My annual ‘love seen in unusual places‘ post — re-posted with updates.
Love loves reminding us it’s everywhere…
“What do you with a girl who has journeyed to the Land of the Dead (Canada), has consorted with savages, left her soul on an island inhabited by demons, given birth to a fish, disappeared into a labyrinth of dreams and turned into a bear? At best, if I return to the place I once called home, I will be a spectacle. Now I have no home nor self nor soul.” (from Elle, by Douglas Glover, Goose Lane, 2003)
When, on p.167, I reached this passage in Douglas Glover’s novel, Elle, I thought: oh, I’m so glad someone’s put things into context because for a moment I feared I might be losing my mind… not that that would have stopped me reading. The book was, despite my confusion at times, unputdownable for its quirky take on history and its sensuous imagery mixed with perfectly pitched satirical elements.
Its shape takes the form of an anti-quest, best explained in Elle’s words:
“… You go on a journey, but instead of returning you find yourself frozen on the periphery, the place between places, in a state of being neither one nor the other. Instead of a conquering hero, you become a clown or fuel for the pyre or the subject of folk tales.”
In a nutshell:
A wealthy and young nymphomaniac slightly bored tart living in 16th century France, who has disappointed her father (seems he disapproves of rampant lustfulness), sends her to Canada on one of Jacques Cartier’s ships. On board, she’s soon at it with a handsome but seasick tennis player—mostly to distract herself from a raging toothache (a tooth later removed by tying one end of a string to it and the other to a dog named Leon, who is then encouraged to jump overboard, taking the tooth with him).
Perceived as being more trouble than she’s worth, Elle is abandoned en route on a tiny island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence, along with her nurse and her lover. Soon after, they both die and she’s left alone to cope with the elements, hunger, and eventually a kind of weird dreamlike madness where she maybe/maybe not turns into a bear and maybe/maybe not gives birth to a fish. (One of the most beautiful scenes follows this ‘birth’ with Elle’s initial horror being replaced by love and the realization that the ‘creature’ will not live long; she then begins to tell it everything she knows…)
Eventually she befriends the indigenous people and ultimately comes to understand something of them, all of which leads to her transformation from acerbic child obsessed with trivialities to deeply thoughtful woman respectful of life and connected with the earth. It’s in this new, improved state that she returns to France to face a kind of culture shock of the soul.
What I loved:
Elle’s voice. She may be afraid, confused, possibly going doolally at times, but her delivery is consistent and crystal clear—casual almost—whether she’s reducing the most horrendous or inane events to brilliant satire, or being philosophical on the deepest level.
(Also loved the cover photo of a statue in Pere Lachaise Cemetery, in Paris; cover design by Chris Tompkins)
Richard, the tennis playing lover who does little more than build a tennis court (and rebuild it each time the tide goes out). He has almost no dialogue but is clearly, and cleverly, drawn by his actions; every scene with him in it made me laugh.
What I Questioned:
Possibly a few too many dreams. The story can be confusing at times—though this confusion parallels Elle’s experience, is essential, and works beautifully. However the dreams, and certainly the number of dreams, began to detract from the surreal-ness of her experience by virtue of their mundane-ness (I mean, we all have dreams).
Three Impressions Overall:
Memorable characters. Beautifully strange journey. Smart, subtle, and delicious humour.
From the Re-Run Series: originally posted March, 2010.
—Purchase Elle online at Blue Heron Books.
“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our conciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.”
~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book
I met Karen Shenfeld a couple of years ago through a series of events set in motion by a short post on Matilda about her lovely 2007 film— Il Giardino: The Gardens of Little Italy. To my surprise, she saw the post when she happened to be writer in residence at Open Book Toronto in December, 2009, from which vantage point we conducted a back and forth until we decided to meet for lunch in her College Street ‘hood. That it was winter didn’t matter—no gardens in bloom but one of her neighbours invited us into her house to see the most charming and amazing xmas display.
Ever since, I’ve had the feeling that where Karen Shenfeld goes, serendipity and the best kind of magic follows.
I was delighted when she agreed to a Q&A for my new (at)eleven feature on Matilda. Still evolving to some degree in my wee brain, but essentially meant to focus on writers and books, with a culinary slant. Because, in my world, good books inspire thoughts of food, and vice versa.
1. 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? Do you write through them, or do you feel they’re a necessary piece of the whole, a sign maybe that it’s time to step back for a bit and play?
KS: I’m heliotropic. In the morning, I work at my kitchen table to catch the light of the eastern sky. In the early afternoon, I move to my west-facing study, which I confess looks like the study of a Victorian poetess: high ceiling, plaster mouldings, wood-burning fireplace, oak bookcase, Persian rug.
I tend to write from around 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon, only stopping briefly to snack. And I often work on several projects at once: the writing of a poem, a magazine article, or a grant proposal; the editing of a documentary, etc.
Ah, blocks… Yuck! I’m a harsh taskmaster. I chain myself to my chair and force myself to work through blocks. I try not to quit working until I have something–at least a line or two. Even a word!
