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Q&A: Linda Besner on organizing the Fish Quill Poetry Boat Tour

For the third year in a row, Linda Besner and Leigh Kotsilidis will lead a group of poets and one musician on a canoe tour down the Grand River in Southwestern Ontario. The lineup for this year’s Fish Quill Poetry Boat Tour includes Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, Moez Surani, Darryl Whetter, and singer-songwriter Jack Marks.

The 10-day, three-canoe author tour launches on Aug. 9 in Toronto, with readings scheduled in Elora, West Montrose, Bridgeport, Cambridge, Paris, Brantford, and Ohsweken, plus a campfire poetry night at Brant Conservation Area.

Besner spoke with Quillblog about the challenges and rewards of marrying poetry with paddling.

(Image: Ian Turner, courtesy of Fish Quill Poetry Boat)

What can people expect from your tour?
The towns we’ve chosen to go through often don’t get a lot of [author] tours going through. Like West Montrose, where we’ll read next to Kissing Bridge, the only remaining covered bridge in Ontario.

Because we’re coming by canoe there’s a kind of informal air to the proceedings. Once you get up there in your canoeing clothes and you’re sunburnt and mosquito-bitten, you’ve been paddling through people’s back yards, we’ve already got something to talk about with [the audience].

The people who come out for it aren’t always necessarily the kind of people who come to poetry readings. But because somebody is making the effort to come to them, and doing it in a way that has a connection to the place, people come out.

People come and talk to us after. Last year, this woman came up with her daughter and husband. She told us she had had a boyfriend who wrote her this poem. “I still have it memorized. Do you want to hear it?” she said. And of course I did want to hear this poem. She recited it by heart. Her daughter was like, “Mom, you never told me this story.” Her mom said, “Well, it never came up.”

What’s different this time around?
Last year, most people knew at least one other person on the trip well.

This year there are a couple of people I haven’t met at all – Darryl Whetter is coming up from Nova Scotia, and I haven’t met Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, or Jack Marks.

How did the trip go last year? Can you describe what it was like for you?
The organizing had been so stressful that I was actually surprised and pleased by how smoothly everything wound up going. Once you’re out on the water, once everybody’s together, I feel like it really brings out people’s teamwork skills. Everybody was nice to each other and took care of each other. On that river, because it’s so shallow and rocky, the person in front really has to call to the person in back to tell them what to do to find a channel through the rocks that won’t tip you.

For a lot of us, because we live in the city, it’s not often that we’re able to be out in the country for so long and spend days on the river. You spend day after day in the canoe and then when you’re going to sleep, you have this hallucinatory sense that you’re still moving from side to side and following the bends of the river. It really gets a physical grip on you.

What are some of the highlights of paddling through a community rather than embarking on a more traditional tour?
We link up with a lot of local organizations and try to incorporate local talent. We invite guest performers to join us at each location. Last year, we had Shelley Clark from the Six Nations of the Grand River community read with us, and she’ll read again this year.

One of the coolest places we’ll be going back to this year is our final stop at Chiefswood National Historic Site, which is the birth place of E. Pauline Johnson. She was sort of the first Mohawk poet in Canada to be taken seriously. Her house is still standing [as a museum] in the Six Nations’ territory. Going out there, learning about its history, getting to know the curator and the volunteers is amazing. You really do see how vibrant the culture is.

What kind of fundraising have you undertaken to cover the trip?
We do this trip on such a shoestring budget. We grocery shop and cook [at camp] as a group. We have gotten all of our camping sponsored by the Grand River Conservation Authority, which manages the campsites we’ll be staying on.

We have another really wonderful sponsor, Treks in the Wild. They’re a canoe company in Paris, Ontario, and they’re really who make this trip possible. They lend us the canoes and waterproof barrels for our merch for free, they shuttle us around, they come and get us when our campsite is too far from our reading venue for us to walk.

We’ve also been given some funding from our publishers: Véhicule Press, Coach House Books, Wolsak & Wynn, Palimpsest Press, and Brick Books.

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Book links roundup: Federal libraries and archives to shut down, Tehran International Book Fair starts crackdown, and more

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Canada Council for the Arts unaffected by federal budget cuts

Canadian Heritage Minister James Moore delivered on last week’s promise that there would be some “good news” for the Canada Council for the Arts in the federal budget, which dropped this afternoon.

