Facing Up to Poetry

What the poets are doin’ – 2013 Poetry Prowl in Red Deer, Alberta. Photo by Grant Ursuliak

There’s an old Jerry Seinfeld joke rooted in a dubious claim that more people fear public speaking than fear death.  Seinfeld’s punch-line (in case anyone out there missed the 1990s) is “to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

It’s probably a better joke than it is a reliable piece of social science but there is a glimmer of truth in it.  Speaking in front of a crowd can be scary.  However, we all know a lot of scary things are also fun.  And while I don’t enjoy thrill-rides like sky-diving or giving high-strung driving lessons to my kids, I do enjoy public speaking.  I might even be good at it.

So I was surprised at myself when I realized late in my 30s that since I’ve started writing professionally, I have never stood up and read my work out loud and in public.  I’ve done some radio work but those productions were easy and chatty — not much like careful, literary writing where even tiny prepositions are weighed against something vague and dynamic called “art.”

Art is another one of those things that’s frightening and beloved at the same time.  It needs to be worked out with reverence and caution and that can make handling it in front an audience an intimidating prospect.  But I don’t think the gravity of art is what kept me from finding venues for reading my work to strangers.

The first obstacle was simply time.  With a larger than average sized family, my mommie gig is a larger than average sized time commitment.  That’s the easy excuse.

The more complicated excuse is full of traumatic memories from junior high school – some adolescent persecution over the fact that the perfectly fine face I inherited from my grandfather didn’t play so well on a young girl.  I’ll spare all of us a recital of the harrowing details.  It’s enough to say that the long-term effects aren’t simple and superficial.  They’re not the kinds of things that can be undone by Dove soap commercials.  And it means that I mistrust my face – the one that has stayed happily hidden on the radio and in print.  My face has sabotaged me before and, even though junior high was long ago, I still look like my grandfather and it makes me wonder if his lady-fied face might distract and disturb my presentation of my art.

Of course, all of that’s nonsense and it’s time for it to end.  And it did, a few weeks ago.  To celebrate poetry month every April, a group of poets from Calgary (the big city two hours south of my neighbourhood) travels through what is invariably terrible weather to spend an afternoon in the small city of Red Deer meeting those of us toiling in obscurity.  The event is known as The Poetry Prowl.

It’s fabulous – far better than I expected it to be.

The other poets at the event were high quality artists.  They were editors and writing instructors as well as artists – educated, experienced, and highly polished.  The chief organizer, Emily Ursuliak, even managed to bring along the city of Calgary’s current poet laureate.  The local contributors — all men except for me — were delightful too.  Performance after performance, I was pleased and surprised and honoured to be included.

What was nearly as impressive as the poetry was the personable warmth of the poets themselves.  Despite the haughty ring to his official title, Calgary’s Poet Laureate, Kris Demeanor, backed up some of his work by playing the pink acoustic guitar strapped around his back with a lace from a hockey skate.

The more educated and decorated the poets were the more humble and decent they seemed to be.  The man who’d written articles on “the philosophy of death” for academic anthologies gave me his program when he saw I didn’t have one and apologized that his bio in it sounded so much like a CV.  I pointed out that mine sounded like one too only it wasn’t nearly as impressive.  And my bio wasn’t just a CV it was also a plug for my upcoming novel.  So, yeah – there’s nothing to apologize for here.

Since re-entering arty society, I have no proof that the cold-hearted, self-involved, hipster jerk stereotype actually exists in real life.  So far, everyone I’ve met is lovely and collegial.

And by the time I was introduced and called to the microphone to read my work – the small collection of short poems I’d written during the Dark Ages of my artistic career when “creativity” was more literal than literary and meant blood and amniotic fluid and breastmilk – I wasn’t afraid to match my work to my face anymore.  I owned my physical appearance.  I joked about it, referred to myself with all irony as a “trophy wife” and let everyone laugh with me.

It had to happen.  I’m glad it did.  I can now say I’ve put all of myself into my work – even my face.

