Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Screwdrivers, Old

From the Annual Report of the Boulevard Overseer, 1915. City of Winnipeg Archives.
* * *

Last week I finally finally visited the City of Winnipeg Archives, which contain the Public Parks Board records.

I spent three solid hours there, skimming the annual reports from 1893 to 1916 and taking photos of relevant pages. I also pulled folders on "Assiniboine Forest" and "Trees" from the vertical files.

I took 254 pictures while I was there. I've spent the week and a bit since reading and transcribing pertinent bits. And I'm still only halfway through, which is okay, I suppose, given all the Xmas distraction.

One thing I'm proud of. There was a presentation that the Parks Superintendent George Champion gave at a conference in 1909 that was cited multiple times in the annual report for that year:

"We were pleased to have Supt. Champion attend the annual meeting of the Park Superintendents at Seattle and there read a paper on Winnipeg’s systems of boulevards. The paper was highly commended and copies have been called for by other cities for their guidance."

Which of course made me REALLY want to read that presentation. But despite looking in several other likely locations with the help of the archivist on duty, the report itself was missing from the archives.

I did a few cursory searches on-line, hoping that someone somewhere had scanned that year's proceedings (I'd gotten lucky with other proceedings, specifically that of the Western Horticultural Society...), but found nothing. I did discover that one of the libraries at Harvard had a copy in their holdings and were prepared to make a copy, but of course it will cost me $25 for the three pages.

Once I get my hands on a copy, I think I'll share it with the City of Winnipeg Archives. Because I'd REALLY like it if the next researcher that has her interest peaked could just turn the page and find it...

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Blair Trewartha

I met Blair Trewartha in Toronto in October. He'd just launched his first book with Palimpsest and had been press ganged into hosting Palimpsest Night at Another Story Bookstore.

One thing I've really liked about publishing with Palimpsest is the connections it has forged between its authors: it was Palimpsest's idea that I tour Stowaways with Yvonne Blomer and Patricia Young, for instance.

The idea that we're not just poets publishing individually with a small independent, but pressmates? Well, it's another way of making community, of forging connection.

And I'm all for that.

(Several of us had dinner before the Palimpsest Night at a bistro with a cheese theme, where the kimchi on my charcuterie plate prompted Blair and I into a discussion of our respective stints teaching English in South Korea and, eventually, our predilection for chapbooks. Which led to the chapbook question in this interview...see?)

What do you want people to know about Easy Fix?

Easy Fix is in a lot of ways about feeling trapped, but constantly obsessing about being freed from that trap. The poems explore that theme through historical narratives, confessional poems, interpretations of current events, and in general, they attempt to show the obsessions and daydreams, the constant cycle of fantasizing about landing on a destination that we don’t have the route to, which obviously leads us to remain exactly where we are. The book was written at a time in my life that is representative of that. Fortunately, since finishing the book, I managed to find a way out, which was both as ridiculously easy and terribly complex as simply removing myself from the situation.

As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

I try to approach readings as a social opportunity and community event, and hopefully a chance to hear someone new that inspires me. It’s a great way to meet other writers and people in general, and I’m always willing to chat with a fellow poetry lover over a coffee or beer. Outside of the less intimate online “community,” it is rare that you get a genuine sense of a poetry community. That’s what I get out of reading events. With that being said, networking can be absolutely exhausting too, so sometimes I find it necessary to just take a break, hole up in my apartment, and read. Those are the nights when I don’t feel like talking to anyone, and I’ve learned that they’re best spent reading or writing solo.

In terms of actually being featured as a reader, I think I have a love/hate relationship with the act. It comes with the territory if you want to publish and develop some kind of readership, and I’ll always accept an invitation gratefully, but if I had my choice, I’d rather be an audience member than the person on stage. But, I expect that’s the case with a lot of writers.

Tell me about that strange object/phenomena called ‘the first book.’

For myself, the first book was more process than product. It was about accumulating all of the work I had written since I started publishing in lit mags, sorting through all of the shit, and using the handful of decent poems I had leftover to start the base of my project. Then, with the guidance of an incredibly talented and dedicated editor, Jim Johnstone, we sewed those pieces together and started building. As a result, a lot of the poems in my first book were written on demand during that process. That might sound unnerving or unwise to some because it means I ran the risk of having pieces that weren’t edited or polished to the full extent due to time constraints, but I trusted my editor. In fact, I think it had one major benefit: by creating new pieces closer and closer to the publication deadline, it meant that everything in Easy Fix was the best of what I was capable of producing at that time. I think that’s what a first book should be, simply a representation of your best work at a given time period. It may be successful, or it may flop, but either way you should’ve tapped yourself dry at the time. All I can hope for is that my next book is better.

