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Culture

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The (Surprise) Heartthrobs of Canadian Poetry

A new exhibition reveals previously unseen photos of Canadian poets at the dawn of their careers. And, they're really cute.

Photo of Michael Ondaatje by Shelly Grimson.

How Beautiful We All Were…
Portraits of Sixteen Canadian Poets by Shelly Grimson

Miles Nadall JCC (750 Spadina Avenue)
April 3–30; Monday to Friday 9 a.m.–9p.m., Saturday and Sunday 9 a.m.–7 p.m.
Opening Reception: April 3, 7–9 p.m.
FREE

A young Michael Ondaatje lies outstretched on a bed of pebbles, shirtsleeves rolled up with the top buttons undone, gazing intently into the camera beneath a corona of thick, tousled, dark hair. Before the lens of a 20-something hippie named Shelly Grimson, the revered author of The English Patient and In the Skin of a Lion was a veritable pinup.

“He didn’t even want the picture!” Grimson, now in his mid-60s, remembers. “I think he didn’t like that image of himself, looking like that. He doesn’t really think of himself as a good-looking guy.”

Grimson was a hobby photographer attending the University of Toronto when Oxford University Press hired him to take a series of photos of up-and-coming Canadian poets for a new anthology. He spent the next few months palling around with the likes of Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, Gwendolyn MacEwen, Earle Birney, and others. While a few of the resulting photos were featured in the anthology, the majority were left untouched; the negatives were tossed in a drawer and all but forgotten for the next three decades, until Grimson—now a criminal lawyer—decided to develop them. The resulting photos are being featured in a gallery exhibition that opens tonight at the Miles Nadal JCC.

Most of the prints have never been seen by the public before, though some have been shown in private literary exhibitions over the past several years. Grimson notes that, on occasion, even the subjects of the photos are taken aback by the images of their former selves. “One of [the photos of herself], Margaret Atwood saw. I said, ‘Take a look at this one.’ And she broke out in a smile when she saw it. I think even she was struck by how beautiful she was.”

Photo of Margaret Atwood by Shelly Grimson.

The photos, all taken around 1970, capture not only a generation of Canadian poets at the dawn of their careers, but a period of mini-Renaissance in Toronto’s literary history. Grimson remembers a number of quirky stories from the epoch, such as one told to him by Raymond Souster—the “banker poet,” who funded numerous poetry publications through his banking day job and is also featured in the exhibition—of a reading organized with Gwendolyn MacEwen, during which the roof began leaking so violently that a bowl had to be arranged mid-verse to collect the water.

“The roots of the Toronto poetic tradition are really rich,” says Grimson. “I don’t think anyone’s ever really mined it yet. I’m glad I was lucky enough to be able to catch some of it visually.

“I like to think of them as the images we’ll always remember these writers by. That’s what gives me pleasure. That’s what I’m in it for.” He adds, wistfully: “It’s an emotional gift. It’s something personal.”

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