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Archive for June, 2018

My little love affair with letterpress printing started last year in an odd, unassuming but somehow fated kind of way, just as most love affairs will, I suppose. I read Merilyn Simonds’s book, Gutenberg’s Fingerprint: Papers, Pixels and the Lasting Impression of Books last spring and wrote a little review here, on my blog. I had known of Gutenberg, of course, and have always loved reading about historical periods, so it was, for me, the perfect book. Before that, I had little notion of how beautiful a letterpress could be. (Trust me: I know that sounds weird…)

In April 2016, I went to a historical fiction workshop at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity and met two women who raved about different types of font over wine one night in the Painter House. I remember thinking, “What are they on about?” One was Sandra McIntyre, who was writing a novel about Baskerville and his famous font, while the other was Monica Kidd, who owns Whiskyjack Press in Calgary and who happens to be a brilliant poet. I had had one glass of wine, so at that point I wasn’t in grand shape, but I remember thinking that I was intrigued.

My friend Tanya Neumeyer, a poet from Toronto, saw my blog post and wanted to introduce me to Hugh Barclay, of Thee Hellbox Press in Kingston. Both Tanya and Hugh are mentioned in Merilyn’s book as Merilyn had worked with Hugh on some letterpress projects, namely her beautiful limited edition handmade book, The Paradise Project. Hugh is a book artist, and you can tell this by the description of that project on his website. He speaks lovingly of the detailed and meticulous process that is typesetting and letterpress work: “What we will have is a 64-page book, hand-set in 14 pt. Garamond Roman, printed on an 1890 Chandler/Price press on Saint-Armand’s “salad” paper (cream coloured mould-made paper)…The covers will be wrapped in Japanese Ajisai Gold, which translates as Gold Hyacinth.” Pure poetry, I think, Hugh’s description of that stunning book.

When Hugh read the review of Merilyn’s book, he invited me, in my role as poet laureate (then) of Greater Sudbury, to visit him in Kingston, along with Tanya, to set and print one of my poems. So, there was a road trip down to Toronto to pick up Tanya and then on to Kingston, where I stayed with my second cousin, Mary, and her partner, Dale. What followed was a hot and humid nine-hour day in Hugh’s print shop, learning the ins and outs of letterpress printing. I was overwhelmed, but oddly attracted to it all.

Then, in March this year, I had a poetry reading out in Calgary, so Monica invited me to visit her letterpress studio in the old Grain Exchange building downtown. This was one of the loveliest afternoons I’ve had in my lifetime, peppering her with questions, setting type, and learning about how she works as a letterpress printer. It was too short, though, that time.

When I came down to Kingsville to work on my second novel, my friend Fe told me about Levigator Press and its proprietor, Jodi Green. Fe said that Jodi ran classes and a bell went off in my head. I wanted to learn more and maybe set and print some more poems. So, in April, I took a paper marbling class. It was brilliant. I have always loved art, and I write a lot of ekphrastic poems, but I never really considered myself to be artistic in a visual arts sort of way. Now, though, I’ve found a way to satisfy that need to be visually artistic in a literary way, melding my words with ink, beautiful paper, and elegant bits of ornamentation.

So, in mid-June, after I returned to Kingsville from Sudbury, I set off to Levigator to learn letterpress more fully. I knew I wanted to set the type for one of my poems, but I also knew that the full poem I’d done with Tanya and Hugh last year had taken nine hours. I was not up for that. (In a new relationship, even one with inanimate objects like type and a letterpress, you don’t necessarily want to spend every waking hour with the person. This probably means I am commitment phobic, if that’s even a phrase, but I know how I work. I get fascinated by something like letterpress and book arts, and then go fully into it, but I also know about balance and how I need to work on my writing projects, too. As a writer, you’re drawn to people, but also weirdly repulsed, I think. That repulsion part, for me, lets me spend a lot of time on my own, hiking, walking in towns, reading, and writing on my own.) So, after all was said and done, I settled on typesetting and printing just one stanza of a poem I wrote after hiking at Kopegaron Woods, in Wheatley, Ontario. I chose what I think is the most beautiful stanza in that particular poem, the one with birds. (I also have a big thing for birds, in particular crows and ravens, but that’s a whole other blog…)

title.jpgThe title of the poem, “A Walk in Kopegaron Woods,” which was shortened from its original title (because of its length!)

