Alas, The Morris House Reading Series event scheduled for Thursday, March 28th has been cancelled. Douglas Gibson can’t make it but we hope to have him come see us in the Fall. We apologize for any inconvenience but would like to thank all those who’ve come out to this season’s events and supported another great year of the Morris House Reading Series.
As the cap to another great season of the Morris House Reading Series, we have invited Douglas Gibson, author of Stories About Storytellers and, coincidentally (but not really), our next and last guest, to answer a few questions. We now have a sample of what we can expect when he comes to Bishop’s Centennial Theatre on March 28th. He graciously agreed to answer our questions and share some of his thoughts.
MHRS – You’ve worked with some very big names in Canadian Lit. I suspect it’s not as simple as any one thing but in your mind, speaking to your experience, what defines a “Great Canadian Author” and what sort of pressures have you encountered in your partnerships with such iconic voices?
DG – First, what defines a “Great Canadian Author”? This is harder than you might think, since there is some argument about what makes someone “a Canadian Author.” Clearly, someone who writes books and was born and raised in Canada qualifies. But do they still qualify if they move elsewhere and take up citizenship there (and even, in one famous case that may occur to you, actually renounce Canadian citizenship)? This is not merely a rhetorical question since many “Great Canadian authors” were born and raised elsewhere, before coming to Canada and becoming writers, although they may choose to continue to set all of their writing in the country of their birth.
Clearly, we have decided to be expansive in our welcome to writers born elsewhere and in our continuing inclusion of expatriate writers. So the summary definition would seem to be “anyone with links to Canada that causes them to describe themselves as “Canadian.”
As for the “Great,” ask me to write a book about it. Thousands of others have tried to define greatness in a writer, but the question is still open.
What sort of pressures have I encountered in working as an editor with such iconic figures? Surprisingly, no greater than working as an editor on any piece of writing. It’s always a professional job, whereby the editor coolly tries to do his or her best. Ironically, I always found that the truly experienced professional writers – people like Hugh MacLennan, Morley Callaghan, Robertson Davies, Alistair MacLeod and Alice Munro – actually welcome the active involvement of an editor…even a young ( possibly bumptious) editor like me, if I was willing to put blood and sweat into making their book as good as it could possibly be
MHRS — Stories About Storytellers has been adapted into a stage show and you clearly have a love of performance. What, for you, is the value of taking your stories to the stage? What is it like to go from the relatively solitary position of a writer imagining his audience to engaging with one so directly?
DG — The difference between writing for a book and saying the same words on a stage is exactly as you would expect. I find the instant response both fascinating and delightful. Every audience is different, every evening a new experience. I was discussing this with my friend, the great actor R.H. Thompson, and he said, “Yes, you get to where you can hear them thinking!”
The book author is so isolated and distant from his or her readers that, in my humble case, a letter or an e-mail from a reader saying, “Hey, I really liked your book!” can set me beaming for hours. So if you’re ever tempted to thank or congratulate an author, by writing to the book’s publisher, do it!
MHRS – If I’ve learned anything, self-editing is an important but difficult and even painful part of being a writer. You are accustomed to the role of publisher, which complicates that process. That said, when you were writing Stories About Storytellers, did you have to take a few steps back from Douglas Gibson, the Publisher in order to freely and fully engage with Douglas Gibson, the Author?
DG — As for your last, very interesting question, I’d agree that a good writer has to become an expert self-editor. I think I have that ability. If it slows up the process of getting words on the page, I firmly believe that it speeds up the over-all process, because the self-edited words that make it through the process don’t have to be totally re-worked.
I think that I was unable to drop my Publisher role even as I wrote. Two examples: I could have called the book something personal like “My Fascinating Career as a Publisher.” The Publisher in me knew that such a title (and such a focus) would have sold only a handful of copies. So I built the book around the interesting part…the authors I encountered in the course of my publishing life. So the essential shape of the book was dictated by me as Publisher.
A second example: When I had finished the book— before I had sent it to a publisher— I approached the brilliant caricaturist Anthony Jenkins of the Globe and Mail. I gave him the list of authors to whom I had devoted a chapter and made a private arrangement with him to buy the right to use his drawings in my book and in promoting my book (I was even at that early stage thinking of doing unusual things on stage with his brilliant portraits). Only then did I approach the publisher saying, “Here’s how the book should look.” I knew, you see, that my written descriptions of these authors made an illustration obviously appropriate. But what kind of illustration? A photograph would be too formal, even dull, and might make my book seem academic. So, with Tony’s lively caricatures I was sending an important message about this book being lively, even, I hope laugh-out-loud funny.
