Excerpt: John Metcalf Margaret Laurence Lecture



John Metcalf The Teeth of my FatherIn 1971-72, I was suffering through a divorce that was not of my seeking and was distraught at being separated from my very young daughter. I was teaching, on my return from Fredericton, at Loyola College in Montreal and living in the house of a dysfunctional commune where Cleaning and Cooking Rosters were posted but entirely ignored much to the distress of the Commune’s elder, a gaunt Marxist professor of philosophy whose room was adorned with posters of tractors and who subsisted on chickpeas and assorted vitamin pills. He referred to his digestive tract as The Tube.

My room was as bleak as my life – a mattress on the floor, a kitchen chair, a rickety card table, a clangy old alarm clock to summon me to the teaching of yet another block of service English to resentful engineers.

One evening, someone yelled up the stairs, “John! Phone!”

“Hello?”

“Hi, kiddo!”

Margaret Laurence.

“John, I’m worried about you. I’m worried about your health. And a lot of your friends are too. So I’m coming to see you. I’m with some people in Longueuil but I’ll get a cab over.”

Margaret arrived with a large bottle of scotch. I borrowed the next-door communard’s toothbrush glass and Margaret and I sat on the mattress and she listened patiently as I rehearsed my distress. Sitting on the edge of a mattress is very uncomfortable so we were soon lying on it, heads propped against the wall, she holding my hand, patting me occasionally, talking together as the light in the window faded into dusk, into dark.

I have no memory of what we talked about or if it resolved anything but I will always remember the saving warmth of being held.

Margaret always used to talk about writers as being members of a tribe. It is easy to scoff at this possibly sentimental notion, writers being the quarrelsome, disputatious lot they are, but what Margaret so generously gave me that evening had a profound impact. When I started editing with Oberon Press, with The Porcupine’s Quill, and subsequently with Biblioasis, Margaret’s kindness informed all my dealings with younger writers. They were never to me business clients, sources of income, numbers to satisfy the weird regulations of granting agencies, but people who shared with me common aims and aspirations, people – I will not shy away from the emotional – people of my tribe.

Members of the Burning Rock Writers' Group on tour in 1995 - Stephanie Squires, Claire Wilkshire, Lisa Moore
Members of the Burning Rock Writers' Group on tour in 1995 - Stephanie Squires, Claire Wilkshire, and Lisa Moore. Photo by Michael Winter 

Ray-Smith,-Clark-Blaise,-Hugh-Hood,-and-Ray-Fraser
1971 Sam Tata photo that was used as a poster for Montreal Story Tellers. Ray Smith, Clark Blaise, Hugh Hood, and Ray Fraser

In 1980 I was editing, with Clark Blaise, Oberon Press’s Best Canadian Stories. Later I was to edit it with Leon Rooke. I came across in a magazine a quite wonderful story – possibly her first – by a young writer called Linda Svendsen. The story was about Valerie, a young high school girl working for pocket-money at her uncle’s gas station. The story was called “Esso.” Valerie is attracted to a part-time monosyllabic mechanic called Greg. The story was funny, jazzy technique, seemingly simple but so sophisticated.

He spoke to me in Esso: about axles, camber, curve and impact, ring bearings, the importance of pistons, radiators, fans. He transformed shop words into a special tongue, new songs . . .

Linda, too, was creating new songs in a special tongue, transmuting the quotidian into urban poetry.

Greg never gave me a lot lines about how pretty I was or anything. He just said I was unusual, sort of like an import, a Fiat.

Clark Blaise and I promptly fell in love with both Valerie and Linda.

Linda went on to publish in 1992 a collection of short stories called Marine Life, one of the crown jewels of Canadian short fiction. She has also been for years one of the stalwarts of University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing department.

We had some correspondence recently when she was urging upon me the work of one of her students and she wrote en passant – and I hope I don’t embarrass her by quoting this:

Thank you, too, for all your support of me in the early days. You and Leon Rooke were an incredible boost to my confidence – all the encouragement a young writer could ever hope to have. You’re a role model for me in how I work with my UBC rookies and I will appreciate your presence in my life forever.

I was surprised by Linda’s letter and, of course, immensely grateful. I was surprised, overcome almost, that Linda, in her teaching and conduct, was passing on something she’d derived from our association.

John Metcalf 2017 Margaret Laurence Lecture
Launch of The New Story Writers at the National Library in 1992. Steve Heighton, Linda Svendsen, Blair Sharpe, Myrna, Don Dickinson, and Douglas Glover. Steve is good-humouredly accepting advice on letting the photographer see the book cover.

And then I remembered – though memory’s fading – a photograph in my literary memoir An Aesthetic Underground, a photograph at the launch of an anthology I’d published in 1992 called The New Story Writers, my wife, Myrna, painter Blair Sharpe, Linda, all smiling at Steve Heighton who for a photo-op was holding the damn book upside-down, and off to the side Don Dickinson and Douglas Glover in serious conversation.

And I recalled the short story conference that Kim Jernigan of The New Quarterly mounted at Stratford in the year 2000. It was a roll call of the new generation: Caroline Adderson, Mike Barnes, Libby Creelman, K.D. Miller, Russell Smith, Mark Anthony Jarman, Annabel Lyon, Diane Schoemperlen, Terry Griggs, Steve Heighton . . .Too many names to remember now but I do remember on the first evening of the conference walking into the bar where we were foregathering and Kim Jernigan saying to me, “There are 21 writers here and you edited 16 of them.”

So it’s beginning to seem to me that Margaret Laurence’s so generous intervention into my life, what Wordsworth in Tintern Abbey called “little, nameless, unremembered acts / Of kindness and of love” became – how to put this? – a sort of bequest, a bequest of which, she had, of course, no awareness, a bequest that has been passed on to a second generation and is now being passed on to a third, an almost underground but potent force rather like the invisible funguses that scientists now tell us underlie forests and enable and direct their growths.

Is this me being wistful, fanciful?

Maybe.

But I hope not.
 


 

 

This excerpt is taken from John Metcalf’s Margaret Laurence Lecture, which was delivered in Vancouver on June 2, 2017. You can also listen to the full lecture below.

 





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