Provincial Sketches


The pull of the capital is strong for a provincial artist. Ambition compels us to the centre of things -- of his move to New York City, John Lennon said, "If I'd lived in Roman times, I'd have lived in Rome." Or at the very least, fear of obscurity spurs us from the fringes -- John 4:44 has Christ on the move, grumbling that "a prophet has no honour in his own country."

Can we locate the Rome of 2011? Globalization has displaced the tyranny once enjoyed by the capitals. Cultural lag has drastically shortened, anyone with high-speed now able to keep pace, and obscurity in the age of social media would be a kind of achievement.

But something of that capital magic lingers, at least in the provincial imagination. Berlin, New York, Paris -- we know there's something inaccessible by keystrokes, and that Vancouver isn't among the anointed. Our city, however brave and talented, is at best a creative capital in waiting. Time and talent may aggregate, but in the meantime our ambitious flee toward conspicuous cities, for fear we might be trees falling in forests with no one around.

"You could do nothing in Dublin," writes James Joyce in his story "A Little Cloud." "There was no doubt about it: if you wanted to succeed you had to go away." Vexed in the role of unhonoured prophet, Joyce never returned to his home country after 1912, though his work helped make it possible that, a century later, one can easily imagine an ambitious young writer fleeing Vancouver for Dublin.

But of course to flee is not necessarily to succeed; not everyone is James Joyce, and for many it's likely safer keeping to the small pond. "To be somebody in one's own town, and nobody in Paris," writes Honore de Balzac in Lost Illusions. "People who have a measure of local celebrity in a provincial town, and who at every step encounter some proof of their own importance, can never reconcile themselves to this sudden and total extinction of their self-esteem."

The entrenched W.B. Yeats, who saw in Joyce a "cruel playful mind like a great soft tiger cat," was disappointed that such a genius divorced himself from Dublin. We can take Yeats' cue, and stay put -- participate in the local struggle, slowly forge a capital. But the sense remains that one chance in New York is worth a thousand in Vancouver. Once acquired, this belief lurks latent before one day rousing the artist. The province feels suddenly like a stone pressing down. Startled, we shed skin, urged toward the capital, toward magic or extinction.


Kenzie Palmer made a splash at the Greenville Symphony's Rising Stars Competition in 2010. All 1,000 residents of West Middlesex, Pennsylvania agreed: Palmer's voice was too special, her beauty too dazzling, for the confines of her hometown. You could do nothing in West Middlesex. Palmer's was the kind of talent which could win the hearts of the nation. When American Idol lowered its age limit to 15, Palmer took the dream to auditions in New Jersey.

Before the panel of judges, Palmer delivered one sweet undulating minute of Carrie Underwood's "We're Young and Beautiful." Jennifer Lopez was impressed by the voice, but Steve Tyler didn't "feel the pizazz," and Randy Jackson complained: "You could've moved a lot more for me."

"I can take it up a notch," the 15-year-old assured them. "I can do whatever you want me to do."

With this promise, and with that smile, the panel granted the wish of all West Middlesex: Kenzie Palmer would go on to the Hollywood competition. Her star was on the rise. An article ran in her hometown newspaper, a fan site went live to "support Kenzie on her Idol journey," and Palmer sang the national anthem at a Pittsburgh Penguins game, which the Penguins won. Messages from all over Mercer County flooded the local celebrity's Facebook: thank you for putting us on the map, you have the voice of an angel.

Surely all Mercer County tuned in to the first night of the Hollywood competition on February 10, 2011, but Kenzie Palmer's audition was not televised. She was eliminated from American Idol between episodes.


We're told not to find anything in nature wretched. Everything functions in its place, assigned by evolution, and we know the creatures ugly in our sight are as content as those we call majestic. There is no provincialism in nature. Nothing pines to be closer to the centre of attention.

We imagine a tiger at full gallop, spine extended and muscles working, coat flashing in the sunlight. Now upturn a stone on a rain-flogged day in Vancouver. Potato bugs, uniform and countless, crawl over one another, fleeing the light. Are we to believe that, given a choice in evolution's course, they would remain under the stone?

This essay was published in a book of criticism in collaboration with The Cheaper Show.