Monday, July 27, 2015

Steel yourself - stand above - laugh at your critics : An appreciaton of Harold Heft

All writers face self-doubt on an ongoing basis. It just comes with the territory and is something that unavoidably sticks with you, the way a fishmonger has to accept smelling bad. It's even worse when you're an aspiring writer who hasn't the slightest clue what he's doing, as I was back in the mid '90s. Is my writing any good? Does it have value or merit? Does it mean anything? Do I continue? Is the effort even worth it? Will anyone care? At every step of the way you're besieged by semi-paralyzing doubt. Writing is an arduous, painstaking, solitary task and the writer's greatest enemy is often him/herself. I eventually came to realize that the completion of any work, regardless of how well it turns out or is received publicly (if at all), is a monumental victory because so many mortal battles have been waged along the way. And as in warfare, there is no more important element - even, I think, more important than the personal resources one has to marshal to fight the daily fight to create - than the allies one makes. The disinterested outsiders who, for whatever reason, find merit in what you're doing, somehow understand it, and decide to encourage you, assist you, and guide you through your journey. I'm not talking about close family and friends who will (should) by definition support what you're doing because they love you. I'm talking about artistic allies, like-minded sorts, who share a vision or passion or sense of meaning of the world and who, when it comes to your work, 'get it.' The writer/artist often has the sense that finding such an ally, especially at the right time, is as unlikely as winning the lottery. Harold Heft, who passed away last week at the age of 50, was an acquaintance (and a distant relative). He was also my literary ally and 'got it' exactly when I needed it most. Initially, Harold and I became friends and allies when we discovered that we shared an appreciation of the late great Montreal poet and novelist A.M. Klein. Harold was a Klein scholar having written his PhD dissertation on him, while I was merely a fan of Klein's poetry, fiction and essays. It was a bit of an obscure basis for a friendship, and yet it would be a connection that would forge a strong and enduring bond between us. I can only surmise that the thread of understanding and sensibility that connected us through Klein's writing, was the reason Harold 'got it' when I sent him a first draft of the manuscript that would eventually become my debut novel The Rent Collector. Klein's only novel The Second Scroll was the single most important literary influence on the writing of my novel. This was immediately apparent to Harold, as it would have been to few others. With a characteristic baseball metaphor he wrote "You've hit a homerun, Glen," in an email after reading a very rough early draft. Whether homerun or bunt-single (probably closer to the truth in terms of artistic achievement), without those words, without that seal of approval from Harold, someone whom I respected greatly for his literary discernment, I don't know if I would have had the courage and fortitude to continue writing and editing my novel, let alone seek publication, which is its own special form of self-flagellation. Harold guided (and warned) me about the tortuous process of seeking a publisher. He'd already published two non-fiction books with respected publishers and was seeking a publisher for his first book of poetry at the time. Once he found a 'taker' for his poetry, the release date was pushed back several times and the publisher wasn't responding to his communications, which is not uncharacteristic for financially-strapped small presses. Harold warned me that, if his experience was anything to go by, the relationship between the small literary publisher (like the one I was likely to find for my debut novel) and their author was sadistic. The problem was, of course, that like most poets about to release their first collection, Harold cared deeply and was besieged by an admixture of excitement and anxiety. He wanted his book to be beautiful, to be meaningful, and to matter. (Eventually, I was fortunate to have VĂ©hicule Press accept my novel, a decidedly gentler, more nurturing outfit than Harold's poetry publisher.) The launch of Harold's exceptional only collection of poetry "The Shape of This Dying: Remembering Alexander Bercovitch" in his hometown at the Jewish Public Library was an unforgettable evening of celebration. I'm proud to say that I was both instrumental in organizing the event and served as host, introducing the newly-minted poet to minions of hometown admirers, family and friends. Harold was dressed in a blazer and dark turtleneck, playing up the part of the distinguished poet a la Leonard Cohen, another Montreal Jewish poet. This isn't to say that Harold put on airs. On the contrary, he took poetry seriously, but never took himself too seriously. The reading that evening was quintessential Heft; joyful, warm, witty and unpretentious. Harold's book was well-received. It was appreciated for what it is: an original, innovative, expertly crafted, richly layered work of literature that stands up well to scrutiny and is enhanced by multiple readings. It employs the poet's imagination to shed light on the life of a marginalized artist (one deserving greater mainstream attention and praise) from a variety of personal perspectives, and offers insight into the artistic process, the enduring value of art and mortality. Harold was justifiably overjoyed to see it in print. I think he wanted me to share in his excitement at the publication of his book with the publication of one of my own. He remained my novel's biggest booster. So much so that when it was finally on the cusp of coming out and it was time to look for a cover blurb, he volunteered his service, thrusting himself into the challenge (an understatement) wholeheartedly. Finding a recognizable name who might be willing to recommend (let alone read) the work of a nobody debut novelist is akin to shopping for bacon bits at a kosher supermarket. Harold must have called in a truckload of favours, because I still can't fathom how else he managed to succeed. This time it was Harold who hit the homerun. He snagged Paul Quarrington to blurb my book. I hadn't known this, but since moving to Toronto, Harold had become well connected to the town's literati. He called many of the country's most successful authors personal friends. I suppose it was to be expected since Harold was an incredibly personable guy, maybe the most likeable person I've ever known. He had an uncanny knack for bringing people together with his open, easygoing, positive manner. He was a pleasure to be around and lots of people loved being around him. It should not have surprised me then that so many well known authors thought highly enough and trusted him enough to read the manuscript by a debut novelist friend when he asked them to. Turns out Harold had many many literary allies, not just me. Harold forwarded Quarrington's blurb in an email with three simple words in the subject line: "Quarrington blurb - PERFECTION!" The blurb was perfect, almost unfairly effusive in its praise but not overblown. I knew that the subject line of the email was as much Harold's declaration of victory, a vindication of his literary judgment, as it was a recommendation of my fledgling literary offering. Harold took pleasure in fighting the good literary fight and making allies in that fight. He delighted in the success of others and enjoyed the spoils of victory when art succeeded against all odds and against the quotidian, the humdrum, the mediocre and the passionless. Of course, I sent Harold one of the first copies of The Rent Collector when it came out in print. Then I anxiously awaited his judgment on the final product. I didn't hear from him for a while and wrote back to him nervously. I needed to know if he liked the novel. Regardless of how readers or critics responded, his verdict would mean the most to me, I told him. I'll let Harold's own words in response end this too-brief appreciation, because they are words to live by:

Toss your insecurities out the window. Honestly, you are now a real artist, and as such you stand above the rest of society, in the sense that you have put something into the world that transcends - at the end of it all, it is art that makes life worth living. At the end of it all, it is the artists who live on. Some people may try to judge - they are gnats, to be swatted. You are better. Your piece is better and belongs to a higher cause. You've created art, so it's your right to feel like an artist. Anyone who doesn't get that doesn't deserve your attention, and certainly not your insecurity.

Steel yourself - stand above - laugh at your critics!

All best, h

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The fundamental contradiction of the religious terrorist

By nature, the terrorist is the very definition of idol worshiper because, even as he/she espouses religious/ spiritual motives, his/her approach mistakes the physical being for its essence. Terrorism, is an act that, by destroying a building (ie. World Trade Center etc.) or murdering people, expresses a conviction that physical existence takes precedence over spiritual essence, and is therefore tantamount to a denial of God (hilul Hashem).