Welcome back to State of Affairs, my loyal readers. I’m coming to you today from The Road, as it were – yes, the Fixer has given me special dispensation to actually go out and do something for once, rather than experiencing the world through the lens of the World Wide Web. So I took the opportunity and quite literally ran with it.
Some time ago, my good friend Melissa from Living Lime secured a position working with a prominent Canadian literary magazine called The New Quarterly. For those either not in Canada or not in the know, TNQ is one of the country’s longest-running publications at twenty-eight years of issues. They’ve discovered and highlighted some of the very best in up-and-coming Canadian literary talent, including Giller Prize nominees Jane Urqhart, Michael Crummey and Elizabeth Hay. This is important for a couple of reasons.
As anyone in any art-related field knows, Canadian arts have traditionally suffered from lack of funding and – dare I say – lack of interest. I’ve seen this first-hand as a musician and a writer, and I know a lot of you probably have as well. It seems no sooner does an amazing street theater troupe or awesome musical space or outstanding publication come into being, it’s stifled either by the community at large, a poor funding situation or internal strife. I was recently told the average life span for a Canadian literary publication is roughly three years, and frankly that doesn’t surprise me. I’m sure a lot of you are far more well-read on the topic of arts funding than I am, so feel free to chime in with a comment when you’re done here, but in the interim I’m not going to bore the rest of you with details – suffice to say when Melissa made me aware of TNQ and what they’re doing I was rather impressed. As you’ll note on their website, their interest in the literary community extends well past showcasing writers – their members are active in promoting new Canadian writers across the board, including nominating contributors for national awards, adjudicating local writing contests, running seminars for interested high school students, and generally the promotion of Canadian literary talent throughout the community at large.
So when Melissa informed me that TNQ was holding the launch party for their Fall issue, entitled “Travellers in a Strange Land”, and asked me to come on board as the musical addition to the evening, I was happy to oblige. Believe it or not, my friends, I do more than just bitch about generalized issues: periodically I even try to effect some positive change in what small ways I can. If I can go play some songs (which I love to do anyway) and take part in a legitimate literary enterprise for a night (unlike some blogs I could name) I’m more-or-less sold.
The event was held in Kitchener/Waterloo, however, which for my non-Canadian readers is a solid hour and a half by car outside of Toronto. Being as I don’t drive, Melissa managed to finagle me a ride with some of the contributing authors who would be reading from the works TNQ had published. I greedily accepted, mostly because it meant I didn’t have to spend two hours on a broke-down Greyhound bus, trying fruitlessly to find a comfortable position in those so-called ergonomic seats while endeavouring to avoid unwanted conversation with the shifty-looking fellow to my left, who would doubtless cut off my head with a rusty pen-knife if I dared fall asleep.
Of course, upon reflection I wondered whether Pen Knife Man might not be an acceptable alternative to spending two hours in the extremely close company of a car-full of writers. Let me explain what I mean.
I have had very bad experiences with writers as a general rule. No matter how good they are on the page (and some of them have been very good) they’re typically raving egotists with a feverish desire to pleasure themselves vis a vis the sounds of their own voices. They’re a surprisingly close-minded, elitist lot with a penchant for scathing criticism of all but their own works, and this may be the PTSD talking, but in my experience a lot of them get a cheap thrill from lording their socially-dependent accomplishments over those less successful in the field. True, apart from that last bit I’ve probably just described myself with some accuracy – but I’m not admitting to anything. Needless to say, it wasn’t without trepidation that I embarked on this trip.
I wish I could tell you folks that I got exactly what I was expecting, because then I could justify going off on a trademarked diatribe about the sad state of artistry, et cetera. But I simply can’t tell you that, because the people I was lucky enough to get to know during my trip were, in a word, spectacular.
Our driver for the trip was Toronto-based author Amy Jones, whose first book, a short fiction collection entitled “What Boys Like” was just released a few days ago. Hailing from the East Coast (specifically Halifax, where many of her stories are set) she holds a Master’s degree in Creative Writing from UBC’s Optional Residency Program. She won the CBC’s literary award for Short Story in English back in 2006, and since then “What Boys Like” has won the 2008-2009 Metcalf-Rooke Award. But that’s all stuff you can get from her bio. What you won’t see in her professional CV is how patently nice she is. Like, seriously. There I was standing around on a street corner, smoking a cigarette and looking generally unapproachable, when this black-clad woman pulls up with a big grin, shakes my hand and apologizes for the state of her trunk (inexplicably sprinkled with generous helpings of oregano). I don’t think she stopped smiling the whole trip. Even better: no ego. None. She openly expressed her disapproval of people who use long, convoluted or otherwise obscure words to express simple thoughts (which is right around the time I started being really, really careful how I was speaking), and she sweat bullets all the way to the venue about what she was going to say to introduce her writing. I’ve got a lot of admiration for someone who still has the humility required to be nervous in front of an audience, despite any and all professional acclaim she’s received.
