I didn’t win this new prize for emerging writers–I am far from an emerging writer–but I am glad thinking so caused someone to read and enjoy my latest poetry book Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes and All Lit Up to report on it.
I didn’t win this new prize for emerging writers–I am far from an emerging writer–but I am glad thinking so caused someone to read and enjoy my latest poetry book Love Will Burst Into a Thousand Shapes and All Lit Up to report on it.
I am sixty-one years old. I’ve been telling everyone all week that love has to be twinned with action. And so, I acted at the launch for the anthology “Boobs” on Saturday night.
“I want to talk about the Pulse nightclub massacre. The queer community is reeling from these homophobic and racist attacks. 102 people have been shot, their names publicly listed online even though many of them have been living closeted in fear of coming out.
Which is effectively painting a target on their shirts.
Please join me in mourning this hate. I could spend a long time talking to you about while this slaughter belongs to queers of colour, particularly the Latinx community, it touches all queers, but I have an essay here on my blog that does that and little time tonight. But please stand with Orlando and say so on your social media and reach out to soothe a queer friend. As Holly Near sang in It Could Have Been Me:
You can’t bury youth, my friends, youth grows the whole world round.
To which I might add: You can’t bury queers my friend, queers grow the whole world round.
But I also want to tell you about this piece I’m going to read, which is quite short. It is, regrettably, a true story of the young me trying to come to grips with and fight back against misogyny and, even then, transphobia. For all that fierce summer I refused to wear a shirt because boys didn’t have to.
I never dared fight back again.
The event I wrote about for the anthology “Boobs” from Caitlin Press was a highly traumatic event for me because although I didn’t know any of these dads who stopped by our corn stand, I knew their children—went to school with them, played with them. These men were coming home from work in Hamilton, ON, to the safe homogenized suburb of Ancaster to lead their homogenized Disney happily-ever-after lives, but they felt so aggrieved by a little 7 year old child without a shirt that they felt it was okay to be assholes.
It cowed me back into shirts. I don’t know if anyone else even noticed, but I noticed, and I never stopped noticing.
More than those dads wanted the sex they oozed that afternoon, they wanted to push me back into line—the line being the script written from the womb for girls and women—and they succeeded. That was the exact moment that my defiance and grit drained out of my foot. The grit and defiance I have worked with limited success to get back.
I am here to say that however our bodies are displayed, whatever clothing we do or do not wear, ever, is nobody’s business. It does not invite salaciousness. It does not invite rape. It does not invite anything but respect as another mammal in this teetering world. Our bodies, and indeed our boobs, if we have them or we’ve chosen to have top surgery, if we are breastfeeding in public, if we’ve had breast cancer and lumpectomies or mastectomies or reconstructions without nipples, if we are tatted or scarred, are not yours—are never yours–to ogle and comment on.
Those 54 years ago, I caved. I put my shirt back on. And never took it off in public again, not even at Pride.
Tonight, at 61 years of age, I’m finally, in rage and defiance of the events this week that seek to tell us we can only be small and vulnerable and scared, not brave and huge and celebratory, am stripping it off.”
we sold corn from a card table at the end of the driveway
a man snapped out of his car like a measuring tape in a tie wrenched
from his neck top button undone sweat stains under his armpits
i refused to wear a shirt because it was unfair
he said, you sure you want to show off your knobs, girly?
i looked down at my knobs, across at my brother’s identical knobs
working out the difference
he said, you go to church yesterday, honey? did you pray for forgiveness?
he bought five ears, revved away but
another dad squealed in to take his place
long appreciative wolf whistle
exhibiting your titties today?
give you a dime to turn around and pull down your shorts
mister, i said, do you want corn?
he bought seven ears and tooled away in a caddy
a new man slid in, sweat beading his forehead
he said, what you sellin’, sweetheart? sure it’s corn on the cob?
i looked down at tassels ejecting from the ear so soft
said how many you want mister?
he said i want to shuck every last one hard and fast
his tongue came out pink and thick
like he needed a salt lick
i said 5 for 25 cents
green leaves and corn silk
dark yellow niblets
he grinned and leaned over, flicked my nipple
he said, i will give you 50 cents if you sit in my car
voice hollow my brother said, 25 cents mister, take them all
you can have them we don’t want them
he took the corn and he was gone, turquoise fins waving blue plumes laying rubber
you only get 5 cents said my brother cause you’re a girl
i get half i said
nu-uh he said
uh-huh i said i thought of how many wagon wheels i could get for half of seventy-five cents
which didn’t divide: eight
i thought of how many wagon wheels I could get with a nickel: one
he said just put on a shirt
How do you talk about your time spent with a treasured friend when you have the honour of living, for a time, in her childhood house–the first house she ever knew, having been only two when her family moved here to 64th Avenue in Vancouver? Five years later, Joy Kogawa’s family was forced out of the “zone of exclusion” and into the cattle barns at Hastings Park (the fair there was then called Happy Land) and then into rudimentary housing in the Slocan Valley.
Today Joy Kogawa and Historic Joy Kogawa House hosted an international group of Episopalian folks in town for a conference. Joy and I spent the morning together, as we spent an afternoon together earlier in the week, and then with Joan readied the house. Joy is spry and lifted the famous red chairs from the living room, setting them at the end of my bed in the room where her parents slept. About 15 people came. Joan showed the slideshows of Joy’s young life and explained the photography exhibits here at the house of Joy’s family going into internment, and to Alberta after the war (unlike in the US, Cdn JCs were not allowed west of the Rockies until 1949–were given the choice of repatriation to a country, Japan, most had not been born to or even touched their feet to, or moving east. I’m sure the government worried they would try to reclaim their stolen properties otherwise).
