Monday, October 16, 2017

Christine Fischer Guy on Alice Munro and Jan Morris

“She was hard-used between the legs, swollen and stinking.”

It would be hard to overstate the effect of reading that line in Alice Munro’s story, “The Children Stay.” In it, a young mother leaves her family for an uncharted future with a theatre director. With him, she experiences a kind of personal and sexual freedom she’d never known. She surprises herself. She is as animal as her new partner, fierce and indelicate with destructive desire and enormous sexual need. She surrenders the self and the life she thought she knew to that desire.

Women could be this way on the page? They could. That sentence was the truest permission I’d found. It answered questions I didn’t know I had. It meant I could write a phrase like “alfresco fucking” in a catalogue of a female character’s exploits and mean it.

Many of us learn to contract ourselves, to make our voices soft and unobtrusive, to appease and defer our own desire and needs. That sentence came to mind again this summer, reading Roxane Gay’s Hunger. Early in the memoir, she writes: “This is what most girls are taught—that we should be slender and small. We should not take up space.” Munro’s line stood in direct defiance of that instruction: women characters could be as corporeal and audacious as that.

If it’s a truism that a writers’ characters contain grains of the self, the corollary of this literary mentorship was the understanding that my own desire could be as unmannered and indelicate. I didn’t have to be small and silent and invisible, inoffensive in my needs, in the constant habit of marshalling or concealing darker, less ladylike yearnings. I could claim my space, make demands, be visible.

Which brings me to a more recent literary mother: the trans woman writer Jan Morris. Last year I read her memoir Conundrum to help me understand what was happening with someone close to me who was making the same gender transition. I’d known Morris as a respected travel writer, but I’d been unaware that she’d been born James and served in the British Army as a male officer. Conundrum was published in 1974: needless to say, Morris was a trailblazer in gender-affirming drug and surgical treatment. She was guided by an inner self she knew and acknowledged with unstinting, thrilling courage. When the British National Health system finally agreed to allow her hormone therapy, it was on the condition that she divorce her wife Elizabeth, with whom she’d already had children—because in 1972, Britain didn’t allow gay marriage. Both women said, OK, fine. They divorced and continued to live together as “sisters-in-law.” Morris is now 91; they recently celebrated their 60-year relationship with a civil union. Their story is one of the most romantic I’ve ever heard.

In conversation with the loved one making the transition, I asked, “How do you know you’re a woman?” She answered, “How do you know?” I just know: my instant, if unvoiced, response. Touché.

Morris said she remembers the exact moment she understood that her feminine identity was in conflict with her assigned gender: she was four years old, listening to her mother play piano. She was “habitually puzzled” as she grew, happy enough in the company of young men, but utterly alienated from the experience of being one. Her nightly prayer was Please God, make me a girl.

In Conundrum, Morris’s attempts to articulate the feminine within herself all end in a spiritual, disembodied place, which is unsurprising. She was nearly thirty and had fathered five children before she began her transition. Her female identity existed in a realm untouched by the physical.

“To me gender is not physical at all, but is altogether insubstantial. It is soul, perhaps, it is talent, it is taste, it is environment, it is how one feels, it is light and shade, it is inner music, it is a spring in one’s step or an exchange of glances, it is more truly life and love than any combination of genitals, ovaries and hormones. It is the essentialness of oneself, the psyche, the fragment of unity.”

With that book, Jan took me to a window I’d never looked through and showed me that in spite of 49 years of lived experience as a woman, I didn't know all there was to know about being one. She let me look at the question through her eyes and consider the idea that feminine identity was unconfined, ineffable, and worthy of serious existential examination; it exists beyond the realm of the physical and the abstraction of words. Her commitment to her own feminine identity and her willingness to oppose the construct she’d been handed by society and biology loosened my hold on easy, reductive answers to the question How do you know you’re a woman? That understanding was a balm and a fresh breeze carrying an unfamiliar but comforting sweetness. Jan Morris did for me what good mothers do: she offered a place of sanctuary to make the journey from the known to the unknown and back again.