Sitting next to me in the back seat was a second Toronto author, Rebecca Rosenblum, also a Masters graduate in English and Creative Writing, also published all over Hell’s half-acre, also the winner of several prestigious awards including the 2007 Metcalfe-Rooke Award, and her short story collection “Once” was included on the Quill and Quire’s list of 15 Books That Matter in 2008. I’d like to make note here that neither Amy nor Rebecca offered this information up to me – I found out about it through TNQ’s publicity release and my own research (read: internet stalking). Rebecca was the first unfortunate soul to locate me outside our designated meeting point: it’s a good thing she approached me, because I was so lost in my own show preparations I didn’t even notice she was there. Rebecca was also incredibly friendly, quizzing me on my job and interests (she clearly knows how to deal with raving-egotist writers) and she seemed genuinely interested in the responses. Amy was dealing with directions for some time, so I was glad of the company and the conversation in the back seat. Rebecca was well-spoken and yet rather demure, and shared the same humility and nervousness Amy displayed. I had to laugh, in a way – here I was sitting in a car with two individuals who were more educated and successful than me by leaps and bounds, and I was listening to them fret over their introductory statements. It was more than a little humbling.
The evening was hosted at the Kitchener/Waterloo Art Gallery, or more specifically at the ArtBar, a swank little affair inside the gallery proper. I’ll admit it wasn’t the most ideal room I’ve ever seen sonically, but Brian the proporietor did everything he could to make the sound work for me and for the readers. Also, if you’re ever in the K/W area and you’re looking for a decent bite to eat at a pseudo-hip uptown bistro/pub, check out the ArtBar. The food is extraordinary – and by extraordinary I mean gourmet. I can’t remember precisely what I ate, but it had sausage and chicken and what tasted like seventy-five different kinds of cheese served in sauce over garlic focaccia bread. I couldn’t stuff it down my gullet fast enough.
As for the readings themselves? All I can say is I wish somebody had videotaped the evening so I could put up a Youtube clip or something. It would be easier than trying to describe it, to be completely honest, and I’m a lazy bastard, but this bears repeating.
I want to premise this by saying I have not (yet) read any of these writers’ works for myself; I was only privy to their readings and so my word should not be taken as gospel regarding the content or the style (as I mentioned to a few people last night, there’s a big difference between writing on a page and reading aloud to an audience, and quite often the nature and style of a reading can change the way the words work on a listener’s brain). Also, if you’re not into literature you might want to skip this because I’m putting on my “literary theory review” hat and it’s not what I usually write on this blog. That said, if you’re not into literature, don’t you have something else to do – like watch reality television, eat at McDonalds, and hopefully fade into obscurity?
The diversity of the readings, I think, was what really struck a chord with me. Rebecca was first to read, from her short story “The House on Elsbeth”. Her delivery was stark and almost plaintive, staccatoed in a way that made me imagine her prose almost poetically on the page, driven by line breaks and punctuation to elicit a rhythmic effect from her phrasing. The story dealt deeply with the devices of heat and claustrophobia, and yet I found Rebecca’s reading more than a little chilling. I don’t want to comment too far into the content of the story because I haven’t read it and that wouldn’t be right of me, but I do suggest you go out and pick up a copy of “Once”: based on what I heard it will be well worth it.
Amy’s work was a complete departure. Her short story, “The Church of the Latter-Day Peaches” was presented through the lens of her characteristically cheerful disposition, which was the source of some comedy given the subject matter was very tongue-in-cheek and, for me at least, called to mind the work of Stephen Leacock. I found myself relating to characters in a retroactive way – as though they represented parts of someone I used to be. Either way it was extremely engaging, and I intend to pick up my copy of “What Boys Like” sooner rather than later.
The third speaker, Carrie Snyder, didn’t actually join us for the trip up, but I’m certainly glad she was a part of the evening. She’s a local writer who lives in Waterloo with her husband and four children, but she grew up, surprisingly, in Nicaragua: her parents were peace workers who took her to South America when she was very young. Her recent series of short stories is entitled “The Juliet Stories”; she derived inspiration from her childhood experiences to create a brilliantly-realized work of fiction. Her reading was extremely emotional and evocative; it sounds like a bit of a trope, but I really felt as though I was learning something valuable while listening. I guess it’s because, unlike Rebecca and Amy’s readings in which I either related to characters directly or else knew comparable people, I am not, nor have I ever known, a pre-teen girl in Nicaragua. I can’t wait for these stories to be picked up and published in book form, and when they are, you – my valued readers – will be first to know.
But then, that’s why you come to State of Affairs – where we’re always riding the cutting edge ahead of the wave. Et cetera.
All in all, I have to call this a win for TNQ. The speakers were all extremely well-received and the whole evening was brilliantly executed by all involved: the wonderful Kim Jernigan who hosted the event, and is arguably one of the most genuinely enthusiastic people I’ve ever had occasion to work with, and of course my friend Melissa who, in addition to her expansive sustainable living expertise, is also a master of the precarious art of event planning.
I don’t typically do such blatant shout-out posts on this blog, but every so often something comes along that I think is truly worthwhile. As many of you may have gleaned, I’m something of a literature fan (and I even try my hand at writing now and again) and the written word is extremely important to me, so shout-out it is.
Go check out TNQ’s back catalogue and their upcoming events and issues. Oh, and their blog. It’s worth your time to help support Canadian writers and the infrastructure of outstanding art this country has developed in our relatively short history. Thanks to the folks at The New Quarterly who gave me the opportunity to be part of this fantastic evening.
Now that I’ve exhausted my quota of thirty-thousand dollar words for the week (sorry Amy!) I’m going to go do something totally mindless. The first-person shooter Melissa’s boyfriend is playing sounds pretty good. Enjoy your weekend, my friends, and be sure to come on back Monday. I’ll have something overreachingly insulting to say about someone, I’m sure of it.