Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Calm Things - Forthcoming Fall 2008

It's official - Calm Things, my book of essays on living with still life is coming out with Palimpsest Press this Fall. Palimpsest is a brilliant little press with an excellent list. Not every day do you find a press that has a stained glass book in its repertoire and I'm glad that my book has found such a gorgeous home.

Most of the essays in Calm Things have been published in magazines. (I link to a couple of them on the sidebar). "Still, Dead, Silent" was published in Prairie Schooner in 2007. I was recently told that I'm a recipient of a Glenna Luschei Prairie Schooner Award for this essay which was an unexpected and incredibly lovely bit of news.

I wrote the first essay, the title essay, right before I started my M.A. in English at the U of Alberta in 2004. And though that was the last I saw of calm for the next year and a half, I did write "Still, Dead, Silent" while in grad school, in a creative writing class taught by Greg Hollingshead.

We have a pretty decent still life selection on our bookshelves. Rob and I wore out one copy of Norman Bryson's Looking at the Overlooked and had to order another during the writing of Calm Things. At the time, I was also reading Objects on a Table by Guy Davenport, The Object as Subject edited by Anne Lowenthal, Still Life with a Bridle by Zbigniew Herbert and Still Life with Oysters and Lemon by Mark Doty. Then there were the coffee table books on still life - the Impressionists, the Spanish still life. And the ones on individual artists - Giorgio Morandi, Julio Larraz, Mary Pratt, Claudio Bravo etc. I returned to the still lifes of Paula Modersohn-Becker, Rachel Ruysch, Manet. A couple of newer books on the relationship between literature and still life are, Shimmering in a Transformed Light: Writing the Still Life by Rosemary Lloyd, and Planets on Tables: Poetry, Still Life, and the Turning World by Bonnie Costello. Whereas one had to hunt for still life books previous to Looking at the Overlooked, there's now getting to be a decent number.

Calm Things has perhaps the most affinity with a book like Doty's excellent memoir, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. Certainly it's far less scholarly than, say, Bryson's book. While writing, I also read Annie Dillard, Helene Cixous, John Berger, Susan Griffin, and all my favourite poets and so of course those influences work their way in as well.

This is my fifth published book but my first non-poetry book. I'm not sure in what ways exactly the bringing forth of this one will be different (maybe not at all?) but I'm looking forward to the experience. I'll leave you with the catalogue copy for Calm Things (did I say the title enough in this post? yes! I'm excited, I admit it, though in a calm sort of way).

The term still life did not come into being until 1650. The French adopted the term nature morte, dead nature, around 1750. The painter de Chirico was said to have preferred the Italian term vita silente. The Japanese, however, call still life, calm things. Calm Things is the title essay of this collection of meditations on what it is like to live with still life, and to live poetically. Both an insider’s glimpse into the precarious world of artist and poet, and a long gaze at objects and the calm and silence they hold, these essays prize the ordinary, radiant gift of common things.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Making a Break for it

I added the Style Feeder application to my Facebook page. Which is kind of amusing because I'm one of the least stylish people I know. But I'm interested in how we choose our handbags, our hold-alls, and the things we bring along, carry, and there are a lot of handbags to browse on Style Feeder. There's an interesting article at More Intelligent Life called "My Life in a Handbag" by Paula Marantz Cohen. She says:

"If one thinks anthropologically, handbags may be a vestigial expression of women's biological desire to nest. We need to feel that all the necessities of life are immediately within reach—and these necessities have increased in number as civilisation has grown more complex. By the same token, the handbag may only be a shrewd invention on the part of patriarchy to keep women enslaved. The dead white male who invented it knew that it was an accessory that we wouldn't be able to resist. "

I love lists, and lists of what people carry in their handbag, purse, clutch, pocketbook, reticule, satchel, hold-all, call it what you will, are always fascinating to me. Marantz Cohen's goes like this:

"All I have to carry is lipstick, eyeliner, pressed powder, reading glasses, sunglasses, small perfume spray, sunscreen, Kleenex, small brush, tic tacs, chocolate bar, small sewing kit, liquid soap, wash-n-drys, address book, key chain (with nine keys, three of which I have no idea what they open), and a wallet (containing charge cards, check book, pictures of children, membership cards, and cards that are stamped for one cup of coffee at a shop I'll never visit again). When my children were small, I also carried crayons and coloring books, fruit snacks, and a change of underpants."

Are we nesting when we stuff our purses, or is it reassuring to know that we could make a break for it at any time? Do you keep your passport in yours? Lists anyone?

