this is not a review: ‘leonard’s flat’, by steven mayoff

 

Leonard’s Flat , a slim, beautifully made volume of ekphrastic poetry, influenced by the art of the author’s uncle, Len Fligel, who Mayoff credits with being the long ago spark that ignited his own “creative ambitions as a writer”… is a tiny gem.

Ten paintings, nicely reproduced on thick, glossy pages, represent a slice of one family’s history but it could be any family. The subjects are simple and relatable:  bread on a supper table, chickens running in the yard, laundry, musicians, domestic scenes. Add to that Mayoff’s insights and recollections, the adult looking back at pieces of art he first saw when he and his mother lived with the uncle in his Glasgow home for a short time, the meaning of which art eluded him as a child yet never left some deeper place in his memory.

Because isn’t that how art works when it’s working at its best.

These ten poems feel like so much more than an homage… more like a testament to not only how we remember, but how we see, not only the past, but the present. Because art in any form is always about the present, no matter when it’s made, no matter when we find it.

“…Gathering round your
Glasgow table when
I was a boy offered

a haven for the stranger
I was to myself…

—From the poem, ‘Meal’

 

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’

the teachers are leaving… i hope we’ve been paying attention

 

I’m thinking of so many teachers on a morning when we woke to find we’d lost one of our best, one who taught through music and poetry, such gentle lessons… the kind that change us in ways that allow us to find the strength to build and change our world with compassion.

Have we made notes? Because it’s up to us now.

And I’m thinking about those who fought against the *isms* … Oh, to find a way of fighting without harming. Maybe that’s the hardest fight of all.

dsc07670It’s not much, but I went out onto the main street of our tiny downtown and watched those men and women march to the cenotaph. Each year there are fewer gray heads but those still there always have the same look in their faces, their eyes…

dsc07680I’m not a fan of war (are there fans of war?). Or even the military. That’s not what I’m paying respect to.

At least not directly.

I’m there for the individuals, not the machine.

I’m there for the same reason I once stood at the side of the 401 while the car carrying the body of a boy home from Afghanistan passed and the crowd of people went silent and a mother and a father were somewhere doing god only knows what mothers and fathers do at times like that.

It’s not about condoning why people die, it’s about not being able to pretend they don’t.

And so every year since this one I try to make it to the parade and stand in silence, together with neighbours I don’t know, all of us there for probably very similar and yet different reasons.

Does it matter that there are different reasons?

dsc07667 dsc07668 dsc07666 dsc07675However you look at it, it’s a sweet thing in a fleeting way.

**

Bonus: on the way back to my car this beautiful old man in a don’t-hit-me fluorescent vest, said hello in that way the very old have perfected as an art. One of those things we might have made better notes of… how to greet the neighbours we don’t know.

dsc07691

**

The Gift,

by Leonard Cohen

You tell me that silence
is nearer to peace than poems
but if for my gift
I brought you silence
(for I know silence)
you would say
This is not silence
this is another poem
and you would hand it back to me.

(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 tracy hamon: red curls

 
This (at) Eleven series of Q&A’s began as a place to celebrate books written by people I know, or have come to know even in a small way (and usually with a food connection). Very occasionally it includes people I don’t know at all.

Tracy Hamon is such an ‘occasion’. I only recently discovered her work through Brenda Schmidt, who mentioned something about Red Curls  on FB, and I value Ms. Schmidt’s literary taste. Also, I loved the subject matter: an Austrian painter and his mistress living the Bohemian life at the turn of the (last) century.

While a collection of poems is a wonderful thing, I was very pleasantly surprised to see that this is not a collection of poems. Instead, it’s a sort of  ‘discovery’ shared… of the artist, the times he lived in, his inspirations, his work. And his effect on Hamon, who travelled to Austria to gain a deeper perspective of Egon Schiele, on his turf. In poems, yes, but also in narrative pieces from various perspectives, and in voices other than the poet’s.

It’s also a tribute to the muse, an often overlooked element in an artist’s career. And often a woman. In this case the muse was Valerie Neuzil, known as ‘Wally’.

