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Canada to commemorate Layton centenary

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Irving Layton [David O’Rourke photo/Courtesy Concordia Library]

MONTREAL — The 100th anniversary of the birth of poet and teacher Irving Layton will be commemorated with an evening of readings and reminiscing at Concordia University March 11.

The Montreal event is one of a series being held across Canada that week in all 10 provinces and two territories in 19 communities – so far – from the big cities to smaller towns like Goose Bay, Whitehorse and Bowen Island, B.C.

The initiative for the nationwide celebration of Layton’s life and work lies with the publishers of Poetry Quebec, an online magazine of English poetry by Quebecers, said one of its editors and co-founders, Endre Farkas.

Last spring, the magazine began planning an issue dedicated to Layton, who was born March 12, 1912, in Tirgul Neamt, Romania. He died in 2006 in Montreal, where he lived most of his life. They thought of holding a modest event in Montreal to launch the anniversary issue.

Then Farkas and fellow editor Carolyn Marie Souaid were in Toronto last fall for a reading where they met Layton’s eldest son Max Layton. They learned he was planning a low-key event in Toronto for the anniversary.

“We convinced him that his father’s centenary was worth more,” Farkas said. “Whether you liked him or his poetry or not, Irving Layton raised Canadians’ consciousness of poetry like no one else.”

The younger Layton created a Facebook page as a hub for the co-ordination of commemorative events, and before long, they were springing up spontaneously across the country. In Toronto, Margaret Atwood is taking part.

“Never before in Canadian history has this country united to remember – of all things! – one of its poets,” comments Max, who lives in Cheltenham, Ont.

These are mainly grassroots outpourings or literary get-togethers, without any government or other financial support, ranging from readings and performances to parties and toasts, Farkas said.

“I hear someone is translating a Layton poem into Inuktitut,” he added.

In Montreal, some of the province’s well-known English-language poets and literary personalities will be reciting Layton’s poems, among them Anne Cimon, Jason Camlot, Catherine Kidd, Guy Sprung and Mark Abley.

Bringing personal reminiscences will be two of Layton’s former students at Herzliah High School, member of Parliament Irwin Cotler and television executive Moses Znaimer from Toronto, as well as Musia Schwartz, who befriended Layton after she settled in Montreal after World War II.

Layton’s fifth and last wife, Anna Pottier, who now lives in Utah, will also be at Concordia. The couple’s separation in 1995 was wrenching but the 47-year difference in their ages was becoming apparent.  She is completing a memoir Good as Gone: Life With Irving Layton.

Theatrical and musical excerpts of works related to Layton are also scheduled.

Other appearances will be made by former Black Theatre Workshop artistic director Tyrone Benskin, now an NDP member of Parliament and opposition critic for Canadian Heritage, and Claude Beausoleil, the poet laureate of Montreal, as well as Joy Bennett, who played a key role in cataloguing the massive Layton archives at Concordia.

Concordia’s Vanier Library has for 40 years housed Layton’s complete published works, correspondence, hundreds of audio recordings and other memorabilia, including two busts. It’s the largest collection of Layton’s papers in existence and one that has continued to grow since his death. Layton taught at Concordia from 1949-69 and again in the late 1970s.

Bennett was an English literature master’s student when she was hired to organized the material in the early ’70s.

“Irving was larger than life,” she recalled. “He was one of the most charismatic individuals I’d ever met.”

Farkas’s personal relationship with Layton was limited to the few times he accepted an invitation to speak at John Abbott College, where Farkas used to teach.

“Off-stage, Layton struck me as a quiet, thoughtful man, but then he would take off his tie, ruffle his hair and say, ‘Let’s go’, as he went off to see the students. He was a performer, and a really good teacher – inspirational, and always generous with his time with younger writers.”

The March 11 event will be held in the 185-seat J.A. de Sève Cinema in the J.W. McConnell Building, 1400 de Maisonneuve Blvd. W. at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Contact Farkas at info@poetry-quebec.com or 514-488-3185.

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