Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour

November 27th, 2014

I’ve just been tagged by friend and fellow writer Angeline Schellenberg to join the Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour. Angeline is a poet who just had her first book manuscript accepted, for which I am quite excited. And I love the title of her blog: 37 Mice.

Some writers have compared this to a “chain letter,” but if it is, it’s a much more pleasant exercise than any chain letter I’ve ever participated in. You don’t have to foist it on ten reluctant friends, and you do get to hear from other writers about their latest work and their writing process.

So, unlike much of what I post here, this entry will be about me, answering the four questions posed to all participants on this virtual tour.

1. What am I working on?
Like Angeline, I am looking forward to the publication of my first book of poetry. Mine will appear with Turnstone Press next spring. It’s taken a long time for this book to come together; a handful of the poems are new, or new-ish, but quite a few are ten years old and more. Ideas of home form a prominent theme, in the literal sense of looking at the place and people I come from, and in the metaphorical sense of finding one’s place in the world.

At this point the editing is done, and the book has moved into production, so I have been trying to get back to other projects for a while. I have a second manuscript that’s been half-finished for some time now. Among other things, this one looks at places, how we live within them, how they can be familiar and strange at once, and what happens when we move between places. One section grew out of a long train trip I took with a friend, and another draws on my grandmother’s diary written while her family was en route to Canada. I also have two new series of poems that might fit into the new book, and another series that I might turn into a chapbook. And I have a stack of miscellaneous poems in various stages of revision, which I’d like to polish and send out.

2. How does my work differ from others in its genre?
Poetry is such a diverse genre that my work will be similar to many and different from many others. I never used to know what to say when people asked “What kind of poetry do you write?” and I still don’t; at least, I don’t have a short answer to that question. My poems are definitely about something—that is, although I strive for evocative language and aim to write poems that sound good when read aloud, language itself is the means rather than the subject of the poems. I like to think my poems are accessible but also interesting. They often involve narrative, and quite a few in my upcoming book use little bits of dialogue. My language and imagery tend toward the concrete and sensory rather than the abstract. A couple of people have said that my poems “make them see pictures.” I like that.

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Literature and place

November 17th, 2014

A book that I’ve recently added to my must-read list is Joan Thomas’ new novel, The Opening Sky. Lately several people have told me I should read it, because it’s a well-written story but also because parts of it take place in the neighborhood where I live.

There’s a particular pleasure in reading a book that’s set in a place you know. I thought about this recently after re-reading Barbara Nickel’s poetry collection, Domain, in which several poems talk about the Saskatchewan town where she grew up and about her family’s house. I happen to be from the same town, and reading these poems brought me back there, to the way the place looked and felt in the ’70s when I was in elementary and junior high school.

That sense of familiarity is what first attracted me to the urban fantasy novels of Charles de Lint. Several of his novels from the ’80s and early ’90s are set in Ottawa, where I lived for a time. I also lived in Regina briefly, and that contributes to the pleasure I get from Gail Bowen’s mystery novels. I have grown to like both these writers for other reasons, too, but there’s still something about being able to instantly know the landscape, what the streets look like, what the weather’s like.

But there’s a bit of strangeness in the familiarity. Reading another writer’s take on a familiar place is different from simply remembering it. The experience is a bit like meeting someone for the first time and finding out they used to live five blocks from where you grew up. Someone else’s portrayal of a city or landscape can show you things you didn’t know; you get to see the place in a different light. You see possibilities for what could happen in that place.

 

Catherine Winkworth: the poetry of translation

April 16th, 2014

Catherine_WinkworthTranslating hymns is no small feat. This is what I’ve concluded after making a first attempt at translating German poetry. Besides conveying the sense of the text, you have to put into metrical form, ideally preserving the meter and rhyme of the original, and do it in a way that sounds good.

So I’ve really come to appreciate the work of Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878). She was a prolific translator of German chorales, including “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty” and “Now thank we all our God.” The accounts of her life that I’ve found so far are all rather brief, but all state unequivocally that she did more than anyone to bring the German chorale tradition to English-speaking churches, and that her translations are the most widely used of any from the German.

She was an educated woman who, in addition to her translation work, advocated for higher education for women. My guess is that her family was pretty well connected, since, according to one account, it was the German ambassador to England who introduced her to German hymnody. She published her first collection of hymn translations, Lyra Germanica Series 1, in 1854 or ’55, when she was still in her twenties. She followed with Series 2 in 1858.