We begin in the washroom of an airport as Hamon arrives in Europe. The piece is called ‘Modernist Movement’ and describes the woman whose job it is to sell squares of toilet paper in a room where “soap hangs like scrotum from a plastic mesh bag”. And with it we’re immediately there with Hamon in the centre of what feels like a strange new dimension, unsettling and yet we recognize something about it, and so begins the journey…

The first section of the book is from Hamon’s perspective. On a train“the seat cripples my back with right angles.”  She looks at buildings, rooftops, landscapes, trying to see through Schiele’s eyes, to find the things he painted, to understand what drove him, inspired him, to imagine the power and mystery of the relationship with his red-headed muse and mistress.

“Egon, I arrive at your door as one/ who watches, one who knocks/ needing to be among the why/ of what you do…”

The second part of the book is from Schiele’s perspective as Hamon takes us back to his childhood and early life, touches on events that shaped him, the loss of his father, his work with Klimt, society’s perception of him as debauched, his marriage to Edith and the end of his affair with Wally.

What might be my favourite piece, ‘Interview with Egon Schiele’, opens with a question: “What were you doing when they came to take you away?” which is then answered in the perfection of simplicity; he was watching a fly, sipping wine, “I was studying the stem of a tulip I had bought at the market.”

The last section of the book, the last word almost, is given so fittingly to Wally. I suspect she would be pleased.

Also worth mentioning is the cover (a painting by Virgilio Neto).

So, with many thanks to Tracy Hamon for taking this time, may I present, the author of Red Curls…

1.   What literary character did you identify with as a kid?

TH—Pippy Longstocking.

2.   Can you recall one of your earliest pieces of writing?

TH—I remember writing something “Poe” like, it was slightly dark, maybe a little mysterious, though I can’t remember much more. I must’ve read the style in one of my mother’s many magazines and emulated it. I seem to have the faint recollection of the piece being chosen for some children’s writing magazine, but then again, my memory is faulty enough (and my ego large enough) these days that maybe I just imagine my first writing would get singled out.

3.   What were you reading at fifteen?

TH—Probably Stephen King.

4.   I’m always curious about process. Where do you work best, do you have a writing routine, an ideal environment? And the all-important question: what about blocks… what’s your remedy for getting around/through them?

TH—I work best in my head. Getting the writing out of there and onto paper is sometimes hard. While I can write anywhere, I need quiet to do so. I can write on paper or on the computer, although if I start on paper, I’ll eventually have to type it in a Word program so that I can play with it. I take a lot of notes and I go back and use these a lot when writing.

I don’t believe in blocks—I either write or I don’t write and if I’m not writing I don’t worry about the not-writing. When I’m ready, I’ll write. I’ve been on a really long dry spell as of late, but I’m not worried. I’m doing more reading, but I’m also just too busy to write.

5.   Are there often themes in your work that surprise you?

TH—Not usually.

6.   How did Schiele enter your life in such an important way—was it the ‘red curls’ that drew you?

TH—My first encounter with Schiele resulted from a postcard sent by a friend. red-curls-cover3After I received the engaging card (Boy in Red Robe), I did some internet research and began thinking about his art work. As I read about Schiele and Neuzil, I grew curious about their relationship, and how and why their social situations and eccentricities (mostly Schiele’s as there isn’t much written about Wally) came to shape their relationship as a couple. The red hair connections were not the source of inspiration, but the bond that kept me writing—if that makes any sense.

6.  The love poem on page 48… for Wally, but for Klimt too? And the poem on the facing page: ‘Black and White Study for Transfiguration’, rising from the painting itself, yet the subject of the text is something else again. Can you talk a little about these two ‘shape’ poems?

TH—Part of the process in writing this book was to explore various ways of writing poems about Schiele’s (and in that one poem, Klimt’s) art, without each poem solely focusing on responding to the artwork. I was exploring perceptions (mainly mine) of how, why, and what I see in both poetry and art. So to do this, I started playing with form, using the shape of various poems such as the two you mention, to reflect the images within the artwork, but then utilizing the content of the poem to create another aspect of the story.

I was exploring the idea that images we perceive are often not necessarily the story behind the painting, and the juxtaposition of image and text can work with the historical drama inasmuch as the prose poems work to “frame” the poet and the model’s story. Klimt’s “The Kiss” frames a picture of Wally and Schiele meeting, and the two Schiele’s arising from the poem (albeit, slightly off kilter because it’s a poem and really hard to recreate those images with the space bar) mimic the paintings, but offer different stories than what is seen.

Of course, when writing about a painter and paintings, I needed to keep the writing fresh and this was also one way.

