Sunday, January 20, 2008

The (first) Factory (West) Reading, Edmonton

Here are some pictures, courtesy of Lainna [see previous photos from a previous Calgary etc adventure here] from the first installment of my Edmonton monthly reading series (January-May, 2008) at the Black Dog, The Factory (West) Reading Series (information on the second event here). A good crowd of about twenty-five plus people, with readings by Trisia Eddy, Jenna Butler, Joel Katelnikoff and Thomas Wharton (see his note on the same here).

I am just, apparently, introducing Joel from the author bio at the back of the Coming Attractions 06 (Ottawa ON: Oberon Press, 2006) anthology he was in; three authors, three stories each (he still has copies for $15 if you're interested).

Joel appearing to read a story of some sort. I met him moons ago when he came west to one of the ottawa small press book fairs to represent that magazine he used to be part of, QWERTY.

Trisia Eddy, looking over her shoulder at something.
We don't know why Joel looks like this; something about sitting at the bar?
Jenna Butler, just starting to read some of her prairie poems, perfectly timed for Winnipeg poet/critic Dennis Cooley's arrival.
Jenna Butler and her husband looking adorable. She will also be reading at the upcoming Edmonton John Newlove launch/screening.
Thomas Wharton [see his 12 or 20 questions here] gritting his teeth for some reason; he read a magnificent non-fiction piece about bears.
Some of the crowd; note Dennis Cooley lurking on the stairs...
Diane Cameron, who opens the second reading; that's Mark McCawley [see my note on his publishing here; see his 12 or 20 questions here] in the background, with his sister to the right. His son also works at the Black Dog Freehouse.
We don't know who this guy is, or why Lainna took his photo; he was "hanging around" by the payphone upstairs as we were leaving the reading. Is that creepy or what?
Thomas Wharton and Christine Stewart (who reads in Calgary this week with Lisa Robertson); Lainna suggested "twins separated at birth," perhaps.
Heather MacLeod and unknown; I mean, she's known, I've only met her half a dozen times, but why can't I remember people's names?
Christine Stewart [see her 12 or 20 here] listening to something that Trisia Eddy is saying.
Christine Stewart (again) and Trisia Eddy (again).
Winnipeg poet/critic Dennis Cooley [see his 12 or 20 here] and Edmonton poet/critic Douglas Barbour [see his 12 or 20 here]; Cooley had actually read earlier in the afternoon at the University of Alberta, and was nice enough to come by the reading to hang around.
Somewhere else after the reading; the side of Trisia Eddy's head and the side of my face at the Elephant & Castle on Whyte; Trisia was hungry, so we had to get some food.
Information on the next reading here; will we see you there? Aren't you sorry you missed all of this?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Factory (West) Reading Series, February 19, 2008

a reading series lovingly hosted by rob mclennan during his tenure as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta (2007-8); the name "Factory (West)" refers to the fact that I have been running readings for years in Ottawa since 1995 that now exist under the title The Factory Reading Series, held regularly(ish) at the Ottawa Art Gallery;

a variety of poetry and fiction (etcetera) presented on the third Tuesday of every month from January to May, 2008 in the Underdog (downstairs) at The Black Dog Freehouse, 10425-82 Avenue, Edmonton AB; [venue change, this event only; Cafe Select, upstairs, 8404-109th Street]

doors 7pm; readings 7:30pm

The second reading will be happening on Tuesday, February 19

with readings by:

Diane Cameron
Kristy McKay
Natalie Simpson
+ Janice Williamson
author bios:

Diane Cameron is currently attending the University of Alberta for a combined program in English and Creative Writing. She lives in a ridiculously small apartment in Edmonton with her bad-ass cat and a large collection of books. She currently works as a cocktail waitress to support her furthering education. In her spare time she is a prolific reader, and likes to write, play guitar, jog, and take in some good live theatre. She currently has one publication in the November addition of Fait Accomplit.

K.L. McKay is originally from the North Shore of Lake Superior. After a long stay in Ottawa, she now resides in Edmonton, where she is completing her MA in Comparative Literature at the University of Alberta. In the spring of 2007 she attended The Banff Centre for the Arts Writing Studio. Poems she worked on there are included in the anthology The Hoo Doo That You Do So Well (littlefishcartpress). A chapbook collection of her poems, Barefoot Through the Pickybushes, was released in October 2005 (University of Ottawa Friday Circle imprint). Other publications have appeared in Tempus (Rubicon Press), Ottawater 3.0, Bywords and Pooka Press. Since 2003 she is the founding editor of Spire Poetry Poster ( She is a member of the Olive Reading Series Collective.

