Friday, October 31, 2008

Rowland Smith (1938-2008)

It was very sad to see in the Globe and Mail today an obituary for Rowland Smith, father of novelist Russell Smith, who was an English professor and dean of the faculty of humanities at the University of Calgary. I met him only once. During my tenure last year as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, I headed south for the annual writer-in-residence trade reading in the spring, meeting up with Sina Queyras and her lovely partner, as well as Dean Smith and his wife Anna for dinner, beforehand. How long was it, before I realized who they were parents to? Far too long, really. While I was in Calgary, the Smiths were lovely and gracious hosts, and I found them both to be wonderfully open, engaged, playful and extremely intelligent. I not only convinced Smith to come out after the reading to have drinks with us, but we sang songs in the pub (it wasn't hard to imagine this man, epitome of style and grace, would know both appropriate and inappropriate drinking songs) and we even managed to close the place, being but two of the four left of our dwindling group.

I was very taken with both of them. I only met him once, and I even miss him. I can't even imagine what his community of friends, peers and family must be going through. A memorial service for Rowland Smith happened a few days ago.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Nathalie Stephens (Nathanael) in Alberta

I come and fetch you at the arrivals’ gate and a week later I bring you back to the departure level. In between the space is filled with thoughts and talks and dialogue and mostly indigestible food and many rich moments, all of it public yet always private. A problem of performance: can we ever get away from the simulacra? (Anne Malena)
As I prepared my own return to Edmonton, I started reading Nathalie Stephens’ At Alberta (BookThug, 2008), a simultaneous series of departure and returns. As I packed my little bag heading west, it became difficult not to be aware of my previous year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, during the same period when the last of Stephens’ pieces were delivered, to be collected in this small graceful publication through Toronto’s BookThug. At Alberta is a series of talks and correspondences presented in and through Alberta during two visits to the University of Alberta, with one in 2006 and a second, two years later, with the latter visit resulting in an essay by University of Alberta professor Anne Malena, and a correspondence at the end of the collection between Stephens and poet and academic Christine Stewart, who was new faculty at the University of Alberta during the 2007-8 academic year.

In 1995, I spent an hour interviewing Quebecois author Nicole Brossard on the newly-published English translation of her novel Baroque d’aube (1995), published by McClelland & Stewart as Baroque at Dawn (1995). Being unilingual English, I wondered, how did she feel about me reading a text with her name attached that she had not actually written? Did she feel any ownership to works of hers translated into languages she could not in fact read? This seemed a strange thing for me to comprehend, as a unilingual English speaker and reader.

The tape has long been lost among my ex-wife’s possessions. I remember Brossard answering briefly in French, phrases out loud to herself, before able to self-translate for my benefit. I had wanted the French to appear in the transcription, since I considered it an essential part of the spoken text, and my ex-wife is fluently bilingual, but managed to lose track of such in her apartment. I do not remember too much about the interview anymore.

Quoting Derek Walcott in her piece in the small collection, Alberta critic Anne Malena writes:
The sigh of History rises over ruins, not over landscapes, and in the Antilles there are few ruins to sigh over, apart from the ruins of sugar estates and abandoned forts.
An important part of understanding Nathalie Stephens is understanding the space her work holds between languages, between genders. But how can one even begin to comprehend knowing but one of these two languages? Do I come to her works already incomplete? There is an abstract here that English usually cannot abide. The language is forced to shift, to make itself.

And why does the back cover work to eschew geography, At Alberta, yet the front cover is nothing but, published by “BookThug Toronto,” doing very little than heavily placing the collection? As the back cover writes:
The talks assembled in At Alberta have as their ironic coincidence: place. Spatially concurrent (they were all, with one exception, delivered at the University of Alberta), they rigorously thwart systematization through reiterative displacement, subterfuge and irritation. Addressing the treatment of genre and gender (which occupy the same semantic space in French), of (un)translatability, desire and territorialisation, Stephens makes uncomfortable the fluctuations necessary to make the languages in our mouths and the places from which we speak, more elusive, and paradoxically more approachable.
Obviously, language is an ongoing process between what is fixed and what is fluid, with English being (it is said) the most mongrel of tongues, made up of bits picked up from whatever other language it happens to near, whether used correctly or incorrectly (think mush for marche in sled-dog Alaska, or “the lou” for the once-warning, “l’eau!”). Some words, ideas and concepts simply can’t be moved easily from one language to another. Take the problems of gender from French to English, or certain words with multiple meanings in French, having to reduce or even shift meanings by changing into English, something playwright Patrick Leroux has struggled with for years, the difficulty in getting his plays properly translated, for the amount of wordplay he engages in the original tongue. Is this a good or a bad thing that the tongues of our mothers might get close, but never meet? How does one word in that muddle between languages, impossible to be in a place without the same muddles of ideas, concepts, gender?
Lines will lose their definition in spite of being draw, translation will not be in spite of being. I asked why does translation have to end since it can be the undoing of stasis, the expression of unendings. I like the answer, the risk of confining oneself, de se contenter, to the artifice of an exercise. No, if language defines you, you can also define it as you wrote in the first person and I translate in the second. (Anna Malena)
I think about so many authors that self-translate. Is this process of translating, of talking, also one of storytelling? The stories you hear in your youth that you take your own turn to tell; slightly changed, even if every word is the same. Telling tales out of school. How your grandfather got his own way through the war, or how your family came, generations ago, to be part of this country.

But still, jokingly, he says, how do you bring philosophy to Alberta? To fix would reduce, make less, and make so much less fluid. Why is it French prefers the fluidity, while English, predominantly, prefers the fixed position? How does one work between a rock and the river itself?
In the passage of oneself from one language into another, in the expression of desire for further and more, the space that opens, that offers itself as here, the failure, the faille, is posed between murder and suicide; there is no natural death to speak of. I translate myself. We translate ourselves. That is, we carry ourselves, the part of us that remains at the moment of crossing, into the space of the other. (Nathalie Stephens)
Stephens deliberately misuses words and concepts to be able to fully get to the (fluid) heart of the matter; that more this is fixed, and the idea that it is or it could be, an illusion. Once that illusion is passed, only then, can real comprehension begin.

