Thursday, July 31, 2008

Revisiting Lake Nora Arms

In an essay in the thirtieth anniversary issue of Arc Poetry Magazine (summer 2008), Toronto poet Adam Sol writes about thirty of his essential books of poetry, including Toronto poet and fiction Michael Redhill's Lake Nora Arms (Toronto ON: Coach House Press, 1993; Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2001), writing:
Michael Redhill. Lake Nora Arms. Another lucky thing: one of the first people I met after my wife and I moved to Toronto was Michael Redhill. And he was so friendly and generous and welcoming that I was a bit nervous to crack open a book of his poems, for fear that it would suck, and that I'd be forced to avoid the subject forevermore. Lake Nora Arms relieved me of that concern, and it gave me a new landscape, a new kind of incantatory haunting, to inhabit here. Lake Nora Arms is full of loss and longing, doing for Lake Simcoe what F. Scott Fitzgerald does for Long Island Sound. That little book did more to explain the allure of cottage country than Stephen Leacock ever could.
The third of Redhill's five poetry collections, Lake Nora Arms burns through the mythology of an imaginary place; imaginary, out of somewhere that could also be real. “You are here,” he repeats, first as a map, and then, a blank space. When I first read this at the age of twenty-three, I was struck by the poem “Young Loves,” and the ending that writes:

When will unhappiness strike?
Who will be the first
to awaken in bed and feel alone?
Soon they will have to love each other
in the impermanence of what awaits them
and that will be difficult, that time
which life pays you for in advance.

There’s something about the deliberate naiveté of the work in this collection. There are echoes of the same kind of myth-making in his more recent Light Crossing (Toronto ON: House of Anansi, 2001), a far more mature work, but there is just something about Lake Nora Arms. How does a map get written? How does a map become more like a dream? He begins in his "Prologue":
I want to sleep in Lake Nora Arms. On your shoulder, beside you, the scent of diesel coming in through a window. Old men in alleys nearby. I want to soak a velour towel with us and wake with my mouth still drunk on you. Lake Nora Arms. Long stairwell. Blue hallways. Killers rented out rooms there. Bullets in the chambers. Dillinger stayed in one, maybe, with a single sunrise reserved for his pleasure. I want that sunrise, want the place his brain went. Hoover killed him. Now Hoover's dead. Now Hoover's dead. He killed him.
Light Crossing was certainly a more polished version of working a geographic dream, but it was here where the myth first took hold; more polished, but somehow less dream-like, less surreal. And then there was his Asphodel (Toronto ON: McClelland & Stewart, 1997); was this named after the infamous American bookstore, or were both named from William Carlos Williams? His third poetry collection, after the privately printed Music for Silence (1985) and Impromptu Feats of Balance (Toronto ON: Wolsak & Wynn, 1990).

It's the framing that holds the poems in Lake Nora Arms together, not built as a concept book or a sequence but instead the tie that binds, perhaps; holds in place but does not restrict or limit breath. He writes at the end of the poem, "How To Find Lake Nora":
To find Lake Nora go Sherpa. Stop looking. Read the signs. To find Lake Nora follow the signal in your teeth. To find Lake Nora, return all your library books, believe in nothing.

To find me surrender.
How does the poem, the collection, shift as an a capella musical, adapted by Jane Miller and Brian Quirt and first performed by Theatre & Company in Kitchener, Ontario on May 12, 2005? The promotional material for the production talks about "an old cottage country hotel, warm summers of lakeside living," and the caption that
This is an evocative, beautiful work that rings with innocence, regret, longing and life lived. A perfect beginning to summer, and a wonderful way to remember a past that is just out of reach.
As Adam Sol writes, too, this is cottage country; this is Canadian Shield, writing Simcoe and shale and the lakes. These are vague and even slipped-in references to downtown Toronto and Simcoe country, and Redhill even moves as far as to personify that Lake Nora, Lake Nora Arms, whether as a woman, a golem or simply a return, dipping into the myth, the muscle that holds the flesh on the bone.

The Return

Lake Nora has gone missing in her own body.
Submerged trees leave question marks
swirling in the water. From our canoe
we see filaments of decay hanging up
and the sun moving through them unchanged.
You call out your own name
and the shale walls send it back incomplete
as if woken from a dream. The quiet scares us—
we feel the loss of something unnamed,
like someone has sealed off the world below us.
I'm watching you, you're watching me.
It feels like one of us might disappear,
suddenly. Then something
leaves a rock and enters the lake—
all we can see is the echo spreading.
It comes out to touch the boat. Stay with me.

Redhill works poems about the childhood past of the Lake, and the narrator's parents, going back into memory, which is much like a dream. Lake Nora Arms is a collage of various points along the lake, points of view and points in time; knowing the lake so well it becomes a character in all of the action. This collection works in a direct lineage, it would seem, from Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (Toronto ON: Anansi, 1970) and Don McKay's Long Sault (London ON: Brick Books, 1976), so it seems little surprise that the two authors are thanked in the back as being early readers of the collection. The soft lyric of mythology, whether place or a character, Lake Nora Arms comes very much out of what those two previous books had achieved; but was Lake Nora Arms simply reworking the same set of ideas, covering the same (so to speak) ground? What does it mean to be "lake"? What does it mean to surrender? It even reminds, somehow, of more recent work by Vancouver poet and editor Stephen Collis, from his collection The Commons (Vancouver BC: Talonbooks, 2008), that includes:

We shall now speak of the LAKES the
form of the lake which belongs particularly
to the lake the clouds the light all the
imagery of the sky and hill characteristic
of the lakes peculiar form of water present
to the reception of lakes wishing for an
interposition of green meadows trees that
lakes should be little mutual out of sight
upon a lake in winter the lake rises a line
of leaves and leavings surface passes fence
posts and surrounds smooth deposits of
otherwise men may not threaten adorned
dwindle their flat desolate habituations of
however the lakes turn meandering shores
fertile vales let us rather in imagination
the cultivation of flat or mountain among
bays of fine blue or upon reeds and bul
rushes exposed to gleaming with no certain

At the beginning of the collection, there is the evocation of the "other," a figure who is gone by the end of the book. Is this whole framing of cottage and family and memory book-ended by a relationship coming to natural (or unnatural) conclusion? Going south, so to speak, back to the city. Back to Toronto and away from the safety and security of this Lake Nora Arms.

