IN MEMORIAM: Remembering Len Gasparini

Len Gasparini (Courtesy of the Family)

Curated by George Elliott Clarke

When poet Leonard Gasparini passed away in October 2022, aged 81, lost was one of the most dynamic connections to the first modern(ist) generation of “Italo-Canadian” poets, I mean, those – like Pier Giorgio Di Cicco – who coruscated across the pages of Di Cicco’s trailblazing anthology, Roman Candles (1978). Compiled here are eight reminiscences about the irrepressible poet, the rambunctious wordsmith who played man-o-letters as man-o-war, who was – sno-nuff – gruff, tough, and never to be rebuffed. I am particularly pleased that his companion, the poet, novelist, and translator Lisa Pike, tells of the domestic – if not absolutely domesticated – man.

The Real Deal
by Jim Christy

I knew Len Gasparini for exactly fifty years – having met him at a party in Toronto in the home of the fire-breather Marcel Horne. We immediately hit if off, talking that evening more of travel and old-time baseball than the world of letters. We were in touch until a week before he died, although a year or two could pass between meetings or letters. One evening in the Nineties, I was walking down the hallway of the Royal Hotel in Vancouver. The joint was just a step up from skid row. Len was coming from his room, headed for the washroom, and then he was returning to my room from the washroom. Neither of us saw anything unusual about this!

Len didn’t look like other writers. I once introduced him to a visiting friend from New Zealand who later told me he couldn’t believe Len was a writer. “He looks more like an old boxer.” He was proud of his achievements, but self-deprecating as well – although not about his writing. Most telling in this regard was him talking about working at his father’s autobody repair shop in Windsor. “He got so angry at me because I was never able to install a windshield.” One night we attended an after-reading party at Luciano Iacobelli’s place. Len and I were standing and having a beverage when I heard a young man nearby us say to his two female companions, “I don’t like to go to these things because the men who read aren’t like real men”; and he pointed to Len. “That one’s an exception.”

Windsor Bard and Wilderness Beat
by George Elliott Clarke

That husky throat burlesquing words – like a Rat Pack, Las Vegas impresario. The sound? Whisky smoothing out gravel. Dylanesque in timbre, maybe hair-trigger Sinatra in temper. The dude’s Petrarchan sonnets? Half peat, half cigarette smoke. Tough-guy iambs in a pentameter boxing-ring. Len Gasparini’s voice rocked – in raucous verisimilitude of Windsor’s wild streets, yes, but also of wilderness. He could rhyme a V8-engine’s vroom with the loopy call of the loon. He was Grey Owl in a black-leather jacket, a bongo-slapping beatnik in a canoe. Aye, he was a displaced Beat poet – a Canuck Beat (as was Irving Layton), singing of the polka-dot bikini’d beauty amid a mosquito-mafiosi’d swamp. He could find his grandfather reading Dante while Dean Martin warbled “Amore” out the radio. No wonder, for him, our tuque’d literati were not worth a Vatican prayer, while their verses were only good as fish-wrap.

Nope: Len weren’t abrasive, abusive, aggressive. Indeed, his generosity was never haphazard, never mere verbosity. He knew the value of baseball, of baseball cards, of baseball bats and vampire bats, of bathtub gin and gin rummy. The value of friendship over scholarship. His fingers scampered and scrabbled the typewriter keyboard to tap out his poems. His lyrics were less confections than they were confiscations. The sermonic exercising – and/or exorcising – the demonic. Rough is his history, but never was he vulgar; only vulgate. I cannot conceive him “dead.” No way! How can anyone or anything incarcerate the transcendent?

Gasparini of Windsor
by Marty Gervais

I landed in Windsor in late summer 1968 and went in search of Len Gasparini’s house. I had heard of him and noticed his poems in The Windsor Review magazine. It was a hot, humid day when I set out. As I passed by this one house, a fellow on the porch stood up and asked where I was going. I said, “None of your business.” He said, “Who’re you looking for?” I said, “None of your business!” Annoyed, he persisted. I finally said, “I am looking for the poet Len Gasparini!” He broke into a big smile, then ran down the steps, a cigarette cupped in one hand. He was wearing a sleeveless white T-shirt. He possessed that rugged James Dean look. “I’m the guy!” he announced.