What does it mean to be a woman, body and soul, on and off the page? Together, Munro and Morris broke the sound barrier for me. We make space for our unique, untransferrable selves or no one will.

Christine Fischer Guy’s debut novel is The Umbrella Mender and she has just finished a draft of a new one. Her short fiction has appeared in Canadian and US journals and has been nominated for the Pushcart and Journey Prizes, and she’s an award-winning journalist. She reviews for The Globe and Mail and contributes to the LA Review of Books,, Hazlitt, and

Monday, September 25, 2017

Dominique Russell on Sylvia Plath

I first read Plath when I was sixteen. I remember the lines I jotted down, memorizing them through my handwriting as I could then, render something it indelible by jotting it in my notebook: “And here you come, with a cup of tea/ Wreathed in steam. /The blood jet is poetry, /There is no stopping it. /You hand me two children, two roses.”

What I wrote underneath: “Nothing for you here. Too much darkness, too much death.” Like most young readers I was as taken by the power of her voice as I was by the suicide, the details of that tragic moment, that framed the voice. But I had enough darkness of my own, I was frightened by Plath’s death-affirming verse.

In my early thirties I picked up Anne Stevenson’s Bitter Fame, knowing very little about the Hughes-Plath mythology except that it had spawned an industry. What struck me then was the extraordinary hard work that went into forging the poems that seared into the collective consciousness. She made a decision to become a great poet and did everything—craft and shmooze—necessary to achieve it.

In my forties I picked up her Collected Works again. “You have all these books,” exclaimed my daughter, fierce reader and re-reader of favourite stories “but you never read them!” “Start here,” she said, handing me the Plath tome, the first on my poetry shelf.

By then I had been and stopped being, an academic. I had toddler twins that sealed my exclusion from an academic career. Fully immersed in motherhood, I was picking up the pieces of an interrupted writing life. Plath’s work was a revelation: where I had seen only darkness, this time she was a lighthouse. Above all, I found in her work the voice of a mother, writing, like me, in stolen moments (while nursing by candlelight, in her case, surrounded by a nursing cushion, in mine.)

Older than Plath had lived to be, I felt maternal tenderness for this troubled voice. What I saw this time was the accident of her suicide, how if she had lived she would have seen that the personal is political—if only she had held long enough for feminism’s second wave. However extraordinary Ariel was, Plath had not reached her peak. Single mother, fighter, survivor, caretaker of her own mother: there were so many selves she had yet to inhabit. Re-reading her words, I set out to create one of those personas, a Plath who lived through feminism, who had the benefit of distance and compassion for herself as the struggling young mother in the grip of post-partum depression. Could I take her words and construct that absent poet?

Soon after I started recombining lines into centos, however, I had left the idea of reconstructing Plath behind. I took her words to speak of my own intimate self, about nursing my sons, the sorrow and frustrations of maternity, as permission, after all these years, to speak of the small things in life—the essence of my existence in those years of intense nest management—to build my own voice through someone else’s words. Only Plath’s monumentalism allowed this: Plath, her words almost as well known as Shakespeare, a quarry for academics and British gossip columns, is undiminishable.

I’ve learned far too much about her life since, and Hughes, embodying in all its sordid depths the myth of the poet-hero god, sacrificing all and sundry (Shura, whose forgotten short life pains my mother-heart) to his art and ego. Plath had something of this myth, placing poetry above all and sacrificing herself, or perhaps a mistake, an impulse, a symptom. Beyond the unanswerable question of her suicide, her multi-faceted expanse of her writing is a gift for the taking.

I acknowledge her here as one of many mothers, with Grace Paley, especially, who is perhaps her antidote as a writer who put life, and the business of life, before her writing. Plath is the mother who pushes you out the door, the one who repels, fascinates and horrifies; the mother you don’t want to be in your youth who you come to have compassion and understanding for in midlife. I acknowledge the power of her words, the fecundity of her talent.