Arts organizations breathed a sigh of relief at news that the arms-length funding agency will maintain its current funding level of $190 million. An official statement released by the Canada Council says it is “enormously heartened by the positive message sent by the 2012 budget.”

The fate of the Department of Canadian Heritage’s other programs is not as clear, however. According to The Globe and Mail, the department, which administers the Canada Book Fund, will receive one of the biggest cuts at 5.6 per cent of its overall budget.

As expected, public broadcaster CBC will also see 10 per cent of its budget cut over three years.

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What Toronto budget cuts could mean for libraries

As Toronto’s city council enters final debates on the 2012 budget, here’s a look at what could be ahead for the Toronto Public Library.

TPL has been asked to meet a 10 per cent reduction target (cutting about $7 million from its annual budget) despite having the busiest year on record in 2011, with more than 19 million visitors borrowing over 33 million items.

A few motions on the table at city council argue for reversing budget reductions. One motion asks TPL to meet its 10 per cent target without cutting back on hours, instead saving money by buying fewer movies and magazines. Chief librarian Jane Pyper estimates that cutting 19,444 hours at 59 branches could save TPL $5.4 million, but this would likely affect all branches.

Another motion proposes that the $7 million in library cuts be scaled back to $4 million, using new revenue from property tax assessment growth to make up the remainder.

Toronto’s literary community has unleashed protests against proposed cuts, too. More than 100 well-known literary figures signed an open letter to Mayor Rob Ford and city council, and the Toronto Public Library Workers Union placed an ad in the Toronto Star this week.

Meanwhile, TPL continues to search for ways to bring in more money. The National Post reported on one new membership program designed to attract the bookish under-40 set to exclusive library events for a roughly $300 annual fee.

Just this morning, the TPL Foundation announced a $1.5 million donation from Toronto philanthropists Marilyn and Charles Baillie to support the Toronto Reference Library’s revitalization, an ongoing program with a $34 million price tag. The Baillies’ donation will go towards the Special Collections Centre, a new reading room set to open in 2013 that will display items related to Canadiana, performance, and documentary art.

Library cuts are on the agenda for debate this afternoon. Check out the liveblog at Torontoist for the latest updates, and keep following Quillblog for more information.

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Toronto Public Library Board balks at 10 per cent budget cut

Last night, in its final meeting of the year, the Toronto Public Library Board approved a cut of 5.9 per cent to its 2012 operating budget. The 2012 budget now stands at just over $164 million, though more cuts may be on the way.

Going into budget negotiations, Mayor Rob Ford required all city services to slash their operating costs by 10 per cent. The TPL board has struggled to find savings. Recently, it shot down a recommendation by chief librarian Jane Pyper to reduce hours and collections at certain branches, and last night they passed on her last-ditch proposal to end bookmobile services, as well as literacy and student outreach programming. To increase revenues, the board voted for higher auditorium and room rental fees, a new fee for materials on hold that go unclaimed, and the phasing in of four new automated sorters.

The decision comes as a surprise, reports The Globe and Mail, in part because the mayor virtually appointed the library board to implement his financial vision:

“I simply can’t support a reduction in hours,” said [board member and City Councillor Jaye] Robinson. “I think in January you will find most of council backing this up and supporting keeping libraries open and accessible.”

While a board-room packed with library staff celebrated, [board chair Councillor Paul] Ainslie didn’t hold back his disappointment. “As far as I’m concerned, a majority of the board just abrogated their duties, shirked their responsibilities,” he said.

“I’m fully expecting the city manager to be furious, I think the mayor’s going to be furious, I think the budget committee will be furious, I’m furious.”

The budget now goes before the City of Toronto budget and executive committees before approval by City Council in January. The next TPL board meeting is scheduled for Jan. 30, 2012.

