Monday, December 17, 2018

Amy Leblanc on Jeanette Winterson

The Finding Place

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

The Passion, Jeanette Winterson

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, December 10, 2018

Arielle Burgdorf on Liz Worth

I used to work for a beloved bookstore in San Francisco. I was not particularly good at this job (especially the parts that involved math), but I liked it because I could occasionally hide in the stacks and steal time reading. Certain moments approached magic, when I would stumble upon an author whose work resonated so strongly with me that I felt they were mine.  Previously, I had not thought of myself as someone who could write poetry or was very interested in the poetic form, but because I was frequently assigned to shelve poetry I would often end up in the corner nook, searching for something new. A loud pink and yellow cover caught my eye: No Work Finished Here by Liz Worth. And the audacious subtitle: Rewriting Andy Warhol.

Honestly, I was never much of a Warhol fan. I was far more interested in Valerie Solanas, the woman who shot Warhol, and even named one of the characters in my first novel “Val” after her. I loved Solanas’ problematic but hilarious satire S.C.U.M. (Society For Cutting Up Men), but Worth took this even one step further by literally cutting up Warhol’s book a, A Novel. The original piece is around 500 pages long; a difficult conceptual read, to say the least. Like most of Warhol’s art, people either loved or hated it. Worth’s version is startling new and easily accessible. Her poems are short, sharp jabs, crystallizing where Warhol wanders and conceals. Worth captures a city of leather, pills, melting gender, sleepless nights, desperate girls in hiding, girls that keep threatening to kill themselves, the down-and-out uglyglamorous. She appropriates Warhol’s text in a daring and decisive manner, mutilating his words until they say something different from the original, monsters able to stand on their own.

I would flip to random sections as I pretended to shelve every day, turning up fleeting moments of brilliance such as:

Maybe we could start

a divine idea,

crack of temptation,

a filthy section of dawn

where all the

dirty people

are paradise.

and be transported to a glistening New York night years before. I decided I had to take her home, but the cover price, even with my discount, was out of my price range. I told my coworker, who advised, “Buy it when X is working.” X was the guy who was in charge of the poetry section. I brought it up to him hesitantly one day and he charged me something like a dollar, winking,“We’ve had that for ages and it hasn’t sold.”

I took the book home, believing in something like fate, like I had uncovered another part of my literary circle, a lineage of feminist cut-up and collage that included Kathy Acker and Dodie Bellamy. When I found out Worth had also written an oral history of the Toronto punk scene I became even more convinced we were linked. Although I know No Work Finished Here is meant as a homage to Andy Warhol, I see it as a punk, feminist retelling of his world. When Warhol’s voice is whittled away, what remains are the voices of his muses-- the Candy Darlings and Edie Sedgwicks smoking their cigarettes in the shadows while the camera silently rolls. I now use collage and appropriation in my own poetry because Worth opened that door to me. Curled up in my bedroom at night, restlessly leafing through No Work Finished Here, Worth reaffirmed what I had always suspected: the ones you need the most find you.

Arielle Burgdorf is a writer from Washington, D.C. currently living in Pittsburgh while she pursues her MFA at Chatham University. She writes stories about dangerous girls, queers, runaways, and other underdogs. Her work can be found at Maximum Rocknroll, Feministe, The Feminist Review, Horseless Press, Bone and Ink Press, and various bathroom walls.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Eve Rachele Sanders on Charlotte, Emily and Anne Brontë

That Stormy Sisterhood!

Just after nine o'clock, I arrive at the door, cross the clean sandstone tiles of the hall to the dining room.  Family prayers are over.  Patrick Brontë says goodnight, cautions his daughters not to stay up too late, and, on the way to bed, halts, as he has done every night they can remember, to wind the tall grandfather clock halfway up the stairs.  Charlotte, Emily and Anne read aloud from their manuscripts, circling the dining room table.  Its scratched surface, burnished by long use, is marked by inkblots, an assertively carved "E," a darkened patch burned by an unattended candle.  Unseen, I pace too.  They speak of a wedding veil set on fire, three graves by the moors, chess with an unwanted admirer.

Charlotte and Emily entered my imaginative life via a two-volume set of novels, dark green with gold embossed spines, my mother's books that she shared with me.  On the cover of Jane Eyre stood a double line of miserable boarding school girls, hands clasped before them, clothed in high-necked black dresses, all with identical cast down gazes except for one, whose eyes were open, Jane.  On the cover of Wuthering Heights, a wide-shouldered Heathcliff braved the elements under a massive oak tree, leaning against its trunk, overcoat billowing, head flung back.

