Theatre Debut for Bookstore Owner Janice LaDuke

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Text by Josh Quirion

     Literary connoisseur and owner of Queen Street’s Black Cat Books, Janice Laduke, is trying her hand at playwriting. Her subject, Pilgarlic the Death, is the debut novel by Bernard Epps. First published by Macmillan in 1967, it was, in the words of LaDuke, “resurrected” by Quadrant Editions in 1980. England-born and U.S.-schooled, Epps was an author, historian, humorist, and cartoonist who established himself in Lennoxville in the 1980s, where he became, as LaDuke characterizes it, “a bookstore regular from day one.”

            Epps’s novel, Pilgarlic the Death, was described by Professor Sherrill E. Grace as a “very fine” one that is concerned with the celebration of ordinary life and the mysticism of small towns. The small town in the novel is Stormaway, and it is situated in the Eastern Townships where the primary characters, Dougal the School, Hugh the Hero, John the Law, Milly of the Hill, and the eponymous Pilgaric the Death, become, as Grace describes them, “dream figures who are larger than life.” 

            It is his novel and these characters from which, approximately two years ago, LaDuke perceived the possibility of creating an adaptation of Epps’s work and of giving it a voice. And so, LaDuke “set about cutting down and paring out of Bernie’s novel, a play.” Although she admits that the play is nowhere near the story in its entirety, she qualifies it as a sampling, and hopes that it might entice and guide readers in the direction of the original work.

            Staged by the Eaton Corner Museum, the play will open on February 23rdat the Sawyerville Community Center in Sawyerville (situated less than twenty minutes outside of Lennoxville). LaDuke considered that because of its previous plays—“brimming with life and enthusiasm and pride in the history of this place where we live”—the Eaton Corner Museum represented the ideal theatre society to help her production materialize.

In the words of Janice LaDuke:

            “If you have any interest at all in the Eastern Townships, in the people of the Eastern Townships, in the history of the Eastern Townships, in the geography of the Eastern Townships, in literature, in play, in comedy and in tragedy… if you have any interest at all in LIFE, then you must come and see this play.”

Laduke has resurrected a novel that disappeared prematurely. Let us bear witness:

Feb 23, 2 p.m. & 7:30 p.m.
6 Rue Church, Sawyerville
Tickets available at Black Cat Books (168 rue Queen)
or contact Elaine Lebourveau for reservation: 819-563-8700

 

 

“Between the Lines” – Josh Quirion in Interview with Ann Scowcroft

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JQ: Your debut collection, The Truth of Houses, received the Concordia University First Book Prize. About the work, jurors said it was “as if the author had been accumulating, constructing her vision long enough and could hold back no longer.” Is this accurate? Can you describe your method and practice of collecting material, and transforming that material into a collection of poetry?

AS: I think the jurors’ comment was accurate, perhaps more accurate than they knew, and perhaps especially regarding the reference to accumulation. Was The Truth of Houses my first book or my fourth? Difficult to know. I started writing seriously when my children were young and the book was published after they’d left home. Once I had enough poems to make up what I thought a collection would look like, I sent it out. There were always new poems, new ways to see how they might relate to each other whenever I got a rejection back six months or a year later. The pattern repeated itself until Brick accepted the manuscript it had become. Some of those first poems are in the book, as are a few that came after the manuscript was accepted. Of course there was the whole bit in between the sendings and the acceptance that involved sharing it among trusted readers. Given that I experienced the poems in that collection as cumulative and not thematic, it took feedback from friends for me to understand what a reader might hear. Michelle Ariss suggested the collection title, and, from there, I could see an organization was possible. That lead to fishing around in A Pattern Language, which also helped shape the sections in an otherwise non-thematic collection. In the years that I had been writing, sending, receiving rejections, re-writing, etc., poetry collections had begun to take shape in much more intentional ways that didn’t really reflect the accumulation aspect of Truth of Houses that the jurors noticed.

