Saturday, May 25, 2024

Dawn Macdonald, Northerny



I’m not so interested in writing
any Northern/Nature/Yukoner poems about the Northern Lights and
my trusty-sled-dog-see-your-breath-adventure by all my poems turn
out to have animals in them because that’s where I’m

and I do share 50% of my DNA with a banana

so I don’t want to hear any more about how I’m
bad at sharing just because I’m an only child
and everybody’s bad at assumptions

well at the end of the day I was born
here at the end of the day in a thunder
storm of anesthesia and incubation

an animal purred into that room, nipped
a neat umbilical, wolfed
my head right out of the womb.   that’s its breath

on the window page


                              it makes a real hot meat view

From Whitehorse, Yukon poet Dawn Macdonald comes the full-length debut Northerny (University of Alberta Press, 2024), a collection set in and responding to her particular landscape, place and experience of what the rest of us in the lower parts of Canada refer to as the north. “Fireweed is edible and best before / the bloom.” she writes, as part of the poem “ROADSIDE WILDFLOWERS OF THE NORTHWEST,” “Pigweed, a sort of spinach. / Kinnikinnick, we called it / honeysuckle. There’s something else called / honeysuckle. We’d call it what / we want.” As she highlit during her launch a few weeks prior, the poems here refuse the easy depictions and descriptions, and even work to correct outside narratives on and around a place she knows intimately, but I would suggest she offers these elements not as foreground but as an underlay, beneath her depictions and observations, writing her own line across such intimate backdrop. “growth is its own / value proposition.” she writes, as part of the poem “INCREASE,” “love’s supposed / to be automatic / like transmission.”

Macdonald’s poems flash light, offering intrigues of clarity, depth of lyric intrigue across narratives that depict and document a particular kind of angled roughness and wilderness. “One day the wind will have my heart, I guess,” she writes, as part of the poem “WALKING THE LONG LOOP,” “flash fried and let fly from the jar of ash, / assuming such litter is permitted, and you’re there / to flip that lid. / I could do worse than to lodge, / even the barest bonescrap, atop / a nodule of pine. Anything / with sap in it, a line / to the nearest star.”Playing off Emily Dickinson, her opening poem, “FIRST THINGS,” hold to the small moments of chickens and broken eggs, writing: “Riddle wrapped up inside, / cased, laid, brooded, clucked upon, clean // as a whistle. An egg’s / a thing / with features, but, order / of operations applies – a flashlight shone clean / through the inside / illuminates outline, diagram, edges blown: [.]”

Friday, May 24, 2024

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Pamela Porter

Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Pamela Porter immigrated to Canada in 1994, where she joined workshops with Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier. Patrick Lane called her "a poet to be grateful for." Her work has earned many accolades, including the inaugural Gwendolyn MacEwan Poetry Prize, the Malahat Review's 50th Anniversary Poetry Prize, the Our Times Poetry Award for political poetry,  the FreeFall Magazine Poetry Award, the Prism International Grand Prize in Poetry, the Vallum Magazine Poem of the Year Award, as well as the Raymond Souster and Pat Lowther Award shortlists. Her novel in verse, The Crazy Man, won the Governor General's Award, the Canadian Library Association Book of the Year for Children Award, the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award and other prizes. Both The Crazy Man and her later novel, I'll Be Watching, are required reading in schools and colleges across Canada and the U.S. Pamela lives on a farm near Sidney, B.C., with her family and a menagerie of rescued horses, dogs and cats.

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

My first book completely changed my life. I was born in the US and studied poetry and prose writing  in undergraduate school at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. I even changed universities in order to be able to take the poetry writing class; I managed to do that during Christmas break one year. After undergraduate school, I was accepted to the University of Montana in order to take Richard Hugo's workshops in Missoula. But after graduation, I was on my own. I was born and grew up in the US and only came to Canada because my father in-law was in his nineties and wanted to retire from the business of growing wheat and other crops on the prairie land in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and my husband, and the only male son in the family, was the only one who might have any interest at all in Canadian farming. At the time, we lived in Montana, on the east side of the Rockies in a very fertile valley; as well, a river cascaded down river right beside our house and flowed into a lovely spot where beavers made their dams and even chewed down a few thin trees on our land to make their homes. We had very young children at the time and were happy where we lived. The only drawback as I saw it was that we would need to move to Canada in order for Rob to take on the farm business. Rob, my husband, told me of my father in-law's request, and asked that we think about the idea of moving to Canada.
My earliest experience of Canada took place when world's fairs were popular at the time and I goaded my family to drive us to San Antonio where there was going to be an abbreviated world's fair. When we arrived to the fair, I continued to nudge my family to visit the Canadian pavilion where, upon entry, cold air was blown at you on arrival and it was really dark inside, though the many photographs of Canada's beauty were spread along the walls. That about summed up what I knew about Canada. I was ten. Nonetheless, Rob and I thought seriously of moving north.

