Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Alberta dispatch: The Banff Sessions

How to introduce suffering in a lemon?
How to ensure that allegory is not fatal?
If the lemon weeps, out of love
deny it. Begin to pray. Begin to feel
at home in the cosmos. If the lemon were a mountain species
accompanied by a very long profile – a window
or the origin of human sensation? Pain will define the outline
the heart, the mind, the soul will imitate this material inadequacy – will force
the human action? Ignore the waterline. Become pastoral
for the lemon. Territory
that knows itself – a finite tile
of yellow. And when the wind rose to fill an air there began
no other setbacks.
Lynn Xu, from “Je vous attends,” The Walrus, May 2008
As Michael Holmes wrote in his “Notes Towards an Operational Poetics” in the anthology side/lines: a new Canadian poetics (2002), “When your spouse says they're going to Alberta to improve their writing what they're really saying is ‘Honey, I'm not satisfied; I'm going to have an affair.’” How many relationships have started or ended because of going off to the Banff? An old friend from high school, Franco-Ontarien director/playwright Patrick Leroux, returned to Ottawa in 1994 from the Banff Writing Studio and told us he’d met an English poet from Burnaby, eventually introducing us to Stephanie Bolster, whom he, years later, married.

As part of my residency at the University of Alberta, I spent a week at the Banff Centre for the Arts, given my own private space to get work done in one of the Leighton Studios. My own private writing retreat. For years, Canadian writers have been willing to give their eye-teeth for such an opportunity, whether for the writers studio itself, or simply for the solitude of work in such a breathtaking environment. A list of faculty and alumni reads almost as a CanLit who’s who, including Caroline Adderson, Ken Babstock, Don McKay, Jan Zwicky, Tom Pow, Marlene Cookshaw, Janice Kulyk Keefer, Fred Wah, Robert Kroetsch, Laura Lush, John Lent, Elise Levine, Stephen Heighton, Lisa Moore, Méira Cook and Sina Queyras. As Edna Alford, Associate Director of the Writing Studio wrote in her introduction to Rip Rap: Fiction and Poetry from The Banff Centre for the Arts (Banff AB: The Banff Centre Press, 1999):
For nearly seven decades, writers have been gathering in the shadow of these mountains to learn more from various masters. One of the first teachers was Hugh MacLennan and one of those early students was Robert Kroetsch.

In 1972, W.O. Mitchell became director of the Writing Program. It was, he insisted, to have no element of the creative writing programs being set up in universities, no formality. At Banff, writers were to write “without the pressure of performance.” Like a mediaeval scholar, he gathered writers around him and talked to them and showed them ways in which to free their captive ideas.

It was a summer program then and high-school students as well as mature writers came to sit at the feet of the master and to work their way into the craft and art of writing. Poetry and prose, drama and writing for radio, all had a place and all, with variations, continue to thrive in Banff.

Adele Wiseman agreed with W.O. Mitchell’s view of formal writing courses. When she took over as director in 1987, she brought her own distinct ideas and built onto what was already in place. Her vision was primarily to create a community of writers in what had become the May Studios. Working individually with editors, writers would be encouraged to be independent artists confident in their own voices. Adele had a sharp editorial eye and was often able to make invaluable suggestions to a writer but always with the admonition, Remember, this is your work.Link
I'd been to the town of Banff before, but not the Studios, nestled further up these mountains. I was there for an evening in 1999 at the beginning of a five day date (Banff, I suppose, still living up to its reputation). I barely remember a thing, but for the woman I was with, the mountains, and the first time seeing a digital countdown at a crosswalk (they seem to be everywhere, now). I remember her taking me through the Banff Springs Hotel, as we wandered the lobby and high-ceilinged rooms. I remember having a pint in a cowboy pub, staring lost in her deep blue eyes.

During the construction of the Banff Springs Hotel, the general manager of the Canadian Pacific Railway, Cornelius Van Horn, arrived and realized that the kitchen overlooked the valley, and the guest rooms had a view made up of immediate trees. Who would have made such a plan? The construction was quickly halted and plans changed to correct it.

I am thinking about a woman in Edmonton, and these months of involvement. Does that make me the only writer here who doesn’t appreciate the enforced solitude? I am neither open for new love or escaping an old one. I am already in one; whatever I have, it will make or break unrelated to these mountain scenes. As Kingston poet Joanne Page wrote in her poem “How You Might Like Alberta,” “not a place to overwhelm / but be taken by,” and ending with the lines:
and I would stay forever if I could
within this blue, this a cappella.
It reminds me of a Maya Angelou quote I read recently, “A bird doesn’t sing because it has the answer, it sings because it has a song.” There is so much this has to do with singing.

