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Who Wants to be a Rich Poet?

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

This was going to be about how I spent my summer vacation, but something's come up.

In fact, PEI's hyperactive poets are implicated by the recent news that one Scott Griffin, a "Toronto-based industrialist and philanthropist," has established the two-pronged Griffin Poetry Prize, worth C$80,000; surely one of the richest literary trophies anywhere, certainly for verse. The award also includes a job, albeit a seasonal one-shot, at the University of Toronto's swank Massey College, and, get this, "an entrée into Toronto's vibrant literary communities." I'm hardly the one to question any scheme that would keep a deserving creative talent going for a year or two, but in this era of millionaire survivors, the news that practitioners of a nearly extinct art form are about to be rewarded, entrées included, at a greater rate than that most fiction writers can shoot for...well, it's enough to make any ambitious writer iambic.

Of that C$80,000, half will go to the year's best Canadian poetry book in English, the other half to the best collection in English published anywhere-as selected by a blue-ribbon jury. But if the winner of the first forty grand and the winner of the second are different poets (they needn't be but what odds?), the second win must surely take the wind out of the sails of the first. Take the money and run, you say?

Mr. Griffin's philanthropy-and his is an impressive commitment-is supposed to encourage lovers of poetry as well as poets, but those folks are already sold. Are there many potential converts? And what sort of real incentive is there, anyway, to enter this particular lottery? True, all Canadian poets will be caught in the glow of attention, but only one can sashay to the bank. Also, publishers are permitted to submit a maximum of only three of their books; they'll have to pick and choose from among their own writers. That should be fun.

And one might ask what a Canadian is doing handing out prize money to non-Canadians, even if it is worth only about $25,000 U.S. Dare I suggest revisiting the formula and giving one of the awards to a Francophone poet?

I wonder if $80,000 of the Griffin Trust's dollars would go further in the form of four to ten scholarships-maybe half to educate poets and half to train teachers of poetry. Or what about cash awards to maybe eight fine poets to spread the bread around? There could be beginning, mid-career, and senior categories.

Yes, a single $40,000 cheque will buy one lucky devil some fortified time in the trenches, but several poets could rent writing time with lesser amounts; and this would nurture and elevate some of our finest writers without invoking the fickle star system.

One thing's sure, if the reading public is already inclined to get into a tiz-woz about the year's Governor-General's and Giller Prize shortlists, it's never going to concur on who the richest poet ought to be. First off, folks'll have to read a number of the books...but I reckon that's the idea. The $40,000 selection itself is bound to sell, even if poetry is rarely on the average menu. With all the PEI poets boasting new books of late, who knows, maybe our guys will put a lock on some of the Griffin thousands for a few prizes to come. It's not inconceivable that the first of these could be a rich literary star by April of 2001, and making his or her Toronto entrée.

Thanks to Scott Griffin, ambitious young Islanders are already thinking, Gee, I wonder if I should become a pro golfer or a poet.

Windows 2000

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

"Windows," says Heywood Shelkey. "Windows?" I echo. "And lots of `em," Hey continues. "Spectacular suckers. But none of that tinted or one-way glass.

"Have you ever seen so much solid wall without hardly a corner window to peep through or let the light in? Why in the name of Doofus MacDuff they'd build a rig like that in the downtown heart of Cht'n is a puzzle to the sainted, even after all these years."

Heywood Shelkey, the entrepreneur, inventor and amateur spelunker, recently returned from the South Pacific by way of Andalusia, with his special friend, the exotic Smyla, is referring to that troubled big sandstone edifice dominating central Charlottetown, which a winter-long absence has encouraged him to consider in a fresh light, given that he has to explain its meaning to his new gal pal.

"Think about it," he urges. "It looks like a cold-war fortress or a bank-vault arcade. People sashay into the place and disappear. . .until they eventually stumble out, pale and deracinated. Confusing enough for your average joe, who's inside just long enough to pick up a concert ticket or a gift-shop gewgaw, or to visit the art gallery and go tut-tut.

