Monday, March 27, 2017

Jennifer LoveGrove on Libby Scheier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He is the redness of
her mind in vaginal disorder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I laughed. I nodded. 

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

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

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