You may have wondered why I let my blog slip in recent months. The answer is the best one possible, for me, at least. I’ve been busy writing a new book.

This was a major surprise to me. Whenever friends, or interviewers, asked me if I had another book up my sleeve I would answer honestly, saying ,”Look, Stories About Storytellers is about my forty years in publishing,I don’t think I’ll live long enough to come up with material for another book So no, I don’t think I’ll ever write another book.”

But then, to promote that book I turned the book into a one-man stage show, and decided to see where it would go. It went everywhere. And roaming the country from this Festival to that University, to this neat bookstore or that Library , with Jane as my “lovely and talented assistant”,  we came across dozens of stories. Too good not to share. Enough for a book.

So, in September 2015 our friends at ECW Press will bring out ACROSS CANADA BY STORY: A Coast-to-Coast Literary Adventure.

It will remind you of my first book, because I’ve persuaded Anthony Jenkins to enrich it with his caricatures, once again. This time there are no fewer than 30 of his superb drawings, of our major authors. With this book I’ve widened my range beyond just those authors that I edited, to include major figures like Margaret Atwood, Marshall McLuhan, Guy Vanderhaeghe, Carol Shields, Michael Ondaatje, and dozens of others.

As a Literary Tour the book will take you from Newfoundland to Haida Gwaii, and from Moose Jaw to Grand Manan, as we visit all ten provinces. It will set your feet itching to travel ,as I recall exciting events we enjoyed roaming around cities, small towns, mountains and islands . And as the books and authors spill out in the stories you’ll find that you’ll be tempted to read — or to re-read — dozens of our best books.

You heard it here first.


The Al Purdy Show (Part Three)

So we came to the night of the show, February 6 at 7:30.

As the whip-cracking Director of the show, Laura McLeod was tough on all of us who were going to appear onstage, insisting on everyone showing up for sound checks at 6:15. This allowed us lots of time to mingle in the Koerner Hall Green Room, where I got to meet  Alex Gagliano, from Upper Canada College, the young man who was going to be reciting a Purdy poem from memory, on behalf of Scott Griffin’s poetry-promoting project. The room was loud with poets renewing old acquaintance, and there was an air of pleasure as well as the usual backstage excitement. We were all very glad to be part of this.


Photos courtesy John Degen

In my dual role, performer and front-of-house-greeter, I was able to roam among the audience in the drinks area, where I saw lots of friends, thanking them for coming, and pointing out the amazing silent auction items that Valerie Jacobs and her crew had spent much of the afternoon laying out. Later the Random House blogger for Hazlitt was to report that in the cocktail party crowd somebody pointed me out as “the bearded guy,” kindly describing me as “Al Purdy’s first publisher.” (Wrong! In fact, Sandra Campbell’s forthcoming biography of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press, Both Hands, establishes that this grand old man, usually associated with poets like Bliss Carman, Charles G.D. Roberts, and Duncan Campbell Scott, was actually Al’s first publisher, with a 1945 chapbook!) I even met Josh Knelman, who kindly recalled my days as a soccer coach for youngsters like him. Then I was able to join my family group (including my second cousin, Claire Caldwell, who as a young poet made the ideal guest) and enjoy the first half of the show.

Because I had seen the script, I knew the opening was going to be spectacular. With a black and white photograph of the A-frame filling the screen onstage, the house lights went down and Al Purdy’s voice filled the hall, reading the opening lines of “The Country North of Belleville.” After a few lines, the house lights slowly rose and Gordon Pinsent walked onstage. As Al’s voice faded away, Gordon seamlessly took up the poem with the words:

“Yet this is the country of defeat
Where Sisyphus rolls a big stone
Year after year up the ancient hills . . .”

Gordon finished the poem, to enraptured applause, and introduced the rest of the evening  as a “ literary barn-raising.”
And we were off.

Marni Jackson’s brilliant script was based around two principles. Everything should centre around Al and his poetry; and there should be constant variety on the stage. So Gordon Pinsent was followed by Gord Downie, the lead singer of The Tragically Hip, who read “At the Quinte Hotel” then sang a song and played guitar.

Steve Heighton turned the event into a fashion show by wearing one of Al’s distinctive shirts (and recommending other items at the Silent Auction) before reading “Necropsy of Love.”

