“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 Philip Lanthier

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JQ: When, and in what capacity, did you first get involved with creative writing in the Eastern Townships?

PL: I arrived in Lennoxville in 1972 as part of the second wave of appointments to the newly created Lennoxville Campus of Champlain Regional College. I had been appointed head of the English module (later elevated to departmental status) and quickly discovered that there was a talented bunch of colleagues in the department. We were also part of a growing critical mass of writers in the region, which included poets Ralph Gustafson, Louis Dudek, D.G. Jones, and Avrum Malus, and novelist Ronald Sutherland. John Glassco of Memoirs of Montparnasse fame was not far away in Knowlton.

The magazine, entitled Matrix: New Canadian Writing, was a collective effort on the part of interested members of the Champlain English Department. Our initial plan was to solicit writing from right across Canada and to embrace all aspects of the writing spectrum: poems, interviews, stories, reviews, translations, as well as film, television and stage scripts. At least, that’s what we said in our introductory editorial, and in fact over the fourteen years of publication, only film and television scripts escaped our editorial zeal. Before we embarked on the project, I was able to get the financial backing of the Campus Director, Peter Hill, and spent a helpful and convivial evening talking to Doug Jones who had been instrumental in founding the bilingual magazine, Ellipse, five years before. As the years went by, we also benefited from an annual Canada Council grant. The magazine became part of the Canadian Periodical Publishers’ Association where, for a while, I chaired a literary committee.

Matrix published twice yearly—there were exceptions when teaching workload overwhelmed the editors—until in the Fall of 1988, Issue 27, the last before the periodical was handed over to a group of teachers at John Abbott College in Montreal.  During those years, the literary critical mass expanded, and the area saw the arrival of poets Rob Allen, Steve Luxton, Michael Harris, Ian Tait, Rod Willmot, and others. Readings of poetry and prose flourished on the Bishop’s campus; The Seventh Moon Poetry Readings were a well-attended annual event in North Hatley. In fact, a subsequent issue of Matrix highlighted one of the readings with excerpts, sketches, and photographs of readers.

The whole process of editing a magazine I found fascinating and informative. Soliciting manuscripts, debating their worthiness with colleagues, carefully editing the texts, proofreading diligently, laying out the pages, finding illustrations—it was cut and paste back then—working with the printer, and then receiving delivery; it was all very satisfying.  I would occasionally involve students in the selection process. “Should we print this story/poem?  Why or why not?” The actual work of literary assessment dovetailed nicely with what worked in the classroom.  We never made any money. The price of our first issue? 50 cents, reduced from $1.00.

JQ: In November of last year, at the QWF’s (Quebec Writers’ Federation) annual awards ceremony, you were presented with the Judy Mappin Community Award for your contributions to creative writing in the Eastern Townships. What are the “contributions” for which the award was bestowed, and what did its bestowal represent for you?

PL: What the Judy Mappin award meant to me was that my love of literature was recognized beyond the confines of the Champlain College classrooms I taught in for nearly 30 years.  It was very satisfying teaching young people about the joys of reading, but it was particularly rewarding to reach out to the wider literary community through Matrix and through my work in editing the English portions of the Anthology of 20th Century Poetry of the Eastern Townships. Implicitly, I suppose, I was also recognized for my book reviewing, interviews with Rob Allen and Doug Jones, an introduction to a volume of Steve Luxton’s poetry, and an article on Jones as a translator which appeared in the anthology Language Acts. Once I retired, I had the opportunity to help start up the Knowlton Literary Festival, which celebrates writers both local and from out-of-town.  This has truly been a community effort involving about a dozen volunteers from the Knowlton area who for the last eight years have put together an increasingly successful and highly anticipated event each October. It takes a whole village to launch a literary festival; the support we’ve received from the Town would have made Judy Mappin very happy indeed. I was honoured and delighted to receive the award.

JQ: What can you tell me about this year’s edition of the KLF?

PL: Upcoming this October and highlighting the ninth edition of the Knowlton Literary Festival, participants can expect to meet Newfoundland writer Wayne Johnston (The Colony of Unrequited Dreams), crime writer Giles Blount, Globe and Mail sports journalist Roy MacGregor, and a panel of authors who appeared in the Montreal Noir anthology, including local author Johanne Seymour. We are also expecting confirmations from several other authors. As part of its opening night festivities, the Festival will host a version of Dylan Thomas’s Under Milkwood, performed by the Knowlton Players. But, probably the most popular event will be the Thursday night literary cabaret featuring eight to twelve local authors. We already have confirmations from Jim Napier and Isabelle LaFleche. Our ongoing year-round project to get books into the hands of children attending local daycare centres continues to flourish.

