23 December 2014

"Being underestimated…is something most women have in common."

"It’s not just men who reveal their assumptions in this way. Being underestimated — by men, by women, by themselves — is something most women have in common. We have to work harder from the outset to resist being dismissed, to attain equal footing, and then to maintain it. It’s endless, repetitive work, cut across and intensified by yet other assumptions based on accent, skin color, class, education, dress. And it’s a powerful thing, the learnt reflex to look at a woman and see someone who is by definition unaccomplished, a novice; someone’s disciple, companion, muse; someone with no power or expertise of her own. I’m not immune to it — I’ve caught myself in the act of underestimating women, of having assumed that the woman in the room isn’t the expert in the room. It’s a reflex so disturbing to notice that it’s tempting to pass over it in silence. But it’s a reflex enabled by the shocking paucity of women of authority and expertise across all media — a paucity not easily registered, so used are we to it."

from "Gender, blah, blah, blah by Katherine Angel in The Los Angeles Review of Books

16 December 2014

on rereading: Short Haul Engine

I'm rereading Karen Solie right now, beginning with her first collection, Short Haul Engine. I realized that it's been a long time since I picked up her first book. I'm often returning to her third book, Pigeon, but cannot recall the last time I revisited her first, the one that made me fall in love with her work. (I was going to write her most recent, but I see that she has another forthcoming. Very exciting!)

I've reread more this year than any year before, and one thing that keeps surprising me, which really it shouldn't by now, is how little I remember from previous reads. Rereading Solie is no different.

There's lot to love in Short Haul Engine. It's an accomplished first collection, but like most first collections there is a rawness. It's a little messy, not at all self-conscious. I like that the edges haven't been all polished down.

I had forgotten that Solie once lived in Victoria, the city I now call home. I think of her as a Toronto poet from Saskatchewan, and I'm curious how long she lived here. There is a great poem in Short Haul Engine called "East Window, Victoria" about the longing for a real Prairie winter while living on the West Coast, where "Everything about the place/ demands affection." It was the second stanza that compelled me to read the poem to my husband last night:
In Edmonton, they are cursing
ancestors and old Volkswagens, shovelling
themselves into cardiac events.
In Churchill,
snow is an animal.

When I finished the poem, my husband said it was like the poem had been written for me. Here I am, living in what many consider paradise, but part of me longs for Edmonton, especially the winters. I know that I've romanticized our time there--my anger at the cold, long winters, the predatory johns, the crack-dealing neighbour have all softened. I loved all the free outdoor skating and I know I'd have become a cross country skier if we'd stayed.

Here, it's beautiful. Here it's always lush, even in the middle of December. Today, not only did I see robins, but also hummingbirds. It smelled of mud and new life. It felt like April. As Solie wrote, "So much evergreen. So much/ a constant."

The penultimate stanza sums up my longing, my strange allegiance perfectly:
But how dare you long
for those first mornings of frost
you bit into like an apple, the winters
skating an unbroken line
around your small clean body.

I do feel grateful to Solie for writing "East Window, Victoria" a poem I don't remember reading the first time, but now, where I am in my life both physically and emotionally, is the perfect poem for me. I suppose that's how all good literature works, but it seems especially true for poetry, that its meaning shifts as time does, as people do.

13 December 2014

Undark: to have lived is not enough

I was first introduced to the work of Sandy Pool when we read together at The Edmonton Poetry Festival. She gave an incredible performance and was also completely charming. I finally read it recently, devouring it in two evenings.

It's an accomplished book, rich with stunning images and voices. It's subtitled "An Oratorio" and has a list of Dramatis Personae, which includes Sappho, Undark ("a propaganda radio personality) and the Radium Women (on whom Undark centres).

There's a mix of styles for each voice, although I had to read the dates for Sappho and Hatshepsut to keep them clear. It's all so cleverly done, but this book is more than just clever, it's political and human and incredibly moving.

When I started the book, I thought that it would make a great pairing with Marie Clements' Burning Vision and Veronique Greenwood's "My Great-Great-Aunt Discovered Francium. And it Killed Her." in the New York Times for my imaginary syllabus. The syllabus would have to be flushed out some more, but I haven't read much that I could add.

Then, I came to Pool's poem "Nox, New Jersey, 1998"
are speaking. To have lived

is not enough. They have to
reverberate like elbows

poking through undergrowth.
The rate of pulses rising

to terminal buzz. Women
like whale music, singing

under the newly mowed lawn:
lick tick lick tick lick tick.

To be dead is not enough.
The Dopler shift of history

buries them deeper.Geiger
counter clicks into being.

and it reminded me of my own Glossolalia, and countless other stories of silent/silenced women. So many contemporary women poets are drawn to these historical women, trying to give voice to those who no longer can voice their own stories. Is it because we worry about our own fates? Perhaps subconsciously, but I don't know.

So my revised imaginary syllabus would have:
Undark by Sandy Pool
Glossolalia by Marita Dachsel
The Invisibility Exhibit by Sachiko Murakami
The World's Wife by Carol Ann Duffy*
The God of Missed Connections by Elizabeth Bachinksy

(*I have not read this, but I loved what Melwyk said about it over at Indextrious Reader so I'm taking her word on it, and still have it on my to-read list.)

But regardless of my imagined syllabi, do pick up Undark. It's so very good, plus the cover glows in the dark, so how could you pass that up?

2 December 2014

a meagre attempt at catching up

It's been busy, but mostly good. I helped program the Victoria Writers Festival this year as well as hosted my first panel. It was a lot of work, but very rewarding. I should have blogged about it all as it was happening, but I didn't and I fear so much of the great stuff is now lost. But I will say this: if you ever get the chance to hear Leanne Simpson speak, do everything you can to attend. Her Carol Shields Lecture was inspirational, vital, and life-changing.

The other big news is that Glossolalia has been shortlisted for the Acorn-Plantos Award for People's Poetry. I thought my wives had missed the awards boat, so this nomination so long after it was published was a wonderful surprise. The winner was to be announced in November, but there has been no news yet.

December means Christmas and while I have put up the Advent calendar and some of our decorations (no tree yet), I'm not in the spirit of the season. Being in this tepid climate doesn't help the internal clock. When we lived in Edmonton, I felt like getting ready for Christmas in early November. Now, it seems to sneak up. I don't like it. But St. Nicholas Day is on Saturday and we celebrate that, so I hope that will put in me the right frame.

In the last few months I've read some great books. If you're looking for poetry, let me suggest Kayla Czaga's For Your Safety Please Hold On. It's a stunning book.

And now to sweep up the rice that is strewn across the floor post-dinner and hopefully return to Twin Peaks.

1 October 2014

Hello, 40.

I turned forty today, and it wasn't full of drama or melancholy. I think I got that all out of my system fretting about it in advance. Or perhaps I'm saving it for this weekend when I'm having a small party to celebrate. I'm sure I'll be teary and tell a huge swath of the revellers that I love them. Because that's what I do when I have a bit to drink and am brimming with feelings.

It was a full, but quiet day. Laundry, of course, as there is rarely a day that goes by in this house without something being laundered. The afternoon at they boys' school helping out and cheering on all participating in the Terry Fox run. Then home, with my husband coming home early to bake me a birthday pie. I used that time to go for a run (and it was the best run I've had since being back at it, which was extra nice). Then a few rounds of Mastermind with the boys as K finished making supper. Then presents and Part Two of a many part version of a live stage adaptation of The Fantastic Mr. Fox, exclusive to my living room. Then pie and bedtime (for the kids).

In our family, we give each other blessings on birthdays during family dinner. They can be short or long, serious or funny, but they must be heartfelt. My middle son started this year's blessings simply hoping that my year will be "full of love, joy, and roast chicken." I can definitely get on board with that.

My husband asked me to reflect on my 30s, if there was a word that summed it up, could represent ten years of my life. I didn't have to think for long. "Growth," I answered. I grew as a person and as an artist (from being published in a few lit mags, to having two books and a professionally produced play under my belt); our family grew from just the two of us to now a healthy five. Consequently, my love grew. My heart grew in its capacity for love. Not everything that happened over these last ten years was positive. There was some incredibly difficult times, some heartrending losses, but through all this I grew as a person. I've always been me, but now, I'm just more of me. That's how life goes.

I wonder what my reflective word will be for my 40s. I haven't thought of a word for the decade. I'm not sure I want to assign one, but I will think about it. So much possibility. Isn't that grand?

