31 October 2019

I won the Harbourfront Festival Prize. Really!

I have been working in the literary underground since I was a teenager. And so, it was a great surprise  when Geoffrey Taylor, artistic director of the Toronto International Festival of Writers, phoned me last month to say I had won the annual Harbourfront Festival Prize. It comes, he told me on the phone, with $10,000. Previous winners? Dionne Brand, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Alice Munro…

I'm usually pretty grumpy, kinda bitter, sort of resigned, about my literary life. I complain about just about everything! Even though, really, I don't have a ton to complain about. But to win such a prize, well, it was just not a possibility that was on my radar.

But last Sunday, my day in the sun arrived right at the top of the TIFA event showcasing the finalists for the English-language Governor General Awards for fiction. That's when Geoffrey publicly presented me with the award. (And also a mysterious paper bag with a ribbon tied to its handle.)

When Geoffrey introduced me, he explained that the prize was given for literary accomplishment and/or one's contribution to the Canadian literary community. He said I fit into both categories. This was an incredible thing to hear. I'd been wondering if my writing had anything to do with my being chosen for this honour.

So here is the speech I delivered that afternoon. I really agonized over this one. I knew if I fucked it up, or missed something, I'd be kicking myself for the rest of my life.

I want to begin by thanking the jury – Geoffrey Taylor, Deborah Dundas, and Alison Jones – and the Toronto International Festival of Authors, for this recognition.  
When Geoffrey phoned me to let me know I’d won the Harbourfont Festival Prize, I was in Paris, Ontario, in the home of Nelson Ball, a great friend and also a great Canadian poet and small press publisher since the early 1960s. Nelson, who died in mid-August, had also been a mentor to me, an example, and it’s my job now to go through his papers and see what publishable materials he may have left behind. So getting the news while I was there, in Nelson’s place, his ashes sitting in a box in his usual chair across from me, was especially meaningful – here was this guy who had operated beneath the radar and made incredible contributions to this country’s literature. 
The list of previous winners of this prize is humbling. And among those names are a couple of writers who mentored me when I was a teenager: John Robert Colombo and Victor Coleman, two very different poets. John was a patron at the library where I worked as a page, up at Bathurst and Lawrence, and he suggested I become his apprentice, which I did for a couple of years, mostly cutting thousands of quotations out of books with a pair of scissors in exchange for critiques of my poetry. And Victor taught a few mind-boggling creative writing classes through the alternative high school I attended at Yonge and Sheppard. He introduced me to the works of some of the wildest underground writers of the 1970s and brought me for my first time to the near-mythical site of Coach House Press. 
One more brief anecdote: in the fall of 1982 I was standing out on Yonge Street selling my chapbooks, wearing a sign saying Writer Going to Hell: Buy My Books. A woman stops and asks if I have any fiction. I show her my short novel Father, the Cowboys Are Ready to Come Down from the Attic. I’m a little nervous when she opens it up, because it’s got a couple of raunchy sex scenes and she looks so kind and wholesome, so I try to distract her. 
“Do you write, too?” I ask. 
“Yes,” she replies.“Fiction?” 
“Have you had anything published?” 
“Oh,” I say, “what’s your name? Maybe I’ve seen your stuff.” 
“Alice Munro.” 
So that’s another connection I have to a previous winner. 
I’m particularly struck by the premise of this prize. I do think it is enough to write. But some of us are also moved to organize readings and book fairs, to edit, to teach, to mentor, to fold and staple, to try to nurture community, and then these activities become an integral part of our practice. 
For me, issuing fiction and poetry that I love through my micropress, Proper Tales, which I started 40 years ago, and visiting with students in classrooms from kindergarten to high school, in the Kootenays and here in Ontario, and working editorially through my imprints with both brilliant young authors like Jaime Forsythe and Alice Burdick, and also masters I read as a teenager, like Dave McFadden and George Bowering – these are things that sustain me as much as my writing. 
That said, this prize will allow me to take some time to totally immerse myself in my own manuscripts, hopefully in a place surrounded by mountains. I’m deeply grateful for this rare opportunity. Right now, I’ve got eleven book projects on the go—I keep starting new ones so I can avoid finishing the other ones. But if I can finish a couple of them, I’ll feel an awful lot less guilty. 
My partner told me I am not allowed to joke that I must have gotten this award as the result of an administrative error. So I will not make that joke. Thank you, Laurie, for your wise counsel and for your steadfast support. And thank you to all my co-conspirators in the literary underground for comradeship, inspiration, debate, and adventure over the past four decades. 
Last year, the Toronto International Festival of Authors got me to Slovenia, one of the greatest experiences of my literary life, where I met wonderful writers from all over Europe, gave a reading in a dripping cave, and was discovered by a young Russian writer who has since translated and published a dozen of my poems. First Slovenia, and now this. It’s a profound honour to have my name join the list of the previous winners of the Harbourfront Festival Prize. 
Thank you.
And here's a photo by Steve Venright of me onstage delivering that speech, with Geoffrey off to the right. And that paper bag on the floor to the left. After I made my remarks, Geoffrey handed me the bag and whispered, "Here's something that you'll still have when the $10,000 is gone." It's a gorgeous, wobbly pottery bowl.

I still find this whole thing hard to believe. But it has given me such an enormous boost. An underground guy like me getting recognition from the literary mainstream. Just as I get officially old. Holy cow.

Over and out.


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