Thursday, November 03, 2016

On making poems from Other Poems

I read Calgary-based writer Richard Harrison's latest book for a Prairie Books Now article while sitting at my dining room table during the first writing day I’ve had in ages.

And even though I came to it tired and ever so slightly resentful at giving away a part of my day, I recognized so many of the poems, the feelings, the images, the ideas. On Not Losing My Father’s Ashes in the Flood made me feel sad and glad, its poems inspired me and made me think about craft. And I was grateful for writing days and books like his to read in the middle of them...

So it should come as no surprise that my interview with Richard later that day was equally as surprising and generous.

I particularly liked this call/response, but couldn't make it fit into the 500 word article I was writing. I thought I'd reproduce it here in its entirety. 

AG: Many of these poems discuss other poems, other artworks. Is this mode borrowed from your other life as an academic? Also, I would really like to know how you manage to make responses to poems into poems.

RH: Maybe so. I was hosting an event earlier this month for WordFest, and I noticed the same thing in the work of the novelists I was acting as host for—how important documents (books, letters, archives) were to the main characters in the novels. Peter Behrens' responded that this trope probably did come from the fact that writers and academic people are in some sense people who follow books into life, but that it wasn't always the case. I liked the idea of following a book into life -- sometimes as a map, sometimes as a hypothesis. I know I do it. Books are part of life, but they are about life, too; taken at their greatest distance from any notion of author, they are life reflecting on itself. Life is full of contradictions, so so will be any collection of books that a person finds significant to them.

I think I'd think that whether I was an academic or not, but certainly being an academic as well as a writer accentuates the tendency. On one level, "finding my voice" meant accepting those elements in it.

Thank you for seeing my responses to poems as poems in their own right. I'm glad about that. It's difficult to not get caught up in other poems when writing my own, particularly, in this book, with the poems my father treated as touchstones to his life, like "Fern Hill" and so on, playing key parts. In the end, though, now that I'm thinking about it, using poems within poems ought to be (or is when it works) like treating any other things right when they are in poems, too. A poem may never be as lovely as a tree, but a poem about a poem should treat the two the same: they are there to be responded to within the poem, they are there to be a way to get at something that the poet needs to write.

Does that answer it? I'm not sure. If I answered with this analogy, maybe that's as close as I can get right now. I once was asked to write and read four poems for four of the greats of hockey in my day, and one of them was Gordie Howe. So I met Gordie as part of the event that I had written the poems for. I actually met Gordie twice. The first time was in the lobby of the hotel where the event was to take place. And when I met him there, I became like every other fan he's ever met — thanking him for his great career, saying how much he meant to me, to the game, blah blah blah. And I watched him forget me even as I was in front of him. And he was a famously kind and attentive man.

Then I stepped back and let him take the elevator to the reception and I thought, "I'm going to make a mess of this if I do that all night. I need to be who and what I am. Gordie doesn't want me to meet the surface of him, he wants, like we all want, be encountered as a human being." So when I next met Gordie (about a half an hour later; he had forgotten so I got the do-over), I was able to introduce myself as the writer of the poems and so on. And we got along very well. We talked, and my poem meant something to him and the story had a happy ending.

The point I think I've found in that story is that I had to get over the fact that other poems were Other Poems in order to write about them as the poems they were — as something someone made that had meaning to me, a meaning I wanted to explore through the language and images that those poems brought to mind, whether they were words in those poems themselves or arose from them. I guess the shortest way to say this is "treat them like anything else." But it took me years to be able to truly feel that.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

In Conversation: Diana Beresford-Kroeger

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

Diana Beresford-Kroeger is an Irish-born and Ontario-based author, scientist and environmentalist.

Her latest project is the feature-length documentary Call of the Forest, which was produced with Winnipeg’s Edgeland Films and Merit Motion Pictures.

Five years in the making, the film investigates humanity’s profound biological and spiritual connection to forests, from Japan to California and Ireland to Germany, from Vancouver Island across to the great Boreal Forest.