Joy found her childhood house again when it was for sale in 2003. It’s a convoluted story, but, so far, this old house coming up on its 100th birthday, still stands. The cherry tree planted when Joy was little still stands (or another one does in its stead … no one really knows), and speaks, as it has always spoken, to her heart.
Joy of course is famous around the world for her stunning accomplishments in fiction. She wrote the groundbreaking, masterful novel OBASAN, published in 1981, for which she became a member of the Order of Canada, and, later, the Order of BC and the Order of the Rising Sun from Japan. She followed OBASAN with an adapted children’s book, NAOMI’S ROAD, and then with a novel about the redress movement, ITSUKA.
I met Joy Kogawa when I volunteered to pick her up from the airport for an event she was doing with Betsy Warland for West Coast Women and Words. That night, her aged father was in the audience, and I felt honoured to meet him, too. I met him several other times at Joy’s place, and after his death, I housed his set of 1904 encyclopedias on top of my IKEA bookshelves in my dining room for nearly 20 years. Some time after Historic Joy Kogawa House was established as a historical monument, I donated the books back to the house–and they are here now, during my residency.
After ITSUKA, Joy wrote what I consider to be one of the best novels in the English language, and Joy’s masterwork, THE RAIN ASCENDS, about her pedophiliac father. We were long-term friends by the time Joy wrote this book, in part because I had invited her into my writing and artists’ group Sex, Death and Madness, which I had started earlier in the 90s with Sandy Shreve and Kate Braid. We didn’t workshop in our group, but rather scheduled monthly discussions on issues writers and visual artists faced: grant proposal writing, jealousy, awards, writers’ block, archives, death and so on, rotating members’ places. We moved our meetings from houses to artist studios to studio apartments, all over this city, and even into Burnaby.
Creativity was as vital to all of us as food.
It is a coincidental twist of fate that I am working on my novel about the Japanese Canadian internment while the writer-in-residency at Historic Joy Kogawa House. For many many years I refused to come to this house, because of Joy’s father, but when Tom Cho and Jackie Wykes took over as writers-in-residency here, I met them through commuity channels. Having queers-in-residency really gave me a boost to get over myself. I write every day and it’s quite often a bashing-of-the-head-against-the-wall process, so learning that Tom and Jackie were hosting Shut Up and Write sessions here once a week sealed the deal. The sessions became critical to me over the many months they were here establishing themselves as immigrants in Canada.
But of course, there was still Joy’s dad, and the horrible legacy of the damage he did as a pedophiliac priest. Sexual harm runs deep in my family veins. I didn’t know how to wrestle with what I felt. I felt as a writer feels: that the house is a vital, vibrant place to celebrate the arts. For young writers to be able to write in a house that holds the desk on which OBASAN was written, and over which Joy’s sweet generous tutelage seems to reside, is both an honour and magical. I felt as an activist and archivist feels: the house is a critical museum for a shameful but important historical time in Canada’s past–and an object lesson to never repeat our racist mistakes. But I felt as a survivor feels, too: triggered. Sorry for the victims’ families because I know the loathesome tendrils of such abuse and how it reaches down through generations carrying its unholy gifts. I have spent a lot of time trying to imagine the actual scenarios of this abuse … how he made his connections to the kids, where he took them, what their experiences there were. I have soaked myself in their confusion and pain and dential and disclosure. Sorry that on top of the racist burdens for them as disenfranchised Japanese Canadians, so many of them fell prey to a child abuser.
This causes me to grapple with my life’s central work: how to hold Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde as one unified person in your arms and heart at once. How to reconcile opposites. People know I have been asking this question about artists (Gauguin, who battered his wife and probably cut van Gogh’s ear off in a lovers’ spat and whose behaviour with underage girls in Tahiti was more than questionable), Picasso (a heel to women), Sheile (possibly a child rapist), Modigliani (a roué). How can I stand in front of their work and be moved to tears while knowing how much damage they wrought to their loved ones’ lives? It is the question I ask for my personal life, too. When the people I loved for being vital, loving, generative, intelligent, funny, warm and generous also turn out to have punitive, punishing, and even battering other sides, what am I supposed to do? I can’t compartmentalize the different aspects of them. I haven’t been able to unify them. What are my choices?
This itself becomes battery again, but inside my skull, this question bashing itself from side to side, crashing into bone that doesn’t give an inch to help answer it.
One of the many things I love about Joy Kogawa is that she asks these important questions about her imperfect but yet perfectly loving father, as she does about everything–perhaps the mark of a genius. Hers is an encompassing heart. She is not able to cast the man who spent his life committed to good works, who fathered brilliantly, aside with the rapist. Rather, she works to bring the rapist back to the fold.
Luckily for all of us, she does this with prose that is more beautiful than I can contain. I read part of THE RAIN ASCENDS again this winter as I launched back into my novel revisions just to sit with prose that it so stunningly written.
A few members of the JC community have turned against Joy Kogawa. Someone demands that Historic Joy Kogawa House be torn down. Joy has been shunned by some people. At this point, for a decade.
Quite like a queer.
I’ve been shunned since I was a bald little six-year-old suffering from alopecia. Shunning is one of the most effective punishments that people mete out to each other, but it’s murderous to be the recipient of.
Victims’ families and their supporters are not wrong to seek solace and redress in any way they see fit, but I’m not sure razing this house I live in this June would solve anything or give them resolution. And, it would tear down a monument that has multiple levels of importance to multiple communities, and in doing that, deny those communities sustenance.
