SFU English, the SFU Library, and Poetry in Canada launch the first annual Phyllis Webb Memorial Reading

March 20, 2023
Phyllis Webb (left), Cecily Nicholson (right)

On November 11th, 2021, Canada lost renowned poet and broadcaster Phyllis Webb. To honour her incredible work and legacy, the Poetry in Canada Society has established the annual Phyllis Webb Memorial Reading and award. Simon Fraser University’s Department of English and Library are co-sponsoring and hosting this year’s event, which will celebrate the first recipient of the award, Cecily Nicholson.

Born in Victoria, B.C. in 1927, Webb spent most of her childhood raised by a single mother. She graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in English and philosophy. Immediately after graduation, at age 22, she ran in the provincial election for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) party, the forerunner of the New Democratic Party. At that time, Webb was the youngest person in the Commonwealth ever to seek office.

Professor Stephen Collis, Webb’s friend, admirer, and inheritor of her literary estate, had this to say about her early years:

“Phyllis did unusual things for a woman of that era,” he says. “I don’t know where that kind of bravery came from–to take up public space that way. She carried on these kinds of things throughout her life. She had the independence and internal strength to do what she wanted or needed to do–in some ways, the consequences be damned, thankfully.”

In the 1950s, Webb moved to Toronto and began working at the CBC as a freelancer and producer. Her writing career also started in the ‘50s when she published her first poetry collection in 1954. In 1965, Webb co-founded the CBC radio program, Ideas, and was its executive producer from 1967-1969.

“There was nothing else quite like Ideas in Canada when it started,” says Collis. “It was about creating short documentaries about interesting political, cultural, social figures or concepts or ideas and having fairly high-level, rigorous discussions on the radio about these things.”

In 1969, Webb left Toronto and moved to Salt Spring Island. She continued to write until 1990, producing prose and poetry collections, including 1982’s The Vision Tree, which won her the Governor General's Literary Prize for poetry.

“She wrote really beautiful poetry with really beautiful images,” says Collis. “The language was really melodic and interesting, and I enjoyed it just for the form and the pleasure and play of language. She also had all these political interests and was radical and rebellious. She was a rigorous thinker, and the poetry was having a heated and rigorous conversation with the world.”

When “words abandoned” her in 1990, Webb took up photography, photocollage, and eventually painting. A book, featuring a collection of her paintings and collages, edited by Collis, is expected this summer.

April 8th of this year marks what would have been Webb’s 96th birthday. To closely coincide with that and National Poetry Month, the first annual Phyllis Webb Memorial Reading and award is being held on the evening of April 6th at the SFU Segal Building. The first recipient of the award is Cecily Nicholson.

“If you want to honour Phyllis’ legacy and look for a poet that’s both writing truly beautiful poetry that’s just aesthetically a joy, and just spectacular to read, but also has this intellectual rigour, political engagement, and a fierceness, then Cecily really fits that bill,” says Collis.

At the event, attendees can expect a reading from Nicholson and a response to that reading from a panel of respondents, Otoniya J. Okot Bitek, Junie Désil, and Stephen Collis.

“I want the event to be focused on poetry–reading poetry, thinking about poetry, talking about poetry, responding to and engaging with poetry,” says Collis.