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 and can be reached through her author website at

Monday, November 11, 2019

Claudia F. Saleeby Savage on Alice Notley

I met Alice Notley by accident. I’d applied to the Atlantic Center for the Arts artist residency but got the year wrong. When I looked again, and saw I’d be working with Alice Notley, I froze. Alice. Notley. Her work’s ambition and execution terrified me. She didn’t write poems; she wrote epics. I’d only read The Descent of Alette and remembered it as a breathless journey into hell. Its phrases divided by quotation marks to simulate the staccato rhythm of being on a train. The main character, Alette, had to confront The Tyrant to heal the world. The Tyrant says terrifying things like: “Soulfulness…cannot hold power.” But, Alice did. Her most referenced quote about making poetry is: “The first rule of poetry is honesty; the second rule is fuck you.” She was the kind of uncompromising artist I wanted to be.

When I met her, I had been cooking for people going through chemotherapy for a few years. More than my poetry, even, I think Alice picked me because she wanted to know about my experience cooking for the dying. I wrote poems, in those days, about trying to give my clients gastronomic delight at the end of their lives. I made them favorite childhood dishes or desserts. I was 33. My mother had been sick for years, but I still didn’t know much about death. As I stood in line for dinner one of the first nights at the residency, Alice asked me, “Do you really think dying people can enjoy pleasure?” I hoped so but had no real idea.

On Alice’s shoulder is the tattoo of an owl— “my guide through the underworld.” Her brother had served in the Vietnam war and killed himself. Her stepdaughter died in a car accident. Both of her husbands, first, Ted Berrigan of liver disease, then, Douglas Oliver, of cancer, had died. Ted, leaving her widowed with two young sons. Douglas, leaving her alone in France. In 2013, six years after meeting Alice, my daughter was born, and I watched both my mother and brother die within a month of each other. Alice’s work suddenly reflected the shape of my life.

“In the States” she wrote:

At night the states
And the world not that tired
          of everyone
Maybe. Honey, I think that to
          say is in
light. Or whoever. We will
replace you. We will never re-
          place You…

that shirt has been in your arms
          And I have
that shirt is how I feel…”

I was right there with her. Sleep deprivation from nursing my daughter at all hours and helplessness from loss blanketed my mind. My body belonged to my daughter. My mind was a swirl of grieving fragments. I wrote a line about my brother’s body wasting away from ALS. Another about my mother forgetting who I was in her final weeks. A third about how the light touched my infant’s cheek in the morning. There was no cohesion. I could complete nothing. I e-mailed Alice. She wasn’t going to give me some hackneyed advice. That wasn’t her style. She told me that she’d never had a period of her life when she didn’t write. Through everything, writing had kept her alive. 

One line. Two lines. I was still a poet, though I didn’t recognize myself. Grief and exhaustion were changing me, but my art was there, always. Alice gave me permission to be a maelstrom one minute, gooey puddle the next. In her poem “Love,” she writes:

Later there was the phrase “life support system” it would make you want to vomit…

Everyone and their excellent body parts their good looks their life support systems

how stupid can you get. they think they’re their brains     

The cancer is there… There is a reference to

                     the figure of love, my love, and the color brown, which in my symbolism

                    of color relates to reds spectrum and the soul, and in his to kindness

                    I have the right to include this.

this is where love becomes the target of this poem its pure eye…

                    Ive been left with nothing and thats where it is…

In 2015, Alice won the Ruth Lilly award. There is a picture of her they published—gray hair down to her waist. Full wisdom witch. Pick up any of her books and open it. You’ll see the universe.

I’ll never forget watching her read work at the Orlando library during the residency. Her voice was nervous and fast. Bush was at the end of his second term. The war in Iraq dragged on and on. She read from Alma, or The Dead Women, the poem “Beloved Earth Restrain Them”:

i bind Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld, and their tongues and words and deeds; if they are planning war for today let it be in vain. Beloved Earth restrain them, and make them powerless and useless… i can’t remember what happened…because he died that year…at every description of physical invasion of another person, whether surgical or criminal or military, he cried out in protest and empathy—because he too has been invaded. wants no one else to suffer so.

Her husband’s dying body was the world. People openly sobbed in the stacks. In her essay, “Voice,” Alice says: “…a poetic voice should have…fearlessness or courage, the voice must be clear about itself in some way, believe itself, and be consistently unafraid.” That day all who witnessed her reading felt emboldened. Me, most of all. She threw out shimmering waves of possibility and made me braver. She’d laugh that I wrote that. She would come down from the pedestal I just built and ask me about my own life, my daughter, my writing. I’d want to tell her she changed my art, my life. To bow. Thank her. She’d scoff and ask me to pass the damn wine.

Claudia F. Saleeby Savage is an Arab American poet, essayist and teacher and part of the performance duo Thick In The Throat Honey. Her essays, interviews, and collaborative work appear in print and onstage often explore the theme of diaspora. Her latest collection is Bruising Continents (Spuyten Duyvil) with recent work in BOMB, Denver Quarterly, Columbia, Nimrod, Water-Stone Review, and Anomaly (the interview series “Witness the Hour: Arab American Poets Across the Diaspora"). Reductions, about motherhood and ephemerality, with visual artist Jacklyn Brickman, will be shown in 2020. She is a Black Earth Institute fellow and is working on a book about Syria, jazz improvisation, and freedom.

