Two years ago today, my friend and poet FA Nettelbeck died. A month earlier Four Minutes to Midnight published his final book of poetry, Happy Hour, with illustrations by Sophie Jodoin. I had planned to perhaps visit him over the holidays that year, take a trip with my brother down to the backwoods of Oregon, with a box of books in tow. Those plans fell apart, and in the new year, I was contacted by his sister Sandra, first to let me know that he was in the hospital, and soon after to let me know that he had died. I didn’t know that he had a sister. She didn’t know that he had a publisher.
I wrote briefly about our time “together” shortly after his death, and today, it’s weighing real heavy on me again. Things are looking pretty ugly to me right now, with a lot of blame to go around in this frigid country. The list is long, and probably not worth mentioning here, but the world looks a lot like he saw it, and I wish he could write it down for me. Set it on the page, or at least the screen.
I’m far from a poet, much less a critic, but I do know what affects me. Fred’s poems speak so strongly to me because of the razor’s edge they ride between wild experimentation and brutal authenticity. Nettelbeck cooly skinned the surface of America and brought to it the depth of his lived experience there. He threw down a bloody, bold-faced challenge to all the squares, and he lived that challenge til it buried him. Sometimes, he managed to hit the sublime, and I think he had his buddy Burroughs beat on that point. A cut-up poem that’ll actually make you cry is a damn rare thing…
There are a smattering of his words, and some heart-felt appreciation of them online (Owen Hill’s tribute is particularly insightful—Nettelbeck’s poetry points to the elephant in the room…), but his own website has long since been taken down by the internet providers (thankfully his blog still exists, though who knows for how long).
While I was traveling in Berlin two summers ago, I had my laptop stolen, and along with it all the email correspondences I shared with Fred, and all the working files for the book. There’s nothing left but the books themselves, printed in an edition of 350 numbered copies. It’s unsettling to think that this is all that’s left between us. But it’s why we made the books. It is why we need to keep making books.
And it’s strange to think about how John and I ended up putting out Happy Hour. How a poet as important as him ended up being published by two design kids in the Mile End, Montréal. How marginalised culture gets sustained, and how much responsibility lies therein.
I don’t think we’ve done a particularly good job to be honest, but we’ll keep trying, because, yes, this is important.
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