In Redhill's Lake Nora Arms, what is it about the lake, and the dream of the lake, with the last poem in the book, "Last Picture of the Lake," that ends:
Can you hear me still, my pirate,
across your kingdom of night-time blue?
Do you still slip and cut your feet on stones?
I want you to sleep in Lake Nora Arms.

Monday, July 28, 2008

what paper eats away

(after Nina Berkhout

if you saw where I was now,

I am conscious of every theory
of birds & tv,

alien craft throughout manitoba

she first stung by a bee
when she sixteen years old

got to sit out her gym class

the museum a new gathering place
for a more expensive quality of dust

where the molecule of you
is still paired w/

the molecule of me

somewhere still under glass

against which groups of toddlers
slap sticky small palms

Friday, July 25, 2008

A Sing Economy

I've recently been going through the poetry anthology A Sing Economy (Slingerlands NY: flim forum press, 2008), edited by Matthew Klane and Adam Golaski, with generous sections of new writing by Kate Schapira, Barrett Gordon, Jennifer Karmin, Stephanie Strickland, Mathew Timmons, Kaethe Schwehn, Harold Abramowitz /Amanda Ackerman, Jaye Bartell, Jessica Smith, David Pavelich, Erin M. Bertram, Laura Sims, Deborah Poe, a.rawlings / françois luong, Michael Slosek, Kevin Thurston, Hannah Rodabaugh and Tawrin Baker. A very attractive production, some of the most impressive and lively pieces have to be from Amanda Ackerman and Harold Abramowitz's collaborative "Sin is to Celebration."


went down
A broken jug
Someone was shoving
Too long
Into a box
In its own fire.

Sometimes there are
The faces
Bobbling bumbling
painted color
On a string
for a dime.
on a string
my doll my
Step right
Doll, the night
gives full
If your arm
Money's worth
off and shatter
Come look
The seedless
wax shine in
of red
of honey;
and even broken
Forcing a moment's
on the line.

The core goes in
went down
The core goes in
Someone was
The core goes in
into a box
awaiting. (Amanda Ackerman / Harold Abramowitz)

Lately, I'm find as though most Canadian writing is sounding just about the same as all other Canadian writing; where did it all go wrong (it's probably the same in other countries too)? There is work I still find exciting, but I haven’t really been seeing anything radically new lately, finding instead refuse in writing from other countries. Is this just me?
Magical Urbanism

I was walking home when a glow caught my eye: the mulch around a municipal tree was burning. Got down to scrape it out and found there was more than I thought. A couple of men walking the other direction saw and stopped to help me, using a corner of loose brick. They were black, and I spared a thought for how I could have reacted while we were squatting down getting the last embers: we dusted our hands off, a line in my head captured the little glows. The evening was alive with first responders, already turning it, and then our respective cities closed over us again. (Kate Schapira)

Monday, July 21, 2008

The Capilano Review 3.5: The Sharon Thesen Issue

One of the better-kept secrets the past few months has been the "Sharon Thesen" [see my 12 or 20 questions with her here] issue of The Capilano Review, out recently. Produced as a tribute to the Canadian poet and editor (as well as, not once but twice, as part of the editorial board of the journal), issue 3.5 joins various issues of the journal over the years that have paid tribute to Canadian authors, including issue-length tributes to George Bowering, Robin Blaser and Roy Kiyooka. Given the amount of writers produced in the country over the years, it seems almost amazing how few tribute issues have happened, including West Coast Line's tribute to Phyllis Webb, The Fiddlehead on John Metcalf, or Descant on Dennis Lee. Is there any particular reason we can't seem to get it together more often? There was even more, a while back, in The Chicago Review in their 100+ page feature on Lisa Robertson, far more than she's ever had here in Canada.

The Gambling Table

I discarded the five of hearts
He replied with the seven of wands

My clubs were black and heavy
They fit the palm of my hand

In no particular order
They were laid out like a princess in a coma

The sums and the odds were reckoned
Towers of plastic disks shoved here & there

Like history, i.e. bloodlines and factions
Riding horses and trying for a boy

After which gunfire and revised treaties
Eventually follow. But here

In the big casino, in exurbia, in the lurch of cosmos
Nothing means nothing. (Sharon Thesen)

Thesen has always been one of those writers just as content to be part of the backstage of activity, often more than centre-stage, including editing two editions of The New Long Poem Anthology, Phyllis Webb's selected poems, The Vision Tree, and, with Ralph Maud, co-edited the correspondence between Charles Olson and Frances Boldereff (Wesleyan UP, 1999), as well as manage to produce eleven poetry collections, from Artemis Hates Romance (Coach House, 1980), Holding the Pose (Coach House, 1983), The Beginning of the Long Dash (Coach House, 1984), the selected poems Pangs of Sunday (McClelland & Stewart, 1990), Aurora (Coach House, 1995), a further selected poems, News & Smoke (Talonbooks, 1999), A Pair of Scissors (Anansi, 2000), Weeping Willow (Nomados, 2005) and The Good Bacteria (Anansi, 2006).
Daphne Marlatt: In your process of writing, how do you approach revision? Do you have moments of, as Adrienne Rich termed it, re-seeing what you have on the page, or do you lean more towards the "first thought is best thought" pole?