One thing I do know for sure: it’s certainly not fair to visit the father’s sins on the daughter, or to ask her to be less than fully human in her exploration of this complicated, multi-faceted man. Which is one of the reasons why THE RAIN ASCENDS is such a gobsmacking book. Joy works through grief, pain and anger and arrives where I have not been able to dock and perhaps am not wise enough even to seek to go: at forgiveness and reconciliation.
This week was a brutal week for my queer commuity after Orlando. I’ve written elsewhere about why this was so. Every day I was filled with increasing unease as my grief and rage collided, and, finally, by Thursday, a disabling anxiety. But then I thought that I needed to go and hug Joy’s cherry tree, and when I did, when I took off my shoes and felt the loam beneath my feet, and put my cheek against the bark of the tree and felt its thrum–they thrum, trees–and tried to take its quintessential strength into me, I understood that what I had been feeling was partly anxiety, but it was mostly fear. Fear that it was going to be open season on queers now. Fear for the US (and, by geographical extention, Canada). Fear for our toppling, increasingly cruel world. Fear for every one of my queer friends parenting young children. Fear for every young child who has to grow up seeing slaughter.
Today, Joy took us down into the yard and began to talk about the cherry tree that grows just beyond the fence. All June here, I’ve been watching birds, mostly crows and starlings, eating the ripe berries from its boughs. It was not an important tree to Joy’s dad, but it was and is a critical tree to Joy, a tree that brought her heart delight and gladness, and still heals her from the yet enormous generational pains of the internment and reactions to her writing and openness.
Sometimes, knowing Joy’s voluable pain, I do ask, I do ask: Isn’t that pain enough for you, that she suffers so? And then: Why isn’t her agony, apology and sorrow enough for you?
And I ask: Don’t Japanese Canadians deserve to have this one original property of theirs returned to them in perpetuity? To have it safe in perpetuity from real estate predation? And retaliation for a dead man’s crimes?
And I ask. Canada has saved so few writers’ houses. Scarcely any of the standing ones are the houses where female authors grew up. This is one. This one stands. And Joy Kogawa is a lion of prose. Shouldn’t we fight for that?
All the weeks I’ve been here, I’ve been having the communication with crows. At first, they flew cawing past my window every 5 a.m., waking me, and cawed miserably every time I or my cat went near the porch. They were guarding a nest, and fiercely. Finally I decided I needed to have a talk with them. I asked them if they might consider silence in trade for a bit of kibble. Yes, they said, they would. And did. I gave them kibble two days running until they were comfortable sitting right on the ledge while I was reading. I didn’t want to create a worse problem for neighbours, so I knocked off the feeding at that point and made it just here and there. But the crows still came, closer and closer. One day I noticed a third bird that stayed up on the telephone pole, a little shaky and aloof, and it turned out that they had brought their fledgling for a visit.
Joy is very articulate. If you are ever lucky enough to hear her speak, jump. She talked to us about how when she came across her childhood home again after so many years away from it and found it still, somehow, in this city of home destruction, still standing, she wasn’t attracted to the house as much as the tree.
I came to it,” Joy said, “and I want to tell you what happened. … I put my right hand on it … and when I did that, there was some heat that went down my arm. It was very distinct. I never forgot that. After that, I just had this sense that there was a knowing, there was a presence, and I knew at that moment that everything was known. Everything about my family, everything that we have done, everything that was done to us, everything about our community, it was all known. Knowing is loving. When you don’t know something, you can not love it, but when you really really know, then you love. Later I was thinking that this is holy ground for me. It is where I experience the love of God.
“I have acknowledged the truth. I can’t stand the hatred that I feel. It’s a hatred against evil, but I don’t think that cutting down a tree gets rid of evil. [My] message is that we are people who believe in the triumph of love.”
Partway through Joy’s moving talk at the trunk of her cherry tree, I looked up to a tiny caw–mother crow had been there the whole time, listening and ruminating.
When I talk to people about social justice, I tell them that love is not enough. Love must be paired with action.
Bravely, Joy Kogawa has paired love with a lifetime of action in the redress movement and in her long, wise, astute, loving literary gifts to us.
Please read her. Read OBASAN to discover what happened to Japanese Canadians in WWII. And ITSUKA if you don’t know about the redress movement in Canada. But read THE RAIN ASCENDS because it is briliant and to find out what happens to a daughter’s heart when an elderly father admits to being a pedophile. A more moving and meaningful action than this book I cannot imagine, though in September Joy’s new book, GENTLY TO NAGASAKI, releases.
Meantime, I continue to work on SNOW, my novel about child abuse that expands my short story THE LOST BOY. I am working on the fourth draft here at Historic Joy Kogawa House.
Today it was Father’s Day. My father, who committed suicide when I was eighteen, was on my mind. Joy’s father was on both our minds. Sexual assault was on our minds. The aftermath of trauma was on our minds. The slaughter in Orlando was on our minds as we contemplated the children left fatherless, the fathers left childless.
I will still go sleep in this pedophile’s bedroom tonight with my new novel about the avalanche that is love between a mother and daughter almost finished on my computer beside me.
But I will go to sleep in this pedophile’s bedroom knowing my heart can hold room for his good acts, too, beside his bad, the whole aching complication of him made one, thinking about how he doubt rested his head in this room tormented and conflicted by his own urges, and I will contemplate Joy’s life’s work with forgiveness and reconciliation, for I also have much to forgive and reconcile in my life. I will know that while I think of him, and the woman who battered me, my heart will brim with thanks and well wishes for Joy, this wonderful, cherished daughter and mother whom I cherish for her friendship and her acute questing mind, but mostly for her ever-expansive heart.