I hope people will agree when they read it, or see STORIES ABOUT STORYTELLERS: An Evening with Douglas Gibson…and Many Famous Canadian Authors.
Douglas Gibson has garnered our sincere thanks for his time and insight. Be sure to attend his talk at Centennial Theatre on Thursday, March 28th and 4:30 PM!
Dear Past Jeff,
This is your future self. I have no idea how this will get to you because time travel is still mystery to me, where I’m at. We don’t even have Hoverboards yet. I know! Just another reason why Back to the Future, Part Two remains such a disappointment – but I digress. I’m in the future. Your future. I can’t give you an exact date because it’s all relative but my intention is to make sure you get this on February 21st, 2013 the evening Jeramy Dodds comes to Bishop’s. If I recall correctly you were/are a little anxious because you had/have to introduce him to a room full of people and public speaking is not a thing you’re good at. You’re still not. I’m you, I know. Anyway, relax. The reading will go great. You’re well over that other problem of being tongue-tied when you meet an author. I think the term you once used was “cheese-eating semi-colonite”? Jeramy is a swell guy and, aside from the public speaking bit, you were aces.
You’re probably wondering what this is all about. Why, on the evening of the penultimate Morris House reading for the 2012/2013 season, have I contacted you from the future? Well, I think time travel may actually exist. I know I just said that time travel is a mystery and that’s true but notice: it’s a mystery to me. I think there’s someone who’s mastered it. Someone knows the secret and on February 21, 2013, if you get this letter and you play your cards right you can get the goods on time travel. We’re a team! There’s no I in team, it’s true but there’s a U and I in space/time continuum so pay heed because here’s what I’ve figured out:
Jeramy Dodds is a time traveler.
Don’t even laugh. This is serious business and I have evidence. In front of me is copy of Jeramy’s collection of poems, Crabwise to the Hounds. At this point, you have a copy as well but mine is inscribed. I know you’re a sucker for signed copies but what matters is what Jeramy will write in your copy of his book: “Jeff, The future will be kind to us all. Promise. Jeramy Dodds” That is a not a thing one simply tosses off, especially in an age of global warming, economic collapse, and Republicans. I think, and it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I’ve been able to come to this conclusion, that Jeramy Dodds has seen the future and he is not afraid of it.
Sure, I can imagine your skepticism. It’s what makes Past Jeff so intolerably endearing but I’ve had a lot of time to think on this and there’s more. I will dazzle you with incontrovertible, iron clad evidence that Dodds is the Poet Laureate of the time streams. You’ll find it in his poem Depth of Field which he will read, tonight, at the Morris House event. He wrote it for a friend of his which seems fairly innocuous but, at the reading, Dodds himself will reveal it’s a time-travel poem. This is where you can add “dun dun duuuuuun” because I know you still think you’re funny at that moment in time. From where I’m standing, you’re a smug wise-ass but that’s neither here nor there. What’s important are these lines in the last stanza of the poem:
Noticing that we had lost ten years watching
that horse come apart. You had married, twice.
Consider the rhetorical power of poetry and I think you’ll find it it’s difficult to ignore what’s happening here. Keep in mind that Dodds admitted/will admit this is a bit of time travel business, so let’s do a close reading of that line about losing ten years. You may want to Google what I’m about to describe (In the future, The Search Engine Wars are devastating, worse than the Cola Wars of the mid-eighties. I can’t say who wins so don’t ASK. *Ahem*): Temporal Causality Loops. If I know anything about science-fiction, they are completely real and a legitimate threat to the time traveler. Dodds says they lose ten years and that his friend “had married twice” (emphasis mine!). See where I’m going? See where I’m going? Losing time happens in one of two ways: alien abductions and Time Loops! Time Loops! Dodds is clearly familiar with The Groundhog Day Theorem. It’s obvious, really. Obvious!
You’re in a unique position to make this happen- unless you never receive this letter but that seems unlikely, knowing what I know. Sure, there might be some sort of paradox that results in this letter never getting written once you get the secret of time travel from Dodds but you’ll still have this letter. See? Look, I’m not explaining it very well but you really need to trust me on this. Dodds knows. How can I convince you? Wait! His jacket. When he arrives at the bookstore, look at his jacket and take note of old fashioned sheriff’s badge on his lapel. Dodds claimed he got it in Calgary but he never said specifically when he got that badge! Clearly he acquired it at some point in the past! Remember Back to Future, Part Three, which was much better than part two but still not as good as the first one? Where Marty and Doc wind up in the old west?
