Archive for the ‘Good Works’ category

On Joining

November 30, 2010

I’m getting myself a PEN Canada membership for the holidays. Or rather, I’m taking out a membership, and then inviting various family members to pay off that membership with a credit card of their choosing. Christmas is an unromantic time when the youngest branch of your family tree is in her early twenties.

PEN Canada is a great organization, and a far better choice for membership than most other “writer’s” organizations. I don’t want to say much more than that about it. Just that it’s worthy of membership. But it was worthy of membership all those years I didn’t join, too. Membership is, in general, a tough sell for writers, especially young ones. There’s a certain iconoclastic credibility threatened by the self-assimilation involved in joining things. The present head of PEN Canada is Ellen Seligman and, before her, the late Connie Rooke. Both women shared me in on conversations about the increasing difficulty of getting “young writers” to join the organization. Connie was, and Ellen is, too kind and generous a conversationalist to make any leap onto the tired platform of “kids today” and “the apathetic youth”, but there’s definitely a whiff of that in the air whenever you hear about the renewal problems of PEN Canada (or the Writer’s Union, or the LCP).

It’s long been suggested that writers, as a species, are less prone to joining things than the rest of the humans. Writing is a solitary action, done in the service of another solitary action. There have been precious few public writers with enough of a combination of rhetorical skills and knowledge breadth to survive in the general political arena. How rare an occurrence is this? Consider for a moment that, in Canada, Michael Ignatieff is as close as we’ve ever gotten. And he’s not close.

I don’t really want to talk about politics here though. I want to talk about membership. There are two kinds of memberships. The first is the informal, fluid kind, the membership of drinking circles and casual editors, of conversation and argument and the keen solidarity that calcifies after a couple decades of conversation and argument within a circle of fellow travelers. In other words, there’s “membership” as a professionalized translation of the word “friendship”. This is an ideal. It is these kind of loose allegiances that get misunderstood by academics as “schools” and by critics as “cliques” (and, not for nothing, by Rob Ford as “elites”).

The second kind of membership, the kind of unions and guilds and political pressure groups– the kind with paperwork–is paradoxically more expensive and more easily attainable. Their greatest invention, so far, is the MFA program (Go Griffins!). Speaking of college, joining the League of Canadian Poets has always felt to me like the adult equivalent of joining a fraternity, paying money for the benefits (knowledge, support, leads on events and publishers) of having friends. There’s an unearned feel to these organizations, like you’re paying a fee to have someone do the hard, invigorating work of community for you. I understand that PEN Canada isn’t the LCP, but they come wrapped in the same bureaucratic antics of membership fees and renewals and newsletters. A good poet (ie, someone who can write poems, and who cares enough about what’s around them to have the larger community of practitioners rub of on them in some way) doesn’t need this stuff, do they? If I still lived in Lunenburg, I could foresee joining this kind of thing, but I live in Parkdale, for fuck sakes. If I wanted to meet up with my fellow poets, I could walk to the corner store and back.

This is offered as a means of explaining to myself why writers, in general, are bad joiners. But why is it getting worse? Why are fewer and fewer young writers joining up? The most obvious change in sociological predictors between writers born in 1965 and writers born in 1985 is, of course, the internet. Membership is there if you want it, online. The Facebook group for PEN Canada has 1,000+ members. Not that that does anything for Liu Xiaobo…

The currency market for membership has been as flooded by freebies since 1995 as the currency market for music, or television. But that’s not the whole thing, I’d argue that social networking, blogs (especially this one), and chat offer a far greater degree of partial membership, or tangential membership. The PEN Canada Facebook group is a perfect halfway house for conflicted joiners. There’s no newsletters, no cold calls. There is only the collection of fellow members, line up against a virtual wall, and that collection is full of familiar names and friendly faces. The post-modern affliction of social networking has stripped membership down to its most palatable form for writers, it has made it something you can assimilate into your life, not something you have to assimilate into.

I don’t think this is inherently a bad thing. The only question is, how do you allow for this paradigm shift while still getting PEN Canada enough $75 memberships to sustain their global ambitions? I wonder if the key to the future for non-profit writer’s groups isn’t MORE bang for your membership dollar (Tote Bags! Keychains! Your name on a plaque!), but less. For a group of people self-conscious about allying themselves behind anything, no matter how representative of their values it may be, maybe that non-participatory ethic is the key to furthering participation.

Until then, you should join PEN Canada. Student memberships are only $25. And really, aren’t we all students, in some way?

How to Help out This Ain’t

June 22, 2010

Hey folks.

As promised, here is the go-to information for how to donate to the grassroots cause of saving This Ain’t the Rosedale library and, if not quite doing that, at least recognizing that what Charlie and Jesse have been doing for the last thirty years amounts to a form of public service. If we can’t save the store, we should at least let our thanks be known to the owners. Donations of any and all sizes will be appreciated. I gave them a hundred bucks, which is an amount of money I routinely pay my bartender for what amounts to a hangover and a lingering sense of guilt. I won’t miss it as much as a bookstore. If you have more, you should consider giving more. Or less, whatever you can reasonably spare.

