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Russell Thornton reflects on icons, art and imagination

Russell Thornton’s new collection, The Hundred Lives (Quattro Books), was a Griffin Poetry Prize shortlisted book. With these poems, Thornton crosses oceans and millennia to explore archetypal themes of ritual, love and loss. His five previous books of poetry are The Fifth Window; A Tunisian Notebook; House Built of Rain (finalist for both the B.C. Book Prize and the ReLit Poetry Award); The Human Shore; and Birds, Metals, Stones & Rain (finalist for the Governor General’s Award, the B.C. Book Prize and the Raymond Souster Award). He lives in North Vancouver. Kelly Shepherd interviewed Russell Thornton for The Coastal Spectator.

There are references to icons and oracles throughout this collection. Could these poems be compared to icons? You’ve written stylized saints and Madonna figures, using vibrant colours. But beyond their surface appearances, icons are also windows between worlds, or conduits. Do you think poetry serves this kind of purpose? Or, would you equate the poet’s work with that of the oracle?

I suppose all poems are icons of a kind. If poems succeed, they’re at least partial images of sacred personages or things — and are sacred themselves. Do you know that statement by W.H. Auden? He said that the concern of the imagination was sacred beings and sacred events. If I’m not mistaken, he was commenting on Coleridge’s ideas about Primary and Secondary imagination. In any case, the statement seems right to me. Poems (great poems anyway!) depict sacred beings and ongoing sacred events. They’re icons. You might say that reality itself is a vast conglomeration of icons. Out of an unfathomable welter of energy comes the array of likenesses that we call the world — the iconos. Yes, I agree, icons are windows between worlds; they take us through the eye to where energy is entering into form and the world is being made — and where we’re helping in the making of the world. Yes, poems have similar qualities and operations: they’re verbal window-ways. It’s interesting to me that icon-makers were rigorously trained crafts-persons. They learned how to make good windows. In poetry, I’d use the word craft in its widest possible sense and include in it ideas of oracular facility. But I don’t know that I’d equate many poets with outright oracles. It’s a poet’s purpose to investigate the depths of his or her experience and at the same time explore (or be explored by!) language, and at its most powerful and significant the result, as I say, may allow glimpses of the sacred — as through a window. Still, actual oracular utterance and vision, prophetic truth telling — that’s reserved for the great oracles and very great poets, I’d say, and for Earth itself, as the oracles most often drew energy from specific locales. For me, poetry that simply works finds the extraordinary mostly in the ordinary; if the crafts-person labour that this entails is very roughly equivalent to what oracular activity involves or amounts to, then okay, on a rudimentary level the writing of a decent poem is related to an oracular performance.

I’m interested in the architectural themes in The Hundred Lives. Numerous poems deal specifically with interiors, or enclosed spaces: from domed churches to phone booths, and human mouths, and wounds, to the insides of apples and pomegranates. Can you talk about architecture in these poems, and perhaps about the architecture (the structure, or the construction) of the poems themselves?

I’ve always responded to spatial relationships and form — and to sacred spaces. Such spaces can occur anywhere. As you say, within domed religious structures, within phone booths, within apples. Or on other, invisible levels, within relationships between people. I think one of the primary purposes of poetry is to create verbal spaces, to limit or contract space in this way — in order to set up intimations of infinite expansion. This calls up William Blake, Rumi, et al, of course; it appears to be a fundamental, a creative principle. Maybe all art imitates or re-enacts in miniature some original activity that brought and continues to bring the material universe into being. In any case, I’d say that architecture, if it exists in my poems, follows from this sense of a contraction or withdrawal in order to make a special space. The circumscription, the geometry, would be the words of a poem; the space would contain experience, nameable as my own as well as otherwise.

And yes, the poems in this book have an organization that might be called architectural. I wanted the reader to be able to enter an imaginative structure and see a set of experiences from different perspectives — as if within related spaces in a building. In the first general enclosure (the section of the book titled “With a Greek Pen”) I brought together poems I wrote while living in Greece; the section ends with an elegy for someone I was close to in Greece who suffered a very early death from cancer. Then in “Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene,” I looked at love, loss and longing using the characters and plot of the Lazarus story as an imaginative base; Lazarus, Mary, and Jesus are all meant as aspects of the same psyche — the same single interior, you could say. Then in “from Book of the Dark Dove,” I compiled elaborations I wrote on lines from the Song of Songs; this section is the result of my efforts at translation and interpretation, and places the imaginative viewing room in the mythical realm. And then in “Double-Flute”, the final section of the book, I included poems I wrote about someone I was close to in my early twenties, became estranged from, and then learned had died; the poems are personal and represent a final “walking naked” perspective, to use Yeats’s phrase. The collection is meant to be of an architectural piece in this way and is an attempt to say something about romantic love and death.

You may not be recognized primarily as a “nature poet,” per se, yet much of your poetry is about dwelling in and connecting with the natural world. And of course you have been anthologized in the wonderful Open Wide a Wilderness: Canadian Nature Poems (2009). Would you describe your work as nature poetry or ecopoetry?

