Stories to Tell
Profile by Jane Ledwell
Like a superstitious ball player getting ready for a new season, Dr. Richard Lemm may be ritually dusting and lining up his office knick-knacks in the UPEI English Department where he has been teaching since 1986, full-time since 1988. At the beginning of the school year, he smiles, “I’m always nervous – which is good.” In his dreaming life, teaching nightmares are now joined sometimes by happy teaching dreams, full of pleasant surprises.
“I get more relaxed year after year. I’m finally learning how to teach, finally learning to be myself,” he says. “I have the spontaneity I would have with friends I really relax with. In the past, I think I was more inhibited because I didn’t want to make students uncomfortable. But, of course, the more relaxed I am in myself, the more relaxed they are.”
In his years at UPEI, he has also seen his students transformed. Island students now, he says, are “more worldly. More cosmopolitan. More tolerant. More liberal.”
Remembering the 1988 plebiscite on the “Fixed Link,” and the debate about maintaining the “Island way of life,” Richard remembers Islanders who wanted a Link so they could shop in Moncton. “The Island way of life was already changing because of Champlain Place… Travel was a thing you did now as an Islander.” At the time of the plebiscite, he recalls, “baseball caps were in,” but the students were wearing the logos of American teams. The music they were listening to was overwhelmingly American. And now, he says, “with 200 channels and video games – what really is an ‘Islander’? How is an Islander different from someone who lives in The Beaches in Toronto or in Moosejaw or a white person in the Yukon?”
He notes other changes, “The Island accent has largely vanished. I have classes where no one comes from a farming or fishing family, and where most are urban or suburban.”
He continues, “On the other hand, the base of knowledge has diminished. I can only speak from the perspective of the Arts faculty, but gone is biblical knowledge or knowledge of Greek and Roman myth. Gone is knowledge of Elizabethan history. Some people have said that the knowledge is much less deep but much wider, but even popular culture knowledge is fragmented.” This is a challenge, he adds, because, “especially in the Arts, we look for drawing on comparison for poetry and fiction.” Allusion and common references are important.
Unchanged in Island students, he says, is “the respect for generational knowledge is still strong, and that may or may not be as strong in other regions.”
An award-winning writer of four books of poetry, a collection of short stories, and a biography of poet Milton Acorn, Richard’s teaching life is integrated with his life as a writer. He says, “I am so blessed to be able to teach creative writing, especially the advanced creative writing. The level of ‘student’ is high, including people with books out and undergraduates who are so talented. It’s like being part of a great writing workshop every week.”
These days, he also teaches courses in life writing for varied groups of students, and, he adds, “I am very privileged to read very moving, very good writing about lives. There are happy stories you could tell anyone but also stories that are tragic, that other ‘Island-way-of-life’ of hard things that go on.”
With a full day of teaching and marking, Richard used to write at night; now, he writes in the mornings, practising what he preaches to his students by committing to write just ten minutes. “So often, ten minutes turns into thirty, or turns into two to three hours.” (Though, he admits laughingly, “I’m a dead duck if I turn on email.”)
“The greatest ad campaign of the past 30 years is Nike: ‘Just do it,’” he says, and his commitment means he has “well over 100 poems since the last book came out. I’ve selected about 90 pages and some writer friends are looking at them. I continue to write new poems.”
He is also working on a memoir, though he hesitates to describe it that way. “I’m still nervous about that word,” he confesses. “The form of this is a collection of personal essays. The initial purpose was to explore the lives of my male relatives, all of whom fought for America in wars. Then my own life as an American male who grew up as an all-American boy in the fifties, then was a conscientious objector in the sixties, a draft dodger, and, finally, a new Canadian.” Raised by his grandmother in Seattle, the “powerful influences” of his women relatives are also an essential part of the story.
“With a memoir you have to know what to leave out as much as what to leave in. It’s about ‘my experience,’ but the largest part is other people,” he reflects. As he writes, Richard is continuing to ask himself questions: “What was it to be an American male at this time? What was it to be lower-middle class in the most affluent society on earth?” and more questions. He is coming to terms with his identity he is increasingly comfortable labelling as “an American-Canadian.”
The pervasiveness of American stories in North American culture continues to concern him as he sees his own and his students’ writing risk being swamped. “If we don’t tell our own stories, our stories will be told for us, and there is a great chance they won’t be our own stories, or they won’t be the stories we want to be told. Many won’t be told at all,” he worries.
“Our stories now are mostly told by America,” he says. There are many Island stories being told and written, he says, and “this is so very important, but it is a very small percentage of the stories Islanders are being told compared to time on the Internet watching viral videos or news from CNN. It really is like the Dutch boy with his finger in the dam,” though, he adds, “It would be a lot worse without funding and support for arts programs.”
“In my sixty-some years, I have seen cultures get overwhelmed,” he says. It is something he hopes not to see here in Maritime Canada. “The stories have to be told, and a lot of different stories. Some will be tragic. Some will be embarrassing. Some will be hard to swallow. That’s what makes a great culture,” Richard says.
“You can’t just take the happy endings of Shakespeare’s comedies. You need the calamities of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And you need the tragedies, too. “We need PEI’s Hamlet, our Macbeth.” He raises his eyebrows, “Our King Lear! Who will write these stories? It will be a surprise.” It’s a surprise he hopes to receive as a professor with the privilege of many stories.