Waiting for the Albatross, Sandy Shreve
An Interview with Sandy Shreve, by Jane Eaton Hamilton
J: Congratulations on your new poetry collection “Waiting for the Albatross.” The book consists of found poems from bits of your father’s diary while he was a deck hand on a freighter in 1936. What was your impetus for writing “Waiting for the Albatross?” What can you tell us about the process of bringing these poems to life and this book to print?
S: The first thing that comes to mind is that it was a very long process. I had this diary of my Dad’s and after I first read it in 1993 I knew I wanted to get it into print somehow. My first attempt was to approach a publisher with excerpts from the diary. They asked to see the whole thing, but for various personal reasons I had to set that project aside. By the time I was able to get back to it, nearly 20 years later, the publishing world had changed and interest in publishing diaries had waned. On the bright side though, by then I’d been given some photo albums of my Dad’s, and it turned out they included all his pictures from his 1936 trip.
I decided to see if I could create a dialogue between my father (who died when I was 14) and me by keeping a diary over the same five-month period as he kept his, but 75 years later. So on Feb. 11, 2011, I dove in. For a bunch of reasons the conversation I was hoping to create didn’t materialize, but I kept on with my diary anyway. Unlike my Dad, I’m not much of a diarist, but staying with it brought me closer to his stories and experiences. Each day I wrote, I also researched the references in his diary for that day in 1936: seafaring terms, shipping terms, geography, depression-era tidbits like the origins of paperbacks and stamp collecting, tourist attractions and restaurants and movies the crew went to while ashore in various ports, and so on. What I wound up with was an extensively annotated version of Dad’s diary, along with the photos from his trip. After getting feedback from a couple of friends who are also very good editors, I acknowledged that to interest a publisher in the work I would need to expand what I had into a history of the Canadian merchant marine. But much as I enjoy reading non-fiction, it isn’t a genre I want to write. Another editor and friend suggested using the material to develop a young adult novel about a teen stumbling across the diary and, in reading it, coming to terms with her father’s death. I love that idea and were I a novelist I would no doubt give it a go. In the end I decided that what I had done was something that would interest my family, so I added various anecdotes and photos from Dad’s life after 1936, printed it up and sent it out to them.
From the start of that prose project, I had the idea that it would be fun to open each chapter with a found poem I’d write using words and phrases from that section of Dad’s diary. At first my attempts were dire failures. When I told a friend I was abandoning the idea, her instant response was to urge me to keep at it. The next day I decided to give it one more try, came up with a new approach, and to my surprise the poems began to flow. In a few weeks I had 11 poems I could use as chapter headings so I included them in what I gave my family. I thought that was the end of it … but a few months later more poems came knocking at my door. By the time I finished writing those I had another 11. So I made a little chapbook for friends and family who’d supported me in various ways while I struggled with this project. I thought that was definitely the end of it… until some months later I found myself writing yet more poems. So I put those and the earlier ones together with my favourite photos from Dad’s trip, several prose vignettes taken word for word from his diary, and all the relevant annotations I’d done for the prose project – and sent the whole thing off to Randal Macnair at Oolichan. That was a stroke of luck, actually, as he’d told me when I met him at Word on the Street in Vancouver (now called Word Vancouver) that he was interested in publishing books combining poems and photographs and invited me to send him mine. He accepted the manuscript and a couple of years later – his press turned it into a beautiful book.
J: As a poet, you’ve been associated with the labour movement; you edited “Working for a Living”, a special double-issue of Room of One’s Own in 1988; can you tell us how this interest in labour is elucidated in your poetry?
S: In the early 1970s I closely followed what was then the new work-writing movement. Tom Wayman, Helen Potrebenko and others were big influences. A few years later when I decided to give my own writing some serious attention, the first-person world of work and union issues were the subject matter that got me started. Later on, I edited “Working for a Living” (the special issue of Room you mentioned) because I wanted to give more space to women’s work.
When my first book came out a couple of years later, about one-third of the poems had to do with clerical / secretarial work. That theme carried over to a number of poems in my next book, but after that I didn’t return to work-writing until “Waiting for the Albatross”. So in my own writing I’ve gone from contemporary & primarily female workplaces to a 1936 working environment that was entirely male. In both cases the jobs I’ve written about are at or near the bottom of the hierarchy they are part of. As such, the work and those who do it are usually underappreciated, even demeaned. I wanted to show what it’s like to be the people doing the work under those conditions.
J: You are the author of 4 previous collections. In them, we see a slow easing into form; what snagged your interest about form poetry?
S: In the late 1980s, when I was in the Vancouver Industrial Writers Union, Kirsten Emmott brought a pantoum she’d written to one of our meetings. That was my introduction to a whole new world of forms. Until then, I was aware of English and Italian sonnets, stanza poems, haiku… but not a lot else. (Like most people I was familiar with a few poems written in other forms but I’d never given a thought to what those forms were. I’m thinking, for example, of John McCrae’s rondeau, “In Flanders Fields” and Dylan Thomas’ villanelle, “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night”.) A couple of years later, I ran across a palindrome by Gudrun Wight in a chapbook published by some Pender Island poets. What hooked me in both these forms was their use of repetition – it became a fascinating and challenging device for my poetry toolbox. So I started looking for more forms featuring repetition. I found lots – triolets, sestinas, sonnet coronas, terzanelles…
This latest book is written almost entirely in forms that feature repetition. I did that intentionally, letting the various forms act as a kind of metaphor for the repetitive routines that dominate life on a freighter.
J: Your second book, Bewildered Rituals, with a Claire Kujundzic cover, was followed by Belonging and Suddenly, So Much. How did each title deepen your poetic experience?
