Friday, November 28, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Molly Peacock

From The Winnipeg Review
By Ariel Gordon

Molly Peacock is a former New Yorker who currently lives in Toronto. She’s written six books of poems, a memoir, and the best-selling The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.

Her latest book, Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions (McClelland & Stewart), is an abecedarium, which is traditionally a book used to teach the alphabet. In this case, it’s also a collection of short fictions.

What do you want people to know about Alphabetique?

Alphabetique is playful reading for grownups. It’s a fun book of 26 tales, each one pretending that a letter of the alphabet is alive. Plus, every tale comes with a collage illustration by the brilliant Kara Kosaka. The stories are full of family dilemmas, whimsically solved by the shapes and personalities of the letters.

As a writer, how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

I love giving readings, but that’s because I’ve had help from a fabulous voice coach, Kristin Linklater who wrote Freeing the Natural Voice. As a child I loved reading aloud and vied to be the narrator for school theatrical performances. Now, I actually get ready for reading aloud. Practice! The minute you step in front of a microphone you are performing. You have an obligation to the people who showed up for you. When I can deliver to an audience, I also somehow restore myself. The process not only brings me back to an appreciation of what I did, but also to an appreciation for the fact that people got themselves dressed, found babysitters, put gas in their cars, and bolted their dinners in order to come and hear me. I’m grateful.

Your hybrid biography of artist Mary Delany/meditation on the creative life, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, found you writing towards an artist and her artwork. This latest project moved in the other direction, from text to artwork. Tell me about the collaboration between yourself, Kara Kosaka, and CS Richardson.

Working with Kara Kosaka was one of the richest artistic experiences I’ve ever had. AND, we’ve never met in person. After I wrote The Paper Garden, I wanted to be released into purely imaginative writing. I started to make line drawings of my tales, but my own drawing skills are, um, primitive. I started wondering about collaborating with a illustrator. Could an illustrator urge my tiny tales to a larger scope of imagination? When C.S. Richardson, the novelist who wrote The End of the Alphabet and who is also Creative Director at Penguin Random House Canada, suggested the sublimely gifted digital collage artist Kosaka, I knew that my vision (after all, the vision of an author is really the images the author works with) would be realized in a similar way to a librettist’s vision being released by a composer. Kara read the stories from the inside out, highlighting images I never would have thought to bring forward, creating a whole landscape of animals, flowers, swords, letter openers, sculptures and, best of all, subtle but jewel-like colors for each letter of the alphabet. Her work makes it the most beautiful book I’ve been privileged to publish.

BUT! This book isn’t just a collaboration of two. It’s more like a string quartet, to continue that musical image, because C.S. Richardson’s design and direction, combined with our editor Lara Hinchberger’s sense that this book is also about wordplay and grammar, created a four-way email relationship that added a crucial creative layer. Each Thursday Kara would sit with her little daughter Mae at her feet, creating a collage, emailing it at midnight Pacific time from Vancouver. Friday morning I ran to open the collage and comment on it. Over the weekend Richardson and Hinchberger would chime in. Even the subtitle of the book came from the collaborative quartet. We agonized that this book is really an abecedarian for adults (as well as for wise children) but wondered how to convey that. C.S. Richardson playfully inserted the subtitle into one of his cover designs and, voila, we had it. Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions contains all our voices.

How is a collage like and unlike a poem?

A collage is like a poem because it is associative. You can leap from one image to the next. It’s not like a poem because a poem has to unfold sequentially. One word comes after the next. But in the collage the layers are perceived simultaneously. A lyric poem works to stop time. But a collage has no time—only space.

What’s it like being a dual citizen of both the Canadian and American literary communities?

It’s a privilege to be a citizen of both communities, but I feel that my imagination is better supported in Canada. I begin all my literary projects here, where I know that people are receptive to invention. In Canada we feel that an audience will be with us, ready to go on our adventure. But in the States the audience has more of a “show me” attitude. You can’t begin slowly. You’ve got to begin with fireworks to keep their attention. In Canada you can ease into something, be curious. However, there is a self-starter quality to American literary life that I really enjoy. It’s a bouncy energy, and it’s fun. In Canada I find the literary energy more contemplative. It nurtures me in a different way. In Canada the literary community is small. It has the big pleasures and little miseries of living in a small town. In the States, there’s always another neighborhood to move to, literarily. Here, you have to get along with your neighbors.

You were the founding editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English series. Why is such a thing important for Canadians and for Canada’s writing and publishing community?

