inside the box of the title — supposed to contain a lunch — there was a fetus.) Nobody seemed to know where this story could actually be read, so its reputation was in consequence tremendous. (I’m happy to say it has now finally been republished.) Reaney was also remembered as having staged  a production of Beowulf in which Beowulf himself turned out to be the monster who was murdering and eating his own faithful followers. The more you think about that, the more plausible it becomes.

I was in the Honours English course, and as a consequence we read almost no Canadian literature; but my older brother was in Honours Biology, which included a Canadian literature course. You may ponder the logic of that — why them and not us? Maybe the biologists took CanLit because it was thought to have a lot of animals in it. However, I was in the habit of reading my brother’s books, and it was in the first Robert Weaver short-story anthology that I came across Reaney’s story “The Bully.” It made a big impression on me — it seemed a way of writing about Canadian reality that did not confine itself to the strict social realism that was mostly the fashion then. I went on to read all of Reaney’s poetry available at the time: here was a fresh, brilliant, and quirky literary landscape in the process of being formed and, I should say, against considerable odds…. [Excerpted from Margaret Atwood, “Remembering James Reaney”, Brick Issue 82 (Winter 2009), page 160.]

Note from Susan Reaney: The event was part of the For the Love of Literacy Writers Festival organized by London educator Win Schell to bring local writers to the school.  (James Reaney: Listening to the Wind, a film biography of James Reaney produced by Nancy Johnson of Lockwood Films, was to have had its premiere that night, but had to be delayed to the fall.)

After the introduction by Margaret Atwood, James Reaney had planned to read “The Box Social” for the audience, but decided not to and read “The Bully” instead. We were disappointed that he did not give voice to the long-lost story, but a friend from school days said that “The Bully” was an entirely appropriate story to read in a high school.

See also “Southern Ontario Gothic and James Reaney” from June 2015.

 More about Southern Ontario Gothic:

“James Reaney’s plays — Colours in the Dark (1969), Baldoon (1976), and The Donnellys (1974-7) — as well as his short stories “The Bully” and “The Box Social” (reprinted in The Box Social and Other Stories in 1996), also assume Gothic elements of the macabre rooted in nightmarish families and uncanny action. […]

What makes this locale so prone to Gothic tales is the failure of communication between family members or social groups. In the absence of communication, strange projections and psychological grotesqueries spring up and rapidly grow to unmanageable proportions. Malevolent fantasies are the source and sustenance of the Gothic tradition.”

Michael Hurley and Allan Hepburn in The Concise Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature, pages 593-594. William Toye, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2011.

The Box Social and Other Stories gathers together nine of James Reaney’s early and more recent short stories and is available from The Porcupine’s Quill.

May 30, 1996 in London, Ontario — James Reaney with Margaret Atwood, “An Evening with James Reaney & Friends” (Photo courtesy London Free Press)

May 30, 1996 in London, Ontario — Writers Colleen Thibaudeau, James Reaney, Margaret Atwood and Graeme Gibson, and producer Nancy Johnson of Lockwood Films.

Poetry Stratford celebrates Four Women for National Poetry Month

Four Women, Red Kite Press, 1999

On Sunday, April 21, at 2:30 pm, come and celebrate National Poetry Month at The Stratford Public Library Auditorium in Stratford, Ontario.

April 21, 2013: Gloria Alvernaz Mulcahy, Patricia Black,   Penn Kemp, and Marianne Micros read from Four Women

Organized by Poetry Stratford, this reading honours the four poets from the Red Kite Press anthology Four Women: Gloria Alvernaz Mulcahy, Penn Kemp,  Marianne Micros, and Colleen Thibaudeau. Gloria, Penn, and Marianne will read their own work, and poet Patricia Black will read the late Colleen Thibaudeau’s poems. Here is one of Colleen’s “Inwhich” poems from Four Women:

Inwhich I Put On My Mother’s Old Thé Dansant Dress

“Yes,” said Janos, “you can put on a costume!”
So I go for a favourite, my mother’s old thé dansant dress
(black georgette and hand-made lace). When I was a child
I looked through snowy windows, seeing her leave
for “Tea For Two.” Leaves whirled, the hem dragged
in the mud when granddaughters sortied out for Hallowe’en;
and then I rescued, laundered, aired, and pressed
(black georgette and hand-made lace). Now it’s a humid Sunday
in the scorching summer of ’88. Jamie retreats to the doorway.
Janos, taking the photos, says, “Nearly done now.”
I think, my whole life-span is in this dress.
And, as I strew these words,
rose petals are falling from the matching hat she made.

