Fifth Issue of Our Literary Journal Foment

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26
Wednesday
Oct
2011

In the Shadow of the Soviet Union

Hosted and curated by Mark Medley, book editor at the National Post, Saturday evening’s In the Shadow of the Soviet Union welcomed authors Andrew J. Borkowski and David Bezmozgis to the Knox Church.

 

After a short introduction to the evening by Medley, Borkowski led things off by reading a passage from his new book, Copernicus Avenue. Roughly based on his own family history, the collection of short stories chronicles the life events and assimilation into Canadian culture of an immigrant family from Poland. The particular story Borkowski chose to read, entitled “12 Versions of Lech,” is the story of an artist – Lech - told from the perspective of a young boy. Borkowski assumed a thick Polish accent at appropriate moments, his booming voice effectively channelling the voices of his characters. The author has a knack for anecdote, and his writing shines with tales of folly and the transplanted Polish culture of Toronto’s fictional, yet grounded in reality, Copernicus Avenue. One such tale describes Lech’s penchant for trickery, on display during an interaction with a couple visiting from America. Posturing as a Laplander, Lech claims to pay his income tax in bones, a story which is eagerly accepted by his woefully inept audience, the American couple.

 

Bezmozgis followed with a passage from his latest novel, The Free World. The book follows a family of Jewish Latvians who have escaped from the bleakness and despair of their homeland and spend a year in Italy en route to resettling in North America. As Bezmozgis would describe later on in the evening during the discussion period, this European transition zone was a unique cultural phenomenon – families were warmly, albeit temporarily, welcomed into the community as a sort of waystation on their longer journey. The novel is told from three different voices and spans many years; the passage Bezmozgis read is the narrative of a young man, who, upon having gained a reasonable command of the new language, is interviewing as a candidate for an entry-level position in an office. The story largely stays within the character’s own head, and Bezmozgis has brilliantly and deftly kept a running commentary of the situation’s intricacies – the barriers created by language, cultural differences, the sexual interplay between young people – with wry wit and a practiced hand. At one point, the awkward encounter is described thusly, “The sexual proposal was slapped down on the table like a fish.” Titillating indeed.

 

The wry humour of both authors was brought up once more during the discussion that followed, when Medley and the two authors convened on stage to further discuss the motivations and methods behind their writing. On humour, Bezmogis said, (roughly paraphrased) “When you’re in a bad situation and there’s no way out of it, there’s nothing you can do, you have to laugh.” There is a history of a very dry variety of humour from that part of the world that seems to endure today, perhaps borne of those hardships endured while under the shadow of the Soviet Union.

 

On stage, the authors shared a comfortable rapport, asking one another questions throughout in response to Medley’s prompts and finding much common ground in regard to their families’ respective pasts and relocation to Canada post WWII. Both Borkowski and Bezmozgis described in detail the histories that set the foundations for their work, with the various waves of immigration into Canada and the events that allowed for and compelled such large groups of people to travel so far around the world. Their writing is well informed by their own personal travels – Borkowski visited Poland with his family as a young man; Bezmozgis has traveled to both Latvia and Italy - as well as the influence of their respective cultures and families.

 

In traveling back through these historical events, particularly the hardships endured under Soviet rule, the authors became somewhat more introspective. The commodities available in Latvia for example, as described by Bezmogis, were essentially nil (vodka being a lone exception), which prompted whole families to uproot and travel halfway around the world for the sake of finding new opportunities. The extent of the difficulties foisted upon these people was made clear by both authors’ honest marvel for and appreciation of the freedoms those of us living in Canada and the United States have to express ourselves today. Although both Bezmozgis and Borkowski grew up in the West, they still, to a certain extent, live in the shadow of their ancestors’ experience, and reveled in the moment, genuinely appreciating the opportunity to sit, talk, learn and listen. As did we, the audience.

25
Tuesday
Oct
2011

Lunch Laughs with Miriam Toews and Christian McPherson

It was great to be able to sneak away to a noon hour event, especially one featuring Miriam Toews (whom I had never previously considered a comic or “funny” writer) and Christian McPherson on a chilly yet brisk Monday afternoon. Titled ‘Is It Hard To Be Funny?’ the question rings rhetorically but as the ensuing discussion illumined, it’s rather more fecund for discourse (or banter at least) than at first glance.

 

Humour has often been a strange animal, which like live ones seem to die upon dissection with the supplementary insult to injury being that its anatomy still remains inscrutable. This was highlighted by the snail joke our gregarious host, Ottawa Citizen’s Peter Simpson, delivered in his opening remarks which elicited a mixed reaction. Doing stand-up comedy must be one of the difficult gigs in the world, if memoirs of comedians are to be believed. Writing comedy on the other hand, isn’t any easier (nor does it get easier as time goes along as Toews would later attest).

 

Toews read a passage from her latest offering, her novel Irma Voth which tells the story of a 19 year old Mennonite woman’s experience in meeting characters quite apart from her world. Her deadpan observations really give a form to the absurd incarnations of life which can latch on to our own sense of relating to them by extending our own experiences, transporting our empathy to the protagonist. Voth as a character instantly seems perspicacious and likeable.

 

McPherson read from his first novel The Cube People which chronicles, with very sly autobiographical allusions, the life of a public servant Colin MacDonald. MacDonald’s trip to the fertility clinic was sympathetic and hilarious. McPherson really owned his narration despite what seemed like early jitters and led the audience through what sounded like an entertaining SNL short skit.

