Monday, April 24, 2017

Evelyn Deshane on Wendy C. Ortiz

On Writing "I"

In the winter of 2016, I found out I won a Mentorship sponsored by Plenitude Magazine. For four months, I would be able to work with a queer author who wrote creative non-fiction with the hopes of creating, revising, and learning how to better create my own work. That year, the author was Michael V. Smith—a big deal author who I was slightly star-struck by when I first met him in a cafe in downtown Toronto.

I'd entered the contest on a whim. Most Friday nights, instead of getting drunk and texting my exes, I drink too much coffee and browse call for submission pages. I feel no need for anonymous sex—but random short story calls, poetry prompts, pitch fests, and literary contests? I'm all in. I enter a lot of things and sometimes I win them. Most of the time, I lose, but then I start the process again on another night.

When I found the Plenitude Mentorship, I already had an essay to submit. I'd written my 3,500 word piece as part of a class assignment the previous semester, one where the teacher had encouraged us to "dig deep" and talk about ourselves. Considering this was a 700 level PhD class, I thought it was some kind of academic trick: by talking about ourselves, we wouldn't be able to cite anyone, and therefore, we'd commit plagiarism. So my essay was a mix of the personal and the academic; I flitted between composition theory from Jacqueline Jones Royster, my past experiences writing, and growing up queer and gender non-conforming. I expected to not do well, but I received a grade of 95 on the essay. To me, that meant it was good enough to submit to Plenitude, a magazine I highly respected.

When I won, I was surprised—but it wasn't because I didn't already know the essay was good. Or that I wasn't smart. I knew all of those things already. But I was shocked because now it meant I'd have to write more essays in creative non-fiction—something I had virtually no experience in.

This is the nature of my "impostor syndrome": I don't doubt I'm smart or that I'm good. But I worry that, somehow deep down, I am only smart or good because of other people.

This was why academia appealed to me. Everything I said must be cited, quoted, and if not—then I was a plagiarist and would be punished for my crimes. I worried that without the institutional support of someone else saying what I already wanted to say (and citing them for it), everything out of my mouth would be wrong. Fundamentally, I would be wrong. Even if I could separate my own neurosis and appreciate other people's creative nonfiction—like Michael's—I felt as if I couldn't do it for myself.

After our meeting in Toronto, Michael told me to be vulnerable in my writing. Which, of course, meant writing about my experiences. Using "I" when I spoke again—and not "like Royster, I argue that..." or "I compare this to that."

I had to talk about me.

Habits were hard to break. The first thing I did was research. I read almost every single memoir I could find that was either queer (Carrie Brownstien's Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl), gender non-conforming (Rae Spoon and Ivan E. Coyote's Gender Failure), or published by Michael's publisher Arsenal Pulp Press (Amber Dawn's How Poetry Saved My Life). Oh, and Joan Didion too. Everyone always recommended her, and I managed to comb through three of her works (The Year of Magical Thinking, Blue Nights, and Slouching Towards Bethlehem) in one week.

It wasn't until I found Wendy C. Ortiz's work that something changed. Even months after reading it, mentioning the title still gives me chills. Excavation is a poetic memoir that darts between the present moments of Ortiz living in California with her young daughter and past moments of the five year relationship she had with her high school English teacher. The book is not sensationalist, but introspective. Ortiz has re-constructed scenes from diary entries, but she doesn't deliver them verbatim. Instead, she recreates the 1980s world the story exists in, imbuing the experiences with a lyrical aura, while also not endorsing the teacher's behaviour or judging herself at that age. A stark feeling of honesty—and vulnerability—melts onto each page. When Ortiz describes the present, there is no pontificating, either. She acknowledges the abuse—but she does it through her art of excavation. Like an archeologist who digs under the dirt, Ortiz decides to excavate this experience from her life so she can look back on it and understand like a relic. The fossil is beautiful as it is destructive, and it's part of her.

She treats herself and her life like an academic text, but she uses "I" from the position of expert and participant. She never fumbles towards understanding, either, because she has the last say; no one else can tell her what this experience means to her but her.

At the time, that was a message I deeply needed to hear. Every other memoir I read already held the assumption that their life experience was enough to speak from, no examination required. Ortiz's flitting between authoritative and emotive made it okay for me to do the same, and for me to etch out the type of author—and expert—I wanted to become in my own life.