Alright, that’s all I’m comfortable putting to Future Science Paper (patent pending). You have your mission. Make it happen because this is so big, it’s practically Quantum.
P.S. If you’re still not convinced, I assure you, Dodds is right. The future is kind to all of us, just not at the same time.
Before I begin, a poem:
My fish is red with spots of blue
That’s vaguely Suessian, it’s true.
His flaring fins, unblinking eyes,
Give him an air of mild surprise.
He eats his little fishy flakes
And little fishy farts he makes.
He watches as I type these lettas,
He’s, taxonomically, a Betta.
Right, so, what did you think? A little weak isn’t it? I spun that off in, maybe, five minutes. My fish, Filigree, is in fact watching me type and I suspect even he thinks that was a pretty lazy effort. Animals know these things- well, okay, we assume they do. It’s easy to anthropomorphise, to impose our perceptions on others but that’s lazy too. Filigree and I share a desk but we don’t share the same worldview. He doesn’t understand the written word any more than I understand what it means when he blows little bubbles at the waterline of his bowl. Is he happy? Is he gassy? Is it a form of expression, an attempt at communication? It certainly gets my attention because every time he blows a bubble there’s a weird, audible ‘click,’ but if there’s more to it than just random air, I don’t know. I do enjoy it though. It’s a simple, unsophisticated act of creation.
But hold on a sec. My little poem was a simple, unsophisticated act of creation: a little bubbly bit of language. It’s odd that my first thought is to not only criticise myself but to assume that Filigree is doing the same. Mind you, I critique his bubbles- positive critique, they’re charming- but it’s a critical response nonetheless. Why do I think he’s doing the same? That’s lazy anthropomorphism again so maybe the question is not why do I think my fish is judging me but why am I even engaged in or expecting any criticism at all?
We judge, we criticise, we assess. It’s what people do. It’s a valuable thing, criticism—but it’s far from being an easy thing to do properly. Carmine Starnino, poet, poetry critic, polemicist (sadly, I didn’t know what that word meant before this week), and our most recent Morris House speaker, takes it all quite seriously: “To despise criticism…is to despise the forces that make poetry possible.” he says in the prologue of Lazy Bastardism, his recent published collection of essays. It presents a thoughtful if unrelenting look at the “state of poetry” from his informed, critical perspective and calls out poets whom he feels undermine the genre and produce “bland, much-recycled truisms”. His critics may or may not agree but I think it’s fair to say, at least, he stands within a long tradition in which criticism itself is made artful.
There’s nothing new in that: Robert Buchanan and Matthew Arnold were doing much the same thing in the late 1800s. These days, however, when culture is arbitrarily quantified in terms of thumbs and stars, articulate, scholarly criticism is something we may not be used to seeing. I’m still making my way through Lazy Bastardism, because the ironic life of an English major means having next to no time to read anything that’s not on a syllabus, but Starnino’s essays bite and do so with wry humour and a simmering passion for poetry. His words clearly come from a place where anything less would be, well, lazy.
I’m afraid to consider what Starnino would think of my poem about Filigree but I offer it up to serve a point. Criticism is as natural to us as water is to a fish. We’re constantly making choices– what colours we wear, what movies we watch, where we choose to eat–but I think how we shape our responses to the world, how we gauge our tastes and expectations, defines the size of the bowl we swim in. Literature and poetry– any art we encounter, really–carries with it the unspoken expectation that it will be, at the very least, noticed. For some that’s enough but it means living in a pretty small bowl that confines us and limits understanding between people. I want to interact with the art I encounter; I want to know what the hell people are saying when they show it to the world. There’s value in a dynamic, if sometimes indirect, relationship between artist and critic and each owes the other an honest, reasoned, thoughtful dialogue.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to talk to my fish about his bubbles. I think maybe he’s trying to tell me something.
I am guessing that most of you reading Morris House: Backstage are students – which is why in the past I’ve generally refrained from typing up an entry—until today. You hear me prattle away all too often in classes, so do I really need to inflict further punishment on you in the form of a blog?
Yes, I do. Yes. Today, I really need to break with convention, if only to let you in on the interesting kind of discussions I sometimes have with authors after their readings on campus. Michèle Plomer and Anne Fortier, who spoke at Morris House Reading Series this past week, are two of the more lovely and engaging writers who have visited us. As the discussion over supper proved, they are also dynamic conversationalists.
And it all started with the codpiece.
