“I say, ‘Regicide.’ I say, Help!'”

From An Exaltation of Larks, by James Lipton:

An Herde of Wrennys, The Book of St. Albans. Hodgkin says, “The wren was probably allowed the term of ‘herd’…because it was the king of birds.” I say, “Regicide.” I say, “Help!”

It’s been slightly more than a month since the boxes of my novella Winter Wren arrived at my door. Readers of this blog might remember that my friend Anik See and I have begun a small literary imprint, Fish Gotta Swim Editions, to publish novellas for now and perhaps other innovative prose forms in the future. It’s been an interesting process so far. I wrote Winter Wren, Anik designed the cover and text, and the wonderful team at Printorium in Victoria printed the beautiful hand-sized books. People are sending the nicest notes or calling me to tell me their impressions. So far, so good!

winter wren.jpg

It’s a word-of-mouth endeavor at this point. We don’t have an advertising budget so we’re relying on email newsletters and the kindness of friends and strangers. Anik doesn’t even have copies yet but will receive hers when she’s in Canada next month. After then, she’ll fill orders for European customers and those from other parts of the world. (I’m filling orders for North, Central, and South America. And have mailed books to the UK and a few other places far afield.) But we both believe that readers will be interested in novellas and will somehow find us and our titles. (More are in the planning stages.)

Several reviews are forthcoming and I will post information and links on my News and Events page once I have them. I look forward to reading from Winter Wren when I participate in the Sunshine Coast Festival of the Written Arts on Friday, August 12th at 2:30 p.m. (I plan to talk about novellas in general and to also  read from my Patrin, which isn’t even a year old yet!) There will also be a proper launch for Winter Wren, probably in September. (If this sounds a bit vague,it’s because, well, life is busy right now! The Pender Harbour Chamber Music Festival, which I’m involved with, is coming up on the weekend of August 18-21 in Madeira Park; some of my children are coming for a couple of weeks later in summer; and there’s a third grandchild due in late August. But watch my News and Events page for a book launch date and if you’re in our area, come to help celebrate its regicide — without giving too much away, that word has a kind of eerie truth for this tale of wrens and the solstice and the passing of the old year.

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And if you want to support independent publishing not just in Canada but internationally (because Fish Gotta Swim Editions is located here on the west coast as well as in Amsterdam), please consider ordering a copy of Winter Wren. You can order from me. Or Anik. Several bookstores here on the Sechelt Peninsula carry the book and others can order it for you. If you are interested in a review copy, please let me know.

voices from west of the 4th meridian

I keep hearing them, voices from a hundred years ago, on the banks of the Red Deer River. I’m working on something I think of as an antiphonal essay, a series of calls and responses. Sometimes the calls are my own, back through the decades, to ask questions of my grandmother and her first husband, the other members of that early incarnation of my family who lived in a settlement of squatters in Drumheller from 1913 – 1917; and sometimes the calls are theirs — to the institutions and individuals who were part of the world they lived in. And the responses? They are often choruses of voices, or occasionally a single voice. The voice of Frank Collins, Superintendent of School Lands, Department of the Interior, Winnipeg, who wrote “I do not consider that we should force the squatters to vacate this land as it might seriously affect the operation of the mines…” He knew, as others knew, that the reason people had built shacks illegally on a quarter section of property known as School Lands was mostly because they were poor, there was nowhere else for them to live in the tiny community of Drumheller, and their labour was needed in the nearby coal mines. The voices of representatives from the Canadian Northern Railway who responded to Frank Collins: “The squatter situation has developed to our disadvantage.” The voices of the surveyors, the mayor of Drumheller (in a terse telegram): “Conditions are a menace to towns health and finances as we are practically debarred from any revenue from people on this land.” Later voices from people remembering what it was like to live in the settlement:”There were many coyotes running in packs. When they howled there were very noisy and would wake up the children. Each house had its scrap heap where you put out ashes, etc. The coyotes would come across the river in search of food from these scrap heaps. At night you could see them run from these heaps when you went outside…The houses were longer one way than the other, and could be converted into two rooms. They had a caravan roof, had tar-paper on the outside walls and roof and had no water or toilet inside. Those homes with children had bunk beds put along the back wall.” There were nine children in the home of my grandmother and her first husband so I am trying to listen to the voices inside their house (20×25 feet) and outside, as my grandmother chased her chickens and hoed potatoes in the big garden (its dimensions, 80×125 feet, found their way onto the list detailing the worth of the buildings in the settlement once a decision was made to allow the squatters to buy their lots). I hear them, I hear them across the decades, and it’s like a plain-spoken opera, an oratorio, the voices beautiful in their insistence on being heard. Even the questions on the patent application for homesteads:

When did you build your house thereon? And when did you begin actual residence thereon?