2. Here’s an even bigger question: how do you deal with the distraction of the Internet, Twitter, FaceBook, etc.?
KS: I get distracted!
3. What were you reading when you were fifteen?
KS: On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. I and Thou by Martin Buber. Shakespeare’s sonnets. The metaphysical poetry of John Donne and Andrew Marvell.
4. Are there certain themes that often appear in your work and surprise you?
KS: I’m surprised by how often Jewish themes crop up in my works, because I don’t think of myself as particularly observant. (though, for complex reasons, which I can’t quite explain, even to myself, I do attend services at a tiny historic Toronto shul, a little ‘shteibele,’ many Saturday mornings, and I often light Sabbath candles on Friday night—a ritual, which, as I note in an early poem, my mother, a devout atheist, conscientiously refused to do). I think Jewish themes crop up because, as a poet, I’m drawn to create works that somehow transcend the everyday.
5. My first taste of My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish was when the book opened to p. 41, ‘Sweetheart of Second Avenue’; I was immediately struck by the ‘sound’ of the language, the joy and playfulness of the structure and rhythms, the way you combine English and Yiddish (in several pieces), mixing the two in a way I’m guessing comes natural to your childhood memory of growing up with these two ‘sounds’, these two cultures, yes?
KS: You’re absolutely right. On two counts. I did hear lots of Yiddish when I grew up. My father spoke solely in Yiddish to my paternal grandmother. And my parents also spoke in Yiddish to each other when they didn’t want my brother and I to understand what they were saying. (No wonder we kids picked up so many great words and expressions!) You’re also right in surmising that I grew up in two distinct cultures simultaneously: a distinctly Jewish culture and a 1950s/60s Canadian culture.
6. Your poem on reciting Archibald Lampman is one of my favourites. That reversible skirt! And the innocence expressed in that back and forth motion, ‘reversing’ from the power of reality to the power of poetry. Can you talk a little about early influences, or The Moment it occurred to you that poetry would be an important part of your life?
KS: I can honestly say I wanted to be a poet for as long as I can remember, but I’m not really sure why! I think the idea of it appealed to my heightened sense of romance. I also remember reading, at school, the poems of Pauline Johnson and, as the poem you mentioned reveals, Archibald Lampman. Those poems seemed to contain the power of a spell. I was tempted to try to create something that possessed that incandescent charge.
I started to scribble down a few poems when I was around 10 or 11. Later, during my undergraduate years, I studied the art and craft of poetry with Irving Layton at York University. (I’m still influenced by Layton’s sense of aesthetics, and return often to his signature poems for pleasure and inspiration.) But, I don’t think I really began to write poetry in earnest, or truly realized that poetry was going to be an important part of my life, a defining part of my identity, until I’d finished school. After fourth year university, I went on a long trip to Europe and North Africa. It was then, within the confines of cheap hotel rooms, that I began to spend substantial time calling upon the muse and wrestling with words.
7. One of the things that surprised me most was how physical the reading felt. Very much a journey, not only across time but actual space, and the way those ‘spaces’ featured, not as backdrop, but prominent characters—Bathurst Manor, northern Ontario, Auschwitz-Birkenau, a classroom, a skating rink, the shade of a tree—diverse mini universes in their own right, yet connected to a distinct and singular path. Was this intentional, this visiting of ‘place’, or something that became apparent to you along the way, as being essential to the greater, internal, journey?
KS: Carin, you’ve made me super happy, because the visiting of ‘place’, the revelation of the genius loci of Bathurst Manor, was indeed one of my conscious intents in writing My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish. What drew me to this? Perhaps because, as I said, I’m a traveller. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I was fortunate enough to spend years back-packing through Europe, Africa, India, and South America. I hitchhiked across the Sahara desert through Algeria. I rode the top of trucks transporting coffee and tea across Zaire. I trekked in Nepal and floated idly on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Kashmir. In my mid-thirties, however, I decided I wanted to have a child and travelling became more difficult. (My husband, mathematician Stephen Watson, and I didn’t mind taking our son, Oren, out of school for long periods of time. But we did mind that, as he grew older, he began to get very lonely for his friends on long trips away.) So, I guess what I’m saying in this perhaps roundabout way is that travelling initially inspired the writing of my poetry, and now, the writing of poetry itself has become a means for me to travel.
I probably should also tell you that I love reading poetry that’s about ‘place’. I love, for example, the poems of Seamus Heaney, Dannie Abse, and Douglas Dunn. And, yes, travelling, for me, both literally and metaphorically through poetry, is an exploration of the self.
8. Golems! I sense mystery, reverence (also a hint of fear?) mixed with humour—I’m intrigued. Can you share something of what this figure represents in the context of ‘the neighbourhood’?