Monday, November 4, 2019

Lucas Crawford on Michael V. Smith

Faggot Sissy Gifts from A to V

What does the “V” in Michael V. Smith stand for? Whether his verve or his versatility, his top to bottom inside-out manipulation of language and the vas deferens, the vast difference between his body of work and that of mainstream queer writing is vital – verifiably. Michael V. Smith is a vertebrate and he has backbone. His work may cause vertigo, may vex us, may veer from vice to vice, may veto our ideas about virility or vex our binary of naughty and nice. This, to queer readers, may feel like… Vindication.

I live in a province (New Brunswick) where a municipal government raised the straight pride flag in 2018. This flag is an icon not only of white supremacy, anti-queer backlash, and enforced religiosity, but also of just how bad homophobes are at visual arts and textile design. New Brunswick needs political queer aesthetics, and not just because such practitioners are well-trained in turning the ugliness of the world into beautiful (sometimes imaginary) places in which we can survive and thrive. But if a new queer to town in Fredericton might appraise many of the signs of coercive heteronormativity she meets with a critical but hopeful queer eye (for the New Brunswick guy?), she might find that her critical gaze is returned to her tenfold. He might be having dinner with his mother at Mexi-Cali Rosa’s (RIP) and have to tell a group of men to pipe down with their loud transphobia. She might have received hate mail when she spoke out against white supremacist posters on campuses of the University of Brunswick or Saint Thomas University, or seen a Trump-inspired “Make NB Give ‘Er Again” ball cap at the club. Or, as in my case, moving to Fredericton during an acute illness, their introduction to the province as a trans person might be getting kicked off the plane to Fredericton, then kicked out of the ER at the hospital days later, and then evicted within a week for having a cat (in a building full of cats).

But why not focus on the positive? Because for many of us, it is tiring and soul-killing to accept the following social truth: being likable as a queer person often means accepting responsibility for the comfort of straight people. This can mean not only presenting a depoliticized queerness that affirms straight culture and straight choices, but also exhibiting gratefulness to indifferent or ignorant people, as if social change hasn’t been granted glacially, begrudgingly, and violently.

The discomfort of Michael V. Smith’s work pries open a different world. Living there means questioning one’s beliefs about propriety: his drag queen name is Miss Cookie LaWhore. It means investigating one’s commitment to politesse. It means questioning the idea that hatred is necessarily to be avoided: as Smith asks in Bad Ideas, “Has hatred not liberated more people than those who have done the enslaving? / Dear hatred, sweet hatred, do you not move our enemies to know us better?” It means questioning the detachment of (gender)queerness from anything to do with corporeal style, gender, sex, and beliefs: as Smith writes in his memoir, My Body Is Yours, “I’d been busy working on reclaiming sissy and fag and feminine and girly and queer and femmey even.” Take all of what you think you know about the goodness of “rejecting stereotypes” (often just a way of reinforcing norms) and hear Michael V. Smith say that he is a proud faggot sissy. How I yearn for such outward, visible, and discomfiting (gender)queerness amid the proliferation of digestible and respectable modes of gay life, amid the privatization and re-location of gender inside the mind or heart.

Listening to his work means knowing that no body (indeed, nobody) is disconnected from queerness. You may not see it. But then, “Someone who’d dismiss my hello in a pub would see me an hour later in the park and silently do me.” In Xtra West (RIP), Smith shared sex-capades with the public that would probably make you “Blush,” the title of his column. Whether it was, in his words, “furtively pulling on dick under a washroom stall, and swapping blowjobs with a boy in a cramped peep-show booth,” Smith carries on a long queer legacy of requiring and demanding that sex not be confined to the bedrooms of the nation or even to the woods, but that it, rather, enter the realm of the unrepentant page. The political stakes of this legacy are not always intuitive. You don’t learn them on committees, from television shows that champion makeovers as the ultimate queer gift to the straight world, from osmosis (that is, not from one’s “gay friend” or from watching Oscar-nominated anti-queer crap that happens to contain a gay or bi person), or from the kind of hesitant and implicit tolerance we have learned to accept as good enough.

There are lots of ways to learn and advance these political stakes, but each entails undertaking the most ruthless visceral inventory of yourself. This inventory is what Michael V. Smith creates across his oeuvre. May we be worthy of such a gift. May we consume it as the sacred and painful token of a queerer future that it is. May we study the (gender)queer pasts that brought us here and prolong their grounding in material departures from the norm. May we all be eaten up with the bodily excavation typical of Smith’s texts. May we be bold enough to take the risks he does. There’s a reason Loop Magazine named Smith one of Vancouver’s Most Dangerous People.

Consider the tales of My Body is Yours – fucking hundreds of anonymous men, blood staining one’s cheeks, proceeding when a particularly delectable man comes along and you don’t have a condom. There are many kinds of danger, though. One we all have the chance at is to risk our selfhoods and certainties – by admitting to ourselves oneself that there may be something about Smith’s body of work that we do not have the visceral capacity to understand (yet). As Smith ends a chapter of My Body of Yours, it’s neither candour nor courage that can lead any of us down a path of bodily-self-interrogation and but is, rather, “conviction.” Of what, then, have we already convinced ourselves about ourselves? Could you convince yourself otherwise?

So often when receiving a gift, we politely say thank you, and either return it, try to “regift” it, or bury it in the back of our closets. I urge us to give ourselves permission to receive Michael V. Smith’s gifts differently. Permission to be confused, to struggle. To live with that struggle and feed it, to refuse to shape it into a consumable narrative for ourselves and others. If we do that more often, maybe then we can, in New Brunswick and elsewhere, let our freak flags fly. Victoriously.

Lucas Crawford is associate professor of English at the University of New Brunswick and author of three poetry books: Sideshow Concessions (Invisible 2015), The High Line Scavenger Hunt (U of Calgary 2018), and Belated Bris of the Brainsick (Nightwood 2019).

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,

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

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