this is not a review: ‘savage fields’, by dennis lee

 

I’ve been doing some bookshelf cleaning — clearing out the excess to make room for new stuff. Only so much room and I really hate it when I can’t see what I have. Am donating or giving the prunings to various places and friends but before some of them go they will spend time in a new stack called “Stuff to Read Before It’s Definitely Given Away”.

Most recently plucked from the STRBIDGA pile was Dennis Lee’s Savage Fields, published in 1977 by Anansi. Its subtitle: An Essay in Literature and Cosmology  did NOT help it win my attention over the years and more than once I thought to just ‘donate’… but something made me keep it and I’m so glad I did.

Less essay than discussion of Lee’s theory that everything is either of (or about) the earth or the world,  including stories. (Earth being anything natural… World being anything man made.) The savage fields of the title refers to the friction caused when earth and world collide, which of course they constantly do.

His interest is in how that happens in literature, and so he dissects two books as examples:

The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, by Michael Ondaatje (a combination of prose and poetry in which Lee theorizes that Billy is trying, constantly, to kill the earth and so is, in fact, killing himself)

and

Beautiful Losers, by Leonard Cohen (one of two novels by Cohen, which Lee suggests is about freeing a repressed Canadian history through liberation of thought)

I will forgive that both books are by men. Dennis Lee is himself a man. This is often how things go. I will forgive it also because Savage Fields is a fascinating piece of work nonetheless.

I’ll admit that I’ve read neither Beautiful Losers nor Billy the Kid.  The former strikes me as incomprehensible and the latter not up my street but, oddly, I really liked reading about them through Lee’s lens. I enjoyed his analysis and the way he takes the story of each book apart, illustrating his theory of how we continue to screw up the earth because, essentially, we can’t accept beauty when it comes our way, that we have this need to alter it, put our own stamp on it and make it ‘better’. (Better than what? It was trundling along just fine until we got involved.) Lee says that we turn earth to world because we can’t help it and even while knowing on some deep level that we are screwing ourselves.

We’ve been more or less doing this by various means since we invented agriculture, which is when we stopped living in harmony with ‘earth’.

Another of Lee’s theories is what he calls the Isis Continuum, which, essentially, is happiness (Isis being a goddess of Egyptian mythology, wise and unconditionally loving). Again, we, for some reason, often refuse the simplicity of happiness, creating chaos instead as if not believing happiness is truly possible.

Lee posits his way through both books, offering excerpts and outlines of the stories, analyzing characters and actions.

Savage Fields isn’t a difficult read, but it’s an unusual one. One that takes a pot of tea and a Sunday morning to find your rhythm with (best read whole or in two parts, but definitely not fragments). It’s the kind of book you want someone else to read so you can talk about it with them and apply Lee’s theories, to find the savage fields in literature or at least to keep the notion of it in mind.

“World and earth are shown as being at war, yet they keep turning out to be the same thing. How can we resolve the contradiction?… To conceptualize this unusual state of affairs takes a certain amount of effort — indeed, a willingness to bend one’s mind in unaccustomed directions.”

“I started this book in 1972. I knew the title before I knew what the title meant. There are months of drafts between the sentences. The voice kept sounding false, excluding too much of who I was. Now I look at it, and find I have scarcely made a beginning.”

“Clear thought is an achievement of difficult beauty.”

The kind of book where most excerpts are pointless out of context. The kind of book that isn’t easy to quote from and details are soon forgotten, yet you feel inexplicably changed for the better for having spent time with it because suddenly ‘something’ feels clearer. Surely one of the best reasons for reading.

Dennis Lee was a founder of House of Anansi, which prided itself in the late 60’s and 70’s on its difference, its experimental style, and its interest in the Canadian story.

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘everybody’s different on everybody street’, written by sheree fitch; illust. by emma fitzgerald

 

This morning I made a pot of lemon verbena/peppermint/orange mint tea with leaves from my garden and read Sheree Fitch and Emma Fitzgerald’s extraordinary Everybody’s Different on Everybody Street..

Is there a better way to start the day than tea and a (picture) book?

Answer: hardly.

And so I sipped. And marvelled over the brilliantly colourful, completely delicious illustrations… (birdcages on head, balloons up one’s skirt, laundry and tomatoes on the roof, street meditation in the presence of turtles [personal favourite], an empty fridge, a command to dance, someone in a wheelchair, others kissing in a tree, a homeless man, an angry woman, images of loneliness and images of joy, all woven against a background of a father reading a story to a young child who imagines this ‘Everybody Street’ as crowded with so many ‘others’ and who comes to realize all of those people are actually one…that we are all of those people and all of those people are us… “Yes… EVERYONE is travelling on EveryBody Street and EveryOne IS EveryOne and AnyOne you meet…”

And as I read I could feel emotions rising as the everbodyness  contained in Fitch’s buoyant poetry practically floated off the pages.

This book is a testament to community, and to joy. It’s also about mental health/illness in its many forms. And to be honest, the power of it kind of takes you by surprise.

Oh but we are in such good hands here because, as only Fitch can do, we are gently (playfully!) shown that all those people who look and act ‘differently’, who for whatever reason fall outside the punishing parameters of what society calls ‘normal’… are simply displaying aspects of being human that we all share.

The very young will only see peacocks and happy chaos… in the way of the very young, who don’t judge. But the message of inclusivity is there, the subliminal suggestion of non-judgement and, for those old enough to understand or who, in the company of a reader sensitive enough to explain, it becomes a thing to celebrate, to embrace, the beginning of meaningful conversation.

I look forward to sharing this with my eight year old niece. We will eat french fries at the beach while we read and we will talk about how we feel some of these feelings some of the time and we’ll notice people around us and make up lives for them… and remind ourselves that they have feelings too.

(The Afterword, written by Fitch, explaining the motivation behind the story, and the difficulty of taking on this subject, is an equally powerful read, in which Fitch says “I don’t like poems that tell me how to think; I like poems that make me think.”)

What a bold book.

And what an important one.

 

I got my copy at Blue Heron Books, and you can too!

Support indies!

 

menstrual memories anyone?

 
A new anthology, called GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times, is making some people uncomfortable… why must these things be spoken of??

And making others relieved… thank god we can finally speak.

Because I have a short piece in the book (about the perils of attending a pool party in the 1970’s), and because I believe in saying the word menstruation out loud,
I recently sat outside Blue Heron Books with a little sign that said Menstrual Memories?  —  And waited to see what would happen.

Young children were rushed past.

Men looked uncomfortable. Women too. One woman actually sneered.

But after a while, I noticed people coming back, and some of them stopped. Then many more stopped. It was as if they’d been initially blindsided by the question… but… now that you mention it, yeah, I do have some memories I’d like to share.

And so they shared.

Menstrual memories.

And why not?