I wouldn’t be taken aback if my poetry was called nature poetry or ecopoetry; in a fair bit of my writing, I’m occupied with the natural world. The details I take with me into a poem as I try to write are often those of the natural world as I’ve experienced it. When I face the blank page, more often than not I’ll blacken it with images of the natural world as opposed to, say, popular culture. I’ll follow those images as I am able on the imaginative level. But I write about a number of things; also, I don’t know that I have a clearly formulated message about nature that would fit with the outright eco-poets. I take “nature” to mean not only the earth and its forms of life, powers and processes, but also the male and female in all their manifestations, and the “natural person” within the individual psyche. I can say this (well, quote this): “God save me from thoughts men think in the mind alone,” (W.B. Yeats) and “God save us from single vision and Newton’s sleep,” (William Blake). These statements are touchstones for me. I like the classic Where the Wasteland Ends, in which the author Theodore Roszac asks, “What, after all, is the ecological crisis that now captures so much belated attention but the inevitable extroversion of a blighted psyche?” And I agree with other authors I’ve read who say, essentially, that the recovery of an earlier, deeper human vision that we now know can be attempted in two ways, through deep ecology and through imaginative art. The two may be the same thing. I’d say that the imagination’s function is to correct imbalances that have come about in the psyche, to reconcile artificially imposed polarized elements; it connects the severed halves — inner and outer, self and other, male and female, life and death, human beings and the natural world. The prime elements of imaginative speech, metaphor and symbol, for me are the link, the bridge, the meeting, the marriage, the atonement — reconstructing the world as a unity beyond dualism, and enabling a flow of consciousness in which we experience and know things in full, mentally and physically at once, in a greater, enkindled awareness. Poetry can re-spiritualize nature.

Some of these poems seem to belong in collections of their own. In the future, will we see a book-length publication of Lazarus’ Songs to Mary Magdalene? Or a Book of the Dark Dove?

It’s possible, I guess. Both these sections of The Hundred Lives are excerpts from much longer unpublished manuscripts. I might get my nerve up and try to get them between covers. One day anyway.

Autistic character well-illuminated

Do you think this is strange?

By Aaron Cully Drake

Brindle & Glass Publishing Ltd.

272pp; $17.95

Reviewed by Chris Ho

Told from the perspective of Freddy, a 17-year-old boy who struggles with autism, Aaron Cully Drake’s debut novel offers a unique narrative collage.

Vancouver-based writer/editor Drake has written for newspapers and magazines. He has a wife, a son, and an autistic daughter. Not surprisingly, the novel is dedicated to his daughter, with an inscription that reads: “For Natalie. How could it be any other way?”

Despite a certain degree of linearity, Cully doesn’t present his narrative in an orderly progression. Instead, just as Freddy’s thoughts and memories are scattered, each chapter is named after whatever thought or memory that Freddy is revisiting. In that sense, the overall collection creates a beautiful mosaic that gives the reader an overall impression of the main character, and his tendency to become stuck inside of his mind and disconnected from reality.

As Annie Dillard wrote in Living by fiction, “The use of narrative collage . . . enables a writer to recreate . . . a world shattered, and perhaps senseless, and certainly strange.” Do you think this is strange? is an illustration of the world in all its chaotic, imperfect glory: there isn’t always a reason for things, and tragedy is unavoidable.

Drake’s own sympathies and first-hand understanding of autism, I think, bring his already humorous prose and poignant dialogue to a new level. No matter how strange Freddy may be to the outside world – no matter how dissimilar his mind map may be from mine or yours – he is still one-hundred-percent believable and human. Freddy is not a stereotype or archetype of the autistic; he is a teenager who happens to be autistic. Freddy, is uniquely, just Freddy.

Drake’s approach allows the reader to think about or at least acknowledge some grey areas concerning the treatment of autism. For example, to what extent should autism be celebrated as a different, rather than stigmatized as a disability? And do public schools need to be more accommodating toward autism?

I also appreciate how Drake doesn’t attempt to answer these questions, or force-feed readers his own beliefs. He simply focuses on the story, and allows the deeper questions and themes to grow organically. Moreover, the main focus of the novel is at the heart of Freddy himself, and in the challenges he faces when trying to understand a world that seems foreign to him – a chaotic world that his overly analytical mind attempts to understand and rationalize.

Freddy’s unconventional friendship with his long-lost friend Saskia, who suffers from a different sort of autism, not only adds a unique romantic element to the story, but also illuminates Freddy’s narrative web and ignites a renewed understanding of his own life: There is a web between people. The strands are the bonds that they make with each other. The stronger the love for another, the stronger the bond and the stronger the thread.”

Do you think this is strange? is a worthwhile read. Its style is colloquial and, but it is also infused with just the right amount of poetic depth to give it authority as a truly heartwarming work of art.

Chris Ho is a Victoria-based musician and writer.

Poetry springs from everyday life in East Vancouver

By Bren Simmers
Nightwood Editions
96 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

East Vancouver, like the rest of the capitalist world, is an area in a state of constant decay and repair. Parking lots are paved for the condos beside them, followed by people and their cars to fill those parking lots. Hastings- Sunrise, the second collection of poetry from Bren Simmers, gives us one full year of the everyday in the growing and crumbling neighbourhood of East Vancouver, a place Simmers once called home. She has previously published one book of poetry, Night Gears (Wolsak and Wynn, 2010) and won the 2006 Arc Poetry Magazine Poem of the Year Award. Though she muses on Vancouver, like so many Canadian poets before her, Simmers resides in the more rural Squamish, B.C.

Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle states that one cannot measure an object’s speed and position at the same time. A moving object cannot have a fixed position. Simmers recognizes the fluidity of the urban place and proves the exception to this principle. Distilling East Vancouver into letters, Simmers gives us a concrete world that, while fixed on a map, is in constant motion. The book moves through the year beginning in March, and each section is marked with dates alerting the reader to the season, each date accompanied by a beautifully packed sentence (moment): “Petals strung like popcorn/March 21.” Sunrise runs, crosses crosswalks and changes lanes, but it rarely sits. The book cultivates this velocity through rapid imagery describing the amassing and oscillating stimuli of a growing city, “Hong Kong Bakery, Pies 2 for $7, Keys Cut Here.” In this quotation from the unnamed first poem we have a number of signs which move the reader down the street, each sign and location packed with a narrative of their own in only one sentence.

Simmers maps the city carefully, appealing to all of our senses with crisp vignettes and a diversity of form and language. “What’ll it be today, Henry,” a barista asks among the roar of steaming espresso machines and the smell of chai and Scrabble. Most of the poems are titleless, which allows every poem to be about the time spent between two sunrises on Hastings. Many of the poems appear to sprawl across the page in a formless free-verse structure, but the enjambment of sound and step propel the reader forward over each crack in the sidewalk that Simmers brings to life. There are visual poems in the form of maps, like the table of contents which represents the streets of east Vancouver, though “not to scale” as Simmers playfully reminds us; footnotes; fill in the blanks for an hours log; and even a Venn Diagram illustrating the contrast of the busy Vancouver and the pastoral constitution of the fictional “Saska-Wollup.”

Most prominently, among the delight in form, Simmers has a lyric eye that poignantly and carefully captures and illuminates the everydayness of life. Despite being a book about a specific place, in this way Sunrise becomes universal. Simmers writes, “I still covet a fireplace, a hammock/doors we can close.” It is due to this combination of specificity and universality that I found Simmers book so engrossing. Often when I read poetry, I find myself reading a poem or two and then putting the book down to let the poems settle; however, with Sunrise, I read it almost straight through. I wanted to feel a year go by in an afternoon and be guided by Simmers through a part of Vancouver I didn’t know very well. Now, after reading the book, I feel like I’ve spent a whole life there, and it was a good one.

Cole Mash holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from UBC Okanagan. His poetry has been published in UBC Okanagan’s Papershell Anthology and The Eunoia Review.

Story collection grapples with loss and grief

What Can’t Be Undone

By dee Hobsbawn-Smith

Thistledown Press

200 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Traci Skuce

The cover picture on dee Hobsbawn-Smith’s new collection of stories, What Can’t Be Undone, is of a rope pulled taut. The plies of the rope are severed and frayed, and only a single strand holds it together. And this is exactly where we meet the narrators of these stories: along that one, tenuous strand, grappling with grief or loss.

dee Hobsbawn-Smith lives in Saskatchewan, where undoubtedly the landscape inspires her work. Her poetry, essays, fiction, and journalism, have appeared in Canadian, American, and international literary journals, newspapers, magazines and anthologies including The Malahat Review, Gastronomica and Western Living. Her first book of poetry, Wildness Rushing In, was published in 2014. What Can’t Be Undone is her first collection of short stories.

These 13 stories all deal with relationships and what is lost within them. The careful, textured prose reveals Hobsbawn-Smith compassion for her characters. None come off as two-dimensional stand-ins for the questions she explores. They’re deeply imagined people, honest and true.

“Monroe’s Mandolin” depicts a woman who owns a bar. She runs the bar, the Foundry, bought it for her brother, a man who’s life is lost to addiction. “I told myself it would give Cory a refuge if he ever reclaims himself. That it had nothing to do with me, or what I want. But my life is locked into these bricks and boards. Cory’s has gone to waste. I don’t know anymore if I am looking for hope in my twin’s life or in my own.”

In “The Quinzhee,” a woman recounts the winter her brother, then 14, became obsessed building a quinzhee, a shelter made by hollowing out a pile of settled snow. He died and, decades later, she still feels responsible. On the other hand, is “Still Life with Birds”, a story of sisters. Ariana, the younger of the two, runs a restaurant and tends to the convalescent Violetta. We learn Ariana has donated a kidney to Violetta, who still lives. But it’s expected she’ll die within 15 years, and Ariana treats her with kid gloves, terrified of that impending loss.

I appreciated how place permeates Hobsbawn-Smith’s work, the landscape always varied—Vancouver streets, rural Alberta and Saskatchewan, coastal Vancouver Island—and always rendered with a poetic sensibility. Hobsbawn-Smith’s sentences read in a sorrowful cadence which echo, not only the characters’ grief, but the expansive landscape.