Dominique Russell is an activist, teacher and writer. Her collection Instructions for Dreamers will be published by Swimmers Group in the winter, and excerpts from The Plath Variations will appear in

Monday, September 11, 2017

Kim Fahner on Gwendolyn MacEwen

The first thing I remember is how she looked out at me from the photo on the cover of Rosemary Sullivan’s biography, Shadow Maker:  The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen. She looked like a Toronto poet from the 1960s, all bohemian and lit up, all shadow and light, all mysterious and mystical, with her eyes rimmed dramatically in black kohl. She looked a bit haunted, too, as if she had a secret that you wanted to beg her to share with you.  “Dark Pines Under Water,” the first poem of hers I ever read and fell in love with, is part of that ‘secret,’ I think.

What draws me to her (and yes, I know I speak as if she still lives) is that she seems a creative and poetic enigma to me. I’ve studied her work, read the Sullivan biography, and have read and seen Linda Griffith’s play, Alien Creature: A Visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen.  I studied her work first, pouring over her poems, drawn to the depth of her imagery, rich symbolism, and metaphor. Here was a person who wasn’t afraid to travel the world, live sensuously as a woman and poet, falling in and out of lust and love, and breaking her heart thoroughly in the process. But she seemed fearless to me, in her work, and later, in what I read about her life. I have longed to be fearless for most of my life, but often struggle to be brave in what others might think are the simplest of ways.

In MacEwen, I could see a spirit stuck in a body, a bright spark, creative and tormented by both her gift and her intelligence. It must have seemed, I think, like both a blessing and a curse to her. So many people have written about how creativity and madness, or light and darkness, have courted one another for centuries in art and literature. You only need to think of the ghosts of Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton, and Sylvia Plath, along with those who might be considered to have been indirectly damaged, those women who chronically struggled with addiction, mental illness, and difficult lives. They could include the likes of Dorothy Parker, Gwendolyn MacEwen, and Elizabeth Bishop. There are others, of course, but these are ones whose work has influenced me as a woman writer.

I have never been an alcoholic, but I have seen the results of the destructive ripple of alcoholism in my family, and I have dealt with depression, so I can understand how a writer can get lost in her own mind, searching for a doorway out and maybe never finding one. Minds are complex places within which to work and live, and writers spend a lot of time in cerebral, introverted, and solitary landscapes. I imagine that, if you were to add addiction to that, it could be a very scary place indeed. 

In “Dark Pines Under Water,” published in her Governor General’s Award-winning collection, The Shadow-Maker, MacEwen seems to write, on the surface, in simple ways, of the essence of Canada. This was during the time when a number of Canadian writers were questioning identity and what it meant to ‘be Canadian.’ Margaret Atwood’s Survival:  A Thematic Guide to Canadian Literature (1972), as well as her book of poems, The Journals of Susanna Moodie (1970) come quickly to mind, of course. (MacEwen’s poem would pair nicely, too, with Atwood’s stunning poem, “This Is a Photograph of Me,” if one were ever to play matchmaker for poems.)

The thing that transfixes me about “Dark Pines Under Water” is that it’s so compact, just thirteen lines in length, and a fine example of what a good poem is all about. The imagery is sharp, the lines are tight, and the metaphor is strong. It’s the kind of poem every poet would love to write just once in their lifetime. She begins with these iconic lines: “This land like a mirror turns you inward/And you become a forest in a furtive lake.” She writes of “dark pines of your mind” and of how you “dream in the green of your time.”  What begins as a seemingly simple rendering of a landscape that seems archetypally Canadian soon deepens, though. The speaker addresses herself: “Explorer, you tell yourself, this is not what you came for. . .You had meant to move with a kind of largeness,/You had planned a heavy grace, an anguished dream.” The landscape gets darker and more metaphorical. 

