Famous Writers’ Recorded Voices: the little sob in the spine

Writers talk about the need to find their own voice — that ineffable combination of style and skill, wielded in just the right way to make a writer stand out, recognizable as That writer.

Raymond Carver’s voice cannot be mistaken for Samuel Beckett’s, though both are known for the spare quality of their work. Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries may remind you of Margaret Laurence (more than the title, I mean), but the voices are distinct.

But what about their actual voices, the sounds that come from writers’ vocal chords, through their lips, to our ears?

George Elliott Clarke reading from his Illicit Sonnets (2013), at our launch of The Brink and the Break. It's not the best photo, but I think my hands were shaking. It was a hot reading!

George Elliott Clarke reading from his Illicit Sonnets (2013), at Descant‘s launch of “The Brink and the Break” last week. It’s not the best photo, but I think my hands were shaking. If you were there, you understand why.

It was the anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s birthday on January 25th and a number of people on social media forwarded a link to a recording of her voice on the BBC in 1937. This got me thinking about writers’ physical voices; particularly writers who died before the explosion of television, and long before the internets. Writers whose voices we haven’t heard.

The following 10 audio/video recordings were not derived through any scientific methods. I just looked up at my bookshelves and whatever book spine names I could read from where I sit, I looked up on YouTube — as long as the writer was well-known and long dead. There are, of course, many more names. After you check these out, you may feel inspired to do your own search.

If you are a writer, you can spend an entire afternoon doing this and call it research.

These are more-or-less in chronological order (at least by decade) of recording:

This audio of James Joyce (d. 1941), reading, some time in the 1930s, is all the proof we need that Finnegan’s Wake was meant to be an audio book: “Every telling has a tailing and that’s the he and the she of it.” An audio book with subtitles.

Virginia Woolf‘s voice, from a BBC recording called “Craftmanship,” in 1937, when she was 55 (d. 1941). In a marbles-in-the-mouth voice, she reads from one of her essays in, “The Death of the Moth and Other Essays”:  “How can we combine the old words, in new orders, so they survive, so that they create beauty, so that they tell the truth. That is the question. And the person who could answer that question would deserve whatever crown of glory the world has to offer.”

Zora Neale Hurston (d. 1980), whose 1937 Their Eyes Were Watching God often makes the top 10 of 20th century favourite novels, is obviously fed up talking about zombies, but agrees to do it. One. More. Time. (If only she knew what mainstream television would do with this, decades later.)

Vladimir Nabokov (d. 1977) in a panel discussion of the then-controversial Lolita. Nabokov is the one in the middle: “I don’t wish to touch hearts and I don’t even want to effect minds, very much. What I want to produce, really, is that little sob in the spine of the artist/reader.”

An uncomfortable looking Carson McCullers in 1956 (d. 1967). Her interviewer not only puts his arm around her and snuggles in, but he keeps cutting her off. She gets her own back by smoking in his face. Here she talks about adapting her novel, A Member of the Wedding, for the stage.

Benjamin Disraeli once wrote that, “There is no index of character as sure as the voice.” But in this recording of Flannery O’Connor (d. 1964) reading from one of her most famous short stories, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” her young voice belies the depth and darkness of her Gothic stories of the south.

Samuel Beckett (d. 1989) reads from his second novel, Watt, published in 1953. If this recording reminds you of the first one above, James Joyce reading from Finnegan’s Wake, remember that Beckett helped Joyce finish that book.

Langston Hughes (d. 1967), who, according to his introduction here in 1958, is on his way to give a lecture at UBC. In this recording he reads his poem, “The Weary Blues” accompanied by a jazz ensemble:  “I feel the blues a-comin’, I wonder what the blues will bring?… Sweet blues comin’ from a black man’s soul.” The last line, and the look he gives into the camera…

Margaret Laurence (d. 1987), interviewed by Adrienne Clarkson in 1966, talks about her fiction:  “Well I made up my mind that I was stuck with the Scots Presbyterians of Manitoba, you know, for better or worse, God help them and me!”

Anais Nin (d. 1977) and Henry Miller (d. 1980) were passionate letter-writing correspondents and lovers in the 1930s. Here she begins by talking about the beginning of her famous diary which, she says, “began as a letter to my father” (yikes), and her love of D.H. Lawrence. Later, she and Henry Miller talk about the meaning of a secret self and the idea of trusting the artist to do the dreaming. At 8:05 Nin talks about when it first occurred to her that she needed “to take a path of my own.”

The Purdy A-frame A-list: your money, your name, forever

People are funny and generous and kind. But mostly funny.

That’s why Descant blog commenter “RW” had such a great idea after my last post: why not print the actual list of items needed to restore the Al and Eurithe Purdy A-frame? Sure, folks who can will click a website’s “donate” button from time to time. But if you knew you could have the most famous and literary septic pump named after you, wouldn’t you dig deeper and jump at the chance?

Michael Enright cannot be reached for comment.

Michael Enright cannot be reached for comment. Click on image for full-effect.

Thanks to the help of the Purdy A-Frame Association President, Jean Baird, and Project Manager, Duncan Patterson, Descant now has the list. The A-frame A-list. But since it’s just a list of items and amounts, I’ve taken some poetic liberty. Some would say a lot of poetic liberty.

Leonard Cohen has donated, although it’s not clear what he would like his name on. I’m guessing something close to the lake, where you can hear the boats go by.

What about you? What would you like to install in your name at Al and Eurithe’s famous house on the shores of Roblin lake, where for 50 years the couple entertained, supported and (Al) argued with the Canadian writers we have come to love and appreciate?

All monies raised go to fixing up the physical structure of the house and property, impressively and carefully managed by Al Purdy admirer, Duncan Patterson, and to sustain a Writer-in-Residence program that will support and promote Canadian writers and literacy.

