B.C. poet Gary Geddes was in front of the U.S. Consulate in Toronto in May 1970 protesting the Vietnam War when he heard the news about the killings at Kent State University in Ohio.
The Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire on a crowd of anti-war protesters. They killed four people and wounded nine.
"It was one of those incredible moments in my lifetime," Geddes told North By Northwest's Sheryl MacKay.
"It felt as if a generation gap the size of the Grand Canyon had opened up between me and my parents and people of that age. I tried to write about it, but all I could produce were angry diatribes."
Geddes finally found the words six years later. He was in a bookstore in Edmonton when The Killings at Kent State by I.F. Stone caught his eye, and he read about the student named Sandra Lee Scheuer who was killed during the Kent State University shootings.
"There were four things — she was a speech therapy student, she was very tidy, she liked to roller skate and she was not the least bit political," said Geddes.
"So I chucked my six years of notes and wrote this poem in a couple of hours."
Sandra Lee Scheuer by Gary Geddes
You might have met her on a Saturday night,
cutting precise circles, clockwise, at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, or walking with quick step
between the campus and a green two-storey house,
where the room was always tidy, the bed made,
the books in confraternity on the shelves.
She did not throw stones, major in philosophy
or set fire to buildings, though acquaintances say
she hated war, had heard of Cambodia.
In truth she wore a modicum of make-up, a brassiere,
and could no doubt more easily have married a guardsman
than cursed or put a flower in his rifle barrel.
While the armouries burned, she studied,
bent low over notes, speech therapy books, pages
open at sections on impairment, physiology.
And while they milled and shouted on the commons,
she helped a boy named Billy with his lisp, saying
Hiss, Billy, like a snake. That's it, SSSSSSSS,
tongue well up and back behind your teeth.
Now buzz, Billy, like a bee. Feel the air
vibrating in my windpipe as I breathe?
As she walked in sunlight through the parking-lot
at noon, feeling the world a passing lovely place,
a young guardsman, who had his sights on her,
was going down on one knee, as if he might propose.
His declaration, unmistakable, articulate,
flowered within her, passed through her neck,
severed her trachea, taking her breath away.
Now who will burn the midnight oil for Billy,
ensure the perilous freedom of his speech;
and who will see her skating at the Moon-Glo
Roller Rink, the eight small wooden wheels
making their countless revolutions on the floor?
To hear the full interview with Gary Geddes, listen to the audio labelled: The story behind Gary Geddes' poem Sandra Lee Scheuer