Category Archives: Interviews in 5 questions

Intrepid reading series promotes equity in theatre

From Broadway to Victoria, the picture is the same: women make up the vast majority of theatre goers, but relatively few plays produced are written by their sex. Although women dominate theatre industry jobs, men occupy most high level positions. Women, meanwhile, are paid less for equal work. Such were the findings of a Playwrights Guild of Canada 2006 report on the Status of Women in Canadian Theatre. Last year, the guild started an Equity in Theatre campaign to redress gender inequalities. Intrepid Theatre artistic director and Victoria playwright Janet Munsil, whose plays have been staged across Canada and in the UK, has developed a New Play Reading Series with a focus on local playwrights who are women. Munsil talks to Stephanie Harrington about the initiative.

A Playwrights Guild of Canada (PGC) report found that 70 per cent of theatre goers are women. Yet women playwrights produced only 22 per cent of plays in Canadian theatres in 2013/14. In British Columbia, disappointingly, the numbers were even lower, with women producing only 18 per cent of plays. What do you make of these disparities? And how is Intrepid Theatre’s New Play Reading Series addressing historical inequalities?

I’ve been following and promoting the Equity in Theatre initiative since its launch, as the regional rep for the B.C. Islands Caucus of the Playwrights Guild. I started the series specifically to address the issue of gender inequity for playwrights, devoting the first six months to plays by women–and this has been extended to eight months of plays. At a time when attention is being drawn to the issue, it’s notable that there are no plays by women being produced locally in the professional mainstage seasons in Victoria this season.

The perceptual problem is mostly about how the industry talks about playwrights who are women–they are Women Playwrights. An audience might justifiably jump to the conclusion that Women Playwrights write “women’s plays” about “women’s issues” or that they fall into one of the film/novel stereotypes we are so used to, like “frothy chick-flick” or “angry feminism.”

I can’t argue with the statistics and I don’t know how to solve the problem, but it’s important to acknowledge it, and the series is a way for us to do that. I believe that half of the members of the PGC are women, so it’s not that there are fewer women writing plays. Seventy eight per cent of the script submissions I’ve received for the series are by women.

Five plays have featured so far as part of the series which started in November, including Karen Lee Pickett’s Hand of Jane and The Wonderful Naked Man by Sandi Johnson. Besides the obvious factor that women wrote these plays, how have the characters, issues or stories explored differed? In other words, are audiences being exposed to new perspectives and what do these stories offer theatre goers that they haven’t experienced before?

The plays thus far have been very different, by design–I think it’s the wide range of styles and themes that these playwrights are exploring that makes the series most interesting. We’ve had everything from musical biography to surreal poetry to a thriller–they couldn’t be more individual in their voice and content, and their take on the human experience.

Regardless of gender, every playwright has a different perspective and a different “ear” for dialogue–which is at the heart of dramatic writing. If we are exposed to more plays by women, or by more diverse playwrights in general, we’re of course exposed to a broader range of unique voices. The key is to tell an interesting story in a fresh, relevant way.

As dismal as the statistics are for women playwrights, racial inequality is even worse.  The Playwrights Guild found “people of colour comprised nine per cent of produced playwrights, with five per cent of the plays written by men and four per cent written by women,” from nearly 2000 productions staged in Canada from 2000-05. How is the Equity in Theatre project addressing issues around (the lack of) diversity in Canadian theatre? Is this something you think about in your own work?

Improving diversity on Victoria’s stages is at the front of my mind when I’m programing festivals and presenting–and I think this is a going concern for most presenters I know. In curating Uno Fest (our annual solo performance festival), I am very conscious in my decision making about gender balance and cultural diversity. Sad to say, Victoria doesn’t have a very diverse theatre community at this time, so this is usually in the form of touring productions. I am working on two plays at the moment, one about black history and the other about disability, but these are the stories I feel I have to share. It’s not based on a feeling that it’s my job to address certain issues or cultural biases as a playwright.

What can audience members expect when attending Intrepid Theatre’s New Play Reading Series?

It’s a cross between two things you will be familiar with–a radio play and a live stage performance. Once we select a script, the readers are cast from a roster of local actors. They have a read-though rehearsal prior to the public reading. On the night of the performance, the cast sits at a table under stage lights, and the audience assembles in our 50-seat studio at the Intrepid Theatre Club. Admission is by donation. Someone reads the stage directions to help paint the picture. There are no sets or costumes, so it requires some active participation in the imagination of the audience. The main difference between a play reading (aka “Reader’s Theatre”) and a radio play is that you are in the room with live actors, sharing that experience with the other people in the room on stage and off–and that’s unique to live theatre.

Intrepid’s series features full-length, unproduced plays that the playwrights consider “complete,” and we are sharing them with the audience as a complete, bare-bones performance. There are other kinds of readings in theatre – sometimes a company might do a reading of a play it is considering for an upcoming season, or as part of a workshop of a new script in progress where the audience or actors are asked for feedback in the end. In that case, it’s possible for a brand-new play to be presented as a problem to be fixed by a room of relative strangers, and a playwright can be put in the vulnerable position of feeling that they must answer all the questions or remove all the ambiguities in their subsequent drafts, or to submit to a kind of thesis defense moments after having heard their work for the first time. Mystery and ambiguity, and the magic that happens when actors bring the work to life, are the essential things that make theatre worth thinking about.

Are there long-term plans for the reading series? For example, will any of the plays be produced? There is a reading on March 31 (before a break until June), a play from Coastal Spectator reviewer Joy Fisher, called Writing As a Kind of Magic. It’s described as an historical melodrama inspired by the witchcraft trial of Katharina Kepler, the mother of the astronomer, Johannes Kepler.

Intrepid Theatre doesn’t produce plays–it isn’t really our mandate, and we aren’t funded as a producing company. We present local and touring work in festivals that is “audience-ready,” providing venues and events where small companies and independent producers can do their work. But as part of our support of emerging artists and our outreach to the community, we can take this modest measure to recognize and promote the work of local playwrights, to invite those who are looking for new plays to produce to join the audience, and most of all, to encourage writers who may have been discouraged by the many challenges (not just gender-biases) to having their plays produced, to hear their work out-loud, alive, with an audience that is there to enjoy their work.

Candid memoir unpacks gender, sexuality

Michael V Smith is a performance artist, poet, novelist, professor, drag queen, film-maker, comic and occasional go-go dancer: he is a man whose work transcends categorization, and his memoir, My Body is Yours (Arsenal Pulp Press), is no different. The memoir smartly unpacks topics like gender roles, ontology and social pressure, while telling the compelling and often provocative story of Smith’s life. Smith has published two novels: Cumberland, which won the inaugural Dayne Ogilvie Prizze for Emerging LGBT Writers, and Progress; and two books of poetry: What You Can’t Have, and Body of Text. He teaches creative writing at The University of British Columbia’s Okanagan Campus. Cole Mash recently spoke to Michael V Smith for The Coastal Spectator.

Michael, memoir is a difficult medium. Most lives are interesting in one way or another, but one needs a storyteller’s ability to include the right moments, a gift for compelling prose and insight to tell readers why it all matters. Your book did all three so deftly. How did you negotiate between fact and subjectivity, and the limitations of memory, while still remaining true to the real story?