Sharon Thesen: Sometimes, you know how it is, you get into a flow of writing, and a poem is pretty much there in the first draft, which is really heavenly. But the older I get, the less and less often that happens. A poem will usually go through three to six revisions after I first write it down on paper or directly onto the computer. I can write the most appalling bad first draft, but if I don’t give up too soon, sometimes something can "catch"—a word, a rhythm. The poem can start once I get the sound of it. I revise for speed, rhythm, melody (both sonic and cognitive), and general absence of b.s. and bog. Then I let sit for a few weeks and revise again. Then maybe I read it at a reading—more revisions! And sometimes I continue revising for subsequent readings of the poem. Sometimes it just hasn’t been a very good from the get-go, or, in the end, I return to the earliest draft, realizing the revisions are what have ruined the poem! I'm finding it more and more difficult to write a single, individual poem. It has something to do with energy, or lack of it. Plus, it's really difficult to write a lyric poem that works, that isn’t embarrassing. No wonder everybody gave up on lyric poems back in the 80's. I have yet to work with procedural techniques or whole-book subjects, and fiction is completely beyond me, so about all I can do is make space for whatever new thing to unfurl that needs to.
Part of what makes this issue impressive is the sheer amount and range of critical material on Thesen, from the interview conducted by Daphne Marlatt, to pieces by Jenny Penberthy, Meredith Quartermain, Christine Anne Stewart, Pete Smith, Kent Lewis, Andrew Klobucar, Nancy Holmes, Thea Bowering and Colin Browne. Still one of the more memorable (and odder) tributes has to be from Toronto writer and first husband Brian Fawcett, in his "Why Sharon Thesen Doesn’t Win Poetry Prizes," that includes:
I'm tempted to think she doesn’t win poetry prizes for the same reason I married her: she's a smart-alec, a woman without an earnest bone in her body, a poet whose poems spend no energy at all sanctifying this or that parcel of sentimental nonsense because they are too busy executing the many prisoners they take. Thesen herself is also intelligent, sensitive, well-read within the trade, can read her poems aloud without having to interject a "you-know" or a not-really-interrogative "eh" every 3-5 words, etc. But so are at least 200 other prize-sniffing poets across the land, not a goddamned one of whom I'd have married even if I were dead-drunk and they were proffering certified cheques for $100 grand. She's unique, and her grasp on the ironies of human life are sublime.

you smell wet dirt
in the morning shade
along the foundation

and the window won't open
enough for the horizon
to slide in across the sill

an old woman's drunk
lurching through a funeral
of a sly river in july

grasshoppers and gophers
in the wheat and dust
a dead car in the slough

and she doesn’t belong
no one's seen her before
nor her sky-blue shawl (Patrick Friesen)

Or as Montreal poet Erín Moure writes in her short tribute, "When Thesen walks into your poem in mid-composition you just let her dance there, / you do."

A Lovely Day

It's a perfect summer day. Blue, blue sky; some plump
white clouds; a breeze. Not a scorcher, not one you'd
mind in any way. I found a near-new softball at the park
this morning behind the dugout & holding its white weight
remembered long-ago
days on the diamond for the Cosmic League—
and before that watching my dad pitch for the Royalite team
summer nights at Riverview Park--
the clapping at the home run,
the guy on third base
taking his time trotting in, the talk
on the diamond, my happiness when Dad struck out player
after player as the light in the hills began to
remove itself from the scoreboard and the willows
filled with the night breeze from the river. (Sharon Thesen)

related notes: on a previous issue; on another; on another;

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sarah Manguso's The Two Kinds of Decay

Getting sick was a process just as getting well was a process.

The most important things must happen slowly, incrementally.
In 1995, just as American writer Sarah Manguso was in the midst of whatever else a twenty-one year old should be in the midst of, she discovered that she had "a wildly unpredictable disease that appeared without warning" and "tore through her twenties, vanishing and then returning, often paralyzing her for weeks at a time." The result of her working her own way through such a thing, after two collections of poetry and a book of short fiction [see my previous note on her poetry here], as well as receiving the Rome Prize in 2007 by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, is her beautiful and matter-of-fact prose memoir, The Two Kinds of Decay (New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).
Some believe the clinical difference between Guillain-Barré syndrome and CIDP is subjective—that my disease was CIDP because I was sick for years instead of just a few weeks. Sometimes I think I might just have had a particularly bad case of Guillain-Barré syndrome.

Of course I'd rather have the common disease that people know how to treat, but there were times that I cherished my rare disease for its irrefutable proof of my specialness.

For its proof that my death, the end of the disease, whenever and in whatever form it came, was going to be remarkable.
One of the things that had struck me about her earlier work is in just how intelligent, wry and, dare I say it, wise Manguso's writing is, without being overtaken by overwrought emotion or overthinking. Her writing is just so damn sharp. In The Two Kinds of Decay, Manguso's prose style is no different, writing her unsentimental way down to the bare bone of the essential parts of the story, writing a deeply honest thinking experience through her disease, and through her own history, written from after nine years (as she writes, so far) of remission.
Either before or after that—though it doesn’t matter now, since I remember things in the order that they make sense—my primary care doctor visited me and said I'd already endured something much worse than most people have to endure in an entire regular-length life. His voice shook. He was forcing tears either forward or back.

Before the diagnosis, I would have loved hearing him say that.

The doctor was older than my parents, and he must have had plenty of younger patients, but he didn’t understand yet that suffering, however much and whatever type, shrinks or swells to fit the size and shape of a life.
The short sections read almost Brautigan-like in their individual shapes, like small accumulations that eventually make themselves into the size and shape of a book, something that even Richard Brautigan found daunting, and far easier to accomplish through such individual and nearly bite-sized sections (her collection of short fiction, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape, published by McSweeney's, exists almost the same way). She even writes of the same kind of consideration, almost explaining her structure without talking about it, writing:
I don’t know how to write a novel. I like to ask writers who write novels how they do it. How they write something longer than what can be held in the eye comfortably, at middle distance.

