“we are nothing if not impulse to direction”

When John and I met and fell in love in 1979, we spent a fair amount of time arguing about poetry. Not our own but what we imagined the important contemporary writing to be. I remember running out into the night, in tears, wondering what on earth I’d done by marrying someone whose ideas were so different from my own. I’d barely heard of Robert Duncan, Charles Olson. What on earth was “projective verse” and how could it possible matter. We did have many favourite writers in common; we were both reading Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, for instance. And in truth, our work was far more congenial than we knew during those first months, that first year. We used different language to talk about writing and in time our vocabularies became as acquainted and then as familiar as everything else.

I’ve been remembering all this for the past month or so as I sit in audiences listening to my husband read from his new book, which isn’t really new. It’s Forecast: Selected Early Poems, 1970-1990 (Harbour Publishing). The poems come from out-of-print chapbooks and books and some of my favourites are there, including “The Crossing”:

here the star, the far shore

or this tree. we enter with attention


what passes and must pass

to bring us closer


the ocean heals behind the ship

the trodden brush springs back


and we are nothing if not impulse to direction

This poem concludes with the line, “we cannot hold our coming through the world”, which has always seemed to me a deeply powerful mantra. Our mantra, in a way.

So. “Projective Verse”. This morning I remembered the phrase and asked John about it and he immediately opened his copy of Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry to Charles Olson’s essay.

projective verseJohn’s notes on the pages are as interesting to me as the essay itself. What he noticed, what he underlined, what spoke to him. This passage, for example:

It would do no harm, as an act of correction to both prose and verse as now written, if both rime and meter, and, in the quantity of words, both sense and sound, were less in the forefront of the mind than the syllable, if the syllable, that fine creature, were more allowed to lead the harmony on.

And later, this:

The objects which occur at every given moment of composition (of recognition, we can call it) are, can be, must be treated exactly as they do occur therein and not by any ideas or preconceptions from outside the poem, must be handled as a series of objects in field in such a way that a series of tensions (which they also are) are made to hold, and to hold exactly inside the content and the context of the poem which has forced itself through the poet and them, into being.

And this:

Let me just throw in this. It is my impression that all parts of speech suddenly, in composition by field, are fresh for both sound and percussive use, spring up like unknown, unnamed vegetables in the patch, when you work it, come spring.

In those years, I was trying to find a way to integrate all the elements of my life — my love of place, of plants, of textiles, of food (the making of it, the history of it, the science of it); I was hoping to find a form which would allow all those parts of daily life to take their place in my artistic practice, to find the right tension (like knitting!) to hold them in a way that enhanced their textures and relationships. I remember making paper one summer, using a kit brought by a friend for our children, and we were experimenting with adding flowers to the pulp, which we’d made with various kinds of newspaper and other paper, chopping and blending them all together. In those years we were the grateful recipients of passed-on copies of the Times Literary Supplement and that particular light newsprint was perfect for the pulp. When I’d pressed the pulp into the screen and then removed it and let it dry, I was astonished to see that words and phrases from the TLS had survived the process of blending and had emerged at various points in the finished sheet of paper, along with flowers and stems. (Somewhere I still have this piece of paper, I think.) I realized I could manipulate the contents of the pulp with a bit more experience and effort — imagine positioning lines of poetry so they could be seen within the paper from certain perspectives. Paper as palimpsest, as repository… I felt both exhilaration and anguish. Yes, here was another process which would allow so many elements of what I loved to conspire and create something new but did I really have time to take on another practice?

The older I get, the more I realize that the writing of a book is a composition both as crafty as the making of paper and as artful as the positioning of objects in a field, a projective field, the syllables sounding their way across it in a lively and unexpected way. When I look at my drafts and notes for Patrin, I see how they resemble, in a way, the notes I make for quilts. There were other possible arrangements for the individual blocks which make up the narrative(s) and it took me some time to find the pattern which allowed the visible or external story to both hold and reveal the coded history. And are these things ever completely known to us as we work and then as we read? As we sew, as we press pulp through a screen to make sheets of new paper? I suspect not.  I remember reading a wonderful book years ago about the quilts women made as they travelled the Oregon Trail. In Treasures in the Trunk, Mary Bywater Cross provides an alternate history of that movement west by decoding the quilts which were created during , or after, the migration. They were commodoties, death shrouds, memorial texts, dreamscapes, echoes of everything seen and experienced. Even their titles have the resonance of poetry: “Stars with Wild Geese Strips”, “Wandering Foot”, “Pieced Star”, “Wheel of Fortune”, “Birds in Flight”, “Delectable Mountains”. Did those women consciously embed their hopes and fears in the patterns they chose for the bedcovers they composed during the long days of their journey west? Maybe not entirely consciously. But for women who perhaps had no other outlet for such expression, the domestic becomes the artistic.

