Thursday, November 26, 2015

The Puritan

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And then, a day later, I have another poem in The Puritan. Months and months go by without a new poem of mine in the world and then there are two in two days!?!

Today's poem is "Local Smoke," which I wrote in June and submitted while I was at the Deep Bay Cabin. It's an occasional poem, in that it was written based on a specific event, a particular place and time.

The occasion for "Local Smoke," was the forest fire smoke from drought-dry Saskatchewan and Alberta that blew into Winnipeg in early June that co-incided with the stabbing of a teenage boy at a Winnipeg high school. Both events caused me look at the world slightly differently, to shift my perception of normal, and I wanted to mark that somehow.

Interestingly, it was also a poem that came together very quickly, during a walk home from work.
Which is how I found myself standing in the no-man's land between the turn from Stafford onto Academy and the Maryland Street Bridge, scribbling madly—and awkwardly, leaning on the St. Mary's Academy fence—in my notebook.

My thanks to editors at the The Puritan for putting my poem in such excellent company. It's wonderful to see and hear (because editors get contributors to submit audio recordings of accepted poems...) my work alongside that of writer friends like Brenda Schmidt and John Wall Barger as well as that of young poets whose work I'm just getting to know like Cassidy McFadzean and Kayla Czaga.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Weak Wood

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So a suite of found poems called "Weak Wood" was published on the Our Teeth blog.

Run by poet/parent/prof kevin mcpherson eckhoff, Our Teeth has the following mandate: "converses with/about/around/within/underneath/beside/without contemporary verses, diverses, perverses!"

While I don't usually co-mingle with experimental poets, kevin and I recognize each other as poets. Which is more than enough for us to be able to work with and also alongside each other.

But when Kevin asked that I submit something months ago, I was swamped. So I put it off and put it off and then, finally, had a look at current work to see if there was anything I could send.

And I had this suite of poems I'd composed while at the Deep Bay Cabin back in June/July, based on my reading of Donald Culross Peattie's A Natural History of North American Trees.

At the time, I was trying to learn more about the 24 species of trees that are native to Manitoba. I was also trying to jam some names for the coniferous trees that surrounded the cabin into my head. After a few sessions with A Natural History of North American Trees, I was most struck by the contrast between Peattie's lyrical writing about the beauty of trees and his listing of their uses by the lumber industry.

Of course, I gravitated towards the trees that were categorized by lumberjacks as useless—i.e. weak wood. First, because the useless trees  happen to be among my favourites, and second, because I realized that I am usually surrounded by copy paper, particle board, and MDF.

Basically, I pulped Peattie's mini-essays and built strange little structures—found poems—out of them.

It was great fun but the poems weren't successful, to my mind, until kevin had a look. He helped me push them further that I could have done on my own.

It reminded me, again, why working with editors is so essential to  writing. The best editors don't say "THIS IS WRONG. DO IT THIS WAY," they say "Hmm. Have you thought about this? This section here is especially intriguing...."

So: new poems from me, about trees. Also: submit to Our Teeth, because that kevin is a good nut.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Out-of-Town-Authors: Elizabeth Ross

I met Elizabeth Ross at Palimpsest Press Night at Toronto's Another Story Bookshop in 2014. It was a full night of reading: Patricia Young and I performed alongside Palimpsest editors Jim Johnstone and Dawn Kresan.

After the reading, Elizabeth—Liz—came up to me and said that she'd read Hump, which was unusual enough in and of itself to be memorable, and that Palimpsest would be publishing her first book soon.

Liz wasn't able to go for the traditional after-reading drink that night, as her small children were waiting for her at home. I remained curious about her and her book-to-be, so I'm really glad, now, to have the chance to chat with her...

So, Liz, what do you want people to know about Kingdom?

It’s part coming-of-age story, part map. It deals with many kingdoms—of course, the heart and the head, but also pathologies, geographies, and histories.

As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

(Hopefully I’m interpreting this question’s framework properly.) Reading my own work doesn’t make me nervous. Maybe I’m not a capital “R” Romantic; maybe as a teacher I’m used to speaking in front of large rooms of people; maybe I feel safe speaking out of the poem’s container. Generally I see readings as a part of the job. I like them. There’s the oral history and traditional practice of poetry (Purdy’s “Say the Names” leaps immediately to mind), and there’s also the buzz I get hearing another poet read. And it’s nice to be in a room with like-minded people, poets and poetry appreciators. I wish I could get out to more readings.

Tell me about that strange object/phenomena called ‘the first book.’

As a creative writing student, I had the impression that many writers see the first book as being synonymous with regret, or as exposing some great wound or embarrassment, or as something to get over with, like bungee jumping naked. Critically, the books seem to be received as the next and greatest thing, or largely ignored.

