Monday, February 21, 2022

Kim Fahner on Joan Didion

 


So many women writers seem to be dying lately, over the last few years especially. Is it because I’m a woman writer that I happen take more notice, or is it just that I have been influenced and formed so strongly by their presence as literary mothers in my head and heart? I’m not sure, to be honest. I just know that my heart sinks when I hear that another woman has gone on. I dig through my bookshelves and revisit their work, feeling comforted by their voices telling me stories in my head. I did this with Maya Angelou and Mary Oliver’s writing after their deaths, reviewing the depth and breadth of their work. The poets always get to me when they go, whether men or women, and I feel as if someone has yanked my heart out of my chest and shoved it back in again, all tattered and worn. I always cry. Always.

Joan Didion was someone I never thought would die. You likely know how that happens inside your head, especially if you’re a writer? There is always a sense of shock and denial that comes from hearing of a writer’s passing, even when you’ve never seen them read in person, but have only ever huddled down with their books on a rainy night. Perhaps it was that I first read Didion—in earnest and not just in passing—after the death of my own mother in December 2008. I was in the middle of a major depressive episode then. Someone, either another woman writer, or maybe even my therapist, suggested that I read The Year of Magical Thinking (2005). I scoffed, thinking ‘It’s just another book about grief and loss, like all of the others I’ve tried, so what good will it do me?’ Thankfully, I disregarded that subversive inside voice and went off to buy a copy of the book.

I often think that stigma swirls around those of us who have lived with and survived mental illness. The other sort of stigma that I’ve noticed in the last fourteen years of my life has to do with death. The western world really doesn’t seem to want to engage in what deep and intense loss can do to a person’s psyche and their way of being in the world afterwards. Death—and grieving—is so sterile and hygienic now that it’s not as naturally woven into our society as it once was. I remember my great aunts telling me, when I was a teenager, that my great-grandfather, James Cornelius Kelly, was given a proper Irish wake in the sunroom of their big red brick house here in Sudbury. They may very well have told me that while I was sitting on the couch in that very same sunroom, looking out the window towards the big back yard with the willow tree, wondering where they would have put the casket in that tiny room with big windows. Would it have been where the couch was now? My great-grandfather died in 1950. Then, death was part of life, and grieving was seen as part of living, too. The act of grieving a loss deeply wasn’t something that was stigmatized or rushed through without too much thought. Now, it’s pinned to a calendar with a certain number of days given away from work, not caring that your heart might take longer to recover from such a final parting of ways. 

Reading Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking—when I was most missing my mother after she died—I found a voice that sounded so much like the one in my head. When Didion died in December 2021, I wept. She had been with me after my mother’s death, you see, and that meant something to me. I re-read both The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights (2011) in January and found myself transfixed yet again by the Netflix documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. She knew what grief was about, losing her husband and then her daughter. She knew the pain and intensity of that kind of loss. It’s strange, but when you’ve had a great deal of loss in your life, you fear people disappearing—because they always will—but yet you also feel drawn to others who have had to go through difficult times in life. They will not have rushed through the grieving, you think, and so will have let it change them from the inside out in a deeper way, for the better. 

When I first read it, years ago, I underlined the passages that most spoke to me in The Year of Magical Thinking: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.” Yes. Death can be obliterative. It will fracture a life and then you’ll be left to rebuild it, to make it stronger somehow.

At the very end of The Year of Magical Thinking, I circled and starred some lines that made me cry. The first was “I look for resolution and find none” and the second was “I know why we try to keep the dead alive: we try to keep them alive in order to keep them with us.” Ah, I remember thinking—and I still do now, on a dull grey February day in Northern Ontario—the pain of when people go, when they disappear, will always be something that comes without closure. All you can do, when people go, is to know there isn’t such a thing as closure. It’s a fierce and false myth. Joan Didion taught me that through her writing, and it is a lesson for which I will always be most grateful because it’s one that needs to be taken in, to almost be consumed and integrated.

There’s a song by Craig Cardiff that I often listen to when I think of the people I’ve lost. It’s called “When People Go.” So many have disappeared from my life. Some go when they die, and others disappear when their paths diverge from mine. Either way, the grief is still as deep when someone departs from your life, a hole that can’t be filled afterwards. In his song, Cardiff sings plaintively: “When people go, when people leave, makes some people cry, makes some people drink…it’s the saddest thing.” I love the acoustic version that I found on YouTube a few years ago, mostly because the words are so painfully true. The song—his words and voice—makes me think of Joan Didion, who wasn’t afraid to embrace the deep pain of loss. The people who have gone are ones who are like boats at sea, never to come back.

