Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Out-of-Town-Authors: Kerry Gilbert

I don't think I've met Vernon-based poet Kerry Gilbert before.

I know several people in her writing group and in the broader northern BC literary community. Partly that's because I read in Vernon and Kelowna back in 2013.

Partly it's because I value my relationships with women writers who live outside of of the 'poetry hotbeds' of Toronto and Vancouver and especially women writers who have children.

Over the last ten-fifteen years, I've befriended women/writers and then writer/mothers at conferences, at joint readings, and at retreats. And I've worked to maintain those relationships, not just because I admire their writing but because I like the idea that we're all writing in tandem.

I like that we can swerve into each other's paths as necessary. For a quick and dirty edit, for midnight chats on Facebook about everything and nothing, for commiseration when things get hard. And when there's something to celebrate, like a shortlisting for a contest or a residency or a new book, I'm loud/proud.

So, when Kerry 'friended' me and then asked for my advice on promoting her latest book, Tight Wire, it quickly became obvious that I should interview her. Because even though we've never met, I recognize her.

Hey Kerry. What do you want people to know about Tight Wire

Tight Wire came out of a place of imbalance. I was trying to manage that illusive parenting / working / writing balance and it wasn’t going well. I wasn’t writing at all, actually, and many of the poems erupted from that lack—a rebellion.

Speaking of rebellion, the circus and the carnival are central to this collection. They had a very particular idea of the feminine, didn’t they? Women were either exaggeratedly or transgressively feminine: the tightrope walker (“beauty. sequins. perfection. poise.”) or the tattooed lady (“how could this happen to you?”). Tell me how you found yourself at the circus…

I was/am really interested in the arbitrary nature of gender expectations and of the feminine on display. In the circus we normalize and celebrate abnormal behavior, which served as a fantastic metaphor for these things. There is something about the show of outward appearance—of holding things together—versus an inward falling apart that has always interested me. While trying to balance the work / writing / family life, I felt suddenly submerged in a kind of circus and yet everyone just kept smiling painted-on smiles as if everything was just fine.

This collection is also about women in danger. Women—mothers—sacrifice themselves for their children, for children who in some cases are “already saved.” Women find that their bodies are made of clay or seaweed. Is this a nod to all the transformations, all the transmogrifications, of pregnancy and mothering?

Yes, it’s a nod to the contortionists in most of us. I know some of the women in this book. Some of them are me. Some of them are women that I’ve never met, but their own anecdotes echo as a warning of what happens when we spread ourselves too thin with expectations, trying to put on this lovely, grotesque show.

What were your goals for Tight Wire?

There was a moment, very early on in the manuscript, where I was feeling really, really frustrated / stagnant / resentful / burnt out as a person; the poet in me said: what does this look like? The poem “with a tiny scalpel, she carefully cuts the skin just underneath her blouse line. down the sides to her hips. to her ankles. around and up her inner thighs—both sides” came out of that question. For me, it captured all of my abstract “angst” into something concrete and tangible. The rest of the collection 
was a succession of different versions of the same question—what does this look like?

Which leads me to my next question. In addition to the ‘what does this look like’ moment in “with a tiny scalpel…” there are all kinds of surgeries in the book, all kinds of interventions, from childbirth to hysterectomies. There are also a number of hearts in jars…

All of the surgeries and interventions and scalpels are really about loss. I don’t think we can truly find balance without letting things go. Cutting things out. Having things taken away. Faking the real thing and hoping it’s good enough.

What does guilt do to your writing? Feed it or starve it?

In the case of Tight Wire, it fueled the manuscript and the urgency I felt to write at the time helped create the style/tone. If I take myself too seriously, though, guilt (and fear) could certainly starve it.

In terms of craft, tell me why you’ve gravitated towards the prose-poetry form. Does a prose-y line have more bounce for you than a standard line of poetry?

This is the first time I’ve worked in all prose for a collection. The theme and tone needed the denseness of the form, for me. And, because balance became central, the juxtaposition of the single line on the left side of the page made the prose all that much more important on the right.

Now that Tight Wire is out, have you found your ideas around balancing your time between teaching AND raising a family AND trying to write have changed?

