In Memory of Stan Dragland

by Lisa Moore

In Memory of Stan Dragland

by Lisa Moore

Stan Dragland came to Newfoundland and fell in love with it. The feeling was mutual. He wrote in his book Strangers and Others, beautifully published by Beth Follett: “Newfoundland, a work-in-progress, has taken me in. Here where I don’t belong, I find the sustenance I need.” 

He also said coming to Newfoundland, after thirty years in Ontario, felt like coming home. His Newfoundland friends and colleagues felt the same. Where had he been all the rest of his life, we might have asked. What took him so long to get here? He writes about Newfoundland resilience and humour and the pride Newfoundlanders feel about living in a harsh place. He writes about being apart from and a part of. In other words, the perfect position for a cultural critic.  

Stan was famous for his puns. I am certain when he writes “Newfoundland, a work-in-progress has taken me in,” he was aware of the double meaning. To be taken in, might mean to be charmed or beguiled, to be seduced. On the other hand, it might mean to be accepted, cared for, and beloved. I like to think we did both. And as for Newfoundland being a “work-in-progress,” he might have been referring to the place, but also his own books, where he wrote about the place.   

And, if I can speak for the strangers he met here, it didn’t take us long to understand the treasure we had in his presence, in his keen attention. Maybe it took a whole millisecond to realize how lucky we were.  

But we in Newfoundland are not the only recipients of that great luck. Everywhere I’ve travelled in Canada, writers bring up Stan Dragland. In the hospitality suites at literary festivals across the country, the conversation turns to Stan: how they have been mentored by Stan, how they’ve been edited by Stan, how they never would have written their books without Stan. How much fun they had working with Stan. His fingerprints are all over Canadian literature and have been for decades. And everyone who talks about working with him talks about the deep sense of respect for the person, the scholar, the novelist and poet . . .  even the puns! They talk about how lucky they were. 

If you are a writer or an artist, and you’ve had the chance to speak to Stan about art, or have read his books, you are convinced (if ever you doubted it) about the power of art to make the world a better place, to provide pleasure, to illuminate our times. Your sense of trust in the whole baffling juggernaut is renewed, because he cared so much about these things. It’s probably very early-nineties-Canadian-lit-crit of me to suggest that certain stories are shaped by the landscape. The metaphor of mapping was big back then. But I can’t help but think of an infinite prairie field with infinite sky over it and a herd of wild horses when I read Stan’s criticism. Everything he writes roves so freely, is so wide open, covers so much territory, and is at the same time deep, like those machines that drill down into the earth for a core sample. Or maybe a better metaphor might be seismic testing, or an ultrasound of a womb, where sound waves are the thing, or the skill of listening. The skill of listening is paramount.  

This all sounds very serious. Stan was so absolutely funny. A great, if sometimes shy, musician. Even his beautiful, odd sculpture constructions, three-dimensional collages of ordinary things, like roosters – which he brought onto the stage at SPARKS with him when he read, just settling them there beside him on the stage, letting them speak for themselves – were magical. They were constructions of odds and ends, bits of broken machinery dolled up, like the constructions of the Dadaists. They were about the very act of piecing things together, treasures gathered from all over, given new meaning.  

Stan was a self-professed magpie or bricoleur, finding shiny bits of language, ideas complex and beautiful, and he just knotted them together. He collected sentences that he found in the writing he loved, single sentences that contained whole worlds and were as close to perfect in structure as a sentence might be. His criticism was shaped the same way; he wrote about Newfoundland writers alongside writers from all over the globe, wild but apt leaps of comparison. He could write, in the same essay or even in the same paragraph, of, say, Agnes Walsh and Halldór Laxness, Stuart Pierson, Bernice Morgan, Margaret Duley and Gabriel García Márquez, all the Mennonite crowd, Miriam Toews and co., side by side with Cynthia Ozick, Daphne Marlatt, Mary Dalton, and Michael Crummey. 

Stan had a big library in his head. Like the library invented in the magical realism of Borges, the library in Stan’s head was ordered not alphabetically or according to distinct categories, but in graceful leaps of intuition, skipping and slipping and skating from idea to idea, spanning miles and centuries, global literatures, poems, novels, histories, and disciplines, all of these disparate subjects cheek by jowl, rubbing up against each other, rubbing shoulders to form new meaning, the very definition of a metaphor. 

In his book The Bricoleur & His Sentences, Stan mentions a kind of rhetorical trick or stance called tapinosis, for which he hunts down definitions, looking for the one that feels exactly right to him. He settles on his own definition, the “couching of complicated matters in plain, pellucid prose.” 

Here are two examples of Stan deploying tapinosis. The first one is from an email exchange: I’d written Stan when I heard that he had been awarded the Order of Canada. I’d learned of the award at my mother’s house. She has a very big TV screen. The news was on and I was in the kitchen, but I heard Stan’s voice and went immediately to the den. 

I told Stan in the email that when I came into the room, there he was on the screen, his head taking up a third of the wall, and I was overwhelmed with happiness, not only because of how much Stan deserved the award, and not just because the universe had finally got something right, but because literature and art and history had been celebrated through him, had been revealed to be important, his face on the giant TV screen right there on the NTV news to prove it.

 I told him the sight of him on that giant screen brought tears to my eyes.  

Stan responded: Oh my Lisa, you are giving me a swelled head!!! 

And here is another example of tapinosis: a party at my house years ago. Loud and joyous conversation in the kitchen, dancing in the dining room. Stan is leaving, and my husband Steve and I see Stan to the door. The porch is full of boots, and Stan is digging around for his, finds them, crouches to put them on, and stands up. He and my husband are standing side by side in front of me like two soldiers. Very straight, pulling off a good imitation of complete sobriety. I’ve already opened the door and it’s an inky dark beautiful snowy night that Stan is heading out into. It is peaceful. We three are all circled by a gust of wind. And Stan offers me a piece of serious advice, in the form of an observation of the moment, as well as a reference to a country song, and of course a pun: he jerks a thumb toward Steve, standing beside him, and Stan says, “Stan, by your man.” 

On that evening, after his joke, Stan, headed off into the peaceful snowy night. 

Lisa Moore is the author of four novels, Alligator, February, Caught, and This Is How We Love, and the young adult novel Flannery. She has written three collections of short stories, Degrees of Nakedness, Open, and Something for Everyone, and a novella, La Traduction, published only in French translation.