KS: I’m so glad you’ve asked me about the golem! Because the golem poems are truly at the heart of my book. (In fact, I originally wanted to call the book The Golem of Bathurst Manor, but my publisher, Antonio D’Alfonso, did not think that enough people would be familiar with the Jewish folkloric figure.) I was striving to use the golem in the book as a leitmotif to connect the luminescent Eastern European Jewish Old World, which was essentially destroyed in World War II, to the Jewish New World in suburban North America. I was also, through the use of humour, striving to reference the Jewish people’s eternal, very unhumorous struggle against anti-Semitism.
By the way, a Toronto indie band, by the name of KlezFactor, has coincidentally put out a CD of klezmer-infused jazz music called The Golem of Bathurst Manor. I listened to KlezFactor’s music on the band’s Myspace site and I think it’s great! The music is available for sale from CD Baby and iTunes.
9. ‘Elm Tree’ is, for me, one of the most powerful pieces in the collection. It feels like a vantage point from which the past is seen through wisdom, experience, love, and everything suddenly has a deeper meaning; a final inhalation before the slow exhale of the denouement. I would love to know the background to this poem.
KS: Thanks so much for your sensitive reading of this and other poems! Bathurst Manor, the suburban neighbourhood in which I was raised, was built on previously cleared farmland. So that particular elm tree truly was, as the poem states, the ONLY tall tree standing for blocks and blocks from my house. It actually stood right across the street from me in the backyard of an ever so slightly older girlfriend named Linda Schatzker (with whom I have recently reconnected). I grew up of course long before the time of central air conditioning. So, on hot summer days, all the kids on the block would go into Linda’s backyard to play in the shade of the tree. I was absolutely shocked and saddened when the tree died, along with millions of elm trees in Europe and North America, from the terrible Dutch elm disease.
10. Why poetry?
KS: I love the compression of poetry. The distillation. The transformation. The transcendence. The unconscious connections. The physicality. The intellectuality. The abstraction. The sound. The fury. The music. The rhythm.
Coffee or Tea? Cappuccino!
Bob Dylan or Dylan Thomas?
Carin! Do I have to choose between these two? I love them both! And I was just in Wales!
Desert or Ocean? Ocean.
Sweet or Savoury? Savoury.
Pen or Keyboard?
Both. I begin composing most poems on paper using a fine-point rolling pen. I used to write on narrow-ruled graph paper, but, a little while ago, a friend and colleague, the wonderful documentary filmmaker, Dany Chiasson, gave me as a present a Moleskin notebook. And, now, I really like writing the first drafts of poems in it. Once I’ve written the first draft, I revise the poem on the computer.
Primary or pastel? Mediterranean pastels.
Editor’s Note, aka Culinary Slant — food and drink inspired by My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish:
a perfectly made espresso and a grilled cheese on matzo.
(To which KS added Campbell’s Tomato or Mushroom Soup—an after school staple in her mother’s kitchen!)
Karen Shenfeld has published three books of poetry with Guernica Editions: The Law of Return, 1999 (which won the Canadian Jewish Book Award for poetry in 2001), The Fertile Crescent, 2005 and, My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish (November, 2010). Her work has appeared in journals and magazines across North America, and in South Africa and Bangladesh. Her poetry has been featured on CBC Radio, and on the U.K.’s 39 Dover Street.
Her personal documentary, Il Giardino, The Gardens of Little Italy, was screened at the 2007 Planet in Focus Environmental Film & Video Festival. She is currently at work on two new documentary films and on writing her fourth book.
My Father’s Hands Spoke in Yiddish, can be ordered on-line at Blue Heron Books. Support Indies!
From the Re-run Series: originally posted May, 2011.
Leanne Shapton’s Important Artifacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, including Books, Street Fashion, and Jewelery—is such fun I’m not sure I can do it even a smidge of justice here.
Presented as an exquisite auction catalogue, the book is 129 pages of photographs and ‘Lot’ descriptions of items belonging to the fictious Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris from the time they meet until their breakup some years later. Sheila Heti ‘plays’ Lenore to Paul Sahre’s Harold and the photographs of them are so real (goofing in photo booths, cooking, hanging out with friends) disbelief is well and truly suspended; they are Lenore and Harold. Sheila who?
The catalogue, in essence, catalogues the couple’s meeting and courtship through postcards sent, unique gifts, books with inscriptions, souvenirs and so on, through their relationship and ultimate breakup.
Despite there being no ‘story’—not one bit of narrative or dialogue—there is a definite rhythm and tension to the ‘stuff’ as it’s presented and we come to know these people intimately through their shoes, musical tastes, playbills, party invitations, dishes, clothing, sunglasses, handmade cards, tea towels, recipes, various doo dads and quirks.
LOT 1174 / A half a wishbone / The winning side of a turkey wishbone. Kept by Morris in his bedside table. Length 3 1/2 in. / $5-10
LOT 1197 / A small headlamp / A halogen headlamp, affixed with an elasticized cloth band. $12–15 / Used by Doolan for reading in bed.
A black and white photograph of the item (and often Doolan and/or Morris) accompanies each Lot description.