At the end of those four months with Michael, I produced a manuscript. I wasn't exactly an archeologist on a dig like Ortiz; more like a folklorist hunting for a mythology that had been long forgotten. The manuscript was strange and twisting—almost dream-like, but like Ortiz's next work, Bruja, I think I'll be able to find a place for it now that I know I can.

Evelyn Deshane has appeared in Plenitude Magazine, Strange Horizons, and Lackington's Magazine. Their chapbook, Mythology, was released in 2015 with The Steel Chisel. Evelyn (pron. Eve-a-lyn) received an MA from Trent University and currently studying for PhD at Waterloo University. Visit them at:

Monday, April 17, 2017

Ian Whistle on Judith Copithorne

When I first encountered the work of Vancouver concrete poet Judith Copithorne, it was through the second-hand book trade, via Winnipeg’s Red River Books. Thumbing through numerous ephemeral small press publications such as Jim Brown’s west coast seen (Talonbooks, 1969), John Robert Colombo’s New Directions in Canadian Poetry (Holt, Rinehart and Winston of Canada, 1971) and bill bissett’s THE LAST BLEWOINTMENT ANTHOLOGY VOLUME 1 (Nightwood Editions, 1985), I was struck by Copithorne’s hand-drawn swirls of text and obvious refusal to adhere to the standard of equally-spaced vertical lines of typed lyric. She might have concurrently been writing poems set in a more straightforward manner, but what stood out was her engagement beyond the words, opening the possibilities of meaning through approaching text on a physical level. Copithorne, as she informed through her 1971 title Runes, was the author of “hand drawn poem-drawings.” Through more than five decades of what appears to be a rather steady production, her poems have involved sketches and overlays, swirls, curves and flourishes that allow the spatial arrangement of her sketch-poems to inform, and even twist, how they are read.

Part of what appeals in Copithorne’s work is in the engagement with not only the physical aspects of text, and even text-as-image, but one grounded in daily activity and community. In a short essay Calgary poet Derek Beaulieu wrote for Lemonhound, he included this short description of Judith Copithorne:

Her exemplary work from the 1960s and 1970s integrates a daily diaristic practice (especially in Arrangements) that documents a domestic space centered on meditation and community. 1969’s Release consists of a series of wisp-like ethereal hand-drawn texts that move through gestural fragments and slights of handwriting accumulated into florid yogic texts that move between mandala and map. The suggestion that her pieces are drawn and not written and are hyphenated poem-drawings speaks to a textual hybridity which places looking on the same plane as reading. With Arrangements, Runes and Release Copithorne creates a visual poetry of looking and reading the domestic and the community.

Born in Vancouver, British Columbia in 1939, by the early 1960s Judith Copithorne existed in association with an informal grouping of “Downtown Vancouver Poets,” a group imagined as a linked counterpoint to those involved at TISH through the University of British Columbia. Along with Copithorne, this loose mélange of Vancouver writers included Gladys (Maria) Hindmarch, John Newlove, bill bissett, Gerry Gilbert, Maxine Gadd and Roy Kiyooka. Later on, she was part of “the heyday of experimental writing and publishing that was centred in Kitsilano in the early 1970s.” As with bissett, her production began to evolve into concrete poems produced as paintings, and has since evolved into experimenting with computer-generated shifts of image and text, adapting to new technology as it appears, to continue producing challenging work. Having appeared in the first issues of blew ointment and Ganglia, a more recent author biography online at Ditch includes the assertion that “Judith is constantly changing the mediums she works in as they become available, but the core there is always her distinctive touch.”

She has published “multiple volumes of text images and poetry” and even the occasional volume of prose, and a list of her titles includes Returning (Returning Press, 1965), Release: Poem-Drawings (Bau-Xi Gallery, 1969), Rain (Ganglia Press, 1969), Runes (Coach House/Intermedia, 1971), Miss Tree’s Pillow Book (Intermedia / Returning Press, 1971), Until Now (Heshe&ItWorks, 1971), Heart’s Tide (Vancouver Community Press, Writing Series #8, 1972), Arrangements (Intermedia Press, 1973), A Light Character (Coach House Press, 1985), Third Day of Fast (Silver Birch Press, 1987), Horizon (Pangan Subway Ritual, 1992), Tern: (Returning Press, 2000), Brackets & Boundaries (Returning Press, 2012) and see lex ions (Xexoxial Editions, 2015). Ottawa poet, publisher and critic jwcurry released a bibliography of her work as part of an issue of news notes, produced as issue #400 of his 1cent series (2009).