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

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Various Positions: a life of Leonard Cohen

LinkThe past week or so I’ve been reading a friend’s copy of Various Positions: a life of Leonard Cohen by Ira B. Nadel (Vintage, 1997), a book I’ve actually been wanting to read for some time. How can anyone not want to read about Leonard? The poet-priest of Montreal, who I think every single one of us either wanted as lover or role model or both (I wanted as role model, for the record) when we were seventeen years old. Today I sit in a borrowed apartment in Edmonton, and keep thinking about this poem of his from Selected Poems 1956-1968 (McClelland & Stewart, 1968), one of the poems of his that I keep returning to, and perhaps, one of my favourite pieces of his:

DECEMBER 1966, 4 A.M.

Edmonton, Alberta, December 1966, 4 a.m.
When did I stop writing you?
The sandalwood is on fire in this small hotel on Jasper Street.
You've entered the room a hundred times
disguises of sari and armour and jeans,
and you sit beside me for hours
like a woman alone in a happy room.
I've sung to a thousand people
and I've written a small new song
I believe I will trust myself with the care of my soul.
I hope you have money for the winter.
I'll send you some as soon as I'm paid.
Grass and honey, the singing radiator,
the shadow of bridges on the ice
of the North Saskatchewan River,
the cold blue hospital of the sky --
it all keeps us such sweet company.
I remember going to the Chelsea Hotel in New York, running by and through with Stephen Brockwell and Clare Latremouille back in 2003, images of, among others, Cohen running like sugarplums through our heads. Part of what caught me in this collection, specifically, was the description of Anne Sherman, muse for another of my favourite poems of his. The section reads:
Sherman embodied all of the sexual freedom and guiltless love that Cohen had had difficulty finding in other women. For the next five or six years, Cohen continued to write about her in both poetry and prose. A notebook from the summer of 1958 contains a series of references to Sherman as well as the poem “To Anne in the Window Seat,” which expresses his grief over having to live without her. In a white notebook from Greece dated September 1961, there is a poem entitled “To Anne”:

I’d no sooner forget you
than pretty houses or legends
or success
But sometimes Meadowheart
is lost, Isolde is lost,
the new apartment is lost
and I’m invisible
in the cold machines of universe
that won’t stop
or slow to let you kiss

In the same notebook he adds:

Reader, I am anxious about
your discipline
are you constant as me?
Otherwise, burn this book
Go to the movies
if you aren’t doubled up with laughing.
The nature of that thing that catches, whatever it might be. Here, too, the poem he eventually published on Anne, from The Spice-Box of Earth (1961):

With Annie gone,
Whose eyes to compare
With the morning sun?

Not that I did compare,
But I do compare
Now that she’s gone.

Friday, October 24, 2008


Last night, the writers festival hosted a birthday party for Ottawa’s own Arc Poetry Magazine, with readings by Toronto poet Roo Borson, Vancouver’s Sonnet L’Abbe, Kingston author Steven Heighton and east coast poet Mary Dalton, showcasing thirty years of literary publishing through four poets representing various elements of Arc’s past. Calling herself “the ghost of Christmas past,” Borson started with various poems of hers published in Arc over the years, including issue #5, and the fifteenth anniversary issue, and reading a poem by journal co-founder Christopher Levenson. The magazine has come quite a long way since 1978, when three Carleton University professors—Christopher Levenson, Tom Henighan and Michael Grarowski—produced a photocopied and stapled journal of poetry from their English department offices, and over the years, other editors and editorial board members of the journal have included writers such as Rita Donovan, Nadine McInnis, John Barton, Michael Eady, Andre Alexis, John Bell, Colin Morton, Holly Kritsch, Mark Frutkin, Paul Tyler, Jennifer Dales, Susan McMaster, Sandra Nichols, John Buschek, Mike Feuerstack, Sharon Hawkins, Cheryl Sutherland and plenty of others. But one thing I wondered: of all the editors over the years, why was the only former editor in the audience (that I was aware of) was Colin Morton? Where were all of the rest of them, most of whom still live and work in the city?

With roughly ten on the current editorial board, it was good to see all of the current group there for the celebration, including Anita Lahey, Rhonda Douglas, Deanna Young, Sandra Ridley, and many writers around town that don’t come out to that many events, including Henry Beissel, Carmine Starnino (in from Montreal), Chris Jennings, Una McDonnell and fiction writer Patrick Kavanaugh, as well as many of the usual suspects—Amanda Earl, Pearl Pirie, Emily Falvey, Max Middle, Charles Earl, Marcus McCann, Monty Reid, Christine McNair, Shane Rhodes and David Emery. How many poets can you fit into a single room? Borson’s reading also included poems by D.G. Jones and Jan Conn, who have also appeared in various issues over the years. Anita Lahey, current editor of the journal, talked about owning the backlist (I have some, but not nearly as many back issues as I would like), “a treasure trail of the last thirty years of CanLit,” and read a fragment of an issue from issue #7 with P.K. Page, conducted by Levenson, Eady and two others in a café formerly housed in the Lord Elgin Hotel back in 1981, which, by itself, might actually have been the highlight of the event for me. Mary Dalton, for the thirtieth anniversary issue, had written a thirty line poem made up of the thirtieth line of thirty different poems, resulting in an interesting collage, and Sonnet L’Abbe made a point of reading from both of her published works, one published before she turned thirty, and the other after.

It was good that Steven Heighton was there, soon to arrive in January as writer-in-residence for the spring term at the University of Ottawa, and easily my favourite writer of the group. The Kingston poet and fiction writer (with a poetry collection and novel out, perhaps, in 2009 or 2010) read from a translation he’d done by a Russian poet, a poem originally published in 1830 (that was Heighton’s consideration of “30”), and a poem by Elise Partridge, as well as a few others of his own, including the title poem of his previous poetry collection, The Address Book.

