Monday, May 22, 2017

Julie Morrissy on Eavan Boland

“In the old situation which existed in the Dublin I first knew, it was possible to be a poet, permissible to be a woman and difficult to be both without flouting the damaged and incomplete permissions on which Irish poetry had been constructed.”
                        —Eavan Boland, Object Lessons

Ireland used to feel like a very small place to me. Sometimes, it still does. I wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, but I couldn’t quite figure out how to do that in Ireland. It wasn’t until my late twenties that I understood I could be a poet—like, that is a fine career and life choice to make. I’ve been thinking about the moment when that confidence occurred—whether it was my first publication, or being accepted to gradschool for Creative Writing. But in reality, Eavan Boland had quietly, and much earlier, set me on a track towards poetry for which I didn’t need permission.

I sat my Leaving Certificate in 2002—these are state exams for school-leavers. That year, the poetry on curriculum was by Seamus Heaney, John Keats, Philip Larkin, Michael Longley, Elizabeth Bishop, Emily Dickinson, and Eavan Boland. I wrote my English exam on Boland, particularly “The Black Lace Fan My Mother Gave Me,” “The War Horse,” and “The Famine Road.” Boland’s poems, as is well-documented, carefully explore themes of gender, oppression, domesticity, and public and private space. At 18 years old, I was a young woman struggling to find a place for myself in both the public sphere in Ireland, and the private sphere of my own mind and goals, which I kept mostly to myself.

Boland’s poetry continues to inspire and guide me. I still think the last stanza of “The Black Lace Fan” is among the most powerful lines of poetry ever written. However, Boland’s prose has also had a profound effect on how I see myself, both as a poet and as a woman in Ireland. I opened with a quotation from Boland’s prose memoir Object Lessons, in which she explores the fundamental challenges she faced as a woman in her career and in her life. Since this passage was written, Ireland has had three female Professors of Poetry (our equivalent of Poet Laureate) and many of the leading poetic voices in Ireland are women. Though, we can’t stop there—we need to be much more inclusive. Poetry remains a world of incomplete permissions.

We’ve made great strides, and we owe no small debt to Eavan Boland for that progress. But the position of women’s voices in Ireland remains just that, a work in progress—maybe not when it comes to representation in Irish poetry but as a society we have a long way to go in recognising, respecting, and encouraging the value of women’s experiences. In light of the historical context of women’s marginalisation and in the current context with the near complete lack of bodily autonomy (abortion is illegal and unconstitutional in Ireland), the message I feel most strongly from the Irish State is that, as a woman, my voice doesn’t really count. Object Lessons remains a significant marker of women’s struggle for equality in Ireland, and much of Boland’s meditation on those constrained possibilities remains embarrassingly relevant.

Eavan Boland played a role in making the life I lead possible, by simultaneously impacting the tenets of the Irish literary tradition and the texture of Irish life. Boland is by no means the only woman to have shaped Irish life in this way but for me, her influence is significant. Her work encourages me to keep writing about what I think is important—and, as Eileen Myles says in Inferno, “if a fucking horse can tell his story why can’t I.”

Julie Morrissy is poet and activist from Dublin. Her chapbook I Am Where (2015) is published by Eyewear (UK), and her debut collection Where, the Mile End is forthcoming with BookThug. In 2015, she was shortlisted for the Melita Hume Poetry Prize, selected for the Poetry Ireland Introductions Series, and named as one of Ireland’s “Rising Generation” poets in 2016. Morrissy has performed readings at international festivals, including IFOA Toronto. She is pursuing her PhD by practice at Ulster University. 

Monday, May 15, 2017

Dawn Promislow on Nadine Gordimer

Books, from my earliest memories, were valuable, perhaps the most valuable "things." But I had an idea, in my childhood, that books and literature and novels came from England. Probably then, they did. The books I read told stories of children or people in England, where I'd never been, but where the landscape was as vivid to me as my own. I felt that all important things and stories must come from England. Our language—the magic of words that could be arranged and spoken in a particular way—came from England. In Johannesburg, where we were, there was no beauty, so I thought. There were no green fields, after all, no long history of manners and morals and kings. What beauty could come out of this strange and dusty place which was my home? Later when I read Wordsworth and Keats, I felt this even more strongly. Shakespeare himself came from England—well, that was everything!

I had always felt secretly ashamed of the people around me; ashamed of my world. I had an idea that we, white people, were crude, and, in some way I couldn't articulate, deficient, and that the black people around me were bound to us in a way that was puzzling, unknowable, and...wrong. I intuited this—the tragedy of the colonial South Africa that was my home—from a young age. But I didn't understand it.

One day when I was fifteen and visiting my grandmother, she gave me one of her books, Nadine Gordimer's Selected Stories. The book must have intrigued me because the image on the cover wasn't a green English landscape. It was, instead, a photograph, sepia coloured, of a small house with a corrugated iron roof, and a mine dump behind it, an image I recognized at once. A South African image. 

