In the spring of 2001 the Porcupine’s Quill received word that Don Coles’ Kurgan had been shortlisted for the Trillium Prize awarded to the best book published in the province the previous year.
We’d been shortlisted before — for Mark Frutkin’s Atmospheres Apollinaire, for Steven Heighton’s Flightpaths of the Emperor, for Russell Smith’s How Insensitive and Elizabeth Hay’s Small Change — and the experience had taught the best way to lever a Trillium shortlist would be to play the local angle.
Don Coles grew up in Woodstock, near London. In Woodstock there’s a bookstore — the Merrifields Bookshop.
We approached the Merrifields Bookshop with the idea that Don Coles, ‘local boy does good’, might be persuaded to do a booksigning at the shop on a Saturday.
Merrifields agreed, and right away I could see a sale of maybe six copies but having talked Coles into going to Woodstock I was looking for a way to generate local media.
The first poem in the book, ‘Kingdom’, is a lavish tribute to a teenaged Zamboni driver. (A Zamboni is the machine that makes ice in hockey rinks.) Woodstock, I reasoned, must have a hockey arena. The idea would be to get Don Coles to pose with the Woodstock Zamboni machine and I figured I could get the Woodstock Sentinel Review to take a photograph.
My enthusiasm for this initiative dimmed when I remembered that I had never heard of a hockey team from Woodstock, & dimmed further when I discovered the circulation of the Woodstock Sentinal-Review was rather modest.
London, I thought.
The London ‘Knights’ — Junior A. Better hockey team, bigger arena, newer Zamboni and the London Free Press has a substantially larger circulation and still includes Woodstock in its catchment area.
But then I got to thinking that Don Coles lives in Toronto, and Toronto has the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey team and the Zamboni at the Air Canada centre would be just about the best Zamboni anywhere.
Right about the time I got to thinking about the Zamboni at the Air Canada centre I happened to attend a book launch in Toronto and I got to talking to Jim Polk who at one time had been an editor at Anansi but later took a mandarin’s position with the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Recreation — the sponsers of the Trillium Prize.
I walked Jim Polk through my Zamboni story from Woodstock to London and thence to the Air Canada centre but the one problem, of course, as I explained, was that I didn’t actually know anyone associated with the Toronto Maple leaf hockey club.
‘Ah,’ replied Jim.
Had I remembered that Ken Dryden, once the goalie for the Montreal Canadiens and at the time president of the Toronto Maple Leafs, had once been a consultant for the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Recreation?
I had, actually, vaguely.
And had I also remembered that Jim Polk had edited two of the books Ken Dryden had written.
I had not, in fact, but the vision quickly crystallized in my mind.
There’s a story I heard once about the Russian poet Yevtuschenko reading aloud at a soccer stadium in Moscow, tripping on a vowel in his throat, stopping mid-stanza and then listening in wonder as 30,000 people completed the verse in unison.
I recognized this was unlikely to happen at the Air Canada centre, but Jim Polk thought highly enough of the Zamboni idea that Jim was prepared to intercede with Ken Dryden and Jim thought between the Ministry and the Porcupine’s Quill we could probably get Don Coles & the Zamboni on the CBC National News.
The next morning I telephoned my author with the astonishing offer of support from the Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Recreation.
Imagine my consternation when Don Coles explained that the very notion of publicizing a book of his poetry in such a manner was repugnant and beneath his dignity.
Don Coles Kurgan won the Trillium prize that year.
Sandra Martin from the Globe and Mail phoned the following morning to get my reaction and I told her the Zamboni story from Merrifields Bookshop in Woodstock to Ken Dryden, president of the Toronto Maple Leaf hockey club.
Sandra Martin then wrote a column for the Globe entitled ‘A fine and private poet’, which begins with a story about Merrifields Bookshop.