Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Westward with the Elegy: the whole story of the Elegy Roadshow

Westward with the Elegy: The whole story of the Elegy Roadshow

I've been asked quite a bit in the last few months about my Elegy Roadshow, the book tour/lecture/poetry reading combination that has been up and running since October 2012. What follows is the complete report in a pretty lengthy blog post with all the readers named and cities included, except for the few Roadshows that I am still planning for summer 2013. It began with me puzzling out how to launch and promote with my latest book, a scholarly study of Canadian woman's paternal elegies. I wasn't the only one thinking about this. The question of how to market a scholarly book is a perennial one for academic presses. While it goes without saying that scholars with similar interests will purchase it, or at least assure that the book is purchased by their university library, what about people beyond that admittedly rather specialized demographic? Though it is true that it should not be incumbent upon scholars to “sell” ideas like pulp fiction or used cars, there is middle ground: a reading public for books that have both scholarly worth and a wider appeal. I know many people don’t believe in such a middle ground, but I do, partly because I’ve been to the ground and tested the soil. Verdict: perfectly healthy.

When my study of elegiac poetics and feminist politics, The Daughter’s Way: Canadian Women’s Paternal Elegies, appeared in book form, published by the hard-working people at Wilfrid Laurier University Press in May 2012, I was very happy to see that the publication date coincided with Congress 2012 at WLU, but I also noticed my reluctance to give a quick reading at Congress (with some really nice sandwiches and cookies!) and consider the book launched. Don't get me wrong; I did that little launch and there was, as promised, prime nosh, but I knew that so many people couldn't make the date or time; so many didn't even live close enough to dream of attending. And I had spent a long time writing and researching this book: years defining, re-defining, and solidifying my terms, often against a good deal of opposition or misunderstanding. I wrote, re-wrote, and successfully defended my dissertation on this topic in 2005. Then I taught  course based on it for another five years and presented eight conference papers about elegiac material, all while reassessing my argument, noting gaps, applying for funding to search archival material to fill in those gaps with three extra chapters, and finally producing the final manuscript, aided by Lisa Quinn’s encouragement at WLU Press and by the positive peer reviews. It’s no wonder that a thirty-minute launch -- no matter how good the food! -- didn’t feel like enough.

So, I thought of a way to open up the book to a broader audience, calling it the Elegy Roadshow. I tried the concept out on a few people, and as usual, I was convincing myself as I talked. In the years that I have been working as an elegy specialist, I’ve noted that elegies have a lot of cultural traction: everyone has read elegies, and a lot of people – poets from the widely published to the never published – have written them. As I note in The Daughter’s Way, the elegiac tradition is at once deeply literary and culturally central in North American culture, so much so that it’s hard to find an elegy that doesn’t subconsciously obey what can appear to be, at first glance, stiff literary conventions. So I thought of a twenty-first century Chautauqua -- a traveling roadshow with a MC and specialist (i.e. me) – that would feature different guest elegists in each city, with the central idea of exploring the elegy in contemporary culture. I would begin by reading introductory pieces from the book to give context to the guest elegists’ work. If the guest elegists were women who had written paternal elegies, I introduced those ideas. If the poems were about friends, siblings, or mentors, I chose material that introduced those kinds of elegies. I consulted with the elegists previous to the show so I could choose sections from The Daughter’s Way that would best introduce their poems.The concept was to present a variety of elegiac materials, and some thoughts about the importance of elegies in contemporary culture, including how and why to read them and the work they do. 

The Elegy Roadshow premiered in Waterloo at Words Worth Books in October 2012, and I asked poet Chris Banks (Winter Cranes) and Trillium Prize-winning poet Maureen Scott Harris (Drowning Lessons, Slow Curve Out) to read with me. Chris and Maureen were wonderful: intelligent and erudite and very generous. I spent the evening working out the experiential difference between giving a poetry reading and teaching a class, at last arriving at “Roadshow pace.” To close the evening, I read a few elegies from my poetry book Rue the Day. Did I say that I am bitextual? That I write both poetry and criticism? That's important to keep in mind. Chris and Maureen and I all sold books that night, which is important when you do a reading in a bookstore.