Carbon Copying Vulcan – Shreds of Reality in Fiction

The Roman God Vulcan, smashing stuff

If my youngest brother-in-law was a Roman god, he’d be Vulcan.  Wait — let’s not let Star Trek confuse us.  I’m not trying to say he’s cold and hyper-rational and his sleeves are too short.  He’s like the original, Classical Vulcan — fiery and powerful and smart.  Like Vulcan, he makes his living building things out of metal with torches and hammers.  When he’s having fun, he still likes to yell and hit things.  I adore him.  And if I was a goddess, I’d be Juno, the shrill but scary wife of the boss-god Jupiter (Zeus, to all you Greek fans).  I also like to yell and hit things.  It’s a sign of enthusiasm and love.  Both Vulcan and I understand that very well.

In the years and years I’ve known him, Vulcan has not been a voracious reader of contemporary Canadian literary fiction.  It’d be out of character for him to rush out and buy my novel when it’s released this August.  But I hope he will.  In order to encourage him, I did what Juno would do: I got up in his face and bullied him about it.

“Hey, are you going to buy my book when it comes out?”

He paused.  “Uh — how much money will you get from each one?”

It wasn’t the response I expected.  “I don’t know,” I said.  “About two dollars maybe?”

He reached into his pocket.  He said, “How about I just give you two dollars right now?”


The Roman goddess Juno

He was laughing at me.

“You have to read it!” I bawled at him.  “You have to.  Because…”

This is where my Juno started to lose her nerve.  Even with my loved ones, I am a shy, apologetic promoter of my work.  I tell my friends and family where to find it and then I leave them alone.  There’s no follow-up – no awkward audit of their patronage of my art.  My loud, bossy questioning of Vulcan was not about getting him to cough up a twoonie.  It was about something much more delicate.

He was standing in front of me, towering over me, one hand still in his pocket.  He was looking down with his big brown face, waiting for me to finish.

I began again.  This was important – something between a warning and a gift and a confession.  “There’s this character in the book – and – he might seem like he’s kind of like you.”

Vulcan’s eyes got a little bit bigger.

“But he’s not you,” I hurried.  I explained there’s a scene in my novel where a woman meets her in-laws for the first time.  That meeting is written a lot like the time I first met Vulcan, when I was twenty-one and he was not quite ten years old.

“They’re not us.” I said again.  “They just look like us for a minute.  The little boy grows up and does things you don’t do.  He’s not you.”

“But someone might think he’s me.”


“Would he be in the book if you didn’t know me?”

Strictly speaking, it’s an impossible question.  How can I say whether I could have imagined someone so much like my brother-in-law ex nihilo now that I already know him?

What I could say was this.  “If I hadn’t lived the life I’ve lived, I wouldn’t have written the book the way I have.”

This was honest and fair to both of us.  The fact is I could have this same conversation (hopefully without the offer to pre-emptively buy me off) with dozens of people.  There are sparks and shreds and sometimes even long swaths of all sorts of real people in my work.  It feels inevitable.  Even if I switched genres and started writing hardcore science fiction, the spaceships and alien planets would still be full of traces of my friends, family, neighbours – everyone.

I’m certainly not the only writer who’ll admit this.  In an excellent essay, novelist Corrina Chong reflects on “writing as thievery.”  She says, “here’s the truth behind the fiction: as a writer, I am a thief…My writing is a collage of the bits and pieces I’ve stolen.  Once your piece is glued on, it’s no longer yours.  Finders keepers, I say.”

She sounds flippant but writing real life into fiction isn’t something done lightly.  We agonize over it.  We weigh the benefits of doing it against the risk.  And we understand the people unwittingly serving as our literary models might not agree we’ve struck the balance right.  Frankly, it’s scary.

Chong goes on to acknowledge that this theft is actually more like an exchange – a swap.  She says, “the very act of writing a story and releasing it out into the world assumes that readers will be able to see something of themselves in the characters, thereby stealing their own little pieces as keepsakes…any idea that rings true in your universe becomes your own.”

Maybe that’s what makes it possible for my self-consciousness at my own thieving audacity to be outweighed by my sense that it’s important for my reluctant, metal smashing baby-brother-in-law to read my novel – the one with a scene rooted in our shared history.  It’s not about the two dollars.  It’s about us.  Maybe that’s why I want all of the poor souls I’ve pilfered to read it.  I want to complete the second half of the exchange.  I want them to take something from me now – something bigger than my thanks for the inspiration.  Take yourself back, I say, and with it, take a piece of me.

