Thursday, August 21, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Ella Zeltserman

Three of my grandparents were immigrants to Canada. I'm familiar with the stories of their lives before: my Dutch grandmother the war bride, my Hungarian grandfather who was an allied spy, my Irish grandmother, the youngest of six. (She was teased because she was the first to lose her Irish accent...)

But I was born here, to an Irish-Scottish father and a Hungarian-Dutch mother, both of whom only spoke English. I was born here, so my cultural heritage is the same as anyone else who grew up here: the Paddlewheel Princess groaning outside my window on summer nights, collecting Hallowe'en candy in pillowcases, and waiting for pumpkin-orange buses to emerge from the snow.

Ella Zelsterman's story is a little different. She came to Edmonton as a refuge from the Soviet Union in 1980, knowing only a few words of English. She built (re-built?) a life there. And, as part of that process, she began writing.

Her first collection of poems, small things left behind, was just published by University of Alberta Press. And it's powerfully sad and hopeful, full of Russian history and personal histories, her family, herself.

I interviewed Ella via email during the dog days of summer.

What do you want people to know about small things left behind?

It is the story of my flight from the USSR, my experiences as an emigrant in Canada. It explores concepts of freedom, memory, nostalgia, loss, and home. It moves between Russia and Canada, Leningrad and Edmonton, past and present, comfort and tyranny. The book has a narrative arc and takes readers on an emotionally-charged journey.

I wrote most of the poems in the book in 2008-2009. It felt like an avalanche went through me and deposited the swept boulders on the page. The polishing took quite a long time. I sent a first version of my manuscript to Simon Frazer Writer’s Studio 1st Book Competition in 2010 and got on the short list. I was very excited—the winner would get the book published—and scared, realizing that the book was not ready. Luckily (although it took me a few hours after the winners were announced to feel lucky) I did not win and kept editing and adding. I was fortunate to be part of a poetry colloquium at Sage Hill Writing Experience in the summer of 2011 working with Al Moritz. The final version of the manuscript was shaped that summer.

As a writer (i.e. someone whose artistic practice is predicated on time spent alone) how do you approach readings? What do you get out of them?

I enjoy readings. Yes, writing is a lonely pursuit. Reading is an occasion, a moment to get out of your shell, to be with your readers. I have done the prepared readings and spontaneous readings. I find spontaneous readings to be fun. You surprise yourself. I like sharing the poem’s emotions with the audience, evoking response in listeners, the sense of being heard and understood.

Tell me about that strange object/phenomena called ‘the first book.’

I am not sure I am an expert on this phenomena, I am now at the early/fascination stage. I have a sense of accomplishment and I am disappointed. I am excited and I don’t care. I am happy and depressed, delighted and grouchy. I want everybody to read the book and I want the book (and myself) to disappear. I am somewhat scared: what will be the reader’s reaction? I guess all of these feelings are a part of “the first book” phenomena and the only way to become an expert is to publish a second book. I am working on it.

This book is written out of your own history, out of your family’s history. What were the hardest things about this project for you? Was there anything surprising in it for you?

As I wrote the poems I relived many of the events in the book. I was leaving my family again, and again—forever. Each such experience drained me for days. I have difficulty reading some of the poems in the book. Editing these poems was a real challenge. I was surprised at my ability to eventually remove myself from the events in the poems and edit them. The big surprise was the depth of my memory. So many little details came up, as if preserved in a peat bog just for the moment of the uncovering.

Have you been to Winnipeg? What have you heard?


The first part of question is easy, one word: No.

I’ve heard and thought and have some ideas, whether right or wrong. My earliest Winnipeg connection is with Evelyn Hart and the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. The first time I saw her dancing Juliet in Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” I was smitten. The expressiveness of her body and especially her hands were unforgettable, I saw the Juliet of my dreams. And Winnipeg grew in stature with my admiration of Evelyn Hart. Then I had an acquaintance who spent the whole month of January in Winnipeg and came back with stories of the frozen land and frozen people (this is an Edmontonian talking). Then I learned about Winnipeg's history as the Chicago of Canada, then I planted an apple tree grown in Manitoba, then I read Prairie Fire, then…There are more “thens” and all of them point into the direction of culture, diversity, and strength. Maybe it’s time to visit?

What are you reading now?

I have a déjà vu reading experience this summer. One of my favorite books as a teenager was Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Between the ages of fifteen and twenty I read it four times. I left my copy behind when we escaped the Soviet Union. I still remember its white leather-like cover with gold letters. This spring my husband gave me such a beautiful hardcover copy that it is a pleasure just to hold it in my hands. I keep the book on my night table (aside from the “usual” pile) and savour a few pages here and there. I did not read fiction in Russian for quite a while, so it’s a double déjà vu. My other bites are Brodsky and Akhmatova (my daily indulgence.) The read at the moment is “Will The Real Alberta Please Stand Up” by Geo Takach, published by (but of course) University of Alberta Press and full of fascinating insights into my adopted homeland. I smile, I grimace, I raise eyebrows, I chuckle.