Oh crap, that’s a tricky question. Every time I write a book the task isn’t so much an exercise in writing but in listening. A good storyteller is first a good listener—especially listening to herself, which can be the hardest talk—so that telling the story is simply about transcribing well the information you’ve gathered. Much of this book came out differently than I had planned—my goal was to write a clever treatise, but instead I wrote a candid memoir. I followed the topic that I’d set out—to write about my complicated relationship to masculinity, and some of how I’ve unburdened myself from that, which includes my relationship to my father—and then the book sort of did what it wanted to do. I followed instinct, I wrote way more than I’d intended, I deleted a whole whack of stuff that didn’t seem necessary to the core of the story, all based on the greater thematics that evolved. I always build a whole bunch of parts and slowly fit them together, to see what sort of machine can be made, what’s capable, and then set about fine-tuning those parts so they fit together well. In that way, the book tells me what sort of machine it is. There’s equal parts chance, subconscious, and intention.

The range of this memoir makes for an incredible reading experience. In one chapter I would be brought nearly to tears by the more sad parts of your life like dealing with an aging, alcoholic father, then in another chapter there would be a fisting scene. You balance humor, guilt, sex and tragedy while still having the awareness to tie it back to important social topics like gender, class and sexuality. How did you achieve balance throughout?

Years ago, I heard David Adams Richards say at a reading that he was trying to stuff as much as he could into his novels, all the life he knew, jam full. And I approached this book in much the same way, with breadth. I wanted to look as broadly across my life as I could, looking at how my relationship to masculinity—like how I inhabit my body, and how I came to understand my gender—has played out in all the different aspects of my life. Some of that, of course, involves sex, involves family, involves a lot of embarrassment and shame, and successes and celebrations. Writing, for me, is about getting at the things other people can’t talk about. It’s my job to articulate what we can’t or haven’t or refuse to or are too terrified to say.

So the book goes everywhere, because I’ve gone everywhere. Writing My Body Is Yours has simply been an exercise in candour, or honesty. If the memoir touches on broader themes, it’s because I see those patterns at play in the breadth of my life. Some patterns I knew before starting the book—some were an impulse to writing it, like how frustrating it was to be a genderfreaky child, or how my compulsion has been a key motivator in my life—and some insights only came to me through the process of writing—like the mirror my life made with my father, how much I’d never noticed [what] we had in common—which is always the best material, because the writer, in a way, is discovering in time with the reader. If there’s balance in the book, it’s because I looked across the field of my life without harbouring secrets, without silences. I’d suffered too long in silence as a child. This book is hopefully an antidote to secrecy, whether the secrets be from shame or manipulation. Like I quote Alan Downs in the book: “It’s never a bad idea to be completely honest about the facts.”

For the most part, the memoir follows a linear narrative, but each chapter occasionally jumps in time to employ your current perspective, to link similar events from your life, and to cultivate a different aspect of your corporeal identity. The first chapter for instance seems to open a dialogue on shame and silence, whereas later chapters contribute a sense of sexual agency and liberation. Was this shape conscious or was it organic to the writing process?

The shape was very much organic. Although I love stories that are super clever, and freshly structured, it’s just not what I write most often. I’m working through the heart more than the mind—my ideas are in service to an emotional intelligence, rather than the other way around. My work tends to have classic structures—like linearity, as you pointed out—but with transgressive content. My newness is more in the subject than the form. I know form and subject work together, of course; they’re really the same thing. What I’m trying to do is take the topic of what I write about, which can often seem very foreign for someone on the outside of that experience, and put it in a classic form, as a kind of recognizable container to hold the foreign subject. Aesthetic innovation comes out more in my performance, which is easier for me, because it’s personalized in my performed body sharing space. With books, I’m always interested in reaching a broad audience, and those familiar forms help when you’re writing about topics that might seem, on the surface, to be sensational.

You state numerous times the influence of John Berger on your work. The book is even prefaced with an epigraph from Berger: “There’s nothing but the dumb touch of our fingers. / And our deeds”.  What has been his influence as a novelist and poet on your creative work?

Berger’s prose is amazing. He has this enviable ability to pull back the lens in a particular moment—within some intimacy—and speak about the world in broader terms. He’ll give you a description of a tender touch of a hand on an ankle in a love scene, and then zoom out to discuss the different ways in which men and women are socialized to respond to touch, or how love works, or what the human heart can know from a gesture. The personal, for Berger, is always political—like the touch of our fingers—because the personal is always universal, it always has impact. We are changing the world in each small moment of our day. We are creating it, with each insignificant decision, how we say hello the woman at the checkout stand. If we say hello. He has many aspects to his genius, but that’s the one I hold most dearly, his love of the small touch, and the enormity of its consequence.

You write about haptic perception, the recognition of an object through touch. This seems to be such an important focus of your book. Reading My Body is Yours is a tactile experience: as readers we understand the history of your body, the failures, successes and fears that you have experienced, through physically holding the book. Can you reflect on writing something so personal and then having it packaged and distributed as an object? How have people reacted so far?

I’ve been dreaming about my father for the last couple of weeks. He died more than two years ago, so it’s been nice to see him in my dreams. Even if it’s only there. I’ll run the risk of sounding woowoo and say that I think my subconscious is preparing me for this book’s debut in the world, for strangers to read about my complicated relationship to Dad, to masculinity, and to my father’s death. Those dreams are offering me intimate comfort, pending a general public that doesn’t know me, who’ll read about my private life. Not that I’m worried, especially, not any more than I am for any book. For years now I’ve been exploring topics that frighten and shame me, so I’m familiar with the drill. I know that fear—which is really just a combination of shame and anxiety—are nothing compared to the reward of being vulnerable. People are loving. Readers are loving. As much as they are lonely and isolated. Every time I write something that scares the crap out of me to share, readers are grateful to have found some company in the work. I don’t know myself better by articulating what haunts me, but by hearing its echo when other people respond with their own stories. Books are a means of sharing all that. Every book is a generosity—the writer to the reader with a story, the reader to the writer with her time. I’m blessed to have so many secrets in print. Beyond my reductive fear of being poorly judged or misunderstood, I have a kind of proven faith that I’ll be blessed to have readers who say, “Oh, here’s a bit of truth I haven’t looked at before. Here’s me, too.” That is a gift that gives both ways.

Cole Mash is an English and creative writing student at UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in The Eunoia Review and The UBC Okanagan Papershell Anthology.

Two-4-One film delivers unexpected twists

Film producer, director and media educator Maureen Bradley’s new feature film Two-4-One has its debut, hometown screening on Feb. 14 and 15 at the Victoria Film Festival, and CineCenta on March 25 and 26. This romantic comedy delivers promised laughs along with entertaining, unexpected character and plot twists. Montreal-born Bradley has directed more than 40 short films and videos, four film installations and two web art projects. Her award winning productions have screened at galleries and festivals around the globe, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Bradley recently answered Hannalora Leavitt’s questions about her life and work.

Maureen, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie and was delighted by the unexpected narrative twists and my own shuffling of gender assumptions. For instance, as a female viewer, I had to rethink the depth-charge moment when Adam (played by Gavin Crawford of This Hour Has 22 Minutes) slapped the debt collector, another male character, who is shocked when he is slapped, not punched, by another man. There’s also the scene when Adam (a transgendered character who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand) is examined at his ob-gyn’s office. The male presence in that typically feminine space is hilarious and challenging to the viewer.

