Thursday, May 29, 2008

Eclectic Hold-All

Thanks to Sally for this link to the Darfur Project - Eclectic Bags. This is a wonderful project. Not only are the bags capacious and delightfully eclectic, but they are made from recycled fabrics and the proceeds go toward food aid for people in camps in Darfur, Sudan.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How the Average Person Dreams

- How the average person dreams is pretty much how the average novelist puts a page together. Random bits of seen material float in, dismembered parts of memories, skeins of information knit and shred in contrast to their logic. (Marianne Wiggins, from The Shadow Catcher)

I was prompted to buy Marianne Wiggins' The Shadow Catcher after reading a review on Critical Mass. It sounded incredibly ambitious and also seemed to be doing a few of the things I'm interested in - blending fiction and non-fiction - questioning, pushing those boundaries, talking about art, and using images alongside text. The book has been reviewed in many places and there's even a video put out by the publisher (the future of book promotion?).

The book opens with a description of a particular Da Vinci drawing that the narrator sees at The Queen's Gallery in London. She describes staring at the sketch, a map, "drawn in ochre on a sheet of rough, uneven rag approximately the size of ordinary letter paper." And she stares at it for so long a guard moves toward her. (I was once at the Queen's Gallery looking at Da Vinci's horses when this happened to me). She goes on, "Almost every night when I'm at home, alone, in bed, before I fall asleep, my mind presents that sketch of Leonardo's without warning." (Something similar to this happened to me with the horses for some time after). I was already in love with the book before page 7.

The next scene - the narrator has an appointment to pitch her novel on the photographer Edward S. Curtis to two Armani suit-clad women from a production company in L.A. She's stuck in traffic, she's late. She arrives with her hair all "EINSTEINED." She then launches into an anti-pitch of sorts - telling them why the story of Curtis is not the story of the archetypal cowboy loner, why the real story would not be such a swell movie. She tells them, "You could hire someone to write the script you're looking for. You don't need to option my version of his life." Curtis's story is in fact so complicated that while writing and researching her book, Wiggins finally has to "make a kind of map of his whole life, draw a sketch of it, as if it were a landscape - then look down on it, like [she] was flying over it, so [she] could see the patterns." Wiggins careens - the tone is poetic, then funny, then serious and real. She hits all these registers and it works.

I admire the way this book is put together, dreamed up, mapped out, the attention given to patterns, to coincidence. Thinking about the patterns led me to reread an interview with Paul Auster in his book The Art of Hunger in which he talks about coincidence. "Chance," he says, "is a part of reality; we are continually shaped by the forces of coincidence, the unexpected occurs with almost numbing regularity in all our lives. And yet there's a widely held notion that novels shouldn't stretch the imagination too far. Anything that appears 'implausible' is necessarily taken to be forced, artificial, 'unrealistic.' I don't know what reality these people have been living in, but it certainly isn't my reality. In some perverse way, I believe they've spent too much time reading books."

As much as anything else, The Shadow Catcher is a book about chance and those forces of coincidence, the numbing regularity of the unexpected that Auster talks about.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sally Ito's Blog On Margaret Avison

Sally Ito is a Winnipeg poet who has begun a blog on Margaret Avison called "A Month with Margaret." It's a really interesting project and a beautiful focus for a blog. I'm looking forward to watching it develop.

Sally interviewed Margaret Avison in an anthology put out by Nightwood in 2002 called Where the Words Come From: Canadian Poets in Conversation edited by Tim Bowling. (I had the good fortune to interview Tim Lilburn in the same volume). From the interview, Margaret Avison on method:

"If it is an insight for poetry, my "method" is like trying to identify a hopping little bird before it flies - to discover something barely glimpsed, for my own sake."

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Heterochromia Part II

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have heterochromia iridis. The very next novel I read after writing that post had a reference to heterochromia iridium - the brilliant and funny Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Here it is on page 48: "She looked like you. She was beautiful, with those mismatched eyes, like you. One blue, one brown, like yours." Shortly after reading this we were watching the Nancy Drew movie with our daughter, and the bad guy has mismatched eyes too. I'm so not cool enough to know what's happening in the world of anime, but there's an interesting TV Tropes wiki here. I haven't seen the movie Practical Magic, but apparently the Aidan Quinn character has heterochromia.

One more bit of trivia - Heterochromia is one of the more frequent search terms that brings people to Capacious Hold-All.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Capacious Gift

My good friend, A.S. Woudstra, is moving next week to South Africa to work for and write about the Keiskamma Art Project. Annette recently set up Keiskamma Canada. She gave me this incredible bag last night for my birthday which was made by people working for the project. Not only is the embroidery exquisitely executed, but the bag is sturdy and serviceable. The handles are extra long, the lining is lovely, and the bag is also signed by the woman who embroidered the piece and the woman who drew it. Inside there is a label with the wonderful Keiskamma cow:

If you're wishing you had your very own capacious Keiskamma tote contact Keiskamma Canada about how to purchase items from the art project.