What I love about Joan Didion’s writing on grief—which feels like poetry to me most days when I read her memoirs—is that she didn’t avoid the pain of it all as so many try to do. She sat with it, wondering what to do with her husband John Gregory Dunne’s clothing and shoes after he died. Best not to give away his shoes in case he happened to return. In Blue Nights, too, a book that speaks to the death of her daughter, Quintana, Didion further explores illness, aging, and death. All of these things dance with grief, as we come to grips with the fact that we are—indeed—more mortal than we’d ever like to admit.

I think of Joan Didion quite often these days. When I miss her being on the planet, I think of the raw and genuine truths found in The Year of Magical Thinking. I revisit her face and her voice as she speaks of the rich beauty of her life in that brilliant documentary—her hands rising like birds as she speaks, and then falling to rest in her lap. Grief is like that, rising and falling, and then resting in your heart and memory. She taught me that through her writing and I’ll be forever grateful to her for that gift.

 

 

 

Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. She was poet laureate in Sudbury from 2016-18, and was the first woman appointed to the role. Kim's latest book of poems is These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019). She's a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Ontario representative of The Writers' Union of Canada (2020-22), and a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. Kim can be reached via her author website at www.kimfahner.com

Monday, January 3, 2022

Pearl Pirie on E. Pauline Johnson

 


Making her own path

When my cousin Laura Ireton was in high school she won the Modern History Prize. The prize that year (1927) was a copy of Pauline Johnsons Flint & Feather, a hardcover embossed, with photo plates within. Ireton went on to be a teacher. Our lifetimes barely overlapped. When I was in primary school, at her estate sale, I bought boxes of her books. I read the primary readers of that generation. The top prize of the grab lot was Pauline Johnson.

I had books of Tennyson and Shakespeare, Burns, and  Rudyard Kipling but this poetry was something different. This was writing in a way I could easily understand. She was not only not in Europe, but in Ontario near roads I had travelled, writing about forests and rivers with passion. You can write of corn and paddling and pathos and storms. Landscape could be a subject.

This was a writer who needed no man and child, a writer who travelled far on her own terms. This was a woman who fit into no world, her father being one group and her mother another. I too felt in neither world of either parent myself an had to make a new path that they could not lead me to.

As a teen I memorized some of her poems, and pacing the night fields, recited them to the stars,

soulless is all humanity to me tonight
my keenest longing is to be alone,
alone with gods grey earth that seems
pulse of my pulse, consort of my dreams…
crave but I to slip through space on space
till flesh no more can bind…

It was perfectly heartfelt for the emotional swells of teenage years…

The lost wind wandering, forever grieves
  Low overhead,
Above grey mosses whispering of leaves
  Fallen and dead.

Poetry books were not easy to come by and hers became well-thumbed. I wanted to attend her performances where she flung from identity to identity, like a magician changing onstage from those high upper class whalebone clothes to the equally camp concoction of Indian clothes” thats she whipped up from her imagination and what cloth and leather she could find. She invented as she went, with a quick ear, made improv.

At the white salons she told of the dramas of Indian braves and to the miners she did satire of the upper class ladies, fitting in well enough with either.

Pauline was impulsive, having no budgeting skills and giving away all her money at one point. Although her dad was chief, she lived in a house with servants and slaves and probably never went to the reservation. She ran off to do her one-woman show instead.  What was a young woman, unmarried to do to earn her living? Her sister and brother worked in town, passing as white clerks, but then her sister Evelyn was a different temperament, careful and diligent. Her memoir was more detailed than Paulines poems. (I wonder what she would have written.)

In case you arent familiar, Pauline's poems are online here. (At that site it explains her Mohawk name, Tekahionwake, is pronounced dageh-eeon-wageh, meaning literally: double-life). She billed herself as the Indian Princess, being a daughter of a Mohawk chief. She had her black and white publicity photos coloured, for her to look more indigenous, than her wavy brown haired and blue eyes.

Around 2010 I did a Schrödingers poet presentation at the Tree Reading Series on Pauline. In 2014,  PurdyFest #8 held a symposium on Pauline Johnson.  Although Id read her poems and four books about her, I didnt present, feeling myself under-equipped. At the time I realized I could have things to say. Thats what Johnson keeps teaching, step up. Speak where you are at.