8.   What would have been different about this Schiele-inspired poetry, what would you not have known/felt/imagined had you not gone to Europe? And was there one moment when you thought: this is what I’ve come for.

TH—Without the trip to Vienna and Cesky Krumlov, the journey aspect into the book would never have been there, and I think the book would’ve simply ended up a collection of poems (not that there’s anything negative in that). The discovery element of research was vital to shaping my imagination to be able to create the poetry. Also it enabled me to write true to the era, and the locations, buildings, culture encompassed in seeing many of these places helped with the historical aspects and details.

I would have to say, it was when I arrived at Cesky Krumlov, I realized this is what I came for—much of that city, at least the old part, is exactly the same as almost 100 years ago. It was easy to spot locations of some of his paintings, the house he wanted to buy, etc. I could stand and stare at the same river he did, the same landscapes, and the same every day scenes. I can’t describe how it felt to walk in the world they lived in and the energy it gave to the writing—it was part surreal, but partly tangible.

9.   In the poem ‘Consent’, on meeting Schiele, we have the sense that Wally was in charge. “I tell him to invite me in.”  Her meagre belongings feel like simplicity, freedom, emblems of the Bohemian life. By ‘Death and the Maiden’ they’ve become tawdry… “I look down at my jagged pink dress, the bottom frayed from washing, my bare feet callused from months of walking the blunt edge of rumour.”  She has become the “pornographer’s muse”. So how does this vibrant, young woman slide from Bohemia to what feels like desperation and Shame? (Is there a touch of Elizabeth Smart about her, in that she was more in love with being in love, than with the man?)

(I notice also, in ‘Portraits of the Artist’s Wife’, that Edith goes from a “multihued, striped dress”  to a “light tinted skirt” . I like how you portray the emotional change in both women through clothing.)

TH—What I wanted to create in Wally was an inherent strength, which at first emanates from innocence in a bold bravado when she arrives at Schiele’s house, to a strength of self that comes from love, and from the experience of the era’s changing social and cultural morality. I wanted her to grow up in the poems, from a young fearless girl to a woman that wasn’t apologetic for her actions. I believed that she understood the consequences of her actions and Schiele’s behaviour enough that she could grow from her shame and come away with a strong sense of self. I felt she had the strength of character that she needed to move past the sense of betrayal she felt after the marriage of Schiele and Edith.

Edith I imagined to be quite the opposite of Wally. I saw her as a young woman with little bravado, yet someone excited by Schiele’s looks and talent, and I thought that being in love with a high energy artist would be electrifying in the beginning, but that somehow all those eccentricities and sexual exploits would begin to overwhelm her, making her more withdrawn after a few years. The hardest part was to write these emotional changes into the poems, and I must say, I’m glad you noticed.

10.  I was initially amused and puzzled, then a little shaken by the opening line in ‘Tourist’: “We were thankful for Starbucks.”  Talk about bringing the reader back to earth! The piece returns to the Schiele story but there’s a sense of requiring this abrupt ‘departure’ also, that to linger or allow sentimentality would be too difficult. The way it is sometimes when leaving a loved one, better to make the goodbye quick, clean and as painless as possible. Is this how you felt on leaving Vienna?

TH—No, not really. The first part of the research trip had been spent in Vienna and the second had been in Cesky Krumlov; however, we returned to Vienna before leaving as it was our departure point. I wasn’t really sentimental about leaving Vienna, although I think I was overstimulated by the end of the trip, and so we were happy for some comforts of home, which is what Starbucks did for us. Those small things that keep us sane!

To me the focus was on the relationship between two people, and my relationship with them. Sentimentality would’ve been over the top at the end of the book. I’m a romantic, but I’m not very sentimental. I wanted a little sanity at the end of the book. A small sip of reality to keep the reader sane.

11.  Choices:

Coffee or tea? Coffee

Summer or winter? Summer

Landscape or portrait? Portrait

Canoe or bike? Canoe

Tulips or Lilac? Lilac

Pen or Keyboard? Pen

Chocolate or Cheese? Cheese

andre-kertesz_the_fork_1928_500px

Because I believe food and books go together, I like to offer my idea of food that the book inspires. The ideal menu for reading…
For Red Curls, I would suggest:

bratwurst and freshly made bread

linzer torte

at least one bottle of red wine

(and tulips on an oil cloth covered table)

 

Tracy-Aug-2013---high-res-(3-of-18)Tracy Hamon was born in Regina, SK and grew up traveling between Regina and her parents’ farm near Edenwold, Saskatchewan. Her first book of poetry This Is Not Eden was released in April 2005 and was a finalist for two Saskatchewan Book Awards. A portion of her second book Interruptions in Glass won the 2005 City of Regina Writing Award and was also shortlisted for two book awards in the 2010 Saskatchewan Book Awards. Red Curls was published by Thistledown Press in fall of 2014.