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One book leads to another

March 11th, 2014

How do you decide what to read? This question came up at a lunch with friends recently, and once the subject started rolling around in my head I began finding other writers who had things to say about it. One friend sent me a link to this article from Brainpickings with excerpts from an essay by Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, and at a book sale I found Robertson Davies’ The Merry Heart, a collection of pieces on reading and writing. Brodsky’s essay talks about developing an educated taste as a means to help choose what to read. On the other hand, Davies, while certainly well-educated, acknowledges in his that he read “wanderingly, capriciously, following [his] own nose.”

Davies’ approach is pretty much how I read, much of the time. I’ll follow an interesting lead, and then one book leads to another. Last November, American poet, fiction writer and essayist Thomas Lynch gave a lecture in Winnipeg, and recommended reading Seamus Heaney. I began with Human Chain, Heaney’s last book, and ended up reading certain poems over and over. I also found Lazy Bastardism, a collection of essays by Carmine Starnino, which a friend had recently read. Both books happened to mention the name of Helen Vendler, the American critic, whom I knew almost nothing about. So I found one of her books, and through it have been introduced to poems I’d never read before by Plath, Keats, and others. And after reading Starnino’s essay on Robyn Sarah, I began reading her poetry and essays, too.

In following these associative trails, I find myself agreeing with both approaches to reading. Brodsky does make an important point in saying that unless readers find a way to educate their literary tastes, choosing what to read is simply too overwhelming. This is especially true if you want to move out of your habitual reading paths, which is where other people’s recommendations are helpful. On the other hand, Davies’ point is also true: it’s often the case that you don’t find books so much as they find you.

Sentences

January 28th, 2014

Normally I read for the sake of the overall narrative or argument, but now and then I have to stop to enjoy and admire a particular passage. Certain sentences are so evocative they’ve stayed in my head for years.

A friend recently sent me an essay called “The Problem of Reading” by photographer and writer Moyra Davey. Among others, she quotes Virginia Woolf on how to read. Davey says:

[Woolf] claims the best way to understand what a novelist is doing is not to read but to write: recall a scene from your life that has struck you in some way, she suggests, and put it to paper. See how easily the feelings you meant to transmit evade you. Now turn from your muddle … and read the opening pages of Austen, Defoe, or Hardy, and you will be in no doubt as to their mastery, each conjuring up a world uncommonly vivid and unique.

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A treasury for the English-speaking world: the gift of John Mason Neale

November 17th, 2013

The church I attend sings a lot of hymns translated by John Mason Neale (1818-1866). That probably says something about the type of hymns we tend to sing, but it also says a lot about how prolific he was as a translator, and how much the English-speaking church owes him.

The current Anglican hymnal, Common Praise, for instance, has no less than 25 texts translated by Neale. (Hymns Ancient and Modern had many more than that, judging by a brief glance at its index.) The old red Anglican hymnal, which my church still uses, has twenty. Over half of these are hymns marking seasons of the church year: Advent, Lent, and especially Easter. Hymnal: a Worship Book, used by Mennonite churches, has only eight, but one of those is “O Come, O come Emmanuel,” one of the essential Advent hymns.

One result of the 16th-century Reformation was that Protestant churches began using vernacular languages in church liturgy instead of Latin. This was a good thing on the whole, but some things were lost in the process. A great wealth of ancient hymns “henceforth became as a sealed book and as a dead letter,” as Neale regretfully put it. He did his best to remedy that, translating over two hundred Latin and Greek hymns from the early centuries of Christianity.

I would guess that many people sing these hymns without realizing just how old they are. “O Sons and daughters” is relatively new, written in the 16th century, but “That Eastertide with joy was bright” dates back all the way to the 4th century. Thanks to these translations, English-speakers have access to hymns spanning over sixteen hundred years.

Every era of church history has had its own “brand” of hymody, with its own particular emphases and its resulting strengths and weaknesses. The greater the variety of hymns we can sing, the greater the breadth of language and imagery that can inform and enrich our faith.

[The title of this post borrows a phrase from Exploring the Mennonite Hymnal: Handbook (Faith and Life Press, 1983, now out of print), p. 59]

The art of looking and writing

January 2nd, 2013

How do you write about another art form? Can you really convey the visual in words?

Poets use language to evoke a visual image for the reader all the time.  But somehow, writing in response to another art form has always seemed a little problematic to me. I was not sure why one would do it. If the reader has not seen the work of art you’re writing about, how is the writing meaningful to them?

Ekphrasis (the term used to denote writing that responds to another art form) is an old practice. The Chicago School of Media Theory’s glossary says this about its origins:

Initially, ekphrasis was a rhetorical term like many others taught to Greek students. Teachers of rhetoric taught ekphrasis as a way of bringing the experience of an object to a listener or reader through highly detailed descriptive writing. …  The student of ekphrasis was encouraged to lend their attention not only to the qualities immediately available in an object, but to make efforts to embody qualities beyond the physical aspects of the work they were observing.