"But jeez, speaking of Tut, what else does that building remind you of?" He's lost me. "The pyramids without the pointy ends, bub! Like Smyla says, they stuff people into structures like that when they don't expect to see them again in this life. Imagine what that sort of ambience does to shape the psyche!"

"Hey, how would installing dozens of new windows in the largest cultural complex on P.E.I. have any bearing on the recent turmoil there, if that's what you're hinting at?" "Think some more," he insists. "Isn't there a song in a certain trademarked musical called `Open the Window?' The world opens up, you open your mind to the options. You can see out. You can see in. These new windows will have to open up like that, too; none of those sealed jobbies. Sliding panes. Sills. Fresh air, and lots of it."

"C'mon, Heywood, you're not going to connect a stage musical with what's really been going on at Big Sandstone? "Well," he muses, "There're probably folks who think breaking a slate over a certain head would do some good, don't you think?"

"Hey," I say, "You can't install windows just like that, especially in a theatre or an art gallery."

"Why the heck not? What about the wee Erskine's Victoria Playhouse? Lots of glass there. And the gallery. . .we've got to make that place pay for itself, now its funding's likely on the wane. Think really big licensed restaurant gallery. With designer windows. Leave some of the paintings on the walls, all the stuff they own that almost never gets shown. But make things upscale, and pay Island artists to make art-non-toxic, natch-while diners dine. Have waiters costumed like figures in the paintings. `Course you'd hang realistic art only, but that's what most people want anyhow, right? A safe sell. A good time. To put the `fun' into functional. Plus something digestible. I'd call the joint Framed. Pictures. . .windows. . .get it?

"Heywood, you've spent a decade flogging a P.E.I. subway system and trying to thatch Confederation Bridge. Why the sudden yearning to open things up with glass and air?" "The people on a bridge or in a subway are in motion," he says, "they're actually traveling. The folks at Big Sandstone aren't going anywhere.

"I want the job, by the way" Heywood says, just before slipping away to meet Smyla. "Which one?" I ask, "Gallery/Restaurant Manager or CEO?" Hey just winks, flashes a grin, and lopes along the avenue out of one Island season and into another.

The ids of March

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

Is it only sixty days since the odometer clicked over? Since Hey Shelkey went to ground? March-in like a roaring line.

Might the CBC perish from the death of a hundred cuts? I've not owned a TV since B.S. (Before Seinfeld), but I've my thinking toque on and don't see how Ottawa can desire radio's demise, as so many sourpusses mutter. Granted, the government-of-our-day and its seasoned strongman can sound picture-imperfect when miked by the corp, but where would they have such a podium if not with a public broadcaster? No, CBC Radio, stricken but plucky, must pull up its pair of toeless ankle sox and get on with the biz of airing less (less News, less More) to fewer. Embrace the increase in program repeats as a welcome balm to short-term memory loss. What's so wrong with repeating programs several times a month? What's so wrong with repeating programs several times a month?

Hitler's sleek Mercedes touring car, which just missed being placed on the auction block by the Canadian War Museum, reports the CBC, mustn't be given or hidden away, but should constitute a mobile display paraded from Atlantic to Pacific, kitted out with authentic Nazi regalia. Hell, drive it around until its spoked wheels fall off. Let it pose for a spell at PEI's Car Life Museum. ("Look on my spiffy works, ye Mighty, and despair!" quoth P.B.S.)

A gefaffle has arisen over Joerg Haider's surname having the same initial as Hitler's, eerily meaningful for Austria's wealthy new Oberscharführer with his soft spot for vintage Nazis; but the latter's original name actually began with an `S' (which rattles me a tad). Should anyone care that Austria voted fair and square to bestow power upon the delightfully named Freedom Party? The country itself hasn't been an independent military threat to even its own neighbours since the less loopy Hapsburgs. Ah, but isn't Haider's elevation a portent and a grievous insult to some? So...? What a piffle. What a joke. Let's have the guy tour Canada in Hitler's Mercedes. Promise him he can dress up.