Thanks for such thought provoking questions, Hanna. I’ve noticed the real comedy comes in putting people in awkward spaces—and what’s more awkward than being in the wrong place for your gender. It’s what many trans and gender non-conforming folks feel on a daily basis but without the humour. Bathrooms are really challenging spaces for trans people. By putting Adam in those uncomfortable situations, I hope all viewers think about how we are positioned every day by our gender presentation. Sometimes it’s easy, often it’s not. While rewriting the script, I tried to think of every possible human interaction Adam could have that foregrounded his gender. I’ve never punched someone and I would have no idea how to! I suspect Melanie (Adam pre-transition) was not a scrappy girl and lacked this experience as well.

As I pondered one major theme—how to become a man—I kept adding opportunities for Adam to learn the ropes of masculinity. When the film opens, he already looks like a man, walks like a man and talks like a man. He’s a stealth trans guy but there are still some experiences left to explore. The first time he hits the punching bag, he does so incorrectly. When he returns to the punching bag later in the narrative, he has actually learned how to throw a punch. I had to rely on a martial arts enthusiast on set to show me the difference since I know nothing about boxing!

The scene with Adam in the stirrups was a hoot to film. It is hilarious to female viewers in particular, but there’s also an intentionally creepy vibe to the scene. Adam leads a very medicalized existence. It’s the doctors and psychiatrists who call the shots in terms of his transition. They hold the power. The doctor really does not need to do this exam. There’s no doubt Adam’s pregnant. But he puts Adam through this humiliation. Female viewers relish seeing a pregnant man, that much I’ve learned from festival screenings so far. However, I was surprised that male viewers could relate to Adam as much as they do. I’m not sure male viewers have the same reaction to stirrups, but every woman I know cringes at the idea of an internal exam. So I threw in the prostate joke to widen the audience. Off the top of the scene the doc says, “Well, I guess I don’t have to tell you to cough.”

Can you talk about the origins of and your decision to go with a transgendered romantic lead? What, if any, barriers or surprises did you encounter in terms of your own creative practice, assumptions and expectations because of this decision?

When I first read about the famous pregnant man, Thomas Beattie, I knew it was only a matter of time before Hollywood made a film on the topic. But his story is the stuff of tabloids and reality TV. It’s not a movie. I read about a trans man accidently getting pregnant in exactly this way—sharing sex toys during a home insemination—and realized that scenario was indeed the stuff of drama. As a hero, Adam has a strong goal—to be a man. In fact, he discovers the pregnancy on his way to arrange for phalloplasty—a great dramatic reversal. So this story only makes sense for a transgender man. I’d been hearing more and more about trans male pregnancy in the last year and I wanted to create a story that was respectful and comedic before Hollywood did. The story is unique and one that I haven’t seen told in the form of a romantic comedy and I’m pleasantly surprised that it’s reaching a broader audience than I expected. While it’s about an unusual path to masculinity, it’s also about learning to accept yourself. We reach the universal through the specific. Filming it in Victoria was also important for many reasons. First, the community was incredibly supportive. I wanted to create a film set in Victoria. While there so much production here, the films and TV shot here are never set here. Second, the landscape supports another theme in the film—fertility. And finally, this is a small town story. I doubt Adam would struggle so much with acceptance if the story was set in San Francisco, Seattle or Toronto.

Adam’s mother is a strong character in this story. I appreciated her eccentricities and fleshed-out character. Her home mirrored her personality. I was particularly intrigued with her home. While the film is set in Victoria, where did you find such an interesting location for the mother’s residence?

So glad you asked about this. It’s one of my favourite aspects of the film. That shack is on Gonzales Bay. It’s in my neighbourhood and I basically knocked on the door and asked if I could film there. The owners get this request frequently and they always say no, but since the film was local, they said yes. It’s mostly used for storage and no longer lived in. The shack was decorated with art almost entirely from Ladysmith artist Sally Mann, a friend of mine. I wrote the script with her artwork in mind but with a Quebecoise earth-mother eccentric character in mind. When I couldn’t find a francophone actor in the area to play Marie-France, Gabrielle Rose came on as Franny. It was her idea to take the original bits of French dialogue and turn it into her Alzheimer-defying French lessons. The shack was only about 250-square-feet in size so it feels very full—there’s a lot of art crammed in there. But that reflects Franny. She’s a Buddhist hoarder. What didn’t come from artist Sally Mann, Gary Varro, our brilliant production designer, created.

I watched the film twice but did need to ask a friend to fill me in on what took place during two “non-dialogue” scenes because of my visual impairment. For instance, the scene where the mother is looking through a box of photos of Melanie (Adam pre-transition) as a young girl and woman contains no dialogue. I realize that “film” is all about the visual. As a writer and arts consumer with a visual disability, I wonder if you, as a working film professional, are actively aware of how differently consumers, the visually impaired, for instance, experience your art. And, do you feel that directors and producers should play a role in creating a more inclusive viewing experience or does that task belong to others through closed captioning and descriptive video?

What a great question! All the screenwriting gurus insist you “show don’t tell’ and that the most compelling story device is the visual reveal. I personally like “talky” films, Woody Allen being my biggest influence. But the orthodoxy is that deft writers and directors get the job done through visuals. That directive excludes many in our potential audience.

I must say, I feel pretty ignorant about what happens when the movie is done and it goes for closed-captioning or interpretive audio. I would very much like to be involved in that process or consider it more in production. With these low budget productions, we focus so much on production, anything that comes after is left with the dregs of the budget—if anything. When I travel to Québec, I often get called on lack of French subtitles on my ultra-low budget films. I wish there was a fund for translation—both subtitles and interpretive audio. So often you have no control with these services. One director was just telling me about his French film getting mediocre English subtitles then the Mandarin version was translated from the sub-par English version! I appreciate your question. It will broaden my approach to writing and get me to consider about audience accessibility earlier on. Many years ago, I attended a screening in Vancouver and was mesmerized when I saw sign language interpretation of one of my shorts. It was illuminating.

In terms of your film career, how does Two-4-One fit in with your previous works? Is it representative of the wider social issues you would like to pursue in future projects?    

A lot of my earlier movies and docs were overtly political. I do see Two-4-One on that continuum but in a strategic manner. The content and tone make the subject matter accessible. And I’ve reached a much wider audience with this film than anything I’ve done since coming out on national TV in the CBC series Road Movies way back in 1992.

All the projects I’m currently writing have politics subverted into the narrative in a similar manner to Two-4-One. I’m working on three series concepts right now. One is a series version of Two-4-One called Who’s Your Daddy. Another is a series about a band of midwives in New Brunswick fighting for inclusion in medicare and a third, also infused with politics, is top secret.

And I’m flirting with two web series right now that meld comedy, drama and politics.

I really enjoy writing and I’d like to focus on writing TV or web series because you get to delve into character in a more sustained manner. I haven’t ruled out directing, but it’s a slog! I do hope to collaborate with Two-4-One’s brilliant cinematographer Amy Belling again.

Memoir born from nature and turbulence

Christine Lowther is the daughter of the noted B.C. poet, Pat Lowther, and is an accomplished poet and essayist in her own right. She has co-edited two books of essays and is the author of three books of poetry. Her most recent book is a collection of her own essays, Born Out of This: A Memoir (Caitlin Press, 2014). Often referred to as a “ lifelong activist,” Lowther has been a resident of Clayoquot Sound since 1992 and this book includes many of her encounters with the natural elements of this still largely unspoiled environment. Recently, she answered Joy Fisher’s questions about her writing and her life.

