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Words are Not Enough

by Joseph Sherman

A Cultural Life

Republished from February 2003

In 2001, an accomplished and disciplined writer I know said to me, “Writing is what I do.” Hungry to write, he does. Constantly. Years before, another writer of fiction, then lean as well as hungry (who went on to claim rich book prizes and see his novels into films), bellowed, over a 12-pack up along the Miramichi, that any writer who took a day job and didn't devote himself to his craft 100% could never be a “real writer.” Cadet academic that I was, I felt wounded by his remark. I had no dream of becoming a full-time writer, but I chose to think myself a pro.

I accept now that the upstart was essentially correct, certainly where fiction and poetry are concerned; and that the senior fellow’s modus operandi is the model for a serious writer. (The younger guy had a wife who willingly toiled so that he might be free to novelize, but that’s another topic.) The best artists in any discipline are those who think as artists, unencumbered, as much as is possible, by the mundane. A working academic is almost free enough, but some would say there’s the danger of, well…of being an academic.

To this I add my conviction that a determined artist must be brutally honest with himself, and needs to talk to himself—for real. Otherwise, he is never as ‘clean’ as he needs to be to create, invent, animate. An artist may stretch the truth with others, and should, but must follow a diet of veracity in his own life.

The making of genuine art requires genuine commitment, if not total sacrifice. I don’t think that artists should suffer. That’s hooey, the hinge to a deleterious stereotype. I’ve never been creatively productive when distressed or grieving. Uncertainty, tension, the unknown…fine. But real suffering…no, it does nothing for my elusive Muse or her train.

I knew a fine poet who one day announced that she was abandoning her craft for a specialized professional life. She felt she couldn’t handle both. I was appalled. Two books published and much promise. A few years later, when her marriage ended, her new skills were a lifesaver. Perhaps she’s had no regrets about the poetry.

The late Henk Ykelenstam (to use an actual name), when he decided to become a full-time painter on PEI, abandoned his established career as a concert flutist and even sold his instrument, never to play again. I couldn’t comprehend that, either, though he was at least trading one discipline for another. Some artists agonize when they eyeball the steps to the pantheon. It can be a relief to fall back on that day job. A painter friend has spoken to me of A-lists and B-lists and how painful it is to know, if you think such thoughts, that you’ll never achieve a celestial ranking.

I used to say that I valued and respected the teaching profession too much to settle for being less than fully committed. I feel the same way about creativity, even if my own pace is erratic. But becoming a celebrated artist may as well be a lottery win. Talent, opportunity and luck are like a juggler’s clubs in flight, sometimes disappearing into low cloud. I know wonderful artists who have yet to be recognized as they deserve, and others who have been luckier than they deserve. It’s like life writ large. Justice isn’t waiting around the corner with a fast horse.

If you care enough, you do your best rigorously and constantly, pray that your best is superlative, and hope that there’ll be an appreciative audience to sustain you, and a monogrammed pin on the map.

Spring rolls in

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

While any number of Buzz readers have remarked upon my last column, "Civil Cinema," with most issuing the patented thumbs-up, a surprising several have taken me to task for presuming to know what people who pay good money for a movie ticket should and shouldn't do. "I can't imagine watching a movie without a large box of buttered popcorn on my lap," one woman of my acquaintance told me. "That's how my guy and I courted. Buttered popcorn and syrupy pop still do it for me. And yes, we crunch and slurp …get real!" A nearly anonymous e-mailer berated me for slagging cell phone and pager intrusions. "I'm a busy pro," she/he hotmailed me, "and yes I often get beeped during nights out. Embrace the century!" Funny thing is I didn't write about cell phones or pagers. For the record, I tolerate one discordant bleat and that's it.

Something else I didn't mention was underage kids at an overage movies. Suffering a shortage of adept sitters? Tough call. Maybe that's what videos are really for.

I was also admonished, while lifting a jar down at the old Mallet and Brush, for my cruel words to latecomers and early leavers. "When you're trying to exit a hutchful of kids and have to hurry home a precious few hours later, you don't always have the luxury of arriving on time or of leisurely watching the credits roll by.

Give us a break!" Well, no, Winston, uh-uh. Though I empathize with release-me-from-the-cabin syndrome.

Another concern, one that ended up on my very own cutting-room floor, and addressed to the presenting side, is the big-screen commercial. These're common as crows in much of Europe now, increasingly common here. Perhaps they were inevitable, but I'm inclined to boycott whatever the ads push. Next it'll be insertions throughout the movie itself, just like on TV. Isn't it enough that we already have to tolerate blatant product placement?