Colleen Thibaudeau, 1988

Colleen Thibaudeau, Toronto, Ontario, 1948

The Stratford Public Library is located at

 19 St. Andrew Street,

 Stratford, Ontario

 N5A 1A2.






Colleening: An Evening with Colleen Thibaudeau

Join us March 1-9 at The ARTS Project Theatre, 203 Dundas Street in London, Ontario for the world premiere of Adam Corrigan Holowitz‘s play Colleening, a play celebrating the life of late poet Colleen Thibaudeau (1925-2012).

With original music by Stephen Holowitz and Oliver Whitehead, Colleening is a collage of poetry, personal letters, spoken word and song that lets us discover Colleen through her own words.

The ARTS Project Theatre, 203 Dundas Street

March 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, and 9 at 8 pm
March 2 and March 9 at 2 pm

To order tickets, call The Arts Project Box Office at 519-642-2767
Admission is $15; Students and Seniors: $10

Colleen Thibaudeau, poet and late wife of James Reaney, died on February 6, 2012.
For more about Colleen and her work, see Jean McKay’s Colleen Thibaudeau: A Biographical Sketch from Brick, Issue 5, Winter 1979.

For more about Colleening, see JBNBlog’s review: “Mom had often said her lines were too long to be set to music. Not so, mom, as I am sure you are hearing whether it’s Oliver or Stephen who is working with your beautiful words.”

Colleen Thibaudeau Reaney, 1925-2012 Photo by Diane Thompson, 1997

Reaney plays planned for 2013

Four productions of plays by James Reaney are planned for 2013. Colleening, a new play by Adam Corrigan Holowitz, features the poems and letters of Colleen Thibaudeau.

February 13-16
Althouse College Auditorium, London Ontario

A play with music using Colleen Thibaudeau’s poems and letters
Created and Directed by Adam Corrigan Holowitz
March 1, 2, 6, 7, 8, and 9 at 8 pm
March 2 and March 9 at 2 pm
The Arts Project, London Ontario

Directed by David Ferry
March 14-17
Bishop’s University
Sherbrooke, Quebec

Directed by Barbara Larose
April 12-27

Alumnae Theatre, Toronto, Ontario

Directed by Jason Rip
May 24, 25, 29, 30, 31, and  June 1 at 8 pm
May 24 and June 2 at 2 pm
The Arts Project, London Ontario

Updates and further details to follow in the new year. Hope to see you there!

Colleen Thibaudeau: A Biographical Sketch

Colleen Thibaudeau: A Biographical Sketch by Jean McKay
from Brick, Issue 5, Winter 1979, pages 6-11.
Reproduced with kind permission of Jean McKay and Stan Dragland.

 The following sketch is composed primarily from two interviews with Colleen Thibaudeau, the first, in January 1976, conducted by Stan Dragland, Peggy Dragisic and Don and Jean McKay, and the second in December 1978 with Jean McKay. The interviews themselves each lasted a couple of hours.

The patchwork chart [pages 12 and 13] is the result of a “memory game”. We went through the places where Thibaudeau has lived (the left-hand column, on the chart) and she snapped out quick reactions to the various categories.

PD: How does a poem start?

CT: You generally have a line, comes into your mind, I don’t know from where. Or maybe more than that, even… and if you’re adroit enough to write that down fairly quickly, and its follow-up will come almost right away, then even if you can’t go on with it any more at the moment, if you can get that much down… (this morning, the line hasn’t come yet, but I know the feeling it’s going to be, let me think now, it’s something about calendars, little boxes on calendars being like panes in windows that you can see the day through? Now this morning that sort of came into my mind)… and then the light, it seems to come, either light or music or some movement in the room, or if you’re outside, seems to add another element. I don’t know what that is, I’m just trying to explain it to you. Out of that a line comes. Now, you might change that line, it might have to be longer, or more beats, or different things. And then, if you sit down and work on that, you’re going to have a poem or a story.

