Jeanette Lynes

Who wrote the book of love?

The salutations are personal—Marguerite, Dear F., My own beloved, Dear Mentor/Tormentor, Dear loving Spirit—and they mark the start of the often touching, sometimes poignant and occasionally surprising letters brought together in a new book entitled Where the Nights are Twice as Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets.

By Colleen MacPherson
For co-editor Jeanette Lynes, English professor and co-ordinator of the MFA in writing program at the U of S, the new book proves that while some things change—using email to send letters rather than paper—the joy, and sometimes pain, of love is constant.

The book, published by Goose Lane Editions, includes romantic correspondence by over 100 poets, some who lived as far back as the 19th century, some just beginning their careers today and those in between. It was the brainchild of her co-editor David Eso from the University of Calgary, said Lynes. He approached her about co-editing three years ago after a potential publisher "told him he should team up with—this is the part I don't like—someone older."

What he should have said was someone more established; Lynes' seventh book of poetry will be out in the fall, she is looking for a publisher for her second novel, and there is yet another manuscript—"my other novel"—sitting on a side table in her office.

Goose Lane asked the editors to include a broad historical span of poets, she explained. For those no longer alive, Lynes and Eso drew up a list of people they could potentially include "and then we went looking for their papers. We spent a lot of time digging through boxes in various archives." For contemporary poets, "as often as not they're people we already knew in our networks. It turned out well being a two-person project because David has a different network than I do."

What Lynes and Eso were looking for was personal correspondence between poets and their lovers and spouses. "The publisher also thought it was important that the book reflect a range of relationships, male with male, female with female, transgendered poets, male with female, outside of the white paradigm. Someone even had a love poem to a burrito, but we didn't use it."

With permissions in hand, Lynes and Eso organized the letters in the 417-page book by the age of the poet at the time of writing: teens and 20s; 30s; 40s; 50s; and finally 60s, 70s and beyond. And to be true to the authors' intent, letters with doodles include the doodles,work by a visual poet is accurately reproduced, and email and text correspondence appears at it would on a screen.

Although Lynes had difficulty naming her favorite letter in the book, she pointed out several that touched her in different ways. The most moving, she said, were letters written by Louis Riel to his wife from prison in Regina in late 1885 as he awaited execution. Lynes described one in particular as "a heartbreaker."

Among the strong contingent of Saskatchewan poets featured in the book are two writers, the youngest to be included, who met in a class at the U of S. One is in the MFA in writing program; the other is a recent visual arts graduate. "It's a kind of U of S romance," said Lynes.

And although the book is a collection of love letters, "there are a lot of tirades and tantrums, and a lot of blue language, F bombs. There's a lot of remorse, a lot of acrimonious bitterness but also a lot of hilarity—the whole gamut. Robert Service, his letters are really melodramatic."

This all points to one universal truth: relationships are complex.

"In some cases, it was almost like the poet was using writing to make sense of their choices, to address some guilt. One of the lessons I learned is that for these poets—and I don't think they're different than anyone else in this—even after a relationship had ended, it's not like they could turn off a switch and not love that person."

The book also documents the history of letter writing, said Lynes.

"I think it meant something different to write a letter with a pen, put it in an envelope, seal it and walk to mail it, and maybe the person would get it in two weeks. If it's transatlantic, they might not get it for three months. Email has a much different rhythm. And the young writers from Saskatoon, theirs are text messages so that's the other end of the spectrum.

"But what really struck me … is the geographical space of Canada, that one person in the relationship is in Victoria and the other person is longing, longing over 3,000 miles for another person in Montreal. That aching longing that comes with huge geographical distances seemed like a very Canadian, romantic discourse to me. In a way, all of this discourse is mediated by the physical conditions of this country, which is still not easy to traverse. Even with email, if the people are far apart, there is still plenty of longing."

Where the Nights are Twice as Long: Love Letters of Canadian Poets will be launched March 12 at McNally-Robinson Booksellers.