Tribute to Joan Gartland
Librarian, Poet, Feminist

Joan Gartland was a dear friend and colleague for many years. She was always something of an enigma to me. In the 1970s and ‘80 she was devoted to poetry and feminism and social responsibility but without the hippy accoutrements of the times. Religious but impatient with religion, she identified herself as Episcopalian. “You know, Episcopalian,” she once laughed, “God’s frozen people.”

Joan Wallace Gartland died July 5, 2017, at the age of 75. She was born in Brooklyn, New York, and attended Delphi Academy and Barnard College. She graduated with honors, receiving a BA in history in 1963. She continued her studies at the University of Chicago and in 1968 received her MA in Egyptology. In 1971 she received an additional MA in library science from the University of Michigan. A beautiful obituary was published in both the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press on July 23.

Circa 1986

Circa 1986

Like me, Joan was a librarian, and although we never worked together at the Detroit Public Library, we were colleagues just the same, and we both found great satisfaction in the Detroit poetry scene of those times. Not only did the library sponsor a series of poetry programs, so did Wayne State University and the Detroit Institute of Arts, which gave us an opportunity to meet and listen to many of the country’s great poets of the time, from Philip Levine to Charles Simic, both of whom went on to become Poet Laureate of the United States. When the poet Edward Hirsch joined the faculty at Wayne, Joan immediately signed up for a class. She adored Ed and from him learned of duende, a quality of passion and inspiration that great poets bring to their work. She loved to say the word “duende,” laughing and giving it her best Spanish accent.

I remember Joan’s devotion to the feminist journal Moving Out, and her gently enforced high standards for writing. She was always writing but seldom publishing her own work. She was modest to a fault and generous to aspiring writers. I think one of Joan’s most treasured experiences was working with the great Dudley Randall at the University of Detroit. They were good friends, and she was in awe of his tireless efforts to publish the work of young black writers through his Broadside Press, which produced the early works of Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni, among others. Dudley adored and respected Joan; he told me so.

At the Henry Ford Museum, circa 1986

At the Henry Ford Museum, circa 1986

Joan was intensely private and unfailingly upbeat. She never complained and never went public with her personal demons. I think Joan was often misunderstood, and young writers sometimes dismissed her as an upper-class suburban lady who could not possibly understand what it meant to grow up on the mean streets of Detroit. Partly it was the way she talked, that high-pitched, rather British tone. I remember her once saying to me, “I don’t know why people think of me as some privileged white lady. I’m from BROOKLYN for heaven’s sake.”

Joan Gartland with Coalie

I remember wonderful long arguments about poetry with Joan and another poet friend Henrietta Epstein. I remember the Michigan Poetry Festivals where she hobnobbed with poets of every ilk. I remember the costume party we attended at the Henry Ford Museum with Joan dolled up in a 1940s dress of my mother’s and a goofy 1940s hat that she made herself. I remember sitting at her dining room table talking about literature and watching her cats perform. I remember the kind and self-effacing tone with which she approached every topic. But most of all, I remember her laugh and the light in her face when that innocent little girl from Brooklyn shone through.

Goodbye Joan. I love you. I am sorry I never told you so.
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