What are you writing now?

Travel impressions, new Russia, terrorism, more family stories from a different angle. The poems are forming themselves into manuscripts. I see two new books, and then some. At the same time I am retuning my second manuscript, streamlining my voice.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ransom Note Poetry


(Clockwise from top left): A finished ransom note poem, lists of favourite-sounding words, and workshop participants working on a birds'-eye view poem from the roof of the Artspace Building.

* * *

So I just finished teaching my part of the MWG's Construction Zone summer school for teenagers, where the final goal is to have a zine full of text + images printed by the Manitoba Association of Printmakers.

I was responsible for the writing portion of the workshop. We talked about the elements of poetry and read poems by local writers —"This poet is from The Pas." "Really?"— but mostly, for a day and a half, we wrote like stink...

It was good, as always, to talk about poetry, to suggest ways into writing that participants might not have mapped yet for themselves.

And I got to go up on the roof of the Artspace Building for one of our exercizes, where I'd never been before. I spent most of my time up there pointing out all the ghost signs and acrobatic graffiti on adjoining buildings...

My thanks to Construction Zone participants and to the MWG for having me. Fun!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Few Questions About Writing

What am I working on?

I’m working on two manuscripts, both in their beginning stages.

The first is a collection of long poems about my family. Three of four of my grandparents were immigrants to this country, so these are travel poems as well as genealogies.

The poems will tell the story of my maternal grandfather-the-spy (for the allies in WWII, thankfully); my paternal grandfather who worked as a POW camp guard in Ontario and who was demoted when there was an escape from the camp; my paternal great-grandfather the Irish naturalist who died just after arriving in the Antarctic in 1914, where he was supposed to study the effects of whaling and sealing. Though these stories are appealing and very plot-driven, I’m as interested in the women, their wives and daughters, who were left behind, who didn’t get to swashbuckle.

One of these poems has been printed already, by Jenna Butler's Rubicon Press.

I’m also working on creative non-fiction about urban forests, with a focus on Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Forest, which is a never-developed patch of aspen parkland (read: swampy prairie interspersed with islands of trembling aspens) in south Winnipeg. With this one, I’m interested in the sociology of urban/nature – how we perceive nature in cities, how we value it. Or not. Which has led me to arboretums, Winnipeg’s elm canopy, conservatories, and provincial parks. I’m also interested in exploring ideas around re-wilding and conservation, about foraging and local food, and the incursions of urban animals into Winnipeg’s parks and back yards.

How does my work differ from other works in its genre?

I’m not sure if that’s for me to say...

Which is mostly an appeal for reviews. (Is it so wrong, wanting to be reviewed/studied/adored?)(Beseeching eyes.)

Why do I write what I do?

Because writing and then performing my writing for people makes me happy. Because I like being in conversation with people via poems and essays. Because I like to excavate my interests.

How does my writing process work?

My writing is about three quarters inspiration-driven (“Oooh! This and then this! Also, this!”) but also mercenary (“I’m going to write a poem right now if it kills me…”).

The mercenary part of my process involves me setting myself exercizes, and working collaboratively with other artists – the most fruitful has been with Darryl Joel Berger, a visual artist and writer from Kingston.

The most successful of the exercizes I set myself has been what I call the Ho
w-To poem. Which is me riffing on wikiHows as a way of playing with humour, the imperative voice, humour, and list poems.
WikiHow topics include How to Rip a Phonebook in Half, How to Survive in the Woods, and How to Seduce a Woman, so I have poems on some of those topics now too. I used 19 of them in my second collection, Stowaways, which came out this spring.

I’m currently trying to find another whiz-bang exercise. Anyone got a whiz-bang exercise they want to share?

* * *

So how this meme works is that you get tagged by people and then you tag others. Like a chain letter but without the bad-luck threats. (Though we're all literary writers, so maybe the bad-luck is implicit....)