Construction crew outside my writing studio at all hours, machine noise competing with the solitude of space this week was meant for, cutting into attention. It’s a compelling environment, but it wasn't meant for me. What I need for work is not a solitude as such but public spaces, human activity. I write long-hand in coffee shops, pubs and food courts, not in self-retreat clacking away on a computer. I left the farm when I was nineteen for a reason, to remove myself from such a series of solitary silences. I have spent enough of my time alone.

Every day I leave my writing studio for the sake of construction crews. Every day I abandon the solitude of my round log cabin for the sake of the cafeteria, the restaurant, the pub. Am I simply not meant for this? Myrna Kostash was at the Banff Centre as well, conducting a non-fiction workshop, with the workshop in the mornings, the one-on-one consultations in the afternoons and reading their materials during the evening. At lunch or at dinner, we would trade stories and she would introduce me to yet another, new young author. Where do they all come from?

They say the first inhabitants of Banff were the first nations people around 11,000 years ago, arriving in the Bow River Valley and eventually becoming the Cree, the Kootenay and the Blackfoot tribes, long before the Europeans and the rail pushed them back.

In his book Canadian Literary Landmarks (1984), I read John Robert Columbo's passage on some of the literary associations with Banff, mentioning Canada's best-selling author in 1900, Ralph Connor, penname for the Rev. Charles W. Gordon (1860 - 1937). He was known best for his novels about Glengarry County, where he too grew, not far away from where I did, and in the same church, built by his father, a Presbyterian minister from Scotland. As Columbo writes:
William Arthur Deacon asked him about these early years when he was researching A Literary Map of Canada. Gordon replied in a letter, September 21, 1936: "During my three years missionary experience in the Rocky Mountains my Headquarters were Banff. My own Field reached from Field on the west to the Gap on the east. I was Clerk of the Calgary Presbytery, then the largest presbytery in the world. It existed from Revelstoke in the west to Swift Current in the east and from Edmonton to the United States Borderline."
From the pub, another building undergoing renovation, I watch a family of deer stroll through the campus, munching on a patch of grass. They seem entirely comfortable with the human population. Back on the farm, the rare deer we saw wandering through more jittery, unused to such interaction. There is snow filtering through the air, the impressive peaks. In my studio, a list of things left here for me (“What You Should Know About”) that include “Signs of an Aggressive Elk,” “If You Encounter a Cougar,” “If You Encounter a Bear” and “If You are Attacked.”
If You Encounter a Cougar

Face the animal and retreat slowly. Ensure you leave an escape route for the cougar.

Do NOT run or play dead.

Try to appear bigger by holding your arms up or an object.

Shout! Wave your arms or a large stick back and forth.

Throwing rocks may deter an attack.
Am I risking my life simply by being here? If you encounter a bear, it says, stay calm and don’t alarm the bear with screams or sudden movement. Calm behavior will reassure the bear.
Lie face down with arms behind your neck and legs apart.
In 2000, the City of Banff had to organize a forced relocation for the elk population, wandering through the streets for food without the threat of natural predators (held back by the town limits), and the numerous reports of attacks on the human population. Was this an improvement for the animals or for the people?

How many Canadian writers have already written about their time at Banff? Doesn’t this become, already, a tired old Canadian standard? The poet Sina Queyras from her first poetry collection, Slip (2001), from the series “Postcards from Banff,” writing:
Where are you tonight? The phone rings and rings, I haven’t energy
to hang up, fall asleep to the possibility of you.
We trade phone calls and letters, we pine; I pine among the conifers, I write her, among the Lodgepole Pine, in this round cabin furthest back, designed by architect Douglas Cardinal. The Metis architect Cardinal, who also designed the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, almost directly across the Ottawa River. In Banff, where everything connects. In Banff, my cabin in the woods with no corners.

In Banff, where my friend Laura Farina, a poet originally from Ottawa, says you can't even purchase a lamp, if you needed. She's been here since December, working for the Banff Centre Press, and we spent part of an evening re-acquainting at the pub. She was here, she said, to escape; what Banff seems best for. So much of this town tourist, she says, that to even live here, you have to drive out the twenty minutes to Canmore to pick up anything domestic.

In Canmore, just southeast of Banff, there is even a cairn that pays tribute to Connor, not far away from the Ralph Connor Memorial United Church, built in 1891. Does everything connect to everything else?
It was David Thompson and Duncan McGillvray who first explored the Bow Valley in 1880, wandering their way through what would someday be the town of Banff, a town within a national park, and the birthplace of the national parks system, but it wasn’t until 1886 that it became a real tourist destination, thanks to the advent of the Canadian Pacific working national rail. David Thompson of the North-West Company who named the Fraser River after his mentor, Simon Fraser, who lies buried in Eastern Ontario, near Cornwall.

