THE SONG OF OURSELVES IN THE SHADOW OF NOW, a speech about the importance of writing in dark times



a talk for Sheridan College, November 4, 2023

This past weekend, I had the great privilege of giving a keynote speech for Sheridan College/The Ampersand Review's & Festival in Mississauga, Ontario. Here is what I said.

* * *

Over the last couple weeks, I've been thinking about what I might say this afternoon. I thought about addressing craft or genre, perhaps how to develop a sustainable writing career or even what I've learned over many years of publishing, but those things, though useful didn't feel like the most important topics to address right now during these particularly difficult and complex times. 

                  Though very dramatic, and perhaps even drama doesn't seem quite right for our current moment, I think of Yeats' poem, "The Second Coming" written just over a hundred years ago:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst   

Are full of passionate intensity.


Lately, so many things feel like they have fallen apart or are in the process of falling apart. Our lives and the values we lived by. The centre—our centre, wherever we locate that—is not holding. Things we thought were certain are not certain. We can't count on what we once thought we could count on.  I don't know if "mere anarchy has been loosed upon the world," but it definitely feels like the systems and environments that gave us stability aren't so stable. We're living in a time of significant change. Maybe the kind of epochal change that Yeats felt after the First World War when he wrote "The Second Coming."


                  Late-stage capitalism has been loosed upon the world and with it the replacement of the category of "citizen" with that of "consumer." It feels like we're losing our agency. We've allowed corporations to control what we think of as reality, to control our desires. Social Media works on even the neurochemicals of our happiness. There's an increasing economic separation between rich and poor, between the global north and global south. Between the Haves and the Should Haves. Churchill once said that democracy was the worst form of government except for all the others. Now we are seeing the erosion of meaningful democracies, seeing the places where power actually resides. Everywhere we see war and suffering. We're just on the other side of a global pandemic. What even is job security? Or a liveable wage? And the climate crisis is worsening quickly—fires, floods, mass extinction, refugees. 

                  Everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. All of these things are interconnected, of course, even as we all are interconnected. No wonder I want to spend my time watching the stars in the night sky. Those were simpler times. 

                  It can seem entirely overwhelming. What should we do? Is there even anything that we can do? How can we address all this rapid change, this increasing lack of stability, of certainty?


                  So today, what I'd like to talk about is the role of the writer. The role of the writer in these current times. I want to speak about how important writers are, how important readers are, how vital creative writing is. How vital literature is. We humans have developed this remarkable technology—writing. And writing has developed us. We have made literature what it is, and literature has made us what we are also. Its role, to quote David Byrne, is "Same as it ever was, same as it ever was." Writing reminds us to be human. It reminds us to be human together.

                  Albert Camus puts it another way: "the purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself. Each generation doubtless feels called upon to reform the world. Mine knows that it will not reform it, but its task is perhaps even greater. It consists in preventing the world from destroying itself."

                  And Toni Morrison writes, "I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge — even wisdom. Like art." Furthermore, she says, "This is precisely the time when artists go to work...We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal."

                  Ok, so we can all go home and write haiku. Seventeen syllables and we'll solve all the world's problems.


                Why do we worry? (5)
                  Every word on earth is (7)

                  in the perfect place.  (5)


My son used to tell me that the first seventeen syllables of anything is a haiku. And it is a good start. But of course there's more to say about the role of the writer and of writing.

                  Plato, famous stan of Socrates, wrote that he didn't want poets in his Utopia because they were too subversive. He didn't want writers there to stir things up, to speak possibly seditious truth to power. If you're the Emperor and your supposed clothes are the mistaken beliefs of your people, you don't want anyone there to point to the naked truth.

                  Sometimes we only think of this truth-telling function when in extreme circumstances. 

Here's a searingly powerful passage from the poem "Requiem" by the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. 

…I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I said: “I can.”

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.”