26 September 2014

woman in clothes

Fashion, like religion, is easy to disparage, in part, surely, because a majority of the devout tend to be women. A style of dress, like a creed, may be freely chosen, or cruelly enforced. The design world has its mystics and charlatans, its tyrants and liberators. History and emotion are vested in the clothes we wear, and they shape our identities, individual and collective, even if we profess indifference to them. (Atheism, according to James, is its own form of religion.) “Women in Clothes” might be called, at least by a serious person defending it to herself, “The Varieties of Sartorial Experience.”
from "Caring About Clothes" by Judith Thurman

I'm not sure if it's because I'm on the cusp of forty, or if it's because I've felt like I've been on the verge of tears for months, but reading the New Yorker review of Women in Clothes made cry. The last line did it, and I wish I knew why.

A few months ago (was it a year? or more? time has moved at a strange paces for me lately), someone sent me the survey to fill out for this book. I was excited. I knew Sheila Heti was involved with the project and she is always interesting. I also love clothes. You may not be able to tell if you ran into me picking my kids up from school, but I love fashion. I love well made clothes, interesting designs, fine fabrics. I'm also sentimental about clothes. I have a dirndl I wore as a child that's waiting for my youngest to get big enough to wear. I have dresses I wore in my 20s that I'll never giveaway, nor will ever wear again.

I started the survey and was quickly overwhelmed. There were many questions, but it was more than that. My answers were long and very earnest. It was like therapy answering them, and I didn't always appreciate where they took me. I was afraid that I was revealing too much about myself and so I abandoned the survey.

Of course, I now wish I hadn't. Not because I want the world to know about my deepest feelings and shames about clothes and appearance, but because there is something powerful about being part of something greater than oneself, especially when it's a group of women.

Last night I had a conversation with a woman who is heavy into the rockabilly scene. She lamented how the scene was once about the music and being counterculture, but now it's so much about the clothes, and specifically how catty some can be, disparaging those whose cuffs aren't the right width or whose dress isn't the right brand. It's interesting, yet not surprising that there are those whose rules of dress become so rigid that they use it to shun, even in, or perhaps especially in, subcultures. We all have our uniforms. We all have a desire to belong. And we all, I believe, like to feel at times like we don't.

I haven't seen a copy of Women in Clothes yet, but I am looking forward to reading it because, even if I'm not part of it, I am.

6 September 2014

"Is that me?"

My youngest, H, will turn three in a few weeks. She is strong, determined, and feisty. She holds her own just fine with her two older brothers and is not one to be idle. It's as if she has a switch that says, why stand if you can dance? Why walk if you can run?

We live across the street from a small dead end street, where the boys will often ride their bikes. She doesn't ride yet, but loves to run along side the boys one their bikes. She's fast and has endless energy. She is a joy.

One of my favourite moments of the day, is the quiet at bedtime, where she crawls onto my lap and cuddles to sleep. I often read during this time, usually the only chance I get during the day.

Last night, she noticed I had a new book. She asked what it was. "Girl Runner," I said, showing her the cover.

"Is that me?" she asked, wonder in her voice.

I smiled at her. "It just might be."

5 September 2014

girl running

Two years ago, I was a runner. Well, at least, I was working on becoming a runner. I took two running classes and ran my first (and only, ahem) 10K at 1:03:03. Then we moved, then life got complicated. I started again, but then life got in the way again. And then I tore ligaments in my knee last August (a camping injury!) and was in pain for almost eight months.

Throughout the summer, I'd been telling my husband that I really should/really want to start running again. It seemed so hard to take that first step back at it, but three days ago Carrie Snyder's Girl Runner arrived in the mail. I've been looking forward to this book as soon as I read about it. I adored her The Juliet Stories and have been looking forward to see what she would do with a novel.

All of this to say, I knew I'd want to start reading it straight away. I also knew that it was time to stop talking and get running, so the next day, the day I started Girl Runner, I dug out my running clothes, laced up my shoes and ran.

Well, saying I ran is a tad euphemistic. I ran and walked and wheezed and sweated a measly 3K. But I did it, which was more than I'd been doing for a long time. My calves are tight, but I'm planning on going again tonight. And then, I'll return to Aganetha Smart, Girl Runner.

4 September 2014


Before we had children, even before we were married, my husband and I had many discussions about our future children's education. Nothing seemed as important. Home schooling them was an option that we talked about a lot. My husband was, and still is, quite taken with the idea. Before having children, and before my kids were school age, I thought about it quite seriously. I read some great homeschooling blogs and some good friends who had fantastic kids home schooled. But then I realized that it just wasn't for me. My boys thrived in group settings and I knew that I would soon grow resentful of devoting all my time to them, time that I could be writing, doing my own work.

Well now, thanks our province's teacher's strike, it looks like I have little choice. (Yes, I could send them to day camps, but we don't have the money to do that. And I'm at home with our youngest this semester, it just makes sense to keep them close.)

Our homeschooling is quite basic. I have them do math and reading every morning, and am trying to figure out how to keep up their French beyond just having my eldest read French books to my middle. I've also been reading Farmer Boy to them for the first time. I had read Little House in the Big Woods as a child and adored the television series, but hadn't read the series.

We are only a four chapters in to the book, but I'm fascinated with the school scenes. The antagonism of the older boys and Mr. Ritchie to the school teacher was a little shocking. It reminded me of the opening of Elizabeth Gilbert's great article The Last American Man:

Briefly, the history of America goes like this: There was a frontier, and then there was no longer a frontier. It all happened rather quickly. There were Indians, then explorers, then settlers, then towns, then cities. Nobody was really paying attention until the moment the wilderness was officially tamed, at which point everybody suddenly wanted it back.

Within the general spasm of nostalgia that ensued (Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, Frederic Remington's cowboy paintings), there came a very specific cultural panic, a panic rooted in the question, What will become of our boys?

Problem was, while the classic European coming-of-age story generally featured a provincial boy who moved to the city and transformed into a refined gentleman, the American tradition had evolved into the utter opposite. The American boy came of age by leaving civilization and striking out toward the hills. There he shed his cosmopolitan manners and transformed into a robust man. Not a gentleman, mind you, but a man. Without the wilderness as proving ground, what would become of our boys?

Why, they might become effete, pampered, decadent. Christ save us, they might become Europeans.

For obvious reasons, this is a terror that has never entirely left us.

The idea that being classically educated is somehow unmanly, that being masculine (which in this patriarchal society is highly revered) means having a disdain for education. That somehow being a brute, using brawn over brains, was admirable.

And, of course, it reminds me of the current situation between the government and the teachers. The joy the Minister of Education and our Premier seem to have bullying the teachers. They aren't using physical force, but they are pressing intense pressure on them financially (no strike pay for the teachers) and trying to turn public support against them. It's working, unfortunately. The bullies have the media on their side, and the public, many who have the American mentality towards education, are quick to find fault with the teachers.

It sickens me and saddens me.

I want to live in a place that values education, ideas, and inspiration. A place that creativity and creative though is celebrated, not disdained. How can we live in a strong society if we don't value the people and the institution that teach and mould the next generation. They spend thirteen years of their lives in public education. Don't we want to give them the best?

I don't understand people who don't value education, and I especially don't understand people who value it only if they can pay for it while giving the finger to those who can't afford to.

In Farmer Boy the teacher stands up to the bullies with a bull whip, literally beating them out the door. I'm trying to think how this can be a metaphor, as physical violence is not the answer, but I can't. I feel beaten down by this strike, by our government's attitudes towards public education. How do we fight the more powerful? How do we bridge this gap?

28 August 2014


Today is the last day of my residency. I've packed up all the papers and books, taken down the drawings my children made for my walls, found a safe place to transport the now brittle, but still red, maple leaf that I picked off the ground the first morning I was at the university after my Mother-in-law had died. I still need to wipe down the shelves and the desks, but this is it, this is then end of my time here.

No deer sightings today, but a few eager leaves have already turned and made their way to the ground. It's sunny and warm, but there is a briskness in the air that means autumn, that means school, that means new adventures.

I am incredibly grateful for my time and space here at the Centre. I hope to be back somewhat regularly for their Coffee Talks and afternoon lectures, but I know it won't be the same. Nothing ever is.

Our family is gearing up for the Saanich County Fair this weekend, which mostly means hours waiting in lines for rides, but it's a good time and my kids love to be whipped up and down and round and round. It's become tradition, ending our summer at the fair, despite this uncertain September with the teacher's strike still ongoing. This is the year of the never-ending summer.

One of my first tasks in September will be to come up with a new way to get writing done. Figure out times and spaces, but I'm looking forward to whatever that might look like. I wrote a lot during my residency, and after this break, want to get back at it.