If you know Al Purdy’s poetry, you know that he, of all people, could make even a list poetic. With kind permission, I’ve tried to conjure him, in his own words, even though we all know that “poems will not really buy beer or flowers” [from At The Quinte Hotel… but you knew that].

So, whoever you are, “RW,” here’s that list. Get out your chequebook. You started this.

The Purdy A-frame A-list

Item                                                                   Price                     Quantity        

Decks                                                                       3k                                    2

This is where it happened – the heated discussions and arguments about poetry and politics. Young poets and novelists of the day came to eat and drink on the deck off the A-frame kitchen. And now new young writers will sit there, “between lightning flashes/writing” [After Rain], with “fingers like fireflies on the typewriter” [For Margaret]. Keypad, whatever.

Margaret Laurence and Al Purdy outside the A-frame. Their correspondence was published in (credit Hazel Legate, Flickr Creative Commons).

Margaret Laurence and Al Purdy outside the A-frame. Their correspondence was published in Margaret Laurence, Al Purdy: A Friendship in Letters (McClelland & Stewart, 1994). (photo credit Hazel Legate, Flickr Creative Commons).

Trickle Pump                                                       1k                                    1

The trickle pump ensures that there is always some water to pump to the house. It’s a kind of recovery system, if the well were to run dry. Need I say more? Al certainly didn’t love all his poems, but his well never dried up and he never gave up.

“my poems you have failed/but when I have recovered from/this treachery to myself/I shall walk among the hills chanting/and celebrate my own failure/transformed to something else.” [On Realizing He Has Written Some Bad Poems]

Well Pump                                                            1k                                    1

When Al and Eurithe started building the A-frame in 1957, according to Al,

“… we pounded nails/and sawed boards, cussing and sweating a little/without money for electricity or plumbing/three lamps together and you might read a book/chopping thru winter ice for water/If the result wasn’t home it was a place to camp/and whatever gods there were/who permitted pain and defeat/also allowed brief content” [Old Man]

You can have a private chuckle, every day, knowing that all their hardship was, in the end, rewarded. By you. Someone who knows Al only through his poetry. You have to admit, he’d probably like that.

Septic Pump                                                         1k                                    1

If I could swing it, this one’s for me. That is, if Michael Enright hasn’t beaten me to it. So very necessary, practical, unpoetic and yet…

“I am drinking beer with yellow flowers,” [Quinte Hotel] wrote Al, who once stood “…outside at night/after the requisite number of beers/and with a graceful enormous parabola/trying to piss on the stars/failing magnificently” [Attempt].

Where Al sat.

Al’s restored “gingham highrise.”

Washing Machine                                             600                                    1

Imagine that the cleaning machine you donate could one day wash the skivvies of a new Michael Ondaatje, George Elliott Clarke or Susan Musgrave? And washing machines are necessary, especially for poets, because “… love survives in the worst cologne” [Married Man’s Song].

Baseboard Heaters                                          500                                    5

“Later when it gets colder/one of the ladies/gives me a big piece/ of canvas to throw over the tent/and sews it on securely/ to keep me warm at night/ -What can I say?” [What Can’t Be Said]

Well, you could say that you are keeping warm the next generation of writers, a kind of incubator for creativity, the results of which often bring us to our knees. And our senses.

Front Hall Floor                                                600                                    1

The front hall floor at the Purdy A-Frame was a bit of a hazard when I was there last summer. I imagined the treacherous journey across it, after a few drinks. The front hall is the first thing you see when you enter the house and the piece of floor everyone must traverse, drunk or sober. It’s where writers you love have hugged hello and kissed goodbye for 50 years. Yours for $600. A deal at twice the price.

“I am thinking home is the ghost of home/and we are somewhere in between” [Old Man]

Things have improved since I took this photo of the front steps last summer.

Things have improved since I took this photo of the front steps last summer.

Firewood shelter                                               500                                    1

In his poem House Guest, written about poet Milton Acorn, Purdy writes, “how the new house built with salvaged old lumber/bent a little in the wind and dreamt of the trees it came from.” Your shelter would protect the dreams of its inhabitants. For awhile.

Benches                                                                500                                    10

What a lovely idea to donate a bench in your name, or your family’s name. Okay, it’s a tad cliché, but it’s one of the good ones. Writers and Purdy admirers will be able to sit on your bench, “like a small monk/in a green monastery/meditating/   almost sculpture” [The Last Picture in the World]. And when you come to visit, you too can sit there and watch for the great blue herons that left Al transfixed.

Writing Cabin Ceiling                                    500                                    1

A cabin without a ceiling is … a lean-to? For $500 it could be your ceiling that future renowned poets and novelists stare up at, searching for just that one right word that will propel them to infamy. Or the next sentence. You will be able to say that you are, literally, providing a roof (come on, the ceiling is attached to the roof) over the heads of future generations of Canadian writers. The cabin isn’t fancy and doesn’t face the lake, but, on the positive side, there’s nothing about it that would distract a writer from doing anything but write. While “there are rooms for rent in the outer planets,” [Married Man’s Song] Al’s writing cabin will do just fine.

The writing cabin, to the right of the Purdy A-frame. Like the man himself, not glamorous, but gets the job done.

The writing cabin, to the right of the A-frame. Here Purdy wrote many of the poems that would be published in 39 books. His poetry is filled with animals, birds, flowers, and the forests, mountains and lakes of the Canadian landscape; public figures and private friends; and many of his poems are shot through with a deep sense of failure, mourning, struggle… and the colour yellow.

Trees & Shrubs                                                  250                                    20

The other items on this list are imperative for the structure to run well and last a long time, but let’s face it – trees and shrubs will last longer. How great to have a tree growing on the Purdy property, in your name. Your literary soil-and-sun dependent metaphor, something to feed your “… small passion for permanence” [An Arrogance]. Something to block out the sounds of the busy-body world, “Beyond our trees that belong/to themselves the highway/traffic’s sullen sounds/a quietness in our bones” [Our Wilderness].

