by Black Moss Press intern Jessica Clémençon
On a train ride with Black Moss publisher Marty Gervais, famous Canadian poet and educator Bruce Meyer realized that no one had yet compiled an anthology on white collar poetry. He decided to take up the challenge, along with his sister Carolyn with whom he has worked on different successful projects. Black Moss chatted with Bruce Meyer about his motivation, goals and expectations for his new book, The White Collar Book: Poetry and Prose of Canadian Business Life, a Canadian anthology in which “writers take up the challenge of imagining ourselves as our citizens really are, that is, we really are hard at work in the white-collar world, forging ahead in our professions, surviving the perils of office politics and offering profound insights into the reality of our lives.”
JC: Your new book, The White Collar Book has just been released. What can you tell me about it? How would you describe it?
Bruce Meyer: The White Collar Book is the first ever anthology of Canadian literature about the professional working life. There have been anthologies about blue collar work. Tom Wayman has that field admirably covered, and poets such as Kate Braid have written about being a carpenter. Al Purdy really established the blue collar voice in Canadian literature. What seemed to be missing from the entire Can Lit picture, however, was the imaginative expression of what the majority of us (according to Statscan) do on a daily basis. Canada is run by people who could die from paper cuts. This nation exists, for most of its waking life, in offices. We’ve become an urban culture, and urban culture is about enclosed spaces, keyboards, examining rooms, classrooms, work cubicles, telephones, computers, internet connections, stylized communication, limitations on how we say things and who and what we can be during the course of a working day. We are all playing roles in our professional lives that are not necessarily reflective of who we are outside of the office or in our imaginative lives. Yet for all that, we dare not speak about our personal reality. We abandon that to “the system” and because of that we have a fear of writing about it and expressing it in imaginative terms. The White Collar Book was an attempt to challenge writers who were brave enough to speak about that suppressed portion of their and our existence. The result is a lovely, stunning, little book, that can be secreted into the workplace. Kate Hargreaves did a brilliant job on the design. It is a little marvel. There’s even a pink slip inside the front cover as the inner liner paper. All the feedback we’ve had so far has been extremely positive if not downright enthusiastic. Conrad Black, in his foreword, asked why such a book had not been done before. We’re wondering the same thing too, and we ask that question and study the possible answers in our introductory essay—itself a key document about the nature of the workplace and our imagination. The great paradox in all of this is that Canada was founded by clerks and professionals. We didn’t have the grand revolution. We didn’t have the barricades. We didn’t have the war of liberation. We had the file folder. That’s what’s on the cover. I think this little book—the sort of book that can be squirreled away in a pocket and taken to work and dipped into at the water cooler or between emails or telephone calls—is pretty close to the truth about who we are as a nation and what we’re struggling to say in our dreams and thoughts. And whenever the truth becomes a necessity of expression in literature, it always requires a sublime act of bravery to tell it. I’d like to think that we just grew as a nation because the authors in this volume had the guts to tell it like it is and to break one of the great imaginative barriers that has trapped us within ourselves.
JC: Your book is an anthology as you have said. How did you choose what pieces of writing to include? What were your criteria to decide if each piece was to belong in the collection?
BM: This is going to seem like a dumb answer (there are no dumb questions, only dumb answers) but we chose the work on the basis of literary merit. We had some pieces that just didn’t surprise us or grab us, and those didn’t make the cut. The ones that did—Steven Heighton’s short story told as a series of emails or Barry Callaghan’s short story about the man who runs the traffic lights in Toronto and plans the flow of traffic or Priscilla Uppal’s poems about the academic life—those pieces really grabbed us. They are great pieces of writing. Period. What they say, however, is also what moved us. To do a job and to set it down without any play of structure, language, or idea, is just a diary—the sort of stuff one sticks in a file at work and gets tossed out every eighteen months when most professional organizations “archive” (a euphemism for recycling) the record of their experience. We wanted pieces that jumped out of the file. And the ones in the book do just that.
JC: What was your goal when you came up with the idea of that book? What was your main motivation?
BM: I was on a train with Marty Gervais over a year ago. We were coming back from a series of Poetry Week readings in Ottawa. I said to Marty, you know, a lot of these people on this train are traveling for business. We’d been reading to them. I wondered out loud who spoke for them, how literature reached them? During the course of the conversation, I mentioned that no one had done an anthology of white collar poetry. Marty said, “you’re right. Why don’t you do one?” I mentioned that my sister, Carolyn, who is a professor of Professional Communications at Ryerson and author of one of the bestselling business writing texts in Canada, Communicating for Results (Oxford University Press) would be great to co-edit the project with because she knows what goes on in the heads of business communicators and how people write, speak, and think in the workplace. That’s where the project began. This past summer, I said to Marty (as the book was coming together and Carolyn and I were sorting through the submissions that had come in on the open call to writers across the country), “we need someone who knows about business to write the foreword.” Marty had just had a correspondence with Conrad Black regarding something Black had written in The National Post. Black is very intelligent. He is, by nature, a man of letters and a great one at that. He should have been a history professor. He is erudite, insightful, keenly aware of ideas and exceptionally well-read. I wrote to him and asked him to write the foreword and to my surprise he wrote back and said yes. I think Black recognized, as we did, that the experience of white collar work is the great lacunal topic in the Canadian imagination. We bury that experience yet it represents a profound and significant portion of our lives. We live and die on what we do. What we do defines us. Our motivation was to have authors say something about that, to articulate the submerged vision of ourselves that has been bursting to get out and become part of the conversation of our national and social imagination.