Dear Abegweit: Is it okay to buy a ticket to a specific show at the cineplex and then, once inside, hop from movie to movie? By the book, no. (Why ever would you wish to?) But if all projectors are running and you're not incommoding anyone…perhaps.

Only one soul has asked about the haunted parking lot.

The recent University of Michigan study that cites violent cartoons of the Roadrunner variety as harmful to minds in formation (I presume that means children) explains why I, when younger and impressionable, invariably preferred Bugs Bunny's witty repartee with Elmer Fudd, the Genie with the Light Brown Hare, and Yosemite Sam, to Wile E. Coyote's own repetitive-demise syndrome. Mind, I didn't blink at the repeated shotgun-rotation of Daffy Duck's bill by the aforementioned Mr. Fudd, or at Marvin the Martian's attempted depredations upon wabbity earthlings. What does this say about me, I wonder? I grew up munching raw carrots and loving them, marvelling at Tweety's mazel, perusing the Acme tool catalogue, and learning loads about Wagner and Rossini via Looney Tunes.

Post-TV-viewer stress disorder-questions that someone else will have to answer:
Whither went the Fabulous Freep?
Why would anyone invent a solar-powered vacuum cleaner?
Why do PEI's tourist ads rarely depict the most common summer sight on Island roads, that of torn-up pavement and road machines and detour signs?
If William Petersen, David Caruso, Vincent D'Onofrio and Nicholas Campbell met for a game of Scrabble, who would win?
Why is it important that we know what William Shakespeare looked like?
Do people who download music without paying expect musicians to make it for free?
When will forehead advertising reach PEI?
What's the secret behind the forthcoming (unnamed) reality cartoon show?
Why don't we each live to our own theme music, or does that explain the earphones on the street?
If there's a Montague, PEI, why isn't there a Capulet?
Is it right for a poet to join a golf club?
What will we do when the well runs dry?
What if they gave a war and nobody came?
Who wrote the book of love?

Creativity One Oh One

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

Reading the page proofs of my forthcoming book (I can be a shameless self-promoter when moved), I am struck by how much can alter in the mind of the writer between composition and the stage at which he pretty well has to live with what it is he’s written. Not quite as indelibly as with the process of egg tempera painting, but that’s not an inapt metaphor.

One is always tempted to make changes along with corrections. In this case (my book is an anti-memoir of sorts composed over 2.5 seasons), and if I were writing it now, I’d put some things differently. But no, I’ve decided to be, in Worried Into Being, the guy (and I do mean guy) I was when I began the first section, “A for Aardvark.” You’re curious, right? It’s an alphabet book—well, not really (the alphabet’s a front)—and I chose to begin with the first interesting ‘A’ in my dictionary. Here’s a change I’d make: Latvia apparently has a river called the Aa. No joke. It’s not in my desk dictionary (though the Aar River in Switzerland is), so I never knew. Aardvark’s okay, but Aa would have been a fresher choice. A soft damn from me.

For the rest of it, I’m not unhappy. I was healthy when this began; I am now, let us say, significantly less so. The last three letters I worked on, back in May, were worked on with the proverbial black cloud hovering over me with a promised Whitney Pier rain. I hesitated, but then I stumbled westward and did the deed. Even then I had no immediate plans for publication, but wiser heads prevailed. I do business with an odd publisher, but their principals have been loyal for lo these 31 years, so here we are. Almost.

I couldn’t even re-read my manuscript for the longest time after completion, for fear I’d be disappointed in my own handiwork. It was a relief to discover that what I’d written—using a format I’d never before even considered, let alone employed—was good. Ah, what the heck, it’s far better than good, if I say so myself.

I am my own first and worst critic, I swan. I first published between bookish covers in 1969, and I have been anything but prolific since. But I’ve done what I’ve done and have just more or less completed an additional manuscript as well, for publication down the road a pike. A sense of ego-urgency has seemingly sucked hard on any high octane left in my system (not as apt a metaphor), and what used to take me a decade and more to accomplish as a writer has suddenly fruited within a 12-month time frame.

Some writers insist that creative writing can’t really be taught, though the one course I did take nearly 40 years ago was seminal for me. I tend to agree with the skeptics, though I do feel that it can encourage and lubricate ability that’s already there, if the instructor is robustly informed and inspired. I doubt any creative writing teacher would teach what I write and have written. My style has naturally evolved since the publication of that 1969 chapbook, but I’d not, for my part, choose to instruct anyone on how to emulate it. I was unquestionably naïve in 1969, about everything, and it shows in my work. Now (take heed) when I appear to be naïve, I’m just being ironical. There’s a difference. How to make a silk purse out of a cotton purse.