Now that I have published a first book, I don’t really think of it as “the first book”—it’s just a book. I worked hard on it. I don’t think I’ll be embarrassed by it. But I also, at age eighteen, thought similar thoughts about my dragon ying yang tattoo, so who knows. Like my tattoo, perhaps there’s a lot of scrambled lore.

Kingdom explores the idea of “a life of your own,” that thing you’re supposed to acquire as you move from your teenage years onto jobs and houses, pets and spouses. Can you talk a bit about why you wanted to explore this stage, all of us “deer skittish in the bushes”?

I think I’m trying to reconcile an existence built in counterfactuality. I’ve always lived in hypotheticals. And since I can remember I’ve been obsessed with the idea of home, or what exactly makes a home, and wanting to make my own. Even as a kid, I would rearrange my room constantly; I’d play “nest” in the dogwood tree, wedging rock “eggs” into the crotch and sitting on them. Somehow being an adult happened, with no delineation, or stones.

What did you learn about your writing and your process while studying for your MFA at UBC and poetry-editing PRISM International?

There are my pre-kid and post-kid processes. Overall I’ve learned that my process is resilient and flexible, and that writing will happen if I want it to, albeit in less-than expected, or, for some, ideal, circumstances. Since finishing my MFA, I’ve had two kids. So instead of walking and writing and designating think time, I make lunch/drink coffee/bounce/sing/change diapers – and also write. Sometimes I write on the go—sitting on the carpet while my daughters play, or at the table while they eat their breakfasts. When I am able to designate time, more often than not it’s late at night when everyone’s asleep. My walk is pushing the stroller. Really, I have no consistent routine or process. The only thing that has crossed over from my pre-kid days is that at some point, I have to show my work to someone for feedback. And as unpredictable as my writing process is, when I do have uninterrupted time—even ten minutes—I’m super productive; in my MFA days, I would have never taken on anything writing related in such a short time frame.

Editing PRISM was good—not only for my writing, but for my ego. It helped me, as an unpublished grad student, understand that rejections are certainly not personal, or even necessarily a comment on the quality of the work—although they certainly can be. They’re part of a feedback loop that’s cultural, aesthetic, critical, and one I came to realize helps develop good writing. At PRISM, I would reject poems that didn’t fit with the issue’s aesthetic, or because I’d run out of space, or because I’d eaten bacon. Heaven knows. I read carefully and sometimes painfully—editing was a huge responsibility and the framework often unruly. There’s no rubric, that’s for sure. Editing also prepared me to work with an editor on my own work.

Speaking of which, tell me about working with Dawn Kresan at Palimpsest...

Dawn was simultaneously tough and respectful. Working with her showed me that a manuscript truly isn’t a book until it’s been edited by someone who cares about your work, and about poetry overall. In the production process, there’s nothing greater than seeing your editor get excited about a revision— start to finish, she was invested in the manuscript. I’m sure it’s been said before: editor names should appear right next to authors’.

Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?

I probably have been to Winnipeg, likely in the early 90s as a teenager slumped in the back of my family’s minivan (see above re. counterfactuals). That was roughly the same year I claimed the thickest and scratchiest wool sweater in existence from my father’s closet, and he told me it was warm enough for Winnipeg winters, which leant the sweater a kind of mythic resonance. As an adult I’ve also heard the classic stories, trees splitting in two from the cold, ice cracking in the river. It sounds like a place I should revisit.

What are you reading right now?

Many poetry collections. Off the top of my head, Floating Is Everything by Sheryda Warrener, Dear Leader by Damian Rogers, Joy Is So Exhausting by Susan Holbrook. Unless they’re long poems, I kind of start and stop with poetry books, taking in a little bit at a time, hitting a point where I need to stop and let poems or ideas do what they need to do, stick my head into another book, repeat, shuffle. I’ve been reading Karen Solie’s The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out for months. The only exception is Michael Dickman, whose books I’ve been pretty much binging on.

What are you writing right now?

I’m writing a collection of poems that examines the ways middle-class motherhood is constructed. I’m also writing a series of loosely-linked personal essays. And many, many grocery lists.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Southwood Lands

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From a lunchtime prowl in the rainy Southwood Lands, which is the decommissioned golf course adjacent to the University of Manitoba. I was hoping to see a raptor or two—I've had good luck there over the past few years—but the dead trees were empty.

There was a single pair of ducks in one of the retention ponds. Other than that, Southwood felt emptied out. No geese. A few small songbirds. There was just the rain and chill in the air.

So I walked hard and listened to the rain on the hood of my jacket and waited for my body to warm up. There were more dead trees but the grasses were green and there were new mushrooms, slicked down by rain.

The Southwood Lands are scrubby, overgrown, beautiful. So: more like a forest and less like a golf course. The only thing is: it doesn't feel like a healthy forest.

I'm committed to walking Southwood until it's gone. 