 

 

 

 

Pearl Pirie (she/her) is a queer poet living in rural Quebec. Her fourth collection is the well-received footlights (Radiant Press, 2020). Follow her at @pesbo on twitter and @pearlpiriepoet on Patreon and Instagram. www.pearlpirie.com

Monday, November 15, 2021

Cheyenne Siles on Maira Kalman

 

When I first saw the name Maira Kalman, it was while browsing around a book warehouse—the kind of store where many older books are kept and treasured until their next owner comes by, someone like me. I was only about fifteen at the time, but my eyes always gravitated to the ‘kooky’ or aesthetically pleasing book covers, even if I thought an ‘aesthetic’ was more on the side of fashion and cosmetics. For me, any book that could keep my focus from the outside deserved a read on the inside. And the Pursuit of Happiness did just that—it lured me in. The mimicry of a graphic novel approach from the front cover made me quickly purchase it with no regard for what may be inside; the title, a famous line from the Declaration of Independence, and the front photo of Benjamin Franklin were enough. Little did I know the author’s foremost love of being an illustrator at the time.

Being a Canadian teenager with a love of American history and politics wasn’t necessarily the most popular ideal growing up. I learned to love it because of my family’s love of all things America—we would visit Florida and various other states multiple times a year for vacations, so I grew up with a deep attachment for the country I considered a second home. For being fifteen, my assumptions of why this book would be in a warehouse rather than prominently displayed at a bookstore chain lied in the fact that this text was, at face value, for Americans. If it’s American, then it isn’t ‘patriotic’ enough to be considered a sellable item in Canada. However, thanks to Maira Kalman, I have a new appreciation of the democracy that lives in me, as a Canadian, just as much as my neighbouring American.

And the Pursuit of Happiness makes me want to learn about the country I live in—it plays with the idea of democracy and how life can be better if we open our eyes to the details and possibilities around us. The book mainly revolves around Kalman’s journey over a year to discover democracy in all its adequacy and inadequacy. Though this yearlong adventure trip took Kalman around different states, her starting point for the book stems from the location of all things American—Washington, D.C. Kalman has an impeccable way of describing thoughts, feelings, and emotions through just a few words on each page—making the imagery she draws the focal point of the book.

Though “The Inauguration. At Last.” is the first chapter of the book, I already felt a sense of pride from the author’s drawings—they are each describing a scene where a motion of change occurs or can occur because of the 2008 presidential election—Barack Obama won, so Americans were entering a different chapter of life. How would this new voting result affect the country already partially divided on cultural issues? As my family and I watched the voting results happen, I was met with various thoughts from all sides of the political border. I grew up in a predominantly Conservative political view—so, the Canadian version of a Republican. I think it’s safe to say that most of my family’s view on the 2008 presidential election was more out of the disappointment of their American “comrade” losing to a Democrat. Since I wasn’t of voting age, I watched more to see the reactions from both my family and the news media. This is another reason why I was so curious to see what Kalman had to say on the idea of American democracy.

That first chapter spoke so much to my masked vision of politics I was so familiar with. The focus of “The Inauguration. At Last.” was simple—the word Hallelujah. Throughout each page, Kalman dove me in, letting me feel like I am alongside her on this journey of discovery. For example, one of the pages involves a straightforward drawing of a pink chair with books stacked on it—the writing is simple, yet prolific regarding the image shown: “Hallelujah for knowledge and for the honor of language and ideas. And books. For Jefferson’s glorious library full of Cicero and Spinoza and Aeschylus and Thomas More and books on bees and trees and harpsichords all intact in the Library of Congress” (Kalman 22). Though the imagery on each page is captivating, it’s simply a starting point of how Kalman’s ideas are portrayed to the reading audience. For me, the inner pages of the book never disappoint from the front cover I was so entranced by.

Even the pages which contain only notes from Kalman are written in such a way that keeps the aesthetic of imagery intact. The author’s approach to democracy is almost like a memoir, especially on the discussion of the goings-on if Kalman knew Lincoln: “I would confess to him that I would love to live in the Lincoln Memorial. Just a simple cot in the center of the space. I would make my bed and sweep. Drink tea. My neatness and happy aspect would amuse him. In the evening I would embroider his words onto fabric. Words that seem so apt today” (Kalman 90).

Through both images and words, Kalman adds a touch of humour in everything she says while still keeping the overall idea of the work intact: will we ever true the true pursuit of happiness?