I’ve also been entrenched in creative perversity of a sort. This forthcoming book isn’t poetry, it isn’t straight prose, it’s partly made up, partly true as kittens. It’s one voice playing with possibility, in response to an invitation to the dance. My wife thinks it’s very funny. I hope the damn book appears soon.

We Might Be Giants

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

Reception to my PEIBA (Prince Edward Island Book Award) suggestion of last month has been so encouraging, I am advancing the second of my Big Ideas for (I trust) the benefit of the PEI literary community and Island culture in general; granted, this proposal gives precedence to our seasoned poets.

I don’t have a clever name for this one yet, but let’s call it a sound archive and cultural tourism venture. Poets in Voice, perhaps.

I feel strongly that the Island’s most mature/senior poets should be recorded in a studio (not live) reading a selection of their finest work for professional quality CDs (one per), filling as much of each as possible, suitable material permitting. I envision a qualified editor or selector and a professional producer, utilizing sound equipment most suitable to the human voice.

On an archival level, this concept seems a natural for PEI and certainly an important venture to implement. Schools and universities will have a fresh resource. A literary friend has suggested including a video element, and while I am not against the notion, I am just traditional enough to be happy hearing the human voice reading its own words.

Where cultural tourism is concerned, I see each CD as being designed in both dignified and zaftig fashion. In fact, I can picture a suite of recordings, with nifty liner notes. Island artists might be asked to sketch or paint the poet’s portrait for each cover, though other forms of attractive design are acceptable. The CD series can be marketed though book and music shops, supermarkets and hardware stores, at provincially managed outlets, at UPEI, and online through any number of approved sites. Many people tell me they listen to their literature of choice while driving or walking, why not well-recorded poetry? Though sit-down stuff this certainly is.

The release of each individual CD might be tied to other literary and arts events over the span of a year (book launches, festivals), but the important thing is to produce them, get them out there, and promote. Count on the CBC to become involved on this level.

If I imbued my PEIBA proposal with a sense of near-urgency, this one might be taken on as urgent without the “near.” I can name three or four senior and truly accomplished book poets, and there are several others who belong on any list. Time and achievement will account for fresh names. Produce most of these prioritized recordings in one extended session (to save money maybe) or select and produce over a strategically extended period. But do it right.

Details—funding, management, selection and so forth—can, as with the PEIBA project, be sorted out through commitment.

I begin with the poets because they are our most conspicuous and refined literary crop.

A happy holiday season to you all.

New Strings from Ireland


Review by Joseph Sherman

The first thing I notice at the concert is that Téada is not Danù. One youthful player less (both ensembles feature immensely talented musicians in their 20s), and no pipes or vocals, but it’s more than that; it’s the angle of approach to the music and the arrangements.

On the first, the Téada folk are more forthcoming, perhaps even more knowledgeable, as demonstrated on stage, about the origins of the tunes they perform; and where arrangements are concerned, theirs are evident and notably layered. Danu sounds distinctly arranged on that band’s CDs, but they do employ multitracking (Donnchadh Gough, for example, is the percussionist as well as the uillean piper) that makes reproducing the same sound live difficult. Danù dives in with purpose, and an exciting band it was (‘was’ because the band has dissolved since its last appearance on PEI). Téada is more studied than aggressive, but what a tight little band it is, no question. All but one of the musicians have something to impart verbally, as well as musically.

Oisin Mac Diarmada, heralded as a phenomenal fiddler, measures up, certainly as validated by one knowing musician-friend I spoke with during the break. The other standout for me—a revelation when I’d dubbed the Gough fellow the finest bodhran player I’ve ever experienced live—is Tristan Rosenstock, a lanky instrumentalist (the one instrument solely) who is the best slow drummer I’ve watched play. He uses, as does Gough, a medium-size drum with no hand rods, and a slim tipper for intricate effect. Accurate to say that the bodhran, in his hands, becomes more of a tuned instrument than something only to beat upon. I’m impressed. Téada’s sound includes button accordion, flute(s), and bouzouki and guitar.

A compact concert before a respectable house, larger if the CBC issue had been resolved sooner. All arts endeavors have suffered for the loss of promotional and celebratory airtime on CBC Radio. Still, those present respond enthusiastically, and Téada can hope to return to a core fan base.

From the high reel with which Téada opens the performance through the jigs (slip and hop), reels, polkas (in a peachy arrangement) and intricate barn dances that characterize their chalkboard study of contemporary-traditional Irish music, there’s a determined and high-spirited energy that once again demonstrates just how talented is the latest generation of Celtic players. Reassuring in a cooling climate.

Making It New

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

It’s time to establish a Prince Edward Island Book Award, henceforth to be referred to as the PEIBA in easy reference.

