*Note on the text: because of constrictions of WordPress, poetry excerpts are formatted as closely as possible to the text, but discrepancies might appear.
Filled with evocative images, stunning beauty and violence, Allan Safarik’s Blood of Angels (2004) is a collection I would recommend to those who typically avoid poetry. With fifty years of experience, Safarik’s work is often surreal and imagistic, probes human complexity yet is accessible to a wide audience. Blood of Angels was written following his time as Writer-in-Residence in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, which included weekly sojourns to St. Peter’s Abbey in Muenster. Inspired by monastic life, there are poems about monks working the field and wracked by age, devotion and changing seasons, but also religious fervour and bloodshed. In one ten-page stretch, Safarik leaps from Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, to a gruesome “portrait of truce” in no-man’s-land, to elegizing a slain El Salvadoran Archbishop. Reading this collection reminded me of the eclectic conversations in Safarik’s creative writing class at St. Peter’s College. It showcases a curious mind, activated by the raw material all around him.
The first section, “The Harvest of Souls,” offsets austere reflection with surreal, even humorous insights. “The Sowing” asserts that “life turning lonely and small, depends / on a handful of dried seeds planted in time” (10). By contrast, in “New Year’s Resolution: St. Peter’s Abbey,” Safarik pictures himself as the “Mouse Man of Muenster,” chewing cream “and whole grain bread into a thick pap / before I feed the naked baby mice / with an eyedropper from the monk’s infirmary” (32). Safarik does not lack imagination and is clearly indebted to Imagism. “Blood of Angels” demonstrates his penchant for short, concrete lines:
evening piling up
in the western sky
sun peering above
the horizon like
a half-cooked egg (12)
One could interpret clashing colours in the sky as symbolic of the clashing expressions of faith this collection portrays. Fittingly, the standout poem of this section is “Harvest of Souls” (27-28). With its neo-Beat repetition of “The souls,” everything from vegetables to flowers, geese, vacationers, transients, and departed ancestors are put on equal spiritual footing.
The second section, “The Holy Road,” counter-balances the peaceful and whimsical reflections that precede it. Warfare, paranoia, and persecutions populate these pages. A man muses on tribal conflict: “This war never really starts or ends / but like all wars simmers forever on the / hearths of storytellers and old scarred men” (“The Holy Road” 46). Safarik explores primeval impulses that consider “the letting of blood… a necessary purging” (“The Traveller At The Beginning and End of Time” 66). That some narratives of extremist violence blur together suggests there may be a few too many. Nevertheless, poems like “The Grave” (38), depicting a man digging his own grave, and “Cargo” (49-51), a chronicle of a colonial sea voyage gone awry, are both shocking and thought-provoking. A non-violent poem, “Things That Might Have Been,” imagines life around the Ganges River: “fragrant oranges in shaded grottoes / severed monkey hands in the bazaar / grey-headed nuns washing bodies” (63). Here, as elsewhere, Safarik layers image upon image, energetic as a child, deliberate as a bricklayer.
The third and final section, “Abbey Meditations,” is indeed meditative, set against a backdrop of seasonal change. In “Under The Apricot Moon,” Safarik slips away from “literary conversation about the poets / who moved out west and became movie stars” (73) into the refuge of a summer evening in Muenster. In “October Song,” he states:
Every tree in the shelter belt
a permanent resident
I represent the temporal
simply a visitor caught
up in a lifetime
reading and writing (80)
In “First Winter Storm,” while monks make “solemn music in ecclesiastic air,” Safarik struggles to write, “cannot empower the voices in my head / to speak to me about God, only poetry” (84). Throughout this section, spanning late-summer through winter, Safarik ponders what it means to be a West Coast writer in Saskatchewan, a “visitor” amongst disciples of God, a human in a holy landscape. But he avoids esoteric musings, worships at the altar of precise images: “dark-limbed spruce trees with hoary beards” (“Witness” 87) and “old monks in black robes” with “discarded onion-skin faces” (“Onion Skins” 88).
Blood of Angels may be inspired by sojourns to St. Peter’s Abbey, but it is no simple record. Flip to any page and one will find a mind transmuting regular experience into singular art. These poems, by an itinerant poet already “gone on / to the next accidental location” (“Epilogue” 95), evoke the universal in the particular, the spiritual in the secular.
Safarik, Allan. Blood of Angels. Thistledown Press, 2004.
Review by Brandon Fick. Born and raised in rural Saskatchewan, Brandon Fick writes realistic fiction (and some poetry) and reads a variety of genres, with particular interest in horror, war, and western novels. Brandon has been published in Polar Expressions, in medias res and The Society. He received a B.A. Honours (English) from the University of Saskatchewan and a Writing Diploma from St. Peter’s College, and was proud to be awarded the Reginald J.G. Bateman Memorial Scholarship in English and St. Thomas More College Creative Writing Scholarship, among others. Currently, he’s very grateful to be connecting with other writers in the MFA program at the U of S.
Novel(la): a concise, women-centric narrative that crosses genres and defies easy categorisation. The boundaries between short stories, novellas, and novels have always been riddled with slippage. The Great Gatsby. Heart of Darkness. Of Mice and Men. The Old Man and the Sea. Death in Venice. The Metamorphosis. The End of the Affair. Where do we place these texts? The short answer: in the literary canon. Instructors will teach Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a novel or novella, depending on the course. Kafka’s The Metamorphosis as either a long short story or a novella. I am less concerned with delineating the boundaries of these genres, and far more concerned with creating a new space that does not exist between previous designations, but one that instead operates in parallel. Novel(la)s are where we find the women.
But before I continue, I want to pause a moment and reflect on my nomenclature: novel(la). ‘Novel(la)’ sounds like ‘novella’ and only appears different on the page. This is crucial. Parentheses denote the inessential, an aside, an interesting piece of commentary that the real writing of the piece doesn’t need. The words that appear inside the curved marks could be removed and nothing would be lost.
Parentheses draw the reader’s eye—seem to call for attention. Aren’t we told, when we write, to make every word count? If each word matters, then why do we have punctuation that implies the opposite?
Parentheses are marginal. They do not often make appearances in creative writing and are relegated to academic papers.
(I take this grammatological device and use its inherent aesthetic appeal to draw attention to the marginal, the so-called ‘removeable.’ Women have been living within the parentheses of academia, writing, and elsewhere. We know that parentheses are supposed to be marginal, but they do not appear in the margins of a page, they insert themselves into the main points.)
And so, novel(la)s are where we find women. The “la” kept separate, distinct, and always necessary. “La” an homage to the French feminists who insisted on écriture feminine, but we will return to that momentarily. Women writers resist conforming to male standards and instead have a history (a herstory, if you prefer) of conning form, of inserting their works between their male counterparts. Téa Mutonji, Larissa Lai, Nicole Brossard, Eden Robinson, Aritha van Herk, Evelyn Lau, Hollie Adams, Marian Engle. Each of these writers uses the sentence to remake the short story, the novel, the novella. Women flitting through their pages but undoubtedly present (even in their disappearing). Their stories—the writers’ and the characters’—push against male definitions of what constitutes genre, what can be written. (Because, as we know, these stories are ‘women’s writing,’ and as such are relegated to being by, for, and about women, as if women are not quite persons, their stories not universal enough.)