This a remarkable record of the brutal experience of the Soviet people, it speaks to the writer's role as witness—the woman who smiled with "what had once been her face" knows that Akhmatova will record this, will archive this painful story in her writing where we, seventy years later and across a continent and an ocean, can experience it. Akhmatova's writing is an enduring witness to history and human experience. But the poem also does something else. 

                  In a poem about the Holocaust, Paul Celan writes that, "No one/bears witness for the/ witness." But Akhmatova's poem does. It recalls history and it recalls the experience of experiencing history. Writing witnesses and it speaks to the experience of the witness. 

                  Writing notices. It remembers. It records. And it does so from the perspective of the writer. It makes that point of view important.  Here's a part of a poem by Yehuda Amichai:


Try to remember some details. Remember the clothing
of the one you love
so that on the day of loss you'll be able to say: last seen
wearing such-and-such, brown jacket, white hat.
Try to remember some details. For they have no face
and their soul is hidden and their crying
is the same as their laughter,

Try, try
to remember some details.



                  Writing is noticing, but it can also be the song of oneself. It can speak of who you are. And it gives you the opportunity of declaring it in your own voice and in your own words.  As UK writer John Berger writes, "Nobody knows exactly why birds sing as much as they do. What is certain is that they don't sing to deceive themselves or others. They sing to announce themselves as they are."

                  We can speak of the experience of others. We can speak of the experience of ourselves. In writing, you take agency. It is your story, your words and you are saying them when you want to. And writing imagines community. Perhaps you imagine sharing your words with another. Of creating a connection. Of being in this—all of this—together.

                  There's an iconic poem called "Motto," by Bertolt Brecht that you perhaps have heard:

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing.
About the dark times.


What does singing about the dark times mean? If we sing a happy song in a dark time, we know we are singing in the context of that dark time. Maybe it is a defiant, subversive act, a refusal to despair or be cowed by the darkness. If we sing darkly about the dark times, we name what is happening. We name what we are experiencing. We remember our humanity, our shared humanity. Our story may be dark, but we are the ones telling it. To tell the story is to have agency.

                  There's an old Jewish joke, based on the idea that Jewish people don't drink.

                  Why don't Jews drink? Because it dulls the pain. 

                  The joke is saying that it may be painful, but it's our pain, our story to tell. We save our memories for the future so that we will not be forgotten. So that everyone will not be forgotten. A song in dark times is a powerful response. What can we do in dark times? We can be most profoundly ourselves. We sing the song of ourselves. For ourselves and on behalf of others.

                  It's true that a book seems a small thing in the vastness of the world. It has the same surface area as an open hand or the cross section of a brain. I look at a single book among the thousands of other books in the library. It seems the tiny voice of a needle in a hayfield. Or I compare the book to something as vast a mountain or a shopping mall like Square One. What can this little book even do?

                  Auden famously said, "Poetry Makes Nothing Happen," and Adorno wrote that "it is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz." The value of creative writing is always in question. 

                  But I like what Charles Bernstein wrote in a poem addressing 9/11, “the question isn’t /is art up to this/ but what else is art for?” 

                  I think about the mystical belief that letters existed before the world and that the world was made from letters. I feel that so too it is the writer's job to continuously remake the world with their language. 

                  I said before that writing is a kind of looking, of noticing. Sometimes looking out at the world, sometimes looking in at the writer or even at the writing. Writing asks what it means to speak, to write. It asks how do words—our own and other's— influence us? How do they change what we think and see and feel? Canadian writer, Steve McCaffery wrote that, "Capitalism begins when you open the dictionary." He means that our language shapes how we see society. It has a built-in default world view. But as writers, we can notice such biases. We can work to change language to conform to how we think the world is. To conform to our experience how things actually are. Of how things might be.

                  A simple example. Thirty-five years ago when my wife became a lawyer, they called her a "lady-lawyer." Now she's just a lawyer. Well, ok, an experienced lawyer.  Maybe this is a good time to tell you what our son used to say about his lawyer mother and his writer father. He said, "Mommy makes the paper money and Daddy, makes the change. 