There are a lot of flinty edges and might-have-beens in Easy Fix, but my favourite is from “Breaking Points”: “I used to pray incessantly. / Not to god, but to prevent / the sway of sucker / punches, the flash of red / and echo of every elevator.” Tell me your theories on incipient catastrophes.

Sometimes the worst things that happen in our lives are the things imagined, the ones that produce countless hours of anxiety or stress, whether they end up actually happening or not. Chances are, whatever does actually come into being is going to be far worse if it’s preceded by fear. It makes us hyper sensitive and knocks us off our feet before we even try to brace ourselves for what’s really coming. That’s what I was trying to convey in "Breaking Points," especially in the final stanza. It’s surprising how simple things can be if you are able to eliminate all the stress and anxious thoughts that come before it. Unfortunately, that’s incredibly difficult to do.

You’ve published two chapbooks to date. What, for you, is the difference between a chapbook and a trade collection? Why do you bother? 

My first two chapbooks, Break In (Cactus Press, 2010) and Porcupine Burning (Baseline Press, 2012), were both stepping-stones to my debut trade collection, Easy Fix. That’s the beauty of chapbooks (when you publish them first, which many writers do). They prepare you for the full collection in whatever ways necessary up to that point. Break In taught me the process of editing above all, but also how to craft a series of interconnected poems to create a final, somewhat cohesive collection. It taught me to let go of lines and poems, and to accept criticism and advice without being defensive or discouraged. Porcupine Burning, being a historical narrative, gave me the chance to write about a single concept while still trying to ensure that the poems could stand alone if they had to. That proved to be far more difficult than I had expected, but nonetheless quite rewarding.

That’s not to say chapbooks are only worthwhile if written before your first full-length. I’d gladly publish another chapbook at any point in my future writing career. They’re concise, often incredibly well made by hand, and they sometimes allow you to tell a story more completely than a full-length book because of its condensed size. You have less of a chance of boring your reader or losing the energy and momentum of the narrative in 10-20 pages. In a full-length collection, if you stick to one point for too long, you can lose the pulse of the book.

Have you ever been to Winnipeg? What have you heard? 

I’ve only been to Winnipeg once when I was in my early twenties traveling by bus from Guelph Ontario to Vancouver. We only stopped there for a total of two hours, so all I really got to experience was the bus station and Tim Hortons. I think I walked around for a bit searching for a bookstore, but I couldn’t find one before I had to get back on the bus. My impression driving through, however, was that it seemed familiar and welcoming even though I was a total stranger to the area. It reminded me of a much bigger version of the town I grew up around, Clinton Ontario. It too is a small bit of urban surrounded by a whole lot of rural. Realistically though, it’s difficult to get any impression of a city within the span of an hour or two and the radius of a city block. I would love the opportunity to spend some time there though.

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

In terms of writing, I’m still trying to figure that out. It’s both intimidating and exciting that I’m starting from scratch with zero poems collected, so whatever I start writing next will be completely new.

Post first book, I am trying to focus more on consuming rather than producing. I’ve read everything new that I can get my hands on lately. I’ve been sifting through a large collection that I purchased in Fredericton this October at Poetry Weekend, which includes James Arthur, Don McKay, Kerry-Lee Powell, M. Travis Lane, Zach Wells, and Steve Howell, among others. I recently read Paul Vermeersch’s new book, which I quite liked, as well as Claire Caldwell and Sara Peters’ debut collections. I’ve been spending some time with Jeffery Donaldson’s book of essays, Echo Soundings, as well as his poetry collection Slack Action. I highly recommend his work. Also, if you’re up for something beautifully tragic, I recently finished Shane Neilson’s We Need our Names and Out of the Mouth. I couldn’t recommend those titles more. Shane writes incredibly heavy, but absolutely stunning poetry.

In general, past and present, I’ve devoured anything written by the following poets: Matthew and Michael Dickman, Eduardo C. Corral, Julie Cameron-Gray, Marc Di Saverio, Jim Johnstone, Jeramy Dodds, Ken Babstock, Sandy Pool, Mathew Henderson, Patrick Lane, as well as those mentioned above.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Signing post-mortem

McNally Robinson Booksellers, Wpg, MB. December 7, 2014.

* * *

I neglected to take a single picture during the two hours of my signing and so snapped this after I'd packed up all my junk. Thanks to everyone who came and visited: friends and fellow writers and former boyfriends. Fun!

I might have bought a pretty yellow ukelele for the girl immediately after the signing. They were on a display behind my signing table and unattended kids of all ages kept wandering over and strumming. I want the girl to be a wandering strummer too...

I also picked up Duncan Thornton's Kalifax Triology. Which I'm also looking forward to sharing with the girl. Given my own fantasy-reading history and my admiration for Duncan's work.

