April 28th, 2018

“On Not Being Lorna Crozier”

What follows are my remarks delivered at the Edmonton Poetry Festival, as part of their “Lunch with the GGs” event. I spoke alongside the always-charming Benjamin Hertwig, Governor General’s Literary Award nominee for his beautiful book Slow War (McGill-Queen’s, 2017). Lorna Crozier had been scheduled to speak, but needed to return home for family reasons, and I was asked to fill in.

I’ve titled my remarks for today “On Not Being Lorna Crozier.”

So I am clearly not Lorna Crozier, and I am sure many of you are disappointed not to get to meet her today. I know I have been really looking forward to hearing her speak tonight. I know many of us are sending her good thoughts right now. But I am *very* honoured to have been asked to speak in her place today. I’ve been asked to talk a little bit about my own experience of being a finalist this year for both the Writers Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry and the Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize, for my new collection, Believing is not the same as Being Saved, and I’m going to talk about that in a moment, and then I’m going to read a poem from that collection, but first I just want to take this opportunity to say a few brief things about not being Lorna Crozier.

When I was first getting serious about writing, about trying to turn myself into not just someone who wrote–I had been writing poems since I was 14–but into someone whose poems someone else—who was a stranger–might conceivably want to read, Lorna Crozier was one of the absolute giants in my world. I loved her work. I admired it profoundly–and I still do. The compression and economy of her lines and her imagery. When I was first sending out my own poems for publication, Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane put out a call for submissions for an anthology of work by young poets, which they were calling Breathing Fire. This was 15 years ago this summer. I breathed some of the best fire I could manage onto the page and sent my poems to them. I sent them 15 pages of work, and I thought the work was pretty strong, and then since I didn’t have a lot of experience at that time with the publication process, I sat back and prepared to be discovered.

I wasn’t. They didn’t take my work. I didn’t appear in Breathing Fire. I think the point of the story is that I could have. The work, even at this distance, I can say was good work. Many of the poems ended up appearing in my first collection, One crow sorrow, which won the Writer’s Guild of Alberta Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry in 2009. But this was not 2009. It was 2003. I had 6 years to go before those same poems, that fire that I had breathed onto the page, would become part of a book that would end up on a list and win a prize.

So that is what I want to take this opportunity to talk to you about, just briefly. Not being there yet. Not being Lorna Crozier. I want to talk about the ways that we have to author-ize ourselves as writers. That word authorize has “author” at its root. At the most basic level, to sit down to write at all, we have to authorize ourselves to do that, instead of doing any of the other myriad things that constantly compete for our attention. So I think it’s worth asking: how do we do that? How do we give ourselves permission to believe our work is good before anyone else confirms that–sometimes long before? And maybe even more importantly, how do we authorize ourselves to continue, to devote the time and resources to continuing to make our work, and to continuing to make it better, to making it the best that it can be on its own terms?

If there’s anything that’s true of the writing life, it’s that you win some and you lose some. So a few months after I got my rejection letter from Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane for their Breathing Fire anthology, I was accepted to the Banff Centre’s Writing Studio program to go and live in Banff for 5 weeks with other writers and write some grief poems. My mom had just died. And I took this little book of Lorna Crozier’s with me to Banff. It had just come out. Inside the front cover, I wrote my name and the date I bought the book. So it says “April 2004.” 14 years ago. I hadn’t published a thing. I had no idea I would one day appear at the Edmonton Poetry Festival as Lorna Crozier’s stunt double.

So I went to Banff, and I wrote the poems that would lead me here.

When I got the rejection letter from Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, this was in the days of paper submissions, and they sent back my pages, my poems, 15 pages of my work, with a letter saying thank you for letting us read these, and we’ve decided not to include them. I think it was a form letter. I can’t remember for sure. But what I DO remember, is holding those pages, and knowing that Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane had read my work. They had read it. They had held those pages in their hands and considered what I had written. And that was enough. Somehow that was enough to allow me for me to keep going.