I’m still the series editor! Founding this series has been incredibly important on two fronts. First, it gives all those Canadians who are curious about poetry, but don’t know where to begin, a great starting point. This anthology isn’t only bought by poets. Moms and uncles pick it up. Teachers use it in classes. Savvy business people who want a great quote for a speech buy it. Second, on the literary front, Best Canadian Poetry in English has stirred interest in Canadian literary journals in print and online across the country. It has stimulated well-known poets to return to publishing in literary magazines, because those are the sources we draw on for the anthology. Poets are proud to be in it, and we’re lucky to have Tightrope Books support it. Our new 2014 volume guest edited by Sonnet L’Abbé and co-edited by Anita Lahey comes out this month.

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

By the Book: Stories and Pictures by Diane Schoemperlen. I’m writing The Rose Artist, about the fabulous, relatively unknown, Canadian still life painter Mary Hiester, the first woman to have a solo show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1922—the year after she died, alas.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Reprint: The Buzz

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From today's Winnipeg Free Press. Literary Editor Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson is a peach!

Monday, November 24, 2014

hard/soft deforestation

From the Winnipeg Forest Watch Handbook: A Guide to Tree Health and Basic Tree Care for Homeowners by Trees Winnipeg (the former Coalition to Save the Elms). 

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This week and next I followed the thread of boulevard trees—their establishment circa 1900 and their destruction due to age, disease, and urban ills—all the way back to urban planning, eastern Canada and British ideals around green space, and the history of riverlots in Red River Settlement days.

No matter how you feel about making over land, from tall-grass prairie to a parkland version of riverbottom forest in the middle of the road to something that is neither of those things, no matter how you feel about all the stresses an urban environment, that all of us place on trees planted today, the above picture still is a punch in the gut.

At a session I attended at Under Western Skies in Calgary in September, Matthew Thomas Clement defined soft versus hard deforestation.

Soft deforestation is the lost of trees to agriculture and the forest industry. Hard is loss to the built environment.

I'm not sure what this is, given that the missing trees in the bottom of the photo were planted there a hundred years ago by people, after the tall-grass prairie had been lost to the built environment.

Hard/soft deforestation?

Sunday, November 23, 2014


A closer view of my messages-in-a-bottle for my December 7 signing at McNally's


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While M folded laundry and made his way through this week's recordings on the PVR, I constructed messages-in-a-bottle to give away as part of my December 7 signing at McNally's

The messages are my "Headbutt" and "Wingless Females" from Stowaways.

See you there?

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Northern reflections: Author ponders sense of place during fortnight in the Arctic

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

Boundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage
By Kathleen Winter
House of Anansi Press, 256 pages, $30

In 2010, just after the release of her much-acclaimed first novel Annabel, Montreal-based writer Kathleen Winter got an unusual phone call.

It was Noah Richler, and he was offering her his spot on the Clipper Adventurer, a ship scheduled to travel the Northwest Passage in a little less than a week.

As part of the services offered to its passengers, tour company Adventure Canada usually added ornithologists, scientists and artists to its roster of crew members. If Winter accepted, she would be the designated writer.
Winter packed her bags, stowing her husband's duct-taped and paint-smeared raincoat and a flip-flop/little-black-dress combo in her bag and locating an insulated beer cooler that would hold her old, out-of-tune concertina.

This being Kathleen Winter, she also packed a beard: "The forms and waivers came with photos of the other resource staff. I noticed they were nearly all men, and most had explorer-type beards. I happened to have a beard I'd crocheted out of brown wool on a train trip with my mother—it was a bit more Rasputin than Explorer, but it possessed loops that fit nicely around my ears, so I packed that as well."

Because of her last-minute assignment, Winter had no formal responsibilities during the two-week journey, unlike cultural ambassadors such as Greenlandic-Canadian Inuit guide Aaju Peter, Canadian Inuit guide Bernadette Dean and Winnipeg-based singer Nathan Rogers.

Winter spent her time on board writing and sketching, trying to unpack her ideas about Canada's North and what it means to be both home and away.

This process starts when she listens to Rogers perform his father's Stan's song The Northwest Passage, with its line "tracing one warm line / through a land so wild and savage."

Though now based in Montreal, Winter spent her childhood and early adulthood in Newfoundland, where she moved with her English family as a child. As a grown-up, with elderly parents and children of her own, Winter feels like a cultural orphan, being neither fully Canadian nor properly English:
"How devoid of this warm line my life had felt, uprooted from ancestry, living in industrial cities and mill towns, not understanding messages from animals or from ancestors the way Bernadette and others appeared to do."

