BC Book Prizes: The Morning After

Well, neither Charlie Demers nor I took the cake, but it was an enjoyable night nonetheless. The Evans Prize went to Lorna Crozier. The Livesay Prize went to Fred Wah. I haven’t read the Evans books so I can’t say whether that seems right or not. But if I couldn’t win the Livesay, I think Fred was a good choice. Is A Door is a good book, and Fred has been such a wonderful supporter, teacher, and friend, I can’t not be happy.

When the shortlists were I announced I was thrilled and nervous, and slightly anxious about the fact that I was being placed in a competive situation with people whom I know and care for. Jeff Derksen said something that really helped make sense of the contradiction. He said the BC Book Prizes in particular are about community—community cohesion and community recognition. It means a lot ot me to have the recognition of my peers, who come from a range of communities that I care very much about, and it means a lot to me to share the shortlist with writers whom I very much admire, David Zieroth, Miranda Pearson, my good friend and colleague Gillian Jerome who has written a gorgeous book, and of course Fred Wah, who besides being all the things named above, worked thoughtfully and generously with me as editor for Automaton Biographies.

Through the interim period between the announcement and the award ceremonies I had that little patch of anxiety that you get—you know the one that you think you ought to be above, but you never really are. Or may be some people really are, but if I’m honest, I never really am. It brought back the ghost of the anxiety I went through in 1995 when I was a finalist for the Books in Canada First Novel Award, along with Wayson Choy, Diana Atkinson, Yan Li and Keath Fraser. Then, I was so full of hope for all the possibilities and the security that public recognition as an award-winning author could bring me. I didn’t win that one either, but that book, and the recognition it brought, did radically change my life. And in the short term, Diana and I went back to our hotel rooms and ordered all the most delicious room service delectables we could find on the menu!

If I wanted to get cheesy and sentimental, I would say that it doesn’t at all matter, and I’m happy with what if got. But of course, it’s always more complicated than that. I’m happy with what I’ve got… and how, under high capitalism, as an all-too-human human, is it possible for some part of me not to want more?  And may it’s that contradiction that I have  to live with and be fine with.

But that’s all ego stuff. Not to be denied, but far from everything. So here’s how it all unfolded:

There was a reception before the big reception at which we were given instructions for the big reception. We met the Lieutenant Governor, Steven Point. He also gave some really good opening remarks in which he talked about the importance of the arts, especially in hard economic times. Brian Brett, who was shortlisted in three categories, took the last award of the evening– the Duthie Bookseller’s Choice Award. He quoted Winston Churchill speaking in response to British Parliament calling for arts cuts during WWII. Churchill, in response to the finance minister’s suggestion that the arts be cut to support the war, said, “If we cut the arts, what are we fighting for?”

I sat between Sara Cassidy from BC Bookworld, and Charlie Demers’s partner Cara Ng. Great conversations on both sides. Sara told me a great story about guerilla gardening on the UVic campus that warmed my cockles (Do I get to have cockles? Where are the cockles, anyway?). I also met Lorna McDonald, who I think will be our new sales rep for Arsenal Pulp.

I spent much of the evening hanging out with Pauline Butling, who  rode from Van with me and Edward because Fred came with the tour, as well as Fred himself, Gillian Jerome and Brad Cran. It was fun to see Todd Wong of Gung Haggis Fat Choy fame there too, and to have brief chat with Cathleen With, who took the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize for Having Faith in the Polar Girls’ Prison.

David Zieroth came to say hello. I mistook him for Patrick Lane! How embarrassing….. David, deepest apologies, in a public way.

The BCTF sponsors the Livesay award, which I think is a good thing. In his acceptance speech, Fred spoke about the tour, and hard work that teachers do… which they do. The job is so much work, and such a responsibility. And the cuts that are coming down the pipeline re: education are going to be so devastating. So I’m glad Fred spoke out about that.

Watching all these cuts to education and to the arts I think about Audre Lorde’s much-quoted aphorism: “Poetry is not a luxury.”

Audre Lorde:
“It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

Yes, and in this awful economic moment, in which the a possibilities for thinking are being devasted by our own government, via cuts to both the arts and to education, we need poetry more than ever.We need to know what is possible in the language, not of the past, but of the present, so that we know how to communicate with one another. Language has so much depth and complication beyond the kind of surface meaning we usually search for in the daily news. So reading poetry names and expands how we know ourselves and one another. Without poets testing out their ideas, gushing out their obsessions, or speaking their truths, we forget what we know and what we feel. Without poetic speculation, without the imagination, we have nothing but the systems already in place, making the world over and over again in the same old form. I would like to live an a society in which our sense of relation, our sense of community, with other human beings but also with the lifeworld that surrounds us, is as rich, complicated and hopeful as it can possibly be. And I think that poets, through their use of the imagination and through their deep understanding of the way language works, can show us that.

So three cheers for poetry, and off to the Rebar for breakfast!

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