I once slept beside the Prime Minister of Canada. Granted this was before he was prime minister and no, it wasn't the current Prime Minister. It was Jean Chretien. Long story short
Marystown, Newfoundland, The Mortier Hotel, 1989.
I've just arrived to do a week of readings in the schools in the Burin Peninsula. I'm to travel from Heart's Delight to Grand LaPierrre and ziggety zag back again before the week is through. Lot of miles. Lot of water. Lot of rock. As I'm checking in, I hear a helicopter. "He's here!" shouts the desk clerk. Jean Chretien, his entourage and a rush of reporters flood the lobby. Turns out I'm staying in Liberal headquarters. Chretien's going to give a speech to show support for Clyde Wells. (It's provincial election time). I'm not a Newfoundlander but I've been screeched in and I'm so not going to miss this. I weasel my way into the room to hear the speech. It's a good speech. I'm impressed. The man's a passionate speaker. ('That's because you only had to hear the speech once', a reporter jokes the next morning. But I digress.) It's been a long day, so I leave the party and go to sleep. Next morning, six o'clock, I go out for my walk. On my return, just as I put the key in my lock, the person right next door exits his room. Yes. It's him.
"Good mor-NING," he says, flashing that trademark twisted grin of his while extending his hand for the handshake. I shake. In all ways. "I'm sh-sh-shaking the hand of the next prime minister of Canada, " I say. (I'm such a dork.) He thanks me. I wave out the window as his helicopter whirls above the hotel, up, up, out over the Atlantic and poof: he is gone. Well, I tell myself, I hope what I said was prophetic and he does get elected PM because I once slept beside the prime minister of Canada is a good first line, maybe I'll use it sometime. And I did. Well, a revised version.
I once slept bedside you, I wrote in a letter to Prime Minister Chretien to protest when the Harmonized Sales tax was about to be placed on books in Atlantic Canada. Thanks to the galvanizing energy of the fiercely passionate and compassionate Jane Buss, then Executive Director of Nova Scotia Writer's Federation, a whole battalion of book loving people got going. Letters were written and written. Pens were swords! And we took to the streets in a 24-hour read-a-thon to protest the extra tax. Tax on books, tax on reading, tax on knowledge! We made quite the hullabaloo.
The media were fantastic, paid attention, shone a light. I ranted on Morningside until Peter Gzwoski told me, with a chuckle in his voice, to calm down. I had a personal note from a regional politician asking me to be patient; another told me I was being rude. When interviewed by Brent Bambury on Midday he asked did I really think all the letters would matter—would protests really make a difference—I said I absolutely believed that it would. As it turned out, that time, the letters worked! Books were exempt from the Harmonized Sales Tax in Atlantic Canada. Our voices mattered. We had leaders who listened and reconsidered.
Fast forward to recent weeks. The current Harper government has slashed funding to the Literary Press Group. Writers and the publishing community and just as importantly, READERS in this country have been dealt a crippling blow to the solar plexus. Soul-ar plexus. So we are up in arms. Taking up pens in protest. Scolding shaming yelling whining pleading—mostly respectful, articulate, clever, passionate and even poetic. But I'll be honest, I'm wondering this time myself: do we really think writing letters will change anything?
Well, I'm a poet (of sorts.) I deal in ideals. Words matter. My answer is still yes.
So here is a my letter.
Dear Mr. Harper,
I'm a Canadian storyteller. Because I often wonder how hard it is for you to go to sleep at night with so much on your little mind, I'm going to tell you a bedtime story. What? You've never had one before? I'm so sorry to hear that and with all due respect, this totally explains so much. Your lack of imagination for one thing. This is nothing to be ashamed of. Many politicians over the years have had the same condition. Luckily, there is a cure. The Arts. A good story.
Are you all comfy and cosy? Well of course you are. You just snuggle right in. I'm sure you're a very good listener.
Once upon a time there was a poet who went into a Grade Eleven classroom somewhere in Newfoundland to do a reading from a small book of poems that was published by a small publisher. The students were a good audience. Wide-eyed, alert, polite, engaged, attentive. All of them, that is, save for one. He was a defiant type you might say, if you are the kind of person who judges by appearance. He was the "punk" with the cigarette pack tucked in the sleeve of his black leather jacket, a James Dean demeanour, a thatch of black hair he kept flicking over his forehead with a cool sideways headshake. His right knee jiggled like a non-stop jackhammer.
As the poet read poems, the punk examined his cowboy boot tips, yawned, gazed blankly out the window, drum-rolled his pencil on his desk. He sat in the very last seat in the very last row as if he might any moment try to escape out that window above his head.
