Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The generosity of book launches

I am back in the thick of teaching and of all the marking that comes with writing classes, so I only went to two of this fall's panoply of book launches.  Is it even reasonable to draw some conclusions from two launches?  Well, I shall do it nevertheless, since I've seen the change coming for quite some time.  Book launches now are not simply an occasion for the writer to preen herself or himself over the delights of the printed book and keep people listening to a reading for longer than is otherwise conscionable.  The new launch is likely to include an interview (as did Britt Holmstrom for her book of elegant stories, Leaving Berlin); there might be music or other readers.  The new book launch includes conversations and is more generous and less single-minded.

In September, Brenda Schmidt launched her book of essays, Flight Calls:  An Apprentice on the Art of Listening, a book she worked on when she was writer in residence at Mackie Lake House, and published by Kalamalka Press.  The launch took an unusual format.  Brenda read, briefly, from her introduction, which described her first meeting with Gerry Hill, who was to become her SWG  mentor.  Then Gerry had some observations and favourite moments from the book that he used to try to get a conversation going between Brenda and himself.  Sometimes they cooked.  Sometimes Gerry's questions seemed a little hermetic for an author nervously launching a book.  I should also say that his voice twines through Flight Calls itself, since each essay has an epigraph sent by him, and a long letter from Brenda to Gerry winds in and around the creative process and among Brenda's careful observations of the natural world.

Flight Calls is certainly about listening, beginning and ending as it does with Brenda's concerns about her own hearing.  It is infused with birdsong, the sound wind makes in different kinds of trees, the hum of her computer, the song "Trees," sung by 256 women in which they name 81 different kinds of trees.  Brenda writes "The other day I listened to it while looking out the window.  I pictured 256 women singing among the trees, 256 clouds of breath rising.  The daydream fell away in seconds.  The trees came forward.  The naked crowns of poplar and birch, lilac and maple, the tangle of spirea and caragana, the leaning spruce, the beheaded spruce" (105).  But Flight Calls is as much about vision and vision's uncertainties and celebrations.  Brenda and her husband Harvey are avid birders who play host to ptarmigan, who participate in citizen science by keeping bird counts.  One winter day they find a Rustic Bunting in the trees near the feeder.  This is a bird that summers in Scandinavia or Siberia and winters in China--definitely off course in northern Creighton SK in February.  Brenda and Harvey post their siting, photographs, and video on the internet and play host to 27 birders, watching the bunting look sadder and sadder.  They last see him on the day they leave to attend the funeral for Harvey's dad.

There's nothing trickier, it seems to me, than identifying birds, particularly those on the wing.  Birding, then, is a test of the limits of the visual; you're sometimes given little more than a split second to take in the details and compare those with drawings and photographs in books.  Back and forth you go between book and bird, bird and book.  In so many ways, then, Brenda's book speaks of the rich web of connections between vision and the natural world that seems, in Kant's terms, to be especially designed for our very abilities to see.  Cognitive psychologists are telling us that we are more generous when we're in a natural setting; Brenda's book, then, speaks of the generosity of seeing and meditating on the natural world, the remarkable visual richness that world gives back to us.  I certainly recommend you read it.

My second launch this year was of Coby Stephenson's book of linked stories Violet Quesnel.  This too was an unconventional launch.  Coby said she wanted to give something back to the communities that had supported her, so invited a number of people to read.  Hosted by the very funny Devin Pacholik (who opened with what I suspect was a kind of found poem of the reality TV programs we were missing because we were there), it included readings by young poets Cassidy McFadzean and Courtney Bates.  I must confess a kind of maternalistic pride here:  all three of these young people took classes with me, and though I certainly never think of myself as having contributed something "significant"(those are ironic quotes, not scare quotes) to their work, I like to think I at least created a congenial space for experimenting, wondering, thinking about creativity and its seeming inexhaustability.  For this was what I felt, particularly when Cassidy and Courtney and Coby read:  that these young voices are adventurers at the outer edges of language and thought, writing highly unconventional sonnets or updating fairy tales in really intriguing ways.  Allison Kydd also read from her intriguing New Leaf book, Emily via the Greyhound Bus.

Coby, I think, spent more time thanking people than reading the first story about her central character, Violet Quesnel, who "just happens to have bi-polar disorder."  Herein lies another kind of generosity:  the refusal of the creative artist to judge, label, pigeonhole.  Coby has clearly tried through the collection to present bi-polar disorder as simply one of the many interesting facets of Violet's adolescence and early adulthood. Two things stand out about "The First Time."  One is Coby's interesting use of second person narration, implicating the reader in the story, as if we understand Violet's frame of mind:  "You didn't sleep again because the 1984 edition of Funk & Wagnall's encyclopedias, which your mother earned by shopping at Safeway, distracted you.  You have read up to Volume C.  You leave off at court cupboard and you are already dressed for the day because you didn't undress" (9).  The second is her willingness to look Violet's mental illness in the eye and be undaunted by it as a writer:  "These days it hurts for her to try.  To try what?  Just to try.  It feels like she has swallowed a stone.  Perhaps that heavy feeling will make it easier to sink to the bottom of Lake Superior.  Even the fine hairs on her chin feel heavy.  She worries that one day she'll slow down so much that even blinking will cease" (16). Read Coby Stephenson's Violet Quesnel too.

So. The generosity of mentors, of birders who allow other birders into their lives to see a "rarity."  The generous use of language that takes us into the writer's world and allows us to huddle or strut or quietly observe for a while.  The generosity of a newly-published author to give her fellow classmates a chance to share the limelight.  The generosity of acceptance and curiosity.  I don't think this generosity is simply part of the creative attitude or process:  we all know stories of writers who are envious shits. But oh, it is welcome!


  1. Thank you for making me laugh: "we all know stories of writers who are envious shits." No, generosity is not inherent to the creative process, but it seems that generousity goes a long way in nurturing creativity, and I'm sure in turn we'll have many more great reads from the authors you presented here.

  2. I laughed at that too, Michelle, and Kathleen, right away I thought of Virginia Woolf, whose fifth and final diary I am just finishing up. She is always saying she isn't very generous when her writer friends do well. How very human she is. I am going to miss her when this last diary is finished.