The Al Purdy Event (Part One)

I published Al Purdy, which meant that I knew him a little, and liked him a lot. He was a larger than life character, in every sense. As Publisher of McClelland & Stewart I had issued standing orders that whenever authors came to visit our office, I wanted to see them;  this was to establish, on all sides, the key importance of our authors to our company. When he breezed into our corridors, a big, loud, informal figure (he was one of the few people able to shamble even while sitting down), he brought a breath of fresh, country air with him. We knew he was there. In The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology I wrote of those visits . . .  “the office corridors seemed to course with energy when he came in, and I felt that people went about their business with extra pleasure because of his presence.”

In my own book I deal with him only in passing. I write about a scorching encounter we both had when we flew too close to the Russian Sun King, Yevgeny Yevtushenko. That was at a famous Toronto Harbourfront event, and Al and I both had our wings singed.

But I remember another very hot encounter when Al was reading at the outdoor Shakespeare in the Park stage in Toronto’s High Park. It was the middle of summer, and even as darkness fell over the crowds sitting on blankets on the grassy slopes in front of the stage, it was sweltering, very hot and very humid. Al sweated his way through a grand reading, to great applause. When I went up to him at the end, he was as pleased and surprised to see me as if I had just swum Lake Ontario to get there. I think that before that sweaty evening he’d seen me as an uptight, tie-and-blazer-wearing publishing type, a representative of the bourgeois urban values that were, let’s say, not a feature of his own irreverent, unbuttoned life.

So a few years ago I was glad to be able to lend moral support when Jean Baird in Vancouver, an old friend of Al and Eurithe, along with Howard White, the fine West Coast publisher who brought out Al’s last books, started a movement to save the old A-frame house in Ameliasburgh. My support, I should stress, was mostly moral, supplying a brief quote for The A-frame Anthology, with no active involvement.

When my old friend George Goodwin (who had left the banking world to join M&S largely because of his love of poetry) told me early in 2012 that he was forming a committee to try to raise funds for the Purdy A-frame, I was very glad to sign up. Throughout the summer and fall we met over lunch, to plan our fundraising strategy. The challenge was clear: the trick was to come up with an interesting event in Toronto that would cost very little but would draw a very large crowd that would pay lots of money to attend, and go home happy.

But what sort of event? Where? When? And charging how much? Charging $200 per head raises money very fast – but it’s not a good idea if that high price draws only 20% of the crowd who would have come for a price of $50. How do you decide these things? And how does the price affect the programme, and the expectations of the audience?

Our group (whom I’ll celebrate later, in a further blog) soon hit on Koerner Hall as the perfect venue, because of its location, its excellence as a hall, and its association with poetry, thanks to Scott Griffin’s very successful Griffin Prize events there. (And Scott, I should note, was one of the generous donors to our event.)

But the question remained, what sort of event? At several lunch meetings (including one where we realised that a Fall 2012 event was simply too hard to plan and carry out in a crowded, onrushing season, and decided on February 2013 as the best time) we thrashed it out, based on the availability of various figures named Enright or Pinsent, and various poets and musicians, all of whom were eager to contribute their talents, if their schedules allowed. Right from the start we had decided to build the event around Al Purdy’s poetry, while providing lots of variety on-stage. This, we were determined, was going to be a very special show.

(TO BE CONTINUED . . .)

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