Given her more than fifty years of producing and publishing, it’s no wonder that jwcurry has referred to Copithorne as “our first lady of concrete.” Despite this, most critical attention on concrete and visual forms in Canada have predominantly focused on her male counterparts, from bpNichol to David UU to bissett himself. Nichol once described her as “[o]ne of the few clear successors to the tradition William Blake founded,” an assertion John Robert Colombo repeated in his brief introduction to her work in his New Directions in Canadian Poetry. To introduce her quarter (joining Earle Birney, bill bissett and Andrew Suknaski) of the anthology Four Parts Sand (Oberon Press, 1972), she wrote this:

Poem-drawings are an attempt to fuse visual and verbal perceptions. The eye sees, the ear hears, movement is felt kinaesthetically throughout the body and all these sensations are perceived in heart, belly and brain. The aims are the same as in other forms of literature and art: concentration and communication, delight, immersion in the present moment.

Before discovering Copithorne’s work, I had never seen this kind of poetry outside of my rather dry university literature courses, having read through visual pieces by American poet E.E. Cummings (1894-1962) and French poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918). Thanks to my own lack of knowledge and, arguably, curiosity to self-research, it had never occurred that such explorations of text around and across the page were anything more than antiquated historical blips. While not wishing to overstate, it was through discovering Copithorne that, in my eyes, the page became possible. Beyond being a mere placeholder for text, the unmarked page exploded into a larger, expanded canvas. From Copithorne, my twentysomething reading trajectories rippled outward, discovering the work of poets such as bpNichol, David UU, Andrew Suknaski, Bob Cobbing, jwcurry, Hart Broudy, Beth Jankola, Paul Dutton, Steve McCaffery, da levy, Daniel f. Bradley, Lawrence Upton and Gary Barwin, as well as bissett himself. But through whatever accident of reading, my first contemporary introduction to visual and concrete poems was Judith Copithorne. I am grateful for that.

Ian Whistle has published in filling Station, CRASH: a litzine, Moss Trill and Nöd. Small poetry publications have appeared via jwcurry’s 1cent and Ken Hunt’s Spacecraft. His chapbook, Inaccuracies, was just released by above/ground press. He currently runs h&, an occasional journal of visual/concrete poetry and assorted other oddities:

Photo credit: Russell Kildal

Monday, April 10, 2017

Adrienne Gruber on Brecken Hancock

The Rubble

When I was pregnant with my second child and doing research on childbirth and motherhood for my third book, Brecken would send me reading recommendations. Not the what-to-expect-when-you’re-expecting type, but the dark, seedy, underbelly confessions of mothers. A Life’s Work by Rachel Cusk. Drunk Mom by Jowita Bydlowska. Ongoingingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso. Susan Holbrook’s poem Nursery is still the most accurate and telling description of a breastfeeding relationship I have ever read. Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda buried me alive with its ferociousness. I devoured them all, starving for any material that would depict the darkness of motherhood in equal measure to the light.


A:         How’s your gorgeous fetus?

B:         This fetus is KILLING ME

A:         OMG second pregnancies are THE WORST


After my second daughter was born, Brecken sent me podcast links. I listened to every episode of The Longest Shortest Time and The One in a Million Baby with my colicky infant strapped to my chest. Those podcast episodes were my lifelines. Queer stories that resisted the stereotypes of motherhood and parenting. Transgender dads giving birth and breastfeeding their babies. Butch moms searching for appropriately stylish maternity clothing. Birth injuries. Sex after childbirth for all of us. I’d walk and listen for hours each day. Every time I waited to cross an intersection my daughter would scream. I couldn’t write during this time, I could barely think. I had to be moving, always moving. I’d disassociate. Mothering while thinking about my next move.


B:         I’m sitting here in genetics and
the couple beside me are
cooing at each other and he’s
rubbing her belly, which is still
flat. Ugh. I hate this sentimental

Now his butt is half in my chair
because he’s putting his ear to
her stomach.