My friend Barbara Lambert sent me something she’d posted about Patrin on Facebook. It made me so happy that she’d detected the pattern at its heart and that she also provided a visual example (in her photograph, the book is resting on a potholder I made for her years ago and the potholder is layered on a beautiful piece of shibori cotton):

When is a novella even more than a novella?

When its form takes on the shape of its subject matter, in a most intriguing way —
as Theresa Kishkan’s “PATRIN” leads you on a young woman’s quest for her Romany origins, along a sensuous trail inspired by the inheritance of an antique quilt.

patrin at home


What’s for supper?

For the past five days I’ve been thinking that I really need to do something with the tomatoes I keep gathering and letting accumulate on the work-table. They are delicious to eat fresh, out of hand, like candy — particularly the little yellow pears and the long thin ones I can’t identify. (A friend gave me the plants and said they are a heritage Italian plum variety but honestly, I grow lots of different plum tomatoes and these resemble nothing I’ve ever seen. They’re very flavourful.)

out of handSo today it’s kind of drizzly and grey, a good day to do more than think about what to do with the tomatoes. My friend Barbara Lambert wrote a novel set in Italy and on her website (www.barbaralambert.com), she has some Tuscan recipes, offered in the voice of one of the characters in The Whirling Girl. I thought the roasted tomato sauce looked good. So I used her recipe as a template and made what turned out to be nine cups of the sauce. I chopped tomatoes into two roasting pans coated with olive oil. Added a head of garlic cloves (peeled) to each pan. I didn’t have cooking onions but found several clumps of spring onions in the garden which had been forgotten, or hidden, and those small bulbs, trimmed and peeled, were so pungent! Some flaky French sea salt. Ground pepper. A handful of rosemary leaves from the plants outside. Another drizzle of olive oil over top and into a 425 oven for a hour, turning everything twice. (The recipe suggests two hours at 450 but I found a lower temperature and a shorter roasting time to be perfect for the tomatoes I was using.) Once cooled, I whirred the tomatoes in batches in the blender with handsful of basil, the grated zest of one lemon and the juice of that (Meyer) lemon. (Again, the recipe suggests one lemon per pan and more later but one for the entire batch seemed just fine to my taste.) When the mixture was too thick in for blender to puree easily, I added about a quarter cup of red wine. I now have nine cups of this beautiful sauce, more ochre than red because I used about half yellow tomatoes. And I used every sort of red — plums, big meaty ones, Black Krims, a few Brandywines. It’s what we’ll have for dinner tonight, over fettucine, with lots of grana padano, and a salad of violet beans — which are also beginning to fill the work-table. Pickling next week?


small packages


As Christmas approaches, I’ve been shopping and making — and trying to remain true to my belief that good things come in small packages. With my family, it’s not difficult. We’ve never gone into the season with the sense that we had to go into debt or buy big electronic items or expensive bijoux. And it’s lovely to find the right thing, to know it as you see it, or to find the materials in your own surroundings. To plan the baking — white chocolate fruit cakes, savoury rosemary shortbread, gingerbread people with smartie buttons and silver dragee eyes. (I once tried to use a piping device to do fancy work with icing and failed miserably.)

I’m also having an interesting time discussing a new project with my friend Anik See in Amsterdam. Both of us have novella manuscripts which haven’t (yet) been able to find publishers. (Anik has published a novella, postcard, as part of her fiction collection, poscard and other stories; and I’ve published one, Inishbream, and have another, Patrin, forthcoming from the inspiring Mother Tongue Publishing in September, 2015.) Like John and I, Anik has a printing press and has designed and created some beautiful books through her Fox Run imprint. When she was here in September, on her way back to Amsterdam from three months as writer-in-residence at the Berton House in Dawson City, we continued talking about the idea (the madness?) of beginning a small imprint to publish novellas (and maybe some other forms not high on the lists of most commercial publishers). We’d probably begin with our work, my Winter Wren and Anik’s Cabin Fever, mostly because of logistics. We have them ready and we trust one another enough to work together in this way. She’s adept at page design, we have some sense of the market for these titles, and we don’t have illusions about commerical success.