Winnipeg Free Press: What was it like going up into Manitoba’s boreal forest near Poplar River First Nation and working with some of the peoples there?

Diana Beresford-Kroeger: What is amazing there is that for the last 5,000 years, the people of Pimachiowan Aki, they have a pristine forest, they have a pristine boreal forest. Now let me tell how important that is: no forests anywhere in the world have been described botanically, from the ancient forests to the modern forests, we have no botanical description of them. Some of the species underground, we still don’t know what they are. In the Bloodvein area, those forests have been standing for 5,000 years and then some. So the pattern of growth within that forest is absolutely unique.
I saw all kinds of unique things in this area; it was like a paradise to me. It is a jewel in the heart of this whole continent and the aboriginal people have sacrificed so much to save that place. They’ve pushed away the gold miners and all kinds of people so as to save it. They have been guardians of this area for 5,000 years. Nobody on the planet has managed to do that.

FP: Manitoba is home to a generous swath of Canada’s boreal forest. Can you tell me more generally why it’s important to preserve the boreal forest?

DBK: The boreal forest is not one forest. It is a forest system all over the crown of the planet, like the tonsure on a monk. The boreal forest sits like a divine monk in meditation of the planet itself, going all across North America, going all across northern Europe into Russia’s taiga, going into northern China and northern Japan, into the Kuril Islands.

It is the last functioning intact forest left on the planet. And just in case you’re not sure of what this forest does, it oxygenates the atmosphere and absorbs carbon dioxide. What the boreal forest also does is produce prostaglandins from some of the trees and it is an activator in the atmosphere. It produces aerosols. It produces forest-bathing chemicals that bathes the whole of the atmosphere in the spring and it benefits people, even down in the south, even the people in Ottawa. So it floods the atmosphere with health-giving beneficial chemicals.

Fifty years ago, 100 years ago, we scientists did not know what a tree does. We didn’t fully understand it. The aboriginal people, hundreds of years ago, thousands of years ago, knew this by way of meditation, they knew it by way of ancient wisdoms. And their teaching was that the trees were sacred. And the trees are sacred, now in science we know the sacredness of the trees. We can’t cut the boreal down: we have to maintain it.

FP: Another aspect of your message is the importance of urban forests.

: Well, first of all, let’s look at the children of the people in urban areas. They live in a concrete castle; everything they see is concrete or stone or asphalt on the road. They don’t see nature. And that becomes the landscape of their minds, of their imaginations. So the urban forest produces, on a very basic level, the landscape of nature for these people. And that instils some little tiny bit of feeling for nature, because we are part of nature, we are part of the tapestry of nature. The people who are walking on the city streets they earned the right to have a little bit of nature in their homes and in their hearts.

Then, on the next level, the particular trees that you have in Winnipeg, the species called Ulmus americanus. Now what they do is something really, really unusual, in that the elms in particular have trichomal hairs on the undersides of the leaves and they act like combs, pulling the particulate pollution out of the air for the human family. And that’s 2.5 micron pollution, which is about a 10th of a pollen grain; it gets into your lungs and causes asthma and other problems. When you have trees there like you have in Manitoba, like you have in Winnipeg — Winnipeg is unique on the face of this planet, believe you me —what happens is that the pollution load is really really low.

FP: Winnipeg has one of the largest collection of mature elms left in North America, but climate change, disease and age are taking its toll on our canopy. Do you have any advice for Winnipeggers, both in terms of how we might preserve what’s left and how we might best go forward?

DBK: My suggestion would that every second tree you plant be a burr oak, a Quercus macrocarpa. They’re super drought-resistent, wind-turbulent resistant, just as the elms are. So if you lose your elms to disease, you won’t lose your oaks.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Oak grove, Southwood Lands

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I might have a little crush on this oak grove in the Southwood Lands.