And buying a shrub is good, too, although, “expect only a small whisper/of birds nesting and green things growing/and a brief saying of them” [The Dead Poet].

Still can’t find the perfect thing, the one pragmatic item you would like affixed with your name for all eternity (or whatever the guarantee states)? Well, “the bill is due and the desk clerk wakes” [Married Man’s Song] so I’ll leave you with the rest of the list. Grab a book of Al’s poems and see which of these strikes at your core. It’s just a little A-frame on a little treed property, but, as Al observed, “…the way humans attach emotion/to one little patch of ground/and continually go back there/in the autumn of our lives/to deal with some of the questions/that have troubled us” [Red Leaves].

Ceiling fan                                                            120                                    2

Exhaust fan                                                          300                                   3

Pressure tank                                                     500                                    1

Sprayed Polyurethane Insulation              3k                                     1

Sump Pump                                                           1k                                     1

Drainage ditch                                                    4k                                     1

Air to Air heat exchanger                               6k                                     1

If you leave a comment below, I can put you in touch with the A-Frame Association and you can discuss with them the size of the name plaque you want for literary eternity. For $25,000, the entire list is yours and I’m sure something legacy-worthy can be arranged.

***

The Al Purdy poems from which the lines above were borrowed, with all due respect to Al, appear here with permission. All for the ultimate purposes of making more sturdy the house, the memories and the future that Eurithe and Al Purdy built, on the shores of Roblin Lake.

All these poems can be found in Al’s last book, Beyond Remembering: The Collected Poems of Al Purdy, which he and Sam Solecki put together before Purdy’s death in 2000, for Harbour Publishing. And for Eurithe.

 

 

Katherine Leyton: first writer-in-residence at the Purdy A-Frame

For only $2,000, you could get a new septic tank named after you on (under) one of Canada’s most famous literary sites.

It was standing room only at the Drinks for Al fundraiser held at the Monarch Tavern in Toronto on Monday night. The $10 cover and a dollar from each drink went to support the rehabilitation efforts for Al and Eurithe Purdy’s infamous A-frame house in Ameliasburg, Ontario. MC and A-frame project manager, Duncan Patterson, assured us that everything from the septic tank to the new drainage tiles and under-floor insulation could indeed be our legacy.

I’m telling you, it’s honestly very tempting.

Donations to the Purdy A-Frame Association will be put to good use.

Donations to the Purdy A-Frame Association will be put to good use.

According to a January 21st press release I received:

“The A-frame house was built on Roblin Lake in 1957 by the late Al Purdy, one of Canada’s greatest poets, and his wife, Eurithe. Thanks to the generosity of Eurithe Purdy and donors from across Canada, the A-frame was acquired in 2012 by the Al Purdy A-frame Association, a national non-profit organization with a mandate to promote Canadian literature and to preserve the home as a retreat for future generations of Canadian writers.”

Poets Paul Vermeersch, Stuart Ross, Jim Smith and Karen Solie read from Purdy’s work as well as their own at Monday night’s fundraiser. Then Karen Solie introduced one of the winners of the Purdy A-Frame Writer-in-Residence award, the first poet to take up residency there this summer, Katherine Leyton.

I managed to wend my way through the well-wishers to ask Katherine for an interview with Descant which we did the next day, by phone, from her home in London.

LK:  First of all, congratulations. I understand that many applied but only you were chosen. How did you get the news?

KL: Actually, I wasn’t the only one chosen, there are in fact seven of us altogether [Sue Sinclair, Nick Thran, Kath MacLean, Laurie Graham, Rob Taylor and Helen Guri] but I will be the first one who will be staying there.

I got a call from Jean Baird, the president of  the Purdy A-Frame Association. At the time I didn’t have voice mail set up on my cell phone but I saw that a Vancouver number kept calling. Then she sent me an email saying she’d like a chat, that she had good news for me. So later that night she called me and when she told me the news I was basically jump-up-and-down excited.

Katherine Leyton. Checking her voicemail?

Katherine Leyton. Checking her voice mail? (photo credit Clay Fisher)

LK: Despite the ongoing renovations and rehabilitations, the A-frame is still a rustic cottage. What is the appeal for you to be a full-time writer there?

KL: Well I’d say first of all, just given its historical significance in the literary community, and of course it’s where Al worked and had so many interesting people there. And it’s removed from distraction. It’s going to feel as if I’m stepping out of my life for the moment. I won’t have to work every day for two months [Katherine is an assistant librarian] and so I can focus on my poetry — and it’s very rare to have such an opportunity. The change of scene will be so refreshing and will help the creative process.

Al Purdy's desk, in the office shed a few feet outside the A-frame. (Yes, of course I sat there and had my picture taken.)

Al Purdy’s desk, in the shed-like office, a few feet outside the A-frame.

LK: What if Purdy fans turn up on your doorstep while you’re there? Do you intend to keep up the literary tradition with drinks and talk of poetry on the deck?

KL: Absolutely! I’d really like to meet members of the community and keep the tradition going. A few drinks and conversation on the deck will keep me sane while I’m there. Writing can be very isolating so I welcome the conversation and company to keep a good balance, although my partner will be spending some time there with me. But maybe people should call me first!

LK: What does this Writer-in-Residence commitment require from you — a number of poems, some community work? Not the ditch-digging kind – I mean the public speaking kind, although, given the state of the A-frame…

KL: I know they do want us to do some community work. I’m not sure what forum it will take – that’s up to the individual poet, and as occasions arrive. In my proposal, I pitched the idea of filming my howpedestrian videos, where I take to the streets and hand people poems to read aloud on camera. I will focus particularly on poems by Al Purdy and other poets from the area. The committee thought this was a great way to introduce the writer-in-residence project to the community there.