Let me clarify ‘women.’ I don’t mean to uphold the male/female binary, and instead am opening the interpretation of ‘women’ to include all genders and expressions, any deviation from patriarchally-prescribed norms. The word ‘women’ fits this task because we have a collective understanding of how ‘women’ stands in opposition to ‘men.’ Because of the historical erasure of peoples who did not fit traditional binaries, we now have to create a new objective correlative, a new signifier to invite in those who have been and are still excluded. That is not the task of this glossa. I set out to explain the novel(la) and to carve out a space for our writing to exist on its own terms. Therefore, it follows that though we find women in novel(la)s, I do not configure this categorisation as a by/for/about women only form. Merely a literary space, where this form is met and assessed on its own—a place where male-centric expectations falter, cannot find purchase. A notable example of a novel(la) by a man is Robert Kroetsch’s The Hornbooks of Rita K. George Bowering, discussing Kroetch’s work, argues “if The Hornbooks of Rita K is a book of poems, then it may be the best book of poems that Robert Kroetsch has ever written … It pretends to offer a list, a sequence, a narrative—and does everything it can to subvert those reassuring codes of order” (back cover). Kroetsch’s book follows Raymond as he attempts to locate the missing Rita through scraps of poetry she has left behind. Written in prose, poetry, and / or prose-poetry, this book doesn’t place Rita, yet she appears (as if of her own accord) as a void in the center. As demonstrated by Bowering’s quote, people have difficulty labelling Kroetsch’s book because it resists traditional renderings of Rita (the woman protagonist), and as such resists traditional forms of writing.
These ideas of resistance and of searching out new forms for women-writing (as opposed to male-writing, the types predominantly found in Western literary canons) are not new. Hélène Cixous, in her theorization of écriture féminine, states: “Woman must write herself: must write about women and bring women to writing, from which they have been driven away as violently as from their bodies—for the same reasons, by the same law, with the same fatal goal” (875). And in writing herself, in and when writing women, I have found the form must follow, must also change. (I am lucky I found Cixous early in my writing career because through her words I found permission to write in a new way— not new, per se, but new to me, a way not taught when professors lectured on canonical texts.)
Similarly, Virginia Woolf warns young women that “it is useless to go to the great men writers for help” (88). We can learn imagery and the balance between narration and action. We can learn plot and dialogue and setting. The basic components. We take what we can, but male writers do not set out to teach us, to allow us a form or forum for ourselves, or one which allows our writing to be encountered outside of comparisons to their own works. (Even when we write outside their bonds, these comparisons are still made. We are said to have ‘subverted’ expectations or any number of ‘established’ codes, as Bowering alludes to.)
A novel(la), with its lyric attention to sounds and rhythm, could be mistaken for poetry, but it is decidedly not poetry. Verse is another male-dominated realm, the boundaries demarcated. Challengers of poetic forms hail from Oulipian origins. Those men push form for the sake of pushing form and have fashioned an exclusive club that prizes the originality of the idea, the impossibility of re-creation. A novel(la) is the opposite—a new form, a rethinking of form, for a more inclusive space.
Novel(la)s therefore are unlikely to follow traditional structures or forms—such as the Freytag Pyramid—as these forms necessitate comparison to previous, male-dominated works. Characters in novel(la)s take up too much space for short stories and not enough for novels. And besides, these characters avoid the rigidity of chapter breaks—prefer instead brief glimpses, instances, loosely-linked scenes, fragments of action nestled in the open. First-person drifts into second, third. Often present tense with run-on sentences and fluctuating timelines that compress or expand, blur perspectives and memories and misuse commas. This inclination, this approach to writing, not common, but resonant.
Cixous, Helene. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs vol. 1, no. 4, 1976, pp. 875-93.
Kroetsch, Robert. The Hornbooks of Rita K. University of Alberta Press, 2001.
Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. 1928, Penguin Books, 1945, reprinted 2004.
Essay by Allie McFarland, a bi, white settler originally from Calgary, AB on Treaty 7 territory. She holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan’s Department of English, where her thesis, a manuscript on eating disorders currently under consideration with multiple presses, was nominated for the College of Arts & Sciences Thesis Award. She is a co-founding editor of The Anti-Languorous Project, which publishes antilang. magazine, soundbite, Good Short Reviews, and the On Editing blog series. Her poetic suite “Lullaby” won the 2015 Dr. MacEwan Literary Arts Scholarship. She is also the author of the chapbook Marianne’s Daughters (Loft on EIGHTH, 2018). Allie currently runs a not-for-profit used bookstore on the unceded territories of the Lekwungen people of Vancouver Island. Disappearing in Reverse is her full-length debut.
Carolyn Gray holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Saskatchewan and is the Editor of Prairie Fire magazine. She writes for true crime television, and is published in drama, fiction, and non-fiction. She won the John Hirsch Award for Most Promising Manitoba Writer and the Manitoba Day Award for Excellence in Archival Research. Other credits include adjunct professor of creative writing and the 2019-2020 Winnipeg Public Library Writer-in-Residence. She has a horror screenplay currently under consideration. Her golden muse Minnie is always at her side.
Özten Shebahkeget: Much of the writer’s job involves the ability to pay attention. How do you pay attention in these turbulent times?
Carolyn Gray: I actually don’t pay attention to the news or I might get worried. I find out everything I need to know at the dinner table from my quarantine pals. They pay attention to the news and they’re far more anxious than I am. My attention in the pandemic is selective. My housie and I have carved out a lot of time to watch a variety of series. I’ll typically be thinking about something a character said or did, and texting her about it throughout the day, raking out motivation. It’s a lot like actor’s prep. Which is nice, as there are no more plays.
ÖS: What draws you to playwriting opposed to other genres?
CG: When I went to university, I wanted to be a filmmaker, but there were no film classes so theatre was the next best thing. I was obsessed with film noir as a youth, and then Scorsese, that snappy, rhythmic dialogue. I need to hear words spoken. I love the theatrical process of getting scenes in draft up on their feet and the words spoken aloud, so the writer can see and hear her work.
ÖS: Has your role at Prairie Fire influenced your work?
CG: Yes—I am not touching short stories at the moment because there are so many brilliant short story writers.
ÖS: Since we are both Winnipeggers, I have to ask what you find distinguishing about this city as an artist?
CG: I’m in a long-term relationship with Winnipeg after all these years. We’ve been through a lot of drama. Right now, I’m enjoying how well we know each other and how she just lets me get on with my business and doesn’t bother me.
ÖS: What was your MFA experience at the University of Saskatchewan like? What tip would you give for incoming students?
CG: I loved my USask experience. Sheri Benning and Jeanette Lynes are both brilliant and supportive. I learned so much. And although they are extremely professional, they are also immensely fun people. My tip would have been, if it weren’t the pandemic, to see if you could get them out for drinks and nachos. Maybe next year?
ÖS: Finally, what have you been working on lately?
CG: I’ve been working on true crime television and screenplay. I’ve produced three screenplays during the pandemic, two of those with a wonderful writing partner. I thought I was a productive writer before my MFA, but I learned so much about my process in Saskatoon. I haven’t let that slide but consciously exercise those muscles daily.
Interview by Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation. She holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg, and joined the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan last fall. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire and CV2 Magazine.
Jennifer Still (she/her) explores intersections of language and material forms in her home town in Treaty 1 territory (now known as Winnipeg, MB, Canada). She is the author of three poetry collections, Girlwood (Brick Books, 2011), Comma (Book*hug 2017), Saltations (Thistledown, 2005) and a few handmade chapbooks. Her threaded poems appeared in the group exhibition Illuminations (Mentoring Artists for Women in the Arts, 2018) at Aceart Inc. and The Gallery of Southwestern Manitoba. She has served as a mentor and editor and is currently completing her fourth collection, an illuminated long poem composition with pinholes, a light table, electric typewriter and carbon sheets.
Tea Gerbeza: What are you currently working on?
Jennifer Still: I’m up to my eyes in a manuscript of dots and holes. It all started when I pressed a pin through a page and erased a word with light. The page was a turn-of-the-century study of the honeybee by Belgian playwright and essayist Maurice Maeterlinck. The language was ecstatic and magical and the hundred-year-old paper yellowed and soft.