Southwood Lands

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Had a long and productive day at work. But about 3 pm, I realized that I hadn't been out from behind my desk. Also, the fall sun has been beautiful all week. And in late October I always have the feeling that "this could be the last nice day..."

So I went and walked around in the Southwood Lands, the decommissioned golf course adjacent to the university.

I was somewhat reluctant, in that I've been watching the construction of the new transit stop, nibbling away at two of four parcels.

I walked the route I used to take to and from work last year. It was on a gravel path lined with trees. And there were usually at least one raptor. Big ones and small ones. Roosting and flying. It made me happy to see them, to startle them and be startled myself...

More of the trees have died since then. And today, with half the path cordoned off and covered over by the new transit line, there wasn't a single raptor.

But I visited the oak grove near the river. And it looked healthy. And I walked on fallen trees and found a few mushrooms around stumps.

I was walking by one of the water hazards, which is basically a pond, when I saw something white and porous bobbing in the water. I thought it was a golf ball. Then I realized it was too big to be a golf ball. And by that time I was lifting it from the water.

It was a dud goose egg, faintly green from the green plants in the water. I hefted the egg for a few seconds, trying to visualize the tiny dead goose inside, knowing there were geese napping on the slope behind me.

I put it back in the water and kept walking...

As I walked on, I made a point of looking at all the crabapple trees. I was startled by how many varieties there were in Southwood - at least five or six. The first tree had yellow apple-crabs with orange and red accents. I tried one and it wasn't good.

And then I came to two trees in a line. The first one had deep red apple-crabs on it. But they were a strange shape, elongated. I still tried one. It tasted good, so I ate another.

The next tree was the same, except the apples were round. There were only 10 or 15 apples left, so I picked three and walked back to my office. And I held the cold red-purple apples in the palm of my hand and waited to eat one until I was back in my co-worker's office.

We'd picked wild plums together on a few weeks ago, combing the big yellow and small red plumbs into our hands. We'd been excited by what we could make with them, by the taste of them in our mouths.

So I knew he'd like these apples. And he exclaimed over them, the impossible colour and the taste.

And I felt better about everything. (I worked a bit after that before going home, before writing this...)

Friday, October 21, 2016


So this is my pledge: over the next year, there will be nothing extra beyond the day-job and writing (and the menstruation anthology, of course...).
No organizing, no reviewing, no interviewing. 

I NEED to concentrate on getting this book of essays done. 

My mum was a workaholic and I've inherited some of her habits, though I think she'd think I was a slouch. 

I really get a lot of energy working in/through community, but it sometimes leaves me with next to no ACTUAL WRITING TIME. 

So: I'm going to be withdrawing a little.

Not from social media or this blog, because I'd feel isolated, but from some of extra unpaid work of the writing life.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

In Conversation: Craig Davidson

Winnipeg Free Press—PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by Ariel Gordon

Craig Davidson is a Toronto-based writer.

On the one hand, he’s a successful literary novelist with his third novel, Cataract City, shortlisted for the 2013 Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Trillium Book Prize.

On the other, he also writes suspense and horror novels under the pseudonyms Nick Cutter and Patrick Lestewka, which are regularly blurbed by Stephen King and Clive Barker.

Davidson was in Winnipeg this week, launching a memoir entitled Precious Cargo as a part of the Winnipeg International Writers Festival.

Winnipeg Free Press: By the time you sat down to write Precious Cargo — about being a single, unsuccessful writer taking a job as driver of the special-needs bus — you’d married, had a child, and published three more novels as Craig Davidson and several more as horror writers Nick Cutter and Patrick Lestewka. Why did you want to tell this story now? And how did having a child of your own deepen your thinking and feeling on the events you’re recounting?

Craig Davidson: I think it was just a matter of the book coming out of me at this time. I had a vacancy in terms of the next book I wanted to write, and Precious Cargo — or the idea that would become the book — was tugging most insistently. So that was what I wrote. I think for sure having a child sharpens the sense of what the book is about. I was always appreciative and respectful of the parents of the children I drove, but having had a son of my own I can see things a little more clearly through their eyes now.