For 18 years The Island Literary Awards have honoured the best in manuscripts (with a smart emphasis on creative writing by young people) through a juried competition, completed with a gala public presentation of certificates and sponsored cash awards. No small number of participating authors have subsequently been published over time, but PEI now sees enough published books annually, written by a diversity of writers not infrequently honoured elsewhere for their books, and not here. Other provinces recognize their own from within their literary communities; we should now do the same.

I envision the PEIBA being juried and presented once every two years, and all authored (not edited) books published on PEI or by PEI writers elsewhere (applying criteria still to be determined) to be eligible. This too would involve a cash award: a certain amount for the author, a lesser amount to the publisher (by way of encouragement), wherever located. The amounts must be significant; I’ve an absolute minimum in mind.

Arguments are periodically made against the increase in the number of arts and literary awards handed out nationally nowadays, with doubts also raised about whether such prizes are a good thing and encourage true character in an artist. Given the way the world of culture operates, inclusive of its quasi-lottery nature where public funding factors in, I can advocate, shamelessly, for almost any legitimate opportunity to reward and celebrate writerly excellence, even if all excellences can’t be acknowledged in their best time, choices having to be made.

In essence, I see this establishment of an award for a ‘best book’ to be a sign of our maturity in the field, and a further incentive for others with the goods to seek publication. Promoted properly, the PEIBA will also draw the right kind of attention from all over to Island culture, specifically to its literary community and the PEI Writers’ Guild. There are all the details to be worked out, but there are existing provincial models for book awards. Let the PEI government, the corporate sector, and interested individuals take note: this needn’t cost the proverbial arm and a leg. A commitment to multi-year funding (remember that biennial aspect) is as necessary as it is advantageous. The PEIBA proposal can’t move past first gear a moment too soon, for my money.

My inveterate problems with depth perception led me to list, in October’s column, David Helwig’s memoir The Names of Things (The Porcupine’s Quill) for the wrong publishing season; the book seems more likely to appear in the spring of 2006. On the other hand, his novel Saltsea (Biblioasis) is due…sometime thereafter. Judy Gaudet’s forthcoming poetry collection from The Acorn Press, referred to as Untitled last month, now has a name, Her Teeth Are Stones; its launch date is still to be set.

Two Diatribes + A Kiss

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

CBC Culture: If the CBC lockout has been resolved before this appears, these remarks will seem less urgent. I stand by them. Given the number of anti-network management articles I’ve read, it’d be an interesting exercise were I to make management’s case. From the top down, CBC execs have been demonized when they haven’t been flipped the bird (by those who foolishly undervalue radio and some of CBC television). I could make a case, too, if I shared management’s desire to obliterate CBC culture as I’ve known it since the 1960s. (If I’d a better idea, as a tender-aged university grad, of what I really wanted to do with my creative potential, I might have worked there myself.)

But I’ll not be defending the lockout perps. In fact, skipping subtlety, I not only oppose every angle of management’s stand, but I consider those directly responsible for the lockout decision to be: misguided, malicious, incompetent, ignorant. Or choose your combination.

CBC culture—and I’m a radio maven—is Canadian culture, personality and character-driven (consider the wonderful minds and voices that have long defined Canadian radio): voices of distinction, with grammatical exactitude (many current announcers, contract or full-time, make mistakes regularly; I blame the schools). Contract players alone, bright and keen, won’t provide my values in depth and continuity. Uncertainty infects a labourer. To economize, management would replace the better part of a broadly aware and committed staff with professionals who have no long-term loyalties and a penchant for the expedient. I don’t want this.

I have no patience with those who care nothing for the CBC’s future. They may expectorate an opinion, but it’s the wrong opinion. If they own their own brain, they should know better and care more.

Sadly, I hear there may have been some goose-hissing directed at their own from within the numbers of the locked-out; if true, I say cut it out.

Television’s inanities harrow me, particularly the ads. View the same one three times during one interminable break and too many times over a broadcast day and ask me if I’m inclined to patronize said flogged product or service. I’ve a swelling list of stuff unwelcome in my orbit because of such aggravation. It insults me.

CBC TV, with its few good original programs, needs revolutionary rethinking and certainly more imagination; it can still do what other networks won’t, with some exceptions. This isn’t the moment to reinvent, but I’ve been steaming about the lockout for too long already, inclusive of that “labour dispute” term, implying that those locked out walked out.

If this is now for the record, I hope those on the outside got most of what they wanted. Were there justice, there’d be far fewer apparatchiks, and those captaining this sorry campaign in particular would be on the pavement, signless.

