The ‘Edna Award’ is an in-house honour administered by The New Quarterly. You can’t apply for it or enter to win. It originates with a wonderful and whimsical tradition that Edna Staebler herself initiated — a writer/philanthropist, she would send cheques of a thousand dollars to students and individual writers she admired, with the simple note reading “Enjoy! Edna.” attached. TNQ has used a generous gift of $25,000 that Edna Staebler gave the magazine in 2006, the year of her death at age 100, to recognize outstanding essays published in the magazine in the previous year with their version of Edna’s flash-generosity. In 2010 I was a happy recipient of the award; this past year I was thrilled when TNQ editor Kim Jernigan offered me the opportunity to judge the 2011 essays. I chose an essay by Jeffery Donaldson as the winner. My comments on the piece, ‘Ghostly Conversations’, as well as an appreciation of the other shortlisted essays, are below. They appear in black and white in the latest issue of the magazine, available now here, or on a newsstand or fine book shop near you.
The Edna Staebler Award, it seems to me, is the indie superhero of lit awards. It arrives without fanfare, out of the blue, on your doorstep. It rewards an under appreciated, often overlooked form, possibly rescuing it from relative obscurity. It has its roots in one unconventional woman’s sense of solidarity among writers. It derives its power from a series of Mennonite cookbooks. And its name, my friends, is Edna.
When I learned I had won the Edna award, we had just bought our first house, I was newly pregnant with my second child and overwhelmed with the demands of my day job. I was not a writer. The piece judge Susan Olding chose to recognize was deeply personal, and one of my first forays into the non-fiction form. It took me a long time to write, shape and figure out how to place for publication. I was beyond thrilled to learn it was being recognized in such a lovely and unexpected way.
An essay, Olding has written, is often difficult to categorize and market – “like a cat, it wants to go its own way.” As a high school teacher, I am always happy to read an essay that transcends those oft-assigned five paragraph “stumps of thought” (again, so aptly named by Olding). I want to read something asymmetrical that surprises me, bulges out of itself a little, refuses neat reflection or form for something more organic and interesting. I want the essay to challenge and cajole me. I want to learn something without feeling like I’m being taught.
None of the essays on the shortlist were pedantic or clunky, or, for that matter, at all ‘stumpy.’ All manifested a wonderful energy that springs only from a writer’s passion for and knowledge of her/his subject. So there was I, Alfred the butler to Edna’s Batman, charged with the near-impossible task of choosing the recipient of her shining generosity. Both Robert Lapp and Jeffery Donaldson owe something of their impetus to ‘essay,’ as it were, to the great Canadian critic Northrop Frye and Lapp makes a pertinent point regarding the insights of critics as both ‘true’ and ‘partial’. I feel my reading and ranking of these essays to be equally true and partial.
Don McKay and Robyn Sarah, in their tributes to geologist/nose flutist Hank Williams and scientist/philosopher Joseph Bronowski respectively, illuminate the ways in which these unofficial mentors have shaped them as humans and poets. “Leaping Time” by Peter Sanger, offers a poignant and somewhat eerie examination of the ways in which the picture books of his childhood shaped his personal cosmology. Richard Cumyn’s prose in “Paris Notebook” is direct and confident (although he, as a narrator, is not) and his shout-outs to the various novelists who have recorded their impressions of Paris streets before him are gracious and revealing. Alice Major’s “The Ultraviolet Catastrophe” is a gut punch of an essay that employs an exceptional writerly alchemy to mix memories of the author’s father, musings on the nature of tragedy and theoretical physics to come to an understanding of the nature of private catastrophe.
But in the end, it was Jeffery Donaldson’s “Ghostly Conversations” that emerged for me as the winner. Donaldson’s essay is personal without turning purple, scholarly but not stuffy, funny and moving and tricky. Part homage to “absent mentor” Northrop Frye and part journey through the author’s poetic influences, it dares to imagine a wine and cheese with long dead poets in attendance – “Pleased to meet you, Virgil. Why do you suppose they never put out enough brie?” It reveals, with humour and candour, how the author’s Tourette’s and Asperger’s make everyday conversation an often excruciating chore. And finally, it becomes a story of how awkward exchanges with the living are sometimes trumped by revealing exchanges with the distant or dead.
Donaldson believes poems “give us the courage to have a self and lose it too, which is surely the most we can ask of any conversation.” Maybe it’s the most we can ask of a good essay too. What I’m trying to say is: this is a wonderful essay, it is, but don’t believe me! Go back and read them all! Then mutter into your oatmeal (or chai tea or latte) about why I’m dreadfully wrong or gloriously right in my judgment. It’s the kind of ghostly conversation the essay (and Edna!) demands.