Jodi was incredibly patient and kind, listening to my peppering of questions and offering up answers and carefully worded explanations so that I could learn as I went. It was a lot of new terminology and I felt out of my depth. So, after four afternoons, and part of another day, I think, we ended up with the stanza set on beautiful paper.

Hugh and Tanya taught me so much last August in that one nine-hour block of time. I revisited it with Monica in March out in Calgary. With Jodi, over the last two weeks, I’ve had an intense immersion and review of letterpress. I remembered the terminology for things like the chase, the furniture, spacers, slugs, ornaments, the ink reservoir, and words like ‘kern’ and ‘quoin,’ which just make me think that you could easily write a poem using letterpress terminology and it would likely be beautiful…I could call it “A love letter to the letterpress.” 🙂

full layout .jpgDesigning the layout before printing the stanza.

The loveliest thing that’s emerged from all of that is that I’m giving one signed copy of my limited edition print run of stanzas to the Essex Region Conservation Authority, to auction off at a fundraising event in August. So, a place where I love to hike and which brings me great peace inside has inspired a poem, which inspired a letterpress broadside, which now allows me to give back to a protected conversation area. I love that circle. It feels very ancient and very Celtic. It feels very “me.” I love trees, as most of my friends know, and I love hiking out under these Carolinians. The trees back in northern Ontario are different. Just as beautiful, of course, but different.

completedpoem.JPGThe completed broadside. (I am so in love with it!)

Next week, and the one following it, I’m back in at Levitator Press for a number of hours in the evening, haunting Jodi and beginning to typeset a stanza from another poem. After a long talk last week over coffee, we decided to try another broadside, so I can get more comfortable with typesetting and printing, and then we’ll move onto a small chapbook of my hiking poems from my time in Essex County. We’re going to try using stanzas and make plates of photos that I’ve taken during my hikes.

What I love most about doing this, exploring the world of letterpress printing and book arts, is that there’s something very historical and traditional about it. These are two things I’m strongly rooted in within my life. I always feel as if I’m out of the loop of modern life, as if I was born in the wrong time period, and I know full well that I’m an anachronism. I’m old fashioned. This little project allows me to steep in the beauty of words and language in a new way. (Plus, to be honest, there is something very comforting about picking through a tray of type, searching out letters and tiny commas, and then trying to centre it all in the chase. Finding that it all magically works, after hours of meticulous work with your hands, is beautiful in a really true, authentic, and deep way.)

I’m down here in Essex County until the end of the year, finishing the first draft of my second novel, so I have the time and space to work on this project, too. I’m excited to start. I have so much more to learn, but I have time…I have time. 🙂

peace,

k.

 

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My eldest dog, Sable, is turning fourteen years old this week. I know she’s not very well. She’s had a heart murmur since the beginning of time, but in the last few years, she’s had a couple of weird cancer scares, a terrifying case of near-death pancreatitis just before my dad died, infected eyes that have been quite scary to heal, and now, she’s fairly deaf and blind, and dealing with vestibular disease, which means she’s tilted and a bit wobbly. She’s still happy and content, though. She loves her breakfast and supper dishes, and treats of course (especially bits of banana or carrot), and seems to want to snuggle more. I refer to her as the Queen Mum. She’s ancient, and wise, and rather crotchety. Still, she seems a bit more cuddly of late, fumbling across the chesterfield to my side and sitting there so that my hand rests on her head, my arm on her back. She snores horribly, as if there’s an old man in a tiny furry suit in the flat, rather than a small, barrel-chested shih tzu.