Much of whatever complaints I might have with Arc Poetry Magazine are, I admit, stylistic, and the journal has always held an interesting position with the writers and publishers of poetry in the City of Ottawa over the years, being almost the official thread in a two-thread town, with a disconnected secondary thread including writers not enough to specifically group, including (among many others), William Hawkins, Michael Dennis, Dennis Tourbin, Rob Manery and Louis Cabri, jwcurry and Max Middle, representing a different stylistic kind of work. The non-metaphor-driven verse line, for lack of better terminology. But still, thirty years is a long time, and a pretty damn impressive accomplishment. I look forward to seeing what else the journal does over the next thirty years. Or maybe I’m just in it for all of the cake.

Thursday, October 23, 2008


What have I been up to all week? Taking notes, certainly, writing reviews there and here, but nothing so far as far as a proper report until now. You takes what you can, my son. Previous highlights of the festival, I must say, have included Maggie Helwig reading from her new Coach House Press novel, Ottawa author Andrew Steinmetz reading from his first novel, published by Gaspereau, that John Ralston Saul event on Sunday, and the John Newlove Awards. I can’t write daily reports, but at least here is something from some of what happened last night:

Wednesday, October 22; Because they’ve been putting events overtop each other, I decided to forego “The Poetic Past” event with Douglas Burnet Smith and Troy Jollimore for “Moving Stories Film Festival,” co-hosted by Paul Quarrington, showing numerous short films based upon published books. Many of these seemed to be promotional shorts produced by the publishers and/or publicity machines that go along with the books, which I have no problem with, and found the mix of these against more “straight” films rather interesting, including a lovely piece, “No Bikini,” produced from a short story by Ivan E. Coyote, who has been Ottawa-based these past fourteen months (she returns to Vancouver, unfortunately for us, in November). Pieces included shorts from Andrew Davidson’s massively pushed novel The Gargoyle (he was the one who got that HUGE advance), Douglas Coupland’s JPOD, and a piece on a non-fiction title, Food, Sex, and Salmonella by David Walter-Toews. There was even one from a poetry collection, Randall Maggs’ Night Work: The Sawchuk Poems. I think one of the real highlights had to be the short film A Life’s Passion, where James McCreath talks about how he got to the point of writing his historical novel Renaldo, which mixed just the right amount of biography and book. It felt more like interview than film. How do we get to these places?

The following event was “Writing Life #3,” with Pasha Malla, Rebecca Rosenblum and Ivan E. Coyote, all working in the short story. It was interesting, how host Neil Wilson tried to bring in the recent controversy that John Metcalf and others have created because of the new Penguin anthology of Canadian short stories edited by Jane Urquhart. Part of the “controversy” is frustrating because Metcalf’s arguments seem not to be any more than “why aren’t these people in the book?” and arguing that the book has little or no merit because of it; what? What is the purpose of the short story, what is the purpose of an anthology? I’ve edited numerous anthologies over the years, and there’s always someone who yells, no matter what it is you do, what it is you are trying to do. Someone else always thinks the book a failure because of who you leave out, or simply don’t include. The conversation is good, but the yelling is not.

Pasha Malla read from his new short story collection from Anansi, and also had a new poetry collection with Snare, neither of which I’ve properly seen yet (despite all my requests to the respective publishers); why is it I still have to beg for books? It was good to hear Rebecca Rosenblum read from her Once (Biblioasis), her first published collection of short fiction, after meeting her at Eden Mills (I deliberately missed her reading there, knowing I would catch it here). There is something that comes out in her reading that I didn’t catch when I was reading the stories myself, something that helps as a more effective entry point, and the story she read was one of my favourite, “Chilly Girl,” from the collection. Ivan E. Coyote is just brilliant. Everyone should go to hear Ivan read. So there.

Today includes the Arc Poetry Magazine thirtieth anniversary reading, with Steven Heighton, Roo Borson, Sonnet L’Abbé and Mary Dalton, a performance by Paul Quarrington’s band, Porkbelly Futures, and a talk with Judith Keenan and Quarrington on putting literary works on screen. Will I see you there?

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Michael Blouin's Chase & Haven

One of the benefits of writing is that you can be considered a young author for quite some time. It’s a fortunate thing for Ottawa-area writer Michael Blouin, in his late forties and publishing his first novel, Chase & Haven (Coach House Books, 2008), on the heels of his first poetry collection, I’m not going to lie to you (Pedlar Press, 2007). Written in fragments that appear to leap across the entirety of the story, the novel works through siblings Chase and Haven (a last name appears but once in the book) who end up escaping an abusive household when they are nine and ten, are raised by their maternal aunt, Mary, and work to make it on their own: Chase, with girlfriend Ivy, and Haven, with a young marriage and baby, April, and before long, single with a child, reappearing on her aunt’s doorstep. This might be a lot to take in as a sentence, but this is the story as it works its way through page after page, given out quite early and moving easily back and forth from their Kemptville trailer to North York to Ottawa. How do you work the action of a book when the ending comes well before the novel ends? Blouin easily knows the difference between fact and knowledge, and the difference between endings, and this novel, however dark, still manages to end with that slight lift at the end. No matter what else happens. With a wonderful lyric quality, Chase & Haven is a beautifully written and darkly-moving novel.

rm: How long did it take you to write this novel? And I know you’ve already finished another; are there advantages to having a first novel out when you’re already started a third?

MB: The date on the original draft of this novel suggests that it was started sometime in 2004 so about four years to take it to a final edited manuscript. Of course during that time I was working on the second novel and getting the poetry manuscript ready for publication and going through final edits for that so it wasn't constant work. It's been particularly busy over the last six months of the process as Coach House is very dedicated to the quality of the final result. I am hoping that having a first novel out will make it easier to interest an agent or publisher in the second, although doing the touring and publicity for the first is currently making it difficult to work on the third!

rm: I like how the story is told through fragments that move across time and geography, from the time the main characters are children, teenagers and adults. As you were writing, did you find it difficult to keep track of where you had already been?