At nine, in the aftermath of divorce and the loss of my home, I felt pulled immediately into the world of orphaned Jane Eyre.  I met Jane indoors on a tempestuous day, reading secretly behind the curtain of her window seat.  The green fabric cover of Charlotte Brontë's novel was a door I likewise found to escape the present.  Opening it, I could wander alongside Jane who spoke her mind bluntly and confided in me:  Reader, I married him!

In high school, my English class was assigned Wuthering Heights.  I played the parts of both young Cathy and Hareton in a talk show skit (though I was late for my cue as I struggled in the hallway to remove the opera-length gloves of my Cathy costume so I could reenter the classroom as Hareton).  Wuthering Heights was very different from Jane Eyre, darker, streaked with poetry.  Emily found words for things I'd thought beyond language.  She explained how dreams can arise from darkness and stain one's consciousness indelibly: "I've dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they've gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the color of my mind."  Her description rang true of how an attachment rooted in the intense allegiances of childhood might later go off the rails, with damage to generations.

I didn't meet up with Anne Brontë until mid-life, when I found myself housebound due to a nerve injury.  After several years of impaired cognition, which had cost me my career as an English professor, I was trying to regain the capacity to read fluidly and to remember what I read.  One afternoon, an eighteen-year-old acquaintance asked if she and a friend could come over to show me a paper they had written together about Jane Eyre.  The company of two bright, creative young women fueled my efforts to recover my former reading abilities.  I wanted to rise to the occasion of our regular discussions over tea at my apartment.  I discovered Anne Brontë's Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall as we read our way through the sisters' seven novels, along with their poems, juvenalia (stories about Branwell and Charlotte's Angria and Emily and Anne's Gondal), letters and diary entries. 

Anne was the most feminist of the Brontës.  Less influenced by her brother, Branwell, she avoided her sisters' romanticization of the bluster and egotism of manly Byronic lovers.  In her novels, Anne imagined an England in which a woman could sell paintings for a living, fall for a man who was neither violent nor aloof, even herself propose marriage.  As a result, Anne came under ad feminem attacks.  The scandal was not so much that The Tenant of Wildfell Hall depicted domestic violence and debauchery but that a woman had dared to write of such things.  Answering her critics, Anne made no bones about her egalitarian view that she should be as free as any man to choose her subject matter: "All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive . . . why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."

Charlotte Brontë once disparaged Jane Austen for putting the passions at an arm's length, seemingly refusing "even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood." That stormy sisterhood!  A fitting epithet for the Brontë trio themselves.  They were both sisterly, attached as sibling-literary collaborators, and passionate in temperament, holding to the full intensity of their beliefs, even when doing so meant being tarred as "coarse."

Several years after my Brontë reading group formed, I was able to travel to the parsonage in Haworth.  There I discovered the Brontë sisters' material lives: a pencil sketch of a broken window signed and dated by the artist "aged ten," a spattered paintbox with cakes of color still intact, bottles of ink and sealing wafers with messages like "Excuse haste," an old quill pen along with a hundred steel nibs for a wood-handled one, pebbles from the beach at Scarborough.  Despite adversity and illness, the Brontë sisters kept to a daily routine, whether it was peeling potatoes and changing bandages or stringing sentences together and revising manuscripts.  By their example, the Brontës showed me how writing is as physical and as embodied a struggle as preparing food, nursing an aged parent, and working through illness.  The trio had become my companions and witnesses.  Despite radically altered circumstances, I could set my sights no lower than the goal of returning to who, at heart, I had been before: a reader and writer.

Recommended Reading

Barker, Juliet.  The Brontës.  Great Britain: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994.

Brontë, Anne.  The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Ed. Herbert Rosengarten.  Intro. Margaret Smith.  1848; rpt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Brontë, Charlotte.  Villette.  Ed. Deborah Lutz.  Intro. A. S. Byatt and Ignês Sodré.  1853; rpt. New York: The Modern Library, 2001.

Brontë, Emily.  The Complete Poems of Emily Jane Bronte.  Ed. C. W. Hatfield.  New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. 