Also, I will be helping to host the Second Annual Purdy Picnic this summer. I understand that the inaugural event was quite a success last year.

In the backyard of the Purdy A-Frame at the First Annual Purdy Picnic, summer 2013.

In the backyard of the Purdy A-Frame at the First Annual Purdy Picnic, summer 2013. That’s Eurithe Purdy, in the background, on the right, sitting on a camp chair.

LK:  What kind of poetry do you write and would you say that Al Purdy influenced you?

KL: I find this a hard question to answer. I write mainly short poems written in a very colloquial style and they focus on disturbing or beautiful elements of everyday situations. Where normal moments become surreal. A lot of my poems deal with feminist issues.

Al Purdy was actually a big influence. His conversational style is something I aspire to in my own work.

LK: Have you ever been published in Descant?

KL: No, but I’d like to be! I love Descant. I have to admit that I haven’t submitted anything.

LK: Yes, well, that is the first step to publication! What will you be working on during your writer-in-residency?

KL: The manuscript for my first book of poetry. I can’t believe I have two whole months to work on this, without having to worry about paid work and my normal day-to-day responsibilities. It will be like stepping out of my life, at least for a little while.

LK: Congratulations again. It’s clear to me why you were chosen and I think your howpedestrian project is such a great way to start this residency program.

KL: Thanks to Descant for your interest.

***

If you would like to make a donation to the rehabilitation and maintenance of the Al and Eurithe Purdy A-Frame, click here and think about which plumbing fixture or drainage tile you’d like to have your name engraved on. For an added fee of course. I suggest you choose something above ground so that your name is more easily visible to future generations of appreciative poets.

It’s Winnie the Pooh Day: celebrate the bittersweet

If immigrant Harry Colebourn had settled in Saskatchewan, the classic tale might be known as Regina the Pooh.

But the lieutenant army veterinarian who paid $20 for a motherless bear cub, named her after his adopted home town of Winnipeg. “Winnie,” bought in 1914 from a hunter in White River Ontario when Colebourn was on his way to the front for WWI, was embraced as a mascot by the lieutenant’s Brigade. The bear was smuggled to England where Colebourn asked the London zoo to take care of Winnie during the young man’s tour of duty.

Little Christopher Milne named his stuffed teddy after the zoo bear he enjoyed visiting, apparently adding “the Pooh” himself, after a local swan. But hey, kids are kids and “pooh,” however you spell it, is such a great word and even more fun to say aloud. At any occasion. For any reason.

The original stuffies, in New York City's Donnell Library.

The original stuffies, in New York City’s Donnell Library.

Christopher’s father, so the story goes, overheard his son’s imaginary games with Winnie the Pooh and the child’s other stuffed toys, Piglet, Tigger, Eeyore and Kanga, and  jotted down a few ideas that soon became the book, Winnie-the-Pooh (1926).

The Pooh books (The House at Pooh Corner was published in 1928), are filled with pithy, sentimental wisdoms, spoken by the fictionalized Christopher Robin and his stuffies:

 “We’ll be Friends Forever, won’t we, Pooh?” asked Piglet.
“Even longer,” Pooh answered.

Christopher Robin to Pooh: “You are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”

“Sometimes,” said Pooh, “the smallest things take up the most room in your heart.”

But the story behind the scenes is not so enchanting [author life spoiler alert].

Alan Milne and his son, Christopher Robin Milne, circa 1928. (credit Sam Buchanan)

Alan Alexander Milne and his son, Christopher Robin Milne, circa 1928. (credit Sam Buchanan)

Christopher Robin Milne’s (1920-1996) relationship with his writer father was distant and strained. As an adult, he resented his exploited childhood and wrote that his father “filched from me my good name and had left me with nothing but the empty fame of being his son.” After his marriage (one strongly opposed by his mother), Christopher Milne left London and rarely saw his parents. After his father’s death, his mother refused to see her son again.

Christopher Milne and his wife Lesley opened a bookstore in Dartmouth. Inevitably, he was asked to sign copies of his father’s books, which he did, but for a fee. He donated the money — ironically, contemptuously or otherwise — to Save the Children. He also helped fund the campaign to protect Ashdown Forest, the real-life place inhabited by Winnie the Pooh and friends in his father’s books.

The commercial rights to Winnie-the-Pooh and all things Pooh were acquired in the 1930s by Stephen Slesinger, a US radio, film and TV producer, and later sold to the Disney Corp., who dehyphenated the title and slapped a red crop top on the redesigned bear. Innumerable commercial products ensued and, speaking of sued, disputes between Disney, Stephen Slesinger Inc. and Clare Milne, Christopher’s daughter (born with severe cerebral palsy), are ongoing. Guess who’s winning?

Knowing all this (which you no doubt did not want to know), makes the last line of The House at Pooh Corner bittersweet. Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh remain suspended in a Foreverland of adult-free childhood:

“But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.”

January 18th — A. A. Milne’s birthday — is Winnie the Pooh Day. You could celebrate it by reading one of the stories or verses to a child, or, as Descant Editorial Intern Michael Chen suggests below, you could read it to (yes, I’m going to say it, brace yourself) the child in you.

Or, like me, you could treat yourself to some expensive honey and pretend, for one day, that your belly is actually adorable, appealing and possibly worth millions.

***

Michael Z. Chen, Descant‘s Editorial Intern, is a graduate of the Ryerson Publishing Program, and has a double major in physics and English from the University of Toronto.  Michael told me that he dreams of being able to make a living as an editor in Toronto and that he is an aspiring writer of fantasy/science-fiction. He says he has a “passion for seeing the art in science, and science in art.”