MB: I wanted to follow a traditional narrative structure but also have the freedom to go wherever I wanted in the story arc through time and place – to follow trails that were not necessarily sequential, at least in the sense of the passage of time. In the end this turned out to be somewhat more complicated than I had anticipated and required an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of. I know it created a lot of additional work for my editor as well but Alana Wilcox is both gifted and patient. The story was planned as a series of polished stones strung in a line with anything extraneous chipped away. I think what I wanted was this; when I pick up a book I expect to be captured within a few lines - ideally I would like a reader to be able to pick this book up, open it to any page, and be hooked. That’s a tall order I know, for myself as well as the reader but that was the idea. Also the book is organized into three sections as opposed to chapters. The first section is comprised of all events in the story which take place in the morning, the second section is all the events which take place in the day and the third is all the events which take place at night. Needless to say maintaining order as well as a story arc proved a little demanding particularly as the story spans approximately thirty years but I think we did okay.

So – it was easy for me to keep track of while writing because whatever I finished had to fit in the puzzle in a certain way – it obviously had to fit into one of the three sections according to time of day and secondly it had to fit into a general sequence frame in that it didn’t give away information which had to be withheld due to the nature of the narrative arc. As you can imagine though this became more complex the further I went and required the attention of a scrupulous editor with a narrative timeline in hand (and, I’m told, there was a certain reliance on chocolate as a stress reliever…)

rm: Why did you decide on the three-part format of dawn, day and dusk?

MB: Part of the reason was also to work within a traditional structure but to subvert it. This places demands on both the writer and the reader (not to mention the editor). I also wanted the book to cover two lives but also to, in a sense, take place within the structure of one day. These are just types of things I like to play around with in addition to telling a story. I find it interesting to place constraints on what I do. I also wanted to create a claustrophobic environment in which the reader is able to watch what is unfolding but feels a helplessness about it at the same time, almost like a nightmare in which you are unable to move quickly enough. Squeezing or compressing things into the “day” structure seemed to help with this.

rm: You locate the action of the two as children very early in the novel, placing their trailer just outside of Kemptville, Ontario, close to where you live. Why is this important? Do you think it would have been any different had you placed them in Perth, Bells Corners or Cornwall?

MB: I don’t think those specific locations would have made much difference to the story but anything further than that might have. I think I’m the type of writer who writes about wherever I happen to be living at the time, at least that’s been true so far. Although when I finish my third novel (all three take place in or around Kemptville) I do have a desire to set one in India perhaps. Currently I feel secure setting my writing in a location I can be sure of, one I can see and verify on a daily basis. I also very much enjoy the fact that daily I walk or drive through the locations in which my stories are set. That helps for both consistency and inspiration. I know the trailer Chase and Haven live in, the house Ray in my second novel lives in with his dad (I pass that often) and my new character whose name is Walter lives with the ghost of his sister and an Uncle who doesn’t actually exist (in the story I mean, though that’s true of the real world as well) in a house about five minutes from where I am now. Although the novels are set in the Seventies and I was not in the Kemptville area at that time. I think location is important for texture but it’s true that the location is inside my head and I feel free to play a bit with that. I haven’t done any real research to make sure that all aspects of my 1970’s Kemptville descriptions are fully accurate, I don’t feel in the final result that that’s all that important, certainly for most readers. The global details have been checked though – when they sit down to watch Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In for example it’s on the right night and time slot for that show, and The Monkees lunchbox is accurately placed for time. I could reference Mannix but not Cannon and had to be sure that Mannix was available without cable (it aired on CBS through WWNY Watertown and could be picked up fairly well by rabbit ears). I think those details are important because getting them wrong might place a block between certain readers and the story. Knowing that Cannon was not airing in that time period could completely remove a reader from the internal reality of the story and I can’t afford that. I guess all details provide flavour and some have a higher expectation for accuracy in my mind.

rm: On the back cover, Emily Schultz compares your prose style to that of Toronto novelist Barbara Gowdy. Do you agree with this? Who would you cite as your influences?

MB: I wouldn’t cite Barbara Gowdy as an influence just due to the fact that I haven’t read her yet (though mean to) but others have agreed with the comparison. As far as influences go I just know who has made an impact on me, more specifically books or poems that have made an impact; the last paragraph of Running in the Family, the last several pages (all the pages really) of Coming Through Slaughter, all of Billy The Kid (so most of early Ondaatje then), Sinbad and Me (a much overlooked children’s classic by the American author Kin Platt who is acknowledged in my book, unfortunately only available now through places like E-Bay), Patrick Lane’s memoir, Carver, Herge (Tintin), Salinger, just about every movie I saw as a kid, Ian Fleming, Ray Souster, it would be a long list…

rm: Did you find it difficult moving back and forth between poetry and fiction? Do you approach one any differently than you approach the other?

MB: I seem to do both simultaneously without problem but I’m always focusing a bit more on one or the other. If a novel’s taking precedence the poetry seems to slide into the background and vice versa. But I will continue to jot down poetry notes when writing a novel and novel ideas when working on a poem. The process for writing for me though is fairly different. Most of my poetry comes as independent lines which I’ll write down over a span of several days or weeks and eventually they coalesce into a piece the purpose of which has become apparent in the process. This is fairly different from the process of a novel, it’s a much bigger jigsaw and I’ll recognize the targeted place for each piece as it arrives. I’ll know right away where the piece fits and what other pieces it’s connected to and why, unlike the more random and mysterious (for me) process of poetry. Also my poetry is almost completely autobiographical with little disguise and the fiction is not. Any situations in the fiction which are based on my own experience have been heavily altered. The slashed artery in Chase and Haven for example happened to me but in a context fairly unlike that of the book, likewise the jeep roll over in my second novel. Poetry, for me, is a more direct interpretation of my lived reality than fiction.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