How can I stop thinking about the disease long enough to write about anything else? How can I stop thinking about everything else long enough that I can write about the disease?

My friend Isabel says, When you're writing even a short novel, with at least a couple of subplots, and God only knows how many characters, your brain holds the volume of it beyond the ability of your consciousness.

Of course.
This book, too, explains part of why you don’t have to scratch too much surface to find death in quite a number of her poems. But wasn’t it Brautigan's own daughter who said that You Can't Catch Death?
Our neighbor told us her mother had died just that week and that she was at the dump with some of the things from her mother's apartment. Alzheimer's, she whispered.

And my mother told our neighbor we were sorry, and that her mother, my grandmother, had had Alzheimer's, too.

Then the neighbor saw the pile of canes and walkers we'd just left on the ground, and
looked at my mother, and indicated she understood how sad it was that my mother's mother had used those things until she couldn’t walk anymore.

How sure our neighbor was that her suffering was the only kind of suffering.

And how sure I was that mine was worse.
After watching my own mother's illness from the mid-1970s on, and watching whatever else I've seen anyone else go through (including whatever it is one calls one's own suffering), what amazes about Manguso's book is more than the sharp, clear writing and the astute commentary, and more than her refusal to wallow in any amount of self-pity; what amazes is just how aware and clear-headed she is of her own situation, even during the passages when she claims she is neither. This is a remarkable mind that has produced a remarkable piece of writing, through everything else she has gone through. Listen to this passage, from just near the end of the book, as Manguso writes:
This is suffering's lesson: pay attention. The important part might come in a form you do not recognize.

You might not know to love it.

But to pay attention is to love everything.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

JAILBREAKS: 99 CANADIAN SONNETS, edited by Zachariah Wells

For some time, former east coast (now living in Vancouver) poet Zachariah Wells has been one of the champions of this "new formalism" (for lack of better terminology) that's been spreading around Canadian poetry the past few years, along side other champions such as Montrealer Carmine Starnino and East Coast resident George Murray. What is the appeal? Either way, he has crafted an attractive and interesting new anthology of sonnets over the decades by Canadian writers, Jailbreaks: 99 Canadian Sonnets (Emeryville ON: Biblioasis, 2008). Including poems by numerous Canadian poets one might expect in such an anthology, from Margaret Avison, Carmine Starnino, Peter Van Toorn, Irving Layton, John Newlove, Stephen Brockwell, Archibald Lampman and Robyn Sarah, part of what makes the collection appealing is his inclusion of works by some lesser-expected poets such as Gerry Gilbert [see my note on him here], Stuart Ross, E.A. Lacey and Phyllis Webb.


You have no form, you move among, yet do
not move, the relics of exhausted thought
of which you are not made, but which give world to
you, you are of nothing made, nothing wrought.
There you long for one who is not me, O
queen of no subject, newer than the morning,
more antique than first seed dropped below
the wash where you are called and Adam born.
And here, not your essence, not your absence
weds the emptiness which is never me,
though these motions and these formless events
are preparation for humanity,
and I get up to love and eat and kill
not by my own, but by our married will. (Leonard Cohen)

For some time, there have been poets in Canada (Diana Brebner did through example, in the 1980s and 1990s, well before it was fashionable again) attempting to argue for the form of the sonnet, and this collection, I would suppose, is Well's argument for the form, and an argument well made. Still, the back of the collection includes commentary by Wells on most if not all of the poems included in the anthology, ranging from highly astute criticism to strange and even baffling story-telling. Writing on Stephen Brockwell's contribution, "The Fruitfly," Wells writes some of the best criticism on Brockwell's work to date:
Don’t let the lack of end-rhyme fool you into thinking this free-verse sonnet is sloppily built. The thought articulated in this poem is every bit as intricate as the fruit fly's wing ― if more nimble than the fly clapped into a punctuation mark. The metaphoric imagination Brockwell displays here reminds me of the pattern-perception of Hopkins in his journal prose. And in case you're wondering about his skill with more traditionally structured sonnets, you should seek out Wild Clover Honey and the Bee-hive, a sequence of 28 sonnets on the sonnet ― fourteen written by Brockwell, contra the form, and fourteen by Peter Norman, another contributor to this anthology, arguing for it. It's a brilliant performance of dialectical banjos.
Compare that to what he has to say about the late John Newlove's "God Bless the Bear," writing:
John Newlove was a friend of my uncle's. Once, while visiting Prince Edward Island to give a reading, Newlove was tracked down by a young fan at my uncle's farmhouse. The poet, not surprisingly, was in pretty rough shape from the previous evening's excesses. When asked by his admirer if he wouldn’t mind reciting a poem, Newlove looked blearily at the ephebe and croaked, "Gimme a dollar." Not sure what that has to do with this very moving free-verse sonnet, but it must be something.
I find it frustrating that, yet again, John Newlove's clear precision as a skilled writer is too-often overshadowed by biography, and it makes me wonder what the purpose of including this story is. I would rather such be left out, and nothing be said than this. How does this add anything to a consideration of the work, other than some kind of dismissal? And why is it so many of his small critical commentaries are excusing or asking the reader to overlook the fact that so many of these sonnets are, potentially, "sloppily built"? Is he excusing his argument even as he's making it?