A Journey of Circles is Still a Journey: Reflections on A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh

by Michael Z. Chen

Lately, when paying attention to what other readers call their favourite works of literature, I hear titles like One Hundred Years of Solitude, War and Peace, and The Catcher in the Rye. My well-read mother’s favourite is Margaret Mitchell’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book Gone with the Wind (1936).

My favourite literary works are A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and its sequel, The House at Pooh Corner.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy serious books. Frank Herbert’s Hugo- and Nebula-winning masterpiece, Dune, is currently astounding me. It’s rather that, in reading Pooh, I always relish what I perceive to be a story of profound and powerful hope.

A very serious Michael Chen reading Winnie the Pooh.

A very serious Michael Chen reading Winnie the Pooh.

Here’s the thing. Pooh, written by Milne in 1926 for his then-young son, and featuring Ernest H. Shepard’s invaluable illustrations, isn’t just a children’s book. It doesn’t merely demonstrate a fun-filled environment, protected and sterile. It tells a story of adventure, friendship, and humility. But, it also tells a story of fear of the unknown, isolation, condescension, and rejection.

In Chapter III, “In Which Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle,” Pooh and Piglet, on a snowy winter’s day, find themselves following the tracks of, as they believe, a Woozle. Excitement turns to apprehension when, farther along and a little at a time, the tracks of two more Woozles (and a Wizzle) suddenly appear. Piglet, in a move not in line with his usual willingness, runs home. Pooh, though, at least by the all-seeing eyes of Christopher Robin, who happens to be sitting in a big oak tree above them, comes to realize that they have been walking round and round the spinney and following their own tracks all along.

Only Pooh, willing to go on with the hunt, comes to find there was nothing ever to be anxious about. Does this make him courageous, and all the better off for it? Possibly. But, Milne isn’t merely telling us “The moral of the story is that fortune favours the brave.” He is telling us the story. Pooh, the Piglet, Eeyore, Rabbit, Owl, Tigger, Kanga and baby Roo are not perfect (besides being all-together rather not-so-knowledgeable). But, that is why we love their story, and of course them, so much. That is why the Hundred Acre Wood is not a children’s place, so much as it is a sacred place. You only need to follow the tracks.

I’ll end with the near-final lines of Pooh, if only for how very grown-up I find them:

 ”Later on, when they had all said ‘Good-bye’ and ‘Thank-you’ to Christopher Robin, Pooh and Piglet walked home thoughtfully together in the golden evening, and for a long time they were silent.

‘When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,’ said Piglet at last, ‘what’s the first thing you say to yourself?’

‘What’s for breakfast?’ said Pooh. ‘What do you say, Piglet?’

‘I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today?’ said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully.

‘It’s the same thing,’ he said.”

From experience to innocence?

From experience to innocence?

The Whirled of a Descant Production Editor: an interview with Nicole Haldoupis

One long and companionable afternoon each month, Descant co-editors, staff, interns and volunteers get together to read submissions and talk biz.

At our recent meeting, Michelle Alfano, newly anointed Associate Editor-in-Chief (Administration), extended a warm and enthusiastic word of thanks to Production Editor, Nicole Haldoupis. When you get your hands on Descant’s latest issue, “The Brink and the Break,” you’ll understand why.

Nicole Haldoupis, Production Editor of Descant issue #163, "The Brink and the Break," set for launch Thursday, January 23rd. Photo credit Tamara Gell.

Nicole Haldoupis, Production Editor of Descant issue #163, “The Brink and the Break,” set for launch Thursday, January 23rd. Photo credit Tamara Gell.

Nicole joined Descant last summer. Since the fall, she’s worked with contributing writers and other Descant staff to get issue #163 into the hands of our readers. Next Thursday, January 23rd (one week today!) is the grande finale for Nicole, and the launch of “The Brink and the Break” for Descant. But before she leaves us, I snagged Nicole for an interview about her experience at Descant.

LK: What does a Production Editor Intern do at Descant? [I did not ask that question for any other reason except that I am not entirely sure myself. Funny how you can work with people for a long time and not really know what they are up to...]

NH: Well, if you look on the Descant website, there is a list of responsibilities for interns. Things like copy editing all of the material and working with the designer, corresponding with writers and artists, proofing, and working with the printer. But like many jobs, the long job description should be preceded by the words “but is definitely not limited to…”

In reality, I sent a lot of frequent and frantic emails to editors freaking out about relatively small things until I got the hang of things [laughs]. I probably frightened off many of the writers with my constant emails about edits and whether or not they were okay with them!

I got to talk to a lot of people in other organizations too. I solicited donations for raffle prizes, mostly from other literary magazines, theatres and publishing houses. People were so generous — we have some great prizes for the launch party next week.

Now that I think about it I probably sent a lot of scary emails in general. I hooked up my Descant email to my cell phone which may or may not have been a good idea! I worried constantly about late things, in my sleep and on my days off.

LK: What is the most challenging and the best part of your job?

NH: The most challenging part is probably the little periods between actual production bits, when Rob [Fujimoto], our designer, has the issue and all I could do was sit and wait for things to happen. Not really just sit and wait though — I did do other things. I planned the launch and kept soliciting donations. But mostly I couldn’t wait to get my hands back on the issue during these times.

The best part, besides seeing the published issue and holding it and smelling it after it’s come to the office from the printer, is all the people you get to work with. Working with the writers, the other interns and Vera [DeWaard, Office Manager] in the office, and Michelle [Alfano] and Jason [Paradiso] [Associate Editors-in-Chief], and talking to people who work at other literary magazines across the country is a lot of fun and I have made some new friends.

Nicole Haldoupis at the Descant office, supping a little holiday cheer last month. I guess the roll of paper towels was in case things got out of hand and something got spilled on the new issue. (Michael Chen)

Nicole Haldoupis at the Descant office, supping a little holiday cheer with Production Editor (issue #164) Trevor Abes, Office Manager Vera DeWaard, and Circulation Intern, Rachel Kovach (bottom right). (Photo courtesy Michael Chen)

 LK: How much say do you have into what goes into the issue and how it looks?