Just for fun, this is what I wrote:
1. edited "What Can't Be Packed Away" essay for The M Word
2. wrote and edited "What I Need Is a Wife" essay for Telling Truths, Storying Motherhood
3. wrote approximately 20 new poems (most were sonnets, strangely enough)
4. wrote first draft of a novel
5. wrote notes and bits and pieces for a longer essay (eventually book length?) on death, grief, and legacy

I'd like to get back to the poetry soon, as I think I might have enough for another manuscript now. It will take a lot of crafting and editing to make it ready, but I think I'm a lot closer to it than I thought I'd be, considering Glossolalia was only published last year.

And of course, the novel. The first draft was fun and fast, but it'll be this next draft that I'll really have to work hard. I want to push up my sleeves and get dirty.

I'm going to close this down now, take my box and bags to the car, wipe down the room, and return my keys. I hope I won't cry until I'm back at the car, but I'll be wearing my sunglasses just in case.

20 August 2014


I have been on the verge of tears all morning. Not for any particular, concrete reason, but more for the cocktail mix of circumstance and conversation.

I'm at the Centre today. I haven't been here much this summer and my residency ends next week. I am one for being nostalgic for times while I'm still living them, and this morning has been infused with missing my time here. Only a few more days I get to spend in this wonderful office with such a lovely view. I've already seen one stag galloping across my view and I hope I see more.

There about half a dozen fellows leaving the Centre at the end of August and this morning I spent chatting with a couple of them. We spoke of Gaza, Ferguson, First Nations rights, death, birth, middle age, and health, all within an hour. Then we went to the Coffee Talk where we talked about the rights and safety of sex workers in Canada along with those who seem to have an interest in them--for good and bad. I teared up during this talk, partly fueled by this morning's nostalgia and conversation, and partly thinking of the girls (yes, mostly girls and not women, sadly) who worked the stroll near my home in Edmonton, as well as Amber Dawn's incredible memoir How Poetry Saved My Life.

There is so much in this world that feels helpless, that feels futile. But there is hope. Sometimes hope is all there is. It doesn't seem like enough. It isn't enough, but if we don't have hope we have nothing.

It's been an exhausting morning, and I haven't really done anything yet, but talk and listen.

I have three full days left in this office, and one of them will be used cleaning it up, getting it ready for the next Artist in Residence. Oh, I'm going to miss this place, this space, these people. But I'm also looking forward to the next chapter in this life adventure. What's next, I wonder?

23 July 2014

deer and stones

Today is the fifth anniversary of the deaths of three very special people. On the first anniversary, I was by myself at the Wallace Stegner house. I went for a walk and came across three young deer. It was, of course, just a coincidence, but I longed to give meaning to their sighting. Also on that day, I read Louis Glück's Autumnal and threw three stones into the stream that ran behind the house.

Yesterday, I was at the beach with two of my children. I also threw three stones in the water, saying my lost friends' names in my head as I did so.

This morning, as I entered the parking lot at the university, I saw three deer. Again, I know this is a coincidence. Deer at UVic are like pigeons in almost any other city. But. But, still. Of course my mind makes connections.

I pulled Louise Glück's Collected Poems from my shelf and reread "Autumnal." That poem, deer in triplets, and stones in collections of three now, and probably always will, remind me of my young friends and have become symbols of their loss.

We can't help but make connections. We create narrative, find symbols to comfort, to ease ourselves through difficulties. It may be irrational, but we do what we can, don't we? I count deer, read poems, throw stones for this loss.

There are other losses, though. One only months old, another impending. I don't know yet what I'll reach for to guide me through their grief. But something will, won't it? Something must.

30 May 2014

"storytelling is intrinsic to biological time"

"This story has everything a tale should have. Sex, death, treachery, vengeance, magic, humour, warmth, wit, surprise and a happy ending. It appears to be a story against women, but leads to the appearance of one of the strongest and cleverest heroines in world literature, who triumphs because she is endlessly inventive and keeps her head. The Thousand and One Nights are stories about storytelling--without ever ceasing to be stories about love and life and death and money and food and other human necessities. Narration is as much part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood. Modernist literature tried to do away with storytelling, which it thought was vulgar, replacing it with flashbacks, epiphanies, streams of consciousness. But storytelling is intrinsic to biological time, which we cannot escape. Life, Pascal one said, is like living in a prison, from which every day fellow prisoners are taken away to be executed. We are all, like Scheherazade, under sentence of death, and we all think of our lives as narratives, with beginnings, middles and ends. Storytelling in general, and the Thousand and One Nights in particular, consoles us for endings with endless new beginnings. I finished my condensed version of the frame story with the European fairy-tale ending, 'they lived happily ever after', which is a consolatory false eternity, for no one does, except in the endless repetitions of storytelling. Stories are like genes, they keep part of us alive after the end of our story, and there is something very moving about Scheherazade entering on the happiness ever after, not at her wedding, but after 1001 tales and three children."

from "The Greatest Story Ever Told" in On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays by A.S. Byatt

7 May 2014

the fears of reading

As I mentioned earlier, I’ll be reading from my The M Word essay on Thursday night at Russell Books. I’ll be honest with you, I’m fairly nervous. Nervous because, while usually I love to read my work and know I can give a good performance, I’ve only ever read poetry. Not only this is prose, this is memoir-prose. And it’s not funny, or light. No, the essay I’m reading, “What Can’t Be Packed Away” is about loss.

Here I am in the airport, writing this, after a rush visit with my parents in my home town. Rushed, because my father was brought to emergency late Thursday night with heart failure. He’s home now, much better than the when he went in, but I will tell you that when rereading my essay to see what sections to read on Thursday night, I have a pang of guilt.

In the essay, which is largely about the fear of loss of my children, I wrote:
My father has been diagnosed with a terminal neurological condition. He is seventy-six. I know I should feel sadder than I do, but I can’t help but think: yes, this is how it should be. We hate to use the term, “old,” but yes, he is old. He is elderly. Of course, we would like another ten or twenty years with him, but I can’t help but whisper gratitude to the universe for choosing him over one of my children. This is how my superstition works.

And now, here I am, leaving from seeing my father so close to his own death to read to a group of strangers from this essay, I feel uneasy. It will be difficult reading an essay that explores the death of children I knew and the imagined deaths of my own children with this paragraph and my recent experience with my father so fresh. Frankly, it feels like I’m tempting fate.

I’m not shy about death. I think we need to talk about it in the world much more than we do, that we need to open about grief and loss. It is the only thing in life that unites us—we will face the deaths of those we love, we will die ourselves.

I’m reading Wallace Stegner’s All The Little Live Things right now and there is a lot about death in the book, a lot of talk and philosophizing. There are about two pages worth of quotes I’d like to copy out for you, but I’ve chosen this:

“It’s right there should be death in the world, it’s as natural as being born. We’re all apart of a big life pool, and we owe the world the space we fill and the chemicals we’re made of. Once we admit it’s not an abstraction, but something we do personally owe, it shouldn’t be hard.”

I don’t agree with Stegner’s character Marian, here. I think it death is always hard (though hard isn't the right word, either), but I think there should be more ways in this world to help us with death. Death doulas, choices, and more rituals/ceremonies, but this is a big topic and one for an essay, I think.

Now, I hope I haven’t scared you off coming to the reading tomorrow night. The M Word is an exceptional anthology, so many important essays in it. Please come and join the conversation.

6 May 2014

The M Word on the Island

The M Word is coming to Victoria! I have the honour of launching this anthology with Fiona Lam, who is joining us from Vancouver, and Yvonne Blomer who will be reading from her essay in How to Expect What You're Not Expecting. We'll be reading at Russell Books this Thursday, May 8. Doors open at 7:00 and we'll start reading at 7:30.

I'm about to catch a flight, so I hope to write more about this shortly. I'm thrilled and terrified. If you're in Victoria, I hope to see you there!

1 May 2014

Edmonton Poetry Festival

I'm not sure how to write this post, how to start it except by starting it. Part of me doesn't even want to write it because you know how it is when you have such a wonderful time and you start telling people about it and after a while the story and the event loses it's magic because you've spread it too thin? I can't be the only one who feels this way.

What I want to write about is the few days last week when I was at the Edmonton Poetry Festival. (All my crappy photos are on my phone on which my daughter is currently playing.)

There is so much to say, but it all can be distilled into this: I had a wonderful time.