S: I’m not entirely sure anything I might say about this could accurately track what happened, and when, in this regard. So much seems to percolate away somewhere in the subconscious. Certainly with each book I’ve learned more of the craft – discovering various poetic devices and how they work so I can better use them, tweak them, even ignore them. My early poems were often anecdotal and focused on stories whereas later on I became more interested in, as Emily Dickinson would say, writing things “slant”; not to be obscure, but to allow for more ambiguity – which I think is one way we can approach complexity. I talked a bit about this process with respect to my poem “Crows” in a guest blog [insert link: http://ooligan.pdx.edu/sandy-shreve-guest-poet-post/%5D a few years ago. When I wrote that poem (which is in Suddenly, So Much) and, earlier, my poem “Leaving” (in Belonging) I quite consciously made a shift away from direct story and toward suggestion. With both, I began to figure out how to move past anecdote and into something perhaps a bit deeper. Which is not to say I never wrote another anecdotal poem – just that I learned how to do more than that. I think – hope – this kind of learning must be an ongoing process. In large part it’s what keeps writing interesting and challenging for me.
What hasn’t changed a lot for me is subject matter. Whether I’m writing about the historical or the contemporary, I continue to be interested in the everyday, the lives led by so-called ordinary people. And small-p politics: matters of ethics and justice. And nature – always, nature.
J: You started BC’s Poetry in Transit program in the 90s, a program that has made many poets and transit riders very happy. It’s a wonderful legacy that’s been recognized recently with a location on Alan Twigg’s Literary Map of BC [insert link: http://www.literarymapofbc.ca/]. What can you tell us about this project?
S: First of all, I’m deeply honoured and pleased about being included on that map. And I am especially proud that – unlike most (maybe all) other similar programs, BC’s is province-wide, rather than limited to just one major urban area. I’m also proud that ours has continued for so long. Really there are two reasons for its longevity. First is its popularity. People still come up and thank me for it – and not just the poets. People who use transit love to have something of substance to read instead of ads. There are lots of stories people tell about finding and reading the poems. One of my all-time favourites is a comment from a woman who said she knows a poem she saw on the bus by heart because she “wrote it down and memorized every word of it.” Another is one about two people who met by discussing one of the poems on a bus… and wound up marrying.
Equally important is the role of the co-sponsors. From the beginning, Margaret Reynolds brought the Association of BC Book Publishers on board (pardon the pun…) as a co-sponsor. And after the first three years when I decided it was time to pass the torch, Margaret and the other staff at the association enthusiastically took over administration of the project and have kept it going all these years. And of course we wouldn’t have the program at all without the ongoing support from BC Transit and Translink. I’d love it if more people would take a moment to let them all know how much having the poems on transit means to them. I think that is key to ensuring the program keeps going.
Anyone who’d like more information about the origins of and responses to Poetry in Transit can check out Fiona Lam’s 2010 article on it in The Tyee – recently re-published on the Brick Books Celebration of Canadian Poetry page (scroll down to #65). [insert link: http://www.brickbooks.ca/category/news/celebrate-canadian-poetry/%5D
J: You are the editor, with poet Kate Braid, of In Fine Form: The Canadian Book of Form Poetry. When you started to explore form poetry for this book, were you surprised by what you found? Is form poetry alive and well in Canada?
S: I wasn’t at all surprised that we found a great many very good form poems from the 1800s and early- to mid-1900s. Or even that a lot of contemporary Canadian poets were still including some form poems in their books. But I was surprised by the large number we received in response to our very limited call for submissions for the first edition. And I was pleasantly surprised by how creatively all Canadian poets – historically and today – approach traditional forms. Most are playful and willing to experiment with the rules to come up with wonderful variations.
Kate and I have just finished a second edition under a slightly revised title: In Fine Form – A Contemporary Look at Canadian Form Poetry. It’s due out this fall with Caitlin Press [insert link: http://caitlin-press.com/]. We’d both been gathering form poems for the past decade and by the time we were ready to start work on this edition we had plenty. Enough that we didn’t put out a call for submissions this time around (though for some new sections, like spoken word, we did ask key people in the field to point us toward poets and poems we should consider). So I’d say form continues to be alive and well in this country.
We’re very excited about this new edition. As I said, it includes a section on spoken word, but there are other new sections, too – found poetry, prose poems, pas de deux and doublets… And this time around we even have a couple of children’s poems. We’ve also added poets and poems to bring the anthology up to date. But as always with anthologies, limited space meant we had to make a lot of painful decisions. We had to take out some of the poems that were in the first edition to make room for the new ones. And we had far more excellent new poems than we could possibly add in. Making these kinds of choices is always really hard.
J: I was thinking recently of Sex, Death and Madness, the group you and I founded with Kate Braid in the early 90s. We had a unique focus, in that instead of workshopping, we only discussed problems, issues and successes within our artistic communities, one month discussing, say, jealousy, and another our artistic legacies. Can you tell readers about this group? Who were the group members?
S: This seems like a question I should be putting to you, since, as I recall, you were the one with idea for the group. I remember we were at a Polestar Press party in the very early 90s. I think that’s where we first met, isn’t it? Anyway, we were talking about this and that, and then you said you wished there were someplace where women artists could talk about being artists. Not to workshop what they were doing, but to support each other in doing it. Kate joined our discussion at some point and said Claire Kujundzic knew a lot about co-counselling, that maybe it would be useful to look into that. So Kate got some information about it and the three of us went to a session run by a woman whose name I forget. But after, when we went for tea to debrief, it turned out it wasn’t quite what any of us wanted. Except it gave us some of the listening tools that we brought to the group we wound up forming. I wrote a brief history about us for ABC BookWorld [insert link: http://www.abcbookworld.com/view_essay.php?id=101%5D which talks about this in more detail.