                  I believe that writing is always a conversation. It surprises, consoles, entertains and energizes. The simple yet complex act of engaging in dialogue is powerful. It wakes us up to possibility. To the possibility of being human. Of remaining human. Of seeing other humans. It's easy for things to become business as usual, for us to be become numb or inattentive, given the complexity and fast pace of life. 

                  But an image or a metaphor can affect the world. It can cause us to see it anew. 

                  I think that's why Ezra Pound says that "Poetry is news that stays news." I agree with him. And, I'd add that poetry is also poetry that stays poetry. And by "poetry" I mean all literature. Poetry refuses to be anything but words. It refuses to be only words. Poetry makes us make poetry happen. 


                  Recently, a journalist emailed me some questions. They asked how I've used my work to bring good into the world. They asked how I might inspire the most amount of good to the most amount of people. The question felt ridiculous, after all I'm just a writer and not even a journalist.So, what good is my small writing career doing in the world? And what does "good" look like for a writer?                  

                When I was 17, in my first year of undergrad, I stressed about my choice to be a writer. After all, my father was a doctor. He saved people's lives. And as an obstetrician, he literally helped with bringing new life into the world. What could I do? Write a killer ending for a story about a break-up? Use adverbs in a really surprising way? What good was that? Eventually, I settled on something like "doctors make you healthy and then writers, take it from there." But what does that look like? How should we use that opportunity?


                  I think writing leads people to their own perceptions, ideas and feelings. It opens up possibilities for them to notice and understand more about themselves and the world. More about language, sound and sight. By paying attention and thinking through ideas and experiences, writing brings surprise, depth and freshness to the reader. I believe goodness results through being as aware as possible of ourselves and our patterns of being,  our patterns of belief and perception, as well as the pure present pleasure of interacting with art, with living itself. 


                  I proceed from a belief that my writing adds to the conversation and thereby contributes to the good. I believe that helping people notice their own noticing—their feelings, perceptions and ideas—and helping them unpack the assumptions and biases our language, culture and position steer us toward, is inherently good. With the multiplicity of ideas, facts, and beliefs currently surrounding us, the most revolutionary and beneficial approach is to help people attend to what is going on inside them and what's going on inside others, in a way that isn't driven or distorted by fear, power or money.  

                  I think that somewhere deep in the core of a writer is the belief that if people truly understand themselves, the world will be a better place. If people truly understand others or at least understand them as having as rich and nuanced lives as ourselves, then the world will be better. Fundamentally, writing is about accessing our humanity. Never forgetting what it means to be human. Never forgetting what it means for others to be human, no matter how challenging.


                  As a small child in Ireland, I remember hunting around my dad's office and finding a little box that perfectly held a hundred blank index cards. The box seemed so magical and full of possibility I knew I had to write some magic spells, some mysterious incantations. I snuck the box into my room and immediately began writing on the cards. I didn't know any spells but I wanted to capture the feeling of magic so I just made up a script. No one could read it, not even me. But that wasn't the point. I filled all the index cards with this cursive hoodoo. My goal was to create a feeling, to use the form of spells and the loops and swirls, scratches and knurls of my invented script. I was whispering to life itself. We were connecting. My writing put me at the centre of speaking. In the middle of secrets. 

                  Should writing have an explicit message, the activist's version of, "Live, laugh, love," and not "Write. Regret. Revise. Repeat." And not something like Arthur Ashe's “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” or Angela Davis's “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” 

                  Maybe I'm just saying show not tell? Embody not bully. 

                  Bernard Malamud says a writer should "keep civilization from destroying itself." But, he adds,  "without preaching. Artists, cannot be ministers. As soon as they attempt it, they destroy their artistry." 