This piercing erasure, back when I discovered it in 2015, was more of a code than a poem. A series of perforations with a word saved here and there. A lacy structure that threatened to shatter.
I was fresh in the shock of losing my mother very quickly to lung cancer. I felt far from words, far from being able to read even. There was no text or tradition that could comfort my atheist heart, so I started making one up (a text that is—though also my heart). Flipping through Maeterlinck’s reverie of the bees felt gentle. As I grazed over his bee language, I circled words that shimmered and started to connect them into a lifted text. I came across an image of a honeycomb structure that looks like the zigzag stitch on my mother’s sewing machine. I ran a page through the feed dog, trying to puncture out a line, but the book was old, the pages too brittle, so it just tore. So instead, with the same forward motion of a stitch, I used a needle tool to punch out the words, point by point. It was mesmerizing. So detailed and final and clear. Something about the rhythmic labour. The tactile crack of fibres under my tip. The minute sound of rupture. The daily piercings became a monotonous, domestic on and on and on, that left a type of ellipses when I looked back. It wasn’t long before the physicality of the piercing was as important as the words I was saving. It was a kind of unwriting, anti-writing even. It was lovely to make a mark that didn’t sound, that didn’t need anything more from me. But yet it still communicated something. And then the magic happened. One day I held the page to the light and all the saved words floated into view, as if right off the page, surrounded by those tiny pinpricks. It was a beautiful encounter, words and light, and it felt dangerous too, like I was testing the page to see how much it could be devastated and still maintain structure. Physically and lyrically. How could a page hold absence and light? It was all very beautiful and spoke to me and I followed it. I can see now how that initial work was an acute document of separation which of course, is ultimately about connection. Kind of like the track a stitch leaves in fabric when a seam has been ripped. Every text I’ve made since has grown out of these tiny piercings. Every page I’ve composed has a transparency to it—a scratch in carbon paper, a letter cut from a powdered typewriter ribbon—a physical passage that streams light.
Right now, I’m combining all my dot and hole compositions—carbon sheets through electronic typewriter, letter cut-outs on a daisywheel ribbon, pierced pages—into a cohesive collection for traditional book form. The text has become a single unpunctuated line. It’s as if I’ve fallen through those first piercings to learn they’re not absences at all, but vowels. A long line of vowels calling out from the center of a voice that has a lot to say. The illuminated poems have taken the shape of a single hundred-page poetic line. It’s quite exasperating. And exciting. And a wallop to edit.
The fullest vision is a poem that can only be fully read when held to the light. So, I will hopefully share the physical manuscripts illuminated in a gallery, or shared digitally, for a three-dimensional experience of the work.
TG: What have you learned through working on your current project about the intersections of language and material forms?
JS: That I’m interested in the tiniest, intricate marks of language. And that a poem is not limited to existing on a page. It can be a performance, an animation, an installation and a book. I’m interested in the embodied experience of poetry and poem making—the implement one uses to compose, the possibilities of what might constitute “a page” and how a poem can be shared and read as a three-dimensional experience.
I’ve learned that using an analog method for composition—a method that can’t be saved in any permanent, stable way, nor neatly revised with a delete key—is a very productive way for me to work. Though slow, it is also wildly informative. There’s more at risk when I type a word into an antique sheet of carbon. I press myself into form before pressing the key in a different way. Using a typewriter allows me to move ahead and ahead with a rhythm, the words leave a physical imprint in the world, and at their moment of impact they make a very loud percussive sound that feels like music. Composing on a typewriter reminds me of the impact of the written word, that every character is a strike.
The physicality of my work guides my process and content. When I first shared my pierced poems on a light table at a University of Manitoba Archives poetry symposia, the light through my pages created a kind of starry effect, a glitter beside me as I read. Later, when I was Writer-in-Residence at the U of M’s Center for Creative Writing and Oral Culture, I collaborated with the U of M’s Star Factory planetarium to project my poems up into the dome and perform a reading in the dark.
I find lifting the poem into material forms allows for physical iterations that add and extend meaning, that can be translated into performance. This is just how my imagination works. In a very physical way. The page as constellation, the page as a sifter of light.
The ways to experience a text are greatly altered when one explores language with the physicality of the page in mind and I highly recommend it as a writing exercise. For instance, a poet could ask themselves what is the object version of my poem? and see where this takes them in language.
I guess for me, poetry has always been about creating openings and connection and pluralities. And making things up. That language exists because I can imagine it, because you and I here in our bodies can imagine it, makes me want to acknowledge the physical body that makes all this imagining possible. I just don’t want to forget the body, the hand, in my work.
TG: In your recent collaborated chapbook, Table for Four, there are fragments of lines on paper strips that you paper-weave into a visual poem. Could you talk about what the process of paper weaving is like? How do you approach creating a paper-woven poem? How do you “revise” it?
JS: I assembled that poem like latticing pastry on a pie! It was a joy. And my solution to the collaborative challenge: making a poem out of 16 lines chosen from 4 different poets. Somehow allowing the physical structure of the weave to guide the poem was a way to handle the words of others with playful respect. Or maybe it was cowardly. I deferred lyric responsibility to the form! All the lines remained whole while also being partially obscured and altered. I love how the words interact individually at all the little warp and weft cross-sections. And that the weaving is two-sided and can be read in different directions. The words land where they land in such structures and one can really only observe and listen to what is there.
Once the weave was done, the words were set and so the revision was more about listening for how best to arrange it within the manuscript and how to present it visually (white strips on a black background, black strips on a white background, front and back on a single page, front and back on two sides of the same page?). Still lots to consider. I enjoy pieces that are set by form like this, like your paper strip weave through the quill.
TG: What draws you to the long poem form? How is that work different than a more traditional collection of poetry?
JS: My experience as an artist has been one of adapting, self-study, making things up. Making everything up is so exciting to me. I do admire tradition and rules and forms, but they’re not where I come from. The short answer is that the long poem affords me the most room to make things up. It allows me to go as far as possible with a subject or an idea. It allows me to circle and extend and refract and repeat. It seems to be the form that is most open to movement, digression, polyphony, possibility, inventiveness, experimentation, visual shape. The long poem can really look like anything. Eventually it defines itself and I love this. I imagine its shape something that exists in the sensed unknown, but needs to be found. Like an ultrasound of an inner voice that says this is what my silence looks like.
I don’t hear poetry in discrete anecdotes, rather I hear it in waves and rushes, rhythms more akin to swimming than, say, diving. There’s no definite beginning or end to the long poem, in my experience. When I read a long poem, it feels more like I’ve stepped into a current that is just a point in a much longer force. It has endurance and sustained rhythm and can end and begin mid-stroke.
TG: During my mentorship with you this past summer, we had a conversation about how we both loved the ongoingness of a long work rather than the final end result. What is your favourite part of this continuing?
JS: The refusal of a definitive end.
TG: Describe your revision process. What is the charm that you hold close as you revise? What is the most challenging?
JS: This fall I adopted a methodical daily revision schedule that involved building a bonfire in my backyard at sunset, pouring a cup of tea, and sitting down with my full hardcopy manuscript and reading and pencilling-in notes, a few pages a day. The next morning, I would sit at my laptop and make my revisions and then use these old, marked-up pages to start my fire in the evening. I got through 100+ dense pages this way. It got to the point where I didn’t really have to refer to my pencilled-in notes because I would simply remember them as I scrolled through the word file. That might be an editing charm—when I make the same edits twice—once on hardcopy and later in a digital file without referring to the hard copy.
When I got to the end of those pages, I printed everything off again and am now in the read-aloud stage, where I start with the first page and edit to my voice. It’s really slow. And a great way to memorize an entire book. And I often just go back to the pencilling in minor edits and also the scratching out of a long section and the writing of a new. It’s all very dynamic and though my process is methodical and linear, the fluidity of the actual writing is not.
