Joseph Howard Sherman

American Standard and Other Poems, Joseph Sherman.
American Standard and Other Poems, Joseph Sherman.

Joseph Howard Sherman was, among many things, a Maritime poet, writer, and teacher. He was well-known as the editor of ARTSatlantic, which showcased Atlantic Canadian art to the rest of country. He was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Bliss Carman Award, the Royal Society of Arts Silver Medal, the Award for Distinguished Contribution to the Literary Arts in PEI, and the Henry Fuerstenberg Award — Betty and Morris Aaron Award for Poetry. In 2003, he became a member of the Order of Canada in a ceremony shared with Leonard Cohen. He was a life member of the League of Canadian Poets, the creator of the Confederation Centre of the Arts’ Writing on the Wall series, and a founder of Saturday Morning Chapbooks.

Sherman was born in Bridgewater, Nova Scotia on 4 August 1945 to David and Beatrice Sherman; he died 9 January 2006 at the age of 60. He grew up in Whitney, NS and spent his summers with his grandmother in Bridgewater. His family eventually moved to Fredericton, New Brunswick, in the 1960s. It was in Fredericton that he received his BA and MA from the University of New Brunswick. He then taught English for the Université de Moncton at their satellite campus in Edmundston, New Brunswick from 1970 to 1979. Afterward, he moved to Charlottetown, where he remained for the rest of his life.

David Helwig has noted that, as a Jewish intellectual, Sherman was out of place in Celtic PEI, but he quickly established himself as a central figure in the Maritime arts scene. He became a regular at the Charlottetown Farmers’ Market where he enjoyed the company of a broad circle of friends.

Sherman worked tirelessly as a promoter of Canadian, and especially Maritime, talent. During his student days at UNB he associated with all the promising and established writers of the time, including Alden Nowlan and David Adams Richards. It was also during this period that he met his wife, Ann Riseley, with whom he eventually had a daughter, Rebekah Jane, and a son, Matthew. As an editor, he was known to enthusiastically help out anyone he could and it was obvious that “he believed in his writers, kept them working and was loyal to them” (Helwig).

Oberon Press published the majority of Sherman’s books, with the exception of his first, Birthday (1969, poetry) released by New Brunswick Chapbooks, and his last, Beautiful Veins (2006, poetry) by Acorn Press. Chaim the Slaughterer (1974, poetry) was his first full-length book, which contained poetry about characters from Jewish Cape Breton, especially the Whitney Pier area of his upbringing. His next book was Lords of Shouting (1982, poetry), which was followed by Shaping the Flame: Imagining Wallenberg (1989, poetry), a book of poetry about Raoul Wallenberg, a man who rescued a hundred-thousand Jews in Hungary during World War Two. While Sherman always stayed busy as an editor and freelancer, no major work of his was published again until 2001, when American Standard (2001, poetry) was released. Worried Into Being: An Unfinished Alphabet (2006, essays) is a collection of his essays, one for each letter of the alphabet. It was originally an exercise suggested by Czeslaw Milosz, the Polish poet and critic of Stalinism. Sherman was reluctant at first, but he eventually completed the project, which was published just one week before he died of pancreatic cancer. However, it was not his last book, as he was working on Beautiful Veins (2006, poetry) at the time of his death. It was edited by David Helwig and released by Acorn Press that same year.

Jewish themes often run through Sherman’s work. They surface in memories of his childhood community, his meditations on the Holocaust, and with the profundities of Jewish history such as trying to help a seven-year-old understand that “the hands of this slaughterer and the hands of this rabbi are not two and the same” (Chaim the Slaughterer). On the back cover of American Standard (2001, poetry) Sherman’s preoccupations are attributed to “the complex realities of family relationships, with history and myth, with belonging and not belonging, with certitudes that tint and stain the human condition.” He was a very careful and deliberate poet.

Sherman’s work has been traced back to a “fundamental preoccupation with things outside himself, with something other than the modern or postmodern self” (Kosub 113). He wanted “his reader to think as well as feel” (115). He believed strongly in local talent and many owe their careers to his efforts.

Adam Hodnett, Fall 2010
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Sherman, Joseph. American Standard: And Other Poems. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 2001.

---. Beautiful Veins. Charlottetown, PE: Acorn, 2006.

---. Birthday. New Brunswick Chapbook 7. Fredericton, NB: New Brunswick Chapbooks, 1969.

---. Chaim, the Slaughterer. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 1974.

---. Lords of Shouting: Poems. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 1982.

---. Shaping the Flames: Imagining Wallenberg. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 1989.

---. Worried Into Being: An Unfinished Alphabet. Ottawa, ON: Oberon, 2006.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Cox, Dina. “Beyond Shirts and Peonies.” Rev. of Worried Into Being. The Fiddlehead 227 (2006): 109-112.

Greco, Heidi. “No Less Alive.” Books in Canada 36.2 (2007): 31-32.

Helwig, David. “Joseph Sherman, Poet and Editor: 1945–2006.” The Globe and Mail [Toronto, ON] 13 Jan. 2006. 20 Feb. 2010

“Joseph Sherman.” The Acorn Press. 7 Mar. 2010

“Joseph Sherman.” League of Canadian Poets. 7 Mar. 2010

Kosub, David. “Enriching the Present by Remembering the Past.” The Fiddlehead 162 (1989): 113-115.

Ripley, Gordon, and Anne Mercer. “Sherman, Joseph.” Who’s Who in Canadian Literature 199293. Teeswater, ON: Reference Press, 1992. 301-302.

“Well-Known Island Writer and Editor Joseph Sherman Dies at age 60.” Canadian Press Newswire. 9 Jan. 2006.