Colleen Thibaudeau was born in Toronto on December 29, 1925. Her father, back from the war, was a student at the University of Toronto. He came from the Markdale area of Grey County, Ontario. Her mother was a war bride, from Belfast.

CT: My Dad took us to church, and insisted that we go to Sunday School. My mother only went once, that I knew, and then she hated the smell of the lilies, and never went again. She’s very positive. It was Easter and she asked one of the ushers to open a window, and he wouldn’t, so she said that was that.

When she was a year old, her father took a teaching job in Chesley, a small town back in Grey County. Here her brother John was born. After three years in Chesley, Thibaudeau’s father became Principal of the high school at Flesherton, also in Grey County.

CT: Then in Flesherton the Depression came on, and they were going to have to cut all the salaries in half, and the teachers were so sweet, they were going to give Dad an eighth of their salaries if he’d stay. He did PT too, and he took the debating classes around…

JM: Was he a person with a lot of energy?

CT: I think so, yes, I think he was very energetic. I think he wouldn’t have changed over from being on whatever level he was on there at Chesley to this Principalship even in a tiny little school, except that he felt he would really do something for them, and try to do what had been done for him at Owen Sound. This Owen Sound high school that he went to, I think made people very very… conscientious, and so on. They had very high standards… it’s a Scottish connection up there that’s very high on education… and Dad had wanted to be a journalist, and he had taken part in a lot of debating and so on so it wasn’t hard on him. It was easy for him to train his best kids who were talented, and take them around to debate and they won things. And they were very good in soccer, which is the other thing he was good in.

Rather than stay on in Flesherton, the family moved again to Toronto, where Mr. Thibaudeau (the name is Acadian/French, the Acadian connection being several generations removed) went back to University to improve his degree. The younger daughter Shelia was born there.

 Then they moved to St. Thomas, where Thibaudeau attended the last few years of public school, and then high school. Her life in St. Thomas sounds idyllic.

CT: We liked going down to the creek. My mother always let me go to the ravines, because one friend had a police dog, and another friend had a dog… so I think I had a much freer existence probably… we just did everything… We didn’t actually camp overnight because we didn’t have any camping stuff, but we’d go down early in the morning onto these little islands and just stay there and light fires and roast things. That went on for ages, I adored doing that. I never went to Girl Guides or anything like that… We all kept journals, we were all very influenced by Arthur Ransome, that sort of book… running up flags, and signaling, and lookouts, and skating on the river.

During her school days she wrote poems, and some of them were published in Sunday School magazines.

CT: Then the war came, you see, just as I was going into high school. All the extra-curricular activities stopped. Probably if I ever had a chance to got to, say, a literary society, or something like that or a dramatic society it would have helped me a lot ‘cause I would have had to work with other people, you know, the way we did in the Junior Red Cross, you worked together, and you made up your little plays, and so on, and it was quite fun. But there was nothing, see, all the activities stopped because of the war. We had a nice time. We skated, and did First Aid, and I use to work in Gould’s store… just a small town life. There was very little, really, going on. Then the Air Force came, and there were, you know, lots of young men roaming around the streets so you got to know people from all over Canada and Australia.

Thibaudeau’s father’s relatives were still in the Markdale area, and the family sometimes went back there in the summers.

 CT: During the war there was gas rationing, so we didn’t go up as much as one would think. The big summer that I remember up there was the summer that my mother went to Ireland, so we had to look after all the kids – my brother and I, and Dad, and my little sister – on what we called “the back place.” There was a house, and some animals, it was next to our bush, and Dad went into the bush with John and fixed up the fences…. I think there was an icebox; I’m not certain, maybe not. I guess we just went every day and got some milk, and kept it around the pump.… My sister had fantastic hair, and it was very hard to keep, and it finally just got beyond me. I couldn’t keep her hair right. She was in the woods all the time, burrs and so on. I tried. I had to do it in three plats instead of two. So my mother just was hysterical when she came back and saw her hair.

From St. Thomas, Thibaudeau went to University College at the University of Toronto.