A:         He won’t be cooing all over her
when she shits herself in the
delivery room. #firsttimeparents


Brecken is a mother to one son and one fetus. Her book, Broom Broom, is about a mother/daughter relationship. It’s about illness and bodies, bathtubs and hygiene, and the desire to purify internal damage. It’s a dark story of motherhood, of abuse, trauma and self-harm. It is Brecken’s bravery that is most apparent in the book. Unapologetic confessions of familial intimacy reveal a mélange of dichotomies - clean verses unclean bodies, clean verses unclean psyches. I return to Broom Broom frequently, for its brutal honesty, its hostile and grotesque language, its nebulous humour. Most of all, I re-read the book for its haunting contaminated speaker, both mesmeric and relatable in her anxiety and pain.


One week we compare ‘new lows’ in mothering, pregnancy and bodily functions. When changing my toddler I discover a soggy rice cracker wedged inside her diaper. Without hesitation I pop it in my mouth and proceed to clean her up. It takes about five minutes before it fully computes that I have just pulled a cracker from my kid’s diaper and ate it. Rock bottom.

In turn, Brecken sends me a message. She is nauseated on transit and has to exit several stops early to avoid throwing up on the bus. She retches into her hands while dashing across a slushy street. She then runs several blocks, reeking of vomit, to make it to her son’s daycare in time to pick him up.


When Brecken edited my second book, Buoyancy Control, I thought we’d share one or two phone calls to touch base about her written feedback. Instead, our first conversation morphed into a lengthy excavation of my work. Her editorial approach was to climb inside my book, zip the pages around her and spend several weeks roaming around the ego of the manuscript. She caught the usual grammatical errors and suggested alternative word choices and line breaks, but more than that, she situated herself inside the flesh of each individual poem, raising crucial questions of each piece. Instead of a few short phone calls, we maintained an ongoing dialogue that lasted several months. The book that evolved from that dialogue was a collaboration. Together, we assembled a world.


A:         I’m at SFU waiting to see Maggie
Nelson talk about The Argonauts
recognizing, yet again, how
mothering has basically castrated my
social skills. I see all these people I
know and I can’t handle the idea of
talking to any of them. Why? They’re
perfectly nice people. I like them all
and we have things in common
(MAGGIE NELSON) but I just can’t
imagine attempting a smart witty
conversation when I have sweaty
armpits and misshapen boobs from
my stupid nursing bra that no longer
fits. I don’t know how to talk to
people in grown up spaces, without
the ongoing distraction that is my
children. I am equal parts WAY too
giddy to be out in the world after 6p.m.
and terrified that I will drool my sleep
deprived, adult-hungry, needy self all
over the next person who says hi to me.
Send reinforcements.

B:         I will always adore your sweaty armpits
and misshapen boobs. Mostly because
I also have sweaty armpits and
misshapen boobs from my bra
not fitting due to not replacing any of
my goddamned clothing since getting
pregnant. I’m a disaster!!


I finished the edits for my second book with my laptop propped open on the kitchen counter. I lapped the kitchen to keep the colicky baby asleep, pausing at my computer to change a line break or cut a word. I mothered each edit. Unconditional love is assumed to be inherent in mothering. Except we do have conditions. Maintaining friendships, writing books and collaborating together in darkness. We have to or we drown.

While searching for a motherhood that makes sense, my ‘disaster’ of a friend mothers me. She is careful with her words so as not to discourage me. She questions my choices with compassion. She joins me in the rubble, the wreckage of motherhood and writing. I swell. I am full of light and darkness, of equal measure and necessity.

Adrienne Gruber is the author of the poetry collection This is the Nightmare (2008; shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry) and three chapbooks: Intertidal Zones (2014), Mimic (2012; winner of a bpNichol Chapbook Award), and Everything Water (2011). Her work has appeared in numerous literary magazines, including Grain, Event, Arc Poetry Magazine, Poetry is Dead, and Plentitude. She has been a finalist for the CBC Literary Awards in poetry, Descant’s Winston Collins Best Canadian Poem Contest, and twice for Arc’s Poem of the Year Contest. Her poem “Gestational Trail” was awarded first prize in The Antigonish Review’s Great Blue Heron Poetry Contest in 2015. Gruber lives in Vancouver with her partner Dennis and their two daughters. Her new book, Buoyancy Control, was published by BookThug in the spring of 2016. Her third poetry collection will be published by BookThug in the Spring of 2018. Learn more at

Monday, April 3, 2017

Doyali Islam on Sylvia Legris

Antiphonal Calling

The telephone conversations are what I remember best.