What is homeless in me, and sightless, not
without love, but blind to your world? If I

insist on love, or sight, something not brought
by insisting, who will still cherish my

eyes, kiss them with tenderness, with darkness?
All of those places within me, somewhat

lonely, and foreign, where I am homeless,
still remain to be seen. The terror that

fills me is one dark place. The fear of sight
is another. I would like to believe

love is blind; blindness is something to fight
for, to believe in. Dear man, when I leave

my eyes open, I see nothing, in this
world we call real, but you: you and darkness. (Diana Brebner)

Monday, July 14, 2008

some (further) notes on Diane Schoemperlen

I'm at the beginnings of Diane Schoemperlen's novel Our Lady of the Lost and Found (which, according to her facebook status recently, she just sold the movie rights), and keep wanting to quote from her endlessly;
But much as I may be as superstitious as the next person, I seldom think of myself as lucky. I do consider myself extraordinarily privileged to be able to make a living doing what I love the most. I realize that few people can say the same. But I do not like to think that the course of my life has been determined solely by luck. I like to think it all depends on what you do with what you are given. I think of myself has having made a series of decisions and then worked hard to end up here.
And then there's this part, that made me laugh out loud at that Carleton Tavern last week, making the waitress think I had some kind of mental instability, I'm sure:
I heard the mailman and went to see what he had brought. All writers have intense relationships with their mailmen, whether their mailmen know it or not. There were the usual pizza flyers, credit card bills, and letters from charitable foundations requesting donations. There were catalogs from a computer warehouse and an outdoor clothing manufacturer. There was a letter from a former student asking me to write her a grant recommendation and one from a graduate student who wanted to know why I had used the word apparently forty-one times in my last book. There were no checks.
It was the "apparently" bit that made me laugh; but why, for a writer from Kingston, is her book in American spelling? It really bugs me, for some reason; why can't an American audience conform to a writer's own national spelling (damn you, Chicago Manual of Style), let alone an audience from that same country?

The most recent novel, which I spent the later part of the week previous reading, was a bit harder; At A Loss For Words, which came out last fall (took me less than two days, I think, to go from start to finish); a novel about a writer who can't get work done because she's got her heart completely broke. Not a novel I'd necessarily recommend if you're living exactly in the same. When she emailed me originally about such a week earlier, she quoted from such:
I said, A few weeks ago I watched a television documentary about veterinarians. They were discussing how to decide when it's time to have your ailing animal put to sleep. They said that if your beloved pet is having more bad days than good, then it's time. I certainly did get to a point where I was having more bad days than good! But I'm doing a lot better now.

You said, I do not believe in euthanasia. (p 154)
I rather like this quote as well, from earlier in same:
I am thinking about how, early on in this, I told Kate that I wanted to share every little thing with you all the time, and I didn’t understand this insatiable need I now had to tell you everything: every thought that crossed my mind, every meal I ate, every boring and mundane thing I did in a day (from cleaning the oven after having not done so for two years to getting my hair cut to having my teeth cleaned to washing down the bathroom from ceiling to floor and every surface in between). Sometimes it was as if my life had become a story I was telling you, as if I were now living in a novel or a movie and narrating every movement I made for you and only you, my singular and spellbound audience.

To Kate, I said, Sometimes this drives me crazy. Why is this happening? What's wrong with me?

And Kate said, gently, That's just the nature of love: it makes you want to share your whole self with your loved one. (pp 92-3)
And then there's this part, from a bit earlier:
Gloria Steinem once said of writing that it was the only thing that, when she was doing it, she wasn’t constantly thinking she should be doing something else. (I have just spent forty-five minutes searching for this quotation.) It is to this state of writerly nirvana that I aspire.

But these days it seems that writing (or trying to write and failing to write) is the only thing that, when I'm doing it, I'm constantly thinking of all the other things I
should (or could) be doing instead. But that's not strictly true either. To make matters worse, when I'm doing most of those other things, I feel guilty and am constantly thinking I should be writing (or trying to write and failing to write) instead.

In this lurching, peripatetic manner, nothing gets done. (pp 32-3)
Just as New York City fiction writer Paul Auster has made a career out of writing characters who happen to also be writers, Diane Schoemperlen seems to have made a career out of writing characters who fall in and out of love, and only sometimes happen to be writers (the narrator in Our Lady of the Lost and Found, for example, is a writer between books). Is there a difference?

related posts: my previous thought on Diane Schoemperlen;

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Arc Poetry Magazine at Thirty

Anniversaries always exist as two-fold, in looking back as well as looking ahead, and the thirtieth anniversary of Ottawa's only poetry-only trade literary journal, Arc Poetry Magazine, is no different, with its sixtieth issue just hitting newsstands. How one celebrates a birthday (or indeed, any occasion) says a lot about who you are, and the contributors list to this publication is no different, with contributions from Stephanie Bolster, Asa Boxer, Emily Carr, George Elliott Clarke, Steven Heighton, Shawna Lemay, Alison Pick, Craig Poile, Tadzio Richards, Peter Richardson, Robyn Sarah, Carmine Starnino, Matthew Tierney, Zachariah Wells and a whole bunch of others.

On Turning Thirty

Snug elastic, the afternoon chafes.
Those hours between three and six

when the radio plays nothing but
smooth jazz and you're stuck inside

a fire tower, peeing in a jar. What you came here to do
won't get done, but it's too early to give up trying.

Even in the bush, you still procrastinate,
Shuffle plans to tomorrow's 40 km horizon.

At least you're making money,
have fresh greens for supper.