The festival is one near to my heart as it was so integral to my four years in Edmonton. I was on the organizing board for the festival for three years and attended many, many events while I lived there. To be asked to attend as a featured artist was an honour and I was thrilled to be reading with a healthy mix of people I knew and people I wanted to know.

Aside from getting to see some (but, alas, not all) my Edmonton friends, I got to attend and read at some great events. My first night in Edmonton, I attended an event featuring the transcendent Joy Harjo. The next day I got to read with Shirley Service, Julie Robinson, and Sandy Pool. Sandy read from Undark and she blew me away. A fantastic performer and glorious writing. If you ever get the chance to hear her read, please do. The next day I did a workshop with grade eleven students transforming Macbeth into erasure poems. So much fun. Then I read with Rhea Trebegov, Paul Zits, and Kimmy Beach (with whom I got to spend a lot of time, lucky me!) Wednesday morning before flying back home.

It was a whirlwind and I was fortunate to experience some stellar poetry, spend time with good friends and great poets. Such a pleasure. Thank you, Edmonton. I hope it won't be too long until I see you again.

28 April 2014

imaginary syllabus: California as Eden

I'm reading Wallace Stegner's All the Little Live Things right now (and will write more about it soon, I hope) and I can't help but make connections between it and two books I read earlier this year. I do this a lot and I'm sure I'm not the only one who does this, as in a sense, that's a part of reading, making connections between the text and all the things that inform our lives. I often think, ah! Someone should teach this book with that one, and that one.

So, I'm going to start writing these down here, because why not. And if you have anything you'd add to the list, please let me know. I'm not nearly as well-read as I'd like to be, so please help open it up for me.

Reading List for California as Eden found and lost
All the Little Live Things by Wallace Stegner
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Surfwise by Doug Pray

That's a pretty white list. What else would you add?

22 April 2014

"creative recklessness is what it takes to be an artist"

"The freedom and creativity of that early life forms part of her theory about why there are fewer female than male choreographers in the ballet world. 'Things have changed a lot now but I think until recently, for a young boy to make a choice to be a dancer already takes a kind of courage and recklessness. It is easy for a girl to grow up in ballet and there is nothing she necessarily has to fight for or defend or endure in that journey. They require humility, obedience and blinkered vision and discipline, whereas a boy has to be really strong. To be able to take risks and to have this kind of creative recklessness is what it takes to be an artist, and you are not going to find that in many of the women who have gone through ballet school.'"

from an interview with Crystal Pite in The Telegraph

18 April 2014

"the prevailing metaphor for women of my generation has failure built into it"

"'I think that’s not even to be wondered at,' he said. If you have a creative life, you can only do so much, he explained—something he, too, had had to come to terms with. 'If you give it in one place, it has to be taken away from another.'

Maxwell’s response to my puzzlement was so matter-of-fact that I didn’t realize until later that he hadn’t really explained the contradiction—he had just restated it as a fact of life. But that was the whole point: we were looking at the same thing in different ways, as men and women have been brought up to do. Men tend to see their lives, regardless of the balance of the various parts, as a unified whole, but the prevailing metaphor for women of my generation has failure built into it: we are said to “juggle” the various parts of our lives, and the only possible outcome if we concentrate on one ball in particular is that we drop the others. But this is not how Katharine White saw her life—partly because she could afford not to, by hiring people to juggle for her, but mainly because she just didn’t think that way. When I started looking at her life as she looked at it—and as she lived it—it suddenly seemed all of a piece."

from Lady With a Pencil by Nancy Franklin, an article about Katharine White, The New Yorker's fiction editor from 1925-1960

11 April 2014

doing the work

I've been writing. Like really writing. Not editing, not doing research, not answering emails or hustling or blogging. I'm on a spurt and it's been great. I'm hoping to keep my head down and the eye on the prize (a finished first draft) by the time the residency is over. If I don't get distracted, it will happen.

Strangely, I have to thank the conversation I've posted below. Out of all the many books these women have written, I've only read Elizabeth Gilbert's most recent, The Signature of All Things (which I absolutely loved). I love how strong these women are, their friendship, and how they treat writing as work and just get it done.

Now I need to read Ann Patchett and more of Elizabeth Gilbert. If you can suggest which of her fiction I should start with, I'd be grateful. (I do plan on reading her This is a Story of a Happy Marriage soon.)

If you haven't watched this conversation, please take the time to. It's inspiring and entertaining.

27 March 2014

Hurricane Edna

Last week I finished reading East of Eden. A few hours later, I stalked my bookshelves to see what I should read next. I pulled a couple books out that I've been wanting to read/reread, but none of them seemed quite right. It was hard to imagine following up this American classic with a recently published Canadian novel--it didn't seem terribly fair to the newer book, but I also wasn't sure I was ready to dive into Dickens' Bleak House quite yet (but will I ever be, I wonder?) and while I am itching to reread Yates's Revolutionary Road, I didn't want to read two mid-century American novels in a row.

I've been reading Charlotte's Web to my boys. It's one of my favourite books of all-time. My friend Alexis recently posted this article about E.B. White's writing of Charlotte's Web and in it White's essay "Death of a Pig" is referenced. I pulled Essays of E.B. White off the shelf and began to read.

It won't be a revelation to anyone who knows his work, but I had merely read his Charlotte's Web and what a treat his essays are. I've only read the first six, but I am in love. He is a brilliant wordsmith and very, very funny. Already, I feel like I know him and that I like him very much.

"The Eye of Edna," about waiting for Hurricane Edna (but really about media-hysteria, which feels quite relevant today) to hit is a pure joy. I knew, thanks to previous essays, White farmed in Maine, but when he mentioned going to the shore to pull up his boat and that he lives to the east of Penobscot Bay, it reminded me of another book I adored. Once I finished the essay, I went to the kids' bookshelf and pulled out Robert McCloskey's Time of Wonder and read it to my youngest.

I've never been to New England or lived on an island or learned to sail or lived in the 1950s (shocking, I know), but Time of Wonder always leaves me feeling nostalgic. I discovered the book as an adult and love reading it to my kids (probably more than they like being read to).

In McCloskey's book, there is a hurricane and now I wonder if White's Hurricane Edna was also the inspiration for Time of Wonder. I did a cursory search on the internet, but found nothing. Perhaps it's better not to know, but now I wonder if I'll ever not think of the two hurricanes as the same one, both remembered in very different, but equally excellent ways.

26 March 2014

The M Word has arrived!

My copy of The M Word arrived earlier this week. I was getting pouty because according to social media, all the other contributors had received their copies the previous week. (Yes, Canada is a large country, but I'm fairly impatient when it comes to mail regardless.)

I've decided that I'm not going to read it cover-to-cover, but flip around and read what speaks to me. I'm reading another collection of essays right now, so I'm going to go back and forth between both books as not to burn myself out on motherhood. So far, I've read the essays of Heather Birrell and Carrie Snyder, both of which are excellent. I really wish our country was smaller, as I'd love to sit down with these two women over beers one night and talk about their essays. So much of what they wrote spoke to me, seemed similar to my own experiences. I hope their contributions are an indication to the quality of the rest of the anthology, because if so, it promises to be stellar.

If you're on GoodReads and would like to enter the draw for your own copy, follow the links.

20 March 2014

Helen Lawrence

Last Friday, I went to a preview of Helen Lawrence, the highly anticipated play created by Stan Douglas and Chris Haddock.

This play has been in the works for years. Stan Douglas is a brilliant artist and I was very much looking forward to seeing his take on late 40s Vancouver, specifically Hogan's Alley. His co-creator is Chris Haddock, whose work I don't know very well. I've never seen Boardwalk Empire and I've only watched a handful of episodes of DaVinci's Inquest. He has a strong reputation. Both men do, but neither have worked in theatre before.

As stated earlier, I saw a preview (which, criminally, was full-price) and there were technical difficulties. This show is tech-heavy. Tech-dependant, really as it wouldn't even be a show without the tech. Because it was a preview, I forgave those problems.

It's visually stunning. The actors are live onstage, but behind a scrim. They are being shot live, and the images are projected on the scrim, but thanks to some spectacular blue-screen technology, it looks like they are in Hogan's Alley or the second Hotel Vancouver. It's gorgeous.


This is supposed to be theatre. I have not been able to figure out why they didn't just do a movie. There is no play or tension happening between the live action (which you can sometimes see thanks to the lighting) and what is projected. What does this staging choice say thematically? Disappointingly, nothing.

I have seen a lot of theatre, and much that plays with technology and pushes boundaries. It can be exciting, but if it doesn't do anything to support the story, it leaves me cold and impatient.