I suppose clarity and space are as close as it comes to method for me. I wrote for several years with a collective of writers from the Eastern Townships, and sometimes a poem would spring in its entirety in the kind of sacred space people writing and listening to each other can create. More often a line or a surprise reflection that seem suitable for a poem will just kind of float up from the clutter of every day mind, and I’ll write that down. Then it’s about creating time and space to sit with it and see what it would like from me, if anything. It’s really about the focused time in which an idea or a thought might develop into a poem.

JQ: You mention writing with a collective of writers from the Eastern Townships. Can you discuss your experience of belonging to “an association,” if you will, and what that can contributes to a poet’s (or author’s) work? And might I ask, also, who were the other writers from the Townships with whom you collaborated, and what form such a collaboration assumes?

AS: In 1993 my family lived for a year in western Massachusetts. I joined a writing group there, led by someone who had trained with Pat Schneider from Amherst. Hers was, at the time, a very particular approach that is probably more ubiquitous now. The leader provides a prompt of some kind, and the people gathered write whatever comes as a result of the prompt–or whatever comes despite the prompt. Then immediately, the extemporaneous fragments are read aloud, and each writer has an opportunity to listen to what the other writers heard in the piece. The listening and learning to respond to the writing and not the person is as important as the writing, and both are very useful for the writer.

I took that experience home to the Townships when we moved back in 1994, and started a group that included a number of people, including Carolyn Rowell, Marjorie Bruhmuller and Janice LaDuke, all of whom (and others still) eventually took the baton and extended the offer in other groups and locations. Many people have come and gone in the many permutations of that starter group. The initial gesture still resonates, still pulls new people in, and still gathers some of those original voices. More importantly for me personally was the kind of immediate community it created. Even if I haven’t led or participated in many years, the bond of finding people with the same yearning is a strong one, and many of those women (because it was mostly women) remain important people in my life. Impossible to meet one and not ask: how’s the writing going? It’s probably no more difficult being a rural writer than any other kind, but isolation can be an issue when you are just beginning to believe you might have something to say. Difficult to have confidence if there’s no one to listen!

JQ: From the perspective of someone who has written within a collective, can you speak to the mythos of the isolated, solitary writer? It would seem that this archetype is often romanticized in literature; would you say that it is so in literary practice as well? And, why do you think the writers you collaborated with in the nineties were mostly women; was it merely coincidence, or might there have been other contributing factors? 

AS: I wonder what you have in mind with “mythos,” and what romantic notion is coming to mind?  It gives me this image of the moor and substance abuse, but perhaps I am not reading the question right. Women tend to find time alone quite precious, or at least I have. Writing requires focus, and that usually means a fair bit of time alone unfettered by the needs of other beings. Is there any work that doesn’t require focus though? Even if you do what you do in the vicinity of others, chances are there’s a solitary aspect. I think I wrote earlier that there could sometimes be spontaneous and untouchable brilliance that arises in collective writing experiences; sometime something fully formed can appear. More often than not though, at least in my experience, the ghost of something swims up and needs to be taken home to be worked with. For people who don’t work in writers’ rooms or with performance groups, where the collective is assumed and needed, I think there is a certain amount of ownership that has to be generated around a given piece of writing, and that can only be done by building a relationship with it through long hours of singular contact. Having a community of other people who spend chunks of time with the life of their imaginations ruling things is important for many reasons, not the least of which are sanity and concrete creative feedback. When it comes to the work of writing, though, the fact is much it has to be done alone. I’m not sure if that feeds into the mythos or not.

Why mostly women in the group collaborations? I never asked. Men did participate in fewer numbers. Why was there only one man in my yoga class the other night? No idea. Geography? Flexibility? Disinterest? Is the gender segregation similar in degreed creative writing programmes? In groups or programmes led by men? Is it a rural thing? The possible variables are many and sound like they could add up to a healthy MA thesis. It’s likely a larger question that the small answer, whatever it is, about writing collaborations might contribute one drop to. You are probably better positioned to answer than I am: what do you think?

JQ: You participated, as writer, on an interdisciplinary performance project titled Frankenstein’s Ghost. You published the aforementioned collection of poetry, worked as a lecture at the Universities of Sherbrooke and Bishop’s, and you are now involved with the UNHCR as a Technical Advisor. How does it all connect? Does the artist have a responsibility vis-à-vis pedagogy? 