 

Peter Simpson, in his interview, pointed out that the much beloved comic writer Eric Nicol called writing comedy a “low calling”. The one “doesn’t make a habit of it and doesn’t accept payment for performing it”. While this sounds like an obvious self-parodying jibe, Toews took exception to it in the sense that the notion of thinking of comedy as somehow less “smart or intellectual is completely false.” It was interesting to hear that both writers didn’t consciously try to be funny but rather deliver their observations in their own voice as honestly as possible. I had the impression that a novelist might have the luxury of not consciously trying, but someone writing for say The Colbert Report or This Hour Has 22 Minutes have a different reality as they need to produce funny material on a deadline. This then begged the question as to whether humour is innate or something you strive very hard to produce. This query also leads the subjective notion of humour itself, where Simpson noted that a very affable, educated friend of his didn’t much care for Monty Python whereas Simpson regarded it as the height of comedy.

 

As a social endowment, there is always a sense of envy with the funny types, because it seems that charisma and thus popularity seems to come to those who can induce the giggles. Scientific studies on the role of laughter in helping with social bonding and the increasing popularity of laughter yoga seem to indicate that comedy in our lives in not at all superfluous but necessary. The emergence and breakout of Novak Djokovic (nicknamed the ‘Djoker’) this year in men’s tennis lends evidence that even court clowns can indeed climb to the top of the proverbial mountain rather than being relegated to being side-shows. 

 

There is also a darker side to humour that goes beyond merely coping with the despair of life, the one that lies at the edge of madness and crosses it. One of the more sobering quotes was given by Rorschach of Watchmen fame about the depression of the fictional clown Pagliacci. Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker is also a very complex character whose crust of mirth hides a deep abiding cruelty. Due to time constraints, a discussion on the subversive nature of humour was missed and I’m sure that both Toews and McPherson would have had plenty to say on it.

 

It’s astounding to note the prolific presence of Canadian comedians working on-screen but also the presence, albeit sparser, in literature. From Stephen Leacock to Mordecai Richler to Will Ferguson and our two authors for the afternoon, there is much proof that shtick and subtle levity has a place alongside the solemn in and from Canada – and that is a very good thing.

25
Tuesday
Oct
2011

Johanna Skibsrud's This Will Be Difficult to Explain

 

“This will be difficult to explain,” a father told his children on the revelation that their road accident was somewhat shockingly not what it first appeared.  The statement is embedded in a story about a family’s dissembling, an experience haunted by fragmented and veiled memories of an SS raid on their father’s childhood home.  The complexity of the title story fulfills the whole collection’s promise: no simple statement can be made as to what this book is “about.” 

 

Author of the 2010 Giller Prize-winning novel The Sentimentalists, Johanna Skibsrud is also author of two poetry collections, the latter genre being the subject of her present doctoral work.  In between these two forms, the short story serves as an effective tight focus for her characters’ epiphanic moments, whether they would acknowledge them or not.  It also helps highlight the skilled poetic density of her language, such as her description of trees in the Japanese streets that were cultivated to appear wild: “Toward their own very specific, requisite immoderation.”  

 

Explanations are not the only things that prove elusive, as the title of this collection suggests; the prior stage of self-perception proves just as difficult.  In the opening story “The Electric Man,” a young woman working at the Auberge DesJardins has a series of encounters with an enigmatic guest whose quirky self-description is troubled by a harrowing revelation at the story’s close.  Still, his elusive identity seems more substantial than her own attempts to “place” herself, or even to be captured in a portrait.

 

“The Limit” begins with a piercing description of a father driving around his estranged thirteen-year-old daughter.  Having joked about getting her to drive he immediately wants to treat it as a joke, “but then he can’t because he hates the kind of man who would laugh like that, even if he is that kind of man.”  Such a sad impasse later leads to the memory of a buffalo hunt from the man’s youth.  There he recalls an emerging ambivalence about the right course in life, which proved part of the reason he’d stayed in the same confined geographic area.  Skibsrud could certainly treat this “kind of man” with a simplified, even dismissive judgment.  As the story reaches its close, however, we find her narration to have shown a sensitivity alert to the complexities, even the awkward winsomeness, hidden in his provincial outlook.

 

The problem of untranslatability, present in each story, is given a linguistic turn in “French Lessons.”  Martha’s language training in her host city of Paris was supposed to come from the grammar charts covering her bedroom walls.  Instead she learns, in ways alternately funny and tragic, the deeper gap between herself and her host—a blind Frenchwoman whose minutely ordered life contains an untouchable sadness.  The story, with an epigraph by Roland Barthes, is a deeply personal take on linguistic theory.  Although more overt in this case, all of Skibsrud’s stories have a philosophical and contemplative cast.  The premises and events are significant, but it is often the internal movement, or lack thereof, that receive her incisive treatment.

 

Many of the stories treat characters who have transplanted themselves.  Whether the character has relocated or not, however, the borders of the self are what Skibsrud appears most interested in.  In “Cleats,” for example, a woman leaves her husband and daughter to move to Paris.  As her husband attempts to draw her back, we see that her confines remain well in place:

 

She had, Carey said, over and over again, “chosen a life”—and now, he said, a touch of hurt in his voice, like a child, that life needed attending.  It caused in Fay, briefly, in the moment that she heard it—that thing quivering there in his voice, canned in the telephone, on the other end of the line—a sweeping sadness, the depth of which she was not brave enough even to properly feel, let along gauge or understand.

 

It only took a moment for her to forget this tone of the conversation, however.  When she recalled his actual words she felt no more for him than for a neglected houseplant. 

 

For all Skibsrud’s skill in articulating a character’s inability to feel the import of what is happening to them, she is also able to let the reader feel on the external opaqueness of a character.  After an event threatens financial ruin for a couple in “Angus’s Bull,” the husband repeats only a deflated “H-yep” as his table companions look silently on.  For all the impasses and missed cues, however, meaningful encounter does occur in the book, and usually all the more vividly for being in such bold relief.  The wife in this same story briskly seduces her husband on the cusp of their realization of a new life of hardship, showing a brash, liberating love in the face of constraint. 

