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Mick Burrs

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Mick’s breadth of knowledge was only outshone by his great compassion for people and for the natural world. Mick loved life in all its forms and respected and honoured all living things.

—Sharon Singer

Steven Michael Berzensky (aka Mick Burrs) was one of Canada’s finest poets, who won both the Saskatchewan Poetry Award in 1983, and the Saskatchewan Book Award for Poetry in 1998. With seven published books of poetry, over 30 chapbooks (many hand-made), and 800 poems published in various literary journals, Mick was a former editor of Grain, the prestigious prairie literary magazine, and founder of the annual short Grain contest.  


Mick (1940-2021) was born in California and emigrated to Canada in 1965 as part of his protest against the Vietnam War. About forty years later, inspired by this experience, he co-edited an anthology with poet and publisher Allan Briesmaster: Crossing Lines: Poets Who Came to Canada in the Vietnam War Era (Seraphim Editions, 2008) included the work of more than 76 poets. “Mick was a meticulous and passionately engaged editor,” Allan said. “He was determined to help fellow poets perfect their poems, and was exceptionally insightful, patient, and conscientious.”

Mick who published his first poem in 1966 in Talon, a Vancouver-based poetry magazine, was a multi-faceted creator. Not only a poet, but also a songwriter, playwright, editor, teacher, and visual artist whose artwork has been published as cover art on CDs and as illustrations in a variety of books.

In 1975 he inaugurated Regina’s first local poetry reading series, “Warm Poets for Cold Nights” which the Saskatchewan Writers Guild took over three years later. Mick moved to Yorkton, Saskatchewan in 1985 as its first writer-in-residence and in 1995 he changed his literary name to Steven Michael Berzensky to honour the original name of his ancestors which was changed to Burrs by his grandfather.

In 2001, Coteau Books of Regina, Saskatchewan, published The Names Leave the Stones: Poems New and Selected, edited by Catherine Hunter. This book explores Mick’s Jewish family roots from Eastern Europe and boasts a cover painting by Marc Chagall. Previous publications include Variations on the Birth of Jacob (The Muses’ Company, 1997) which won the Saskatchewan Book Award for Poetry in 1998. The Blue Pools of Paradise (Coteau Books, 1983) won the Saskatchewan Writers Guild's first poetry manuscript award, judged by Eli Mandel. Mick’s fourth book, Dark Halo (Coteau Books, 1993) is a poetic analysis of the dictators Hitler and Stalin, with extensive poet’s notes at the back of the book. This was a Finalist for the People’s Poetry Award in 1994.  Reviewer Phil Hall stated, “These poems—not mere exercises in wit and wariness—are actual endeavours to enlarge the spirit of us all.” Mick’s other books include  Moving in from

Paradise (Coteau Books, 1976) and Children on the Edge of Space published in 1973 by Blue Mountain Books. 

From the large inscription by the author on free front endpaper of DARK HALO: "Hitler and Stalin stalk these poems. Mick Burrs examines the Fuehrer's love of King Kong. He probes Stalin's relationship with his washerwoman mother, who knew him as her little 'ZoZo'. He confronts the kind of mind that can reduce individuals to political symbols or mere numbers. But tyrants are not only found in political office. He sees a direct connection between the rise of the modern dictator and the phenomenon of the multiple murderer. 'Every multiple murderer is a miniature tyrant,' Burrs writes; 'he only lacks an enormous arsenal, a loyal following, and a sacred cause'.” 

In 2005 Mick moved to Toronto where the next seven years would be some of his most fertile. Mick’s poem Quilled Sonnet was set to classical music by composer James Wright, and sung by Ottawa soprano Doreen Taylor-Claxton for her much-lauded CD, Hail, Canadian Art Song (CanSona Arts Media, 2006). Doreen performed this work live in many performances in Ottawa and Halifax, and at Festival Antigonish Summer Theatre, as well as on CBC Radio.


Other CDs that include Mick’s work include East Meets West, a collaboration with the esteemed ‘people’s poet’ Ted Plantos in 2001. On the CD Gold Rays, Mick sings his own compositions and plays guitar accompanied by concert violinist Rob Penner. Two songs with Mick’s lyrics, with music composed by Kent Bowman, were recorded on the CD Sequoya, a folk music odyssey and memorial to Hugh Mullin.


In 2008, Mick’s poem Through the Roof of My Heart It Rains from his first book, Moving In From Paradise, was set to classical music by Toronto/Vienna composer Philip McConnell who conducted the Toronto Sinfonietta Orchestra in a live performance at the Royal Ontario Museum, where the poem was performed twice, once as spoken word by Mick himself with orchestra accompaniment, and once sung by Doreen Taylor-Claxton. This concert was in honour of Holocaust Education Week and the event was named after Mick’s poem.


From 2011 to 2012, Mick wrote several one-act plays that were produced by Guy Doucette for his Back Burner Productions. Previously, Mick‘s plays had been produced on CBC Radio, Saskatchewan.


 A voracious reader “poor in everything except books” Mick’s countless tomes were filled with marginalia—ideas sparked by what he read.


Allan Briesmaster says, “Mick was one of the gentlest and kindest people I have encountered. As an editor, he was extremely generous in mentoring others and revealing the secrets of poetic craft…I am confident as to the enduring worth of the body of work he has left us.” 


Composer, musician and poet, Kent Bowman recalls that Mick was a beloved teacher and mentor to countless Canadian poets whose body of excellent work will long be remembered and cherished by all those artists who labour in the service of creating truth and beauty.


Mick was filled with compassion, brilliance, humility, and imagination. He investigated his own life with a microscopic focus and a rare honesty. Mick believed in the power of dreams and lived in a somewhat mystical world, in which he was fascinated by the spiritual, and in awe of the mystery.


Mick was a true artist. He was dedicated to his art. He made this commitment at the cost of comforts and luxury in a material sense that most people in our society take for granted.  His work is filled with great compassion and high ideals. He is a visionary idealist who saw a possible world that is far superior to the one we now live in, a world without war, a world where every life is treasured and honoured and people live in mutual respect and joy. He was a very positive person who saw the best in everyone and was very encouraging to people, whether friends or writing students.

Mick is included in the reference book: Saskatchewan Writers, Lives Past and Present, Canadian Plains Research Centre U of Regina, 2004, and his papers are included in the Manuscript Collection in The Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto Archives.


Regina documentary filmmaker Steve Wolfson produced an hour-long film in 2008 about Mick’s life and work: Real Live Poet. In the film,  Mick is seen in conversation with Monty Python Artistic Director Terry Gilliam, a former schoolmate.  Here is an excerpt: 



It is played by pipers

in green hats

hidden behind trees

under mushrooms


king of the tree stump

I’m looking down

at you

dancing around me


you just placed

a twig

in your hair

your roots are its roots now

our tree is dead

a stump and twigs

but we will make it

sprout again


and watch the woods

grow around our bodies

for awhile


Mick Burrs

Stanley Park


August 1969

Jessica, In The Woods We Hear Music was published in Mick Burr’s Children on the Edge of Space © 1972, 1973, 1977. Publisher: Blue Mountain Books, Vancouver.

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