And when I got to the Banff Centre, and I had the privilege to work with Don McKay, and Greg Hollingshead was there as the Director of Writing Programs at the time—some of you know Greg—and I was watching Don and Greg at one of the social events in the writers’ lounge.

And I was watching these two well established writers who I admired, and they had both won Governor General’s Awards, and I thought how amazing it must be to have that confirmation of the worth of your work, that confidence to do your work, to follow and fulfill your own artistic impetus. And suddenly I realized that it might be possible to just adopt that attitude prematurely—to just do the work already as IF someone else had already recognized its worth.

And I’ve tried to do that ever since, to authorize myself. This little book of mine missed a lot of lists this year, it wasn’t on the GG list, it wasn’t on the League of Canadian Poets lists. And then it was on a list, the WGA Stephan G. Stephansson Award for Poetry, and then all of a sudden it was on two lists–it showed up on the Robert Kroetsch City of Edmonton Book Prize List, too. And I think the point is recognition matters, and we need it, and it allows us to thrive, but it isn’t always coming, or not soon enough, and if we really want to keep going, we need to figure out how to make it, how to generate it, how to apply it to ourselves and to those around us who are also labouring to make what they make in the world, and to do it well.

So I’m going to end by reading a poem that’s about sitting in an audience listening to music. So it’s a poem about art, and it’s a poem about listening, and it’s a poem about how much both of those things matter.

Dancing

January 24th, 2017

Believing is not the same as Being Saved

Believing is not the same as Being Saved

It’s here! The new collection has arrived. Poems written over a ten year period–attending to the premature deaths of my parents, the births of my two children, and the sudden end of my marriage. The book is titled Believing is not the same as Being Saved, after a poem of the same title, which won The Malahat Review‘s 2013 Open Season Award for Poetry. You can read a bit about that poem here.

The book will be making its way into bookstores in the next couple of weeks, and is available for preorder online now. If you order the collection from your local independent bookstore, it never hurts to suggest that they order a few extras for their shelves. I know Audreys Books in Edmonton has copies on the way, and if you are eager enough you can put a copy on hold and they will contact you when it arrives!

January 16th, 2017

“The News”

photo credit: Colleen Martin

photo credit: Colleen Martin

I had a fabulous time reading to a full house at The Olive Reading Series at the Almanac on Whyte last week. The Olive editorial board put together a beautiful little chapbook of my poems for the reading (entitled “The News”), and if you didn’t get one, it will be available online (for free download) soon. In the meantime, you can check out the amazing archive of other work available on the Olive website here. The Olive Reading Series will be on hiatus in February, and the next reading will be held on March 14th. Mark your calendars.

February 2nd, 2016

“The Landing” Interview

The Landing Interview SeriesA bit of literary excitement: the editors at Up the Staircase Quarterly came across my Poets Respond poem on Rattle (“If You Really Aren’t a Racist Take This Online Test”) and asked me a few questions for their spring issue, as part of their interview series “The Landing.” Check out the whole issue (no. 32) of this pretty sweet literary quarterly here.

December 24th, 2015

All this doing and undoing

Light and warmth: what I keep wishing people these days, and wishing for myself. Light! Warmth. It seems simple enough. But, for some of us, this time of year–though not, of course, only this time of year–there is a gap that opens up (a gap neither warm nor bright) into which we can readily fall. A gap between the part of us that aspires and the part that remembers, or between the part that is healing and the part that still grieves, or between the loss we inherit and the gifts we wish to bring–and in that gap, trying not to lose our grip on where we want to be, we can easily lose sight (at least I can) of the crucial dignity of being where we actually are, and also honouring where we have been.

I think those of us minding the gaps this time of year–but not so far inside them the only option is applying basic forms of care–those of us who can manage it this year might benefit from gently, intentionally creating or adopting new forms of personal culture, and family culture, if that’s relevant–or artistic culture, or religious culture–any form of culture we can make or borrow or find–that gets us over the gaps intact, or out of them, when we do fall in, once we’re ready again to leave.