The main problem with Helen Lawrence is it's foundation: the script. It is weak. It's overloaded with dialogue that sounds good (perhaps authentic to the time, perhaps what we've been trained by the movies to think as authentic), but doesn't really say anything. There is one plot line (of four) that goes nowhere and really shouldn't be in the play at all. Take that one out and give the other plot lines space to breathe a bit, expand, and perhaps have the space to tell the story they want told.

Because I don't know what the story is they want told. The story touches on Vancouver police corruption, gambling, prostitution, the shutting down of Hogan's Alley, the closing of the second Hotel Vancouver, lack of support for GIs, a dead husband, a spurned lover, bother-issues, race-relations, and I'm sure there's even more. All this in 90 minutes, but the story? The heart of the piece? I don't think I could tell you.

(And, despite having four women in the cast, I don't think this would pass the Bechdel Test. Every conversation between the women were about men. I hope I'm misremembering, but I don't think I am. Shameful.)

The draw of Helen Lawrence is the visuals. And people will and should go for this, but it's not enough. Perhaps this should have remained an art installation, perhaps they should have invited a playwright to co-create? I don't know. But it was disappointing and feels like a missed opportunity. It really could have been phenomenal.

14 March 2014

On rereading: East of Eden

I'm rereading Steinbeck's East of Eden right now. I've read it twice before, but the last time was about half my life ago, so I won't go on about how much I have forgotten.

It's a long and meandering novel. I know this is popular to say about books, but I really don't think it would be published now. Actually, maybe more to the point, I don't think it would be written like this now. The narrator is a very minor character in the book (Steinbeck himself as a child) but is also clearly omniscient. Are novels written this way anymore? I don't think so, though if I'm wrong, please let me know.

I'm only about 2/3 through (only! I'm on page 524!) and while I am loving so much about it--the vividness of his descriptions, his language--I am getting tired of the how the women are portrayed in this world. They are either saintly suffering women who cook and clean all the time, or they are devilish manipulators. There doesn't seem to be a middle ground, and I'm not sure this would even pass the Bechdel Test.

The novel does feel like a throwback, something from and for another time. It's interesting, to me, that it was published in the early 1950s and my beloved Gloria took place about a decade later. I wonder if Gloria ever read East of Eden?

13 March 2014

Olive Grey Frost

A million years ago, I taught a course at University of Alberta's Women Words. I can't remember the title, but it was about creating your own chapbook. We looked at how to consider the body of one's work and we paid close attention to how to order one's work while considering narrative, style, and them. There was more to it than that, but this was the essence of the class.

One of the students was a really good poet. She was young and oozed with potential. We now follow each other on social media and I've enjoyed watching how she's coming into her own.

Relatively recently, she posted these and ever since, I've been itching to make some of my own. Here's my first one, and I'm quite certain it won't be my last. (You can see it better if you link through to here.)

5 March 2014

"recite rosaries of our failures"

"I do not know many people who think they have succeed as parents. Those who do tend to cite the markers that indicate (their own) status in the world: the Stanford degree, the Harvard MBA, the summer with the white-shoe law firm. Those of us less inclined to compliment ourselves on our parenting skills, in other words most of us, recite rosaries of our failures, our neglects, our derelictions and delinquencies. The very definition of success as a parent has undergone a telling transformation: we used to define success as the ability to encourage the child to grow into independent (which is to say into adult) life, to 'raise' the child, to let the child go. If a child wanted to try out his or her new bicycle on the steepest hill in the neighbourhood, there may have been a pro forma reminder that the steepest hill in the neighbourhood descended into a four-way intersection, but such a reminder, because independence was still seen as the desired end of the day, stopped short of nagging. If a child elected to indulge in activity that could end badly, such negative possibilities may have gotten mentioned once, but not twice."

from Joan Didion's Blue Nights

1 March 2014

On Reading: Blue Nights by Joan Didion

I read Blue Nights by Joan Didion over the last two days. A deceptively slim book, it is rich and heavy. Last summer I read her The Year of Magical Thinking when I was devouring grief narratives. I had bought Blue Nights at the same time, but The Year of Magical Thinking was so devastating, I didn't think I could handle this one as well so soon.

The Year of Magical Thinking is considered a memoir about the death of Didion's husband, while Blue Nights is considered a memoir about the death of her daughter, but I don't think this is true. Yes, Quintana's death is an important part of the narrative, but Blue Nights is a meditation on mortality and Quintana's is used as a lens through which Didion views her own.

Didion's realization that her own death is coming, that her body is failing her, that she is becoming frail is beautifully revealed. A slow dawning, and perhaps an acceptance, to a degree, in light of her daughter's death.

There is much circling in the prose, returning to phrases and images, that makes Blue Nights feel almost like a long poem. I felt very much like I was privy to Didion's thought process, they way her mind now works, something that she's figuring out now.

The Year of Magical Thinking was so clearly about death and grief, while Blue Nights is more elusive. It's about mortality and mourning, which Didion clearly shows, is not the same ad death and grief--it's a fine line between them, but it is a line.

It's also about parenthood, while YOMT was about a marriage. The former messy and rich with loss, the later idealized. Perhaps it's not fair to compare the two books this way as they are much more different than they appear on the surface, but it also seems impossible not to. Blue Nights is an incredibly intimate book, but I didn't find it devastating. I had expected to, and am thankful that I didn't, but I'm also not sure why. Is it because Didion's revelations are my own? Or they are so removed from my own? I'm not sure, but I know I'll return to Blue Nights, probably sooner rather than later.

28 February 2014

Weekend news

Mostly, my life putters along. I don't spend much time thinking about my life as a writer, although thanks to the CRSR, this year I've been able to spend much more time writing than I have in a very long time. I think about writing, yes, and I write, but I don't think about being a writer. If there is a job I think about, it's about my role as a parent, about keeping our family of five running as efficiently as possible (this is a bit of a joke, as I don't feel efficient at all, but perhaps that's why I think about it so much).

But this past weekend, I felt like a Writer (note capital letter). Thanks to the generosity of my sister who watched the kids all day, I spent Saturday at Words Thaw. After attending two panels and sitting one, by the end of the day I was completely exhausted, my brain fried, but also invigorated and inspired.

I hope the audience got as much out of the panel I sat on as I did. Sharing the stage with Tim Lilburn and Jane Munro was a wonderful experience--they're both incredibly smart and inspiring. It's so hard to tell when I'm in the middle of something like that how I'm doing. I hope I came close to matching their levels. They were wonderful.

The only downside to my day at Words Thaw, was that I became a little overwhelmed. There were people I met that I wanted to speak with more, and there was a man who asked me to sign my book but then I lost track of him and never did. I felt brainless by the end and wish I could have been more present and aware (especially sign that book!).

Now, even as fantastic as Words Thaw was, I have to admit that nothing could match my level of joy in seeing my book glowingly reviewed in The Globe and Mail. Poetry doesn't often see the pages of our national paper and that the review wasn't just online, too, was cause for celebration.

I'm so grateful my wives have received such praise and I hope they find a readership. It seems to be happening, as small as a readership poetry may garner.

21 February 2014

Words Thaw

I'm honoured to have been asked to participate in this year's Words Thaw, a symposium at UVic that is billed as an “intellectual icebreaker at the cusp of spring.”

In addition to attending events all day, I'll be sitting on the panel The Inner Life of Our Words: Writing and the Human Spirit. The copy for the event is:
Is there a relationship between poetry and the inner life? And if there is, what form or direction—or directions—does this relationship take? Can writing and reading be a useful, even insightful tool to probe the spiritual life (or lives) of the self, of another person, of a community, or even of an age? With moderator Andrew Rippin as their “guide,” poets Marita Dachsel, Tim Lilburn, and Jane Munro, each approaching the inner life of our words from a unique perspective, talk about how poetry can be a catalyst to discovering and expressing not only “what we know,” but about “what we want to know.”

I'm hoping to listen more than speak, as I'm very much looking foreword to hearing the others' thoughts on this. It's such a wide subject and I know we're going to approach it in different ways, so it should be an enlightening and exciting conversation.

As a lead up to Words Thaw, Stephanie Harrington recently produced a podcast based on a conversation we had a few weeks ago. She's clearly talented as she took my 30+ minutes of babbling and crafted it into a concise six minute podcast. You can listen to it here.