I was tagged by The Pas poet and apocalyptic fictioneer Lauren Carter (who was tagged by Aaron Shepard) back in May, who said this about her writing process:
Some days a sprout grows and stretches and I feel the hint of spindly, white roots and hurry the pen to sketch them (in other words, write, freehand, for an hour minimum upon waking). Other days it’s all manure, the slow heat of compost, the need to tackle mechanical tasks like research or changing all the ‘says’ to ‘saids’ (ie. days when I complain to my husband about my “crap novel”).
And then, in July, Victoria poet and pressmate Yvonne Blomer (who was tagged by Cornelia Hoogland) also tagged me. I like what she had to say about her process too:
I follow an image or the beginnings of an idea and often that image or those ideas relate back to some imbalance I find in the world. Birds as symbols of weakness and lack of forethought in the bible; my privilege of cycling for three months through a developing country where most lived hand to mouth; a patriarchal myth that explores the fantasy of taking a young maiden and making her an old uncle’s play thing in Persephone’s myth. All three of these subjects relate to imbalances, to things I can’t quite get my head around, and so I begin to explore them in image or through further symbols, myths and philosophies.
I was supposed to tag two others. I tagged Kingston visual artist and writer Darryl Joel Berger. Though he's since killed his blog, he said this:
I always carry a quality pen and pocket notebook and I'm constantly observing the world and writing insane, meaningless notes to myself – these flawed ideas that I'll never, ever follow up on. Then, when I'm forced to write an actual narrative, there's no pressure because my process is already fucked, and the resulting story will probably just be more bat-shit craziness. Also, knowing that no one will ever take the time to read it helps immensely.
And then I didn't post anything until now. Because that's how my spring/summer went.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Picking


* * *

So I've been spending a lot of time picking/processing apples and crabapples the past few weeks.

The apples came via Fruitshare and involved picking after a sudden shower, which is why these apples (and all of me) were so wet. We picked approximately 90 pounds of fruit off this tree, the majority of which were smallish and green.

It was fun using my new telescoping picking tool (oooh!) from Lee Valley to reach the apples on the highest branches. And the folks at Resource Assistance for Youth (RAY), were super pleased to receive their share of the fruit...

They're not the best eating apples, so I've been making lots of dried apple rings...

I also picked my M-i-L's crabapples, which were both rosy and plentiful. It's a goddamn pain to cut them up, so I mostly make lazy pink applesauce out of them, which involves cooking the crabapples down and then straining out the cores and seeds.

I was also gifted with a double handful of rhubarb stalks, a bag full of cucumbers and tomatoes, and two jars of jam: pincherry and grape. Which is so very nice...

I'm hoping to get a Goodland apple pick over the next few weeks, even so that we can have a bowl of juicy apples on the counter. I also wouldn't mind picking some chokecherries or plums or pears...

PEARS!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Missing Robert Kroetsch #2

When Robert Kroetsch died in 2011,  I wrote a eulogy of sorts here, offering my condolences to Kroetsch's family, to his many friends and colleagues, his many ex-wives and ex-girlfriends and ex-lovers, but, mostly, to his readers.

But I’ve been thinking of him again. I miss him.

And I need to evict the image of a broken old man dying by the side of the road, so I’ve decided to approach him via his writing, via the books that were most important to me as a young writer…

This is the second of these pieces. The first touched on The Studhorse Man (1970).

* * *

I unearthed my copy of Robert Kroetsch’s Badlands (1975), a yellowing second-hand paperback, just before I visited Dinosaur Provincial Park in 2007.

We’d come from a pig roast at a family reunion in Brooks, Alberta, in heat that kept us all flushed.

My daughter A. was fourteen months old, clumsily chasing the dog and cat around the property, her full cheeks wobbling. But this camping trip wasn’t only about making sure the girl knew her extended family, it was about my partner M. and I, about doing things we found meaningful, before and after baby.

Which is to say that I read Badlands in snatches, in the car or just before bed, that I read it quickly and nostalgically.

It was forty degrees Celsius when we drove up to the campsite, which was dominated by a massive tree and bounded to one side by a stream.

We unpacked the car quickly, having confined the girl to her traveling playpen. She yelled at us as we struggled to set up the tent under the tree, her and him and me red in the face and crabby.

We fell asleep as the sky went purple and indigo, sprawled on top of our sleeping bags, and when the storm broke, we were grateful for the masses of cool air that the storm pushed around, in and out of the tent.

But in the morning, there was an enormous branch on the ground next to the tent and it was already twenty-nine degrees. We poured the fair-skinned girl into her backpack carryall and went for a walk under the trees, on the only trail that wasn’t rock and hoodoos.

The bugs were terrible and it was already hot at 8:30 am but we walked the loop, we pointed at things, we chattered and sang. Next, we went to the campground’s playground, where the play structure was rated for 5-12 year olds. Which is to say that the girl played on it, but we had to be right by her side so she didn’t fall from its various heights. Then we went to the air-conditioned canteen and waited in line for popsicles, which we gratefully and greedily consumed.

A whole day’s worth of activity and it was only 10:30 am. And hot.

We got back to our campsite and there was a crowd of people clustered around our tree, peering at an injured/irritable rattlesnake that was coiled in its lower branches.