This current project, being an unpunctuated long line is the most challenging edit I’ve ever attempted because I’m punctuating an entire poem with cadence. The pacing is embodied, entirely held in the ear and the voice, without any punctuation to guide needs every syllable, and every clause structure to go just the right way. Every word tugs on another so it’s a tight weave to mess with. Kind of like untangling lace or something. It might be impossible to ever get it just right. I’ll let you know!
I love your phrasing “the charm you hold close.” For me, it’s how the poem exists in my imagination when the page is put away and the laptop closed. When I close my eyes, what impression does the poem hold? Can I see it? Does it have an atmosphere, a texture, a colour? And most important, what is the gravitational noun the entire poem pulls to? If I can see this, if I can hang the entire poem on a single word, a concrete image, then I’m pretty certain the poem has a center. If I can’t, then I keep printing and note-taking and reading and resting it and returning until it can be held in my imagination as a defined thing.
As I’m sure you suspect by now, the most challenging part of revision remains finishing. Because the nature of a long poem is, in a way, to refuse an end. I’m good at listening to possibility and pluralities, what a poem might also be. But to commit to finishing is always the hardest part. Usually, I work myself to a point of exhaustion where I just don’t have the energy to refuse an ending any longer. Or something else has caught my attention and the ending becomes a necessity so I can move on. Or there’s a deadline, like the one you’ve given me for this interview. I have another idea tugging on me now for a next work, so I do need to finish up this one. Not ending really is my specialty.
TG: My mentorship with you was marvellously life-altering for me in so many ways, particularly the introduction of paper quilling into my poetic process—a suggestion you made! During the mentorship, you mentioned once that our work together has helped you with your own process for your current project. Could you discuss what your process is like now and how it has changed? What was unlocked for you?
JS: Though I can’t think of a specific example I know this is true because of the way your interview questions have ignited that same feeling of reflective clarity in me this week as I jotted and responded. Our conversation, present tense, helps me reflect on where I am, what I’m doing, how I got here, and where I might be going. Your refined openness, Tea, got me right from the start. The generosity of your responses in words, quilling, photographic image—it just all makes me braver in my work too.
Right now, I’m recalling the afternoon we sat together (in our different provinces) with all your pages before us and we worked as if at the same table considering all the poems you had created and we saw that certain groupings could be opened up and woven throughout the manuscript and we shuffled pages and we listened and shuffled some more. This generous listening and gazing together is where magic happens. I’ve had the same experience with my mentors—Sylvia Legris, Daphne Marlatt, Liz Philips—and it’s exhilarating. This intense listening over a page with another poet is how I’ve made my way completely as an artist. It’s where growth and risk happen, and ideally, if both parties are invested and listening, it’s never just one way.
TG: Paper quilling has reminded me of the importance of the process of building, of using the small individual piece to help the whole. How has your work with textiles influenced your writing practice?
JS: That’s a really beautiful way to connect quilling and writing. My work with textile has been on the level of thread. That single unspooling line is definitely akin to the unravelling webbed motion of the long poem. Creating that word cord that goes on and on. The multivocal braiding or twining of lines and voices. Maybe its helpful to think of the long poem as a loom. A frame for the warp and weft of multiple narrative strands to fall through each other and hold.
But my working with thread is not traditional either (I installed my pierced poems with a veil of thread falling through each hole). I can’t read a sewing pattern, I’m just in love with what a thread does. Was it the long poem that brought me to this aesthetic or the aesthetic that brought me to the long poem? Which informs which, the thread or the poem?
Installation artist and visual poet Anne Hamilton says that all stitching is an act that joins the “close-at-hand” to the “underneath-we-can’t-see.” “Stitching,” says Anne, “is a kind of suturing of the visible to the invisible.” I love to think of words this way. My pinholes, too. That act of trying to connect what is felt and seen right before us to what we can’t quite get at.
Lately I’ve been thinking about organic fibres, textual fibres, the fibres of the human body (textn.from the Latin textus means tissue,body, that which is woven webbed textured). Skin as the largest organ, the body as a type of cloth we wear, reach through. The intimacy of clothing, cloth, has been especially acute for me as I deal with my mother’s wardrobe. The personal scent a fibre holds. I took a weaving course a year ago and was so delighted to learn that the “hand” of a fabric is a term for the drape of a cloth. The hand of a cloth. That image of a hand reaching through.
TG: You taught me the importance of asking myself the question “how much do I reveal?” while revising my poems. How do you approach this question? How do you decide what remains the secret of your book or what needs to be released?
JS: Will I ever be aware of the secret in my work the way my poem is aware? Probably not. The gauge for what to say and what to protect is so personal and evolving. To paraphrase Robert Kroetsch, I hope that by carefully acknowledging my own concealment I will make way for the story. Thinking back to Anne Hamilton—push the needle through to that underside, that unknown. That is where the secret lives for me. I go there delicately. I feel as long as I’m reaching into that unknown—through language, through material exploration, through subject—then I’m touching it, I’m entering the atmosphere of some learning, some tension. The language I access from this exciting place—I trust this is what I am ready to learn. I guess rather than think in terms of what not to reveal, I trust the draw. Make make make, I say. Just keep making and you are in the secret of it all.
TG: Creating is often a solitary practice and since the pandemic, even more so. How have you fostered community during the pandemic? Has the pandemic changed your writing practice?
JS: I’m very solitary and intimate in my work and life so for the most part I maintain the rhythms and community connections as before, with just a bit more silence around everything.
But there have been shifts and opportunities. The week before the pandemic was announced, video artist Chantel Mierau and I shot a sewing circle duet using our twin Brother sewing machines. The collaboration was a first for us both and absolutely thrilling–unlike anything I’ve experienced before.
Then, shortly after, just before lockdown, I made a stop-motion typewriter poem with musician/poet/collage artist Christine Fellows that felt like the pinnacle of what a collaboration could be. It was such a gift to have these expansive experiences at a time when the world was narrowing. It was like a window had been thrown open on my usual solitary practice and voila—the wind that swept through took my breath away! There are so many skills they offered that I can’t, and maybe I offered something to them too. And in this way, I saw how collaboration was both magical and efficient. One person can’t do it all always. So, I think collaboration will be a major way to continue to foster community and to evolve as an artist.
In terms of artistic practice, I’ve built a light table and taken a hand-drawn animation workshop and have created a series of stop motion poem gifs, which is a new development in my work—animating poems digitally. I’m surprised by my energy for online and digital dissemination and do feel the way I share my work is changing.
There were a few weeks in the fall when we were allowed a guest or two on our property. I hosted a series of informal one-on-one bonfires with poet and artist friends and hope to continue these intimate conversations when we’re out of the polar vortex here and can share a fireside again. I’m not sure I would have carved time and space for such focused conversations like this if we weren’t in a pandemic, to be honest. That caring for community, that creating of space for intimate conversation, feels more poignant and fragile than ever.
I just had a vision of us continuing this chat by fireside one day too. Bring poems!
Interview by Tea Gerbeza (she/her), a disabled queer poet, writer and multimedia artist creating in Treaty 6 territory (Saskatoon, SK) and on the Homeland of the Métis Nation. Tea’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Release All the Words Stuck Inside You III, Room Magazine, antilang., and spring, among others. Find out more on teagerbeza.com.
Words are pale shadows of forgotten names. As names have power, words have power. Words can light fires in the minds of men. Words can wring tears from the hardest of hearts. –Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind
The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss’ debut fantasy novel and first volume in the Kingkiller Chronicle, is seemingly the simple tale of one man’s life. However, it becomes rapidly apparent that Kvothe is no normal man, and this is no simple tale. Told through a frame narrative, it begins in the present day with Kvothe—a one-time hero now in exile—as he commits his life story to paper. The tale weaves between the present and past of Kvothe’s life, following him from his tragic childhood when his family is murdered to his time at the University, an institution committed to teaching mundane subjects such as grammar and arithmetic to magic. As Kvothe grapples with various challenges, from childhood homelessness to the class and economic struggles of University life, he remains determined to learn more about the mysterious group of people who killed his family, known only as the Chandrian.