 

This freedom is shown at numerous junctures when, in contrast to either external or internal restlessness, characters are given a task or relationship where they feel ready for the appropriate action.  This is seen in how the husband in “Angus’s Bull” feels after his wife’s expression of love and a fortuitous turn of events, or the way the young boy in “The Limit” comes to know in the hunt “exactly who he was—the precise limits of his body—and what to do.”  For all the characters’ ruminations, there are clear points when no explanation is forthcoming, but neither is any further reflection needed. 

 

It should be pointed out that several of the characters’ thoughts are in abstractions that seem to float free of the stories’ inciting incidents or any later plotted resolution:

 

She was caught, at that exact point of intersection between impossibility and desire.  Trapped into it, just like everyone else, no matter how—or how variously—she attempted to extract herself.  Without faith, and yet…an errant sense of direction, and of purpose, all the same.  Always that—yes.  The very process of everything as it occurred (always as if for the first time, and so without contrast) leading to the perpetual and most likely false conviction that there actually existed, at the under-layer of things, something infinitely resilient, immutable, and forgiving; that it would be possible, always, to pause…to defer…to destroy, even, if necessary; begin over again.

 

As nicely as this is phrased, some readers will have a harder time following these trains of thought as they proceed beyond the story’s limits.  Granted, such passages could at times be more rooted in the particular language of the character or the tangible elements of the setting.  I would argue, though, that a strength of these stories lies in taking time to probe beneath the often false constancies of place or self, attempting that common human pursuit of synthesis—a search for self-knowledge that spans settings as different as the titles “Signac’s Boats” and “Angus’s Bull” suggest.  Moreover, the collection shouldn’t be overly criticized for being too little driven by the plot.  Several of the stories achieve a satisfyingly surprising twist that completely disrupt the reflective trajectories begun in the stories. 

 

Finally, these stories are tremendously personally challenging, however subtly deployed.  Through Skibsrud’s matter-of-fact articulations of a character’s self-deception, I was often jarred into wondering what I was missing and how I might go about naming it with like care.  Meanwhile, her celebration of the small but meaningful gestures evoked a sense of hope towards the beauty of human connection.  Moving from text to the contours of our lives will prove a difficult task.  Nevertheless, Skibsrud’s humane precision as a writer draws us to seek encounter beyond the chasms that exist—whether between persons or within the self—even should the explanation itself remain an open question. 

 

24
Monday
Oct
2011

Ukrainia was fantastic!

How can you not attend an event when the performing band claims their sound as the edge of mania, vodka fuelled and drenched in old country passions? Seriously, that’s tempting. And so we (my husband and two girlfriends) found ourselves in the ARC lounge last Saturday night amongst writers and fans, catching a performance that blasted with story, excitement and fun. Ukrainina, how have we never met before? Oh, that’s right. I was out of the country these past five years. And thank goodness for that excuse, because otherwise I should feel ashamed in not knowing (and  loving) this unique Ottawa-based band.

 

Taking to the ‘stage’ in their eclectic outfits with each member adopting their own spin on looking good (suit vests, bell bottoms, cowboy shirts, platform heels; like a mixed salad, it all worked together), lead singer Damian Sawka spilled his words of thanks in Ukrainian, while funny guy and drummer Tom Werbowetski translated and told stories. Guitarist Paul Granger and Bassist Dave Martindale added into the mix with their constant laughter and ‘Hey! Hey! Heys!’ as the show took off.  

 

But I’m no music critic. Some people can competently dig into the style of playing, showmanship, synchronicity, technical skills, sound, etc. Here is what my two ears and tapping foot qualifies me to say: they were awesome.  

The whole time I was aching to dance, and promised myself I’d see these guys again in a venue that was more suited to vodka-fuelled-mania and up and down, spin around channelling of the music.

 

So that, from a musical perspective, is what I can say. They were “good times”.

 

Then the next day as I listened to their CD and remembered the ballots, the power chords, the clapping, the contagious excitement – I began to reflect upon this idea of Musical Language. Ukrainina’s music is set entirely in Ukraine. The lead singer (who was born in Canada) only speaks Ukrainian during the performance. There is, effectively and ostensibly a language barrier between their music and their English/French speaking audience. And yet, there isn’t.

 

A novel or poem presented in another language (an unknown language) simply remains unfamiliar letter combinations, or markings on a page. The essence, those feeling of history and life and place – they all fail to ‘be’ with a reader’s lack of understanding. In literature, the written form of storytelling, language is limiting.

 

But turn the story into music. Suddenly it no longer matters whether or not we grasp the details, everything boils down to the experience – we’re infused with hope, aching, celebration, joy . . . Of course this idea extends beyond music into art and performance, but focusing on last Saturday night, despite not catching the lyrics, we were deep in the high and lows of the experience. Music frees the ‘being’ of a narrative and gives it life away from language.

 

And that’s cool.

 

It was a great show, and a lovely topper to a festival gone well. I certainly will be keeping an eye out for the next performance of Ukrainia. After all, my husband is Hungarian and we’ve got some ‘old country’ dance moves I’m eager to try. Keep an eye on their performance list – this pulsing Ukrainian phenomenon is worth a night out on the town.

24
Monday
Oct
2011

Hell is Other People

Johanna Skibsrud, Helen Oyeyemi, Miriam Toews, Hosted by Michael Blouin

Sunday, October 23, 2011

 

The crowd was near capacity in the church’s main hall—an ominous sign given the title of the evening’s event.  Helen Oyeyemi didn’t help matters by beginning her reading with a grisly Old English fairy tale involving a stack of bloodied bodies, leaving audience members exchanging nervous glances.  As the reader-writers went on, however, their accounts of communication braved in spite of obstacles—from the fallout from severed relations to the barrier of language—took us away from tortured images of isolation. 