Now the poet, being a poet, as YOU would expect, was an overly sensitive type. (Compared to whom I like to ask.) Anyhow, despite having such an appreciative audience, the poet couldn't help feeling like she was a bore and torturing the young man. As she paused between poems and answered questions, she was also having a wild internal argument with her selves.
—You should tell him he can leave if he hates poetry so much.
—No, I do not have the authority.
—Maybe ask him a question, try to engage him.
—No, just ignore him. Focus on the others.
Which is what the poet did.
Time passed. The bell to change classes buzzed and the students, as if programmed, jumped from their seats and hustled away except for a few who made a little horseshoe around the poet and said wonderful nice things to her for a few minutes before they left. The teacher was long gone.
The poet was alone in the classroom. Or so she thought. She was startled to discover she was not alone. (This epiphany would be an recurring one in her life and a motif she explored in award winning works in years to come.)
No, she was not alone. The punk moseyed up to the desk.
The poet, gathering up her books, tried to appear outwardly calm. Was he dangerous? Did he have a switchblade? (This poet, besides having a wild imagination, had a tendency to over-react.)
—Hey, he said.
—Yeah, she said. I'm cool so cool cool cool lalalala.
—You know the poem about your grandmother that you read?
—Can I 'ave it?
The poet had not expected that.
—What? she said.
—The one about your grandmother. I really liked it, Miss. I needs it. Can I 'ave it?
Now the poet only had one book with her and she wanted to say "Well, I needs the book for next class and that would be need singular not plural need, not needs." But she did not. Even though there was such a thing as photocopier somewhere in the school, the poet knew she only had a small window in which to act.
—Sure, she said, and she opened her book and she ripped out the pages from the book and she handed over the poem entitled Grand Mere to the lad.
—Thanks, he said, with a grin as wide as the bay outside that window. And he folded the paper as it if were a precious thing and tucked it into his left pocket in his black leather jacket and shuffled out.
—Glad you liked it. You're welcome.
But he was gone.
The poet stood in the empty classroom.
And for a second, she wondered why a boy in small fishing town needed a poem about a hardworking Acadian woman's life, a woman who was pregnant nineteen times, who lost an eighteen year old son, who still had faith and prayed her rosary and died and had a granddaughter who wrote poems about her that asked how one keeps faith in the midst of this sad beautiful world. But only for a second. The poet knew the answer.
The answer was why she wrote what she did.
After that, whenever the poet gave a reading she knew that it was impossible to tell who was the one in the audience who was really present, really listening or the one she might actually have written the poem for. (For she wrote to connect with an OTHER, not just for herself and her own sanity and salvation and myth-making urge.)
From that day forth, she would remember she would never know how work and words travel and no matter what, she would keep writing.
And she did. Even up to this day, every time the poet opens up that book and sees the empty place in that book, sees the place where she tore out the pages, she's reminded of something true and deeply human. Something she knows she will never be able to express in words.
But she will keep trying.
Did you like that story, Mr. Harper?
Well, there are hundreds of stories like this by writers in this country, stories that will tell you how books connect us one to another in our sameness and differences and as a nation of people gloriously diverse. These works will come mostly from small publishers like Goose Lane Editions and Gaspereau Press and Roseway Publishing and and on and on the list goes. They will be the works from the likes of writers such as Riel Nason and Binnie Brennan and Johanna Skibsrud and Harry Thurston and Heather Jessup ....countless others.
Your cuts will affect me. They do and they will. But I am an established writer. I'll keep writing and teaching, even if not publishing, and die happy enough tomorrow. I'm worrying and writing this letter because these cuts will affect generations of emerging writers and mid-career writers and veteran writers and more to the point, the READERS.
You are not just cutting funding to the Literary Press Group, you are clear (ly) cutting our future Canadian literary culture. And saying to hell with our literary heritage and saying no to cultural industry.
Take a page out of my book? Look, I've done it myself before. But rip the hearts out of small publishers; abort works yet to be birthed, silence voices we have not yet heard from?
Your page in the history book will cast you as a literary villain. There is time to show Canadians that you listen and reconsider. Please do.
Enclosed is an autographed copy of my latest book. Tradewind, a member of the Literary Press Group, publishes it. Very beautiful. They do exquisite books for children.
You might not get it. It is a book about a ferris wheel, but that is metaphor for many things. The art work by Diego Herrara will take you on a wild ride. There are cotton candy trees. People are dancing jellybeans. Mermaids exist. It is about the joy and terror of being alive. About a brother and sister and holding on tight.
Read it and weep. It will be my last one perhaps.
Pleasant dreams PM Harper.
In a land where a ferris wheel is just a ferris wheel and nothing else, in a land where the government attacks the evolution of literature and stymies the imagination of its people, we are left with nightmares.
Play a game of dot-to-dot with Orion's stars and try to see the bigger picture.
Until the next page, if there is one,