We looked at each other, at the angle of the sun and the bare dry ground and got into the car.

On the way to Drumheller, we decided to go to the Royal Turrell Museum. It would be cool in there, the girl would be able to run around, and we might actually find it interesting too.

Everyone else in the region had the same idea. The Royal Turrell was full of people, constricting our daughter’s movements to a few steps at a time, and she was way too young to care about the bony array of dinosaurs and all the labour of getting them out of the earth and into the museum.

We did the most cursory of tours then went to the museum cafeteria. I wanted a salad or some fruit but all they had was burgers and fries and one small table in the throng. I got chocolate milk – something vaguely healthy, I thought desperately – which the girl promptly spilled all over our table. I burst into tears.

When we got back to the car and all that bright flat light, I refused to go back to Dinosaur Provincial Park. We drove around until we found a hotel with an empty room, and I sent M back over the bad roads to the campsite, where he’d have to pack up by himself and drive back.

We spent more than an hour in the hotel’s dimly lit basement pool, bobbing solemnly in the cool water. Acclimatizing.

Later, another storm descended and I held the girl at the window in our room, willing M. safely over the highway’s broken asphalt curves.

I couldn’t re-read Badlands for a few years after that. I was disappointed that I hadn’t managed to ramble around, looking at things with my daughter. That instead of being a proto-Dawe, coming out of the badlands with poems instead of fossils, I was Dawe’s wife, at home with their daughter, sulking.

But once I’d swallowed my disappointment, once I’d made by way back to the book, Kroetsch’s landscape and his movement through it was oddly familiar. But it wasn’t the landscape of Dinosaur Provincial Park that it was evoking for me, but the blasted-from-the-bedrock highway to and from Minaki, Ontario where we had our family cabin when I was a child.

Collecting buckets of crayfish from the shallows and handfuls of white exoskeletons from the waterline; garter snakes oily knots in my hands; popsicles and comic books in town, two weeks into our stay at the cabin, when we’d run out of groceries. My uncle telling us about the mercury in the water and, so, also, in the fish. How we ate small amounts, pretending that the fish, the lake, was pristine.

But imagine if you lived on the land on Wabaseemong Independent Nations or Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) and all those trees, all that rock and water was poisoned. I can’t. Can you? (I’m not sure Kroetsch could have either…)

But ever since, those years and that book, I’ve been drawn to ever-so-slightly-despairing nature writing. (Is there any other kind, these days?)

I’ve also still invested in the idea that you can make an ill-advised adventure out of your life…and out of your writing.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lucky #3

Isabel’s doll is propped up on the small chair in her room.

The unforgiving one her father Frederick made when he was young and impatient and everything was possible.

by Darryl Joel Berger
Her mother Margaret was supposed to make cushions out of gingham and goose down – whatever was cheapest – a bolt of rough fabric under her arm and a gander’s wrung neck clasped in her hand, Maggie’s upper lip warm with sweat, her eyes following Freddy in and out of the light.

But her mother hated sewing. Margaret flumped down on the unforgiving chair with her bony ass and declared it fine. (She was also supposed to answer the door with cheeks flushed and floured, the smell of baking clinging to her like a bashful child…)

When she was small, Isabel poked the doll’s eyes to see how they worked, to feel the gleam of the whites. The doll’s pursed lips seemed like an invitation, a meaningful gesture, but when Isabel leaned in, the doll’s lips never softened.

Her father now buys chairs – and their associated cushions – from others. Frederick has parked himself behind a desk, but he likes splitting wood, for the s hapes he makes in the shadows, for bone-crack of wood as the axe hits it.

Frederick likes how the wood is reduced to softest ash in the fireplace, how it burns fiercely as it fails.

Margaret mangles and cooks, writes consoling letters to her spinster sister and shares recipes for gory pickled beets with her neighbours. She most looks forward to tallying the month’s accounts, Isabel practicing her letters at the table next to her, head bowed.

Margaret likes to smooth the hair on the crown of Isabel’s head.

I built you, Maggie will tell Isabel, while Freddy pokes at the fire.

Isabel likes to imagine that she is full of cogs and wheels. But knows she is made of blood and bone, her mother’s pointy chin, her father’s waxen earlobes.

As such, Isabel is able to feel great sympathy for her stiff little doll.

* * *

What my collaborator Darryl Joel Berger has to say about this series we've been working on:

"The luckies are pictures I post as writing prompts for the poet Ariel Gordon (like all poets, she is riotously unfocussed). It’s kind of a choose-your-own adventure thing, only with fancy words and ambiguous concepts."

This is a lunchtime fiction. I don't usually write childhood or Victorian childhood, but it was easy to inhabit this little world for an hour or two. I got right there.