The Name of the Wind manages to be an unique work in its genre, despite sharing many of the common characteristics of fantasy fiction. We get a vaguely medieval European setting, an orphan boy protagonist, and a school that teaches magic. However, the setting is written so well that one can almost reach out and touch it; the protagonist is compellingly flawed; and the school of magic is stacked to the rafters with tantalizing mysteries. The first-person point of view provides a deep, intimate look at the main character’s inner thoughts: Kvothe is incredibly clever, and he knows it. His intelligence and wit make him larger than life and a worthy hero of any tale. What he does not know—and what perceptive readers soon discover—is that he is rash, emotional, and prone to making bad decisions. He is a liar, a thief, and a trickster. Deliciously worse—he is unapologetic about it: “I also felt guilty about the three pens I’d stolen, but only for a second. And since there was no convenient way to give them back, I stole a bottle of ink before I left”(218). Kvothe is flawed, but despite his failings, he remains sympathetic. His characterization is refreshing in a genre oozing with knights in shining armour.
The novel employs a distinctive magic system that combines rule-based, logical magic with a more mysterious and unpredictable power. This combination allows readers to learn the rules of magic along with Kvothe, and later, solve problems along with him. It also gives readers the same sense of wonder at the more fickle, enigmatic magic that sometimes occurs in the book.
Rothfuss’ writing walks the tightrope between prose and poetry. He draws from legend and fairy tale to give his story an enchanted atmosphere, but often it feels as though the real magic lies in the words, in how exquisitely he describes the biting cold reality of homelessness in winter or the tragic destruction of Kvothe’s father’s lute: “My body was almost too numb to feel my father’s lute being crushed underneath me. The sound it made was like a dying dream, and it brought that same sick, breathless ache back to my chest” (150). These haunting, mythical passages drive The Name of the Wind into the territory of the exceptional, where his world becomes fully immersive. The nursery rhyme about the Chandrian, for example, is charming and bone-chilling at the same time:
When the hearth fire turns to blue What to do? What to do? Run outside. Run and hide.
When your bright sword turns to rust Who to trust? Who to trust? Stand alone. Standing stone.
See a woman pale as Snow? Silent come and silent go. What’s their plan? What’s their plan? Chandrian. Chandrian. (568)
The setting is vibrant, the magic is unique and complex, but the real reason you will want to read The Name of the Wind is its protagonist. Through the frame narrative, we see Kvothe as an adult—defeated and in hiding—and then we are transported into his past to discover why he is in exile, and why he is no longer the hero he used to be. If the story is a tale of one man’s life, then we inevitably ask the question, who is Kvothe?
Rothfuss, Patrick. The Name of the Wind. DAW Books, 2007.
Review by Amanda Dawson, an MFA in Writing student at the University of Saskatchewan.
From the astute to the humorous to the intensely personal, Susan Alexander’s 2020 collection Nothing You Can Carry provides us with a collection that is both accessible and introspective. Given the subjective and malleable nature of poetry, it becomes less a matter of discerning what a poem tells us about the poet and more about what the poem tells us about ourselves as readers.
Arranged into five sections, Alexander’s first suite, “Vigil,” is equal parts religious rumination and environmental elegy. Because of poetry’s ubiquitous relationship with nature, the trend of poets addressing climate change is echoed by Alexander with both grace and reverence. In “Anthropocene” (12), the gods of pre-industrial Earth retreat into fallout shelters to weather the storm of ecological meltdown (and the TEDX talks purporting to reverse it). In “Theophany” (24), we are trained to recognize divinity in the mundane; for example, “If God were a tree, this page / could be a sacred thing,” and in “Clamavi” (20), a prayer before God is directed back upon man and his runaway compulsions to manufacture and consume.
In the second suite, “Confessions,” Alexander maintains this conviction in writing about loss and familial growth. While “Behind the Door” (30) compares the rigours of childbirth to a “childbody lost / as if fairies raided the night,” through “Broody” (39) Alexander finds acceptance and affirmation of her role as mother in her daughter’s struggle to be born: “She sung me a body she’d been / building within.” In “Late, Again” (44), one of the collection’s most poignant pieces, Alexander attributes chronic lateness (for life’s major milestones, including being born herself) as the cause of missing her mother’s passing. Yet in grief, she finds renewed faith in the support and punctuality of the ones who were present: “Nurses refuse time’s slow number. / They hover above this silence on white linen wings” (44).
In rich contrast to the personal, the third suite, “Parables,” contains a series of poems that appeal to the imagination and the reader’s latent understanding of fiction and folklore. Each piece, akin to an abridged anecdote, contains imagery that evokes a particular narrative subset. “Fisherman” (54), for instance, is about a man whose only commitments are to the sea and contains distinct Ernest Hemingway overtones. Similarly, “The Pooka” (55) presents us with a literary archetype whose origins date back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” Bordering on the confessional is the suite’s closing tribute, “At the Group Home” (67), which finds home within the fantastical shown through Alexander’s use of imaginative medieval imagery and innovative use of repetition and line spacing: “I gave a girl my soul to keep it safe” (67).
Appealing to the wanderlust in all of us, the fourth suite, “Pilgrimage,”serves as a type of spiritual travelogue, bridging place with event in a series of poems that augment and even redefine our understanding of “there-ness.” From an observance in “Molino” (73) running tantamount to an unexpected resurrection, to “Anatolia” (71) where the death of an artistic method proves to be one of the greatest tragedies of all, Alexander charts a course with verse that is both effortless and heartbreaking. Providing stark contrast to flying buttresses and jacaranda trees, “Hemoglobin” (76)—an extended poetic metaphor where the congestion of a busy freeway is compared to the internal workings of the human heart—provides an unsettling tableau to how we have advanced as a civilization. As Alexander states: “The product deteriorates / What is your age in heartbeats? / Yellow taxis begin to circulate” (76).
The final suite, “Matins,” is the most experimental of Alexander’s suites. Here, conventional free verse is juxtaposed with a chaotic spill of words across white space during a traumatic fall in “Moving Home” (88-89). Barbs traded between an unnamed land developer and an environmentalist in “Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One” (93), “The Developer’s Curse” (94), and “The Environmentalist’s Curse” (95) gesture toward a dystopian outcome. The sweeping aside of microscopic ecosystems in “Commerce” (92) prefigures a fate we continue to dismiss. Interestingly, however, “Matins” refers to a canonical hour in Christian liturgy: the morning prayer. Is this Alexander’s way of reminding us that faith cannot be found within clerestory walls or the sacrament of communion? As her imagery of celestial bodies suggest, we should perhaps set our sights a bit higher.
Alexander, Susan. Nothing You Can Carry. Thistledown Press, 2020.
Review by Jon Aylward, actor, playwright and eventual novelist from St. John’s, Newfoundland.
Catherine Hunter is a writer who teaches at the University of Winnipeg. Her books include the poetry collection St. Boniface Elegies (Signature, 2019, winner of the Lansdowne Prize for Poetry; also short-listed for the Governor General’s award for poetry and the High Plains Book Award for poetry); the poetry collection Latent Heat (Signature, 1997, winner of the McNally Robinson Manitoba Book of the Year Award); the historical novel After Light (Signature, 2015, shortlisted for the High Plains Book Award for Fiction and four Manitoba Books Awards); and several literary mysteries with the Ravenstone line of Turnstone Press. Her most recent publication is the short story “Calling You” in Prairie Fire (Spring 2020).