Eve Rachele Sanders is a writer living in Montreal.  A recipient of a Mellon Fellowship in the Humanities and a National Endowment for the Humanities Grant, among other awards and grants, she received her Ph.D. in English from UC Berkeley and is the author of Gender and Literacy on Stage in Early Modern England.  Recent poetry and non-fiction of hers appear in Carte Blanche, Dark Matter and The Antigonish Review.

Portrait by their brother, Branwell

Monday, October 22, 2018

Michelle Butler Hallett on Flannery O’Connor


The first time I heard Flannery O’Connor’s name: my boyfriend mentioned a deliciously weird short story called “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” The story felt like a collision. It left me shaky and sweaty, even as I laughed … and then peeked over my shoulder. 

The second time: the same week my doctor guessed I had an autoimmune disease, and lupus made the shortlist. As I struggled with symptoms, medical tests, full-time studies, and a part-time job, a local woman published a newspaper story on her journey with lupus, reporting how her boyfriend, on hearing the term, moaned “Oh no, Flannery O’Connor.” 

In autoimmune disease, the patient’s immune system attacks healthy tissue. Lupus remains dangerous; in O’Connor’s day, lupus meant a death sentence. O’Connor endured grotesque suffering: severe arthritis in the hips, crushing fatigue, wretched fevers, and kidney damage. And yes, it killed her.

A private person, O’Connor preferred to avoid mention of her illness while discussing her work (Brad Gooch, Flannery: A Life of Flannery O’Connor 232). Still, the sickness threaded her life. Her short story “The Enduring Chill,” viewed through the prism not of her self-dramatizing character Asbury but O’Connor herself, is very much about sickness and identity: who, and what, is the Sick Self? Contradictions and absurdities weave together in an effect much like shot silk.

O’Connor suffered symptoms for years without the correct diagnosis, not, as is common with autoimmune patients, due to medical sloth, but to her mother, Regina. Lupus had killed Flannery’s father. When Flannery experienced her first major flare, Regina, knowing her desperately ill daughter feared lupus, insisted the doctors instead tell Flannery that she had rheumatoid arthritis (Gooch 215). It was a plausible lie; many symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis and lupus overlap. When she did receive the correct diagnosis, which she may well have suspected, Flannery also got the warning she might have five years to live. She moved back with her mother at Andalusia Farm and lasted another twelve. 

O’Connor is nicknamed, in some flippance, perhaps, the Abbess of Andalusia. A devout Catholic who sometimes struggled with her faith and her intellectual pride — the child in “Temple of the Holy Ghost” is something of a self-portrait, as is Hulga in “Good Country People” —  O’Connor might disapprove. Still, the struggle remained. One odd episode: on her mother’s insistence, she made a difficult and doubtful voyage to Lourdes. When she returned to the US, predictably exhausted, her doctors X-rayed her decaying hip and discovered the joint had re-calcified (Gooch 306). No, not healed, not cured … yet something had happened. Reading this part of her biography, I wondered if I’d wandered into one of her short stories instead. 

I struggle with O’Connor the person. A white woman in the still very segregated state of Georgia, a white woman benefiting from the underpaid labour of black Americans, O’Connor indulged in racist jokes in her private correspondence. Ostensibly she did this to irritate her vocally liberal friends, including Maryat Lee (Gooch 335). I expect it runs deeper. It seems that O’Connor neither accepted nor even considered that acting racist is being racist. Nuances: she supported Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and she showed, in the settings of her stories, how racism galls her characters’ lives, black and white. She refused to try to write from a black point of view, saying in an interview: “I don’t understand [black people] the way I do white people. I don’t feel capable of entering the mind of a Negro. In my stories they’re seen from the outside” (Gooch 336). Is this wisdom and sensitivity, a recognition that she, as someone who knew nothing of being black in the segregated US, could not presume to write from such a point of view, to appropriate a voice, or is it what her biographer Brad Gooch called “a type of artistic racism?” (Gooch 336) Atlanta priest Leonard Mayhew recalled that O’Connor “never said anything racist, but she was patronizing about blacks, treated them as children” (Gooch 334). In 1959, Maryat Lee asked the ailing Flannery O’Connor if she’d like a visit from James Baldwin. O’Connor explained she admired Baldwin’s writing, but: “No, I can’t see James Baldwin in Georgia. It would cause great trouble and disturbance and disunion. In New York it would be nice to meet him; here it would not. I observe the traditions of the society that feeds me — it’s only fair” (Gooch 335). I want to consider that last statement a reminder to Lee that O’Connor, too ill to work beyond a few hours each day on her fiction, lived in complete dependence on her racist mother. I suspect there’s more at work. And yet the only character in her 1960 novel The Violent Bear it Away to show true charity and give the horrible Mason Tarwater the Christian burial he requested is Buford Munson, a black man. In O’Connor’s view, Buford Munson may be the only character in that novel to do a Right Thing; the others all have tangled motives and personal agendas. In 1963, O’Connor wrote in a letter “I feel very good about those changes in the South that have been long overdue — the whole racial picture” (Gooch 337). The Civil Rights Act would be passed in 1964. 

