redux: where my limbs are in space

Last year I was dreaming of this lane. And looking at it this morning, I am remembering the Olson line, “…is it not a heart which has gone lazy?” Is it? Sometimes. But not this morning.

inishbream

I woke in the night from a dream of Ireland, where I lived in my early 20s. I lived on an island and I’ve written about it, first in a novella, Inishbream, and in an essay in Phantom Limb. In the dream I was walking down the boreen that crossed the island. I was wearing the old sandals I had then, even though it was raining. I was swinging my arms and my shoulders ached a little. I knew where I was, knew the air my arms were swinging through, misty, smelling a little of turf-smoke and dung. This was the path the cattle took when they were moved from one field to another and it was the trail leading up from the quay so that when the turf was brought from the mainland by currach and loaded into a donkey pannier, the donkey walked to its owner’s cottage along its rocky ground.

I wonder if I had the dream because I was reading yesterday about proprioception? It’s a term I remember from the American poet Charles Olson whose work on projective verse, field composition, the guiding breath of the poet dictating form, and so forth was an important influence for the poets I was reading as a young woman.

And the threshing floor for the dance? Is it anything but the LINE? And when the line has, is, a deadness, is it not a heart which has gone lazy, is it not, suddenly, slow things, similes, say, adjectives, or such, that we are bored by? — Charles Olson, “Projective Verse”

Proprioception is the knowledge of where your limbs are in space and in relation to each other. It’s sometimes called a sixth sense, a sense of self. It’s the thing that allows us to move in a room without bumping into people, to descending stairs in the darkness without falling (I do this often, reaching forward with my foot and trusting my own body) and without really thinking about it. I remember when our dog Friday, towards the end of her life, lost the use of her hind legs. When we took her to the vet, he said she’d lost her sense of proprioception and it was the first time I’d heard the word used outside of poetics.

In my dream last night, I knew how it felt to walk that boreen. I knew the effort needed to avoid the stones, to make sure my swinging arms didn’t graze the stone walls on either side of the path, I knew how I would feel as I approached the side path leading to my cottage (which was just behind the rise you see to the left in the photograph). I knew to be quiet as I walked past the school (that building on the right) because I loved to hear the children’s voices through the open window. Sometimes they were having their Irish lesson and the words sounded like music: gualainn, lámh, béal…Sometimes there was even music, one of the men playing a tin whistle at a gate you can’t see just beyond where the path curves away. Sometimes I’d try a few dance steps as I approached my house with the music all quavery in the wind.

Soft is the grass, my bed is free.
Ah, to be back now in Carrickfergus
On that long road down to the sea.

But even in the dream, I knew I was dreaming. I knew my shoulder was sore because of my swim yesterday when I didn’t get my usual lane for the first half and so I had to keep turning my head when I was doing the back-stroke to make sure I didn’t crash into the end of the pool. (In the water, in my usual lane, I know exactly where I am by how it feels to stretch out under a particular section of ceiling, and how many arm strokes it takes to get me from the shallow end to the deep.)

This morning I am looking at some recent work, my body still wistful for that walk on an Irish lane. Maybe it’s the rhythm I’m hoping for in the writing, the careful foot, a swinging arm, my ear listening for new words on an old wind.

This is so long ago now but thinking of it brings back the music of Miceal’s tin-whistle as clear as anything and I ache to walk out to the boreen and learn to play along. — from “The One Currach Returning Alone” in Phantom Limb

“…housed in a clamshell box of leather and vellum…”

proof
proofs

Some mornings you wake to sky cleansed by the rain overnight, crackled clean by thunder and lightning, and just a little mist settled over the trees. The fire is warm. The cat’s been fed. To prolong the peace, you read a few of your favourite blogs, one of them Commatology.com. And wow, this is what you find, the musings of a perfect reader:

http://commatology.com/index.php/2018/10/stepping-into-a-river-of-dream/

The past hour has been spent in that dream. I was 23 when I lived on the island I wrote about in Inishbream. I was 44 when the novella was finally published. I held the narrator close to me those years in-between. She was—is—me, and she isn’t. I began this book as a series of prose poems and the people I showed them to asked for more detail, more connective tissue between the anecdotes and meditative passages. I remember asking myself, Well, what if you…and I won’t confess what I did, because I’m not entirely certain now which parts are purely autobiographical and which were invented. Or imagined.