John Ralston Saul: A Fair Truth

Since Canadian thinker John Ralston Saul talked at the writers festival on Sunday, I’ve been reading his new book, A Fair Country: Telling Truths About Canada (Viking Canada, 2008). One of the elements of the writers festival over the years that I have greatly admired is their ability to bring in thoughtful and considered debate, unafraid of potential controversy for the sake of an open conversation, and the Wilsons have managed to bring in some essential conversations to Ottawa audiences over the past dozen years. The core of Saul’s argument in this new book is that Canada’s foundational considerations don’t come from Europe, but in fact came out of Europeans patterning their ideas and thinking to those who were already living here, thus making Canada a Metis nation. As Saul himself said on Sunday, this “goes to the root of Canadian history,” and that Canada’s foundation of “peace, welfare and good government” is something that doesn’t come from France, England or any other part of Europe, and certainly doesn’t come from the United States, being, as he says, the true child of Europe. We are a country that celebrates complexity, he said, long before Trudeau, and not out of Europe but out of the aboriginal population, which was, at the point of European contact, a series of minority groups that managed to co-exist. When the British and the French and the Scots and the Germans and other groups began to arrive, how could they do anything but adapt, or end up dying for the sake of poor clothing and poor diet? What I find fascinating about this entire argument is simply how we didn’t see it before; why would anyone argue against it now?

The capacity to adapt to reality is a sign of intelligence in any civilization. In the Arctic, one of the principal causes of death among the British and U.S. explorers was their refusal to dress, act or eat like savages. From the 1830s on, they deliberately chose to ignore the example and the advice of voyageurs, Metis and Inuit. It was only late in the nineteenth century that they came to terms with their own inferiority and comic or tragic-comic self-absorption. All it took in the end was one naval officer breaking ranks to spend the winter with the Inuit. He came back to the ship in the spring—healthy, happy, well fed—to find the usual collection of sick shipmates and the usual roll call of the dead. The fundamental difference was the refusal of civilized Englishmen to eat raw meat, which contained the necessary vitamins. Unlike the savages, they boiled theirs until everything healthy had been removed. These sort of comic stories need to be told because they highlight how insistent we have remained on seeing our country through the eyes of these explorers rather than through the eyes of those who already lived here. The explorers’ stupidity and incapacity to adapt has been recast in this European interpretation of Canada as a drama, a human tragedy. Not stupidity.
In this extended essay, Saul writes a history of resisting acknowledgement of native influence and accomplishment, even as reviewers of the book slowly work along the same lines, wanting to immediately brush aside or negate his arguments instead of dealing with them head on. If he is wrong, then how did it otherwise go? What is the counter argument apart from this simple denial and dismissal? One of the things Saul discussed on Sunday, and further on in his book, is the idea of Arctic sovereignty, refusing the models that have been latched onto, the federal government pushing money into finding the remains of a dead explorer looking for the north-west passage. Why not, instead, argue sovereignty though the fact that Canadians have been living up there for thousands of years, a people who see no difference between water, the ice and the land? For thousands of years, these, as opposed to the “laws of the sea” have been theirs, Saul argued, and should be the argument presented to the world court. I mean, it’s so simple, isn’t it? Delightfully and frustratingly so; why not take the population of the north at their word, instead of, yet again, pushing a model of culture and land on them that isn’t appropriate?

And so Thomas King asks with dark irony: “What is it about us that you don’t like?” The answer is that, like Socrates or the warriors at Thermopylae, you’re supposed to have disappeared so that we can put up some statues, write some poems and get on with our lives as your anointed successors.
Saul’s argument is that this country has three founding cultures, not two, and that the country’s foundation has three poles; to weaken even one, is to weaken the country as a whole, and the best thing we can do for ourselves as a people is to strengthen the native population of our country. To bring out the best in them is to help bring out the best in ourselves, yet we manage to repeatedly frustrate the issue, denying it. The War of 1812 was won through the help of the native population, as was the battles during the Fenian Raids, and native Canadians made up great groups of soldiers during the first and second world wars, fighting skirmishes as Canadians even up to today. Why, Saul argues, do we insist on keeping them secondary?

The added element was that Tecumseh had had the good grace to die in battle in the War of 1812 in defense of what could be seen as the Canadian ideal. He had tried to hold what would become part of Canada’s border. He had been betrayed and abandoned by the British Army. From the point of view of nineteenth-century Canadian nationalism, it was a superbly noble death—a reminder that you can’t become someone’s Athenian unless you die and do it with grandeur.
It’s strange how an idea simply takes over, despite whatever evidence to the contrary. One of my favourite examples is how there are no physical descriptions of angels in any of the books of the Bible as human shaped beings with wings, yet this is how we have decided they have looked, and there have even been those to insist on this an other examples as Biblical “fact,” somehow completely unsupported by the text they insist upon. As Saul talks about how English and French literatures are separately taught in universities, as though they haven’t ever influenced each other, how can we conceive of native influence, if we can’t even acknowledge the cross-influences between our other two founding languages?

But there is almost no formal discussion of the implication of such influence. Our universities—anglophone and francophone—are largely constructed as pale imitations of European models led by language. And so ideas—to say nothing of literature and history—are separated out by language, as if that were the ultimate statement of meaning, as if an Algerian novel had more to say to a francophone or a Sri Lankan novel had more to say to an Anglophone just because it was written in their language, even if the experiences and influences are completely different. […] If we have difficulty accepting the profound meaning of this English-French crossover, it is even less surprising that we don’t deal with the Aboriginal influence on both. And yet, if we accept the idea that our civilization has been built upon three pillars and so has a triangular foundation, that must mean something. And the central meaning must be the effect on our thinking.
Saul doesn’t just rely on history, but brings it up to the skirmishes and foolishnesses of today, reminding non-aboriginals that every blocked highway, even in the words of those doing such, have been a last resort, after conversation fails, and is seen as a failure on the part of those blocking. This is an important and even essential book, and he has easily convinced me of Canada being a Metis nation (but where do we go now, becomes the next question). Anyone interested in history, where we are now and where we must go, has to read this book.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The first days of festival, Ottawa;