JQ: What changes have you seen, in terms of creative writing, in the Eastern Townships?

PL: There’s been a shift from an emphasis on poetry to an emphasis on prose writing, particularly novels.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the presiding writers were poets John Glassco, Ralph Gustafson, Louis Dudek, and D.G. Jones. Other poets such as F.R. Scott and A.J.M. Smith had places in the Townships, while younger poets like David Solway, Michael Harris, Richard Sommer, Rob Allen, and Steve Luxton came later, some briefly, some for longer periods.  The Townships was largely a community of poets centered on the various universities and colleges.  In the 1980s, Mordecai Richler, who had a house on Lake Memphremagog, began to incorporate Townships locations in such novels as Joshua Then and Now and Solomon Gursky Was Here. By the beginning of the current century novelists Louise Penny and Anne Fortier were well established in the area. Louise Penny, in particular, her international reputation growing, has come to dominate the Townships literary landscape.

The Townships lost three literary magazines by the 1990s—Ellipse, Matrix and the Moosehead Review—with a consequent loss of literary focus on work from this region. There has been an inevitable shift from such print media to the internet and social media, where writers’ work can appear readily and reaction solicited. Writing activity has been dispersed throughout smaller communities such as Stanstead, Sutton, and Knowlton.

JQ: As a cultural metropolis, Montreal is recognized worldwide for its artscape. Is there an effort that is made to distinguish the Eastern Townships literary community from that of Montreal?; are there differences in identity and composition that you’ve witnessed, and that you believe have been important for local writers to preserve?

PL: An early issue of Ellipse considered whether there was a characteristic Townships poetry in English, but it announced no clear discovery. The fact that the editors asked the question, however, indicates a growing suspicion at the time that there might be a basis for identifying such an aesthetic. There was also speculation about a form of northern pastoral practiced by local poets such as D.G. Jones and Ralph Gustafson. This is still an open question, which will no doubt preoccupy literary historians in the future. Certainly, there is a pastoral theme running from Frank Oliver Call and Louise Morey Bowman, right through to Steve Luxton. Gustafson celebrated what he called the “local heart,” a space within the imagination, which responds intimately and feelingly to the world beyond one’s window in North Hatley. For D.G. Jones, who lived just down the street, the landscape, or garden world, is the fragile site, which operates as a receiving station for signals from hyperspace: “these flowers/drink news out of the air.” Luxton walks literally into the bush where his encounter with nature becomes a reciprocal experience: He does not merely observe bird-life.  He himself is “in the vision of birds.”

So, if there is a poetic identity which distinguishes Townships poetry, it lies in poets’ focus on the world of more or less tamed lakes, rivers, mountains, and valleys of the local terrain, an Appalachian sensibility rather than pre-Cambrian. This is a country world, a refuge perhaps from the troublesome world of the city (Montreal?), where traffic makes a condition of repose and mental self-sufficiency extremely difficult to evoke…

No doubt Townships writers will continue to reformulate pastoralism to fit the shifting and increasingly perilous times. But it is to Louise Penny that we owe another form of Townships identity, which distinguished us from that city back west on Autoroute 10. She has collated various locations throughout the Townships to create an ongoing fictional world fraught with murder and brutality. One can now take a tour of the Townships which visits some of the more important sites of her high crimes and misdemeanours. At the same time, her novels also focus on the strengths and intimacies of local communities and their inhabitants symbolized by the mythical village of Three Pines.  She has done for the Townships what Julia Spencer Fleming in her crime novels has done for Northern New York State and Archer Mayor for Vermont: she’s put it on the world literary map. Sooner or later, we may produce an Alice Munro.

