Talking to Strangers

By J.S. Porter

What I like best about the Internet is that you get a chance to talk to a stranger. I'm talking to you, whoever you are, as if you were my friend. I'm talking to you as if we've known each other for a long time.

What I like best about the Internet is the element of surprise. You discover things. What I don't like about it is the Void.

You send things out, and you're never sure if anybody is there, or anybody is listening. (Probably most people would say, watching. But the auditory sense is primary in me; I tend to hear more than I see.)

You put something out there. (I don't know what "out there" means since, in a sense, "out there" is also "in here".) I don't know what cyberspace is or where it is or how it exists. But I like the idea that I'm surrounded by the invisible, the incomprehensible, the strange. You put something out there. Words, thoughts. And somebody, trolling for something, (maybe it's wisdom, maybe it's surprise) finds what he or she is looking for and thanks you, or at least listens to you.

I'd compare the Internet to a form of prayer. You begin in faith. You begin in need. You're looking for a blessing. You send out messages, you're never sure if they're received, and sometimes, if you're very lucky, you get a message back.

When I wrote The Thomas Merton Poems in 1988, I felt that the book didn't really consist of poems; it consisted of notes, thoughts, glimpses, probes, fears, dreams and prayers. I didn't think that I could go to a publisher and say, "Hey Jack, Hey Jill, how about a book of notes-thoughts-glimpses-probes-fears-dreams-and-prayers? It'll be an instant bestseller." Too big a mouthful. Too big a gamble. So, I settled on the word poems.

When Moonstone Press (still one of the most beautiful names in publishing) came along under the direction of Peter Baltensperger, a fine poet, and showed interest in the book, I felt very happy that one person at least appreciated what I was trying to do in the book: resuscitate a monk and give him my voice to yack about things now.

The book was reviewed positively by a number of journals, including the University of Toronto Quarterly in a flattering article by the critic W.J. Keith. After a time, however, when my relatives had bought out their book quota for the year, it disappeared from sight.

Then--and this is why I like the Internet--while skipping (I prefer skipping to surfing), I came across online references to my book. A teacher in Alberta said that she liked my poem about honouring flesh. A priest, Father Ron Rolheiser, used the poem on fewness in one of his newspaper columns, and even, periodically quoted from the poem while officiating at weddings. These were unexpected gifts to me. What I thought was dead, what I thought had disappeared into the Void, suddenly had new life.

The fate of Spirit Book Word has had a similar checkered existence. It has been positively reviewed by The Globe and Mail and other newspapers, but large masses of people haven't broken down doors to buy a copy. The book is much less popular than a Britney Spears concert, and while I think my words are better crafted than hers, hers reach millions; mine reach my mother and few loyal readers. My publisher recently informed me that SBW has sold -47 copies in the last few months, by which I understand that books sent out to bookstores have been returned unsold.

Bad things happen to books. Sad things happen to books. They sleep in stores unawakened; they rest in warehouses unread; they get remaindered, discounted, discarded. No pang of pain is quite the equivalent of coming into a secondhand bookstore, finding your book on the shelf for a dollar or two, and opening the book and reading scathing or sarcastic words about lines you've given blood for. Words like: "This is rubbish. He doesn't know what he's talking about."

Sometimes good things happen to books. Happy things. My friend Marilyn Gear Pilling wrote me a lovely letter about SBW. A poet, Alvaro, wrote a poem about my book. And so on.

One of the most thrilling experiences in the book's post-publishing life occurred on November 5, 2002. On that date, The Talisker Players, a Toronto Chamber Music orchestra, performed "Songs of the Soul" under the direction of Mary McGeer at Trinity-St. Paul's Centre on Bloor Street West. A professional reader and actor, Ross Manson, read excerpts from SBW and Dennis Lee's interview with me, Michael Higgins and Peter Hinchcliffe published in The New Quarterly, Summer 1994 and Tim Lilburn's Poetry and Knowing.

The church was full. The reading was spectacular. The violins, flute, cello, viola and piano sounded beautiful. The book came to life in the drama of Ross Manson's voice and the melancholic strings of the instruments.

I closed my eyes. I felt blessed. Strangers spoke to me, just as I, through a book, had spoken to them. For a moment, while the instruments played and Ross's voice whispered, there was life beyond the Void.

p.s. Dear Stranger,

You can buy Spirit Book Word in a good bookstore near you or you can order it from the publisher Novalis at 1-800-387-7164 or purchase it online at (Porter + Spirit Book Word). Don't forget to read the online reviews.

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