[two festival staff working the bar, including Kathryn Hunt, on the right] So here we go again, the Ottawa International Writers Festival, which started on Saturday morning with a small press book fair (specific to Ottawa publishers), co-hosted by the Ottawa Independent Writers and myself, the small press action network – ottawa (SPAN-O, cleaning out yr literary clogs since 1996; host of the ottawa small press book fair, invented way back in 1994). Book fairs are always fun, and many of the usual suspects showed up, including jwcurry, Buschek Books, Griddle Grin Productions, In/Words, The Ottawa Arts Review, Bywords, Dusty Owl Press, Penumbra Press, The Puritan (even though they now live in Toronto), and the University of Ottawa Press, as well as numerous tables by members of the OIW. We did well enough, I think, and I used it, in part, to promote the proper larger fair happening in less than a month, which none of the OIW seemed to have even heard about (they have their own fair happening in early November at Billings Bridge).
[John Flood, Penumbra Press] After the fair itself, there was a meet and greet of some sort, where various “movers & shakers” of the community got up to talk about what it is we do, are doing, etcetera. I think we all completely disagreed with what the fellow running OIW said, including suggesting that publishers weren’t respectful enough of the materials coming in, etcetera; why turn an author against publishers? According to him, a publisher wasn’t respectful of a manuscript unless they actually read the complete manuscript, and should offer suggestions instead of simply arbitrarily turning the thing down. Geez, who has the staff or the time for that? And if you can’t tell a manuscript doesn’t appeal in the first twenty pages or even forty, then the last page isn’t really going to change your mind, I’d think. There was also the conflict of his suggesting he was a promoter of general Ottawa writing and Ottawa writers, when this is the first time we've seen him at an event, in the twelve years of festival (he doesn't come out to anything of ours, either); why not just admit that he's only interested in what members of OIW do?
[Sean Wilson, Festival Director, enjoying a Beau's] John Flood and John Buschek addressed such pretty well, about the possibilities of time, and just how many manuscripts they receive in a year, and other things like that (Jennifer and I even spoke on Chaudiere, and myself, later on, on above/ground press, The Factory Reading Series, the small press book fair, ottawater, etcetera; I ran out of time well before I ran out of subjects, so left a whole bunch of stuff out). Still, Flood, and later, Steve Artelle, both sounded like they were running for office. When Steve Zytveld was talking, I think I yelled “four more years!” or somesuch from the back of the room. Ah, festival. It was still an interesting idea, various of us talking about what and why that we do, for the sake of those in the audience who wouldn’t have known; Sean Wilson said it was a response to various phone calls he’s received over the years from writers who want to get published, know how to get published, so I think the evening accomplished everything it set out to do, whether or not any of us thought the whole thing dopey completely irrelevant.
[poet and Arc magazine editor Peter Richardson, preparing their table] I’m glad that the Ottawa Book Awards is now part of the writers festival, making it feel like a real event, and not what it used to be, back in the mid-1990s, as part of the Ottawa Valley Book Festival, or whatever it was called. A horse with three broken legs, while the sign at the front offered free pony rides. Elizabeth Hay, of course, won the Ottawa Book Award for her Late Nights on Air (2007), and Shane Rhodes won the Lampman-Scott award for The Bindery (2007). I admired greatly that Shane Rhodes said he would donate half of his prize money for aboriginal causes, for the sake of what damage poet Duncan Campbell Scott did as Minister of Indian Affairs (residential schools started under his watch, for example). A good idea and a great gesture. Still, apparently with the conflict of Arc Poetry Magazine running the award, editorial board member Rob Winger didn’t feel it appropriate to let his book even be part of such, and editor Anita Lahey did the same last year; what happens when a good percentage of poetry books by Ottawa-based authors aren’t put forth for the sake of conflict? It no longer becomes an award of whatever one thinks of as being “best” (an arbitrary term at best, I admit); is there someone else around that could take this award on? Should the festival itself take it?
related links on the festival (so far): Amanda Earl, Charles Earl, etc;

Friday, October 17, 2008

Ongoing notes: some (Canadian) journals

Calgary AB: The new issue of dANDelion arrived in the mail the other day (why does filling Station, despite the fact that I think I'm in them, keep refusing to send issues? I haven't seen an issue all year...); what happened to the website? At least the issues are still appearing. One of the standards of publishing new and compelling writing by Canadian and international authors, one of the highlights of this issue is the fact that we finally see new work from damian lopes, who had a poetry collection out a few years back, and then quietly disappeared. Where has he been all this time? Another highlight has to be the interview with (conducted by Jonathan Ball), and new work, by Calgary poet ryan fitzpatrick, as well as same with (conducted by derek beaulieu), and by, UK poet caroline bergvall. I’ve been finding that Canadian literary journals are fewer and further between for meaty and compelling interviews compared to what existed, say, twenty years ago. Where have all the interviews gone?
JB: You’ve expressed (in private) an interest in “the trace” and in “ghosts” as well as the abject. Could you flesh out what this interest means to you, in the larger context of a general poetics, and also on the level of craft?

