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In Memoriam :: Billy Little

A thoughtful commentary on the life of a great poet and true community activist, this is excerpted from a listserv post by Jamie Reid, Wednesday, January 7, 2009:

Billy was an early alumnus of the SUNYAB project, one of at least four Americans related to the literary movement associated with the New American Poetry anthology, who migrated to Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Robin Blase, Stan Persky and George Stanley have each made remarkable contributions to the life of the poetry community in Vancouver, and so has Billy Little.

Billy was raised in New York and served his apprenticeship in poetry at the Poetry Project in New York City. He then shuffled off to Buffalo where he was one of the early students in the SUNYAB program, where he met Robert Creeley, Jack Clarke, Ed Dorn, Leslie Fiedler and other luminaries, including an entire contingent of Canadian poets who had travelled to Buffalo to learn especially from Olson and Creeley. Billy came to Vancouver as a second generation partisan of the New American Poetry, as many others had done before him, including those who attended and presided over the Vancouver Poetry Conference of 1963, including Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, Robert Duncan, Allan Ginsberg, Philip Whalen and others.

On his arrival in Vancouver in 1972, Billy fell in immediately with the local contingent of poets and began a residence that lasted for more than 30 years, in which he became a familiar and welcome figure in literary gatherings in the city. He performed remarkable deeds for the poetry community of Vancouver, for which not only the poets of the city, but the citizens themselves should be grateful. In his profession as a second-hand book seller, and as a genuine and non-sectarian expert in North American poetry in general, along with his partners in the book trade, he made available to Vancouverites a range of poetry publications and knowledge which might otherwise have been inaccessible.

At Octopus Books and later at R2B2 Books, he was a co- organizer of one of the longest lasting poetry reading series in the city, providing a forum for “outside” poets throughout North America, and also a gathering-ground for the local poetry contingent. When he worked at the Special Collections Library at Simon Fraser University (incidentally, one of the most complete collections related to the poets associated with the New American Poetry), he undertook the task of cataloguing the extensive ouevre of the revered Canadian poet, bpNichol available at SCL, a genuine service to posterity.

He was an indefatigable publisher of samizdat style literature, consistent with his belief that poetry should be a kind of action which might help to make a better world. In this role, he was an ardent publicist and promoter of our local poets. All this apart from his wonderful store of poetry lore and knowledge, second to none in the city, which made his influence on the local scene truly incalculable.

During his final years he lived on the idyllic Hornby Island, just off the coast. The island has been one of the unknown havens of some of Canada’s finest artists, some well-known, like Jack Shadbolt and Wayne Ngan; others, like Jerry Pethick and Gordon Payne, barely discovered, or waiting to be discovered. Billy was their friend and sometimes advisor, because he knew and understood a lot.

Typically, Billy left his life with a jest, a protest, leaving behind his own obituary:


after decades of passion, dedication to world peace and justice, powerful frindships, recognition, being loved undeservedly by extraordinary women, a close and powerful relationship with a strong, handsome, capable, thoughtful son Matt, a never ending stream of amusing ideas, affections shared with a wide range of creative men and women, a long residence in the paradisical landscape of hornby island, sucess after sucess in the book trade, fabulous meals, unmeasurable inebriation, dancing beyond exhaustion, satori after satori, billy little regrets he’s unable to schmooze today. in lieu of flowers please send a humongous donation to the war resisters league.

I’d like my tombstone to read:

billy little
hydro is too expensive

but I’d like my mortal remains to be set adrift on a flaming raft off chrome island

Spread the word!