colophon
this is a terrible photograph but if you click on the Barbarian link, you will see better visuals

When the book was being printed in its private press editions by the Barbarian Press, I’d receive phone calls daily. The Barbarians would want to check a detail, they’d send the proofs, one page at a time, by fax, and I’d know the presses were inked and time was of the essence. I loved everything about the book they created: the magnificent wood engravings by John DePol; the soft papers, the typeface (Eric Gill’s gorgeous Joanna); the bindings (there are 3 states and they’re all bound with different materials, even a special clamshell box of vellum and leather made by Hélène Francouer); and the way the handmade values of this work echoed my own. Echoed the place that inspired the book. Inspired me in so many ways in the life I went on to live. Sometimes I take down my special copy and read it slowly, wondering at the younger self who lived on an island at the very edge of the world, alone.

I was lucky enough to have Goose Lane Editions publish the book as a trade edition two years later. (I think they still have copies available for sale and if they don’t, ask me; I have some here.) I’ve been back to Ireland twice since then, the last time 17 years ago. Leslie at Commatology was just there and it was sweet (and sort of sad) to read what she found and didn’t find.  She writes,

It’s a fictional place, but I locate its real-life cousins off the Connemara coast: Inishturk, Inishbofin, Inishark. Inish, or Inis, or Ennis, for that matter, all mean island in Irish, and bream are a kind of fish.

She was close. Those are all islands I knew. Mine was near them, yes, and named for a fish, though not bream. Remember what Ishmael said, in Moby Dick? “It is not down on any map; true places never are.” Or they are, but they’re hidden. Mapmakers and writers—we have our reasons.

“Lie down/in the word-hoard…”

Good advice from Seamus Heaney. Sometimes I feel such a yearning to burrow in language, to immerse myself in all the words that have collected in my imagination, in my hands, in the hollows at the base of my neck. I hoard words like summer grain, like apples, for their utility and their solace.

But unfortunately I hoard papers as well. (Books, too: the subject of another day.) For weeks now, I’ve wanted to tidy my desk. I’d make a desultory attempt to do that and I’d find that there wasn’t an inch of storage space to put the letters, the notes scribbled onto file cards or old receipts (and nowhere for receipts either which is why they end up on my desk). Today I decided to simply begin. To bring in some bags for the papers that could be recycled and a laundry basket for the stuff I’m going to burn. Every year I have a bonfire of the vanities and it makes me feel so clear afterwards, though my clothes are dense with woodsmoke — and the more esoteric smoke of old manuscripts and Christmas cards and recipes I’ll never try. So now I’ve begun the process and I won’t be able to do anything much in here until I’m finished. It should be incentive. I hope it is.

sunday work.jpg

There’s a filing cabinet to the left of the small table in this photograph. (Beneath the table? The laptop I replaced in February. I’m trying to decide whether it’s worthwhile to have the hard-drive removed to store. But to store for what? Old emails? Four years of drafts of essays and novellas which have already been published? On top of the table, hidden under stuff — the printer I bought to print quilt blocks on treated fabric for a particular project, a quilt to accompany my  essay “Euclid’s Orchard”. There are no available drivers to allow me to use that printer with my current laptop. Still I keep the printer. You never know…)

So far this morning I’ve filled the laundry basket with old journals  — I’m keeping a couple of travel journals but the ones where I am 18 and trying to write poetry are kind of embarrassing now. The ones where I am 32, with three small children under five, and wondering if I’ll ever write again are too sad to re-read. I know. I dipped into them this morning. Ideas for writing workshops from the days I used to teach them? Out. My academic papers from the 1970s, written in such pretentious language? Out.

All four file drawers are empty now and I’m going to organize the folders you see on the floor (and the ones you can’t see to the right of the chair) pretty carefully. There’s an entire folder of letters from literary agents who’ve turned me down. I might burn those. (It would feel liberating, I think.)

