“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.

***

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.  

Age of Minority: a collection of plays in review

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ageofminority (1)What do you get when you combine a closeted militant, YouTube star rihannaboi95, and a sprint across the Death Strip? Three solo plays written by the acclaimed Canadian multidisciplinary artist Jordan Tannahill.

Tannahill (27) is quite the hot commodity in Canadian theatre. In 2014, he won the Governor General’s Award in Drama for his collection of plays titled Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays.

First published in October 2013, Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays depicts the stories of young individuals who are pushed to the margins of society due to their sexuality or political identities. Each of the plays is based on a true story.

The plays, written with young audiences in mind, are defined as Theatre for Young Audiences (TYA). This is evident in the both the style and context of the play, demonstrating the real struggles that youth face in their coming of age journeys.

However, it is not just youth who are picking up this collection of plays and responding to live performances, but people of all ages. No matter the age, the stories of these characters resonate with readers and theatre-goers. There is a rawness to them that leaves the character exposed in his or her vulnerability, all the while maintaining a sense of integrity despite persecution and moments of overwhelming fear.

The first play featured in the collection is Get Yourself Home Skyler James. It is a story about a young American girl, who enlists to the army right out of high school – with her girlfriend. This play is set before the repeal of the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy. James’ secret is discovered, forcing her to make difficult decisions with no right answers.

Second in the line-up is rihannaboi95. This play is particularly interesting in the manner of which it is performed. As stated at the beginning of the script, “rihannaboi95 is meant to be performed as a YouTube confessional video (a direct-address monologue to a webcam)”. It was first live-streamed over the Internet from April 23 to 28, 2013 to audiences across the globe. The confessional provides the audience with a unique opportunity to listen, as a young boy named Sunny speaks about his passion for dance and the repercussions he faces from his family and community because of his YouTube videos.

Finally, Peter Fechter: 59 Minutes brings the collection to a close with a gut-wrenching story of eighteen-year-old Fechter’s last 59 minutes. His final minutes are spent in what was known as the Berlin Wall’s Death Strip. This is where the play begins, with Fechter bleeding from gunshot wounds inflicted by border guards; his minutes literally tick away.

Age of Minority: Three Solo Plays is unlike any other TYA piece, refreshing in its honesty. Tannahill outdoes himself in these pieces, and brings not only the characters to life but the issues each of them face. This collection of plays definitely falls into the category of “must-read” and is recommended for ages 15+.

Tannahill will be at Bishop’s this week on Thursday, Feb. 11 as the next guest in the Morris House Reading Series (MHRS). Be sure to stop by Bishop’s University’s Bookstore at 4:30 p.m. to hear Tannahill discuss his work. The reading is free to attend and a short reception will follow. Tannahill’s books will be available for purchase, so make sure to grab a copy and get it signed!

This article was written by Kristy Bockus and originally appeared in the issue of The Campus published on February 10th, 2016.

 

Claire Holden Rothman Discusses Translation, Terrorism, and How Characters Are Born.

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Interview by Alison Petrovich

Can you pinpoint the moment when your novel, My October, began not in writing, but as an idea?

I have been thinking about the events of the autumn of 1970 for quite a few years now. And I have been fascinated by the way what we now call the “October Crisis” is talked about and not talked about here in Quebec. To this day, a lot of unease arises when the kidnappings of British diplomat James Cross and Quebec Minister of Labour Pierre Laporte are mentioned. For good reason. Cross was held at gunpoint in an apartment in Montreal’s north end for almost two months. Laporte was killed by strangulation after a week of captivity. The violence of these acts, and the violence with which Ottawa and the Quebec government responded to them, shocked Quebecers to the core.
Forty-five years have passed since those events took place. Much has changed in Quebec and outside of it. Terrorism is now a word we hear almost daily on the news. But we had a brush with our own home-grown political terrorism all those years ago. And it marked and shaped us.
This book was sparked in October of 2001, about a month after Al Qaeda bombed the twin towers in New York City and every network in North America was bombarding us with US President George W. Bush’s “War on Terror.” I was listening to the nightly news on Radio Canada, and a journalist read aloud an excerpt from a letter Jacques Lanctôt had written to the Montreal papers. “Au nom de toutes les victimes innocentes, je crie vengeance,” Lanctôt wrote. I was cooking supper when this came over the airwaves. I stopped stirring the pot.
Jacques Lanctôt, for those who don’t recognize the name, is the man who kidnapped James Cross in 1970.
Wow. What a strange thing to say.
It got me thinking. Three years later, I watched, by chance, a wonderful documentary film by Carl Leblanc called L’Hôtage, containing interviews with both James Cross and Jacques Lanctôt. These two men were not young anymore. They spoke of the events of October 1970 with the hindsight of over three decades. The documentary was poignant and fascinating on more levels than I can list here. And I realized I wanted to open up this subject in fiction, to examine it, air it out. There were so many stories in there that needed to be told, and in Quebec, I felt, we were now capable as a society of talking about them. To live happily and well together, people do not have to agree on things, especially things like politics, which tend to cut close to the bone. But they do have to talk. Talking and exchanging are a must. And fortunately, Quebec has a long, proud tradition of discourse.
So these were two of the moments which sparked the novel, My October, into being—a sentence heard by chance on the radio, and words heard in a cinema. Words can have an influence.
Who gets to tell the story of a person, a family, a nation? Who decides what is true, what is false? Who is the arbiter, in the end, of this thing that we call history? These were some of the questions I set out to answer.