So what have we got? I see Flannery O’Connor as a white woman in a white supremacist patriarchal society, a racist who struggled with ideas of justice, mercy, and love as articles of faith. Her ideas evolved. Had she lived longer than age thirty-nine, she may have grown further past the taint which must be acknowledged when discussing her work. Perhaps the creator herself stands as tangly, as flawed, as capable of (grace-induced?) change, as her creations. 

Why would I consider the flawed and mysterious (capital-M Mysteries here, I would argue) Flannery O’Connor some sort of literary mother? In part it’s the shared burden of autoimmune disease. That utterance would likely irritate her. Don’t worry, Flannery, I’m none too pleased about it myself. I look to O’Connor as a model of grace and endurance as I undergo the ordeal of my own aggressive autoimmune disease: discipline. I carve out every possible moment to focus on the work. I’ve no time to waste on such Writerly Things as blocks and doubts – though doubts assail me all the time – because I must devote most of my waking time to a second job that pays the bills and gives me access to a health plan, and because tomorrow I might be bedridden. Again. 

Long sickness changes one, the way grace changes people in O’Connor’s fiction. She wrote to Cecil Dawkins on 9 December 1958:  “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful” (Letters of Flannery O’Connor: The Habit of Being, edited by Sally Fitzgerald 307). The easiest thing to say is Sick Michelle is very different from Healthy Michelle – except that’s not quite true. It took so long to get a proper diagnosis and treatment – decades – that I’m not sure if Healthy Michelle ever existed.  

That sort of seismic change shows up in the lives of my characters. Sometimes it’s a huge socio-historical force; sometimes it’s illness. In my last novel, This Marlowe, where perhaps O’Connor’s influence on me shows the most, Kit comes down with a life-threatening pneumonia.The novel is set in 1593; those characters haven’t got much in the way of treatment. Twenty-first century medicine would note that Kit’s pneumonia is viral, not bacterial, which is the only reason he lives. The medical reasons are not important. The illness changes him, shoves him towards new modes of thought. This vigorous and physical male is left breathless and weak while surrounded by menace and threat and confined by circumstance. When he does regain some capacity for violence, that response no longer works. As events progress, Kit learns his beloved Tom is imprisoned and undergoing torture, all to pressure Kit into a decision. Kit concludes that to free Tom he must sacrifice himself. A sort of pilgrimage ensues; he walks a clear path to meet his death. He falters on the way – who wouldn’t – but this former divinity student, accused of atheism, knowing himself to be a descendant of thrice-denying Peter, follows the example of his Christ. He encounters some small signs along the way which might be taken as a nod from grace, reassurance from a benevolent and watchful God. Yet, in the final moment of facing violent death in a little room, when Kit looks up: “Nothing streamed in the firmament.” I’m conversing there with Marlowe himself and his John Faustus who screams “See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!” I’m also thinking of O’Connor and the sickroom ceiling in “The Enduring Chill.”

I mentioned doubts. I had many doubts about Kit’s death scene and its drawn-out preface, not least because of the established sadism of the character who carries out the murder, Robin Poley – and who suffers from my own autoimmune disease, ankylosing spondylitis, though his affliction goes unnamed – but also that the scene itself, the motivations, the playing-out, once stripped of characters’ self-delusions, are blatant and weird. I then struggled for subtlety; I may have face-planted into obscurity. I wanted to create what I call chased work, something I see in O’Connor and Marlowe: a sort of hammered relief of subverted expectation. In metalwork, chased work is the opposite of repoussage. One sinks the metal, pressing it to create grooves and channels. Physics: such change in metal requires some degree of violence, and the metal, of course, resists. Aesthetics: the depressions throws the heights into greater relief. Faith: grace changes the metal. 

