Sunday, June 19, 2005

Stay tuned... part two

Preparing for life as a television Director’s Assistant (once again, caps mine…) was far more complex than I at first imagined.
As a complete neophyte, there were so many questions I had about the unique and mysterious situations I would be bound find myself involved in: where did this all take place? How long would our days be? What, beyond the laughably minimal instructions for assisting George had provided me with would I actually be doing?
And perhaps most importantly, what would I wear?
Luckily, I had next to no time to nervously anticipate – just one day to get ten days worth of wardrobe ready (the time one episode of an hour long show apparently takes to complete – sans editing and tarting up) to prepare the dog’s accoutrement for transfer, and to phone friends, ostensibly to tell them I was going to be unavailable for socializing for the next week and a half, but really to let them know I had achieved entree into the glittering world of the biz that is show.
I had, to put it in the parlance of a long ago beau, pulled another ‘Kramer’.
The first week of my immersion into the entertainment world was more like the slow comfortable dip of a toe into a warm bubbly bath. (Icy reality was still five days away.) Pre-production days began at around ten with a trip out to the Downsview Airforce Base soundstage (an impossibly gargantuan undertaking where you could probably squeeze in the entire Principality of Lichtenstein, and still have room left over for an Orange Julius and at least half of Angelina Jolie’s lovers) to meet the crew, look at audition tapes for the roles to be filled by various guest stars, and to sit in on a read-through of the script that continued to change and evolve as George and the writers and producers got their bearings.
We were usually finished by mid-afternoon and the drives back to Toronto were uniformly sunny and serene, going in the opposite direction of rush hour traffic as it battled and honked and fumed its way out of the city.
My first couple of days were exactly as George described, only less so. There was minimal script carrying, we were generally on our way home before the 4 o’clock pill-taking time – his wife would take over to enforce compliance – and since the days were short, I hadn’t bothered to trouble the dog to accompany us. I more or less just followed George about, watching and observing and wondering just what I was doing to justify $900.00 (plus GST) for this first week’s worth of assisting.
My biggest responsibility was picking the Director up in the morning and maintaining a quiet calm so that he could meditate over the script in the back seat. It must have looked pretty comic; George, who at the age of seventy-plus and well over six feet was pretty spry, but folding himself into the backseat of an ancient un-air conditioned Mazda 323 was an exercise in clown car-ology. Still he managed uncomplaining – I had been perfectly clear when describing my lack of credentials for the position that my biggest drawback was bound to be my car Sylvia – and said nothing about his discomfort, even when the mercury rose to near unbearable heights as June progressed.
(Everyone keeps whinging about how hot the weather is; how the heat and humidity of the other week is unheard of and unfair – more August than June. I, on the other hand am hard pressed to remember a June that hasn’t had at least a week or so of smog warnings and dire predictions of elderly death tolls due to heat… though thank heaven my pensioner wasn’t one of them. It was that hot, it wouldn’t have been entirely a shock…)
My favourite activity of that first week was being given the responsibility to select a couple of the guest stars. Since the individuals had been winnowed down to an extremely competent shortlist, it isn’t likely I could have made any enormous errors; still, I’m waiting to hear my name read out in an acceptance speech someday – the cute actor from Vancouver and the black actress from Toronto in particular have me to thank for whatever resulting stardom they achieve from the exposure. I’m still waiting, but then, so are they…
I think George just wanted to give me something to do. Keeping quiet and nodding wisely (as if anyone cared) was starting to wear thin around day three and the casting session perked me up no end.
We had a couple more days spent searching out office locations before shooting was to begin and ended up selecting something very high powered, all decked out in teak and leather and expensive ancient Bokhara rugs in the TD Centre. You know the sort – floor to ceiling windows somewhere around the 40th floor, priceless worthy Group of Seven paintings on loan from Ken Thompson on the walls – that sort of thing. We’d be shooting on the weekend when the lawyers or accountants or whomsovers it was that could afford such high priced sky-high real estate, were golfing or yachting or shopping in Milan, so we would have the space to ourselves.
(Interestingly, for all the location searching and office touring and swellegant work stations we considered, it was mostly the more boring, non-decorated nor art-strewn support staff cubby-hole cubicles we shot in. Oh television, you magical mystical messenger, you!)
It was definitely different (never have I driven so much before lunch) and it was interesting on a fairly regular basis (the conversations George had with the writers and the cinematographer and the Assistant Director – and by the way, transposing those two words means a world of difference – were fascinating; the conversations with the producers and associate producers not so much) and the craft services food was uniformly good (cappuccino! Off the back of a truck!) but I couldn’t help feeling a little bored and wasted around the edges and even more so, pretty useless as an assistant anything.