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Publishing at the polls: Arts and culture platforms

Tonight is the first televised leadership debate of the federal election. It’s unlikely arts and culture will be mentioned, so here’s a primer on how all parties (including the Green Party) stand on issues that impact the publishing industry. Here’s a summary of points, taken directly from each platform:

Bloc Québécois

  • Ensure that the federal government increases its support for our culture and contributes to its development

Conservative Party

  • We will provide ongoing support for the Canada Periodical Fund to support the distribution of publications to Canadians, while providing long-term, stable program funding
  • A Stephen Harper-led majority Government will also reintroduce and pass the Copyright Modernization Act, a key pillar in our commitment to make Canada a leader in the global digital economy. This balanced, common-sense legislation recognizes the practical priorities of teachers, students, artists, families, and technology companies, among others, while aligning Canada with international standards. It respects both the rights of creators and the interests of consumers. It will ensure that Canada’s copyright law will be responsive in a fast-changing digital world, while protecting and creating jobs, promoting innovation, and attracting investment to Canada

Green Party

  • Increase funding to all of Canada’s arts and culture organizations including The Canada Council for the Arts, Telefilm Canada, orchestras, theatres and publishers. The goal will be to make increases in this sector commensurate with increases in support over the years for other sectors of the economy such as transport, the auto industry, health care, and the oil and gas industry
  • Restore and improve arm’s length principles in the governance of arts and cultural institutions and agencies under the federal jurisdiction.  In keeping with such a position, we believe that the heads of Canada’s cultural organizations such as the CRTC, Canada Council, CBC, and Telefilm Canada should not be appointed by the political party in power but by an arm’s length committee made up of competent people representative of the various diverse stakeholders in Canadian society
  • Increase support for community arts programs and facilities across Canada by establishing stable base-funding at a set percentage of the federal budget
  • Equalize federal funding for Arts and Culture among provinces, territories, and municipalities to make it consistent with the provinces and municipalities that have the highest current standards
  • Provide incentives to all provinces and territories to restore and improve arts and culture components to schools and extra-curricular activities not only in urban but also in rural areas
  • Extend income tax relief and incentives to artists (on the very successful models established by Ireland and the city of Berlin).  Doing so will: encourage artists to settle in Canada and build businesses here; result in other (usually) white collar “clean” industries that follow the arts jobs and dollars; help to provide meaningful jobs to university and college graduates;enrich schools and their offerings thereby attracting immigrants to settle in rural areas; revitalize and discover talent in communities where traditional industries are declining and young people are leaving
  • Follow and implement recommendations of Canadian Conference of the Arts in order to enable artists to access various social programs including Employment Insurance, Worker’s Compensation, and Canada Pension Plan
  • Change the Canada Revenue Act to allow arts and culture workers to benefit from a tax averaging plan that will take into account the fact that lean years often precede and follow the good year when a show is produced, a book is published and a grant or a prize is won
  • Protect Canada’s cultural identity during trade negotiations

Liberal Party

  • The Canada Council for the Arts is a major force in supporting working artists. A Liberal government will significantly increase support for Canadian artists and creators by doubling the annual budget of the Canada Council for the Arts, from $180 million to $360 million over the next four years
  • A Liberal government will also restore the PromArt and Trade Routes cultural promotion programs, increasing their funding to $25 million. These programs play an important role in bringing Canadian culture to the world and increasing our exports. The new annual funding will help to create a domestic tours program as well
  • Digital technology offers many new opportunities, but enjoying content without compensating its creators shouldn’t be among them. At the same time, consumers should have freedom for personal use of digital content they rightfully possess. Liberals have worked to pass effective copyright legislation, including a private copying compensation fund instead of any new tax on consumers

NDP

  • We will promote the production and broadcast of Canadian content on Canadian television and in Canadian theatres, and will strongly support Canada’s performing arts, cultural institutions, and creators
  • We will ensure Canadian TV and telecom networks remain Canadian-owned by maintaining effective regulations on foreign ownership
  • We will increase public funding for the Canada Council and implement tax averaging for artists and cultural workers
  • We will explore the creation of a new international arts touring fund to replace the now-defunct Trade Routes and PromArt programs
  • We will develop a digital online culture service to broaden access to Canadian content
  • We will introduce a bill on copyright reform to ensure that Canada complies with its international treaty obligations, while balancing consumers’ and creators’ rights

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It’s official: litmags to be cut out of CPF funding

There will be no exceptions for small literary and cultural magazines under the new Canada Periodical Fund, the department of Canadian Heritage has confirmed. In a letter to The New Quarterly managing editor Rosalynn Tyo, minister James Moore states that a 5,000 annual circulation minimum, first announced last February, will not be repealed, and nor will small, culturally significant magazines be given any special treatment. From his letter (via Canadian Magazines):

The CPF will support a broad range of periodicals, but it will no longer offer support to titles that sell fewer than 5,000 copies total per year, or specialized support for arts and literary magazines, including those that sell fewer than 5,000 copies a year. A recent evaluation of our existing programs found that specialized funding for arts and literary magazines currently offered by the Department was duplicating the funding offered by the Canada Council … I trust that this information is useful.