There have been a number of exhibits at museums featuring handbags, and as I've mentioned before there is the fabulous museum in Amsterdam, the Museum of Bags and Purses. There are also many books on the subject. Handbags: The Power of the Purse, and Bags look particularly interesting.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Self-Absorbed, Confessional, and Other Dirty Words

After reading Eva Salzman's blog and a number of the over 100 comments it provoked at the Guardian titled, "How to Trivialise Women's Poetry" regarding the lack of women in the recent Guardian series of poetry booklets, I started thinking about the language of reviews, the not so secret codes. Salzman says, "And then there are the terms used to qualify Sylvia Plath's admission through the hallowed gates in the first place. Her writing, often misleadingly summed up as confessional (ah, a dirty word!), is inevitably eclipsed by sensationalist biographical details - which remain secondary in the critical writing about her husband, Ted Hughes."

I like what Kim Echlin says about the contemporary criticism of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept in her book on Elizabeth Smart (I can't recommend the Echlin book often enough):

"The recurring topos of "self-absorption" in criticism of women's writing has been lobbed too often at authentic and original voices. I scorn it. I think of Virginia Woolf, Anais Nin, Sylvia Plath, and in contemporary times, Anne Carson. I cannot bear to give this critique any consideration at all beyond calling it the cliched ignorance of hacks. I urge all critics to excise it from their critical vocabularies. It is just another transparent and simple-minded way of trying to make the female "I" disappear."

Reading the chapter in Pauline Butling's Seeing in the Dark: The Poetry of Phyllis Webb called, "Webb Criticism - a Re View" is extremely instructive. One critic is quoted as saying that Webb's "sensibility is so special" that "it almost completely evaded comprehension." Butling notices that the same reviewer assesses the book in economic terms: "He declares the book a waste of money because the reader gets only about 500 words for the price of $2.95." A lot of the early body of critism surrounding Webb's work is clearly bizarre. Butling's culling of the criticism, her criticism of the criticism is excellent. (As an aside, there's a new book about Webb by Stephen Collis that I highly recommend - my review of it will be in an upcoming issue of Arc).

How does one respond to certain reviews of one's work? The general rule is to keep quiet, don't respond. Webb wrote in "Some Final Questions" - doubled up I feel / small like these poems / the area of attack / is diminished" So, there's another tactic. I'm still utterly floored whenever I read these lines, by all that they have to say.


Have you seen the recent post on Bookninja - "Gender equality on awards juries"? George is spot on when he says, "But when the question of logistics comes up, people start saying it’s hard to get women because they’re too busy. Hm, I wonder why that is."

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Another Good Reason to Eat Ice Cream

I've been off on a tangent the last couple of days, researching honeybees, for my work in progress called, The Hive. (Which has nothing much to do with bees, but there you have it). It's interesting how when you're interested in something you notice things you might not otherwise, or memories are triggered. I saw an ad for ice cream, Haagen-Dazs honey vanilla, and they have a new website designed to both "help the honeybees" and sell ice cream. Another company trying to raise awareness about "Colony Collapse Disorder" is Burt's Bees.

In my meandering about in the world of the honeybee, I remembered once seeing a work by Aganetha Dyck at the art gallery in Edmonton a way long time ago, and maybe flipping through a catalogue or seeing her work in a magazine. There's a wonderful website of her work and I spent a long time looking through the section on shoes. Here is a description of her show called Nature as Language:

While initially working with a range of sculptural media, including wool, buttons, and cigarettes, since 1991 Dyck has concentrated exclusively on placing ordinary objects in the apiary and allowing the bees to create wax and honeycomb encrusted sculptures. For Gallery One One One, Dyck extended her "collaborations" with the bees by focusing on inter-species communication. While scientists have learned that bees actually communicate through a kind of dance, in Dyck's sculpture the honeycomb depicts a visual form of their language. The honeycomb works both as an art object, and as a means of conveying information. This installation represents Dyck's effort to translate human language into a language of "nature."

I was hoping to find a handbag along with all the shoe images but couldn't, and then decided that it would be fun to see what I could make with beeswax on my own (without the aid of honeybees). The "handbag" in the above photo is what I came up with. A fun tangent that I could work into the weekly "crazy crafts" night with C., and now time to get back to the writing.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Excerpts from Pas de Deux by Nina Berkhout

Nina Berkhout was born and raised in Calgary, Alberta. After completing a degree in Classical Studies at the University of Calgary, she went on to the University of Toronto where she earned a MA in Museum Studies. She spent many years dancing classical ballet. Her first book, Letters from Deadman's Cay is based on her experience living on a remote out-island in The Bahamas, where she worked to set up a community museum, collecting artifacts and recording the story of the island and its inhabitants. This Way the Road, her second book, inspired by working at the Royal Ontario Museum has as its backdrop a blindingly white museum display on the Hindenburg Zeppelin. Her most recent book, Pas de Deux is "the story of one dancer's descent into madness and the catastrophic consequence it has on her relationship with the photographer assigned to the troupe."