CT: I was the oldest child, you see, so it was sort of assumed that I could go if I got a scholarship. I wanted to go to UC. My dad had taken me to look at Western, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the floors. They were all marbly, and I just wasn’t used to that, it wasn’t like old St. Thomas Collegiate, you know with its nice wooden floors. Stupid.

She received a BA in English, with options in French, and then an MA in English. She met several people who were interested in writing, among them James Reaney, and she contributed both poems and short stories to the student literary magazine, the Undergrad.

CT: I went to the Modern Letters club, which I suppose would be the closest thing to a “literary circle,” but I was the very underperson of that, I would say… My husband never talked very much about writing or anything, he just did it. Phyllis Gotlieb, who was then Phyllis Bloom, was quite a good friend, and Phyllis talked more seriously about doing things. Phyllis was quite confident about what she was going to do. She was already working on certain novels and things, and I never thought in these big terms. I guess I always have thought in fairly small units because I just felt I couldn’t get [larger things] finished, and as long as you keep thinking that way you don’t get them finished, of course.… Henry Kreisel was in that group, and Dorothy Cameron… and Jamie, of course, and Duncan Robertson, Bob Weaver… fascinating people…

JM: Where did you meet Margaret Avison?

CT: I think what happened… Margaret had gone to Victoria College. She knew Northrop Frye, and she wanted very much to meet Jamie. Northrop Frye took Margaret Avison and myself to lunch at Eaton’s College Street, and we had sort of cranberry-like things on blanc-mange, as I remember; you know, it was very nice and light. And the idea was that then I would see that she would meet Jamie. She was so shy that she couldn’t meet everybody all together…. A lot of unexpected things have always happened to me like that, I don’t go looking for them.

DM: One of the stories that you published in the Undergrad, “Wild Turkeys,” seems to be recollecting the Markdale experience.

CT: Well, see, I lived [while at U of T] with my great aunt. Great Aunt Belle was the second sister of my grandmother Stewart.… It was just a pleasure to live with her because she had a slightly easier way of remembering things. My grandma was fun in many ways, but she was just so hurried and harried all the time that she never told you anything. But Aunt Belle was a more gentle easy-going person. And a couple of times, you see, she’d just begin to go into stories like that. So it was from a couple of things she said to me that I reconstructed or made up that story. She wouldn’t have said more than a couple of little hints.

Thibaudeau also had poems in the Northern Review and Here and Now.

SD: Were you at University when Here and Now started up?

CT: Oh yes. It was such a very beautifully designed magazine, that grew out of the Undergrad. You see, Paul Arthur was the Undergrad editor, and very autocratic, and wanted to do everything his own way. He had studied typography and so on with “Graphis” in Switzerland, he’d been in the navy and had gone there before he came back, so that he changed the Undergrad into that gorgeous format, and was very strict about what he put in…. Here and Now started because Arthur was tossed out of the Undergrad, because he was too snobby.

SD: It was quite an impressive magazine.

CT: It’s a lovely magazine, yes. He had contacts from Europe and so on, from his father, I suppose.

SD: Did he know people like A.M. Klein?

CT: Oh yes, he brought the Sitwells over, and did he bring Spencer and Auden? Something like that. They’d be on a circuit, a reading circuit…. Maybe this is a sidetrack, I never knew this man so well, except that he gave me his naval greatcoat when I got married and was going to Winnipeg, he took it off, and he said “you’re going to need this more than I will.” He was funny like that, he was very stuffy in some ways, you know very sort of English, but then he was very spontaneous in other ways….

SD: Was Northern Review going then too?

CT: In ’47 [summer] I worked in Montreal, and that was my first real contact with Northern Review. I’d had a couple of poems in so I phoned them. I didn’t know anybody in Montreal… and they said would you come over tonight, and there was some great to-do about the laundry, I remember…. They had no money, the Sutherlands, John Sutherland, Audrey Aitman. Irving Layton was married to Betty Sutherland who was John’s sister…. Anyway, while I was there (this is terrible, you see I knew very little, I had worked in tobacco and all this stuff, but I didn’t really know how people managed because my mother always managed so well)… while I was there this intricate thing took place, there would be a knocking, so we’d all fall silent and practically hide under the table, in case [the knocker] would be looking through the key hole, and it was that they owed for their laundry… where Audrey who was very very clean took everything, and they would go and pick it up and make some nice little remark and get it away, you see, but it wouldn’t be paid for ages. Everything in the apartment was spotless. She worked nights as a proof reader and so did Betty, but they made so little money, and the men were not working, and they were financing the magazine…. It was very simple…. It was just that summer, I only saw them a few times. John was hand-setting all his magazine.