Flannery O’Connor once hosted her editor, Robert Giroux, at her mother’s house. Over breakfast, Regina O’Connor asked “Mister Giroux, can’t you get Flannery to write about nice people?” Giroux reports he almost burst out laughing, only to recognize Regina’s complete seriousness. (Gooch 317). If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that myself … Why must it be so dark? Why are your characters so prickly? Why can’t you write something easier to sell? Why can’t we have fluffy white clouds on the cover? 

Why can’t you write about nice people? 

As a writer, I’m not in O’Connor’s league. Still, Flannery O’Connor is one of my mothers. She shows me so much about illness, endurance, and fiction, and about the terrible faults and painful heights of the human condition, and she accomplishes this with stark, frightening, and often funny work where the reader must fend for herself. Flannery will not take you by the hand; she respects and trusts you. Besides, she’s too busy hammering metal.  

As I hammer out my own stories, and, as my illness hammers me, I look for … what? Purpose? Thematic development? Coherent image patterns? Meaning? 

I look for sunken metal — for the chased work — and there find, if only in fleeting light, grace and beauty: hope. 


Michelle Butler Hallett writes fiction about violence, evil, love and grace. She’s the author of the novels This Marlowe, listed for the 2016 Dublin International Literary Award, deluded your sailors, Sky Waves, and Double-blind, and the short story collection The shadow side of grace. Her short stories are widely anthologized, including in the 2014 Best American Mystery Stories, edited by Laura Lippman.  Butler Hallett lives in St John’s. 

Monday, October 8, 2018

Michele Sharpe on Befriending Jane Austen’s Emma

Returning to high school after nearly a year as a teenage dropout runaway, I had good intentions about attending classes and completing assignments, two resolutions I’d failed at in the past. The day I’d turned twelve, according to my adoptive mother, I’d become a disobedient monster. There was some truth to that; I’d discovered that I could do whatever I liked if willing to face the consequences, and what I liked to do was act with contempt for authority. Maybe that idea had come to me from a book, or maybe it was just my bad blood.

I wanted to go to college. I loved to read, longed to discuss books, and indulged in writing angsty poetry, but school had been disappointing and too regimented to bear. With every new school year, I’d vow to be a model student, but by October of every year, I was skipping classes, chugging beers in the girls’ room, and rolling joints in the back of science class.

On my first week back from being a runaway, I went looking for some of my favorite novels at the library, intending to bring them home to re-sharpen my wits. Here were old friends – Dostoevsky, the Brontës, and Austen. In the stacks, though, Austen’s Emma stuck out its snobby tongue at me. I’d adored all Austen’s novels except this one, and this one I’d despised, incredulous that the brilliant storyteller and satirist of Pride and Prejudice had also written a novel that was so entirely odious.

Emma, as I recalled her, was bossy, arrogant, and unlikeable. She thought she was entitled to do what she liked, and what she liked was to run the whole town; Austen told me right from the get-go that Emma and her family were “first in consequence there. All looked up to them.” Meaning, Emma was a snob. It was like a whole book about one of the annoying Mrs. Bennet-type characters in Austen’s other books, characters who were funny for a couple of scenes, but who certainly couldn’t carry a whole novel. There was no smart, sassy protagonist like Elizabeth Bennet for me to admire. There was only this stupid, spoiled girl who stuck her nose into everyone’s business and always thought she was right.

The book was without merit.

Still, the time I’d spent as a teenage runaway, working minimum wage jobs and trying to avoid my boyfriend’s fists, had changed me. I was only seventeen as I stood in the stacks, feeling superior in my loathing of Emma, when a flicker of doubt in my own judgment lit my brain for a moment. I’d been wrong about some things, like my boyfriend. Maybe I’d been wrong about Emma. I slid the book off the shelf, added it to the top of my pile, and took it home.

Home was a ten-room house. Although my adoptive family wasn’t the richest or most respected in the neighborhood – my father had gone to prison for a white-collar crime – we were far more affluent than most of the people who lived in the town. Their family had broken up by the time I returned from my wanderings, and I’d assumed a daughter/housekeeper role as my father tried to sell the house, moving my few belongings into the former maid’s room on the first floor, while the second-floor bedrooms stayed empty.