When you’re on your own as a single person without a lot of family members, and I have been for quite a while, your dogs are your closest family. They see you when you’re healthy, and when you’re sick in bed, with either a migraine or a bout of bronchitis. They know when you’re feeling unwell and snuggle up next to you without asking. They don’t talk back, but they do try to steal the banana peel, especially when they think that something of the banana might still be left in there somewhere. 🙂

Sable’s gone downhill a bit in the last three months, while I’ve been writing in Kingsville and away from home in Sudbury. In many ways, she does better here, mostly because I’m living in a tiny flat that is perched above a garage, tucked away behind my landlords’ home. She can navigate the space quite easily if you put her on the floor next to the bed, right after you wake up. She will snuffle, nose her way to the water bowl, wander outside to do her business, and then I tuck her up under my arm like a football, to carry her up the tall stairway that leads to my door here.

The saddest part of it all, really, is that she doesn’t walk with me anymore. From the time she was little, she was my walking and hiking partner. Then Gully came along, as my mum was dying in Fall 2008, and he joined us on our walks. In the last year, it’s been hard not have Sabe along for our daily morning walks. Since last year, Gull and I have gone on long hikes around Sudbury, and now, down around Southwestern Ontario. I have to leave Sable behind, in the little flat, but she doesn’t seem to mind. She mostly sleeps all of the day away now, and I cuddle with her whenever I can.

So. Here are the lessons that having an aging dog have taught me, and for which I am grateful:

  1. You can have bought a dog for your parents, and then suddenly find yourself falling in love with her. You can watch that dog sit by a failing mother, and then, after she has died, you can smuggle that same dog into a palliative care hospital wing in a red sports bag. (Sable grumbled and made some ‘talking noise,’ but she also didn’t seem to upset the nurses, who mostly turned their heads and looked the other way.) And then you can remember having watched that dog sit next to your father in a hospital bed, and how he and she had a little ‘grumbled’ conversation over the course of an hour, with a closed door, and hushed tones, so that no one would ever know she was there.
  2. You can learn that having an elderly dog with a disability is a teaching moment of the highest order. You can learn that love comes in small, furry packages, and that dogs are more often than not much kinder than humans. They love you unconditionally, which is a rare thing in these modern times.
  3. Aging dogs teach you to be even more patient than you may already be. They remind you to be quiet when you need to be, to be kinder than you already are, and, even more importantly, to be open and welcoming to those who may need to have someone listen, or else just sit next to them in silence.
  4. They teach you that walking into walls isn’t a bad thing, occasionally, and that you can learn a great deal about how to “bounce back” when you make the ‘wrong’ decision and need to re-route yourself. (Mind you, they also teach you to have eyes in the back of your head so that you can keep an eye on them…so that you can be their eyes now that theirs don’t work as well…so that they actually don’t walk into walls…)
  5. They can tell you about the value of being vulnerable and ‘soft’ inside, when you’ve only ever had to be strong and protective of your own self (if you’re on your own). Sometimes, fear can make you hard and resistant to others, but these lessons are about acceptance of having been hurt or tried, and of learning how to forgive, and to accept a space that best heals you, that best keeps you healthy.
  6. Older dogs are slower. They remind you, when you take them on short walks (or wobbles) down the laneway, that you should stop and smell the proverbial roses. Life is too fast paced, and we are all rushing to get somewhere, but these older dogs remind you that time is fleeting, that we need to find those with whom we can share time and energy on deeper levels, so that we can truly experience life. They remind you that slowing down is a good thing, not a bad thing.
  7. They remind you that life is short, that fourteen years is a fast-moving carousel, often populated with love and loss in various incarnations. They remind you to celebrate the love, no matter what. They remind you to share love, even while others would avoid it, or just take pale facsimiles of it into their hearts.
  8. And…they remind you that ends will come, whether you want them to or not. There is something in older dogs that will nudge a person, kindly, will tell them that life isn’t to be wasted, but to be lived fully, even if this means a slow, wobbly, snuffly walk in the grass that takes half an hour instead of ten minutes. It’s about value. It’s about quality, not quantity. It’s about depth, not surfaces. It requires commitment. It requires risk.

She’s not done. I know that much, but these are the lessons I learn from Sable every day. They come in small segments, portioned off like bits of clementine on a white china plate, so that you are more than aware of what their importance is as you move forward in a day, a week, a month, or a year. You savour the lessons. You love the time you have left. You mourn the times when you could hike together over rough rocks and bits of moss in Northern Ontario, and you still take her to Point Pelee to watch the sunrise, just for fun. Even if she can’t really see it anymore. She teaches me, you see, that sometimes what you see in your mind’s eye, in your imagination, is much more vivid than anything else you could sense in this less colourful dimension…and that hope is a thing that flies like a bird, or an angel.

