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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Book Camp #book2, February 13, 2011

Well, that was a workout! So electrified was I that all my hair stood up on end like the Bride of Frankenstein. (Yes, I know, it already kind of did…)

Off I went to New York on February 13 to be a keynote speaker of O’Reilly’s #toccon book-tools publishing conference. (Speaking about the author as primary source, a sort of small anchovy that en masse fuels whales – e.g. publishing companies — or a sort of dead moose on which more than 30 other life forms draw for nourishment… How many have made a living, so far, on Dead Shakespeare? You cannot count the ways.) (Arcane reference to E.B. Browning.)

But first I went to the premises of Open Sky on 18th Street for a pre-conference industry think-tank at which many bright souls were either holding forth or taking it all in. Publishers, bloggers, e-biz book folks, hopefuls, mopefuls – all sectors were represented, though not many elderly authors such as Self.

Yes, “publishing” (the transferring of stuff from one brain to another by means other than direct vocal contact or the Tube method, as in Young Frankenstein) – publishing, I say – and this is not a world-shaking new insight – yes, publishing, I repeat in Dickensian mode –that method of brain-creation transference that has, since Gutenberg, been using the paper “book” as the mass-transference tool – this “publishing” is in turmoil. And it was said turmoil that was the subject of many a discussion at #book2.

What about blogging, tweeting, and social networking in all its forms? Should authors be expected to do these things to promote their books, and what if they don’t want to? (See for instance Codrescu’s “Soapbox” in PW of January 31, included in our TOC kit, in which he poxes on all their houses.)

What about e-books and the purloining of content therefrom? Are paper books really in trouble, or is it just bookstores who are staring down the throat of Fenris? (Arcane reference to Norse mythology.) Can we credit a comparison between musicians – downloads have cut into the record biz, but just do a lot of concerts, like Lady Gaga? (I’d say not. Which writers would you pay to take off most of their clothes, paint themselves yellow, and cavort about curvaceously with a giant egg? Please do not answer this question. There is such a thing as over-sharing.)

All in all #book2 was livelier than a gaggle of fleas on the Hunger Artist (arcane reference to Franz Kafka), and indeed hunger was at the basis of most of my eldritch questions – all very well, said I, but who pays the artist to keep the poor thing in cheese sandwiches? Or at least enough of them so s/he can get on with the writing thing.

I did try not to say such things as “In the old days, we…” and, “Before e-books and Amazon, we used to…” or, “My generation invented the…” or, “People have been wrestling with that one for at least 1,000 years.” Yes, I did say them a bit. But the young were kindly, and gave me some grapes and cheese, so, being a Fox by nature, and fond of both, (arcane reference to Aesop’s Fables) I had a fine old time. Yes, cheap date, I know; but that is increasingly the problem, for authors: primary food sources are cheap dates.

Curious encounters of the #book2 kind:

Book Blogs: Ann Kingman Bethanne Kelly Melissa Klug and Laura Brown Callie Miller : mentioned by several Also mentioned Ron Hogan – one of the first : blog about publishing One of the guys was there, but which one? Toby Carroll! Combines music and books and much else. He was definitely there and known to all, but I didn’t get a card, and where is the name on the website? David Gutowsky! Smart Bitches, Trashy Books – reviews romance novels. One certifiably smart person was there – whether a bitch or not was unclear at that moment, but she seemed very nice to me. The O’Reilly’s blog.

Many mentioned Bookblogger Appreciation Week.

Also there was , which does e-serialization. mentioned as an aid to online stuff., readers read books out loud, sometimes well, a publishing platform

Amanda Katz, “bibliophile” column in the Boston Globe:

Old friend Philip Turner, Book Productions

And Michel Vrana, Book Designer, at

And more.

The death of the book has been greatly exaggerated.


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Three Poems About Cats

From The Door, 2007. Houghton Mifflin (U.S.), McClelland & Stewart (Canada), Virago (U.K.)

Written in honour of Blackie, who lived till 15; posted in honour of Twitter correspondent @marleycatt, who passed away last week.


My sister phones long distance:
Blackie’s been put down.
Incurable illness. Gauntness and suffering.
General heartbreak.
I thought you’d want to bury him,
she says, in tears.
So I wrapped him in red silk
and put him in the freezer.

Oh Blackie, named bluntly
and without artifice by small girls,
black cat leaping from roof to roof
in doll’s bonnet and pinafore,
Oh sly fur-faced idol
who endured worship and mauling,
often without scratching,
Oh yowling moon-
addict, devious foundling,
neurotic astrologer
who predicted disaster
by then creating it,

Oh midnight-coloured
faithful companion of midnight,
Oh pillow hog,
with your breath of raw liver,
where are you now?

Beside the frozen hamburger
and chicken wings; a paradise
for carnivores. Lying in red silk
and state, like Pharoah
in a white metallic temple, or
a thin-boned antarctic
explorer in a gelid parka,
one who didn’t make it; or
(let’s face it) a package
of fish. I hope nobody
en route to dinner
unwraps you by mistake.

What an affront, to be equated
with meat! Cat-like, you hated
being ridiculous. You hungered
for justice, at set hours and in the form
of sliced beef stew
with gravy.
You wanted what
was coming to you.
is, though. Ridiculous. And coming to you.
For us, too.
Justice is what we’ll turn into.
Then there’s mercy.)


We get too sentimental
over dead animals.
We turn maudlin.
But only those with fur,
only those who look like us,
at least a little.