The title of your book, Born Out of This, is related to a story of paddling in monstrous waves and thus suggests emergence from turbulence. In some of the essays in your book, you refer to the death of your mother at the hands of your father, which suggests that the turbulence you were born out of is not merely that of the ocean. But your final essay concludes with an examination of your obsession with immersing yourself in the ocean. You say: “The water, so cold, changes everything. Day or night, each time I emerge from the ocean, I feel reborn.” What meaning do you wish to convey to your readers by the title of your book?

We needed to come up with a title. This is often the most challenging part of writing a book. Vici Johnstone, my publisher, chose this one, very perceptively. I love the ocean and we were all born from it, and you’re right, there was turbulence. The title is perfect.

The descriptions you include about the behaviour of even the smallest creatures in your environment — for example the pipefish you once watched for a quarter of an hour — suggest an enormous capacity for patient observation. Is this the inborn patience of a poet, or have you had to learn it over time? If you did learn it, how did you train yourself?

I think my need to observe and notice wild things comes from love. Both my parents were nature freaks and when we left the city for Mayne Island I was utterly enchanted. It felt like a different planet. Nothing against the city, which I also loved in my way, especially later on during the punk scene in Vancouver. If anybody trained me, my parents did, for good and ill, and a few good teachers did too. Observation of little things like bugs and birds was also in the pages of books I read as a child. Those books are still with us, but screens are taking over with their games and movies. It feels like I’ve noticed and observed and loved all my life, but I’m honestly not sure, because I have forgotten much of my childhood. I love all the magic that is around us all of the time. In adulthood I fell in love with poetry again and I think reading a lot of it helps in the “training.”

Your essays often recount your encounters with the larger animals who share the relatively intact forest you live in in Clayoquot Sound and it is clear that daily contact with some of them is necessary to your continued sense of peace; but you are also acutely aware of the dangers inherent in sharing space with wild animals such as cougars. Can you elaborate on the tensions inherent in the danger and the balm of living with untamed beings?

My first meeting with a cougar taught me that they are around us whether we know it or not, and this can be very disconcerting. You could almost say we are never alone in the forest. I had a dazzling cougar sighting on May 6, 2014, that didn’t make it into the book. I was on my floathouse deck, depressed because of the manner in which my relationship had ended that morning. I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get any sleep that night. Then I heard a large animal emerge onto the shore rocks from the bush—safely across the water from me. I assumed it was a wolf but amazingly, considering the broad daylight and my presence, it was a cougar. The animal walked along the rocks toward the creek for several moments. After it had returned to the forest, I found myself feeling suddenly light. That night I slept soundly and peacefully.

You write that you began gardening in your mid-twenties, and, now, in Clayoquot Sound, you have a floating greenhouse attached to your float home. What has gardening come to mean to you, both practically and aesthetically, over the years?

I’m obsessive about some things and gardening is one of them. I met a woman on the Walbran Valley logging blockade in ’91. She could identify wild flowers and herbs, and knew how to garden. She was a couple of years younger than me but I saw everything she did as both right and inspirational.

I write poems about gardening and about the flowers that grow around me and the bees I love so much—possibly more poems than I should write about these things, I don’t know. When I try to imagine living with no garden, I feel ill. It just feels right to eat out of the garden. It almost feels like spring wouldn’t happen without gardening. Quite possibly manic. I have learned by experience that if you don’t like gardens and gardening you might not like me much.

In Born Out of This, you write about some of the causes which have engaged your activism, from the peace movement to environmental protection. Can you talk a little about what gave rise to your passionate caring for these causes?

I have to assume my mother is at least partly responsible since she is reported to have read her poems at anti-Vietnam war rallies while I occupied her womb, plus the whole family picketed a development that threatened a pair of old trees when my sister and I were still really young. I discovered Vancouver’s peace marches by myself when I was 14, but these sorts of leanings were clearly in my cells already. I always had a strong sense of justice, as did some of my forbears. Of course, some of it might have been loneliness reaching out, searching for my tribe.

Second album offers wide sonic scope

Victoria-based duo Jansz & June, a.k.a. Auto Jansz and Andrea June, has just released its second album, After We’re Here. The album’s wide sonic palette and varied lyrical content can be both soothing and striking. Janz is a former member of the Canadian roots band Barley Wik. She’s been involved in the punk music scene in Winnipeg and has released solo recordings that have earned a positive reception. Andrea is known in writing circles by her surname Routley; she graduated from the Canadian College of the Performing Arts and the University of Victoria. Her song “The Tide” was shortlisted for the Island Singer-Songwriter contest in 2010. Coastal Spectator writer Emmett Robinson Smith recently spoke with Andrea about After We’re Here and life as an artist.

You both come from expansive artistic backgrounds: Auto as a former member of Barley Wik, and you, Andrea, as a graduate of the Canadian College of Performing Arts. How have these experiences shaped your idea of what music is and can be?

The way I make music has definitely changed over the years. Like many people, as a kid I was introduced to music through piano lessons and choir, with the focus being on interpreting classical, notated music. I learned to look at music in a bit of a snobby way, with classical music being the top “real” music, and folk music, say, being at the bottom of this hierarchy, which is totally crap and also completely paralyzing when it comes to writing your own music. To make the long story short, I explored musical theatre, opera, jazz, pop, country, and finally landed on writing original songs. I think getting to know these various styles and techniques has completely eliminated any lingering insecurities about the value of any one of those types of music, and that stratified way of looking at it. For Auto, playing in Barley Wik really informed her idea of what playing music is all about. It’s about the collaborative work of playing together as a team, forming that musical connection. Coming from different music backgrounds, we had pretty different ways of talking about music or working on a song, but we found a way and I think these different backgrounds have brought a lot of energy to the songs we write.

I noted a diversity of sounds on your new album, After We’re Here. Who are your major musical influences?

We definitely have different musical influences, and it’s always interesting to hear from people what they think we “sound” like, because it is often not musicians we would name as influences. Many people comment that some of our songs remind them of Sarah McLachlan, who is fantastic, but not someone I ever listened to — although we have all heard her music! Maybe she is impossible not to be influenced by for someone of my generation? Paul Simon is another musician we’ve been compared to. For me, the influence can be on a particular song. In our first album, “The Tide” came out of “Bist Du Bei Mir,” by Bach, which I’d been playing on the piano. On this album, I wrote “Lucky” after listening to a lot of Neko Case — I wanted to write a song with that same direct, unadorned vocal quality. Auto is a lover of swing and ragtime and she tends to lean more toward this style. Doc MacLean is one of her favourite musicians and she had the chance to open for him this summer in Victoria!

There is a unique storytelling element in your lyrics on After We’re Here — “Devil And The Deep Blue Sea” is a good example. Where do you get these ideas for songs?

Auto loves to write songs about famous — or should-be-famous — Canadian women, and “Devil and the Deep Blue Sea” is one of those songs, a true story about a hard-working rancher’s wife, Irene Murdoch, who challenged the law in Alberta to award women a fair share (women couldn’t even own property in Alberta until the 1970s!). “Outlaw” is a song about my sister who can be pretty fiery and reached her tipping point many times in Victoria when it comes to the policing of each other that can happen and the many bylaws — all the bylaws referenced at the end of the song are real bylaws in Victoria! So be careful not to act too “contrary” in a public park.