 

Oyeyemi moved from the fairy tale, a source narrative for her recent novel Mr. Fox , to a feisty epistolary exchange between writers that had showed their tender awkwardness.  Miriam Toews vigorously read a portion of Irma Voth where a passage is negotiated from an airport layover to the beach, revealing the vulnerability and resilience of her characters with touches of wicked humour.  Johanna Skibsrud then read an entire short story from her recent collection This Will Be Difficult to Explain where two characters persist in confronting “a mutual understanding of the perfect falsity of language.”

 

Michael Blouin was the host, and he kept his questions both thoughtful and crisp.  While interviewers who also happen to be writers can be obtrusive in speaking of their own work, Blouin showed humility and skill in how he kept the feature on the evening’s guests.  A few questions were somewhat predictable, although they had the virtue of allowing the writers maximal freedom in their response.  In other instances he nicely sidestepped the usual suspect to take an unexpected angle on a familiar question.  Rather than ask why they each became a writer, for instance, he asked instead why they continued writing.  The question surprised Oyeyemi such that she told him he’d have to come back to her as she really didn’t know.

 

Blouin was not the only one asking questions tonight, though.  After Toews responded to the first question on planning conflict between her characters, Oyeyemi quickly followed up by asking her, “do you like writing fights?”  Her vivacious curiosity extended to the interviewer himself at one point when she asked him if he missed his characters when he was done with them.  Blouin’s grace as an interviewer and Oyeyemi’s unpretentious eagerness to learn her fellow writers went a long way in leaving behind Sartre’s dark observation on the company of others. 

 

Later, Blouin observed the obvious commonality of the three writers’ recent works: they had each written about the process of telling stories.  Skibsrud referenced her collection’s title, stating that they shared an interest in what it took to overcome the limits of communication.  Her act of writing was itself a way “to confront that limit and overcome it through text.”  Proving her desire, she took a step back and confessed to sounding too “academic” just then.  Although having used an extended Roland Barthes quote in her reading’s epigraph and having been introduced as currently pursuing a PhD along with her next creative project, she clearly sought to speak with broad intelligibility herself. 

 

Oyeyemi next filled in the vivid background to her recent novel, speaking about the accumulation of news stories of women who had been murdered.  She recounted that she’d turned to fairy tales, reading them concurrently to try to find a way of responding to this harrowing reality.  It was the political interest of the Old English fairy tell she read at the outset, with its chilling depiction of Mr. Fox, that drew her to explore how language can be used to overwhelm and control another’s experience.  Hell indeed.

 

The authors were winsome and generously open about their writing processes—from preferred tools to eBook contracts.  When asked if writing required a touch of craziness, they nicely built on their colleagues’ answers.  Skibsrud began by talking about how “not being able to shut up” showed a certain delusion of the effectiveness of the craft in bringing about change.  Toews responded that a writer couldn’t really be crazy with the tremendous discipline involved, to which Oyeyemi suggested that the discipline itself could be a kind of mania.  Yes and no, in other words.

 

While the exchange was generally warm and open, Blouin himself met the limits of communication when he started angling for a preview of upcoming work.  Oyeyemi only revealed that hers was “a novel about disappointment.”  Toews: “about three women.” 

 

It took until the penultimate question from the crowd that a woman finally asked about Sartre’s statement on the infernal character of relationships.  At this point I, and I suspect the better part of the room, had forgotten the event’s stark title in relation to this friendly exchange.  Toews linked it to a question of Dorothy Parker’s—“what fresh hell is this?”—that she recalls being particularly useful in having kids around.  Skibsrud admitted the difficulty in people coming together, but affirmed the potential for “intense and meaningful understanding.”  Oyeyemi spoke about her novel as essentially a love story for the socially awkward, a call to arms that the attempt is worth it.  With that, these three skilled authors affirmed our deep-seated and persistent relational nature, consequent pains be damned. 

 

23
Sunday
Oct
2011

In A World Gone Mad: Writing the Canadian film

This past Friday afternoon at the Knox Presbyterian Church, a hungry lunchtime audience gathered, paper bags and sandwiches in hand, as Tony Burgess , Kenneth J. Harvey and host Martin Levin took to the stage. What happened next left me fascinated as these two writers presented different pictures of the screen writing experience, and yet concluded on a shared idea that calls out for more Canadian content in our national theatres.

 

Tony Burgess is the author of several works including The Hellmouths of Bewdley, Pontypool Changes Everything, and Caesarea, while Kenneth J. Harvey lists his bestsellers as Blackstrap’s Hawco, Inside, and The Town That Forgot How to Breathe, and has been promoting his latest work Reinventing the Rose. They are both men of significant novel-writing success, yet have had strikingly different experiences while writing for the screen.

 

Tony Burgess, chewing gum and cracking jokes, launched into a brief 101 course on battling your way through a filming process. When approached to write the script for Pontypool , Burgess grabbed the opportunity despite his lack of knowledge in the film business. Suddenly he found himself transported to the world of commercial films, a place full of clashing egos and unwanted opinions. It was, in Burgess’ own words, “siege warfare.” He realized quite quickly that if he were to maintain any control over his own script (and remember, it’s a script deriving from his own novel too), it was necessary to fight.

 

“Never say I don’t know,” urges Burgess. Instead say, “No” to other people’s ideas as a first defence against the power plays. As he continues to reflect, it feels as though we, the audience, are being given fighting tactics. Forget your quiet writing habits, if you want to write for the movies, you need to become a warrior. Bull-headedness appears essential when dealing with movie-making egos. It’s enough to ruin any writer’s appetite. (As I sit in the audience and peel into my tangerines, squirting juice across the chairs.)

 

Contrast this discussion with Kenneth J. Harvey, who arrives on stage and kicks off his portion of the event with a few Zen jokes: “If you lend someone $20 dollars and you never hear from them again, then it was probably worth the money.” Clearly, he’s setting a different tone for the audience.

 

Recently, Kenneth Harvey wrote a screenplay so his daughter would have the opportunity to act. I’m 14 and I hate the world is an international success. Unlike Burgess, Harvey pursued the independent film route with his screen-writing, applying for the First Time Film Makers grant and winning $45,000 toward the project. While he needed to arrange everything in terms of logistics and money, he maintained “absolute control of this film.” With his family and crew on set, everyone keen to give support, his impression of film-making collaboration is truly positive. For Harvey, stepping beyond the novel into screen writing was refreshing.

 

While these two men presented different pictures of what it’s like to write for the screen, they both agreed upon one vital point: The Canadian film industry if floundering. With all content pouring over from the USA, Canadian ‘blockbuster’ films (think Men with Brooms) are missing the mark. We shouldn’t be focusing on presenting our culture, but instead, we should focus on presenting an entertaining, universal story. But even further than this, even when a zombie movie is made that can certainly appeal to a wide audience, the screens aren’t available (theatres won’t play it) and the money can’t be gathered. Without the ‘screens’, say both Burgess and Harvey, investors simply aren’t interested in giving funds.

 

At this point, the tone became dark within the room. My stomach was rumbling (two tangerines does not make a lunch) and the future of Canadian entertainment seemed doomed. But then light broke forth as Kenneth Harvey suggested a solution. “If 10% of screens had to be Canadian films, so many jobs would be created. The government could pull financing, the industry would boom.” Much like Canadian content regulations, the same concept could be applied to theatres. But first policies would need change, and how is that going to happen in our commercial, power-playing world of big money entertainment?

 

It was a woman from the audience who suggested (urged, actually) a way to make change happen. She stood in her black and white tweed jacket, red leather gloves, and raised her hand as she shared her thoughts: “Write letters to the editor. You’ll get heard. Believe me, the government pays attention to that sort of thing.” She used to be a media analyst for Justice Canada, and last Friday repeatedly insisted that writing letters to the editor (not bothering with the MPs) is how change can happen.

 

And suddenly the obligation was turned upon us, the audience, and on you too, the reader. So what comes next? Well, if you’re so inclined, write a letter to your editor. And if you’d rather stick with less regulations, then don’t bother writing anything.

 

Last Friday was fascinating and insightful. From two contrasting opinions derived a corresponding problem about Canadian films, and with the help of an audience member, a possible course of action was presented. Who knows, maybe it was the start of a Canadian film-making revolution? Or maybe it was just the end of a good conversation. Either way, it was certainly worth my skipping lunch.  

 

23
Sunday
Oct
2011

Air Farce with Don Ferguson

Imagine you had a friend for most of your life-some 50 years and for 40 of those years you worked closely with the same friend. Your careers were largely on radio, television and stage. You decide, the two of you, to write the story of your time together but before it can be completed your friend becomes gravely ill and dies. Such is story behind the story of the recently published Air Farce, 40 Years of Flying By the Seat of our Pants. The friends are Don Ferguson and Roger Abbott , who were members of Air Farce, the comedy troupe that was a success on radio and then television in Canada for almost four decades.

 

Barbara Budd introduced Ferguson. Barbara is no stranger to those of us who listened to As It Happens on CBC Radio One during the 17 years she worked there. Barbara read a testimonial by Rick Mercer about the Air Farce. Barbara had been a guest star with Air Farce over the years and was able to add ‘colour commentary’ as well as interview Ferguson at the end of the reading.

 

Before Ferguson read from the book he told us of the saying “there is no better place to have fun on a rainy day than in a bookstore” and by extension, in Ottawa on a rainy day, there’s likely no better place to have fun than a Presbyterian Church (the location of the reading).

 

Ferguson and Abbott signed the contract to write the book in November 2010 and delivered the first “batch” in March 2011 just before Roger Abbott went to the hospital. Roger Abbott died later that month. Ferguson spoke about Abbott with great fondness and respect. Ultimately Ferguson had to finish the book and he said he decided to do it sooner rather than later and in some way felt that the writing helped in his grieving.

 

Ferguson read excerpts from the book to an appreciative audience. He knit the segments together starting from the earliest days of the Jest Society, through Air Farce on radio, Air Farce on television and up to the eventual loss of original members and replacement with new members. There are contributions from friends and collaborators in the book as well as from Ferguson and Abbott. When reading a segment contributed by his friend Roger Abbott, Ferguson’s emotions were close to the surface. It was a testimony to their partnership and friendship and the fact the book’s success belongs to them both.

The initial members of Air Farce were Roger Abbott, Don Ferguson, John Morgan, Luba Goy and Dave Broadfoot. We heard about the early years when times were lean and John Morgan became a partner in a pub back home in Wales. He made the investment as he thought the work at Air Farce would not provide a sustainable income. Abbott and Ferguson spent time at the pub. Abbott worked at the pub on occasion, waiting tables. And from that experience came the character, Pierre, waiter at the House of Commons.

 

Equally enjoyable were the stories of talented Luba Goy who was “lovely and late, always late”. She always had reasons-one was an account of how her cat ate her bird and all that was left was the head. The story goes on….you need to read the book to get the whole picture. On a personal note, Luba Goy was on the same train as me a number of years ago. She worked the car for most of the trip Ottawa to Toronto much to everyone’s delight. She may possess the best Donald Duck voice!

 

And finally Ferguson gave us the history of the TV segment known at The Chicken Cannon. It started as a casual conversation with the special effects people at CBC where they said they shot a rubber chicken across the shop every once in a while when they felt like letting off steam. And the rest, as they say, is history.

 

The interview portion of the reading was interesting. Budd asked how the troupe, with its very different characters and backgrounds and age differences was able to work together so well. Ferguson talked about how there were differences and someone was “always in the doghouse” but they worked through things and moved on.

 

Ferguson talked about the successes, the challenges, the good and not so good of working in the Air Farce collaboration for those many decades. That is what you will find in the book-along with a lot of great pictures. His presentation at the book reading was sincere; the interview with Budd was friendly and engaging. Ferguson was hoping to take questions from the audience but time ran out as another Writers Festival Event was setting up.

 

If you want an opportunity to get up close to people who have written or performed on the Canadian scene, the Ottawa International Writers Festival is the place to do it. A great venue and in this case to hear about the inner workings of the Air Farce that Ferguson said was once described as “brilliant political satire followed by a fart joke”.   

 

23
Sunday
Oct
2011

The Business of Invention

Poetry Cabaret with Dionne Brand and Patrick Lane, Hosted by Stephen Brockwell

Saturday, October 22 nd , 4 pm

 

Even at this stage in the careers of accomplished Canadian poets Dionne Brand and Patrick Lane, invention is no bare fiat. Their observations, both of our world’s brutalities and its finer gestures, must first be painstakingly gathered. Once their poems have been written, published, and set on the podium for a public reading; the process of observation continues. This was shown in Dionne Brand’s opening reading, where her introduction was tentative: “What can I tell you about this book? I really don’t know; I’m learning about this book.” After a long pause, she read the title of the poem she would be reading next—to herself as much as to us.

 

While she claimed to be about “the business of invention,” Brand made clear that this task set her in opposition to the general producer-consumer culture and its effects on language. “Ordinary speech is so collapsed,” she remarked, and a poem must take the opportunity to open language out, “undoing” it from imposed constraints. This was amply shown in her homage to four favourite jazz musicians and her regular unsettling of clichés, such as when she spoke of having “lived and loved” as a “common oxymoron.” Such liberating work required long and careful attention to both experience and the words we use. Describing herself as a “note-taker,” she spoke of her rapt attention to the world’s moment, even naming her own culpability in it.

 

Brand’s goal of “undoing” language was well matched in Lane’s own reading, beginning as it had with his well-known line that “a bird is a poem / that talks of the end of cages.” He introduced a later piece with a playful excursus on the unacknowledged pleasures of language. After several feigned attempts to mouth the next title, he imagined the first invention of the word “moth,” a term which in its primal nomination proved so obviously and joyfully apt.

 

Host and interviewer Stephen Brockwell contributed his characteristic enthusiasm for the craft as well as for these practitioners. There was certainly a good deal to engage here—selections from Lane’s prodigious output had been gathered in the recent publication of Witness: Selected Poems 1962-2010, and Toronto Poet Laureate Brand’s Ossuaries was recently awarded the Griffin Prize. Brockwell’s introductions made clear his appreciation for their work, and his questions always showed thoughtful familiarity, both as a fan and a fellow writer.

 

While Brockwell’s observations about the poets’ work were well informed, I thought that occasionally his opinions about the trajectory of their work led his questions too much. His instigating characterizations of the “smoothing” of Lane’s later voice or Brand’s growing “coolness” would, I feel, be better left to the poet’s own descriptions or displayed in the works themselves. While the tone of both poets may have changed, it became clear that their earlier “rage” was still readily externalized. As one example among many, Lane ended the session with reference to “one last anger”—in this case, the lack of mention of the toll on non-human life in Japan’s tsunami. That being said, I very much appreciated Brockwell’s agility as an interviewer, such as when a comment of Lane’s evoked his skillful recounting of a Robert Pinsky improvisation at the last festival. He also had several memorable phrasings, such as when he reflected back the poets’ comments about how they navigated between intention and invention.

 

One significant highlight from the interview came when the poets were asked about how they related to their personal and cultural “demons.” Lane began by describing the blessing and curse of growing up in the Interior (of British Columbia, a reference coupled with a call for easterners to visit the west of their country rather than opting for New York or Europe) and the violent men he’d observed. He went on to speak of how difficult stories stay with us, such as those carried by an acquaintance who had come from the Horn of Africa having witnessed ten thousand people die. With that, he broke into this disturbing verse:

 

Because I never learned how

to be gentle and the country

I live in was hard with dead

animals and men I didn’t question

my father when he told me

to step on the kitten’s head

after the bus had run over its hindquarters.

 

When he ended the ensuing stanza with a glimpse of “the small of Dad’s back / as he walked tall away,” he’d left the audience transfixed. It was a powerful turn, and as they returned to conversation I wondered from then on why the interview segment wasn’t interspersed with more poetry. The readings are properly set apart to open these cabarets, which was made clear by the powerful extended reading Lane had given on memories of the war, compelling a spontaneous eruption of applause from the crowd. Still, what would it look like to intersperse the interview itself with readings—or, better, impromptu recitals—related to certain questions? There clearly were ample references to other poets or to Lane and Brand’s own bodies of work to warrant it.

 

In their descriptions, both poets showed the elaboration, the sheer work, that their writing required. Lane vividly rendered his early attempt as a wordsmith when he tried to get some thirty-five words to “obey” him (as they seemed to obey Shelley or Keats) only to find them acting as “unruly servants.” His life’s memories proved no more tractable, it turned out, when in his sixties he turned to the work of his autobiography. Although he had earlier described poets as a culture’s memory-keepers (or computer “memory sticks” in his crude analogy), he found his own life’s events elusive. Committed to recalling one event for each of his sixty years, he realized that there were some years where he couldn’t, incredulously, remember a single event. So, true to form, he invented something.

 

Asked about the interrogating element of his creative process, Lane commented that it didn’t extend to struggle with his work’s meaning. “Words will find their way,” he said with the confidence of a veteran craftsman, however ordinary or ridiculous their object. With that, he took an imaginative excursion to another originary moment. Previously he had recalled the Adamic coinage of a creature’s name, but here Lane recalled when the most common of kitchen implements was first fashioned. As he enthusiastically recounted how it must have taken place it was clear that in both poets’ work the business of invention continues in fine form.   

 

20
Thursday
Oct
2011

Saving Room with Adrienne Clarkson

The evening started with the recurring yet enduringly moving tribute to a dissident writer – whose photograph, mounted on a frame lay still and intact on an otherwise empty chair – by Andrew Cohen on behalf of PEN Canada. The ever-active Adrienne Clarkson had written another book, and on this last pre-festival event before the flood (which is the upcoming fall edition of the festival).

 

 I had the chance to speak briefly before Mr. Cohen about Adrienne Clarkson’s impact on me. I have read both her memoir Heart Matters and her biography of Norman Bethune; both beguiling and personalised works. I like her. Which is why there was a tinge of disappointment in what I felt. Despite cogent points and interesting narratives, a certain blandness persisted when it came to the discussion of identity, immigration and citizenship.

 

Ms. Clarkson is accomplished by almost anyone’s standards. There was ringing praise about her unique trajectory which caused her to search out and present a selection of similar paths taken by fellow sojourners in Canada. The result is the profile of eight prominent Canadians who have more than climbed atop the pole; grease notwithstanding. Her criterion seemed to be those who ended up in Canada by fate: thrust out by dispossession and loss. One can certainly agree that this is the script of many new Canadians, particularly refugees. Yet this also excludes the greater number of economic migrants who desired and endeavoured to arrive in Canada, met the criteria of the ‘points system’, waited however long it took and made their way. In the same way that business class investors, also claim their place by choosing to put their money where their person hopes to be. These people will certainly not wish to be nor consider themselves to be “losers”. It is true that historically Canada was not the play-field of the privileged, that it gave many who had nothing except potential to actualize it. However, these weren’t the sole actors occupying the stage. A more nuanced perspective of the actual role of “elites” with backing from the mother country could have distended the storyline.

 

It was heartening to hear Ms. Clarkson offer a paean to both families and public schools as the pillars of success. The egalitarian model which public schools served which then propelled the talented and industrious, seems muted to a contemporary casual observer of public schools today. A call for strengthening the system which seems beset with eroding standards and lack of results, apparent.

 

“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent,” said Carl Jung, whom Ms. Clarkson quoted. The sense of expectation in parallel with fierce, unwavering parental support is what buoys many an immigrant (or professional athletes in sports such as golf and tennis where skill – acquired only through early and expensive training – take precedence over sheer athleticism). While this debate on parenting style has been set afire last year with Amy Chua’s The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, there is no question that parenting itself plays a primary role in an individual’s success. Ms. Clarkson drew attention to the renewal of community and family as key lessons immigrants have to teach Canadians.

 

The success of Ismaili-Canadians were deserving of special mention – Naheed Nenshi, the intrepid mayor of Calgary and Nadir Mohamed, the CEO of Rogers Communications both being featured in Room For All Of Us.

 

Canadians have a reputation for possessing an air of dignified modesty, yet it breeds a strange and not all too unfamiliar sense of smugness especially when making comparisons vis-à-vis our American counterparts. For instance, Canada has been touted as having the highest citizenship uptake in the world, at 80%. On the surface, this is marvellous. But questions abound as to how many stay and contribute after acquiring said citizenship. This was brought to the fore when the Israel-Hezbollah conflict of 2006 lead to the (re)prominence of the term “citizens of convenience” when many Canadian citizens residing in Lebanon seemed to not have any real ties to Canada apart from their documents. The aforementioned demographic would an interesting statistic to consider. Moreover, the anecdotes of frustrated immigrants choosing to leave Canada after not being able to find an occupation in their field, doesn’t embellish the picture. It’s more important to consider not how many people become citizens, but rather what happens to them after they do. Racism is also seen as of different notes in Canada while being more of a primarily black and white issue in America due to their heavier burden of slavery. Yet this does disservice to the gradations of variety, even in the spices of racism in America. The discrimination of the Irish (and Catholics by extension), Italian and eastern Europeans in the early twentieth century and Latinos today indicate a complex racial jungle inhabited by the Americans as much as Canada ever has.

 

Ms. Clarkson’s exhortation to “not forget where we come from” is a sincere reminder to not relinquish our generosity and it is a point noted. As a new Canadian myself, insisting that “we’re all immigrants...except for the Aboriginal peoples” by extension, muddles the contemporary challenges facing identity in that it implicitly implies there is no such thing as a Canadian since even generations of presence in this country still means that one in an immigrant in perpetuity since somebody, somewhere got here from somewhere else. If one extrapolates this notion then no one could ever become a Canadian. If Ms. Clarkson simply wants to revive empathy for newcomers, there are other avenues to do this effectively than to flag the flimsy trope that “we’re all immigrants”.

 

A sense of weariness seems to have befallen Europe with its own experiment with multi-culturalism with several of its leaders, most notable British PM David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel describing it as a “failure”. Ms. Clarkson clearly miffed at this supposed eye-roll inducing notion, declared “they (Europeans) don’t know what it (multi-culturalism) means!” It would be beyond the scope of this blog post to detail the changes, concerns and standings of minorities in the Old World. But this castigation is less than fair. Ms. Clarkson has no qualms with having a Citizenship Exam and imparting Canadian values of parliamentary democracy, freedom of association, religion and the legal system (values, ironically we inherited from Europe – although John Ralston Saul in his A Fair Country persuasively argues that Aboriginal culture’s influence on these very European ideals finally shaped the distinct Canadian one). In this case, there is a sense of wanting to ensure that immigrants can “integrate” (that lifeless word again) but that can only happen if there is a distinct value system to partake in at all. The lack of civic literacy is an issue which plagues the population at large – perhaps new Canadians can remind older ones of their need to remember both their history and values, if only to be able to tell it back to them.

 

Stories resonate with us as few other modes of literature do. The profiles are sure to be engaging and a valid testimony to the various lives it witnesses to, as well as countless others which it doesn’t feature. Ms. Clarkson’s message of inclusion, that “no one is more human than anyone else” has a spiritual depth and origin which resonates. A caveat emptor acknowledging that the book and message stand well on its own merit; that simply stretching it to make wide-ranging pronouncements become problematic, needs to be understood. This would be a wonderful place for a perspective of the life, times, trials and triumphs of immigrants to start, but it should not and cannot be where it ends.

17
Monday
Oct
2011

Chris Turner's The Leap

 

The thought of jumping from one speeding train onto another is not something on my bucket list.  Yet, this is the central metaphor that Chris Turner is using in his new book The Leap.  This is hardly something easy to encourage everyone to do, but that’s what Turner is hoping – that we all will make a leap.  Perhaps, it’s overly dramatic, but he does make his case that the direction our current society is going is questionable; and for many, it looks like we are headed for a cliff.  So what is this other train we are to jump onto?  It’s the sustainability train. 

 

Turner starts this book with a critical analysis of what he feels are the three biggest issues facing humanity now: economic collapse, energy scarcity, and climate change.  While the book contains the usual apocalyptic visions if we don’t change how we deal with these three issues, that’s not definitive of what this book is about.  Fundamentally this is a book about sustainability in its truest sense – a situation that can maintain itself indefinitely.  I’m a big fan of the ideas shared in this book, and have read about many of them previously.  To be honest, I’m a cheerleader for sustainability.  What I think is original about The Leap is that Turner is making an economic case for sustainability.  In many senses the message of this book is this: sustainability is far better than anything we have now regardless of the environmental benefits that would come as a consequence.  Moreover, he does a good job when he isn’t in environmental evangelism mode.  Thankfully this language is limited in The Leap.  It’s the use of this evangelistic language that I worry which could be a barrier for those who need to hear about these ideas.

 

Turner spends a considerable amount of time talking about energy, the policy surrounding it, the way we generate it, and the way we use it.  Rightfully so, as it is what drives the modern economy.  In many senses, it’s the track underneath the train.  Turner does a good analysis of why certain policies that are in use in Canada and the US are limiting the growth of renewable energy generation, and why in Germany and Denmark they are succeeding to a point that they have become integral to the growth of these economies. Turner makes a great case for the Feed-in-Tariff (FIT) model, and how it’s been central to the growth of the renewable energy industry in Germany.  Case-in-point, the FIT effectively is a user pays model, such that the average user pays an extra 50€ per year, but Germany now produces 20% of its energy from renewables and is on track to generate 35% of its energy needs by 2020.  The jobs that have been created from this industry have made whole-scale change in the unemployment situation in the Former East Germany, generating 300,000 jobs in this sector alone.  The solar industry in Germany generated revenues of more than $13 billion dollars in 2009.  Germany is not a particularly sunny country, but the Feed-in-Tariff has transformed the nation. It’s not just this piece of legislation, but the fact that the whole country has had a mind-set change to see a new model for power generation. 

 

This book is about success stories, and I appreciate that.  They are good stories, and hopeful ones.  But as I was reading, I was thinking about some failures in the sustainability game.  Not too long ago, I read about some of the policies that Brazil is trying to implement.  Most notably, Brazil has implemented a “car-free day” policy that requires people who own cars to not use them one day a week.  The side-effect of this policy is that it has just encouraged people to go out a buy a second car so they can continue to drive[i].  In The Leap, Turner makes the point that for the world to make the leap to a sustainable engine, it’s not about technology or legislation, but it’s about a change in mind-set.  To use his language, it’s not about a disruptive technology, but a disruptive technique.  Here, Turner is describing “a fundamental shift in point of view” that allows everyone to see what is trying to be accomplished, so that everyone buys in and don’t just think that they are losing out.   

 

The Leap contains plenty of anecdotes (some historical) to show how a “leap” of this scale is made, and many that are in progress now: showing how businesses like Wal-Mart get it, countries like Denmark and Germany get it, and even some communities in the US get it.  I like that The Leap is not a prescription.  While there are some things that work, Turner isn’t trying to suggest that every city try to become Copenhagen or Melbourne.  There are elements of these cities that everyone should emulate, but they aren’t specifically the cycling infrastructure, or the laneways. Speaking of Copenhagen, Turner states: “Copenhagen is not perfection, not some tidily packaged finished product of flawless city living, because sustainability is a process of change and adaptation, not a destination.”   I like this approach to sustainability because it can be a conversation about what we are trying to accomplish, not a fixed way of doing things.  For every example in The Leap, Turner makes an effort to look at the underlying reasoning so that the reader can take away the good and apply it to their own situation. 

 

I enjoyed reading this book, but it’s not without its flaws.  Turner is no Annie Dillard, and the language in it is forced at times (I understand his use of “FAIL”, but it really made that section feel more like a blog post than a book).  However, these ideas shared in the book are still great.  It’s the kind of book I wish could be required reading for everyone in politics, and the public service, because more people need to see alternative options to current policy.  In the wake of Steve Jobs’ death, The New York Times had a great post that I think connects well to The Leap.  In the article, Jobs is quoted to have said “it’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want”[ii].  The same can be said of cities, and economic policies – people know at a high level what they want, but don’t expect the most voters to understand the intricacies of the carbon pricing, or energy policy.  “Mr. Jobs tried to understand the problems that technology could solve for his buyer; he wasn’t going to rely on the buyer to demand a specific solution just so he could avoid ever having to take a risk.  This is what’s commonly known as leading.”[iii]  After reading The Leap, it will guide those in the position to make decisions to understand what technology and new thinking can do to solve the problems we are facing in modern society.  Then it will just be up to them to lead as we take the Leap.