My thanks, as always, to McNally's for having me!

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Constellations of Connection: Best-of-2014

My second book of poetry, Stowaways, was published by Palimpsest Press this year and so I find myself approaching the year-end Best-of-2014 lists with some trepidation.

What if my book doesn't get Best-ed? Does that mean my work isn't worthy? Does it mean I'm not worthy?

 Instead of following this rage/shame spiral down (down/down/down), I've decided to create my own Best-of-2014 list, but this one will do something a little different, in that it will be composed of the books by writers who prop me up, who support me, who form my diffuse but essential community.

I'm a working writer. These are working writers. And we all, I think, write out of community.

So this isn't about belonging to a particular school of writing, or living in a particular place: it's about the constellations of connection, the interstitial bits between writers that help make books possible.

And I'm proud of all of these writers. So I wanted to talk about them.

* * *

Winnipeg writer Alison Calder is everything you want in a poet/prof. In her second collection, In the Tiger Park (Coteau Books) she thinks and feels her way through poems that are all about place, this place, but also find themselves in China and Germany and basking under the light of a perverse moon. ("Fuck off, moon! Get out of my poems / Every time I look up / a word, the dictionary says see moon.") She's also a member of my writing group, the Plastered Hams. And I appreciate her good eyes on my poems every goddamn time. Also, her wry commentary on the writing life is nearly as good as the cookies/cake/slanket we make sure to have at meetings.

Edmonton writer Shawna Lemay is a peach. She creates such a fragile beauty in her work and in her life, publishing poetry, creative non-fiction, and experimental fiction, taking photos, and curating the Canadian Poetries site. I haven't spent much in-person time with Shawna, but everything about her writing and her life tells me that she's a kindred spirit and THAT'S what makes her a fully-fledged member of my cadre. I fell in love with Shawna's book of essays Calm Things, and Asking (Seraphim Editions) advances those ideas in ways that are, well, illuminating.

In the busily anxious year leading up to the release of our books with Palimpsest Press, Victoria writer Yvonne Blomer and I chatted nearly every day. It helped immensely. IMMENSELY. Yvonne is sweet & calm on the one hand and smart & ambitious on the other. She's the antidote to self-pity and the best commiserator you'll ever find. When not writing, Yvonne teaches creative writing and has been the driving force behind Planet Earth Poetry, the weekly open mic series in Victoria. But the  poems in As if a Raven (Palimpsest Press). Oh! The poems! Playful and serious and smart.

Regina writer Tracy Hamon has been run off her feet the last few years, helping to organize the active Saskatchewan literary community. We met years via northern SK poet Brenda Schmidt and since that time we've toured the prairies together in various frocks. I could drive to Tracy's house in my sleep. Tracy's latest collection, Red Curls (Thistledown Press), uses ekphrasis and voice poems to talk about art-making, love, and desire...

Edmonton writer Ella Zeltserman and I have been writing back and forth for months but when we met for tea in Toronto this fall, we recognized each other in our talk about writing poetry and, also, creating community around it. (We also talked about preserving pears, which is a bit of a thing with me...) In her debut, small things left behind (University of Alberta Press) Ella writes about her Jewish family's history in Russia, about emigrating to Canada, about home. And the poems are illuminated with the Ella's irrepressible energy, her enthusiasm for the world.

I met Prince George writer Gillian Wigmore at the Banff Centre ten years ago. When we needed a break from poetry/writing/talk, she would pull out a guitar and start to sing. And, somehow, that aaaaaaaaaah feeling has persisted in the years since. She has been writing heaps the last few years, despite full-time work and children and the poems in orient (Brick Books), her third collection, is earthy and rich, always skimming close to the bone.

I included my book in this list because I couldn't help myself. Ahem

Friday, November 28, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Molly Peacock

From The Winnipeg Review
By Ariel Gordon

Molly Peacock is a former New Yorker who currently lives in Toronto. She’s written six books of poems, a memoir, and the best-selling The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72.

Her latest book, Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions (McClelland & Stewart), is an abecedarium, which is traditionally a book used to teach the alphabet. In this case, it’s also a collection of short fictions.

What do you want people to know about Alphabetique?

Alphabetique is playful reading for grownups. It’s a fun book of 26 tales, each one pretending that a letter of the alphabet is alive. Plus, every tale comes with a collage illustration by the brilliant Kara Kosaka. The stories are full of family dilemmas, whimsically solved by the shapes and personalities of the letters.