Many moods are present on After We’re Here. I compared  the delicacy of “Paper Boats” to the brazenness of “Outlaw,” for example. How does your creative process vary from song to song?

Some songs start with a story, and it’s a matter of finding the music to match, while others might being with a melody line, or a chord progression, or just a hook. “Paper Boats” started with a chord progression and wanting to write a melody that was all one note, a delicate tapping kind of thing. The water imagery and the lyrics came out of that. “Outlaw” was definitely inspired first by my sister, and I also wanted to play a tune on piano that was a bit honky-tonk. I’m not sure if it ever totally sounded honky-tonk because it will be our own version of that…And the version of it on the album is more bad-ass than honky-tonk, which was really fun to see that evolve into something different. Auto is amazing at exploring the possibilities of a song, turning it upside down, altering the time signature, inverting the melody — she’s very playful in the way she works on a new piece, which is a wonderful quality and makes her a lot of fun to play music with!

What’s next for Jansz & June? Any upcoming shows?

Auto plays locally with lots of other musicians, but we’re mostly taking the winter off. Day-jobs are a reality of life in the arts, but we’re writing new songs and looking forward to performing together again soon.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music reviewer and UVic student. 

Debut poetry collection explores working class masculinity

Garth Martens’ debut poetry collection, Prologue for the Age of Consequence, is a finalist for the 2014 Governor General’s Literary Awards, to be announced on Nov. 18. While working class masculinity has been a throughline of Canadian poetry in the work of poets like Patrick Lane, Martens’ poems, eloquent and brutal, are probably the most merciless – yet starkly compassionate – portrait of a group of working men in Canadian poetry. In this interview with Julian Gunn, Martens takes some of his metaphors from flamenco. He has studied flamenco dance, cante (singing), and palmas (percussion) for seven years at Alma de Espana. He wrote the libretto for a major international flamenco production, Pasajes, staged at the Royal Theatre in July 2014.

The poems in Prologue for the Age of Consequence travel between portrait and myth. Where does the mythological impulse come from, and why this shifting back and forth in scale from microcosm to macrocosm?

Large forces act on us. We promote them through a passive agreement, fingers on the planchette of a Ouija board. If the ordinary lives of tradespeople need no embellishment, still, there’s a corresponding experience. The worker asleep. We’re faced with a lot of numbers, the death rate in construction, or an amount, in metric tonnes, of land disrupted through machinery for bitumen. Portraiture allows a coarser engagement. Immensity, intimacy—we live each of these. So I’m interested in character, loaded voices. I’m also in love with an everything diction. Shifts in scale, hybridized registers, these were right for the telling.

The voice of a poem like “The Bolt that Cracked” moves between collective and individual identity, and between first and third person. Were you exploring how a sense of self works under extreme circumstances? What did you want your readers to experience through this instability?

Halfway through the first draft of “The Bolt That Cracked,” I discovered I had changed from first to third person, accidentally, and I was annoyed, but then I liked the effect. I thought about why I had done that, why I had slipped: an attempt to avert the gaze, disassociate, move left. I like your word “instability” here. The shifts begin when the speaker’s in the hospital observing other patients, their injuries, until returning to himself: “and here, now, this one, hovering / in spacious anaesthetic.” We don’t, sometimes, want to speak “I”. We can’t place ourselves. There are two wounds in that poem, and one of them is much simpler than the other and given more attention. So yes, extreme circumstances, which in fact are commonplace: the self exerted on, the departures, by choice or death, of those we love. The characters in Prologue have their individual identity and their collective identity, and both of these are under assault.

Formally, the poems in Prologue tend to present themselves as prose poems or as long-lined free verse, yet they seem to me to have a subterranean structurefor example, of alliteration and especially assonance. Occasionally, passages of meter break through the surface, as in “Mythologies of Men”: “He built a motorbike from scrap, / he built a stair-rail ramp, he built a fire”these bursts feel almost incantatory. Were there models you had in mind, and was there a conceptual purpose behind this tension between the form on the page and the sound of speech?

When I read “Mythologies of Men” out loud, I do it naturally, but toward the accent, which is how flamenco dancers work, and ancient Anglo-Saxon poetry. Line length is immaterial. Every syllable, when musically positioned, will read variably according to the hierarchy of accent, in triplets or dobles, a pounding of iambs, but also in a sinuous inflection, the language as spoken, which is richly idiosyncratic. Some of these poems have compact rhythm and others oxygenated rhythm. The bursts you refer to—these aren’t, you know, singularities—they’re in a musical context. See: “Myths, Metres, Rhythms,” from Winter Pollen: Occasional Prose, Ted Hughes.

As I read, I began to think of the language in this collection as stubbornI don’t know if that resonates with youit is dense, and it often turns aside from an expected word and chooses one near it, or suddenly knots syntax in a surprising way. It seemed to me that you wanted the reading process to reflect the physical labour of constructionthe poems must be built in the mind, they don’t just drop easily in. Does that reflect your intention, or is it a more general strategy in your work? You’ve said that you don’t want to be “strafing the world with perfume.”

So much of the process is intuitive and appropriate to who I am in the world, and so I wrote these poems and I wrote them in this way, and I have at moments a myopic attention, an obsessiveness. My editor referred to the language in Prologue as, at times, baroque. “A tortuous vasculature,” my optometrist said, after a retinal scan. My comment on “strafing the world with perfume” was said with respect to rendering the world of construction workers, writing as resident and not tourist, neither gloving an ugliness nor ignoring a darkness.

As for stubbornness, I don’t disagree. Still, no one says flamenco music is stubborn, though it is complex.

This is a world composed almost entirely of men. Is the collection exploring ideas about gender, particularly masculinity? What does it excavate?

There is an odious masculinity on stage throughout Prologue. There aren’t many women, as on job sites. Apart from the cleaner, and the present absence of girlfriends or ex-wives, there is the mother figure in “Everything That’s Yours”. The men in Prologue regulate one another toward faces that are cruder but approved. I hope that, beneath a stereotype, complexities agitate.

I tried to write a poem from the perspective of a childhood friend. She was a bank teller in Kelowna who became an apprentice electrician, and went to work in Fort Mac, among three hundred men in camp. I tried, with her permission, but I couldn’t get it right. I was getting it wrong. And there wasn’t time to improve it. I wish there had been.

Garth Martens will be reading today Nov. 8, at 11.15 a.m., as a part of the Victoria Writers Festival, on a panel called called “Grit Lit: Writing the Rural” at Oak Bay United Church (1355 Mitchell Street). 

On Nov. 14, Martens will be a featured poet at Planet Earth Poetry. Open Mic begins at 7:30 p.m. Featured poets Garth Martens and Erina Harris begin at 8 p.m. 

Historian revives the story of the enigmatic Peter Pond

Dr. Barry Gough is a noted historian and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society recognized for his scrupulous research and engaging narratives. He is the author of many books, including Juan de Fuca’s Strait: Voyages in the Waterways of Forgotten Dreams and Fortune’s a River: The Collision of Empires in Northwest America (Harbour, 2007) which won the John Lyman Book Award for best Canadian naval and maritime history and was shortlisted for the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize. Most recently, Dr. Gough explored the life of a fur trader who has long fascinated him in The Elusive Mr. Pond: The Soldier, Fur Trader and Explorer who Opened the Northwest (Douglas & McIntyre, 2014). He spoke to Margaret Thompson about this enigmatic figure.