The rumour mill still has it that the Chapters book chain is building on PEI. Let `em come (though the latest Dow Jones report is a knock). I'll browse the big aisles, sample, then go place my meagre book orders with my `local'. Just last December I was tarrying there when an older gentleman drew my attention to a new 800+ page biography of Hitler, remarking: "Imagine anyone thinking there's that much to say about a fellow like him!"

My computer disapproves of poetry. It wants to capitalize words I don't wish capitalized. Insists that creative fragments become complete sentences. It scorns my spelling, turning Joerg Haider into Jerk Heifer.

It's true, isn't it? There really are red-light people and green-light people, those who almost always find one particular hue at every lit intersection. It must be a rhythm, a life-force thing. No matter how I drive, I invariably hit red lights. So there must be folks who encounter green just as frequently, right? Is there an applicable equation, a mathematical formula, a genetic predisposition? Are there consumer habits held in common within each sodality? (Perhaps there's an HRDC grant here.) I wonder what sort of intersections Hitler's driver hit?

What is universal health care if it isn't an impediment to the natural order of things? There simply isn't room on earth for the lot of us. Ask Jerk Heifer.

From C Major to Sea Captain

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

Ashley MacIsaac might be bowing a different tune if he were a Midshipman aboard H.M.S. Surprise (frigate, 579 tons, 28 guns) under Jack Aubrey. A subversive sailor risked keelhauling 200 years ago. Jack and his physician/naturalist companion Stephen Maturin, while plying the Nelsonic seas between Minorca and Nova Scotia, and when becalmed or otherwise between naval engagements, frequently filled the captain's quarters with Locatelli and Boccherini, played on, respectively, violin and cello; additional instrumentalists from the ship's more genteel complement were always welcome.

So ran my thoughts as I slurped a latte in Eugene Sauvé's rejuved grabbajabba and digested the obit of one Richard Patrick Russ, a.k.a. Patrick O'Brian. If the a.k.a. seems unfamiliar, two years ago I hadn't read a word of his then-seventeen serial novels about life on and off various ships of the line during the turbulent period of the Napoleonic menace. As a boy I fed on C.S. Forester's Nelson-inspired Hornblower series, but sci-fi and fantasy became my real teen comfort food for eye and brain, and stories about life before the mast rarely commanded my attention.

Once I started, I consumed all seventeen Aubrey-Maturin books over six months. A series that clicks is addictive, and the world of robust Jack Aubrey and pensive Stephen Maturin (an Admiralty spy as well as a scientist) came delightfully to life. I still can't distinguish between a fore-tack and a fiferail, but there sure is poetry in a sailing ship's anatomy, in the recitation of its nomenclature. O'Brian, whose tales incorporate societal as well as nautical adventuring, produced a period fiction that's been compared favourably to that of Anthony Trollope and Jane Austen. (He also wrote on Picasso and Joseph Banks, Captain Cook's botanist.)

So much for pedantry-Patrick O'Brian spins great yarns with superlative aplomb. My wife calls them guy books; to which I say hoo-hah! But then, I make a moue at her Sharon Kay Penman and Elizabeth George. O'Brian, dead at 85, was at work on the 21st `chapter' in what has been called a 6,443-page novel; I'm still on for number twenty. Now his many readers can only speculate about Jack and Stephen's post-1812 lives-how they might end up. My theory is that Aubrey's stout form and fracturable sanguineness, not to mention his peacetime moping, will do him in; that Dr. Maturin, idiosyncratic in even cheerful times, will flourish only as an ascetic, and if he can continue to indulge his scientific curiosity in exotic climes.