I felt less like I had in George’s kitchen (girlfriends in hats) and more like his bored and crabby adolescent daughter; if I hadn’t been a (nominal) grown up, I probably would have whined and demanded to be taken home or shopping. As it was, I just tried to stay awake and find something to be interested in while dad talked endlessly with the lady producer who I suspected had my number.
That was the other thing: there seemed to be a general ‘hand’s off’ policy where George’s assistant was concerned. Beyond basic civility, I was pretty much ignored – a state I’m generally unfamiliar with. And please don’t think I’m suggesting I’m irresistible or something, it’s just that I’m pretty friendly and gregarious and outgoing (concealing my soft, shy milky-white sensitive underbelly don’t you know) and to be invisible was a drag. Invisible and bored – drag city, man.
Then suddenly there we were: pre-production finished, production underway. Yikes! Up at 5:30 to get George (not to mention Lily) to the set by six-forty-five, into their office-cum-dressing room (true to his word, the dog was welcome the entire time; when George would nap, Lily would nap, when George would ask for a glass of water – two ice cubes, in a glass not a cup – he would make sure Lily got a drink too… my comfort was not nearly so pressing, but twas ever thus) and calm and prepared, script inserted into leather casing, George and I would hit the set.
At the outset I felt pretty important; on a set peopled by hundreds of cast and crew, George and I were the only two to have those tall canvas director chairs to sit in. Brought to the edge of each individual set in prime watching position, mine always to his right, with cupholder and script sleeve, my home base and prison for the next sixteen to eighteen hours. And it was prison – not just because I couldn’t leave – but a weird kind of solitary confinement because I wasn’t allowed to talk (had there been anyone besides George and Lily who were allowed to talk to me) and talking, as anyone who knows me will attest, isn’t just what I do, it’s who I am.
There are worse forms of torture being committed on individuals right this moment in Guantanamo and in Gulags from Iraq to Irkutsk, but none for me more counter to my nature than telling me to shut up. I could actually feel conversation or a joke or a laugh bubbling up every tedious now and boring then, but each time all it took was a withering look from George and the communication was murdered before it left my lips.
That was when I began to feel exhausted. The strain of not saying anything for virtually every moment save lunch break between 5:30 AM and 1:00 AM was taking its toll. 18 1/2 hours of silence felt like a lifetime of buttoning my lip.
And my relationship with George began to change; I had somehow gone from friend to servant status – and though in my limited understanding of the role of Director’s Assistant I gather there is a butlery/nanny sort of vibe, it wasn’t the way we started, nor the reason I thought he’d wanted me there in the first place. To be perfectly honest, if Lily were more obedient (and had opposable thumbs for beverage bearing) she could fulfill nearly all the requirements of the job. As it was, with so few responsibilities, I found myself beginning to get nervous around 4 o’clock, fearing I would through a gradual deadening of the senses forget even the simplest of my two daily tasks – telling him to take his pill.
That didn’t happen, but something worse did. I committed the cardinal error, the fundamental crime – the number one no-no: one morning, I slept through the alarm. Not so much that George had to call me, just enough that I had to call George (shuddering, shamefully) as I had wakened at nearly precisely the time I was normally sitting out front of his front door.
Words cannot describe the chill I felt from his reaction – possibly because there were virtually no words; just the “I see” and deadly cold silence that fathers who prefer guilt over corporal punishment have been perfecting over the centuries.
(It reminded me of nothing so much as the time I ignored my brother when I should have been watching him and he set the living room couch on fire – we managed to pull it out onto the lawn before the really big flames erupted – and my parents arrived home just in time to see it ignite the bushes. But that's another story…)
Stumbling, bumbling, tripping and falling all over myself apologizing, I heard George quietly say he would call a cab and meet me there before hanging up without saying goodbye. I was 40 years old and felt like the biggest and most wicked disappointment since I watched a couple of thousand dollars worth of painstakingly selected fabric (it went so well with the drapes!) and wood burst into flame on a warm, still bright evening back in the summer of 1974.
Needless to say I raced through my ablutions, practically threw the dog into the car, and drove hell for leather out to Downsview, arriving about 10 minutes after George. But those 10 minutes might have been hours, as I was given the silent treatment for the rest of the day.
Already in virtual solitary Purdah from the rest of the crew I withdrew into myself further, until the fairly dreamy First A.D. wandered over to see what was the matter between myself and ‘Sir’.
“I slept in,” I whispered. “George had to come in a cab.”
“Gee,” he whistled. “That’s just about the worst possible thing a person could do on a film set. He must be furious.”
I sunk lower into my saggy director’s chair.
“But everyone does it at least once,” he confided. Then went on to tell me an absolutely hellacious tale of his own sleepy screw-up that nearly completely made my shame and embarrassment go away.
