BWS 10.11.21: Lisa Richter

Lisa Richter (she/her) is a Toronto-based poet, writer, teacher and editor. She is the author of two books of poetry, Closer to Where We Began (Tightrope Books, 2017) and Nautilus and Bone (Frontenac House, 2020), whose honours include the Canadian Jewish Literary Award for Poetry, the National Jewish Book Award for Poetry (US), and Book Publishers Association of Alberta’s Robert Kroetsch Award. Her poetry and creative nonfiction have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Grain, the Literary Review of Canada, The New Quarterly, and EXILE Quarterly. She can be found online at www.lisarichter.org.

Notes from a Return Flight, Moncton to Toronto, October 2020: A Zuihitsu

The zuihitsu is a Japanese form and genre comparable to the lyric essay comprised of casual, loosely connected fragments and ideas, often in haphazard order, such as in Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book. (https://www.pw.org/content/zuihitsu)

The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world: sea levels rise and fall as much as sixteen meters in just over six hours. When the tide goes out, the endless stone beaches become alien landscapes of flotsam and rockweed. On our morning walks by the shore, across the two-lane highway from my mother-in-law’s house overlooking St. Mary’s Bay, Nova Scotia, millions of pebbles mash beneath our feet. Bits of frayed rope, crab and mussel shells, bottle glass, rusted lobster traps. A litter of storied wreckage. On one of our walks, S. introduces me to periwinkles, the snails that suction their gummy bodies to rocks. Once I notice one of them, I notice them everywhere. This is true of many things in life, including patterns of speech. For instance, the expression, reach out to someone, to contact or connect with. Has it become more prevalent in recent years, or have I just started noticing it? Please don’t hesitate to reach out. I imagine millions of arms, in every size, shape, and skin tone, stretching invisibly and failing to meet, or barely grazing fingertips.

*

I long to be a keeper: of memories, bonsai trees, orchids, bees, secrets. Is this why poetry is my chosen vocation, rather than another form of writing? I’m a constant tinkerer, scrutinizer, adjuster of words, spaces, line-breaks. Could this be a form of “keeping,” if a poem takes on a life of its own once its words are committed to paper? Of course, unlike organic life forms, a poem will not continue to grow—nor will it simply wither away and die—without human intervention. Perhaps, though, a poem likes to be pruned, watered, given life, being spoken to (in conversation with other poems). I think a poem thrives when attended to, as all life-forms do, but it is all about balance. Too much attention, and your poem will drown.

*

I dreamed last night of a grand hotel. In the basement, there was a sauna which looked like hell—literally. Flames shooting out, the whole bit. Nearby, the requisite sweaty, sooty-faced man in grimy overalls shoveled embers into an oven. Can’t my subconscious come up with anything more original? In the dream, I called a friend to tell her about the infernal sauna, but hung up mid-sentence, as if the words ran out suddenly, without any warning. I woke up in terror. Why am I so attached to language? Is it a healthy attachment? S. and I recently watched the gorgeous Miyazaki film Castle in the Sky, in which a young boy named Pazu catches a girl who floats down from the sky, thanks to a magic amulet. My dreams, too, are like this, drifting softly until the moment I jolt awake and I buckle with grief, beneath the weight of their imminent fading, knowing that even if I succeed in writing them all down, something magical and unrecoverable will be lost forever.

*

The clouds outside the airplane window resemble cotton candy, which is barbe á papa in French (like the Barbapapa cartoons of my childhood), which literally translates as “Daddy’s beard.” My father never had a beard, though for a brief time in his early twenties, he sported a mustache that my mother claims he put mascara on to make it look thicker. Those were the years of my parents’ apartment bathroom doubling as a photography darkroom, road trips to the Philadelphia Folk Festival in a car they called Old Shitball, and smoking lots of “grass.” By the time my sister and I were born, my father had abandoned the mustache, and remained cleanshaven the rest of his adult life. I used to love watching him shave, the swift downward strokes of the razor, the careful upward strokes up his chin. There was something pure in his attention to detail, a quietness and patience I rarely observed in him, a man whose presence that could fill up a room. Many years later, after my father died, I held up one of his sweaters to my face, clinging to the lingering scent of his aftershave, its waft of woodsmoke and spice.

*

My earliest memory is from the age of three, an old farmhouse my family rented that summer. I remember the attic bedroom my sister and I slept in, its sloping ceilings, its pleasant cedar smell, and rows of twin beds with alternating red and yellow bedspreads (for the owners’ grandchildren, we were told). Throughout the house, there were old-fashioned keyholes in the doors, around my eye level. I loved to look through them, the thrill and novelty of being a witness to a scene unfolding to me while I remained unseen. The power was in the looking.

*

The relaxation music on my iPhone app is a mix of orchestral music layered with ocean sounds, piano melodies and grandiose choral harmonies. I almost expect a baritone-voiced narrator to begin intoning, “Since the dawn of time, man has looked to the stars…” On a trip to New York a few years ago, at the Museum of Natural History, S. and I stood around a massive bowl, looking down at a concave screen playing a film about the Big Bang. Such a strangely moving experience: to be staring downwards into space’s ink-splattered depths, like a circle of gods marveling at their own handiwork—some gods waist-height, tugging on parents’ arms, ready to see the dinosaurs. Or were they anxious, as so many of us are, to get away from all that’s dark and unfathomable—forgoing the chance to float, suspended, even for a few moments.

 Lisa Richter visits Brockton Writers Series via ephemera series on Wednesday, November 10, 2021 starting at 6:30pm alongside Kelly Robson, Jael Richardsonand Mary Lou Dickinson . Our guest speaker Deborah Dundas will take us through, “Inside the Pages: A Book Editor Demystifies the News and Reviews Process.”

Special note: As we adapt to current social distancing regulations, we’re happy to announce our event will be hosted by the wonderful ephemera series! They have already done their show online multiple times, so we are thrilled to benefit from their technical expertise, while also increasing collaboration within the literary community and growing connections between organizers, authors, and audience. You can attend the event by watching on the ephemera series YouTube channel. Please log in at 6:30.

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