We had a Metis friend named Georgia who was looking for work and we were overwhelmed with the babies. We hired Georgia to help us with cooking and cleaning, and in return, she told us about her childhood.

Georgia lived in northwest Montana with her grandparents on a ranch and the family lived a hardscrabble life of poverty. A number of dams had been built on the east side of the Rockies, dams that were built by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930's, and all the dams were built from wood. One year while Georgia was still living with her grandparents, a storm came up and overwhelmed the area with rain. Well, all those dams burst at the same time. There was discrimination from the officials brought the flooded folks to rescue centers, who were tasked with separating the white folks from the First Nations. And slowly, the rebuilding.

That was my first attempt to write a novel. Of course, it needed to be a book my children could hear me read to them, and later, read to themselves.

I'd had rejection after rejection for so many years, I didn't know if this story, Sky, would be just another rejection. But an editor at Groundwood Books in Toronto, wrote back to me and said that the story had promise, but "it needs work," they said. I said that I was willing to do the work. How to start? We'll help you, they said. So I worked on Sky, the book, for weeks. The editors sent me more work. I did the work. One day I got a call from Groundwood Books to say that they were pleased with my edits and the board had decided to publish the book.

I held myself together enough to be able to thank the person on the other end of the phone; I hung up, sat down in a chair, and sobbed. I counted up how many years I had been working to create something that would be published rather than rejected. I counted that I had been working 25 years to see one of my stories published as a novel for young readers.

Once Sky was accepted for publication, I went to work on a book in free verse poetry, about a girl in Saskatchewan who suffers a catastrophic farming accident which alters her life, and how she works to recover from her life-long disability. As I thought about what I wanted to write, characters would come to me, as though each one sat beside me one by one and introduced themselves. I felt the presence of a large man sitting beside me, and quietly, I asked the presence his name. He said his name was Angus. That began the story The Crazy Man, over which I spent a year writing, and which later won the Governor General's Award for literature for young people. I still get cards and letters from readers about The Crazy Man and how some people say they keep the book on their bedside table and read from it their favourite parts.

I was having lunch with Patrick Lane some years ago, and he mentioned that it was as though the characters came across a kind of bridge in order to present themselves as part of the story. I said I had had a similar experience.

I wrote another book in free verse about WWII, titled I'll Be Watching which is read by students in high schools when teaching the second world war.

I came to fiction first because I wanted to tell Georgia's story. I came to poetry as a novel because I discovered from talking with students in schools that boys in particular will read a book in which there is a lot of white space on the page and often boys find reading such a book to be a relief and one they can enjoy rather that be overwhelmed by pages and pages filled with words. I have to say though, that for me, poetry really does come first for me.

As a child, I loved listening to to rhyming poetry, and as I grew up I looked for more books of poetry that would inspire me to write. I'm also a pianist, so music, and the music of words are important to me. The lyric for me is important, particularly in poetry. My father once gifted my mother with the Complete Poems of Robert Frost. One day when I was about 15, I finally drew up the courage to stand on a chair and take down that book, and I'd sit on the floor of my bedroom and read Frost's poems. I'd memorize many of them as I walked to school, though once I got to "Out, Out--" well, I didn't know what to do with that one, though over the years I realized what poetry can be in its many iterations.

How long does it take to start a writing project? Well, it depends on whether I see a novel in free verse or a poem of 15-30 lines. Sometimes the poem of 30 lines is more difficult because one may "worry the poem to death" when the poem is as good as it's going to get. Recently I uncovered the start of a poem and decided it just needed a little more attention. Sometimes first drafts appear fairly finished, though others may take much more time to come upon what the poet is working toward -- it is music that is needed, or some deft editing?

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

I came to fiction first when I wrote Sky, because I wanted to show readers, especially young readers the rough lives Georgia's family experienced in the flood: the discrimination, the poverty, so that young readers will have a glimpse into another person's poverty and struggle.

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

It really depends on how much material you want to include in your writing project, whether prose is best -- and it can be a prose poem if that seems to be the way your brain is working, or it can open up to a story or a novel in prose. If the prose is working well, keep going. Some writers will present a piece of prose and then include a poem if it seems appropriate.