Thibaudeau completed her MA in 1949, and worked for McClelland and Stewart for a year, doing advertising.  Then she spent a year in France, in the town of Angers, teaching and studying. “How to Know the True Prince,” which appears in this issue of Brick, derives from that experience, as do other stories in a planned series that has not yet been completed.

DM: Were there really African Princes in Angers?

CT: Oh yes, that’s not made up. Elements of the story are made up; there was no thievery or anything like that…. The Janine character, I don’t think that was really true, I think that was sort of a friendship, and I made it into a love story. You see, it’s just what is suggested to you by stuff…. There were two African Princes, one was very nice, very above-board, and the other one was very… this white-suited guy that was so different from anybody, and he was involved in some sort of shady dealings, but I don’t think it was exactly what I said. And there were Japanese, and Chinese, and Norwegians… or there had been, other years. People told you about what had been, other years. It was very fertile ground for stories.

In the fall of 1951, back in Toronto, Thibaudeau worked on the Canadian census, and for the post office during the Christmas rush. On December 29, she married James Reaney. They went by train to Winnipeg, where he was teaching English at the University of Manitoba.

JM: Did you feel like you were having a big adventure, going off to Winnipeg?

CT: Oh yes, I loved it….  The only thing that was very difficult about everything – none of the packing or anything like that seemed to be too bad, or the wedding, none of that seemed to be too difficult, although it was very bad weather, but the thing that was the worst, was that Jamie was bound that he was going to teach me how to play chess, and I couldn’t seem to learn…. I wanted to look out the window or do something else.

At first they lived in Reaney’s boarding house, then in a series of apartments. Their first son James Stewart was born while they lived in an apartment on Warsaw Avenue, in 1952. Then for three years they lived in a house in King’s Park, at that time a little German village outside the city. Their second son, John, was born there in 1954. Reaney’s father came to live with them at this time, and remained with them until his death in 1972. They bought a house on Balfour Street in Winnipeg, and were there for another three years.

 Thibaudeau was writing and publishing poetry fairly steadily, in a variety of magazines. While she was in Winnipeg she decided to use a pseudonym. She felt that her name was becoming familiar to editors, and she’d like to start fresh. She used the pseudonym pretty consistently from 1951 to 1962.

JM: Did you feel like you were a different persona when you were M. Morris, or was it merely a convenience for publishing? The poems themselves were different, but I wondered if you were writing them as M. Morris.

CT: No, I don’t think I felt any different. The poems were different, I agree, and it made it sort of pleasant to have a different name with them. I just had… problems getting things published and all of a sudden it hit me, let’s put these under different names and see how it goes along…

JM: And it did go along.

CT: It went along much better, and it also sort of separated these ones out, somehow… it’s hard to remember how it felt at the time, but I don’t think it felt like a different persona, actually.  I think it was more like, almost like a little house or shelter you built around those, because they weren’t like the others…. I don’t know exactly how I got the idea. It just seemed to come all of a sudden, “OK, let’s try a pseudonym.”

JM: Almost like a prank.

CT: Yes, it didn’t seem to mean very much. Probably that heady atmosphere of Winnipeg makes you think of things like that.

JM: Too much oxygen in your blood.

CT: I had just met this Margaret Morris, who said, “Oh sure, a good idea, I’ll take your mail at my house.”

[In 1956]* the family moved to Toronto while Reaney did his PhD. After two years they returned to Winnipeg, and Susan was born, in 1959. Then, in 1960 they moved to London, where Reaney began teaching at the University of Western Ontario. They lived on Craig Street for a year, and then moved to Huron Street, where they are at present. In 1966 their son John died, from a sudden attack of meningitis.

DM: How do you feel about “the region”?