…and she teaches me about gratitude and love and respect…and about being soft…and vulnerable…and trusting…even if it puts me at risk of being hurt…and even if it makes me feel uncomfortable.

She teaches me how to grow.

IMG_8722.jpgIMG_8352.jpgIMG_7503.jpgpeace, friends.

k.

 

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I’ve been lucky to have met some really amazing writers in the last two years. Some have turned out to be acquaintances, but some are dear friends. Patti Kay Hamilton is one of the dearest I know. We met at an April 2016 historical fiction workshop with Lawrence Hill. (I’m lucky; although I’ve not stayed close friends with other writers from other previous writing retreats, I’m still in close touch with quite of few of those Banff friends. They are particular kindreds, I guess you could say.)

When we were out in Banff two years ago, I remember PK talking to Larry about NorthWords, the Yellowknife literary festival. He and his wife, Miranda, were going out to take part in the festival in late May of that same year. I remember the photos of them down with the White Pelicans, thinking that it would be an amazing experience.

Imagine my delight, then, when PK rang me in the fall last year to ask if I’d be interested in taking part in the 2018 festival. One of the committee members had heard me interviewed about one of my poet laureate projects in Sudbury on CBC radio, through the internet, and had put my name forwards as a possible writer to invite. I said yes, of course. I love to travel and meet new people, but I also love to see raw landscape and nature, and I knew I’d get something of that as well. Plus, I’d have a chance to visit with Patti Kay, and I missed her.

So, on May 30th, I flew from Windsor to Calgary to Yellowknife. Imagine my fan-girl behaviour, then, when I was seated in front of Lee Maracle and Terry Fallis. (I hope I didn’t seem too weird when I turned around in my seat and said, “Oh my God! I love you guys!”) And then imagine my delight when I saw Cherie Dimaline and Richard Van Camp get on the tiny plane that would take us to the Northwest Territories. I kept thinking, inside my head, “Oh my God. So many amazing Canadian writers are on this plane. It better not crash.” The flight was uneventful, except that I was seated next to a very tall, rather musty-smelling Yellowknife resident. He must’ve thought I was mad because I became too excited as we flew over Great Slave Lake. It is, to be honest, one of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen in my entire life. It is the second largest lake within Canada, and the fifth largest in North America. Whenever you fly into (or out of) Yellowknife, you get to see it, and it’s stunning. As we began to descend, it crept into the space of the airline window. That’s when I think I freaked out my musty-smelling seat mate. I kept saying, “Oh, my God. It’s so beautiful. Look at that. Look at the ice!” Finally, he put down his book, which he was pretending to read, but couldn’t because I was muttering in amazement and craning my neck. “It is nice, isn’t it? We take it for granted sometimes, living up here.” Then we began to chat about what types of fish there are in the lake, and how long it takes for the ice to leave (sometimes it doesn’t go until July, and it reappears in October). In any case, the poor man didn’t finish his book, I was worn out from a long day of layovers in Calgary, and perhaps even more chatty because of it. (I talk too much…sometimes!)

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The ice on Great Slave Lake, during spring break up. Wednesday, May 30, 2018. (SO BEAUTIFUL!!)

After we dropped our bags at the hotel (where there was a large stuffed polar bear in the lobby!), we were ferried to a welcome dinner at the home of Judith Drinnan. She owns the brilliant Yellowknife Book Cellar, Canada’s most northern bookstore, which was founded in 1979. Her home overlooks the bay where there is a houseboat colony. From her deck, you can see the colourful full-sized homes that seem to float on the lake. I was totally taken with that little clutch of colour. “Are they on land? On islands?” I asked someone who was also out having a glass of wine on the decking. The woman shook her head and smiled. “No. They are on barges. They stay out there all year round.” Of course I ended up researching about them because I found them fascinating. They reminded me of the Jelly Bean Row houses of St. John’s that I so love. You can imagine, in places where the weather might be rough in winter especially, that bright colours like red, blue, purple, and green would perk up your days (and sometimes endless Midnight Sun-inspired nights!).