A man asked if he could take a picture of the table. I asked if he had any menstrual memories. He said no. We laughed and I liked that the word was spoken between genders. It’s hard enough sometimes just between women.

And that of course IS the whole point of the book, i.e.Why are women made to feel awkward and embarrassed about a basic function of biology?

The first to stop was an 83 year old woman from Cape Breton who whispered about shame and flannel cloths worn like diapers, about the horror of washing them and hanging them to dry. After a few minutes she stopped whispering as one memory twigged another and her friends got into it, all of them swapping stories, and I could tell they’d never had this conversation or anything like it before. As she began to leave, she stopped, smiled and said thank you, this has been fun. She seemed slightly surprised that it turned out that way. And I have no doubt that part of the fun was the relief of speaking the words… at last.

Following are memories so many women shared with me… on a sidewalk, outside a bookstore, on a beautiful summer night… in their own words:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My aunt was on holiday in Austria and her ankles got so swollen she went to see a doctor and discovered she was eight months pregnant. She’d gained some weight but still had her period and so it was a complete shock. My cousin was born the next month and my aunt and uncle quickly got married and moved in together.

When I got my cycle at age thirteen my mum told me I had to carry a purse for “my stuff”. The way she said it was like it was the worst thing on earth.

My dad worked in a factory that made menstrual products and got an employee discount but was too embarrassed to bring them home in the company box, which ‘advertised’ what was inside and so made a whole production out of wrapping the box in brown paper so that neighbours wouldn’t be any the wiser as he brought it into the house from the car. It was treated like contraband.

I was an immigrant and there was a questionnaire at school. One of the questions had the word “menstrual” in it and I didn’t understand, exactly. But I didn’t ask what it meant. It was like I had an idea it shouldn’t be said out loud.

My mom left a booklet about “being a woman” on my dresser one day. In my closet, that same day, on the top shelf, was a box that had a lovely picture on it of a lovely woman in a long white gown. I was very excited about my new dress (which I assumed was inside!!).

My period started on the way home from school on the #28 Davisville bus. Me in my school uniform: white blouse, kilt, knee socks, blazer. I felt the ‘gush’ and when I stood up I was mortified. I tied the blazer around myself as I exited the bus.

I can’t remember what I said, nothing big, I’d simply mentioned my period in conversation to my boyfriend, who became (immediately) enraged. The details are a blur. All I remember is how angry he was that I said whatever I said out loud, like blasphemy or something. I have never, not once, spoken a word about my period to any guy since. Including my husband.

Boys made jokes about girls who were on their periods. (On the rag & worse.)

Try using an outhouse when you have your period.

When I got my period my mother took me aside and said I was to avoid boys now. She didn’t clarify why or which boys so I avoided them all, including my brothers, to the point that I was afraid if our elbows touched as we passed on the stairs. It completely changed our relationship.

Got my period at eleven. I was on a toboggan with two boys.

My favourite menstrual thought:  I look forward to menopause!

A menstrual memory for me is when I was in my twenties and playing softball. I was either pitching or shortstop, and I felt something. Uh oh…

My periods were heavy and I didn’t carry a purse. I worked as an auctioneer.
I used to keep extra pads down the sides of my cowboy boots.

I remember watching TV with my dad and my brothers and running from the room in embarrassment when Kotex ads came on.

My periods stopped the day my mother died. I could feel it starting as I sat with her in the hospital. She died that night, and my period proceeded normally for the rest of week. And that was it. I never had another. I was only in my forties.

We didn’t have products. We used flannel cloths, like diapers, and they had to be washed and dried and re-used. It was an embarrassment when it was your time because people would see the bulge of the pin through your skirt.

My periods were so bad I had to take three days off school most months.

I lived near the ocean and it was a real concern, people would tell you not to swim, to be careful of sharks, and they weren’t kidding.

 

GUSH: Menstrual Manifestos For Our Times available from Blue Heron Books

Support indies!

CBC Books

 

this is not a review, this is a list…

 

I read Karen Hofmann’s What is Going to Happen Next  while in Ottawa, where, when I wasn’t reading or eating I was at the National Gallery….. stickers from which I stuck onto the back of the book so the two are forever connected now.

I loved this book about a family that falls apart and the siblings who find each other, whole or in fragments, many years later. Hofmann’s writing is gorgeous, her characters are so real, so well-developed, the story so engaging that I would rush back from the gallery each day just to see what they were up to.

“There are a few dozen seconds, maybe a couple of minutes, Cleo thinks, when one meets someone one hasn’t seen for a long time, when they appear as strangers, and their faces must be read objectively. And then there is a switch thrown in the mind, and the physiognomy suddenly becomes familiar again, recognized, seen now subjectively as a whole, rather than the sum of its parts. And more significantly, this new face is superimposed in the visual memory over the old, so that it disappears, and only the new now exists in that catalogue or whatever it is of known facts.”

~~~

Next Year for Sure , by Zoey Leigh Peterson, came to me from the library initially because it was there and it was easy and because this is often my way, to test run a book and then buy it only if I fall in love. (fyi, not only do I now have my own copy, I’ve given the book as a gift or recommended it to so many people.)

More than a great story, it’s a way of thinking about our relationships, intimate ones especially… how are these things defined and by whom and must it be the same for everyone?

The conversations, the honesty of feelings that span all kinds of spectrums, the wide open qualities that characters possess, lifestyle possibility, curiosity, generally, as well as ever shifting perspectives… all of if making every minute of reading such a joy (have read it twice now)… ‘joy’ as in hanging out with these people just to see what ideas we’d be tossing around today. Such excellent company. A rare thing to find this level of emotional authenticity.

In a nutshell… a wonderfully imagined, beautifully written story of how friendship endures, though relationships may change, all of it wrapped in the insecurity we feel despite what we know to be true.

“And he remembers wondering what it would be like to kiss someone who used the word indefatigable.”

~~~

I bought A Pillow Book  on someone’s recommendation and then let it sit on my TBR shelf for a couple of years. I liked the cover, and the slim size appealed to me and I was often tempted to open it but for some reason (even though I’d read reviews) I had the idea it was about pillows in a way that I couldn’t muster up enthusiasm for. And then one day I just opened it and began reading about pillow history and pillow trivia, which immediately felt less like history and trivia and more like the memoir it actually is, propelled by tiny truths that are simply triggered by pillows in some form or other.

“Without dreams, we die quicker. No one quite knows the reason for this. We know less about what happens on our pillows at night than we know about the dark side of the moon.”

Sprinkled throughout are really quite wonderful lists of unusual things, the sort of lists you might recite in your head on a sleepless night (if you were extremely creative). From one called ‘Altered Proverbs’… When in Rome, stay at the Ritz, or To forgive is human, to forget divine.

Another nice touch are references to the original Pillow Book which was written in the year 1002, as observations in poetic, prose and other forms, by Sei Shōnagon. It’s this book, and its intentions in a way, that Buffam pays tribute to in her style and structure.