It reminds me of swimming in Georgian Bay, off Killarney’s little islands. There’s a stunning sort of Group of Seven landscape there, but when you canoe the mouth of the North Channel, or you swim in the water, you quickly see that the depth is greater, and darker, than the surface beauty would lead you to believe.  A wind warning can change the weather quickly, so that what once seemed like calm water is soon quite dangerous.   

The dark pines of that first ‘lighter’ stanza reappear in the last one. They “dip deeper,” so that the speaker sinks into an “elementary world,” a place where there is a story that needs to be told, something to be revealed. What began as a poem about surfaces soon becomes one about depth. I love this about her work. It’s complex and rich, always challenging and thought provoking.

MacEwen haunts me. She died in 1987, at the too young age of 46. I always think of what else she would have written had she lived. She was prolific and gifted. That her mind pulled her under, in so many ways, is the saddest part. But it also makes me want to be a better poet, a more wise and courageous explorer—less fearful and more fearless. When I think of her, when I see her face in my mind’s eye, and read her work out loud, I’m thankful it’s enough that this grand shadow-maker poet came before me, and that I know parts of her now, through her work.


Kim Fahner lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario. She is the fourth poet laureate of the City of Greater Sudbury, and is the first woman to be appointed to the role.  Kim has published three volumes of poetry, and her fourth, Some Other Sky, is being published in Fall 2017 by Black Moss Press in Windsor. She has also had two of her plays, Ghost of a Chance and Sparrows Over Slag, workshopped at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. Kim has just finished her first novel, a historical piece called The Donoghue Girl, which is set in the northern mining town of Creighton, a place that once existed just outside of Sudbury. She is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers’ Union of Canada, and PEN Canada. Kim blogs at at The Republic of Poetry.     

Monday, August 21, 2017

Joelle Barron on Laura Jane Grace

I spent my adolescence trying to prove my love for punk to the boys who thought it wasn’t for me. It started when I was twelve and wore a Ramones t-shirt to school. I bet she can’t even name one song! Already, I was full of hurt and fear and anger; bullied ceaselessly since kindergarten, now dealing with the loss of a close relative and the constant, looming question of my sexuality. Like so many outcasts before me, I found solace in the anger and frustration of rock music, in all its many forms.

Laura Jane Grace, frontwoman of the punk band Against Me!, came out to the world in a 2012 Rolling Stone story titled, “The Secret Life of Transgender Rocker Tom Gabel.” The article was cringey; it used male pronouns and phrases like “becoming a woman.” Still, I felt a huge amount of pride in her, this person whose art I had adored for the better part of a decade, that she could be so brave. At that point, I still didn’t understand my own identity, but I did understand that Against Me!’s music had always been more for me than for the boys around the campfire.

I discovered Against Me! when I was fifteen, sitting at the computer with my high school boyfriend, illegally downloading individual songs from LimeWire. I had an instant connection to the music, its blend of punk and folk, my two most beloved genres. At that time, I was doing my best to be “not like other girls;” still pretty and feminine, with long hair, dresses, and makeup, but supposedly “cooler” than girls who cared about pop music and wore pink. I could not have told you why at the time, but Against Me!’s rejection of all of society’s most violently enforced norms resonated with me on a deep, queer, emotional level.

I secretly loved a much more diverse array of musicians: Aqua, Britney Spears, Macy Gray. My mom’s Jim Croce and John Denver CDs. Still, I knew that being open about my predilection for the Spice Girls/Backstreet Boys would ruin my punk credibility, so I kept it to myself. Rather than just sit back and enjoy bands like Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, Mastodon, Husker Du, and The Clash, I had to learn everything about them; every member’s name, every detail of every concert DVD; every record they had ever released. I had to prove myself to the boys who would question me; for girls, casual enjoyment of these bands was not allowed. Even though rock/punk/metal were supposedly a place where gender norms were not so rigidly enforced (see: men in makeup, long hair, tight pants), it seemed as if femininity was being co-opted, not uplifted. No matter how much I knew, the unspoken rule was still there: this music was for the boys who sang it loudly and drunkenly at parties, not for me.