Natalie Simpson’s [see her 12 or 20 questions here] first collection of poetry, accrete or crumble, was published by LINEbooks in 2006. She has also published chapbooks through housepress, MODL press, above/ground press, NO press, and edits all over. More of her poetry can be found in Shift & Switch: New Canadian Poetry (The Mercury Press) and Post-Prairie: An Anthology of New Poetry (Talonbooks). Natalie is a former managing editor of filling Station magazine, and she lives in Calgary, and her chapbook Dirty Work was recently reissued as part of the above/ground press ALBERTA SERIES.

Janice Williamson writes and teaches in Edmonton. Her work in progress is on adoption and mothering. Past publications include documentary, memoir, poetry, interviews and fiction.

For further information, email rob mclennan at az421(at)freenet(dot)carleton(dot)ca

further readings:
March 18; readers tba
April 15; readings by Kim Minkus (Vancouver), Myrna Kostash + tba
May 20; readings by tba

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.

Yer pal,

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....
in friendship,

Friday, January 11, 2008

12 or 20 questions: with Christine Wiesenthal

Christine Wiesenthal is a poet, biographer, and literary critic whose most recent books include Instruments of Surrender (BuschekBooks, 2001) and The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther (UTP, 2005). Her poetry has appeared in numerous literary magazines including Fiddlehead, Geist and In Fine Form: Canadian Form Poetry (eds. Kate Braid and Sandy Shreve), and she has also contributed interviews to collections such as Tim Bowling's Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation (with P.K. Page). Instruments of Surrender was shortlisted for the Stephan G. Stephannson and Gerald Lampert Poetry Awards in 2001 and 2002; The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther was awarded the Canadian Historical Association's Clio Prize for British Columbia in 2005, and shortlisted for the 2006 Governor General's Literary Award for Nonfiction.

1 - How did your first book change your life?

My first book was a critical monograph, on representations of madness in nineteenth-century literature. I think what it did, in effect, was give me "permission" to turn back to the creative writing I'd put on hold while working on my academic degrees. Suddenly I discovered a lot of pent-up creative energy -- and so my next book was a collection of poems.

2 - How long have you lived in Edmonton, and how does geography, if at all, impact on your writing? Does race or gender make any impact on your work?

I have lived in Edmonton, on and off, since 1989, which amazes me! Two brief out-migrations, to Halifax and Winnipeg, but I've always managed to come back. I like the city, and it has long since felt like a good home. The river valley parks and ravines are Edmonton's best feature; I hope new developments don't ever encroach on these green spaces.

As for the impact of geography, yes, that's there in both my poetry and nonfiction -- the badlands, the prairies, Lake Winnipeg, local flora and fauna in my poems; the West Coast in my biography of Pat Lowther -- whose physical world also figured sensuously in her writing. But I think Charles Wright says it best in one of his poems from Scar Tissue, "The Minor Art of Self-Defense": "Landscape was never a subject matter, it was a technique/ a method of measure/ a scaffold for structuring." I'm intrigued by that idea of landscape as a "scaffold for structuring" some other understory about experience and language.

And lived experience is always inflected by aspects of identity such as gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, etc., isn't it? I grew up in the seventies when sexual double standards were still pretty obnoxiously obvious and enforced. (Which is not to say they don't still exist today.) Poems like "The Laundry Cycle" from Instruments of Surrender recalland question that whole adolescent experience of being trained in the "arts" of domestic femininity, and of gender roles more generally. Pat Lowther was also a feminist poet, and gender politics are a central theme of that book, The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther, as well.

3 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

For me, a poem usually starts as a resonant line, phrase, or image. It sticks with me as an insistent sort of wish -- to exfoliate or grow into something fuller, awhole poem, a complete emotion/image complex, a larger "scaffold" to recall Wright. Sometimes that development happens right away; sometimes I have to leave my fragments lie about for a year or more before I can hear or see what they want to yield, if anything. Concept poems -- "hey, why don't you write a poem about X or Y" -- rarely work for me.

My process is similarly inductive for larger projects. Start with small pieces that at some point group or gather into constellations that suggest a larger picture. This is true for my nonfiction as well as poetry. I mean, I knew that I intended to write a whole book on Pat Lowther when I started, but it wasn't until I had done a lot of gathering and fiddling with little pieces of the puzzle --until I hit upon a central organizing metaphor for the book -- that I knew HOW it could work as a book. I remember the moment that idea came to me. We were driving across the High Level Bridge, on our way to Audrey's Books to hear Fred Stenson read from The Trade. I said to my husband, hey, what about this idea of the half-life? He heard me out, then said, "I think you're onto something. Go for it." So good to have a patient and trustworthy sounding board at exactly the minute you need to try and articulate some inchoate flashes of thought!