19 February 2014

on rereading Gloria, part four (and final)

I finished Gloria two weekends ago. When I was about fifty pages from the end and I kept trying to put it aside, not wanting leave Miss Gloria Cotter and 1957 just yet, but I couldn't. There is a momentum that builds that begs, no demands, the reader to read just one more page, until BAM you're at the end. And oh, what an end it is.

And then I spent the rest of the weekend googling characters and things from the novel, as if these were real people. Like Gloria's BFF Susie. I found this delightful video of a head majorette in 1950. Susie would have been a little younger than this woman, and I think she'd have been even better.

Fun, no?

I want to write about the ending and the book as a whole on last time, but I also don't want to spoil anything for those of you who haven't read it yet, but plan to, so I'm doing one of those fancy "after the jump" things. Trust me, you don't want to be spoiled, so instead of reading on, start on your copy of Gloria now.

Click here to continue (but only if you've read the novel!).

18 February 2014

the rhythm of running moves like a heartbeat

"We're not usually given the insight to know when we're running through the core of our life; usually it's years later when we look back and say, "Oh!" But I was lucky enough to know it, and hope, when I'm dying, I'll be lucky enough to remember it. The rhythm of running moves like a heartbeat, first one foot and then the other, like the pulse, deep thrust out, kick back of the veins, the twin beat that is music before there was music, löparglädje the Scandinavian distance runners called it, translates into English as "the joy of running," but it means life."

from Running by Keith Maillard

13 February 2014

On Reading: Stag's Leap, part six (and final)

I finished reading Stag's Leap Wednesday evening and I really enjoyed the final section "Years Later," especially the final few poems.

I found the whole section strong, possibly the strongest section in the book, except for one poem. While I appreciated the visual play attempted in "Read Sea," I found it lacking. I suppose there is a reason Olds doesn't often play with form. I don't think she's confident in it. I think she could be--she's clearly an excellent poet--but like anything, it's a skill that needs to honed and perhaps she's not interested in it enough to spend the time working on it.

On thing I admired in "Years Later" was how imagery found in poems throughout the collection are revisited, reach what could be considered either their pinnacle or, perhaps, denouement--celestial, marine, sexual, geological, mortality.

The morality feels more pronounced in this section, but it has a different tone. Earlier, such as when Olds had written about her miscarriage, death and loss were about lives cut too short, about lost potential, about tragedy. But in this final section the tone has shifted. In general, it feels more generous, more open, more kind, and specifically in terms of morality, there is an acceptance--no railing against what could have, should have been--but an acknowledgement of death's inevitability in mentioning her mother's and father's deaths, the hoped for long life.
Years later, during his cremation,
the liquids left my father's corpse,
and smoke left the flue. And even
later, my mother's ashes left
my hand, and fell as seethe into the salt
chop. … (from "What Left?")

Clearly, this change in tone at the end of the book signals an acceptance to the narrator's divorce. In the poem "Years Later", the narrator and her ex-husband have met in a park (Central Park this reader assumes). There is acceptance, a longing that is less mournful than stoic, and it's not a longing of desire (what she wants) but a longing of what has passed--a gentle nostalgia. The poem ends:
...And then there is the spring park,
damp as if freshly peeled, sweet
greenhouse, green cemetery with no
dead in it--except in some shaded
woods, under some years of leaves and
rotted cones, the body of a warbler
like a whole note fallen from the sky--my old
love for him, like a songbird's rib cage picked clean.
Her love for him, no longer rotting or decomposing--stinky and messy--but clean and fragile. A skeleton of what it once was. I find the final two lines of this poem stunning.

"Years Later" leads in "September 2001, New York City" a poem, we know from the title, will hold death, but not the death(s) we expect. She opens the poem with:
A week later, I said to a friend: I don't
think I could ever write about it.
Maybe in a year I could write something.
Clearly, years have passed and she has written something, but other than the dream image of a a game of jacks, the events of 9/11 aren't explored directly. What I do find interesting, is the warbler image returns, this time as her mother:
… And I thought of my
mother, minutes from her death, eighty-five
years from her birth, the almost warbler
bones of her shoulder under my hand, the
eggshell skull, as she lay in some peace
I now want to reread the collection to see if the warbler image is used earlier. Not off the top of my head, but knowing how Olds returns to images, I think it must be there. The warbler image here relates to someone fragile, someone loved. Olds requests that we make a connection between her "almost warbler bones" of her mother and the warbler skeleton of her love for her husband--something precious, something fragile.

Before I return Stag's Leap to the shelf, I want to address the last poem briefly. "What Left" is where we leave the narrator on her journey, and it's a meditation on where she was and where she is now. There is a rhythm to the piece that builds, almost an incantation. She explores conception, birth, nursing, the death of her parents (as noted above), and ultimately what she and her ex-husband accomplished together and for each other in their marriage. The final third of the poem is one long sentence:
We fulfilled something in each other--
I believed in him, he believed in me, then we
grew, and grew, I grieved him, he grieved me,
I completed with him, he completed with me, we
made whole cloth together, we succeeded,
we perfected what lay between him and me,
I did not deceive him, he did not deceive me,
I did not leave him, he did note leave me,
I freed him, he freed me.
That final line. Normally, that would make me cringe. It's sappy and sentimental, absolutely, but Olds earns it. If this line showed up anywhere else in the collection or even in the poem itself I would object, but ending the collection this way is especially rewarding for the readers who read from front to back.

I'm going to put aside Stag's Leap now, but I know I will return to it. If you've read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the collection. Do you disagree with anything I've written? Have a completely different take? Please let me know! I'd love to have a discussion about it.

If you'd like to read all six sections, you can find them here

11 February 2014

The M Word giveaway

Now for something completely different, I'd like to encourage those of you on GoodReads to join the giveaway for The M Word, a book in which I have an essay exploring parenting under the fear of loss.

The catalogue copy reads:
There isn’t a mother who hasn’t thought of herself as stationed far outside maternity’s central zone — that imaginary place where all the babies are cooing, bananas are never bruised, and every woman is comfortable enough in her own skin to disregard a magazine’s blaring provocation: Are You Mom Enough?

In this original and sometimes provocative collection of essays, Saleema Nawaz, Alison Pick, Nancy Jo Cullen, Carrie Snyder, and many others explore the boundaries of contemporary motherhood. There are the women who have had too many children or not enough. There are women for whom motherhood is a fork in the road, encountered with contradictory emotions. And there are those who have made the conscious choice not to have children and then find themselves defined by that decision.

Here some of Canada’s best writers face down motherhood from the other side of the picket fence. The M Word. It means something to every woman. Exactly what it means is rarely simple.

I'll be writing a bit more about the essay and the anthology in the next few months. I don't have my copy yet, but am really looking forward to reading it, some of my favourite Canadian women writers have essays in it and edited by the excellent Kerry Clare. Thrilled to be in such fine company!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The M Word by Kerry Clare

The M Word

by Kerry Clare

Giveaway ends April 10, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

10 February 2014

the God of poetry

"Gloria closed her eyes and tried to imagine her God--an incomprehensible, impersonal, sexless force--the God of coincidences, of her dreams and mental floodings, of the strange leaps her mind made when she knew something absolutely without knowing how she knew it; the God of love, certainly, and of the created world when it had been given to her to see it with heart-stopping crystal clarity; the God of poetry, she realized with a sudden inner leap--true poetry, she amended it--the God who inspired the words when they were true words--and her mind, taking off on its own, found the breath in the root of the word 'inspire.'"

from Gloria by Keith Maillard

6 February 2014

on rereading Gloria, part three

I am now about two-thirds of the way through Gloria, but I'm not going to write about the plot right now. I want to talk about where Gloria sits in CanLit.

In a previous entry, I linked to Keith Maillard's own page on Gloria. In it, he wrote, "Gloria was short-listed for the Governor General’s Award in 1999. It is out of print." I couldn't quite believe that it was out of print, so I asked him via twitter, and he responded, "Yes, alas, Gloria is out of print. I am going to publish it as an eBooks eventually. A major project."

How can that be? How can a book nominated for one of the most important literary prizes in our nation, a book this good, is out of print? I've been thinking about this a lot and have a few theories.

Keith Maillard is an American born and raised and largely writes about America, most of his novels are set in fictional Raysburg, West Virginia. (I had always thought he was a draft-dodger, but reading his short autobiography, he clarifies that he was deemed unfit for service and left for Canada as a political statement.) He now (and by now, I mean for a good thirty years) lives in Vancouver, BC.

Those brief biographical details are a one-two punch. Would he be a more celebrated writer if he lived in Toronto? I honestly think so. Would he be a more celebrated writer if he was writing about Canada, or somewhere more "exotic" like India or Germany? I also think so.

