“…clay I felt my father fumble”

I was just sorting some photographs taken a month ago, in Ottawa. There was a moment in late afternoon, in Forrest and Manon’s back garden, when I was sitting on their deck and looked over to see my sons holding their babies above them.

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And looking at the photograph a few minutes ago, I heard so clearly a few lines from one of John’s poems, in which he meditates briefly on fatherhood in the larger context of house-building.

                       …the deck
I built in a blur but sit on

with a view — definite trees– an acreage
to be landscaped — orchard to complement
woodlot. I’ll work it for years. For my sons

I’ve apprehensions, don’t care
for legacy, paternal imposition, clay
I felt my father fumble handling me.

But I build, deep-bearing
in fluid bonds gone concrete
a southwest exposure.
I live in it for love…

                          —John Pass, “Days in the Dark of Building”, from Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970-1990) (Harbour Publishing, 2015)

It’s always been one of my favourite poems, one I’ve heard at public readings many times but without the sense that one day it would mean something more. That the sons would hold their own children — a son, a daughter — aloft with their strong hands. Tomorrow is Fathers Day. The sons are far away, the father will be celebrated with barbequed steak and good red wine, and the concrete still supports the house we live in for love, after all these years.

Winter Wren arrived!

It’s official! Fish Gotta Swim Editions is truly in business! Our first title — my literary novella, Winter Wren — just arrived, by our postal worker’s own car, grinding its way up our long gravel driveway. Anik See designed the book and it’s beautiful. And a bargain — $18 (plus postage, at cost).

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If you’re in Canada, the US, or Central and South America, you can order from me: https://theresakishkan.com/fish-gotta-swim-editions/

And for the UK, Europe, and the rest of the world, you can order from Anik See, who is in Amsterdam:

https://aniksee.squarespace.com/forthcoming-titles

Some bookstores will carry the book and there will be a launch here on the Sechelt peninsula, date to be announced.

My own printer-in-residence (and Friend of the Press), John Pass, printed a lovely keepsake on our 1890s Chandler and Price press. These will be tucked into orders until the keepsakes run out so get ’em while you can!

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fire-camp, and stars

Yesterday, after a walk along the trail we call Cedar Bridge, it seemed like a good idea to have an outdoor campfire (or “fire-camp”, as Francophone Manon calls it). John was delegated to make the fire and Forrest arranged chairs around it. I made hot chocolate, tucked a bottle of Carolans Irish Cream into the basket, along with gingerbreads and leftover Christmas cake. I found the marshmallow forks hung in the rafters of the workshop. It would Arthur’s first fire-camp.

The fire crozzled (a good Yorkshire word). Lots of smoke. No heat. The hot chocolate was lukewarm. The marshmallows burst into flame instead of toasting to a golden brown. Arthur was fussing and maybe the smoke stung his eyes.

But then it got dark. An owl hooted far away (though when we hooted back, it went quiet). The fire caught nicely and the last marshmallows on the fork were just the way I like them. The moon rose over Hallowell, smudgy in the fog. And the stars came out, one by one, in the western sky, visible between passing clouds and branches of high fir. I thought of an old poem of John’s, written for Arthur’s father Forrest during the summer we lived in a tent with a young baby and worked on the lumber and concrete footings that eventually became a house. Then a home.

When you sleep I look up

from the fire cleansed

 

of names, any further

attempt at description, all

but the absurdities of range I fathom

 

laughing a little, amazed

to see them.

— John Pass, from “The Stars”, publishing in Forecast: Selected Early Poems (1970-1990)

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we’re #28

I love the series of Literary Landmarks featured in B.C. BookWorld online. (http://bcbooklook.com/2015/12/02/john-pass-theresa-kishkan/) John and I are #28; our landmark is the corner of May Street and Memorial Crescent in Victoria, the locus for my novel The Age of Water Lilies and a place very dear to both of us. As new lovers we walked those enchanted streets and into the Ross Bay Cemetery which was where I played as a child, riding my bike up and down its quiet lanes and listening to the buried streams flowing under it to the Strait of Juan of Fuca.

And I love this photo of us, taken by my brother in early summer, 1980. What shows: our youth, our happiness. What doesn’t show: I was newly pregnant with our son Forrest, though I didn’t know it would be him. (I had the option of knowing the gender after an ultrasound but I thought I’d like to be surprised.)