Towards the end of the catalogue the items slowly reveal a change in the relationship. A broken coffee mug, notes of apology, a white noise machine, restaurant receipt showing the main courses cancelled. Among the last items are pressed flowers and four-leaf clovers kept by each, separately.
Very cleverly done.
Apparently Shapton, a former Torontonian now living in NYC where, at the time of the book’s publication (2009) she was the art director of the New York Times op-ed page, got the idea after attending an auction of Truman Capote’s belongings (at which she purchased his overcoat).
I can only imagine the planning and execution of the book must have been both daunting and a complete blast.
Note: After writing the above, I then googled around for links and, to my horror, stumbled upon this. Good god. The whole magical point of the book is that there is NO action; the ‘stuff’ is what brings the people to life. I somehow can’t see Brad Pitt taking a backseat to a salt shaker.
And that may very well be unfortunate.
Important Artifacts is available for purchase online at Blue Heron Books.
Indie love. ♥
From the Re-Run Series: originally posted in June, 2010.
For weeks now I’ve been dipping in and out of Beth Powning’s book—Seeds of Another Summer, a gorgeous thing of full page photos and essays, and I think the first book she published (1995), some twenty-five years after having moved to the wilds of New Brunswick.
I can’t seem to help myself—no sooner do I say ah, yes, that was nice, and set the book aside thinking I’m done with it, than I find myself opening it again (and it’s a library copy that must go back which is terrible and makes me think I need to place a call to my bookseller to find me a good used copy so I can continue dipping at leisure).
What I can’t get enough of, I realize, is the feeling of having a very pleasant walk with someone who loves nature and knows enough about it to know she has a lot to learn—and having this person point out the million things you don’t see along the way because you’re too caught up in looking at the whole.
Powning is great to walk with. She notices spider webs at dawn. And the hieroglyphics of bird tracks in fresh snow. The shadows trees cast. But she’s honest about the journey from city to country and how she didn’t see these things at first.
From the section on ‘Gardens’, she writes about the veggies just starting to grow in June when “…it’s so easy to nick the shallow-rooted weeds from their tenuous holds…. For a while, the garden grows just as I imagined it would, just the way I sketched it on paper, last February….Quickly, though, it passes this quiet stage and moves on to a startling urgency of growth….Thistles with roots like parsnips erupt through the straw in the cabbage bed. Mint creeps slyly amongst the broccoli. My fingers fly like a typist’s around the corn stalks, scrabbling away weeds which spring up nightly.…[By] late July, early August; the garden pressures me with its heedless and chaotic production. Keeping up with it is like trying to prepare dinner with guests in the kitchen, children underfoot, the phone ringing, and unexpected visitors pulling into the driveway and honking their horn.”
And I love her honesty and think: oh how very nice to know I’m not the only one who starts each year’s garden believing that this time I’ll keep things manageable—no bolted lettuce, no overripe cucumbers with seeds the size of foreign currency or woody zucchini because I forgot to pick it.
Ha! Powning says to that, and suddenly I feel okay about the fact that my blackberries are overrun with Black-Eyed Susans and instead of beating myself up over it, I decide to take a picture and send it to a gardening friend in England, one of those people who you assume would never allow anything as slovenly as bolted lettuce in her garden…
—or maybe it will delight and reassure her.
Powning makes me want to celebrate my lovely crop of errant flowers.
In the section called ‘Boundaries’ she talks about the idea of home at the edge of wilderness and the misconception that nature is somehow separate from civilization and how that view changed as she began to understand and ‘know’ the fields around her, and stopped imposing on her expectations and assumptions of what it was.
“Boundaries: between the geese and me, between the crickets and me. Yet the longer I listen, the more I hear.”
The photographs are of things we’ve all seen a thousand times: hillsides of freshly mown hay, a single buttercup, a spider’s burrow (okay, a few things we’ve never seen), but completely stunning in that way that can sometimes leave you in awe at the magnificence of ‘ordinary’. There’s also a sense of integration, of us and them, how the presence of one affects the other. A brilliant shot of footprints through a dewy morning field says it well.
It all seems so obvious when seen through her lens.
There is a section on ‘Trees’, another on ‘Wild Plants’ and, finally, ‘Home’. The last picture in the book is barn roofs at dawn. How perfect.
“…Then, like a well-lived life, comes the quiet. I pull up the plants that have finished their cycle. Into the wheelbarrow I toss bolted lettuce, bush beans whose leaves are brown and crunch, and exhausted zucchini.
“…There is a different kind of peace in the garden, now. It is not the serenity born of potency, and affirmation, but the quiet of fulfilment, and endings.
“…At the end of the season, my garden plan is all but forgotten, and my illusion of stewardship long gone. Instead, like another harvest, there is another year’s memory of the voyage I have taken, swept, like a leaf, away from my own small visions and into the vast, potent current of regeneration.
“…Autumn is like a long, deep breath drawn after some endeavour of great intensity.