On the other hand, there are gems. A forgotten sheaf of wood-engravings by John DePol, sent as a gift when my novella Inishbream was published by the Barbarian Press. (John did the illustrations.) An autobiography written by one son, which condenses his life to the age of 7 with such clarity (I’m leaving out the birth year and the first year):

when I was two I ate a bug. when I was three I was normal. when I was four I got a bike. when I was give I lost my first tooth. when I was six I got stitches. now Im seven.

And there’s a generous letter from Seamus Heaney, written not long after North was published, giving me permission to use from a few lines (attributed, of course) from that book as an epigraph for my second book of poems. No request for a fee. No need to ask his publisher. Just a fulsome note wishing me luck.

I thought I might finish this job today but I can see it’s more of a process than I imagined. Although there’s a very pretty Turkish carpet under all those file folders, I won’t be lying down on it, luxuriating in the word-hoard, for at least a week.

bookends

In 1977-78, I spent most of a year living in Ireland. I rented a cottage on a small island off the Connemara coast. It was a sweet time, though often lonely too. I walked. I gathered mussels and nettles to supplement the meager amount of food I could buy weekly in the nearby town when a boat was going that way and I could tag along with fishermen selling their catch or their wives doing errands. I say “meager” because I had so little money and also because everything I bought for the week had to be carried in my rucksack. Sometimes the boat would cross the narrow passage between the island and a strand several miles from the town and on those days I walked back and forth with my rucksack of provisions or else I borrowed a bike from a farmer who lived above the strand. A week’s worth of food could get heavy (and expensive) awfully quickly.

And I wrote. I wanted to discover if I was actually a writer and for some reason I thought I had to go far away to do that. I’d always loved Irish music and literature and somehow I imagined the west of Ireland would be a place I could lose my young damaged self in and find a better self. (I was 22. This is the way I thought then.)

I have no regrets about that time. I loved the island, I loved the hedges of fuchsia and the sound of corncrakes in the field behind my cottage. I read voraciously and I wrote the beginning of a novella which I completed later, once I’d returned to Canada. That novella, Inishbream, was published first as a private press book by the Barbarian Press. It took them years to actually produce the book and all the reasons for the delays were entirely legitimate. The wait was worth it. And so was the process, the step-by-step process of making a book the old beautiful way. An American artist, John DePol, did a series of wood-engravings for the book.

currach

Some copies were quarter-bound with soft green Japanese silk; others with leather; and the very rare Design editions were quarter-bound with turbot leather. The printing is exquisite. And when I read the novella now, as I do from time to time, my heart goes out to that girl on a western island, her wild ecstatic heart. (I know now that some of the way she saw the world — a heightened rapturous vision — was in part due to hunger…)

There are pale beaches of coral sand, strung darkly with the dead weeds. I walk them endlessly, alert for news of the world: a bottle, an explosive, a book of the saint’s voyage enacted on the edge of the Atlantic, a waterlogged crate washed from the deck of a ship.

In those windy cottages, the stories age. Outside, a well runs dry. Pots rise empty on their bleach-bottle floats, the hay rots under the rain’s assault. And they stand, all of them, on the rim of the chopping sea, straining to the tide, pulling in the nets of the morning. World without end, amen.

My husband John remarked awhile back that my new novella, Winter Wren, is in some ways a bookend to Inishbream. The main character lives on a remote beach, on an island’s western edge, and although much older than the protagonist of Inishbream, she shares many of the same habits and aspirations. She wants to know where she is, wants to know the plants, the weather, the patterns on the rocks. (In Inishbream, the speaker of the book discovers what she thinks is a pattern of carvings on rock and wonders if they’re petroglyphs. In Winter Wren, Grace finds fossils from the Oligocene period in the sandstone below her house. Both of them are alert for whales. Both have unexpected lovers.) And although Winter Wren isn’t printed letterpress on fine papers with linen stitching, it is a very pretty production (thanks to Anik See and the great team at Printorium). In purely physical terms, it’s a bookend to the trade edition of Inishbream, published by Goose Lane Editions.

bookends.jpg

The older I get, the more I realize what a capacious form the novella can be. A small but surprisingly roomy vessel, for meanderings, meditations, for recording flora and fish species, for weather notes and snatches of poetry, for expanding the known world of a speaker who “came, wanting only the isolation of tides” but who found so much more at the doorstep of those tides. Birdsong, old stories, the vertebra of a whale, the far-off lights of Neah Bay.

