Fishing For Praise


Before I begin, a poem:

My Fish

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.

-Jeff Parent


The Codpiece and Other Conversational Bits


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

A Show of Hands


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.

-Jeff Parent

The Best Possible Ending


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.”

-Jeff Parent

The Dog Ate my Homework, and the Pelican ate the Last Page of my Book…


The first thing I’ve learned from the Morris House Reading Series this year: leave enough space in your schedule to finish the book before the author arrives. I’ll admit I was pretty pleased with myself for making it through all but the last of Katrina Best’s short stories from her collection Bird Eat Bird (Insomniac Press 2010). That is, until I arrived at the bookstore and learned that the last page was missing from the edition I had bought—it somehow missed getting printed—and I hadn’t noticed. Despite this shocking discovery upon her arrival at the Bishop’s Bookstore, Katrina still delivered a fantastic reading. “We’ll put a positive spin on it,” Katrina told everyone at the beginning of the reading, when she admitted the edition the book store was selling was incomplete. “It can become a creative writing assignment; everyone can write their own ending.”
This subtle wit kept the crowd at the reading aptly listening as Katrina read “Lunch Hour,” the first story in the collection, and then a passage from “Red,” the second. I admired her ability to make us grimace and laugh at the same time: trying to mentally picture a pelican eating a pigeon is both fowl (pun intended) and humorous. When asked about her characters, Katrina reflected that “there is a fine line between sanity and insanity, and we’re all walking it.” For me, it is this attention to detail—both of the characters and their experiences—that made her stories so enjoyable to read and hear.
Clearly the first instalment of the Morris House Reading Series was a huge success; Katrina’s easy-going attitude allowed people to feel comfortable approaching her during the reception and line up to get their books signed (and then line up again to get a photocopy of the missing page). “Not many books will become best sellers,” Katrina Best advised us before she left. “But when they do, they can sure help you pay off your student loans.”


-Zoe Costanzo

We’re Back… And it’s the ‘Best’! **updated**


After a summer away, it’s time to start up with this year’s Morris House Reading Series! New year, new schedule, new bloggers. So without further ado, here is our schedule (as of now):

Thursday, September 27, 2012 (That’s tomorrow! Or today if I don’t get this post finished in the next 23 minutes…):
Katrina Best; author of Bird eat Bird, a collection of short stories which was published in 2010 and won the Commonwealth Wriers’ Prize for Best First Book (Canada and the Caribbean) in 2011.
5PM-6PM in the Bishop’s University Bookstore

Thursday, October 18, 2012:
Frances Itani; author of 14 books including Deafening, which received a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best book and was shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
5PM-6PM in the Centennial Theatre Lobby, Bishop’s University

Wednesday, October 24, 2012:
Michèle Plomer; author of four novels including Le Jardin Sablier, HKPQ, and Volumes 1 & 2 of the Dragonville Trilogy (Porcelaine-2011, and Encre-2012).

AND (this event is twice as exciting since it comes with two authors!)

Anne Fortier; author of multiple novels including Juliet, which has been published in over 30 countries and is soon to be made into a Hollywood movie. Also co-produced Emmy-winning documentary Fire and Ice: The Winter War of Finland and Russia.

3PM-4PM in the Centennial Theatre Lobby, Bishop’s University
**Note: This event is also coinciding with “Creatively Yours: A Mosaic of Bilingual Readings”, organized by Diane Mills with the Lennoxville Public Library & Champlain, in which Michèle Plomer will also be presenting.

November 2012: November 15, 2012
Carmine Starnino; author and poet of multiple works, including The New World (1997), which was nominated for the 1997 A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry and the 1997 Gerald Lampert Award, and This Way Out (2009) which was nominated for a Governor Generals Literary Award in poetry.
5PM-6PM in the Bishop’s University Bookstore

Thursday, February 21, 2013:
Jeramy Dodds; his first poetry collection Crabwise to the Hounds (2008) was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize, and won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry, the 2007 CBC literary award, and the 2006 Bronwen Wallace Memorial Award.
5PM-6PM in the Bishop’s University Bookstore

Thursday, March 31, 2013:
Douglas Gibson; who has a long and impressive track record in the publishing industry, and has recently published Stories about Storytellers (2011).