And that’s when I started to gain a little perspective. Why on earth, I wondered, would a grown up (nominal or otherwise) who made an honest mistake, then apologized profusely and sincerely, continue to be treated like a bad child?
And the answer is, possibly, because they acted like one.
After that things started going better. George and I got along better. I sloughed off the guilt (after apologizing once more) and carried on keeping quiet and fetching water and coffee and dispensing pills with all the professionalism and gusto I was capable of applying. I also began counting down the days until the series’ opening episode was complete and I could go back to writing and offering strangers the kind of advice I was only beginning to apply to myself.
The show ended, George and I went our separate ways and I’ve never written about it until now. And I write about it for two reasons: 1. Because I want to remember what it is I want to do with my life, no matter the interesting side offers that come my way and 2. Because I’m still at risk of treating virtually every older man like an angry daddy; one I have to either charm, or apologize or appease my way around, instead of just doing whatever job it is that is required and being satisfied with that.
I don’t need another father; though mine has been dead ten years, his memory is still more than enough to keep me on the straight and narrow, and to suffer not a few cold winter nights warmed solely by my own shame or sorrow.
I do need a new job on the other hand; with the Griffin Prize over, I need a new source of revenue and am considering all offers.
And BTW - the dog is so old and sleepy now she just stays home and no longer needs her own trailer - air conditioned or otherwise. Just so you know.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Stay tuned...

Did I ever tell you about the time I was a Director’s Assistant? (Capital letters mine…) No? Just another little ‘why not’ from the past – a freelance moment… a foray into the unknown for $900.00 a week (plus GST) no experience necessary.
It was 4 years ago, just about this time in June of 2001 (and can you ever think of something happening in 2001 without thinking: “This happened before/after September 11th, before that date that killed innocence as it smashed into the twin towers – when are we going to stop thinking this way?”) and I experienced another one of those right time/right place moments I used to be famous for.
One of my girlfriends was organizing a tour of homes in the Annexe area – a fundraiser for the local homeless, to whom the Annexe was also a home… of sorts. (Rather more outdoorish than most.) Only the grooviest, swankiest, most famous or most unusual homes needed apply. And she got a swack of them. For twenty bucks you could see them all, then stop by afterward for a swig of lemonade or a cup of tea accompanied by crumbly home made cookies and cakes, and sip and munch to the strains of Mozart emanating from the string quartet hired to keep home base Hart House rockin’.
You’d start with the home of the former advisor to our most famous former Prime Minister, a fascinating shack with a converted guest house/office filled with candid photos of Trudeau and family and surrounded with the sort of fascinating memorabilia that made it one of the longest and slowest stops on the tour.
There was the French Chateau-style mansion that was so over-the-top designer-y one wondered where the corresponding unnaturally beautiful model people were hiding. (I mean, seriously – you couldn’t live there: you couldn’t eat or watch TV or go to the bathroom or any other human activity. One false move with a dust rag or a pair of improperly placed feet on a priceless hassock and the whole thing would have collapsed in sympathetic horror. It positively screamed ‘don’t touch!’ so we looked instead, and some of us even goggled at the incredible excess.)
There was the Zen garden home, the ‘why is this home on the tour’ home, (extremely nice, but in stark contrast to the Chateau, it actually looked as though humans lived there… more tidily and fashionably and elegantly than thee and me, but still…) there was the art-filled, every-room-a-different-daring-colour home; and then there was the home that I was placed in as a security guard cum traffic cop, making sure the visitors didn’t swipe the silver or touch the nick nacks, and to keep moving, keep moving, as they slid through the rooms and hallways, then squirted out the back door and into the ornamental garden, preparatory to clearing out altogether and high-tailing it to Hart House for High Tea.
It was a popular tour; after all, who doesn’t want to see the neighbours’ stuff, mentally totting up the value of the furniture and accessories (as if Bob Barker were going to quiz them on it in a “come on down!” type moment) and praying for a few seconds of ‘all clear’ so they could whip open the closets and drawers to see where all the unmentionables and real life crap was crammed?
Thank heaven then for the worthies like me, eagle-eyed and nearly psychic as we cased the crowd for likelies casing the joint.
I think my home was the best. An absolutely stunning three storey, free-standing giant of a classic Victorian red brick house on Admiral Road, the home of a painter who had rendered nearly every wall and primary surface with Trompe L’Oeil painted effects that provided many fascinating moments of wondering whether what you saw was real, or the result of the talented artist’s cheated perspective.
I was placed in the kitchen, the last outpost before the outdoors. It was the second shift of the day, so the older gentleman sitting at the kitchen table simply looked to me like an exhausted visitor waiting for his wife or grandchildren, and hoping that waiting for the fam by the exit might make them shift a little more smartly.