Weekend in Girlstown

Two of my sixteen nieces, lookin’ super girlie — and a little cranky

I was once pregnant with a child I hoped was a boy.  He was — so were his four younger brothers.  It’s been a long time since I’ve lived with any other women.  And it’s been even longer since I’ve lived with any girls.  It shouldn’t matter.  I was once a girl myself and there’s nothing about being sequestered with my sons that can alienate me from that part of my identity.  It should be true.  I believe it’s true.  But I still keep having awkward collisions with little girl culture years after little girls stopped being part of my daily life.

Some collisions are secret and subtle.  I’m not a very big woman.  Shopping for clothing can be frustrating for me.  One of my girl-friends, a lady born in the Philippines who’s learned how to deal with over-sized western clothing, gave me a tip: do some shopping in children’s departments.  It’s brilliant.  The first time I tried it I was like Homer Simpson at clown college turning around in front of the mirror saying, “I’ve never had pants that fit so well.”

Then the saleslady noticed me out on the floor, picking through the kiddie-jeans.  “No daughter with you today?”

“Uh – no,” I said.

“That’s okay,” she allowed.  “If they don’t fit her you can always bring them back with the receipt.”

“Great.  Thanks.”

I skulked away.  I felt furtive and a little ashamed.  I am not a girl.  That’s supposed to mean I don’t belong in the store, let alone in their merchandise.  I don’t know.  Maybe it’s a bit like what closeted transvestites cope with when shopping for clothes outside the ones socially prescribed for them.  I am not a boy but since I have sons, I feel perfectly natural stomping around in the boys’ section stocking up on jeans and navy blue sweatpants for my kids.  But in the girls’ section, in the company of the specter of my fake daughter, I am a pretender – unfit and unworthy.

This weekend, girl culture and I collided again.  My sister was staying at my house while her daughter, my most glamorous ten-year-old relative, competed in a dance festival.  I counted four costume changes – peacock feathers, rhinestones, ruffles, crinolines.  She was plastered in makeup and hairspray.  And my sister – a nursing instructor who can thread a tube into a trachea – struggled to glue false eyelashes to her lids.

My niece is warm-hearted and adorable and had no idea Auntie was eyeing her dance gear with the detached skepticism of a smug anthropologist.  I shouldn’t have been surprised when she asked me to come watch her dance.  The invitation rattled me.  Accepting it meant detachment was not an option and I was being drawn into her culture – one I had abandoned ages ago.

I arrived at the auditorium all by myself.  It felt awkward enough to make me wonder if I was in the right place.  I  asked the ticket seller, “Is this the little-girl-dancing-thingy?”

Inside the theatre, I found my sister.  The lights went down and the first ballerina came out.  She was a sixteen-year-old dressed like a fairy princess.

“Look!  She’s seriously wearing a tiara!”

My sister smirked at me.  “Yes.”

The next number was a whole troupe of teenaged ballerinas.

“They’re all wearing tiaras!”

My sister smirked again.  “Yes.”

“If they’re all wearing tiaras, isn’t that the same thing as none of them wearing tiaras?”

“Shh.  You have to stop laughing or the other moms are going to get really mad.”

“What?  I’m just delighted.”

It was not completely true.  I was vaguely delighted but it was a patronizing outsider’s delight – amused but not quite charmed by the spectacle.  I stuck to my social scientist persona.  The dance numbers – with all their kitschy props and maudlin narratives – had names like “Imagine” or “Grace” or the risky “Images of Grace.”  Even my sister laughed when the lyrics of one of the songs earnestly crooned, “If I could put you on top of a cake I would ice you.”

If there’s a perfect age for amateur dancing it’s got to be the one my niece is at right now.  She’s technically good enough to actually be dancing but not so old that she’s starting to look silly and lumpy in her fancy leotards.  If I was ever going to be able to enjoy this part of her life, it was now.  Her first number was supposed to be a sad commentary on class divisions – at least, that’s what she told me.  But she couldn’t stop smiling while she performed.  The adjudicator complained about it but Auntie loved it.  And by the end, in the dark, up at the top of the auditorium, awkward Auntie became sappy Auntie had to wipe her eyes.

