Tuesday, January 15, 2008
In Conversation: Kimmy Beach and Shawna Lemay
What follows is a conversation between myself and Kimmy Beach that took place over email mainly in the month of December, 2007.
I was rereading rob's informal discussion about geography and writing with K. I. Press, and he seems to have hit upon that great unanswerable question of writing in a particular location: "What does it mean to be an Alberta writer?" Put another way, Robert Kroetsch, in A Likely Story, says that he is "asking how the plains or the prairies enable us to recognize ourselves as writers [and] enable us to write" (73). Of course, in typical Kroetschian fashion, he does nothing to answer his own question, but leaves the answer (if there is one) to the reader.
I don't find myself spending a great deal of time thinking about what it means to be an Alberta writer, so this idea has got me thinking about place and my place in that place. I know, solidly, that I am from here, that I live here, and that I will always come back here. It has less to do with the landscape itself (though I love it), but with the people I want near me. The majority of the people I love are in Alberta, most accessible within a few hours drive. I love people in B.C., Saskatchewan, Ontario, Liverpool, London, China, and Cape Town, South Africa as well, but these people are not accessible, physically, in a way that my Alberta people are. If a place is defined by its people (and I believe that to be absolutely true), then Alberta, for me, is a composite of the people I love and need to have near me.
I spend a great deal of time traipsing through the park system of Red Deer. The parks run the length and breadth of our city: a wise and forward-thinking decision on the part of the city's founders, and there exists a complex network of nearly unspoiled wilderness areas connected through the city by a maze of concrete bike trails and foot paths. I know that this kind of park system exists in very few urban places on earth, and I'm protective and proud of it. That said, I feel as close to the trails north of St. Peter's Abbey in Muenster, Saskatchewan and know them just as well. Does it make me less of an Albertan because I love walking through the woods of Saskatchewan as well? I don't think so. I don't want to say that I'm part of the landscape of central Alberta (a home Kroetsch and I share, and, as he has pointed out, is parkland not prairie), as that sort of assertion invites all kinds of accusations of cliché. What I will say is that anytime I am away from Alberta, the sight of the Welcome to Alberta sign on whatever highway I'm on gives my heart a little thrill. Home! I can't explain the province's hold on me other than to say that when I'm away, I miss it (no matter how exotic a place I find myself in), and when I'm here, I am home. I am careful to point out to people who find Alberta less than desirable (usually people not from here), that it's kind of rude and Grade 4 to make fun of other people's stuff and that I wouldn't do the same to them. Sometimes we end up playing on opposite sides of the sandbox, but I'll stick up for Alberta any old time. Anyone from away who wastes my valuable time telling me everything that's wrong with Alberta doesn't get to come to my birthday party anyway.
Is it possible to be a writer and an Albertan, but not to identify as an Alberta Writer primarily in one's work? I think so. My second and fourth books are set in Alberta for the most part, but my first doesn't mention my home province at all, and my third exists mainly in the U.K. of the past. I do not spend time writing about things that are particularly "Albertan." My concerns in my work are my characters and the (mostly indoor) experiences they have. I have attempted, in my career, not to fall into the regionalism that rob and Karen talk about in their informal discussion. My books strive to have a wider appeal than the idea of "Alberta." That concern is not motivated by potential book sales outside of my region, but by a desire to look at my characters as people who can exist outside of a particular "place".
I wonder if it's important as some think it is to have this discussion at all. As a person, I identify as Albertan, through and through, but I do most of my writing in central Saskatchewan, and my books are published in Winnipeg. I don't identify in any way as a Winnipeg writer, as I've maybe spent two weeks there in my entire life. I also don't see myself as a Saskatchewan writer, though I spend months there every year generating new work. I love Saskatchewan, but I'm always anxious to get home to Alberta. No matter where I write (Saskatchewan, Greece, Liverpool, Grande Cache), I write from the Alberta in me: the Alberta into which I was born. Do we not take our home with us when we travel, when we write elsewhere?
I couldn't agree more, that it's possible to be a writer and live in Alberta, and not self-identify as an Alberta Writer. I also know that this line of thinking isn't popular in every quarter. This was evident to me when reviews of Against Paradise came out. Amid generally positive reviews, there was the one by someone thought of as a Quintessential Alberta Writer, who was not willing to travel, shall we say. I could be wrong but it seemed to me that the subtext of his dislike for the book was that he'd have to know something about Venice, somewhere other than where he very firmly was. (He was also angry that the cover was beautifully designed and didn't have a mountain scene or wheat field on it I have a feeling). Some days I think maybe it's a precarious place to be writing from, Alberta. My first two books were published in the east - Montreal and Toronto. I was treated like gold by my publishers - can't speak highly enough of them. And maybe I'm imagining things but I did feel some tiny bits of resentment (yes, I'm sure I'm imagining that) at the time from some of the writing community back home - though certainly not from my friends. Maybe I mention all this precariousness, or seeming precariousness, because I haven't figured out my place in the Alberta writing scene, or if I even have one, though this is mostly because I'm first and foremost an apprentice recluse.