In 2009, my second year of university, I found a group of female friends who were Against Me! fans. I saw the band live for the first time with these girls; we stood at the front, and I enjoyed using my tall, long-armed body to protect them from the mosh-pitters all around us. I continued to struggle with my gender/sexuality, and to relate more and more to Against Me!’s lyrics, which had been quietly influencing my writing for years. They showed me how to be political, and taught me how to think critically about the media I was consuming. They also showed me that there is great beauty in weirdness, and that the oddest things are often the most interesting.

 The writing on Grace’s two most recent Against Me! records are overtly, unapologetically queer. She has always written from a place of intense vulnerability, and is way more punk than any punk who ever called her a sellout. That’s healing, for people like me.

Joelle Barron lives and works on the traditional territory of the Anishinaabe of Treaty Three. Their work has been published in The Fiddlehead, The New Quarterly, Plenitude Magazine, SAD Magazine, and others. Joelle is a doula, and coordinator of an LGBT2S youth group. Their book, Ritual Lights, is forthcoming with Icehouse Press in Spring 2018.

photo from Wikipedia Commons

Monday, August 14, 2017

Susan Ioannou on Kay Tew

A woman with short brown hair and deep-set, thoughtful eyes, Kathleen Tew Marshall
lived a quiet, art-filled life in an old house in Paris, Ontario. As a child, how I loved her tall living room windows opening to beds of yellow and red tulips, and along the cedar-lined drive, a millrace that chattered as if in long conversation with the large cream and rose nudes leaning from the opposite wall, soft, dreaming women, painted in oil on canvas by Kay’s artist-husband Norm. Never before had I had seen flesh bared so openly, to be admired without snickers.

The high-ceilinged rooms felt airy by day, cosy at night, elegant compared with the plainness of my suburban home. By the millrace windows stood a Victorian settee upholstered in silk mustard and cream stripes, but my favourite seat nestled under the nudes in the front corner, a generously pillowed beige divan flanked by low shelves dense with books. Two pale, thick rugs on the glowing hardwood led my sinking, stockinged feet toward the far end of the room. There, the dark polished table always displayed a crystal vase vibrant with Kay’s flowers, and at dinner was laid with white linen and silver, a ceremony I was honoured to assist. Throughout the day and evening, Puccini, Ella Fitzgerald, or Bach revolved on the record player.

Slow-spoken, precise, Kay matched her living room, casually stylish in dress—her characteristic silk scarf draped with an interesting brooch at the neck. Kay was an exotic island I was lucky enough to visit for weekends once or twice a year, or at my parents’ house a perfume that lingered when she and Norm came to Toronto on a ballet or theatre trip. She gave me a glimpse of a new world where people took pleasure in beautiful objects, where talking was for enjoyment, not just a call to meals, chores, or bed, and like a sip of brandy, a well-turned phrase could tingle warmth through the fingertips; a world where ideas were as valued in their own right as my mother’s smooth rolling pin or my father’s sturdy lawnmower. Kay’s lovely old house, her measured speech, tasteful dress, and artfully arranged flowers showed me that order need not curb pleasure. Indeed, it had a strangely lovely appeal of its own.

Beyond my aesthetic awakening, Kay was also my role model as a writer. She earned her living as a reporter for the London Free Press, the Brantford Expositor, then the Paris Star, under the pen name “Kay Tew”. Hers was the usual small-town beat of council meetings, library events, garden shows, and the rare fire or burglary. But she also enjoyed a free hand in writing “Sitting on the Curb”, her weekly column, collected and published posthumously as a book of the same name. She explored anything that took her fancy, but most often turned her careful eye and wry humour to Ontario history, back-road travels, theatre, books, and the not-so-ordinary people she met. As a friend said of Kay, “She was as happy talking to a ditch digger as writing a ballet critique.”       