In “Other Mothers’ Sons,” Joanna drives along southern B.C. toward Calgary, picks up a hitch-hiker, a boy the age her son was when he died. As she drives, he sleeps: “She glanced at the boy, wondering if he looked like his mother. If she missed him. Surely. The borealis leaped from sky to windshield, the sky baroque and wild and beautiful. The boy slept on, his head rolling, unaware of Joanna beside him, her head thrown back, looking and weeping for what she could never hold again.”

While Hobsbawn-Smith’s strength is in description and character, her dialogue, I felt, often faltered. Sometimes she uses dialect, dropped g‘s, and twangy ain’ts that grated my reading ear. Other times, it didn’t feel like enough was bubbling beneath the speech, the dialogue an exchange of little more than information.

In the end, though, this collection offers an honest exploration of what keeps us in this world after we’ve endured monumental loss. How it is through our unmendable, human heartbreak that we somehow find the strength to carry on.

Traci Skuce is a writer based in the Comox Valley. She recently completed her MFA at Pacific University, Oregon.

Cop-author tells it like it is

Vancouver Blue

By Wayne Cope

Harbour Publishing

223 pages, $22.95

Reviewed by Adam Hayman

If you like crime procedurals on TV, Vancouver Blue will entertain you. If you are like me, with a case of police phobia, it helps reveal cops as real humans. Wayne Cope’s stories sound like he’s sharing them over a beer, and he pursues a good tale the way he did his police work – with a sharp eye for detail and a measured attention span.

Cope divides his book into sections: his stint on the dog squad, as a beat cop, a detective, a motorcycle cop with the traffic division, in the major crimes division, and the historical homicide unit (a handful of years on each section speaks in part to his measured attention span). His book time on the force begins in 1975 and ends in 2009. Each section is packed with fully fleshed-out anecdotes and Cope’s theories on policing. “I developed my own rule about writing tickets: leave the humans alone. So regular taxpayers got warnings. Scrotes, drunks, criminals and gangsters got tickets. And I’ve maintained that rule for more than 34 years of policing.”

Within the first 50 pages, Cope sets himself up as that overly honest uncle we all have (or wish we did), laying down the world in a black and white fashion. He frequently makes clear delineations – with little wiggle room – between a good person and a bad person with. “We have the most liberal judges in the civilized world, judges who are incapable of dealing with these repeat offenders who, in a sane world, would never be released from prison.” He also paints all drug users with the same brush and never offers any sympathy, but after reading Cope’s stories, and learning how he thinks, I’m sure he would respond, “Why should I?”

Cope’s bar-talk style of writing affects his transitions between anecdotes. In a bar, gulps of beer can be enough of a transition into the next tale, but in Vancouver Blue Cope frequently will just start a new paragraph with a sentence like, “And now for the fastest confession ever obtained.” However, while I’m not sure in what order Cope wrote his stories, the writing seemed to improve as the book progressed. By the end of the book, Cope is sharing with us his time on the historical homicide unit, cracking cold cases and organizing long undercover stings on crooked criminals. This section of the book was a highlight for me, and is perfect fodder for anyone who binge-watches crime procedurals.

For a book that is amusing, easy to read and truly honest about police work, I would look no further than Vancouver Blue. I only wish I could have heard the stories directly from Cope himself. Perhaps he should record an audiobook.

Adam Hayman is a Victoria journalist and reviewer.

Memoir revisits Red Cross work in Cambodia

Victoria resident Elaine Harvey published her first book of creative nonfiction with the North Saanich firm, Promontory Press , for Encounters on the Front Line. The press describes itself as “a traditional book publisher that doesn’t like the way the traditional industry has gone when it comes to being accessible to new authors.” Harvey describes herself as a “neophyte in the daunting world of publishing.” In looking for a publisher, she “considered everything from DIY to Smashwords to a call for new writers from Penguin Australia.”  The process kept her busy – and waiting — for two years. After hearing repeatedly that the publishing world was in crisis, she chose the collaborative model offered by Promontory because “it was important for me to be involved in the format and cover design of my book.” Harvey recently spoke with Lynne Van Luven about the challenge of wresting a narrative from her own journals and historical events.

Elaine, Encounters on the Front Line, your first book, has been almost half a lifetime in the making. Can you tell me a little about what motivated the young woman who, in 1980, undertook her “quest of the heart” to use her nursing skills for the International Red Cross on the war-wracked border of Cambodia?

My childhood dream was to work in Asia or Africa, having a sense of the world at an early age from my father. Later, nursing became a path that led to Cambodia. I am frequently asked why I was drawn to danger. I’m not particularly brave, but I was drawn to a desire to make a difference, to do something in the world, beyond my own backyard. Something that mattered and it did matter to the Cambodian refugees that we, the front line aid workers, were there. The paradox of this quest is that one gives a great deal in terribly difficult conditions but at the same time receives extraordinary gifts. One gift is a deeper understanding of our shared humanity. It keeps me curious, concerned and I hope humble.

I adjusted quickly to the realities of the refugee camp, having already travelled in the “third world,” but the dramatic death of a teenage girl on my third day at work catapulted me into front-line work. Decades later in writing Encounters on the Front Line I understood better the impact of this kind of work– the witnessing and the vicarious trauma that led to a continuing quest to find my own path, be it a worldly or a spiritual one. Front lines test how far we will go, how much we will give and how deep we will travel.     

