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The Eleventh Hour (COVID) Book Tour

Tour Date - September 26, 2020--

My new poetry collection was being released during a pandemic and the likelihood of an in-person book launch was nil. I’d seen authors’ photos on social media of them sitting at tables outside local bookstores waiting to sign books. It looked lonely. I decided that I wanted something more dynamic for myself, more reminiscent of a book launch. I wanted to recreate the excitement of a new title arriving in the world. But how to do it?

I thought back to a project B.C. poet Wendy Morton invited me to participate in back in 2007, Random Acts of Poetry. Wendy had snagged a boatload of money from an anonymous donor and several poets from across Canada were gifted 50 copies of their books to give away to people on the street. After reading a poem to the stranger, the poet would hand them a free signed copy of the book and walk away.

I then remembered my father’s stories of his Lebanese grandfather, Essa Souaid, who peddled his wares on foot through rural Quebec. I never knew the man but pictured him, 25-ish, alone in a new country, having left behind his wife and sons to build a life here for them. An immigrant who barely spoke French travelling from farm to farm with a bundle of household items on his back: needles, thread, towels, blankets. When it was too dark to go home, I heard he would sleep outside on their tramp beds and in their barns.

I married these memories with my need for a celebration and decided to personally deliver my book buyers a signed copy of The Eleventh Hour and a live poetry reading. The idea drew interest from my local CBC-Radio station. At 7:10 a.m., as I was readying for my tour, the host, Ainslie Maclellan from All in a Weekend, called to interview me. I was nervous about how I would manage to complete my full day of deliveries but remained calm. She invited me to read “Biography of a Virus: Prelude” to the listeners, a poem about a dead pigeon I saw last fall outside the Verdun metro station. The poem suggests that the narrator has missed an important message from above or beyond about an approaching pandemic. The pandemic.

The pandemic that got me on the road after the radio interview, Endre in the driver’s seat chauffeuring me toward our first stop of 21stops— my cousin in the Town of Mount Royal. Earlier in the week, I had collected everyone’s address and Google-mapped the best route through our city of “detours and rues barrées.” The books were packed in a cardboard box in the back seat, pre-signed and individually Ziplocked into bags.

We made it to our destination just shy of 9 a.m., giving me a few minutes to pose with my book near a quiet park. And so the day went, crisscrossing the island through colourful autumn neighbourhoods— Villeray, The Plateau and Mile End, downtown, Verdun, NDG and Montreal West. The light was stunning. The air was crisp. As we approached each house on our route, I called ahead to announce our arrival. And then a front door painted yellow or purple would open and a masked person would join me on their porch or in their yard for my in-situ performance, the reading of a poem especially selected for them. Except for the winners of the CBC book giveaway, John and Virginia Donovan, all were people I knew but hadn’t seen since COVID shut us down in March. For a short time, we kibitzed, we caught up on our news, sharing stories of our lives and loved ones. We reconnected in human ways, the way we hadn’t in months. Each stop had the buzz and excitement of a special event. The kind there is at a book launch as people mill about with a glass of wine, catching up with each other before the reading begins. I never sleep the night before I launch a book. I didn’t sleep the night before this.

My great grandfather sold dishrags for a living. Took to the road on foot, so he could eat and have a roof over his head and eventually bring his wife and children to this country. Years later, my father earned a living doing a similar thing, but with an American car and a warehouse of goods. He loved selling. He loved the human interaction, the endless small-talk with his customers in far-flung places about how their families were, and who had died or married recently. He travelled to Victoriaville and Drummondville and Thetford Mines. He sometimes left us for two or three days at a time, establishing his connections. I never understood this business model until masked, last Saturday, I put my book into the hands of my friends and we shared our stories about how long it had been and how rich it felt to see each other again.

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