“There are times when the world so exasperates me, recalls Shonagon, that I feel I cannot go on living in it for another moment and I want to disappear for good. But then, if I happen to obtain some nice white paper, Michinouku paper, or white decorated paper, I decide that I can put up with things as they are a little longer.”

Long story short— LOVED it. Can’t bear to re-shelve it just yet so it sits on my coffee table to be dipped into whenever the whim strikes. And now that I know what it’s about, it strikes often.

“Pillows, I say, when people ask what I’m writing about… It’s a book about someone who can’t sleep… who’s writing a book about pillows. The more pillows I write, however, the more strongly I suspect that what I’m writing about pillows is as much about pillows as last night’s dream about getting lost in an underground parking lot at the mall was about getting lost in an underground parking lot at the mall.”

 

 

 

 

 

this is not a review: ‘in this house are many women’, by sheree fitch

 

When you hear the name Sheree Fitch, you may think children’s books, Mable Murple’s creator or simply one of CanLit’s most beloved player of words.

You’d be right, of course, on all counts, but there is also her adult fiction and poetry and if you’ve missed that, you’re missing a lot.

In This House are Many Women  came to me in a most magical way (what I call the Sheree Fitch effect) and I’ve been reading and re-reading it for months so that it’s pretty much found a permanent spot on my coffee table and sometimes bedside table. Poetry combined with story in poetic form, about and from the perspective of women in both difficult and joy-filled situations… motherhood as a homeless woman, daily rituals, escaping domestic violence, finding connection in friendship, and learning to trust oneself. There aren’t enough books from these perspectives, that of women in shelters, and women ultimately helping women.

It’s the kind of thing, thankfully, most women will never know first hand, but … if you’ve ever wondered what it might be like to leave your house in the dead of night while someone is threatening to kill you if you leave and you keep leaving anyway, keep running out the door because it’s become apparent to you that your chances of living are much slimmer if you stay (chances of living happily are nil), so you keep running, not sure to where or to what, all you know for now is why...

… if you’ve ever wondered what happens next, then this is the book to read.

It’s Milk and Honey  for grown ups. Only better, and in a league of its own.

First published in 1993 and reissued in 2004 by Goose Lane, In This House are Many Women is a collection of poems that read like prose, a journey through the life of women. Women in peril. Women as community. Women as resilient survivors. While there is plenty of gritty reality, there is much humour, love, hope and, ultimately, the message that women helping women is how it’s always been, and that  is no small potatoes.

In other words, it’s a gem of a book and I’m stunned that I haven’t come across it before. Since discovering it I’ve made a list of people I want to give it to, not the least of which are women staying in shelters.

The first of four sections opens with a suite of poems following the journey of escape, beginning with ‘The Runner’—

She runs:
past women with drawstring mouths
women with wombs puckered out
from plum to grape to raisin
women who have never known
what wetness means

In ‘What Rhonda Remembers About the First Five Minutes’ there is arrival at the shelter, the sound of a buzzer, strangers, lights, attention, the imagined chorus of:

someone new is coming
someone new is coming
someone new is coming

— giving the sense of entering a prison. That this house of many women is safe and nourishing takes time to discover. At first it’s only not home. The windows are bullet proof, there are security cameras everywhere. The doors are locked, everyone is a stranger, the police are on speed dial. At first there is the matter of safety, then how to simply function, how to deal with the impossibility of emotions running through you while, at the same time, you are numb to all feeling.

In ‘Edna’, the narrator looks at her swollen face in a mirror “wishing I could see the wrinkles”.

Each poem is another woman’s story. You can almost imagine the conversations as women feed their children or sit in communal areas, drinking coffee, smoking, biting their nails as they listen to one another.

In ‘Valerie Listens to Gwendolyn’, the narrator explains how the leaving went for her:

I did not leave because of his violence
I left because of mine
I got another phone call
from another woman
I went in and watched him sleeping
saliva like dried chalk
made a rim around his open
mouth
a perfect target

I had a gun
I placed it on his pillow
then I left.

There are poems about the NIMBYness toward shelters, revelations about the homeless, the roles women play when they share a space, who mothers the others, who is most in need of what and who will provide the whats. Unsurprisingly, from a writer who understands the child mind, there are meditations and revelations from a child’s perspective too (as in god wears flannel shirts).

One of my favourites is ‘Advice’, which is a list of exactly that, beginning with:

Read everything Gloria Steinem ever wrote
her last book first

and ending with:

The best answers will always be questions
You can always call your aunt.

Another, ‘Grand LaPierre, Newfoundland’ tells in pure Fitchean style, the essentials of writing a poem as if one’s life depended on it:

...it doesn’t have to rhyme
but it must always have a beat
a finger-snap
a toe-tap

Fitch is writing here from the inside and the outside. One has the feeling she is both part of this world and an observer at the same time.

The thread running through the book is that words are a lifeline, the writing of our lives, the sharing of our stories, that through kindness and connection with others (including Peter Gzowski’s voice), all kinds of hurdles can be overcome, that we are not alone. It’s not only about women in dire straits, but about women being strong in the way of women…

So you can understand why I can’t bear to shelve it. When a book like this crosses your path it’s good to keep it close, to open it often.

♦♦♦

On any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn’t safe at home.
On any given night, about 300 women and children are turned away because shelters are already full.
‘Why She Stays’

(at) eleven with ariel gordon: ‘stowaways’

 
I was introduced to Ariel Gordon’s work through her essay in Kerry Clare’s anthology of motherhood, The M Word. Strange, perhaps, to discover a poet via an essay but I think, very often, if you like someone’s work in one genre, you’ll also like it in another.

Ariel_Gordon-Stowaways_origIn any case, that’s what happened here. And happily so.

Turns out Gordon writes about some of my favourite things—the natural world and its intersection with the urban world is a big one. This is especially the case in Stowaways, which, in the chat below, she says was written while cheating on a Thomas Edison inspired manuscript. I love that kind of backstory.

It was my absolute pleasure to have the chance for this back and forth recently with Gordon while she was on retreat in The Pas, Manitoba, and to discuss not only her work, but a few general thoughts on books and writing and the mystery of why poetry isn’t more widely embraced.

As with all (at) Eleven pieces (and for no other reason than I like both food and books and like nothing more than when they find each other) there is a suggested-by-me menu at the end of the Q&A, tailor made for this book.

A million thanks to Ariel Gordon for her generosity in this exchange.

I sincerely hope no retreat writing time was harmed in the process.

And with that, here we go…

 

What literary character did you want to be as a child? 

AG—The first novel I read through on my own was E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, followed by Frank Herbert’s Dune. I don’t think I wanted to be any of the characters. I was just so thrilled to be myself, plowing through books like it reading-on-my-own was a new technology or a dormant superpower. The character I probably identified with most strongly with was Valancy Stirling in L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle. But that was mostly mopey-teenager wish-fulfillment: “No one understands me! I am not beautiful! I will go live in a romantical cabin in the woods all by myself!”