There's a youtube clip of the grand opening of the Keiskamma Altarpiece that is really well worth looking at when you get a chance.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

"I Paint Flowers So They Will Not Die"

Frida Kahlo, Still Life: Pitahayas, 1938, Collection of Madison Museum of Contemporary Art

There's a new book out called Frida Kahlo: The Still Lifes by Salomon Grimberg. Both Rob and I have bookmarks in it - somewhere around two thirds through. But we've looked at all the paintings several times already. Kahlo is best known for her self-portraits of course. I was surprised to learn that she had done as many as forty still lifes, as compared to her eighty or so self-portraits. Grimberg is both a psychiatrist and an art historian whose approach to the subject of still life is thought provoking. He shows how Kahlo's still lifes converse with the self-portraits, and "reveal her true self." He quotes Kahlo in an epigraph, "I paint flowers so they will not die." In the context of the fairly well-known facts of her life, I found this incredibly poignant.

I was particularly interested in a recollection by Guadalupe Rivera, Diego's youngest daughter, of Frida arranging a table: "For Frida, setting the table was a ritual, whether she was unfolding the white openwork tablecloth from Aguascalientes, or arranging the simple plates that she had customized with her initials, or setting out Spanish talavera plates and handblown blue glasses and heirloom silverware....It was as if the shape, and color, and sound that was particular to each individual object endowed it with life and an assigned place in a harmonious, aesthetically pleasing world." It's not everyone that takes note of the sound of an object.

The painting above is Pitahayas, 1938-39. The toy skeleton was originally painted with a smile, and appears so in early photographs of it. But after receiving divorce papers, she replaced the smile with a frown.

This seems to me an important book, not just because of what it contributes to all that has been written on Kahlo, but because of the depth it adds to the study of symbolism in the still life genre.

Still Life Being Resurrected, 1963, Remedios Varo

Reading the Kahlo book led me to rummage around on the Internet at other still lifes with surreal and symbolist leanings by women. I hadn't seen this one by Remedios Varo before....stunning! I have a feeling this is an image that will haunt me for some time.

With Calm Things coming out this fall, I've been thinking again (more than usual) about still life, writing about still life. I imagine that I'll return to the subject again one of these days, once I get a few projects wrapped up. I can see writing about our life as it relates to still life again at some point in the future - but it's a rather far off point right now.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Limitations and Dangers

I'm still musing on the nature of email and maybe this is because I've recently read At a Loss for Words: a Post-Romantic Novel by Diane Schoemperlen. Right after finishing the Schoemperlen book I headed to the shelf for Pride and Prejudice because I wanted to re-read the parts where there was letter writing and descriptions of same. Remember the bit in chapter 10 where there is the comparison of Darcy's and Bingley's handwriting? Miss Bingley's comment: "Charles writes in the most careless way imaginable. He leaves out half his words, and blots the rest." To which he responds: "My ideas flow so rapidly that I have not time to express them - by which means my letters sometimes convey no ideas at all to my correspondents." Darcy then charges him with indirectly boasting. There is much to be learned about the characters by the style in which they write, to whom they write, the length and depth of their letters. But in Schoemperlen's post-romantic novel it is the style of an email that reveals character rather than a handwritten letter.

Here is what Diane Schoemperlen says about the limitations of email in an interview at the Savvy Reader:

DM: The format of the novel is so refreshing. Were you influenced by forms of modern communication?

DS: Definitely. One of the most important themes of the novel is the whole question of communication. The narrator is a writer...she is a communicator. After she becomes involved with this man, she is stricken by a serious case of writer's block. She loses her ability to communicate with anyone but him, and he's not talking back! The phenomenon of an email romance is particular to our age. The medium is quick, easy, accessible and immediate. But it has its limitations too, as the characters in the book soon discover. And it has its dangers. You can read an email over and over again, interpreting it in as many different ways as you like, trying to read between the lines and, as often as not, getting it all wrong! You can say all kinds of things in an email that you probably wouldn't say if you were face to face. Once an email is sent, you cannot take it back!