At first there were just five members – we three along with Claire and Christine Hayvice. Together we decided to invite more women, so very soon Cynthia Flood, Joy Kogawa and Sheila Norgate joined us. Later on, Carmen Rodriguez, Margaret Hollingsworth, Bonnie Klein and Thuong Vuong-Riddick joined the group; then after that, Kath Curran and Tana Runyan.
Was it Joy who came up with our name? It seems to me she was the one who, at the end of one particularly free-wheeling discussion, commented that we’d covered it all: sex, death and madness. We’d been thinking for awhile that we wanted to give our group a name. After that comment, someone – I can’t recall who, can you? – suggested that’s what we should call ourselves. Everyone laughed; then we looked around at each other and I think we all thought, well, why not? So we did.
NB: I remember someone said it at Sheila Norgate’s studio on the corner of Abbott and Pender—and it may well have been Joy. I don’t remember who suggested taking it up, though. A photo collage that I made for Joy at that time is now hanging at Historic Kogawa House, so SDM lingers on with a photo on Kate’s back steps in Burnaby. –Jane Eaton Hamilton
More of the Just
The mother who comforts the tearful child who bloodied her son’s nose.
The estranged friends who get over it.
The citizens of warring countries who refuse to take up arms.
The flash mob dancers.
The driver who screeches to a halt in the crosswalk and blanches.
The estranged friend who calls first and the one who gladly answers.
The teenager who shovels her elderly neighbour’s driveway, anonymously.
The publisher who chooses not to sell to the chains.
The driver who apologizes to the children he just missed.
The ham radio operator who keeps the Morse Code alive.
The husband who reads poetry to his ailing wife.
The publisher who sells, instead, to the staff and the staff, who form a co-op.
The sand artists.
The ones who walk down city streets smiling at strangers.
The husband who doesn’t get the poems, but reads them anyway, beautifully.
The father who teaches the winter sky to his neighbour’s kids.
The mother who comforts her bloodied son without laying blame.
The ones who stop and talk with street people.
The citizens of countries at war who march arm in arm for peace.
after Steven Heighton’s “Some Other Just Ones” and Jorge Luis Borge’s “The Just”
A note about “More of the Just”
Steven Heighton issued a challenge of sorts to poets at a Vancouver reading in February 2011. He was promoting his two latest books – Every Lost Country (a novel) and Patient Frame (poetry). Introducing “Some Other Just Ones”, he explained that it was his response to Jorge Luis Borges’ poem “The Just”, in which Borges portrays a few ordinary people doing ordinary things and ends with the line “These people, without knowing it, are saving the world” (Heighton’s translation). Heighton casually remarked that he assumed all poets would probably want to add to what Borges started. When I got home that night, I re-read both poems and began to think about how I might contribute to the conversation.
Both Borges and Heighton wrote list poems, so I wanted to do the same – but rather than use free verse as they did, I decided on a terzanelle. Using (and slightly tweaking) the line repetition feature of this form, I could introduce some characters in one stanza, then revisit them later. Other characters would be interspersed throughout, appearing just once in the unrepeated lines. My hope is that the form helps create a sense of movement, an ongoing goodness.
The Sick Boy
Jane Eaton Hamilton
from Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes, 2014
The spot inside the sick boy’s brain was
invisible, it burrowed there pale as a tuber,
stubborn and engorged. His hair lifted
from his scalp like angel fuzz; his eyes
gleamed and struck us. Dumb and
wanting, we watched him teeter to the lip of the
nest, his skin traced blue with veins. Fledgling,
we thought, and gathered our children closer, under
shivering arms. The sick boy wanted Christmas
cards and he got thousands, maybe millions,
a Guiness record in any case, cards enough
to fill warehouses, from everywhere
in the world. There was his father, his mother,
his sister and brother, and there were all those cards,
and there was his brain cancer, growing like
a nightmare’s garden, spreading like a bleach spot
into September and death. We almost
knew something dangerous that glowed
the way an umbilicus will; we almost
saw reflections of silver in the mirror, but then
we didn’t. We only saw ourselves, lustrous
as poster paints, our terrible good luck.
Jane Eaton Hamilton; photo: Jen McFarlane
The Vancouver Sun ran this pic of me in Paris in conjuntion with Zoe Grams’ and Megan Jones‘ recommendation of the anthology This Place a Stranger: Canadian Women Traveling Alone (Caitlin Press). Thanks, Vancouver Sun!
l-r: Jen Pastiloff, Jane Eaton Hamilton
There’s something I can’t get off my mind; it’s been nagging.
A couple months ago, Jen Pastiloff came to town. She’s the wunderkind behind the online home for great essays, Manifest Station, and a yoga/writing workshop phenom. I first came to know Jen through her site when she published my essay about Paris, ‘Things That Didn’t Happen,’ which now appears in the Caitlin Press anthology This Place a Stranger, about women traveling solo.
All this is a long-winded introduction to the fact that Jen asked me to attend her yoga workshop here in Vancouver, BC, when she came to town earlier this year at Semperviva Yoga, and, reluctantly, I went. (Jen knew getting me out of my house was like pulling teeth, but she kept at me.) Despite a background in dance, I’ve never been a yoga enthusiast, and I’m also an atheist, and morbidly shy, and the whole spiritual thing makes me roll my eyes. I slid down the wall at the back of the room, gamely played along to the limits of my creaky old body, and kept my eyes and ears open.
And, folks, a bunch of things happened.