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“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

 

Fairfield

In Victoria for a few days. A wonderful event at Russell Books last night where Sarah de Leeuw and my husband John Pass gave gorgeous readings from their new books and where I distinguished myself by whacking my head on a low beam as I opened the event with my own reading. But a warm and generous crowd, old friends among them.

I was a child, then a young woman, in this city. Returning is always a little fraught, an object lesson in the twinned powers of memory and nostalgia. I think it’s true that nostos, the root of nostalgia, carries in it not only the notion of return (in epic poetry, from war or extensive journeys on the part of the hero) but also the sense of the restoration of one’s central identity. A longing for home and who you were there.

So here, in Fairfield, where my daughter and her boyfriend live, I can almost see the annex of Sir James Douglas Elementary School where I attended for two years — grades one and two — and where I learned to take such joy in books. Yesterday we walked downtown and I saw the old library on the corner of Yates and Blanchard where I received my first library card the summer before grade one. My older brothers taught me to write my name (I could already read) and most Saturdays my family visited the library for our week’s quota of books.

Walking back to this apartment yesterday, I recocgnized the tiled road signs set in the sidewalk and remembered my delight in them as a child. I could sound out their letters and know where I was.

I’m still doing that.

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“I wish I had all this to do again” (for John)

On this day, thirty-five years ago, I married John Pass in a small ceremony which we wrote ourselves and which was officiated by a Unitarian minister at the Latch in Sidney. I wore a gauzy hippy dress and a wreath of yellow roses in my hair and John wore very wide corduroy trousers and a Harris tweed jacket. Our families, a motley group, attended the wedding itself and a luncheon afterwards; then friends joined us for champagne in one of the Latch’s beautiful reception rooms. Our parents hadn’t met before the wedding and John’s father, estranged from both John and his mother for at least ten years, charmed us all by telling jokes during the lunch, mostly ethnic jokes. I remember my father saying, after each of them, “Ben, I’m Ukrainian.” “Ben, I”m Polish!”. And so on.

We’d met eight months before. John was participating in one of the readings Warren Tallman organized as benefits for bill bissett when a couple of MPs felt that his work — as a writer and a publisher — shouldn’t receive government support. This one was at Open Space in Victoria and a mutual friend, Doug Beardsley, wondered if I’d like to join him and John for dinner before the reading. John and I didn’t like each other at first but during the reading, I had the sense that he was reading his poems for me, and at the end of the evening, he walked me from Doug’s place on Burdett to my flat on Fort Street, past the sleeping Art Gallery of Victoria, where he kissed me and told me I made him feel 16. So that was the beginning.

We were both entangled in relationships. His was in North Vancouver. Mine was in Ireland. I was in Victoria that winter, having spent time in the west of Ireland, and I was planning to return. I did go back, for three months, in part to finish Inishbream, the novella I’d begun to write. After three months, John joined me in Dublin and I took him back to the little caravan in Aughris for a week, the one the cows rubbed themselves against at night so that it rocked back and forth on its concrete blocks. Its saving grace was its position on the very edge of the Atlantic.

At the very beginning of our relationship, we knew we wanted to find a place that was our own. Not Victoria, not North Vancouver. Maybe one of the Gulf Islands? By then, property on the more accessible ones was expensive. What about the Sechelt Peninsula, wondered John. I’d never been but we came up and camped on Ruby Lake. And we bought eight and a half acres near the lake late that first winter. We’d never built anything in our lives other than book-shelves (and with the guidance of a friend, I built a filing cabinet out of half-inch plywood…). But I told John I was sure we had vestigial knowledge in our hands and when the skills were needed, we’d discover we had them. Ha.

We did build a house, this house —

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— and we had three children in fairly quick succession, these children —Scan— who have all grown up and gone out into the world. I can’t imagine another life. Or wait, maybe I can. There were things I’d dreamed of doing. But I wouldn’t trade any of what I have for those. It doesn’t seem possible that it’s been 35 years. We still find each other interesting. He’s tolerant. I’m, well, stubborn. This summer we were lying in our bed listening to Swainson’s thrushes in the woods just beyond our bedroom and John said, I wish I had all this to do again. We probably don’t have another thirty-five years — I’m 59 and John is nearly 67 — but oh, ten? Twenty?

Tonight we’ll have our favourite dinner — duck breasts with cherries soaked in port. Maybe roasted pears for dessert. And a Desert Hills wine — not sure which one — in the Waterford glasses John gave me for my fiftieth birthday, still remarkably intact.

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