Hold an ear next to an oscine-inhabited lung and hear an / antiphonal calling, the advance and recession of ocean, birds / in a burble of aqueous suspension.
“Lore: 4 (swoop)” in Pneumatic Antiphonal

In autumn 2010, my landline rung: a deep and well-projected voice came through, introducing herself as Sylvia Legris, the editor of Grain.

At 25, I had, over the past spring and summer, begun to send my poems out into the world. Although my book-length manuscript, Yusuf and the Lotus Flower, had recently been picked up by BuschekBooks, I had otherwise been met largely with rejection. I had received replies to the effect of, “Your work is beautiful, but there’s no place for you in mainstream Canadian literature” – yet here was a stranger saying that she wanted to publish my poetry.

After that first call, I Googled Sylvia to put a face to the voice and became an instant admirer of her black-and-white author’s portrait: the cat-eye glasses, the intent mouth. Here is a poet rigorous about her work, I thought. Somehow, Yeats’ verse about Maud Gonne echoed in my mind: “beauty like a tightened bow / […] / high and solitary and most stern.”

During a subsequent phone call, we went over the poems selected for Grain, attending to matters of lineation and spacing. She told me where she felt the line breaks were working, and where they weren’t. She never made me feel like a novice, although I now realize how much of one I was. And to my great surprise, she offered to read over the manuscript of Yusuf as an external editor. I welcomed the opportunity to have such a seasoned and conscious poet attend to it.

If time and attention are one’s greatest resources – which I believe they are – it meant and still means a great deal that she took the time she did with me and my poems. There was nothing in it for her; she had nothing to gain.

Over the weeks and months that followed, there were e-mails and more telephone calls as we discussed Yusuf. Sometimes we veered off course, talking about apple cake and salmon and the precarious economics of being a poet. Another time, she mentioned one of her own early mentors – Di Brandt – and the pearls of advice she had received from her, which she passed down to me. Listening, I felt a fierce protectiveness coming through: she actually cared about me and my current work, and she was excited to see where my craft would take me in five years’ time.

My only regret is that I told her I didn’t have any material to send her when she later asked me to contribute to an issue of Cerise Press that she was guest-editing. It hadn’t entered my brain, then, that if someone you respect asks you for new material, you take a full breath and begin.

As the editor of Grain, she had a capacious and discerning spirit. Work fresh and diverse can be found in those issues, with no singular style taking precedence over any other. The mash-up was dynamic. And I know that she has been a significant figure not just for me, but for other women poets who I now consider both literary contemporaries and friends: Kim Trainor and Teresa Yang. (!A little flock of birds?)

The right lung partitions into upper, / middle, and lower lobes, each with enough space to accom- / modate numerous cavity-nesting birds.
“Lore: 4 (swoop)”

While her own poems are rigorous and meticulous, her sense of humour and play is equally keen – both as an artist and as a human being. I remember her delight over a Simpsons episode that involved the word perspicacity! (I think it was “The PTA Disbands,” in Season 6: Lisa: “Relax? I can't relax! Nor can I yield, relent, or – Only two synonyms? Oh my God: I'm losing my perspicacity!” Homer: “Well it’s always in the last place you look.”)

However, the music within her work is what I love above all. Rhythm meets image and feels embodied.

The theory of corpuscular flight is the cardinal premise of red / birds carrying song-particles carrying oxygen. Erythrocytic. / Sticky. Five quarts of migration.
“Lore: 1 (premise)”

And speaking of the body:

What is boil-lancing? What is bone-setting? What is the music of / hands-on manipulation? The internal apparatus a rhythm section / for canopic jars and humor-decanting Tupperware.
“Vitals” in The Hideous Hidden

I finally met Sylvia in person this past November, after her IFOA readings at Harbourfront – where she read from this latest book, The Hideous Hidden. (I attended both evening readings: rare chances to witness the bird whole, instead of just hearing her song.) Although brief, that time face to face refreshed my spirit. It was magnificent to hear the work live, and the whole room seemed entranced.

Despite her literary achievements and prominence, Sylvia Legris remains the most humble poet I know. “Down with posturing!” she exclaims, and it is not a false humility. She understands, as she articulated for me very plainly in those early conversations, that the work comes first – not thoughts of awards, or even publications. The work itself is what matters.   

At 32, I am still uncovering what Sylvia’s early support meant to me in energetic, technical, and emotional terms – gaining a deeper appreciation of her extraordinary generosity and humanness.

