Roo Borson: a lifelong journey toward excellence
Writing in The Washington Post in 1998, former U.S. poet laureate Robert Hass described Roo Borson as “one of the best-known Canadian poets of her generation — a clear writer, clear-minded, with a dark and musical imagination.”
Considered a pioneer of prose poetry in Canada, Borson’s reliance on life experience, her use of memory and her lifelong love of the sound of words have earned her critical acclaim and a devoted readership in both Canada and the United States.
“To read Roo Borson is to discover colour in black and white photographs or witness once barren landscapes flowering forth in full fecundity,” wrote Maisonneuve.org poetry critic Jenny Boully in a 2004 review of Borson’s latest work, “Short Journey Upriver Toward Ōishida.”
A few lines from that watershed collection illustrate the sensual symphony Borson creates:
“Below the willows, in the dry winter reeds,
banjo frogs begin a disconcerting raga,
one note each, the rustling blades grow green.”
A three-time CBC Literary Award winner (twice for poetry and once for short story), Borson has also been thrice nominated – over three consecutive decades – for the Governor General’s Literary Award in poetry: in 1984, for her collection of poems entitled “The Whole Night, Coming Home” (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.); in 1995, for “Night Walk” (Toronto: Oxford University Press); and in 2004, for “Short Journey Upriver Toward Ōishida” (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.), for which she took home the prize.
In presenting Borson with the GG, the jury called the book “an organic whole that resonates on profound spiritual levels, juxtaposing the mundane with notions of transcendence,” which “invite the reader to embark upon a contemplative journey full of imaginative encounters with death, love, beauty, creativity and the mystery of the physical world.”
“Short Journey” is the 11th book of poems Borson has released since 1977, shortly after she arrived in Canada from the United States. Born in Berkeley, California in 1952, Ruth Elizabeth Borson graduated with a bachelor of arts from Goddard College in Vermont and obtained a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver.
Writing under the pen name Roo Borson, her work has also appeared in several anthologies, including “The New Oxford Book of Canadian Verse,” the “Norton Introduction to Literature” and “The Morningside Papers.”
In addition, she has been a writer-in-residence at the University of Western Ontario in London, at Montreal's Concordia University, at UBC’s Green College and at the University of Toronto and – with her life partner, fellow poet (and York University physicist) Kim Maltman – is a founding member of the collaborative performance-writing ensemble, Pain Not Bread.
The late Canadian literary icon Timothy Findley once noted that Borson’s work “creates a compelling atmosphere of wonder.” She does so for her readers and for herself, discovering new ways to capture the world or to conjure new worlds.
Perhaps she is one of the poet-villagers of Ōishida who sought the sage advice of the visiting 17th-century Japanese poet, Basho. Her sense of wonder draws us in.
“What's next, you ask yourself,” her 1994 poem, “Ten Thousand,” concludes. “You ask it ten thousand times.”
- Christopher Guly