The houseboats have been there since the early 1980s. Some people have referred to the people who live there as ‘water squatters.’ In the 1990s, the town tried to work out the business of taxing people who lived in dwellings that weren’t actually on land. It didn’t work, so the people who live on the houseboats don’t pay taxes (you can’t tax houses that float on water, after all), and are in charge of their own sewage and electricity. Most use composting toilets, solar energy, or propane, to heat and light their homes. In summer, they boat across to the docks, and in winter they drive across. The “shoulder seasons” of spring and fall can be a bit dicey for getting back and forth to shore. A number of the people who live in the houseboat colony are said to be artists. (I can imagine that the quirky romance of the idea of living on a houseboat would be appealing for some, but with my luck I’d fall in during one of the shoulder season bits…)

 

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The Yellowknife Houseboats. Wednesday, May 30, 2018.

That first night, I met some amazing women. (Literary festivals always seem to feature the hard work of innovative and feisty women. They make for good kindred spirits and seem to know how best to plan things.) Charmaine Routery is the spirited executive director of the festival. She has a grand sense of humour, and a keen sense of organization. Then there’s Fran Hurcomb, the president of the festival board. (People always think that being president of a board of directors is fun, but I can imagine it’s a load of work…) Other key people I met were the brilliant Tanya Snow, who is a writer and who also does traditional throat singing; Robyn Scott, who is a spirited teacher who is also a performance poet; and Mary Elizabeth Kelly, the calm force behind things. Whenever anything seemed to get a bit frazzled or frantic, you could look to Charmaine and Mary to smile and speak calmly. (It’s amazing what having someone speak calmly will do to a group of writer people…) Patti Kay is also a board member, but she’s based further afield, in Fort Smith, an eight-hour drive south of Yellowknife. You couldn’t mention all of these people without mentioning the brilliant NWT writer, Richard Van Camp. He is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and his dedication to writing, and to being supportive and encouraging of other writers, is something that totally impressed me yet again.

The next day, I went to Fort Smith with Terry Fallis. His is a Cinderella story, in terms of publishing his first book, and then winning the Stephen Leacock Award about ten years ago. I’m a fan of his writing, and it’s always so good to hear stories of how people have succeeded as writers. We met Patti Kay at the airport in Fort Smith and spent the day whirling through town. First stop was a hike through the woods and down a steep ridge to edge of the Slave River, to The Rapids of the Drowned, where the American White Pelicans often fish. It’s the largest colony in North America, so they are quite plentiful. For a bird that is rather ungainly, they are so graceful when they fly. I was amazed at that. To be truthful, I didn’t want to leave them behind, but we went off to meet students at both the Thebacha Campus of Aurora College and then later at Paul William Kaeser High School. Both groups were spirited and I learned a lot from them. The kids at PWK met us within the space of a Cree language immersion classroom. (In between our school visits, we had a lunch of moose meat and barley soup, read from our respective books to a large audience at the museum in Fort Smith, and generally got to know people. They are, from every interaction I had during my four days in the NWT, truly hospitable, fun, and generous in sharing their hearts and stories.

 

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After a hike through beautiful woods, we stood on the shoreline of the Slave River, and the Rapids of the Drowned, and saw the northernmost colony of American White Pelicans. Fort Smith. Thursday, May 31, 2018.

 

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A visit (with Terry Fallis) to the Thebacha Campus of Aurora College, in Fort Smith, on Thursday, May 31, 2018.

 

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A visit to the PWK High School in Fort Smith, hanging out with Grade 7-9 emerging writers, with Terry Fallis, on Thursday, May 31, 2018.IMG_8938.jpg

Stop signs in Fort Smith, NWT.