But really, I hardly noticed him – there was so much to look at! I’d done a quick tour of the entire house and had marveled at each room’s individual style and artistic choices, and particularly enjoyed searching for the teeny tiny renderings she’d hidden in even the most incongruous spots; if she’d painted a load of laundry on the washing machine door, or a browning apple core and crumpled envelope inside the wastepaper basket, I wouldn’t have been surprised – the detail was amazing.
But I liked my room best. In my room, in the kitchen, the walls were painted to look like ancient, yellowing brick, and the windows looked out onto another world entirely.
Architectural details that didn’t suit were transformed into alternate visions: a square half pillar created to cover pipes and electrical elements was painted to look like a narrow floor to ceiling bookcase – a panel under the sink given a Trompe L’Oeil finish so perfect you wanted to try to pull it open by the painted-on handle that looked three dimensional no matter the angle you observed it from.
The floors were painted to resemble ancient stone tiles, with tiny weeds and bluebells peeking up between the cracked and crumbling squares – and there were words and snatches of poetry inscribed here and there looking as though carved from the stone itself. The radiators were adorned with delicate, incredibly real looking vines and climbers; tiny wasps and ladybugs and centipedes scattered and scurried across the faux leaves.
For the 2 hours I was there, I’m not even sure I was able to see all there was or all she’d done – even the most prosaic kitchen related stuff was up for examination – were those really cups and crockery sitting on shelves behind glass cabinet doors, or were they painted on, complete with glassy glare reflected off a sun that shone through the pretend window all day and all night?
So I enjoyed myself; it was just the sort of room that I would have been transported by as a ten year old, and it was doing a pretty good job of thrilling me to bits even now.
But I had a job to do and after standing and chatting and indicating to the throngs who thronged through (and noticing that the crabby kids who’d been dragged whinging and bored nearly out of their tiny minds through other houses had become mini-explorers here: clever Nancy to put this house last, the threat of building tantrums dissolving as the children perked up and were doing the dragging now, as they insisted their parents come! here! now! to see some clever treasure revealed) I went over to the older gentleman to see if there was some help or assistance with which I could provide him.
He was an attractive senior citizen – bald as an egg, but the egg was gleaming and tanned, his skin unbelievably smooth and pink with health, and the moustache and Van Dyke beard were of a particularly creamy silver. He had shining blue eyes that matched his soft denim shirt, and his shoes (if I was not mistaken, and it turned out I wasn’t) were Prada. Interesting.
But we’d been given explicit instructions about exactly this sort of thing – absolutely verboten – though the thought of dragging an old man off what was to be fair not a priceless heirloom, but a fairly standard kitchen chair without giving him a moment to catch his breath or rest seemed unnecessarily Gestapo, so I gave it a while.
But fair or not, actually, fair was fair and finally it was time to give him the heave ho or risk his putting down roots – painted or otherwise – and becoming a fixture amongst the fixtures.
“Are you waiting for your family?” I tried, thinking this awkwardness might be easily sorted with an astute daughter-in-law or wifely presence.
“In what way do you mean ‘waiting for my family’?” He replied with an unsettling gleam of mischief in his eye; I had to think – was there any other way to interpret the question?
But before I could come up with anything (and who knows how long that might have taken) he clarified his question.
“In the larger sense I am nearly always waiting for my family,” he twinkled. “But this minute? No, I’m just watching the crowd go by.”
“I’m so sorry, but I’m terribly afraid you’ll have to move, or at least stand,” I told him, embarrassed to be giving the bum’s rush to such an interesting and articulate old article. “I’m afraid the owner doesn’t want the visitors to use the family furniture – you understand.”
“I suppose I do,” he replied, coruscating even more brightly, perched as he was on his maple throne. “But since I am the owner, I’m allowing myself a little leeway.”
The next two hours were marvelous; we chatted away like a couple of girlfriends at lunch with hats. He told me all about his life as a Director (those were his awards and trophies and plaques – real, not painted on – in the cabinet on the second floor) in film and television. He told me about his famous lover of many years past and how whilst she’d been with him, her politics had sat several notches left of centre (a Socialist flirting with Communism; but then, she’d flirt with anything…) and 180 degrees from where they now reside and where she now writes about them for publication, an ultraconservative married to a famous man of great means and influence. (If he can hang on… but that’s another story…)
I told him about my newspaper advice column and my travels and travails and my family and friends and my terrier and the time simply flew. Too soon the next volunteer appeared and it was time for me to collect my bag and bid him adieu and I have to say I was sorry; there was no question of us actually becoming girlfriends with hats – he had a gorgeous young artist wife and say what you will, a friendship of any sort would have left itself open to all sorts of unsavoury inferences – but I’d grown fond of George in the scant time I’d been protecting his domain from pickpockets and shoplifters.