“Nasturtium leaves rot, quietly, into the soft mould between the raspberry canes.
“In the end is the beginning.
“In the garden is the whole universe.”
—from ‘Gardens’, in Seeds of Another Summer.
From the Re-Run Series: originally posted in September, 2010.
I’ve been time-travelling recently, spending happy hours in the late fifties, sixties, seventies and early eighties, with Christina McCall, one of the ‘lady journalists’, or dames, from that extraordinary era, and author of the collected essays in My Life as a Dame.
It was after the war. Technology was king (definitely not queen); women’s equality was still a quaint if irksome notion. Chaps were growing their hair and women taking off their gloves and corsets. Jane Jacobs had just arrived in Canada and wondered what was our problem with ‘identity’—“When you come here from outside, as I did, you know immediately what ‘Canadian’ means and that it is this very Canadian quality that has so far kept your cities liveable. Your saving grace is common sense…”.
Trudeau was a mania and George Ignatieff (yes, Michael’s dad) was the Man Who Should Have Become Governor General, if only the rules of the whole game hadn’t changed and then nothing was ever the same again. Yonge Street was just starting to get grubby, the Four Seasons was a still a motel on Jarvis and CanLit was a few talented writers with pluck.
It was a world of Bloody Caesars at mid-morning meetings, swingers, bad hair and the birth of bilingualism in Ottawa. “With their end-of-June paycheques, civil servants got an institutional green pamphlet telling them in effect to learn French or resign themselves to dead-end jobs.”
McCall wrote for magazines such as Macleans, Saturday Night, Chatelaine (during the Doris Anderson years), among others. Her subjects were people and politics; her slant was that of justice, a dissection of class, an attempt to understand various aspects of society, including her own distinctly privileged middle class one. In fact it was her own class and those ‘above’ it that were often her favourite targets. She observed the banalities of privileged lives but not in merely a cursory way—her essays inspired neither outrage nor indifference, but a changed perspective, or at the very least, thoughtfulness where once a vacuum had been.
She was especially passionate about women’s rights and defended them well (while wearing hat and gloves, naturally) and at every opportunity. One of my favourite pieces in the collection, ‘Some Awkward Truths the Royal Commission Missed’, refers to the document published in 1970 to study the status of women. She charged many things about it that were disgraceful in its execution and, even worse, the presentation of the final document: a long, dry, statistical non-account of things.
“I sat in on those hearings….and I found it one of the most engrossing, moving and involving experiences I’ve ever had. The women who appeared before the commissioners weren’t silly suffragettes in defensive hats or mannish harridans seeking unearned privileges. They were professors, farm women, nursery school teachers, Aboriginals, deserted wives, nuns, disaffected suburbanites—all real women with real problems of poverty, alienation, loneliness, and prejudice. Surely, something of their quality as human beings should have been imparted in the report, some part of their individual stories should have been told so that all those who couldn’t attend and hear for themselves would have been affected, as were the audiences at those hearings. At one session in Ottawa, for instance, when an Aboriginal woman from the Caughnawaga reserve was eloquently describing the hardship of her life, another woman in the audience, the very model of a Rockcliffe matron in an expensive dress and careful hairdo, sat with tears rolling down her face. Something of the eloquence and the tears should have been in the report.”
However, my MOST favourite essay comes last in the book: ‘What Won’t Appear in My Next Paradise’, written in 1970, in which she outlines what she hopes the world, especially as it relates to women, will have achieved by 2020. It begins:
“…For I belong that nameless generation of the 1950’s, that uncommitted company of the cool who were born in the years just before the Second World War: educated in the expectation of equality, confronted by the realities of domesticity and the double standard, too young to have been gulled into believing in the feminine mystique (as was the generation of the 1940s, for whom happiness was supposedly a man, four children on three levels, Birks sterling, real pearls and a grand slam at the Victoria College Alumnae annual bridge tournament) but too old and—oh! shameful admission—too liberal to be affected by the Sisters, Unite-Against-the-Capitalist-Imperialist-Phallic-Society! militancy of the new women’s liberation movements.
“If you add to the uncertainties of my whole generation my own specific experience—too many dues paid to feminism in the form of five years spent on a women’s magazine writing such mind-blowers as ‘Why Can’t We Treat Married Women Like People?’ and ‘Working Wives are Here to Stay!’—you realize that it would be paradise enough for me if by A.D. 2020 people had simply stopped talking about women as though we were a national problem… “
She then outlines five simple (and I mean s-i-m-p-l-e) but brilliant points—markers—that if achieved, would indicate a somewhat more enlightened world.
It’s both stunning and interesting to note that, in the almost half century since she wrote the piece, not one of those points has been realized by the so-called ultra modern, progressive, and so very very savvy society we think we’ve become.
From the Re-Run Series: originally posted in June, 2010.
