From What Is Stephen Harper Reading?: Yann Martel’s Recommended Reading for a Prime Minister and Book Lovers of All Stripes, published by Vintage Canada in 2009. Every two weeks since April 2007, Martel has sent Prime Minister Harper a book and a letter. What Is Stephen Harper Reading? contains fifty-five of the letters. Yann Martel is the author of Life of Pi, which won the Man Booker Prize in 2002, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios and Self.
To Stephen Harper, Prime Minister of Canada, A book from an Island revolutionary, From a Canadian writer, With best wishes, Yann Martel
Dear Mr. Harper,
Growing up, I was aware of the title that was popularly given to Milton Acorn: the Peoples’ Poet. I assumed that this was because his poetry was down-to-earth, the language plain, the meaning reaching into the accessible depths of common experience. What I hadn’t realized until much later was that the People’s Poet also had a political edge. That edge is made abundantly clear in the book that accompanies this letter, Acorn’s The Island Means Minago, a varied collection of poems, personal essays and short plays. If you turn to the last pages of the book, you will find information on the publisher:
nc Press is the Canadian Liberation publisher. It is truly a people’s publishing house, distributing books on the struggle for national independence and socialism in Canada and throughout the world.
On the next page, towards the bottom, there’s also the following information:
nc Press is the largest Canadian distributor of books, periodicals, and records from the People’s Republic of China.
An address is given for the organization behind both nc Press and its companion newspaper, New Canada:
Canadian Liberation Movement Box 41, Station E, Toronto 4, Ontario
Was a revolutionary Canada ever a real possibility? Well, some people, way back in 1975, thought it was. Since then, I imagine the Canadian Liberation Movement has vanished, at least formally under that name, or if it still exists, that Box 41 is a peephole onto a lonely place.
But any revolution that uses poetry as one of its weapons has at least one correct thing going for it: the knowledge that artistic expression is central to who and how a people are. I wonder if the Fraser Institute has ever thought of publishing poetry to make its point, and if it hasn’t, why not?
The portrait that Milton Acorn draws of Prince Edward Island, his native province, will likely be unfamiliar to you, as will be his reading of Canadian history. Let that be a reminder to you that the past is one thing, but what we make of it, the conclusions we draw, is another. History can be many things, depending on how we read it, just as the future can be many things, depending on how we live it. There is no inevitability to any historical occurrence, only what people will allow to take place. And it is by dreaming first that we get to new realities. Hence the need for poets.
So Milton Acorn was, of necessity as a poet, a dreamer (a tough one, mind you). He dreamt of a Canada that would be better, fairer, freer. He could not abide what he felt were the American shackles of capitalism and economic colonialism that held us down. He was an Island revolutionary. One might be inclined to smile at the extent to which some people’s dreams are delusions. But better to dream than just to endure. Better to be bold than just to be told. Better to imagine many realities and fight for the one that seems best than just to shrug and retreat further into oneself.
The Island Means Minago represents yet another thing a book can be: a time capsule, a snapshot, a museum shelf of old dreams—that is, a reminder of a past future that never became (but is perhaps still worth dreaming about).
I’m making it sound as if Minago (Minago is the name the Mi’kmaq gave to P.E.I.) were nothing more than a political tract, which it is not. It is a book of poetry, a cry far richer than a tract. So I’ll finish this letter the proper way, with one of Acorn’s poems:
Bump, Bump, Bump Little Heart
Bump, bump, bump, little heart along this journey
we’ve gone together,
you piping all the fuel.
You’re fistsize, and fistlike
you clench and unclench,
clench and unclench
keeping this head upright
to batter its way
through the walls of the day.
Yours truly, Yann Martel