Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Reading like an Editor

I've been spending the last week and a bit putting together the proceedings of the Canadian Creative Writers and Writing Programs proceedings from the first, hopefully annual conference, held at the University of Calgary and the Banff Centre for the Arts last October.  (See blog posts on October 13, 15, and 21.)  Reading like an editor has its down sides.  Do you know how many different ways there are to do a "Works Cited" page--many of them wrong?  Or how inconsistently an individual writer can use dashes?  Or how often you need to check facts:  is "Greenwoods Bookshoppe" really a shoppe, and is there a missing apostrophe there?  (It really is an Edmonton shoppe, and there is an apostrophe at the end of Greenwoods'.)  Why does "Throw Mama off the Train" list a writer and not the author of a screenplay? (I don't have an answer for that one.)  A change in the MLA style guide means that you no longer need the date you accessed a web site or the web address for your "Works Cited" page.  So I've done a lot of deleting of very tiny print.  But just as a fine writer knows that the credibility of her or his voice is bolstered by careful attention to detail, so do conscientious editors know that if a proceedings looks professional and consistent, it's likely to be taken more seriously.  In turn, the papers, which authors gave a lot of thought to, are likely to be taken more seriously.  So here it is:  it's my job.  So I just do it--and take a certain amount of not-quite-perverse satisfaction.

But reading like an editor has more up sides than down sides.  Normally, I read quite a lot of strong fiction and poetry; sometimes I get an opportunity to help an author make a work even stronger.  Sometimes I get to deliver a useful, encouraging rejection.  All of this makes our collective stories stronger, our collective use of language more precise, playful, and inventive. 

In the editing the proceedings, though, I felt like a student all over again.  I learned so much from all the presenters.  Over the next couple of posts, I'd like to share these with some of you; maybe you in turn will share some of your insights and experiences in comments.

Here are two of the inspiring, over-arching observations and beliefs.  First, creative writing classes, whether they're taught in prisons, mental health drop-in centres, colleges, neighbourhood centres, or universities, are thriving (despite the disbelief of administrators and the difficulty they have understanding the value of these classes).  People want to write.  Some of them will simply explore their experiences, their world-views, their culture and society, their imaginations through the written word; others will strive to be published writers.  But who can argue with either goal?  If art is a way of helping a culture think through its dilemmas and challenges, its joys and delights, then both kinds of writers are engaging in that work in their own way.

Second, the people who attended the conference are doing a thoughtful, inventive, compassionate job mentoring their students.  My mantra as a teacher has always been "Find out where your students are and take them farther."  Preconceptions about where that "farther" should be only lead to frustration and a sense of failure.  But look at how much more articulate Greg Hollingshead is:  "Creative writing teaching is like any teaching:  eventually you learn that there is what the student needs to understand but there is also when the student will be ready to understand it.  It's this second consideration that separates the good teachers from the bad and that makes good teaching more like psychotherapy, in a way, in that it's all about sensing what the student is ready to know.  This is particularly true of creative writing teaching, because the student is very likely to have an emotional investment in what is being discussed.  Bad writing is a set of strategies for containing, distancing, walling off that emotion, for rendering it safe for the author.  A large part of teaching writing is communicating to a writer the hard fact that emotion is going to need to be re-experienced if it is ever to be experienced by the reader--which should be the primary reason for the story, or the poem, being written in the first place."  I might want to add to Hollingshead's sense of what bad writing is; I often find that it's an unthought-about formula (often generic) for pretending you're writing without thinking about writing.  But other than that, Hollingshead's sense of what we try to accomplish when we teach writing is unerring.

Hollingshead got his experience teaching at the University of Alberta.  Lenore Rowntree, in contrast, teaches creative writing in a Vancouver drop-in centre for people with mental illness.  In some ways, what she has to say isn't that different from what Hollingshead wrote:  "The level of expression may not be as uniformly high as you have experienced with other groups, but don't become disheartened.  The completion of two or three sentences in an hour-long session is a big success for some.  Occasionally a really good poem or story will be written in a very few minutes and then destroyed.  Try to record at least the idea of it for future use.  Other times a poignant piece is written and then given to you to keep--the writer may have nowhere to keep it or may not yet be ready to live with his or her own words.  If it feels right, accept the piece and have it ready in a file for a later time.  Remember that you may be the only one in the room with access to a computer and a printer.  A typed poem or story is often much appreciated."