My musical reference isn't frivolous. So common a thread was the making of music by the gifted dilettantes of the Royal Navy that in 1996 Richard Kapp produced a CD of compositions mentioned in the O'Brian books, with other selections suggested by the life and times. Never was music more of a civilizing and calming influence than it was for men whose ambitions carried them upon seas of peril. Ashley Mac, for whom the civil and the calm are akin to a game of Snakes and Ladders, would have been a likely candidate for flogging, but he'd probably have wound up anticking on the fo'c'sle with other uninhibited tars.

If parlour-at-sea music is no longer the choice of many, O'Brian's fictional chronicles, drawing heavily upon the historical, remain appealing in the best possible way. I favour thoughtful literature mostly, but remain receptive to fun fiction with pith: the pursuits of A. C. Doyle's famous consulting detective; Jack Whyte's sober reworking of Arthuriana; Colleen McCullough's stiff but intriguing Caesarean series; Guy Gavriel Kay and Peter S. Beagle's well-wrought fantasias (my boyhood weakness). I am going to miss Patrick O'Brian, a man who secretly and successfully reinvented himself (no wonder he wrote so convincingly of deception), and who for thirty years brought to his devoted readers new friends and renewed pleasures.

Shelkey for Precedent

A Cultural Life
by Joseph Sherman

Let me see if I can impress you with a fact: it's not my millennium. Strictly speaking, and I can speak strictly when it profits me, it is the year 5760 and I've 40 years to go before I should have to worry about noughts and other irascible digits. For some folks of a certain persuasion, B.C. means "Before Computers."

Heywood Shelkey, Princess County visionary and entrepreneur extraordinaire, doesn't claim a persuasion (friendly or otherwise), but he is a pragmatist of the imagination and knows that when 99 becomes 00 something is going to hit the circulating fan, assuming the fan isn't harbouring a coy computer chip.

So Hey's off to flee the wizard and greet the greater dawn in a latitude where "digital" still references fingers and toes. All he'll say is that his destination, as one century shilly-shallies on its way to becoming another, is within yahooing distance of New Zealand, where a dawn of zeros will come up like thunder on January 1.

Hey wonders what it was like in the first year between B.C. and A.D., that noughty year of 0; and was it 0 B.C. or 0 A.D.? Zero hour. Nullity. Did people loll around twiddling, waiting for life to be numerically meaningful once again?

I chatted with Hey as he strolled to his travel agent. He casually leveled a zinger:

"No one's saying much about Y2K and the Confederation Bridge."

"You mean trouble at the ticket booths?

"Nah, the bridge itself."

"You're kidding! How can the Y2K possibly affect the bridge itself?

"Besides the electronic salad on the superstructure, the lights and cameras and wind gauges and vehicle detectors? Those pillars have embedded chips controlling equipment measuring everything from approaching vessels to seabed tremors. You wouldn't get me on that long and winding road come New Year's Eve."

"Heywood, are you saying this just because SCI wouldn't let you thatch the bridge and your guy from England sued you?"

Hey bit his lip, and by this time we were where he wanted to be on a Thursday morning.

So he's got his packet of tickets and he's traveling backward in time to a more primitive, yet more predictable, environment, where the analog remains charming. Maybe McCabe Island, Cap Sauvé, Wighell Island, or Jayhuw Atoll... all just far enough away from N.Z. to miss being part of the Zeitgeist of mish-moshed electronic systems.

Heywood's alone again these days, Tami having left him after the Spudhenge muddle. Makes it easier to pick up and fly, he admits. Though he's that alimony issue still to wade through. "Half of what I own's just about less than nothing at all," sighs Hey.

"I'll wait it out with Ma the stars crackle and burn one more time, then the sun come up like Jupiter's arse, and we'll see what's different. I hear colours are reversed on that side of the world. Tell you what, I'll send you some predictions for the Millennium...whenever you think it pass on to your faithful readers. Nostradamus Jr., that's me."

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