What distinguishes writing in the Townships from that of Montreal, it seems to me, is a regional rather than metropolitan identity.  If Montreal, with festivals such as Blue Metropolis, fosters multi-lingual and multi-cultural interchange and brings in writers from all over the world, the Townships writing is more local, discovering its identity in the immediate circumstances of life. In the translation work of John Glassco and D.G. Jones, the Townships has been a site of vital interaction between French and English writers. Anglophone writers here tend to be on the periphery of literary events in Montreal, though they clearly do not cut themselves off from contact with fellow writers in the metropolis or elsewhere in the world for that matter. The literary map here is one of distribution of talent through Lennoxville, Hatley, North Hatley, Stanstead, Sutton, Mansonville, and Knowlton:  a constellation of writers and readers who gather from time to time in local bookshops, schools, libraries, and festivals. Most of us do not need a GPS to get around; we know the way already.

JQ: Are there any programs of support and mentorship at the disposal of aspiring writers in the Townships?

PL: Aside from creative writing courses at Champlain College and Bishop’s University, and the efforts of teachers in local elementary and secondary schools, there are a number of regional support programmes for aspiring anglophone Townships writers. Over the last several years, the Townshippers Association has sponsored the Our Story project, which helped writers in various communities to develop their personal stories with a view to publication on-line. This year, Townshippers launched a series of writing workshops mentored by Melanie Cutting, Etienne Domingue, and Jan Draper, the launch took place in North Hatley on June 2. The Knowlton Literary Festival has run well-attended writing workshops for the last eight years both for children and adults. A recent Haiku Canada conference at Bishop’s also brought together writers of that popular poetic form to participate in readings and creative workshops, including a haiku walk on Mont Orford.

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Philip Lanthier was founding editor of the literary magazine Matrix published in Lennoxville, between 1975 and 1988.  He has published articles and reviews on English poetry in the Eastern Townships and conducted interviews with notable poets of the region.  He has a B.A. from Loyola College in Montreal and a M.A. and Ph.D. from the University of Toronto.  Since his retirement from Champlain College, he has organized the Knowlton Literary Festival, now in its ninth year.  He lives in Bolton-Ouest.  

“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.

 

Erin Mouré, in interview with Linda Morra

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LM: I love the following lines that appear in “Nice Poetry” (Sheepish Beauty, Civilian Love):

We have to invent ourselves continually,
some of us use poems.
“Homes” not “poems” he shouted, that’s my
brother, eating more hay
& ruining the line breaks

What if I went out & did that to his fie
ld?

I am intrigued, among other things, by the images related to wheat and hay (which are intermingled with those related to your brother). There is a tradition of such writing in Canada: how do you see yourself working within a Canadian literary tradition? Or, rather, do you see yourself working within such a tradition? Has it been complicated by living in two entirely different provinces?

EM: I guess I just see myself working constantly, in languages and in mixtures of languages, and across borders of languages. I never have tried to analyze how I fit within a Canadian literary tradition…. that’s a diverse thing, and i’m part of the conversation, part of the diversity…

The hay is also hey….

LM: What would you say are your sources of inspiration, including those literary?

EM: Anything inspires me. I work at the interface of visual, pop, literary, language/s, see how language constellates, work with changes in our view of the page and substrate of writing, work with sound as well… and always, with that non-speech that comes before speaking (Agamben). To create or explore (for sometimes, mostly, there is no “me” separate from the world that is creating… there is a “me”ness in the world…) effects, meaning effects, on many levels. … Of course, as a person I am interested in history, genealogy, dispersion, feminism, social justice, race and gender/ing issues, so these enter into the work. And much of my work is done with others: mentoring, encouraging, challenging and being challenged, encouraged, mentored. The work of individuals grows in a community of endeavour and contributes to a conversation…

LM: And what is the conversation about right now, that is, in some of your current work?

EM: My current work seems to be reading other peoples’ work for the moment… just helping other writers who consult with me to move their work forward. There are many fine projects in translation and writing in Edmonton that I’m privileged to see these days as writer in residence at U of A.

On the side burner (not quite back) are a translation of Brazilian writer Wilson Bueno’s Mar Paraguayo, a tricky project for the original is written in Portunhol, a border language that mixes Spanish and Portuguese, with some words in Guaraní, an indigenous language. In some ways, perhaps, it is the quintessential American language…. and I am completing a translation of Chus Pato’s Secession, her biopoetics, and echoing it in a work of my own called Insecession, in which I try to address some of the same issues from the perspective of my own life and practice: memory, nation, poetics, translation, community, history. That book will be out next year from BookThug. I need to get back to doing a final revision of another work that combines poetry and theatre, Kapusta, for 2015 publication, and have another Pato on the horizon for 2016. And I am just starting a new book of poetry…  The conversation is about many things, focussed on the creative act of writing poetry, as a way of working with and in language, and letting language itself teach us more about communication, possibility, social justice, and non-accumulation….