 

the fish are swimming!

fish

Readers of this blog will know that my friend Anik See and I are both passionate about the literary novella. We love to read them and we write them. Although I’ve been very lucky with publishers in the past — both the Barbarian Press and Goose Lane Editions issued beautiful editions of my novella Inishbream and more recently Mother Tongue Publishing released my Patrin — I’m also aware that current publishing models aren’t exactly embracing the novella any longer. A few stalwarts persist. But when Anik visited here on her way back to her home in Amsterdam after a three-month residency at the Berton House in Dawson City a year or two ago, we were both lamenting that we had novellas that we couldn’t find publishers for. At one point in the conversation, we began to laugh and one of us said to the other, “Well, you know what this means.” And we did know. It meant we had to create a place for novellas so that this wonderful, well, is it a genre? A hybrid? A special variant? Anyway, a place for it to flourish. Anik has a lot of experience as a book designer — have a look at her Saudade, which she both wrote and designed…(She is also an amazing journalist: listen to her recent documentary, “The Illusion of Money”,  for the CBC’s Ideas:http://www.cbc.ca/radio/ideas/the-illusion-of-money-part-1-1.3460225 )

We’ve been working back and forth on the first title of our Fish Gotta Swim Editions, which just happens to be my novella Winter Wren. Anik edited it, then my husband John (a poet and long-time college English instructor) copy-edited it (with a few disagreements of the “Can This Marriage Be Saved” variety, mostly to do with how to present dialogue on the page: as a writer, I want to believe that a text can accomodate dialogue as part of a narrative without setting it off with quotation marks; John is less convinced…), and now Anik has designed the book block which will be sent to the printer in Victoria when we have all the details right. The pdf arrived this morning so I could see and approve and make suggestions. And reader, I have to say it’s absolutely beautiful. I can’t wait for it to be a book in hand. Soon!

We are sorting out details to make it easy to buy this book. Copies will be available for shipping from both Amsterdam and here (the west coast of B.C.). And I think I’ll make a webpage for our Fish Gotta Swim in the next while too. Watch for more information on this. (For now, Anik has a page for it on her website, www.aniksee.com)

We don’t intend for Fish Gotta Swim to be a vanity press. We’re starting with one of our own books simply because Winter Wren is ready. We hope to make a small but relevant contribution to our literary culture over the next few years by finding and publishing novellas.

An argument for the novella

As a writer who loves the novella, I am always interested to read what others have to say about the possibilities of this strange and lovely form. Most recently there’s this:

http://blogs.publishersweekly.com/blogs/PWxyz/2013/12/09/what-is-this-thing-called-novella/

Although I wonder why the default suggestion seems to be that they are a perfect size for ebooks, I am glad to know that novellas inspire panels at literary festivals, debates online and off, and much discussion about length and the parameters of plot. I wish publishers weren’t so afraid of them. I have two out now, as a single manuscript, making the rounds. How would we market these, seems to be the lament — and although I understand it in some ways (a small book in a culture driven by excess and hype), I have to wonder where that old bold spirit went, the one that motivated publishers to take on unlikely titles and market them in the same way they would market anything: as necessary and vital books, not as something to apologize for. Years ago Jan and Crispin Elsted made a beautiful book of my novella, Inishbream, with wonderful wood-engravings by John DePol:

inish2

 

And Goose Lane Editions published a lovely trade edition of the book a couple of years later. I never felt that the manuscript was treated with anything less than respect as a work of literature rather than a abbreviated version of a real book. And for the New Year, my wish is that I find an equally congenial home for Winter Wren and Patrin.

It’s a perfect time of year to re-read James Joyce’s elegant example of the novella, The Dead. In his essay on the novella in the New Yorker last year, Ian McEwan wrote about The Dead: “A simple binary structure (a party, a hotel room) supports the evocation of an entire social milieu (decorous and fractious by turns) with extraordinary warmth. They seem to play out in real time, the dancing and singing at the aunts’ annual dinner, the family tensions, the barbed exchange about national identity.”

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!

www.aniksee.com

http://blackcrow2.wordpress.com/

www.dongayton.ca