I started reading, and, soon, realized I was reading something I had never read before: I recognized the world, the towns, the houses, the people, in the stories. They were the towns and people and houses around me. Here was a book, a real book with a hard cover, with stories in it about things in the world of Johannesburg, and in the world of dusty small towns in South Africa I knew so well.

I read the Selected Stories of Gordimer (which were in the 1975 Jonathan Cape edition), and then, a reader possessed, I read her novels, and more of her short stories, and then all of her many works.  And I re-read them, through my teenage years. They felt more real to me than the world I inhabited, because they told the story of my surroundings with such truth.  

Gordimer wrote in the form of the great European realists of the past, yet she described South Africa. Her works described parallel surroundings to those around me, surroundings that were the same yet different: places, this time, where truth was revealed in all its anguish, and understanding and insight were possible. Her works gestured toward other possibilities, to the possibility of re-imagining things, to the possibility of making things right. The actual world I lived in had lies and evasions and untruths: it was the stasis of a repressive state; and the civil façade of colonial, then post-colonial, white South Africa.

Nadine Gordimer was an artist, first. I might call her work my literary mother, her short stories models of aesthetic forms that made harmony and beauty. But like all great writers her work was informed by deep moral concerns, and in this way I might say that her work was the mother of my worldview too.

Reading Gordimer enabled me to understand, even love, the strange and broken place which was my home.  I probably became a writer because of her, or at least I might be the writer I am because of her.

Dawn Promislow was born and raised in South Africa and has lived in Toronto since 1987. She is the author of Jewels and Other Stories (2010, Mawenzi House), which was long-listed for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award 2011, and named one of the best fiction debuts of 2011 by the Globe and Mail

Monday, May 8, 2017

Theresa Smalec on Aritha van Herk

“Home: what you visit and abandon: too much forgotten/too much remembered.”
–Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere

I first encountered Aritha van Herk’s fiction as a teenager, living at home with my conservative Polish parents. They subscribed to the Calgary Herald, our local newspaper. Perhaps rehearsing our role as “world-class city” for the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics, the Herald introduced a weekend arts supplement. Here, I came across an excerpt from No Fixed Address: An Amorous Journey (1986). An illustration beside van Herk’s text featured a woman with breeze-blown hair driving a convertible. A string of colorful panties trailed her car. I took the story into my room where my parents could not see me read it. I didn’t drive; no one in my family drove. I’d been raised to be a proper girl who only wore white underthings. Yet as I read of Arachne Manteia’s trysts across Alberta and beyond, a provocative future flashed ahead of me. In this future, my geographical movements and sexual choices were limitless—or at least strictly up to me.           

July 1991. I work as a landscaper at the Calgary Stampede. I still don’t drive a car, but a guy at work teaches me to drive the Gravely. It rumbles like thunder. I ride high in the cab, drop the blades, cut crisp lines athwart fresh grass. Fall in love with the Gravely guy. He’s a thrash band guitarist who makes me mixed tapes of The Pixies and Sonic Youth. It never occurs to me to share music I like with him. He has a friend named Turn-it-On. My friends have names like Pam. I feel increasingly ordinary: typical girl. One morning, I bike to the University of Calgary, change my major from Political Science to English so I can apply for the Creative Fiction Writing program. I share my news, thinking he will see me differently. “Cool,” he says but sounds angry. I spend August typing a fiction portfolio, alone.

September 1991. I can hardly believe it! Dr. Aritha van Herk, author of No Fixed Address, teaches my creative writing class! Bright red hair. Loud laugh. Resounding voice. Doesn’t take crap from anyone. Aritha van Herk is the first married woman I’ve met who did not take her husband’s last name. I resolve to be just like her in that way. We aspiring writers wait for her weekly class with blatant desire. Some are lawyers, geologists, even zookeepers. I have little life experience, but Aritha tells me after workshopping my first story that I don’t seem like a kid to her. I blush with pride. Aritha says you must become an avid reader to be a good writer. I read her first novel, Judith (1978), and admire its crude opening: “Pig shit and wet greasy straw were piled high in the wheelbarrow.” It’s hard to believe Aritha grew up on a farm; she seems so worldly. Later, I discover she is the first Canadian-born child of Dutch immigrants. I am the first Canadian child of Polish immigrants. Something inside me relaxes a bit.

6 December 1991. Aritha van Herk spots me in the MacEwan Hall food court and asks if I am going to the University of Calgary Memorial Event for the 14 women murdered in the École Polytechnique massacre. I nod and follow her; I had not planned to go. A mass of faces, candles, ribbons. Amplified voices slowly read the women’s names. Too nervous to cry, I tremble with revelation: women matter here. Our lives are worth mourning.    

Winter 1992. Aritha gives a lecture about how to get into English graduate programs. I go and take careful notes. A career path abruptly opens. Aritha is my upbeat guide, forever telling others how brilliant I am. We talk about places where I can earn my degree: Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, or Victoria. I wish I had her confidence in me.

February 1992. Aritha organizes a conference about post-colonial women’s literature. I barely understand a word most panelists say, but resolve to learn their secret language: Theory.

Summer 1992. My friends and I found Filling Station, a Calgary literary magazine that still thrives today. Aritha van Herk and another professor, Fred Wah, come to our launches and publish in our fledgling enterprise. We celebrate special events at their homes, take road trips around Alberta with them, build a vibrant community. My heart expands like a hot air balloon, lights up like the Giant Wheel.

Dates a lot, smokes a lot, drinks a lot, runs a lot, vomits a lot, quietly dumps lots of guys who want to tie her down. Gropes in the darkness for freedom.

January 1993. Aritha tells me to write regularly to a journal. “Let it know what’s bugging you,” she adds gently. Hate for anyone to see me struggle; glad she cares enough to say something.

1994. Forget to mail letters of intent to Western Canadian graduate programs. Decide to wait a year and reapply. Take advanced French to earn an Honors degree. Audit two graduate courses. Finally travel: mostly conferences but sometimes black underwear, handcuffs, a wine opener. Customs guy has the nerve to ask, “What’s this for?” but chuckles and lets me through.

1995. My luck changes radically. Every graduate school to which I apply wants me now, with unheard-of funding offers. Decline the Western Canadian programs, head East for bigger cash. Emmylou Harris plays in my mind as I leave Alberta: “Can't remember if we said goodbye…”

“Always and unrelentingly (home) even after it is too late to be or to revert to (home), even after it pre/occupies the past tense.” –Aritha van Herk, Places Far From Ellesmere 

June 2011. Doctored, married, pregnant, tenure-tracking in New York. Abruptly on Facebook, Alberta returns with the death of Robert Kroetsch. I email Aritha for the first time in a decade to say how sorry I am. She wants to know if I still write my own stuff. I resist admitting that I stopped long ago because my fictions hit too close to (home). Yes, I tell her: I still write my own academic prose.

August 2011. My husband has cancer. Aritha is among the first with whom I share this news. She is not my mother, yet our common history confronts me and comforts me, just as her caring emails do. She knows who I am.

April 2017. I drive like Danica Patrick in my Honda. Who might I be today without Aritha’s interventions? Maybe not a feminist. Maybe not a professor. Might have settled for white underwear. Thank you, Aritha, for pig shit and travelling saleswomen, for your enduring fierceness and faith in our promise, our province. I’m tempted to claim Aritha van Herk is the mother of Alberta writing, just like Derrida is the father of deconstruction. But gendered parents are never equal. Fathers found and command respect; mothers get male writers calling them “mom.”

During the years she taught me writing, Aritha van Herk was sometimes my other, often my mentor, always my longed-for double. Today, she is a trusted friend: the kind of friend and teacher I want for my daughter when she grows up to tell her stories.

Theresa Smalec is a tenured Assistant Professor in Communication Arts and Sciences at Bronx Community College of the City University of New York. Her first book, Ron Vawter’s Life in Performance, is forthcoming via Seagull Books/U of Chicago P. Her scholarship appears in New England Theatre Journal, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, Postmodern Culture, Puppetry International, TDR: The Drama Review, Theatre Journal, Theatre Survey, and Theatre Research International. Her literary work appears in back issues of absinthe, Grain, Fiddlehead, Filling Station, Fireweed, and West Coast Line. Smalec also contributed to Shannon Cooley’s anthology, Eye Wuz Here: Stories by Women Under Thirty.                      

Monday, May 1, 2017

Dorothy Palmer on Stella Young

Ruby Slippers for Stella and this Dorothy

My mother never once told me she loved me. She never hugged me, touched me as little as possible. I didn’t know which bothered her more, my adoption or my disability, but knew their commixture made me unlovable. The first time I felt motherly arms reach out to hold me just as I was, to see me and tell me I was good enough exactly as I was, it was 2014 and I was fifty-nine years old. The woman reaching out over the internet to hug me was thirty-two, half my age, a full year younger than my own child. Despite the age difference, despite the fact I grew up in Toronto and she came from the bush town of Stawell, Australia, I had far more in common with my virtual mother, Stella Young.
We’re both tiny red-heads with expressive hands and foul mouths. We both became teachers, writers, and comic performers. She did stand-up; I did improv. Her one-woman show, Tales from the Crip, won comedy awards; I coached winning teams at the Canadian Improv Games. Her heart’s desire was to write the novel she never had a growing up, one featuring a disabled teenage girl. My first novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House, 2010) is exactly that, the story I needed and never had, the tale of fourteen-year-old disabled rebel Jordan May March set in the Woodstock-Moonwalk summer of 1969. I gave Jordan my disability. Stella was born with osteogenesis imperfecta; I was born with congenital birth defects in my feet. We both had multiple corrective surgeries.
We both eventually concluded we weren’t the ones who needed correcting.
When I heard her TED Talk, (June, 2014), “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much,” I played it until I could recite it. I cried and grinned for a week. It was as if I’d been struggling with a half-completed jigsaw puzzle all my life, then Stella said, “Sweetie, I think this piece goes here. And, darling, try that one there.” My pieces fit. I gained focus, saw the big picture. High and proud in her wheelchair, she declared, “I am not here to inspire you. I’m here to tell you that we’ve been sold the lie that disability is a bad thing. That it makes you exceptional. It does not… I’m not anybody’s inspiration porn.”
She used the word porn deliberately: “it objectifies one group of people for the benefit of another group of people.” I instantly had language for the impossible task I’d always felt was my job, one at which I’d always failed: “to inspire and motivate the able bodied.” As Stella put it, to exist for their benefit, so they could look at me and think, “It could be worse. I could be that person.” I now had a name for every time Facebook asked me to “like” a child amputee tying his shoes, a Down Syndrome prom queen, or a blind high school graduate. I finally understood why I didn’t “like” the celebrity athlete who ate lunch with a bullied autistic child. In inspiration porn, the disabled person is reduced to the object, the prop. What the able-bodied really want to “like” is their beneficent moment of inspiration, wherein they reach down from on high to help and patronize us.
Did Stella swallow that lie? Did she get silenced by its shame?
Nope. She ridiculed the shit out of it. She gave me the language to begin my memoir.
With wit and wise-cracks, she debunked the medical model of disability, which claims we are disabled by our physiologies, and embraced the social model: that disability is a social construct, that we are disabled by ableism. It’s a social justice issue. It’s a matter of access, not attitude. As Stella succinctly put it, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing before a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.”
I began calling myself a crip because she did. Originally the term made me cringe, made me see gangs and potato chips. Stella called herself a crip, because naming herself reclaimed her power.
And the more her vocabulary came out of my mouth, the more I agreed with her. I read every word of the online magazine she edited, Ramp Up, and hunted down broadcasts of No Limits, the community TV show on she hosted for eight season. Her advice, “Disability doesn’t make you exceptional, but questioning what you think you know about it does,” empowered me to examine all the reasons I’d spent fifty years pretending not to be disabled. Because Stella had no shame, because she denied the very notion of shame, I could shed mine.
I hear Stella’s voice every day as I work on my memoir in progress, So Lame: My Fifty Years in the Disabled Closet. She insists that I claim my life in my body, pushes me past self-pity to self-love. This is the book I need as an adult, one that explores the intersections of ableism and ageing, one that asks the world to see me just as I am. It’s about empathy, not inspiration. It’s the kind of book Can Lit needs to expand the definition of diversity to include the twenty percent of Canadians who have disabilities. I would not have the the words, or the stamina, or the daily cussing courage to write it, without Stella.
I regret she will never read it.
Five months after her TED talk, in The Sydney Morning Herald, (November 22, 2014), Stella published “Dear Eighty-Old Me,” a letter imagining how her disabled life would be rich and full, knowing, “I wasn’t wrong. The world wasn’t yet right for me.” Two weeks later, at thirty-two years young, she was dead. Stella died of an aneurism on December 6, 2014, the day Canadians commemorate the Montreal Massacre, the 1989 deaths of fourteen young women murdered at l’École Polytechnique. For me, the two losses will forever be entwined.
But don’t say her early death inspires you. She’d laugh in your face. If you get it, you’ll understand what was inspiring: her glorious red polka dot shoes, the abandon with which she danced in her wheelchair, her ability to make us laugh at discomforting truths, and most importantly, her vibrant affirmation that disabled people are so very ordinary. “I promise to grab every opportunity with both hands, to say yes as often as I can, to take risks, to scare myself stupid, and to have a shitload of fun.”
In my favourite photo of Stella, she wiggles her trademark ruby slippers. But she absolutely does not look like she wants out of her wheelchair. She knows what it took this Dorothy so long to learn: “There’s no place like home.”

Dorothy Ellen Palmer is a mom, binge knitter, left-leaning Sherlock Holmes fan, retired teacher, and a disabled senior writer. L Her semi-autobiographical novel, When Fenelon Falls (Coach House Books, 2010), features a disabled teen adoptee in the Moonwalk-Woodstock summer of 1969. Her second novel, Kerfuffle, follows a Toronto improv troupe as they struggle to make sense and nonsense of the Toronto 2010 G20. This article is an excerpt from her memoir in progress, So Lame: My Fifty Years in the Disabled Closet.

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