“Eating is our earliest metaphor, preceding our conciousness of gender difference, race, nationality, and language. We eat before we talk.” ~Margaret Atwood from The Can Lit Food Book
The idea behind the ‘(at)eleven’ Q&A series was to allow me to highlight books I like, written by people I know (because I am so lucky to know some lovely people who write), without having to worry about bias. Having said that, I don’t really know Teri Vlassopoulos, that is, we’ve never met in person although we’ve ‘known’ each other since taking the on-line Humber School for Writers mentorship program circa 2006, at which time a sort of group emerged. Amazingly, the group (we keep threatening to name ourselves) is more or less intact and continues to inform, critique, support, and celebrate one another’s achievements—of which there have been a delightfully surprising number—not the least of which was the recent short-listing of Bats or Swallows for both the ReLit Award and the Danuta Gleed Award.
The other reason was to connect food to books. (I do believe there is a connection.)
A funny thing about The Group is how many of us are foodies. (Although, given that food is one of the world’s great tools of procrastination, I suppose it’s a natural love interest for writers.) In any case it ties in well with the small but important side theme, i.e. what food an indvidual book inspires.
My answer to the all-important question: what does Bats or Swallows make me want to eat?… follows the Q&A.
1. Okay. My favourite question first: what literary character did you identify with as a child?
TV: The first character that springs to mind is Leigh Botts from Dear Mr. Henshaw, even if our lives were vastly different. I almost feel embarrassed for identifying with a character that was, in many ways, sad when my childhood was not, but I guess as an only child there was a loneliness to him that I understood. And I liked writing fan letters too. Let’s also say Ramona Quimby and her cat-eared Q’s. (Beverly Cleary: she knew what she was doing.)
2. What were you reading at fifteen?
TV: Girl by Blake Nelson, which I discovered when Sassy magazine published a few excerpts. Andrea Marr is a teenager in Portland who stumbles onto the local rock scene, wears a fish-printed dress, gets obsessed with rock star boys and has confusing and intense friendships. It was a bible of sorts.
3. What about themes… are there often recurring themes in your work that surprise you?
TV: The surprise comes in retrospect when I read what I’ve written and realize that I’ve been working through an issue that I didn’t necessarily admit to myself was something I needed to work through.
4. Describe your work space, what’s on your desk?
TV: Our apartment is tiny and I don’t have a proper desk, so I do the bulk of my writing on the kitchen table. I’m sure one day I’ll get sick of this arrangement, but in themeantime I prefer it. What’s on my desk depends on the day. Right now there’s a vase with a Christmas branch, my husband’s camera, a glass of water and a lone mechanical pencil. Soon: dinner.
5. What are your biggest distractions while writing: internet, chocolate cravings, a sudden need to learn another language, rain…? How do you deal with them?
TV: THE INTERNET, UGH! I deal with it by telling myself that my writing time is precious and that I shouldn’t squander it. It sometimes works.
6. What’s the best advice you received (writing related or not) that you’d like to pass on?
TV: I read Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg years ago and her comparison of writing to running was life-changing. “Like running,” she says, “the more you do it, the better you get at it.” It reframed the way I thought of the act of writing: an exercise that requires stamina and practice. This advice still reverberates with me, especially when I haven’t written for awhile and realize that I’ve gotten rusty.
7. The stories in Bats or Swallows explore relationships with family, friends, partners, for the most part from the perspective of young women. ‘My Son the Magician’ stands out for its POV of a mature single mother with an adult son. You nail the voice perfectly, BTW, but I’m curious – how did this one come to you?
TV: Thank you! It was one of the last stories I wrote for the book and I was getting sick of young woman narrators, to be honest. I do a lot of thinking about my writing during my commute to and from work. The first sentence of that story came to me while I was waiting for the metro – I’m not sure why (I guess I was thinking about male strippers?), and once I had the hook, the rest of the story kind of poured forth.
8. There’s a sense of movement throughout the book. People physically moving from one place to another, from one person to another, distance, travel, road trips, moving on. Were you aware of this as you wrote or was it one of those things that become apparent only afterwards?
TV: I write about things I want to read about, and travel—not necessarily big travel, but small voyages, physical and mental—is one of those things, so I was conscious about it at the time.
9. If you had to spend a long weekend with one of your characters, who would it be and what would you do?
TV: Zoe from ‘Swimming Lessons’. We’d walk around Montreal and I’d show her my favourite places and try to introduce her to better friends. I’ve actually chosen to spend more than a long weekend with her because she’s now one of the main characters in the novel I’m working on.
10. Why short fiction?
TV: Because I like reading short fiction; because it gives me flexibility to experiment with voice and style; because writing short fiction is conducive to a full-time job schedule; because I didn’t really think about it when I first started writing, it was just what I did.
Breakfast or Lunch? Breakfast! My love of breakfast is well documented (http://www.bibliographic.net/2011/02/26/scrapbook-4-in-praise-of-breakfast/).
Pen or Keyboard? Keyboard.
Theatre or Film? Film.
Dylan (Bob) or Dylan (Thomas)? Bob.
Pasta or Pizza? Pasta, homemade.