Soon, I was sitting at his dining room table, and he was shuffling poems at me, and as I read these carefully typewritten poems, he’d nervously pace the room, lighting one cigarette after another. It was intimidating. So was that intense stare, and guttural voice. He was so obsessive, and guarded about his poems. If I mumbled anything wrong, it was like I was badmouthing one of his kids. Len would wrangle for days over the choice of a word or a break in a line, forever doubting himself. Over the years, we became friends, and for a short time, we worked for a small independent weekly newspaper together in Windsor. There were also some crazy antics. Once he coaxed me to hand over a kitty from our family cat’s litter, and to accompany him to his house. As it turned out, it was nothing more than a ruse – Len had been embroiled in some kind of domestic squabble with his wife, and suddenly realized the only way he could take the focus off that was to show up with a kitten. As soon as he walked in the door, and his children saw it, all the attention was now on the cat, not his misdeeds.

Homage to Len Gasparini
by Karl Jirgens

I met Len Gasparini a couple of times when we were young. It was in Toronto. He was skinny, wore a black leather biker-jacket, jeans, boots, white T-shirt. Black hair swept back. That’s how I remember him, ever young. Years later, I had the pleasure of publishing his poetry in Rampike magazine. He was ultra-cool. Everybody knew his poetry. Born in Windsor, Ontario, border city. Inspired by rock and roll, V8 engines, wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bam-boom, the Beats, Elvis, Kerouac, James Dean, Little Richard, 45 RPMs, World War II, hula hoops. Drove truck, sold door-to-door, taught part-time, reviewed books. Factory laborer, newspaper journalist, semi-pro baseball pitcher. Served in the U.S. Navy. Served time in jail. Lived in Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, New Orleans, Seattle. Marched to his own drum. Founded Mainline magazine with Eugene McNamara.

Check his etymology: Gasparini derived from Gasparus, and Kaspart (Persian for “treasurer,” one of the three magi). Gifted us words. Wrote about the land, how it touched him. Bruce Peninsula, Manitoulin, Flowerpot Island, yellow birches, black spruces, moon balanced on caryatid heads. Wrote of city life, the Undertaker’s Wife. Recognized our Blind Spot. Wrote poetry, fiction, nonfiction, drama, the Snows of Yesteryear. Charted progressions of the human heart. A fellow-traveller among Italian-Canadian authors. 1990, won the F.G. Bressani Literary Prize. Won the 2010, NOW Open-Poetry Stage event. Was published on the 7th Parliamentary Poet Laureate’s website (i.e.; George Elliott Clarke’s). So, read his collected poems. Read his compassion, humor, nostalgia, irony. If you read him, he will stay with us.

Astonishing Len!
by Darlene Madott

He was a sweet man. Unabashedly heterosexual, rough-around-the-edges in a no-bullshit way. He loved words, women, words. He was astonishingly prolific. I met him at Mary di Michele’s table, over four decades ago. She made pasta with pesto. Poetry and pasta. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Len was playful, even outrageous. Honest. I published one of his poems in Toronto Life Magazine, with my then grandiose title of Associate Literary Editor. The poem was about an uncle and it ended with a resounding fart. It was the first poem in the English language to make me laugh-out-loud. Len’s poetry resonated with me on a visceral, animal level – accessible, recognizably human, familiar – fresh. Len had more street-smarts in his baby toe than I had in my whole body. He was one of the few men who could make me blush. Len could show up in unexpected places at surprising times – like the elevator heading up to the Superior Court, family division, holding a baby in his big, blue-collar arms. I like to think Len did the right thing by all his women, that he enjoyed his life – celebrated his words, women, words – down to his last resonant and irreverent fart.

