Saturday, May 18, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Melanie Marttila

Melanie Marttila (she/her) is an #actuallyaustitic author-in-progress, writing poetry and tales of hope in the face of adversity. She has been writing since the age of seven, when she made her first submission to CBC's "Pencil Box." She is a graduate of the University of Windsor’s masters program in English Literature and Creative Writing and her poetry has appeared in Polar Borealis, Polar Starlight, and Sulphur. Her short fiction has appeared in Pulp Literature, On Spec, Pirating Pups, and Home for the Howlidays. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, in the house where three generations of her family have lived, on the street that bears her surname, with her spouse and their dog, Torvi.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

The Art of Floating changed my life by being my debut poetry collection. Though I’ve been writing and publishing poetry since the mid-90s, this is the first time I gathered all my work together and presented it to the world. That I’m doing this as a middle-aged, late-diagnosed autistic, means that I get to present my poetry and myself to the world authentically. So, though most of the work in The Art of Floating reflects my poetic history over the past 30 years, it's given new freshness and impact by the poet I am today.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

I started writing poetry seriously during my undergraduate degree at Laurentian University. The campus arts community was self-contained, but vibrant. I was part of the English Literature Society (now the English Arts Society, which produces the journal Sulphur), and we’d often carpool to the downtown for open mics and community poetry readings. We’d also host event on campus for the larger community. There was one memorable poetry slam which pitted students against professors. Guess who won?

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

I write most days in some respect. The ideas for individual poems may come quickly, but I tend to be a slow writer, especially since I continue to work full time and struggle with the effects of masking for the first 51 years of my life. I’ve come to understand that I’ve been teetering on the edge of burnout for most of my adult life. I have to be selective in the open calls and deadlines I work toward and kind to myself if I fail to meet them.

4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

Each poem varies. Some strike like lightning and have to come out allatonce. Others rattle around in my head for days, weeks, months, or even years. Most poems come out of moments in time, animals I see during my twice-daily dog walks, or ideas that just get stuck in my head. I’ve only recently thought of writing series on specific themes. As to projects, well, The Art of Floating took 30 years to come together. I hope to improve on that in future collections.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I enjoy reading my work, but peopling tends to exhaust me, so I have to be mindful of my energy and executive functioning levels as I go. I often have to recover after a reading or other event. Fortunately, that often involves writing, which continues to be a solace.

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

My concerns are more personal than theoretical. For instance, I’m working on a series that revisits my life in light of my autism diagnosis. How many traumatic events were simply the result of my neurodivergence? Is forgiveness possible? Is it even necessary? Of course, the inherent unreliability of memory plays into this. Neuroscience tells us that the longer we retain a memory, the more often we access it, the more potential there is for subtle (or not so subtle) changes to the real events that initially created the memory. Is how I remember an event even close to how it happened? Does that matter?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Do they even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

Every act of writing is an interpretation of the world the writer lives in, tempered by their frame of reference. Give a room full of poets the same prompt, and each one of them will write a wholly original and individual piece. Though the goal of the writer is to tell the truth but tell it slant, as Emily Dickinson said, it’s the impact on the reader that truly tells the tale. The writer’s role in larger culture is to affect the reader (or auditor) emotionally, and by so doing, to resonate with the reader’s experience, cause them to reflect, and discover something about themselves. If that goal is achieved, the writer has some measure of longevity and success, even if it is only with one, or a handful, of readers.  

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I was surprised to discover that I am not precious at all with my poetry. I can be very precious with my prose. The editor’s goal is always to improve the piece and I can see almost instantly how the poem is improved by following the editor’s suggestions. I really enjoyed working with Tanis MacDonald. Mind you, she was my first poetry editor.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

One of my professors, John Riddell, once said that the writer has to take pains not to make their alphabet too personal. By that, he meant that you need to keep your writing accessible to the reader. The author Is only half the equation. The reader completes the work.

10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

Because I work full time, I have to write around the workday. I journal daily, usually during a break. And I read during lunch. I walk my dog twice a day and keep my eyes open for the raccoon squeezing out from under the garage eaves, or the peregrine stooping for a meal. I watch the clouds, catch sun dogs and pillars and rainbows. I often can’t write until the evening, but I always have essential oils diffusing, incense burning, lofi music playing. I need some kind of transitional activity, especially now that I’m working from home, even if it’s just a few minutes of breathing or a couple of quick sun salutations. Once the stage is set, I set to.

11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

If I’m having trouble with a particular piece, I’ll switch to something else, whether that’s another poem, a creative non-fiction piece, a short story, or a novel. If nothing seems to be working, it may be a sign that I’m nearing burnout. I may need to spend some time daydreaming, freewritng in my journal, going for a walk, or getting out into the community (though, as an extreme introvert and an autist, that can be tricky). You have to find ways to fill your creative well, as Julia Cameron recommends.