In the Northwest Territories, eleven languages are officially recognized; nine of these are Indigenous, while two (French and English) aren’t. In Fort Smith, the main language spoken is Cree, whereas the majority of people who speak Inuktitut live in Yellowknife. The walls of the PWK classroom were covered in Cree translations of English words and phrases. As the three key cultures in the area tend to be Cree, Chipewyan, and Metis, students in school can choose to either take French or Cree from elementary school up through secondary levels. The classroom next to ours, too, was a traditional one, with the teacher showing us the community drum and giving us a short rendition of a sacred song.  Again, on the way back to Yellowknife late in the afternoon, we watched the beauty of the ice on Great Slave Lake. It reminded me of a paper marbling class that I took at Levigator Press in Windsor back in early May, seeing the water and ice blending in such a beautiful way.

On Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting two groups of high school students at Sir John Franklin High School. We talked about how pieces of visual art can inspire us to create poems. (This is my main area of interest as a poet, and likely more as a failed visual artist!) The students, and Tomiko Robson, their teacher, were spirited and really great sports in taking part in the writing process with me. I felt honoured to be there. Then, in the afternoon, I met with a group of local Yellowknife writers and talked about ekphrastic poetry. I also learned a bit about the history of the town.

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One of the fine groups of emerging writers at Sir John Franklin High School, along with their brilliant English teacher, Tomiko Robson. Friday, June 1, 2018. IMG_8988.jpg

A second keen group of emerging writers at Sir John Franklin High School. Yellowknife, NWT. Friday, June 1, 2018. IMG_9004.jpg

A fabulous group of emerging writers at the Yellowknife Public Library afternoon poetry workshop. Friday, June 1, 2018.

Saturday brought a morning panel discussion about the power of fiction, with Rebecca Hendry, Lee Maracle, Cherie Dimaline, and Terry Fallis. This was followed by a poetry panel in the afternoon.  Lee and I discussed social media, social justice issues, and the role that poetry plays in our modern world. (This was terribly intimidating for me, as I have loved Lee Maracle’s work for years…and am constantly amazed by her.) I also had the privilege of mentoring two local writers who shared their poetry and prose work with me on Saturday afternoon. I so loved that one-on-one experience, so I thank Elaine Gillespie and Robin Young for it.

Saturday evening brought me a slight heart attack. “Blush” is the NorthWords festival folks’ idea of fun. It’s an evening of people reading erotica. Yeah. I’m one of the shyest people I know when it comes to private things, and erotica is not something I’m good at writing. (Writing a few sex scenes in my first novel required soft music, candles, and a bottle of wine…) I write sensual poems, definitely, but they usually use trees and nature as metaphors for romantic relationships. So. As both Rebecca and Terry know, I had just gotten my first glass of wine for the evening and heard my name called. I was the first reader. Damn it. This did not bode well. I had hoped to at least not feel my ankles before getting up on stage and turning fifty shades of bright red. I basically told about two or three hundred people that I would be the sedate, Downton Abbey part of the evening. Then I read a couple of sensually-charged poems featuring birch trees that unveil themselves and stars exploding. Yup. Tame by comparison. For the rest of the evening, I drank heavily, sandwiched between Terry and Rebecca, and kept muttering “Oh, my God…” as people read rather explicit passages that they’d written. It was a night of terror and bravery for me. Let’s leave it at that. 🙂

What I most want to say about the NorthWords Writers’ Festival, though, is that the people of Yellowknife and Fort Smith are hospitable and open hearted. I felt so honoured to have been asked to take part. I was the most unrecognizable in a slate of very famous Canadian writers, so I felt like Cinderella for most of the festival. I worked hard as laureate for Sudbury, and I’m proud of what I did over my two-year term, and I’m so glad of the opportunities that it has afforded me since then. Visiting the Northwest Territories was a ‘life highlight,’ but now I’m desperate to go back. I would love to go on a canoe trip, or on a really long hike. The land is beautiful. The sun never really sets at this time of year, and the energy in the earth and high skies is powerful magic.

