My Tribute to Jay MacPherson, Delivered at Victoria College, June 11, 2012

Jay MacPherson was a rare creature — one of a kind. Everyone who knew her would agree.

            Eleanor Cook has spoken about her poetry. I can only add that those few who heard her read it have never forgotten the experience. She was not a person who was interested in poetry as a “career” – she wrote poems only when impelled – and that is clear from the poems themselves.

            I first met Jay in 1957 because she was my English professor at Victoria College – which did hire women then, unlike some colleges at the University of Toronto and very many universities and colleges throughout the English-speaking world.  Jay must have been a mere twenty-eight years old, but she seemed to me very experienced and accomplished – she had, after all, just won the Governor General’s Award for The Boatman, at the unprecedented age of twenty-seven.  At that time she had extraordinarily long hair, which she wore done up in an elaborate – what would you call it? – a braided crown? A super-bun?  I knew that I myself would never be able to do whatever it was with my own frail, wispy hair. Never underestimate the value of superior hair as a literary influence.

            Despite the fact that Jay was very shy and was always whisking around corners, she was an excellent teacher. As long as she could direct your attention to a third thing – the work of someone else rather than her own work, or another person rather than herself – she was on safe ground. Both of you could look at the third thing, and communicate through it. It might be a painting or print – she was knowledgeable about those, and already had a collection. The items she chose were often odd, and she picked them for no reason other than that she liked them. Her topics of conversation could be snippets of history, or perhaps someone else’s book or poem –she was very generous about those. She was able to pinpoint the essence of whatever you were both observing. She saw into things, which I suppose is what is meant by insight; this is a great gift for the possessor, made greater when shared with others; as Jay did share it.

            Our Honours English class of 61 was very small, but it included Dennis Lee, later to become prominent as a poet and publisher, as well as Alexandra Johnson, who is with us here today. Jay taught us Victorian literature – the poetry, the novels – and she knew it thoroughly.  I had recently been in the habit of sneering at the Victorians – probably because my father liked Sir Walter Scott and would recite Marmion at the dinner table, and I was going in for Eliot and Yeats and Faulkner and so forth at the time – but Jay made the Victorians sound fascinating; this at a moment when they were not at all fashionable — when the pre-Raphaelite painters had not even become greeting cards yet. She was particularly good on the narrative stratagems of Wuthering Heights, and on Heart of Midlothian, and on various orphans and waifs and strays, from Dickens to Thomas Hardy. In the Victorian poetry course – taught separately from the novel – she was impressive on the subject of Tennyson, especially Merlin and Vivien in The Idylls of the King — and on Robert Browning, the nastier characters in particular. I was soon a convert, and when I went on to graduate school the Victorian age became my chosen field of study.

            By that time Jay was no longer my professor, but had become a friend; this transition happened with many of her students. Among the things that interested her – again, at a time when they interested no one else, academically  – was the Gothic tradition, something that interested me as well. I probably saw more Hammer Horror films than she did, but it was she who directed me to Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla, still one of the best vampire stories of all time, and to the haunting evil-twin film, The Other. I was no longer a student by the time she was teaching her famous Gothic course, but I did get the benefit of the wrapping paper she used to turn out for Xmas, covered with little coffins, fiends, skulls, bats, and other such emblems.

            In the mid-seventies she made me a patchwork vest, with, embroidered on the inside, a window with a revenant peeking over the sill: an outsider looking in, but in on the inside, as it were. She was fond of such knots and paradoxes.  Back in 1960 I had written a paper for her called “Windows and Doors in Wuthering Heights,” which was about thresholds and barriers. She had a prodigious memory for such things, and her embroidered picture was no doubt a reference not only to that paper, but to all those Gothic moments from Frankenstein to Dracula in which that which has been shut out or repressed comes back in through an unofficial portal – a theme also in her own work.

            Her interest in waifs and strays was not only literary. She was highly susceptible to those under stress, and to cries for help: she took in waifs and strays at a rate that sometimes alarmed her friends. Her own childhood had been much more difficult than was generally known, and she too had been taken in by various helpful people and welcoming institutions – one of which was Victoria College; so perhaps she felt the need to create safe places for those who lacked them. Her many quiet acts of kindness were not widely known, but they were greatly appreciated by the objects of them. Her recent protest songs came from the same impulse — she hated unfairness and bullying in any form – and was linked to a radical Christianity, “radical” meaning – as we of the class of 61 learned at Vic – a return to the roots, such as: “Insofar as you do it unto the least of these, you do it unto me.”