                  Malamud means that the most effective writing makes an offer to its reader to engage with it. To connect. This is different than work which does nothing more than preach at its readers. That is a one-way street, from writer to reader.  To me, the most effective writing engages its readers in meaning-making, in taking a journey together, even if it is only a musical one. The most effective writing makes an offer to its reader. It doesn't need to give answers but it asks good questions. And it gives context for those questions. 

                  My grandfather used to tell me this story:

There were two synagogues on the same street and they did things differently. Then one day they joined together. For a particular prayer, half the congregation stood up. The other half remained seated. They argued about what was the right thing to do. It created a commotion and so someone asked the old rabbi what was the authentic tradition.  They're already doing it, the rabbi said. Standing up or sitting down? they asked him. Neither, the old rabbi said. The tradition is to argue about it. 


So it isn't necessarily about having one simple answer, good writing is about engaging with the question, asking the right questions, having the right arguments. Sometimes meaning withdraws to make room for us to make meaning, to repair the world by our understanding. To engage with the world through our questions.

                  Once I asked my grandfather, "Why do you always answer a question with a question?" And he replied, "And how do you want me to answer?"

                  Really, the act of writing is inherently an act of optimism and strength. Even Samuel Beckett writing about the existential despair of his tramps, living in mud and sucking stones for food and enjoyment is an act of belief. His writing is a belief in expression, in humans, in the importance of writing, even if it is one slow existential mud-caked howl.



When I spoke about the state of the world, I quoted Yeats's The Second Coming. He was a great poet born in Ireland. But, hey, what about me. I was born in Ireland, too. So I'd like to read this poem of mine—it's a good one to read at Sheridan because it refers to a painting by Paul Vermeersch who was also the editor who published the book it was in.



today my students wrote a story about

a centaur falling in love with a sheep

there was an ex-husband who was a cowboy

and he mourned his lost dog


also, the bad guy turned out to be the moon

even though he was named Taco

later my friend Paul made art showing

The First Centaur on the Moon


it was wearing gloves and I said

“with those gloves, the centaur cannot hold”

and really, like Yeats said, things fall apart

but today reminded me: not everything



Now I'd like to expand our conversation to include mammoths. Or rather more specifically to talk about American speculative writer Ursula K. Le Guin's important essay, "The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction" and how it relates to our discussion.


Much of writing in Western literature focusses on the hero. A man—and it was most often a man—has a great story to tell about his exploits. He's undertaken an amazing quest and has come back to tell us about it. Sometimes this takes the form of "The Hero's Journey," as explained by Joseph Campbell. This is the structure of many stories. He goes somewhere, does something epic, and then returns. There and Back Again. 

                  Le Guin uses the example of a prehistoric bro who hunts a mammoth. It really is a great story. This guy, armed only with a spear goes out into the wild lands and finds and kills a mammoth. He's amazing. He almost gets killed. In fact, one of his buddies does get killed—he was impaled on one of the mammoth's tusks. It roared its terrible roars and gnashed its terrible teeth, it rolled its terrible eyes and showed its terrible claws, and buddy became caveman shish kebab. But our hero bagged the mammoth and brought it back for the whole village. There was great celebration, a ceremony to mourn the dead, lots of praise for the extraordinary feats of our hero—he told an absolutely captivating story by the firelight, everyone was impressed at what a hero he was. Then they all had a great feast of mammoth and he told his story again. This guy was a culture hero. Look, he fed the community and they even got clothes and other vital necessities from the rest of the mammoth.

                  Ok, cool story, bro. This sounds like many of the stories we continue to tell in our culture in one way or another. There's a hero who can do things no-one else can do. His story arc is amazing.

                  But Le Guin examines the larger context. She thinks about the other people who are involved and the systems which allow this guy to hero his face off. 

                  Her idea is that it isn't just the one person who is responsible for the story, however it is told, but it takes a village to bag a mammoth. And also, let's look and see if the mammoth is actually what sustains them.