In contemporary practice the meaning of ekphrasis is stretched further, becoming a sort of conversation with a visual work, and eventually leading toward a poem that goes beyond the original image. Read the rest of this entry »

Farewell TWB

November 3rd, 2012

As many book-lovers know by now, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore will close at the end of this month, after 39 years in business. It’s a familiar story by now: competition from e-books, online shopping, and the big stores that can offer deep discounts. Another entry in the long list of independent bookstores that have closed. I can name a few from every city I’ve lived in.

There used to be women’s bookstores in many cities across Canada. Winnipeg had one, called Bold Print. Hamilton had one; so did a dozen other cities. Now, according to Quill & Quire, there’s only one left: the Northern Woman’s Bookstore in Thunder Bay.

Now that these stores are gone, what’s taking their place? It’s possible to buy almost any book online now, even the hard-to-find titles that women’s bookstores specialized in, but aside from Amazon’s sometimes annoying “Customers who bought this also bought…” how do people find the right book in the first place? Are other groups and places filling the role of community resource that TWB and similar stores sought to be?

There was a farewell event in Toronto on October 30, and a satellite event in Winnipeg on the same night. The Winnipeg event, organized by Ariel Gordon, happened at McNally Robinson Booksellers. Twenty-six of us read that evening, and although we were all sorry about the reason for the event, we thoroughly enjoyed the varied richness of poetry and fiction we heard. And were grateful, all of us, to have an independent bookstore that works so hard to support local writers and their books.

The practice of writing

October 5th, 2012

“I think I’ll have to buy this,” I said to my son, holding out The Complete Journals of L.M. Montgomery. “Of course you will,” he said, knowing how many books by and about Montgomery line the bookshelves at home. I had already read all five volumes of her Selected Journals, compiled by the same editors, Mary Henley Rubio and Elizabeth Waterston. The entries in those earlier volumes were selected to emphasize Montgomery’s life as a writer, omitting many entries describing her moods, her everyday activities, and her favorite landscapes.

Yet, even though many journal entries don’t relate directly to the development of her writing career, they often feel as if she is practicing. She may have simply been trying to express her enchantment with a beautiful scene, but she does it in what seems like a consciously literary way, in sentences like these: “The sea was an expanse of silvery gray. Afar I saw the purple slopes of New London scarfed in silvery hazes” (p. 24, entry for Thursday, April 10, 1890).

As vivid as these passages are, I prefer the accounts of everyday events: visits with friends, conflicts at school, outings to the seashore, etc. They’re written in a lively style, with a great deal of wit— sometimes lightly mocking, sometimes tart and sarcastic. (There are many gloomy passages, too, detailing Montgomery’s loneliness and depression, but I haven’t gotten to those yet.)

Montgomery started a journal to record what she thought worth recording. It became a place where she could vent her feelings and say things she couldn’t say anywhere else. But the practice of writing a journal was, for her, also an important part of the discipline of writing.

A literature of our own

June 8th, 2012

At the Symposium on Manitoba Writing last month I was reminded of how, for a certain generation of writers, prairie literature was something they had to invent for themselves.

That got me thinking about books I’d read growing up. I don’t think I ever felt the same absence of literature that spoke my language. This is partly because of my age: by the time I began reading and writing poetry seriously, there was lots out there by prairie writers, probably much more than I realized at the time.

It was in the fiction I read in elementary school that I noticed differences between my world and the world of books. I read a lot of British books about girls in boarding schools, where they wore uniforms and only saw their parents during holidays, and a lot of books set in the eastern U.S., where schools had cafeterias and leaves turned red in the fall.

But then there was a series of books by Margaret Epp that I read and re-read: Prairie Princess, The Princess and the Pelican, and The Princess Rides a Panther. They are out of print now; written in the ’60s and ’70s, they were later reissued under different titles (Sarah and the Magic Twenty-Fifth, Sarah and the Pelican, Sarah and the Lost Friendship). The main character, ten-year-old Sarah Naomi Scott, lives on a Saskatchewan farm in the 1920s and attends a one-room school. Maybe it was the setting that made such a strong connection, and the fact that I, too, was about ten when I first read the books. I grew up in town, not on the farm, and my school had at least two classes for each grade. But those one-room schools still operated through the ’50s when my mother was a girl, and on my grandparents’ farm were relics of the horse-drawn wagon and the “bunk,” an enclosed vehicle on sleigh runners, in which she and her siblings travelled to school.

For that combination of reasons, I think, I loved those books and identified with Sarah Scott. It also helped that Margaret Epp, although not a relative as far as I know, actually lived in a nearby town. It was exciting to know that Real Writers came from small-town Saskatchewan, too.