How much breaking have you done upon your homestead in each year since you obtained entry, and how many acres have you cultivated each year?

How many horned cattle, horses, sheep, and pigs, of which you are owner have you had on your homestead each year since date of obtaining entry? Give number of each year.

So I listen and notate and try to find a shape for this material and all the while I have these photographs on my desk, a little gallery of lost time.

 

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.

a copper briki

“A tiny copper briki in which coffee had been boiled three times.” That phrase occurs in my novella, Patrin. I wrote it, remembering how much I’d loved coffee the months I spent in Greece in the last century when I was in my early 20s. I had a sweetheart on Crete — I’ve written about him in my memoir, Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, in the chapter “Olea europaea: Young Woman with Eros on her Shoulder”: “A very old man, a fisherman with a bright blue boat, used to bring me slices of melon when I sat at the dock and read my book. One day he brought his son, whom I will call Agamemnon. He was older, had served in the army, and spoke English only marginally better than my Greek.” I had many cups of coffee with Agamemnon and his father. They made it by spooning coffee into water in a little briki, along with sugar. The briki was placed on a gas burner (Agamemnon and his family owned a small taverna) and brought to the boil, removed, placed back on the burner, removed, and then placed on the burner one more time. It took some time for me to convince them that I wanted mine without sugar — sketos. But that’s how I liked it best. They didn’t drink their coffee quickly, the way people drink an espresso in Italy, but they sat at a table or on a bench, with a tall glass of water, and they sipped the coffee slowly and appreciatively. I learned to do the same. The first few times I had coffee with them,  I drank mine right down to the last drop — which was grounds. And I was told not to do that. I soon figured out when to consider my coffee finished. All this is so long ago now but the other day, on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, I was shopping for Christmas presents and as I was about to pay for all the things I’d chosen at the Mediterranean Market (this will be an edible Christmas!), I saw some brikis hanging behind the counter. I asked to see one and as I held in my hands, a whole world came back to me, filled with the rustling of olive leaves, the flavours of retsina and salty cheese, the feel of my body alive in the ocean, and then the company of two men under shade trees in front of Agamemnon’s taverna. Of course I bought the briki and will keep it in my kitchen for the memories it conjures on winter mornings, the taste of strong coffee — sketos — and the warmth of sunlight, almost forty years later.

briki

“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

 

On Salt Spring Island…

When John and I first met in 1979, I moved to his house in North Vancouver. I was 24, beginning my life as a writer, and at first I felt a little bereft. In Victoria, the city I’d left, there was a lively literary culture and if I wasn’t exactly at the centre of it, I did attend readings (John and I met at one of those, a grand benefit for bill bisset at Open Space), and I belonged to a small writing group.

Not long after i’d moved to North Vancouver, we went to something — I forget what, exactly — at the Literary Storefront on Cordova Street, a wonderful centre or nexus for readings, workshops, launches, parties, and any other kind of literary activity imaginable. I wonder if i’m remembering correctly when I recall hearing Stephen Spender there? Anyway, the Literary Storefront was founded by Mona Fertig and in the way circles complete themselves, she is now my publisher. And on November 7th, I will be launching my new novella on Salt Spring Island, home of Mona’s Mother Tongue Publishing, alongside Trevor Carolan, who has just published a history of the Literary Storefront. I think it will be a fabulous evening! If you’re on Salt Spring, come help us celebrate!

Patrin_Storefront_evite

“Where on the map”

One book released to the world and another finding its way into my daily life, another novella, The Marriage of Rivers. I began it some time ago but put it aside because I had the work of editing Patrin and then I also wrote a long essay. I’m never sure why some work agitates its way to the front of the line but it does and other writing goes quiet. But on a fall morning, this morning in fact, I woke excited about this novella again and there it was, waiting. I’ve finished the first half. And I like where it’s going, in actual terms and in narrative terms. In actual terms, here’s a glimpse of the main character (who doesn’t have a name. I don’t know why that is but maybe she’ll find one…) in country I’m thinking of these days, with that kind of longing you feel as keenly as anything.

across the Fraser River


“Ever since I could remember, it was my joy and the joy of all of us to stand on this strong iron bridge and look down at the line where the expanse of emerald and sapphire dancing water joins and is quite lost in the sullen Fraser. It is a marriage, where, as often in marriage, one overcomes the other and one is lost in the other. The Fraser receives all the startling colour of the Thompson River and overcomes it, and flows on unchanged to look upon, but greater in size and quality than before.”

