Thursday, April 8, 2010

In Appreciation Of Appreciation

Have you ever met one of those control freaks that is too cool for school and doesn’t let himself get excited about things that other folk might? You know, one of those annoying people that meets a celebrity(and by celebrity, I mean whoever would be a celebrity to you; for me that might be an author, graphic artist, scientist or radical activist) at a public event and acts like he’s talking to a theatre usher because he can’t bear the vulnerability of excitement or (gasp) adulation. These guys stand at the back of a reading, aloof, and “don’t bother” the author with a request for an autograph. They resist, with affected noble aplomb, the urge to tell an artist “I love your work”, because that is what everyone else in the crowd is saying, and they themselves are dying to say it too.

OK, so that’s me. I am that big stick in the mud, trying desperately to ground free floating star-struck excitement. Everyone knows someone like me, it is the person who you are least apt to choose to tell the news that you got tickets to U2, because they just say, 'that's nice, I hear they play pretty good live'. Because they won't squeal loudly with you.

From time to time, I have scraped at breaching that code and usually managed not to learn anything from it.

When I was in my early twenties, I was scrounging through an enormous used book store located in a real live barn just outside of a little village on the St. Laurence. I was ecstatic to find an older out of print book by Al Purdy, an Ontarian poet who I was enthralled with. The proprietor noticed my trembly sweaty hands, eager with the treasure found. She told me, if I wanted more of his work, I should just write to him as he probably had lots of his own books lying around at home. She said it so matter-of-factly, like this elder statesman of Canadian Poetry was one of my neighbours or classmates, someone I might just approach. She even said, “it’s not like he’s a rockstar”. How could she not understand, that’s just what he was, he was my Bono. Only more than a rockstar, he was a mentor, an imam, a shaman. I didn’t know what to say, and chose the most mundane route. This was before the internet when you might easily look someone up so I told her I had no way of contacting him. She immediately wrote down his address, saying that he was a friend of hers and enjoyed getting letters from readers.

I returned home to Montreal with my star powered scrap of paper and typed out a letter. I did my best to disguise my appreciation of his work, or more accurately to hide the fact, that for me, this was equivalent to writing a letter to a movie star. Instead, I was somewhat inquisitive, and more than a little critical; to top it all off, I had the sheer youthful audacity to push some advice on him(about coping with being old, of all things). After I sent it, I cringed, ‘what have you done’.

Shortly thereafter, I received a reply, typed on the back of some hotel stationary. It was jovial and ripping, and tore mighty holes through my young bravado. And it included the delight(coming from him) of accusing me of sounding like an old man in my cups. His letter held the exact living and breathing words I might have imagined from this literary titan in my world. We exchanged a number of letters thereafter(read: inward backflips, outward nonchalance).

His replies were always on odd scraps of paper—diner placemats, torn faces of Christmas cards—he seemed to take a religious stance against clean paper. Sometimes they were handwritten and I will never know what these letters said as they were indecipherable. Every letter was encouraging and took seriously the things I had said in mine.

Eventually, he invited me to spend a weekend up at his farm where we could more properly face off on poetry, maybe over something pottable. It was the invite of one friend to another, only I was still that tightly wound fan-in-disguise. I was the little man behind the curtain who people were suddenly paying attention to. I made faux plans to go and then shyly faded out of communication. It is one of the great bleeding regrets in my life, and probably not unusual, as one of those experiences where in youth, we come up against the limits of our confidence.

I did have the opportunity years later to meet Mr. Purdy face-to-face. It was at a reading in Vancouver. As if in some kind of apologetic offering, I brought him a charcoal portrait I'd drawn of another of my hero-authors, a man recently passed away that Mr. Purdy had been a long close friend of. I felt ashamed of the assumed intimacy of it, and yet was compelled. You know what that lovely old bastard did? He made me autograph it to him in front of the crowd. So, I have ended up with great moments in my life and great regrets tied together with this irascible poet.

From this, I might have learned, if nothing else, a self-interested value in communicating praise with those one admires. Me? Nope, I have many great strengths, and one of them is to resist learning. I have since then had several experiences in a similar vein, where I balked when I felt to vulnerable to someone who had made an emotional or spiritual impact on my life, after engaging in communication with them.

One of the consequences of these anti-productive lessons, is I haven’t usually made the effort to communicate appreciation to those who influence my life from a distance. I’ve been trying to change that. And with almost two decades of the internet, it’s not usually hard to track someone down if they have any kind of public or promotional life.

Now, if the fan letter I wanted to write was addressed to Dan Brown or Johnny Depp, it would probably just end up in the slush pile of a publicist. But, as much as I love a Steven Spielberg movie, that’s not who I think of writing to. Instead it is often a musician who has a day job, a blogger who is trying to aggregate news items to make sense of the world, a professor slogging through mediocre student essays, an artist who is only on the regional circuit, or a writer, who despite being distributed on Amazon is simply another guy like you or me, toiling away alone in a room.

My experience has always been warm replies, and usually a dialogue can develop. If a person has managed to publish an article, or produce a CD, or get a book into print, I get this misimpression that the person has “made it” and has better things to do than hear someone say, “wow, I really liked this”. And it usually isn’t true. Not that a reply is the point here. The point is getting the message of appreciation through to someone who isn’t actually overwhelmed with appreciation.

More generally, there is little enough appreciation going around the universe, and that any time I can contact someone who has contributed meaning or pleasure to my life, that the least I can do is let them know. At best, sometimes, the benefits of interaction accrue: there are mutual blooms.

Anyway, in my ongoing bid to overcome my notable ability to resist learning, I am recommending to myself and to others, whenever the opportunity surfaces to offer appreciation where appreciation is due, offer it.

At the very least, I let someone know that their work has reached across the void and touched me. their work has breached seemingly impenetrable space and added to being. I may have never made it to the farm on Roblin Lake in Ameliasburg, but I can still learn from the letters of that old man.


  1. Oh Ape...I am so thrilled that you had such a personal experience with the great Al Purdy. My mother was an unabashed 'fan' and one of her best memories was the day her and Al drank themselves into some kind of poetic stupor. Also, I love "Piss Cat".
    For the record, what YOU write never fails to pique my interest and get me thinking about all kinds of things.So I guess I'm one of your 'fans'!

  2. I am off to see Eurithe Purdy in a week or so. I've printed this story and will give it to her. Al wrote the best letters. If you were interested in poetry, he was interested in you. But you aren't the only one who regrets never taking Al up on an invitation. Check out The Al Purdy A-frame Anthology, out with Harbour. The A-frame was a pilgrimage for many poets over the years.

    Oh, and thanks for this grand story

  3. @Brite: Your comments keep me posting when I feel it is a silly narcissism.

    @jean baird: I am ecstatic to know that Eurithe will see this.

  4. Not only did Eurithe see it, we are now convinced that the drawing you gave to Al is of Bukowski. It's charcoal, and was in Al's papers. Yes? We were looking at it on the weekend, then this morning Eurithe called and said, you know that blog you printed, well I think it refers to the charcoal.

    Please respond to