    When he brings the mammoth back, it's the community, usually women who process it. Make things out of the skins and sinew, take the meat and cook it. Serve it. Then clean up the dishes. Our hero is resting on his woolly laurels. Also, though he survived, he did go out there with a group. Maybe it was his money shot, but he worked with others to hunt.  Also, although scrumptious and eventful, the community actually doesn't survive on mammoth meat. Mostly, they eat nuts, berries, fruit, vegetables. It's the woman and children, the old and less able-bodied who do this vital work of actually feeding the community, in between the rare feasts of mammoths. It's not the hero who raises the children, looks after the old, prepares meals, clothes and tends to the sick. But the people who do this are not usually in the story. What we hear is about the hero and sure, the story is really exciting, but the real action happens with groups of people on the edges of his story, people that he may not even realize are there or are important. It's not the hunters' spear that should be the model for a story or the symbol of essential technology, but the more modest "carrier bag." The carrier bag is the technology which allows the community to gather their nuts and berries and bring them back for everyone. 

                  These gathering groups of people are constantly sharing stories and knowledge. We can imagine them metaphorically gathering these stories in the bag. The real story is told by a network of people not just one hero with tunnel-vision. It isn't lost on me that the technologies Le Guin mentions— the spear and the carrier bag— are gendered. It reminds me of this little poem by Danish writer Piet Hein that my mother taught me:

Everything is either concave or convex

So whatever you dream will be

Something of sex.


After writing several books in the then male-dominated world of science fiction, Le Guin went through a process of considering what it was to not be bound by the convention of the single male protagonist, but instead to think about other models. She came up with the "Carrier Bag" theory to speak to this. What if stories didn't replicate the myth of the single male genius but instead included a multiplicity of voices and perspectives? A narrative is really many stories woven together. What if narratives were aware of the default structures in our culture's stories?

                  Billy-Ray Belcourt's A Minor Chorus  is a really beautiful, powerful and smart novel that was published recently. Belcourt is a queer writer from the Driftpile Cree Nation in northern Alberta. Perhaps it isn't a surprise that he's interested in interrogating the default assumptions of colonial literature, but maybe it's a surprise that the novel was a bestseller. What does it mean? We're ready? I don't know. 

                  I think the description from the publisher is very telling with regards to Le Guin's Carrier Bag theory. Here's the description of the novel:

An unnamed narrator abandons his unfinished thesis and returns to northern Alberta in search of what eludes him: the shape of the novel he yearns to write, an autobiography of his rural hometown, the answers to existential questions about family, love, and happiness.

What ensues is a series of conversations, connections, and disconnections that reveals the texture of life in a town literature has left unexplored, where the friction between possibility and constraint provides an insistent background score.

The narrator makes space for those in his orbit to divulge their private joys and miseries, testing the theory that storytelling can make us feel less lonely...
A Minor Chorus is a novel about how deeply entangled the sayable and unsayable can become—and about how ordinary life, when pressed, can produce hauntingly beautiful music.



I like that the narrator turns away from his PhD thesis, usually the well-footnoted lovechild of Capitalist patriarchal thinking and enlightenment rationality. I also love how "ordinary life can produce hauntingly beautiful music." Powerful stories don't have to be told by mammoth-hunters, but can be told by berrypickers. Stories are conversations. They can include multiple and interconnected perspectives. There's also the issue of how systems enable or silence what is sayable. And writing can come from small towns and from poor people. Stories don't have to be about Hemmingway in Paris punching a bull while catching the world's biggest fish. And along with that, writing can be told in other voices. Any experience can be part of the voices in the writing. Also, while addressing difficult subjects, the description says that Belcourt's book "test[s] the theory that storytelling can make us feel less lonely." As I've been saying, writing is about seeing our humanity. Even if a story is entirely outside of our experience, it implicitly is humanizing for both its subjects as well as its readers. Le Guin is speaking not only about the content of the world, but, most significantly the assumptions implied in the structure of writing. She's unpacking the implicit systems of knowledge.