Those with big eyes,
eyes that face front.
Those with smallish noses
or modest beaks.

No one laments a spider.
Nor a crab.
Hookworms rate no wailing.
Fish neither.
Baby seals make the grade,
and dogs, and sometimes owls.
Cats almost always.

Do we think they are like dead children?
Do we think they are a part of us,
the animal soul
stashed somewhere near the heart,
fuzzy and trusting,
and vital and on the prowl,
and brutal towards other forms of life,
and happy most of the time,
and also stupid?

(Why almost always cats? Why do dead cats
call up such ludicrous tears?
Why such deep mourning?
Because we can no longer
see in the dark without them?
Because we’re cold
without their fur? Because we’ve lost
our hidden second skin,
the one we’d change into
when we wanted to have fun,
when we wanted to kill things
without a second thought,
when we wanted to shed the dull grey weight
of being human? )


Crisp scent of white narcissus:
January, and full snow.
So cold the pipes freeze.
The front steps are slick and treacherous;
at night the house crackles.

You came in and out at will,
but this time of year you’d stay indoors,
plump in your undertaker’s fur,
dreaming of sunlight,
dreaming of murdered sparrows,
black cat who’s no longer there.

If only you could find your way
from the river of cold flowers,
the forest of nothing to eat,
back through the ice window,
back through the locked door of air.


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Seventeen Books About Birds

Seventeen Books About Birds
Suggested by Bird Lovers and Ecologists

If winter’s here, can birds be far behind? As the days lengthen the cold strengthens, my grandmother is said to have said. Nevertheless, we’re heading towards the migration season. So, looking forward, here are seventeen books about birds. This list is collected from various friends and aficionados. It is in alphabetical order. Please feel free to add more!

Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America, by Bruce Babbitt. (Island Press, Canada/UK; Shearwater Books, US) Secretary of the interior from 1993 to 2001, Babbitt advocates for a balance between development and conservation — smart growth— so that we retain the ecological functioning of the land.

A Walk in the Woods, by Bill Bryson. (Seal Books, Canada; Anchor, US; Black Swan, UK) A very funny personal memoir and delightful chronicle of the trail, the people who created it, and the places it passes through.

The Peregrine: The Hill of Summer; & Diaries: The Complete Works of J. A. Baker. Introduction by Mark Cocker & Edited by John Fanshawe. (Harper Collins) Cited as one of the most important books in 20th century nature writing, J.A. Baker meticulously documents a long winter observing peregrines and their surroundings.

The Bedside Book of Birds, by Graeme Gibson. (Doubleday Canada; Bloomsbury, UK; Nan A. Talese, US) Writings and images that celebrate the many ways people have engaged with birds over the centuries.

Mind of the Raven: Investigations and Adventures with Wolf-Birds, by Bernd Heinrich. (Ecco, Canada; Harper Perennial, US/UK) Heinrich involves the reader in his quest to get inside the mind of the raven. At the heart of this book is Heinrich’s love and respect for these complex and engaging creatures.

Ravens in Winter, by Bernd Heinrich. (Vintage Books) A charming, in-depth study of these very smart and sociable birds.

The Snoring Bird: My Family’s Journey Through a Century of Biology, by Bernd Heinrich. (Ecco, Canada; Harper Perennial, US/UK) An extraordinary memoir making science accessible and awe-inspiring.

Grass, Sky, Song: Promise and Peril in the World of Grassland Birds, by Trevor Herriot. (Harper Collins Canada) Herriot draws on twenty years of experience as an observer of nature to reveal the spirit of the grassland world and the uniqueness of its birds, discovering why birds are disappearing and what can be done to save them.

Findings: Essays on the Natural and Unnatural World, by Kathleen Jamie. (Gray Wolf Press, Canada/US; Sort Of Books, UK) Explores the value and vulnerability of an ancient yet ever new world now threatened by technology and human carelessness.

A Sand County Almanac, by Aldo Leopold. (Ballantine Books; Oxford University Press USA) A classic of nature writing, the almanac mixes essay, polemic, and memoir, and elaborates on the basic premise that nothing that disturbs the balance of nature is right.

Birding, or Desire, by Don McKay. (McClelland & Stewart; poetry) A celebration of nature’s abundance and the deep rhythms of family life.

The Sparrowhawk, by Ian Newton. (Harrell Books, Canada; Tarquin, US; Poyser, UK) A detailed account of this often elusive bird of prey and the impact of humans and the environment on the species in recent times.

Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, by David Quammen (Scribner, Canada/US; Pimlico, UK) Applies the lessons of biogeography to modern ecosystem decay, offering insight into the origin and extinction of species, our relationship to nature, and the future of our world.

Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, by Janisse Ray. (Milkweed Editions) A blend of memoir and nature study, Ray argues powerfully for the virtues of establishing a connection with one’s native ground.

Portrait Of An Island, by Mildred Teal & John Teal. (University of Georgia Press) Based on the authors’ own four-year stay on the virtually undeveloped Sapelo Island with its unique marine ecology and varied flora and fauna.

Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, by Scott Weidensaul. (Fsg Adult, Canada; Henry Holt & Co. Inc., UK; North Point Press, US) Weidensaul examines the miracle of bird migration — that without temperature or hunger as triggers, birds migrate, sometimes more than 5,000 miles in one uninterrupted flight.

The Goshawk, by T.H. White. (New York Review Books Classics) Chronicling the battle of wills between the author and the hawk he is trying to train, this book opens the door into the natural life of the hawk.


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