As a novelist, do you believe art serves a moral purpose or is it solely entertainment?

I don’t believe that the purpose of literature is to convey a simple moral message. I do, however, believe that novels have an ethical component. Literature is about human beings and how they act and react under pressure. When life turns difficult, we reveal what we’re made of. Sometimes we show compassion; other times all we can manage is to shrink back and think of ourselves. Our reactions are often complex and contradictory – generosity and self-interest and resentment and even self-hatred can mingle and mix in a single gesture. Literature is not about right or wrong in the conventional sense, but about human thought and speech and actions playing out in particular instances. In this sense it is ethical. It’s also highly entertaining.

When you create a character, such as Hannah, Luc, or Hugo from My October, is there a starting point or first trait that you build from?

Characters are often composites of people I have met. I might take some aspect of someone’s personality that intrigues me and match that with the body of another person I know. Usually the starting point for a character I create exists in the world, in “real life” — which is really life seen through my eyes and therefore an imaginative construction, at best. But there is this grounding in so-called reality. Once born, the character takes on a life of his or her own and reveals who he or she is to me. Often the revelations take me by surprise.
Luc, for instance, is based on a real-life person whom I met only a few times. I do not know him well, but he intrigued me. He is a successful working artist, which I wanted for that character. And he has a physique that is impressive, which also inspired me for Luc Lévesque. Is Luc this real-life man? Not at all. I barely know the guy. But certain details of this individual’s looks and dress and speech patterns and mannerisms opened up possibilities for me that allowed the birth of a fictional being.

When translating, do you ever get stuck on an idea, moment, or phrase that does not seem translatable? If so, how do you overcome these challenges?

The job of translating is different from writing fiction. In translation there is always a text in front of the translator, already written by someone else. To me, translation is more like doing puzzles than creating something. If I am stumped by a French phrase I go first to dictionaries, of which there are many. If it’s a Québécois text, and the problem is a Québécois idiom that I don’t recognize, there are dictionaries that specialize in this. So I look things up. If that doesn’t do the trick, I consult with people. Phone up friends who might know. And I mull things over, trying out the best way to express things. Sometimes it’s hard straddling two languages. If I have been reading nothing but French for a while, the syntax of that language begins to creep into my English, or even French expressions begin to infiltrate, and momentarily I lose access to my own English idiom! It’s like seeing the world through different glasses. I have to pause and remember to pick up my English glasses again. Eventually the most appropriate English words come into focus and settle into the right order on the page.

Mark Lavorato on Writing, Montreal, and What It Means to Be Human

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Interview by Alison Petrovich
Serafim and Claire is in itself, a love letter to the city of Montreal. How much influence does the weight of your surroundings affect your storytelling?

You’re right, Serafim & Claire is essentially a love letter to the city of Montreal. And a metropolis is so particular in the way it shapes a novel, in that, unlike a rural setting, there are powerful movements that are manifesting themselves in public places. Unlike a small village, a city hangs its dirty laundry out to dry. That completely changes the way you approach the setting as a writer. The forces and undercurrents that shaped (and are still shaping) Montreal, can be found in the news, in protests, in personal journals and biographies, and in photos that were taken on the streets. Which is why it was so important for street photography to become a focus for one of my characters in the novel, Serafim.

How would you say your other passions of music and photography have affected your written work and your creative forces as a writer?

To me, all art is an attempt to explore what it means to be human, and different mediums navigate those waters at varying depths and efficiency. Music, in my mind, is direct, powerful, but fleeting, whereas literature is slow, nuanced, and long-lasting. Playing with different mediums has certainly provided insight and perspective that I don’t think I would otherwise have stumbled across. As an aside, I only discovered photography because of my research for Serafim & Claire. There is a very dubious aspect of taking pictures of strangers in public — pictures that they don’t necessarily consent to ― and then calling it art. That “stealing of intimate moments” in a public place was something I had to experience firsthand. I soon adopted a bag of tricks to remain unnoticed and unobtrusive, while gaining access to ever greater intimacy. There is something undeniably creepy about it. You can see some of these photos here.

Who are some of your favorite authors? Was there any particular book that inspired you to want to be a writer?

I read all across the spectrum. I loved so many classics in my early adulthood; books by Melville, Dickens, Dostoyevsky, Orwell, Woolf. But I love reading pop literature as well, like books by Nick Hornby, T.C. Boyle, Edward St. Aubyn, and Annie Proulx. I’m also addicted to poetry anthologies, the best of which, in my opinion, come out of the UK at the moment. And I was inspired to write, not by a particular book, but by listening to true and heartbreaking stories in the jungles of Guatemala.

Believing Cedric has many different stories intertwined within the novel. What was the writing process like for this novel? Did you write it from beginning to end or as the stories came to you and organized it after?

