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.