No one gets to be a girl for very long.  And some of us – like me and maybe like my niece too, depending on what the future brings her – end up moving farther away from girl culture than we ever imagined we would, back in the days when it meant everything to us.  Honestly, I don’t miss it.  It was silly and distracted from much of what is truly important.  But maybe there’s no need to be embarrassed about celebrating it every once in a while.  Maybe there’s no need to grudge the breasty teenaged ballerinas for spinning and tip-toeing through their final days in tiaras.  So what if we’re all wearing one from time to time?  We’ll have to set it aside soon enough.

Confessions of a Slow Reader

If this old picture of me could talk it would say, "What?"

If this old picture of me could talk it would say, “What?”

I am a slow reader – painfully, tediously slow.  It’s been true since I was in grade two and it’s still true today.  Whether I’m reading aloud or not, I can’t move through a book any faster than the speed of speech – not nearly quickly enough.

If you’re one of the people who’s surprised to learn this about me, thank you.  Most people assume writers are also accomplished readers.  I am not.  I have read and understood a lot of very good books.  But it’s taken me a long time.

Why am I talking about it now?  I just read book blogger Laura Frey’s Can-Lit confessions – a list of hard truths about her experience with our country’s literary canon.  She admitted to not liking, not reading, and being slow to hear about a few of the authors and books considered Canadian classics.  I enjoyed her candor so much I made my own confession about getting through my entire adolescence without reading a single word written by Farley Mowat (as proof of my ignorance, I think I even misspelled his name in my comment).

And then I started considering the short-comings in my own career as a reader.

Early elementary school – the learn-to-read years — was a hard time for me.   In grade one, the fluid left behind my eardrums by a streak of bad ear infections made me mostly deaf.  For about a year, nobody noticed.  That’s how it is with hearing loss.  No one’s to blame.  The loss meant I spent my time at school listening to the dull tides of my pulse moving through all that fluid – fwum, fwum, fwum.  I didn’t realize there was anything more to hear and I thought school was just really boring.  It seemed like we sat in our desks or on the carpet doing nothing at all.

In the second grade, I had surgery, the deafening fluid drained away, and I came back to the land of the hearing to find I’d been bumped from my place in the reading group meant for the best readers in our class.  After all the loud reprimands I remembered little deaf-me getting for not paying attention and not following directions, I figured I deserved the demotion and slunk away with my mediocrity.

Indignant current-me isn’t so sure I deserved it.  I have always understood and retained what I read.  But I will concede this: if we were being ranked based on our reading speed alone, mediocre was a generous assessment of my skills.  Grade two is when I remember Her coming.  She’s this voice in my head – an adult woman’s voice, I don’t know whose – that spoke every word I saw with my eyes.  I couldn’t read any faster than she could talk.  I still can’t.

After grade two, we moved to a new school where my teacher was just as interested in our writing as our reading skills.  She told me I was talented and I became her unofficial language arts protégé – the student invited to the front of the class to read creative writing out loud, at the glorious pace of speech.  No one ever mentioned my reading speed again.  It was my secret to keep.

And I did keep it.  I never cheated but I did learn how to read enough of a book to be able to sound informed about it and no more.  During my Arts degree, I learned how to wade through enough of the material on a course reading list to still get an A.  It was risky and stressful but I simply could not complete all the “required” readings.  There wasn’t time for someone moving at my pace to finish it.

Thanks to the years and years I spent pinned under nursing babies, forced to sit down and hold still and listen to Her, I have ended up fairly well-read.  It was another unexpected irony of motherhood – the way the babies who were supposed to stifle and suppress me ended up being what made it possible for me to become what I wanted all along.  Eventually, I did read everything on the lists from my university classes.  I’ve read hundreds of pounds of thick, daunting prose, poetry, and non-fiction.  And I’ve loved it.

Now that I’ve finished my reading lists — now that the Bachelor of Arts degree hanging in my kitchen doesn’t seem so much like a sham anymore — I can freely admit to anyone that I’m not what people might think I am.  I am a working writer but I am not what my early elementary school teachers considered a gifted reader.  I am not incorrigibly bookish.  I’m still poking my way through the literary landscape, warning my friends I’ll just drag their book clubs down with my sluggish ways.  But I’m working in this field anyway, in spite of my nature.  I’m reading and writing anyway. Maybe it’s true for anyone who tries to write as a vocation.  We’ve probably all got something deep-seated and shame-laden that we had to overcome before we could do this.

I know, it reads like a sports cliche.  But that’s the thing about cliches — they’re tired because they’re usually true.