Here’s a link to paypal page. And, to pull the heartstrings, here’s Charlie’s personal message describing recent events at the store…

“Our situation, which could be told as a long story about the plight of bookstores in Toronto and in many North American cities, is really quite a simple one. At our new location in Kensington Market we found a space with lower rent and overheads which thus represented an enticing solution to the difficulty of inflated rents facing many stores of our kind. For a year we worked in this space happily, until the recession hit with full force and we began to fall behind with our rent. Our response to this situation was similar to that of any small retail business. We bought shrewdly, held regular events, did book tables for small press launches, conferences and author appearances, did not invest in advertising, fixtures, signage or renovations, kept only minimal staff (the store has one part-time staff person), and most importantly worked full-time or more with long store hours, while drawing the absolute minimum for our own rent and expenses. In this way we were able, albeit very gradually, to pay our back-rent, and maintain an amicable relationship with out landlord. While the space presented a number of challenges, including our basement flooding whenever there was heavy rain, and though we heard many stories of rent reductions in our own neighborhood we were not offered this option, but continued none-the-less to enjoy working at the store and feel inspired by our customers’ enthusiasm for the books that we were selling. Quite suddenly this changed. Our landlord became impatient with the rate at which we were able to pay her and made demands for large repayments, without providing a precise accounting of what was owing. In light of our workload and the proliferation of other causes in this city, a fundraiser remained only an idea. Instead we responded to these unrealistic demands with an informal proposal which would not have been profitable to us, but to our landlord. We received only further demands which we attempted to meet within our resources until the locks were changed on Friday June 19th. We are once again offering our landlord a choice which would be beneficial to her and allow us to re-open our doors, and are hoping that the outpouring of encouragement from the public might influence our situation. Along with this we are seeking help with organizing a fundraiser, and we are accepting PayPal donations. As we were living day-to-day, as many small business owners do for years after opening or relocating, our own livelihood has been erased, and our present situation is very uncertain. None-the-less we have seen that many people value what we do and are eager to help us, and thus remain hopeful that a resolution is around the corner.”-Jesse and Charlie Huisken.

John Degen on Copyright

June 9, 2010

Hey folks.

I don’t have a lot to say this week. On a personal note, I’m very excited about not having to work night shifts anymore on account of a promotion at the ol’ office. I will also make more money, work flextime, and have to listen to fewer people. A win on all three counts. I’m also excited that pre-sales will open soon for my second collection, but more on all that next week. I will try my best to not let this blog devolve into a kind of self-promotional love-in with the publication date, March 2011, as its finish line. Note, I said “try”, not “accomplish”.

I wanted to briefly turn people’s attention to novelist and OAC employee John Degen’s lonely quest to describe electronic copyright law to authors in a way that’s neither hyperbolic nor oversimplified. It’s a tough quest. I admit that copyright reform is something I’d LIKE to know more about, but find the task quite impossible. Every essay or review or op-ed I read just falls apart after, say, paragraph two as the author’s urge to evangelize takes over and my urge to nap does likewise. I’ve even gone so far as to try and read Bill C-32 itself, a task foiled by the tendancy among such documents to be written in such a way as to render them unreadable by us laypeople. Anyway, John Degen’s been bringing me as close to the truth as I’ve gotten so far, and I think he’s done so by admittig that this stuff is brain-chokingly difficult from the get-go, and to pretend otherwise in the service of some easy analogy (“Electronic copywright law is just like ____, you need to ____ and _____ or you’re ____ed”) is foolish and dangerous. He’s not beyond the quick editorial, either, but he at least sets that table before eating off of it. I like.

You Might Enjoy Attending: Launch of the Purdy A-Frame Anthology

November 13, 2009

I’d like to take some time out of the ol’ countdown to pimp for this Wednesday’s launch of an exciting new book from the people at Harbour, The Al Purdy A-Frame Anthology. The book was editing by late-career Purdy apprentice and noted Vox Pop roommate, Mr. Paul Vermeersch, and includes poems, anecdotes, excerpts, and architectural writing. The subject is less Al Purdy than it is the temple of Canadian Literature he built (with help from Milton Acorn) in Ameliasburg, Ontario.

The anthology is designed to be a fundraiser for The Al Purdy A-Frame Trust, a body tasked with raising the money need to A. Buy the house and then B. Convert it into a writers’ retreat and interpretation centre for all things Al. So, if you’re not Torontonian enough to make it to The Harbourfront Centre, you can lend a hand by purchasing the book either online or through your local bookstore.

The event at Harbourfront consists of readings, conversation, and both a live (ran by Steven Heighton) and silent (ran by yours truly) silent auction. Readers include Vermeersch, Dennis Lee, Michael Ondaatje, John Reeves, and others. Should be well worth the ticket, which you will now purchase for a measly eight bucks right here.

We don’t do stuff like this well enough in Can-Lit. Stuff like recognizing the people who make up your heritage and building something around them, something lasting and productive. The work of the Purdy Trust is an opportunity to stat changing that.