It was time for a Greek Chorus, with Gillian Savigny, Leigh Kotsilides (no typecasting there!), and Moez Surani, led by Robert Priest. They sang and then produced a choral version of “In Search of Owen Roblin.” Then Robert introduced young Alex Gagliano, who recited “Thank God I’m Normal” with its ringing final line, “ Why — why the sonsabitches!”

Michael Enright then brought his CBC gravitas to the proceedings, telling us the story of Al Purdy’s life. Then, in the role of M.C., which he was to adopt increasingly, he introduced more music in the form of author-musician Dave Bidini, of The Rheostatics, here appearing along with Bidiniband and The Billie Hollies. bidiniband

That rousing musical interlude led to the 35-minute intermission, where two of Patrick White’s friends, reluctant attendees, were exulting that this Al Purdy was clearly “the coolest guy ever!”

Here my account of the evening becomes scattered, because after the intermission I was backstage throughout (except for my moment in the sun, when I got to talk about my role as Al’s publisher, to pay tribute . . . very briefly . . .  to George Goodwin and the organising committee — “You’ll find their names in the programme” — before praising Eurithe, and Jean Baird “with us tonight from Vancouver.” Then it was “on with the show,” and an introduction for Ken Babstock).

But from my perch in the Green Room, watching the fuzzy screen, or from the wings, I enjoyed the video produced by Brian D. Johnson, then Phil Hall and Karen Solie doing their duet reading of “Shall We Gather at the River,” George Elliott Clarke, as Toronto’s Poet Laureate, reading “In Cabbagetown,” and then the Skydiggers (Andy Maize, Josh Finlayson and Michael Johnstone), who filed off, brushing shoulders with me as the applause from their music still rang around the hall.

After Ken Babstock, Michael Enright brought Margaret Atwood onstage for a sit-down interview (hey, we haven’t had an interview yet!), which was great fun (as listeners to The Sunday Edition were to learn). It ended with Margaret reading “Wilderness Gothic.” Dennis Lee then talked briefly about Al and read “In My Grandfather’s Country,” which sounded even better from the wings, where the cast was assembling for the Finale, where George Bowering led us in “Say the Names,” with chosen poets hollering out “Lillooet” or “Nahanni” on cue.


For this finale, which turned into a curtain call, Michael Enright and I bracketed the poets ranged along the stage. Beside me was Gordon  Pinsent, whom I had telephoned so many months ago to ask if he would perhaps be interested in helping with this event we were planning. To be with him as the waves of applause . . . no, more than that, the waves of affection . . . came washing over us from the audience was unforgettable. Then in an unrehearsed way we waved to the audience and walked off, dazed and delighted.

Later, when I was able to leave all the happy handshaking backstage, the audience was still filing out, and were clearly delighted, saying very kind things.

And, after the nail-biting lead-up, we ended up selling over 700 tickets! In fact, we ran out of programmes, because we had to set the number of the print run a couple of days in advance, when printing 500 seemed sensible. And we made money, and Duncan Patterson’s plans to fix up the A-frame can now go forward.

And, yes, as I had predicted to the Metro Morning audience, it was the sort of once-in-a-lifetime event where others will say . . . “You were there?”

The Al Purdy Event (Part Two)

In the end, the fundraising event at Koerner Hall on February 6 was such a success that it’s worth celebrating the people who put it together. I’m reminded that a 19th century British Cabinet was once famously described as the Cabinet “of all the talents.” I think that the Al Purdy event organisers deserve the same description.

Let me say the names here: George Goodwin, our fearless (and tireless) Chair, a former McClelland & Stewart colleague now working for the Weston organization; his son Christopher Goodwin, a banker who knows a lot about fundraising and how to close a deal and how to represent a younger generation; Leslie Lester, the Executive Director & Managing Director of Soulpepper Theatre Company with many excellent contacts in the worlds of poetry and rock, and who knows how to go about putting on a good show; Don Oravec, who, before he was felled by ill health, as Executive Director of  The Writer’s Trust had learned all there was to know about fundraising for the literary world; Alexandra Manthorpe, a young lawyer, who could keep us all out of jail, and who stickhandled the purchase of the A-frame itself on just 10 days’ notice; Valerie Jacobs, the superhuman organiser who once ran my life at M&S, and who was now given the task of running the Silent Auction; Duncan Patterson, the young architect who had made detailed plans of exactly how the Purdy A-frame had to be repaired – and who had spent every summer of his life in Prince Edward County; Patrick White of the Globe and Mail, a son of Howard White, one of the founders of the movement to save the A-frame, along with Jean Baird (Jean and Howie were distant but very active members of our planning group); Marni Jackson, the author who can turn her hand to any writing task, including the creation of the script for this show that had such a marvellous flow that it was able to lull or startle the audience, as required, on the night. (Marni’s husband, Brian D. Johnson of Maclean’s fame, played a major role behind the scenes, acquiring amazing film footage and creating a tribute video to Al that appeared for the first time that night.)