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

Usually I want to start with a poem or several, or a whole book of poems. Two people in my life have passed fairly recently, so I have been writing poems about them and about their lives. That's not to say that one can't include prose poems or prose in conjunction with poetry, as long as there is a balance in the project.

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

I do enjoy doing readings, because if I may say so, I'm a very good reader to an audience. I was fortunate in middle school in that I had an excellent speech teacher, who taught us how to create space when speaking, and how to provide emphasis when needed and to speak in a way that allows listeners to take in everything you want to say.  I'm forever trying to get a speaker to learn how to use a microphone properly so that the audience will be able to understand all that is said.

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

Yes, I want readers/listeners to hear clearly what a poem or paragraph or haiku is about, and how can the listener/reader best understand the poem or prose piece? In that manner, we need to speak clearly and naturally so that the information being delivered is clear.

The questions I want to answer in my work are those that are of significant importance: how should we live so that others can live fully as well? How can we write in a way that helps others to see the critical questions which we as a society need to answer? How can we be awake to those questions so that we can begin to live toward the answers? There is so much destruction and pain and poverty in many parts of the world -- how can we begin to discover the answers?

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

I believe the role of the writer is to ask the questions which the society at large needs to confront.

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


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

Let another person whom you trust look through your work and give suggestions if needed.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to novels)? What do you see as the appeal?

I tend to stick with poetry though recently I've been writing prose poems which is a kind of hybrid. One doesn't get the music of the lines as much as lined poetry, but it holds onto the visual elements, I think.

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

Well, I have a writing group who keep me going and asking questions of the poems, or prose, which is always interesting.

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

I look for books of poetry or of prose poems for inspiration.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
The pinon scent of New Mexico, where I was born.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
Visual art influences me, particularly Van Gogh.

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

Music, whether written or sung or played on instruments.

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

A book of poems with paintings: whose, I'm not sure.

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

Probably, a teacher, though having to grade papers would be the end of me, I think.

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

I wanted music in my life, and colour, and art.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Esi Edugyan's Washington Black.

20 - What are you currently working on?
a collection of prose poems.

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

Thursday, May 23, 2024

As I was going by The Market Cross : Noviomagus, Chichester,

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd –
The little dogs under their feet.
               Philip Larkin, “An Arundel Tomb,” 1956

[see my report on the first part—Hammersmith + West Sussex—here]

Tuesday, May 14, 2024: As Christine wandered off for day one of her two-day course at West Dean (where she had schooled nineteen years prior, for the sake of becoming the stunningly talented book and paper conservator she is today), the young ladies and I made for the pub, and for breakfast. Already more than a couple of older locals set in their seats with pints. The night prior, Ruth had dropped us at our hotel, and there was barely time for take-away for dinner before everyone crashed. The young ladies weren't convinced by the pizza, so the pub across the street did seem to have a wider menu, and felt a better option.

“Noviomagus Reginorum was Chichester’s Roman heart,” the internet offers, “very little of which survives above ground.” This was originally a Roman settlement, with apparently little to no evidence of occupation in this particular spot until the Romans came through. Did you know this was a Roman settlement? Despite Rose complaining she would never go to another pub, we had a breakfast they enjoyed (Rose had two rounds of pancakes), before we headed off for adventures.

As we were literally beside the Cathedral, we wandered through, which the young ladies resisted at first, but enjoyed enough they claimed we would be returning. They ended up enjoying the space, which was helped by a small group of musicians practicing for their noon-time concert (the children also took turns taking photos with my phone, although Rose only seems to have taken selfies, her expression with devilish glee as she pretended to take pictures of a variety of exhibits). Chichester Cathedral, where British poet Philip Larkin and Monica Jones visited in January 1956, a visit that prompted his poem “An Arundel Tomb,” a poem included in The Whitsun Weddings (1967), a collection that, curiously (or even, wisely) enough, the bookstore across the road had copies of (Rose insisted we visit the bookstore before heading into the church). Instead, I picked up a copy of Luke Kennard's Notes on the Sonnets (Penned in the Margins, 2021), continuing my tradition of landing in England and purchasing one of his books. Given Rose has been composing poems lately (entirely on her own), I was tempted to prompt the young ladies to write their own response to what Larkin had taken as a poem-prompt, but we didn't quite get there.

