Posts Tagged ‘CanLit’

Canadian Writers’ Blog Tour

Thursday, 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 April. At this point the editing is done, the manuscript has moved into copy-editing and production, and it’s starting to look like a book, which is quite exciting. 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.

In between looking at proofs 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.


Literature and place

Monday, 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.


The practice of writing

Friday, 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

Friday, 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.

Jay Macpherson

Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Another Canadian poet has died recently: Jay Macpherson passed away on March 24. She was, according to Quill and Quire, one of “Canada’s finest— and arguably most underappreciated— poets.”

Reading an assessment like that always makes me want to find out more. I knew of Jay Macpherson, very peripherally (she contributed some hymn translations for the joint Anglican-United Church Hymnal [1971]) but was not aware that she was a woman (her first name was Jean) or that she had won a Governor General’s Award in 1957 for The Boatman, her third book and her best-known work. Another of her books, Welcoming Disaster, is available in a combined volume with The Boatman, titled Poems Twice Told, from Oxford University Press. She also wrote a non-fiction work on mythology for young people.

Macpherson was strongly influenced by Northrop Frye, resulting in a poetry that made use of “myth as a source of universal poetic meaning,” to quote my high school poetry text. That same textbook also calls her poetry “gnomic and difficult”— not exactly encouraging for students. The publisher’s description of The Boatman is much more inviting: “an intricate sequence of short epigrammatic poems – in which there are echoes of ballads, carols, nursery rhymes, and hymns – that bear a whole cosmos of the poet’s invention, constructed from Biblical and classical allusions.” The few poems of hers that I have read so far are compelling for their pithiness, their skilful use of form, and their resonant language.

You can read several of Jay Macpherson’s poems here, and another in the Quill and Quire article linked above.

Discoveries: Colleen Thibaudeau

Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

Colleen Thibaudeau’s obituary in the Feb. 9 Globe and Mail was intriguing in a couple of ways. For one thing, I had never heard her name before. This in itself is nothing new; even in the relatively small world of Canadian poetry I do encounter well-established poets I’ve never heard of. Having belatedly discovered Thibaudeau, I wanted to read her work, especially after reading, in the Canadian Encyclopedia, how her poetry celebrates “the extraordinary nature of ordinary life by combining the everyday with the otherworldly.”

Brick Books does still have some of Thibaudeau’s books in print, but otherwise her work is not easy to find. I found almost none of her poetry online, except for an excerpt in the obituary, and this one featured as Poem of the Month on the Parliamentary Poet Laureate site. And Winnipeg’s public libraries don’t have any of her books. All I found was the anthology Un Dozen: Thirteen Canadian Poets, edited by Judith Fitzgerald, which contains four pages of Thibaudeau’s poems. This small sampling is enough to make me want to find more of her work, even if it takes a bit of looking.

The other intriguing thing about Thibaudeau is that she did a master’s thesis on contemporary Canadian poetry— in 1949. I would not have expected Canadian poetry, especially contemporary poetry, to be a subject for study back then; I more or less assumed that Canadians still saw “real” literature as coming from elsewhere. Maybe that’s not entirely true… in any case, there would have been no shortage of  material to study: P.K. Page, Irving Layton, Earle Birney, A.M. Klein, Dorothy Livesay, and Elizabeth Brewster (among many others) were all writing in the ’40s. A.J.M.Smith‘s landmark anthology The Book of Canadian Poetry was published in 1943, and Ralph Gustafson’s Anthology of Canadian Poetry in 1942. Periodicals like Contemporary Verse had recently been established. It sounds like it was an exciting time to be reading and writing poetry in Canada.

Winter trifles

Monday, December 13th, 2010

It is a cold day in Winnipeg, a real freeze-your-face-off day, and while walking to a nearby café to meet some friends for a late breakfast I remembered this little poem:

Oh, the cold of Canada nobody knows,
The fire burns our shoes without warming our toes;
Oh, dear, what shall we do?
Our blankets are thin, and our noses are blue—
Our noses are blue, and our blankets are thin,
It’s at zero without and we’re freezing within!

(Chorus)—Oh, dear, what shall we do?

—John Dunbar Moodie

Clearly, this was written before the days of central heating! Few of us now can complain of being so miserably cold indoors, whatever it’s like outside.

(John Dunbar Moodie, by the way, was the husband of Susanna Moodie, and this poem is quoted in her book, Roughing It In The Bush.)

And of course the “nobody knows” in the first line reminds me of this, from The House at Pooh Corner:

The more it
The more it
The more it

And nobody
How cold my
How cold my

To which Piglet eventually responds: “Pooh,… it isn’t the toes so much as the ears.”

But for me, it’s always the toes.


Sunday, December 6th, 2009

I’ve been roaming through this old anthology, published in the 1920s and entitled, with great simplicity, The Canadian Poetry Book. Without even looking at the preface or the endnotes you can tell it’s a school text. The names of Doris Morgan and her sisters from Lucky Lake, Saskatchewan are written on the cover and flyleaf. One of them, clearly bored stiff, wrote her name several times and copied out all the information on the title page. Inside, you can tell exactly which poems the girls studied by the notes written on them in turquoise ink.



This poetry is from the 19th and early 20th centuries— fairly old in terms of Canadian literature. The poets represented here have largely gone out of fashion, and some, I suspect, have been pretty well forgotten. Canadians who went to school in the 1940s and ’50s, maybe even into the ’70s, will know Bliss Carman, William Henry Drummond, E. Pauline Johnson, and Archibald Lampman, but does anyone study them now? And how many today know the names Ethelwyn Wetherald or John Hunter-Duvar?

Anthologies can be a mixed bag, of course. Not every poem in this book is a gem (there’s an especially forgettable piece on the death of Sir John A. Macdonald). But there are some real treasures here, among them Johnson’s haunting  “The Legend of Qu’Appelle Valley,” and Lampman’s “Heat” which conveys, with its alliteration and slow-swinging rhythm, the sleepiness of a summer afternoon. Until now I’d read very little of these poets— aside from Johnson’s “The Song my Paddle Sings,” which almost everyone reads— but having found their work here, I want to read more.

Poetry as compassion

Thursday, May 21st, 2009

A couple of months ago, to mark World Poetry Day, I went to hear Don Domanski give a reading and interview. He had strong opinions about why so few people read poetry these days (more about that in another post), and also had some things to say about writing poetry. It’s important, he said, to get outside oneself, to put yourself in the position of another – whether that’s another person, an animal, or a tree.

This reminded me of the words of David Milne, the Canadian painter who lived from 1882 to 1953. An exhibit of his work at the National Gallery of Canada in 1992 had quotations from his letters and other writings on the wall next to the paintings. “Art is love,” he said. Not love of anything or anyone in particular; “[i]t is just love, love without an object, a spilling of the oil of love.” He also said: “The thing is that while I write or paint with one hand I have to have someone— nature mostly— hold the other.”

I think this is some of what Domanski is getting at in reference to poetry, although he used the words “compassion” and “mindfulness.” But for both Milne and Domanski the point is that art-making has to involve a movement outward from oneself. Self-absorption is deadly; artists ultimately have to get outside their own heads if they’re going to have anything interesting to say. Strong feelings in themselves don’t make for good art.

The assumption implicit here is that poetry, and art in general, is about something other than itself. That’s certainly my own approach to poetry, but there are movements in poetry that treat language in abstract ways. Yet I think that even this kind of poetry requires getting outside one’s own head. The poet has to begin with a love for language and a willingness to listen.

You can read a poem by Don Domanski here, and a CBC Radio interview here.

See some of David Milne’s work here.