Pearls of Wisdom From Me to You


So the end of the year is coming up, and I realized that the last post I put up here was about Jeramy Dodds not being able to come down—and, well, that’s not an ideal place to stop posting on a blog. All the other writers did show up, and were wonderful. But I also wanted to come on here one last time to tell you guys about how much I’ve loved posting to you, and how much I’m going to miss Bishop’s and working for Morris House.

Last week (or something like that, time is kind of blurring together), I wrote a letter to the managers of the Tomlinson internships about what I’ve learned working for Morris House. I realized as I was writing my letter that there are a ton of things that I couldn’t write down, so I wanted to put them here. This is a moment when I get to say what I really think, and I love that. So here’s a list of all the “unofficial” stuff I learned as an intern:

1)      Writers like campus ghost stories better than they like actual official campus tours.

2)      Internships aren’t as scary or awful as The Devil Wears Prada makes them out to be. In fact, chances are your boss will be awesome.

3)      Checking your email every day is a healthy step into becoming a full-blown professional.

4)      Being able to laugh at a situation and make the most of it can make a world of difference; if you have a positive attitude, other people will pick up on that and feel positive too.

5)      No matter how much you plan something, there will always be hiccups that you’ll need to deal with on the fly. Budget in the time for it.

6)      Everyone has a different story about how they became a published author, but a good way of going about things is this: publish short stories, win prizes, keep publishing short stories, go to readings, meet authors. Eventually a publishing house (that you’ll hear about through your author peeps) will want to publish your novel, since you have such a great reputation.

7)      Every writer gets rejection, that’s part of the game. Keep trying, though, since you only need one “yes” to be published.

8)      Writers don’t update their promotional pictures very often. They’re usually at least five years older than their picture makes them out to be. Sneaky buggers.

9)      Shalimar in Lennoxville has a spicy food scale, but if you say you want 3 out of 5 and you look like you can’t handle spicy food, they’ll make it a 2 instead (which will hurt your pride, but come in handy when you realize you’ve chugged three glasses of water and are only half-way through your dinner).

10)   Be firm but friendly with people when they let you down. You don’t want to burn bridges, but they need to know what you expect of them. Make sure you listen to their side of the story too. They’ll be more likely to listen to you, if you made sure to listen to them.

11)   Small talk is a necessary art.

12)   Funding pays for 90% of everything that happens on campus. Always thank the sponsors.

13)   Becoming a writer is like becoming anything else; it’s 80% hard work, 10% connections (that you can make through hard work), and 10% talent.

14)   You can spy on people in the Quad from Cleghorn.

15)   Writers are nice, charismatic people. Put a bunch of them in the same room and you will have hours of entertainment.

16)   Write as often as you can.

17)   Developing your voice is key to becoming a writer. It’s not so much about the stories; if you have an imagination, you’ll always have stories. It’s about knowing how to tell them that makes the difference.

18)   Teamwork is a wonderful thing and thank your lucky stars when you get to be part of a good one.

19)   Writers like to have a glass of water when they do a reading: make sure you have a glass of water ready for them.

20)   It can be hard to find a glass in McGreer.

21)   If you want to be a writer, you should seriously consider going to readings, becoming a member of the Quebec Writer’s Federation (or your province’s equivalent). This is where you get to meet other writers and publishers. It helps build your professional network.

22)   Pascal Girard is waaaay younger than his cartoon portrait makes him out to be.

23)   You can know lit theory, but you need street smarts too. And by “street smarts” I mean internship smarts. (That means all those little bits of professional/ life wisdom that you can’t exactly explain or quantify, but that make a world of difference).

Best of luck on all your exams! I wish you most amazingest epic grades ever. As for me? I’m off into the world. Who knows what’s in store…..