She calls the workshop, after all, “On Being Human.”
But the transformative thing, the thing that hasn’t gone away, was this:
Women are hurting.
I’ve started this post several times and dependably backed away because I don’t know how to talk about this.
Folks, these were not my people. I’m a wanna-be-butch dyke who has always wavered in my gender identity, and I’m old and my body is utterly broken, and the attendees were straight women mostly in their 30s who had maybe tried for:
Meet the guy of your dreams, have 1.6 children and a dog. Live happily ever after.
And somehow nobody told them the whole freaking enterprise was broken, and that when an enterprise is that broken, it breaks its participants as surely as if they were just sticks.
Crack, crack, crack.
Nobody had told them this, or they were so busy with the job and the kids and the hubby, so overworked and mega-stressed, that they had no time to hear. All they knew, really, before they landed at Jen’s workshop, was that they got a measure of peace from yoga, and otherwise, they were in trouble, and they were going down the tubes in a big fucking smear of shit.
They couldn’t save themselves. Anytime they tried, they felt overwhelmed and under-capable and completely lost. Anytime they tried, the drain just burped up more crap at them.
These were women living under seige.
Make no mistake: life with a career and young kids (why aren’t they born with volume knobs?) and aging parents and a sputtering relationship and financial problems and medical problems and indecision and no respite bites the big one.
Quiet desperation, which I define as even one fleeting thought about hurting yourself or your kiddos, bites the really big one. (As an aside, people may know that I decided to kill my children when they were 4 and 1, and wrote about it, and why I made that agonizing decision, and how I did not do it, but how I saved them from a molester instead, in my memoir ‘No More Hurt.’)
Women have always written about our dilemmas. Remember Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her “The Yellow Wallpaper”? Nothing here is new, but we’ve ramped it all up lately with the addition of technology and Super-Mothering. When a woman is under that kind of stress, when it feels like every goddamned new thing that happens is peeling off layers of her skin, it feels new. Bloody hell, does it feel new. And it feels like it’s gonna hurt someone.
It feels like someone’s gonna die.
That’s where Jen Pastiloff and her Beauty Hunting come in.
The workshop participants were there to tell Jen that their fairytale broke. They were there to tell Jen they were profoundly unhappy with their lives, and scared, and broken.
Now let me tell you what transformed me, and what I have not been able to forget or get over:
Women are hurting in huge numbers. Women at the apexes of their lives are in grave trouble.
It made me sad in a quintessential way and it has not stopped making me incredibly sad. Every time I hear that Jen is giving another workshop, I flash back to that crowd of 60-odd women in Vancouver speaking about grief and fear and loss, and I imagine more women in trouble, room after room full of more women in trouble.
(A message here for women-in-trouble. One or two things I know for sure, to plagiarize Dorothy Allison: It gets better. If you hurt like this now, it does not mean you will always hurt like this. It gets a whole lot better.)
Here’s the thing about Jen Pastiloff, folks. Here’s the revolutionary thing.
She listens with an intent focus, a focus that follows your words inside you. Because she has hearing problems, she watches your lips as you speak, and she plucks the ash of your words from the air and takes it inside herself and lays it beside her heart, where before too long your words start beating as if they were strong, capable, living mammals. And then she gives them back to you.
Boiled down, this is the secret to Jen’s popularity. She can call what she does Beauty Hunting–she is for sure out there helping people find beauty. She can start a campaign called “Don’t be an asshole” and remind us all to stop a second and please, please, please be our better selves. She can use words like attention, space, time, connection, intimacy. She can ask participants to answer questions like What gets in your way? What stories are you carrying around in your body? What makes you come alive? Who would you be if nobody told you who you were? All of that is what it is. But why it works is because of her kind of listening.
And what her kind of listening does is simple:
It saves lives.
Daily Xtra, Canada’s gay rag, has a look-see at three current lesbian books:
Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes, poems
100 Days of Rain, by Carellin Brooks, novel
For Your Own Good, by Leah Horlick, poems
Yummy. I knew about Leah’s book and have been looking forward to it, but I didn’t realize Carellin had a novel. Can’t wait to read them.
I was delighted to be introduced to Arleen Paré this fall when we read together at Russelll Books in Victoria; we had been writing together for some time in what we call the Electronic Garrett, which is in its own way a call and response, only this time between some of Canada’s finest poets (and me), plus I had asked to interview her for Brick Books. It was a very busy time in Arleen’s life, that day we read, because, that morning, she had just discovered that she was a finalist for the GG. People will know by now that she won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry this year, and I was stoked that I was invited to the ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa, where the kick-ass Kitty Lewis beautifully introduced Arleen and her book “Lake of Two Mountains.”
I interviewed Arleen for Brick Books, where we are both authors.
Arleen Paré is a poet and novelist, author of two previous books including ‘Leaving Now,’ 2012 from Caitlin Press. Originally from Montreal, she lived for many years in Vancouver, where she worked as a social worker and administrator to provide community housing for people with mental illnesses. She now lives in Victoria with her partner, Chris Fox.
Her award-winning title is poems for a lake where she spent her childhood summers.
1. I asked you if you’d mind choosing the poem you wanted to discuss because I think poets sometimes answer questions about poems they are finished with or don’t maintain interest in. Why did you choose this poem, and what about it interests, or still interests you?
‘Call and Response’ represents the heart of Lake of Two Mountains. In the same way that nature uses a loop system to maintain itself and in ways that humans can only guess at or research, nothing that’s always apparent, I wanted this collection of poems to speak to each other in order to build on itself. I wanted to write about this system of interdependencies, how humans too are woven into the loops. But I also wanted to evoke the rhetorical and religious methodologies of call and response, for instance, in the Catholic mass, so that the tone of the collection could take on some sense of the sacred, which then reflects the monastic life. It also is suggestive of the way memory operates, memories and our responses to them.