I had the map I’d drawn for my thesis, rough but fairly accurate, and I was marking it with the places I’d identified in Hetty Dorval. I’d left my car at the Totem Motel and walked to the bridge. An osprey nest was unoccupied, though birds fished over both rivers, dipping and plunging. On the far side, the Lillooet side, a man was walking towards town with a dog beside him. I could hear the ospreys whistling as they fished, a surprisingly thin sound for such a big bird. There was such power in their wings which formed a kind of sail for the birds to ride the currents of air and watch for fish. Emissaries, beacons, gods of the sky. I wondered if they saw you, James, as you fell from your kayak and tried to fight the wild water, tumbling against rocks, your head thrust up, and up, their impersonal gaze casting over you as you drowned.

I made my mark on the map. Then I walked out the Lillooet Road, along its narrow shoulder, grass and pines above my shoulders, and everywhere the scent of southernwood, its blossoms just finishing. Dry air, a dry wind as I walked. Where was it Frankie Burnaby first met Hetty Dorval on the dusty highway, Frankie riding back from her home ranch in Lillooet to where she boarded during the week when she attended school in Lytton, and Hetty, recently arrived in Lytton from some mysterious past, out exploring on her mare. Ethel Wilson wrote of hairpin turns and the hills dotted with sage and it could have been anywhere along the road where the two met and witnessed the long arrow of migrating geese in the autumn sky. As I walked, I looked up, hoping for the same arrow. But saw only the blue vault and a few high clouds.

From a letter you wrote to me: Sometimes we head up to Keatley Creek to see what they’re doing. Man, what a place. Huge village – probably around 1500. When the creek meets the Fraser, the fishing would have been amazing. In a kind of funnel which would have dried the fish in no time. I love that place. And you can drive by and never know that it exists.

A I walked out the road, I thought how our maps are so cursory. We know that the big cities matter because they have stars to prove it. And the big rivers – thick blue lines across the landscape. Mountain ranges, the borders between provinces delineated in a kind of morse code – dash, dot, long dash — countries. Huge expanses of blue sea. Great lakes. The colours of empire. But what do they tell us about happened, or happens, in grassy kettle depression where the flakes of old tools litter the earth and salmon leap in the river against the current. Where on the map’s contours is the place where a woman paused to consider the beauty of the morning? Where a tree noted for its long cones was cherished by a family dependent on seeds. A map carries nothing of the smell of autumn, what it feels like now to walk over and into the remnants of pithouses, right into the body of the memory. Where on the map is the site where two boys found a body and were changed forever by it.

afterglow

On Saturday, my publisher Mona Fertig from Mother Tongue Publishing and her husband Peter Haase travelled from Salt Spring Island to help me launch my new novella, Patrin. We met at a local restaurant and they gave me an unexpected gift: a bottle of sparkling Italian wine with a sweet card. (The plum gin was presented later, at our house, by the fire…) But why should I have been surprised? Everything about the process of publishing this particular book has been note-perfect. Mother Tongue may be a small company but Mona is also generous and thoughtful.

So the launch was wonderful. I’m still glowing. The beautiful Arts Centre in Sechelt filled with friends and well-wishers, the long tables laid out with food and drink, books, flowers, and of course a scattering of leaves in honour of Patrin Szkandery (whose name means “leaf” and who is told by a Roma woman in rural Moravia, “your name is your best prayer”).

Some lovely surprises at the launch: Jeffrey Renn, our actor friend, who came in the door with a huge smile. And Kathy Munro and Bill Mann from Whitehorse! (They should get a prize for coming the longest distance…) I’d love to post some photographs but John’s are blurry. I think Mona will send some photos later — the cake in particular was spectacular! But luckily my young friend Isabelle drew my portrait while I was reading and so I can show you what an author looks like, dressed for the celebration of her novella. (Isabelle must have thought my reliable black dress was too dull so she gave me some colour.)

me

P.S. Here’s Mona’s photo of the cake!

the cake!