AS: Looks like restlessness more than a grand plan, doesn’t it? My work and creative lives have both meandered. It might take a few more years to see a meaningful pattern if there is one. I come from a family where it was understood that work delivered meaning to one’s life, and also that creative pursuits were fine as crafts, best suited for the basement or garage. Writing has always been both central to my interior life and shadowed in my external life. Which might explain the patience with waiting for the first book to take a publishable shape, and the willingness to go in a different direction with collaborations after. I’m circling another couple of projects now that seem singular, but not sure. I’ve lost a couple these last few years.

I’ve been asked a lot about the opportunities that the humanitarian work might bring to my writing, though never what an artist might bring to the work.  It has not yet brought content; I’m not convinced it ever will. It has made precision and clarity important, refined my attention to representation of experience so that it might re-create a reality and not a perception for someone who is not in a specific place, but who must make informed decisions about any number of impossible things that will affect the lives of significant numbers of vulnerable people in that place. The power of observation might then be what I’ve had to offer as a writer in this sphere of work.

JQ: What do you consider to be two great works of literature? 

AS: That word “great” is so dependent on time and circumstance for me. Anything by CD Wright for poetry; Steal Away is a particular favorite. For fiction, Rachel Cusk’s Outline was a revelation.

  Ann Scowcroft lives and writes in the Eastern Townships.

“Between the Lines” – Josh Quirion in interview with Carolyn Marie Souaid

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“Yasmeen Haddad loves Joanasi Maqaittik”

JQ: The novel is primarily set in Saqijuvik (population 346), a fictional, remote village in northern Quebec. There is a beautiful image described towards the end of the novel, at which point Yasmeen says that from a certain place in Montreal, it seems that the whole of the city can fit inside the palm of her hand, but that in Saqijuvik, she could never fit the expansive landscape in her hand that way. What is it about Saqijuvik that makes it such an extraordinary stage where the story takes place?

CMS: The proliferation of new films set in the Far North is a testament to the visual spectacle of Northern Quebec (now, Nunavik). Simply put, it is stunning. I wrote my novel with film in mind: I wanted the action to play out against the striking Arctic landscape and I wanted this setting to take on a significant role in the narrative. I wanted it to be so in-your-face – despite its quiet stillness – it almost becomes a character itself. The land is huge, beautiful, immeasurable, unpredictable. The human eye can’t take it all in, and there are variables that cannot be controlled—the weather, for example. But Yasmeen believes with every fibre of her being that she has what it takes to grasp its complexity, in the same way she thinks she can get a handle on Joanasi, her lover, a man with a vastly different culture and worldview.

Let me back up for a minute. North of the 55th parallel and accessible only by air, Nunavik boasts roughly 507,000 square kilometres of wild tundra, taiga forest, mountain, river, and lake. Roughly 12,000 people inhabit the 14 communities dotting the Hudson-Ungava coast. Although I wanted my story set there, I didn’t want to anchor it in a specific village for fear that readers might construe the fiction as truth. I asked an Inuit friend to invent a place name that would evoke the changing world of the contemporary Inuit, a locus where tradition and modernity would battle it out. From the Inuktitut, Saqijuvik means, “place where the winds are shifting.” This is one of the main themes of the book—how the Inuit have fared in the aftermath of contact.

When she first arrives in Saqijuvik, Yasmeen is attracted to the unspoiled quietude, the vast, unobstructed sight lines of the tundra. She embraces it without reserve, the way she embraces Joanasi.  She embraces the Inuit values of using what the land provides for food, shelter, and clothing. When she is deeply in love, her relationship to the land is equally passionate. She sees only the pristine, unblemished landscape. As her relationship with Joanasi deteriorates, her feelings for the land take a hit. She begins to see only the detritus—the diapers and rotting carcasses and cigarette butts poking through the grey spring slush.

What Yasmeen wants all along is the “perfect Inuk,” one able to live in the modern world while preserving his culture and traditions. In fact what she discovers is a flawed man; and when she does [spoiler alert], she gives him up. Likewise, she gives up Saqijuvik and returns to the city she knows and understands, the dusty, noisy, predictable world of nine-to-fivers—a city she can fit in the palm of her hand.