4 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process?

Depends on whether those readings are mine or not! Good readings by other authors are a cherished part of my process -- nothing more stimulating than hearing work that impresses/moves/stuns you. Readings like that often make me want to go right home and start writing. And often I do, if only journal entries on the reading event I've just attended.

My own readings, on the other hand, are somewhat counter -- if not to my process, then certainly to the inclination of my personality. Though I teach for a living, which obviously involves routine public performance, I am at heart a pretty shy introvert. I like writing my work much more than reading my work in public. That said, I can't say I've ever regretted any reading I've agreed to do. They've often proven a lot more fun and rewarding in the end than I'm willing to imagine beforehand. (Guess that makes me a pessimist, too.)

5 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

[I would have to write a dissertation if I tried to answerthis one, so I'm going to skip it!]

6 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

Depends on the editor, the level of difficulty, I suppose, but I'd have to say it's an essential part of the process, even when work has been workshopped prior to publication. Getting someone else's fresh eyes/ears to inhabit your work is invaluable, even when the feedback may be unwelcome. It forces you to go back and figure out what you're ready to change, or not, and why. I find that can be the most taxing phase of writing, though: you're already exhausted from having written a book, and then you have to have another go at it.... sometimes you feel like you never want to see the damn thing again by the time it's all over.

7 - After having published a couple of titles over the past few years, do you find the process of book-making harder or easier?

Harder. Because who wants to write the same book, or even poem, twice? And I don't know why, but it seems to take more and more extreme measures and efforts to clear out and protect time for research/writing -- perhaps a symptom of of our 24/7 wired connectivity, in part.

8 - When was the last time you ate a pear?

I am not a fan of the pear. They bruise too easily when ripe, and are woody if you try to eat them before they get that soft. I have the same bias against bananas, which I will only eat if sliced up in fruit salad, and then sparingly. Give me just about any other kind of fruit, though, especially cherries and berries.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Well, one such nugget comes indirectly to me from Leonard Cohen's "Anthem": "Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in." A reminder for fuss-budgets that imperfections can also reveal beauty, value.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?

The move from poetry to nonfiction felt smooth for me, perhaps because (and this was part of the appeal), the nonfiction biography project was about a poet and poetry. Good prose can be poetic, anyway. Prose is so capacious: it can handle so many different modes and voices. The move back to poetry now, more recently, has felt tougher, partially because it takes time and energy to tap into that left brain unconscious (or whatever it is) that speaks in a real voice. I think it was Gary Geddes, when he gave a reading here recently, who said he'd given up on the lyric form because it was too exhausting: every lyric is a little world re-invented from the ground up. Finding time for sustained writing of my own is my biggest challenge at the moment -- as it usually is for so many of us, right?

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

I don't really adhere to a writing "routine." I cram it in where and when possible. If I'm really going on something, almost everything else will give way to the writing --first and foremost being sleep, house work, socializing etc. I tend to write at night, but again, if I'm in serious production mode, I can work for long stretches, morning, afternoon, evening, night. Bit compulsive that way, I've been told.

I do, however, adhere to a yoga practice that is more "routine" than my writing life, and any typical day for me begins with Tibetan Rites, a short series of exercises that get the kinks out and stretch me out a little.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

To other writing, books and authors that I admire. And also to my journals, where all the raw material and fragments that would otherwise go forgotten get scribbled down. Sometimes returning to that source material serves as a trigger for new work.

And sometimes I just go for a long walk, or do something physical, like go for a bike ride or (usually) do some yoga. On that note, I don't think "inspiration," the intake of breath, is such a bad word....

13 - How does your most recent book compare to your previous work? How does it feel different?

Every one of my books so far has been in a different genre -- critical monograph, poetry, biography. So I'm one of those jacks of all trades, master of none. The biography was unlike anything I'd ever attempted before. Had I known, in fact, how much work it would actually involve, I may not have tried it. It was different in that it involved different sorts of research that stretched me in new ways. I spent a lot of time doing stuff like trying to track people and things down; interviewing people; visiting places that had been important to Pat or her family; walking around Vancouver endlessly, and usually in the rain, of course. It was a very active and immersing research experience. Evenwhen I took a break and went to the art gallery, say, the things I would be looking at would connect in some way to Pat's history and world, generating new ideas. The writing of the book also demanded a kind of balancing act between narrative and analysis that I found challenging: how to keep the momentum of a life story going, but also do the work of literary biography and cultural history.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

All the above, in terms of content or substance. In terms of form, science provided the crucial metaphors for the structure of my biography, especially in the notion of the half-life. But I also read a lot about theoretical physics for that book, which is really fascinating stuff. It eventually also informed my re-thinking of linear narrative time, chronology, etc.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I was trained as a Victorian scholar, and I still love to go back and read nineteenth-century literature, including works in translation like the Tales of E.T.A. Hoffman. I always have some history and biography books on the go --most recently, some histories of Berlin and of Germany after the fall of the Third Reich. And Claire Tomalin's most excellent biography of Samuel Pepys, a book I was sorry to finish.