Wait – let me back up a little. It actually started when I broached a conversation related to feminism (no big surprise there for any student who has suffered through a class with me. That’s a little like acknowledging the sky is blue). We were at The Lion’s Pub. Yes, that’s right: we transitioned from feminism to codpieces over canned pop and other forms of nourishment as only one can find at The Lion’s Pub. And yes, we did not order beer. So we can’t displace responsibility for the conversation that ensued by gesturing towards the effects of alcohol.
Upon my broaching the topic about feminism, Plomer remarked upon the fact that, whatever contemporary challenges inherent in being a woman in North American society, the best era for women is unquestionably our own. Women have never had it better (even if we could still have it better). Fortier had stepped away from the table briefly and returned at this moment. In that engaging style she has, she observed that fashion for women was once so constrained and uncomfortable: tight corsets and layers upon layers of clothing that rendered it difficult to move with any sense of ease. Whatever one may think about high heels (I love them! Did I say that out loud?) and other fashion currents, she added, we’ve come a long way, baby.
I agreed, but I mulled it over before adding playfully that I thought more men might consider wearing high heels. After all, it makes for a very handsome leg. And, once upon a time in eighteenth-century Britain, didn’t men once wear high heels? Powdered wigs? A little rouge? Très chic. What a disappointment that they’re restricted in their fashion options now.
This was the moment that Fortier’s research for her novel, Juliet, surfaced in the most fascinating way: codpieces. She explained (if I remember correctly) that English men of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries had to wear codpieces, since their stockings stopped short of their genitals and their jackets or doublets became shorter and shorter—kind of like the 1960s mini-skirt. Handsome legs indeed.
If, however, a 1960s woman actually wore undergarments below her mini-skirt, our Renaissance man did not wear anything below his doublet. There was therefore an increased risk of—how shall I put this?—an increased risk of flashing his private parts. The real equivalent in the 1960s, then, would be a woman’s cleavage, with similar risks if she had burned her bra in protest marches.
And this brings me to the codpiece—the device invented to cover a man’s genitals as the doublet became … far more cost-effective in terms of the quantity of fabric used. Fortier pointed out that their costume was quite practical: they could relieve themselves without going to great lengths to undress. Still, they needed something to protect their anterior parts as they also rode horses and engaged in other martial activity.
And so the codpiece was born. But, after its birth, it became increasingly ornate and, quelle surprise, took on greater and greater dimensions to suggest, of course, the greatness of the dimensions of the very body part it was protecting.
Fortier and Plomber were, by the way, just as engaging during their presentation on Wednesday afternoon. In a couple of weeks, we’ll be posting the video of their talk. You won’t be disappointed by what they had to say—even if they didn’t talk about codpieces.
– Linda Morra
Reason, the ability to use tools, and opposable thumbs are, possibly, what separate us from the animals. If my cats suddenly develop any combination of these, I’ll either have fewer broken lamps or some sort of coup d’cat on my hands. That aside, how often do we think about our hands, really? Each one has nineteen bones and a network of muscles and tendons (and one opposable thumb each) which allow us, amongst a myriad of tasks, to thread a needle, write a book, play piano, and share language. Hands are remarkable products of evolution and part of the reason humankind has been able to get this far without the cats taking over.
This little diatribe leads me, by way of fingers on a keyboard, to articulate some thoughts about our most recent Morris House Reading Series guest, author Frances Itani and two of her novels. Recipient of more awards and honours than my word count will allow, she is, of course, a very fine author and was kind enough to read from two of her novels: Deafening about of a young girl who, in the years leading up to the Great War, loses her hearing, and Requiem, which, at its heart, is the story of a family coming to terms with the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Now, I am compelled to mention that, as with previous Morris House author, Katrina Best, I didn’t have much time to get caught up on the material beforehand. Still, I stuck to my resolution not to get in a state about it, so I took a seat, folded my hands, and listened closely.
Itani’s chosen excerpt from Deafening was about a young girl named Grania, who, in lieu of her voice, struggles with sign language and the outsider status her difficulties involve. Itani’s reading from Requiem was about a father and son, outsiders in their own country, and a ritual of practising Beethoven on a plank of wood in lieu of a piano. What struck me about these two passages, side by side, was the intense emphasis on hands and fingers as tools of voice and tools of art. Requiem bore a particularly brutal poetry with images of fingers bearing down on dry unrelenting wood or the sharp, mending tug of needle and thread on a split thumb. Deafening’s imagery, although less harsh, was no less effective in its description of the physicality involved in shaping each letter, each word by hand: an act of will and persistence to find a voice and be heard. Both novels share in common a raw and beautiful nerve, a tether from mind to hand to page.