The title of your book—The Elusive Mr. Pond—immediately suggests that Peter Pond is a shadowy figure, historically. What first drew your attention to him as a subject for a book?

The authoritative Dictionary of Canadian Biography, one of the great national literary institutions of [our] country…asked me to write for their pages a large biography of this unusual character. The staff of the Dictionary also knew of my fascination with the intersection of the fur traders, the First Nations, and the opening up of the Canadian northwest. Since then and even today I have been drawn to a personality who does not fit the norms of Canadian history—and who challenges us to think in new ways about our past, particularly that of the distant eighteenth century. Put differently, I could not put Peter Pond aside, could not consign him to the scrap heap of history. He deserved better, and therein lay the fascination of his incredible story—and my desire to tell it.

From your account, Pond’s life is not well documented by himself or others, and there are large gaps in the record. This must have presented a challenge even to an experienced researcher like yourself. Will you tell us something about the process of disinterring verifiable fact about Pond, and what caused you the most difficulty?

The art of the historian is to recount the past and explain this to the interested reader, the latter constituting an increasingly difficult task given the fact that fewer Canadians read of their history, more particularly that before the end of the Second World War. (It is a fact that Canadian history is disappearing as a subject of public interest, a reason for considerable worrry to those of us who have spent lifetimes trying to educate our fellow Canadians in the rich depth of our history.) The historian, however, often has to read between the lines—and go beyond the documents. I do not have a photo of Peter Pond but that did not stop me from writing a speculative pen portrait of the fellow. Peter Pond left a wonderful memoir, short though it is. But from other sources in the North West Company files, from other fur trade biographies, and from Hudson’s Bay Company papers, and above all Colonial Office papers in Kew, Surrey, we can complete a very wide and deep literary portrait. And by his maps shall he also be known. Of specific interest and importance are Pond’s various maps; and these are important historical records besides being quizzical and fabulous cartographic creations of the age.

If you have an inquisitive instinct and love the pursuit of the documentary chase, there is no shortage of material about Peter Pond. But the working historian has to know how to get at it and have the abilities to mine that particular vein of gold.

As you point out, Pond enjoyed good relations with the First Nations he encountered, and was even employed on occasion as a sort of diplomatic envoy. How much of his success would you ascribe to this quality?

He was not born in the wilderness or the frontier, but he took to it naturally, even intuitively. He welcomed the freedom of the frontier. That meant living with the First Nations, sleeping with the native women and encouraging the diplomacy with the various tribes—all part of “the custom of the country,” so called. The Peter Pond “gene pool” is probably well spread throughout the vast geography stretching north and west from Detroit running up to Lake Athabasca and beyond. But it was more than his ease of living with the First Nations, the American Indians. He had become a fearless fellow from his warrior years in the Connecticut and New York militias. He was hard-nosed and capable of the hardest physical demands placed upon him: he was a marathon runner of the fur trade. Among all fur traders, save Mackenzie, he was first among equals in capabilities.

In fur trade history most historians treat the fur traders as a class of equals; in fact, some were stronger than others. Pond and Mackenzie were among the toughest, and from them devolved the great expansive strength of the Nor’Westers that led them against all odds to the Arctic (or Icy) Sea and to the Pacific. It is shocking to my sensitivities, however, that Mackenzie gave Pond so little credit for his zeal, leadership and geopolitical vision—the essence of this biography. Why was Mackenzie so selfish? Was it his Scots disposition? Or was it the fact that Pond was a Colonial American? The book probes this question, and it speaks to the essence of who is a Canadian. Do we lose our Canadian status when we leave our country? And do we have to stay in this country to be famous in it? The Peter Pond story speaks, in a way, to the shallowness of the Canadian nationality and to the fragility of our collective belonging. But he was a significant figure in the creation of the Empire of the St. Lawrence, the political and economic system that was the progenitor of the modern Canadian state.

Looking at Pond’s maps, I was struck by the enormity of his undertaking—not so much the sheer size of the country, which he could not know, but the courage it would take to strike out into a limitless unknown. That he managed a successful trading career, as well as demystifying vast river systems and almost working out a route to the Pacific, suggests that he was a remarkable man. Why, then, is he not as much of a household name as Mackenzie and Fraser?

He was not Scottish. That’s the first answer, the primary one. The next answer is that he did not remain in Canada. He left the fur trade and Canada and retired or returned home, as some of us do, to his home town, in his case Milford, Connecticut, in my case, teasingly, Victoria, British Columbia. The Scots had a profound influence in our history; I proved that in my biography of Sir Alexander Mackenzie, First Across the Continent, a book which did so much to explain to Americans (as well as Canadians) and those beyond our borders, how important the fur trade was to our national alchemy. Yes, he spanned the greater northwestern scope of Canada, from Montreal out to Windsor and Detroit then up through the Great Lakes to all the river courses (often against the flow of current) right up to the English River and then the Methye Portage that took him into the new fur trade eldorado, Athabasca, and to the Canadian north leading to the Arctic and the rivers of British Columbia.

In your preface you make this comment: “It may be fashionable nowadays to engage in creative non-fiction, but I can assure the reader that I have declined this seduction, save where I have speculated on Pond’s appearance.” The phrasing makes it clear that you disapprove of creative non-fiction in a historical study, yet your own example of succumbing to the “seduction” illustrates the colour that fictional techniques can give a narrative without tainting its authenticity. Can you elaborate a bit on your take on creative non-fiction?

I am not opposed to creative non-fiction… [but] we who are biographers or historians are bound by the rigorous craft rules set down in our callings. We cannot create facts; we cannot create circumstances; we cannot change chronology; we must respect those who have written about the subject already. Someone writing creative non-fiction, by contrast, can exercise greater liberties. For myself as a working historian I am particularly bound by the main materials of my subject—a personal narrative or memoir, related trade narratives, business and political records of the age, maps and charts, and the views of others about the personality and circumstances that form the main subject. My search as a biographer has always been to provide an authentic representation of the individual under examination. That is my credo.

But the biographer’s calling also requires imagination and the perspective of the years and of the age in question. It is a wonderful challenge and I hope to find another figure as compelling as Peter Pond though, alas, I am not sure I will ever find it. He stands in the same category as Lawrence of Arabia and Sir Ernest Shackleton, and the world cries out for figures whose stories have yet to be told and retold.

Balkan music inspires big brass sound

Victoria band Bučan Bučan brought its big brass gypsy sound to the Royal B.C. Museum on Halloween night. This year, they marched a coffin (complete with ladies in mourning) into the mezzanine in the Museum’s Old Town and accompanied it at the end of the night with a Dixieland/Romani processional march. The band also appeared at Open Space’s Day of the Dead Fiesta on November 1 in collaboration with Puente Theatre. Folk-dancer Terry Jones spoke to Bučan Bučan’s co-founder and frontman Chris Logan about why he is drawn to Balkan music and what revelers can expect from Bučan Bučan’s shows.

Chris, you’re an accomplished musician who seems to be able to play almost any instrument put in front of you. You currently concentrate on playing accordion, oud, bouzouki (a Greek instrument) and violin, among other instruments. You’ve fronted Bučan Bučan since its inception in 2009. How did the idea for a Balkan brass marching band come about?

