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Friday, 10 August 2012

my library career: fiction and a real life witch hunt

Note: email to Marvin Orbach after he asked about my career in library work
Aug. 2, 2012

You piqued my interest with this request for my background & history in library work. While I'm waiting for this morning's caffeine hit to take effect, I'll attempt a brief biography  : )

I was born of a Brit dad, stationed in Canada near here during WW2, and an 'upper class' mother from Ancaster, Ontario. It wasn't an especially happy marriage, and typical of many new postwar families, we moved around a lot. We ended up living in the U.S., where I attended school from ages 7 to 20. The Vietnam War came calling, & I made the mistake of departing for the UK, rather than returning to Canada, where I was born.

The reason for this background is the role it has played in my political and poetical developments and awareness. In England I lived briefly with my cousin, who was a middle class brit snot, who literally threw me into the streets of Kingston-on-Thames after a month or two. I ended up living (surviving) in the derelict Eel Pie Island Hotel for almost 2 years, and then traveled across the UK and even into Spain for the remainder of my 3-year sojourn in the UK.

I decided to return to Canada in 1972 at age 24. I enrolled at the Univ. of Guelph, but after 3 years of street life, I just didn't fit in. The "kids", and even the profs, seemed hopelessly naive, & unaware & disinterested & irrelevant to world affairs, so I joined the Canadian Liberation Movement (CLM) at a campus book table. It was through the CLM that I met Milton Acorn, which led to my renewed interest in writing poetry.

But all this political awareness and jumping from country to country had also led to my almost complete disenfranchisement from mainstream society. I worked at a steel factory in Guelph, Ontario for a year, attempting to organize a Canadian 'splinter' union. Then CLM moved me to Toronto for 're-education' - Hoo, what a scary misnomer that is!

I worked as an unpaid volunteer for CLM from around 1974 until its dissolution from extreme sectarianism and social fascism around 1975. I was forced to find some sort of work to eat, & I got a job at New College at Univ. of Toronto as a delivery driver for Saga Foods. In the kitchens I was asked to become a cook, & I became the first apprentice cook for them at George Brown College. I eventually completed all my apprenticeship requirements and exams and received "red seal" status as a cook/chef.

But on the side my real vocation was writing, esp. poetry, and working as a cook was just too grinding, too hard and soul-destroying to consider as a permanent lifestyle. While cooking I decided to organize a poetry reading series at the local branch of Toronto Public Library, the branch on Main Street in Toronto's east end. I founded the monthly series there in 1979,  the year after I founded Unfinished Monument Press.

After organizing the series for several years, I began looking longingly at the comparatively easy & literate jobs the library workers enjoyed, and I decided to try and join them. I'm probably one of the few published ("serious") Canadian writers who has directly benefited from employment with a Canadian public library.

An irony is that I was hired as an entry level desk clerk, a "clerical" in TPL lingo. As a clerical I wasn't supposed to be organizing events, but as I had already been doing this for 3 years, the library and the union turned a blind eye to this infraction  :  )  I wasn't allowed to be paid for organizing the readings, tho, and basically no librarians showed any interest in attending the series, altho a 'who's who' of Canadian writers read during its 6 years (Milton Acorn, Afua Pam Cooper, bill bissett, bp Nichol, George Jonas, Mary diMichele, Lillian Allen with reggae band Truth 'n Rights, James Deahl, Robert Priest, Daniel Jones, Roo Borson etc. .)

As I never bothered finishing my BA, and obtaining an MA to become a librarian just didn't look economically possible, I was stuck with being a clerical at TPL. In 1985 I somehow managed to buy a small starter house near the Gerrard/Ashdale Branch of TPL, and I transferred to working there as a clerical. In total I worked 6 1/2 years for TPL, and I found the work extremely easy after the gruelling years of working as a gravedigger, a steel worker, and an institutional cook. The easy job left me lots of time to focus on literary activities, both my own writing and expanding Unfinished Monument Press, organizing the Canadian Poetry Association etc. .

The Toronto housing boom of the late 1980s made me feel I'd won a small lottery after a lifetime of low paying and generally unsatisfying and unchallenging jobs. I decided to cash out & move to rural Ontario to write the great Canadian novel  :  ) I landed in the old mining hamlet of Cordova Mines in April 1989, and lived off the profits from the house sale for a couple of years. After about 2 years in Cordova I tired of the impossibly high heating bills in the uninsulated old farmhouse, & bought a small bungalow in the nearby village of Marmora from my friend Morley Ellis' grandad. I've been in this house for over 20 years, many times the longest I've lived at one address during my lifetime.