Also, it gave me my first example of a working nature writer. Though Barney Snaith was pretty immature/mopey, come to think of it…

 

I’m interested in how people come to various forms. How did poetry find you? Also, do you have any memory of one your earliest pieces?

AG—I don’t recall the poem so much as the experience of writing it. In junior high, my Language Arts/Computer Science teacher, Ron Lamoureux, used what I now know is a fairly standard CW exercise to get us writing. But back then, it was incredible. He turned off the lights! And played boisterous classical music! And told us to write!

It was great fun. Not being able to see the page meant that my handwriting was big and loopy and ran everywhere on the page. All I had to do was follow the images the music presented me with and write them down, even if I might not be able to read my handwriting later.

After a few months of similar prompts, he compiled a booklet of poems and we launched them in the school gym. I think I even read my poem! Out loud!

During that time, I was also working on a fantasy novel I started when I was 13, on the computer my father’s employers gave him for home use. He never used it that I could tell, but I immediately started working on my book. Of course, every year I had to spend a lot of time revising the previous year’s writing, but it was immensely satisfying. I filled notebooks with drawings of my characters and pictures I ripped from magazines that resembled what I thought the world I was creating looked like. I even tried to come up with my own language…

I kept writing that book until I was 19 and in my second year of university. At the same time, I started working for the student newspaper and taking creative writing classes. So I started writing short stories that were the same length as the articles I was writing, about a page and a quarter in Word.

Eventually, these became more compact and started to look more like poems. And then I started calling myself a poet.

 

Do you still enjoy the revision part of the process?

AG—Writing is re-writing. I like the rush of first draft, but I’m under no illusion (most of the time) that the finished poem (or article or essay) will look anything like it.

You might say that I’m in a long-term relationship with revision. Which is to say: it’s hard work but it’s work that I love, that I’ve chosen.

 

Are there books you like to go back and re-read? 

AG—Thanks to the home-reading program at my daughter’s school I’ve been actively rereading Asterix et Obelix  and Barbapapa  comics. Luckily, her teachers are also sentimental former French-Immersion kids! I also recently re-read some of the slim fantasy novels of my youth, including Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonsong. (More angsty-teenager wish-fulfilment, as it turns out, except in this case it involved massive talent going to waste because of misogyny…)

I re-read Robert Kroetsch’s early novels—The Studhorse Man and Badlands  in particular—every few years.

But other than that, there’s so much to read out there that I don’t often deliberately go back, especially over the last couple of years where I focused my reading on non-fiction as my writing practice expanded to include non-fiction. Which means that I’m the worst-read person in a variety of genres, given that I read fiction, non-fiction, and poetry. Oh and comics.

 

I was speaking with a friend recently, someone who doesn’t read a lot of (any) poetry, but she’s a voracious reader in other forms. We talked about The Why of ‘poetry fear’, which she admits to having … and schools came into things, as in the way most of us are introduced to it… and the poems we’re introduced to. That feeling of dread rather than pleasure sticks in some way. We’re talking another generation of course; maybe things are different now. I’ve heard of excellent programs at the college and university levels but I wonder what kids are being taught in high school, poetry-wise.

AG—I had an English teacher in grades 9 & 10 who was at the very end of her career. And she made us pin down & analyze poems. Although it was obvious that she had great passion for poetry, she had decided what the correct meaning was of each poem and wouldn’t accept any other interpretations. She also didn’t teach any contemporary Canadian poetry.

More fatally, I gave her one of my stories to look at and she not only covered it in red ink, she gave me a lecture on the fact that none of her students, in thirty years of teaching, had ever become a writer. How the school system wasn’t designed to create writers.

Now this wasn’t much of a discouragement; I kept writing and found other teachers to share my work with.

But in first year university, when I was sitting in my 20th Century Lit class and we were starting our poetry unit, I put my hand up and said: “Deborah, I just want to say that I don’t like poetry.” Deborah being Deborah Schnitzer, who has published several books of poetry and experimental fiction.

She just said, “Oh, Ariel, you don’t,” in her amused, musical voice, and as it turns out, I was writing poems by the end of the year.

And later, when my first book of poems came out, my old English teacher showed up at the bookstore where I was working and very pointedly bought a copy of the book. It was like it was her penance…

My daughter is in grade four now and she’s already read and written poetry in her classes, so I’m not worried…

 

What about themes… are you ever surprised by a recurring theme in your work? Is there something you find yourself drawn to writing about without even realizing it until after you read the work? 

AG—I’ll answer this, but first, I want to get you to answer a theme question:

“What do you think are the themes at work in Stowaways? Were they on the surface or did they creep up on you, like the references to sound?”

(The reason I ask is that you have no idea how hard it is to talk about themes. They’re largely subconscious during the writing, unless the poet is working on a highly conceptual project from the get-go, but then the poet has to be prepared to sharpen them, acknowledge them, in the editing and, also, the promotion of the book.)

 

Yes, I get the difficulty of theme talk/identification, but mostly from a fiction pov, which is where most of my work lives. A friend of mine once said she only knows what her books are about when she reads the reviews. Haha!
I wonder how this is the same or different with poetry. In what way it might be harder to discuss themes, which I assume it is because poetry is just that much more bare naked. I’m thinking of the difference between, for example, a collection of short stories vs a collection of poetry… insofar as how they’re put together thematically. I suspect there are similarities, in that they are rarely ‘written’ that way at all. It just happens, or doesn’t, or there’s some (even tangential) similarity between pieces that readers and critics can feast on. And once arranged, there’s an alchemy sometimes…

AG—Part of the reason I asked too, was that I know what I think Stowaways  is about. I wrote the catalogue copy, for instance. But I’m always curious to see what other people think it’s about. Because part of publishing writing is about being in dialogue with the people reading it.

For me, the themes in ‘Stowaways’  are 1) the foibles of human nature and the way we butt up against nature, our own and the other kind, and 2) nature, the marvel of it, the way it’s there, no matter what we do; life, death, cycles, the real deal of it. The ‘How To’ section, for instance, is gorgeous in the honesty of its ‘human natureness’. 

AG—Thank you for that. (Sucking on your descriptions like they were small candies…)

The majority of the poems in Stowaways were written when I was cheating on what was supposed to be my ‘next’ book, a collection of poems on Thomas Edison. I conceived of it while editing Hump, my first book, but didn’t realize how much of a leap it would be from the first-person, experiential poems I had written to poems written from the point of view of a variety of characters that drew heavily on the technology and language of Edison’s era. I also had to set the ms. down for almost a year while promoting Hump, which may have starved it. TO DEATH.