In the future, during moments when I doubt myself and my poems – come as they inevitably will – may she remain the voice inside my head – resonant and clear as the first time I received her call.

Doyali Islam’s poetry can be found in Kenyon Review Online, The Puritan, Pelorus Press, Grain, The Fiddlehead, and Canthius. She has an essay, “A Private Architecture of Resistance,” in The Manifesto Project (University of Akron Press, 2017). Her poem – “site” – was named Arc’s 2016 Poem of the Year, and another poem – “two burials” – won CV2’s 2015 Young Buck Poetry Prize. Her poem – “cat and door” – just won League of Canadian Poets’ inaugural National Broadsheet Contest. Her current poetry manuscript is heft and sing, which you can read about in her 12 or 20 responses. She lives in Toronto.

Twitter: doyali_is
Facebook: Doyali Islam

Monday, March 27, 2017

Jennifer LoveGrove on Libby Scheier

The morning is dead and the leaves do not move.
My tongue is a pink bird under the ground
in an early grave of talking.

I grew up in a small town in Ontario, a Jehovah’s Witness until I was fourteen, and I hated it. It was isolated, the internet hadn’t been invented yet, the town was populated with a significant percentage of what we called rednecks, and my friends and I – with our black clothing, weird music, colourful hair, Malcolm X/Alien Sex Fiend/Siouxsie and the Banshees t-shirts, disdain for sports - did not fit in. After midnight, when one friend would finish a night shift at the local pickle factory and ride his bike home, the cops would stop and intimidate him in an alley for no reason, other than to ask him, “Do you know what I could do to you back here?” Another friend was refused a job at the local department store, the word “Oriental” scrawled across the top of her resume. Another friend, taunted daily for being gay.

I came to bear being routinely called a freak as a badge of honour. Being constantly harassed with “Hey, nice tits,” and worse, not so much. There was a hallway at school called The Jock Hall, and walking through it was a gauntlet of bellowed opinions and ratings of one’s various body parts. Escaping the town (the teachers, the JW elders, the parents) was an obsession, and before I was old enough to move away, that escape was through books.

As a kid and later as a teenager, I read constantly. When I was five, I won a children’s reading competition and the Head Librarian said “Someday Jenny will be running this place!” On the way home from the party, I threw up the cake I’d just eaten.

so I sprinkle the carpets
with nutmeg and cinnamon
I decorate the walls
with fish heads and mice
then I eat the carpets
and I eat the walls

For four years through high school, I worked in that public library, shelving books in the Children’s Department and listening to kids tell me about the books they’d read for their reading contests. I would nod and zone out and let them talk. After school, I often worked alone, and would sit between the stacks reading, educating myself about subjects that had been taboo in my religious upbringing: sex, the occult, ghosts, birth control, and sex. Sometimes boyfriends would visit and drive me home. It was the best job in town. It was that or the pickle factory.

We’re irritated with penises.
The psychiatrists
have shoved them down our throats for too long.

I wrote and wrote and read poetry and plays. Every week, I’d scour the adult section of the library, searching the small poetry shelf: Shakespeare, Keats, Yeats, maybe Dickinson. Nothing contemporary. Outside of high school, I wasn’t sure if people even wrote poetry anymore.

Then one day there was a new book on the poetry shelf. New. New as in published within the last five years. New as in it had only been checked out once before. The description and blurbs on the back used words like “gender identity”, “surrealist”, and “these are tough poems.” I was elated. I took home Second Nature by Libby Scheier (The Coach House Press, 1986). It was Dunnville, Ontario, 1990.

How can I explain rape to someone
who does not worry about who gets on
the streetcar, who looks at you,
who gets off when you do.

I devoured Second Nature. These poems were unlike anything I’d yet read. They were weird, they were opinionated, they were about real life, they were about other worlds. This Libby Scheier poet used the f-word! She wrote about sex! She wrote about violence! Her poems made me laugh, they made me cry, they made me think. They made me write. That book changed what I thought was possible in writing. Poetry suddenly split wide open and became infinite for me. It became real. It became possible.

He is the redness of
her mind in vaginal disorder

Reading Second Nature helped me realize that I could write about contemporary concerns, about feminism, about sex, about issues that mattered to me. Writing could be funny, heartbreaking, colloquial, strange, chatty, taboo, existential, physical, raw, bloody, and feminist. So, I did what any self-respecting teenage aspiring writer would do: I promptly stole her book.