After my grim months of adulting, the silence and emptiness of the house was a relief. Slogging through my job cleaning fourteen nasty motel rooms per day was over; now I only had to clean the ten rooms of this house, most of which weren’t even in use. And the tearful process of admitting that my lover, the only person I’d known who’d also read Keats and Shelley, was a brutal woman-hater, was almost over. I snuggled into the twin size bed where my adoptive mother’s housemaids Leila, then Rita, then Louise had once slept. I almost believed I could be innocent again. Emma was still on the top of my pile. I grabbed her.

She was still bossy, arrogant, and unlikeable. She still thought she always right. And yet. There was something, somewhere that I’d read about the things you dislike in others being the things you dislike in yourself.

Chapter 1: “The real evils, indeed, of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself.”


Chapter 8: After Knightley chastises Emma for persuading Harriet to turn down Mr. Martin’s proposal, Austen’s narrator steps in, “She did not always feel so absolutely satisfied with herself, so entirely convinced that her opinions were right and her adversary's wrong, as Mr. Knightley.”

This, I suspected, was the slippery concept of irony that had always eluded me. Was the narrator speaking as if she were Emma, who at this point in the novel feels quite satisfied with herself and her opinions, while simultaneously poking fun at Emma’s absurdity? Had Austen expected readers to be both astute enough to recognize this double irony, and compassionate enough to excuse Emma’s youthful foolishness?

Chapter 9: “Mr. Knightley might quarrel with her, but Emma could not quarrel with herself.”

I finally understood what irony was. It was a narrative voice that could take on the point of view of a flawed character. It was a love-struck, sixteen-year-old girl, convinced she knew what love was from reading books, and refusing to quarrel with her conviction when that love, which should have always been suspect, went dangerously bad.

Years later, when I began to write about my teenage experience of love and violence, I came back to these memories of Emma, this understanding of irony. It was critical to recapturing my teenage arrogance, critical to forgiving myself, and critical to portraying the character of teenage-me with compassion.

Chapter 11: “How to understand it all! How to understand the deceptions she had been thus practicing on herself, and living under!—The blunders, the blindness of her own head and heart!”

Before my fucked-up love affair, I was too much like Emma, too enamored of my own alleged infallibility. And that’s why I’d showered her with my contempt. Violence had broken my convictions, along with my nose, and forced me to let go of my identity as a girl who didn’t make mistakes. I lost my self-regard, my confidence, and so much more. But I’d gained an insight into human fallibility that would serve my writing. And Emma, finally, was mine.

Michele Sharpe, a poet and essayist, is also a high school dropout, hepatitis C survivor, adoptee, and former trial attorney. Her essays appear in venues including The RumpusGuernicaCatapult, and The Sycamore Review. Recent poems can be found in Poet LoreNorth American ReviewStirring, and Baltimore Review. Her previous entry for the many gendered mothers is "Michele Leavitt on Charlotte Brontë’s Jane and Emily Brontë’s Catherine." The author of the Kindle Singles memoir, Walk Away, Michele is currently at work on a second memoir. More at

Monday, August 6, 2018

Kim Fahner on Bronwen Wallace

A woman writer whom I follow on Twitter recently asked for suggestions of Canadian women poets to include in her course syllabus for the fall. I watched. I went off and put some chicken and potatoes in the stove to roast for a quiet supper. I returned, looked at the feed again. I kept giving it time, certain her name would emerge. There were so many good suggestions by other women writers, but the name I was looking for—wondering how it could be so easily forgotten—was that of Bronwen Wallace. I offered her name, hoping someone new would come to her rich poetic work, as I had come to her so many years before.

Bronwen Wallace died in 1989. She was too young. I didn’t read her until I was in my mid-twenties, studying Canadian women poets at Carleton University in Brenda Carr’s class. It was there that I came to Bronwen Wallace for the first time. We read The Stubborn Particulars of Grace (1985) and I found myself reconsidering what it was that poetry could do, if you were a woman poet, and if you were trying to figure out and define yourself. I learned that she wrote ‘narrative lyric’ and ‘meditative’ poems. What seemed to just be richly woven and detailed story poems on the surface of things, were actually, on recurrent close readings, much more powerful than I’d ever imagined as a young woman in my twenties. Then, I called myself a feminist in theory, but I don’t know that I really knew what it meant in practice. When I re-read the poems now, as a confident, strong woman in my forties, they strike me in a different, sharper sort of way. Wallace was a poet who rooted her work in the ordinary rhythms of women’s lives, struggles, and friendships. She looked for what she called the ‘extraordinary’ in the patterns of what we think are our mundane, ‘ordinary’ lives and days.