Your book is divided into three parts – The Border (1980), Pilgrimage (2007-08) and A Greater Mystery (2009);  to write it you had to assimilate and amalgamate experiences and notes from a 30-year span of time. That must have been a daunting undertaking. What process or techniques did you use to help you organize your material and find a sustaining narrative spine?

Yes, it was daunting. My techniques, if any, or at best learnt along the way, were simple. I transcribed journals to the computer. I didn’t wander from the present tense. I didn’t wander from my lived experience. With writing The Border, memories surfaced that led to the return to Cambodia, which I envisioned as a pilgrimage.

Cambodia was a front line that slipped away into the cluttered sidelines of my life. Years later, years changed, I read from my worn blue and gold journal, a faded Red Cross on its cover: “Do not forget us. Come back.” That was a half a lifetime ago: a haunting call, a subliminal message, and an unresolved question of my heart.

There was the call of the refugee, as well as a deep curiosity about the new Cambodia. I travelled, I volunteered, I met exceptional people and I wrote. The book emerged. The narrative arc may have been as simple (or as complex) as the need to find a thread from my past and bring it into the present. The reveries give glimpses into some existential doubts, conflicts and resolutions that move the story forward.  The transition between 1980 and 2007 was unwieldy. I attempted to fill the gap with ‘the rest of my life’ but the more I tried the less it worked. Only three months after my six months in Cambodia, I went to Africa with the Red Cross, another human and environmental disaster. The narrative arc needed focus so I chose to keep Encounters on the Front Line in Cambodia.

Your subtitle is Cambodia: A Memoir and you have given your readers a timeline, maps and a bibliography to help them understand the importance of the people you are writing about. Your book is a memoir of both your own development and the changes in the country itself. Feelings of both hope and sadness pervade your writing. What is your hope today as you look back on the place that both captured your heart and (to quote one of your co-workers) “punched you in the face”?

My hope for Cambodia, as it would be for any country, is that it will find its place as an equal in the global community. With all the challenges of an emerging economy – poverty, inadequate health care and education, political oppression and corruption – this requires a radical shift in global consciousness. Global disparities aside, I encourage people young or old, to travel, to volunteer, to understand ‘the other’ as more similar than different. I would wish Cambodians the same opportunities.

Cambodia has a pervasive sorrow (mental health data is alarming) though its people can be as gracious as the lotus blooming in muddy waters. The country has a dark history but there is a new generation, educated and concerned about the future. There is hope. My life has its losses and sorrow, yet hope . . . provides the connection to our common humanity.

Can you describe how negotiated the challenging meld of fact, event, emotional experiences and memory in Encounters on the Front Line, with respect to the creative nonfiction credo of telling true stories in a dramatic fashion without straying into fiction? 

Straying into fiction never seemed an option; in fact it didn’t cross my mind. I was not a writer of fiction and was just learning the art of nonfiction. On the other hand, I was perhaps doggedly determined to tell the truth such as I experienced it. I recorded the subjective accounts of those experiences in my journals, not knowing that later in life I would write a book. My responses to the traumatic events I witnessed in a refugee camp were through the lens of direct experience, at times raw, terse or emotional. I was not doing historical research or investigative journalism; facts were difficult to glean in the midst of a disaster zone.

When I returned to Cambodia (2007 to 2009), I read extensively, but more important were my encounters and connections with the people. Cambodians shared their stories with or without an interpreter, on matters light or serious, in a straightforward manner.

“This is the way I hear the Khmer talk, the truth of their lives too hard to bear. Their stories are not embellished. The bare facts are enough.”

To soften the dilemma of nonfiction (do no harm versus telling the truth) was challenging. For the most part, I didn’t construct composite characters but wrote the stories that people willingly told me. I also knew that certain stories associated with past trauma in the Khmer Rouge era had to be told with care.

 You seem to me to be someone torn between activism and authorhood. Do you think of both roles as part of a continuum, two separate impulses or just stages in your own maturation process? 

One role of the writer, particularly in nonfiction, is to inform or educate or inspire a greater understanding of a subject. I’ve tried to understand the paradoxes within my own life and in Encounters on the Front Line, some of the paradoxes within Cambodia:

“I bridge two worlds, as travellers often do. I see both sides, living on this beautiful broken planet, its oceans and earth in danger, its global citizens living lives as scattered as the stars. My anger is under cover, like watching the news with a glassy-eyed stare, my selective filter screening out what I don’t want to hear. I care; I’m indifferent. I’m concerned; I turn a blind eye. I give generously; I hardly give a dol­lar.”

Today it is unlikely that I would work in a high conflict zone, but there are many paths to engagement in a complex world. I aspire to some sort of “activism and author hood.’’ The quest for voice becomes an evolving voice, a journey of reaching out and reaching in, not as separate but as interwoven threads of my life.

Wong’s Undercurrent gives water a voice


By Rita Wong

Nightwood Editions

96 pages; $18.95

Reviewed by Cole Mash

In her poem “The Wonders of Being Several,” Rita Wong quotes Louis Pasteur, writing, “the role of the infinitely small, is infinitely large.” This quotation rings especially true of Wong’s new collection undercurrent. Though it spans only 96 pages, make no mistake—the book is immense.