JQ: Would you categorize the novel as belonging to the tradition of the bildungsroman (a work dealing with a person’s formative years or spiritual education)? Yasmeen acknowledges that during her tenure in Saqijuvik, she was edified and humbled by the people and the land, but she returns to Montreal disillusioned, with spirits rather abject. What did she learn during her eight months in the North, and how did these lessons affect her; what might be next for Yasmeen Haddad?

CMS: That would be an accurate characterization of the book. Yasmeen’s father, a forward-thinking Syrian-Canadian, has educated her about the value of education and curiosity. He taught her about the American astronauts and the European explorers, and raised her to believe she could do anything she put her mind to—the sky was the limit. When, as a young woman, she finally chooses Quebec’s Far North as a destination, she goes with a pioneer mind-set; she is seeking out a new frontier like the astronauts and early explorers in her father’s bedtime stories. She’s a teacher, but she is also a student hungry for knowledge. She intends to learn everything she can about the Inuit inhabitants, which also means integrating into the community. She is loath to adopt the colonial mentality of previous Qallunaat (people from the “South,” mainly Whites) who have knowingly or unknowingly contributed to cultural genocide in their efforts to introduce “progress” and/or “improve life” in the North. Upon arrival, Yasmeen is drawn to the beauty of the landscape and the resilience of the people who live there. She intends to use every opportunity she can to immerse herself in the culture, and she is harshly critical of her colleagues and other resident Qallunaat, who spend their time judging the Inuit by Western standards and falling back on unfair comparisons and generalizations.

Her relationship with Joanasi is the outward manifestation of her desire to connect with the new culture. She welcomes and even initiates their rough, passionate sex. In her words, she wants “their bodies intersecting on the bed and never coming undone.” She wants to “seal the space between them until it [is] non-existent.” She is serious about trying to bridge their worlds, and believes it is possible. Meanwhile, as the story progresses, Joanasi is beginning to drink more and more, and his rage is building.

Yasmeen’s eventual disillusionment is partly tied to her disillusionment with her father, her childhood hero, whose reckless drinking finally killed him (he is already dead at the start of the novel). She has begun to understand that if she continues down her own reckless path with Joanasi, if she stays with him, she will be destroyed in the process. The only possible solution is to end the relationship. Of course, this makes her a stronger person than her mother, who, like many immigrant women of her generation, stayed in the marriage no matter how bad things got. At the same time, Yasmeen sees this decision to pull out as a failure on her part to connect with the culture of the “other.”

The flashback portion of the novel (Yasmeen’s year-long adventure in Saqijuvik) ends with the dissolution of the relationship, though there is a lack of closure on her part. She doesn’t know what she will do next. Can she be an effective teacher to anyone? With this failure in her repertoire, what does she even know about the world? She is wistful and nostalgic. In the final bookend scene, a return to the beginning of the novel where she encounters the homeless Inuk in a Montreal park, she is finally able to let go of the North and hopefully move forward with her life.

JQ: You mentioned the “western standards” that pervade the attitudes of Yasmeen’s colleagues’ vis-à-vis the Inuit community. Supplied with a few years of experience, Elliott professes his “insider knowledge” about the residents of Saqijuvik. He regularly discusses their systematic, historical, and even genetic shortcomings. Contrarily, the individuals belonging to the local community refrain from exteriorizing judgement. I suppose the question, if it can be called that, I am arriving at concerns silence. The Qallunaat, like the metropolitan regions they are from, are constantly abuzz with talk and gossip, whereas the Inuit appreciate the stillness and quietude of silence. How does silence, or the conversations not had, function as a mechanism in the stories? In the bookend scene that you describe in the previous answer, Yasmeen says that that before (Saqijuvik), she would have bombarded the Inuit man with questions, but instead, she simply sits with him. What lessons can silence impart?