One of my favourite poems of hers is “A Simple Poem for Virginia Woolf.” In it, Wallace speaks of how she imagined that poem should look in terms of both form and content:

        I wanted it simple
        and perfect round
        hard as an
        egg I thought
        only once I’d said egg
        I thought of the smell
        of bacon grease and dirty frying pans
        and whether there were enough for breakfast
        I couldn’t help it

She didn’t want to have a poem rooted in the mundane parts of domestic life, of how women navigate their relationships with work, men, children, and even (shockingly!) potential lovers. The poem speaks of how she doesn’t want it to be confessional in tone, and how she doesn’t want people to figure out which parts are doorways and windows into a poet’s personal life. In the last stanza, she writes that what she only ever wanted, when she began writing with an intention, was just a simple poem of tribute for Virginia Woolf: “it wasn’t going to mention history/or choices or women’s lives/the complexities of women’s friendships/or the countless gritty details/of an ordinary woman’s life.” What she ending up writing instead, though, is a poem that finds its strength and glory in the stories of women who haven’t had a chance to write or speak them out loud. In the details, you see, she pointed to the issues that women were concerned with, and worried over, but never really dared to voice because of patriarchal intimidation.

Wallace saw poetry as being “nearer to prayers than stories,” a belief that wove itself through all of her work. In her writing, she offered women poets a way to mine their own personal experiences and lives. She wrote of love, of caretaking (of husbands, children, and parents), illness, abuse, and about how women create intricate networks of community in their closely woven friendships. She wrote about common worries that most women deal with on a daily basis. She wrote, too, about how women often feel they must give something up to be in a relationship with a man.

In “The Woman in this Poem,” the focus is on a woman who has an overly domesticated life, but who dreams of having an imagined lover as an escape. She is tired of the monotony, of how she “begins/to chop the onions for the pot-roast,” and how she fantasizes of escaping her conservatively scripted marriage:  “all through dinner/her mouth will laugh and chatter/while she walks with her lover/on a beach somewhere.” Wallace writes of women who give up their independence and spirit for the sake of an old fashioned dream of what marriage and family ought to look like, as scripted by 1950s Leave it to Beaver episodes from America, and perhaps enforced by men with archaic views of feminism, intimacy, partnership, and family. As she says, women readers of her poetry, “like the woman in this poem/begin to feel/our own deaths/rising slow within us.” What she does, as a poet, as a woman, is ask her readers (male and female) to consider that they do not need to make themselves small in a relationship just because those are traditional and conservative norms that have historically been followed in western society. She speaks of diversity within relationship, of being independent and joined collaboratively in a respectful manner. She, back in the 1980s, pointed out that women should be free to be independent and spirited within their intimate and familial relationships. It shouldn’t be a sacrificial story. 

This is what I love about Bronwen Wallace. As a strong, single woman in my 40s, I know I won’t give something up in any intimate relationship with a man. That requires a strong, independent, and confident partner who doesn’t want to erase me bit by bit to bend to his view of what a partnership should be. Wallace’s work rooted me in a feminism that didn’t really mature until I was in my late 30s and early 40s. Thank God I read her work in my twenties, but only understood it as a woman, and not as a girl. Her lessons reverberate, and make me glad of my own narrative lyric and confessional poetry. Her work inspires and speaks to me still.

Kim Fahner was the fourth poet laureate of the City of Greater Sudbury (2016-18), and also the first woman to be appointed to the role. Kim has published four volumes of poetry, including her latest, Some Other Sky (Black Moss Press, 2017). Her play, Sparrows Over Slag, had a staged reading at PlaySmelter New Work Theatre Festival (in collaboration with Pat the Dog Theatre Creation), in May 2018 at the Sudbury Theatre Centre. She is currently working on her second novel and completing a play-in-progress. She is a member of the League of Canadian Poets, the Writers’ Union of Canada, and PEN Canada. She blogs at The Republic of Poetry at Her website is

Monday, May 21, 2018

Ronna Bloom on Rhea Tregebov

In one of the last incarnations of the Bohemian Embassy on Queen Street, I got up for the first time to read poems. The room was packed and I knew no one.