As a writer, how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

I love giving readings, but that’s because I’ve had help from a fabulous voice coach, Kristin Linklater who wrote Freeing the Natural Voice. As a child I loved reading aloud and vied to be the narrator for school theatrical performances. Now, I actually get ready for reading aloud. Practice! The minute you step in front of a microphone you are performing. You have an obligation to the people who showed up for you. When I can deliver to an audience, I also somehow restore myself. The process not only brings me back to an appreciation of what I did, but also to an appreciation for the fact that people got themselves dressed, found babysitters, put gas in their cars, and bolted their dinners in order to come and hear me. I’m grateful.

Your hybrid biography of artist Mary Delany/meditation on the creative life, The Paper Garden: Mrs. Delany Begins Her Life’s Work at 72, found you writing towards an artist and her artwork. This latest project moved in the other direction, from text to artwork. Tell me about the collaboration between yourself, Kara Kosaka, and CS Richardson.

Working with Kara Kosaka was one of the richest artistic experiences I’ve ever had. AND, we’ve never met in person. After I wrote The Paper Garden, I wanted to be released into purely imaginative writing. I started to make line drawings of my tales, but my own drawing skills are, um, primitive. I started wondering about collaborating with a illustrator. Could an illustrator urge my tiny tales to a larger scope of imagination? When C.S. Richardson, the novelist who wrote The End of the Alphabet and who is also Creative Director at Penguin Random House Canada, suggested the sublimely gifted digital collage artist Kosaka, I knew that my vision (after all, the vision of an author is really the images the author works with) would be realized in a similar way to a librettist’s vision being released by a composer. Kara read the stories from the inside out, highlighting images I never would have thought to bring forward, creating a whole landscape of animals, flowers, swords, letter openers, sculptures and, best of all, subtle but jewel-like colors for each letter of the alphabet. Her work makes it the most beautiful book I’ve been privileged to publish.

BUT! This book isn’t just a collaboration of two. It’s more like a string quartet, to continue that musical image, because C.S. Richardson’s design and direction, combined with our editor Lara Hinchberger’s sense that this book is also about wordplay and grammar, created a four-way email relationship that added a crucial creative layer. Each Thursday Kara would sit with her little daughter Mae at her feet, creating a collage, emailing it at midnight Pacific time from Vancouver. Friday morning I ran to open the collage and comment on it. Over the weekend Richardson and Hinchberger would chime in. Even the subtitle of the book came from the collaborative quartet. We agonized that this book is really an abecedarian for adults (as well as for wise children) but wondered how to convey that. C.S. Richardson playfully inserted the subtitle into one of his cover designs and, voila, we had it. Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions contains all our voices.

How is a collage like and unlike a poem?

A collage is like a poem because it is associative. You can leap from one image to the next. It’s not like a poem because a poem has to unfold sequentially. One word comes after the next. But in the collage the layers are perceived simultaneously. A lyric poem works to stop time. But a collage has no time—only space.

What’s it like being a dual citizen of both the Canadian and American literary communities?

It’s a privilege to be a citizen of both communities, but I feel that my imagination is better supported in Canada. I begin all my literary projects here, where I know that people are receptive to invention. In Canada we feel that an audience will be with us, ready to go on our adventure. But in the States the audience has more of a “show me” attitude. You can’t begin slowly. You’ve got to begin with fireworks to keep their attention. In Canada you can ease into something, be curious. However, there is a self-starter quality to American literary life that I really enjoy. It’s a bouncy energy, and it’s fun. In Canada I find the literary energy more contemplative. It nurtures me in a different way. In Canada the literary community is small. It has the big pleasures and little miseries of living in a small town. In the States, there’s always another neighborhood to move to, literarily. Here, you have to get along with your neighbors.

You were the founding editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English series. Why is such a thing important for Canadians and for Canada’s writing and publishing community?

I’m still the series editor! Founding this series has been incredibly important on two fronts. First, it gives all those Canadians who are curious about poetry, but don’t know where to begin, a great starting point. This anthology isn’t only bought by poets. Moms and uncles pick it up. Teachers use it in classes. Savvy business people who want a great quote for a speech buy it. Second, on the literary front, Best Canadian Poetry in English has stirred interest in Canadian literary journals in print and online across the country. It has stimulated well-known poets to return to publishing in literary magazines, because those are the sources we draw on for the anthology. Poets are proud to be in it, and we’re lucky to have Tightrope Books support it. Our new 2014 volume guest edited by Sonnet L’AbbĂ© and co-edited by Anita Lahey comes out this month.

What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

By the Book: Stories and Pictures by Diane Schoemperlen. I’m writing The Rose Artist, about the fabulous, relatively unknown, Canadian still life painter Mary Hiester, the first woman to have a solo show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1922—the year after she died, alas.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Reprint: The Buzz

* * *

From today's Winnipeg Free Press. Literary Editor Ben MacPhee-Sigurdson is a peach!