In German there's a word for men
who iron their underwear,

but you've forgotten it. Pencils ground
into points, notebooks hauled a hundred feet up

by rope and bucket, all your preparations,
only to stare out the cupola window willing

road dust into smoke, waiting
for the boreal's blank page to ignite. (Bren Simmers)

For the issue, the editors suggested that submissions be pieces referencing turning thirty, and various pieces in the issue write about such, as well as essays by Gary Geddes, Sonnet L'Abbé and Adam Sol, with the second pair writing on what they consider their thirty essential poetry titles. As editor Anita Lahey writes in her introduction, "Three Decades of Poetic Obsession,"
With Arc's 30th birthday looming we decided it would be a good idea to poll today's poets on the state of being 30. What do they remember or anticipate of the age? What do they make of this threshold? We set the parameters wide. The essence of 30 is a dubious quantity to grasp.
One troubling element is the fact that the current crew heading Arc seem to have removed the annual feature of group reviewing books by Ottawa writers, with Triny Finlay's "Back to the Modern: Three Ottawa Poets" review in Arc #57, reviewing new books by Laura Farina, Andrew Steinmetz and Tony Cosier, being the last time the feature was present. But still, with titles by John Newlove, Ian Roy, Michael Blouin and Shane Rhodes reviewed in this anniversary issue, is this just a matter of nit-picking? Considering that Arc holds the position of potentially publishing the only print review of certain titles between Montreal and Toronto, it's enough to make anyone interested in Ottawa writing at least a little nervous. Or does age also mean a shifting of interests, concerns?


The ships are little fires on the river, candles
you can't blow out. Breath
only has so much power, after
all, like luck. Mostly our lives
flow along like skeins of water in the river,
side by side much of the way, mixing a bit
close to the islands. Year after year
comes and goes, and we just get older,
notching the doorposts with our little hatchets.
Come then, husband, stranger.
The city is decked out in pink frosting,
the port is on fire. We are waiting for you
to make your wish. (Susan Gillis)

related notes: my note on the previous issue; the issue before that;

Friday, July 11, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Joan MacLeod

Joan MacLeod’s plays include ‘Jewel’, ‘Toronto, Mississippi’, ‘Amigo’s Blue Guitar’, ‘The Hope Slide’, ‘Little Sister’ , ‘2000’, ‘The Shape of a Girl’ and ‘Homechild’. She is the recipient of two Chalmers Canadian Play Awards and the Governor General’s Award. All of her plays have been produced extensively. For seven years she was a playwright-in-residence at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre -- one of Canada’s major theatres for new work. ‘The Shape of a Girl’ has been touring or in production continually since its premiere in 2001 including a sold out run in New York City on 42nd Street, and has been translated into six languages. Joan also writes poetry, prose and for television. She grew up in North Vancouver and spent ten years on Bowen Island before taking a position with the Department of Writing in 2004. Her new play ‘Another Home Invasion’ opens in February 2009 at ATP in Calgary – a coproduction with the Tarragon. It opens in Toronto in March.

1 My first play, Jewel, was written in a weekend in Banff in 1985. It’s a one person show and the character was loosely based on a character I had created in a piece of fiction several years before. Once I put that character together with the play’s premise it just came flowing out. I performed the play – it was just 35 minutes long then – because I couldn’t find an actor to do it. I’m not a performer but I learned something about theatre by getting up on stage and looking at things from that angle. We took the play to the Edmonton Fringe that year with a real actor and of course I learned something from looking at things from that angle as well. The first professional production of the play (it was rewritten and then over an hour) was at Tarragon a year later. The actor hired to play the part in Toronto had to leave the show after the dress rehearsal. And I got the part. Again I didn’t know how to act really but I, sort of, pulled it off. I did 35 shows. It was thrilling. It helped my career enormously to have had that odd and terrifying experience (I haven’t been on a stage since and don’t want to be on one). It also helped my career, I think, that the Toronto critics knew right from this start that I was a first time playwright who had marched around in her nightgown on stage trying to act because things had fallen apart in rehearsal – the show must go on and all that. Jewel has had dozens of productions since and has been translated into several languages. It’s still being performed – thankfully not be me.

2 I’ve lived in Victoria for four years. It’s remarkably beautiful –a bit different than the mainland coast that I’m used to but still familiar. I’ve never written anything set here. But B.C.’s landscape overall profoundly effects my work. Place is nearly as important as character in my plays. There is a fictional island I based on the gulf islands that both Amigo’s Blue Guitar and The Shape of a Girl take place in. The Kootenays, the North Peace – those areas are also setting for The Hope Slide and Jewel. 2000 and my new play Another Home Invasion take place in North Vancouver where I grew up. Homechild is set in Glengarry County in Ontario which is where my parents are from and a place I return to often.

3 A play starts when I am grabbed by something – often an event in the news. I will read everything I can about it and then eventually develop a character that is some how connected to it. I write just monologues for the first few months, trying to get a sense of the story. I don’t work on more than one project at a time. I write really slowly. It takes me a couple of years to write a play – that isn’t writing full time of course – but it’s usually a couple of years from first thought to opening night.

Because I write and perform monologues before writing the actual plays having a chance to read out loud is really important to my process. Also after I have a first draft we usually hire actors and work for one days, often resulting in a public reading that evening or afternoon. That’s also an important part of the process. All of my plays have been workshopped in the Playwrights Colony in Banff. Hearing the work and getting input from actors, directors and dramaturges is essential.

5 I’m not really interested in theory. I guess I’m always trying to solve some internal thing. It’s pretty vague though. I just like getting inside someone and seeing how that one person ticks and in turn seeing what that says about us as a whole. What the current questions are etc. seems more like academic turf or a way to discuss the work after the fact.

6 Basically I trust my instincts when I’m working on a first draft. But as noted I need the input from actors, dramaturges etc after that. Often I’ll work with a dramaturge before I have a first draft. And my playwright friends – there’s two or three of them that read my stuff – are essential to the process.

7 I find writing gets harder the older I get. I’m always afraid I have nothing left to say. I’m not one of those writers who have too many ideas and not enough time. I was pretty fearless when I was younger. Now I think long and hard before deciding the point of view I want to write from.

8 I have a mild allergy to pears (apples, apricots etc.) unless they’re cooked. I started becoming allergic in my thirties (Toronto did it to me) so I haven’t eaten a pear in twenty years. Sad, eh?