I loved researching and writing this novel. In many ways, it’s my attempt to define and explore what I see as the multifaceted soul of Canada. The novel is very ADHD, in that it bounces around to different times and places and aspects of Canadian history, telling the intimate stories of twelve people, all of whom were the main influences on one particular man’s life, Cedric Johnson. I wrote the book in chronological order, but researched the topics and history somewhat randomly. There were a few unwieldy pieces that stood too far out from the whole, but my editor, Lynn Coady, helped rein them all in.

Bootstrapping

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Dear Past Jeff,

This is your future self. I have no idea how this will get to you because time travel is still mystery to me, where I’m at. We don’t even have Hoverboards yet. I know! Just another reason why Back to the Future, Part Two remains such a disappointment – but I digress. I’m in the future. Your future. I can’t give you an exact date because it’s all relative but my intention is to make sure you get this on February 21st, 2013 the evening Jeramy Dodds comes to Bishop’s. If I recall correctly you were/are a little anxious because you had/have to introduce him to a room full of people and public speaking is not a thing you’re good at. You’re still not. I’m you, I know. Anyway, relax. The reading will go great. You’re well over that other problem of being tongue-tied when you meet an author. I think the term you once used was “cheese-eating semi-colonite”? Jeramy is a swell guy and, aside from the public speaking bit, you were aces.

You’re probably wondering what this is all about. Why, on the evening of the penultimate Morris House reading for the 2012/2013 season, have I contacted you from the future? Well, I think time travel may actually exist. I know I just said that time travel is a mystery and that’s true but notice: it’s a mystery to me. I think there’s someone who’s mastered it. Someone knows the secret and on February 21, 2013, if you get this letter and you play your cards right you can get the goods on time travel. We’re a team! There’s no I in team, it’s true but there’s a U and I in space/time continuum so pay heed because here’s what I’ve figured out:

Jeramy Dodds is a time traveler.

Don’t even laugh. This is serious business and I have evidence. In front of me is copy of Jeramy’s collection of poems, Crabwise to the Hounds. At this point, you have a copy as well but mine is inscribed. I know you’re a sucker for signed copies but what matters is what Jeramy will write in your copy of his book: “Jeff, The future will be kind to us all. Promise. Jeramy Dodds” That is a not a thing one simply tosses off, especially in an age of global warming, economic collapse, and Republicans. I think, and it’s only with the benefit of hindsight that I’ve been able to come to this conclusion, that Jeramy Dodds has seen the future and he is not afraid of it.

Sure, I can imagine your skepticism. It’s what makes Past Jeff so intolerably endearing but I’ve had a lot of time to think on this and there’s more. I will dazzle you with incontrovertible, iron clad evidence that Dodds is the Poet Laureate of the time streams. You’ll find it in his poem Depth of Field which he will read, tonight, at the Morris House event. He wrote it for a friend of his which seems fairly innocuous but, at the reading, Dodds himself will reveal it’s a time-travel poem. This is where you can add “dun dun duuuuuun” because I know you still think you’re funny at that moment in time. From where I’m standing, you’re a smug wise-ass but that’s neither here nor there. What’s important are these lines in the last stanza of the poem:

Noticing that we had lost ten years watching
that horse come apart. You had married, twice.

Consider the rhetorical power of poetry and I think you’ll find it it’s difficult to ignore what’s happening here. Keep in mind that Dodds admitted/will admit this is a bit of time travel business, so let’s do a close reading of that line about losing ten years. You may want to Google what I’m about to describe (In the future, The Search Engine Wars are devastating, worse than the Cola Wars of the mid-eighties. I can’t say who wins so don’t ASK. *Ahem*): Temporal Causality Loops. If I know anything about science-fiction, they are completely real and a legitimate threat to the time traveler. Dodds says they lose ten years and that his friend “had married twice” (emphasis mine!). See where I’m going? See where I’m going? Losing time happens in one of two ways: alien abductions and Time Loops! Time Loops! Dodds is clearly familiar with The Groundhog Day Theorem. It’s obvious, really. Obvious!

You’re in a unique position to make this happen- unless you never receive this letter but that seems unlikely, knowing what I know. Sure, there might be some sort of paradox that results in this letter never getting written once you get the secret of time travel from Dodds but you’ll still have this letter. See? Look, I’m not explaining it very well but you really need to trust me on this. Dodds knows. How can I convince you? Wait! His jacket. When he arrives at the bookstore, look at his jacket and take note of old fashioned sheriff’s badge on his lapel. Dodds claimed he got it in Calgary but he never said specifically when he got that badge! Clearly he acquired it at some point in the past! Remember Back to Future, Part Three, which was much better than part two but still not as good as the first one? Where Marty and Doc wind up in the old west?

EXACTLY.

Alright, that’s all I’m comfortable putting to Future Science Paper (patent pending). You have your mission. Make it happen because this is so big, it’s practically Quantum.

Sincerely,

Future Jeff

P.S. If you’re still not convinced, I assure you, Dodds is right. The future is kind to all of us, just not at the same time.

-Jeff Parent

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