12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

Rosemary and wintergreen. The first for home (memory and cooking) and the second for “the bush,” as we call it up here in northeastern Ontario. I’ve found and chewed wintergreen leaves at the Laurentian Conservation Area.

13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science, or visual art?

Some of my poetry is ekphrastic, that is inspired by photography or painting. Some has been inspired by a favourite musical artist, like Kate Bush. I draw on mythology, spirituality, or psychology and science, and often intertwine them for an eclectic interweaving where leptons dance like Sufis, stone yields to sweet release of fallen cloud, or tectonic plates come together in self-destructive frenzy.

14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

My favourite poets are local women poets, Kim Fahner and Vera Constantineau, both former poet laureates of Sudbury, and Margaret Christakos. Kim has recently helped me to expand my poetic reading to Vanessa Shields (loved Thimbles!), Monica Kidd, and Beth Kope. Outside of poetry, I adore Tanis MacDonald’s Straggle, and anything Farzana Doctor writes. I also have a soft spot for speculative fiction and read everything from Guy Gavriel Kay and Margaret Atwood to Premee Mohamed and AI Jiang.

15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

In terms of writing, I’d love to be recognized with a prestigious award or prize (don’t we all?), get an agent, and bring one of my novels to publication. I’d love to go back to Finland—I was in Helsinki for a week in 2017—and conduct more genealogical research. I’d also like to learn to paddle board.

16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I tried (and failed) to pursue both fine art and music in university before settling on writing. I was in gymnastics and dance when I was a child. But I think the path I did not take was to go into the biological sciences. I think I’d have been an excellent veterinary technologist. Or a wildlife biologist.

17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I started writing in grade 3 at the age of 7, inspired by a combination of comics, C.S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Madeline l’Engle, and the beautiful storybook created by Siobhan Riddell (then in grade 5) of St. George and the Dragon.

18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

The last great book I read was Waubgeshig Rice’s Moon of the Turning Leaves. The last great film was Poor Things.

19 - What are you currently working on?

In terms of poetry, I’m working on a few things. A series examining my life in light of my autism diagnosis; a series called Schrodinger’s Animals, in which you have to read the poem to learn if the animal is alive or dead; a fairytale sisters series; and a series about croning. I’m hoping to place some of these in journals. I’m toying with the idea of incorporating the autism series into a hybrid memoir, working title: the autist’s orrery. I’m also working on a piece of short fiction for an anthology call, reworking another for an open submission period, and working with a mentor to get my first novel revised and ready for submission. And, of course, I’m continuing to promote The Art of Floating. There are a couple of projects I’ve had to put on the back burner until some time/space opens up in my schedule.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;


Friday, May 17, 2024

Margaret Christakos, That Audible Slippage


All the rivers moving through their
thought processes probably have
to do with radio &
to its voices – Reporting on the projects
people want to make in the Edmonton
river valley
                    & how Christine
asked you to feed the birds
daily & how none of your beloveds
live out here on the prairies

Yet the flow in you with
ease & with
insistence you

            hear them (“Feed the Birds”)

I’m always amazed at the absolute wealth of contemporary Canadian writing and poetic thought available in print, providing an array of Canadian poets working on a whole other level. To illustrate the point, my deeply-incomplete list of those better-than-best would include poets such as Sylvia Legris [see my review of her latest], Stephen Collis [see my review of his latest], Sandra Ridley [see my review of her latest], Jordan Abel [see my review of one of his recent], Erín Moure [see my review of her latest], Gil McElroy, Phil Hall [see my review of the recent festschrift here], Anne Carson, Dionne Brand, Canisia Lubrin [see my review of her second collection], Lisa Robertson [see my review of one of her recent] and a multitude of so many others, all of whom are doing work that are difficult to compare, although echoes, patters and patterns of influence and conversations can’t help but reveal themselves, naturally. Another of those Canadian poets long working at a far higher level than the rest of us is Toronto poet Margaret Christakos, author of the recently-released collection That Audible Slippage (Edmonton AB: University of Alberta Press, 2024). The author of more than a dozen full-length titles, Christakos’ That Audible Slippage follows more than a dozen of her published books over the years, including the recent Dear Birch, (Windsor ON: Palimpsest Press, 2021) [see my review of such here], charger (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2020) [see my review of such here], Space Between Her Lips: The Poetry of Margaret Christakos (Waterloo ON: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2017) [see my review of such here], Multitudes (Toronto ON: Coach House Books, 2013) [see my review of such here] and Welling (Sudbury, ON: Your Scrivener Press, 2010) [see my review of such here], as well as through the non-fiction lyric of her remarkable lyric essay/memoir Her Paraphernalia: On Motherlines, Sex/Blood/Loss & Selfies (Toronto ON: BookThug, 2016) [see my review of such here]. I’ve mentioned before my admiration for Christakos’ ability to simultaneously establish something self-contained through work that speaks and relates to her other published works. Within that particular trajectory, the original composition of That Audible Slippage roughly holds to a loose temporal boundary from her time as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta in Edmonton in 2017-18, and there’s something about self-contained “residency” poetry titles I’ve always found intriguing, providing a space and time for a different kind of self-contained work. Through this, That Audible Slippage can be said to follow a string of other poetry titles compositionally specific to poet-in-residence positions, whether Moure hetronym “Eirin Moure” composing Sheep’s Vigil by a Fervent Person (Toronto ON: Anansi, 2001) out of a University of Toronto residency, George Bowering’s The Concrete Island: Montreal Poems 1967-71 (Montreal QC: Vehicule Press, 1977) out of a Sir George Williams residency, or even my own University of Alberta writer-in-residence collection, wild horses (University of Alberta Press, 2010). Spaces such as these are very different than the focused time of, say, two or even six weeks at The Banff Centre or three months at Al Purdy’s A-Frame or The Burton House Writer’s Residency, offering the ability to move beyond one’s day-to-day context across an extended period, all of which can’t help but provide a different kind of attention, focus and perspective. If we, as writers, are so changed, even if through context, wouldn’t the writing be so as well? As Christakos’ sequence, “Branch,” opens:

Voices you cannot remember so
            recent present &
scattered into the snow dunes
            of what’s become passed

            Just that audible slippage
so quick so natural
            like the motion of winter birds
adhering to each other in a shared tree
            to fast arcs of solo flight

Clearly set in a different landscape (Edmonton, Alberta, over her more familiar Toronto, or home territory of Sudbury, written so evocatively through her Welling), Christakos’ poems across That Audible Slippage attend to deep listening: the sights and sounds of light, politics, birds, students, trees, contemporaries, radios and silence itself. The effect is delicate, pointed and polyvocal, and Christakos offers a collage of lyric that weaves across great distances, even as she catches the smallest moment, such as the poem “Aluminum Machiavellian Allegations,” that includes: “You heard another poet / recently disparate writing / the personal Let’s all go / global & historical exhume our / little troubles as if the shuddering / volcanic parachute of the future’s / about to rupture Putin / has missiles that can duck & / weave you’ll never intercept / Putin’s mischief there’s no / point chesting your poker / hand any longer Lay / it down says Putin Lay / it out [.]” Christakos maintains a lyric that attends both the landscape and the whole body, simultaneously, and the poems of That Audible Slippage offers Alberta as less a character or setting than one piece of a much larger canvas of listening, attending and response; a canvas that includes not only the immediately local and intimate but social media, which is itself can be both intimately immediate and expansive enough to fall into the abstract. “Honestly you need to access a second opinion on / matters of the present moment without taking / the time to read over that it is you’re / just not getting anymore,” she writes, as part of “Such Love Alert,” “If you don’t get the GLOBAL ALERT climb on up / to someone’s penthouse & jam for a while / on their solar keyboards with a cold one / & a moist heat in the sedan’s carbon idle [.]”

Composed across four sections, each of which are themselves composed across extended sequences—the first section, itself, being a sequence of sequences—there is something comparable in Christakos’ lines to the stretched-out prairie lyric of poets such as Andrew Suknaski or Monty Reid, but one that utilizes fewer points along that horizon to compose that same line. “Was it their echo in river valley wind / this blue morning?” she asks, near the opening of the poem “Paper Crowns,” offering, further:

Now, sky fills with large clouds, white froth
loping in from the east, soaked in colonial sludge
            — Vicious words
streaming from white mouths after they acquitted
Stanley and, without a shred of disguise,
white jurors fled out the court’s back door
police-protected, cowards panting
for their tiny bomb shelter

Hers are lines that hold together as movement stretched—the opposite of skipping stones, a long threaded lyric that tracks not upon surfaces but across depths—and the large canvas of lyric folded, echoed, stretched and reconnected is one that is reminiscent of her third collection, The Moment Coming (Toronto ON: ECW Press, 1998), the first of hers I properly encountered, and perhaps where her sense of the large recombinant and intricately connected lyric expansiveness really found its footing.

As earlier collections might have focused the swirls of her collage around family, children, her mother or her Toronto backyard, there is something of the catch-all to these particular poems, her lines, offering stitched-in breath, meditation, response, witness, contemplation and commentary, akin to the ongoing bricolage of a poet such as Phil Hall. While elements of her prior attentions might remain, it is the listening itself that becomes the focus, allowing for anything and everything to fall into the scope of these lyrics. This is a book of listening. Listen, then, as further in the poem “Aluminum Machiavellian Allegations,” as she writes: “you were so incredibly pompous last / night to the cab driver who / took forty-five minutes to arrive he said / he’d been ducking & weaving / through the hockey traffic on ice-covered Jasper / besides calling a taxi with groceries / is a double privilege & / laziness & a / crap shoot / A good back-seat driver shuts / the hell up & / tips high & you [.]”