Where is happiness? What is happiness? What did Thomas Jefferson mean? The pursuit of happiness. I visit Dr. James Watson. Maybe there is a genetic explanation for happiness. And all we need to do is take a pill that puts it into action. I asked him. He could not tell me because no one really knows. And anyway, everyone has to be sad part of the time; otherwise, you would be insane. I looked at him. He takes walks. Plays tennis. He works. He looks at trees. Those are good ways to find happiness. To find peace of mind. Me? I work. And walk. And go to museums. (Kalman 458-461)

Though Kalman spends an entire year investigating American democracy, her happiness still lies in simple things. This ideal spoke volumes to me: though there are many political views and cultural issues around me, I am still Canadian. I still go for walks, play Scrabble, and go on scenic drives around the city I live in. Maybe my idea of happiness isn’t a pursuit. I’m now able to see that my happiness lies in the simple moments that leave a lasting significance as I continue my journey of self-discovery. Thanks to Maira Kalman with And the Pursuit of Happiness, I’m able to see that the freedom to be who I am is what democracy is all about.

 

 

Cheyenne Siles was born in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada & graduated from Brock University with a Bachelor of Arts in Writing, Rhetoric, & Discourse Studies. She is a book editor for a ghostwriting company. Cheyenne considers herself to be a driven woman with a love of all things literacy. She also has an Associate of Science in Computer Information Systems. If she isn't editing a book, you can find her reading for leisure, spending time with her husband, or finding new treasures for her skull collection.

Monday, November 8, 2021

M.W. Jaeggle on Denise Levertov

 

I first encountered the name Denise Levertov when I was in my early twenties. Reading accounts of twentieth-century poetry, I noticed that she was almost always the only female writer linked with Black Mountain Poetry, the influential school of mid-century American poetry centered on Black Mountain College in North Carolina. Levertov was frequently mentioned alongside Charles Olson, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. Admittedly, this gender disparity didn’t prompt a trip to the library to peruse her writing. It would take her presence in a mid-century educational series to lead me to engaging with her work in a meaningful way.

The 1960s saw the production and release of Richard O. Moore’s USA: Poetry, a documentary series showcasing the work of those that have since become pivotal figures in modern poetry. Episodes were devoted almost exclusively to men: William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, John Ashbery, Robert Lowell, Frank O’Hara, Olson, Creeley, Duncan, and many others were featured. (As of this writing, many of the episodes are available online.) What had me excited about this series when I discovered its existence was the prospect of seeing and hearing Olson read his poetry. What little I knew of the 6’8” man responsible for “Projective Verse,” the 1950 essay-manifesto that declared poetry must be a “high energy-construct” in sync with the kinetic possibilities of the body, had me convinced it would be a lively show. I remember it being just that: Olson gregarious, wide-eyed, loud, perhaps a little bit drunk.

But what made a greater impression was Levertov, the woman spotlighted in the first half of the episode. Unlike Olson, whose reading had linked a voice and face to a name, Levertov’s reading had me enthralled by her words. Sure, I noticed her voice, an English accent through a missing front tooth. I noticed, too, her cat-eye glasses and bee-hive hair. But these things receded from attention when she began reading her poetry, especially when she read the poem “Losing Track.” Here it is in full:

Long after you have swung back

away from me

I think you are still with me:

 

you come in close to the shore

on the tide

and nudge me awake the way

 

a boat adrift nudges the pier:

am I a pier

half-in half-out of the water?

 

and in that pleasure of that communion

I lose track,

the moon I watch goes down, the

 

tide swings you away before

I know I’m

alone again long since,

 

mud sucking at gray and black

timbers of me,

a light growth of green dreams drying.

Acknowledging the line breaks and enjambment by slightly pausing or changing her tone, Levertov carried me gently to the poem’s final line. Here, I remember thinking, was a poet who was aware of the tactility of language and the function of the line, how they could be shaped to convey a nuance like the swaying sense of proximity and distance sometimes experienced between people.

Later in the documentary, when Levertov recalls her frustration in being unable to write a poem about the Vietnam War and gestures toward the difficulty of representing violence in a way that satisfies both aesthetic and documentary exigencies, a bitter-sweet feeling washed over me. I was at once disappointed with myself in having repeatedly overlooked Levertov and delighted by the prospect of learning from the work of a technically proficient and politically conscious poet. I remember checking out several of her books from the library, worried that even if the poetry was good my reading would feel like penance for my past inattention. Wonder toward her depictions of the natural world (especially that of the Pacific Northwest), awe toward her intelligence shown in treatment of the Vietnam War and Gulf War, respect toward her honest interactions with doubt and the numinous: these feelings were present while reading her poetry. It would be wrong to describe such an experience as anything like penance.

Immersing oneself in the poetry of Denise Levertov is to become acquainted with a unique creative being, one who consistently brought to her writing a belief in the restorative power of the environment, a deep concern for social justice, and an interest in how people experience wonder, joy, grief, and pain. I return to Levertov often for these qualities, for how her imagery subtly plays with thought and feeling, and because her poems leave my spirit feeling lighter.