There were a couple parts in the novel that I found particularly fascinating. One is when the protagonist realizes that she is confused by the differences between her "hotel lover" and her "e-mail lover." She says, "But the e-mail lover all too often feels like a complete stranger to me, not like a lover at all. He frustrates me because he doesn't answer my questions and his voice is very different and not so loving. I must figure out how to keep these two lovers together as one person in my head!" I can't help comparing this to the ending of P&P when things are settled between Elizabeth and Darcy and they've moved on to talk of the letter. The effect of it on E.: "gradually all her former prejudices had been removed." In writing, Darcy becomes less of a stranger. She goes on to say, "But think no more of the letter. The feelings of the person who wrote, and the person who received it, are now so widely different from what they were then, that every unpleasant circumstance attending it, ought to be forgotten." Here, if Darcy develops, becomes unlike his letter writing self, then Elizabeth also has changed. Darcy and Elizabeth separate themselves from their letter writing selves, forget them, to move forward, whereas in the Shoemperlen book the acknowledgement of the separation between "hotel lover" and "email lover" evolves quite differently.

In P & P, burning the letter is mentioned and dropped. E. discovers in reading the letter that Mr. D. is in fact a decent sort. His silences become something of a virtue - Darcy is the original tall, dark, handsome, strong, silent type. But in the Schoemperlen novel, silence is unbecoming, a downright manipulative tactic used by the "e-mail lover." The protagonist says, "At first I wrote to you every day anyway, whether I heard back from you or not. And every time I finally did hear back from you again after one of these silences, I wrote back immediately. It took me a long time to realize that every time I did this, every time I clicked on that Send button, I had put myself right back into the same position again: waiting."

There is a real understanding and a subtle working out of how email inhabits our minds and shapes relationships in At a Loss For Words. If you're in the mood for a good post-romantic novel then I'd definitely give this one a go.

The handwriting sample above, btw, is from Moleskinerie. If you'd like to write your emails in a Jane Austen font, go here. With email one may lose the personality conveyed in handwriting. But there is much to be gleaned by noting what font a person uses, how many emoticons and whatnot.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008


Remember when there was no email and a person had to pick up the phone or write a letter or go knock on someone's door? No, I don't really remember that either. I have a love/hate relationship with email. Who doesn't? The hate part is that it eats up time and has a way of pulling at the brain. I check it too often. I use it to procrastinate. But. The love part is that you keep in touch with people maybe you wouldn't otherwise. People send you poems. People send you links to books they think you might like, articles ditto. There are emails that read like poems. Some are much more like letters than emails. But an email sometimes has a way of capturing moments that is perhaps unique to the medium. (Probably there's someone out there writing a dissertation on the quirks of this particular mode of communication). I am constantly surprised and delighted and overwhelmed by the generosity of spirit of those with whom I am fortunate enough to correspond with via email.

I recently received an email from a poet friend, Michael McCarthy, that just took my breath away. It's a poem. A good story. A meditation. A moment captured. A great email. I asked if I could post it and the answer was yes. It's the sort of piece you just want to sit with I think and also something to share:

Dear Shawna,

Mention of Sylvia Plath in your blog reminds me to tell you.

Last Saturday I went to a meeting at Hebden Bridge, about an hour's drive from here. When I got there, there was nobody in the house we were supposed to meet at. (The mix up became clear later) but for the moment I thought to myself: I've come out here for the afternoon, and I'm not just going to turn around and go home again. So I drove up through Heptonstall and spent a wonderful hour or so, sitting in the car mainly, and just being present to myself.

When I first came to England in 1969, aged 23, my first parish was Halifax. It was the first time I'd lived in an urban setting, and that wild moorland was where I went to find my bearings.
I often went there, to avoid loneliness, or to be properly lonely, I'm not sure which. But I often found myself out there in the moors above Heptonstall.

Remember, at this time I'd never heard of Ted Hughes who was born down the road at Mythomroyd and grew up in these moors, and the wildness in whose writing was gleaned from there. Nor that he had come back to live in a house in Lumb Bank with Sylvia Plath, not that Sylvia was buried in the churchyard at Heptonstall.

Some years later, after I had moved to another parish in Bradford, and was chaplain to a school there. One of the secretaries who lived out in these moors and was pregnant, had a horse that needed exercise. So I volunteered, and drove out there and galloped the horse for her a few times. I still enjoyed riding at that time, but my real reason was the excuse to be out on the moors. (About five/six miles away it joins up with Bronte country. Wuthering Heights and all that. In fact there are stories that Branwell used to ride across to a pub near Halifax when
The Black Bull at Howarth banned him for being drunk.)

Then I moved again, eventually to Chicago, where I discovered the poet within, waiting forever to emerge, and then to Durham, where I actually began to experiment with the writing of it. By this time Lumb Bank had become an Arvon Creative Writing Centre, and that was where I went incognito, to participate in my first creative writing workshop. That was about eighteen years ago.

On Saturday, as I sat in my car in the moors above Heptonstall,
it was as if those several lives had all flown into one.
I felt a soul-filling aloneness. 'the bliss of solitude.'
A gratitude for the several movements that make up my life.
I was very glad of the mix up about the meeting.

Later I treated myself to a nice lunch at Hebden Bridge
before I headed home.
So there.