            A contributor to the Guardian newspaper once wrote that death is when you breathe in, breathe out, forget to breathe in again, and five minutes later someone else owns all your stuff. (Jay would have been pleased by that definition: she had a mordant sense of humour.) But she herself once said that a death seemed to her like a necklace breaking, with all the beads rolling off in different directions. It was the life that held the various elements together into a shape; but then the shape dissolves.

            However, the shape of a life can remain whole – for a time at least – in the memories of the living. And we in this room will surely carry such a shining and complete memory of this singular and admirable woman – “a golden bubble, round and rare” — as Noah in her poem “The Anagogic Man” carries the magic sphere that contains the world and all therein, and as the boat in her “Arc” poems ferries the dreaming soul.

            Outward the fresh shores gleam

            Clear in new-washed eyes.

            Fare well. From your dream

            I only shall not rise.


                        –From “Ark Parting,” The Boatman.


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Looking Back on Earth Day 2010

Looking back on Earth Day, 2010: A year ago, the catastrophic Gulf of Mexico oil spill had not yet happened; nor had the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the subsequent nuclear leakage. The floods in Australia had not yet occurred. It was felt, then, that the ozone-layer hole over the Arctic was on the way to being fixed; maybe it is, in the long run, but meanwhile, in the spring of 2011, it showed its largest increase ever.

So last year at this time we were feeling a bit more hopeful. I was engaged in several activities in and around Earth Day,, including an appearance at the Earth Day event in Washington, D.C, where I learned of many organizations I hadn’t known about before– see, for instance, — and listened to many impassioned speakers.
(MORE TO COME: Have to go out…)


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Dead Author T-shirts

Responding to many requests for Dead Author T-shirts, prompted by my
remarks that authors cannot make a living from rock concerts and T-shirts, I
have now supplied the T-shirts, in four motifs: Dead Author, Dead Moose, The
Joy of Accounting, and Would Modernists Blog? Not to mention the tote bags,
the water bottles, the bumper stickers, the mugs, and the wall clocks! They
are at:

Have fun!


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Bunfights in the Dark: #C32

Here is the video of the Committee Hearing: (They saw me, I saw squiggly bits). In it you will note some guy — apparently Dean Del Maestro — yelling at me while I am silently opening and closing my mouth like a fish because he turned the mic off.

One of the things he yelled was that no one had ever suggested that educators would pay less to authors and that it was outrageous for me to say so. But the government said so its very own self:

In a government fact sheet on Bill C-32, entitled What the New Copyright Modernization Act Means for Teachers, the Government emphasizes that fair dealing for the purpose of education will be an “important” change to the Copyright Act and that “Extending this provision to education will reduce the administrative and financial costs for users of copyrighted materials that enrich the educational environment.”

“Administrative costs” means tracking the use of copied material, I can only suppose. “Financial costs” means paying for it. If the government doesn’t mean that, what in stars DOES it mean?


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Dubai to Ottawa by Video: Bill C32 in Squiggly Bits

At 8 p.m. Dubai time, I was sitting in front of a video screen on which I could see myself in a little box. The Committee Room — it must have been — for the Parliamentary Committee on Bill C-32, the copyright revision bill, was represented by a large box full of squiggly bits. I could hear the speakers in it but could not see them. I had been asked the day before to address the committee. This is what I said:

Thank you for inviting me. I address this committee from the position of an author who has been involved in publishing since the 1960s, both as writer and as publisher, and who has lived from the proceeds of writing – fees and royalties – since the early 1970s.

I am in the 10% of North American authors who live from writing. Even those within that 10% often end with tiny incomes. The loss of a thousand dollars is significant to them. A writer with a salaried position at a university may have a different view.

I frequently allow free use of my copyrights. When I make such gifts, that is my choice.