Both of us love novellas. We love beautiful books. And we believe that there should be room in the literary conversation for this form. So we intend to try to expand the conversation, not with the intention of silencing any other voices but simply to ensure that the quiet ones continue to be included.  There are sure to be difficulties but is that a reason not to try? Nope.

Last night I finished re-reading Sheila Watson’s Deep Hollow Creek, written in the 1930s, before her extraordinary (and hugely influential) The Double Hook. It’s a hermetic story, set at Dog Creek in the Cariboo, in winter, and the language is precise and chilly, perfectly suited to the human relationships in the contained world of this novella.

As Miriam reached up the move the lamp Stella noticed the curve of her hip under the gold-haired brown wool of her Harris tweed skirt and the light bathing her braided hair as water bathes pebbles in the creek.

Nor in things extreme and scattering bright — no not in nothing — certainly not in nothing. Why, Stella thought, slipping from the literacy of the past into the literacy of the present, must the immediacy of the moment act itself out in the klieg light of a thousand dead candles.

She rose quickly from the end of the camp cot on which she was sitting and, going to the bucket, poured a dipper of water into the white enamelled hand-basin.

Is supper ready? she asked.

I think of a shelf of Canadian literature — or the literature of any civilized culture — missing this book and others, By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart, Gillian Wigmore’s Grayling, Barbara Lambert’s Message for Mr. Lazarus, Ethel Wilson’s Swamp Angel, and so many others, simply by virture of their size, and it determines me to continue my discussions with Anik. Stay tuned!

the magpie courtesies

In this country — Thompson-Nicola — there are many magpies. My friend Barbara Lambert told me that it’s always prudent to say a little rhyme if you only see a single magpie: Hello, Mr. Magpie! How’s Mrs. Magpie and all the little magpies? She said it’s bad luck not to acknowledge them in this way. So we are polite to single birds and always offer that particular salutation. Today, driving a circle route from Kamloops along the Falkland road, up through the Salmon Valley, and over to Adams River, we kept seeing magpies and if there was only one, we greeted it appropriately. If we see more than one, I generally say the little verse I learned as a child, the one which has many variants (for crows, ravens, etc.):

One for sorrow,

Two for mirth.

Three a wedding,

Four a birth.

Five for silver,

Six for gold.

Seven for a secret

Never to be told.

I remember that in Ireland, it was very bad luck to see a single magpie on the roof of a house or outbuilding. Well, it was more than bad luck; it foretold a death. Some people believed the magpie was a bird with a drop of the devil’s blood under its tongue. Those beautiful birds with their irridescent feathers! A drop of the devil’s blood? Say it isn’t true!

Magpies mate for life, like other corvids. So it’s a courtesy to extend a greeting to a single bird in the hope that he is not a widower or an outcast. (Often another bird flies up shortly after we say the greeting! Coincidence? Hmmmm.) And they are known to rob nests of other birds to feed themselves and their own offspring. Humans do that too. (One of my best childhood memories involves being asked to gather eggs on the farm where we were staying on Matsqui Prairie. I reached under the warm body of a hen for the egg that would become part of the batter for the breakfast pancakes…And think of roast lamb, veal, suckling pig.) Magpies also forage for ticks and other parasites from the backs of ungulates. Like their other corvid cousins, they follow wolves to gain access to game carcasses.

In some cultures magpies are revered as bringers of good fortune. Or they’re tricksters. Or shape-shifters. They’re sacred to Dionysus. They are fearless. Mysterious (a secret never to be told).

And in this country, they are abundant!


The Next Big Thing

My friend Barbara Lambert has “tagged” me in “The Next Best Thing”, a lively literary relay making the rounds of Canadian writers. The idea is that we answer a series of set questions about our current work-in-progress and then tag (ideally) five other writers, providing links to their websites or blogs. Barbara’s own answers can be found here (and if this also leads you to her recent novel, The Whirling Girl, you won’t be disappointed!): http://barbaralambert.com/writer/author/books/177-Blog+Tour+That+Ran+Itself

Ten Interview Questions for the Next Big Thing:

— What is your working title of your book?