NH: The Production Editor doesn’t really have a direct say about what goes into the issue, except maybe input on artwork on occasion. I did get to give my opinion on the cover art and the title and theme of the issue. All the pieces that appear in the magazine go through the editorial board process to be accepted, which the Production Editor can take part in, if she or he wants to. I did get to write the diary piece, which I procrastinated on a lot, but I guess that’s the part where I definitely had a say.

Production Editors are responsible for the News and Notes section in the back of the book as well, and the text on the back of the book.

LK: What prepared you for this position?

NH: Perhaps some things at university [York University, professional writing/book publishing/creative writing] and running a magazine there were good preparation for some parts, like copy editing and knowing proofreading marks, but mostly it was the other people in the Descant office that helped me along the way.

LK: What do you hope to do next, given the experience you gained here?

NH: I would very much like to start my own magazine, with a few friends of mine. I’m currently procrastinating on looking into funding options!

LK: What is something interesting about working behind the scenes at Descant, that you think readers would be interested in?

NH: There’s a free book box right outside our office door. It’s a lot of fun. New books and literary journals magically appear in it on what seems like an arbitrary basis. I think it was Brick’s [Brick Magazine] idea. They said they started it. We add things to it sometimes.

LK: Anything else you’d like to add?

NH: Yes — the launch party for “The Brink and the Break” is next Thursday night, [January 23rd] starting at 7:00 pm at Charlie’s Gallery on Harbord Street [Toronto]. The guys there are really great to work with. Tell people to come out, bring a friend, have some sushi and help us celebrate. I’m really excited to introduce and hear our readers. And I just found out that one of our contributors to the issue, Lori Vos, made the long list for PRISM International’s 2014 Creative Non-Fiction Contest. So I want to say congratulations to Lori. Very exciting news!

Our confirmed readers — some of them first timers — are Rocco de Giacomo, Lori Vos, Sharon Overend, John Ryan Scrivener, and Cathy Petch. Of course Cathy has been doing this for awhile and as everyone who has seen her perform knows, she’s pretty amazing. Toronto’s fourth poet laureate, George Elliott Clarke, is also scheduled to read.

For more info and excerpts from “The Brink and the Break,” click here.

Book Bankruptcy: Beyond the Poles of Order and Disorder

In Walter Benjamin’s essay, Unpacking My Library, he writes, “there is in the life of a [book] collector a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order.”

Sometimes it’s less dialectical and more obvious. While Benjamin would likely have hated the expression, our books, like any of our material things, can become clutter (too damn much stuff).

There, I said it. But you know it’s true.

Beloved clutter is still clutter.

Beloved clutter is still clutter.

A privileged, Cadillac problem to be sure. But for many of us it’s a Cadillac problem in a Tercel-sized living space, so it weighs us down. In fact, last month I reached the end of my chapter and verse with it all. Something had to be done. I started by reorganizing a few shelves, thinking I would quickly be able to categorize the yet-to-read books and that this process, like facing the black-and-white reality of reconciling monthly bank statements (I don’t do that either), would give me some immediate relief.

What was I thinking?

After consulting with experts (many, many blogs and YouTube vids), I’ve decided that extreme measures are necessary: I’m going to declare book bankruptcy.

According to my trusty (online) etymological dictionary, “bankrupt” is from the 1560s, from the Italian bancarotta, which translates to “broken bench.”

An about-to-break bench?

My about-to-break bench?

I am declaring that the load is too much, too heavy and something is going to break. I just don’t want it to be me. I am unable to read all the books I think I “should” read, not even in the next, say, 263 years. I cannot pay the literary debt I owe society, and Ms. Paterson, my marvellous grade 12 English teacher, despite decades of reading.

While I sit at home overwhelmed by the clutter my books have become (and let’s be honest, books have flat surfaces and when upended with other books, make a shelf onto which everything from recipes to restaurant receipts can be shoved, “temporarily”), there are people all over my city who would no doubt roll their eyes at my problem. I decided the only reasonable thing to do was to dive in, head first, and box up as many books as possible to give away to a variety of organizations, friends and family. I’m going to leave a few on the subway and on buses too.

I know what some of you are thinking: an e-reader would solve my problem. I agree that it would solve the clutter problem. Completely. But it would have no bearing on the fact that I still love the physicality of my p-books, despite the dust they gather, the space they take up and the arguments on moving day.

I will always want to be surrounded — if more neatly — by books, both those I have and have not yet read. I don’t need to explain this to you. Walter Benjamin, quoting Anatole France, said it best:

“And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?’ ‘Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sèvres china every day?’”

Speaking of Benjamin, who let this happen and do they still have a job?:

That recalcitrant Volume 3.

That recalcitrant Volume 3.

January 8th is the new January 1st for writers, thanks to Isabel Allende

Every January 8th, Isabel Allende lights a candle in her office and sits down to start work on a new book. Odd, you might say, but the ritual has worked for her for more than 30 years.

On January 8, 1981, she sat down to write a letter to her 99 year old dying grandfather, a letter which grew into a book, The House of the Spirits (1982). The novel was a best seller and drew international critical acclaim. If I explained it was her first novel, the January 8th ritual makes good sense.

Writers, like painters and musicians, do most of their work alone, with no collegial witnesses. This is why we always want to know about their working lives — what are they doing behind that closed door/duvet cover/yurt flap/treehouse window? and when and how often?

Isabel Allende worked briefly translating romance novels. She was fired when she was caught writing feminist sentiments into the dialogue of the women characters.

Isabel Allende works in her California office from 9:oo am to 7:00 pm, Monday to Saturday. That’s… 60 hours a week. And while I don’t know this for a fact, I think it’s fair to assume that Ms. Allende sits down to write much as she looks in this photograph: dressed to the nines.