Another, inevitable theme was the way the internet is changing how we connect with readers.  I'll write about that later this week.  And I'll make sure you have the web address when the whole proceedings goes online.

And your stories?  What does writing help us do?

Friday, August 26, 2011

Soul Weather: Summer Solstice

While Lee was glazing and firing pottery for Bazaart, and trying to winkle her way into people's daily lives, Dirk was mudding the kitchen.  In all his years of renovations, he'd left the walls of the houses more or less intact.  So when he decided to open the kitchen to the living area, he'd had a lot of destruction to do, and his inexperience made the process not very pretty.  He hasn't figured out how he'll fix the hardwood floor where the studs and footing for the walls had been, but perhaps something clever will occur to him while he puts up Gyprock and begins taping and mudding.  This last is a process he likes.  He tries to do it with as little energy and mess as possible, as if the carefulness of the physical labour gives it more dignity – moves it closer to craftsmanship.  But his inexperience has left him with some spectacular holes in the kitchen walls, so he's filling these in slowly, letting them dry, taping a crack or two, and then going back to add another layer of Polyfilla to the pits and furrows in the kitchen plaster before he returns to mud the cracks and the divots lefts by the screws.
            Last year at this time, he'd missed spring.  In April and May, life completely went missing as he spent early mornings burrowing around in his basement digs with his eyes closed, like a mole, and then came rushing out into the light, dashed into work, and then buried himself completely and sympathetically in his caseload.  Because he wasn't noticing the weather, he was almost grateful for the rain that drowned the fields around Melville and Yorkton, and for the women who flooded into Regina to visit sisters and daughters, needing to talk with someone about their men's despair and helpless fury.  In the more worrying cases, daughters and sisters encouraged the wives to call Mobile Crisis Services.  Sometimes they simply had difficulties understanding their husbands' ranting and railing:  surely crop insurance would get sorted out and it would be tight, but they'd be okay for a year.  These calls weren't taxing.  Being a guy, Dirk could try to explain what it felt like not to have meaningful work.  Income wasn't the only issue for men, whereas a farm wife always had work, and that work counted, whether anybody said it or not.  A meal on the table or a clean shirt said it.  These were also men whose last emotional words might well have been uttered on their wedding days, so getting the farmer to talk about his feelings was probably impossible if not counterproductive.  The urban women's magazine strategies of probing and questioning wouldn't help her deal with his moods.  So Dirk, feeling deeply conflicted, had to talk to women about how to ignore men's moods.  Make a quilt.  Knit a sweater.  Start a reading club or a 'Stitch 'n bitch' group – something that gives you pleasure.  That would get you and your family through.  At the end of the day, he dodged unseeing back through the rain, down into his burrow, and did anything he could to get through to tomorrow.  He watched crummy TV.  Sports and sitcoms required no concentration.  He sometimes played with his sons' gameboy.  Or he played computer games that allowed him to save the universe.
            Then he looked up one day, and found the sky blue and the leaves full-sized.  He'd never before in his life lost a season.  So this year as he works at remaking the ground floor of his house into a space for the group of undergraduates Lee will organize for him, he has all the windows open, which means he's sometimes cold.  But the fresh air keeps Ruby's nose busy when she isn't asleep on the floor in the middle of his workspace, and he simply pulls on the old sweater with its elbows out that's already got its patina of polyfilla and paint.  He turns his Bob Dylan or Bruce Cockburn up loud and gets to work.  While people continue to complain about the rain, wondering if cold grey springs are going to be the new normal on the prairies, Dirk is even happy with the rain.  Well, not happy exactly, but comforted by weather he can inhabit, comforted by a frame of mind that can haunt something besides itself and its distraction.
            So he watches every millimetre of change.  At first, the trees seemed untrusting, which he understands.  Then their buds, snail-like, crept to the ends of branches, where they looked like the round heads of finishing nails.  Then he notices that, in the midst of people's soggy whiny complaints, the leaves on trees and shrubs tended to stretch after a couple of days' rain, though whether this showed enthusiasm and gratitude, or whether they're clutching at sunlight, he doesn't know.
            The weather doesn't seem to be moving in a straight line, though it never does on the prairies.  The weather gods will give you a tiny taste of sun and warmth and then lapse far back into an earlier season.  So that now it is a breezy June day, close to the solstice, and he can hear the rustle of leaves, but the sound is dry and fretful enough that it could be a fall day rather than a prelude to summer. 
            He wants to know where he is, meteorologically speaking.  He doesn't want to look up to be suddenly enveloped in the grief of last fall:  the kids buying supplies, going off to school, meeting new friends, all elsewhere.  Hungry wretchedness fills you when your wife tells you that your kids are happy with the new life they're living without dad.  You stare out the kitchen window while she tells you this.  And afterwards every rainy day when leaves lie in sodden golden puddles under bare branches will carry echoes of this conversation.   It's as if seasons – their smells, their whispers on your skin, the particular angle of light – have a clock that turns back at will and can plummet you again into that mood.  This vision will forever stand for the fact that there's a whole other world you know nothing about. You aren't living here, among the glorious Regina fall days, but in a world where you have no senses, no touch or sight, and your kids report on home runs and new video games matter-of-factly in your weekly phone call, without any engagement in their voices.  Is this because they're as grief-stricken as you are, because their mother is standing right there, or because they've forgotten the smell of you?