If you ever needed an excuse to subscribe to a couple (dozen) litmags, this would be it. As Tyo explains, the loss of Heritage monies will have a devastating impact on TNQ‘s finances.

The Canada Council does indeed support arts and literary publications; however, what the Council provides TNQ is operating support. All of the annual Council grant funding (for which we compete every year — it’s not a ‘given’) we receive goes directly to paying our contributors and printing our magazine. The funding we had been receiving from the programs the CPF is replacing was directed to subsidizing mailing costs (by the Publications Assistance Program) and to one-time business development projects like promotional direct mail campaigns (by the Canada Magazine Fund).

It’s worth pointing out that under the new funding regime, litmags are still eligible for the $1.5-million Business Innovation fund, which is aimed at  magazines with limited access to capital and has no circ requirement. Still, that fund is a small fraction of the CPF’s total budget ($75.5 million), and it’s unlikely to make up for the shortfall small magazines can expect to face in the new year.

For background on the CPF, and the grassroots movement that has sprung up to oppose it, see Q&Q‘s past coverage.

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Critics stony towards Angel

The recent parade of big-budget CanLit film adaptations that began with Emotional Arithmetic and Fugitive Pieces continues this week with the release of The Stone Angel, starring American actress Ellen Burstyn. Not surprisingly, critics are greeting it with the same level of enthusiasm they showed the others.

The Toronto Star‘s Philip Marchand (who just can’t seem to escape the CanLit content) begins his review as follows:

Does every Canadian movie based on a Canadian novel have to be scored with mournful violins and weeping cellos?

Meanwhile, The Globe and Mail‘s Liam Lacey has this to say:

Neither a revelation nor a travesty, the movie version of The Stone Angel is essentially what you might expect: There is a reverence for the idea of Laurence’s book but ultimately, in spite of its spiced-up sex scenes, it’s much tamer and more conventional.

And Now’s Glenn Sumi has the last word with this backhanded compliment:

If you wait long enough, it’ll show up as a CBC Sunday night movie (where it’ll look just fine).

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Death of God good for books, bad for Hollywood

New York magazine’s culture blog points out how Phillip Pullman is distancing himself from his image as a God-despising, atheism-peddling iconoclast in the run-up to the release of Hollywood’s mega-budget adaptation of The Golden Compass, the first title in Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy.

On the Today show on Friday, Pullman denied to Al Roker that his books are anti-religious. “As for the atheism,” he adds, “it doesn’t matter to me whether people believe in God or not, so I’m not promoting anything of that sort,” he wrote…. But what did the author have to say on the issue six years ago, when asked by the Washington Post what famously Christian author C.S. Lewis would think of his books?

“I’m trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief,” says Pullman. “Mr. Lewis would think I was doing the Devil’s work.”

And what did he tell the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003?

“I’m a great fan of J.K. Rowling, but the people – mainly from America’s Bible Belt – who complain that Harry Potter promotes Satanism or witchcraft obviously haven’t got enough in their lives. Meanwhile, I’ve been flying under the radar, saying things that are far more subversive than anything poor old Harry has said. My books are about killing God.”

Yes, well clearly a movie about God-killing (particularly, Christian God-killing) is not going to appeal to Bible Belt America. But what New York fails to point out is that the maverick author’s hell-raising generated plenty of positive press before Hollywood came a-knocking – for example, see this New Yorker profile that casts Pullman as the real deal in children’s lit (his “ideal reader is a precocious fifteen-year-old who long ago came to find the Harry Potter books intellectually thin,” writes Laura Miller) or Michael Chabon’s omnibus review of the His Dark Materials trilogy in The New York Review of Books – in which it was precisely Pulllman’s “secularism” that endeared him to literary critics.

The question, then, is when did Pullman strike a deal with the devil?: During the creative genesis of His Dark Materials, which some critics have dubbed “atheism for kids”?; Or when a promised Hollwood payoff led Pullman to temper his tongue?

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