I first became aware of Kay’s writing as its occasional subject: Susie, the little girl with long, blond hair in the blue velvet dress (a gift from Kay), who at an evening performance of Swan Lake silenced the tipsy foursome in the row behind by spinning around and making the worst grimace I could muster. The fact that I appeared in her columns made writing as much a part of the real world as softball and riding my bike.

When I was seven, Kay wrote a book for me, illustrated by Norm, The End of the Street: Being the Tale of the Rabbit with Wiggly Ears and of Rosamund His Friend. Of course, I wrote stories back. Writing was just another form of play. In grade two, when I turned detective author, Kay was my first publisher and agent, reprinting “The Death of the Murdered Girl” in her column. Afterwards a friend at radio CKPC in Brantford, Ontario, read it on air. As the years went by, whenever asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “A writer” seemed as good an answer as the expected “Teacher” or “Nurse”. 

Today when rereading Kay’s columns, I hear her voice: direct, friendly, talking about life’s small moments, or Beauty and Truth, all in the same breath. In my years writing my own column for Cross-Canada Writers’ Magazine, I wonder how much of her warm, easy style had rubbed off. I hope some did.

I began to appreciate Kay’s legacy when at nineteen and in love, I had confided my passions in a series of small, tight poems. After her long absence recovering from a stroke, at last she was finally able to take the train to Toronto. I was excited to read her my newest work. When I finished, she squeezed my hand. “Susie, now you write about your own feelings because you are still finding out who you are. But one day you will look outside yourself and write about the world. And if you write well enough, the world will look back.”

I understood. These poems were like opening the tall windows and pulling a few tulips inside for a private bouquet. I needed to focus the inside outward, to make the walls leaning down their nudes, the polished table, the striped settee, and the chattering millrace something to share with others.   
A week later Kay was dead. A second stroke. With the selfishness of youth, I felt abandoned. Later I acknowledged how much she had given already, by her love of the beautiful, her calm, her wry humour, and her devotion to words. I also learned that the writer’s journey must be made alone.

Photo of Kay Tew, circa 1940, provided by the author

Toronto writer Susan Ioannou has published poems, stories, and articles in literary magazines across Canada, plus two children’s novels, a collection of short fiction, and two non-fiction books for writers. Former Associate Editor of Cross-Canada Writers’ Magazine, she also conducted poetry workshops for the Toronto Board of Education, Ryerson, and University of Toronto. Her poetry collections include Clarity Between Clouds (Goose Lane Editions), Where the Light Waits (Ekstasis Editions), Coming Home: An Old Love Story (Leaf Press), Looking Through Stone: Poems about the Earth (Your Scrivener Press), and Looking for Light (Hidden Brook Press). Her website is:

Monday, July 31, 2017

t thilleman on jj hastain

I was taken by j/j hastain’s use of ellipses as a means to explore the voice.

Upon first hearing j/j’s voice, I saw the image of an angel. Right in front of my eyes. Part of the reason for this was the way the cadence bit into my hearing. Each phrase was a full-stop, then the fullness of the note, heard.

Over time those phrases built a story out of my own, then put my own aside in favor of a larger canvas on which to display everything within and without. I grew as a writer because I leaned into the ductus, the push and flow of the music, the drag of it, the clarity as well as complicated blare of it, at times. Everything—as if the incoming sound was meant for more than simply an ear.

j/j’s approach to writing in a musical splurge, in a full welling of the voice as instrument, brought me to the image the initial sound of the voice evoked in me. Not the kind of angel that would be pictured in a church, but one that vibrated the fleshy and transubstantial weight of knowledge passed “from above.”

Direction, in space and time, took the world of words back and forth, so that I was riding on a wave of pleasure, at the same time I was aware the thematic apparition of j/j’s poem was part shadow as well as living, breathing human being.

To be both in this world and out of it radiated in my skeleton. Each articulation of muscle to bone crawled up out of the primordial ooze of self, searching barren land for a place to start a civilization from the bottom up. j/j’s cadence and care truly restarted me.

In fact, the sense of “above” and “below” materialized in my work because of j/j’s use of the word “heaven.” Heaven, in hastain’s work Priest/ess, means to call out all the pleasures that we see and cannot see, at work in our many received notions of the poem. Gender is an aspect of hastain’s heaven, and not in any kind of limited way. Instead grounding of many variant genders to give space to the world. This also gave me space.

This was certainly the first call of love toward another, and the adamic use of first sex was also at work in the roots of the tongue coincident to the meaning of j/j’s words. The roots intertwined, the writing emerged, the world changed.

Now, in this love and “shared myopia,” we were both able to tell one another how we felt. The simultaneity of opening to another person, while composing, changed the writing from an academic exercise into a full-on longing to be heard at every change—light to dark and dark into its opposite, color.

Red was the first color imparted to me. Then, by j/j, I was handed the entire rainbow, after each rainstorm.

j/j’s “Unseen Beings,” entities who transliterate the material world and light paths thru its darkness, now come to my vocabulary in an organic discovery of thought long held from me by my very own person.

In other words, the word, freed from my logical brain, has enabled itself within the realization of its message, its own “angelization.”

I use the word angel next to angelization to illustrate a difference embedded in each of us—and in this encounter between j/j and myself. To have gotten far from the self was not so much a bad thing, an alienation, rather it was the full on opportunity for action, the place from which to rightly write, to enact the self anew, to rewrite the writing act.

We transform the world by giving voice to the voiceless. Engaging in this activity, in tandem with my writing guru, j/j hastain has proven to be a lasting and a vigorous, mothering influence.

t thilleman is the author of Three Sea Monsters (Our History of Whose Image) in which journal entries and poetic sequences investigate the legacy of Pound’s redactions to Fenollosa’s original manuscript version of The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry; Onönyxa & Therseyn (opening for an extended work, Anatomical Sketches, of which Keystone Standstill is the eighth book); Snailhorn (fragments), a 360 poem cycle utilizing vedic transitions in celestial to allegorical articulation; and a novel Gowanus Canal, Hans Knudsen. His literary essay/memoir, Blasted Tower, was issued by Shakespeare & Co./Toad Suck in 2013. The Special Body, a second work of literary comment is available from Rain Mountain Press. Aura Lifetime (volume one), a selection of his poetry, is currently available. tt’s pastel drawings and readings are archived at

Monday, July 24, 2017

Sylvester Green on Jeanette Winterson

Maybe there is a live wire who enters your classroom on the first day of school, and wordlessly places her books on the teacher’s desk, squaring her back to you and all your friends. Introduces herself in her left hand, no less by mirror-writing the “Jabberwocky” poem on the blackboard, suspending a zealous exchange erupting on the floor about body hair and deception.

She was new to the school that year and we were oh-so-jaded adolescents, demanding to be impressed. But before the silence broke in waves across our chatter, we had thought we were the only ones with something to say.

The class went still.

Even teenagers stop to think sometimes.

A few months later, on school Parents Night, mine wandered the hallways, amused by the title of my book report book, Sexing the Cherry. It was my first Jeanette Winterson, on loan from the personal collection of the new teacher, the female phD in a man’s suit. Ours was a Victorian home we didn’t discuss sex and in that stage of pubescence, everything was embarrassing. But not Winterson. I remained unfazed by the sex and the cherry in flagrante delicto on the cover of that first book. A slim volume, I carried my copy around with me for months, doodling in its pages until I remembered it was not mine, and went to the bookstore to have it cloned: an offering to my teacher, apology included.

She didn’t seem to mind.

At the time, I was sure the name of the book meant more than I, or my parents, could ever know: what Winterson knew. And anyway, I was permissive about everything when it came to art.

Wanting. Welcoming. Wide.