Özten Shebahkeget:What advice would you give to yourself as an emerging writer?
Catherine Hunter: Leave that guy. Leave him right now.
ÖS: Has the pandemic had an effect on your writing practice? If yes, how so?
CH: Because teaching online is so time consuming, the pandemic effectively eliminated my writing practice for the first year. I hope to be able to resume it soon.
ÖS: You have served in the past as the acting chair of the Sociology department at the University of Winnipeg. I’m curious about your thoughts on the relationship between sociology and creative writing.
CH: I don’t really see much of a relationship there. My role in Sociology was completely administrative. I worked with the UW sociologists for two years, and learned a lot from them in conversations and by occasionally observing their classes or reading their articles. I learned a little bit about many different topics: the history of medicine, attitudes toward mental health, patterns of immigration, labour and museums, the evolving role of the family, the impact of public policy on health and safety (very interesting to think about during these pandemic days), and a bit of theory. Sociologists at the UW are vitally concerned with human rights and achieving equality in terms of economic security, health, and well being. It’s an honourable intellectual field. But it’s not my field. I was raised by radical activists who were deeply engaged in social justice issues, so those themes have always been present in my thinking and therefore in my writing. But what I’m doing isn’t sociology, or philosophy, or politics, or cultural studies, or theory. It’s art.
ÖS: You have been teaching creative writing at the University of Winnipeg since 1991. What has brought you joy during your time at UW? Do you find teaching aids your own practice?
CH: I don’t think teaching aids my own writing practice at all. In fact, it is a huge impediment because it eats up all my time. But teaching is not about me. It is about the students.
I had the great good fortune of an excellent education, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to spend years sharing seminar rooms with some of the best literary minds in the country. I’ve spent most of my life reading and writing and have studied a phenomenal amount of fascinating poetry and fiction, as well as literary theory and criticism in English. So, it’s only right that I should share what I’ve learned with others. As a teacher I try to encourage those who appreciate language and poems and story-telling, and to show them new avenues of exploration. It’s not just a job. It’s a service, passing along knowledge and skills from one human being to another, through the centuries. (That’s what you want to defund, Conservatives?) Mainly, I encourage all students to read more. If you had asked what advice would I give to an emerging writer other than myself, I would have said, first, read. But to be more specific, read deeply in the genres you’re writing in and read widely in other genres. Study the sentences. How are they made? What do they do? Read nonfiction to learn about different landscapes and climates, different types of sport and religion and science, different modes of travel. Learn the vocabulary of sailing and surgery and sorcery and silver mining.
For those talented students who respect the power of language and read deeply and are working hard to make poems and stories, I provide a space where they can experiment and meet other artists, a space where it’s not only okay to make art, it’s actually required. And for those students who don’t appreciate language very much, or for those who stumble into creative writing class by accident, with the mistaken notion that it’s easy, I provide examples of beautiful, intelligent, moving literature, often tailored to their particular interests. I point out the skills the writers used and encourage the students to make poems or stories of their own. I enjoy working with those inexperienced students just as much as I like working with the literary stars. To see somebody learn something new, to try a new skill and get results, is a source of joy. It could be a student figuring out that revising a sentence can make it stronger, discovering a new author they love, or realizing the artistic value of the legends their grandparents told them, or it could be a student winning a scholarship, getting published, or moving on to graduate school. All of those moments are occasions for joy.
I remember when I first applied to work here many years ago, I said in my letter that I strongly believe that all people, regardless of talent, can learn to express themselves more effectively, and I still believe that. Everyone can learn to think more creatively too. You don’t have to be a published author to benefit from becoming more articulate and leading a more creative life.
ÖS: What does your revision process look like when it comes to poetry? How do you know when a poem is finished?
CH: I keep a lot of notes. Mostly they are just jottings—sentences, jokes, descriptions of things I see, phrases that come to mind. These are scattered throughout a few different notebooks. I guess this is the pre-composition stage, rather than the revision stage, but it all seems like one long process to me. Once in a while a note will strike something in me, and I’ll start to expand on it. If it begins to spark new ideas or to draw other fragments toward it—there are usually connections to be made among the seemingly random fragments—I start to see the shape of the thing. Then I suppose the remaining work could be called revision. In revision, I try to define that shape more carefully. I’ll find a movement that makes sense (maybe from image to image or from question to question or through certain shifts in attitude or perspective, or just changing the subject). I’ll also try to find the form—for example, if it seems to be falling into couplets, I’ll try to turn it all into couplets just to see if that works or not. (I have one fairly long poem that began as a sestina and then I turned it into a series of sonnets. Eventually it became a free verse poem in five stanzas, but I can still see the traces of the sestina and the sonnets in there.) Maybe that kind of formal experimentation is revision. Maybe it’s just getting to know the poem. I’ll also try to get rid of redundancies, clarify vagueness, find more accurate words, read the thing out loud to listen to the rhythms and the sounds of the vowels and consonants, play with the line breaks, delete parts that seem out of place or irrelevant. I don’t think I ever consider a poem finished until someone gives me a deadline, and then, on the deadline date, it’s finished. I realize this is probably useless as writing advice. My revision process when it comes to fiction is much more intentional.
ÖS: Finally, what have you been working on lately?
CH: I’ve been working on some short stories, playing with structure and perspective, trying to braid or splice different story lines together. One of these stories, “Calling You,” was published in Prairie Fire last year (Spring 2020). The themes I’m working with are mainly illness, death, and grief. My husband suffered a long, debilitating illness and died about two years ago (that was when you were in my creative research class, Özten). In the wake of those experiences, I’m trying to look at the ways they affect our consciousness. The eerie gaps in time, the forgetting and misplacing of things, the mistakes, the hauntingly strange effects on the imagination (which I can’t yet describe)—all those human reactions to shock and loss. I want to try to recreate these effects in the narrative structure somehow. Since we’re approaching the end of the teaching year, I hope to resume those attempts again soon.
Interview by Özten Shebahkeget. Özten Shebahkeget is a member of Northwest Angle 33 First Nation. She holds a BA in English from the University of Winnipeg, and joined the MFA in Writing program at the University of Saskatchewan last fall. Her poetry has appeared in Prairie Fire and CV2 Magazine.
Trigger & Content Warning: Depression, thoughts of suicide.
When I’m in a depressive spell, I turn to art; whether it’s poetry or rolling paper strips and pinching them into designs, art is what helps me. The act of creation somehow offsets depression’s loop in my mind. Daniel Scott Tysdal’s recent chapbook MAD Fold-In Poems asserts a similar power in art by emphasizing poetic creation as the speaker’s method to garble depression’s cruel bark (Tysdal 33). MAD Fold-In Poems speaks to the complex, looping relationship depression has with the speaker and Tysdal frames the book between two direct addresses to depression:
You—this mucky fire slathered in my mind’s
frame—are as committed to me as artists are
to art. At times, your voice is constant—“kill
yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself”—fists
punching clay with the aim to make me nothing
more than punched clay. (7)
What strikes me here is that the fists are punching clay, a medium that can be formed and reformed, indicating that something can still be created even while depression lights a fire in our minds. Tysdal is clever in comparing the “mucky fire” (7) of depression to the commitment an artist has to their art, since art is exactly what unclenches depression’s clutch in the end.
The wavering lines in the poems are essential to understanding how to read Tysdal’s book. Inspired by Al Jaffee’s fold-in illustrations inside the back cover of MAD Magazine, Tysdal borrows the form for its capacity to reveal a punchline (36). As Tysdal explains, “the MAD fold-in poem is characterized by three features: 1) the poem does not end at the bottom of the page, 2) the reader completes the poem by making two vertical folds in the page, and 3) these folds reveal the final line of the poem nested within the original lines” (36). For accessibility reasons, the “fold-in” version of the final line is printed after each poem. The book’s form communicates that through the action of folding in, what is inside the bodymind is folded “out.” Through this “folding out,” the speaker can face what is inside them and create something from the findings. In “Gift,” Tysdal suggests that through the act of creation, we revive ourselves and continue on: “to give again, words to receive, unwrap within, and revive” (31). Poetry, then, becomes a tool in unwrapping what’s within, but it is the physicality of the fold-in that revives.