So, as I attempted to revive the Edison ms, as I butted heads with what I knew and didn’t know and what I would have to accomplish in the poems, I would sneak off and write poems about my day-to-day. More mothering poems. Urban nature poems. How-to poems, which I based on wikiHows and were a way to force myself to write when I wasn’t feeling inspired. I also did an image/text collaboration with Darryl Joel Berger, a writer and visual artist based in Kingston.

The whole time I felt bad for not being able to force my way back into the Edison ms. I literally felt like I was cheating on my arts practice.

Then my publisher came to me and asked if I had my next book ready. Which was an enormous relief, even a compliment, but I was NOT ready for that question.

But it was asked, so I looked at the poorly-lit rooms of the Edison ms. and realized it wasn’t even CLOSE to being finished. But instead of confessing all of this to my publisher, I said, “Yes, I should have something. When would you need it for?”

And then I got to work. I admitted (to myself at least) that I couldn’t make the Edison ms. work with my current skill set and resources. And then I started collecting all my cheating poems, every dinky little poem I’d written when not putting my head down and running at the Edison ms. like a goat. Or a bison, because I like them better.

And holy shit, I had three-quarters of a book that seemed to hang together, thematically, even though the poems weren’t written with any larger project in mind. And I had six months before this new manuscript was due.

So I wrote more poems. I wrote every poem I could think of. And I was terrified they wouldn’t be good enough, because they were so very new, but my editor thought they hung together too…

To me, Stowaways is about living in cities and trying to figure out how to be both an animal and a human. Figuring out how to connect to the people around me AND the flora/fauna. They’re about how life and death our every day is, from rescuing the adolescent merlin that lived in the tree next to my house after he crashed-landed to figuring out how to be in a long-term relationship.

(Are those themes? I told you I was bad at knowing my own themes…)

 

Oh, I love this background. You could have called the book ‘Cheating on Edison’. Of course I’m going to re-read the poems now with this in mind and see if I can find the influences…

It’s strange how we do this, how we (think we) are focussed on one thing but really, our minds are building a whole ‘other’. (We could call it the Edison Syndrome!) It applies to any form, I think. The way someone spends five years writing a novel about the relationship between character A and B and then in year six realizes it’s actually about character D and K.  Fortunately, you trusted your instinct and ‘cheated’. Smart move. It wasn’t the Edison book’s time.

What didn’t the Edison project allow you to explore that brought your thinking to what became ‘Stowaways’?

AG—Trusted/distrusted, more like. But that’s completely par for the course in my writing life: I’m the most patient impatient person you’ll ever meet.

In some ways, Stowaways  seems like a natural bridge between Hump and the Edison ms. (though I STILL haven’t gotten it up and running again…): voice poems, long poems, poems that borrow and steal from instruction manuals. “How to Learn Morse Code” is obviously a remnant of the Edison ms., but I think I would have been attracted to it even if I hadn’t been Edison-obsessed. Just like I was attracted to “How to Survive Flooding.” They’re meaty subjects. I think “Apparent Magnitude: The Finlay 15P,” a long poem about comets, barn swallows, and the death/disappointment of one’s parents towards the end of Stowaways  is my formal apology to the Edison ms.

Maybe I’ll finish the Edison ms. some day. Maybe not. Maybe it’ll be my star-crossed ms.

The more I write, the more I realize that writing is about discarding writing. Not so much killing your darlings so much as leaving them behind.  (“I’ll think about you every time I turn on a light, dear one…”) The infuriating thing about the Edison ms., why I fought it for so long, is that I still felt that the poems I’d written had a lot of juice. It was like a weak battery: it would jolt me every so often.

What about you? What are you working on? Have you ever had a ms. go limp?

 

I see what you mean about the bridge between Hump and the Edison idea.
I haven’t read Hump, but one description calls it “a mash-up of pregnancy-and-mothering poems and urban/nature/love poems that functions as an anti-sentiment manifesto”. Which pretty much tells me a niece of mine will love it. I’ll include the poem ‘Primipara’ from Stowaways, which feels like a wonderfully twisted paean, brave in how it honours the work of mothering so honestly. (My niece is a ‘hood-dwelling, tough nosed, soft hearted boxer who is devoted to her twin 16 year old boys.) Can you tell me about ‘Primipara’… its origins. And why isn’t this word in common usage, given how many women are ‘it’? And I wonder if there’s a word for women who have ‘borne just two children’.

AG–I wrote that description. And given that one of my favourite expressions is “I like my tea as black as my heart,”  your niece and I would probably hit it off. (Or hate each other…)

“Primipara” came out of a co-worker announcing that what they thought was going to be their oops-third-child was actually going to be their oops-third-AND-fourth-child, three weeks before they were due. My daughter was two or three at this point. I instantly felt the tickle of an imminent poem. All I had to do, when sitting down to write, was try to imagine that happening to me, as someone who hadn’t necessarily wanted ANY children, and then go straight to best worst-case scenario I could think of. And then, because I’m sort of a jerk, I gave the finished poem to my co-worker to share with his wife.

But I wasn’t finished with the poem. I wrote an essay of the same name for Kerry Clare’s The M Word: Conversations About Motherhood anthology. (Which you may recall, as I believe you reviewed it for your blog…) The essay called “Primipara” also included the poem “Primipara”. The essay was about only wanting one child, about trading a larger family for my writing practice, about siblings and cousins and nieces and how my daughter would have none of them. Compared to the poem, it wasn’t at ALL fun to write. But it got me re-started writing non-fiction, which I’m grateful for.

I stole the title from a medical dictionary, which is what I do when I don’t immediately have a title for poems: I troll dictionaries. (I like RhymeZone and OneLook). And I’ve had to re-look it up, but I believe the term is “secundipara” for two. Also, the term “primipara” is apparently more complex than I’d first thought:

“A woman who has had one pregnancy that resulted in a fetus that attained a weight of 500g or a gestational age of 20 weeks, regardless of whether the infant was living at birth or whether it was a single or multiple birth.” http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/primipara

So it has more to do with the number of pregnancies a woman has had, not how many children she’s wound up with. So my co-worker’s wife would theoretically only be a tertipara. But then, I have no idea how many pregnancies she’s had…what an odd way to categorize someone, eh? I’m not sure why it would be at all relevant, medically.

Which is why I had to poem it.

 

To answer your question about mss that go limp… what I find happens more often is that great chunks are sliced out for the sin of pointless distraction and clutter. But of course that causes a domino effect, things need to be rebuilt with fewer sticks and sometimes it becomes obvious there are not enough sticks. I’m thinking limp is something different. It implies a sense that resuscitation is possible…  

AG—For me is more about the energy of a work. You can trim a dead poem as much as you want. It’s still dead.

The poems (or mss.) that still have a breath of life in them are the most frustrating, because they tantalize you for years. And you think, “Maybe if I try this. Or that.” And it still lies there, it’s mostly-dead eyes glinting at you.

