Paul Hjartarson’s apt words welcome a master wordsmith and narrator at Grant MacEwan’s The Future of Story Conference, February 6, 2010:
What a fascinating conference this has proved! As Peter mentioned, I am a professor in English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. The Future of the Story conference combines two of my abiding interests: storytelling and remediation, that is, the interaction of old and new media. A colleague, Kristine Smitka, and I put together a panel on remediation for a book history conference held in Toronto last June, so I have listened here with considerable interest to presentations and discussions about how new media are reshaping storytelling. My congratulations to Scot Morrison and Sherrell Steele on a most successful conference.
When I first heard about the MacEwan conference on storytelling, I was intrigued by the apparent premise. I knew that newspaper and book publishing were in trouble; and last year, like many of you, I watched stock markets tumble as bank after bank in the U.S. came up empty. This year, closer to home, again like many of you, I witnessed the collapse of the Oilers (and given the presence here of Aretha and others Calgarians, one might add the Flames). But I had no idea story itself was in trouble. February is mid-season break month in the NHL, a time when sports casters and columnists, like some politicians, recalibrate—when they worry team and player stats, when talk show hosts feast on injury reports and trade rumors, when complaints about the Oilers or the Flames leaves little room in day-to-day discourse for either politics or, heaven help us, the weather.
But how does one fashion a rescue package for the story, put together a trade big and smart enough to get Team Story out of the league basement? The U.S. banking crisis needed its Ben Bernanke, recently reappointed for a second term as Chair of the Federal Reserve; and the Oilers, as most fans will tell you, needed a change of coaching staff and turned to Pat Quinn and Tom Renney. For those intent on fashioning a game-changing trade for Team Story, a trade certain to propel it to story’s equivalent of the Stanley Cup final, a trade that might leave even Don Cherry speechless, I have just two words: Robert Kroetsch. You’ve got to like this fellow. He has forty-five years in the league, for the majority of which he has worn the captain’s jersey. As a storyteller, he is light on his feet and well-known as a play maker, appearing out of nowhere to make the breakout pass:
the gone stranger
the mysterious text
transfer (“The Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof”)
Kroetsch stickhandles words with more skill than Gretzky handles the puck—and that’s saying something. He’s been named to the all-star team countless times, has represented Canada at international events more often than hockey’s “Mr. Canada,” Ryan Smyth, and he has the hardware to prove it: he is a Governor-General’s Award winner, a member of the Royal Society and an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Stats. Okay, okay, I know you need stats. (“Talk’s cheap,” my grandpa reminded me on more than one occasion, “whiskey costs money.”) Stats I’ll give you, but you need to know upfront that stats alone won’t tell the whole story. What you need to know is this: whether Kroetsch is on the ice or behind the bench, he invariably proves a game changer, whether he’s co-founding boundary 2: a journal of postmodern literature (1972) with Bill Spanos or elaborating the “elegant grammar of delay,” the gap between language in narrative, in Field Notes. Some critics have opined that Kroetsch doesn’t always finish his checks or make the obvious play. His stats sheet, though, tells another story. “Hearing the silence of the world, the failure of the world to announce meaning,” he remarked in an essay some years ago, “we tell stories” (“Beyond Nationalism: A Prologue”). And tell stories, including tall tales, he has—not only in award-winning novels and in innovative books of poetry but in ground-breaking essays and in any number of interviews. Kroetsch has published no less than nine novels, from But We Are Exiles (1965), The Words of My Roaring (1966) and The Studhorse Man (1969)—widely recognized as a game changer—to The Puppeteer (1992) and The Man From the Creeks (1998). He is also the author of thirteen books of poetry, from The Stone Hammer Poems (1976) and Seed Catalogue (1977)—another game changer, surely—to The Snowbird Poems (2004) and the book launched here today, Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self Portrait. In the off- season he has published at least eight other books, from Alberta (1968) and The Crow Journals (1980) to The Lovely Treachery of Words (1989), A Likely Story (1995), and Abundance: The Mackie House Conversations about the Writing Life (2007).
As Kroetsch’s essays and interviews attest, he is, like Montreal Canadiens’ goalie Ken Dryden, not only an all-star player but a gifted analyst of the game of storytelling. Kroetsch’s writing ranks among the most sustained, the most profound and the most layered excavations—an archaeology, one might say—of story, its relation to myth, to narrative, and to audience (among other things) produced in Canada, indeed, anywhere in the English-speaking world in the past century. That’s not a small claim and certainly not a claim I make lightly: it is truly a remarkable body of work. As an epigraph to the poem “Mile Zero” Kroetsch includes the following passage from Ken Dryden’s book-length analysis of hockey titled simple The Game. Kroetsch includes the passage because it applies no less to storytelling than to hockey. “Hockey,” Dryden remarks,
is a transition game: offence to defence, defence to offence, one team to another. Hundreds of tiny fragments of action, some leading somewhere, most going nowhere. Only one thing is clear. Grand designs don’t work.
Oilers head coach Pat Quinn knows that practitioners of his game need to be light on their feet. Playful. Storytelling is no different. If the Oilers’ top two lines could match Kroetsch step for step, could stickhandle the puck with the skill he brings to words, the Edmonton Oilers would be a high-speed train to the Stanley Cup final.
You know, I am sure, the story of the Oilers’ biggest hockey trade and of Gretzky’s tears. Student of the game that he is, Kroetsch reminds us of another, all but forgotten story: that Montreal Canadiens’ goalie-turned-forward Howie Morenz proposed to the painter Emily Carr in the midst of scoring a goal. (Now that’s a story we must never forget.)
Morenz makes a breakaway down the ice.
He fakes to the left; he draws out the goalie.
He stops. He blushes and says, to all
of the Montreal Forum: Emily Carr, I love you. (“Advice to My Friends”)
(The veteran storyteller here playing off Foster Hewitt’s trademark, “He shoots, he scooooooresss.”) Kroetsch also recounts the story of the subsequent wedding. Among the guests is poet bp nichol, who has this advice for the hockey star and groom Howie Morenz:
Work on your line, bp quip (he is wearing
his Buddha shirt) when introduced to the
famous hockey player by Miss Carr (who will retain
her maiden name). Keep it edgy.
Certainly this latest book, Too Bad: Sketches Toward a Self Portrait, demonstrates that Kroetsch himself continues to work on his line, to keep it edgy, to practice what in this poem bp preaches, and thus to live up to the nickname fellow storytellers long ago gave him. Please join me in welcoming to the face-off circle Robert Kroetsch.