But he stopped me. He had an idea, he said. What if I were to become his assistant on the episode of the television drama he was set to begin filming in two days time?
What if? I’d never done such a thing before in my life, I told him. Nothing simpler he informed me, all I had to do was sit beside him and hand him his leather-bound script whenever he needed it and tell him to take his pill at 4 PM. But the dog, I said; I couldn’t leave her alone for the sorts of hours a director needs to be on set. No problem he said; she could come with us and sleep on the bed in his air-conditioned dressing room/office at the set, or in his airconditioned trailer/dressing room/office on location.
I’d run out of excuses, but actually I don’t know why I even tried. I had never been a Director’s Assistant before – and when was I going to be offered such an opportunity again? I’d spent minimal time on film sets, only remembering them as stultifyingly boring, but in the presence of my new girlfriend/boss, how dull could it be?
I decided right then to find out.
(Stay tuned…)

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Short story long

It’s been just a little over two weeks since last I wrote and I can’t tell you how relaxing it is just to be able to sit here and daydream and ponder and meditate and generally commune with my self without being sent into fits of panicky shambolic distraction with thoughts of: “It’s coming, it’s nearly here – what have I forgotten, what am I supposed to do? What will go wrong?”
The Griffin Poetry Prize. It’s happened – it’s been awarded, it was here and now its gone, along with the judges, the Trustees, the parties, the performances, the caterers, the waiterers, the driver, the web mistress, the manager, the philanthropist (and his wife… everybody now!) the hotel concierge, the gorgeous gay party planner, the fabulous flower person, the assistants and staff members and bartenders and theatre managers (not to mention the union guys without whom you mayn’t touch a glass, or a table or a chair or a cushion with the word ‘POETRY’ emblazoned on its front on their stage without risking strike, walkout, or serious, cranky, brow-knit grumbling) and the couriers and the RCMP officers who guard the Governor General as though she was at permanent Code Red risk of assassination at all times (well, maybe…) the hors douevre makers (and there must be a few dozen of those folks right this minute resting their weary fingers from plaiting together several thousand miniature asparagus and duck liver ‘amouse bouche’ complete with chive garnish-type finger food) and the guests and the fans and the family members and the press, good, (by far the majority) and the press, bad, (people for whom the words ‘rude’ and ‘entitlement’ seem to have been specifically designed) and the poets.
The lovely, lovely poets, who were a constant surprise and a delight; real people – with giant, magical brains – layered, mysterious people, who see the world in a different way, and despite the fact that until recently nobody seemed to give a good goddamn about, created and create masterpieces of words and spaces that transform your understanding by providing a unique perspective, a perspective so distilled and pared down that the images and emotions are immediately and permanently seared into your memory and may actually change the way you think.
At least, that’s how it seemed to me.
They were cool is what I’m saying. Cool and nice and human and just a little strange, but a good strange, and quietly thrilled to bits to be recognized for that weird and marvelous and necessary esoteric thing they do.
And I, small cog in the vast machinery of proceedings that preceded the events (the Readings on June 1st and the Awards on June 2nd) and produced the events and supported the events from press releases to plane reservations, to airport pick-ups, to hotel check-in, to mapping and strategizing their individual schedules, to scooping them up and carrying them along and introducing them and amusing them and sometimes babysitting them or their children, and smoothing their way with the press and getting them where they needed to be on time (traffic, road construction, unforeseen screw-ups and confusion notwithstanding) and drank with them and ate with them and giggled with them and congratulated them and checked and re-checked their return reservations and somehow managed to get them into the passenger van and back to their hotel after a couple of long and liquid celebrations, got to see all this up close and extremely personal. And I got paid to do it.
So that’s where I’ve been the last couple of weeks – before and during; now I’m in the after – and that’s where my mind has been.
And I’ve learned much – and experienced much. And I can only now enjoy it in retrospect; in the present it was just too busy and too important to risk dropping a stitch by stopping to reflect. So here (distilled) are the highlights and lowlights of a PR Director’s experience of the Griffin Poetry Prize…
Highlight: Bright and early Wednesday morning I pick up Michael Symmons Roberts (British International nominee for ‘Corpus’) at the Park Hyatt and deliver him to the CBC for a radio interview with Mary Hynes of Tapestry. He is immediately warm and friendly, down to earth and delightful. Things are definitely looking up – my fears that the poets would be superior in mind (realized) and attitude (completely the opposite) are answered. I sit in with the technician and equally warm and friendly producer Susan Mahoney as MSR and the program host settle in for a fascinating discussion on the nature of God and the mystery of existence. Thoroughly enjoying myself, I am surprised into unstoppable sniffles as MSR reads from his BBC commissioned poem about 9/11 and the messages sent from the doomed victims to their families that day. I have never even considered crying over poetry and am deeply moved and considerably moistened by the experience.