CMS: When I lived in the North back in the 1980s, it was common for students to visit their teachers after school. Usually mine would arrive unannounced, sit on the couch with their parkas still on and eye me curiously for a lengthy time, without saying a word.  They watched me cook, correct, wash dishes. At first it made me uncomfortable. Eventually, I figured out that the Inuit speak when they have something important or necessary to say. They don’t seem to experience our discomfort at being around someone else when we have nothing to say. Nor do they resort to small talk about the weather, for instance, to ease the awkwardness around silence. There is no awkwardness. They say what they have to say in the moment. When finished with a conversation, they will utter the word “taima” (“done”) and walk away or hang up the phone. There are no niceties sprinkled around to stretch out the chat or eradicate the void. In keeping with this practice, radio in the North allows for moments of “dead air,” something that would make radio producers down south cringe.

The contrast of sound and not-sound was a kind of shorthand I used to tell the story of the two cultures and places. Yasmeen adjusts to the silence of her new surroundings. She learns to be with people without talking incessantly. When Yasmeen returns to Montreal for the Christmas break, the jabbering city noise grates on her after all those months of quietude and simplicity and interacting with people in an authentic way.  She is irritated by the “cavernous” airport terminal, the family banter, and the car radio “veering off the station into static.” The city is a place of constant distraction. The snow-draped, silent North is as it is, unembellished. This is what she learns in her short year away. Talk is not always essential. Sometimes it prevents us from living in the moment.

JQ: What is (are) the role(s) of educators from “the South” who assume pedagogical responsibility in the North?

CMS: Before answering this, let me explain the educational infrastructure that is currently in place in Nunavik. It helps explain what is expected of non-Inuit teachers, like Yasmeen, who decide to head north. Briefly then—

After the 1975 signing of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (first major comprehensive land claims agreement in northern Canada), a lot changed in Nunavik. Health services were restructured, regional governments were established and an Inuit-controlled school board was created. Since the 1970s, Kativik School Board (now Kativik Ilisarniliriniq) has been mandated to develop and deliver educational programs and services to all 14 Nunavik communities. In keeping with the Board’s primary goal of protecting, maintaining and developing the Inuit language, culture and way of life, the first language of instruction is Inuktitut, with English and French as its second languages. The curriculum includes the usual subjects (math, science, history, art, etc.) but culture classes, taught by the locals, provide an opportunity for students to learn about their culture and traditions. Boys learn how to carve, build igloos and sleds, while girls learn how to sew parkas and sealskin boots. A unique teacher-training program also exists to train locals who want to become teachers. Generally speaking, classes are small enough – nothing over 15 – for children to get one-on-one attention.

People who accept a teaching position in the North understand that they are not walking into a traditional western school, although it certainly looks like one from the outside. They understand that they have to make their content pertinent to the lives of the students in their class. This involves a willingness to adapt their materials or create new ones that are relevant. My first year in the North, when the Board was still in its infancy, I made nearly all my classroom materials from scratch. Since then, three decades have passed. Culturally relevant materials are more readily available to teachers.

Several issues complicate the northern educational machine: high rates of student absenteeism and lateness, for example. On a nice day, children are frequently pulled out of school to go hunting with the family. This means a teacher is left to teach a lesson to half the class and then re-teach it the next day. Since this is a cultural matter (eating off the land is healthier than eating overly expensive frozen foods from the Co-op), teachers from the South are asked to be accommodating.

But another factor is important to consider. The world is getting smaller. Nunavik is now connected to the rest of the world through satellite and Internet. Nunavimmiut (people from Nunavik) are part of the global community. As a result, more and more Inuit youth are deciding to pursue post-secondary studies after high school. Since there are no colleges or universities in their own communities, they have to leave the North, and this presents its own set of challenges: homesickness, culture shock, adaptation issues (e.g. large, impersonal classes where the teacher doesn’t know your name). Preparing them for the post-secondary experience means that from early on, students need to be educated in a way that is consistent with their values and traditions, but they also need to be exposed to what is going on outside their communities. Educators need to prepare them for the challenge of moving forward and becoming a player on the world stage (if they wish to do so); of achieving their full potential within the global context, without losing their unique culture and traditions.