To Fran and Charmaine, as President and Executive Director of NorthWords Writers’ Festival, I can’t thank you enough for my invitation, and for making me feel so at home. To the other (big famous) writers who were there along with me, you don’t know how grateful I am to have sat next to you at breakfast, eating eggs and bacon, pinching myself under the table because this little Northern Ontario girl never grew up imagining she’d ever be meeting writers she so loved and respected when she grew up to be a woman. To Rebecca and Terry, well, how do you know when you’ll meet truly kindred spirits and want to hang out with them all the time for fun? To Patti-Kay, hmmm…how do you thank someone whom you know you were fated to meet two years ago, in amidst the mountains of Banff? I feel blessed, grateful, and more sure of my internal compass as a writer…even on days when I’m tired and my head hurts from trying to sort out a story’s plot.

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Last night…after my terrifying reading at “Blush,” on Saturday, June 2, 2018…with Rebecca Hendry and Terry Fallis. (Poor souls….)

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Patti Kay Hamilton, a dear friend whom I met in April 2016 at a (now infamous) Banff Centre for Arts & Creativity historical fiction workshop with Larry Hill. How lucky I am that we stay in close touch, despite the geographic distances.

And to Yellowknife and Fort Smith, I love your White Pelicans, your Wild Cat Cafe, your never-setting Midnight Sun that reminds me of my dad’s favourite Robert Service poems, and your endless hospitality and kind words. I may just have fallen in love with the Northwest Territories…and will carry it in my heart for years to come.

Don’t worry…I’ll be back. A hiking trail or canoe is calling my name…already. 🙂

peace,

k.

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The infamous Yellowknife landmark, The Wildcat Cafe. (Best bison stew and bannock I’ve ever had!)

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Sunrise, at 3:30am on Sunday, June 3, 2018.

 

 

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I was lucky enough to have been invited to take part in the NorthWords Writers’ Festival last week in Yellowknife, in the Northwest Territories. It was such an honour, and I got to meet and hang out with writers whose work I’ve admired for a long time. I’ll write more about that in another post later this week, but wanted to write about one workshop that struck me. It was about the power of fiction in the world, and how reading literature can transform you.

The people taking part in the panel were Rebecca Hendry (author of One Good Thing and Grace River), Lee Maracle (author of many books, including Ravensong, I am woman, and Celia’s Song, just to name a few), Cherie Dimaline (the 2017 winner of the Governor General’s Award for Literature with her stunning novel, The Marrow Thieves), and Terry Fallis (who has six novels to his name, including his latest, One Brother Shy, and who is also the owner of a keen sense of wit). Imagine the wealth of experience on this little panel on a Saturday morning in Yellowknife. (I should’ve had more coffee that day…lesson learned.)

The questions posed were ones surrounding the notion of how literature, particularly prose, can be powerful, can even invoke social change. The moderator asked first about the authors’ earliest memories of story. Their answers were interesting, varied, but all came down to the importance of storytelling and reading. I like that. Literacy is one of my pet causes, so it’s always good to hear authors speak of the power of books.

Lee Maracle began, speaking of not having been able to read until she was nine. Hers was a childhood of storytelling, and of recollections of myth-making. Later on, she spoke of how Chekov influenced her, how his work drew her to worry about his characters. Rebecca Hendry spoke of how she had been “writing since I can remember.” Cherie Dimaline spoke about how she grew up hearing two types of stories — the myth making history ones that recorded her culture’s origins and history, and the ‘play’ stories that allowed for fun, but still held meaningful teachings. Terry Fallis spoke of how his father engendered a love of literature and reading so that he “grew up to love reading.” He talked, too, of how he believes “we learn far more from fiction than from non-fiction.” All of their views could be summed up in Maracle’s statement that “story is our guide.” How could it not be, is all that I could think as I listened carefully and took notes. Maybe I’m biased, though, as an avid reader and writer. I write in three different genres, which often seems a bit schizophrenic to me, but all of them centre on what I perceive my truths to be, and this is reflected in what I write.

The notion of truth, and how we come to it as writers and readers, was broached. Fallis said, “Fiction is the best vehicle for telling the truth…because we create a story to perfectly convey a truth…” Dimaline echoed this notion when she said that readers can “fall in love with characters first…and then talk about the real issues underlying the story.” Her work, in terms of The Marrow Thieves, has a far-reaching ripple. As a teacher, I can see how kids fall in love with her YA novel for its vivid characters and situations, but then also learn about residential schools and colonization. Then, they take the novels home and let their parents read them, the very parents who may not have been exposed to knowledge of Canada’s “other” history, the one that tells of the persecution of this country’s First Nations, Metis, and Inuit peoples. Rebecca Hendry spoke of how “we all have different perspectives” and that “fiction has the ability to allow us to learn about one another…and triggers our sense of empathy.” Yes! It makes us feel first, and then it makes us think, if the author has done his or her job properly.