 

Apart from the ‘commentary’ of the birds that runs through the first section of the book (although ‘apart’ isn’t quite right given how ‘part of’ the whole these voices are) the collection is wonderfully rife with sound. A thud, a purr, a daughter’s chirp; twilight screams, pipes clang and “trains clatter by & fat horses delicately cross tracks, hooves striking steel: Thump”. There are hums, roars, radios blaring, soft snores, sympathetic howls, “the river’s thousand tinkling chandeliers”, a click of shutters, sirens at Portage and Main, yodelling, squealing, noisy suckling, the clacking of chopsticks. All of which is presented so subtly that I was well into the book before it occurred to me that I was hearing (the soundtrack) as well as reading the poems.

In one of my favourite pieces, ‘How to See Deer’ you present what feels like the perfect balance of human and nature: “Boots on snow. Boots on snow. Birdsong.”  The heartbeat of it! So, the question is this: Is sound an element of your work that surprises you when you realize it’s there, or is it a more conscious effort to capture it? (And please tell me about the bird voices!)

AG—My work tends to be very visual and based in the urban-natural world. So: lots of movement, lots of colour, a fair amount of narrative. But I want to make the work as complete as possible, so I try to bring in the other senses. How things feel and how they sound are easiest for me, as I have almost no sense of smell.

I included the birdsong because it made me happy.

I included the birdsong because I realized that I had birds in the poems that weren’t making any sound. And they make immense amounts of noise. (I’m sitting here with the window open, writing these responses and I can hear probably 10-15 different bird calls. I can’t identify any of them, of course, but they’re part of the ambient noise, like trucks on the road, like wind moving through the trees, like the hum of the fridge.)

The inclusion of the phonetic spellings of the birdsong came from the bits of research I’d do on the creatures I was writing about. I really liked that people had figured out how to describe birdcall in words, which seemed to be similar work to what I was doing as a poet, describing things-in-the-world using words, using words to create images, textures, moods. I tend to use a fair bit of internal rhyme as well, so I’m always aware of vowel and consonant sounds and how they’re arrayed in the poems.

So I wanted to include the birdsong SOMEHOW. The reason they’re not in the poems themselves is that I didn’t want to be hooting and cawing at readings. I’m performative, but not THAT performative. I was worried I’d giggle instead of cooing properly, you know? (Although Yvonne Blomer, who did a book largely focused on birds called As If a Raven, published in the same season as me, managed it. It became my favourite part of our joint readings…)

 

One of the things I’d love to talk about more, generally, with poets is the fear readers have of poetry. The worry of not ‘getting’ something. I think it keeps it at arm’s length in a way that other forms of writing aren’t kept. 

AG—That fear is why I do so many readings, because I want to convince people that they shouldn’t be afraid of poetry. That It’s all just human conversation, that much of it is playful and fun. That they don’t have to worry about knowing terminology to “get it,” the way that you don’t have to know anything about music to listen to music or to appreciate it.

I think you convert people to poetry it one person at a time. One poem at a time, even. So I’m always glad when someone comes up to me after an event and says something like “Well, I’ve never been to a reading before, but that was great…” or “I came for X fiction writer, but I really enjoyed your poetry.”

 

You’ve been on retreat throughout this Q&A. How important is retreat to your writing practice?

AG—Essential. I tend to get more writing done, in terms of overall volume, in my everyday than while on retreat, but those weeks to myself are essential for shifting my thinking, for rebooting my tired brain. Also, I get to catch up on sleep…

For instance, this trip was three weeks and featured two weeks of writing. By the end of the third week, I looked in the mirror and realized that I hadn’t thought about lip gloss or bundling up the recycling or whether or not Anna needed a new pair of sneakers—all those points of contact we have with the world, all those daily tasks we wear like neckties—for quite a while.

Also, because I’m a poet I’ll probably never make a million dollars from my writing. So borrowing someone’s house in north/central Manitoba for three weeks or going to an ‘official’ retreat somewhere is my low-cost way of seeing the world.

 

Okay. My favourite question (and please forgive me if you hate it): What question would you like to be asked about the book that you’re never asked? And your answer.

AG—“Why are you SO brilliant and yet still SO unknown?”

More seriously, I have a hard time answering this question, because part of the delight in being interviewed is getting to see the work through the interviewer’s eyes, at least briefly. I also like noticing patterns in what people ask about, out of all the things they could ask about, you know?

I suppose I’d like to have more conversations about urban nature, about place, and how I’m sneaking up on eco-poetry in Stowaways. About making lowercase “p” political art. About humour as a defence mechanism.

 

Choices:

Pen or keyboard?  Both.

Cake or cheese?  I like cake—deep dark chocolate in particular—but eat way more cheese.

Heat wave or deep freeze?  Deep freeze. You can always put on another sweater but you can’t take off your skin.

Chanterelles or truffles?  Neither: stinkhorns and lobster mushrooms and dead man’s fingers…

Haiku or Ghazal?  For most of my writing life, I’ve resisted forms, but lately I’ve been writing glosas. (Here’s one of them: http://scholars.wlu.ca/thegoose/vol14/iss2/35/)

Stage or Film?  Film, though mostly because film is more available to me…

Ocean or lake?  Grew up swimming in lakes. Still very intrigued by oceans, though the salt just kills me…

andre-kertesz_the_fork_1928_500pxMatilda’s Menu for Stowaways:

Open-face tomato sandwich on crusty (toasted) Italian bread
Black Iced Tea
Yellow Pears drizzled with honey

(with a centrepiece of peonies)

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Her second collection of poetry, Stowaways  (Palimpsest Press, 2014), won the 2015 Lansdowne Prize for ariel2Poetry. Current projects include creative non-fiction about Winnipeg’s urban forest, which is slated for publication in 2018 with Wolsak & Wynn and an anthology of texts about menstruation, co-edited with Rosanna Deerchild and Tanis MacDonald.

She can be found at http://janedayreader.blogspot.ca

 

 

 

 

(at) eleven with laurie lewis: little comrades

I don’t know of (m)any other memoirs about growing up in a Communist family, in Canada or elsewhere, or why such an account might be scarce. The habit of secrecy perhaps, not wanting to name names? Whatever the case, in Little Comrades, Laurie Lewis has chosen to leap where few have leapt.

And I’m pretty sure the result is not what 9780889843424you think.

There is a strong-willed mother, a departure from the west to Toronto, another to New York City, an abortion in the 50’s, alcoholism, The Great Depression (and how to survive with style; the lost art of great style is everywhere…), the war, few women’s rights (women could be ‘legally bedded’ at age eighteen). There is Kill a Commie for Christ, racism, sexism. And secrets. Always secrets.

There is also Mulberry Street and her love of NYC. In fact, despite all the ‘isms’ of the era, it’s love that comes out strongest. For her mother, for freedom, for the people who helped them, for Sol whose loud, robust family, culture and food she craved after a fairly white-bread upbringing that didn’t encourage independence, creativity or opinions outside party lines.