I could cite many poems for what they have taught me, but I’ll note one I hold to be among the most important. It’s one of the first poems I encountered by her back in my early twenties. It’s also one of several poems that made me realize reading poetry can be more than an academic exercise. It helped me realize that reading poetry can be a way of being emphatically present in the world. What do I mean by this? I’ll get to this shortly. First, here’s “The Five-Day Rain,” as it appeared in Donald Allen’s influential anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960:

The washing hanging from the lemon tree

in the rain

and the grass long and coarse.

 

Sequence broke, tension

of bitter-orange sunlight

frayed off.

              So light a rain

         

fine shreds

pending above the rigid leaves.

 

Wear scarlet! Tear the green lemons

off the tree!    I don’t want

to forget who I am, what has burned me,

and hang limp and clean, an empty dress –

Levertov creates a scene through unaffected language, then gives us two emphatic imperatives (“Wear Scarlet! Tear the green lemons / off the tree!”) and ends with a self-inquisitive voice. I feel much the same about this poem as I did upon reading it for the first time. The suddenness of the imperatives encourages us to reread the poem and pay attention to what precedes the emergence of a voice concerned with her identity. In my case, I focus on the presence of “washing” in the important first line. Then I note the words “broke,” “tension,” and “pending” as prefiguring the exclamations in the final four lines. Based on these cues, all of which seem to relate to being worn down, I think the poem depicts a woman on the verge of lifelessness, strongly urging herself to wear scarlet and rip lemons off trees to fend off the feeling that domestic life is extinguishing her spirit.

By pointing to the status of women in history in such a compelling way, “The Five-Day Rain” joined a circle of poems that helped twenty-something me realize that the imagination is co-extensive with empathy. To write in such a way as to make a lived reality even partially known is to create an object capable of transforming another person. To be a reader receptive toward this object is to allow another person to become part of your pregiven world, the meanings that underpin your way of being around others. I am grateful to Levertov for helping me come to this realization and for the ongoing nourishment that is her writing. I’m a better reader, writer, and person because of both.

 

 

 

 

M.W. Jaeggle’s newest chapbook is Choreography for a Falling Blouse (Frog Hollow, 2021). His poetry has appeared in The Antigonish Review, CV2, The Dalhousie Review, Vallum, and elsewhere. He lives in Buffalo, New York, where he is a PhD student in the English department at SUNY Buffalo. He tweets rarely @underapricity

Monday, July 26, 2021

Genevieve Zimantas on Diana Athill


On Not Meeting Diana Athill

 

Why don't you find a way to get in contact and see if she'll meet with you? My partner asks, after I explain that Diana Athill, aged 99, whose memoir I have just put down on his bed, lives less than an hour’s train journey away and served as Jean Rhys's editor for the publication of Wide Sargasso Sea. It is 2017. I am living in the United Kingdom, writing a graduate thesis on Rhys’s early novels, and using Athill as cheat reading—relevant, but really more for pleasure than study.

The prospect of contacting Athill is thrilling, but I quickly push the idea aside. She feels too known and yet unknowable. She is someone I admire immensely, and yet would be too embarrassed to meet. Not that I would have had a way to contact her, or that she would have met with me.

*

Throughout much of her life, Athill was exactly the kind of person you would expect to become a literary celebrity. She was of old British stock, solidly middle class. She studied at Oxford in the 1930s and then became, through her work with writers like Rhys, V. S. Naipaul, Molly Keane, Mordecai Richler and more, one of the twentieth century’s most significant literary editors. She was brilliant and stubborn, knowing just when to step in, and when to leave her writers alone, to help them bring their most important works to publication. She published her own works of fiction and nonfiction starting in the 1960s and, though, she did not really experience acclaim until quite late in life, was unwavering in dispelling gestures of pity. “I can't think many centenarians are still living by their pen,” she exclaimed often in later life. I can’t either.

Charming, un-precious, resolutely cheerful, and determined, in sentences as streamlined and ornate as the consciousness they transcribe, Athill’s memoirs detail episodes of heartbreak and triumph, how she had two abortions, when the procedures were still illegal, and later a near-fatal miscarriage. She writes of her long and, at the time controversial, inter-racial relationship with the playwright, Barry Reckord, and how they opened their relationship—or rather he did, with her consent and later encouragement—to a vibrant and intelligent younger woman when Athill gradually, but not too sadly, felt her sexual appetites fade with age.