Quoting Thomas King, Maracle said, “we are made of stories.” I always think that my earliest memories are of stories told around my great-aunts’ kitchen table at 160 Kingsmount in Sudbury, the house my great-grandfather built after retiring from running his store and the post office in Creighton Mine. We gather, all cultures, in circles, to tell our stories. We share them in this way, through recounting them, through writing them down, through telling them over and over again, over time. How powerful is that? Powerful.

Some may think that fiction isn’t as powerful as non-fiction, but there is a power in “telling a story, but telling it back differently,” as Maracle says.  You take on the story and re-tell it in your own words. You make it your own, even if it began in your family a few generations ago. Dimaline said, “Fiction asks you to involve your whole self, your heart and your mind, and then you will want to invest in making change.” Fallis spoke of how he heard Donald Woods speak at a conference, citing Stephen Biko as a perfect example of how one person can make change real and tangible. He spoke to how satire can be a powerful tool in writing: “When you laugh at something, you disarm it, ridicule it, and then weaken it.” He also said that this allows a writer to “go at the issues by stealth,” so that falling in love with characters can help an author be a force for social change. I kept thinking of Swift’s 1729 essay, “A Modest Proposal,” when he speaks of the Irish selling their young as sources of food. He was not literally suggesting this, but was instead critiquing (rather forcefully) the poor treatment of the Irish by the English. That was satire at its best, and it has stayed as a touchstone in literature for that reason. Here is an example of Juvenilia satire that works and is still studied. He got at the issue by making fun of it, by pointing out how absurd this notion would be. He pointed out an issue that was serious by using satire as the vehicle.

In terms of Canadian Literature these days, the significance of truth and reconciliation is of great importance. Dimaline spoke to the notion that Can Lit has begun to include other voices, other experiences, but used the example of building a house. As she said, the ‘house’ of Can Lit was already built, largely populated by white men at first, and then women, and then other diverse cultural voices and experiences. In recent years, though, an ‘addition’ has been fixed onto the side of the house, and it ‘houses’ Indigenous authors. She suggested that, instead of seeing it as an addition, perhaps the house of Can Lit should have been destroyed and then rebuilt, including rather than excluding Indigenous voices as just a hastily tacked on ‘add on.’ I think this is true, actually. You can’t try to put a too-small sweater on if you’ve gained weight. It won’t fit. You can’t just shoehorn a whole kind of literature into another one. They need to work together.

That’s the whole notion of what ‘reconciliation’ is about. The truth part is about letting people tell their stories, as Maracle, King, and Wagamese would say, but the reconciliation part is about somehow learning to work together. I think it can be done, but all things take time. These strong voices in literature, though, bode well. In classrooms around Canada, kids are now reading stories by First Nations, Metis, and Inuit writers. This is a big change. Ten years ago, it was unheard of within our provincial curriculum in Ontario. Well, you might have had a poem by Lee Maracle in a textbook, or part of an essay by Wagamese, but you would never have studied Drew Hayden Taylor’s plays instead of one of Shakespeare’s….and that’s happening now…and it seems to me that kids are finding it resonates with them. Maybe, as Dimaline says, reconciliation will only happen with that next generation of Canadians.

My view is that story, of any incarnation, is powerful. From the time we are little, we like to gather around adults to hear stories. The easiest way to make friends with a little person under the age of six or seven is to put out your hand and ask if they’d like you to read them a story. (This is how I’ve bonded with a lot of my friends’ kids. I’m the one who buys them books, tells them stories, and lets them tell me their stories, too.) We just need to be story keepers and story sharers. This, I think, is how we will change the world, one story at a time.

 

 

panelNWT.JPGJust one story at a time.

peace, friends.

k.

 

 

 

 

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