My parents may not have cultivated open dialogue around the dinner table, but they recognized the value of a good story by any artistic means: music (mainly 60s Québecois), art (Toronto in the 80s), clothing (designers’ last call) and books (biographies of lives lived around the world). And while providing my siblings and me with a colourful backdrop of culture from which to draw inspiration, like a well (unlike what Winterson had – or didn’t), they did not suspect the full effect of this transfer of information on my budding brain. A shy child by nature, I now experienced a bold enthusiasm ripening inside me, fueling the fires of imagination igniting more than my parents ever had in mind.

To allay the situation, they implemented curfews, monitored phone time, cautioned me against taking things too far.

But it was too late.

Winterson’s work guided me firmly away from our principled suburban existence on this planet, pulling me waaaaay into outer space.

Where, it turns out, I was much more comfortable.

By escaping to other galaxies, I was able to relieve myself of the expectations of my own. As a girl, teenagerhood was extra fucked-up: a turbulent mess of mixed messages and mind games, a come-as-you-are invitation on irresistible stationary, welcoming choas into everyday lives. We were directed to take care of ourselves, but to submit to any boy who turned up. To absorb the emotional work of armies of mothers — with our faces numbed by smiles at all times. To think critically about the system from the comfort of its ranks. Be bold without offending. Look seductive without sex. Make out with our abusers til they stop.

Art gave me an alternate universe I could accept unconditionally. One where the rules were guaranteed to be weird. Where stories might not match up. Where girls weren’t pumped out by machines: alternate versions of their own instincts.

Girls who get very good at hiding things. Even from themselves.

My friends and I spent Saturday nights in one another’s bedrooms whipping ourselves into frenzies to the tune of female-fronted punk bands. Their voices howled from the tiny speakers of ghettoblasters we’d got as birthday presents years before the hormones hit. Our music goddesses were no more princesses than we were, and we reveled in their torn ball gowns, lipstick smears, crooked crowns. Winterson gave me all that and a bag of fleas plus foundlings, funeral parlours, raving mothers oh, and fruit. She flipped us on our heads so we could see the world actually was upside down. Through her, we saw holes in the patriarchy and poked them.

In my mind, I became neither male nor female, and I believed I could see beyond the skin wrappers of those around me. On the outside I may have well looked like an adult-in-training; a student arriving to class at the prescripted times, bearing trails of assignments done to deadline. But on the inside, my edges were turning to fuzz.

That’s why Winterson’s realism was one I was finally comfortable with: a magic one.

History, hermeneutics, hermaphrodites. Stories so dense I could live in them for miles. Stories within stories, guileful breaks during time, diamonds plucked from the bases of human spines — Winterson spurred me on to look closer, affirming that nothing was as it seems. To me, each of her sentences was charged with explosives — I spent days dismantling them, decoding their symbols, hiding out in the spaces between lines.

She processed things I couldn’t, went places I didn’t, thought things I wouldn’t. In fact, I would read years later in a neatly packaged précis, the characters in Sexing the Cherry were searching across time and space for self.

In a nutshell, I could relate.

In the end, reality never did burrow into my skin and infect me in the way others thought it should. Instead, like a good girl, I internalized Winterson’s irreverent princesses until they established themselves inside my gut, spewing their turbulent flora into my bloodstream, crusading from within to come out.

But take caution, girls: dual existences can be dangerous, and only in my future would I wake up to the war inside me, finally admitting to myself who won. Decipher the secret messages encrypted in Winterson’s script; fully understand what she’d told me about myself. By that time, the strain between my inner world and my high-functioning mirror image would prove too much. Smack me behind the head, crack me in two, a radical new self spilling out. All over the floor.

Now I find myself playing catch-up in later life, wishing I had heeded my own warnings.

As Winterson says at the outset of The Passion (and I’m paraphrasing here): autobiography doesn’t exist. There is only art. And lies.

As they used to tell me in the classroom: Listen!

Sylvester Green’s fiction and poetry was written by someone else, with another name.