This is a work in progress. I’m getting better at valuing all of those acts equally, which is going against the grain (society only truly values the one that makes money).

What is the arts community like in the Okanagan compared to the other places you’ve lived?

The Okanagan has a vibrant writing community, and many talented writers calling it home, but you have to work at outwardly finding it here more than other places. Maybe that makes it all the more rewarding and special when you find it.

You’ve found a writing group within that community, yes? Tell me how being in a group influences your process. In the case of this book, did it help that the people giving you feedback were also writer / mothers?

Yes, I am very grateful to be part of a seven woman writing group, called Spoke. It is absolutely central to my process, in that it keeps me accountable, productive and humble. As a group we share the ups and downs of this whole writing business, which is a great reminder that there are both. I value their feedback and support for this book and for many other things. These talented women inspire me to keep writing, no matter what.

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

I’m reading Hannah Calder’s Piranesi’s Figures for fiction and Lorna Crozier’s The Wrong Cat for poetry. I’m working on two different poetry manuscripts—one on fear and parenting and one on women and education. I’ve said too much. :)

Monday, August 15, 2016

I've been Matilda Magtree-d!

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Carin Makuz, who blogs as Matilda Magtree and also runs the Litter-I-See Project, recently interviewed me about Stowaways.

It was a great, sprawling, summery interview.  (She's also interviewed Brenda Schmidt and Tracy Hamon, among others, whose interviews you can check out here.)

My thanks to Carin for keeping me company while I was on retreat in The Pas!

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Breaking waves!

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Just small ones...

From what's called Pebble Beach at the bottom of the Caves Trail at Clearwater Lake PP. (After I took this pic, I stripped down and buoyed around in the green water in my skivvies. Best swim of the entire trip...)

Tiny perfect puffball

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Obligatory mushroom pic from the Caves Trail at Clearwater Lake PP.

Mossy slopes

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Again, from my solo walk of the the Caves Trail at Clearwater Lake PP: trees attached to mossy slopes and the teeny-tiny mushrooms at the base of those trees.

Common harebells

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Two views of the Common Harebells that were all over the Caves Trail at Clearwater Lake PP. The first is a typical clump at the shoreline. The other is from a cave-side and, while it's a terrible photo of the Harebell, it works as a pic of the lichen on the rock behind...

Common Harebells are described as follows in my dog-eared copy of Plants of the Western Boreal Forest & Aspen Parkland: "Do not let the fragile-looking blossoms fool you—harebell is a very hardy plant."

Friday, August 05, 2016


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So I found out today that a poem of mine was shortlisted for this year's Lit POP Award for Poetry.

Aside from my Montreal dreams, I'm happy to see friends and colleagues on the shortlists!

Sunday, June 12, 2016


From Jenna Butler's FB feed. So good/concise/organized, I had to steal it:

"Thrilled to be readying for a book tour/conference out east with two exceptional poets, Ariel Gordon and Claire Caldwell. We'll be reading at several stops along the route, and we'd love to chat with you if you're in the neighbourhood, friends.

Tuesday June 14, McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg, 7 pm (Ariel and Jenna)

Friday June 17, BioSci Building, Queen's University in Kingston, 10:45 am, "Spotting Artists in the 'Wild'" panel at the Association for Literature, Environment and Culture in Canada conference (Ariel, Claire, and Jenna)

Saturday June 18, Novel Idea Bookstore in Kingston, 6:30 pm (Ariel, Claire, and Jenna)

Monday June 20, Belljar Cafe/Bar in Toronto, 8 pm, Common Readings: The June Special Translations Edition (Claire, Eric Charlebois, Malcolm Sutton, Jessica Moore, Beatriz Hausner)

Tuesday June 21, Another Story Bookshop in Toronto, 7 pm, "Writing the Environment" (Ariel, Claire, and Jenna)"

Saturday, June 11, 2016

In Conversation: Carmen Aguirre

By Ariel Gordon
Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION

Carmen Aguirre is a revolutionary artist.