I am half-way through a novella – working title is Patrin (a Romani word for “leaf” or to indicate a trail marked by sticks, leaves, etc.). It will be a companion-piece to a recently-completed novella, Winter Wren.

— Where did the idea come from for the book?

Patrin grew out of research I am doing for an extended non-fiction work based on the life of my grandmother, born in what is now the Czech Republic in 1881. She was poor and it turns out poor people don’t leave a huge material record. I said to someone, “I might just have to imagine her early life as a work of fiction.” About a week later, I began to write a novella based on the life of a woman who turns out NOT to be my grandmother but who has allowed me to imagine another world, a woman who is as far away from my own life as my grandmother was, who came to Canada under similar circumstances but with a very different background. I am also interested in how material objects  can hold family history, often undecoded, so when I saw Patrin opening a box containing a tattered quilt with a curious pattern of loden leaves, connected by trails of grey wool, I knew it was a map directing me to the heart of the story.

— What genre does your book fall under?

Literary fiction.

— Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?

Someone dark and willowy for Patrin, the 20-something woman at the heart of the novella-in-progress. The young Juliette Binoche from The Unbearable Lightness of Being? A young Adrien Brody for Petr, her guide in Prague and further afield. And if anyone has a suggestion for Patrin’s grandmother, a woman in her late eighties, heavy-set, rugged, and with dark-ish skin (she is a Kalderash woman from eastern Moravia), do let me know so I can tell the studios when they come calling.

— What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Victoria, British Columbia and the forests of the Beskydy Mountains in the Czech Republic form the backdrop for a brief lyrical narrative about a young woman in search of her family’s mysterious past.

— Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I have never been able to interest agents in my writing, alas. But I’ve been lucky enough to have placed my books with lively small(ish) presses over the years and have nothing but praise for the presence of these presses on the literary landscape. They keep the cultural conversation diverse and authentic.

— How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

I haven’t yet finished Patrin. Winter Wren took me a year. I anticipate that Patrin will take about the same time.

— What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

I’m not finished yet and don’t want to suggest relationships that might not survive the writing. But I admire the novels of John Berger for their fiercely idiosyncratic structure, the consummate story-telling of Louise Erdrich, the intelligent trajectory of anything by John Banville…

– Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I partly answered this in the second question but of course who ever knows where, exactly, the inspiration for a book truly comes from? As well as family history, I’ve also been immersing myself in Czech cultural history and look daily at the photographs of Josef Sudek who has given me entrance to the Beskydy Mountains where my grandmother lived as a child. And I’ve been listening to Roma music, both the styles of Central Europe as well as Macedonia.

— What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Joe Fassler wrote a wonderful piece on the novella, published last April in The Atlantic. (http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/04/the-return-of-the-novella-the-original-longread/256290/) He mentions Dennis Loy Johnson, co-founder of Melville House Publishing and its “Art of the Novella” series: “He was daunted by the genre’s limited viability—and yet the idealistic prospect of novella-writing pleased him. ‘It always struck me very romantically,’ he said. ‘A pure writerly exercise that was only for the love of writing. We had no expectations our novellas would ever circulate.”

Maybe this is part of the pleasure of the novella. Years ago I wrote Inishbream, a brief narrative set on an island off the west coast of Ireland. It was published by the Barbarian Press in a beautiful edition, illustrated by the American wood-engraver John DePol; and then given a second life a few years later by Goose Lane Editions. Yet when I wrote it, I had no expectation that anyone would ever want to publish it at all. The thing about getting older is that you come to terms with what’s possible and what’s unlikely. I’m probably never going to write a block-buster, a best-seller which will be sold to Hollywood (I hate to disappoint Juliette Binoche and Adrien Brody), but every morning I can come into my study, turn on my desk-light, and write for the sake of the language and the story. What a privilege.

I’ve tagged five writers and so far can tell you that Anik See, Catherine Owen, and Don Gayton will carry the baton forward in the near future. I can’t wait to see what they write!