Canadians have an uneasy relationship with the United States, especially when it comes to literary culture. A Canadian choosing to write about the United States doesn't seem very, well, Canadian. And, as much as things have shifted a little, Toronto is the publishing centre of the country.

Keith Maillard is a brilliant writer. His name should be mentioned when we talk about our greats: Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondatjee. And Gloria Cotter deserves a place in our collective consciousness, beside Duddy Kravitz and Anne Shirley.

But she won't. She's privileged, she's beautiful, she's smart. Her story is of the female experience in the 1950s--a young woman coming of age, discovering sex, poetry, and herself. She's the Prom Queen, the May Queen, a sorority girl, a country club brat. Class makes Canadians uncomfortable as does facing our privilege. We fancy ourselves underdogs, and Gloria is on the wrong side of what we like to experience, who we root for. (Though, if you've read it, you know that Gloria herself does feel like an outsider, a fraud. This is partially why I would consider this a Canadian book for a Canadian audience. We do see ourselves in this unlikely extraordinary young woman.)

It's a pity, as Gloria's story, while may not be universal, is vital. It's a woman's story told from a point of view we rarely experience. But above all that, it's beautifully written and a pleasurable read. Canadian literary culture is poorer for turning its back on Miss Gloria Cotter.

(There are about 80 copies of Gloria listed for sale on Abe Books. Pick one up, or even better, go to your local used bookshop to see if they have a copy.)

1 February 2014

on rereading: Gloria, part two

Ken Henderson! For that section alone, I think all high school seniors/English 100 students should read Gloria. (I was going to say girls instead of seniors and students, but really, boys need to read this too.) I feel like all women have encountered a form of Ken Henderson at some point. I know I did, but I didn't have the sense to turn to Faerie Queene afterwards.

Also, we all need a Professor Bolton in our lives. I'm not sure I had one. I had potential Professor Boltons, but none were in my life long enough, or perhaps, I wasn't open enough to them to have such an impact.

Now, back to Gloria...

poetry was far more than a bunch of pretty words

"Poetry had always been the great love of her life, and so, of course, she'd cried over it before, but she'd never before heard music like Wyatt's, and now she understood what she must surely have always known: that poetry was far more than a bunch of pretty words--it was, of all the works of man, the most beautiful and profound and eternal."

from Gloria by Keith Maillard

31 January 2014

on rereading: Gloria

As mentioned earlier, I am rereading Gloria by Keith Maillard. As of writing this, I'm about 200 pages into it and oh, how I am loving this book. It really is the perfect novel for me. Gloria, a young woman who loves clothes, boys, but above all, poetry.

I had forgotten that Susie was religious and the long conversations about literature. I had forgotten about Delta Lambda and being rushed. I had forgotten how early Billy Dougherty turned menacing. I had forgotten so much, but I am remembering the pleasure of reading the book and I wonder if the pleasure I'm feeling now is equal to, or even greater, than on first read.

A lot has happened to me in the fifteen or so years since reading it the first time and I know that there are things that are resonating with me thanks to my own life experiences that flew above my head the first time. I am now much closer to Laney's age than Gloria's, and I am far more sympathetic to her now. I am aware at how deftly Maillard crafts the family relationships, their conversations, how beautifully handles subtext.

I shall cut this short as I'd much rather use the little time I have to (re)read Gloria than write about it.

30 January 2014

the pleasure of reading her again

I am turning forty this year. It's a big number, weighed down with baggage and expectations. I wish I could say that I'm staring down this number with grace and a light heart. Turning thirty was not a problem for me (I say, in retrospect--am I rewriting history here? I don't think so, but I might). I still have plenty of time in my thirties--the perk of being an autumn baby.

But I didn't want to write about aging today, so let me steer this post around.

It is fashionable amongst a certain set of people on social media to read only certain types of books in a year. A few years ago it was The Year of The Short Story (#YOSS). This year, I'm seeing a lot of The Year of the Woman (#ReadWomen2014) or The Year of People of Colour. I'm not one to jump on wagons of any sort, but I'm going to hitch my own this year--not exclusively, of course; I am a polyamorous reader.

But, staring down forty, I'd like to reread some books that were important to me earlier in my life. Steinbeck's East of Eden is the only novel I can think of that I've read as a teen and in my twenties. I'm going to reread it this year and will plan to read it in my forties as well.

I'm also going to reread Keith Maillard's Gloria. Gloria is a beloved book. I read it in my mid-twenties and it has stayed with my in a way very few novels have. I've said that it taught me how to be a woman, though I'm not quite sure that's true anymore. It at least shaped how I was a woman in my mid-twenties. I've been nervous to revisit it because I have elevated it so high in my mind and heart. But I am reading it again. I'm only about sixty pages in, but oh, it's so good to be back with Gloria. I'd forgotten a lot, but not everything, of course. Being with her is like being with an old friend. It all comes flooding back, and the past and present are richer because of it.

I'm a slow reader, so I'm not sure if there will be more books I will reread this year (both Gloria and East of Eden are long. There aren't that many that I can remember reading in my twenties that have really stuck with me, though as I write this, I few are popping in my head. But no grand pronouncements, no hashtags needed. Just the pleasure of revisiting a good friend.

29 January 2014

on memorizing poetry

I went to a Coffee Talk last week that has me thinking about memorizing poetry. The focus of the talk was a reflection on Harold Coward's lecture from the previous evening. I hadn't be able to attend his lecture, but I really wish I had.

In the talk, he spoke a bit about learning orally/aurally--how vital memorization is to fully understanding a text. There was discussion on how in many religious practices, the sacred text is memorized and this knowledge is passed down from teacher to student. Christianity used to have a much stronger oral tradition that seems to have disappeared in the mid 19th Century (reasons to me were not clear).

Harold spoke of how important it is for young children to memorize things (texts, facts, etc) as these are the foundations of their future knowledge.

Of course, this got me thinking of my own children. My eldest is a whiz at memorizing and has always done it for fun. He used to (may still) have all the countries in the world memorized. He reads a book more than once and has it mostly memorized.

My youngest is two and she's loved Julie Morstad's illustrated book of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Swing ever since she was given it--over half her life, now! The boys and I quickly memorized the poem to recite to her. After Howard's talk, I realized that other than sections of my own poems and Leonard Cohen's "Marita", it's the only poem I have memorized.

This needs to change.

I went to FB and asked what poems and why people have memorized. Over twenty people responded and almost all of them named poems--there was Shakespeare, Millay, Frost, Hardy, and many others, with very few repetitions. And what heartened me the most was that not everyone who responded were writers. That shouldn't surprise me, but it did, in the best possible way.

I once went to a reading where a poet put her book aside and recited a poem of her own. It was a true recitation and the delivery sounded like a child reciting "In Flanders Fields." This put me off wanting to memorize my own work, though through osmosis I have done so. I doubt I'll ever recite a poem completely from memory at a reading in fear of it becoming a parlour trick or transporting everyone back to grade three, but when I do read certain poems, they are mostly from memory.

There are a few poems I love and I'm going to attempt to memorize them, just for the joy of it.

(And then, of course, I remembered this video. Oh, Lynda Barry, you are brilliant.)

24 January 2014

Too True

Glossolalia has been out in the world for almost a year now and has garnered a modest bit of attention. I keep planning on posting all the reviews and interviews I've received and given in support of my wives, not so much for bragging rights, but mostly so that I have them all together. Soon, I hope.

One of my favourite things I've done since Glossolalia was published is a reading and panel discussion with some of my favourite poets: Jennica Harper, Elizabeth Bachinsky, Amber Dawn, and moderated by Gillian Jerome. Gillian did a great job asking difficult questions, and I think the ensuing discussion was provocative.

It's about an hour and a half long, so make sure you have a pot of tea and a hearty snack beside you if you plan on watching it all in one sitting. If you do watch it all, let me know what you think. I'd love to keep the discussion going.

23 January 2014

On Reading: Stag's Leap, part five

The "Summer" section of Stag's Leap only has four poems and they left me frustrated. Perhaps it's because I taught a form class last semester and I've become enamoured with form, constraints, and poetic devises, that these free verse (and not, may I point out, free verse in the sense of organic verse) confessional poems are starting to feel like a drag. More than halfway through, there has been little deviation--almost no stanzas, few indentations. They look and sound the same.