Lenny G.
by Michael Mirolla

The first thing you noticed about Len was the rasp. That rasp told you that this was a man who had growled his way through life. A man who spoke loudly and forcefully. The second thing you noticed was his gentleness, his love of plants and cats. Sometimes to the point of obsession. I found him once outside his house searching the neighbourhood for his lost feline. The third thing you noticed was his total dedication to the art of poetry and his willingness to defend his principles and ideals to the bitter end – and with fisticuffs if all else failed. He was proud of his persona as the last standing of the old-style Canadian poets who burst onto the scene in the 1960s and 70s – rough on the outside, hard-drinking, taking no prisoners. Bare-knuckle fighters, in other words. Visiting him when he lived in the Little Italy part of Toronto was like stepping into an anecdote from a world that only broke through the moment Len started to reminisce. But, if there is one quintessential memory that defines him for me, it was when he came to our house in Montreal late in the evening after he’d done a reading at the Casa d’Italia. With a glass of homemade raised, he toasted my mother whom we had awakened by our entry. At times like these, the rasp may have lost a bit of its edge and the chest a bit of its puff, but his soul was on full display.

Leonard Gasparini
by Gianna Patriarca

It was October 1977. Founders College, York University, Toronto. Three poets sharing an evening. Irving Layton, Pier Giorgio Di Cicco and Leonard Gasparini. Enough testosterone in the room to intoxicate an audience of poets and poetry lovers. I was one of the students in the audience under their spell. Layton was the master. Di Cicco was passionately eloquent. But Gasparini was raw, gorgeous, sexy, direct and real. His profile could have been etched on a Roman coin. Every woman in the room wanting him. Every man in the room wanting to be him. His delivery was magnificent. His voice, his words and images powerful, without any vanity, pretense or arrogance. A poet who lived the poetry he wrote.

That night we became friends. I was 25, he was 38, and we remained friends until his death at 81. Although distances and locations separated us physically, never did they separate the respect and love we had for each other. I was a witness at his second marriage to Lynne in Toronto, and then they moved to British Columbia. Len’s nomadic spirit never stopped, and his heart travelled to many places and into the arms of many loves. In his younger years, whenever he was in Toronto, he slept on my sofa and indulged in my cooking. So many hours of laughter and talk about life and poetry. How fortunate to have had him as a friend in my life.

Coming Home
by Lisa Pike

When Len and I moved back to our hometown of Windsor, Ontario, in 2014 to buy a house together in the neighbourhood where we grew up a generation apart, we didn’t know what would lie ahead. In fact, in Len style, we spontaneously put an offer on a house we’d spent ten minutes looking at, a low-ball offer “just to see how it all plays out.” 1154 Parent Avenue became our home for the next eight years.

With a view of Detroit from the front porch, the house faced the old W.D. Lowe Technical School built in 1921. Len would look across the street to the backstop where he’d played baseball, the house – still standing – where he’d once broken a window with a fly ball. His brief stint as a paperboy was the Parent Ave route. Childhood friends and neighbours knocked on our door. We had dinners, threw parties, gatherings of seventeen people or more. “Len,” I’d say, “if we’re going to invite this many people over we’ve got to get more chairs.” “Ah, they’re fine” he’d reply, “people can stand, what’s the problem?” All manner of dishes from another era were revived: cold cuts, cheeses, sweet pickles, olives, potato salad, buns from the Italian or Polish bakeries around the corner. Len found a recipe for devilled eggs and made them. And, it goes without saying: Crown Royal and Jack Daniels on the counter. Our house was a meeting place and Len the welcoming host.

The pandemic marked a turning point; it meant the end of our gatherings, and for Len, personally, it marked a decline in health. In early spring of 2021 he was diagnosed with cancer. But all throughout, Len continued to write and revise. Only a few months since his passing, the sound of his typing on the Smith Corona still reverberates here at 1154 Parent; and in the mornings I can still hear him say from the front room where he’d begin his day: “Good coffee, hon!”

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