Shelley Banks photo credit.

My webpage is www.tracyhamon.com.

this is not a review: ‘plainwater’ by anne carson

 

While each of my Not A Review pieces are distinctly not reviews to varying degrees… this one is REALLY not   a review. I haven’t even finished the book. Which is part of this particular Not a Review’s angle.

It seems I have a sort of love/huh?? affair with Anne Carson’s work, of which  I’m only beginning to know. I’m drawn to it, get angry around it, leave it, then I come back and make tea and snuggle up with it again, blissfully content in my confusion until it all becomes too much. And the cycle continues. The addictive element appears to be the occasional bouts of holycrapletmereadthatpartagain! that come over me. In a good way, I mean. (Because there are plenty of moments when I have almost exactly the same reaction in a bad way, as in holycrapwhatthe#@*#isshesayinghere??? )

Is it just me or is there a certain type of poetry that feels like it comes with a fence and a Keep Out sign? Stupidly you stand there thinking it can’t mean you and so you holler let me in!!  Leaping up and down, you try to see over it, try for even the tiniest glimpse but you’re sweating and your feet hurt and you start to wonder: is it supposed to be this complicated?  Is maybe the fence greased?? So it’s in all seriousness when I ask: is there an actual category of poetry designed to make it seem more pleasant to gnaw off your own hand than to turn one more page?

Not that I’m saying I feel this way about Anne Carson. No no no. True, there is the huh?  part of things, but there is also love. (I’m here aren’t I?)

And what I’m happily not reviewing today is Plainwater, published in 2000, and whose entire first section (called ‘Mimnermos: The Brainsex Paintings’)
I skipped because of things like this… “Yes lovely one it’s today forever now what’s that shadow/ unzipping/ your every childfingered wherefrom?

I just wasn’t in the mood for all the leaping.

9780375708428What I did instead was zip ahead to the last section, ‘The Anthropology of Water’, which consists of various pieces, essays… to which I’ve been happily returning each morning for the past few days, champing at the bit to pick up where I left off in ‘Kinds of Water: an essay on the Road to Compostela’, wherein Carson and her travelling companion, identified only as My Cid, walk the Camino, musing on what it is to be a pilgrim, to thirst, to question, to live with faith, or not. To live among people. Or not.

“You come to understand travel because of conversations, not vice versa.”

It’s said, she tells us, that a traveller becomes addicted to the horizon. She tells us that she is a pilgrim, not a novelist, “and the only story I have to tell is the road itself.”  She compares this with telling a story through a character, the difference being that a character moves. “He changes according to the company he keeps…”

I’ve read other writing from the Camino. This is different. Less about the experience, more about the questions posed by the experience.

“… it is an endeavour as old as civilization to set out on a road that is supposed to take you to the very end of things… What do you find there?… Who would you be if you knew the answer?”

She’s writing about the Camino. Or is she? The layers are uncountable.

I was sad when the road ended. But then, it doesn’t really. That’s kind of the point.

So, I approached the fence again. I dipped back into that first section and I’m glad I did but thank god for google because I didn’t know Mimnermos was a Greek elegiac poet from 600 something BC and while I normally wouldn’t care, Carson makes me care.

And all the sections in between… The one that contains miniature essays on orchids and rain and Sylvia Plath. On walking backwards and Ovid. And the section that is a long poem, which seems impossible, and the one after that—poems on various kinds of towns.

I care.

Could it be that we come to understand because of caring, not vice versa?

After all, the writer’s job, the poet’s job, is not to clarify, but simply to make us care.

The copy I’m reading is from the library. This won’t do. Where once I thought I might not even read the whole book, it now seems I’ll be calling my bookseller and ordering my own Plainwater. To love and to huh?  my way through as the moods take me. But then this is the way of love and huh?…

Love always wins.

Plainwater is available on-line at Blue Heron Books. Support indies!