Bicycle or Canoe? I have an irrational phobia of bikes and I can count the number of times I’ve canoed on my hands. I like walking.
Twitter or FB? Twitter, as proven by @terki.
Coffee or Tea? Coffee, although only on weekends because it makes me kind of crazy and this is not conducive to my day job.
Mountain or Ocean? Ocean.
Party or Solitude? Solitude.
Pie or Cake? — and *both* isn’t a choice ;) CAKE! (With an extra slice for you for asking me such great questions. Thanks for the interview, Carin!)
Okay, Bats or Swallows. I’ve read you. Now what to eat??
My pick: gourmet burger made of the best pasture-raised, sunshine-in-its-face-all-its-livelong-life, happy beef.
And a side of fries— travellin’ food.
Teri Vlassopoulos is a Montreal-based writer who’s first collection of short stories, Bats or Swallows (Invisible Publishing), was shortlisted for the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for best first collection of short fiction and the ReLit Award. She is currently working on a novel. Find her on-line at http://bibliographic.net
From the Re-Run Series: originally posted January, 2012.
Charles Foran’s ‘Can’t Think for the Racket’ is a stunningly lovely essay on the moment a writer finds the courage to use their own voice. The moment when you realize that the truth of what you want to say comes not from your head or how clever-clever you are or what you’ve learned, but from an ability to notice the precise colour of juniper berries after a rain, or tap into some deep awareness of every experience you’ve ever had and translate that into what a bar of dark chocolate tastes like on a warm day in September.
The berries and chocolate are mine. Food is my portal. Foran’s was music.
He wanted to play guitar but it didn’t go well; a musician friend tried to help by saying that to really get music “…no thinking was allowed. Whatever you do, don’t think. Whatever you decide to play, don’t ponder why you did it. For sure, whatever you are feeling—ah, feelings, again—don’t fuss or fret or worry about figuring it out. Don’t figure anything out. Just play.”
Despite himself, words were more this thing and eventually he found himself wandering about listening to the rhythm of language, trying to force what he heard onto the page.
While the friend’s advice stayed with him he didn’t really understand the message until he was living in Ireland, working as bartender, trying to capture the lingo, the music of the Dublin dialect, repeating descriptions he’d heard of wankers and omadoons and writing about their devotion to U2 and Thin Lizzy in a manuscript where the narrator is a Canadian working in a Dublin bar among characters— “wankers and omadoons who thrashed to U2 and Thin Lizzy…”
One day while he’s busily writing this dross, a piece of music, for whatever reason, offers up a moment long enough to replace the square peg in a round hole effort of trying to get all that ‘external’ stuff, all that thinking, down.
“One afternoon I put down my pen at the opening notes of a reel played on solo flute. The musician had the breathy style I associated with prog-rocker Jethro Tull. From the start, the music was fluid. I turned up the volume and watched through the window as a weather formation, stately as a regatta, floated out into the Atlantic ocean to the melody, wisps of angels’ breath scurrying along the margin between earth and sky. A second reel merged from the first. Now the flutist was adding ornamentation–triplets and trills and grace notes. Certain notes were stretched and held. Others were blunted or bitten. All manner of non-thoughts flashed through my mind while I listened and watched. everything seemed in motion, in flight; everything seemed at once exact and permanent, fleeting and evanescent. Like the weather. Like a young Canadian in a school house in Galway.”
And there it is. The moment beyond which a writer can never again not ‘know’ when their work is hitting a false note. We may try to fool ourselves into thinking it’s okay, that no one will notice, that the darlings are so effing cute they’ll make up for any weak areas—but no matter what tricks we try to play on ourselves—after The Moment there’s no going back. We will know when our work sucks and when it sings. (We may not know how to fix it, of course, but that’s another thing entirely.)
The piece ends with a quote from Northrope Frye that Foran had clipped and kept since his university days, proving his connection to rhythm and language from the start, but words that only now, decades later, sink in: “If the music of a sentence is right, the sense will take care of itself.”
Seems it’s all about listening. Not thinking.
But then, so much is. When you think about it.
— excerpts from the essay ‘Can’t Think for the Racket’, from the collection Join the Revolution, Comrade, Biblioasis, 2008
From the Re-Run Series: orginally posted in February, 2011.
Over at Fitch Happens, Sheree Fitch has written an interesting post on the question of what is children’s poetry? and why it’s even a question—in the end determining that “children’s poetry is poetry”… to which I say hallelujah, thank you and yes. I couldn’t agree more and would only add that society’s analysis of art, generally, combined with the impulse to categorize, complicate and impose labels on everything, serves no purpose that I can see except to make me tip over with the weight of it all.
Moving slightly beyond poetry—and if it must be defined—then, okay, what is a children’s book, story, poem, song…?
I suppose it’s something created with the child-nature in mind, however that doesn’t mean its appeal needs to be limited to children. I collect picture books because they’re gorgeous works of art on many levels and I love reading them for their whimsy, humour and joy as well as their philosophy and depth; they remind me of aspects of life, who we are, what’s important, in a way that nothing else does.