“Why bother writing a poem?” (17) Tysdal asks in “Make,” before contemplating in “Method”: “Why poem and not / historical novel or sky writing? Why bullet / and not pill or bridge? Are we destined, / born into our craft?” (25). Across poems, we are confronted with questions that are tied to the sinister and difficult reality of depression; however, even in this devastating truth, there is a shimmer of another, hopeful truth to be found in craft. In the creation of poems, Tysdal can, as “Gift’s” fold-in reveals:
The last “live” is accompanied by a colon, indicating that this poem, and the speaker’s life, is not over yet. The colon leads us into the closing poem, “A Mad Fold-In Poem,” which mirrors the poem that began the collection. In a nod to depression’s cycle, we’re suddenly looped back to the beginning; however, the poem does not linger in depression’s chorus this time. Instead, it gives rise to “another chorus” that “rises to surround you [depression]” (33). After this line, the poem changes its focus to how art and one’s community leads to love. The poem ends with:
the magic of bringing nib to page and penning life
with urgency and patience, word by word, with abandon
and care. Even though I know it can never silence you, I love
this inky trick because it fills the blank before you can, marks
up your script, swallows you choking in a page-mutating
fold, so your cruel barks, garbled, almost seem to say: (33)
Tysdal acknowledges that the speaker “can never silence” depression but can use poetry to “pen life” into themselves through the act of writing a poem. Poetry’s power becomes life-giving, an “inky trick” that fills “the blank before [depression] can, marks up [its] script” (33). The poem mutates depression’s cruelty with a fold that creates a chorus of love in its place. The sequential fold-in final lines center this love and community, make depression finally say:
This fold-in also suggests that love has always lived inside the poem, inside of us, even when depression makes us believe otherwise. Unfolding—or in the case of Tysdal’s poems, folding in—centers love, amplifies it louder than depression and society’s stigma against it. There is no period after “love,” demonstrating once more that love is what transcends, what continues.
MAD Fold-In Poems takes us on a journey through the harrowing reality of living with depression and its social stigma, while reminding readers of the importance of community, of sharing our art, and how in our craft—like in similar struggles of mental illness—“what we are we are together” (29). Tysdal teaches us that it is precisely in the act of folding in that we can unfold what’s there underneath, and what’s there is love.
*A note on the text: The quotes are formatted as closely as possible to the original text. However, some formatting could not be replicated due to WordPress constrictions.
Review by Tea Gerbeza (she/her), a disabled poet and paper quilling artist creating in Treaty 6 territory (Saskatoon, SK, Canada). She is a current MFA in Writing candidate at the University of Saskatchewan and holds a MA in English & Creative Writing from the University of Regina. Tea’s poetry has most recently appeared in antilang., Spring, and We Are One: Poems From the Pandemic. Her poems have won an Honourable Mention in the 2019 Short Grain Contest. Tea’s paper art can be found at @teaandpaperdesigns.
The long poem can be challenging to define as a genre. In “Pushing the Limits of Genre and Gender,” Lynn Keller makes a “partial list” of the form’s varieties, including: “narrative poems, verse novels, sonnet sequences, irregular lyric medleys or cycles, collage long poems, meditative sequences, extended dramatic monologues, prose long poems, serial poems, [and] heroic epics” (3). Despite its broad categorization, however, the long poem has, from its inception, been a vehicle for mapping the journeys of specific peoples and histories. From The Odyssey’s ten-year-long homecoming to The Divine Comedy’s pilgrimage, long poems provide the space and time to depict transformative trajectories. A long poem’s journey need not be geographical or even physical—Gjertrud Schnackenberg’s book of six long poems, Heavenly Questions, follows the path the bereaved embark upon when at the bedside of their dying loved one. Additionally, the voyage need not be linear or arrive at a conclusive “home.” Grappling with his worsening mental illness, the speaker of Stuart MacKinnon’s The Intervals admits that he is “an uncontrolled wanderer in [his own] body” (49). For MacKinnon, the long poem was the form best suited to wending along the path of a roving mind. But the long poem does not only depict migration; it is itself a migration.
By enacting the idea of migration on the page, the long poem becomes a corridor that moves both readers and writers “from room to succeeding room” of ideas (McLennan). In an interview for The Paris Review, Anne Carson describes the poem as “an action of the mind captured on a page,” suggesting that the reader enters into that action through the process of reading and that “by the time [they] get to the end, [they’re] different than [they] were at the beginning” (Aitken 203). The long poem links these actions of the mind, increasing the depth and breadth of the possible journey through excess and digression, documentary and accumulation. My own work in the form became a process of gathering in and spreading out, even as I returned again and again—more deeply, with greater concentration, or from new angles—to a central idea. Tim Lilburn names this central idea a poet’s “preoccupation or lasting, persistent loyalty or yearning” and suggests that the long poem “can look like transformative power, a large story—visionary recital—of many parts that pulls readers in and stretches them” (“The Long Long Poem”). The long poem traces the poet’s pursual of a lifelong preoccupation over the course of an extended and ongoing transformation, and it carries readers along the same path.
The two major anthologies of Canadian long poems, The Long Poem Anthology and The New Long Poem Anthology, include statements from their authors, and many discuss the long poem in relation to movement, or as a demonstration of passage and process. According to Michael Ondaatje, long poems “show a process of knowledge, of discovery during the actual writing of the poem” (13). Robert Kroetsch suggests that this process depicts the passage of “the self returning from the self” (312). Both writers imply here that the experience of engaging with the long poem, as reader or writer, is frenetic and ongoing—“not the having written, but the writing” (311). To Don McKay, “the long poem is an imaginative space… a time for meditation, travel, metamorphosis, loitering” (321), while Daphne Marlatt describes the form as “a movement around, based in return” (317). The emphasis these poets place on the long poem’s peripatetic nature solidifies the ways in which the long poem can invite readers into a metamorphic process or migratory journey.
While the long poem’s journey does not always resolve with an ultimate destination, migration does raise the question of home. The homeplace is certainly a focus for seminal Canadian long poems such as Steveston, Seed Catalogue, and Long Sault, in which Daphne Marlatt, Robert Kroetsch, and Don McKay parody the idea of the traditional, heroic epic (Brandt 250), while simultaneously asserting that B.C. fishing villages, rural Albertan farms, and small towns along the St. Lawrence Seaway are each worthy of a long and epic attention. These and other Canadian long poems function as myth-making texts, impacting readers’ understanding of Canada as a homeplace and “form[ing] our consciousness of the past” (McMahon 74). As such, these texts can hold significant cultural weight and can persuasively support aspects of pervading societal thought.
At the same time, in offering multiple, fragmented, and contradictory historical accounts from an array of voices, the long poem form can also work to undermine and resist systems of power. Susan Stanford Friedman draws attention to the exclusionary politics at work in the genre, writing that “big-long-important poems have assumed the authority of the dominant cultural discourses” (10). By taking this “big-long-important” form into their own hands, marginalized writers have radically challenged and re-centred Canadian discourse on history and place. Louise Halfe’s Blue Marrow, for example, rewrites the “Lord’s Prayer,” translating the religious words of the colonizer into Cree and invoking the voices of her grandmothers. In Debbie: An Epic, Lisa Robertson upends expectations of the heroic subject, “dispers[ing] the tropes of the traditional epic so that the ancient male politics of Virgil’s Aeneid undergo a female subversion” (MacEachern). In a similar vein, Sue Goyette retells The Odyssey from Penelope’s grieving and rage-filled perspective in Penelope in First Person. With its wide scope and “long look” (Ondaatje 12), a long poem can both document particular places as well as challenge dominant understandings of those places.