While my first two books were about things, and places, works of art, that were usually outside Alberta - I came to them from the point of view of looking from outside the so-called center. My last book of poetry, which exists only as a bound M.A. thesis, Red Velvet Forest, is completely informed by the landscape of my childhood and also my current landscape. I wandered the forest on our farm near Lake Isle quite constantly as a child, and that is the home in my heart, my soul-home, if you will. Today I live on a house near a major highway. So noisy! Out my study window I can see the utilities corridor, and I walk out there nearly every day. It's a remnant forest, a residue, a faint echo of my childhood landscape. There are a few stands of trees, the half wild, half planted field with foot paths through where people walk their dogs. It's a pretty interesting place. There's a duck pond, and some brush where grouse hide out. There used to be rabbits, but the coyotes feasted on them. Walking, one has to keep an eye out for the coyotes, because they're hungry, mangy looking, trapped feeling and will stalk.
For me, Kristjana Gunnar's essay, "Poetry and the Idea of Home" captures my feelings on finding a place in the world as a writer. She says, "Home is a 'mystery' that exists inside the poet's sense of longing." Maybe when I have written about art or the forest, I am mainly tracing my sense of longing, both for the forest of my childhood, that wildness, and also for the great museums of Europe, and particularly Italy. But more important than a place, I find it essential to be alone and silent, and to connect with writing that comes from a similar stance. Gunnars quotes Merton: "It is necessary to be alone, to be not part of this, to be in the exile of silence, to be in a manner of speaking a political prisoner." Is it possible to have lived in Alberta all of one's life, as I have, and to relate to it as a chosen exile of silence? Maybe it's possible to say this only because I exist in a position of privilege that I can more or less take for granted?
I ran into the same thing you describe regarding reviews with narrow outlooks with my third book, fake Paul. It seemed to me that while most reviewers "got it", a couple were put off by the decidedly "away" tone of the book. I pride myself on my research for my books, and I believe that it's necessary to travel (whether through books, videos, or actually going) to the place about which one is writing. For that book, I went back to Liverpool for a week, having not been there for five years. I'd been there several times in my life, but never for the purposes of collecting infomation about what the Bold street market smells like, and how the benches on the Mersey Ferry feel on a rainy day. Those kinds of details are very important to my work, and I am so meticulous in order to make my reader feel okay and still feel like reading the book even if they have never travelled to Liverpool. Perhaps I escaped your critic's cover issues, as the cover of that book featured a man from Alberta, though he resembles Paul McCartney quite uncannily.
I understand the precariousness you describe, although I don't feel that it applies to me. Though all of my books are published in Winnipeg, I don't sense any resentment from the local community because of it. I think it has partly to do with the fact that my publisher supports my Alberta activities. They send me hither and yon, they're always up for tossing a few bucks my way for wine at a Red Deer launch, and they never fail to send cards of support. I suppose that I have figured out where I belong on the writing landscape, and that's in the Alberta that's in me, as I mentioned in my earlier note.
Where you say you are an "apprentice recluse", my M.O. is community getting-out-there-ness and trying to raise the profile of the writing scene in my town. Though it's already very vibrant (we've had everyone from Michael Ondaatje to John Lent to Robert Kroetsch come through our city), every writing scene needs work and a higher profile. I'm fiercely protective of my town and how it fits into the centre of the province, and I work very hard to ensure that people speak of Red Deer and the arts with respect and an appreciation of what we've accomplished in this relatively small city in a relatively short time. A lot of that is due to the efforts of the late Birk Sproxton, whose work we now all strive to carry on down here. There are a few writers from away who hate it here and have no problem publicly saying how much they hate it. I've never understood that but my feeling is that those people should stop reading here and just carry on up or down the QE2.
Your view as an outsider looking into the centre is one I occasionally share: certainly in my first book, Nice Day for Murder: poems for James Cagney, and in my third, fake Paul. But the idea of Alberta (or growing up and working in Alberta) are central to Alarum Within: theatre poems and in Cars. In those books, my personal experience is the meat of the material. I speak from a knowledgeable place in both of them, as they are based (very loosely) on particular events in my own life. Having said that, though, the themes are not limited to Alberta. Theatre takes place everywhere, and teenagers grow up and suffer loss on every corner of the planet. My intent is not be "universal" in these books, but I think they do stretch outside the borders of my province - or at least I hope they do.