“My father had written a letter to the Communist Party Central Committee… so they’d know that he had given his wife permission to leave him.”

While describing the larger issues of the day, the unorthodox turbulence of her home life and the difficulties of being a little comrade in general, Lewis manages to maintain a voice appropriate to her youth and still-innocence. Describing a visit to an avant garde cinema as a young teen, Lewis writes: “The theatre showed ‘foreign’ movies. Sometimes British, sometimes European, with sub-titles, so you’d know what people were saying.”

Her writing is beautifully precise, often tactile, so that the reading at times feels a little like wandering about with the author as she confidently points things out that, pretty soon, we can also see just as plainly.

I’m delighted to have read this book (which ends in 1952) and have already purchased the sequel: Love and All that Jazz.

So without further blather, and with enormous thanks to the author, here is (at) eleven with Laurie Lewis:

1.   The first question I always ask in this series is what literary character did you relate to as a child. Given your unusual childhood, I’ve never been more curious to know the answer.

LL—I’m afraid I can’t tell you the answer to this. Perhaps something will come to me as I get further along into this process.

2.   What were you reading at fifteen?

LL—Oh, that I do remember clearly… two very different things: In my early teens I was very interested in math and science, and one of the books I received (from my father, a great surprise) was Mathematics for the Millions, by… how good is my memory? Yes, Lancelot Hogben, or a name very much like that. I could probably ask Mr. Google right now and get the right answer!! [Yes!! He’s there, and the book is there, still in print! Amazing!] The other thing I was reading was Dorothy Parker, who had a new collection of short stories out just then, 1945. I remember reading them to my mother when she was ill. She was a smart sassy woman speaking her mind. Very avant-garde. What a role model! And Robert Benchley, Ogden Nash, James Thurber. The New Yorker writers of the period… my mother’s choices, of course. Elizabeth Barrett Browning. And I remember my very first Virginia Woolf story, although I don’t know how old I was, perhaps younger than 15, I believe. “Flush”.

(I should say here that my mother didn’t believe in “children’s books” as such. She grew up in a working-class home of a skilled carpenter from England, with a room full of Dickens, which she regarded as books for children, since that’s what she had read.) To my own daughter, I read Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, of course, and Mary Poppins. The Mary Poppins movie came out shortly after she and I moved to Toronto, when Amanda was 8 years old. I vividly remember that when a school friend asked her if she had seen the movie, she told her, “No, but I’ve read the book.”)

Pre-teen poetry: Vachel Lindsay (a sort of pre-beat poet. Sort of “tribal” as I recall.) Emily Dickinson, of course. Robert Burns from the Scottish side of the family.

3.   Did it ever occur to you that it wasn’t the norm for children to be as aware politically as you were? Looking back on it, how did this awareness, this lifestyle, affect friendships? Did you feel different from other children; did you see the difference in your family?

LL—I think you are perhaps not correct in thinking it was not the norm. Those were intensely political times in the history of the world, both during the Depression and World War II. During the “Great” Depression politics were part of people’s lives, I think. Not only mine. (In the way that the Vietnam war was a part of the lives of Americans during that difficult time. And everyone had an opinion.) Extreme, extreme(!) poverty creates its own awareness. Yes, I was generally aware of how it might have affected friendships… One of the pieces I wrote about, called “Lumpen”, was about a potential friendship that was out of bounds because the parents were “lumpen” (i.e. non-political working class – non-politically aware). And I remember being invited somewhere by a little girl of about my own age, a girl who put on a pretty dress every Sunday and went to some sort of party. Sunday School. I asked my mother if I could go, and she dressed me up in my best dress, my school dress. (Perhaps you know that a poor girl in those times might have two dresses. One for school and one for play. No jeans, or anything like that, of course.) I’m sorry to report that I was asked to leave when I, at about six years old, questioned the story of Adam and Eve (since I knew about Darwin).

Also, I became very aware of a class divide. We were definitely not “middle class” in either our economic circumstances or our outlook on life. I think the children we now call “disadvantaged” (not “poor”… we never say that anyone is “poor”!) are very aware of a class divide, regardless of what it is called. I assume it affects their friendship patterns. To some extent I think economic disparity affects our friendships at any age.

4.   In the New York City chapters, while you were often worried, knowing that you or your mother might at any time be questioned, or worse, for communist connections, and despite the many moves and difficult encounters, I sense that the city offered you a new kind of happiness and freedom. Was this a turning point in your life? Would you say your mother experienced something similar?

LL—Yes, certainly there was a kind of freedom. The important thing, especially for my mother as a newly-separated intelligent and creative woman, was that the city was wide open for anyone who had talent and drive, and she had both. That’s not quite the same thing as “happiness”, but I’m not sure what that word means. I was a young teenager. Certainly I had more opportunities than I would have had in a small town, or in a “provincial” city like Vancouver. There was freedom from the coercion of the domestic politics of power, and a more cosmopolitan, more diverse “ethnic” environment. More people from more places, not the homogeneity that was Canada at the time. (A tad more financial security would have helped both of us, of course.!) Yes, certainly it was a turning point. When I got my first job, as an usher in the movies (they had them then!), I was terribly proud of myself. I could earn a living!

5.   Also, those chapters so beautifully and vividly describe a city that it’s said no longer exists. What was it like to revisit in the writing? And what are some of the more regrettable losses?

LL—Yes, we revisit places and “social environments” when we remember. I don’t think I have ever tried to compare the old and the new… Well, yes, I suppose I have, but what can I say? The buildings have changed, the people have changed, the way of life has changed. And I have changed. Especially now, in my old age, I am more aware of the vast spaces where people I knew, people I loved, do not exist any more. That is the most regrettable loss, the loss of those we loved, cared for. The rest is just history, just “stuff”. Beat was beat; hip was hip; hippy was hippy. So vastly different! And what is cool today will be passé tomorrow.

6.   Despite being surrounded by writers in your family, and in your publishing career, you didn’t begin writing seriously until your sixties. This rather late start not only makes you an inspiration to many late starters, it also gives you a rare perspective, i.e. how differently, if at all, might the story of Little Comrades have been presented had you written it at, say, age 35 or 40?

LL—A very tricky question. I’m not sure how different the story would have been, but if I had written it then, when communism and therefore anti-communism were still very powerful and antagonistic forces in the world, the reception would undoubtedly have been different. Communism, these days, is looked back on almost with nostalgia. (Not the specifics of Russia, of Stalin, but the economic principles.) As far as I, personally, am concerned I think it’s important to say that age gives me a kind of power, through the freedom to say whatever I damned please. This is a power that perhaps young people with young careers rarely really have. And I certainly felt the freedom to present my story with – well, of all things! – the dignity it deserved. I think I was aiming for something like social history, told through the mind of a child.