Nina has kindly agreed to let me excerpt from her book Pas de Deux. The beauty of having the blog, is that one is not required to write about the newest, the latest, but it is possible to luxuriate in those books, and poems that one has cherished for longer than a few weeks. Pas de Deux was published in 2006, and as much as I admired it when it came out, my recent re-reading of it left me breathless. The language is intense, the story gripping. It's the sort of book that is so beautiful to read straight through - in that way it captures the experience of watching a ballet. Still, each page is a wonderful glimpse into this poetic universe, this ballet inspired by Tennyson's Idylls of the King and The Lady of Shalott.

Few dancers remain uninjured.

Not since Swan Lake have I vied
for both leads, too difficult

to switch appearances between acts, hiding
exhaustion in an overblown transparency
of the round table set against a flat plain,

longer intermissions and incidents of light
dodging hazy surfaces.

Posture, octave, tempo and my body falling slowly,
with thick and heavy feet I burrow my pas seul
beneath the river's sediment.
Hold hold hold hold hold

keep holding.

(p. 17)

That cinnamon cat limping across the parking lot was my talisman.

I've let him go unmaimed and nameless
so we can make our getaway before I crinkle into a Juliet hag
partnered with twenty-year-old Romeos and they airbrush my face
and shudder, she should have retired long ago, look at her,
selfish ballerina, serves her right.

Would that the thick oily creams I lather on my skin return us
to the map of lesser striation. When we were happy sitting
across from each other at the table, eating almonds
from a glazed bowl.


Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Bert Almon wins the City of Edmonton Book Prize

Sharon Budnarchuk presented the City of Edmonton Book Prize to Bert Almon for his book A Ghost in Waterloo Station at the 21st annual Mayor's Celebration of the Arts at the Winspear Centre Monday evening. Photo: Shaughn Butts, Edmonton Journal.

From the Edmonton Journal:
Poet Bert Almon won the City of Edmonton Book prize for his book A Ghost in Waterloo Station, a poetry collection published by Brindle and Glass. Almon is the author of eight previous collections of poetry, including Earth Prime, which won the 1995 Writer's Guild of Alberta Award for Poetry. He teaches modern literature and creative writing at the University of Alberta.

Congratulations to Bert! It's great to see a book of poetry winning this prestigious prize, and a fine book it is. His book is also on the short list for the upcoming 2008 Alberta Literary Awards.
Here is the first stanza from his poem "Hesitation Before Birth" which begins with this epigraph from Franz Kafka's Diaries: "Hesitation before birth. If there is a transmigration of souls then I am not yet on the bottom rung. My life is a hesitation before birth."

I hesitated. For weeks.
Then I was ready, it seemed,
in the middle of a hurricane,
and my mother made her trip to St. Mary's
in a motor launch. She loved to tell about that.
The marshes around the city bred
crawling and creeping things.
Perhaps my belated soul
was still swimming in the storm-roiled waters,
intimidated by the pincered crayfish,
by the fanged water moccasins
coiled on the lower rungs of the ladder of life.
The alligator's young took refuge in her mouth,
safe in those deadly jaws,
her leathery tail thrashing in the sedge.

- from "Hesitation Before Birth" by Bert Almon

Saturday, April 5, 2008

The Good Distractions

We're back from our spring break in Jasper. Rob picked up this nifty little clutch for me in the flower/gift/antique shop there.

We sat by the fire and read, all three of us, in the evenings. Rob was reading the John Berger novel, Here is Where We Meet. C. read one of the Harry Potter books. Me, I have a terrible habit of dipping into this and that, but primarily focused on: Seeing in the Dark: The Poetry of Phyllis Webb by Pauline Butling, My Emily Dickinson, by Susan Howe and Insister of Jacques Derrida by Helene Cixous. I have a long blog brewing about Phyllis Webb and criticism, but the distractions/interruptions have been too abundant of late. Good distractions, but distractions nonetheless.

Jasper was invigorating. It's true what they say about mountain air! And the quiet. I loved the quiet out there. The only bad thing about going away to such an idyllic spot is that the freeway that I can even see from my study window seems to roar ever louder. Though this could be the contrast, and I'll be tuning it out with greater success before long. One hopes.

We're focusing on Rob's show this upcoming week. It takes place at the Douglas Udell Gallery in Edmonton on Saturday April 12th, artist in attendance from 2-4pm. The show is part of the "Spring Show" there, but Rob's "History of Still Life Series" will be featured. I'm really looking forward to seeing the entire series up on the walls at once. It's a great space and the gallery always does a spectacular job of hanging the art - an art form in itself.
The mini-catalogue that accompanies the show is a little gem. It features the image on the left, a re-interpretation of a Willem Kalf painting. One of my favorites from the show.