Sunday, August 31, 2014

Out-of-Town-Authors: Kim Thúy

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
by: Ariel Gordon

Kim Thúy emigrated to Montreal from Saigon by way of Malaysia with her parents when she was a child. Before becoming a writer in her forties, she was a translator, a lawyer, and a restaurateur. Thúy’s first novel, Ru, won the French-language Governor General’s Award for Fiction in 2010. Sheila Fischman’s English translation was nominated for the 2012 Giller Prize and 2013 First Novel Award.

Thúy will be launching the English edition of Mãn, her second novel, on Sept. 12 at McNally Robinson Booksellers. She recently spoke with Winnipeg writer Ariel Gordon.

Q: What do you want people to know about Mãn?

KT: I started with a question: could love expressed with a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers have the same weight as a set of dog tags that symbolized the life or death of a soldier? Writing this book gave me the answer. I like to think that Mãn is a book that talks about not just the what of love, but the how of love.

Q: Your first book was published in fifteen countries and won the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. What was that like?

KT: I’ve found it both surprising and moving to meet, say, a Romanian reader who told me that we shared a common life story, or a doctoral student in Stockholm who was writing her thesis on Ru. On my bookshelf I can see the book in twenty-odd versions, each with a different cover, since each country, each publishing house has its own style and its own take on the text. But still, the content is the same and is usually appreciated for the same reasons. And so I like to think we are more or less the same underneath, or at least, we’re affected by things in similar ways, despite our superficial differences.

Q: Sheila Fischman has translated both of your books from French to English. Do you think of her as your first reader, in some ways? What kind of relationship do you have with her: is it collaborative or do you just hand the book over and wait to see what she comes up with?

KT: Since my books are published in French well before they’re translated, they have already had a great many "first" readers, among them the editorial director and editor at Libre Expression, my editor in France…and even before Sheila, there’s my editor at Random House Canada, who reads the book in French. So while Sheila is not my first reader, it’s up to her to transpose the books from Francophone to Anglophone culture. She does much more than simply translate. Because when I read Ru and Mãn in English, Sheila makes it possible for me to rediscover the rhythm, the musicality and the colours in these contained literary worlds without a consciousness of language. In short, I forget I’m reading in English.

Sheila is a master translator and so for me the best plan is to leave her to her work and get out of the way. Having said that, Sheila lives just 15 minutes away from me. So we’ve been able to get together over a bowl of soup now and again and talk about all sorts of things—but never directly about translation, really.

Q: Ru was partly a memoir and partly a fiction and was eventually labeled "a novel" by your publisher. What territory does Mãn occupy, given your background as a restaurateur and resident of Montreal?

KT: My mother would tell you I’m living in a novel, or that I’m making a novel out of my life. Mãn is obviously inspired by my adventures in the restaurant world, but the craft of writing enables us to go well beyond the bounds of reality. I suppress certain details, steal others from elsewhere, leave out others that don’t fit with the story I want to tell. The novel form allows me to blur the lines, to modify the facts to suit my story. One man’s mustache will appear on the face of someone else; the scar that appears on the arm of one person will transform into a gaping sore on another’s leg. In short, I give myself the freedom to completely erase the line between fact and fiction. All of it is combined, blended, shaken up—like a cocktail.

Q: What are you reading right now? What are you writing right now?

KT: I have just bought the latest book by Heather O’Neill, The Girl Who Was Saturday Night. I am a huge fan of her first book, Lullabies for Little Criminals. I must have bought twenty copies to give to friends over the past few years.

I am writing something at the moment—if it is good enough perhaps it will become a book. For the time being, I’m enjoying the words appearing on my screen, revealing a world I’m discovering line by line.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Stowaways, her second collection of poetry, was published earlier this year.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Pear Suite

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Today I picked pears for the third time in as many years, this time in a different location.

The pear tree was in a mature garden that had at least a dozen other trees arranged around it. There was a lilac and a plum tree intertwined with the old pear tree, which presented us with a few challenges, picking-wise.

And, as with my apple pick a week or so ago, the pears were smaller-than-they-should-be and green.

But it was a good start to a good day: sunny, windless, mild.

Also, given that it'll be at least a week until the pears are ready, I didn't have to leap into the processing-of-pears. So I went and picked up my special-order Wrinkle in Time t-shirt from McNally's and had a good long walk at Fort Whyte.

(Tuesday I start my four month leave from my day-job. Four months of writing time. I can't quite believe it...)

Thanks to Fruit Share for the pear-picking opportunity, if not the pear-picking poems.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Under Western Skies

The World Works Like a Poem
A Conversation about Art, Science, and the Aesthetics of Understanding 

When: Tuesday, September 9, 1:30 pm-3:00 pm
Where: Mount Royal University (Calgary, AB)
What: Under Western Skies conference, September 9-12

This panel brings together five poets—Alec Whitford, Ariel Gordon, Micheline Maylor, Richard Harrison, and Weyman Chan—to discuss the relationship between what we know about works of art —humanity's most organic creations—and our understanding of nature as an aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual experience. We will compare notes on the question posed by the connection between the perception of the nature that poets write about and how they know they've written of it well. If it is true that as long as art is about beauty and science about the world, we will never fully understand either, how does the appreciation of beauty, that we find in both natural things and artifacts, lead to knowledge, and perhaps wisdom, about our relationship with both?

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Alec Whitford is a Calgary poet recently returned to the city after finishing his Master's degree at the University or British Columbia where he wrote his thesis on the Alan Moore's Swamp Thing as narrative of a frustrated ecological utopia. A new voice on the Calgary scene, Alec's powerful poems about the mining town of Elkford appear in FreeFall magazine.

Ariel Gordon is a Winnipeg writer. Her second collection of poetry, Stowaways, was launched in Spring 2014. Recently, she won the Kalamalka Press's inaugural John Lent Poetry-Prose Award. When not being bookish, Ariel likes tromping through the woods and talking macro photographs of mushrooms. As Governor-General's Award-winning poet Julie Bruck writes, "The world in Ariel Gordon's poems is one in which everything and everyone, from sleep-starved human mother to mescegenational beluga, is simultaneously endangered and dangerous."

Micheline Maylor, poet (Full Measure, Whirr and Click), journal editor (FreeFall), publishing house acquisitions and editor in chief (Frontenac House), creative writing teacher (Mount Royal University), is a major influence on both the Calgary and national writing communities. Her most recent book, Whirr and Click, among other things, a meditation on the meaning of human death against a seemingly impersonal natural world, was recently nominated for the League of Canadian Poets' Pat Lowther Prize.

Richard Harrison is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Worthy of His Fall, a meditation on faith and violence. He holds degrees in Biology, Philosophy, and English, and currently teaches creative writing at MRU. He has spoken and read his work at both previous Under Western Skies conferences, and has been nominated for the Governor-General's Award for poetry, the Stephan G Stephansson Prize for Poetry and winner of the City of Calgary Book Prize.

Weyman Chan, author of four books of poetry, most recently Hypoderm and Chinese Blue. He is also a nominee for the Governor-General's Award, the Acorn-Plantos People's Poet Award, and a winner of the Stephansson Prize. His poetry speaks from and of what it is to a child of two cultures, two languages, two worlds that neither separate nor collapse into one. His work, drawing on the linguistic poetry traditions of Fred Wah and Roy Kiyooka, are hailed for both their innovation and their heart. Weyman also brings a unique eye to this work: trained and practicing as a medical analyst of electron microscopic diagnoses of cells and their ailments, he has both a scientist's expertise and a poet's appreciation of the interplay between art and nature.

* * *

Doesn't this look splendid? (I'm elated/terrified, as per usual...)

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 refugee 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 Fraser 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


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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...