(The bottom image, if you're wondering, is of a golf ball in it's natural habitat. I found it at the base of a grove of trees...)

Monday, November 16, 2015

Grownups Read

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So I read at the Sunday matinee of Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids (or GRTTWak), which is a national CBC radio show and podcast.

I was one of sixteen people who volunteered to read five minutes' worth of letters and journal entries and notes and school newspaper articles and comics and stories and poems. (And it wasn't even me reading the poems!)

I read from my grade six (maybe seven...) Language Arts journal. Which I composed, under duress, in either 1984 or 1985.

I had just come from the forest, so I was rumpled and sweaty, but instead of going home and showering, I'd sat in the car in the Assiniboine Forest parking lot and wrote for an hour and then rehearsed my reading a few times. I booted it down to the Park Theatre with just enough time to spare to get a sandwich, so I wouldn't have a hunger headache by the time my reading started.

And I was rumpled and sweaty-looking, because I'd left both my make up bag and brush at home, but I had so much fun reading, that it didn't matter. And everyone seemed to like it; everyone was laughing and groaning and got a second round of applause after I'd finished.

It was strange to go from being alone all morning to being so intensely in company, but both were peak "alone" and "in company" experiences, so I won't complain....

My thanks to the producers of GRTTWaK, Jenna and Dan, and to the Park Theatre, which seemed to be exactly the right size for the event.

I wasn't able to attend the evening show, but I'm sure it was equally memorable.

If I make it into the podcast—they have twice or three times the amount of content they need, so there's no guarantee—I'll post the link.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

And one more

Photo November 13, 2015. Assiniboine Forest, Winnipeg, MB.
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The clearing created by an old fire twenty years ago, whose half-burned logs somehow kept out the trembling aspen and most other colonizers, is nearly gone now. A 2012 brushfire ignited by an out-of-control bonfire mostly finished the job. I liked this clearing. We saw a lost pair of moose there once. And I used to photograph a colony of pixie cups and other slow-growing teeny-tiny lichens on a log halfway in. I also liked it because it was noticeably different than the forest that surrounded it.

I've been photographing the clearing as it recovers from the fire, so I can keep track of how it's changed...

The other day, it was full of thigh-high blonde grasses and, from the path whose end you can see in the picture, I'm not the only one who likes to come and stand at the edge of the clearing.






All photos November 13-15, 2015. Assiniboine Forest, Wpg, MB
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It was one of those good weekends: two visits to Assiniboine Forest in three days. One walk was with M and one was by myself, but both were sunny and warm (i.e. atypical November) walks.

It had been a while since since I'd been to the forest. These days, I'm either walking during the girl's lessons or during the course of a writing day. So: either inside or adjacent to my neighbourhood. I haven't noticed a "forest deficit," because I was exercizing more than normal and, also, the Wolseley/Wellington loop, my 'local,' is both varied—two neighbourhoods, two bridges, the river—and treed.

Changing my patterns around how and where I walk was logical: I was spending less time getting to and from the forest, which is a half-hour from my house, and so more time writing. What's more, I could have a satisfying walk under the trees in an hour instead of an entire afternoon.

What I forgot, of course, is that the forest gives more than a treed suburb could. More and varied trees in a density you just don't get on a boulevard or in someone's yard. Even the riverbank forests on view from the Maryland and Omand's Creek bridges don't compare.

Assiniboine Forest also has a diverse understory, with shrubs, plants, and mushrooms and wildlife that inhabits that understory. For instance, I saw a deer, a marten, and a northern goshawk on my Sunday solo walk. I was so excited when I finished my walk, spending 5 minutes identifying the marten and goshawk in my Tracking and Scat and Manitoba Birds books and then another 40 minutes writing about the experience.

I felt illuminated, somehow lit from within: the gold/orange glint of the marten's coat, how the white-tail deer bounded into the trees, the brown-streaked breast of the goshawk. I've seen a few deer and raptors on my circuits of the W/W loop, but mostly I see people, dogs, and cars.

And then there were the new mushrooms I found that I'm sharing here...

It was good to return to the forest, to refresh my ardour, and it was a great start to the Assiniboine Forest-focussed project that M and I are beginning.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Out-of-Town-Authors: Alice Major

Though I've never worked with Alice Major, I consider her to be a mentor of sorts.

In addition to writing more than a dozen books, Alice is a good example on how to be committed to a place—Edmonton, Alberta—and to a community—poetry.

She was the first poet laureate in Edmonton, for instance, and, during her term, founded the Edmonton Poetry Festival.

Another notable trait is that Alice is kind until she is forced not-to-be. I've seen her raise her voice when organizations veer into the stupidly-impractical or needlessly-complicated.

And so I was pleased to have the chance to interview her about her latest collection, published by the University of Alberta Press as part of their Robert Kroetsch Series. (Can I say again how much I miss Robert Kroetsch?)