Thompson, who would lose the 49th Parallel for four days in a blizzard, becoming the only man in history, perhaps, to misplace an entire country. Thompson, whose house in Glengarry County where he retired would become the county archive, with land deeds back into the 1770s.

The town of Banff, once remote, then not, and removed again, become the ultimate writing retreat for poets, fiction and creative non-fiction writers across Canada; becoming the legend of its own success. But what have I to retreat from?

In exile from my own exile. I am already in Edmonton, with a life behind me in Ottawa, on hold. Now I make notes among these Rocky Mountains, pining through the conifers at what I finally found in Edmonton, one more city behind.

In all of this, how I am supposed to be getting work done, getting writing, staring instead out the window at the mountains, the movement of clouds, birds and the distant highway. Everyone in the restaurant taking pictures of the peaks and river valley, as though they have not seen mountains before; there are enough pictures of mountains. Why not pictures of them too, to prove that they’d been?

Saskatchewan poet Eli Mandel even wrote of the same, when he was here, from his "Journal, Banff: The School of Fine Arts, 1976" collected in Life Sentence (1981). Here is a part of his entry for "July 20. Banff.":
The mountains still have nothing to say to me, other than touristy notions of the picturesque. Immense. What do they care? The slow thinking of mountains. For some reason, I look to the Andes with apprehension. They loom in my mind, dangerous forms. Threats to our family? myself? How does one live at 12,500 feet? How does one measure, take measure of, one's own humanity? Perhaps the mountains insisted that "Ghosts" be finished so that I could be free to meet their voices.

Day's routine, in a spectacular but by now familiar mountain setting, I have come here regularly since 1973. Walk to the road above Bow Falls facing the Banff Springs Hotel. Many shattered trees along the way. Strong sense of being on a mountain.
Later on in the same journal, writing "August 1. Banff.":
The politics of mountains. Not that they're high but elevated. A phenomenology of space. That explains why I am told not to go to Fort San next summer. It is a more demanding place, defining itself in particulars of prairie, not landscape but politics. Hence home to Wiebe and Kroetsch. To be at Banff is part of a high cultural setting. Elevated. Maybe the mountains do something to one's head. Curious though that Purdy, Marty, Suknaski focused here. All anecdotal. Low culture. And W.O., the raw western story-teller, though his poetics are Wordsworthian and not Coleridgean (as in Suknaski's haunted tales). Are these language differences? Vernacular as opposed to academic or literary. If so, an irony since I was not aware of my speech as high culture, though it obviously must be. There's something else too: not only need for drama, but, in story the character. Isn't it Bob K. who's always talking of western speech as story-talking. It's a story I haven’t told yet, though Out of Place has its story form and this one at Banff is pure paranoia. ("August 1. Banff.")
The politics of mountains. The politics of being an artist in these mountains, coming out as so culturally loaded. When they give them an "artist card," how can some of these kids not be affected, out the other end with first books, thinking it's all about them? Or, as poet and artist Roy Kiyooka wrote in his Transcanada Letters (1974; 2005) in a letter from Banff dated July 25, 1972:
as for the Banff School of Fine Arts it’s a summer re-
sort cum liberal arts school for rich N.A. kids with
the hugeness of the rocky terrain measuring their un-
flagging zeal. if i have learnt anything here its that
i dont need this kind of teaching gig nor do i need
these incomparable mountains.
I make notes, and spend hours staring out the windows. I sit in the coffee shop hours with notebooks, avoiding the backhoe and its constant machine noise. After couple of days I realize the disruption to my space, to my furthest Leighton Studio #7. Reading a copy of the Rocky Mountain Outlook (the Bow Valley daily newspaper), I discover that:
About 150 trees, including four Douglas fir trees, will be chopped down to make way for the relocation of an historic home, owned by hockey icon Glen Sather, to The Banff Centre.

About 50 trees will be removed along Buffalo Street so the house, built by renowned architect Walter S. Painter, can make its journey to The Banff Centre. Approximately 70 more trees will be cut down at the Centre’s Leighton Artists’ Colony.

Sather, general manager of the New York Rangers, has owned the home at 505 Buffalo Street since 1974, and is relocating it to make way for a new 5,000-square-foot home by the Bow River.

Town of Banff officials say that balancing the value of saving the historic 1913 Painter Residence against the environmental loss of several mature trees has proven challenging. […] The historic home is considered important because of its association with Painter, an American-born architect who designed the 1914 additions to the Banff Springs Hotel, the original Cave and Basin building and the Hotel Vancouver.
May, 2008

No comments: