Monday, September 23, 2019

Geoffrey Nilson on Lynn Crosbie

The first time I heard the name Lynn Crosbie, it was the subject of derision.

It was 1997 and Crosbie had just published Paul’s Case, her true-crime theoretical fiction about two of Canada’s most notorious serial killers, Paul Bernardo and Karla Homolka. Much like in the present, journalists and television pundits across the country swarmed with endless editorials calling for swift punishment, not the least of which included banning the book, litigation for defamation, and the incarceration of the author. Rosie DiManno of the Toronto Star even threatened to assault Crosbie given the opportunity.

This was the kind of conservative whinging reserved for that era’s crown prince of shock rock, Marilyn Manson (Antichrist Superstar had been released the year prior). I was sixteen then and not so secretly coveted anything that could define me as counter-culture and piss off my parents. So I searched for Paul’s Case, to no avail. But the hook was in. Any writer that could cause that much shit was definitely a writer I wanted to be reading.

Not often in those days could news of a Toronto small press title reach the far coastal suburbs of my birth, but then again, Lynn Crosbie is no ordinary writer. Since 1997, her work has had a way of finding me. Like when I scored a copy of Queen Rat in a bookstore while on vacation in Nelson, BC. Like in 2012, while driving a squealing delivery van for a warehouse job I hated, when Crosbie appeared on CBC Radio talking with Shelagh Rogers about her roman à clef Life Is About Losing Everything.

Looking back, though I didn’t know it at the time, I can credit that interview with changing my direction. Within the year I had gone back to school and rebooted my desire to be a writer of the kind of literature I had always gravitated towards, that which delves into the inexorable reality that “the world isn’t a happy, beautiful place.”[1]

It’s tough to compact the full influence of Crosbie’s writing on my own. More than the example of writing dark content or the ubiquity of pop culture allusion, the constant attention to poetic language and rhythm in everything she writes is a compositional way I aspire to. Just take this example from her latest novel Chicken:

“Her face is a Turner of purple storms cut with black ships, with a sluice of red dawn; Ruskin scurrying to write it, in the distance.”

You could pen a dissertation on this one sentence. Vowel sounds bounce off each other, image and colour collide in metrical units; an ocean of ships and of time stretches to the horizon, the moment travelling back through Victorian art critics and Romantic painters all in the second of observation. Because Crosbie is a poet even when she is not writing poetry. I recently described her style to a friend by saying: some stories go from A to B to C right on until the end, but Crosbie goes from A to H to some form of punctuation to B to X and, given the circumstances the characters find themselves, might not ever make it to the end of the alphabet.

But I don’t believe making it to the end is the point. Neither life nor the poem can be contained by the covers of a book. Through abuse, death, fame, murder, suicide, drug addiction, and unspeakable acts of violence, her characters and the speakers of her poems have faith that what makes their realities worth everything is the fact that they loved, and that love was what got them through the worst of what the world had on offer. As Crosbie wrote in The Corpses of the Future:

“My father taught me to love people I do not know; to feel—

That punch in the solar plexus you take when
the strongest person you know says, Wait for me and his words are loaded

With over seventy years of bravery, and what it costs.”




Geoffrey Nilson is a writer, editor, visual artist, and the founder of poetry micropress, pagefiftyone. The author of four poetry chapbooks, his work has appeared widely in magazines and periodicals such as Coast Mountain Culture, PRISM international, Event, Poetry is Dead, subTerrain, The Capilano Review, CV2, The Rusty Toque, Lemon Hound, Qwerty, and the Glasgow Review of Books. 




[1] “Life Is About Losing Everything” author Lynn Crosbie (Interview), The Next Chapter (Season 2012, Episode 300067478), CBC Radio, https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/2243128210

Monday, August 19, 2019

Rachel Small on Shirley Jackson


A massive part of my identity growing up was being the angry girl, stomping around in black boots. I used to carry banned books under my arm in high school like they were the holy grail, because I liked the sense of morbid anger that came with my actions.

For the longest time, I was known as the girl to be scared of, and that was a positive element in my life, despite it turning me into something of a recluse. I was sent to the guidance counsellor several times for the stories I wrote for class assignments. Horrifying little creations, of houses drenched in the blood of a woman, and witches who demanded blood for revenge. 

People liked my work, but it terrified them. I liked creating that reaction. It always felt like a challenge, forcing space to exist for my work. There was something powerful in creating such an emotional response that it blinded readers with bright white fear.

Like most people, I discovered Shirley Jackson when I was sixteen, reading The Lottery for a class assignment. I devoured the piece not just once, but over and over again. I read it on the bus to and from school, during the brief breaks between classes. I memorized entire sections of the short story, obsessed by the clever storytelling. Jackson was able to terrify readers so effectively that they sent both her and the magazine mountains of hate mail in response to her concept of sacrifice. She was a revolution wrapped up in domestic packaging, making housewives fear her name alone.

I loved her. Jackson was the queen of the angry girls. She knew what it was like to have a heart so broken, that the only way to preserve it was to dip it in formaldehyde and lock it away. How to burn bridges and write a short story while standing in the aftermath, beneath a horizon of grand mansions built by her hand.

I grew up in a small town and her books never popped up in the local used bookstore. Instead, I came home with books by Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, King and Lockhart. Every man who ever tried to write the great American novel, or to redefine the genre of horror. It was exhausting, trying to find a different voice against a sea of yellowed books, with their broken spines and dog-eared pages. It wasn’t until I started university that I found her dark little books in a store by the market, tucked amongst the J authors. Suddenly, there was a space for her in this world again.

Working my way backwards, I traveled from We Have Always Lived in the Castle to The Road Through the Wall. Together, her entire body of work stands as a mosaic of life. Of her agoraphobia, difficult marriage. Her relationships each had a unique impact on her writing, and she unveils her pain through a series of elaborate plots. I reread The Lottery over and over again, and felt the same thrill from the very first time I read it in high school. This was a woman who understood what it was like, being exhausted by the concept of love. 

There is a power in fear, and Jackson knew that. She was the kind of woman who could be disappointed by Salem for becoming a tourist trap, while leaving an obscene number of short stories that bent traditional domestic roles into a collection of dark twists. Jackson designed a legacy for herself, even when saddled with the responsibilities that came with being a housewife rearing a small herd of children. Her writing was endless, of tense suburban landscapes and devilish desires, and in the end, managed to reserve a space in the American Gothic genre for her own voice.

People are still terrified of my work. I still feel a thrill thinking about this reactionary backlash, but I also feel respect for those emotions. I gave up angry black boots and took on different challenges, and managed to grow up some. Jackson never changed the world, but she changed mine. I’m a different woman that I was six years ago, and I’ll be different again six years from now.

Jackson taught me many things. To find kinship where I can. How to throw elaborate parties. To demand space for my voice. Respect other women. That there is joy to be found in yellow paper, and I have to find that joy for myself. 



Rachel Small writes in Ottawa. A post-undergrad student from Carleton University’s History program, she is currently a writer and editor for AtticVoices. Her writing has appeared in The Hellebore, Bywords, War Crimes Against the Uterus, and The Shore. You can find her on twitter @rahel_taller.

Monday, August 12, 2019

Catherine Owen on Emily Dickinson


Trying to write about female writers who have influenced me induces a strange sense of guilt. There have been, of course, real, living women, such as poets Sue Nevill, Katerina Fretwell and, especially, Susan McCaslin, who recognized that certain cadence in my head space from the get-go and, when I was in my twenties, edited my work, attended my readings and otherwise encouraged me with the straightforward praise I needed to sip at the time. And there are a wealth of others I have read over the years that I have drawn immense sources of form, agony, eroticism and sound from (Gluck to Olds to Graham). But, if you ask me to speak to my main influences I will instantly name male ones, particularly Robinson Jeffers, during the early days, and John Ashbery later on. However, if I think as far back as I can into my literary life, before I even knew that's what it would become, I was reading Emily Dickinson.

When I was three years old, I was gifted with a Golden Treasury of Verse and quickly picked my favorites to have recited to me at night, then, before I even entered play school, to sing to myself as often as possible. One of these was indubitably Dickinson's "I'm Nobody! Who are you?" But did I know the author of these lines about the "dreariness" of being "Somebody" was a woman? Nay, I thought she was a frog, the illustration on the page being of a rather large, warty amphibian to emphasize the line "How public - like a Frog -".

Sometime during my teens, I re-encountered Dickinson (finally realizing she was a woman), as I was turning from writing stories to composing maudlin poems and metal songs, recognizing a fellow denizen of the darkness in her, found in lines such as "T'was like a Maelstrom, with a notch,/that nearer every Day,/kept narrowing its boiling Wheel/Until the Agony" and "A narrow Fellow in the Grass/Occasionally rides," the latter of which I made a point to memorize, particularly for its tremulous close, "And Zero at the Bone." Although from a vastly differing era, and purportedly a recluse, rather than a partier, this was a undoubtedly a hardcore poet. My adolescent soul rejoiced in an ally.

But it wasn't until I lost my young spouse, in my thirties, that Dickinson began to embody for me a certain poetic intimacy that felt like one woman speaking to another woman, perhaps not quite reassuringly, but knowingly, without doubt that there will be suffering, but there will also be strength. Lines like:
"I felt a Funeral in my Brain,"  "After great pain, a formal feeling comes -" and stanzas such as "I measure every Grief I meet/with narrow, probing Eyes/I wonder if it weighs like Mine/or has an Easier size," and "The Soul has Bandaged moments/when too appalled to stir/she feels some ghastly Fright come up/And stop to look at her -" felt like an encompassing of mourning, unyielding and terrifying and yet also with a certain soothing measure and definite temporality. Very few people, even writers, said much that made any sense or offered real consolation at the time. Emily Dickinson - rare gift - did. 





Catherine Owen is the author of 13 collections of poetry and prose. Her latest poetry book is Dear Ghost, (Buckrider Books, 2017), nominated for the Pat Lowther Award, and her upcoming memoir anthology, featuring 25 Canadian writers on mourning, is Locations of Grief: An Emotional Geography (Wolsak & Wynn, 2020). She lives in a 1905 home called Delilah in the oldest neighbourhood in Edmonton, AB. 

Monday, August 5, 2019

Sarah Rosenthal and Valerie Witte on Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti


Dancer Mothers // Poet Daughters: A Conversation, Part 2


In their collaborative chapbook The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (Operating System, 2019) poets Sarah Rosenthal and Valerie Witte engage with the work of dancer-choreographers Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer. Through research into these innovative women’s dances, ideas, and lives, Rosenthal and Witte use language from and about the choreographers to create a series of co-written sonnets that are interwoven with letters between the two poets. The letters describe the process of composing the poems and branch into discussions of dance, poetics, gender, transgression, the unfolding disaster of the current political scene, and much else, in the associative weave that epistolary form enacts. Together, the poems and letters construct an environment of reflection, intimacy, and vulnerability, one that is both challenging and invitational.

Below is the second of a two-part conversation between Rosenthal and Witte about their subject matter and creative process.

# # #

Valerie: Sarah, speaking of ways in which writing the chapbook brought about shifts in our mindset and approach to our work, the process of writing collaborative sonnets, by its very nature, required us to let go of our own intentionality and allow the poem to change course, as we each would take the poem in a different direction with every new line; did you find it freeing to surrender this sense of control, frustrating not to have it, or both? How did this process connect with and support the ideas explored by Forti and Rainer?

Sarah: Val, before I get to your questions, I feel called to respond to some of the ideas you’ve shared in relation to Forti’s work. You describe the way Forti’s combination of gesture and speech seamlessly blurs their boundaries, “in the process creating something entirely new.” Rainer has also very often combined words and gestures, but instead of creating a seamless effect, her approach deliberately foregrounds the incongruity of these two modes of physical expression happening simultaneously. Forti’s incorporation of speech seems an integrative move, whereas Rainer’s creates a jagged collage. And both create, as you put it, something entirely new.

It’s thrilling to learn how liberatory your serendipitous involvement with Forti’s life and work is proving to be, allowing you to radically reconfigure your relationship to dance and entertain the idea of exploring or inventing cross-disciplinary forms. Like Forti, Rainer did not have a traditional dance background, and although this played out very differently for the two, both in terms of their capacities and interests as dancers and in terms of their dance poetics, there’s some common ground there. Rainer studied ballet as a child but in her teens and early 20s was reading, writing, attending lots of art events, and hanging out with artists. She didn’t return to dance until her 20s, when she studied with Graham and Cunningham; she also studied Haitian dance and ballet. She was an incredibly dedicated student and much more into mastering technique than Forti, but I think it’s fair to say that given her late start combined with her passion for the form and a penchant for cutting-edge art and culture, she was probably destined to take a nontraditional tack with dance, and in particular a tack that explicitly resisted virtuosity. One of many ways this manifests is that her challenging dance “Trio A” can be danced by non-dancers (if they work their asses off to learn it, that is). It’s way more “dancerly” than some of Forti’s stuff, but there’s still this strong interest in an anti-professional approach to the form.

And like you, I find that approach enormously liberating. It’s led me to start studying contemporary dance again, more willing than ever to both push my limits and look like a fool.

As to whether I felt frustrated or freed by the necessity of surrendering control in our collaborative poem-making process: While I liked the idea, when we first got started I felt disoriented when I encountered each new line of yours, which sometimes took a direction so unlike one I would have chosen. On top of that, many of the lines weren’t “yours” or “mine” to start with, since we were lifting them from texts. The procedure we agreed on promised a way to enact the idea that language is an open field of play––a dance stage, perhaps––not a grid of parceled lots. But it’s one thing to plan a project and another to execute it.

My initial discomfort revealed implicit assumptions I had somehow developed about how even a so-called “experimental” poem could unfold. I saw that I might require more coherence than I had thought I did, or rather that my idea of coherence in a poem might not be the same as someone else’s.

One of my responses to this discomfort was to notice that I really didn’t know the person on the other end of the collaboration very well. I thought, Why not just have a dialogue about how we each see these lines interacting, and in the process, get to know each other better? We ran the risk of thereby limiting the multivalence of the poems but I sensed we could do it in a way that made it clear that our own readings aren’t the readings of the work. I figured readers would either welcome the opportunity to have us “show our hand” in a fairly atypical way, or they’d skip over the close-reading parts of the dialogue.

The other response was to embrace my discomfort as a portal to greater flexibility. And as we kept creating together, I found myself getting into the contact improv of it––I began to see each line you sent as an intriguing challenge, an opening. In my responses I sometimes took a more studied approach, sometimes a more intuitive one. And then let go, not knowing where your next line would take the poem. That said, as we kept working, I also felt like we somehow started swinging with each other more, in the mysterious way we animals do.

Exploring the interconnections between our experience of collaboration and Forti and Rainer’s work could fill many pages. For example, I’d want to look at the way each of these artists balances collaboration and creative control, the similarities and differences in those respective balancing acts, and how each compares and contrasts with the approach taken by their peers (for example, other early members of Judson Dance Theater). Rainer openly acknowledges her need to remain at the helm of a performance piece. These days the people who dance her pieces are highly skilled dancers who are choreographers in their own right, and they do contribute material and in-the-moment choices according to rules Rainer develops, but it’s not egalitarian. For perhaps the same reason, she uses chance operations (which Rainer and Forti learned from Cage and Cunningham) in more circumscribed ways than some. I respect that. She’s not a fan of the free-for-all, and she doesn’t care if peers and mentors in her world believe that totally egalitarian and/or chance-based collaborations are the way to go. One of her closest colleagues over the decades is Steve Paxton, who invented contact improvisation. Rainer uses that approach in her work too, but limits it.

Could you speak to your own feelings of relative comfort or ease with our collaboration, and what you have learned about Forti’s relationship to collaboration and creative process?

Valerie: Participating in a collaboration is always an adventureyou never know what obstacles you may encounter, what the route will be or where it will take you. Which for me, at least, is part of the fun. As I think you know, I’m generally pretty open to collaboration; I appreciate how it inevitably forces us out of our comfort zone, as well as the obvious potential for surprisewhat better way to achieve that than to have another artist to create with, someone with a different set of experiences, perspectives, and aesthetics contributing to a work that would have been impossible to create on our own.

For the sonnets we’ve generated, I’ve enjoyed the sense of surprise that comes from each of us contributing alternating lines. I agree with you that we were able to “swing together” more as we got in the rhythm of following each other’s seemingly random lines with ours, which in our own minds perhaps had a surety about them—of course this must be the next line!

I admit to being less sure about adding the letter component than you. I wondered if incorporating our discussion of writing the sonnets might seem self-indulgent. Would it be interesting/relevant to readers to see our processing of the work? My initial letters were both tentative and fragmented because it is not a form I am particularly comfortable in and I was carrying over a lot of my experimental poetry tendencies, which didn’t necessarily serve the project as a whole. As we continued with our correspondence, the letters became more substantial, more grounded in research and critique. Reading them now, I can see how they evolved, much like a relationship would, like how our connection and understanding of each other deepened throughout the course of the project. In the end, I am grateful for having included the correspondence—it certainly added another dimension to the project; and whereas before I rarely worked in prose, I’m writing essays with you now, and I can see how the letters served as a bridge from poetry to essays. One thing is for certain: This has been an adventure!

It seems appropriate and telling that the two artists we’ve been working with also were frequent collaboratorswith each other, other dancers/choreographers, sound and conceptual artists, and others. Perhaps this is one reason we have been drawn to themwe recognize in Rainer and Forti a similarly open approach to working with others, the value they both seem to place on projects that extend beyond the more traditional model of a self-interested art career in order to impact and interact with the larger community.

Forti’s passion for collaboration seems indisputable. At least in some cases, she seems to approach it with an unusual degree of intimacyafter all, her three husbands were also her artistic collaborators before and during their marriages, and she set aside her own artistic aspirations during her marriage to Robert Whitman, becoming a member of his performance group and participating in many of his Happenings. More broadly, Rainer and dancer Steve Paxton cited her Dance Constructions as a key influence, one which helped prompt them to form Judson Dance Theater. So her openness to working with others begat other collaborative projects, and those surely led to others, and so on.

Of course, dance is an inherently collaborative art form. Though dancers including Forti and Rainer produce solo pieces, many works involve multiple performers. These two figures were so often introducing artists to each other, participating in various schools and collectives. I like that. It shows just how powerful supporting other artists can be, how a sense of shared artistic goals can strengthen the work and fuel creativity. Writing is, by contrast, a somewhat solitary practicebut it doesn’t have to be, and studying these dancers, recognizing them as models of how to engage with other artists in compelling ways, has certainly been a source of inspirationone that I’m sure I’ll carry with me beyond this project.
 



photo of Simone Forti by Danny Lepkoff at Mad Brook Farm circa 1990, provided by Simone Forti



Sarah Rosenthal is the author of several books and chapbooks including The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow(The Operating System, 2019; a collaboration with Valerie Witte) Lizard (Chax, 2016), and Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009). She edited A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Poets of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction pieces have appeared in numerous journals and are anthologized in Kindergarde: Avant-garde Poems, Plays, and Stories for Children (Black Radish, 2013), Building is a Process / Light is an Element: essays and excursions for Myung Mi Kim (P-Queue, 2008), and Bay Poetics (Faux, 2006). She has done grant-supported writing residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Soul Mountain, Ragdale, New York Mills, Hambidge, and This Will Take Time, and has been a Headlands Center Affiliate Artist. She lives in San Francisco where she works as a Life & Professional Coach, develops curricula for the Center for the Collaborative Classroom, and serves on the California Book Awards jury. More at sarahrosenthal.net.

Valerie Witte is the author of a game of correspondence (Black Radish Books, 2015) and three chapbooks, most recently The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (The Operating System, 2019), a collaboration with Sarah Rosenthal. Artist books and an installation based on her manuscripts “Flood Diary” and “A Rupture in the Interiors,” created in collaboration with Chicago-based artist Jennifer Yorke, have been exhibited in Berkeley and Chicago. She has been a recipient of residencies from Ragdale Foundation, Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and La Porte Peinte in Noyers, France. She is a founding member of the Bay Area Correspondence School, and for eight years, she helped produce many innovative books by women as a member of Kelsey Street Press. In her daytime hours, she edits education books in Portland, OR. Read more at valeriewitte.com.


Monday, July 29, 2019

Kim Fahner on Charlotte Bronte


Charlotte Bronte’s been in my head this last month or so. The first novel I fell in love with was Jane Eyre. I was fifteen or sixteen, I think. With parents who were terribly strict, I found my escape in books and music, falling happily headfirst into worlds that weren’t of this one. Bronte’s Victorian novel seemed, to me, to have it all: it was written by a woman in a time when women writers weren’t really warmly welcomed; there was a tenacious heroine who survived despite all odds, and who was a bit of a spitfire; and, there was a little romance. I kind of thought I could see myself in Jane back then—mostly in how she loved to read, and was plainly spoken and truthful. She said things without filtering her thoughts. She didn’t dice words and spoke up for herself. That she did that after so many years of being silenced by abusive relatives and educators made me cheer for her. She survived, and then she flourished. She even somehow found love along the way. 

I won’t lie. It might have been Mr. Rochester who at first caught my eye, mostly because he seemed dashing, handsome, and because he spoke smartly. He cared enough to raise little Adele, too, which spoke to his heart and compassion, even if he didn’t really want anyone else to see that more tender side of his personality. He played to the archetype of a strong man in literature, all gruff on the outside but then marshmallow-y on the inside. Most important to me, though, was that Rochester saw and admired Jane for what she just couldn’t see in herself, so that always impressed me as a gawky, outside-of-everything overweight teenage girl with wild, curly hair. I also always liked that he actually saw her, acknowledging her when so many people hadn’t seen her before that. She had been ignored for some time and felt invisible. Despite their differences in social status and gender, Rochester treated her as an equal. Jane spoke of their being able to speak ‘soul to soul,’ and of how all she only ever really wanted was to be considered an equal. This, to me, seems groundbreaking in terms of the time period within which the novel was written. Jane’s character is one that demands she be treated with equality, with respect, and with attention to her thoughts and voice.

As I read through the novel, I liked Jane more than I’d first thought possible. I imagined that I could wear fine Victorian dresses and read good books. She and I could be friends, if it were possible, in some alternate dimension. I could imagine that. She seemed to be as odd as I was, so it was plausible. Escaping your own life, when it isn’t always bright, is an age-old respite for kids who don’t fit in, or who have been bullied. As I got older, Charlotte Bronte kind of grew on me. I read all of the other Bronte sisters’ works, and I liked them all right, but Jane Eyre resonated with me as someone who didn’t feel like she ever really fit in. I still sometimes feel the same way in my late 40s, and I still go to books for comfort and escape.

In university, I took Victorian literature courses, and went through the standard canon, but Bronte always seemed to walk alongside me. Jane Eyre was a feminist novel, even if Bronte had to take a man’s name to have it published. The protagonist went against every bit of what Victorian women were meant to do. Jane didn’t worry about getting married. She just wanted to be free, to be independent, to think her own thoughts, to speak her mind, and to be heard. She wouldn’t really have been for every man in that era, either, if we’re honest about it. She would have likely been too challenging for a suitor of that time because she didn’t fit into the archetypes of the period.

What makes Charlotte Bronte’s Jane so appealing? She’s spirited, for certain. She fights off the threat of poor Bertha when she tries to set fire to Jane’s bed in the middle of the night, jealous of Rochester’s strong attraction to the new governess at Thornfield. To me, though, I’ve always read Bertha as being symbolic of the part of us that wishes to be free, the part we might just sometimes thoughtlessly oppress because of the social conventions that we’ve been taught by our parents as young girls. As women, perhaps, we sometimes lock that part of ourselves away in an attic, even try to deny that it might exist. It’s the part that is about truth, passion, desire, and spirit. For how many years have girls been taught to be quiet, sit silently, and listen carefully, and for how many years, still, have men’s voices run roughshod over women’s voices in staff meetings, classrooms, and family homes?

In some ways, you could also read the novel as having Jane and Bertha as two sides of the same coin: they are perhaps two halves of a more well-rounded woman who might have come into being, if the novel were written now, away from the oppression of Victorian times and social mores. They were binaries, reflective of the archetypal virgin-whore dichotomy that is so common to that period, and for which Victorian writing is fairly well-known. The other feminist part of the story, really, is to think that Bertha Mason sets fire to Thornfield, burns it to the ground, as Bronte tried to do with her novel, in presenting such a strong female protagonist as that of Jane Eyre.

Let’s be clear here: it isn’t right that Rochester put his ill wife in the attic and pretended that she didn’t exist. The stigma of mental illness is present, but it needs to be read within the historical context of Victorian England. So many families hid secrets in attics, in metaphorical ways, and all family trees likely still have skeletons. Bronte was also alluding to this notion, I think. One can read Jean Rhys’s excellent novel, Wide Sargasso Sea, as a counterpoint and prequel to Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and would be wise to do so. Since its publication in 1966, Wide Sargasso Sea has let scholars and readers reconsider the power dynamics of race and gender.

Here’s the strong thing about Jane, though: she doesn’t stay with Rochester after she finds out he’s still married to Bertha. She goes off to find her own way in the world, even though she really loves him and her heart is broken. She knows she needs to be her own woman first, and won’t play second fiddle. Not many Victorian women protagonists would have been that strongly written. Some could argue that the novel isn’t feminist because Jane returns to Rochester after hearing him call out to her across the moors—rather mystically and telepathically—while she’s living with the Rivers family. Some could say that this is a weak female character, a woman who is too caught up in the notion of love to ignore Rochester, but who has not ever been so deeply in love and felt so inexplicably drawn to someone? The strength in Jane’s character is that she educates herself, has her own profession, and that she returns to Thornfield only as a whole and complete person, and not as someone who is desperately looking for completion in a life partner.

When you visit the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, you can be easily struck by its atmosphere. It is dark and damp, and the views out the window are ones that look out onto the old, mossy graveyard. You can imagine yourself standing there, being transported to an earlier time, and feel a bit of what the Bronte sisters might have felt when they stood there years before. You can also hear the words of Jane Eyre ringing in your ears if you listen closely enough: “I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”

From start to finish, I admire Jane’s spirit, and her ability to embody this motto as she moves through her life. And, from start to finish, I admire Charlotte Bronte for having written such a story in a time when men like Robert Southey, the poet laureate of England, couldn’t even bear to fathom a place for women writers in the literary canon. Ten years before Jane Eyre’s publication in 1847, Southey wrote to tell Bronte, condescendingly, that her dreams of being a poet and novelist were ridiculous: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be.” That Bronte went on to write and publish her novel would have likely shocked quite a few Victorian men. Thankfully, Charlotte Bronte and her Jane Eyre marked a spot that blazed a trail for future women writers to follow. We begin in earlier places, and move forward to where we are today—travelers and explorers always—speaking our minds and writing our words down on the page. 




Kim Fahner was the fourth poet laureate for Sudbury (2016-18) and the first woman to be appointed to the role. She has published five collections of poems, including her latest, These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019). She blogs fairly regularly at www.kimfahner.wordpress.com and her author website is www.kimfahner.com 

 

Monday, July 22, 2019

Sarah Rosenthal and Valerie Witte on Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti


Dancer Mothers // Poet Daughters: A Conversation, Part 1

In their collaborative chapbook The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (Operating System, 2019) poets Sarah Rosenthal and Valerie Witte engage with the work of dancer-choreographers Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer. Through research into these innovative women’s dances, ideas, and lives, Rosenthal and Witte use language from and about the choreographers to create a series of co-written sonnets that are interwoven with letters between the two poets. The letters describe the process of composing the poems and branch into discussions of dance, poetics, gender, transgression, the unfolding disaster of the current political scene, and much else, in the associative weave that epistolary form enacts. Together, the poems and letters construct an environment of reflection, intimacy, and vulnerability, one that is both challenging and invitational.

Below is the first of a two-part conversation between Rosenthal and Witte about their subject matter and creative process.

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Valerie: Sarah, you generated the idea of focusing our project on postmodern choreographers. Can you talk about what drew you to this topic?

Sarah: A number of preoccupations converged for me. One is my increasing focus, in recent years, on somatic awareness. It’s hard to measure, but I sense that the benefits of it––feeling more grounded and self-aware––are seeping into every aspect of my reality, from dealing more effectively with practicalities to clearer thinking, greater access to the imagination, and more satisfying interpersonal dynamics. Dance requires and generates somatic awareness, of course. And my growing interest in somatic knowledge has led me to reflect on the fact that I have a lot of positive associations with dance––even as a pre-teen I discovered the joy of moving in sync with various musical genres, from Motown to Bulgarian line dances. As an adult I’ve taken many dance classes and attended many performances.

Yet at the same time, there were huge gaps in my knowledge. For example, I had never really studied the rich history of postmodern dance or the ideas informing it. Rainer, Forti, and their crowd were little more than names to me, yet I knew they were the dance equivalent of some of the postmodern poets whose work influenced me, including the New York School and Language Poets. The confluence of my intimacy with dance and my relative ignorance about this important strand of contemporary dance compelled me.

It was also a feminist issue. The chapbook Eternal Apprentice by Michael Newton and Emmalea Russo, which became our starting point for figuring out our project’s contours, incorporates material about John Cage and Merce Cunningham. I found myself thinking, these men are so famous yet relatively few of us, including me, know much about the generation of female choreographers they mentored. I wanted to help right that wrong.

Plus I was alert to the fact that in recent years, investigating and investing myself in a subject matter helps me create work in a sustained way. I did that with my research on the city of Manhattan for my book Manhatten and lizards for my book Lizard (such innovative titles!) and I’d been looking around for another subject that would engross me and feed my writing in a similar way. I hoped that dance would hold us in its toned yet flexible grasp. It has.

But that all sounds premeditated, and it was way more intuitive. You kept saying, Sarah, we gotta get started! And I kept saying, Yeah, you’re right!––while thinking, what the hell are we going to do, I don’t have a single idea in my head. Then I was at the Double Cross table at the AWP bookfair flipping through that chapbook, which is a collaborative piece, an intimate, vibrant conversation. It energized me, and I thought, great, I can suggest this to Valerie as a starting point and she’ll see that I did come through with something! She won’t jump ship! One thing led to another. Or as Forti taught Rainer, “One thing follows another.”

What amazed me is that you responded with alacrity to the idea, while at the same time sharing that you’d had a mostly traumatic history with dance. I was impressed that you’d be willing to dive into a topic that you’d have every reason to avoid. Can you tell me how that worked for you, and whether that’s a familiar pattern in your creative life?

Valerie: Sarah, no one is more surprised than I am that I’m immersed in a project focusing on dance. The idea was simultaneously horrifying, hilarious, and intriguing: As you note, my experience with dance throughout my life has not been particularly positive, generally ranging from indifference to low-key despair; often a source of insecurity, rarely joy. So diving into the topic certainly held a sense of dread. At the same time, I’ve appreciated the sheer humor of it, the puzzled and surprised reactions of friends when I tell them about the project, as they know dance is not a realm I’ve ever really connected with—the befuddlement/amusement they display elicits a kind of joy. And overall the idea intrigued me—I liked the tension inherent in addressing what would surely be a challenging topic for me, and appreciated the possibility it could afford me to explore aspects of myself that would otherwise remain untapped.

Although I do not have a deep well of experience to draw from, my memories and associations related to dance have made indelible impressions on me. Also given that I still engage in activities that require a degree of kinesthetic intelligence (Pilates, taiko drumming), these are ideas that I still think about, that are ever in the air around me whether I want to actively engage with them or not.

That this is not a direction I would ever have chosen myself is, to me, a huge benefit of collaboration—being compelled by someone/something outside myself to engage creatively in a way I wouldn’t if left to my own devices. It is a departure to some extent—I’m not typically someone who veers far out of my comfort zone. But I was lucky to find in Simone Forti an artist whose work and way of talking about it resonated deeply with me. In my readings, I was continually struck by her use of language in her work (speech is often featured prominently), the way she describes her work (often quite poetically), and how she views her abilities as a dancer (definitely not as a virtuoso).

While I found Forti a particularly relatable subject for my nondancer self, you selected Yvonne Rainer to study. How do you see her as an influence/mother/mentor? How did your perception of her and your connection to her work evolve over the course of the project?

Sarah: I picked Rainer knowing very little about her or her work. It was another rushed moment when I was just trying to help move things along. Then, when I started investigating her oeuvre, I initially felt distant from it, and intimidated. She’s very conceptual and comes across as emotionally cool to the touch. To be honest, I felt a little envious of your match-up with the more intuitive, kinaesthetically oriented Forti––who’s hardly less of an intellectual or creative force than Rainer, but whose vibe seemed easier to connect with. But I also felt committed. And I trusted that someone as obviously innovative and brilliant as Rainer would have a great deal to offer if I stuck with her. So I did, except for when you and I dipped into the work of the other’s chosen choreographer.

And this has panned out for me. I’ve become engrossed in––and awestruck by––Rainer’s innovations, stances, and projects spanning more than half a century. Since the time she got involved in dance and choreography in the 60s, she has demonstrated an unceasing need to challenge herself, to create new forms that embody her evolving ideas and preoccupations. She even dropped dance entirely for a few decades and made experimental films, returning to choreography in 2000. Her current dance opus, Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? investigates the aging process, among other themes.

The more I learned about Rainer, the more common ground I discovered. I hope I’m not putting Rainer in any boxes she wouldn’t want to be in by identifying these perceived similarities: We both came to art late-ish––she started dancing late in her 20s; I attended MFA school in my mid-30s, a decade or more older than most of my fellow grad students. We’re both psychologically oriented and have done lots of therapy, and we’re both shamelessly open about that and allow or invite psychological investigation to inform our respective relationships to art. I wrote recently that Rainer can come across as vulnerable, and a fellow writer strongly disagreed. But I stand by it. Rainer exhibits a refreshing lack of what the shrinks call “false front,” which I think is at least partly due to a lifetime of self-investigation. She seems to know and accept herself to a remarkable degree. There’s a lot of power in that for an artist. It replaces an icky kind of power grounded in self-inflation.

And although I described her and her work as feeling initially remote, it’s also true that from the get-go it has felt in a certain way deeply familiar. Which makes sense––her generation of postmodern artists and writers experimented with techniques such as collage and disjunction, combinations of chance and intention, disruptions of narrative, and much more that have provided a kind of toolkit for subsequent generations, including you and me. 

You say you felt Forti was particularly relatable for you. Taking that further, I’d love to hear whether you feel your engagement with Forti’s work has stretched or shifted your own poetics or practice, and if so, how.

Valerie: Sarah, I understand and appreciate your initial resistance to Rainer—Forti does seem easy to connect with, as you say. But in my readings on Rainer, I found her to be compelling too, in different ways—her more directly feminist stance, her very intentional transition to working in film, and so on. And your deepening connection to her and her work has been so evident in the project—YES. Although Forti and Rainer had a lot of the same influences and danced in the same circles, so to speak, their contrasting natures and approaches served as effective counterpoints (counterparts?) for us to study. So I am glad you stuck with Rainer and discovered the common ground you share.

Among the commonalities I found with Forti was the way she incorporated language into her work. For example, her News Animations heavily feature speech; while moving through a space somewhat extemporaneously, she draws themes from stories in the news and free-associates based on that theme, creating a sort of stream-of-consciousness collage. As a dancer (or movement artist, as she typically identifies herself) making such use of language and speech, she effectively demonstrates how to break down the barriers of form, testing the limits of these categories, whether dance, writing, visual art, or anything else. Her pieces serve as examples of ways to take a form and seamlessly blend it with elements of a different form, in the process creating something entirely new.

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of this project is how it has opened up the possibilities of performance; through Forti’s example of infusing movement with language, I can now see how I might do the inverse, i.e., incorporate movement into work that is predominantly text-based. In writing the chapbook, I have found that experiencing dance through the lens of experimental writing is particularly fruitful—and this interplay in my work has only just begun. I’ve discovered, to my surprise, that dance as a form based on kinesthetic awareness and bodily movement is a perfect pairing with the language and form of writing; the combination creates interesting overlays and points of convergence, something I hope to explore further in future projects.

I have long been interested in pushing beyond the expectations of a typical poetry reading and have sometimes brought in audio-visual components to complement the text. But prior to this project, I never considered incorporating movement into a performance. Yet now I wonder: could I? As someone with a virtually lifelong resistance to and discomfort with dance, why do I think this might work? It comes back to my serendipitous pairing with Forti, who lacked the technical mastery of some of her contemporaries, a fact she actively discussed. She said of Merce Cunningham’s choreography that all she would see was a blur of feet, that she wouldn’t know what had happened and she just couldn’t do it. Yet she never sounds self-pitying or insecure in her self-assessment, focusing instead on her unique strengths and what she singularly contributes to the field. Unlike the virtuosity of Cunningham and others, what she had to offer was closer to a “generalized response of infants.” I returned to this notion for comfort again and again throughout this project, as it allowed me to acknowledge what I can contribute in this (dance/experimental theater/performance art) realm even while I approach it primarily as a writer and not a movement artist. This makes me feel as if, despite my physical limitations, I could at least in theory incorporate movement into performance with some success. This would no doubt be a challenge due to my insecurities and lack of experience, but the idea of pushing out of my comfort zone intrigues me, and this sort of boundary-blurring now seems possible in a way I had never previously imagined.



Yvonne Rainer photo credit: Nathalie Magnan


Sarah Rosenthal is the author of several books and chapbooks including The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow(The Operating System, 2019; a collaboration with Valerie Witte) Lizard (Chax, 2016), and Manhatten (Spuyten Duyvil, 2009). She edited A Community Writing Itself: Conversations with Vanguard Poets of the Bay Area (Dalkey Archive, 2010). Her poetry, fiction, and nonfiction pieces have appeared in numerous journals and are anthologized in Kindergarde: Avant-garde Poems, Plays, and Stories for Children (Black Radish, 2013), Building is a Process / Light is an Element: essays and excursions for Myung Mi Kim (P-Queue, 2008), and Bay Poetics (Faux, 2006). She has done grant-supported writing residencies at Vermont Studio Center, Soul Mountain, Ragdale, New York Mills, Hambidge, and This Will Take Time, and has been a Headlands Center Affiliate Artist. She lives in San Francisco where she works as a Life & Professional Coach, develops curricula for the Center for the Collaborative Classroom, and serves on the California Book Awards jury. More at sarahrosenthal.net.

Valerie Witte is the author of a game of correspondence (Black Radish Books, 2015) and three chapbooks, most recently The Grass Is Greener When the Sun Is Yellow (The Operating System, 2019), a collaboration with Sarah Rosenthal. Artist books and an installation based on her manuscripts “Flood Diary” and “A Rupture in the Interiors,” created in collaboration with Chicago-based artist Jennifer Yorke, have been exhibited in Berkeley and Chicago. She has been a recipient of residencies from Ragdale Foundation, Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and La Porte Peinte in Noyers, France. She is a founding member of the Bay Area Correspondence School, and for eight years, she helped produce many innovative books by women as a member of Kelsey Street Press. In her daytime hours, she edits education books in Portland, OR. Read more at valeriewitte.com.


Monday, December 17, 2018

Amy Leblanc on Jeanette Winterson


The Finding Place

Lovers are not at their best when it matters. Mouths dry up, palms sweat, conversation flags, and all the time the heart is threatening to fly from the body once and for all.

The Passion, Jeanette Winterson

The pages of every Jeanette Winterson book in existence are held in the walls of my bedroom. Each of them is dog eared, highlighted, and occasionally marked with a single exclamation point in the margins when I simply do not know what to say. Her words have emboldened me and made me rapturous. It feels as though she grabbed hold of a zipper at the top of my head and lowered it toward the floorboards, revealing my spine and all of my vulnerable innards to the world. This feeling is not new to me and it is not unlike the clumsiness of undressing with a new lover.

As with countless others this affair began with a chance encounter in a used bookstore on Parnell Street in Dublin. We each have our own patterns and habits from experience; I tend to begin my search for books at the end of the alphabet. I made my way through Z, Y, X, and had just made my way to W when I found myself drawn to one orange spine amidst a wall of darkened books. I removed it from the shelf and in my hands was a tattered copy of The Passion with cigarette burns through the cover and a few pages hanging on by a thread. This book had been loved roughly and thoroughly. The value of the book, marked with an orange dot, was three euros.

          I got back to my hotel and devoured The Passion over the course of one sleepless night and knew that I was in love. I had just begun an affair that would tease me and potentially hurt me, but I could not turn back. I picked up as many of her books as I could find to keep the magic of her words alive in my mind. I read Oranges are not the Only Fruit and her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal in which she describes her early attachments to books and poetry volumes as lifelines. Winterson was adopted as a baby by fundamentalist Christian parents who condemned her sexuality and performed violent exorcisms on her. When Jeanette realized that she was a lesbian, she knew she had to leave. “Why be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” were the last hurtful words her mother tossed at her as she left home. After reading so much of her work, I am forever thankful that she chose not to be ‘normal.’

In her memoir, Winterson writes, “when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle classes, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy. A tough life needs a tough language – and that is what poetry offers – a language powerful enough to say it how it is. It isn’t a hiding place. It is a finding place” (p. 40). Jeanette Winterson’s critical and creative works have been seminal in contemporary women’s writing and in LGBTQ+ spheres of criticism and authorship. By defying gender and genre Winterson has created a new type of writing that redefines what it means to be human and reconceptualises the fluidity and transience of subjectivity. She’s changed the world of literature, but on a more personal level, she’s changed the way that I read. After loving her writing so thoroughly, I no longer settle for books that are unsatisfying, that drag things on too long, that leave me feeling empty.

Her words have caressed me when I am overwhelmed and I have relied on her novels to get me through heartache. She writes, “the poem finds the word that finds the feeling.” In this way she has put words into my mouth to get to the heart of a feeling that I am never able to articulate. I find comfort in her ‘finding place’ and I seek shelter there when language is uncertain and imprecise.



Amy LeBlanc holds a BA (Hons) in English Literature and creative writing from the University of Calgary. She is currently non-fiction editor at filling Station magazine. Her work has appeared, or is scheduled to appear in Room, Prairie Fire, Contemporary Verse 2, Geez, and EVENT among others. Amy won the 2018 BrainStorm Poetry Contest for her poem 'Swell'. She is the author of two chapbooks, most recently Ladybird, Ladybird published with Anstruther Press in August 2018. She attended the Emerging Writers Intensive at the Banff Centre for the Arts in October 2018