Writing is a labour both mental and physical. According to Itani, Requiem alone took four years to complete. The characters in Requiem and Deafening, Itani insisted, are not based on specific people, but it’s not unfathomable that they were crafted in very personal spaces in Itani’s life: she was and is intimately acquainted with people affected by deafness and the Japanese internment. It’s not difficult to imagine her fingers guiding a pen or dancing across a keyboard, tapping out a kind of symphony, each letter a note, each note a letter to those people, acknowledging and amplifying their voices. I’m no novelist but just writing this humble blog entry requires a reasonable effort–especially if I use jokes (more so, if they’re meant to be funny). I’m a fairly new writer, still raw, still trying to find a voice. If I’m to say anything worthwhile and be heard, Itani reminded me I need to keep my fingers moving because some stories are relentless and demand to be told. That being the case, I may need to keep the cats and their little needle claws out of here. They’re also pretty demanding and if they can figure out this computer the next blog post may be some sort of Catnip Manifesto.
I was watching a bit of late night TV yesterday and a certain Scottish talk-show host shared the end of an old joke with the audience. It went like this:
“The first time he tried it, he got sick and the second time, his hat blew off and he just quit.”
That’s the punch line. It sounds vaguely filthy, doesn’t it? I don’t know the rest of the joke; he wouldn’t say, but that was the point. It was enough to make you laugh. It’s true that not everyone wants to be told straight up what’s so special about Luke Skywalker’s dad or that the whole thing was a snow-globe, but I don’t pay much heed to that increasingly obnoxious warning, SPOILER ALERT. The end is just another place to start.
This is how I was introduced to Katrina Best. Best is an author who wrote a book of short fiction called Bird Eat Bird in 2010. A year later, that same book earned her the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, and, until last week, I hadn’t read a word of it. Knowing Best was coming to town for the Morris House Reading Series, I sat down to read it and I put a lot of pressure on myself to do so because invariably, whenever I meet an author, I have failed to read most of book they are promoting and I feel terribly awkward about it. It usually goes like this: “Well, hello, author of significant literary standing whose book or books I have not actually finished reading but will no doubt garner enjoyment and/or enlightenment from. I hear you write books. Do you use words? I like words. I once used a semi-colon like you wouldn’t believe. So, yeah. Books, huh? Oh hey look, they have cheese. I’m going to go stand over there now.”
I should try to explain that it isn’t due to a lack of interest or respect. Authors are some of the best people you will ever meet. I just have poor time-management skills. This time, though, I managed to get through two stories before I was off to meet Best. Not perfect but I felt it was enough of an ‘in’ and I could reasonably hope to engage the esteemed Best in conversation and not sound like a rubber-mouthed, cheese-eating, semi-colonite. Ha. Well, at least this time I didn’t have any cheese.
I was introduced, pleasantries were exchanged and then, rather unpredictably, I was I asked whether I’d noticed that the last page of the book was missing. It seems the publisher had made a bit of a mess with the print run. Ha ha. I had not noticed. I stammered; I hemmed and hawed; I apologized for failing to read the entire book; I lamely blamed Jonathan Swift. I am not cool.
Katrina Best, thankfully, is. Despite her frustration and dismay about her publisher’s mistake she apologized in a charmingly British and self-deprecating way, made light of it and even suggested we hold a contest for which readers could submit their own endings. She went on to read, in a highly entertaining manner no less, with colourful voices and everything, from two of her stories. The first, “Lunch Hour,” begins with the demise of a pigeon and “Red” about the day in the life of a troubled Montreal woman in which the last two pages inform everything strange that’s come before.
So, here’s the thing: I will no longer feel bad about not having read the entire book and I stopped worrying, mostly, about being awkward around an author. I suppose most people read a book before they meet the author, if at all, and that’s the usual chronology but it occurred to me that my introduction to Best by way of that last, missing page meant I was just starting at the end. That blank page , I think, made for two pretty good stories. One is the story of getting to know Best’s work and looking forward to what I haven’t read yet. The other is the story of the day we got to know Best the person who, I should add, has endeared herself to me forever by graciously honouring my cheeky request that she sign that last blank page.
If you’re interested in buying a copy of Bird Eat Bird (with a photocopy of the last page included) it’s on sale at the Bishop’s University bookstore. How much is it? Well, I think an old punch-line says it best:
“Twenty bucks, same as in town.”