I read it and re-read it relentlessly. I read it aloud to friends. I read it in the cafeteria at school. I read it again. I still read it.

I am touched by your little gift
of lies, how you built
them out of love,
how there was nothing else to do.

I read it during my first acid trip with my best friend. We sat on her bed for sixteen hours, as I adjusted to my visual and olfactory hallucinations (I really did smell colours. I really did wear a polyester housecoat covered in swirls of every colour that didn’t stop moving for about a day and a half) and we read out our favourite poems from Second Nature. We wrote down our favourite lines on small pieces of paper – the most profound, the funniest, the most beautiful – and put them into a small box. We called them Hail Libbys. We added to the box phrases and lines that we ourselves uttered that we found endlessly hilarious or profound (it was LSD, there were many). I’m embarrassed to say we called it the Thought Box. Over years and other altered states, it grew full. I still have that box.

love has much more to do with the imagination
of the lover than the qualities of the loved one

The following summer, I poured over the course catalogue for the English department at York University, where I would apply to the Creative Writing Program. Remember, this was pre-internet and courses were outlined in a big thick book and you had to register for them by phone, punching in a code on a touch tone phone, if you had a touch tone phone, and if you could get your thirteen-year-old sister off the extension during your allotted twenty-minute window in which to register. As I read over the descriptions for the creative writing workshops, I discovered a second-year poetry and fiction class that I absolutely had to get into. I shook with excitement in my new wave band-postered, small town bedroom. The instructor was Libby Scheier. I think I was in tears of joy. She would be my prof. The universe was aligning in portentous and shocking ways. I didn’t believe in fate, but clearly it was fate.

What makes me mad about these poems
is I am drawn into them by their beauty
and then every third page or so
am pushed out of the poem.

Throughout my semester in Libby’s class, I wanted to tell her about how much her book had meant to me in the small town that I’d longed to—and finally did—escape. How her book was escape. How she gave me hope and courage. How I read and reread her book. How at that time, I’d read nothing like it. How I wanted her to sign it. How she would see the barcode on the cover. How it would be obvious to her that I stole her book from the library. Would she admire the tenacity or disprove of my selfishness, depriving others of her talent and insights?

I put it off. I was shy. I was insecure. I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what to say. I thought it might be weird for her. Then I thought I was being pathetic. So I waited until the last day of class.

I showed her the book and I told her I’d stolen it from my local public library when I was in high school. She asked me where I was from.

“You’re from that town?!” Libby was aghast. “Thank God you got out!”

I wanted to weep or hug her, she got it, she got me, my saviour, but I did neither. She said she’d been writer-in-residence at that same public library years ago (when I would have been in seventh grade) and that she definitely did not enjoy it.

“I don’t think they’d ever seen a feminist, let alone a Jew before!”

I laughed. I nodded. 

“I’m so glad you stole my book; I thought they were going to burn it.”

Jennifer LoveGrove is the author of the Giller Prize–longlisted novel Watch How We Walk, as well as two poetry collections: I Should Never Have Fired the Sentinel and The Dagger Between Her Teeth. In 2010, LoveGrove was nominated for the K.M. Hunter Artist Award for Literature and in 2015, her poetry was shortlisted for the Lit POP Awards. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications across North America. She divides her time between downtown Toronto and rural Ontario. Her latest book is Beautiful Children with Pet Foxes (BookThug, 2017).

Monday, March 20, 2017

Jane Eaton Hamilton on Ntozake Shange

Booth Theatre. A January 1977 matinee when I was attending plays like a fiend because I was leaving NY, moving myself out to San Francisco. I saw all the shows, getting tickets in the way New Yorkers got tickets, by osmosis. My dance teacher, who was appearing in Pippin, knew this guy, Kevin, who’d broken up with his boyfriend, Sam, and had a singleton. You want it, Tuesday matinee? Or my prof—the one I’d always talked to about the white rats we lured through mazes, the rats with the coloured marker on their tails so we could tell them apart—she had a ticket because a friend of hers was an understudy. If all my connections failed, I’d go down to the half-price ticket booth in Times Square—when Times Square was the Times Square from Taxi Driver—right before the show.