Lowlight: None yet.
Highlight: After dropping MSR in the Kensington Market area for a quick relax and recce(where he bumps into his London-based publisher – and Griffin Trustee – Robin Robertson by complete accident) I hop into the Griffin-mobile with the Prize Manager for a couple of airport pickups.
I am assigned to collect Charles Simic (International nominee for ‘Collected Poems 1963-2003’ and eventual winner of the $50,000.00 International prize) who comes out of the customs area looking reassuringly exactly like his photograph (not a universal experience with the poets) and precisely on time.
Lowlight: From the look he bestows upon me I’m sure he thinks I’m a piece of blonde fluff and cannot imagine how he is going to maintain a straight face or polite conversation for the 30-45 minute drive to the hotel.
Lowlight: The Manager of the Prize is at another terminal collecting another poet (Fanny Howe – also an International nominee, for ‘On the Ground’) and asks us to keep circling the airport as Fanny has mysteriously disappeared and we cannot stop out front of the arrivals area. We circle for about an hour. (PS The slippery Ms Howe has somehow eluded the Manager and made her own way into the city. She is fine.)
Highlight: Charles and I get on like a house on fire: the 67 year old Yugoslavian born poet and professor at the University of New Hampshire who has seen both enormous suffering and great personal success and I discover we have a mutual antipathy for George Bush, the religious right, gun laws, the state of education and the Governor of California. What we don’t mind so much is Jimmy Carter, jokes and circling the airport for an hour plus the 45 minute drive back to Toronto as we chat and laugh and get to know one another. He says I can call him Charlie. I do.
Lowlight: We nip over to the MacMillan Theatre to see if everything is in hand for the evening’s Readings and right away I realize the poets, my boss and the Governor General of Canada will be kept in a holding pen offstage that could as easily be described as a pigpen. Union rules mean I must keep my itching to tidy (most certainly not a universal nor normal feeling for me) fingers to myself. The boss’s wife looks at me with some disappointment when she realizes I have not organized a proper crystal jug and tumblers for the thirsty poets and those who will introduce them onstage. My idea of plastic water bottles – easily transportable and unlikely to shatter when dropped by nervous fingers – is met with something close to disgust. Whoops.
Highlight: The extremely kind and patient stage manager sorts it out.
Highlight: After a quick trip home to feed the dog and change, I return to the hotel for the first of several hors douevres-fests that poses as the backdrop for a meet and greet of all the interested parties (poets, judges, trustees, family and friends, Scott and Krsytyne and minions) who hoover up snacks and cocktails with a gusto heretofore unimagined. I meet a couple of the Trustees for the first time (Atwood, Ondaatje, Robertson, Forche) and fall madly in love with the five year old daughter of British Judge Simon Armitage and his lovely BBC producer wife Sue, and promptly establish best friend status with the charming tap-dancing Emily.
I also meet the gold-braid and medal strewn Aide de Camp of the GG (and wouldn’t it be fun to have that job title on your resume) who turns out not to be the stiff and formal military geek we’d been expecting, with a mania for protocol and a gimlet eye for anyone who might trouble herself; turns out he is absolutely strict on protocol, but loose and easy with jokes and friendship. Great guy.
Lowest of the Lowlights: We troop en masse to the Macmillan Theatre, an easy and pleasant five minute stroll from the swank hotel at University and Bloor, and within moments of entering the building off Philosopher’s Walk, I lead everyone (poets, GG, posse and boss) to the wrong location. We must climb two flights of stairs to get to the actual location of the holding pen. I – carrying about ten pounds of soft drinks, juice and bottled water for the potentially parched poets – race madly around before leading them shame-faced and perspiring to the correct door. “We are not amused” practically in neon over the GG’s fixed and grim professional smile. I shudder. I carry on.
Highlight: The MacMillan is packed to the rafters. 800 plus poetry lovers can’t be wrong.
Highlight: They’re not wrong. The first half of the program goes off without a hitch and to much applause and raucous hoots and hollers of approval. (Like the old dog pound on Arsinio Hall. “Woof, woof, woof, WOOF!” You don’t remember Arsinio? Geez…)
Low, lowlight: We discover at intermission that the bookseller hasn’t delivered any copies of fourth and final International poet (and babe-magnet) Matt Rohrer’s nominated book 'Green Light'.
Highlight: The second half is even more exciting and the crowd is clearly experiencing paroxysms of joy as the Canadian poets read: Roo Borson – the eventual $50,000.00 Canadian winner for ‘Short Journey Upriver Towards Oishida’ - George Bowering, former Poet Laureate, all around good guy and author of ‘Changing on the Fly’ and previous nominee Don MacKay who brings down the house with his reading from his nominated work ‘Camber’. Success is ours! Margaret Atwood presents each with a leather bound copy of their work and the crowd goes wild!