I always wanted to start a gypsy band, and I was originally planning on getting something together more string-based like Taraf de Haïdouks. But there aren’t a lot of string players in Victoria that play this kind of stuff. However there are tons of brass players and woodwinds that are sort of trapped in the jazz or back-up genre. We put an ad out on Used Victoria, Craigslist and Facebook looking for members and we got a bunch of trumpet players, sax players, percussionists and a lot of trombone players. My good friend, Jonty Parker-Jervis, a violin player, joined the band so we had a little string department. And we had a clarinet player at the time and all the brass. So somehow it just happened. We took it to the other gypsy genre of Kočani, or the Macedonian and Serbian gypsy styles, rather than Romanian. It worked out really well and everybody accepted the music and enjoyed playing it. My partner, Natasha Enquist, was very media-savvy—really into social media and promotion and fashion. The look of the band was her thing and I dealt with the music.

You trace your roots to Yorkshire, Poland and the Ukraine, and many of Bučan Bučan’s members do not have a direct cultural connection to the Balkans. What are your views around authenticity? I’m curious about how you negotiate this ethical concern (if indeed it is one).

It’s not a concern. Sure, when I’m singing I make sure I learn the lyrics properly. I learned to read Greek so I could pronounce everything correctly out of respect for the song, but that’s just me. We don’t pretend to be anything that we’re not. As far as the authenticity of the music goes, we generally don’t play many “straight” folk songs; we always add our own feel to it. There’s no crime in putting a hip-hop beat to a cocek [Balkan dance]; it’s still danceable, right? I bet if we went to some small village in Macedonia, and played a cocek (or cacak) with a “non-authentic” beat, people would still dance.

When we started out, I had planned to have a proper “folk” band, but quickly realized that with the musical talent and diversity of our members, it wasn’t going to happen – nor should it! For us to play simple “folk” tunes would be a disservice to the music. Sure, we pay homage to the roots of the music, but for the music to evolve and carry forward, it needs to be made personal. If people want to hear the classic version of a folk song, that’s great. They can put on an old recording, but we’re not here to re-hash the classics, we want to make them our own! Listen to someone like Boban Markovic, he plays some authentic Serbian folk tunes, but with a very modern flare. It’s the same with dancing: a rachenitsa danced in the village is quite simple compared to the same dance performed by one of the “professional” dance troupes. Does that make it less “authentic?” Maybe, but who cares? We’re not ethnomusicologists. We’re musicians.

Your audience really enjoys the fact that you combine the wildness of a cabaret act with your Balkan musicianship. Does this come easily to band members and is it hard to maintain a balance between the party aspect and dedication to the music?

They kind of go hand in hand. That party aspect translates into the music very well and vice versa. If you go to events like Buca in Serbia—the big, massive worldwide brass fest—there are brass bands playing in a sea of people and everybody’s into it. They’re doing phenomenal stuff but it’s more about the energy of the band translating to the audience.

So, although most of the musicians in the band are classically trained or doing jazz and they have really good chops, they don’t play this kind of music very much. But the energy from the music helps them along. The techniques of classical and jazz musicians are different from gypsy players. But once you’re playing in the audience and the energy starts humming, you kind of take it on. The timbre and the trills and the articulation come with the energy. With this music, you can be overly technical. For example, it’s like when you hear an opera singer doing pop tunes. It’s one of the most painful things you could ever listen to. They have beautiful voices but they don’t work in certain genres. We had trumpet players who played with the embouchure of a classical or jazz musician—very pure, very clean, very beautiful. But this music is not at all like that. It’s very rustic. It’s a lot like Mariachi where all the trumpets are always over-blowing. The tonality is a lot different. If you listen to some of the down-to-earth bands from Macedonia, they sound sort of terrible—but it’s really good. They aren’t classically-trained. They’ve just been playing since they were out of the womb. And they can play for hours and hours on end.

You know that as a long-time folkdancer, I am totally in love with this kind of music, and have travelled to Macedonia and Bulgaria to attend dance and music seminars. My grandfather was Romani. But for someone who’s not familiar with this music and who’s never attended one of your performances, what can they expect?

Expect the unexpected! Be prepared to be surprised. It varies. It depends on the venue and it depends what kind of crowd it is. It can get a little crazy sometimes. Family shows are generally pretty tame, whereas, if we’re playing in a bar with a bunch of drunk people, it can get a little wild. We’ll be up on the tables… Our stage show is pretty mild. We do have a few members of the band that like to jump out into the audience and run around and play. In every show, we try to get into the crowd a little bit.

The phenomenon of Balkan brass bands is spreading throughout the world, with huge festivals from Trieste to New York. Why do you think this music is catching on and do you think it will become more mainstream?

I hate to say it, but the original Borat movie totally did it. He had Esma Redzepova and Boban Marković and all these players on the soundtrack. Apparently he didn’t pay them any royalties although he used one of Esma’s songs as the movie theme. In fact, Esma is in litigation with the producer. That movie was distributed worldwide and introduced a lot of people to this type of music. As well, Taraf played as the band of gypsies in Johnny Depp’s The Man Who Cried. Depp was enthralled by the band and invited them out to dinner parties… Certain events serve as lightning rods for this type of music. In the club scene in Europe there are a lot of “Balkanesque” type clubs. And it seems that high school marching bands are making a big comeback. People like to hear something a little different.

Patrick Lane embraces world as he refutes it

Renowned poet Patrick Lane will launch his new book of poetry, Washita, at Open Space in Victoria on Nov. 2, 2014 at 7 p.m. The event is co-sponsored by Planet Earth Poetry. Lane recently took time from his writing schedule to talk with Lynne Van Luven about the sere surprises of his most recent poems, which he began to type slowly following a frozen-shoulder injury. In 2011, Lane published his impressive Collected Poems with Harbour Publishing, who also released Washita. Lane, an Officer of the Order of Canada, has won numerous literary prizes, including the Governor General’s Award for Poetry.

Patrick, Im intrigued by the title of your new collection. Some plains folks might recognize Washita as the Oklahoma river where Custer massacred the Cheyenne in 1868, but your focus with these poems is much wider and yet more particular. Can you talk a little about how the image of the Washita stone, a white quartz used for grinding and sharpening, signals your approach to language these days?

My father had a Washita sharpening stone in a narrow box. As a child I knew he treasured it, the stone somehow associated in my mind with being a man, the stone taken out by him to make an edge on a hunting knife, a chisel, objects that I wasn’t allowed to touch. It became then a talisman to me, a kind of holy ‘man’ object, and thus my vision of the future, captured as it was by his being in the war as well as him being a rodeo cowboy. Images of childhood, all kinds of holiness or unholiness depending on the view. The Washita symbol as representing the poems in the book…yes, the lines and images, the rhetorical flourishes however muted, all simple metaphors. Manliness, yes, something rarely spoken of in these new bright dark ages.

Is it correct to say you are trying an ever-more sere style in these poems?  Your tone to me seems always reflective, but here you are relying more on end-stopped and shorter lines. Does your continued struggle with vision, as well as the earlier frozen shoulder, contribute to this writing form?

It began the form, the writing with my left forefinger after my right arm and shoulder broke down from writing a novel on top of a novel, the former given up on entirely. The lines became compete sentences, end-stopped mostly with periods, though commas occasionally held them together. The slowness of the letters forming words with a typing finger, a right-brain, neither knowing where the keys were. So, a form, yes, however serendipitous, because when it began to evolve I began to explore its possibilities, the leaps between lines, the conjunctions of thought stressed to breaking points.

Yes, I like that. Breaking points.

