Jeremy Pataky: Crossing Borders

Ann Eriksson and Gary Geddes
I was an undergrad studying creative writing at Western Washington University in Bellingham. He was Gary Geddes, renowned Canadian poet, writer, scholar, and teacher, about to Trojan Horse our unsuspecting campus with a pile of Canadian lit and sensibility… and puns. I like to imagine him stealing across the border into Washington by boat like an old Boundary Bay bootlegger, a furtive Canadian with a hold full of Canuck books in place of booze. His way in was the Canada House, tucked away on a shady edge of campus, far from the English Department halls. I first met him when I showed up in his office to plead my way into his already-full upper-division Poet’s Novel class. He was the new Distinguished Professor of Canadian Culture (he joked that he felt more like an extinguished professor) and the author of more than 20 books, then, and counting. I was a bright-eyed sophomore. He showed mercy. 

The interdisciplinary chair that Gary held usually rotated every two years, but as his reputation and demand for his classes grew on campus, Western offered him a third year. I took five of his seminars (and got a Geddes Groupie Merit Badge along with my BA).  

We met for four hour blocks each Tuesday night. We jokingly called class “Tuesdays with Gary,” after Tuesdays with Morrie. On the first class each term we’d divvy up dinner duty for the entire quarter to come; the Canada House had a complete kitchen and dining room in addition to the classroom, and once per term, each student would pair up with another to feed the entire group. The rest of the quarter you simply showed up to get fed well (and educated, of course). 

Those all-class dinners were a well-considered feature of those classes. They ensured that we each had at least one good home cooked meal per week and it loosened the group up early in the term, making way for great discussions. Gary also made a habit of inviting entire classes early in the quarter to his home up on the west edge of Vancouver Island for a long weekend. The place was magical, overlooking the Strait of Juan de Fuca near French Beach. 

We got a good laugh one year from a customs agent as we re-entered the U.S. coming back from his place. I was driving a car load of students, following another group of classmates through the border. When we pulled up to the booth, the border agent asked “Are you with the ‘Poets In Space’ group, too?” Hopefully Gaston Bachelard, who’d written The Poetics of Space, the class’s actual namesake, would have laughed, too, at the mistake. 

Besides welcoming us to Canada, or outer space, or to Canadian literature, Gary also invited Canada to us. During his time at Western, he arranged for over 40 writers to speak in Bellingham, and also organized BorderBlur, a conference meant to “blur the borders that accomplish both physical and intellectual separations between the United States and Canada.” It brought together scholars, artists, writers, and musicians for an intense and generative weekend. We could see over the border, just twenty miles away, from the Canada House classroom, after all, when the weather was good, but the border was anything but porous, in so many ways.  

Tutka Bay
Now, a world away and sixteen years after meeting Gary, it’s an exciting honor to welcome him and his wife, the accomplished novelist Ann Eriksson, back across our countries’ other border as visiting faculty for the 6th annual Tutka Bay Writers Retreat at the world-class Tutka Bay Lodge. It will be the first year that Tutka Bay participants will have the benefit of working with two, instead of one, headlining guest instructors, and I can’t recommend them—both individually and as a team—highly enough. I’ve had the privilege of attending the Retreat twice before, and encourage any writer to attend who appreciates quality instruction, great food, world class scenery, and outstanding company. Thanks to our host and sponsor, Within the Wild, it’s certainly one of the best deals of its kind anywhere. Sharing group meals in a literary atmosphere with Gary and Ann will seem fitting, a kind of full circle for me. That the food will come from the kitchen of award-winning chef, lodge owner, 49 Writers board member, and cookbook author Kirsten Dixon will make it all the more wonderful.   

I was on Vancouver Island in southern B.C., recently, during my book tour for Overwinter, and was grateful for the chance to head over to nearby Thetis Island on a small local ferry. I was there to visit Gary and Ann at the idyllic home they’ve made since Gary’s old days at French Beach. At low tide, clammers walked across the mudflats out front to take their harvest. At high tide, we slid kayaks into the chuck and paddled to the harbor (oops, sorry, Gary—harbour, eh?) for the mail. Gary still has the same humble, generous spirit and wit that charmed legions of students—even us mangy American ones—over the years. Ann is warm and kind, and her background in ecology, akin, in some ways, to Eva Saulitis or Nancy Lord, makes her a natural fit at the remote lodge where we’ll all converge.  
There’s something magical about the 25 minute water taxi trip that bookends the Tutka Bay Writers Retreat, connecting the lodge to Homer. This year, it’ll remind me of the old days of ferrying across from the mainland to Vancouver Island for class retreats at Gary’s place. Don’t miss the boat! Check out our registration page to learn more and secure your spot before the end of June! Email me at jeremy.pataky at or 49Writers at with questions. Also, for more thoughts about the Retreat, see this recent post from Deb Vanasse.  

2 thoughts on “Jeremy Pataky: Crossing Borders”

  1. Lynn Lovegreen

    Sounds like a magical time.

    P.S. I enjoyed hearing you read your poems at the Kachemak Bay Writers' Conference, Jeremy!

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