Finally, this group of unpaid volunteers shrewdly hired Laura McLeod, a theatre professional, to make sure that the event happened, including such details as having tickets available at the box office, and having the cast show up on the night, knowing what was expected of them.

As those who were there know (and will happily tell you), we pulled it off. And it was indeed “all right on the night.”

But not before much nail-biting anguish. High drama, indeed. If you like a comfortable, predictable life, do not ever put on a one-night stand-alone show. Unless your show is an annual event, or part of a series, with a predictable – and contactable – audience, you are in for a testing time, a roller-coaster ride for your emotions.

To over-simplify:  if you can charge $200 for each ticket you will raise funds very fast, if you can sell them. By lowering the price of our tickets to $50.00 we were gambling that we could sell enough of them to cover our costs, plus . . . Although all of our artists, musicians and poets and actors alike, were generously donating their time, we found that renting a superb, central space like Koerner Hall (and heating it, not to mention having the stage lit, and having ushers etc., etc.) costs a lot of money, and we had to sell several hundred seats to break even. So for all of us, the two weeks up to the event were dominated by emails describing the Daily Ticket Sales, sent along by Laura McLeod.

They were terrifying. With roughly one week to go we had sold only about 200 tickets. We were going to lose lots of money on this fundraiser.

It was time for emergency action. Since people reacted well when they heard about the event (“That sounds great. When is it, again?”), the trick was to spread the word. Any way we could. Emails flew to surprised friends and professional contacts. Our committee worked their contacts in the media (“Hey, we’re in NOW!”). Eventually this led to fine things like an A-frame article in the Toronto Star (which neglected to mention the date and location of the fundraising event, requiring a sly Letter to the Editor, praising the piece and just happening to mention “Koerner Hall” and “Wednesday”).

Even better, CBC Radio came through, inviting me (an internal CBC document praised my ability to “yak”) to talk about the forthcoming show on Metro Morning on Tuesday. I stressed that I was just part of the organizing committee, but this message was embarrassingly elided at the end, so that it seemed that I was The Organising Principal.

The next morning I was on Ontario Today, urging people outside Toronto to come in for the show. I think some did come. Certainly as I mingled gratefully with the crowds I met lots of people who were Metro Morning listeners.

And we sold over 700 tickets! As for the show itself, watch for my next installment.

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.


The Al Purdy Show in Toronto

Al Purdy For months a group based in Toronto has been building on the work started by Jean Baird and Howard White in B.C. to preserve Al Purdy’s historic A-Frame house in Prince Edward County. Thanks to Jean and Howie’s inspired work over the years, the building has recently been bought. Now it’s up to us to save it and  restore it so that it can be used as a literary centre.

Hence the February 6 fundraiser at Koerner Hall. I’m part of the local committee, chaired by George Goodwin, and involving the talents of Marni Jackson, Leslie Lester, Christopher Goodwin, Alexandra Manthorpe, Patrick White, Don Oravec, Duncan Patterson, and Valerie Jacobs. The event itself is being organized by the excellent Laura McLeod.

I’ll be appearing on-stage in a modest role in what looks like being a great and memorable event, an affectionate celebration of Al Purdy, whom I knew well, and published with pride.

Now read on and buy your tickets while you can . . . and spread the word!



“When Al Purdy died, among the stuff in the newspapers was
his answer to this same question:
‘I write like a spider spins webs and much for the same reason,
to support my existence.’ I really liked that.”
— Gord Downie

For immediate release

TORONTO, ON  (January 9, 2013) The Al Purdy A-Frame Association announced today that Gord Downie, Canadian poet and lead singer of The Tragically Hip, will be appearing in the THE AL PURDY SHOW on February 6.