Gambling Culture: Any government that profits from the addictions of its citizenry is practicing a form of cynical business-mixed-with-politics that ought to shame its advocates deeply. Sure, we need public money, but look who’s paying. And paying again.

Book Culture: Eleven literary publications due soon from Island writers. Judy Gaudet, Untitled (The Acorn Press); David Helwig, The Names of Things (Porcupine’s Quill); Deirdre Kessler, Subtracting by Seventeen (Saturday Morning Chapbooks); Jane Ledwell, Last Tomato (Acorn); Hugh MacDonald, Murder at Mussel Cove (Loon in Balloon), and Letting Go: An Anthology of Loss and Survival (Black Moss Press); Shauna McCabe, Ancient Motel Landscape (Broken Jaw Press); Dianne Morrow, Kindred Spirits: Conversations on Relationships that Spark the Soul (Acorn); Lee Ellen Pottie, From Pushthrough to Madagascar (SMC); Charlie Greg Sark, kitpu apteket (SMC); Joseph Sherman, Worried Into Being: An Unfinished Alphabet (Oberon Press). Reason to exult.

Meditating on Moloney & Co.

The Chieftains

Review by Joseph Sherman

As Celtic flutist extraordinaire Matt Molloy eases into the truly haunting strains of “Women of Ireland,” a favourite of the late harper Derek Bell, I am relieved to realize that The Chieftains have not gone career-hard and ubiquitous. They play relatively few original numbers, but what they do with O’Carolan compositions and scores of other Celtic melodies, ancient and less so—42 years on in the ensemble’s progress-without-climax—retains the power to move and motivate. And emotions be welcomed.

The youngest member of the four remaining core members is singer and bodhran player Kevin Conneff, and he’s no juvenile. Leader/uillean piper/whistle player Paddy Moloney, master fiddler Sean Keane, and the estimable Molloy are discernibly aging men, but their mastery of instrument and musical tradition is so liquid and sublime, there’s a revelation each time they let go. They don’t appear so passionate en groupe, but become intense when taking their solos; the music is marrow-infusing. And if they’ve become fabulously rich (fair dibs—possibly only U2 is a wealthier Irish band), these musicians would be playing even if there was no recompense. It’s how they became what they’ve become.

The Chieftains are rare in the biz—almost universally revered for their ability and sound and for the generously sly manner in which they have made musical crossover into its own solid sub-genre. Moloney has traveled the world looking for Celtic musical connections, and when they aren’t obvious he adapts; China? We already know that Basque and Breton musical traditions are webbed with those of the Scots and Irish and Welsh, but Moloney has sussed out the Celtic roots in traditional American music—cowboy and hill country and roots—though he’s not the first. It makes such sense when you hear it played. And if the crossover recordings sell best because of the c&w and rock stars who join the boys in the studio (e.g. Van Morrison, Ricky Skaggs, Sting), it never sounds forced.

That’s partly because the Chieftains continue to make it fun. No small task. I could do without much of the showband banter that characterizes their live performances, but it’s also an infectious experience not to be found on CD. These are generous musicians who invite younger up-and-comers from all over the world to sit in with them on tour. For a seriously aspiring string player or stepdancer, such an opportunity has to be a gig of gold.

Derek Bell’s unexpected death didn’t result in a replacement Chieftain being given his chair. I reckon that, at their age, it’s easier to share the wealth within the core, and pay contract musicians to supply the desired tonalities (Bell was a superb harper, keyboardist and tiompan player, and is, in effect, irreplaceable). They know who to work with to stoke the sound.

I’ve written about my love of Celtic music; it feels like the perfect antidote to anything sour and dour. I cared little while growing up in Cape Breton, but found the Chieftains 2 LP in the mid-‘70s and began collecting. Damned if the group isn’t now introducing elements that seduced me over to Planxty and the Bothy Band (Matt Molloy’s the only musician to have played with all three), with their rhythm-section inclusion of bozouki and guitar, because there on the Grafton/Queen stage last month was a slick-pick guitarist making up the mix. The very early Chieftains relied exclusively on fiddle, pipes, whistle and an underplayed bodhran, until Bell was drafted, when the textures deepened by several notches.

Paddy Moloney, the sprightly impresario who also composes and arranges for film and special events, inculcates peripateticism. He and his mates could retire and simply run the pubs they’ve no doubt bought with their earnings, but their adventure continues. So, thanks to them, does ours.

It’s been a corrugated summer for some, but I moved out into a perfect night to listen to a transporting concert of familiar but heartening music being performed to the denizens of the open air. The younger musicians on stage were well-chosen grace notes; the stylish dancers dandy. But the four core Chieftains issued the oxygen. Just what the doctor ordered.

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