The Vancouver-based writer is a political exile of the 1973 Pinochet coup d’├ętat in Chile, a survivor of the Paper Bag Rapist, and an actress who was warned early in her career she’d mostly be offered "Mexican hooker and Puerto Rican maid roles."

Aguirre will be launching her second memoir, Mexican Hooker #1: And My Other Roles Since the Revolution at McNally Robinson Monday as part of the Winnipeg International Writers Festival’s spring literary series. The event will also feature Chilean-Canadian journalist Claudia Garcia de la Huerta.

Aguirre conducted this interview with Ariel Gordon via email.

Free Press: Something Fierce, your previous memoir, covered your childhood and early adulthood in Canada, Chile and other South American locales. The Globe and Mail’s Francisca Zentilli called it "an insightful journey into the formation of a revolutionary soul." What made you want to delve into your adult life, as you transitioned from a revolutionary to an artist?

CA: The first memoir was a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of a political thriller. In it, I explored themes of political commitment clashing with personal desires and living in a state of terror, due to being in the Chilean resistance during the Pinochet dictatorship.

When I toured the first book, the questions that kept coming up from readers were: what happened next, how did you find meaning in your life after living a life so full of meaning as a youth, and how did you heal from the trauma of living in chronic terror due to state terrorism? It was in responding to those questions that I found the material to write the second memoir, which is all about healing and also about finding meaning in an artistic journey.

In choosing the theme of "healing" for my second book, I inevitably felt that I had to include the trauma of being raped as a child and how I healed from that.

That story, the story of the rape, ended up being the through-line, the spine of the book.

It’s the story that we keep going back to, that orbits until it lands in the centre of the narrative and stays there.

FP: Tell me about the hubbub after Something Fierce was nominated for, and then won, CBC Canada Reads in 2012?

CA: To be honest, I had never heard of Canada Reads because I’m not a radio listener. So I didn’t get what a big deal it was until the book made it into the Top 5.

I had also never heard of Shad, because I don’t usually listen to rap.

When I was called a terrorist within the first five minutes of the debate, my whole body froze, and I felt a great deal of fear. I was glad, however, that Shad and I had prepared for that statement and that he was able to handle himself so well when it came up.

I think it brought an important discussion to the forefront, which is: what is a terrorist? Who do we get to call a terrorist? Do we get to call the Jewish resistance during the Warsaw ghetto uprising terrorists?

I was amazed and elated when the book won because it was the dark horse of the five and it tells a story that is not often read by the mainstream.

FP: How is writing memoirs different from writing plays?

CA: Plays are much harder. I think playwriting is the hardest form to write in: it’s very taut, it’s very limiting, and you have to grab the audience immediately and never let them go.

It is through my years of playwriting, at failing miserably at it most of the time and on the odd occasion getting somewhere with it, that I learned to write a book.

I already knew so much about structure, theme, organizing principles, stakes, objectives for the character, conflict. Writing a memoir was easier.

FP: Early in your theatre training at Vancouver’s Studio 58, your instructors told you that you were "entering a racist business where more often than not I would be offered Mexican hooker and Puerto Rican maid roles." Since then, you’ve written or co-written 25 plays and have 80 acting credits, which is a success by any measure. But is the film, television and theatre world any less racist now than when you graduated?

CA: I believe it is less racist, but there are colleagues of mine who believe it’s the same or even worse. I can totally see why they say that. They say that because some people in the theatre, film and TV industries believe that we are now in a post-racial society and that the struggle is therefore over. What this means in practice is that white people are now playing roles of colour because it’s believed that now, "We can all play everything." The problem is that it doesn’t go both ways, so we still have to be vigilant in making sure that actors of colour are actually getting the parts that were not available to us not so long ago. In an ideal world, I do believe anybody can play anything, but we are very far from that. In the current Canadian theatre scene, only 3.7 per cent of women we see on stage are of colour. Of those, almost none are playing lead roles. We clearly have a very long way to go.

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

CA: I am reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words and Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. And the tabloids. I always salivate over the tabloids, which are my addiction, along with dark chocolate. Right now, I am writing a new play called Anywhere but Here and a novel entitled Three Virgins. Neither is going well.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.