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A Small Circle
by Mary Di Michele

"The invention of printing originally promoted mutual understanding. In the era of graphomania the writing of books has the opposite effect: everyone surrounds himself with his own writings as with a wall of mirrors cutting off all voices from without."

?? Milan Kundera,
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

MILAN KUNDERA coined and defined a contemporary malaise: graphomania, from the Greek words for writing and madness. The woman who writes to her lover four times a day, Kundera explains, is not a graphomaniac, she's simply a woman in love, but lovers who keep photocopies of their letters, and publish them in books for unknown readers, are.

Kundera fists three basic conditions for the development of graphomania as an epidemic:

1) a high enough degree of general well being to enable people to devote their energies to useless activities;

2) an advanced state of social atomization and the resultant general feeling of the isolation of the individual;

3) a radical absence of significant social change in the internal development of the nation.

Canada is a nation of graphomaniacs. Our psychological isolation from one other is analogous to the population density of the Far North, when in fact most of us are huddled together along the U.S. border watching American TV.

I'm working as a writer?in?residence, a graphomaniac aided and abetted by the Regina Public Library and the Canada Council. Others of my kind come to see me to find a reader. (Not, and let me emphasize this, not to find a writer. Writers are a dime a dozen. Excuse the cliche, but the Depression price is in fine ?? only a reader is worth the 24 grand a year they pay for this job.) Otherwise, you might be right to think that the only difference between me and the people who come to my office is that I've published some books while their work is largely stiff in folio.

What disturbs me is a mutant version of this species, graphomaniac: the isolated writer who does not read. Perhaps, alas, cannot. But more often will not read.

My objection is not to the solitary lyric poet who, if locked alone in a house, beats against walls that are variously a cathedral, a coldwater flat in London, a bower of bliss, a cottage on Innisfree, a lonely tower, a banking establishment, a cage in Pisa, or a room over the Spanish Steps: an expanding room. But there are writers out there who not only have not read traditional literature but also have no interest in doing so, who will not even look at the work of their contemporaries. They eschew all influences. Writing is a monologue for the "unknown reader." It is not a dialogue with the reader and/or other texts.

They eschew all literate influences, that is. They forget that they watch TV and occasionally read a newspaper or magazine. They think they are original. They prefer to write poetry because it's so easy: if they develop insomnia they write novels: they are innocent and unembarrassed by their efforts ?? "lonely eyes like jumbo pies" ?? they know about deep emotion. I feel absolutely safe quoting the above line from a manuscript submitted to me in Toronto at the Metro Reference Library last summer. If that Byronic?looking young man should read this essay, I'm prepared to eat my words and go knocking at my publisher's door with his manuscript (my publisher who will consequently ascribe to me the worst of motives). But the house is in no danger.

The graphomaniac with an aversion to reading is more common than you think. I have encountered many. A couple of years ago, during the international poetry festival at Harbourfront in Toronto, which coincided with the annual general meeting of the League of Canadian Poets, Jane Munro and I went shopping along Yonge Street. She wanted to buy souvenirs for her daughters. We stopped in front of a window display of T?shirts featuring Marilyn Monroe. We walked in, unwittingly still wearing name tags that identified us as members of the league. The cashier was a poet, an unpublished one. He said, "I don't want to offend you or anything, but could you take my manuscript and show it to someone famous? I want it published." Older writers should give new writers a break, right? Whether these new writers are literate or not. I was still fairly naive then and tested the waters. Who was famous? Whom had he read? Michael Ondaatje? "Who's he?" He had read Bruce Springsteen. And believe me, I've got nothing against the Boss, but I didn't think I could take the cashier's manuscript over to Leonard Cohen, the only living poet who rang any bells for this guy. We said no, and he got really nasty and called us selfish bitches. He had an advanced and particularly odious strain of illiterate and equally ungracious graphomania. Jane and I both felt physically ill after the encounter. Again, if that cashier reads this and has also read a book of poetry not his own since 1986, IT try to help him.

At the Saskatchewan Writers' Guild conference here in Regina last November, Alberto Manguel said that the main problem with Canadian literature is not the quality or quantity of the work ?? the books are there ?? whole shelves full of good books ?? but the lack of an indigenous audience. Canadian literature will not have its full impact until it is read. Beyond a coterie of friends. It might depend on how many friends you have: John Donne managed to establish his importance that way, but then that was the 17th century, before the idea that if a work ?? the example I hear most often is a record album ?? sells under 100,000, it doesn't exist. Apply that figure to poetry and see if any poet among us exists.

How have the professional, i.e., published, graphomaniacs of this country handled the problem of a lack of readers? The poets have eluded it! We have taken Frank O'Hara's manifesto on "personism" and stood the irony on its head. When we photocopy our love letters, we don't fail to love or to send a copy to our beloved. Half, and in some cases all, the poems in a book ?? George Bowering's last book of poetry, Delayed Mercy, comes to mind ?? are addressed, dedicated to someone. So is the "unknown reader" excluded from this process? That reader, my friends, is like the Queen ?? with her busy schedule, she doesn't really notice when you have pointedly neglected to invite her to your birthday party.


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