Mark Gibbons and Aaron Parrett read from Moving On: The Last Poems of Ed Lahey at Fact & Fiction Tue., July 17, at 7 PM.
It’s possible that Butte poet Ed Lahey’s work might have passed away along with him when he died in April of 2011 at the age of 75. There are really only two books of Lahey’s work reasonably available. They include 2005’s Birds of a Feather, which collected all the poems Lahey had published to date, and the 2011 novel The Thin Air Gang, a heavily autobiographical work of historical fiction about Depression-era Butte. But struggles with mental health largely derailed his career, and Lahey died relatively unknown in a Missoula nursing home. His stature in Montana literature is unassailable, however, and admirers are doing their best to keep his work alive.
Missoula poet Mark Gibbons, a close friend to Lahey, was given charge of the unpublished writing the poet left behind. The result is the new book, Moving On: The Last Poems of Ed Lahey, recently released, with the help from a successful Kickstarter campaign, by Helena’s Drumlummon Institute. Gibbons recently spoke with the Indy about the project and his relationship with the man he called a mentor.
How did you meet Ed Lahey?
Mark Gibbons: I was well aware of who Ed was, but he never hit my radar until the release of [1988 anthology of Montana literature] The Last Best Place. I saw those two poems he contributed (“The Blind Horses” and “Gimp O’Leary’s Iron Works”) and they blew me away. I knew that I wanted to meet Ed and talk to him, not only because he was this heroic kind of poet in my mind, but also because he was from Butte. My old man was from Butte — he was born in Butte, his parents had immigrated to Butte — and so he had these real strong, union Irish ties [to the city]. Ed was Butte Irish, too, so I wanted to meet him.
It wasn’t until ’97 when I was in the UM creative writing program that I met him. Roger Dunsmore, who was teaching then, urged me to go over and knock on Ed’s door. Ed was living at the Council Groves Apartments off Third Street so I headed over there, knocked on his door and sat down to visit. I don’t know how long I was there that first day, but I pretty much knew afterward that it was going to be a place I was going back to over and over again. I felt comfortable there, and I felt like I was absorbing so much of a kind of Montana literary history that I knew nothing about.
So he became kind of a mentor of yours, then?
MG: What is a mentor other than someone that you admire that has done the same work that you are trying to do? That’s what that is, I guess, and that’s what he was, sure. Lots of people would say that, lots of poets. Sheryl Noethe would say that. I think Robert Lee would too. When Dave Thomas calls Ed the “Chief of all us old Montana poets” that is what he means.
How did you come to be in charge of all of Ed’s papers?
MG: When Ed was going to be moved into a nursing home, he really couldn’t take anything with him. So his daughters, Seana and Sara, were dealing with everything left in his apartment. They were going through his stuff to take what they wanted to keep, and they called me and asked if I could help them out. They said they just needed to get rid of what was left, and that I could have it all, take it to Goodwill, the Dumpster, whatever. I told them I couldn’t just get rid of the papers — old floppy discs and stuff too — so I’d just box it all up and take it to my house and deal with it or find a place for it later. After Ed died, I talked to his daughters and said there should be an archive, so they set one up and put me in a position to handle the comings and goings with it. Then I started going through his poems, and ultimately put together a manuscript.
How did you find a publishing home for it?
MG: I thought I’d rather find somebody local, or even consider self publishing, as opposed to trying to find a bigger publisher for it. Ed never had that anyway, he was too under the radar. I had worked with Aaron Parrett on a couple projects, and I mentioned that I was sitting on a manuscript of Ed Lahey poems. He said, “Well, let’s publish ՚em!” At the time he was running Territorial Press, but over the period that we were discussing the project he became the executive director of the Drumlummon Institute, who were doing all these publications by Montana authors, reissues and things like that. So he said, let’s make this a Drumlummon project, and I said, “Perfect.”
What do you hope is the result of this book being published?
MG: It’s a book that should belong in the world. Having it in print somewhere where someone can pick it up and have their own experience with it, that’s the value of having it out in the world. Because, you know, Ed’s gone, I’m not far behind, and you’re hot on my heels. If somebody comes along, somebody after us, and picks it up and has some enjoyment out of it, that’s cool.
Disclosure: Chris La Tray is a freelance contributor who works part time at Fact & Fiction.