I could smell pretzels on me that day, still had the paper from one stuffed in my jeans pocket, was licking salt and grease off my fingers. I had a blister on the back of my right foot because I’d hoofed from the upper west side to 45th Street instead of grabbing the train. I could still feel the vibration of the wolf whistles and the leering honeys and baby girls. What men said clung to my skin, a hundred men kissing their fingertips, rubbing their crotches, damn, girl, you’re so hot, the way the occasional one slunk along behind me like I just had to be leading him to my room. Smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, smile, they said. You want your face to freeze like that? The relief of the theatre, the safety, the anonymity, the darkness. I shrugged out of my coat, my mittens, my hat. But I could smell my own sweat, my period, and also what I was doing in order that men would leave me alone: sanitizing with FDS—Feminine Deodorant Spray, spraying it in the general vicinity of my twat, naked, and a second time outside my clothes for good measure.
You know how few times in life there’s a before and an after? That day was one of mine.

The curtain went up on Ntozake Shange’s ‘for colored girls who have considered suicide but the rainbow was enuf.’

On stage inside the most minimal set were women in tights and leotards, each character only identified by colour, such as “lady in red” or “lady in yellow.” Red orange yellow green blue purple brown. The characters wove in and out of each other’s poems and stories, swaying or dancing on the stage as each stepped forward to recite one of Shange’s choreopoems. It was simple—I had never seen such a simple set before—but it was electrifying.

These were not easy poems. These were poetries forged out of the sizzling, eclipsing pains of love and music, battering and racism, rape and motherhood and abortion. Some of these things had nothing to do with my life, and some of them had everything to do with things that had happened to me. But that was irrelevant. But what happened on that stage proclaimed that the personal was political. Ntozake’s poems coiled in me like veins, leading  me to the social justice issues I’d be fighting the rest of my life.

When I walked into the Booth Theatre, I was one hundred and six pounds and I joked I had thunder thighs. I thought that needing to spray FDS was a condition of my womanhood, and my only hope that I wouldn’t be found offensive, because I believed I was essentially wrong and ugly in a way that could never, never, never be fixed, no matter my mascara or my ironed shirts, no matter how carefully I shaved my legs. Just by who I was, I called down all the violence the world has for a woman. Yes, I had absorbed all the lessons from a lifetime of lessons in how to behave, how to carve off bits of myself so I could become agreeable and so stupid that I wouldn’t notice. I did not question insults and assaults, the anti-women messages of ads and the billboards, the messages that told me I was less worthy than a man, that I was not even worthy of the space that I took up, that I took it up only by the dint of a man’s assent. Go smaller, said life. No. Smaller, said life.

Be less and less. And still less.

Here’s the remarkable thing about Ntozake Shange’s writing. It gave me back my brain, the brain that had been turned out as a Stepford Wife, mashed into a pea-size pellet that could only receive instructions and obey them.

She gave me feminism. She gave me resistance.

Shange, a black feminist, won an Obie for “for colored girls.” She has continued writing and publishing even as illness claimed much of her energy. “for colored girls” was made into a movie and remounted many times.

I lived in NY in the 70s. I went to school in the Village. I walked out of “for colored girls…” a thinker and a writer, passionately engaged with the particular world that is the world for women, and I never looked back. I threw out my NY clothes. I stopped spraying myself with anti-stink products. I stopped shaving my legs and armpits. I didn’t move to San Francisco to reunite with a man I didn’t want to be with. I was a lesbian. I was a woman roaring with power and words, and now I knew it.

Jane Eaton Hamilton is the author of 9 books of cnf, fiction and poetry, including the 2016 novel WEEKEND. The Vancouver Sun called WEEKEND a “tour de force. Remarkable.” Publishers Weekly called it “propulsive.”

Jane’s books have been shortlisted for the MIND Book Award, the BC Book Prize, the VanCity Award, the Pat Lowther Award and the Ferro-Grumley Award. Her memoir was one of the UK Guardian’s Best Books of the Year and a Sunday Times bestseller. She is the two-time winner of Canada’s CBC Literary Award for fiction (2003/2014). She’s had a notable in BASS and BAE (2016) and has appeared in The Journey Prize, Best Canadian Short Stories and Best Canadian Poetry. Her work has also appeared in publications such as Salon, The Rumpus, The Missouri Review and was published this week at the NY Times. She has been the recipient of numerous Canada Council grants.

Jane edits for Many Gendered Mothers and is a frequent jury member for literature awards. She is working on her second novel SNOW with the help of BC Arts Council and Canada Council grants.