I’d like to think that children, also, are benefiting from reading outside the ages suggested on the backs of books—both higher and lower ages—and that teenagers are including both middle grade and adult books among their choices, and vice versa in all directions.
When we read as children, or are read to, we take away one thing, but if we dare to (are allowed to/allow ourselves to) come back to the same book as an older child, a teenager, an adult, we get something entirely different (or—also very nice—are reminded of the original insight). As with any art form, we take from it what we need at that moment. When we read to our children, that’s one thing, but my hope is that we don’t read children’s books only because we have children, but because we were children, and because there’s bits of us from that enchanted time we’d be wise to try to hold onto.
Labels are useful for publishing houses, bookstores and libraries but we mustn’t let that limit our choices, for ourselves or our kids (or the gifts we give each other; I love giving picture books to adults).
Consider those merry chaps, those pre-label Grimm Brothers, who wrote at a time when stories weren’t specifically for children and whose stories can absolutely be consumed by all ages and then consider what’s been done to the original “faerie tale”— Disney is a good example of “kiddifying” work. In commercial hands stories quickly become shlock, so much candyfloss.
Maybe THAT’S what we’re talking about when we talk of “kid stuff”.
But that stuff isn’t the real goods—because real words are ageless. And because everyone knows once you’ve discovered the real thing you’ve discovered it for always.
From the Re-Run Series: orginally posted November, 2011.
My favourite books are always those where not much happens except entire universes quietly change. Both the characters’ and mine.
Ray Robertson’s What Happened Later is such a book. I read it twice last year. Each reading brought me deeper into the language with layers yet to be discovered.
It’s all about the sentences.
Written in two story lines—the first, a fictionalized account of Jack Kerouac’s last road trip, a kind of going home, to find his ancestral roots in Quebec. The second, a fictionalized account of a boy named Ray Robertson who’s trying to get away from home—1970’s small town, Ontario—and find a copy of On the Road.
In alternate chapters and distinct voices, the stories weave back and forth through time—and not much happens. Except life. On every page, in very sentence—every word is full of what feels like absolutely raw truth—not fact necessarily (it’s fiction, right?), but truth.
The chapters play beautifully off each other—from the innocence and simplicity of Ray’s life and his introduction to Jim Morrison:
“Before Jack Kerouac could change my life, Jim Morrison had to save it. Every Almighty needs an ambassador down below to do his dirty work. Mine wore tight brown leather pants and shouted out his rock and roll couplets like it somehow actually mattered.”
—to Kerouac’s bennies for breakfast, falling down drunk with booze and resentment, guilt; his brilliance in offering up what every story needs:
“… a flesh and blood body on the other side of the book telling the story and not just a bunch of nouns and verbs and adjectives held together under house arrest by a bully bunch of rules of composition some mastermind mammon cooked up to keep everybody talking and thinking and living the exact same way. Because ask yourself this, Mac: Were we born and do we suffer and do we die just so we can all sound the same? What a spit in God’s eye, that.”
The book begins close to the end of Jack’s life and close to the beginning of Ray’s, but ultimately, we’re left mid-stream in both, knowing how each will end. Along the way we see Kerouac in a new light as he mourns the loss of a Georgia pine, holds a kitten up to see the moon, asking aloud how science could explain that; we discover tenderness, vulnerability, and a man whose greatest desire was “…to be Cervantes alone by moonlight.”
I can’t think of a better shape or tone for this book. There’s an almost physical sense of movement with each chapter—from the jaded ‘star’ who’s had anything but a normal life, desperate to get away from society’s narrow-minded idea/treatment of ‘fame’—
“Remember how last week you were a spontaneous prose poet, a singular bard of bop, a lyrical visionary declaiming a previously unknown hipster-rich American underbelly? Yeah, well, now you’re a sloppy, undisciplined, self-indulgent media creation prone to sentimentality, immorality, and obvious sensationalism. Next, please.”
—to Ray, living in this tiny, loving world of grandparents, leather sleeved sports jackets; where he so sweetly sings the national anthem to his father in the bathroom; a place where his greatest career challenge is climbing the ladder of the Sears sales team; a world of wry observations—when he accidentally kisses his own shoulder while making out with his first girlfriend, he reflects “…but that’s okay too…”. This mini philosopher, obsessed with finding the answers to life through Kerouac—all such delicious irony.
Despite my love of the fiery, gorgeous, richly written Kerouac chapters—at the close of each, I found myself turning the page, eager and curious to read more of young Ray, and immerse myself in the very different but just as honest tempo of his life. In many ways it’s Ray’s story, but not completely, because to tell either of the two on their own would render both less.
—This is my part of the movie, let’s hear yours. Jack Kerouac, Tristessa (Epigraph, What Happened Later, by Ray Robertson, 2008, Thomas Allen)
From the Re-Run Series: originally appeared in February, 2010.