Thursday, May 16, 2024

me and yew and everyone we know : hammersmith + west sussex,

“While spending Christmas at a hotel in Lewes in 1910,” Non Morris writes in a blog post at The Dahlia Papers, “Virginia Woolf declared herself – rather splendidly – to be ‘violently in favour of a country life’ – and when the lease on a previous country house was not renewed, the couple were determined to buy Monk’s House.”

Sunday, May 12, 2024: Do you remember the last time Christine and I came this way? [part one here; part two here; part three here of our 2018 trip] And this time we brought the kids. We landed 5:30am local time after a six-hour flight into London (out of Montreal, optimistically leaving our car in their lot), where Christine's brother Michael was good enough to collect us from the airport, and we spent most of the day hazy at their wee house in Hammersmith. The kids, of course, were delighted to spend the day with cousins, especially given they hadn't seen them in a while.

Hammersmith: where we do not tell our secrets to the birds, as they whisper to the rats.

Hammersmith : where Christine preferred I stop attempting to compose new lyrics to the classic "U Can't Touch This," prompted by my chant of "Hammersmith time!" Please stop that.

Christine and I were able to get a bit of a wander (we didn't want to take the children away from cousins, but inactive in the house would have knocked us both out), landing at The Dove, a curious wee pub with a history that includes "Rule Brittania" being composed within, and visits by Charles II, where he would woo one of his mistresses. It also had the honour of holding the smallest bar-room in the world (according to Guinness), now the second-smallest, after some other establishment somewhere else decided to deliberately build one smaller. Such cheek. Such cheek indeed. At least it is still the smallest in England. A good place, also, to catch the annual Cambridge-Oxford boat race.

Ottawa: Didn't you have a Trucker Convoy out your way? asked the waiter. Ah, good, I thought. That's how you know us. We talked about mandates and lockdowns, and how he was in Spain when the Covid curtain fell, and how there were curfews on movement, and residents were barely able to leave their homes.

Hammersmith: where Christine caught a plaque for the printer who created the Dove Type, next to the pub; the type infamously dumped into the Thames and salvaged during contemporary times. The same area where William Morris did his magical business (of which I'm sure you are already full aware).

Monday, May 13, 2024: We made the train for Chichester, south of London, down there in West Sussex, so Christine could begin her two day course at West Dean (where she hadn't been since graduating, nineteen years prior). Her old school-chum Ruth met us at the train, and took us around a few hours of adventuring through the area, which was quite lovely.

Ruth took us along to Weald & Downland: Living Museum, a medieval gathering of salvaged, restored and relocated medieval buildings from the area into a single village. It really was delightful: a medieval version of Eastern Ontario's Upper Canada Village (where buildings from the 1800s were salvaged, restored and relocated into a single village near Morrisburg), both of which host reenactments by staff and/or volunteers. We saw a blacksmith!There were even a couple of Traveller wagons, which was pretty cool.

Rose, of course, latched on to a particular Tudor building, presenting herself as some kind of power-mad Tudor Lord of some sort.

It was curious also to encounter staff/volunteers at the space, all of whom were more than willing to present information on buildings, sites and what-not, almost without prompting. Ruth and I caught a gentleman who was working a lathe he'd built out of logs and branches, showing how tradesmen would make table legs out in the woods, and further, how horses would bring up water for industrial use, including for the creation of a cement known as 'pug,'

And then a break, for tea and a bitter, at the Horse and Groom, a small pub on the side of the road that was once a farm, and later, housed horses and travellers. The children drew, made a puzzle, relaxed. Christine got some good time with Ruth, as I wandered the building, seeking out what I could. There was a curious document on the wall, which I inquired about, but none of the staff specifically knew what it was, until an older gentleman in the pub said, oh, i know about that, I'm a solicitor! Not knowing my Old English, I wasn't sure what it was or why, but he explained that it was a land deed from the 1700s, explaining all the title from and to whom, and how such a document is considered rather rare now, as most were thrown out after the creation of any subsequent document. And oh, he knows where Ottawa is; his sister was born there! Apparently he was a lawyer for years in West Vancouver. What are the odds?

Further on, we made for Kingley Vale, a preserved walking trail and Yew trees some hundreds of years old, as well as an ancient burial mound (although weary children meant we never quite made it to the burial mound, which I would have liked to see). The trees looked akin to depictions of trees from Jim Henson, whether Labyrinth or other depictions. I hadn't realized that trees actually had faces. I hadn't realized the reference.

Curious to see all the holly, and holly blossoms.

And from there, Ruth dropped us at our hotel, where the children drooped and I attempted to forage some later dinner from Chichester take-away.