If you–or someone you love–has fallen into one of those stubborn gaps–or if you are sitting on the edge of one staring down–at a memory of yourself, or someone you love and have lost–or if you are, maybe, just this moment picking yourself up and dancing boldly around the edge of a gap you have been way down in before–or even if you are running in the opposite direction saying to hell with anyone sitting on the edge of that gap I’m getting myself out of here–to you, to me, to all of us, light and warmth, warmth and light, enough light to flood the room until we know the gap is not all there is, though it is real.

A gap, which is another way to say a wound, arises when the parts of a thing that are supposed to be together lose touch with one another, because of damage. Wounds heal when the sides come together. Recently, a friend of mine called to tell me her sheep had been attacked by a neighbour’s dog. This is a beautiful story, and one I will have to tell more carefully another time. But the short form of it is: my friend figured out how to save the sheep’s life, though she had no training in wound care, simply by educating herself enough to create the right conditions for the deep bite-wounds in her sheep’s neck to heal. By the time we talked on the phone, the ragged wounds had resolved into healthy pink flesh, and the sides of the wound were coming together. Even when the wounds look (and feel) pretty bad, healing happens–provided the right conditions are supplied. I think we can get better at supplying the right conditions: to ourselves, and for each other. Not just privately, but collectively: culturally.

This time of year some of us might need to clutch the pain of the past and our hope for the future like two sides of a favourite winter coat in the middle of a blizzard and not let go until we have fastened those two sides together with whatever implements are available. We are all in such different spots and it is our work to honour our own spots so well that our default position in the world is curiousity about the spots others are in, and deep honour for whatever stories people tell us about where they are now, where they have been, where they would like to go. Maybe some of us need to stick our old coats on the nearest pyre and let them, finally, catch on fire. Maybe some of us are going to need or want something other than a coat entirely now. Maybe some of us just aren’t going to be able to stay here, where the winds blow so cold. My elderly Swiss neighbour is a snow bird: she spends the winters in California. Last January, her husband of 61 years died in the night. What do we offer to one another? Warmth. Light. We find and try to make the rituals and traditions and habits that make life habitable for us, given our resources and the materials available, and we try to make more than we need, and to share what we have with others.

When I wish light and warmth to people, it is because I know the holidays can be cold and dark. But, friends, whatever our circumstances, whether we are patching our old coats or crafting new ones, we should not be at home hacking the serviceable buttons of our present lives out of raw materials and sewing them on alone. We should have button-making, button-sewing, button-doing and -undoing parties (because it is gonna all come apart, sometimes, let’s face it, especially this time of year). But if we want to do this work in good company, we will need to find places where we can show up with our coats and our skins in the shape they are actually in. And we will need to learn–insofar as we are sufficiently/safely clear of our own ravaging wounds and ragged gaps–how to open that door to others who are standing there in need of care, in need of the supportive conditions for healing. We are all–in such different ways!–going to need to do our work, whatever it is: wound care, tradition making, warmth-and-light-bringing–to make space for ourselves and the people we love to show up to the warmth and the light still available. Because while there is always more darkness, light keeps returning as well.

For ourselves, and our loved ones, and our neighbours–not just our next-door neighbours, but our parable of the Good Samaritan-style “Who is my neighbour?” neighbours, too–we are going to need traditions and habits that allow us to not be either happy or unhappy during the holidays. We are going to have to let ourselves and each other be bereaved and loved, miserable and hopeful–and all the rest of it–either, or both, and all of it flexibly, as needed. Despite the ability our capable, critical minds will always have to see how swiftly more dark and cold can come, our work is to cultivate stories and rituals and traditions and ways of being together that persuade us, like love does, that comfort is possible, that light and warmth are good things to procure and share and rest in. What we are looking for are rhythms of the body, sub-rational yet fully intelligent rhythms of being, that persuade us that  something can be made, and made again, out of the available materials–whatever they are. Something that will fit, and keep us warm, and that we can make more of; let’s each see if we can’t make a bit more warmth, and light, this time of year, than we ourselves personally need. If that is too much to do, ask someone you trust to bring some warmth and light to you.