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Carolyn Marie Souaid is the author of seven poetry collections, most recently This World We Invented (Brick Books, 2015). She has performed at festivals and literary events in the U.S. and Europe as well as Canada, and her work has been translated into French, Arabic, Spanish and Slovenian. Blood is Blood, a videopoem she produced with Endre Farkas, garnered a top prize at the 2012 Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin. Her poems and stories have appeared in several magazines, including The Malahat Review, The New Quarterly, and the Literary Review of Canada, and have been featured on CBC-Radio. Yasmeen Haddad Loves Joanasi Maqaittik is the Silver Medalist for Best Regional Fiction (Canada East) given by the Independent Publisher Book Awards. She lives in Montreal.

 

 

“Between the Lines” – Josh Quirion in interview with Marjorie Bruhmuller

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JQ: Writers’ immersions in the subject of their writing is essential in obtaining an authentic quality. Your work is rich in description and experience. The speaker has clearly “walk(ed) the woods.” (Reading Firewood, Bruhmuller) How is your relationship with your subject sustained?

MB: We are what we absorb. We deepen each time we feel, see something for the first time; or hear, taste or smell things that we don’t recognize. The mind is naturally curious, and experience (as it does our DNA) scores the brain with memory. So, I follow where an image or sensation takes me. And I walk a lot, and pay attention.

JQ: Who are the poets that  you’ve read whose works have resonated with you, and are there any particular texts that have withstood the test of time and remained relevant to you?

 MB: Shakespeare, Basho, Issa, Coleridge, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, D H Lawrence, Walt Whitman, Wislawa Szymborska, W.S. Merwin, Gary Snyder, Czeslaw Milosz, Sylvia Plath, Yrsa Daley-Ward, Galway Kinnell, Bob Dylan, Robert Hass, Jane Hirshfield, Don McKay, Mark Strand, Saul Williams,  Jeff Lemon, Ann Scowcroft, Ted Kooser, Maya Angelou, Aimee Nezhukummatahil, Sharon Olds, Robyn Sarah, Kim Addonizio, Dorianne Laux, Stephanie Bolster, Leonard Cohen, Billy Collins and Mary Oliver. That is the shortlist.

 In this excerpt from, “Learning a Dead Language,” by W.S. Merwin, I sense the essence of what it means to find poetry within yourself.

 “What you remember saves
you. To remember

Is not to rehearse, but
to hear what never

Has fallen silent…”.

 And in this excerpt from Billy Collins, “The Dead,” I so appreciate these lines (the poem in its entirety), the humour of his conjecture, the insight into the human psyche, and the subtlety of his commentary:

 “The dead are always watching
us they say,

while we are putting on
our shoes or making a sandwich,

they are looking down through
the glass-bottom boats of heaven

as they row themselves
slowly through eternity…”
  

JQ: In this “ongoing” conversation, how does the work of your predecessors permeate your own; how are you speaking back?

MB: By understanding how poets use the devices in their work, and how these tools (and the use of language) have changed; (to exact tone, inference), and by using these devices in my own way, I am able to expand on nuance and technique. I think about how they saw the world and themselves in it. I read between their lines, and use my own experience and that which I have read of theirs to grow a more comprehensive knowledge. I listen in on other poets’ lives, in varying generations, in different time periods and cultures, and carry that knowledge forward in my work.

JQ: In “When It’s June And I’m Walking Down The Street,” the speaker compels the “you” in the poem to look up, and to see, starting from the “pock marks in the pavement,” to the “long clouds sailing over the city like kites.” The final line reads: 

 “I want you to understand, that’s what
I mean.” 

 What should the developing writer understand; what should the reader understand? 

MB: What writers and readers can take from the poem is this: everything matters. The good, the bad. What matters, in the end, is living, the experience itself; what you discover when you are aware, when you’re open even to the most trivial everyday experiences.

JQ: So, how might you encourage developing writers to participate in the timeless conversation of poetry? 

MB: Time is not really the issue here. Response is the key; responding to what other writers say, what is happening at the time, with a global mentality; using what we learn from experience to widen our scope, and to relay these truths on to our readers. In other words, read many types of poetry, go to readings and performance poetry. Don’t lose out by ignoring what you think you know.