Wong turns her socially conscious verse to defending the water which shaped her life. Wong writes that the Bow River—which runs through Calgary where she grew up—“taught [her] the power of water from an early age.” Since then, Wong has published three books of poetry including the critically acclaimed forage (2007) which won the 2008 Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize and Canada Reads Poetry 2011. Wong now teaches at Emily Carr in the unceded Coast Salish lands known as Vancouver.

undercurrent is a lament for the “mostly unseen” strife of the water, and an exploration of its complexity. We do not look out our bedroom window and see the waste in The Kettle River or the great Pacific garbage patch, and their devastating effects, but it does not mean it isn’t there. Though she admits, ironically, that she never learned to swim, the water has taught Wong wisdoms which she graciously extends to us via the page: in “Declaration of Intent,” she writes, “i hereby honour what the flow of water teaches us/the beauty of enough.” Wong has learned what she wants us all to know: that we need to stop taking from something that gives so much; we must take care of the world’s most precious asset, fresh and salt alike.

undercurrent comes out of Wong’s community work in Vancouver, and her collaboration with The Downstream Project, an organization dedicated to preserving natural resources and raising awareness through the arts and technology. Wong’s undercurrent gives that water a voice through poetry, both subtly and forthright, throughout the book. She does so through smaller gestures such as referring to the ocean as simply “ocean” (a proper name with the Marlattian lower case Wong almost exclusively employs) as though it were a person that the beach sleeps beside. Often poems in the book are dedicated to bodies of water such as “Unsung Service,” which is dedicated to the Fraser River, also known as Sto:lo in the Indigenous language Halkomelem. Many of her poems, including the first poem in the book “Pacific Flow,” take on the shape of water, and often have two currents of stanzas running down the page. The poem “Fresh Ancient Ground” reminds us not to forget that global change is possible and that “we are capable of it, if we care to try.” Wong recounts the long history of the water before us, and how someday it will again outlast us in “The Sea Around us, The Sea Within Us,” writing that “both the ferned & the furry, the herbaceous & the human, can call the ocean our ancestor.”

Wong continues to work in a variety of forms, which is in part what has always made her work so fresh. Much like in forage, there are relevant quotations running along the bottom and in the margins of many poems in undercurrent. Wong continues to mix English with Cantonese and Indigenous languages, bringing the book to life through an untranslated cultural confluence. Wong employs structural idiosyncrasies as simple as right alignment rather than left, or, like in the poem “Detritus,” having the text run perpendicular to the right and left margins. Perhaps the most interesting formal innovation is the addition of italic prose embedded in a number of poems, telling self-reflexive anecdotes that allow us to think through and about water alongside Wong.

I found Wong’s book to be the perfect balance of ethical philosophy and poignant lyrics, reminding us of our duty to protect the primordial soup from which we came, and doing so with words that delight and dance on our tongue. The point of Wong’s book is not to wag fingers—and make no mistake, fingers should be wagged—but to inform and illuminate, and instill hope. The book seeks to remind us that there is still time to save the planet, and that “what you cannot do alone, you will do together.”

Cole Mash holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and English from UBC’s Okanagan campus, and his poetry has previously been published in UBC Okanagan’s Papershell Anthology and The Eunoia Review.

Lorna Crozier talks about love, art and the dead

Lorna Crozier is the award-winning author of 15 previous books of poetry, including Small Mechanics, The Blue Hour of the Day: Selected Poems, and Whetstone. She is also the author of The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things and the memoir Small Beneath the Sky. Crozier is a professor emeritus at the University of Victoria and an Officer of the Order of Canada, and she has received four honorary doctorates for her contributions to Canadian literature. Born in Swift Current, she now lives on Vancouver Island. Crozier recently discussed her new book of poems, The Wrong Cat (McLelland & Stewart), with Cornelia Hoogland for The Coastal Spectator.

In a recent interview with Doug Dirks on CBC’s The Homestretch you recounted the story of the poem that became the title poem of the book. Your radio account of a personal event is written in third person in your book, as are most of the poems in The Wrong Cat. What does third person enable, and why not first person?

I chose to write many of the poems in The Wrong Cat in third person because I saw those particular pieces as mini-novels. There are characters, a narrative arc, conflict, dialogue, a setting and a resolution. Although some of the details are autobiographical such as the ending of the title poem, which comes from something my husband Patrick said out loud at a dinner party, the man and woman featured in the poems are fictionalized versions of “real” people. I had a lot of fun writing these and when someone asks me why I don’t write a novel, I’m now going to reply, “I already have.”

Alternately, “Man From Elsewhere,” written in first person, reads like fiction (in the sense of imaginative narration or myth), and packs an emotional and sensual wallop. Such seeming contrasts make me want to understand how you approach “person” as a tool to create, intensify, sustain, and/or subvert the content of your poems.