9 The best of advice I’ve received was to finish things. It’s really easy to start a piece of writing but much harder to persevere and finish.

10 I love moving between genres. I started out as a fiction writer and then a poet. I didn’t become a playwright until I was thirty. I find it pretty easy to go between those three genres. I find it much harder to write for screen (television in my case) or to write a libretto; they aren’t as natural a fit for me. But the line between my prose, poetry and drama is pretty blurry.

11 Before becoming a parent I used to say at least that I wrote four hours a day, usually in the late morning, and then for another four hours tried to do something related to writing – research, applying for a grant, listening to a piece of music. Everything went out the window when I became a mother and started teaching on a regular basis. Now I tend to write in the early morning. When I’m in Banff I can write all day but usually I’m done by two or three in the afternoon. This year I discovered that in the evening, when the family was watching TV, I could sit with them with my lap top on my knees and edit and reread etc. I no longer need quiet etc. to write. I grab the time when I can. Patrick Friesen taught me to always keep my office door open – that kids will let you do your thing more readily if they don’t feel shut out.

12 My writing often gets stalled. Reading has always been a life saver for me. And I’ll do what I call phony writing – writing that I know is terrible but from a distance at least it looks like the real thing. Going to the theatre – that works sometimes. More often than not I don’t really like what I see but that can be inspiring in its own twisted way.,

13 My latest play is a one person show – so that’s similar of course to my very first play. It’s my fourth one person show out of ten plays now. I think my ability to tell a story has improved. I’m much more aware of structure than I used to be but I’m still primarily an intuitive writer and voice is still my forte – none of that has changed.

14 Of course going to the theatre is really important but reading is still my primary source of inspiration – that is reading fiction.

15 Southern fiction – Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner – were a big deal to me when I was starting out. Margaret Laurence, Alice Munro, Atwood – the usual suspects I guess. In terms of playwrighting actor and playwright Alan Williams is the one who got me into this business and influenced my early work enormously. Sam Shepherd and George Walker are also playwrights I keep returning to.

16 I’d like to go to Asia.

17/18 I can’t imagine doing anything besides writing. I’ve wanted to write ever since I can remember. It’s always been what I do best. I’m also a teacher and I enjoy that (marking aside) but really it’s all about the writing.

19 The most recent book I read was Strawberry Fields which I really enjoyed. Last great book – Lorrie Moore’s Birds of America. Most recent film The Savages – which had many perfect moments. Most recent great film -- Babel – flawed but again so many perfect things.

20 Another Home Invasion premieres in Calgary then Toronto in February 2009. It’s a monologue; the character Jean is eighty and caring for her unwell husband when a meth addict shows up at the door. It’s about the present health care system and how that is failing elderly people.

12 or 20 questions archive

Thursday, July 10, 2008

house: a (tiny) memoir

The snow we would trudge from the truck or the tractor to back of the two hundred acres, over creek into brush for the sake of a Christmas tree, until the mid-1980s relented, and responded with fake plastic replica. Every year, the operation of cutting and tugging, pine needles spread out through the kitchen and living room carpet and caught up in socks, decorating tree with glass baubles at least one less a year with the television on, watching Barney Miller or Fish, Charlie Brown and inevitable Grinch.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Ottawa launch of Departures;

published by above/ground press

new fiction by:

Amanda Earl
Emily Falvey
Spencer Gordon
Kate Heartfield
rob mclennan
Wes Smiderle
+ Steve Zytveld

Saturday, July 26, 2008
doors 7pm, readings 7:30pm
The Carleton Tavern, upstairs; 223 Armstrong (at Parkdale Market)

Departures comes out of a monthly fiction writer's workshop in Ottawa started in 2006 by Tina-Frances Trineer, with its first meeting December 6, 2006 at Cuppedia on Main Street, with early participants Tina, rob mclennan, Amanda Earl, Kate Heartfield and Josh Massey. Other members Emily Falvey, Steve Zytveld and Wes Smiderle were added in April, 2007, around the time Tina moved to Wakefield. Spencer Gordon joined in September, 2007.

ordering information & author bios + links here;

Friday, July 04, 2008

house: a (tiny) memoir

But that's what exile does. It gives you your home.
Ali Smith, Brick #81, summer 2008

There is something about recollection that makes the past come out, clear as sometimes mud. In a recent issue of The New Quarterly (104, fall 2007), Ottawa writer Elisabeth Harvor wrote a piece called "First Real Estate: The Childhood Bedroom." In it, she talked about teaching creative writing at the university level to first-year students, and giving them assignments on writing their first childhood bedroom. What comes out of such writing? For a couple of years, I'd been thinking about writing small prose sections or poems to go along with old family photographs, specifically an album of old Polaroids, wandering through the terrain of my own past, and my own childhood. It was terrain I haven’t really gone near previously in my writing, or even my own thinking, and hadn’t quite figured out how to begin. There was something about Harvor's piece that wouldn’t let go, as I started pouring through photographs and half-faded memories.

Still, I knew it wasn’t a new idea. Vancouver writer George Bowering had done a version of the same a decade earlier as a collaboration with his late wife, Angela, resulting in a series of pieces called "Pictures" from his poetry collection Blonds on Bikes (1997). Their series, instead, focused on each writing a piece on various photographs, some of which they hadn’t previously seen, or knew nothing or little about.