Emboldened by the experiment, I spent November 10-28th in the west, taking the Roadshow to bookstore and university venues in Manitoba and British Columbia. I taught a guest lecture on the Canadian elegy at the University of Winnipeg, thanks to Dr. Kathleen Venema, and then did an Elegy Roadshow at McNally-Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg. My guest poets were Katherena Vermette (North End Love Songs) and Jennifer Still (Girlwood), two Winnipeg poets whose work I admire and who leaped into the fray with full confidence. Everything came together; Kate and Jenn were just great -- Jenn even switched one of her poems at the last minute because she saw how a different poem would fit in with what I was talking about.  That's attention to detail! The whole world showed up at this Roadshow: writer friends, university friends (from my undergrad degree!), high school friends, my MA advisor, my mother and her friends, and a whole lot of people I had never met. One woman bought three copies of my book, an occurrence so rare that I have to mention it here to record its wondrousness. From there, I went to the University of Victoria, where I guest-taught two graduate seminars in manuscript development, and hosted Catherine Hunter and Lorna Crozier as my guest elegists at the UVic Bookstore’s version of the Elegy Roadshow. I wrote my MA thesis on Lorna’s poetry long before I had met her, and I still have that crazy star-struck feeling around her. Catherine is, quite simply, one of the best poets in Canada. She read a poem so good that I thought we should end the evening right there, but I stood up and finished my portion of the talk, thinking “Note to self: never follow Catherine Hunter at the microphone.” 

November’s tour ended with a visit to UBC Okanagan, where Dr. Karis Shearer had invited me to her Department of Critical and Creative Studies. I gave a talk to first-year students on critical-creative practice and did the Roadshow with guest elegists Nancy Holmes, Michael Treschow, Jodey Castricano, and Sonnet L’Abbe. Karis gave me the best intro ever by referring to my "long, listening ears" as claimed by the mouse-activated audio-poem on my site (at the bottom of the screen on the home page). Kelowna was the first Roadshow that I did in a city where I had never lived, so the Roadshow had to attract an audience on its own merits. And did those guest elegists ever bring it. Wow. UBC Okanagan was remarkable for the conversation afterwards; the audience had extremely thought-provoking questions about how the elegy addressed history and the whole conversation had a terrific atmosphere of exploration. That completed the first part of my Roadshow tour, and with the tired feeling of a job well done, I flew back home and promptly broke my leg two days later. (There's another blog post in that, but I won't write about that today.)
February brought two more Roadshows, and I got onto a plane with my cane, and headed to a guest lecture at the University of Calgary, sponsored by Dr. Jason Wiens, followed by an Elegy Roadshow at the elegant literary bookstore Pages on Kensington, hosted by Dr. Kit Dobson from Mount Royal College. My guest elegists were Rachel Zolf, Nikki Reimer, and Jonathon Wilcke and they took the subgenre of the elegy down a number of experimental routes which I loved hearing about. It was fascinating and the after-conversation went on at the bar long after the reading. I love it when the reading audience just stands up and moves en masse to a different venue to keep talking. Last but not least, I did the sixth and most recent Elegy Roadshow at the University of Saskatchewan, where I had been invited as a Visiting Fellow to the Interdisciplinary Centre for Culture and Creativity by Dr. Jeanette Lynes. For Saskatoon’s Roadshow, I solicited the participation of poets through Facebook, and had several writers I knew (Hilary Clark, Mari-Lou Rowley, Lia Pas, Jeanette Lynes), and several that I did not (Kim Aubrey, Laura Lacey, Dee Hobsbawn-Smith, Andrea Ledding) answer the call. With eight guest elegists that night, Saskatoon holds the unofficial record for the most elegists per square foot of municipal property. Plus, all that prairie hospitality was pretty amazing.

So that's the story so far. Have Roadshow, will travel. From my perspective as the chief wrangler, the Elegy Roadshow works a strange magic. It gathered audiences and guest elegists as it went, and has been garnering invitations to do more Roadshows. There is an Elegy Roadshow being planned for Toronto in June 2013, and I am in conversations about doing one in Vancouver. And if you want the Roadshow to come your way, let me know and we'll talk, because I always need someone in each place to shoulder a bit of the publicity load. My discovery has been that people are hungry for this conversation and for ways to discuss poetry and culture both in and outside university settings. I also learned that projects that begin in isolation – a research project, a book, an idea for an off-beat tour – take on their own momentum if just one other person gets excited about it. For me, that person was Karis, who read The Daughter’s Way and asked me about it in September 2012, and who, when I said was thinking of touring with the book, said yes before I finished the sentence. Also, it helps to have a publisher who thinks poetry is worth talking about. Brian Henderson, director of WLU Press and author of ten books of poetry, never doubted that the Elegy Roadshow was a good idea. Clare Hitchens balanced the books, and Leslie Macredie designed posters and fired off emails late into the night. Thanks, all. I feel very humbled by your hospitality and your hard work.