JC: Are any of the pieces written by you?
BM: Yes. There are two poems by me in the book. One is titled “Success” about the problem of being in a position in the administrative world where one is always impelled, commanded and on penalty of termination, to always exceed oneself. If you do well one day, then you have to do better the next. It is a self-destructive process that the administrative world defines as success but which is actually closer to the experience of self-destruction. That’s why people suffer burn out. I left before I suffered burn out. The results can be horrific physically. The other poem, “Death and Human Resources Manager” deals with the way the white collar system works. It is absurd. When one gets right down to it, the white collar workplace is still working on the systems and the thinking that the Allied nations put in place in order to win World War Two. It is a kind of unthinking form of organization that defeats creativity, defies individualism, and makes the people in charge view their employees as expendable pieces of machinery—something that definitely does not happen in the college world I work in now. Looking back on it, my boss was metaphorically fighting World War Two, acting as if the fate the free world hinged on a single report. I mean, c’mon. Talk about inflated egotism. But that’s the way the white collar world works. Now that I’m in the classroom, I feel very happy because I’m engaged with the polishing of individual minds and thinking processes. It is not about me but about where I can take them. And when they graduate, I see the students doing great things, making great contributions to the worlds they live in. There’s a compassion in the classroom for individual and his or her creativity that I didn’t see in the open office cubicle. In the classroom, you want people to discover their potential. You want them to think and grow as individuals. I love that. It is a privilege, in an odd way, to have seen both sides of the working world. I know I’m in the right place now and I am happy there.
JC. Why did you get your sister Carolyn to help? What did she bring to the table?
BM: We’ve done several books together. We did The Reader, a textbook about composition and essays for Prentice Hall. It has sold well over the years and contains some great essays. I’ve used it in several courses. We did an anthology issue of the magazine, Quarry, over twenty years ago. That issue, titled Separate Islands was the first presentation in Canada of contemporary British and Irish poetry since Earle Birney did one for Canadian Poetry Magazine back in the late Forties. Carolyn did her PhD thesis on Irish poetry and is a significant and published scholar of contemporary Irish poetry. I did my PhD thesis on post-World War Two British poetry. We included Heaney, Motion, Duffy—many of the poets from Britain and Ireland who went on to either win Nobel Prizes or become the Poets Laureate. It was way ahead of its time. It was to have been issued as a book as well, but I have the recollection that Quarry ran out of money. We’re currently working on a poetry textbook for Oxford University Press as well. Carolyn and I get along very well. We’re good friends as well as siblings. We each bring something different to the table. Carolyn is far more analytical than I am. She has a mind for details. I have a mind for expansive thinking. We both have our doctorates. It used to confound some of our professors at Victoria College at the U of T when we were undergrads because we were so different. One, at U of T grad school, went so far as to assign us both the same essay topic, hoping that she’d catch us in the act of repeating one another and would, therefore, be able to dismiss both of us as sharing the same brain (we were both gold medal winners at the college). Instead, we had written two entirely different essays on the same topic, both of which received A+. This really irked the prof. How could two very different but equally brilliant people come from the same family? In any case, she wrote a letter to the two of us in which she compared us and worked out how we were different. The net result was that she claimed Carolyn was a seraphim and I was a cherubim. I’d say we’re both active and contemplative but in very different ways. We each bring our own energies to a project and because of that a volume such as The White Collar Book has a kind of energy and complexity (to say nothing of being argus-eyed) that would be difficult for a single editor to accomplish. We respect each other’s judgment immensely.
JC: As I was researching this book, I read in your introduction that in this anthology, “Canadian writers take up the challenge of imagining themselves as they really are—hard at work in the white collar world, forging ahead in their professions, surviving the perils of office politics, and offering profound insights into the reality of their lives.” How do you see yourself compared to this idea?
BM: I have lived in that world. I’m a professor now, but for many years I was in an office, working in administration, and suffering beneath the weight and terror of a boss who was great in the beginning and who became more and more a problem to the point where it almost crushed me. I eventually went back to my great professional love, teaching college and university, and I’m very happy there and wouldn’t trade that life for the one I once had at all. But having seen the good workplace and the bad workplace, I’ve had a chance to reflect on what made the bad bad and what made the good good. In the bad workplace, the loss of humanity that is endemic in both the corporate system, the corporate voice, the corporate life, leads people to do terrible things to others and to themselves. In the classroom, I am myself. My employers encourage me to write poetry and fiction and non-fiction because they see the creative individual, the voice that is that individual, as something that contributes to a positive workplace and working life.
The White Collar Book was released in November 2011 by Black Moss Press. Check it out online and order your copy directly from Black Moss here.