1. I will speak only about the extension of “fair dealing” to include “education,” however interpreted.

2. I am in favour of cheaper education for students.
But if cheaper education is a public good, all should contribute. Not just authors.

3. Removing authors’ copyright for “education” without compensation or choice would not be “fair dealing.” It is not fair (why only authors?) and it is not dealing (it takes two to deal).

4. A copyright is property. It can be owned, sold, licensed, and inherited.

There are only 4 ways in which property can be removed from its owner without consent: 1. Theft. 2. Expropriation, which does however include some payment. 3. Confiscation, as from criminals. 4. Requisition, as in a war.

If this copyright property grab is confiscation, what criminal act has the author committed? If requisition, what is the war? If theft, those authorizing the stealing should be charged. If this property grab is expropriation for the Public Good (as in land for highways etc.), the public should pay.

4. The author will be compensated, we are assured. How? There is no mechanism proposed, and no recourse for unfairness except through the courts. Given what I have said about tiny incomes, it is obvious that authors could not afford this. Whereas big educational institutions – floating as they do on public money – can.

5. Finally: If the government can snatch the property of authors in this way, without consent or payment, who and what will be next?

I have put the bold part in bold because later in the proceedings someone I could not see started shouting at me that it was outrageous for me to suggest that “educational leaders” — although some of these these have indeed spoken of all the money they are going to save by not paying collective license-to-copy fees to the authors’ collective — these folks would ever do anything so weird and bad as to rip off authors, and that they would –honour bright! — of course adhere to the “6 laws of fairness” as laid down by the Supreme Court.

I asked how these six guidelines were to be enforced: who’d be the policeman? There was no answer. Fact is — or so it would seem — If the law goes through as proposed, it will be up to the authors to monitor the educational institutions, then take them to court if they err.

Which the authors won’t be able to afford. Catch 22.

Or rather, Catch Bill C-32. Sorry, Author-living-below-minimum-wage, but that’s the breaks eh, and you alone in the whole educational food chain will lose out.

I wonder if the government really intends this effect. If it does not, it needs to re-think the way it has structured this part of the Bill.


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World Book Night Trafalgar Square Pictures March 4 2011


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Tools of Change: The Publishing Pie, February 15, 2011

After a blisteringly energy-packed sets-hair-on-fire Book Camp 2, the O’Reilly’s Tools of Change #toccon publishing conference in New York rolled forth on February 14-16. I gave an author’s-view keynote on February 15 called ‘The Publishing Pie,’ which you can see at:

It’s a new experience for me, speaking to techfolk- they’re so sharp their brains poke through their skulls like the pins in the Scarecrow of The Wizard of Oz — but they were kind and indulgent and showed me some new toys. In particular, Pablo Francisco Arrieta from Columbia showed me the picture he drew of me on his Ipad, which you can see below.

Most intriguing for me are the apps that can be used to draw, colour, and paint, and I think I will test some out, though crayons, watercolours, pencils and pens are more my usual speed.

I hand-drew the PowerPoint pictures, some of which you can see below; though for context and the right order I’m afraid you have to look at the video, because no matter what I do I can’t get the slides to line up in this blog the way I want them to. 😦 The book covers include Double Persephone (1961), done with a linoblock carving and a flat-bed press (re: self-publishing!); The Circle Game (1966), done with Letraset and stick-on red legal dots; and Up in the Tree (1978), which I hand-lettered in two colours only, to save money in those early days of Canadian childrens’-book publishing, and which is now out again in a facsimile edition from Groundwood Books (Anansi).

Meanwhile I am at work on the Dead Author T-shirt – two colours, I feel – and will post a link here when it’s done and available on Café Press.

The conference itself was a swirl of ideas- they’re multiplying like amoebas in a well-stocked petrie dish – but the short message is: The book is not dead. Reading is not dead. The human interest in stories is not dead. But we are in the midst of a sea change in transmission tools, the likes of which we have not seen since the Gutenberg print revolution. As with that historical moment, there was a lot of turmoil, and nobody could foresee all the consequences.

(NB: Have now supplied altered Elvis & Hendrix slide, removing the offending ‘Jimmy,’ for which I just got poop. Never COULD spell. It’s Jimi, silly bat. With an i.)


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