09 August 2005

Volunteering means never having to say, "You're welcome"

Funny thing, and I hope this doesn't hurt any feelings. Just a point I think needs to be made.

About 15 years ago, I quit doing my hour-long, bi-weekly gospel/doo-wop radio show, "The Upper Room with Brother Stu," at York University's CHRY. It was a volunteer gig I'd been doing for about four years. I gave them my notice and they confirmed the date of my final show so that something else could be put into that slot, but they never thanked me. The volunteer coordinator, the station manager, nobody. Nobody said, "Thanks for your four years of volunteer work here."

I miss doing the radio show, because it really was a blast. I liked spinning my black vinyl black gospel of the 1940s and 1950s.

More recently, on July 19, I sent a note to my editor and publisher at Word that I wouldn't be continuing with my Hunkamooga column, after about four years of volunteer contributions. Now, when I'd broached the possibility of quitting a couple months back, Word's publisher did express appreciation for all my work, in the context of trying to get me to reconsider.

But now that I've actually quit, not a word on the topic. Here's what I'd have written me: "We're sorry to see you go. Thanks for all your good work over the years."

My suspicion is this: Word is run by people who are in the small press for the love of it -- no one's making any money off this thing. I don't think they're ungrateful, but maybe they're just so busy trying to keep things going, it simply didn't occur to them to thank me.

On the subject of thanks, here's another thing that's been bugging me for a while. Last May, I think it was, I invited some Ottawa writer friends to Toronto to do a reading in my irregular Kat Biscuits! series at Yammy the Cat: Peter Norman, Melanie Little, and Stephen Brockwell, all excellent writers and rare readers in this city. Although the previous three Kat Biscuit! events were standing-room only (about 30 or 40 people), I wanted to match them up with a local writer, a) to let our visitors see some local talent, and b) to ensure an audience. I try to book local people who just about never do readings: I asked Sharon Harris, who I knew was wrapping up her first major poetry manuscript, who had just had a chapbook out from BookThug, and who is a tireless documenter of Toronto poetry events on her iloveyougalleries.com website. Out of the goodness of her very big heart, and presumably out of a love for the Toronto poetry community, she has photographed dozens of events over the past several years, archiving them on her site.

So what happens when someone gives so much to a community and asks for nothing in return? Well, we had an audience of maybe six. I think two of them came specifically to hear Sharon (one of them was Word's editor, by the way). Where were all the self-satisfied Lexiconjurers? Where were all the people who are always so happy to have their photos appear on Sharon's website?

The bottom line is this: they should have been there. And not just because Sharon has given so much to the community, but because she's a really good writer and she was giving one of her first-ever feature readings. And because we had three visitors from Ottawa who deserved our interest.

That said, the four writers were very gracious and had no complaints, gave good readings and said they enjoyed themselves, and the small audience that was there had a very good time. I'm the only one griping about this.

I've got a couple friends coming in from England in September, and I promised them long ago that I'd organize a reading for them. I'm going to go through with it, but frankly, I'm very scared that no one will show up.

Over and out.


At August 09, 2005 6:04 pm , Anonymous rox. said...

wholeheartedly agree...the lost art of a simple "thank you" is fading even further into the past. too bad. it costs so little to be grateful and gracious, and it's always appreciated. i'll say thanks, stu, and i wish i heard your show.

as for drawing a crowd to poetry gatherings, here's my formula: align yourself with a worthwhile non-profit cause, charge a small ticket/door donation fee, use the organization's network as well as your own, get much more free publicity (especially if the cause is a darling of the media, or even one branch of the media), print a few posters (strategically placed), sit back and fret and worry and sweat, until you see the house is packed (even overflowing) and people are having a grand time drinking wine and beer and wonder of wonders, enjoying poetry!

it seems to work for me.

At August 09, 2005 9:29 pm , Anonymous lynn said...

oooh, the title of this post is so sad. as rox said, it doesn't take much to say thank-you, and wouldnt' have been much for a few more to come out to kat biscuits. there was a coach house competing event that night tho, and people like to congregate at the same place. i don't know how one schedules an event without competition. have your england visitors read at a brunch somewhere perhaps. rox's suggestions are guaranteed to draw people out, but are much more work.

your columns were always enjoyed in word, stu, so thanks for writing them. and for those i missed, "confessions of a small press racketeer" fills the gap.