 

 

 

December 2nd, 2015

The necessity (and ethics) of delight

delight

“…and it was an illumination — one of those things one has always known, but never really understood before — that all sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel the roughness of a carpet under smooth soles, a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under flesh. If this goes, then the conviction of life goes too.” -Doris Lessing, from The Golden Notebook

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately–the ethics of subjective personal choices about how to live, particularly in light of ongoing systemic injustice and horror in the collective sphere, our objective political (and environmental) circumstances. Doris Lessing gets at something in the quote above that can be difficult to formulate privately or articulate publicly: that private delight, the capacity to delight in ordinary beauty, the willingness to not squander ordinary pleasure, might be a necessary precondition for the resilience (her word: “sanity”) necessary to make anything better instead of making it worse, politically and otherwise.

November 26th, 2015

Poets Respond

I had a poem up a couple of days ago on Rattle, which is a pretty exciting thing for me. Rattle is a pretty great journal. I subscribe to the print edition, and regularly recommend to my writing students that they check out “Poets Respond,” a really amazing cultural project created by Rattle editor Timothy Green that publishes one poem online every week in response to a current event. The deadline to submit to Poets Respond each week is Friday at midnight, and Green reads all of the submissions each Saturday, which is an extraordinary committment. I have a lot of respect for him, based on this fact alone, but also based on the poems he chooses. You can check out the archive here. “Poets Respond” is a bit of necessary culture. Here is the blurb about the project on the Rattle site:

“On average, poems in Rattle are published six months after they were submitted. Then they appear online six months after that. Real poetry is timeless, of course, so usually it doesn’t matter—but this is the age of information. News cycles rarely last more than a week, let alone a year. One reason poetry lags behind other forms of contemporary media might be this delay—how can poetry be part of the conversation when it enters so late? Moreover, poets do often respond to current events in real-time, so why make them wait for our print schedule?

Our solution is Poets Respond—a poem written within the last week about a public event that occurred within the last week will appear every Sunday. Our only criterion for selection is the quality of the poem; all opinions and reactions are welcome.”

This past week, out of 250 submissions, Timothy Green picked two poems instead of just one, and one of the poems was mine. So I am elated. You can check out my poem “If You Really Aren’t A Racist Take This Online Test,” if you are curious, and while you’re at it you might also want to read “Perpetuation of the Species” by Jessica Goodfellow (the other poem selected last week). It contains these extraordinary lines:

When we say refugee crisis, we mean the sum of the parts
refuses to be whole
Poetry matters. We need it, as we need every form of adequate culture that we can find or make. Respond, friends!
November 22nd, 2015

Between too-little and too-much

Today’s parataxis: retired battery chickens in little knit vests plus theoretical physicist Richard Feynman on how to begin solving problems: “The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.”

And, there’s this, from American poet, essayist, and environmentalist Wendell Berry: “Despair is the too-little of responsibility, as pride is the too-much….Good work finds the way between pride and despair.”

November 15th, 2015

On private grief and political imagination

My mom was dying of brain cancer during the War in Iraq. My private grief and catastrophic tenderness in those brutal months made my political imagination and compassion more acute than ever before. “There is only ever one death // So many names for the unnameable,” as I wrote at that time. Paris, Beirut, Iraq, Bonita. So many names. All love can be a light, even grief, even if it is a painful light. I am quite sure our work in speaking to one another about painful things is the same thing the Buddhists say and that I ask my children often to try to learn to consider when they are really worked up and upset: what is going to make matters better, instead of making them worse?

August 15th, 2015

“The Second Line” at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival

This was a fabulous little fringe show. The kind of thing fringe exists to make space for. Edmonton fringe folks, check it out and support these two talented women (Dana Wylie and Kirsten Elliott) who are gently challenging blues histories and futures. And you might want to stick around for a drink by the fire on the Cafe Bicyclette patio in the candlelight after dark…HTTPS://m.facebook.com/profile.php?id=797582173690963

Dana Wylie and Kirsten Elliott of “The Second Line” at the 2015 Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival