Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Gwendolyn MacEwen: Mythic Poet

Like many Canadians - or perhaps I should say anyone interested in contemporary literature, regardless of where they're from - I've read and enjoyed many of the poems, short stories, essays, and novels of Margaret Atwood.  She's a writer whom I have tremendous respect for.  This post, however, is not about her, though it does begin with one of the short stories which appears in her highly, highly recommended collection: Wilderness Tips.  

I read “Isis in Darkness” for the first time in Toronto years ago and was enthralled.  It’s about a bohemian, female poet in Toronto in the early 60’s:  a time when there weren’t any bohemian, female poets in that city - at least, none that the establishment would have given the time of day to.  
It was only a couple of years later that I would realize that Atwood based her character upon an actual poet and contemporary of hers:  Gwendolyn MacEwen.  

The Toronto of Gwendolyn’s youth was the epitome of Waspy don't-rock-the-boat.  Not the best of places - one wouldn’t think - for a young, creative, intellectually inquisitive woman.  But Gwendolyn was one of those autodidactic, unconventional thinkers who didn’t let a conservative town, an alcoholic father, or a mother whose mental illness landed her in the mental hospital over and over again, stifle her artistic genius.  
Early on, she realized that she wanted to be a poet.  A few months short of finishing high school, she up and walked out of class one day, never to return.  She spent the rest of her life learning languages (Hebrew and Greek among them), and studying cultures and magic and belief systems (including ancient Egyptian mythology and Gnosticism) she also had a fascination with T. E. Lawrence aka. Lawrence of Arabia.  All of this made its way into her mythic, emotionally intense, and sometimes downright funny poetry. 

Like so many poets, she died too early, at the age of 46; the result of years of alcohol abuse. 
I learned about the poet and the world she rose out of in Rosemary Sullivan's remarkable biography: Shadow Maker: The Life of Gwendolyn MacEwen.  Sullivan is herself a poet, and it shows in this beautifully written and researched book.  She presents her subject with respect: without idolizing or victimizing her.  (It won the Governor General's award, which is the highest literary honour to be given a Canadian writer; an award which, incidentally, both MacEwen and Atwood have received for their poetry.)

There is a website put together by the University of Toronto (located in a fabulous part of town called The Annex, where I have lived more than once, where MacEwen lived, and where Margaret Atwood continues to live) with a collection of poetry by Canadian poets.  Some of MacEwen's poetry can be found there.  (I'm afraid I don't know about copywrite issues with respect to blogs, and haven't yet heard back regarding a query I made, so I haven't taken the liberty of posting any of her work here.)

Gwendolyn MacEwen's poetry was born of a brilliant, fascinating, fragile character which overcame certain obstacles, but not others.  For all of that, she was a very human writer, one whose works continue to intrigue and inspire.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

A Storm of Black Feathers

The photos and letters I picked up at London's Spitalfields Market a few months back, have been slowly- very slowly- making their way into collages.  I posted the one below awhile ago.  She was the first.  I still don't know all of her story, but it's slowly unfurling itself to me.  I think I shall know it soon.

"She returned from India with a splinter of its saffron sun nestled deep in her heart."

The first line of the character's story is integrated into the collage, as well as a photo, part of a letter, feathers, bits of cloth and paper, and pieces of foliage I like to collect: bracken, leaves, flowers.

I love the idea of a cabinet of curiosities.   As I work on these collages, I am beginning to realize that that's - to some extent - what I'm trying to capture with each one.  There are other items waiting for future collages in this series: coins, shells, small pebbles, bones and such.

This next one was completed the other day.  Her story is completely unknown to me right now.

"Her heart broke into a storm of black feathers."

I'm looking forward to discovering her story.  The feather landed at my feet one day as I was on a walk and was looking - or asking - or hoping for a reply to half-articulated queries.

Perhaps the feather itself was not the answer, but rather the key to unlock the door behind which certain answers lie.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

A whole lot of words on writing, a dead computer, and a wonderful, wonderful fruit.

This past month has been a strange one; though I suppose they all are in their own way.  About four weeks ago, my computer died.  Well, it was killed.  It was killed by a bug (I don’t even want to write the “v” word in case I jinx things).

When it happened, the “v” programme on my computer detected something fishy and began making alarming warning noises like in one of those WWII submarine movies when things go badly wrong.  When I realized what was happening, I frantically set to work to see what data could be salvaged before the thing died.
No.  That’s not what really happened.  What really happened is that my husband came into the room wondering why I was pouring out every filthy, sacrilegious, paint-peeling, and in a couple of cases - if I do say so myself - rather creative expletives I could, and managed to pry me off the computer.  Then he set to work to see what data could be salvaged before the thing died. 
Not an easy task.
Over the next few days, my husband put on his knight’s mail, took up his lance, and charged through the wilds of my computer’s hard-drive, seeking the “v”.  After a lengthy search, they confronted each other.  But, with a smug grin and a final binary-destroying blow, the “v” made a fatal charge and my poor computer gave up the ghost
Luckily, not much of importance was lost.  Mainly e-mail addresses.  But, since I’m horrible at sending e-mail, probably nobody will notice.  All of my writing and all of the family photos were saved.  (If that’s not a sign that I’ve finally got to put family albums together, I don’t know what is.)  (Not that I will, most likely.)  (I am infernally lazy.)
Then we had a dilemma:  Do we spend more time and quite possibly money fixing a notebook that was already 7 years old and starting to fall apart, or bite the bullet and buy a new one.  It took a few weeks to decide, but we opted for a new computer.  (Sorry kids, but Santa’s decided to do the Christmas thing every other year until further notice...)  
Now, in the middle of the initial days of computer panic, I checked my e-mail (on another machine) and found a letter in my in-box that absolutely made my day.  My week.  Actually, I’m still giddy from it.  
I had submitted a poem to Goblin Fruit, the wonderful online journal of mythic / fantastical poetry.  To my surprise, and amazement, and delight, they have accepted it for publication in their Winter 2012 issue.  For any who haven’t seen their latest Spring 2011 issue, please do.  Everything about it is gorgeous.  One of the features which I always enjoy is hearing the poets read their poems.  
Goblin Fruit is a wonderful journal put together with a huge amount of work and enthusiasm and idealism by Amal El-Mohtar, Jessica P. Wick, Oliver Hunter, and Dmitri Zagidulin.  It's been going for 5 years now, and each issue is a pleasure to read and the artwork is always fantastic.  It is a real privilege to be included in an upcoming issue.  (I kept going back to re-read the e-mail to check that I hadn’t missed the word “not” in the “your-poem-has-been-accepted” line.)
This is particularly important to me, as it’s my first publication.  Over the years, I’ve submitted poems and short stories to various journals and have - at best - been short listed a couple of times.  When a rejection would come in, I’d mope then file the poem or story away and forget about it - rather than look at it and try to figure out what I could do to make it better.  (Did I mention, I’m infernally lazy?)
There is a prevailing idea that in order to write a publishable piece, a person simply needs to put pen to paper and write: Bob’s your uncle.  I was guilty of that thinking for years, when, as a dabbler, I would from time to time put pen to paper and write and wonder why I - and nobody else - was satisfied with my work. 
About 8 years ago, I wrote my first YA novel.  I remember how I felt when I took it to the print shop to be printed it out and bound with a plastic spiral spine.  I felt amazing.  I felt victorious.  Until I realized that the novel was complete crap.  What I had produced was a very, very rough first draft, not a novel.  (I’m almost too embarrassed to admit this, but I actually sent out query letters and sample chapters to a few publishers.  Sorry!)
Three years ago, I completed a first draft of a different YA story.  It is also very rough, but it’s not as painfully bad as the first one.  I realized that it was only a first draft, but I wasn’t in love with it enough to revise it.  Not a good sign.  So, it sits in a binder on a shelf.

Over the past two years, I’ve been taking my writing much more seriously.  I’ve been approaching it like a craft: something that must be learned, trained, and practiced.  Duh.  
When I started this blog 6 months ago, I wasn’t going to put “writer” as part of my “about me” description.  What right did I have to that moniker?  I hadn’t published a word.  But then I thought about how big a part of my life writing had become.  It was something I did almost every day, something which I certainly thought about daily, and something which I had made a commitment to.  Being a writer has as much to do with one’s attitude and commitment to their writing, as with their publication credentials.  
I’ve started two other manuscripts for stories which have both gone in very different directions from where they started out.  For the past few months, I’ve been working on just one of them.  I had hoped to have the first draft done by April 1, but gave myself an extension till May 1, but - thanks to computer grief - that’s now June 1.  (Couldn’t have it on the 8th, or the 17th, or the 22nd, could I?)  I’m looking forward to getting back to it - it was horrible leaving the characters hanging in limbo for weeks.  I’ve been almost distraught.  No, I have been distraught.  I think that’s a good sign.  
Having this poem accepted - especially in a journal which I enjoy and respect so much - is a huge thing for me.  Accepted is the key word here: accepting myself as a writer.  For me, and most other writers, the main point of it all is to create something to be shared with, and enjoyed by others.  This confirms that I seem to be doing somethings right.  So, with my brand-spanking-new computer fresh from the store, and a slightly boosted confidence, I’m getting right back at it.