Gerry Hill comes by his Saskatchewan honestly. Both of his parents were farm kids from the southern prairie. By 1930 his dad had become a schoolteacher—always a desirable commodity, male or female, for the marrying kind. Don and one of the Cochlan girls from Palmer, Alice, married in 1938. A few years after Don’s war service, he became Superintendent of Schools in Herbert. “It was hot, it was dirty, it was awful,” Alice would say, years later, of that summer of 1951 when they moved to Herbert, Alice eight months pregnant. Gerry was born a few weeks later.
He remembers his first ten years of boyhood in Herbert as time playing with sticks in the dirt hills north of town. Or shinny on the frozen streets. Or piano lessons. Or his parents’ never-ending regimen of cod liver oil, Brewer’s yeast tablets, and good posture (which his dad would reinforce via a stern thumbnail run up the spine of the offending slouch). At age ten, he didn’t want to move to Regina, where his dad took a position at University of Regina as an education prof. Gerry would admit, years later, that he was grateful for all that, and his dad’s collection of Dickens and Louis L’Amour. He supposes that he became a writer, in the end, thanks to his dad’s old-school habit of reciting poetry from memory, or his own personality as a shy kid at the edge of things.
Becoming a writer took a while. In his 20s, Gerry had one reader—one single person in the whole world to whom he showed his notebook scribblings. When he was already 30, and looking for a place to re-settle in Canada after three years overseas as a CUSO teacher, his friend told him about a funky little arts school in Nelson, B.C., called David Thompson University Centre (DTUC). As soon as Gerry showed up there for classes in the fall of 1981, he knew he’d found his people. He will always cherish his teachers Fred Wah, Tom Wayman, and Dave McFadden, whose varied work opened a wide range of poetics that Gerry would explore for the rest of his life.
Once he knew he was a writer, he moved back to Regina, thinking he would write out into the world from there. But he met another writer, the theatre artist Ruth Smillie, and within a year had moved in with her in Saskatoon. A few years after that they’d moved to Edmonton, raising three kids. Gerry taught adult education before signing up for an MA in English at the University of Alberta. He’d almost finished his PhD by the time their marriage ended and they’d all moved back to Regina so that he and Ruth could continue to parent their young family.
Twenty years of teaching English and Creative Writing followed, from which Gerry retired in 2015. By that time he’d published six books of poetry, two of them winning Saskatchewan Book Awards for Poetry, two nonfiction books, won several awards and honours, been published widely across in more than four dozen literary magazines and journals, and given talks and readings and taken writing residencies internationally.
But it’s that boyhood fooling around in the dirt hills north of Herbert that matter most.That’s where the imagination that continues to nourish everything he does comes from. Gerry claims to have discovered, one day, the shell of a Harvard trainer. He could climb inside with the weeds and the broken gauges and fly.