The photograph at the top of the page is of an installation at the Walker Art Center.  Unfortunately, I've lost the name of the artist and the installation is no longer listed on their web site.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Minneapolis Institute of Art

There's something very civilized about your first impression of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  Their website says there's parking on the south side of the building, and there it is.  And it's free.  So is the gallery itself, though they reasonably ask for donations so they can keep it free.  There's a room for children to play and explore in, and a sunny cafe where families can sit at large or small tables and have engaged conversations.  There's a quiet, flower-filled courtyard where you can rest your feet in the shade. The gallery spaces, unlike MOMA, all have some place to sit down and contemplate the work.  The collection ranges widely, though there's one very good Van Gogh, two Monets, a couple of Picassos, two Seurats, two Georgia O'Keefe's--single works by most of the important North American and European artists of the twentieth century--including (Tracy, this is for you) an Egon Schiele portrait that is haunting.

They also balance their collection between art and the "fine arts."  In fact, one of my favourite exhibitions was called "Conversations with wood:  selections from the Waterbury Collection."  The artists represented here had taken "wood turning" into entirely different directions.  Many of these pieces were more sculptural than reminiscent of lathe-turned vessels we find at Bazaart or Wintergreen.   There was a carefully carved "vase" that would hold nothing:  its boundaries were made with flowing carved grasses of dark mahogany.  There was a kind of tiny frieze that looked both realistic and otherworldly with a really long title that made clear it was a piece of beautifully imagined visual science fiction. There was a small flat bowl into which the artist had inlaid a constellation of silver wire that whirled out to nothingness.  It's one of the most peaceful things I've ever seen.   While the MIA lets you photograph most of the work in their collection, as long as you don't use flash, this work is so new that photographs weren't allowed.

As I've been writing, I've been trying to think how I'd describe the difference between my reactions to sitting on a room full of late impressionism or cubism, and standing in a room full of wooden sculptures.  Looking at paintings, I'm gobsmacked.  I'm taught to see all over again, and taught to see the ideas in what I see.  Taught to see an historical moment colliding with a particular sensibility, taught to see a culture thinking through the work of individual artists.  When I leave the gallery, it's as if everything is more intense and meaningful.  Minneapolis, as you can see from the photograph above of downtown seem from the window of the MIA, is a well-treed city.  And they have every kind of tree:  oaks, several kinds of maples, ginkos, trees I can't even name.  When you come out of the gallery, that world is suddenly more intense and present:  you notice every variation on 'green.'  The t-shirt worn by the young man walking toward you probably has cultural significance, as does the way he struts, the music he listens to, his chat with his girlfriend.  After looking at paintings, you are reminded that the visual world has meaning, that meaning is everywhere.  On most days, we're just too busy or too overwhelmed to pay it full attention.

