Early Life and Education
Richard Harrison attended Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario. He graduated with degrees in Biology and Philosophy in 1976. In 2017, Harrison shared on the Trent Voices podcast that his time at the university helped “feed his curiosity and creativity,” as the campus was just small enough for the faculty, across disciplines, to encourage him in his work.
Harrison taught at Trent for seven years before moving to Montreal to pursue an MA in Creative Writing at Concordia University. In 1995, he and his family relocated to Calgary, where he accepted a position as the Marik-Flanagan Writer-in-Residence at the University of Calgary. He taught there for one year after his residency and then moved across town to teach Creative Writing at Mount Royal University.
Early Poetry Collections
In 1987, Harrison published his first book of poetry, Fathers Never Leave You — a tribute to his father, Second World War veteran Ralph Harrison, who instilled in his son an appreciation for poetry. This collection was followed by Recovering the Naked Man (1991) and Hero of the Play (1994). The latter — a poem in the language of hockey with each player or event in the game as a starting point — was launched at the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was also featured on CBC TV’s Adrienne Clarkson Presents (see also Adrienne Clarkson).
Harrison’s next poetry collection, Big Breath of a Wish (1998), drew on his first year of fatherhood and his daughter’s language development. Praised for its intelligent and subtle analysis of language, the collection was shortlisted for the Governor General’s Literary Award and won the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize in 1999 (see also W.O. Mitchell). Harrison’s 2005 collection, Worthy of His Fall, is set during the 2003 war in Iraq and explores the themes of fatherhood and religion.
On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood (2016)
In 2016, Harrison published On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood. It won both the Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry and the Governor General’s Literary Award in 2017. As Harrison explained to the CBC, this collection came from three distinct threads: the desire to treat his poems as characters, his father’s dementia diagnosis and death, and the 2013 Alberta flood.
The collection took Harrison 11 years to complete and was originally envisioned as “poetry about poetry.” However, when Harrison’s father was diagnosed with dementia before passing away in 2011, the collection shifted to poetry about his father. Fatherhood is a prominent theme in Harrison’s work. His realization while his father was ill that there were issues to resolve in their relationship began to inform many of his poems.
The writing process shifted yet again following the 2013 Alberta flood, which flooded at least 3,000 buildings in Calgary and led to the evacuation of 100,000 people. Harrison’s basement, where he kept his father’s ashes, flooded. For 48 hours, Harrison believed the ashes had been swept away. He later discovered they had been found and rescued by friends.
On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood received wide critical acclaim. CBC Books called the collection “a book of great intellectual depth that is as generous as it is enchanting” and praised Harrison’s knack for “combining elements of memoir, elegy, lyrical essay and personal correspondence with appreciations of literary works ranging from haiku to comic books.” Reviewing the book for the League of Canadian Poets, Sharon Berg wrote that Harrison “is all at once professional, personal, and confessional. What makes his poetry have even more of an impact on the reader is that, simultaneously, Harrison examines his thoughts about what makes a poem or a story, and his experiments with poetic structure.”
After winning the Governor General’s Award, Harrison told the CBC: “The validation for this kind of art is never money, but it is the way in which people listen — the way it touches them.”
Harrison has also co-authored two collections of essays: Now is the Winter (2009), which examines hockey and literature; and Secret Identity Reader (2010), which contributes to comic superhero scholarship.
Harrison has lived in Calgary with his family since 1995. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Mount Royal University.
Honours and Awards
- Harbourfront Discovery Prize (“Origin of Species,” “Verrocchio,” “Iran Under the Shah”) (1978)
- People’s Poetry Prize, Silver Medal (Fathers Never Leave You), Milton Acorn (1988)
- Governor General’s Literary Award for Poetry (On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood) (2017)
- Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry (On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood), Writers’ Guild of Alberta (2017)
- W.O. Mitchell Book Prize (Big Breath of a Wish), City of Calgary (1999)