As the house profits dwindled, I realized I had to find a job, and I took the extended real estate courses and tests & obtained my real estate license. Unfortunately, this was the time of the recession of the early 1990s, & altho I had the most sales in my Bowes and Cocks branch, I couldn't make a living at real estate. The Marmora village needed a head librarian, & I was hired there part time in the early 1990s - I believe I eked out a living on around $12K a year! After 3 years I was fired for supporting one of the volunteers I had recruited. The gutless small town library board didn't support my principled stand against a local political martinet with a very checkered past.

After a year's unemployment, I was hired to be the CEO/Head Librarian with the larger Stirling library. But history eventually repeated itself, & after a decade of creative & committed  service, I was viciously fired in what can best be described as a rural witch hunt. Again, a gutless board refused to even let me speak to the trumped-up & nebulous charges, & so with the help of a good lawyer I received wrongful dismissal pay. This was almost 6 years ago at age 58.

I've somehow managed to economically survive since then, and have even managed to co-found the annual Purdy Country Literary Festivals (PurdyFests). So my almost 20 years of service as a public librarian was certainly a checkered one, & one with a mix of positive and negative memories!

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Time to poopify Chase, and emails have started arriving, prob. re the beginning tomorrow of AcornFest.
gotta go,
peace & poetry power!
Chris & Chase ... Wrooooooooooooooooooooof!

On 2012-08-02, at 7:12 AM, marvin orbach wrote:

Hi Chris,
  Cheers, from Montreal West.
P.S. Maybe in some future e-mail you could tell me what kind of
library work you did in years gone by.

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(email from poet/photographer Stan White)
Aug. 13, 2012

Thanks, Chris for Katherine’s poems.

I was intrigued by your biography. In my own case I worked like a dog all my life resulting in a carefree moneywise retirement. I was “fortunate” in never realizing I had any choice, so I just did it. I have been retired for 20 years. Now I could never go back to working. Not because I’m old, but because I can’t see any point to it. I believe that long workless periods inevitably create this effect. It happened to you when you were young. To function in this world it is necessary to retain the blinkers that you are born with. If you see it for what it is, it is very difficult to do what it demands of you when it is just for money. The conundrum is: to give up comfort now for comfort in the future. As soon as you realize this is the deal you can’t do it. It’s a no brainer.

Outside of the values that the world imposes it is difficult to say which of us got the better deal but we probably had no choice. We are all victims of ours own circumstance.

Thanks again,


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(my email reply to Stan)
Aug. 13/2012

Hi Stan,
Thanks for sharing your perspective on employment. I'm pretty sure we both did the right thing - we both did 'OK' given our personal circumstances -  I wouldn't change anything - I'm glad I traveled in my early 20s and did all those crazy things. The upshot, tho, was that I was later disenfranchised or marginalized in the work world for most of my adult life.

In a small way it was like being black - no one takes you seriously when you've been marginalized - it's kind of what the women's movement used to say - you have to work twice as hard and accomplish twice as much to be taken seriously - by which time I'd usually lost respect for my employers & co-workers for being so blinkered and biased.

Doubly difficult when you know you're an artist, a Canadian artist at that, & you come to realize the economic futility for most. So I did what I could to ease the burdens of the work world, & ended up the head librarian/CEO at Stirling-Rawdon Public Library for a decade. And then the f*ckers got me anyway - maybe I did too much for them, & that just pissed them off more than if I'd been a good Canuck, muddled along, & done the bare minimum.  

I'm going to publish your comments on my blog under my "library career" posting - OK with you?

peace & poetry power!
Chris ... and Chase ... wrffffffffffffffffffffffff!

p.s. I'm doing comfortably in my premature 'forced' retirement. In my early 30s, after less than a decade in Canada, I seriously studied how to succeed economically here. BUY A HOUSE & PAY IT OFF was what I learned, which I did within 4 or 5 years. So I've got no mortgage, a nice retreat (ZenRiver Gardens), a 'cool' older car (2000 Subaru rally sport - almost a full-blown rally race car) & all the time I wish to write, organize poetry events here & in TO, walk Chase, drink beer, whatever. And if I had waited until now to travel, well Interpol/CSIS/CIA etc. would prob. put paid to that fantasy pretty quickly  :  )

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(email from Katherine L. Gordon)
Aug. 13, 2012)

Read your bio dear Chris,  quite the story, and yet you turned out to be a great influence on modern poetry and on some marvellous contemporaries.
And now you have Chase, Zen River and a great  blog!   Did it your way, hence more interesting than the slogging slogs.  A great blessing well-earned.
Do you know of the international magazine, World Poetry Organization I think,  called  Sketchbook?   They have asked to do a profile of me,
all my book covers, a photo, a bio ( I did a non-boring one I hope)  6 poems and a big questionnaire.   It should appear in the fall issue, I’ll let you know.    Hope Quern gets launched this fall.   What would we do without the Muse of our hidden sanctuaries?
Love to you and the Chase,   Katherine.

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