“Don’t fear the voices”

Tonight is the launch for my novella Patrin. In the way that one does, I’m anticipating questions (not necessarily tonight but in the next while as friends and strangers read this book that takes place partly in the city of my birth and partly in the country of my grandmother’s birth) about the intersection of fact and fiction. Sometimes I write what I call fiction and sometimes I write what is presented as non-fiction. Each is embellished with elements of the other. How could it be otherwise? I think of myself as a writer first,  a citizen of language, and sometimes the world is so rich and dense with materials, with possibilities, that I feel dizzy with it. Joyous with it. And sometimes burdened by it.

For the past few years I’ve been working intermittently on pieces which hover between essays and stories. Some are just fragments of dialogue, overheard. Some are lists of findings, catalogues of family details. Some are sustained narratives. One is a wild patchwork of math and botany, genetics and animal behavior. I haven’t worried about the final organization of this material. Yet. But I know that at some point I’ll have to decide what it is.

I’ve been rereading Alice Munro’s The View From Castle Rock. It’s one of my favourites of all her books, though I have to say that on any random day, my favourite might be another book entirely. Maybe I mean that it’s the book that puzzles me and enchants me, in equal measure. Some of it seems to be pure memoir. Sometimes Munro takes a single fragment of factual material and meditates upon it, asking questions of it, giving it a life beyond its immediate presence. She writes, in her Foreward, about the genesis of the book. She tells us that she had been looking at family accounts, letters, recollections:

I put all this material together over the years, and almost without my noticing what was happening, it began to shape itself, here and there, into something like stories. Some characters gave themselves to me in their own words, others rose out of their situations. Their words and my words, a curious re-creation of lives, in a given setting that was as truthful as our notion of the past can every be.

During these years I was also writing a special set of stories. These stories were not included in the books of fiction I put together, at regular intervals. Why not? I felt they didn’t belong. They were not memoirs but they were closer to my own life than the other stories I had written, even in the first person. In other first-person stories I had drawn on personal material, but then I did anything I wanted with this material. Because the chief thing I was doing was making a story. In the stories I hadn’t collected I was not doing exactly that. I doing something closer to what a memoir does — exploring a life, my own life, but not in an austere or rigorously factual way. I put myself in the centre and wrote about that self, as searchingly as I could. But the figures around this self took on their own life and colour and did things they had not done in reality. They joined the Salvation Army, they revealed that they had once lived in Chicago.

I don’t know that any of those surrounding my particular self joined the Salvation Army but there are some individuals and occasions I don’t know enough about and perhaps never will. And maybe it’s time to explore the possibilities of those instead of waiting, waiting, waiting to find out the actual facts which I suspect will never be revealed. The land my grandmother bought near Grays Harbor, Washington, for instance — how did an immigrant woman living in Drumheller, a widow (I think) at that point, with at least 7 children, buy land in Aberdeen? My father told my son that she discovered the property was worthless and she took a shotgun with her to confront the man who sold it to her. Did she get her money back? My father said she shot fish to feed her children. Grays Harbor is a bay composed of many estuaries — the Hoquiam River, the Humptulips River, the Chehalis, all of them salmon-bearing rivers. In those years — this would have been the early 1920s at the latest — I imagine the salmon-runs were the old legendary runs, so many fish you could cross the river by stepping on a living bridge. I can smell those fish, can see that woman with her shotgun and her children. So a story, a fragment, and as mine as anything ever is.

Releasing one book to the world creates such space for the imagination. I have been sorting (in the most chaotic way) some of the material I have in my study and I keep hearing quiet voices. In Patrin, there’s a poem by the wonderful Czech poet Jan Skacel; its opening line is “Don’t fear the voices.” Patrin Szkandery takes the poem and its advice to heart. And maybe it’s time I did too. I look at this photograph, for instance — a baby who would have been my aunt if she’d lived. Julia Kishkan. She died before my father was born and I know almost nothing about her death. This photograph is anything but empty though. Her older (half) sisters, the curtain, the window, the cloth under the casket, and all those brothers and sisters who aren’t in the photograph. Julia’s parents, my grandparents, whom I barely knew but whose lives deserve my attention, now if ever there was a time. “Don’t fear the voices, there’s a lot of them.”

julia