Monthly Archives: February 2015

BWS 04.03.15: Karen Connelly

Karen Connelly

Karen (Kaz) Connelly is the author of ten books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. She is a polyglot, rabble rouser, and voracious reader who was born in Calgary and has lived in Thailand, Spain, France and Greece. PEN Canada and Amnesty International are two of her favourite human rights organizations. Kaz is presently writing a new novel called The Change Room. She took time out to write us a letter last week from the artist’s residency at UBC Okanagan.

February 19, 2015

Woodhaven Eco-Cultural Centre

Kelowna, B.C.

Dearest you,

I am so happy to be here, and sorry to hear of the deep-freeze in eastern Canada just after I’ve spent an hour outside in short sleeves, reading the wonderful anthology Open Wide a Wilderness. I sat on one of the little benches on the patio behind the garage with my tea and toast, looking up every once in a while to listen to the insistent stream (what? what exactly do you mean?) and to check to see if the cougar was watching me. Of course, if I had seen the cougar, I might have had a heart attack; it’s just as well that he remains invisible. But have you ever noticed how, outside, in nature, it’s easy to feel as though you’re being watched? I think that I am being watched, somehow; observed, or at least sensed by a multiplicity of life forms around me. Yesterday I meditated by the stream; I swear that the rocks, boulder-like, big, were watching me.

So my morning reading, the Open Wide book, is an amazing anthology of Canadian nature poetry. (My admiration to my friend and colleague, Nancy Holmes, for the labour and dedication it took, over years, to create this amazing work.) This morning, I simply marvelled at Earle Birney’s poem “David.” Pshaw to Christian Bök for lecturing me last year for half an hour about the lack of Canadian epics set in deep space (what human lives in deep space?). “David” is SUCH a good poem, a kind of nature epic, notwithstanding all the Jesus stuff. (Birney wrote it in 1942, after all–Jesus was still big.) It’s one of the first Canadian poems I remember reading and identifying with as a teenager; I knew those mountains. But beyond that: it’s so GOOD. It’s such a powerful narrative poem. And I found it timely right now, as Canada debates the ethics and dangers of assisted suicide.

As expected in a book of Canadian nature poetry, there are so many landscapes and voices! Fred Cogswell and Al Purdy’s humour (“I have been stupid in a poem / I will not alter the poem”) thumps up against the majesty of that grand Robert Bringhurst poem, “Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, et Oreamnos Deorum.” Knowing, not owning . . . And Don McKay, naming his world. (Inside the Woodhaven house where I’m staying, in the guest book, are two pages of lists of Don’s bird-sightings while he stayed here. I think I’ve seen a . . .chickadee?)

After I had reread dozens of these poems, I started laughing as I realized how many of the writers I’ve met over the last thirty years. I started going to readings when I was about fourteen. I met Birney and DG Jones and sweet and kind Fred; Crispin Elsted, who was like a cross between Blake and Whitman; the gorgeous, witchy Susan Musgrave, and the imperious P.K. Page (who I never really liked though I like her work—she told me when I was in my early twenties that I was too young to be applying for grants! Thank God I didn’t listen to her). Anne Szumagalski, too, who was such a mean old bat to me–sorry: after reading nature poetry, I ought to say mean old lady; bats must not be insulted. And so many of the younger ones, like the amazing Kevin Paul, of the Saanich Nation, and Barbara Klar and her beautiful grasses! Patrick Lane and Lorna Crozier and David Zieroth and Jan Zwicky. Chris Dewdney, Brian Bartlett. Sharon Thesen. Laura Lush. Karen Solie. Open Wide a Wilderness is like a Canadian poetry bible—everyone should have a copy of it and read a poem a day, to lift the spirit and praise the actual, living, crackling, rushing, animalful, treeful, riverful world. And of course, there were all the poems I love whose poets I’ve never met—like Tim Lilburn, whose “Contemplation is Mourning” is for me one of the most dazzling.

In brief, I feel like I’ve been to a morning poetry festival of two hundred colleagues here at the stream’s boisterous edge.You must come here! I am already thinking that the next time you go to Vancouver, you could spend a week here first.

Alone, working in the little house near the uproarious stream, I’m getting so much done, though I am dismayed by the book I’ve written and all the work I still need to do. Thank you for the generous compliments on my last book, because here all I can do is curse the one in progress. Or laugh with disgust. Why did I ever want to write a novel about sex and domesticity? Why didn’t you stop me? Why didn’t Robert stop me? (My husband, who a couple days ago, said in response to my disgust: Well, you know, every real artist creates at least one piece that is real shit–so just write it as quickly as possible and get back to your other work. Thanks, darling.)

Shit work or not, I’m relishing my time alone just reading and thinking. It’s such a luxury to take a break from domestic life. I love this place. And I feel so at home in the west. I lived briefly in the Okanagan when I first returned to Canada in 2000, and I’ve visited Nancy here for twenty years (more, but who’s counting). It just feels so much like home physically . . . Sigh. You know me, I’m always nostalgic for one place or another, but the truth is that I am more at home in western landscapes. They are wilder, I realize; even the cities are much closer to and fuller of wild spaces. That has a lot to do with it.

Must go. But I’ll finish with a short poem I’ve just written, just now, on a scrap outside while my poetry festival was going on.

Beyond the house, the stream

cannot stop talking, rushes through

endless words, trees, rocks.

The doe leaps startled

from her bed

but does not bound away.

She halts you

with black eyes

two arrowheads that split

the narrow target

of your mind

open

open.