CT: Around here, it’s a very pastoral sort of region. I used to really miss Grey County…. I don’t think I did like London at first, but now I sort of like it better, and see more in it…. I don’t know whether I feel that [my poems] belong to any particular region or not, really…. I felt really attuned to Vancouver Island, that little region where we were in there [in 1968-69, for a sabbatical year], you know it just felt perfect, and certain other places where we’ve lived I’ve just felt really right in that place, and at some times of the year I feel fine where we live now. Other times, no.

JM:  I feel your poems are “domestic” in the sense that you’re not trying to get away from what’s happening to you. They seem to derive quite naturally from the life you lead.

CT: Yes, I’m not a researcher, see, I think you can add a whole new world if you’re a good researcher, and I’ve never really got going at that.

JM: Well, it’s the homogeneity that appeals to me. That’s why I like “The Glass Cupboard” so well, because you’ve got those glasses holding the reflections of everything… all the different worlds really do seem to balance for you.

CT: Yes, they should…. You get energy form using energy, you get more from it, energy to go around faster, and eliminate the things that are unimportant. It’s interesting. We go though different phases, I think.  Sometimes you feel as if you don’t have that content within you to express… there’s a sort of bubbling up of the content so that you know you can do it, you don’t know what it is, yet… but you know that that’s there and that you can just keep drawing on whatever it is, endlessly. Well then you go through other periods, where you don’t feel confident that that content exists….

Balancing writing with domestic concerns has indeed been difficult. Nor has sharing living space with another energetically creative individual always been easy.

CT: People were always asking me about the archetypes and things. Well, I never studied the archetypes, and they’re a little bit mentally beyond me, I mean if someone explains it to me I can remember it for awhile, but I can’t work that way. Like he [Reaney] will draw it all out, and he knows from which column he’s drawing his images… and I think that’s good, to be conscious of what you’re doing, but with me they either seem to come instinctively from the right area, or…. It certainly expands your world.

SD: It sounds like your ways of working are different.

CT: Yes, well, I just don’t seem to have the mentality to understand what that is. I understand the net result of what happens to you when you do it, that it expands, and that it also gives you pegs on which to hang your thought. It makes your mind tidier, and so on… but as far as remembering it all, I don’t have that.

I think you have to have a place where you can leave stuff out a little bit. And although we have lots of rooms in our house, we just don’t seem to have that kind of set-up. I usually work on the dining-room table…. I found out long ago that I could not work while he was… fermenting up an idea…. It just created such a whirlwind around the place, that I couldn’t seem to get out of it. Now that is partly just a thing that you feel; if you wanted you could overcome that… but it just seems the intellectual energy or something is just…

JM: Flying around the house.

CT: Yes, and so you can’t always keep your own thoughts straight, you see, and I don’t want to write what he’s thinking, even if I could tap in on it, I would want to continue what I was thinking. I found that very hard. So, poor soul, he goes over a lot to the office.

JM: What do you want a poem to do?

CT: Well… I really would like very much if they were as good as songs… songs that people could hear, and that would be sort of going round in their head…. They’re not, nor is there any music with them, but I was always interested when occasionally someone would set something to music to try and see if it would be a good sort of song…. I like Robert Burns, I like the feelings of those older popular but good, very very good things. I’ve never been able to achieve that, but that’s the ideal sort of thing….

JM: So you want them to belong to people.

CT: Oh yes, if they could. Now the only way they can, is if they’re good enough, and if they really are relevant, or whatever, if the words are right, you know…. And that’s sort of what you’re struggling toward, in one sense…. However you have problems of time and technique, and lack of, what shall we say, getting the thing across properly, or of getting it published, or of this or that, and it’s sort of easier, always, what you do you’ve done because it’s sort of the easy thing you could do at that moment, you see, and it probably isn’t what you were interested in doing.

JM: But it doesn’t make it bad…

CT: No, sometimes if things have that feeling of ease about them, they are very very good…. It isn’t that you want it to last forever.

*Note from Susan Reaney: In September 1956, James Reaney and Colleen Thibaudeau moved to Toronto with their young sons James and John so James Reaney could complete his PhD. (See Colleen Thibaudeau’s playlet “A Nau(gh)tical Afternoon” from August 1956.)