                  So then there's the old question. "Well, the Nazis, as Germans, had some of the greatest writers and a very sophisticated artistic culture, how come it didn't stop them?"

                  I don't think that art is instrumental. By that I mean that it's not like taking medicine. Here, take these two chapters and call me in the morning when you'll be transformed into a beacon of empathy and compassion.  

                  You can lead a horse to water but you can't make it drink. You can lead a Nazi to Goethe but...

                  I'm saying that implicitly writing is an endeavour that is based on a belief in humanity, that encourages thoughtful analysis and an awareness of feeling. It can give voice to voices not otherwise heard or remembered. But still, it must rely on the reader and the greater cultural context. Earlier, I said that the most revolutionary and beneficial goal of literature is to help people attend to what is going on inside them, and to notice what's going on inside others, in a way that—and this is important—that  isn't driven or distorted by fear, power or money.  Fear, power and money. Toxic ideology. Literature is only one tool in the struggle against these things. It can encourage and sustain those who struggle against those distortions. It can change assumptions, ways of thinking. It can open up conversations, but always it has to fight against the smokescreen of fear and power that make us not see ourselves and others, that render systems of power illegible.


                  Last night I was listening to an interview with Robert MacFarlane, the English nature writer. He was speaking about language and our co-beings: the supposedly inanimate. There are some places where rivers have been given the rights of citizens and he used the phrase "the river who flowed to the sea." Note his use of "who," a pronoun that indicates that the river isn't an inanimate thing, something neutral from which we can extract resources. He speaks about Robin Wall Kimmerer, who wrote the beautiful Braiding Sweetgrass and her term, "the grammar of animacy," that is, "language use which recognizes and honours the intense and binding reciprocities with which we exist with the living world." We use this language, as Ursula Le Guin puts it "to class [the entire living world] as fellow beings. Kinfolk." Just as we have used language to recognize our various human identities—for example, we now have a choice of appropriate pronouns for ourselves, we can use language to name and change how we see the living world.  In speaking of these natural places, we can also listen for what other languages teach us. We can learn what can we do with language to see in a new way. 

                  This makes me think of how scientists re-imagine the world through equations. Some say, well the math told me that the world must have 22-dimensions, or that Black Holes exist, or even, I'm really in debt. Scientists use the language of math, experimentally, to lead them to new insights about the nature of reality. I'd argue that we can also use the language we speak in this way. By using it experimentally, in new ways, we can uncover and express new nuances of thought & feeling, new ways of being in the world. We can also understand what language isn't telling us, what it is hiding beneath convention. 


                  Wait a sec. Before I proceed, I just want to check Instagram to see how many likes my last post has gotten. 

                  But really: We turn on the TV. We go onto Social Media or listen to a podcast. So much of this contemporary discourse simplifies issues. There are the good guys and the bad guys. The good things and the bad things. Reality is much more nuanced and complex. There's often not a continuum from bad to good—puppies, unicorns and rainbows on one side and Nazis and Pipelines on the other. It's really a multidimensional model and though actions may be unequivocally harmful, the humans involved are actually much more dimensional too, their reality is more complex. Our society is quick to reduce people to caricatures, to essentialize issues into simple binaries. Our stories, particularly as represented in politics and popular culture tend to want to group people into black hats and white hats. 

                  What this does is make people think that they must be one thing or the other and they may feel like no one else shares their conflicted, complicated, nuanced position. They can feel caught in the "if you're not with us, you're against us" divide and perhaps feel unable to speak out for a thoughtful and subtle engagement with issues and an unshakably humane and compassionate consideration of others. To use a contemporary example, It can seem like, You're either with Netanyahu and Israel's current actions or you're antisemitic. You're either in support of Hamas or you're against human rights for Palestinians.  I like the Yin Yang symbol with its separation of dark and light but showing a little dark in the light and vice versa. And good literature does this. It refuses to reduce things down to simplistic answers. Sure there are myths which aren't supposed to represent reality but instead are symbolic narratives about the struggle between forces, either moral or psychological , but even they, when you scratch the surface, yield interesting contradictions. Good literature innately opens up the possibility for multiplicity and complexity. It refuses simple continuums, but rather by its very nature insists on a multidimensional matrix of meaning and interpretation. They used to say that certain parts of England were so flat that they could fit through a fax machine. But it's our work as writers to strive for a non-flattened England. A view of the world that has depth.