Much love,

Kaz

Karen Connelly visits the Brockton Writers Series Wednesday, March 4, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Hoa Nguyen, Waubgeshig Rice and Joyce Wayne. The event begins with a special guest talk, “Go Social: Using crowds, comments and community to gain influence online,” by Zoe Di Novi of Wattpad.

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BWS 04.03.2015: Hoa Nguyen

Hoa Nguyen 2015

Hoa Nguyen is the author of nine books and chapbooks including As Long As Trees Last and Red Juice: Poems 1998-2008. She currently lives in Toronto where she curates a reading series, reads tarot, and teaches poetics. In this guest post, Hoa tells us about the relationship between technique in her poems and in other modes of expression.

A Complex Occasion of Forces

Poetry inhabits visual and aural realms. How it sounds, how it lands on the page, how it invokes images, and how it resonates in a body—all this can be part of the experience of a poem. As a poet, I want elements to register and interplay “as a complex occasion of forces” (Dale Smith).

While I don’t work in a two-dimensional space with pigment like visual artists do, my aims are similar. I’m not interested in a “photographic” rendering of experience, but a field of possibilities that readers can enter. Poet Lindsay Ruoff from Portland, Ore., wrote to me last fall after the publication of my early uncollected poems, RED JUICE: Poems 1998 -2008. She observed that “these small poems are so full of openness to the world, to the self, and to the possibility of a poem… During my first reading of your book, I just kept wanting to take a bath with a beetroot, to let that garden in.”

Recently artist Kirsten Turner created this video collage for one of these poems, singing the poem and setting it to music, another kind of blending of sound and sight. About it she writes, “‘They float’, [painter] Philip Trussell once said about Hoa Nguyen’s poems. I floated this one on a river of green light and sound. I was meditating on the subject of death and Hoa’s poem, ‘Roll in your skull gone green’ came to me.”

Roll in your skull gone green

Roll in your skull gone green

like a mossy cog that wings

Sing the good times

You seem a tiny wrecked thing to me

something sacred where time as gone

old and green      Norse

hymns bringing dawn

When I hear “they float”, I think of Hans Hoffman’s Push Pull theory of visual art, where one overlaps warm and cool colors to create depth and/or movement on a flat canvas. Like poets before me, I’ve considered how to do this with language, how to texturize the language via etymology, duration, use.

Hoa Nguyen visits the Brockton Writers Series Wednesday, March 4, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Karen Connelly, Waubgeshig Rice and Joyce Wayne. The event begins with a special guest talk, “Go Social: Using crowds, comments and community to gain influence online,” by Zoe Di Novi of Wattpad.

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BWS 04.03.15: Joyce Wayne

Joyce Portrait 1
Joyce Wayne published her first historical novel in 2013. She teaches journalism and literature at Sheridan College, and is working on her second book, a thriller about Soviet spies in Canada entitled The Last Night of the World–another historical novel, inevitably, as she explains in this guest post.

Tales of a Time Traveler

It’s been a year since my debut novel, The Cook’s Temptation, was published and although I believed I would begin another one, I did resist the idea of an historical. At least I did at first.

The debut novel was set in Victorian England. The research spanned many years. During a trip to the U.K. to “fact check,” I spent my days tracing the footsteps of the protagonist Cordelia Tilley. Like most historical novelists, I wanted to ensure that the details of the story were as accurate as they could possibly be. If Cordelia entered the Old Bailey in London, I wanted to stand where she stood and look at the same courtroom as she might have in the 1890s, or at least what I imagined the courtroom would have looked like more than a century ago.

When I returned to Canada, my on-the- ground research helped me with the next and final drafts of my novel. But now that I’m writing a second novel, I keep asking myself why I’ve chosen another historical. On top of the enormity of writing more than 100,000 words, I’m stuck once again with the painstaking task of researching the period, which in this case is the Cold War: the underground war revolving mostly around espionage that stretched from 1946 until 1989. It was a dark time when radicals were subject to blacklisting and, in Canada, jailed for their affiliation with left-wing parties. In the U.S., Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were sentenced to the electric chair for allegedly passing atomic secrets about the Manhattan project to the Soviets.

Conjuring up Cold War memories means thinking about the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and movies such as Dr. Strangelove and On the Waterfront. John Le Carré, a former British spy, began writing his novels about Cold War espionage. The Russians sent a dog and then a man into space.

I continue to question why I just don’t write a novel set in the here and now and dispense with all the research I’m forcing upon myself. What it comes down to is this: I can’t. The emotional pull of the past won’t let my imagination reside in the present. The joy of writing historical fiction is figuring out how your characters would behave, think and feel given the real circumstances of the period.

It might be the same for writers who thrive in the future, although I can’t imagine entirely inventing a new world, one that hasn’t ever existed. I have to admit, my writer’s self prefers to travel backward in time. It feels like falling through a black hole and not emerging until the book is done. That’s where the writer in me is most alive. If I’m being entirely honest, the joy I experience when writing is the full immersion in another century, and the luxury of being immersed so fully in that time that it becomes more real to me than the present.

Writing an historical takes ages, but the time spent in a past world is the ultimate reward.

Joyce Wayne visits the Brockton Writers Series Wednesday, March 4, 2015—full of beans Coffee House & Roastery, 1348 Dundas St. W., Toronto (6:30pm, PWYC)—along with Karen Connelly, Hoa Nguyen and Waubgeshig Rice. The event begins with a special guest talk, “Go Social: Using crowds, comments and community to gain influence online,” by Zoe Di Novi of Wattpad.

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