I started the “Man from Elsewhere” sequence in order to challenge myself. The inspiring question was “How do you write a love poem in a new way?” Before Shakespeare, let alone after, the English language is rich with poems about adoration, heartbreak and loss. What I tried to do was marry my interest in the topic and the form with my fascination with how place influences character. If I’d been born in a landscape different from the dry, light-bombarded grasslands of southwest Saskatchewan, I’d be a different person than I am now, even though I’ve lived on the Rain Coast for over 25 years. The geography, the light, the weather has shaped who I am, how I love and how I deal with loss. Those concerns feel lyrical to me, though the story insists on being there, particularly in the poems that allude to myths, as a kind of undercurrent. The poems are a cry from the heart.

A number of the poems use long line lengths without (I think) becoming prose poems. It’s very hard to resist a compelling enjambment, or is something else at work here?

I explored the prose poem in both my memoir, Small Beneath the Sky, where they work as a kind of punctuation between the prose chapters, and in my last book, The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things. In the latter, what I was interested in was the possibilities of the short, lyrical essay. The pieces with long lines in this new book are definitely not prose poems. The structural unit is not the sentence, but the line. The problem for me was not resisting enjambment but maintaining an extended line that doesn’t go slack, that doesn’t sag near the middle. I think I chose this longer reach, which I hope retains its tension and its music, because of the fictional nature of the poems. They come close to prose but they aren’t, that is, if I succeeded. They do a dance between prose and the lyric line.

Lorna, since 1981 and your book, No Longer Two People, co-written with Patrick Lane, your books have included poems that can be read as a celebration of your relationship with Patrick. While you are praised for your animal and vegetable imagery, it’s your playful, sexy, perennial love that I’ve counted on over the course of many books. What is it like to unearth relational uncertainties and foibles, and then shape them into craft? How would you talk about the art of writing one’s intimate relationship?

So much of what I write comes out of my life, my day-to-day experiences with the person who is closest to me, my husband Patrick, whom I’ve been with since 1978. My poems plot a relationship that began when I was thirty and will continue, with any luck, until one of us dies of old age. Even then, for the one who is left, the “marriage” will not end. My poems come from my imaginings, my suppositions, my desires for a better world, but they also come from autobiography, the deepest kind, the daily being-here that sends a tap root from the ground I stand upon into the subconscious stream that flows through our lives and connects us. I have in my mind, too, Evan Boland’s quote, “I want a poem I can grow old in.” How does love change, what does it mean as we age into bodies that betray us in strange, sometimes sad, sometimes funny ways. I’d like to find poems that can hold how we move through life and love, the everyday and the eternal. What remains of desire and passion as we get closer and closer to death? A lot, I hope. How do we find words for it, then?

The dead have always inhabited your poetry, and in poems such as “The Pony” in The Wrong Cat, death appears as an external character. James Hillman has said the dead want us to complete the unfinished aspects of their lives. Do you agree? What do your dead want from you?

Especially for poets, the dead still inhabit the earth. Perhaps they’re the silence where poems begin; perhaps they’re the pause between the lines, the stutter, the lost words. It’s not that the dead want to talk to us, but we want to talk with them. People like my mother and father are rare in literature. Something in me wants to find a place for them in language between the covers of a book. They will live there, then, as they live in me. Poems become prayers to the invisible, to the lost. They’re one way of keeping that near.

Hornby Island poet Cornelia Hoogland‘s sixth book, Woods Wolf Girl (Wolsak and Wynn, 2011), was shortlisted for the 2012 Relit Award. Hoogland’s new long poem, “Incident Light/Incident Dark,” is written in response to her brother’s sudden death. 


Tannahill examines theatre’s malaise

Theatre of the Unimpressed: 

In Search of Vital Drama

By Jordan Tannahill

Coach House Books

160 pages, $14.95

Reviewed by Joy Fisher

At 26, Jordan Tannahill was one of the youngest Governor General’s Award recipients ever when he won in the drama category in 2014 for Age of Minority, a collection of plays for young audiences exploring aspects of queer identity. With Theatre of the Unimpressed, his book-length critical essay probing malaise in English-language theatre, he demonstrates he is as talented at research and organization as at the art of playwriting.

The Toronto-based theatre practitioner spent a year interviewing theatregoers and non-theatregoers prior to writing Theatre of the Unimpressed. He divided his book into three main sections: Boredom, Liveness and Failure. In the first, Tannahill explores factors contributing to theatrical malaise. The second reports theatrical trends that signal vitality. The last Tannahill sees, along with risk-taking, as necessary to a vital theatre.

Tannahill’s basic premise is that theatre, at its best, develops our capacity for empathy and provides transformative experiences. In his view, complexity, specificity and relevance – a play’s “rigour of thinking” – are the fundamental hallmarks of resonant theatre. Boring plays lack this rigour. They: 1) “underestimate an audience’s capacity for complex argument” (play it safe); 2) lack “specificity of creative choices” (are lazy); or 3) are “unaware of context” (feel irrelevant).

Tannahill attacks, in particular, the model of the Well-Made Play which he asserts has dominated Western theatre since the nineteenth century. Well-made plays are based on psychological realism and explore conflicts “through conversation on the battlegrounds of middleclass parlours.” Well-made Canadian plays come in for a particular drubbing: too often they are “multi-generational narratives in which someone is finding their identity and in which Canada is also finding its identity.” Reverence for the well-made play, Tannahill believes, has also contributed to a dramaturgical system that attempts to “fix” scripts that don’t fit into the mold of the well-made play, with the result that “the life is sucked out of them.”