                  Over the last many years, I've participated in collaborations with many writers and artists. It's fun to work with others. I can get outside myself and my usual writing habits. I learn new ways of writing and revising. I can try new things and take risks because I'm not doing it alone. I can develop insights into others' consciousnesses. I can share the blame. It is all about working with others and listening. Listening to them. Listening to the process. Listening to the writing.  And moreover, collaboration is also another way to explore alternatives to the hero myth. It is another approach to carrier bag fiction. It decentres the single hero, the idea of the solitary artist creating something out of just his own genius as if all art doesn't stand on the shoulders of giants and the shoulders of non-giants also. People often believe a bunch of supposedly romantic ideas about being an artist—you're tortured, poor, heavy drinking, alone, suffering. But really making art is about being part of a vibrant community of other artists, even if only through their work. You might like to be a bit of a hermit but art isn't about creating things without history or context. It's always implicitly collaborative. There is something sustaining as well as subversive about working together.


                  On that subject, a literary career can feel like a zero-sum gain situation. It's you against the world. Someone else's success takes away from your success. Being successful means being better than someone else. I think this is part of a larger systemic issue which comes from a capitalist culture where it's a race to accumulate and hold onto limited resources. But whatever the origin, it's common for writers to feel envious and jealous of others. Paul Quarrington said that "Envy is the writer's black lung disease." I'm even jealous of myself. My first novel is still outselling my latest novel ten-to-one and so when I look at the figures, which I can do daily if I'm really weak, I feel envious of the me who wrote that first novel and depressed on behalf of the author of the more recent novel. 

                  So what to do about this envy of other writers? Know that it's natural. One of the best ways to deal with it is to take that feeling and use it to help other people in your field. It makes it not all about you and at least you can feel you're doing something valuable and helpful. When I go on social media (it's an envy machine!) and find I feel this way, I post something in support of others'—something about them or their work. I've done something good, it makes me feel better, it gives me something to do with the bad feelings, gives me perspective, and it helps the other person. It is difficult to be an artist. It's easy to feel you're missing out.  But this simple act can feel like you're acting in accord with values that aren't about scarcity or competition. It's a small but powerful act.


`                 Do you know that story from Scandinavian folklore about Woden and the King of the Trolls. Thor was guarding the world tree but the darkness pressed in all around him and was getting closer and closer since Thor was getting older. Monstrous things in the shadows were getting near. So Woden, the Wisdom god, went out and  put the King of the Trolls in an arm lock and asked him, how do I protect myself and the world tree from these horrific forces of darkness? The King of the Trolls said, I'll tell you, but first you have to give me one of your eyes. Ok, Woden said, though he should have known better. And he gave the King of the Trolls one of his eyes. So? he asked the King of the Trolls. Ah, the King of the Trolls said. The secret is to watch with both eyes. I can relate. I often feel that I'm here, keeping back the darkness with only one metaphorical eye. 

                  Here's another thing that I think keeps back the darkness and resists the market's duplicitous promise of success. Do the things that really interest and excite you, not what you think you should be doing. When I decided to write a novel (I was 50), it ended up being narrated by a 500-year-old possibly immortal gay Yiddish-speaking pirate's parrot. My wife said, "Really? People are going to want to read that?" This has been my most successful book in terms of how it has connected with people. But even if other of my books have connected less, I can say that I'm really happy with them. They connected with me.  