I reread the four poems of "Summer" only once. I assume if I gave this section closer read, I'd be rewarded, but I simply didn't want to. The subjects of these four poems were none that I wanted to sink into deeper. The one that held my attention the most, "Skleekit Cowrin'" turned me off with its heavy-handed symbolism--mice traps on the wedding china, leaving the mouse corpse on the plate on the porch and it being infested by bugs. I'm sure that there is more artistry in the poem and the others in "Summer" but I don't have the patience or inclination to find them right now.

The following section, "Fall," only has four poems as well, but this section appealed to me more. I read "Haircut" as I was in the salon waiting for one of my own, which was a nice little gift. It probably does not need to be noted that my haircut was nothing like the one in the poem.

That said, I find "Crazy" the most compelling in the section. Ultimately, it's a revisitation and reconsideration of what it means to be "crazy for each other"--a phrase the speaker claims to have used (often) in the past. It begins:
I've said that he and I had been crazy
for each other, but maybe my ex and I were not
crazy for each other. Maybe we
were sane for each other, as if our desire
was almost not even personal--

Olds' choice to have "crazy" end the first and begin the third line not only draws attention to the word in its repetition and prominent places on the lines, but also transforms them into their own parenthesis, having the second line--a line which simply announces she and her ex--be surrounded by "crazy." It's a subtle nod to what the poem will explore. Perhaps the crazy was not them, but outside of them.

The speaker ruminates on what the alternatives were, if they weren't crazy for each other--a marriage arranged by the elements (with "a fire of pleasure like a violence/of kindness); they were "sane for each other"; that their union was inevitable "like the earth's and moon's paths" (that line got an eye roll from me, I admit--so hard to invoke the heavens that way). The speaker then admits that despite these other options, she was crazy about him
--oh for God's sake
I was besotted with him. Meanwhile the planets
orbited each other; the morning and the evening

Her invocation of celestial bodies returns, this time paired with "each other," a term used throughout in reference to her and her ex--three times in the first four lines of the poem alone. Here, the reader can't but help fuse the speaker and her ex with objects in the sky.

Now that the speaker is confident with admitting that she was crazy for him, she considers what he felt for her and settles on "mortal fondness," a phrase that feels both full and paternalistic, or perhaps avuncular.

With this realization, that yes, he had positive feelings for her, but nothing near what she felt for him, Olds ends the poem, returning to the celestial imagery and "each other":
What precision of action
it has taken, for the bodies to hurtle through
the sky for so long without harming each other.

Is there relief or gratitude in this? The tone implies this, but there is also a hint of accusation in "what precision of action/ it has taken" suggests deliberate action on the ex's part, avoiding the implosion for as long as they had.

post script

Last Thursday, I gave my talk. I want to write a bit about it, but there really isn't much more to say than it went well.

In summary, I started by discussing my interest in writing about faith and spirituality, then I read from Glossolalia. Then I talked about where my current interests are (grief, messianism). I showed some slides and talked a bit about the installations I did at Lab Cab, Performance Creation Canadian Conference, and Initiation Trilogy. I spoke a bit about how I want to grow as an artist and how all the things previously mentioned have led me to my nascent project, which I also spoke a bit about.

There were about 45-50 people in the audience, about half affiliated with the CSRS, a few past students (such a treat!), and a swath of faces I didn't recognize. The questions that were asked were smart (some smarter than I could answer intelligently), but everyone was kind and generous.

I find it hard to tell if things like this go well. I think it did, and I hope for everyone in the lecture hall felt the same way.

15 January 2014


This is a picture of my desk at the Centre this morning. I've just returned from Coffee Talk (Nazis in film, banality of evil, colonialism, Wag the Dog, Downton Abbey, amongst other subjects today) and have to buckle down, git'er done. I'm doing my talk The Voice in Your Head tomorrow afternoon (if you're in Victoria, please come!) and to be honest, I'm starting to freak out.

I haven't done much planning yet, and I need to. It's a big deal this talk. I'm to present for 40 minutes and then be open to questions from the audience for another ten minutes. If you read the description, I'm to be reading from and talking about the project I'm here to create. Unfortunately, I don't have much. I don't really have anything I feel comfortable reading from just yet. So now, I've got to figure out a Plan B.

I have ideas--read from Glossolalia, talk about the creative process--and these sounded/felt good until this morning, when the panic set in. I like to do readings. I'm comfortable and confident reading from my work, especially Glossolalia, but this isn't to be a normal reading and the crowd is used to academic presentations. I feel like a failure for not having the work I had hoped to have done.

Okay, enough procrastination. Send good vibes my way. I'm off to figure this beast out.

9 January 2014

On Reading: Stag's Leap, part four

The most compelling poem in the short section "Spring" is "To Our Miscarried One, Age Thirty Now." Largely, I find this compelling because I am drawn to poems about loss, especially the loss of a child. Part morbid fascination, part research, and part because I've been writing about this subject myself.

What I most appreciate about this poem is the tone--not sentimental, yet full of feeling; visceral without being macabre.

The poem is layered with loss. Obviously, the poet is ruminating on her miscarried son, and, being in a collection about her divorce, she weighs these losses against each other ("That he left me is not much, compared/to your leaving the earth…") but she also considers her own mortality.

The exploration of her own mortality was the most interesting to me, as she is reflecting on her lost son in what appears to be a new way to her:
…And yet
the idea of you has come back to where
I could see you today as a small,impromptu
god of the partial.

She imagines upon her own death, he will be there waiting for her her and asks,
When I leave for good,
would you hold me in your blue mitt
for the departure hence.

She desires to be cradled by this son she never knew, a son (who may not have been a son at all) who she never cradled, but who
…moved house, from uterus
to toilet bowl and jointed stem
and swear out to float the rivers and
bays in painless pieces.

She ends the poem:
I never thought
to see you again, I never thought to seek you.

What I find interesting in this, is she does not write "I never thought I would see you…" but "I never thought to see you" which sounds a little more awkward only because we are used to reading/hearing the former. In the way she has written it, she is clearly enforcing that she is conjuring her son. She will never see him again, but in creating this fantasy of him bringing her to the afterlife, in remembering his loss thirty years earlier, she finds a comfort. She had "never thought to seek" him, but does so now, in the wake of divorce. This seeing, this seeking is not a mourning of potential--of what or who the son would have, could have been--but a sense of perspective and, more importantly, a celebration of the essence of what he is now--a creation of her, of her imagination, of her creativity.

8 January 2014

On Reading: Stag's Leap, part three

The penultimate poem of the "Winter" section is "The Easel." Other than "Not Going to Him" and "Pain I Did Not" I wasn't really taken with the poems in this section on first read. I decided to revisit the section before moving on to see what I may have missed. When I did, "The Easel" stood out.

On the surface, the poem deals with tropes I'm not excited by: the destruction of an ex's property, choosing art over family/love. I sped through reading this one the first time, but I'm glad that I returned to it.

Yes, the speaker is dismantling and then burning her ex-husband's easel. But of course, the easel is more than an easel. Once she has set it alight, "by the flame-light" she realizes that this easel is more than just something he once owned, but something that was integral to their early life together:
...all told, maybe
weeks, a month of stillness--modeling
for him, our first years together,

That honeymoon year, a month in hours of when she was his object.

Olds is famous for mining her family's life for her art. Her poetry is unabashedly autobiographical, confessional. When she writes:
… I am burning his left-behind craft,
he who was the first to turn
our family, naked, into art.
I cannot help but read this as an accusation, or perhaps a defence of her own choices. Ending the line on "to turn" is important, a signal to the subtext of the phrase.

The final seven lines explores the question whether or not she would have not pursued her craft if it meant he would never leave her. Upon first read, it feels a little trite, a little too predictable to me:
… --what would I
have said? I didn't even have an art,
it would come from out of our family's life--
what could I have said: nothing will stop me.

The last line feels a tad rah-rah-sisterhood, rah-rah-artist. But, there is more to it than that. Do we read that his abandoned craft is analogous to hers? That the abandonment of his craft didn't save their marriage any more than if she would have? Or do we read it that, ultimately, this is what she wanted? That she wouldn't go back in time give up her art because not only did the last thirty years of marriage give her great fodder for great art, but this moment, this divorce is also the case?

She's not saying she would chose art over love. She chose art because of love and both were inevitable.

In the poem, she is sacrificing (burning on a pyre) his lost art, while she is creating her own art out of it. In the first-half of the poem she writes
… And laying its
narrow, polished, maple angles
across the kindling, proving for updraft--
good. …

She is conscious here, lays the groundwork for the rest of the poem: her art is fed off of his, even in its absence, even (more so) in its distraction. Good, indeed.