She confides some of this to Aaju Peter, herself a mix of Greenlandic and Inuit traditions, who notes: "It's perfectly OK to belong to two cultures. Your voice is authentic, because it's human."

Consoled, Winter begins thinking on the mixed European and indigenous legacy confronting her at every step, how the two ways of life have been intertwined in the North for a long time.

She spends her evening knitting the muskox fur she's collected into the hat she's working on. She starts listening to the land, accumulating lists of fauna with English common names, Latin names and Inuit names.

And so it goes, in a relatively peaceful fashion, until the last leg of their journey, when the Clipper Adventurer runs aground and its 128 passengers have to be rescued. Winter and her fellow passengers weren't in any danger, except perhaps of missing their pre-arranged flights home while waiting for the Amundsen, the Coast Guard icebreaker that happened to be nearby conducting research, to come get them.

But adventure is not really the point of Boundless, which was recently a finalist for the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Prize for Nonfiction. It is a meditation in the truest sense by a skilled and ever-so-slightly strange storyteller on a two-week trip to Canada's North.

Readers who followed the discovery this past fall of Sir John Franklin's ship HMS Erebus—lost in 1845 as he searched for the Northwest Passage—will enjoy following Winter and her fellow passengers along his route, as well as Winter's account of the ceremonial unearthing of what was supposed to be the logbook from Franklin's voyage.

The long-buried box contained a cardboard box, pieces of newspaper and tallow, but like Boundless, it still makes for a pretty good story.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Mark Sampson

Mark Sampson is a Toronto writer.  Originally from PEI, he and I met in 1997 at the University of King's College in Halifax. We were both enrolled in the journalism program. Later, we both taught English in South Korea, though my stint was in 1998-9 and his 2003-5.

When I was in South Korea, I often looked on with longing as my male co-workers began dating Korean women. They were often engaged within the year. What I envied was the access my co-workers had to Korean culture. They were often invited to family gatherings in the country, festivals, and holiday celebrations while my sister and I tried to scrounge up dinner in a strangely empty city. What's more, my colleagues had built-in translators and tour guides.

As such, Sampson's new novel Sad Peninsula is interesting not only for its spot-on depiction of Seoul's foreigner's district but also for exploring the contemporary male Western expat/Korean woman relationship and other aspects of Korean history from a distinctly female perspective.

What do you want people to know about Sad Peninsula?

Sad Peninsula is a novel with two main threads: one tells the story of a troubled young Canadian named Michael who is teaching ESL in Seoul in 2003-2005, and who gets roped up in the sleazy, hyper-sexualized underbelly of Korea’s expat teaching community. The second thread details the history of Korea’s “comfort women”the young women and girls who were taken away by the occupying Japanese forces during the Second World War to be sex slaves on the battlefronts of China —as told through the perspective of a Korean woman named Eun-young. The two threads collide when Michael begins dating a young Korean woman named Jin, who is Eun-young’s grand-niece.

That’s the general summary of the book. But I guess what I want readers to know is that there is quite a bit of call and response between the two threads of Sad Peninsula, one that generates (I hope) a lot of thematic connections around the idea of “sexual conquest”—both on a micro-level between characters but also on a larger, colonial level between countries. I want readers to know that the book deals with a lot of difficult ideas around sex and the grey areas between seduction and coercion, and it sometimes deals with these ideas in a very graphic way. But people should know that Sad Peninsula is also a love story, and (again, I hope) a tenderly rendered one at that.

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?

I love doing readings, and I think it’s because the rest of the writerly life is so solitary. When I’m writing, I tend to read my work aloud as I go, and in many ways this feels like a rehearsal for sharing the work out loud with an audience. I’m very comfortable reading in front of a crowd—I would do it daily if someone would pay me

—and I tend to adopt the voices of the characters and really get into it. I know a lot of writers have anxiety about performing their work, but this is not something I go through myself. If anything, I feel anxious if I haven’t done a reading in a while.

Now that you’ve published two novels and have a book of short stories and a collection of poems coming out in 2015 and 2016 respectively, what have you learned about writing? What have you learned about your own process?