And when I need a break from too much text and too much thinking, trash magazines are my favorite little indulgence, the trashier the better.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
At least two projects in two different genres. But I'm too superstitious to commit them to print here: it could jinx them. (See "pessismism," above.)

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you>>not been a writer?

I like to delude myself by thinking it'd be something outdoorsy and tough, like being a park warden or a rancher. (I have a color advertising poster in my writing study with pictures of glorious ranch vistas and the heading, IMAGINE: YOUR OWN RANCH.") The sad reality, though, is that I am too much of a citified wimp to take that sort of work on. Besides which, I have a healthy fear of the wilderness and break out in hives on contact with most animals, horses included. So, so much for my fantasy life. But I do really like being active outside and in rural/natural places, as often as possible -- even if it's just messing around in my back yard or gardens at home.

Either that, or, if I had a scientific bone in my body, a geologistor an archeologist. I have a friend who works as an editor for professional geologists and she says the writing is really boring -- totally technical. But I love rocks and old things, and have this glamorized idea of people who get to head off to remote and lovely places to dig around and do "field work." What fun!

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

That's a really good question, because I grew up drawing and sketching almost as much as writing poems and stories and journals. I don't know at what point exactly, or why, I stopped using my sketch book and focussed on writing -- I think it must have been around the time I started university -- my studies were all book and reading oriented. But my partner, Brad, last year bought me a sketch book when my writing got stalled. I think I've been afraid to use it, because it's sitting there almost untouched, except for a few doodles. . .

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
This summer I finally got around to reading Dante's Inferno. It's Ciaran Carson's translation, which some people object to for it's anachronistic contemporization of Dante's language, but which I found playful and inventive. I also have Pinksy's translation lying around here somewhere; maybe this summer, I'll read that version and compare. What an incredible book. Both terrifying and hilarious in its visionary power. I mean, the precision of the architecture of Hell is incredible! -- Not just the Nine Circles, but all the ditches, zones and "arrondissments" of each circle, all for separate shades of sinners. And the description of the City of Dis is the stuff of nightmares. Dante would have made one hell of an urban planner, pardon the pun.

As for films, "great" might be stretching it, but the German film, The Lives of Others, impressed me deeply. It's about the culture of espionage and political paranoia in communist East Germany -- and about the power of perception, especially perceptions of betrayal. It's also about a silent sort of heroism and gratitude that are vastly under-rated in our contemporary Western, especially North American, culture. Maybe this film also resonated for me because of my family history --I had a great aunt, whom I never met, who was caught in East Berlin when the wall went up. Her three sisters had all moved to Western sectors of the city in time, but she lived and died there alone. Although I passed through East Berlin and communist East Germany several times as a teenager and young woman, I had no real sense of what it might be like to live there, based on those visits, or the rumors swapped by my relatives in West Germany. It wasn't exactly a place Westerners dallied or got off the beaten path. It just struck me as incredibly dreary and depressing: grey and run down. Also scary. The border guards and inspections at places like Checkpoint Charlie were really unnerving at times.

20 - What are you currently working on?

I'm currently working on some poems, and an editing project -- an edition of Pat Lowther's poetry. That'll be a new challenge, and I'm looking forward to getting back to work on that project again later this spring.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

John Newlove documentary screening & book launch, Edmonton

John Newlove Documentary Screening / Book Launch
Hosted by rob mclennan, with readings/talks by rob mclennan, Douglas Barbour, Jenna Butler & Jeff Carpenter

7pm, Thursday, January 31
L-1, Humanities Centre, University of Alberta

Come celebrate the life and work of poet John Newlove with a screening of the documentary What to make of it all? The life and poetry of John Newlove, and the Vancouver launch of Chaudiere Books' A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove, edited by Robert McTavish.

