aislinn hunter, Alice Major, book tours., canadian publishing scene, canadian women poetry poets, Carolyn Smart, Catalysts, DIonne Brand, Dorothy Livesay, Evelyn Lau, future of the book, personal essays memoirs, Shawna Lemay, Susan McMaster, Susan Musgrave, Theresa Kishkan., university reading lists, wolsak & wynn
While there’s a plethora of books published by Canadian women every year, the genre of essay/memoir is still quite low on the list. Canadian women poets publish even fewer such texts, with a couple of examples being Dorothy Livesay’s three memoirs, including Journey with my Selves (1991), Carolyn Smart’s memoir, At the End of the Day from 1993, Susan McMaster’s The Gargoyle’s Left Ear (2007), Shawna Lemay’s meditations on art and writing called Calm Things (2009), Evelyn Lau’s Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989) and Inside Out (01), Aislinn Hunter’s more theoretically-based A Peepshow with Views of the Interior (2009), Dionne Brand’s political essays known as Bread out of Stone (1998), You’re in Canada Now (2006), personal essays by Susan Musgrave, and this year’s Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science by Alice Major, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees by Theresa Kishkan, and my own Catalysts: Confrontations with the Muse. While at least one memoir, Lau’s Runaway, proved to be popular due in part to Lau’s youth (16 at the time) and to its occasionally sensationalized content, and others like Major’s and Kishkan’s are winning awards, perhaps because their personal aspects are exquisitely woven into more abstract concerns, most of these books appear and vanish with scarcely a stir, and especially those texts that feature women poets theorizing lyrically about their artistic process.
There simply aren’t many presses publishing such books for starters, and those who do often have lower budgets for promotion and distribution. Once published though, one would think that texts like these would get picked up regularly by university courses and serve as sources of mentorship for younger or newer writers, but this doesn’t occur as commonly as it needs to. Partially this is because there are still few courses in Creative Non-Fiction or the Personal Essay in universities; professors are also inclined to place their own books or those of their associates on reading lists instead. Or is the limited number of books of essays and memoirs published by Canadian women poets indicative of a deeper resistance to the voices of women from the literary margins sharing their poetics, practices, personal lives?
Avid for such books myself, even after writing and publishing for many years, I have to wonder at how underwhelming the whole experience of producing a volume of essays/memoirs has been thus far. It took over 12 years to compose and compile these pieces. I have toured the book to a range of venues across Canada. And nowhere, though people have attended and commented positively after the event, have I felt anything resembling a collective desire to purchase the book, to own it and thus to read the work at depth. Audiences may be waiting until it comes out in libraries; or their lack of interest in buying may just be part of this general trend towards book-lessness, but it’s curious to me. I feel anomalous, a bit stunned. My collections of poetry have sold better on past tours, been bought more eagerly. What is this unease or ambivalence or aloofness?
I do feel matters changing irrevocably in the Canadian literary scene and wonder how this will alter the number of books produced, the length of tours, the shift to e-readers like Kindle, grants, royalties, a sense of writerly community and the urge for a reciprocal energy that every artist yearnstowards, behind every creation the ache to communicate in some, undeniable, and essential way.