“Loyalty is not a favourite virtue of mine,” she asserts in one passage, taking her own life as her subject, as Rhys did, and proving herself much more interested in deconstructing social expectations than in conforming to them. Honesty she valued, but not ownership or obligation. “And whereas I was ashamed of my limitations within the office,” she clarifies in Stet, “I was not ashamed of valuing my private life more highly than my work.” She put herself first, not in a selfish, but in a self-respecting, self-affirming way. “That, to my mind, is what everyone ought to do.”

*

Later that spring and summer, as I completed my work at the university and my Visa permission neared its end, my life pitched into a sudden, if predictable, tumult of despair. I had begun to suspect that academia might not get me where I most want to be and my still-new romantic relationship had begun to feel both impossible and urgently important. I imagined Athill nodding. This is a common enough story. Writing and even reading for pleasure became unbearable, but I kept turning Athill’s pages like life vests that were keeping me afloat. “There was one sleepless night of real sorrow,” she writes of a particular period of change, “but only one night.” My period of sadness lasted considerably longer, but then, just as it had for Athill, “another voice began to sound in my head.” Importantly, not Athill’s but a version of my own.

Athill offers no platitudes. She teaches no lessons, excepting, perhaps, to “avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness.” Her writing didn’t save me, but it provided important perspective and a model for courage when I needed it most. After all, Athill is always fully herself, in her use of language as in the interactions she recounts on the page. No matter what losses she suffers. No matter what does or does not come to pass. And I realised that I would be too: fully myself, not in a philosophical, but in a real and practical sense. Whether the relationship ended or didn’t. Whether I figured out how to write and teach and pursue the life I wanted right away, or not for another fifty years.

*

I never did meet Athill, of course. Just under a year after leaving the UK, I moved back again, Visa situation (temporarily) resolved and feeling high with recklessness, choosing sex and love and an invigorating sense of self-determination over the safety of academic progression, or even a concrete plan. Athill died in 2019, aged 101.

Shortly after her passing, I made my way to an iconic Cambridge bookstore and picked up a copy of Athill’s final book, having borrowed it from libraries on two continents again and again. The alley onto which the bookstore faces was bright with new green leaves. The gentleman behind the counter accepted my selection with usual reserve, but then caught sight of Athill’s cover and positively beamed. “Have you read her before?” he asked. “She writes the most exquisite sentences.”

He handed me back my change and Athill’s memoir, permission, in my life, to keep reading and writing. More than that, permission never to compromise of the self in between.

 

 

 

Genevieve Zimantas is a writer and educator from Montreal. She holds degrees from McGill University, Dalhousie University, and the University of Cambridge, has volunteered as a correspondent for the OWP, served as an associate editor for the Dalhousie Review, and was the QWF’s 2018 poetry mentee. Her poems and essays have appeared in journals across North America including Event Magazine, Prairie Fire, Contemporary Verse 2, Rhino Poetry, Arc Poetry Magazine, and elsewhere. She lives in the United Kingdom.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Kasia van Schaik on Alice Munro