Gunnars' sentiments about "longing" and "mystery" don't resonate with me as a poet. The text I refer to most when thinking about all things writing is A Likely Story by Robert Kroetsch. Kroetsch proposes a poetics of listening and noticing and asking the right questions of people one encounters. I like that better than the ideas of longing and mystery, as I feel that my work is solidly grounded (too grounded for some critics; I'm often accused of tipping over into prose). My poetics follow Kroetsch's more closely than they do Gunnars', and I work toward a conscious noticing of the world. After all, that's where the poetry is: in the noticing. I think so, anyway.
To address your concern about the possibility of taking privilege for granted, I think that to fight against that is to deny the world where poetry is waiting to be found. I live where I live, privileged or no. I know that we live in a wealthy province and occasionally, I feel that that's the rub where a lot of critics of Alberta are concerned. But quite honestly, I write anyway, without taking that into account. My latest book, in Cars, is stuffed full of gas-guzzling muscle cars owned by privileged kids who seem to have no visible means of support, but I did that on purpose. I wanted the world I created for that book to both reflect my growing up and to not reflect anything real at all. There is no world where an entire generation of kids can keep their big cars gassed up without ever having to go to work. I tried to create an Alberta that never existed and I hope I've been successful. I love my province with my whole heart (warts and all), it's not difficult for me to write and rewrite its past (however disguised), while keeping open its place in my heart and in my history.
This is an important part of my work as well - listening and noticing. But for me these are directly linked to the mystery and longing! I want to know why we see things the way we do, the 'how' of seeing. In the end, I only have questions. But the way I see the world is connected to where I sit, whether I like it or not. All I can do is let it all filter into what I write, be open to that process. I'm often thinking of the Dutch 17th century still lifes, that tell all these stories of trade and wealth and the domestic life, the everyday life, without exactly setting out to tell them. Or maybe they were. I know Rob, my husband, is always considering where the objects come from in his still lifes. How you can set up a still life in the middle of winter with all these exotic fruits and flowers. What does this tell about our position in the world? I think it adds layers of meanings, nuances, when one is sensitive to where things come from and how they get there.
I think that when you notice the world you live in, let that filter into your work, stories are told that are beyond you. What I love about this place we live in, is that two writers like us can connect. While some readers might see our work as quite different from each other, we really have a lot of common ground. I mean, the details in your latest book are incredible. While I'm intent on observing an apple or pomegranate, you capture the nuances of a pair of rollerskates and also locate them in a time and place with incredible precision. I think both of our approaches though, speak to the freedom we have as writers. Is that due to the fact that we live in Alberta? or Canada? I don't know.
I do feel grateful for the education that I received here. I wonder what type of writer I would have become had I not had the opportunity to go to the U of A? I know that I developed in certain ways thanks to that education. I feel a huge debt to so many of the professors there, not only the creative writing instructors. But the courses I took with Doug Barbour, Kristjana Gunnars, Greg Hollingshead and Bert Almon were formative. My first writing group emerged from a class with Bert, and I wrote my first book with them. These things are huge. Then you and I ended up meeting in the next incarnation of that group of which Bert was also a member. I can't say what an Alberta writer is, but I can say what a supportive, encouraging group of people they are in my experience.
Thanks for the kind words about my work. And I agree that our work is different, but in some ways, it's the noticing we share that connects us. You are twice the poet I am in terms of the craft of poetry, while I focus on the precision of detail you mention. Surely that doesn't make us Albertan, or locate us in any place at all except inside the moment of the work.
I feel exactly as you do regarding the excellent education I received at the University of Alberta. For one thing, we met because of our shared history there and that's extremely valuable to me. The more we discuss this idea of place, of Alberta, of the education and friendships we have here, the less I understand about it all. Would we not have had an equally valuable education elsewhere? My meaning is that while I live here, I'm looking so forward to going to a yearly writers' colony in Saskatchewan in February. I do realize that it's the atmosphere, the shared writing life of the participants, and the fact that I know I can write out there, but it's clearly away. Why the need to go away? I don't try to explain it; I just do it because it works.
I'll be travelling to many rural Alberta libraries over the next few months as part of my work as Writer in Residence, and the experience I'm looking most forward to is the exploration of the main streets of tiny towns I've never seen. There is nothing so terrific (to my mind) as finding an amazing treasure of a place an hour's drive from my home. So, in every sense, I am Albertan, and by necessity, that has to extend to my identity as a writer as well.
I think this has been a wonderful opportunity to think about place - something, as you mentioned at the beginning of this conversation, that we ordinarily don't spend a great deal of time pondering. In retrospect I wonder what it might have revealed about us as Alberta writers had we simply discussed what it is to be a writer? I have a feeling our ongoing conversation (the one that occurs over bacon and eggs in cheesy diners, and Chinese food restaurants, and over email...) is only going to deepen....
Posted by Shawna Lemay at 10:11 AM