The experience of the last few years, when I’ve begun to publish a lot more than I ever have before, has just reinforced for me the importance of continuity in my writing process. To me, it’s really important to just take a workmanlike approach to the craft and not fetishize or romanticize the writing life too much—because lord knows other people will do that for you anyway once you start having a bit of success. I work a 9-to-5 day job, so my routine is to write from 4:30 to 7:30 am, five days a week. Some days I generate 50 words and other days I generate 1,000, but either way it’s important to maintain that daily discipline, that daily continuity, especially if I’m working on a novel. I’m very protective of this time, because I know I’m not the kind of person who can come at a project in fits and starts or have dedicated “writing days.” This is just anathema to how I’m wired as a writer.

Sad Peninsula alternates between the points of view of a Michael, a failed journalist teaching English in Seoul and Eun-young, an elderly Korean woman who was a comfort woman during WWII. Did you ever have moments of discomfort about writing across all those lines—race, age, sexual violence—and how did you overcome them?

There was always a certain amount of discomfort in whether I had the chops to fully inhabit Eun-young’s world and whether I would be able to accurately and honestly render her story on the page. I mean, she’s just about as different from me as one can get: she’s female, she’s Korean, she was born in 1928, and she spent two and a half years in a “comfort station,” being raped up to 35 times a day. So I knew that the task of creating her and telling her story would be enormous. But I was also lucky in the sense that her personality began to emerge in my mind at the same time as I was researching all of the horrific things that happened in those camps, and so I was able to develop her character in tandem with what I was learning. Sometimes I would come upon some bit of information and think, “You know, that would definitely resonate with someone like Eun-young” or “Yeah, no, she really wouldn’t relate to that bit of the history.” Over time, I was able to get a real symbiosis going between my research into Korean culture and history with the lengthy character sketches I was writing for Eun-young before beginning the first draft. So that helped immensely.

Another big part of it was giving myself permission to inhabit her world and tell her story, and that took a long time, too. You always doubt yourself: have I done enough research, have I sketched out this person enough, do I really understand all the different aspect of her psyche that are going to propel her through this narrative? But at some point you have to let go of those reservations and just let her voice rise to the surface and take over. And that’s what it did.

I taught English in South Korea immediately after the IMF Crisis and spent a lot of my time in Internet cafes writing poems. What were you writing while you were there?

I was writing my first novel while I was there. I had been thinking about and mapping out Off Book for about two or three years by that point, and I used my move to Seoul to hunker down and pound it out. That had been the plan all along. But as I was closing in on my last few months there, when the novel was finally done, I began to think about how I might use some of my Korean experiences in future writing. What emerged, obviously, was Sad Peninsula, but also two or three short stories and about a half dozen poems. For a period of my life that last just 27 months, it was actually very fruitful.

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

Oh yes, I lived in Winnipeg from 2000 to 2002, where I earned my MA in English at the University of Manitoba. In fact, I went to Korea the following year in part to pay off the student loans incurred during that and my previous degree. I loved Winnipeg, still do. I did quite a bit of research before moving there in 2000, and knew that its literary community definitely punched above its weight. The writers I fell in with and learned from were wonderful: David Arnason. Dennis Cooley, Alison Calder, George Amabile, Warren Cariou, to name a few. I was also there studying at the same time as a number of writers who have since emerged as the next generation of talented Prairie scribblers: Nathan Dueck, Cara Hedley, and Jonathan Ball.

To a certain degree, I think I washed up on the U of M campus in the fall of 2000 rather inexplicably: I had, for three years previous, been a relatively successful magazine writer and editor in Halifax, and I didn’t know a single soul in Winnipeg when I moved there. But that was sort of the point. I think I needed the jolt of starting my life from scratch—a much easier task when you’re still in your 20s, believe me—to really get my creative energy to the next level, and so Winnipeg served that purpose for me. I was very “regionalist” in my aesthetic at the time—needing to get away from the Maritimes in order to write about it, blah blah blah – and while the focus of my work has changed a lot since then, I still see those years as quite formative.

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

I’m in the middle of K.D. Miller’s delightful new short story collection, All Saints, published earlier this year by Biblioasis. I have a real soft spot for Biblioasis’s roster of talented short fiction writers— so much so, in fact, that I married one of them—and it’s wonderful to read a writer like Miller at the very top of her game.

As for my own stuff, I am (of course!) working on a new novel. It’s about a high-profile Canadian public intellectual who says something wildly inappropriate while on live national television shortly after getting into a row with his stay-at-home wife, and how the ensuing social media fallout exposes all the cracks and fissures in his marriage. Whereas Sad Peninsula is a complex novel with many heady and serious themes, this new book will be, I hope, shorter and much more comic.