The Other Notebook
by David Helwig
Republished from February 2006
To picture Joseph Sherman’s situation on Prince Edward Island, imagine Woody Allen at a clan gathering of Highland Scots all in kilts and tossing the caber. Yet Joe became a loved and valued local figure, a Jewish intellectual with myopic eyes and bad feet, at ease among all the Scots and Irish and Acadians who farmed or fished lobsters and cared about hockey. He loved Celtic music and owned a boran drum suitable for ceilidhs.
You’d see him at the Charlottetown Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning, talking, laughing, talking. Joe loved to talk, to put things in order, to marshal all the details, to express them accurately and subtly in words, indulging a love of language that surely went all the way back to childhood when the other kids called him Dictionary Sherman. If he’d seen a movie or read a book, he had a huge need to express and refine his critical perspective, what he’d felt or thought or read about it.
And he was a worrier, such a worrier. Probably the impulse to express things out loud was partly an urge to see them properly placed, set in order, a way of fretting the world into an acceptable pattern. He called the book that appeared a couple of weeks before his death Worried into Being, and in it he recounted, in stylish and charming prose vignettes, some of the shiny bits of his life, back to his birth and upbringing in Nova Scotia, a childhood with two centres, Whitney Pier, where he lived with his parents, and Bridgewater, where he spent summers with his maternal grandparents. He was born in Bridgewater in 1945, and until his family moved to Fredericton in the Sixties, they lived in Whitney Pier, near the infamous tar ponds, a place where the snow fell white in the winter evenings and by morning was blackened with the soot that dropped from the chimneys of the steel plants.
The synagogue in Whitney Pier was small, but with a devoted congregation and a rabbi who was learned in the old-country way. Joe’s first full-length book, Chaim the Slaughterer, published in 1974, contained poems about characters from Jewish Cape Breton, as well as other local figures of the very mixed community, including a Ukrainian priest who liked to stop him on the street, grab him by the shoulder and ask if he was being a good boy. He was quick to say yes to the terrifying figure.
Joe was a serious man, but he had a wonderful, sometimes anarchic sense of humour. Oberon Press, his publisher for many years, was run by Michael and Anne Macklem, and it was their practice to sell books while traveling coast to coast, mostly by car, Michael driving or reading manuscripts, while Anne went to the libraries and bookstores to get orders. Came the day when Joe was walking along a street in the centre of Charlottetown, and there, in a parked car, reading, was Michael Macklem. Joe opened the car door, got in the passenger side and sat in silence. Now Michael Macklem is a high strung man, always on the lookout for threats, and there was a long terrified silence before he turned his head and discovered that the mugger who was about to murder him was a small, amiable poet.
Poetry began, for Joe, at the University of New Brunswick where he took a bachelor’s and then a master’s degree and first thought of being a writer. His friends from that time remained important for the rest of his life, as presences, or in the case of Alden Nowlan, as a lost but inspiring spirit. Kent Thompson, Robert Gibbs, Bill and Nancy Bauer, a gang of young writers that included Brian Bartlett and David Adams Richards, these were the colleagues of his student days. A lover of popular culture, he delighted in being on air at the university radio station—which broadcast on a land-link to various university locations—though he realized one day as he was performing that there was a good chance that not a single person was listening.
Joe Sherman’s generation was one that came of age in expansive times, when jobs fell into your lap. He was offered a teaching position in Edmundston, and a few years later he accepted an offer to move to Charlottetown to edit Arts Atlantic. He continued as editor for more than 20 years, one of the central figures of the arts scene in the maritimes. As a poet and editor he spent time in Ottawa and Toronto and Halifax, involved in regional and national arts issues.
Over his years at Arts Atlantic he covered the visual arts in particular, and all the arts as the opportunity emerged. He developed it into a stylish and well-designed magazine. Joe was a generous and loyal editor, and he cast his net wide. Laura Brandon, Curator of War Art at the Canadian War Museum said of him, “I owe my career to Joe.” A young woman at home with a new baby, she sent a letter to Joe saying she wanted to write about art, and he responded enthusiastically and began to hire her. She wrote for him for next 20 years. With a child or two or three in tow she would drop in to his welcoming, disorderly office, as a break from domesticity, and a chance to look for art books she wanted and might claim for review. The list of his regular reviewers is long, inclusive and notable for the number of women he hired. He believed in his writers, kept them working and was loyal to them.
But the expansive times ended, as for many of those in the arts, and the later years at Arts Atlantic were full of stress. The Confederation Centre of the Arts, which had been the publisher of the magazine, withdrew much of its financial support, the bullyboys at Revenue Canada refused to give the magazine charitable status—Joe recalled being imprisoned in an office where two of them played good cop, bad cop with him—and finally members of the board pushed him out, believing that they could do the job better. What they did was run the magazine into the ground.
Joe repackaged himself as a freelance writer and editor. He copy-edited a book about an American football team—though I’m not sure he’d ever seen a football game. He invented the Writing on the Wall series for the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, a number of local writers choosing works from the permanent collection and writing about them. He began a similar project for the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton. He kept up his regular column for The Buzz. He was involved in the negotiations to establish the position of poet laureate for the Island. He was the first to suggest a series of pamphlets by new poets that became the Saturday Morning Chapbooks. He wrote a column suggesting a biennial P.E.I. book award; the idea was picked up by the P.E.I. Ministry of Community and Cultural Affairs, and the award was created.
It seemed no more than fitting when he was given the Order of Canada for his services to the arts and received his decoration at the same ceremony as that other Canadian Jewish poet, Leonard Cohen.
Then in the spring of 2005 he felt a pain in his leg. No surprise. He’d been going to the gym with his wife, Ann, and after all he was about to turn sixty. What he most feared was a recurrence of serious eye problems, the threat of blindness. Joe had belonged to the League of Canadian poets for 35 years, twice served on the League Council, so he went off to limp around Toronto at the annual meeting and came home to more tests, and suddenly he was told that he had terminal cancer, perhaps only months to live. It made no sense; he appeared to be healthy, was mentally active, kept busy living his life.
After the manuscript of Worried into Being: An Unfinished Alphabet was sent to Oberon Press, he discovered that he had notes and unfinished poems enough for a further book, and he made creative use of his insomnia by revising page after page in the silence of a sleeping house at 2 am.
So he worked on, and Ann began the delicate act of balancing encouragement and comfort. They got to the Farmer’s Market most Saturdays, where he could meet up with his wide circle of friends. He was still articulate, still funny, but he knew what was coming, and it came, although he had completed the new manuscript, and copies of Worried into Being, possibly his finest and most accessible book, were put in his hands on December 23.
Joe died on the morning of January 9, 2006 with his family gathered round him. His friends last saw him the previous afternoon, all the words silenced as he slept under the influence of the drugs given him to stifle pain. His funeral was held on January 11, 2005. The funeral home was unable to accommodate the large crowd that attended, and many were forced to pay their respects by standing outside in the cold for the duration of the ceremony.