WFP: What was the most difficult part about writing about children with disabilities?

CD: Oh, there are lots. Primarily, maybe, this sense that I’m an imposter. A lot of books about disabilities are written from first-hand experience: either the author themselves explains what it’s like to live with a specific disability, or the author details what it’s like to be, say, the parent of a child with special needs. Obviously, I didn’t have the same intimacy. So I settled on my perspective as the 98 per cent: that is, the percentage of people in our society who has likely had only token interactions with children (or adults) with special needs. My perspective was, "Hey, I’m reasonably compassionate, I’m willing to learn, I will make mistakes, but I want to be a part of this." And from there, to comment as honestly but also as compassionately and gently and carefully on whatever about those interactions made me happy, worried, elated, what made me laugh and what caused my heart to hurt. All of that. But it was an enormous worry that I’d get it wrong somehow. And I’m sure by some readers’ estimation I did get it wrong. Such is the life of a writer.

WFP: In terms of craft, how was writing a memoir unlike writing literary fiction or horror? Or is all writing, writing?
CD: I think the main thing is the most obvious: one is fiction, the other not. I think there’s a heightened level of responsibility and care in writing non-fiction (although, depending on your fictional universe, if it reflects real life, a writer might feel very responsible in that instance, too), but anyway, the "characters" in Precious Cargo are not. They’re real people. They have a life off the pages of the book I’ve written. They will live on well past the life of the book. So it’s important that everything in the book reflects that.

WFP: Speaking of the life of the writer, how did your son and your pseudonym happen to have the same first name? (And is your son’s middle name Cutter?)

CD: It’s a bit of an honorific to the boy. We’ll see if he feels that way when he’s 13. But by then he’ll likely think everything his old man does or has ever done is lame.

WFP: Tell me about the hubbub after your novel Cataract City (2013) was nominated for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Trillium.

CD: Oh, it was nice. It made me wonder how a really big-time writer must feel — y’know, I’m sure all the nominees felt a little tired after all the foofaraw, but it was only a few months. Imagine (J.K.) Rowling or King or whoever. It’s never-ending, and it’s so much bigger! Lines of people down the block, endless meetings, press obligations. When do they ever find a moment to take a pee, let alone write?

WFP: As a writer (in other words, as someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

CD: I’m happy enough to do readings. I am not necessarily the greatest reader — I’ve done readings with writers who are really adept readers (Irish writers are the best; pro tip: never follow an Irish writer at a reading, unless you want to let everyone down), so I know that’s not really my forte. But I get up there, sure. I tend to enjoy the Q&A portion more. Answering questions, rambling on at great length like a doddery old uncle. Surely that’s fun for the audience…

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

CD: Reading The Count of Monte Christo and The 48 Laws of Power. Research.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer.

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Fluid communities

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So I interviewed Winnipeg-based Metis writer Katherena Vermette about her debut novel, The Break, for the fall issue of The Winnipeg Review.

(This is my second conversation with Kate. The first was back in 2012 when her first book, North End Love Songs, was published.)

Since the interview was published, The Break has appeared on the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize and the Governor General's Award for Fiction shortlists and has been reviewed by the Globe and Mail and the National Post. Congrats to Kate!

Monday, October 03, 2016

Amplifying The Call of the Forest

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So I'm going to be helping to promote the feature-length documentary The Call of the Forest, amplifying the call if you will. The film features scientist and author, Diana Beresford-Kroeger, as she investigates our profound biological and spiritual connection to forests both in Manitoba and world-wide. 

The Call of the Forest will be screening at Winnipeg's Cinematheque October 22-30. There will be a panel discussion after the October 22 screening and an urban forest walk on October 23.

I'm excited and proud to be working on this project and I hope you'll be interested too, having listened to me burble on about trees/forests/urban nature for ages.