Your many references to Japanese culture in such poems as Hiragana, referencing the feminine brush strokes in Japanese calligraphy, seem to echo the simplicity you are reaching for in your own work.  How does being as I have heard you called an elder statesman poet play into these approaches?

Elder? Yes, that too, advancing age. I was reading Confucius, his, “At seventy I followed my heart…” and I was seventy-one, following, willy-nilly, my heart. A man grows old in thought as much as deed, the imagination reduced to simple things, a tree frog the cat brought in this morning and offered to me, the tiny drum on its throat beating, exhausted by long effort and song, a sound made to draw a maiden and bringing instead the Minotaur. Japan? I love its OCD culture, the monk I saw at dawn at Ryoanji in Kyoto on his knees plucking pine needles from the moss. I too, OCD as I am, bring to language that same desire for order. Also, the words, iki, sunyata, uguisubai, sabi, words that express a presence in the human word that we require a paragraph to express. Thus the glossary at the end of the book. I have long admired Asian poetry, Japanese and Chinese poetry, since reading Kenneth Rexroth’s early translations in the early ’60s, and, of course, Waley’s earlier work.

Other writers, such as Albert Camus and Jack Gilbert, also create echoes in your poems. Can you reflect a little about how reading poetry from all over the world has shaped your own writing over the years?

I read a Penguin anthology of European poetry back in the early ’60s that left me quite shaken. Back then, there were almost no translations available in the outposts of the B.C. Interior, let alone the wilderness of barbaric Vancouver. The European forms didn’t shape my poetry so much as their perceptions of suffering, their witnessing the world, given the poetry covered a Europe of two great wars, their poets reporting back, [Austrian Expressionist Georg] Trakl and the rest. I loved German and Russian poetry. When I got to know [Yevgeny] Yevtushenko in Vancouver, our conversations ranged through my ignorance of his voice, his damnation.

To me, The Ecstasy of No is both a marvelous phrase and a wonderful poem. And yet in North America, we are beset with endless and therefore mostly meaningless words and images. Do writers need to protect themselves against that excess in order to keep their creative voice alive, their vision authentic?

I work daily on the word ‘no.’ No longer wish to travel, no longer wish to be distracted by humanity in its yearning for the destruction of all things, the desecration of all things. The poem “Off Valparaiso” reflects my waking in the night and weeping at the dream I had of the whales, Moby Dick, the ancient art of death, the song of the three-year voyages to fill barrels with whale-oil for the lamps that lighted the declarations of war, the pitiful please for peace. The distances between the words  “the” and “blue” and “heron,” are huge and unimaginable.

Butler Prize winner M.A.C. Farrant on The World Afloat

M.A.C. Farrant has been a mainstay of the Victoria literary scene for years. Born in Sydney, Australia, and raised on Vancouver Island, she’s written more than 10 books, ranging from memoir to short fiction. On Oct. 15, Farrant took home the Victoria Butler Book Prize for her latest work The World Afloat. Up against four other finalists — Dede Crane (Every Happy Family; fiction), Audrey Thomas (Local Customs; fiction), Catherine Greenwood (The Lost Letters; poetry) and Micheal Layland (The Land of Heart’s Delight; non-fiction) – jurors praised The World Afloat for its grace, humour and creativity. M.A.C. Farrant discusses her book with Erin Anderson.

You told a great anecdote in your acceptance speech about how the last time you won something, it was a box of black hair dye given out as a door prize at a school fun fair. What was it like to be recognized with a literary prize? How did your book fit in with the other finalists?

I was really surprised! I’ve been at this business a long time – I’ve written a lot of books and received a lot of nominations. It’s wonderful to be nominated for a prize but I’ve never actually won one. I was nominated for the Butler Book Prize in 2010, so it was déjà vu coming back. Going in, I reminded myself that it’s great to be included in the finalists and to get attention for the book but I really wasn’t expecting to actually win something. Having said that, I’m quite enjoying it!

As to where my book fits in with the other nominees, I like to think that we are all producing good writing whatever the genre and that this is what has been recognized. The World Afloat is a hybrid of fiction and prose poetry and humour.

You’ve often taken an experimental approach to your writing — I’m thinking of your unusual, fragmentary approach in The Strange Truth About Us specifically. The World Afloat is a collection of 75 miniatures or microstories, which are typically one to two pages in length. Is your Butler prize win recognition of risk-taking in pioneering a new form?

I can’t say what the Butler Prize jury might have been thinking as far as my taking a risk with the book, but they did say some very nice things on the Victoria Book Prize website. But, yes, I like to play with form; the process engages me aesthetically. I did this with my memoir, My Turquoise Years, which I wrote as a non-fiction novel, and I did this with The Strange Truth About Us, which I called a “Novel of Absence.” This latter book was about attempting to predict the future and to pin down the universal confusion of mind that is the main feature of contemporary life, which is, we are afraid. I used fragments, annotations and notes to try and get at the subject.

As to writing miniatures, I’ve been doing that for some time now — they appear in a number of my books. The World Afloat is the first time, though, that I have brought a group of them together with a single-minded focus. I like what U.S. poet Charles Simic has said about the writing of a short poem: “Be brief and tell us everything.” I have tried to do that with each miniature.

Your collection straddles genres. Among your fellow finalists, there were novels, poetry and short story collections, non-fiction — all forms you’ve worked in. How important do you think it is for writers to work in different genres?

I’m afraid I’m not very good at giving advice. Choosing a genre to work in is such an individual thing; you find one or several that you feel comfortable in, or excited by. A lot depends on where your reading takes you, what you admire. As to working in several genres at once, that’s certainly the case with The World Afloat – fiction, poetry, essay, memoir, humour. The book is constructed as a collage in that I mixed together all these things plus found sentences, random images, fragments of heard conversation, and so on. The process actually felt like sculpting, or what I think sculpting must feel like: tactile. I’d take a mound of clay-like material and then I’d work it. For each miniature, a sentence or a sequence of sentences would stand out, excite my attention, and so I’d work with that until things started clicking into place. For much of the writing I was working intuitively, making things up on the fly, changing things, fiddling, re-writing, shaping to the demands of each piece.

The World Afloat is, among other things, very funny. Much of your writing has an element of humour to it — why do you think that’s so important?

There’s a curious attitude about humour in this country, especially humour written by women. It isn’t generally regarded as serious work. The comic view of life is something that isn’t often seen as serious enough to win prizes. I’ve tried to take philosophical, sociological and environmental images and ideas and infuse them with humour. Then again, I seem unable to not write humour; it’s a big part of my baggage and I don’t deny it.  The World Afloat was certainly a delight to write, and an adventure. I was having a lot of fun trying to mix those genres together and still have the work be accessible to readers. I wanted the book to be enjoyable to read but also cover more serious aspects of existence – love, mortality, and the necessity to live fearlessly, to float above the terrible times. We could, after all, become drowned in doom, and deny ourselves the experience of wonder, joy, expansiveness, love.  I think of these things as our cheerleader gene kicking in, our survival technique.

You have already started your next book. How will your new work compare to The World Afloat?

After The World Afloat came out in February, I took the summer off, which was a lovely thing to do – one of the best summers ever. You know, just enjoying summer things. In June, I had written half of a new book and now I’m working on finishing it.

It’s another book of miniatures because I’m not through with the form yet, though the slant will be different. Talonbooks will be bringing it out in the spring of 2016.

Read Marjorie Doyle’s review of The World Afloat.