When I put my foot up on the small step to get on the stage, I heard a voice in my head say, ‘this is the next thing you’re gonna do.’ I read in an understated, almost nonchalant way I thought I should, and someone yelled, louder. I realized no one would ever know these poems the way I knew them, so I belted them out. The doing itself was enough, but the response came back like meeting myself in a wave.

A woman I'd never met, Rhea Tregebov, came over and said something nice about the poems. I said, “you look familiar.” She said, “that’s 'cause I look like you.” I was awkward and she was friendly. But boldly, I asked if she’d talk to me about my poems. She said yes. (Yes!) I bought her book The Proving Grounds, sat in the Future Bakery, opened it and read the first poem:

Faith in the Weather
                        for my sister-in-law, Judy Tregebov,
                        killed in a car crash January 1987

I have to travel through so much weather to get to you.
I’m travelling at 30,000 feet, at 600 miles an hour,
my suitcases full, flying into sadness.

The Proving Grounds (Vehicule Press, 1991)

I was a flood of feeling –– both from the pain of the poem and the permission to write it. 'You can say this?’ I thought. Here in this expression of love and grief, was permission to write directly about loss, and implicitly whatever matters to you –– to me –– right now. A door opened I had no idea was closed, or maybe was no door. It was all open.

When we met I showed her five short poems. She said, “these are publishable.” What a shock these words were the first time. She coaxed me along, invited me into the world.

My niece died the next year and something else tore out into the writing, no doubt given permission by Rhea’s work and warmth. The next thing she urged, "Go to Banff." She was urging me toward the Banff Writing Studio, five weeks of writing in the mountains.

She suggested each step so lightly, like she was offering me a coffee, and each one felt like mounting a ziggurat. But her saying things made them possible.

One season she was Writer in Residence at the North York Public library and I took her workshop with a bunch of other beginning writers and wrote poems. She invited Stan Dragland into the library to talk. I wrote down everything he said on a scrap of pink paper and carried it for years. Then I went to Banff. It was there I realized I did not have to explain leaving a meal to write a poem. I did not have to explain myself.

Over the years we became friends. I'd see her encourage plants and flowers on a hillside home she used to live in in Toronto. I remember her standing on its steep slope on Austin Terrace, by the zooming cars of Bathurst Street, like a goat in the city.

Rhea wrote a suite of poems that won The Malahat Long Poem prize and was set in that neighborhood. Poems that looked and saw what and who was in front of her. Attention and compassion.

Bathurst Station (Below)

In the subway the world's
sad musicians come to play. The Irish
balladeer; the Russian with his ribboned
shirt and balalaika; the Peruvian moving
his breath over panpipes; his two dolls
dance together, bride and groom,
wedded at the head like his old life,
this new one. They are playing home, home
underneath these foreign streets,
their songs drifting thin, riding;
our indifferent feet beside them,
above their heads.

Mapping the Chaos, (Vehicule Press, 1995)

In one of her books is the epigram every poem is a love poem. Having written this now, I look it up and see I got it wrong. A book of love poems, it says. (The Proving Grounds) What I'm remembering instead is a teaching I gleaned from her work: every poem is a love poem because in my mind to write with attention to the truth of what is there is an act of love. Her poems sharpen my eyes and open my heart.

Now, years later, as I shuttle over the Bloor Street viaduct on the subway from the east end to the west, I often think of her poem, "Elegy for the Gift (Elegy for the Light)."

Elegy for the Gift (Elegy for the Light)

Sometimes, when the subway car
comes briefly out of the tunnel,
we don't look up, miss the light.
And it's as though inattentive,
we'd never had that moment
of brightness. A life might be full
of such small losses or full,
equally, of small dense gifts:
the child on that same car
dipping her face into her mother's
that perfect regard.

The Strength of Materials (Wolsak and Wynn 2001)

Rhea Tregebov's poetry comes to me like an invitation and admonition, as if to say don’t miss this! I've tended to focus sometimes too much on writing what my insides looks like. She reminds me to look up also at what's out there. And then to write.

Ronna Bloom is the author of six books of poetry, most recently The More (Pedlar Press, 2017). Her poems have been recorded for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and translated into Spanish and Bengali. She has collaborated with musicians, filmmakers, doctors, students, academics, spiritual leaders, and architects. Ronna is currently the Poet in Community at the University of Toronto and Poet in Residence at Mount Sinai Hospital and the Sinai Health System.