About A Long Continual Argument: The Selected Poems of John Newlove:

A Long Continual Argument is the comprehensive statement of an acknowledged poetic master craftsman. It includes all the poems John Newlove chose for his previous selected poems with substantial additions from all his major collections. All of his later poetry has been included, as well as integral, critically-acclaimed works such as the long poem "Notes From And Among the Wars," and many of the cynically lyric poems that established his early reputation. From his first chapbook in 1961 to his final epigrammatic poems of the late 1990s, Newlove has been a quiet poetry dealing with unquiet themes. A poetry that, in the words of Phyllis Webb, "doesn't struggle for meaning. It emerges out of his thinking."
John Newlove (1938-2003) was born and raised in Saskatchewan. He began publishing while working various jobs in Vancouver in the 1960s. His many honours included the 1972 Governor General's Award for his book Lies, and the Saskatchewan Writers Guild Founders Award. His works have been internationally published and translated.

"Newlove was the best of us, the great line, the hidden agenda, tough as nails and yet somehow with his heart on his sleeve. There was always a double-take involved when reading his work. His lyrics, such as "The Weather" were faultless. I devoured and loved his work. --Michael Ondaatje

To call him "the voice of prairie poetry" misses the target by as broad a margin as if you called John Milton "the voice of Cromwell's London." This was the voice of a man who knew what it was like to almost drown, to gasp for air, to almost drown again. His poetry delivered a blow to the head then, and it does now. It will be seen again for what it was, and is: major in its time and place. --Margaret Atwood (from John Newlove: Essays on His Works, forthcoming)

For information on the event, the book, or anything else, contact the publisher, rob mclennan, at
Ordering information on the book here; info on the subsequent Vancouver launch here;

Saturday, January 5, 2008

some recent alberta adventuring;

Finally got a chance to look at the photos Lainna took during our recent trip to Calgary for the Calgary Extravaganza (including this one, above, of Trisia Eddy looking back through the rear-view mirror as we head south), and the subsequent Olive Reading Series in Edmonton featuring Christine Stewart [see my note on both here]. I always forget how close the two cities actually are to each other, and wonder why there isn't more interaction between the two? I'm going down again in February to read at the University of Calgary (a week or two before the writer-in-residence down there, Sina Queyras, comes up to read here); very much looking forward to it. Here's a photo of Trisia Eddy (note the vintage CBC Radio t-shirt) and Cara Hedley (she tagged along for the ride to her reading) having lunch in Red Deer; Red Deer is the only place I can think of that has opposing newspaper boxes side-by-side, the Calgary Sun and the Edmonton Sun. I think a fun game would be to see how often the same photos appears on both covers; because Lainna left her sunglasses there, we had lunch at the same place again the next day, except Trisia & I filled up on milkshakes & then couldn't finish lunch. Heh.
Cara Hedley, myself and Trisia Eddy in Cindy's Tea Room & Gift Shop, Red Deer; I was going to purchase something for my kid, but most of the stuff was either too tacky or not tacky enough;
Cara Hedley in the car, figuring out what she was going to read that night;
derek beaulieu [see his 12 or 20 here] launching flatland (Information as Material);
kevin mcpherson-eckhoff & Mark Hopkins getting a wee bit personal (but still adorable, somehow);
ryan fitzpatrick & Ian Glen Kinney;
a very lovely photo of Trisia Eddy;
Cara Hedley and Brea Burton (she reads here with Jill Hartman at the Olive Series on January 22) deep in conversation;
Paul Kennett (co-host) & Jill Hartman looking adorable together;
ryan fitzpatrick (right) wondering what the hell, exactly, I'm on about [see the brief review I did of his first book here]... & who is this "Heather"?
Makyee Mak and kevin mcpherson-eckhoff, looking mournful & artistic-like;
group photo at the pub post-reading, with myself, Cara Hedley, Mark Hopkins (co-host), Jill Hartman [see her 12 or 20 questions here], Frances Kruk (she has come cool visual poems here), Andre Rodgrigues;
Also, a few photos from that December Olive reading at Hulbert's [note that the next one won't be on January 8th, but January 22nd, as the venue is closed next week]. This photo: Olive co-organizer & chapbook producer Jeff Carpenter;
former Ottawa resident, current Olive co-organizer & Spire the Poetry Poster editor/publisher Kristy McKay making an odd gesture to Trisia Eddy (be sure to come hear her read at the first Factory (West) Reading on January 15);
the lovely T.L. Cowan, Olive co-organizer;
And finally, Lisa Szabo (co-editor of the online journal The Goose) with Christine Stewart [see her 12 or 20 questions here].
It makes me wonder what I will do once I finally have to leave this place? It makes me envious, somewhat, that the playwright-in-residence, Kevin Kerr (husband of poet Marita Dachsel) has a two-year post, where mine is only one...