What do you want people to know about Standard Candles? (What IS a “standard candle”?)

A standard candle is something you can use to measure distance. The principle is fairly straightforward—if you have two 100-W light bulbs and one looks fainter than the others, then you know the fainter one is further away. Astronomers look for things in the sky that they know have a defined brightness—certain kinds of stars and supernovae—and then measure that brightness to figure out how big all this is. So ideas that percolate through the book are about distances (including distance to the dead), and finding our place in the vastly expanded cosmos that astronomers are measuring.

I hope people will find the book both playful and serious. We've been making up stories about how all this came to be for the whole of human history, and those narratives have important consequences for how we view the world. Cosmology has been something that poets have been playing around with since the days of Homer, and I just wanted to be part of that tradition.

Tell me about working on this book with Peter Midgley at University of Alberta Press.

Peter is a lovely editor to work with. He didn't feel the manuscript needed any significant restructuring or alteration, but he is great at querying a word choice here or a bumpy line there. He is also really good at spotting punctuation inconsistencies. (Yes, poets do need to pay attention to punctuation.)

What did your experience working as a weekly newspaper reporter early in your career teach you about writing?

You can't get precious or constipated about writing when you work for a weekly paper and the editor is screaming, 'There's no copy on the hook!' I had always written in journals as the spirit sporadically moved me, but being the senior reporter for the Williams Lake Tribune didn't give you time to wait for inspiration. It was like one of those poetry loosening-up exercises where you just put pen on paper and fill it with any words that roll out. Only these words had to be organized in complete sentences and carry information. I think it was the best training I could have had—just bash something down and see what you can make out of it.

Now that you’ve published 11 collections of poetry as well as a book of essays on art and science, what have you learned about the writing-of-poetry?

I think poetry needs content as well as form! For me, a poem needs to say something interesting, make a connection that hasn't been made in the pages of countless litmags already. That's why I turn to science a lot—as Shelley said when asked why he went meetings of the Royal Society, "I go to replenish my store of metaphor."

By "something interesting" I don't mean "something completely original never thought in the history of humanity." Originality is a terrible burden to lay on poets. But our brains are designed to associate different things together; metaphor lies at the basis not only of language but perception. Certain associations tend to stick because they're very useful; they become habits of thought. It's much more interesting when you get out of the ruts. Which is why research helps me; it gives me new things to connect with my very ordinary life and living room.

What have you learned about your own process between the Williams Lake Tribune and Standard Candles?

I am fortunate—I really like writing. But I've accepted that I don't like writing all the time. I've realized over the years that there's a certain amount that comes out of me at a reasonably steady rate. I get cross if I'm not able to write at all. But if I give myself lots of time, I don't necessarily write any more, and in fact I end up wasting the time. So I might as well put board meetings or other commitments on my calendar and get out into the world.

What’s important for you now as a writer? As a member of Edmonton’s (and Canada’s) literary community?

For me personally? I think the most important thing is how to keep challenging myself. How do I avoid writing poems I've already written? Of course we go on exploring certain themes and ideas throughout our lives, and we tend to bring a certain attitude to the world and a particular 'voice' into our work. But often I find myself scribbling a stanza and think, "Oh, Alice, you've done this idea in pretty much this way before." So one of the things I have been doing more of is going back to traditional forms. In Standard Candles, there are Spenserian stanzas and terza rima, sonnets and ballads, and nonce forms that just seem to suit particular poems. It may seem strange to some people that you'd use sonnets to be 'new', but I find it stimulating. There's something strangely freeing about having to find a rhyme—it can lead you to images and ideas you just didn't expect to combine.

As for being part of literary community—well to me it's essential. We don't do this alone; as poets we have to be in a constant dialogue with the others who practice this art form, present and past. Also, I think poetry is essential to our health as a society, as is all art. Participating in art-making is good for our physical and emotional health as individuals and it's essential for social cohesion. I'm not an "art-for-art's sake" kind of gal. It's a false dichotomy to say that the arts should be kept apart from having a social function. That implies an unbridgeable gulf between the amateur and the "real" artist, that most of us should just sit back and read what the important poets write or listen to what the popular musicians play. We all exist along the spectrum, and all of us benefit from participating in this most human of activities. So I tend to focus on helping my own city's poetry community; it's one way to resist the hyper-commodification of art that comes streaming in at us on all channels. Live local!

Speaking of which, have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?

I was in Winnipeg just this past summer, for the League of Poets annual meeting. And so I heard poetry!

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

I'm reading Gwynneth Lewis's Quantum Poetics, three lectures she gave at Newcastle University's public lecture series. She was the first poet laureate for Wales and a writer who also goes to science a great deal for inspiration. And I've just finished Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution, by Peter Richerson and Robert Boyd.

And I'm writing a long didactic response to Alexander Pope's Essay on Man. The time seemed right.