My Lonely Summer with Alice Munro




One summer, while visiting my hometown, a small mountain-locked settlement in Western Canada, I read an Alice Munro story every day for a month straight. After days spent serving customers and wiping down counters in a local cafe, it felt like a necessity; the only assemblance of an intellectual routine. I read her stories by the lake, on the margin of sand between the shoreline and the industrial train track; I read them on my back, legs crossed, book blocking out the sun like a small square flag. Sometimes a train would rumble past and alert me to my environment, which seemed less real than Munro’s black spruce or her fast-flowing, dark and narrow streams, which coursed through many of her stories, linking them the way rivers connect distant parts of the continent.
It was a lonely summer, my summer with Alice Munro. I was frustrated by the fact that my old friends now had boyfriends and permanent jobs and no longer made time for me, a precocious humanities student back from her studies out east, eager to show off the new words she’d learned. No one cared. I was – and the irony was not lost on me – essentially, an Alice Munro character. Juliet visiting her parents in Runaway—subtly punished for her “odd” life choices. (“Odd choices were simply easier for men,” remarks Juliet, “most of whom would find women glad to marry them.”) Or Del in the Lives of Girls and Women, whose restless ambition, but simultaneous desire for conventionality, disturbs the social equilibrium of her rural community. I read Munro’s stories to find myself in them but also to distance myself from the unhappy women I encountered in them. I would do better. (Secretly, I knew I would not.)
Years later, I would learn that Munro herself had lived in this very town, surrounded by furs and glacial lakes and annual forest fires. Shortly after her separation from her husband in 1973, Munro moved to Nelson, British Columbia, to teach at Notre Dame University for the summer. In September of that year, with her two daughters, Jenny and Andrea, she moved back across the country, relocating from Victoria to London, Ontario. Notre Dame University doesn’t exist anymore, and the town has changed significantly since the 70’s, yet this could well be the landscape that flashes past the train window in many of Munro’s travel stories—or escape stories—in which a young woman, usually precocious and eager to ascend above the her working class roots, buys a train ticket and heads west or east, anywhere “elsewhere.” This ideal of “elsewhere” occupied most of my imagination’s real estate as I disinfected the walk-in fridge or scraped the sesame seeds from the café’s industrial-sized toaster, or when my boss yelled at me in front of customers for putting sprouts on a hotdog bun: the kind of people who order hotdogs don’t eat sprouts!
Perhaps I hoped I’d meet a medical student, like Nancy does in “Powers,” or a history professor-in-training, as Rose does in “The Beggar Maid” – someone with horn-rimmed glasses, good connections, and inherited wealth, who would whisk me away to a strained but advantageous married life, somewhere in the Vancouver suburbs. That might be proof that I was normal. At least, I thought, it would temporarily solve the problem of loneliness. 
But I did not meet anyone of this description, not that year, or the next. Alice was all I had. 
What my education in stories yielded that summer was a profound, multilayered, often contradictory, often circuitous articulation of what I would come to know as the double standards and asymmetrical power relations that shape women’s lives. I was learning to put words to the growing frustration that since the age of fifteen had been inherent to my experience of the world. I was beginning to understand that the pain of being female—of having a predetermined narrative thrust on my life—was not personal but rather systemically produced. The difficult feelings that I shared with Munro’s female narrators were not simply a consequence of unsettled chemistry but rather a response to structural injustice. 
Being able to articulate this constraint brought its own kind of joy. Even when the café I worked for went bankrupt – perhaps due my unorthodox hotdog garnishes – and I had to forgo my last month’s pay, I held onto the thread of that joy, as it bore the evidence of a more expansive world, one where conventionality was questioned and oddness appreciated. 
Now, at least once a summer, I’ll find a pool of shade, and submit to the author who, from the hard-fought-for privacy of her laundry room, changed the scope and, indeed, the genre of the short story. This ritual reading is no longer an act of self-improvement as it was when I first met Alice; it not even an act of self-recognition. It is simply a visit with an old friend – one who is enormously wise, unsparingly honest, and, therefore, forever trusted, forever treasured.



Kasia van Schaik is a writer, editor, and critic living in Montreal. She’s the author of the poetry chapbook Sea Burial Laws According to Country (Desert Pets Press 2018), and her writing has appeared in Canadian and international publications such as Electric Literature, the Los Angeles Review of BooksThe RumpusCBC BooksThis MagazineJacket2, Prism International, and The Best Canadian Poetry Anthology. Find her at @kasiajuno


Monday, March 2, 2020

Kim Fahner on Carol Shields


The first time I read Carol Shields, I was in grad school at Carleton University in Ottawa. This would’ve been 1994-95, when I was just in my early to mid-twenties. I was interested in poetry and fiction, but I hadn’t been exposed to many contemporary Canadian women poets and writers until then. That’s a sad statement and reflection of the lack of diversity that existed in the curriculum of Ontario high schools back in the late 1980s, and even at the undergraduate level of study in university English departments in the early 1990s. So, imagine going to live in Ottawa to do a Master’s degree in English Literature at Carleton and then all of the sudden feeling as if there was a wealth of amazing women writers to get to know. Carol Shields was one of the voices that spoke to me as an emerging writer and fledgling feminist.

The Stone Diaries was the first thing I ever read by Shields, and I loved it, but then I stumbled upon Swann and The Republic of Love. That she could write so brilliantly and intuitively about a farmer’s wife, a poet, and a folklorist who was fascinated by mermaids drew me in. Each novel, and then each short story I encountered, let me slip into a world where Shields could find the beauty in what most people would call the ‘ordinary’ rhythms of a person’s life. Lives aren’t Hollywood movies. Lives are full of pain and wonder, full of love and passion, full of loss and beauty. What Carol Shields did so often, though, was write women who were fully realized, complex, and not female characters who would be easily boxed in or up. While popular culture—and especially some forms of popular literature and film—would so often rather present images of one dimensional women, Shields knew that women’s lives were rich and notable because of their complex nature. Who will, for example, ever be able to forget the image of Norah in Unless, standing on a street corner, holding a sign that just says “Kindness”? How much does that single sign say about how the world works these days, and how much kindness is missing? Shields, in almost all of her work, seemed to be searching out goodness and kindness in humans, and this drew me to her stories, too.

