To draw attention to an overlooked poet and an obscure B.C. artist, a Victoria scholar has reached deeply into her own pockets.
Maidie Hilmo has just published For Kelly, With Love: Poems on the Abstracts of Carle Hessay. Hilmo is the scholar — she’s written extensively on medieval texts. Now retired, she taught at the University of Victoria and Northern Lights College in Dawson Creek.
Kelly is the poet. Kelly Parsons, who lived in Victoria and died from cancer in 2008. You probably haven’t heard of her. Few have, although she did publish a poetry book, I Will Ask For Birds, shortly before her death.
“She’s one of the best poets,” said Hilmo, who was Parsons’ friend. “I really want to see her honoured in Canadian literature as she deserves.”
Carle Hessay is someone else you’ve likely never heard of. The late artist, another friend of Hilmo’s, was a German-born painter who lived in Langley. His powerful abstract works, at times reminiscent of Robert Motherwell, are reproduced in For Kelly, With Love.
For Kelly, With Love is an unusual project. For starters, it’s a selfless labour of love. Hilmo bankrolled the printing of 500 copies via her one-woman publishing house, Treeline Press. She didn’t want the cost to be publicized, but it wasn’t cheap. Said Hilmo: “Some people go on vacation — this was a project I wanted to do.”
Although the book is a tribute to Parsons, only a few of her poems are included. Hilmo persuaded 16 writers — most of them local — to contribute poems to For Kelly, With Love. At her request, these poems were created using one of Hessay’s paintings as inspiration (this was a project Parsons was interested in before she passed on).
In the book, each poem and the painting that inspired it are reproduced side by side.
The list of poets, many of them friends of Parsons, is impressive. It includes bill bissett, Linda Rogers, Patricia Young, Terence Young and Patrick Friesen. Terence Young, who teaches at St. Michaels University School, still uses Parsons’ poems in his writing classes.
Bissett, an unconventional poet who once sang and wrote lyrics for a rock band called the Luddites, was especially enthused about contributing to For Kelly, With Love. Upon first seeing some of Hessay’s paintings, he was so excited he immediately started penning poems in Hilmo’s living room. “He was writing them right here on this table. He’d say, ‘Oh, I’m so inspired, you’re my muse!’ ” she said.
I met Parsons only once, two months before she died. She lived in a tiny suite in the back of a yellow house off an Oak Bay lane. She answered the door with a walker. A cancerous tumour was pressing nerves in her spine, causing weakness in her legs.
The 50-year-old was the sort of person you don’t forget. Parsons was gentle, soft-spoken and strong. At the time, an internal pump helped quell the pain caused by her illness. She told me she still got ideas, but could no longer create poems, as the powerful drugs fettered her ability to write.
Parsons was an awfully brave woman. She said her cancer, in a way, was a good thing. It was a motivating force; a “boot in the butt” that pushed her to finish and publish her only book of poetry.
“In a way,” she said, “cancer has been kind of a gift to me.”
One of Parsons’ close friends was Dorothy Field, a poet and artist. She used to sing to Parsons in her final days at hospice. In 2011, Field published a chapbook of poetry about her friend, With Kelly and After.
“Kelly was a pure stream. She just had her own way. It was just a gentle and sometimes quirky way of looking at things,” Field said.
For Kelly, With Love may well bring wider attention to Parsons and Hessay. The latter was a character — he’d do handstands with a pet monkey on his back, panned for gold, performed gymnastics. Hilmo says he died of a heart attack in 1978, dancing at a New Year’s party at the Sasquatch Inn in Spuzzum, in the Fraser Canyon.
For Kelly, With Love isn’t in bookstores yet. However, you can purchase it from Hilmo at firstname.lastname@example.org. It will also be available during a three-day book launch and exhibition of Hessay’s art at Templed Mind Studio Gallery, 2006 Fernwood Rd.
On Wednesday starting at 7 p.m., Patricia and Terence Young, Patrick Friesen, Linda Rogers and other poets will read. The launch continues Saturday with a 2 p.m. reading. Next Sunday at 2 p.m. there will be readings followed by a talk on Parsons by Kathryn Kerby-Fulton, a friend and medieval scholar from the University of Notre Dame.
Hilmo says Hessay was a “great artist.” And so was Parsons.
“I have to say hers is some of the best poetry I have ever read. I really believe that. She really does need to be more widely known and honoured,” said her faithful friend.