                  There's an even more fundamental way to keep back the darkness—to keep at least your own centre from falling apart. Ensuring that you are safe, secure, and able to have what Virginia Woolf calls, "a room of one's own" where you have the time and space to create is vital. Whatever that room looks like depends on you. Toni Morrison wrote her first book on the subway. And being healthy, happy, satisfied, looking after yourself, if it's possible for you, is really the best way to keep going, to have a good life, and to create art. Not to be self-satisfied or too artistically comfortable, but to be able to be brave and risk-taking while attending to your human needs. Sometimes writing and a writing careers slithers up to you and tells you if you just give it one of your eyes, everything will work out. But don't listen! It's a trick. The most powerful and subversive thing is to listen to yourself, what is really going on inside you, deeper than the fear and the seductions of the market. Of course, I'm not saying don't find good work, don't try to sell your books, don't explore possibilities. I am saying that, while you might do all of that, don't drink the magical Kool-Aid and believe the siren-song which says your own value depends on producing or market success. 


                  I'd like to speak about one more thing that has been for me, a way to hold it—all of it—together as a writer. To speak back to the trolls pressing in from the darkness.


I'm a member of Meet the Presses, the collective that ran the Independent Literary Market here at the festival. We also administer the bpNichol Chapbook Prize. I'm proud to be part of the motley array of publishers who support literature that isn't limited by the imperative for profit. I'm not saying that books that earn money can't be important and meaningful, but freed from the necessity to make money, small presses are able to put literature first.  It's because of this that bpNichol wrote that "small press is the guardian of literary culture and free speech." It often exemplifies many of the things that I've been talking about. Collaborative, local, sometimes handmade, outside of market forces. Often artisanal in the best way. They focus on individuals at all points along the way. Editions can be very small. An edition of one, or five, or twenty-five so that publishing is taken out of the limitations and necessary cautions of the market. And so these books often are part of a direct dialogue with readers and with community. 

                  I think that small press implicitly thinks of systems because publishing is not a neutral act. It is implicitly political and aesthetic. The publishing is part of the aesthetic of the work, in terms of its look, its distribution, and how the audience interacts with the work, both in terms of reading it, engaging with its writers and publishers, and in how it finds its audience.

                  Perhaps I ’d use a nature metaphor: commercial writing is writing that is domesticated or harvested in some way. I see the work published by presses as writing in its wild form and its publishers are more a wilderness guides than combine harvesters. Now we're back to gathering berries in carrier bags. 




                  Since I first encountered them as a teenager, I often think of these lines from American poet Marvin Bell’s “Gemwood.” “Now it seems to me the heart /must enlarge to hold the losses /we have ahead of us.” To me this means that while we must be ready for what the future brings, we must be also be ready for the extent of the losses of the past and present as we continue to learn. Like the universe itself, both past and present never stop expanding. That’s one function of writing. To expand but also to encounter that expansion, those stories.

                  So there’s an old joke about when Abe finally meets God and tells him a Holocaust joke. God doesn’t get it. Well, says, Abe, guess you had to be there.

                  Without parsing the theological implications of that joke, you can see that it is saying what I've been saying in this speech:  it is the important and particular role of writers to “be there” – to act as witnesses, as witnesses to the witnesses, and to allow others to “be there,” both now and in the future. And also to be vigilant about that present and that future. So that no one can say they didn’t know, or didn’t notice. About any genocide or persecution. About human experience generally.


                  I’d like to end with a story about the great poet and resistance fighter, Avram Sutzkever. He found himself being chased by Nazis and having to cross a minefield to escape and, having no idea where the mines were, didn’t know where to step. He decided, because it was as good an idea as any, to put his faith in literature and walk across the minefield in the rhythm of a poem. Miracle of miracles, he made it safely across the field. In an interview he gave years later he said, “Ach, I wish I could remember what the poem was, because it turned out to be a very useful poem.” So there this. Putting one’s faith in the power of literature to give hope, to guide, to surprise and outwit, and to take you through dangerous places. provide a good story, a good punchline, and sometimes, even a happy ending.