Gianna Patriarca – In interview with Linda Morra

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LM: Religion and religious belief is used with great sophistication in your poetry. Might you comment on the many ways it is featured and why?

GP: Religion has been from the beginning of my life part, what has shaped me (good or bad). I suppose it is partly because of the time I was born and the location: the 1950s in Italy after the Second World War, the rebuilding and the renewal of faith and tradition of the people, as children we were immersed in the fanfare of it all.

I was taught by the nuns from age four. My grandmother taught me to pray the rosary and she took me to church every Sunday and all the novenas before Christmas. There was something beautiful about the rituals and the music and the smell of incense and wax and the grand statues. As a child, it was all so mystical. The church, the celebrations, the feast days the dedication to saints and the moral guidelines that young people were fed were completely embraced by us during those years.

When we emigrated to Canada in the 1960s, the immigrant communities were tightly tied to the church and our social lives revolved around occasions that were celebrated in the catholic communities: dances, dinners, weddings and so on. I went to a Catholic high school and then myself taught in a Catholic elementary school. I was a good Catholic girl. But I didn’t like it. I started to ask questions, read between the lines of the priests and their homilies. My world got bigger and there was more to discover and to be challenged by. Of course, being a woman was challenge enough in immigrant communities back then, but one that asked questions and formed opinions….not easy.

I feel that I am a very spiritual person and I do believe in some form of higher energy or the power of love, but I had to struggle with the contradictions of my religion and tried to work them out in my writing. My family is very Catholic. My mother and sister are very traditional and I have learned to allow what gives them the strength to cope and brings them peace, although I often find myself writing about the contradictions and the injustices. I can’t accept many things that my religion preaches, but I choose to celebrate certain aspects of it that I know give me a sense of history and identity.

But I haven’t gone to confession in 40 years; I do that with the poetry.

LM: If poetry is a form of confession, what else do you “confess” to and how do you then position the reader in your mind’s eye in relation to it?

GP: I suppose every writer has some personal confession in their work; I did not ever believe I could or would be a writer for the public. I always wrote for myself; our dreams were much more guided towards practical things when I was choosing a career–secretary, bank teller, hairdresser etc. Writing was for me an act of survival. It wasn’t until university that I was encouraged to pursue it at a different level, and, by then, my voice and my style was pretty much established. I was interested in the lives of women, particularly immigrant women whom I served in various jobs and whose stories touched my heart. I remember working for a psychiatrist as a receptionist in the late 1970s and most of his clients were immigrant Italian women. Before they ever spoke to the doctor, they revealed their lives to me because I spoke their language.

There were no role models for girls like me or for the women in the community. I almost felt a responsibility to write about it but always on a personal level because I would never be arrogant and assume to speak for a whole group of women. I think others find the link to their own experiences in my writing, because it comes from a very real and honest place. I have always tried to stay true to the observations and the experiences and write about them with a certain respect and sensibility–and hopefully with the beauty of language.

LM: You observed that you are interested in the lives of women — and the poems in collections such as Italian Women and Other Tragedies showcase this interest. What about the men?

GP: The Men! They are everywhere!!!!!! And I do mean everywhere, including my work, they are in Italian Women and other Tragedies as much as the women are–in (Dolce-Amaro) College Street, The Old Man, Stories From My Town, Roberto Pisapia, and so on. I have always been interested in the women’s stories, because they have never really been told–unlike the stories of men that are everywhere. Just look at the authors who write about immigrant experiences (Italian): the subject is always the struggle of the “man.” The woman is there but she is peripheral.

I have been called a feminist writer, but, in truth, I am a humanist. I don’t exclude the men and certainly I love them as much as the women in my work because they are in it together. The reasons I write so much about women are that they are closer to the reality of my association with women. I spend much time with them–grandmother, mother, sister, aunts–and do volunteering with senior Italian/Canadian women. Also, I taught elementary school where teachers are primarily female. My concerns also extend to the injustices faced by women around the world. Their lives and their struggles motivate me. Sometimes I wish it was motivated by science fiction and vampires: it might be less painful.

The Codpiece and Other Conversational Bits

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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