Low lowlight Part 2: A crowd of teenage girls swarms the bookstall looking for copies of Matt Rohrer’s book to take to the autograph line for him to sign and for them to preen and giggle over. Horrors. There are no copies of 'Green Light'. Dozens of everyone else’s, including work by the judges and Trustees, but nothing for the boyish (and happily married – down girls) poet. The teens (and not a few middle aged gals) purchase the Anthology so as to have something to present to the Tigerbeat-worthy Rohrer.
Low lowlight Part 3: Rohrer’s publisher –a dead ringer for scary guy actor Eric Bogosian – leaps upon me with undisguised rage. “Unprofessional… simply not good enough… humiliating… disgraceful… stupid…” and so on. There’s nothing I can do. I cravenly thank God I’m not responsible as I listen and nod and apologize, activities which do nothing to assuage his temper, but seem to strangely egg him on. I introduce him to the tall cool drink of water who is the manager of the Prize, and he crumbles like cheap, dry cookie. She has something, this Ruth.
And we really are sorry: how often does a poet get a chance to sell books like this? Not just dollars, but poetry converts are lost to the shortsightedness of the bookseller, who didn’t even think to alert us. Bastard. May he die of a thousand paper cuts, or just receive a thousand paper cuts. Whatever. Matt Rohrer remains calm and never complains. He is, after all, that classiest of cultural personages: the poet.
Highlight: The signing over, the poets relaxed and happy now that the built up tension of anticipating reading their most private thoughts to 800 plus people, practically gambol in their delight, over the intersection and down the street to Prego Della Piazza for more finger food and gallons of liquor.
Lowlight: My feet – in brand new stilettos, they-felt-fine-in-the-shop – are officially killing me after spending the last three hours standing on the hard as rock backstage area at the MacMillan. I must find a seat. I do. I never move from it until it’s time for me to go.
Highlight: Luckily, the Aide de Camp is happy to provide personal bartending services and since the food floats by with no effort on my part, I am refreshed.
Awards day…
Highlight: I awake ready and hangover-free and looking forward to embark upon part two of our literary relay. First up: taking the three judges (also internationally renowned poets) to the CBC for a chat with bookish radio host (and calm gentle person) Eleanor Wachtel, who will quiz them on poetry in the 21st Century and the judging of same.
Lowlight (for the judges): Two out of three are feeling tired and emotional – break the code yourself – as I try to herd them into the Griffin-mobile for the trip to the broadcast centre. Coffee helps a bit, but quite frankly, they’re suffering.
Highlight: We arrive on time (my new favourite hobby) and are met by the funny and charming producer Lisa, who hustles us up and settles them down and brings in the host and then relaxes with me and the technician on the other side of the studio glass as the interview unfolds. We enjoy ourselves.
Highlight: Lo and behold, over-refreshing oneself is clearly no barrier to intellectual chitchat, as the three (Brit Simon Armitage, Canadian Erin Moure and Slovenian Tomaz Salamun) stun us with their insights and articulateness. Armitage actually uses the word ‘hegemony’ in conversation. I am so low, I have only ever read it on the page before. Clearly my stock is rising with the company I keep.
Highlight: After the CBC, it’s off to the Kensington Kitchen for a rooftop luncheon where the poets will receive a copy of this year’s anthology. It’s a beautiful book inside and out and so is the lunch – outside and inside of us, I mean.
Lowlight: I am denied life-giving sustenance and dispatched to pick up another dozen or so copies of the anthology, as the trustees and judges want copies too.
Highlight: It’s a gorgeous day and since I haven’t spent much time alone recently, I thoroughly enjoy the easy errand.
Highlight: I return before the food has been taken away and am able to share a plate with my new best friend Emily, who graciously invites me to read the journal she’s keeping of the trip away from her home in Yorkshire. (And the kid can write. Witty stuff too.) After lunch, while all the poets and people are swapping anthologies for each other’s autographs exactly like yearbooks on the last day of high school, Emily and I paste stickers in her book with the help of last year’s International winner (for 'The Strange Hours Travellers Keep')and this year’s host of the Awards, August Kleinzahler. He is so gentle and patient, so focused and intent on the little girl, I am charmed completely by the San Francisco based writer. (He includes her in his speech that night, describing Simon Armitage as “his friend Emily’s father”. She is transported.)
Highlight: I go home to take a quick nap.