RF: At a recent reading I gave that I think might have spurred your question, I said that the poems from Fortified Castles that I read weren’t “about ghosts” but “had ghosts in them,” which, I think, speaks to my interest in the absent (or, to steal a bit from Baudrillard, the more absent from absent). I’m very intrigued by the idea that we’re affected and driven by something that we can’t see but can sense. There is a trace of something. Something spectral. Something constantly behind me, urging me to move in certain directions. My interest has spurred a lot of reading into psychoanalysis, but the books that spurred my interest are Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx and Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror and their shared notion that what we think is dead is actually not and is pursuing us relentlessly. As a writer, what this interest has done for me is that I have had to realize that I can’t get to the root of things (as a good radical writer should) by tackling things head on – I need to approach things sidelong, hoping to catch glimpses of the capitalist hegemony with its pants down.
Toronto ON: I’ve been getting copies of Descant magazine in the mail for as long as I can remember, and when the issues are memorable, they’re very so. The newest one, #142, is another theme issue, on “Hotels.” I’ve always liked theme issues, but get somewhat wary of journals that seem only to be able to work such; where are the general issues? Sometimes I just want a journal to publish what they think is the most interesting work, instead of working a theme every single bloody time. But still, the “Hotels” issue is a good one, with perhaps one of the most attractive covers I’ve seen in some time (unfortunately the back cover is nearly unreadable because of the design), with photos on the cover and inside by Arnaud Maggs, from the series “Hotels of Paris.”

Room Twelve

After this, when other lovers lend tongues
and lips, they’ll taste slightly off, like rust
to the drinking water, red wine about to turn.

This is our night to forget everything
except skin. Our lives are as thin
as these hotel walls and we are not in love,
but you feel like open green
inside of me, a crocus pushing snow.
I can hear my voice cracking, letting your voice come
through and my wind chimes at home, hung outside
the kitchen window, how they’ll sound
after losing the layers of ice, how I should have
brought them in for the winter. We know
what we are doing is wrong, but we tell ourselves
that these are only bodies, barely
shedding layers and how can real damage
be done. Already, a crack of sun

through the curtains, calling to us
like the Bible in the nightstand drawer.
Our curved shoulders cast shadows
so strange we can’t tell for sure they’re ours.
you get ready to leave, rest your palm
on the same phone book that strangers
have leafed through to find call girls
and fast food, forgetting the number
for a cab. Morning light,

you won’t look at me. What’s left
is how you loved the dark. Maybe
it’s the brightness in the room or the cold metal
keys in your hands, but we know we’ve touched everything
within reach, are not strong enough
to stretch ourselves out
further for more. (Amy Dennis)

Why are so many of the pieces in this collection about trysts? I understand the idea of hotels, but is that all there is? Otherwise, this is a strong and interesting issue, and even includes a photo series of the artist rooms in Toronto’s Gladstone Hotel, restored as part of the refurbishing of the building in 2004; wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone could do that in Ottawa, in the decrepit building at Bank and Somerset that once housed the old Duke of Somerset Pub? Another highlight of the issue is contributing editor Mark Kingwell’s non-fiction piece, “Are You Arabic? Drinking in Hotel Bars and the Female Cruise,” which is an absolute must read, working through numerous old films and hotel bars, including To Catch a Thief (1955), Funny Face (1957), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Love Me Tender (1962), and The Graduate (1967), writing:
The particular hotel bar scene is seared on the memories of more than one generation of young men, who can only sympathize silently with Ben’s ineffectual attempts to hail a waiter, appear suave and in command, or even retain his lunch as leopard skin-clad Mrs. Robinson, a self-assured alcoholic, snaps her fingers for a drink and the cheque together, and twits him for not more smoothly arranging a room. But that discomfort is nothing compared to his bumbling dialogue as she undresses in the room later, where he offers her a choice of wire or wood hanger, because, “they have both.” She finally manoeuvres him past his own misgivings by wondering if this is his first time, and then referring repeatedly to his “inadequacy” – a gambit, let it be said, that will work with most men under twenty-five. (Hoffman, playing twenty-one, was actually twenty-nine; Bancroft, supposedly in her forties, was thirty-five and stunning.)

These early scenes can almost make you forgive Ben for the brutally conformist message that is delivered under cover of prima facie satire and that seductive Simon and Garfunkel soundtrack. As Roger Ebert has noted, we happily watch Ben and Elaine ride off in the bus, he avoiding her mom and she avoiding the doofus frat-boy fiancé, but their stunned final glances at each other are ambiguous. Really, how long will it be before Ben is in fact moving up in the world of plastics? Elaine was the match his parents wanted, after all. Another victory for bourgeois righteousness and bio-fascist norms. And so much for sexually frustrated middle-aged women.
Other than that, Aaron Tucker’s poem “concierge” is worth reading, poems by Priscila Uppal (including an “Ode to Mini-bars”) and the piece “Temporary Keys” by Nathaniel G. Moore. Do you ever get the feeling more journals and book publishers don’t publish his magnificent work because they just don’t know what the hell to do with him? One of my favourite parts is knowing that the two quotes at the beginning of his piece are by him, from his own two published books. Here’s the first section of the second half of the piece, titled “That’s Him Officer: The Rise & Fall of Nathaniel G. Moore,” that writes:

The door closed behind us. She tossed the bag of ice on the bed, as if she were about to perform some drastic surgery. Fetched some plastic cups. I opened the rum. She poured the juice, added the ice. We drew the curtains and started –

“You ready to party with me?” She was wearing grey underwear?

“It’s my bikini. I’m European, okay?”

“It looks like Serbian army fatigues.”

“Shut up.”

“Is that from the Sylvia Plath collection?”


The hotel mattress sighed uneasily as our bodies piled on top of one another. “Bring out your dead,” she said, filling up our plastic cups of dwindling ice. The rest is a blur of pink, red and teeth: lover’s spit and treacherous sweat.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Arc magazine: The Lampman-Scott Award longlist reading;

[Michael Blouin, above] Last night was the annual reading of the eligible titles for the Archibald Lampman-Duncan Campbell Scott Award for best poetry book by a resident of the City of Ottawa, sponsored and administered by Arc Poetry Magazine (see here for list of all the eligible titles). Held at Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar in Hintonburg/Mechanicsville (which will soon be swallowed up completely by Westboro), there was a small but attentive crowd; highlights included Shane Rhodes, Stephen Brockwell and Michael Blouin, especially since I’ve started reading Blouin’s first novel, Chase & Haven (Coach House Books), which he launches in Ottawa tonight, and again next week at festival.