At August 10, 2005 11:39 am , Blogger GM said...

Bookninja has been posting virtually daily for two years as of this week and almost no one has ever said thanks. Our tip jar has remained empty and we've been forced to resort to advertising to keep it afloat. We pay our contributors now, but not ourselves. We've always thanked people who write for us, and still do, profusely, even though they get a few bucks out of it now.

I've come to the conclusion that absent-minded lack of thanks is just part of it. People don't see volunteers, they just see the product. Radio show, reading, column, website. They forget that individual, hardworking people are behind it. I agree, though, that it hurts.

Question: is showing up at all a form of thanks? In that case, we are thanked thousands of times every day. I guess it's not as selfless as a thank you, but I'm trying to find a bright side here.

And thanks, Stu, for your cranky columns.


At August 10, 2005 4:16 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

jeez bookninja, you're really breaking my heart. wake me when it's over.

At August 10, 2005 4:45 pm , Blogger Kate S. said...

I agree that people should be thanked often and sincerely for their volunteer efforts. I think that what happens sometimes in these scenarios though is that everyone is a volunteer, so no one is quite sure who should thank who. Ideally everyone should thank everyone else. But there's often a sense of "we're all in it together" so individual efforts are never singled out and recognized. I don't know if that has any bearing on the situations you describe, Stuart. I'm just reflecting on how some of my own volunteer projects have unfolded.

On the question of attendance at readings, I'm a bit torn. I try to be a good citizen on that front. I attend readings by writers whose work I love, readings by writers whose work has been talked up by people whose opinions I trust, readings by friends, readings organized by friends, and so on. But I inevitably reach a point when I realize that I'm spending so much time listening to other people read that I'm not doing enough writing of my own. Then I bow out for a while. One of the benefits of a big city is how much is going on at any given time, but that's one of the drawbacks too. I sometimes think that that's one explanation for the very vibrant writing communities that exist in many smaller cities. Rather than a million competing events with splintered audiences, there are a few big happenings that everyone comes together for. And in between, everyone gets some work done.

At August 11, 2005 8:25 am , Blogger dfb said...

it’s unfortunate that anonymous said... is anonymous unless it’s THAT ANONYMOUS (i hate that fucker)

but George raises a point, i think showing up is as close to a thank you as one could ask for – if one is interested in thank yous.

i think people forget that whatever you are doing it’s for your own pleasure. (if it’s not then stop what your doing). in bookninja’s case – i generally look at it as a clipping service – with it’s own agenda. but george would be reading all those same articles even if he didn’t post them on his page – bookninja is canadian version of bookslut (which is cool – again if you buy into that view of books (which you may have guessed i don’t)).

i have never bought into the “lets thanks the volunteers for there time…” if you have the time and interest in doing something do it. Thank Yous are for people who are unsure of what they are doing.

one more point – i am only talking about literature stuff here. we are responsible for our own content, even if it’s second hand. cuz if we don’t provide content – there are a bunch of cbc wanna bee fuckheads willing to provide it for us, and that would not be pretty or interesting.



At August 15, 2005 8:44 am , Anonymous dwm said...

Thank you, Stu.
Thank you for being you.
Thank you for being me.
Thank you for writing, too,
Hey, Crumbling Balcony!

At August 20, 2005 3:49 pm , Anonymous Anonymous said...

"However much you may do for people, and however fond of them you may be, never expect any gratitude, Nicola," said Karl warmly.
- Tolstoy, Childhood.

At August 21, 2005 12:20 am , Blogger i love you said...

Aw, Stuart -- thanks for saying nice things about my work.

The Kat Biscuits night was fun for me -- and I sold the last of my chapbooks! I didn't know much about the Ottawa writers going in, but when they come back to Toronto, everyone go see them.

I will check out the next Kat Biscuits reading because they have such a great track record. And maybe my camera won't malfunction!



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