7.   While still in high school, you had an affair with a man that resulted in your getting an abortion. The affair ended and a few years later you were surprised to see “a new and handsome face” appear in Hollywood movies. “That same face with the high Greek cheekbones, the dark eyes, artfully dishevelled black hair. His name? Yes, it could be a good Anglicization of the one I remembered but never spoke.” You tell us that he eventually became a director and married a ‘10’… all wonderful clues for what is a wonderful parlour game… Was this a promise to the man or a promise to yourself, not to reveal his name?

LL—I am merely being cautious. Two things: First, I can’t be absolutely sure that’s who it was. When I asked Mr. Google about him, the early bio made me a bit unsure. And if I had ever done more than hint, I could have been open to a suit for libel or slander. Probably because of my childhood experiences, I think I tend to be careful about keeping my activities legal. I’m a trifle paranoid, perhaps.

8.   Your memory for detail is extraordinary, adding rich layers to the story, tapping various senses. That you recall people, how they looked, what they wore, what they did for a living, a pawnshop window… What was your process in getting ‘back there’—was it photographs, conversations, general research, letters, all of the above?

LL—I wish I had had letters, photographs, etc, but I didn’t. But I think memory is quite wonderful. My “chicken soup” theory of memory says: The first time I ask my memory about something, there’s almost nothing in there. There’s just sort of a weak chicken broth, warm and salty. The next time I go looking into that memory, there are a couple of peas, maybe a piece of carrot. And so it goes. Every time I look, there is more in that memory-space. [I think recent research shows that the soup in which the synapses operate between the dendrites must be sort of re-assembled, reconstituted, into the memory.] And some of it is pure deductive invention: for example, in a story about my aunt getting married I have said she wore a blue dress. Well, what do I really know? I don’t remember, but the dress wouldn’t have been either black or white. Nor red or pink or purple. Because they were Scots, it would have been unlikely to be green. Given the years of the forties, the colours were apt to be muted and “feminine.” All of that, for me, equalled a light blue.

And just because it’s a memoir doesn’t mean you can’t make things up! I mean, I am a writer! How much do I actually recall of what was in the window of the pawn shop? Two out of five things? One thing? But once I have written it, it becomes true for me, and I can see the window very clearly.

9.   You had a close relationship with your mother, who comes across as a very independent woman for her time. She lived an unconventional life in many ways, not the least of which was leaving your father and giving you the choice of staying or coming with her. Also her work with the Communist party, the risks that involved and the lifestyle it required. Yet at some point it became clear to you that you had different values and ideas about lifestyle. How difficult was it to admit this to yourself and to become independent in your own way?

LL—She was a very independent woman for any time. Most of that was, I think, an independence formed by the combination of pride and desperation. She had some pride in herself, some idea that she had a mind, that what she thought mattered, and she was desperate to get out of a bad personal situation even if that put her into a desperate economic situation. In my mother’s time, if women were desperate to leave their husbands, they usually had another man to help them out… to help them get out, I mean. So then just, a few years later, we were two more-or-less young-ish women living together… when I was 18 and she was 38, for example. We really needed our own spaces. Perhaps the differences you mention – values and lifestyle ­ might have had more to do with the simple matter of generational differences. And the number of years between the generations was much smaller than it is now, thanks to the easy availability of birth control in North America. All young people, male or female, have different outlooks on life than their parents have. I know that some may make choices to stay closer to the zeitgeist of their parents, for whatever reason. In the 1960s, rebellion was in the air, change was in the air. I was just a few years ahead of my time, as Ellen (my mother) was a few years ahead of hers, always.

10.  It feels like a life of many secrets. You say that even today there are names you “won’t name”… people who were once involved in the Communist party. Did you have to think twice about writing this book?

LL—In the beginning I didn’t know I was writing it. I was just writing stories about what I thought I knew. When I began to write some of the early family stories, my mother said, “It wasn’t like that”. We each have our own truths, the things that we believe to be the truth of our lives. And we can’t let anyone else decide for us what it’s okay to reveal. My mother’s memoir, “Always and After” is much more cautious politically. I don’t think mine is a broad tell-all memoir, full of scuttlebutt. I was focussed on specific areas of our lives: politics, gender, personal growth, insight. By the time I had finished writing Little Comrades my mother had died, and so there was no one to tell me I had done it wrong. (And I didn’t name names, as you know from question 7.) Also, I probably still have lingering fears, some paranoia, from the McCarthy era, and so, even with my general “mouthiness” I have some caution in me. I don’t feel that I have said anything truly dangerous, either to myself or to anyone else. (And everyone’s dead now.)

**

I will go back now to the first question, which literary character I related to:

At the end of this, I have come back to the beginning, and what has come to me is Heidi: homeless and hungry. What a surprise that is to me!! Thank you for asking. I think this is the secret of my childhood, Heidi. I could cry, even now, for that poor little girl. But I think I will go out to dinner instead.

11.  Choices:

Coffee or tea?    Tea in Canada, coffee in Mexico.

Poetry or song?   Poetry   

Sweet or savoury?      Savoury

Dessert or Appetizer?      Appetizer

Winter or Summer?     Summer

Pen or Keyboard?  Keyboard, although as a graphic designer I flirted with calligraphy.*

Bicycle or Canoe?  Bicycle… it’s in the garage right now with a flat tire.  

Ocean or Lake?    Lake

Morning or Night?     Morning

Film or theatre?      Theatre

The Ten Commandments or Exodus?      ha ha ha… Exodus.

* Here’s another note about Pen or Keyboard: Keyboard, although as a graphic designer I flirted with calligraphy, and so the “pen” has artistic value rather than any writerly presence. Whereas, I learned to touch type when I was 17, and so I firmly believe that my fingers know stories that they are eager to tell me. My fingers do their work, and then I read what they have said. There is a direct line from a part of my brain into my fingertips.

andre-kertesz_the_fork_1928_500px

Matilda’s Menu for Little Comrades:

Bacon Sandwich

Alymer Soup

Blintzes

Prosecco

As is customary with the (at) eleven series, a meal of my choosing—appropriate to the book—follows the Q&A, because… “Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our consciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.”  ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book

Happy Reading, and bon appetit

◊♦◊

laurieLaurie Lewis is a Fellow of Graphic Designers of Canada and is editor emerita of  Vista, the publication of the Seniors Association in Kingston, Ontario.

She began writing in 1991 after retirement. Her written work has been on CBC and has been published in Contemporary Verse 2, Queen’s Feminist Review, Kingston Poets’ Gallery, Queen’s Quarterly, and  The Toronto Quarterly. Her memoir, Little Comrades, was published by Porcupine’s Quill in 2011 and was named by the Globe and Mail among the Top 100 Books of the Year. A second memoir, Love, and all that jazz, was published in 2013 by Porcupine’s Quill. She is currently working on a collection of essays and stories about age, but is not persuaded that the title “Mouthy Old Broad” will have much commercial appeal.