2.Your book is about the Lake of Two Mountains. Do you remember composing Call and Response in particular? What did you want to say about the topography of the area?
I wanted to show this topography so that the reader could imagine the lake and its environments more easily, graphically, calling out the names of the trees, for instance, the lake`s fauna, geology, the geographic origins of the lake, to pull the lake into the whole of central Canada.
3. If geography can have a call and response, as you imagine here, does it have a sensate purpose? Is it just a cellular celebration (as it were), or, perhaps, can it alter the globe?
I can only imagine these answers. Does it have a sensate purpose? It does allow the cycle of life to spin through and on, but what kind of sensate does a maple tree include? I don’t know. I know that the leaves of some trees curl up when rubbed, but that’s not what a maple tree does. On the other hand, I think any alteration in a single natural loop system could possibly alter more than its own loop, so perhaps, it could escalate to alter the globe. Perhaps.
4. Does the call and response ever see beyond itself? Does it ever include panic at environmental degradation, if not within its self-ascribed borders, but in a wider way? If it talks to sturgeon and green frogs, does it converse, too, with humans?
In the way that butterflies, honey bees, frogs tell us that something is very wrong by the dwindling of their numbers over time, I suppose we can imagine the flora and fauna conversing with us, warning us in this case. In Call and Response, the human/arboreal exchange is limited to the human act of tapping into bark producing maple syrup.
5. Is there anything else you wanted to say about this particular poem, Arleen?
I wrote this poem using a governmental survey of the Lake of Two Mountains region. It was dated and spare. I craved more information; I couldn’t find sufficient geographical information about the lake. I felt hamstrung because I don’t speak French well enough to know whether more and/or better information is available about this area in French. I now know there is, though I’m not sure more information would have altered or improved the poem. In the end, the form of the poem, the call and response structure, determined its purpose and end.
Call and Response
by Arleen Paré
The Canadian Shield calls to the
in Timiskaming Lake. The Shield shelters
more than half the land. The , tectonic,
replies with the Ottawa River, whose waters run east
and spread at the place of two mountains.
Becoming lake. In this way the lake is of lake,
song of song, Deux-Montagnes out of Timiskaming.
The lake there, at the two mountains, calls
to the trees near and around, riparian trees
on rocky shores and the terrestrials
within two miles of the shore. Perpetual loop.
One verse then the other. Connecting
trees to the sand, the orthic, melanic, soil,
tree canopies, consolations of climate.
The way birds in the morning define the new day,
call sunrise from night.
The trees call to each other their own
names: sugar maple, hickory, eastern white pine.
Black willow chants the alphabets of green ash.
Yellow birch calls to red maple, chokecherry to beech.
They bear multiple names, formal, scientific,
common French and Mohawk.
And no names at all. Their calls
travel through air, water, through earth,
sedges and shrubs, algae
and cumulus clouds. All conversing.
Rocks and black leeches. Sturgeon, green frogs.
Limestone and vascular plants.
How does the sky
reply when silver-backed leaves tug at the
blocking the passage to sea?
Clouds ring with rain
and the lake lifts small pewter washes
in rows of applause.
What listens to sugar maples’ clear amber flow?
Rays: yellow and cold.
Fine beads of drizzle
hiss the filigreed ice.
What answers flood cover drowning hickory knees?
Clay or silt. Till or clay loam. Sap in the spring.
Sugar maple is always and in all places attentive,
alert for replies from the open terrain.
The soil, fine or sandy, alluvium,
measures the length of flood time in spring,
speaks a name to the climate,
the warmest in the whole province. Call
and response: a dominant tree,
sugar tree that humans can tap into.
I was posting somewhere about novels I’ve recently admired and enjoyed and thought I should list them here: The Enchanted, Rene Denfield; Alligator, Lisa Moore; Lullabies for Little Criminals, Heather O’Neill; The Flying Troutmans, Miriam Toews. Reliable for literary pleasures.
I’ve been reading Ethan Canin and David Leavitt this week in short form, geniuses both, along with Tessa Hadley’s new New Yorker story which I quite liked.
I finished the (first draft) of an essay for a collection on women traveling alone, wrote a piece after Robin Williams’ suicide about my father’s suicide in 1973 (a piece I have wanted to write for 40 years), then this Monday wrote a short fiction called “Castaways” about two women struggling to keep their love whole on an island off the east coast of Africa, and another called “The Bleaching Houses” about a young girl growing up in a town in Connecticut during the ivory trade of the early 1900s. At first I included a passage from Ulysses which fired my character’s imagination, only to remember somewhere along the way that Ulysses hadn’t been serialized yet in the Little Review, which meant that I had to either find an alternate passage that would work as well, or move the entire story to the 20s (not as booming a time for the ivory industry). I did the latter, but that meant deleting the World’s Fair in St Louis in 1914. I don’t know how historical writers like Emma Donoghue and Sarah Waters do this (well, of course they do it by researching ahead of time).
I love when I have no notion that I am about to write something, and then, hours/days later, there it is, a draft, a decent draft, a presence where there was not even, two days before, an absence. My work is almost always gratifying to me these days, and in that, I am fortunate.
I also saw the cover of my new fall poetry book “Love Will Burst into a Thousand Shapes” as it went off to the printer, and got to see how all the blurbs had come together–the design of the thing. Now I itch to hold it in my hands, but I will have to wait until October sometime. Caitlin Press rocks my world.