Books, even when you have them, don’t make you a writer—the writing, the whatever you do to finish it, to make it what it is, makes you a writer.
– Souvankham Thammavongsa
for Nancy, Janet, Fiona, and Paul
By J.S. Porter
1) A photograph by Dan Pilling. I’m standing in front of a stone church, dark and light limestone, smooth and ridged. I have my mother’s hand-knit Aran sweater on. I’m looking Irish and fierce.
I have hair.
2) I invent a word after reading Paul Celan’s poetry. The word is spiritbookword – how spirit sometimes manifests itself in words found in books.
Michael W. Higgins – my friend and former editor at Grail — uses the word spiritbookword in his own writing: “Spiritbookwords is a marvelous idea, a conceit or principle that can also work when applied to the three subjects under consideration. Thomas Merton’s spiritbookword is point vierge, for Donald Nicholl it is scientia cordis:, and for Henri Nouwen it is “wounded healer.” This is the first time I see my word in someone else’s work.
3) While cruising the Net one night, I come upon the University of Toronto’s collection of Dennis Lee, an inventory of his boxes: drafts, correspondence, reviews, etc. I find myself in one of the boxes, listed as a correspondent and the recipient of Lee’s critique on my Spirit Book Word.
4) John Robert Colombo offers encouragement on my poetry. He writes an essay—“The Great Appreciator”— on my work as an essayist. He also sends along a review by his New Yorker friend Richard Kostelanetz on my Lightness and Soul. The Kostelanetz review eventually appears in the west-coast Jewish magazine Outlook.
5) B.W. Powe opens doors for me at The Globe and Mail and The Literary Review of Canada and writes these kind words: “J.S. Porter is our most generous, elegant essayist. He is also one of our very best critics. Wisdom, perception, humour, wide reading, passion, quirky intelligence, a love of style – he has it all.”
6) I review Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing for The Globe and Mail. Words from my review appear anonymously on the front cover. The book is subsequently reprinted as Margaret Atwood on Writers and Writing. My front cover words are used on the back cover – “Atwood teases, probes, tickles, punches and enlightens…a writer who has scratched her name on the tablet of the English language. She belongs to the world.”
7) Royston Tester writes a short story called “Red Waistcoat” in Fatty Goes to China. The story builds on an earlier story called “Dog Hairs” having to do with my dog and my erratic driving. “Waistcoat” draws on my correspondence with Roy, real and imagined. This is the first time I see myself as a character in someone else’s book.
8) I receive an e-mail from glass artist Sarah Hall. She writes to tell me that she likes my poem “Singing the Light” and wants to use the title as the name for a large glass installation at Greenwood College School in Toronto. The integrated artwork is 60 feet high on 5 floors with trees, birds, and bright, bold colours.
9) I’m sitting with my wife and friends Anne and Bob in Trinity United Church on Bloor St. West in Toronto listening to spoken words by a professional actor accompanied by the chamber music of the Talisker Players. The words are mine. They’re from Spirit Book Word.
10) Susan McCaslin dedicates her book on Cézanne to me. It’s entitled Painter, Poet, Mountain: After Cézanne. She revives my interest in writing poetry. She introduces me to David Zieroth whose Alfred Gustav Press publishes my chapbook, Of Wine and Reading, in 2016. In 2017, my chapbook Scraps & Small Discriminations is shortlisted for the Vallum Magazine Chapbook Contest.
11) Di Brandt in an e-mail after reading my article on Hemingway in Hamilton Arts and Letters: “You are such a beautiful bright example of a poetic thinker: circling around the subject, choosing a wisp here, a strand there, weaving them together into a lovely round nest, stopping to sing to the morning…”
12) Brick, Number 55, Fall 1996. John Berger (one of my heroes) is on page 4, first article in the issue. I’m on page 10 with a piece on Thomas Merton, the second article in the issue.
13) I talk about my Heidegger article (“The Re-enchantment of the Word”) with the editors of The Idler in Toronto. Dad waits in the car. “How did you do that?” he asks knowing that the editors know more about Heidegger than I do. I tell him that I remembered a high school dropout from Belfast who ended up studying Hebrew and Greek, among other subjects, at Queen’s University in Kingston. My article eventually finds its way into Brick (Summer 1994) and is then reprinted in Poetry Ireland Review (Autumn/Winter 1995) edited by poet Moya Cannon, the Galway poet whom John Berger quotes in his final book – Confabulations—and with whom I correspond for a time. The article is also referenced in Robert Fulford’s Accidental City.
14) Alberto Manguel sends me a handwritten thank you letter from France telling me that he has seldom been read so deeply and so well. Sometimes a letter is all you need. While editor of Quarry Magazine, Stephen Heighton also sends me a handwritten letter – graciously accepting my article on Dennis Lee’s poetry.
15) Again, a late-night cruise on the Internet. I come upon St. Bonaventure University’s website on the Robert Lax Archives put together by librarian and archivist Paul Spaeth. One of the electronic entries is: “Circus” New World Writing, Number 13. New York: The New American Library, 1958. 92-100.” A note indicates the work was “a gift from John Porter.” Lax is one of the poets I most admire. To be in his company, if only by a note in a library, seems blissful.
16) The Nancy Duffy Show (Nancy Duffy), Dialogue Magazine (Janet King) and Hamilton Arts and Letters (Paul Lisson and Fiona Kinsella) give me reasons to keep writing and make me feel like a real writer.