As we were looking at this very expansive and stunning painted panel (above) from the early 1500s (apparently one of the first full-length depictions of Henry VIII), a gentleman with a sweater sprinkled with paint sidled up and asked if I was American. Oh, no, I said. Oh, I have a fact that you might have liked, if you were an American. I told him I loved facts (left: Aoife's photo of me listening to this random stranger offer historical facts), so he offered that one of the figures painted in that large wooden panel (one of the circles) was a direct ancestor of Mary Todd Lincoln, wife of American President Abraham Lincoln. In turn, I later offered this fact to one of the Church guides, who didn't know this at all! I left it with her, naturally, to attempt to verify.

The young ladies were quite fascinated by the amount of markers within the church, articulating burial. They couldn't quite believe how many, and that people were stepping on these! Oh, we should get you two to Westminster, I thought, where some 3,000 are buried (I think every single stone is a marker; Chichester Cathedral seems quite sparse in comparison). Aoife took many, many photos of these markers (including this one, above), attempting to wrap her head around the gravesite within the boundaries of the Cathedral building. And then, of course, there was the Roman mosaic discovered a full metre underneath the floor some years back while working routine maintenance to the building. I did ask if the Romans held this space as a religious site, but apparently it was, during that period, the site of a very grand house.

Again, Aoife took photos of the markers and other items (left, above) within the church, and Rose took selfies.

Did you know there is a window in this Cathedral designed by Marc Chagall? Absolutely stunning. Curious, also, to see from the outside, later, once we had returned to the street. The street, were we were briefly distracted by a tow-truck moving to salvage a broken-down bus; Aoife wanted to watch the bus get towed.

From there, we headed to the Novium Museum, Chichester's museum of Roman artifacts and history. The first two floors are Roman history, and the building and exhibit are entirely constructed around Roman ruins found a meter or two under street level, which is pretty cool. Not a large space, it did include a vast array of items discovered in the area, information on history from the origins of the Roman occupation to the present, and costumes to play in and what-not. And bones.

Although I did have to inquire at the front desk as to what "gibbets" were (which is why I snapped this particular photo).

And did you know a local boy made it into the British space program? They do seem pretty proud of him (and rightly so), although odd to see this timeline for him offered in a part of a Roman museum. On her part, Rose was focused on a short video (that she watched in a loop at least three or four times) on a murderous local gang.

I, for one, was delighted by the Roman finds [impressive, albeit less so than the museum we visited in Paris during our honeymoon]. It was exciting to even see a photograph, as part of the Roman timeline of the space, of Time Team legend Phil Harding, my absolute favourite British archaeologist (we all have favourite British archaeologists, don't we?). Oh, to have visited a spot he helped research and reveal! Also, given Rose had begun watching episodes of Time Team with me a couple of years back, it was interesting (and felt important) to provide her with a connection to the site (and it made me wonder if there was even an episode dedicated to uncovering some of this--I have yet to look into this, for the sake of a re-watch).

From there, we headed north a few blocks to the north boundary of the original Roman settlement; a great deal of the Roman walls and gateways still surround the downtown core of Chichester, so we strolled a few blocks' worth east, to see what we could see, and imagine our eyes out across the horizon, attempting to provide protection from the barbarian (local) hordes.

From there, we headed back south, through an array of shops (Rose had been clamouring for some shops for clothing, trinkets, makeup, jewellery, etcetera). Fortunately, we found some charity shops, so their shopping managed some inexpensive clothes, a necklace and ring or two. Aoife managed to find a nice dress. Rose picked up a purse (that promptly broke within a couple of days; we are attempting to fix it). And, after I explained that one particular charity shop was to help animal shelters, Rose promptly donated the 5p she found on the street earlier in the day (naturally, she was offered a receipt for such, which I suggested she keep for her records).

And then back to the pub, for a mid-afternoon lunch (directly across from the Cathedral). Aoife drew, Rose went through her bracelet-making kit, I worked on some postcards. The Dolphin and Anchor. Aoife had a hamburger she actually ate (most restaurants she orders and doesn't finish, because it "tastes weird,"). Rose went through two orders of onion rings. I had a bitter, and made notes.

After an hour or so here, we crashed a bit in the hotel, before heading out again, to meet up with local writers and profs at the local university, Naomi Foyle and Suzanne Joinson. I was startled to discover Foyle a few days prior online, given she is a British-Canadian poet raised in (among other places) Saskatchewan, during the time that her mother, the late writer Brenda Riches, was not only president of the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, but editor of Grain magazine. How had I not heard of her? Apparently we know a ton of folk in common (Regina poet Brenda Niskala, who I toured across Canada with during a five-poet tour in spring 1998, was actually arriving the following day to have lunch with Foyle). Foyle and I traded poetry books (separate to the envelopes of chapbooks I'd brought for them) and apparently Joinson has a new memoir out in September that sounds pretty interesting. They were delightful! And the young ladies had ice cream from the cafeteria, so they were also pleased.

