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Mark Abley (born 13 May 1955) is a Canadian poet, journalist, editor and non-fiction writer. Both his poetry and several non-fiction books express his interest in endangered languages. He has also published numerous magazine articles.
He published a memoir about his relationship with his father, The Organist, in 2019. A Rhodes Scholar, Abley settled in Toronto to write full-time after returning from studies in England. He moved to Montreal in 1983, where he has since based his career.
Born in Warwickshire, England, Mark Abley moved to Canada with his family as a small boy, and grew up in Lethbridge, Alberta and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. His father Harry was an organist who played in churches and cinemas; he also taught the pipe organ. His father's struggle with depression (mood) is a major theme of Abley's memoir of his father, The Organist (2019).
Abley attended the University of Saskatchewan, from which he won a Rhodes Scholarship in 1975. He won prizes for his poetry while a student at St John's College, Oxford, and began to write full-time after returning to Canada and moving to Toronto in 1978. He has been a contributing editor of both Maclean's and Saturday Night magazines, and a frequent contributor to The Times Literary Supplement.
Since 1983 Abley has lived in the Montreal area. For sixteen years he worked as a feature writer and book-review editor at the Montreal Gazette. In 1996 he won Canada's National Newspaper Award for critical writing; he was previously shortlisted for the award in 1992 in the category of international reporting for a series of articles about the Horn of Africa. He returned to freelance writing in 2003, though he continued to write the "Watchwords" columns on language issues for the Gazette. In 2009 he joined McGill-Queen's University Press as a part-time acquisition editor. He served as the first writer-in-residence for the city of Pointe-Claire in 2010-11.
He has written four books of poetry, two children's books, and several non-fiction books. Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages (2003) describes people and cultures whose languages are at risk of vanishing in an era of globalization. It was short-listed for the Grand Prix du Livre de Montreal and the Pearson Writers' Trust Non-Fiction Prize. It was translated into French, Spanish, Japanese and Latvian. In 2009, Abley was awarded the LiberPress Prize for international authors in Girona, Spain.
Abley has lectured at Oxford University, Cambridge University, Ohio State University, McGill University, Queen's University, the University of Toronto and elsewhere. He delivered the annual Priestly Lecture at the University of Lethbridge and gave the opening address to a conference of the Association of American University Presses.
In 2005 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for research into language change. His book The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English (2008) was reviewed in The Times (London), and by William Safire in The New York Times. In August 2009 Abley published a children's book about words and their origins, Camp Fossil Eyes. He has also written the text of a picture book for young children, Ghost Cat.
Abley has edited several books, including When Earth Leaps Up and A Woman Clothed in Words by Anne Szumigalski; he was Szumigalski's literary executor. Over the years he has led workshops for the Quebec Writers' Federation, the Maritime Writers' Workshop, and the Banff Centre for the Arts. His magazine journalism has appeared in The Walrus, Canadian Geographic, Canada's History and many other publications. He was shortlisted for the President's Medal at the National Magazine Awards.
In 2013, Abley published Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott. Scott was a poet who also ran the Department of Indian Affairs for many years.
In 2015 Coteau Books published The Tongues of Earth, a volume of Abley's new and selected poems, which was shortlisted for the 2016 Fred Cogswell Award for literary excellence.
- 1986: Beyond Forget: Rediscovering the Prairies (literary travel)
- 1988: Blue Sand, Blue Moon (poetry)
- 1994: Glasburyon (poetry)
- 2001: Ghost Cat (children's book)
- 2003: Spoken Here: Travels Among Threatened Languages (literary travel, cultural analysis)
- 2005: The Silver Palace Restaurant (poetry)
- 2008: The Prodigal Tongue: Dispatches from the Future of English (analysis of language change and its implications)
- 2009: Camp Fossil Eyes: Digging for the Origins of Words (children's book)
- 2013: Conversations with a Dead Man: The Legacy of Duncan Campbell Scott (cultural and literary history)
- 2015: The Tongues of Earth: New and Selected Poems (poetry)
- 2018: Watch Your Tongue: What Our Everyday Sayings and Idioms Figuratively Mean (popular book about the English language)
- 2019: The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood, and a Fragile Mind (memoir of the author's father)