The act of reading or writing a long poem is an act of migration, and through the process of departure and return, the long poem transforms, unearthing and discarding and cultivating ideas of home. Barry McKinnon writes that the poem “helps us build up ‘new little habitats’ in the detritus and helps us live because it also contains our affirmation, hope, and joy” (368). The roaming spirit that runs through a long poem constructs, along the way, hopeful little habitats, which are found and lost, left and returned to over the course of the poem’s migratory route. The long poem extends, embarks, but always returns to the question of home.
Aitken, Will. “Anne Carson, The Art of Poetry No. 88.” The Paris Review, no. 171, 2004, pp. 191-226.
Brandt, Di. “The Multi-genre Multimedia Disjunctive Poetic Narrative Dream Text: ‘New Epic’ Attentions in Contemporary Canadian Experimental Writing.” Green Matters: Ecocultural Functions of Literature, edited by Maria Löschnigg and Melanie Braunecker. Brill: Leiden, 2019.
Friedman, Susan Stanford. “When a ‘long’ poem is a ‘big’ poem: Self-authorizing strategies in women’s twentieth-century ‘long poems’.” Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory, vol. 2, no. 1, 1990, pp. 9-25.
Goyette, Sue. Penelope in First Person. Gaspereau Press Limited, 2017.
Halfe, Louise. Blue Marrow. McClelland & Stewart, 1998.
Keller, Lynn. Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women. University of Chicago Press, 1997.
The Red Files, Lisa Bird-Wilson’s 2016 poetry collection, deserves renewed attention for the honesty and grace with which it examines the truth of Indigenous intergenerational trauma and the healing possible in the course of reconciliation. The collection is artistically nuanced and skilful, and emotionally and psychologically complex. It continues to be relevant: socially, inviting our collective, on-going engagement in Canada’s truth and reconciliation process, and artistically, demonstrating poesis, the transformation of absence into presence.
Family snapshots of relatives who attended residential schools sparked the book’s concept, in the context of the cultural genocide residential schools perpetrated. Of individuals lost, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation reckons “the number of children identified by name, as well as unnamed in death records, is about 4,200” (Mussa CBC.ca). Black-and-white institutional photos appear on the book’s covers while images Bird-Wilson found in Ottawa’s General Synod Archives of the Anglican Church of Canada provide the collection’s frame.
The literary practice of ekphrasis has come to mean verbal reflections on visual art materials. However, Bird-Wilson’s use of the rhetorical device is also reminiscent of the original Greek. According to Ruth Webb, “To compose an ekphrasis is to tell (phrazo) in full (ek)” (Webb 13). Bird-Wilson does so, with a tonal range the material merits, from the poignant to the pejorative to the possible, while evoking the inherent difficulty caused by cultural erasure.
The title of TheRed Files refers to the Canadian Government’s naming system for documents related to residential schools. While the tragedy’s nameless, numbered students are the primary focus of Part One, Parts Two and Three wide-angle the lens to encompass the Canadian Government’s systemic genocide from first contact annihilation and starvation policies as in “Daybird” (“white men / standing like sterile hunters / atop mountains / of bleached buffalo skulls”) to the deliberate undermining of Indigenous cultural continuity through and beyond residential schools, to the Sixties Scoop, to, despite the Apology, “this / thing that is still in the doing” (61, “The Apology” 56).
The Red Files was nominated for the Saskatchewan Book Awards’ poetry category in 2017. Herself a child of the Sixties Scoop—a government scheme begun in the 60s that removes Indigenous children from their mothers for adoption into non-Indigenous homes—Lisa Bird-Wilson is an award-winning Métis and nêhiyaw writer of prose and poetry widely published in Canadian literary journals and anthologies. Her artistic and leadership contributions, particularly to the Ânskohk Aboriginal Writers’ Circle and the Saskatchewan Aboriginal Literacy Network, garnered her the Saskatchewan Arts Board’s 2018 RBC Emerging Artist Award. Bird-Wilson’s fourth book and debut novel, Probably Ruby, is forthcoming in August 2021 through Doubleday Canada.
The Red Files, her first book of poetry, features a voice that finely modulates and models being “glad for speaking the truth” and variously uses bilingualism—Cree words appear amid English in titles and text—and multiple poetic forms: free verse, prose poem, and, in one notable example of found poem form, erasure (“Hundreds of Boys—A Response” 45).
In “The XXXX’s Situation,” Bird-Wilson exposes the Government’s cover-up of a residential school’s travesty by adding quotes and lineation to an archival letter to the Superintendent of Education, Indian Affairs, effectively co-opting a censored and redacted Government document under the guise of poetic erasure (46).
Regardless of form, her poetics organically serve her subject’s stories and themes, making the absent present and the invisible seen. As in “Girl with the Short Hair,” (“it’s in her bones to lope under the prairie sky … / … / for miles in all directions now this is more like it there she is, the breathless one the one with the wind-knotted hair” 16), the prose poem enacts, in part through assonance and rhythm, the transformation that recognition of identity confers. In poems such as this, Bird-Wilson’s poetry embodies what specialist in Aboriginal literature and creative writing, Warren Cariou, envisions in the spirit of reconciliation: that the verbal quality inherent in the act of poetic creation, regardless of the origin of the term poesis, moves “across the lines of class and race and epistemology toward something more elemental in us all …” (Cariou 32).
The Red Filesis vibrant with metaphor, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, pun, irony, enjambment, and imagery like “against his antler-velvet skin” (“‘Within the Circle of Civilized Conditions’” 29). In Bird-Wilson’s hands, these devices convey the tension between cultural invisibility and visibility, absence and presence, and the dignity of agency, love, spirit, voice. She even applies poetics to punctuation.
When rare punctuation is used, it emphasizes declarative colonial entitlement. For example, the sentence, “Saturday is his day to take / a boy.” opens “The Finest in the Dominion” (26). Enacting absence, many poems have no end-line (except the occasional em-dash) and no final punctuation, perhaps mirroring the continuing ramifications of cultural genocide and intergenerational trauma. In “The Apology,” for example, “the story endures— / a sucking wound” (57).
The collection’s launch occurred just after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final December 2015 report with its ninety-four Calls to Action, including the Canadian Government’s still un-adopted UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
One achievement of The Red Files is that it dares to make palpable not only truths of the traumas Indigenous peoples experienced from genocide and attempted genocide, but it conveys the vulnerability of Bird-Wilson’s own questioning around the process of reconciliation. The collection continues to invite readers, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to experience parallel journeys. In “Sweep,” one of the final poems, the speaker says, “I have to live with the memory: …/ and the question/ what does it mean to be full of grace/ … and make things out of your hands” (75).
Bird-Wilson, Lisa. The Red Files. Nightwood Editions, 2016.
Cariou, Warren. “Edgework: Indigenous Poetics as Re- Placement.” Indigenous Poetics in Canada, edited by Neal McLeod, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2014.
Webb, Ruth. “Ekphrasis Ancient and Modern: The Invention of a Genre.” Word & Image, vol. 15, no. 1, Jan. 1999, pp. 7–18. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1080/02666286.1999.10443970.
Susie Hammond is an emerging Seattle-based Canadian poet, and University of Saskatchewan MFA in Writing 2020 graduate. She is the 2019-2020 Edney Masters Scholar for International Understanding Through the Humanities and Fine Arts, with residencies from The Banff Centre, Catalonia’s Faber, and France’s Musée National de Préhistoire. She’s an editor, youth mentor, Community of Writers poetry alum, and Yes! Poetry’s October 2020 Poet of the Month.