Although I had been nervous about making our scheduled 5pm tea on time, landing at our hotel lobby with kids for a cab at 4:50pm (I had confirmed the idea was solid the night prior with the front desk), only for the cab company to inform it would take an hour for a cab to arrive? God sakes. Fortunately, it only took twelve minutes to get there, and the front desk (upon repeated prompts) finally let me know on my museum-gifted map where the university was. I had been hoping to cab for the sake of both not getting lost, and to not put the kids through such a random walk, but we figured it out.

From tea, we headed back to the pub (underneath the Roman wall, again) for dinner (Aoife had another hamburger; Rose had a pizza she didn't care for). I worked on postcards and a few notes, Aoife worked on a cat-themed Harry Potter adaptation ("The Cat Who Lived") and Rose read from her new Shakespeare book, picked up from the bookstore earlier in the day (not sure if the cover was part of the attraction, although it is a pretty cool cover). We'd been there enough that Aoife was wandering over to the bar to get her own glass of water, which apparently prompted some side-eye from the locals (odd). Christine was still at her course and en route, so we waited, waited and waited, thinking she was going to arrive where we were (clearly a misunderstanding), only to receive a text from her saying she was already up in the room.

Wednesday, May 15, 2024:
Upon waking (Christine up and out before the rest of us had entirely moved) and breakfast (again, at the pub), Rose requested we return to the Cathedral, although it was far emptier than the day prior. Silent, almost. Quite the difference. We wandered through a far emptier space, and the lack of musicians also allowed us to wander up into the front of the church, by the pews. A few corners closed the day prior were also open, and empty. And Rose took her boatload of selfies, entirely pleased and amused by her trickery.

I wouldn't have necessarily made a second trip, but I appreciated the opportunity to catch some of the elements we might have missed, the first time through. Once we'd completed our second round, we made for a different sidestreet for further charity shops, and a handful of items for that evening's two-hour train to return back to London. At least the bookstore, Waterstones, was civilized enough to have a chair for me to sit in while awaiting the wee children in their browsing. Although, I went to their poetry section, having literally visited such the morning prior, and they'd already rearranged elements of the store. I was in here yesterday and you've moved things around? Although I did appreciate that their poetry selection seemed more extensive, or at least easier to navigate. I was tempted by a couple of items, but held fast. The children convinced me to let them purchase a small item or two each.

Lunch, at the pub. They really know their way around here now. Fifth time in two days. They know where the washrooms are, they know where the water is. They have their favourite corner of the pub. The regulars and staff are starting to recognize us. The young ladies have their favourite orders. I order a bitter, naturally. Two women at the next table comment on how well-behaved the young ladies are, something I'm hearing more than a couple of times in our travels. They do travel well, these two.

After lunch, we returned to the Museum as well, as the young ladies requested I pay the extra (the first two floors were gratis, remember) so they could wander the dinosaur exhibit. It was a curious exhibit, and I wasn't sure why they wanted to pay to get into a small dinosaur exhibit, given we live in a city that includes the Canadian Museum of Nature (if you love dinosaur stuff you have to visit). The local element of the museum made it interesting, certainly, and Aoife amused herself with some of the costume options. It was hard to compare this display, for them, given their Museum of Nature experiences, so they were not entirely impressed (hardly fair, I know).

After leaving the museum, we headed on the bus towards West Dean, as Christine wanted us to see the array of extensive gardens there. We said goodbye to the pub (above). We said goodbye to the street (although we'd be returning here to grab bags from the hotel before heading to the train). Consider that while the children and I were two days in this small corner of Chichester (above), this is where Christine was (left).

We took the bus! We did not get lost. Aoife said hello to a chicken (we told her the story of toddler Rose yelling at a chicken in Nova Scotia years back, clearly offended the chicken had not said hello to her [do you remember that trip?]).

It took a while, but we eventually found Christine, and she toured us around the gardens for an hour or so, before we needed to head back to Chichester by bus, grab our bags, walk to the train station and head back to brother-in-law's house in Hammersmith, London. Two hours by train. Curious to see an obituary of Alice Munro in the pub/lounge (not yet open) at West Dean. We wandered the grounds of this magnificent estate (a history worth looking up, honestly). And then back to Hammersmith, and the kids able to play, again, with their cousins. At least for a few minutes, before bedtime.