Classics also suffer, though for other reasons. Their difficult questions disguised by geographical and temporal distance, costumes and production values, they become what Tannahill calls Museum Theatre: mere relics from the past, “harmless effigies of their once fierce and mighty selves.”

Money is also a factor. (Anyone familiar with the City of Victoria’s recent complaints over the costs of upkeep for the McPherson Playhouse will recognize this economic reality.) Artistic directors, in need of money to pay for upkeep on the imposing physical structures of large regional theatres, stick to traditional well-made plays because they trust their audiences to support them. Ironically, audiences hungry for transformative experiences develop a taste for well-made plays because that’s what artistic directors give them as a steady diet.

The problem is complicated, Tannahill argues, by a system of arts councils that have bought into the model of perpetual growth upon which free market capitalism is based. One of my friends, an artistic director trying to buck this trend by keeping ticket prices low to attract a younger, less well-heeled crowd, has confided his frustrations on this score. Because he can’t demonstrate his theatre is increasingly profitable, he risks losing continued art council funding.

While I agreed with Tannahill’s clear elucidation of the problems that interfere with achieving transformational theatre, I sometimes found his proffered solutions alarming.

For example, Tannahill embraces the auteur theory of directing, common in the film industry, which allows directors to subvert the scriptwriter’s intentions. In traditional theatre, the playwright is regarded as the creative mother of the play, and the director as its midwife. Together, they give birth to new life. Directors who deliberately subvert the meaning of a play can turn the newborn into a deformed thing. I saw that happen not long ago when a male director intentionally subverted the meaning of a feminist play from the 1980s because he thought it would not resonate with the audience in what he considered to be a post-feminist world. It was like watching an abortion.

Furthermore, although Tannahill concedes that the well-made play can contain the spark of liveness that produces a transformational experience, he tends to look to the experimental for that result. He also extols the strange notion of constructed failure—incorporating into the performance something that deliberately fails in order to startle the audience into response. While admitting that could be considered cynical, Tannahill considers it to be a powerful antidote to a mass-mediated culture in which “polish, poise and conventional aptitude are rewarded.” To me, the notion of constructed failure smacks of disrespect for the audience, an attempt to trick them into responsiveness.

Tannahill has written a well-researched analysis of what ails contemporary English-language theatre that will inform anyone who loves live theatre and wants to see it thrive. Just remember to don your critical thinking cap when you consider his proposed solutions.

Joy Fisher is a Victoria playwright and theatre lover.

Twin sisters’ country album springs from love

Twin Kennedy

It’s a Love Thing

Twin Kennedy Entertainment


Reviewed by Emmett Robinson Smith

Twin Kennedy have a lot to say. The UVic School of Music twin sister graduates have been touring extensively throughout Canada in support of their new country album It’s a Love Thing, an album that tackles universal topics such as persistence, breakups, youthful exuberance, mortality and the power of love.

The title track can be seen as the mantra for Twin Kennedy’s work ethic. The lyrics describe a man and a woman going to work day after day, (simultaneously reinforcing controversial gender stereotypes – the man “firing up his rig” for his job, and the woman working as a nurse) because “it’s a love thing.” One gets the feeling that this refrain mirrors Twin Kennedy’s passion for music: while the song’s characters perform more colloquial jobs, Twin Kennedy’s music is their job. And, from their passionate tone of voice, it’s easy to tell that their work is indeed “a love thing” for them.

Musically, It’s a Love Thing’s arrangements are familiar and conventional. Produced by known Canadian country musician George Canyon and producer Graham Sharkey, the music fits into the conservative musical mold of most of Canyon’s repertory: echoing snare drum rim shots, “ooooh” vocal accompaniment, strummed acoustic guitar, fluttering piano touches, as well as orthodox song structure – verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, chorus.

Graduating from UVic with a performance degree requires a high degree of musical ability, and it’s a shame that the twins don’t use these considerable skills more on the album. The collection’s strongest moments occur when they show off their instrumental abilities. Carli Kennedy’s guitar-driven solo cut, “Interlude,” which lasts a mere 44 seconds, is probably the best track on the album. Julie’s violin chops shine through briefly on the closing track, “I Never Will.” In order to stand out from their country peers, Carli and Julie Kennedy need to bring their instrumental skills to the forefront of their music.

Instead, the focus here is on lyrical content. “Feels Like Freedom” stands out lyrically because it’s vivid: “One hand on the window, one hand on the wheel / Seventeen is feelin’ too good to be real,” one of them sings. Though this concept has been used so much it verges on cliché, these lyrics seem to come from a real place – one that has a foundation in the Kennedys’ experiences.

Twin Kennedy are enthusiastic musicians. The inner sleeve of their album goes to lengths to express gratitude to those who helped create It’s a Love Thing. This warmth and energy provides good context for their music, as it presents them as real people who struggle with the same things that we all do. Twin Kennedy are honest and direct, with the chops to back them up – even if their skill goes underused.

Emmett Robinson Smith is a music journalist and classical pianist at UVic.