If Isabel Allende were your muse, she’d likely start with that housecoat or sweatpants you wear. Much of your writing day. I can hear her Chilean accent telling you to “take off that old thing! Have some pride in yourself. No — not that sweater. The nice one, the one that matches your pants. Yes, that’s better. Okay, now brush your hair.”

Shallow? Not Isabel Allende. She’s been through too much, politically and personally. Depth has been carved into her in cruel ways, including the death of her 29 year old daughter, Paula. In the video below, she explains that two of her stepchildren died of addiction, one of them just four weeks before the interview.

Determined is a better word to describe Ms. Allende. Her brand of magical realism has drawn comparisons to Gabriel García Márquez, and the criticism that her writing is killing Gabriel García Márquez.

Doesn’t matter to her. Every January 8th, Isabel Allende lights a candle in her office and sits down, properly dressed, to start her writing week and another book.

In this interview about her latest book, Maya’s Notebook (2013), Isabel Allende talks candidly and with humour about family, writing and her Chilean storytelling heritage. And she explains why she writes the sex scenes in her books with such great attention to detail.

Descant salutes all New Year’s writers. Do you have a New Year’s writing ritual you’re willing to share with us? If it involves nudity, maybe wait til your “I will exercise more” resolution kicks into high gear before sending us a picture.

 

 

 

The Moment of Change

Writing rules are about as terrible as New Year’s resolutions.

We want them. We’re inspired by them. But they are intimidating, insidious and result in failure, guilt and lower back pain.

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Prolific, acclaimed and financially successful authors like Stephen King and  Maeve Binchy, are on record about The Secret to a successful writing life.

Show-don’t-tell? Eschew adverbs? Avoid sentimentality? Write what you know? Write what you want to know? Outline first? Go organic? Follow your muse? Grow up, there is no muse?

Meh.

The coveted secret to good writing, the holy grail of word-stringing, is perhaps the only thing that the vast majority of writers don’t do: write every day.

“Every day” includes all major holidays, despite the smell of homebaked nanaimo bars and the sounds of clinking glasses.

My household lost power for 7 days recently, so that’s my ice-clad excuse this year for not writing every day. Except, I was able to stay with family and they did have power. And they gave me my own suite. With a plug right by my bed. But, you know…

Toronto-based poet Maureen Hynes, whose poem “My Own Veins” was published in the spring 2013 issue of Descant, did manage to work during the power outtage (spell check just informed me this is not a word; too bad, I lived through it, I get to spell it any way I like). After checking in on her neighbours and local friends, Maureen took herself, some books and her laptop to the local library. Before decamping to family, I lit 3 dozen tealights and figured I had the day off.

Frozen tree limbs cracked and fell into yards across Toronto neighbourhoods the last week of December. I predict a rash of ice storm themes in novels published a few years from now.

Frozen tree limbs cracked and fell into yards across Toronto neighbourhoods the last week of December. I predict a rash of ice storm themes in novels published a few years hence.

I am fortunate to have a number of beloved little people in my life. Last week, I received the gift of a storybook, “The Crab Fish and the Clown Fish,” written and illustrated by a 5 year old I’ll call “Norah.” Here’s a snippet from the introduction, and the conclusion:

“Wan day onder the dep blue sie ther was a crab fish. The crab fesh was lonly. The crab fesh went sweemeing to find a frend and finle he fawnd a frend…

So at the end av the day thay went home to go to sleep.

And thay levd haple aftr aftr.”

You will know to picture that all in caps, with the occasional backwards s and so on. The tale follows a perfect story arc because Norah reads a lot and has absorbed this already, at 5. Unlike the critical editors in our heads, her parents give her encouragement and praise and don’t make her stop for every, shall we say, creative spelling attempt. So Norah is learning how to write for pleasure, for the story, for the imagined and assumed positive effect it will have on others (clearly I am thrilled by it and keep it on my desk for inspiration). I especially love her expression, “happily after after.” Makes so much more sense to me than “happily ever after.” And it’s more poetic.

American poet and activist Adrienne Rich, a poet who lived her words and engaged ferociously with the tumultuous second half of the 20th century, wrote:

“The moment of change is the only poem.”

Much more inspiring than any list of MUST DOs. So expansive, encouraging, forgiving, progressive, hopeful.

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012.

Adrienne Rich, 1929-2012.

All of us here at Descant wish you a successful reading and writing life in 2014.

And if it helps at all, remember that before/during/after a not-so-great work day, there is always the moment, the one moment, when change is possible and you can turn the page, literally as well as metaphorically. Not because you have to, but because there is poetry in it.

And of course, we hope you live happily after after.

The Brink and the Break: Descant launches issue #163

When boxes of new Descant issues arrive at our office, it’s a full-body experience.

Our Office Manager, Vera DeWaard, slices through the packing tape with an antique gold (plated) knife, bequeathed to us many years ago by a wealthy, anonymous donor. Although her hands shake just a wee bit when she does this, Vera has never damaged a single new magazine page.

The Brink and the Break. Descant launches issue number 163 on January 23, 2014 at Charlie's Gallery in Toronto.

“The Brink and the Break.” Descant launches issue number 163 on January 23, 2014, at Charlie’s Gallery in Toronto. Cover art by Vanessa McKernan.

Before she pries back the box lid, Vera hesitates. I think she does this for dramatic effect, but others speculate that she’s trying to hold it together in her excitement to finally see the new issue, the results of months of work, most all of which has landed on her desk at some point.

But this time, when the boxes arrived, Production Editor Nicole Haldoupis was, I thought, a little bit pushy, as she tried to edge her way in. This is understandable because this issue, “The Brink and the Break,” is Nicole’s baby. She’s been working closely with the writers, editors and Descant interns since the summer, always with her eye on a successful launch party for everyone involved.

As Nicole shot out her hand to the box, someone in the group coughed politely and Nicole pulled her hand back to let Vera take out the first copy. Vera, gracious and calm as ever, handed the copy to Nicole, without even pausing to breathe in the new-inky smell. Nicole walked away with her copy and began to read through it as though each page was new to her, even though she has read each page at least 5 times. The rest of us reached into the box and pulled out our own copies to admire. It is indeed a beautiful looking issue.

Nicole Haldoupis, proud Production Editor of The Brink and the Break.

Nicole Haldoupis, proud Production Editor of “The Brink and the Break.” And no, I did not use an instagram filter to get that sparkle in her eyes.

Between the covers are stories of endings — with people places and things, and the beginnings that follow. From our press release:

Tragedy, winning hockey teams, RIP tattoos and beer at bars colour the city in andrea bennett’s “Hockeyville.” Jon R. Flieger writes about a lonely labourer in the death industry and the struggles of keeping a consistent coworker in this gloomy occupation. Rich Larson takes us to an unfamiliar world where snow turns to ash and boyfriends turn to zombies — unless we get our eye transplants resynched every once in a while. People grow ever more distant as John Ryan Scrivener says “Goodbye, Carol” and Emily Davidson paints a poetic picture of a couple growing apart in “Maybe.” There’s an explosion at a printing press, old friends and sleeping coworkers, but who will print the news in Tyler Charles Zencka’s story?

Descant Office Manager, Vera DeWaard with, appropriately enough, a watch on her shoulder.

Descant Office Manager, Vera DeWaard with, appropriately enough, a watch hovering above her shoulder.

Not only is it a good read, it smells good, too.

Not only is it a good read, it smells good, too.

We know you are busy this month with work and family and the xmas bombardment, whether or not it’s your thing, but we also know that by January 23, 2014, you will be so ready to join us to celebrate the launch of “The Brink and The Break.”

Cosy up with us and our Winter 2013 issue, with some, ahem, special hot chocolate, and listen to readings by poets Cathy Petch, Rocco de Giacomo, John Ryan Scrivener and George Elliott Clarke, and fiction by Lori Vos and Sharon Overend.

Come and see what JOY looks like, in person:

In the book world, this is about as good as it gets. And we get like this 4 times a year!

In the Canadian literary magazine world, this is about as good as it gets. And we get like this 4 times a year!

 

Photographs in this post courtesy of Michael Chen, Editorial Intern at Descant.

How to judge an editorial team by its book covers: Descant reveals all (or nothing)

On the seasonally red carpet, we ask, Who are you reading?

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We’ll go first. Here’s who and what some of us at Descant are reading: a little sex, a lot of history, and a dash of comedy. This strikes me as odd because in person we talk pints of comedy, a dash of history and a lot of sex.

One of our co-editors belongs to a feminist book club committed to the serious study of erotica (translation: excuse to eat cheese and chug wine in company, for a change). The club is discussing Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker (1972). Ms. Hollander, the best-selling madam-turned-memoirist is 70 this year. As far as I know, she’s the only author who can lay claim to a discussion of housework and s&m in the same paragraph:

“My house was a mess, yet [the cops] overlooked my goody bag. I was lucky not to have to replace it. Those leg-irons and handcuffs so carefully collected, and the rare cat-o’-nine-tails the masochists love to feel bite their flesh. My slaves were saved.”

Another co-editor, not particularly chuffed with the month of December in general, is “reading as much Wodehouse as I can with the hope that it is antidepressant enough to chase away any seasonal blues.” I see the opportunity for an anecdotal study: does 4 weeks of reading P.G. under a bright light chase away anything at all?

Under the heading of Manliness, Meat and Cartography, one of us claims to be reading Nick Offerman’s Paddle Your Own Canoe and Champlain’s Dream by Pulitzer-prize winner David Hackett Fischer. It could very well be true. He is a gentle soul who enjoys eating roasted moose heart.

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More than one of us has a bedside table that is so heaped with books, it’s possibly a night-time concussion waiting to happen. But if he chose just two he’d  be reading this month, one of our co-editors picked the Museum of Modern Art’s first poet laureate Kenneth Goldsmith’s Seven American Deaths and Disasters, and Margaret Christakos’ latest collection of poetry, Multitudes.

Speaking of multitudes, I predict that the helpful-and-horrible What to Expect When You’re Expecting will sit on one of our nightstands in the new year. Just sayin’.

[Pregnant pause... ]

One of us will soon be reading #87, in a personal book project that will eventually cover the 1,001 books you must read before you die list. Which reminds me, I must ask my fellow co-editor’s opinion of The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver, which I enjoyed a few years ago (it’s #86).

In the year of doorstopper fiction, one of us (technically, The One Who Rules Us) is reading the Scottish-born Israeli author Simon Louvish’s The Fundamental Blok, (number five of the six-volume Blok saga to be exact). Appropriate to the editor of a Canadian literary magazine, this saga is comic, apocalyptic, and blurs fiction and reality. [Note to self: ask her if it has a happy ending.]

I’m reading the IKEA catalogue. And Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading. One has me calling out to anyone nearby, “Hey, did you know that….” and the other will result in several boxes of tea-lights and a new shower curtain.

Let us know what you plan to read this month, dear Readers. A naughty page-turner? Dense historical prose? A literary DIY? That one book you’ve always felt guilty about not reading? Will you confess it to us? Dare you? I wouldn’t. The book world can be nasty, brutish and snort.

And if, like at least one of us, you suffer from the December blues, remember that you are not alone. Picking up a book will connect you to the galaxy of us who read and write and feel all that you do. In the most difficult days, we recommend you treat yourself to a decent coffee and a good read. Not home, alone — after all:

“What harbor can receive you more securely than a great library?” ~Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night