Lowlight: I cannot nap. An extremely rude member of the press calls me and demands a copy of the anthology so she can read the book before completing her story that night (this is at 4:30 on the afternoon of the awards) practically accusing me of trying to keep it from her. I have actually been trying to provide her with information and story ideas since April, but I bite my tongue and arrange for the publisher to provide and a courier to deliver (rush) and get the book to her within the half hour. She seems to be unaware of the quaint custom of please or thank you, but thank heaven, she’s one of the very few.
Highlight: Dressed in a cream-coloured sheath, I arrive an hour before the guests are set to arrive and am given a tour of the Stone Distillery – the home of the awards ceremony – and am astonished to be entering what I kid you not, is a pale green fairyland, compete with grass and fountains and trees and butterflies everywhere. It is simply stunning, and the man responsible for the dinner is simply stunning as well. He responds to any plea for help in the midst of providing a three course dinner (smoked fish and rack of lamb and chocolate beyond your wildest dreams) with wine to compliment and drinks for those who’d prefer, for about 350 people, with humour and warmth, and more importantly, good answers. He tells me I am doing a great job – and I think he means it. I am his forever more. If I could only dispose of his boyfriend, all would be well.
High and Low lights: The evening passes in a blur. I spend the cocktail hour ferrying poets between cameras and microphones and reporters, I try to greet as many of the mysterious and until now faceless members of the press as possible, but am torn and dragged thither and yon, trying to please all of the people all of the time. Lincoln was right, but I do my best, supported by the gorgeous and helpful videographer who’s been down this road before, and the talented photographer who can point out an obscure literary figure at 50 paces. Both conspire to make my evening a success. I can do nothing but thank them.
The speech, the speech – finally. Scott Griffin stands up in a shirt of such blinding and flattering tropical blue I’m surprised the audience can even make out what he’s saying he’s so gorgeous. In his early 60’s he’s a total babe. He’s a small giant among men; an entrepreneur/philanthropist/family man, who in his spare and holiday time gives away hundreds and thousands of dollars in a one man effort to save poetry from terminal obscurity, and flys his plane to Africa to transport doctors and medicine around AIDS-ridden regions in an effort to save children from terminal disease. He’s funny, self-deprecating and quick to introduce August, who gives a keynote so insightful and funny, the crowd is overwhelmed. A cable TV camera-toting youth who I’d dismissed as callow (it was his hair – I admit it) afterward said it was the most important and moving address he’d ever heard. He was lit up with excitement. From a speech. About poetry.
It’s at about this point a camera crew from The National who’ve been hanging around for a couple of hours says they cannot stick around for the winner who was scheduled to be announced by Peter Mansbridge live in the final segment. There’s not enough time – could we please cough up the names of the winners. Scott Griffin is unmoved; even he doesn’t know who the winner is and he has pledged never to give it up to the press; the prize and the poets do not exist to serve the Fourth Estate – if he loses coverage, que sera. Principled to the end – nothing, not the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star, The National Post, Peter Mansbridge and the full power of the 10 o’clock national news (all of whom have demanded in a very highhanded ‘I am the press’ kind of way for an embargoed early peek ) will sway him.
The CBC (some of them anyway, we still have our lovely and loyal radio contingent) departs moments before the winners are announced – surprise, happiness, disappointment, excitement, tears, laughter and the usual assortment of over-the-top reactions. Charlie Simic and Roo Borson are both genuinely shocked and overwhelmed. (Are they thinking ‘Toodle-oo VISA bill… ha ha car payment”? Or is it something finer and more worthy than that? I don’t know because I don’t ask.)
My job now is to swing the winners through the press once again and the all important Eleanor Wachtel interviews are – for sake of sound difficulties – conducted once again outside in Ms Wachtel’s personal automobile. Once a shame, now a tradition. We like it that way.
For the rest of the crowd, it’s dancing and more drinking and an outrageous chocolate fountain spilling over fruit and marshmallows and other tidbits for dessert. Coffees and cocktails and cookies and the music of the 70’s and 80’s is all over the former 19th century factory, and despite the celebrations and lively enjoyment, it still looks like a pale green fairyland. MY duties complete, I dance and play with Emily, exchanging paste-on tattoos from Anansi Press (after two showers, mine still adorns my shoulder) and stickers from her sticker book.
The last of the poets is poured into the 15 seater Griffin-mobile sometime after 1:30 AM, after which the driver (Ralph – a calm and helpful presence throughout) takes me home. And that’s it.
Sole lowlight: My feet are killing me.
It’s over. The cheques have been written, the sets have been struck, the poets have departed and in 10 days the Griffin team leaves for Ireland and the Dublin Writers Festival where we will participate in the company of some more of some of the greatest writers and poets in the world.
And all I can think is: “It’s coming, it’s nearly here – what have I forgotten, what am I supposed to do? What will go wrong?”