A year and a bit ago, I was living in Kingsville, in southwestern Ontario, working on a novel. I spent a great deal of time learning how to print letterpress poetry broadsides with Jodi Green in her Levigator Press studio on Wyandotte Street, in the Walkerville area of Windsor. One warm late autumn afternoon in 2018, I found myself listening to Jodi read “Mrs. Turner Cutting The Grass” alongside another new friend who was also doing some printing that day. I had somehow, ridiculously, never read that Carol Shields story before, so listening to Jodi read it out loud, and with enthusiasm, felt magical.

We three—all women in our forties—had cups of steaming hot tea on the table in front of us, and our legs were hooked around the rungs of our vintage chairs. I hung on Jodi’s reading of the story. That afternoon—of being with like-minded souls, and of being read to—is a fond memory I’ll always carry with me. We don’t read out loud enough to one another—as friends, and in community—and hearing a Carol Shields story read out loud changed the way I admired her writing. You can hear how brilliantly she crafted her work. Details are captured so perfectly, and so many of her sentences sing. She took her time with her work, and it shows.

The last paragraph of that short story is quite profound, and seems to embody all of what Carol Shields did with her work. She roots her worlds in the ordinary minutiae of a ‘regular’ life. As Mrs. Turner cuts her grass, unafraid to bare the cellulite of her thighs to the world at large on the street, she “cannot imagine that anyone would wish her harm. All she’s done is live her life. The green grass flies up in the air, a buoyant cloud swirling about her head. Oh what a sight is Mrs. Turner cutting the grass and how, like an ornament, she shines.” This is the beauty of Carol Shields’s work. Nothing is pedestrian or ordinary, really. All of it shines, glowing from the inside out.

The recent creation of a literary award for women writers named in memory of Carol Shields is an important step in keeping her present, in holding space for her to continue to have a strong and clear voice in Canadian literature for some time to come. How quickly some of our greatest female writers seem to disappear after they’ve died, unless we purposefully choose to remind ourselves of their contribution to the body of important work that Canadian women writers have fashioned in the last sixty or seventy years or so. They fought against a largely white, patriarchal scene in Can Lit decades ago, and they blazed a trail for all Canadian women writers who would follow. Today’s literary circles seem so ‘of the moment’—so much about instant gratification, about awards, and about Twitter wars—that I worry about which women’s voices will disappear in the terribly noisy hubbub and negative clamour of social media. Shields knew, really, that the story was to be found in the quiet, in the watching and the recording, in the steeping of ideas, and in the crafting of the work. There was value, she knew, in the process of creating the writing.

I always thought it was interesting that Shields would write a biography of Jane Austen. Here, too, was another female writer who observed the ways in which women’s lives were unique. I gobbled that biography up when it was released, because I love Austen as much as I love Shields. Austen didn’t have her own ‘happy endings’ in real life, so she often wrote them into her novels, but Shields once said, in a 2002 interview with Irene D’Souza in Herizons, that she believed in ‘happy middles.’ D’Souza wrote of how Carol Shields was fascinated by “the extraordinary in the ordinary.” This so reminds me of Bronwen Wallace’s work in both poetry and prose. In her wonderful collection of poems, The Stubborn Particulars of Grace, Wallace also documented the ebb and flow of women’s lives. And then, when I think of it, the writing that Shields did also reminds me of Virginia Woolf and Mary Pratt. So many women have documented women’s lives in art, and we need to remind ourselves that they were our artistic foremothers.

Shields left us with a body of work that speaks to the internal lives of women who may seem to be ordinary on the outside, but who are anything but that on the inside. As women, we are all extraordinary in the way we live our lives, and it takes a writer with the keen skill that Shields had to capture that essence in prose. That she did so as effectively and beautifully, as meticulously and carefully, is one of the reasons I will always read her work and learn from it. I will especially go to her books and stories when I feel that mine are weak or failing, or when I just need to be reminded that my ‘ordinary life’ will always have elements of the extraordinary if I am willing to still myself and just be very curious about what could happen. One never really knows what is around the next bend in the road, and perhaps that is why we continue to write, with curiosity and wonder as our companions on the journey.




Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, where she was poet laureate from 2016-18. Her latest book of poems is These Wings (Pedlar Press, 2019). Kim is a member of the Writers’ Union of Canada and the League of Canadian Poets, as well as a supporting member of the Playwrights Guild of Canada. She blogs fairly regularly at kimfahner.wordpress.com and can be reached through her author website at www.kimfahner.com