It’s not that we’re still hungover from our grand farewell party, but we are in a way still recovering.
On March 25th, 2015, about 300 people crowded in to Toronto’s Revival Bar to celebrate and honour 45 years of Descant magazine. When Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen announced the imminent close of the magazine in December, plans were soon underway to mark the occasion. Associate Editor-in-Chief Jason Paradiso took on the new title of chief party organizer and three months later there we were, in a room packed with friends, well-wishers and performers. Forty-five years of Descant had come to an end. There was plenty of vodka.
A total of 14 writers and musicians performed for the crowd (see list at end of post), ably coordinated by MC Antanas Sileika, writer, director of the Humber School for Writers and a Descant co-editor in the 1980s. In the co-editor’s diary for Bibliomania, Issue #133 (2006), Antanas writes: “I continue to measure stories which I read, wondering if I would have published them in Descant.”
Between performances and trips to the bar, we gave away $3,000 worth of raffle prizes including a $500 scholarship for the Humber School for Writers fall course and a box of books worth $450 donated by House of Anansi Press and Coach House Books. In a room of hundreds, one lucky person managed to win two of the nine prizes.
The long narrow space at Revival was conducive to a reverse mullett effect: party at the front, business at the back. More than one performer commented on the chatting nearest the front doors, while those seated in front of the stage were quieter and focused on the performers. I admit that I sometimes found the loud chatting distracting until I realized it was exactly the kind of event we’d hoped for: compelling performances as well as a place to catch up with old friends and tell loud funny stories. And then Anne Michaels was introduced.
I’m not the least bit embarrassed to say that I am an unabashed admirer of Anne Michaels’ giant talent. So when she stepped onto the stage I hoped I would be able to hear every word of her reading. Karen had asked her to read her poem “Above Lake Superior.” In 1995, the AGO commissioned Anne Michaels, one of 10 Canadian writers, to write about a painting in the AGO collection for their Reading Pictures project. Anne Michaels chose Lawren Harris’ Above Lake Superior and Descant published the poem in issue #92/93 in 1996 (to our knowledge, it is not published anywhere else).
“Above Lake Superior” is a few pages long and begins, “Unless you’re really enlightened,/you need a height to see where you are.” Within about a dozen lines, the entire room at Revival was quiet and the silence seemed to deepen with each stanza (except for a few comic lines, especially “‘Many are cold,’ he said,/ ‘but few are frozen’…” which struck a chord for us Torontonians, this year especially). A few partygoers tweeted her last lines, “Because/what are we? Bones and light.” Anne Michaels got rockstar applause.
All the readers and musicians that night are part of Descant‘s extended family and we were moved and honoured by their performances.
Although Jason Paradiso organized the bash, with help from me, Matt Carrington, Michelle Ferreira, Rebecca Payne and Paul Fowler, our long-time Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen designed the evening and was involved in every step.
Larissa Kostoff, longest-serving Descant co-editor and friend of Karen’s, secretly proposed a wonderful idea for a group gift for Karen. With the help of graphic designer Ansel Schmidt, a framed image was created using all the Descant covers and names of contributors since 1970. All 147 covers (this accounts for several double issues) were reproduced on a 60″ by 27″ poster. More than 2,500 names of Descant contributors were laser-etched onto transparent acrylic panes which were then mounted in front of the poster. From a distance of a few feet it looks like a colourful image of Descant covers, but up close you can read the names of all the people that Descant has published in almost 45 years. Simple and elegant. And very heavy. To Karen’s surprise, Larissa presented it to her on stage, with the help of former Descant Managing Editors Maria Meindl and Mary Newberry.
When Descant board member and party benefactor Andrew Smith had a chance to see the gift up close, he commented on the power of a simple list of names. For one, it has a stunningly democratic effect. All literary magazines like to trot out the names of the more and most famous writers published in their pages and we are certainly no different. But within this oak frame, alongside the heavyweight names like Michael Ondaatje, Anne Michaels and Margaret Atwood, are the names of many other hardworking writers: yours, perhaps? I took a few closeups (including the one with my name, ‘natch) so let me know if you’d like a picture of the panel with your name. Then you can play the “who am I beside?” game.
On behalf of Descant‘s Editor-in-Chief Karen Mulhallen and the rest of the Descant family, heartfelt thanks to all of you who came out to support us at our grand finale. Friends came from across Canada, the US and England to say goodbye. The hundreds of back issues we brought to give away that night were indeed all taken to new homes.
Mounted on the wall in Karen Mulhallen’s home is a list of names against a grid of colourful covers representing 45 years of hard work, joy-filled moments and an enduring legacy to the Canadian literary community.
We are grateful for the support of all the marvellous performers at our party. In order of appearance they were: Alex Maeve Campbell & Rory “Gus” Sinclair, John B. Lee, Michael Helm, Cathy Petch, Joseph Maviglia, Marilyn Gear Piling, Anne Michaels, Robert Priest and band, Paul Dutton, Whitney French and Jacob Scheier, Rosemary Sullivan and Sam Cash.
Big generous thanks to our generous raffle prize donators: Maia-Marie Sutnick (AGO tour), The Door Store ($250 gift certificate), Coach House and House of Anansi Press ($450 worth of books), Urbanfitt ($250 gift certificate), Jennifer Toews (tour of Thomas Fisher Rare Books library at UofT), Humber School for Writers ($500 scholarship), Sphinx Pilates/Eldoa ($170 gift certificate), Canadian Opera Company ($250 gift certificate), and Dr. Alexandra Palmer (tour of ROM’s textile collection).
Last but never least in our hearts, thank you to all our volunteers that night: Trevor Abes, Michael Chen, Vera DeWaard-Toole (programme design), Jann Everard, Michelle Ferreira, Jules Goss, Kim Griffiths, Greg House, Justin Lauzon, Sophie McCreesh, Stephanie McKechnie, Maria Meindl, Mary Newberry, Joshua P’ng and Rhiannon Wong. Artist Shannon Gerrard granted us permission to use her work on our programme cover.