Lovingly hosted by former TREE director and current member of the Arc editorial board Rhonda Douglas, I wondered, where were all the other Arc people? I never understand this magazine, how so few of them seem to show up for their own events; what’s that about? Also, the shortlist was announced some time ago, so the idea of the longlist reading was a bit sticky, and for whatever reason, some of the authors on the longlist weren’t able to appear, including Ian Roy, Anne Le Dressay and Nicholas Lea. The winner will be announced on Saturday night on the first day of the Ottawa International Writers Festival, with winner to take home $1,500.

Hunt (Wallace Stevens in the Kootenays)

Here the shagged pines not of Connecticut,
Here the huntsmen and their fireside dances,

their disembodied shadows on the rocks
where granite glistens as if a mirror for each spark.

There is no silver stream but black, the moon
behind the pines and craggy peaks, stars

hidden by slow-moving clouds, the stream reflects
no light, it is a harp of rock and water playing

the chatter of a crowded marketplace,
or of the wolf packs hunting in the dark,

or of cicadas in the heat of summer,
which are each the same chattering

tuned by the stream. (Stephen Brockwell, The Real Made Up)

I’ve been wondering for a while, is it worth starting up some sort of small press / chapbook award for Ottawa-area authors as well? Is there enough activity happening to warrant such a thing, and would it even generate more (which may or may not be a good thing)?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

This is your Brain, This is your Brain on Thanksgiving

Christine McNair and I in Sainte-Adele, Quebec over the weekend, getting away from it all (whatever it is I think “it all” even is). Thanksgiving, or something, getting work done without the distractions of whatever [some writing we did the first trip around, here and here]. This is our third weekend in her mother’s “spare house.” I can’t call “cabin” or “cottage” due to the high-speed internet, Jacuzzi and satellite television. I grew up on a farm; when I think “cabin,” I think lucky to have indoor plumbing.
Strange to be in such a French-speaking area, after years of Ottawa; it’s almost enough to make me sentimental for Alexandria, where I went to high school (Alexandria, Not Egypt, as Margaret Christakos once wrote), 75% French-speaking. We’ve even met folk around that I’ve had questions for, that Christine had to ask in French, and translate for my sake. What the hell am I doing in Sainte-Adele? I’ve been interested in the old buildings, the old parts of the area, originally invented in the 1850s, well before the rail came through in 1891, the rail long gone for the sake of bike paths, ski vacations, and the like. It’s why we get to use her mother’s house until about this time of year, before the tourists come through.

Every time we come through, at least once a day wandering into the centre of town to see what’s what, look at buildings, tourist about, or even just have ice cream or something. Me in my leather looking for 1970s-era crime to fight, but only crime that might be slightly downhill from where I am already standing. Gravity is my co-pilot, my partner, my friend; but gravity can turn so easily. We keep seeing more vintage cars and even bikers, far more than actual people. Where do the people go? Do they all stay home? Every house out where we are a “no trespassing” sign, between the trees and the bushes and the stray random deer.

Yesterday the daily outing involved looking for a church Christine remembers, that we somehow couldn’t find. The best we could do was a postcard, returning to where we’d purchased before, to find out more information, the chapel for Le Chantecler Hotel, but we still couldn’t find it, even with help; we managed, I think, every other church in the area, thanks to maps and directions and even help. Does this building even exist? Should we just go down to the hotel and ask?

The first time we were here, driving back through Ontario along Highway 417; since we were close enough, I thought we should drop into my parents, say hello, pick up mail. I had never heard of Sainte-Adele, Quebec before, but apparently my mother had. Am I the only one who hasn’t?My father came into the house after we did, probably because of the strange car in the yard, and told us that, yes, he knew where that was, Sainte-Adele. A cousin of his father's used to live there, and they even went around the time my father would have been ten, or twelve, he recalled, a relative named Welshman. He remembers walking up a hill with his father around the same time, in that Sainte-Adele. Am I the only one who hasn’t heard of Sainte-Adele? What are the odds of us having Anglo relatives in an almost exclusively-French town? (Christine's family is Anglo too; another conundrum) Why does he only tell stories when I bring strangers by? I went through the family history to find out what the hell he was on about: the daughter of John McLennan (1853-1931; the one who went west and became "MacLennan") from his first wife, Mary Ann McRae. Their second daughter, Mary Ann (Mamie) McLennan was born in 1882, and their mother died April 8 of the same year, shortly after Mamie was born. The two girls were brought up by their grandmother McRae at the home of her uncle, Farquhar (John Bhare) McRae, at lot 2, Concession 7 Roxborough. In 1904, Mary Ann married William Ernest Welchman (1868-1951), an employee of The Imperial Bank of Canada and resided in Montreal, later at Ste. Marguerite, Quebec. Will is buried outside Maxville at the McRae plot, with his wife, her sister and their mother. Mamie moved to Lumsden, Saskatchewan in June 1958, where her father had ended up with his second wife and their four sons, and she died in Regina in 1968.

Afterwards, Christine provided information, finding this: “1951: Sainte-Marguerite-Station demands the right to secede from Sainte-Adèle. Ste-Marguerite (pop. 2,250) is alongside the large Lac Masson and home to Bistro à Champlain, one of the prime restaurant destinations in the region. To get there, take Exit 69 off of Autoroute 15. Or, if driving from Ste-Adèle, look for a street heading northeast named Chemin Pierre-Péladeau (Rte. 370). It becomes a narrow road that crosses the 30-foot-wide Rivière du Nord and then winds through evergreen forests past upscale vacation homes. The road dead-ends at the lake, with the restaurant at the intersection. Ste-Marguerite is 96km (60 miles) north of Montréal.” She also found a telephone listing for 1956, “+ Welchman, Mme W, Ste-Marguerite-Station, 608-R-2. (ie, she was in the part that was Ste-Adele until 1951)”
Turkey tomorrow at my parent’s house, on our way back into Ottawa, the 2+ hour drive. I think it’s been, what, twenty years since I’ve actually been home for Thanksgiving…?