Downie considers Al Purdy an important influence as a poet and lyricist.  In addition to Gord’s performance, the show will include readings from Margaret Atwood, Ken Babstock, George Bowering, George Elliot Clarke, Michael Enright, Phil Hall, Steven Heighton, Dennis Lee, Gordon Pinsent, Robert Priest and Karen Solie, as well as musical guests, Bidiniband with The Billie Hollies, and The Skydiggers.

Proceeds from the evening will support the Al Purdy A-Frame Association’s efforts to conserve the late poet’s home and to maintain it as an educational resource and a place for writers to come together and work for years to come.  The show will take place at Koerner Hall — The TELUS Centre for Performance and Learning — 273 Bloor Street West in Toronto at 7:30 pm. Ticket prices range between $25.00 and $50.00.

“This event is a true celebration of one of the most popular and important Canadian poets of the 20th century,” said Jean Baird, President of the Association. “Al loved hanging out with people, talking about poetry and having a good time. We want the evening to capture this spirit. Plus, we have some nifty surprises planned.”

Al Purdy and his partner Eurithe began building the A-Frame cabin on the shores of Roblin Lake, in Prince Edward County, in 1957.  It was here that Purdy came into his own as a poet, and the A-Frame became a gathering place for many of the writers who would shape Canadian literature.  Over their 43 years at the A-Frame, Al and Eurithe hosted Margaret Laurence, Milton Acorn, Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood and hundreds of others in the writing and arts community. The menu usually included spaghetti, and lots of Al’s wild-grape wine.

“This event will be very exciting for Purdy fans,” said Jean Baird. “For the first time, Eurithe Purdy has donated books and other items from Al’s personal collection for auction.”

These include Purdy’s signed and numbered editions from his own extensive library, rare first editions by other poets, and original artwork from Leonard Cohen.  Book-lovers, mark your calendars!

In October 2012, using donated funds, The Al Purdy A-Frame Association, a national non-profit organization, acquired the property.  As part of its mandate to promote Canadian literature and Canadian writers, the Association’s first goal is to preserve the home as an educational resource and a work retreat for future generations of writers.

Tickets can be purchased by calling 416-408-0208 or by visiting alpurdy.ca

#  #  #

For further information:
Laura McLeod

A few words on Word on the Street

Toronto’s Word on the Street. Great weather means an attendance ten times the rain-swept version. Queen’s Park looks perfect with crowds of adults and kids and dogs  and tents, prompting the question: why doesn’t the city make more frequent use of this fine, central park?

A series of “firsts” for me. The very first public  reading from my book, and it takes place in a tent labelled (are you ready?) “Vibrant Voices Of Ontario.” The tent is flatteringly full, and Stuart Woods of Quill & Quire introduces me efficiently. I explain that my book is a series of profiles of authors that I edited, but that I’ve chosen to read the book’s Epilogue, “What Happens After My Book Is Published?”, which consists of the Awful Warnings I used to give to first-time authors. As usual, most of the crowd laughs happily at the examples of Murphy’s Law in action – and authors and publishers shake their heads in  sad recognition.

The second “first” is that, after a “Q and A session,” I am led to the “Authors Signing Tent.” There I shyly sign seven (maybe even eight!) copies, and find myself guiltily resenting the pals who stand at the front of the line to chat, not buy. As the line-up disappears I have time to notice that within twenty metres is the superb black  statue of my old friend Al Purdy, characteristically in a relaxed sitting pose, his hair drooping to the very life. I published him at M&S and, in addition to routine, in-office chats, we became friends after I went out to High Park to support him at a sweltering outdoor reading. Backstage, I remember, he was really glad to see me, and we both were bathed in sweat. I hope that the campaign run by Jean Baird to try to preserve his A-frame house in Prince Edward County is going well. I should have done more to help.

There’s still time though, and efforts to save the house continue. On November 23, Margaret Atwood is giving a special presentation at Picton’s Regent Theatre. Her provocatively titled presentation “Bulldozing the Mind: The Assault on Cultural and Rural Heritage” follows a reception with Ms. Atwood at Books & Company featuring County food and wine. More details can be found here.

— Douglas Gibson