Last winter was rough on everyone, so when Dave Morrison felt under the weather, he figured it was one of the bugs that were taking people down left and right. Eight months later, he is looking back at a fight for his life.

“It’s a little surreal: one day, they’re telling you, you have cancer; another day, they’re saying you’re cancer-free,” he said the day before Veterans Day in his office at the Camden Opera House.

Morrison is the venue’s technical director. He also is a poet, and he will read from his 11th collection, “Cancer Poems,” Saturday, Nov. 21, at 1 p.m. at the Owl & Turtle Bookshop Café, 33 Bay View St.

At the end of January, Morrison held one of his popular poetry parties on the third floor of the opera house, celebrating the publication of “Shake Hands With Your Heart” and regaling the crowd with the live-looped music/poetry performance approach featured on last year’s “Poetry Rocks,” released by the local Mishara Music. Several weeks later, he was diagnosed with tonsillar cancer.

“The party was fun and great, despite the horrible weather … but I’d been feeling really lousy. I figured I was overworked or coming off a cold, but they said, nope, it’s this and here’s what you’re going to do,” he said.

What he spent the next weeks doing was “the aggressive treatment” — radiation five days a week and chemotherapy one day a week. This meant once a week he had both therapies. It was a rough go — especially when he started going into anaphylactic shock.

“Turns out I was allergic to the chemo. But I’d gotten enough of it [to have the desired outcome],” he said, adding a word of praise for the Alfond Center in Augusta.

Early on in the daunting process, Morrison decided the best way to keep people he knew informed about what was going on was to post it on Facebook — “it was easier than sending out a bunch of emails,” he said. One of the first people he heard back from was an old band mate from his Boston rocker days who had recently gone through exactly the same diagnosis and treatment and gave Morrison the lowdown.

“He was a great resource, although it was a headful! But it made me feel a little better and less isolated,” he said.

The downside of his experience is obvious. The upside, Morrison said, was the people. He said his struggle seemed to bring out the best in everybody — people he is close to, neighbors and strangers.

“It’s like everyone was charged up with goodness and I was a lighting rod and it all discharged into me,” he said.

Poems began coming a little way into the treatment. One of the collection’s poems affirms they were written “because that is what I do”; another reveals that the first were “macho-how-dare-you poems.” These, Morrison said, did not make the “Cancer Poems” cut. In fact, he wasn’t sure initially any of them would make it out of his journals.

“They sort of primed the pump. I decided I should see what the experience produced — self-serving crap or something useful,” he said.

He considered waiting until he felt better “in the hopes of writing better poems,” but decided the results would be more authentic writing in real time, while he was in the experience.

“And not going back and fix things for the sake of craft. I’ve never been into the craft thing, anyway,” he said.

One might argue that point. Morrison’s poetry has been published in literary magazines and anthologies; and featured on NPR’s “The Writer’s Almanac” and in the “Take Heart” newspaper column. “Cancer Poems” is a slim volume in comparison to his previous books, but its content, many selections from which were posted on Facebook during the late-winter and spring months, has struck a chord with those who have gone through cancer diagnosis and treatment, as well as those who have borne witness to that experience.

“It’s been really humbling and wonderful, how shared it’s all been,” Morrison said.

That includes producing the book, an idea he started floating around even as he began to re-surface at the opera house — where “a bunch of people rose to the occasion” during the months his world shrank to “a chair, a little table and a bag of dinner.”

“The technical staff jumped in, and conference producer Jim Ruddy [of Rockport] called and said, 'What do you need?'” he said.

Local graphic designer Tim Seymour, who had worked with Morrison on “Shake Hands With Your Heart,” put together “Cancer Poems,” even taking the striking cover photo in his backyard one morning. The book came out in July. Now that the opera house’s busy fall season — highlighted by the annual Camden International Film Festival and PopTech — has passed, a local launch seemed doable.

“In a lot of ways, we were lucky with the timing of this,” said Morrison, who started working half-days during the summer, from home and then in the office.

“My getting better coincided with the season heating up and just dumped me out into autumn — I love autumn!” he said.

Love figures in many of the poems, especially “Last Night” and “Her Job/My Job,” odes to the hands-on love required of cancer patients’ family members. They are hard to read without tears, even for Morrison, but his wife, Susan, whose devotion is chronicled in these poems and others, has been working with him to keep the upcoming reading dry.

“She said, 'There isn’t going to be any crying at this,'” he said.

When the bookshop asked him to do a reading, Morrison was unsure, but the fact that people have been stopping him on the street and thanking him for putting his experience out there — which really puzzled him at first — has made him feel a sense of obligation about sharing his “Cancer Poems.” Still, this might be the collection’s only public reading.

“It’s already becoming distant, which is really strange! I’m not there anymore. … I don’t want to become The Cancer Guy,” Morrison said.

Which is not to say he isn’t still recovering. Cancer treatment in the mouth and throat creates damage that takes a long time to heal. Chronicling the time he was fully in what one poem refers to as the Pain Room, however, is something he believes has value and hopes will be of service to the community that stepped up in so many ways when he needed it.

“I wanted [the book] to exist and be available,” he said. “It became kind of a community project and took on a life of its own.”

“Cancer Poems” is available at local libraries and the Owl & Turtle, as well as on Amazon. For more information about Morrison and his work, visit Admission to the poetry reading is free and all are welcome; for more information, call 230-7335.


My job is to get better.

My job is to learn to accept help.

My job is to not only accept that I can never repay her

for all of this, but to understand that that notion has no

place here. My job is to know that this is love and this is life

and the most one can learn from it is how to be

truly grateful.

— from Dave Morrison’s “Her Job/My Job”