What is it about the past that compels, exploring or even discovering elements of one's own history? There was the American poet Charles Olson's posthumously published memoir on his late father, Post Office: A Memoir of His Father (1975), the memoir Ron Padgett wrote on his late friend, the poet Ted Berrigan, published as Ted: A Personal Memoir of Ted Berrigan (1993), or even the memoir George Bowering wrote on the late London, Ontario artist Greg Curnoe, The Moustache: Memories of Greg Curnoe (1993), where I realized, on the day I was born, the two were sitting with James Reaney in a London kitchen, surrounded by a party. I spent far too much of my twenties and into my thirties focusing on the hardships of growing up, whether real or imagined, through the years of my mother's illnesses, all coming out of the twenty-two years she hadn’t working kidneys, and was living on dialysis. She got quite sick around the time I was four or five, just before they adopted my sister, and her tenuous health was a trauma I have not quite recovered from.

There was the year I turned eleven, and our mother went into hospital on New Year's Day. We didn’t get her back until October. I spent the whole of March break at a friend's house in the village, where they even hosted a surprise birthday party. As I was told later by my friend's mother, my piano teacher, it was also the year of my mother's first failed kidney transplant, with a ten percent chance of her living off the operating table. How does one compete in such a household? I decided quickly: one doesn’t. I quietly taught myself to scrub sinks, do laundry, make meals, mend my father's work shirts.

My parents have stories, but they seem not to tell them. I realized that, for the period these pieces cover, from the mid-1970s to earlier, there would be no one else who could tell these tales to my sister, her children or even my own daughter. How would anyone else know about the abandoned chicken coop that used to live in the corner of the barnyard, or the time we weaned baby raccoons with a bottle? How would his grandchildren know of the time when my father still easily laughed, or crossed his eyes to amuse his wife and her visiting nieces? I've realized that around the time my mother's illness took over, family photographs became a rarity. Family trips soon stopped altogether, which were difficult enough before, considering my father's Scottish Presbyterian work ethic, and the fact of the dairy farm. Who would step into that work for days at a time, let alone any way for him to allow himself to step out? We once drove non-stop from Prince Edward Island back home at the end of a few days away, because he knew that he could. The rest of us were exhausted by the time we pulled into the lane. On the same trip, at a motel in Nova Scotia, my mother said she had to struggle to keep him in bed another hour, meaning he wasn’t up and ready to head out to a quick breakfast and the road until at least 8am. I remember seeing him dressed in the chair at the foot of my bed wondering what the hell he was thinking, and once back on the road, the stops we couldn’t make because it was too early, and nothing was open yet, including the World's Largest Lobster Trap in the distance.

What makes up home? Home is a series of recollections, of distances, as easily remembered as mis-remembered, and a blending of events that can sometimes never be confirmed. As Harvor wrote, "As for childhood, most university students don’t write about it at all; it's still much too close to them." Well, why would they? There is something about distance that allows a particular kind of perspective. Is it any accident, perhaps, that this project started suddenly, mid-way through my year in Edmonton? Arguably my first time away from home, I wrote the bulk of these pieces in the Garneau Pub on 109th Avenue, later showing sections to a friend over lunch at the High Level Diner. My subject matter may no longer be temporally close, but neither too distant, either. And why write as a "memoir" instead of calling them "prose poems"? I want these stories not to be misunderstood; I want them to be seen as what I remember, what I believe to be true, from my vantage point of some three decades later, and thousands of miles. It felt like reclaiming something that had been far away for a very long time, but no longer. It felt like bringing out the good out from underneath all the bad that came later, overshadowing so much of what had happened before.

related link: list of individual pieces on-line from "house: a (tiny) memoir"

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Don’t forget how easy it is to burst a balloon. Don’t forget that a person who is full of hot air is not someone you should trust your life to.

Remember that love is blind. This is what you know.
Diane Schoemperlen, Forms of Devotion
Over the past few days I've been reading Kingston writer Diane Schoemperlen's novel Forms of Devotion (Harpercollins, 1998), winner of that year's Governor General's Award. It's a novel I started reading when I was still west, but put down for some reason, reading it on the bus back from Banff into Edmonton. In wonderful lyric prose, there is a lot here that reminds of Italo Calvino's If on a winter's night a traveler, another book I've been thumbing through lately, as a novel going through the structures of how one writes these fictional worlds.
In retrospect all of my mistakes are clear and close to sublime. It is as if I've been living in a land where all the princes turn into frogs when you kiss them too much. For years I've been trying to figure out the nature of love. This seems to be an unnecessarily well-kept secret. Either everybody else already knows it and they're not telling, or else nobody knows it and they're all bluffing. For years I've wanted to be just like everybody else. For years I've been searching with the sun in my eyes.
Writing writing on writing can always be dangerous. What has Schoemperlen [see her 12 or 20 questions here] figured out that the rest of us haven’t yet? Through numerous series of explorations, she writes out love and she writes out writing out love and relationships and the building blocks of both, writing out her love. Calvino's novel, it's been said, was certainly ahead of its time, but still so much contemporary fiction sounds exactly the same, but somehow Schoemperlen has managed something different.

Like any form, it seems, the novel is only dead if no one keeps it alive. If no one brings it to life.

Most of what we think is essential to our survival has been blown out of proportion. I used to think I would die if I couldn’t dance. I have finally agreed to stop wanting what I can't have. Everywhere I go, the earth seems to be tilting away from me. If the sun were the size of a basketball, then the earth would be the head of a pin.

I am learning to live with the paradox that the horizon, when I finally get there, is not likely to be at all the way I pictured it.


Now that I've finally got all this dust out of my eyes, I discover that I have all the time in the world. The trick is to remember that the horizon, like the future, is always out there: even when it's midnight and you're holding your breath with your eyes closed, even when you haven’t been able to catch sight of it for years. The trick is to remember that although, according to the rules of perspective, all receding parallel lines must converge at the horizon, in fact, according to the rules of real life, they don't.

When was the last time you asked yourself:
How hot is the sun?
How old is the moon?
Who invented the wheel?
Who discovered the speed of light?
Who is the patron saint of promises?
What was my first mistake?