Two novels

I thought I’d post the reviews I wrote of two recent novels for the September issue of our local news magazine, the Harbour Spiel.

For September, 2012

I love books strongly rooted in place, where the writer is so generous with specific detail that you can visualize the land, the vistas, the houses, the weather. And I love a good mystery novel, one which places its characters in interesting situations and lets the reader get to know them slowly by adding a dramatic or unexpected element – a theft, a kidnapping, or a murder.

Or maybe a bank heist in a small fishing village on the Sunshine Coast where the culprits get away and later a man shows up badly beaten, having lost both his wife and his memory. That’s part of the plot of David Lee’s Commander Zero (Tightrope Books, 2012) and if you’re looking for a lively and intriguing read for the end of summer, this is your book.

Of course it helps that so much in it is recognizable. The fish plant, the local hardware, the markets, the credit union where the three robbers in black ski masks stuff cash into duffle bags, and then head north on the highway…Even the Harbour Spiel makes an appearance.

David Lee lived in the Harbour for some years, raising a family and working at various businesses; he was a fixture on the music scene, playing double bass for different ensembles and helping with the jazz festival. He wrote several books, one of them the very popular Chainsaws: A History (Harbour Publishing, 2006).

Though we can all identify geographical markers in this novel as well as retail businesses and industries; and though we can smile as we read about the possibility of grow operations on Mount Hallowell or romances forming after a night at the Legion, Commander Zero is more than a roman-à-clef. The main character, Joseph Windebank, has survived two accidents and suffers severe memory loss as a result. His relationships with his sister Sandy (“that angry woman”), with Rose who manages the fish plant, with the guys he works with, including Walter who owns a boat Joey worked on until he leaped overboard in some kind of panic, are all slightly mysterious. Is he really as innocent as he seems, packing prawns and returning to his trailer each night?

The writing is very clear and direct. Listen to the opening paragraph: “Between the mountains are canyons filled with salt water, and what I remember first is fishing in that water. The mountains are like the shoulders of women. The women are reaching under the water. They are searching for something there.”

Like them, we’ll search those drowned canyons and what comes up will surprise us.


Penticton writer Barbara Lambert’s new novel, The Whirling Girl (Cormorant, 2012), is set among the Etruscan ruins near Cortona, an Italian landscape she lovingly describes and notates like music.

In a meadow filled with wild flowers and curious mounds, there is an ancient house that botanical artist Clare Livingston is both delighted and dismayed to learn that she has inherited from her estranged uncle. This gift is about forgiveness – but to whom, and for what?

Travelling from her Vancouver home to Tuscany to deal with the legal complexities of her inheritance, Clare is also hoping to build on her recent success as a chronicler of endangered plants. She journeyed to the Amazon basin to paint its rare flora and even found a new species, Circaea Livingston Philippiana, named to honour her ancestor. Or did she?  Clare is nothing if not ingenuous. And she is not above telling a lie, whether it’s about the provenance of her western belt buckle or the truth of her Amazonian expedition.

Clare becomes entangled in turf wars between archaeologists with different agendas and Lambert plunges the reader into the world of tombaroli or tomb robbers, of the fascinating business of trying to reconstruct mythical gardens through pollen analysis and the faintest of traces, and the difficult excavations of desire and memory. Who is on Clare’s side? And are snakes in the meadow the only danger? In this fast-paced novel, everything shifts and changes as swiftly as the light over the ruined walls, the shadows of umbrella pines leaving their own mysterious clues.

Objects take on huge significance. The tiny blue bead that emerges in a dig at Poggio Selvaggio, for example: the story it tells of imported objects arriving in Etruria from the Middle East, or farther, is so intriguing. Or the mirrors, found in tombs, which were decorated with graphic legends and were passed from woman to woman the way a romantic novel would make the rounds in contemporary society.

I loved the careful attention to plants and terrain in this book and the rich descriptions of artistic process, how the layers of colour applied to paper tease out the shimmer of a poppy or the fragile petals of rock rose.

Near the beginning of the novel, Clare explores her new property. “The leaves ruffled silver. It felt like a memory of a different, parallel life, wandering among these trees. The sun streamed down with the sweet weight of honey. She found a grassy hollow and lay back, studying the quality of the light. Painting here would require a different palette…” And like Clare, the reader is eager to see what this palette might be.