When I'm in a room that's full of work that edges the boundary between art and craft--the Gees Bend quilts I saw several years ago in Denver, or the conversations in wood I saw in the MIA, it's my hands that the work speaks to.  If you Google "Gees Bend Quilts," you'll see the brave, adventurous quilts these women made out of worn clothing.  That they took the more serviceable pieces of dresses or workpants or jeans and made them into these visual explosions is remarkable.  But when you see the quilts in the flesh, you see the patterns of wear, the way the threads have been gentled by time, the subtle patina of use.  They speak to you of daily lives, of the conversation between daily life and the determination to create beauty.  And you want to touch them.  Similarly, "Conversations in Wood" made my hands itch and ache. Though like the paintings, this work has ideas that challenge traditional ways of making and being and seeing, it appeals through our sense of touch in a way that reminds us of how this work is connected to our daily lives.

This is the other work that blew me away, and forced me to think more about Soul Weather.  It's called "An exile dreaming of St. Adorno," and it was created by Siah Armanjani, who came to Minneapolis from Iran.  Because the photograph is taken without flash, so I was sitting against the wall to get enough stability so keep it from blurring, you can't quite see the "exile" in his prison-like room nor can you quite see the way the bars of the inner room echo those in the outer room or the way the black and white ticking on the mattress echoes the bars of the prison/room.  Monastic cell for contemplation or some kind of prison cell the exile has agreed to occupy?  Like the work of Manders at the Walker, this installation is both very peaceful and very unnerving.  The didactic panel referred the viewer to a quotation from Adorno--the "saint" that the exile is dreaming of:  "It is part of morality not to be at home in one's home."  What does that mean?  My character Lee, when she talks of Empedocles, thinks that sometimes we're simply too uncritically comfortable in the present moment, leading I suppose to complacency.  But "home"?  Isn't that the one place where we're allowed to let our critical guard down for the day?  Or, as I'm coming to conclude, does "home" have the perfect balance between peace and challenge that gives us a space where we're both safe and forced to grow and stretch and be more human than we would be if we were swathed in some kind of cocoon?  Please, tell me what you think.

I'll post some photographs to the other blogs I sent from Mpls in the coming days.  Time to practice my guitar.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Walker Art Gallery

When people asked me why we were visiting Minneapolis, my inevitable answer was "The Walker Art Gallery."  It says something about a midwest community that it can support a gallery devoted to edgy, challenging, moving, provocative, and funny contemporary art.  I hadn't been to the Walker for over twenty years, but this visit was even more remarkable than past ones, probably because Veronica has done a good job of bringing me up to speed on contemporary art.  Bill is also a challenging, thoughtful, quirky companion.  I have good company for art galleries.

Two exhibitions stood out for me.  One was Mark Manders' Parallel Occurrences/ Documented Assignments, though I have no idea what the title means.  Manders originally thought he'd become a poet, but turned to sculpture instead, and the didactic panels rightly identified his sculpture as inherently poetic.  There's a kind of abstract poetic juxtaposition of images  that he can wrench out of context in a way that he perhaps couldn't do with words.  They're so powerful that I felt I couldn't take photographs, even though the gallery allows you to; it seemed voyeuristic.  Manders works mostly with clay and wood.  One powerful image offers the viewer a slice of an enormous clay face wedged in between large plinths of wood, the largest of which is a table turned on its edge.  Because the table legs are slightly inset from the top of the table, they have to be propped up to keep the work vertical.  Manders uses two untitled hardcover books to do this, so that this massive piece ultimately rests on two volumes.  Your reaction to the face wedged between the wood is visceral and immediate:  "There are days when I feel like that," you immediately say.  And then the fragile balance of the whole piece on the books adds another layer to your reaction.  If I were to reduce the idea to something I could say here, I'd say that again it gives you a visceral sense of how finely, tenuously balanced civilization is:  there are some days when it could go either way.

In another piece, he wanted to create a balance that was "both serene and painful."  A beautifully sculpted child's body, with one of its legs torn off at the hip, is tethered to an inverted cross with three piles of sand at the foot.  The stability of the piece, the piles of sand, the expression on the child's face are all serene, yet you simply can't ignore that torn body.  The balance between serenity and pain is provocative and powerfully saddening.

The second remarkable large exhibition was called Exposed:  Voyeurism, Surveillance, and the Camera Since 1870.  The very mass of images--from black and white war photographs dating back nearly to the Civil War, the erotica, the surveillance camera imagery--combine to create a single uneasy enveloping effect:  we are watching one another and are in turn being watched.  One photograph called "The photography club" (I'm sorry I don't remember the photographer:  the image simply stuck in my mind), depicts a photographer photographing a member of the photography club who is in turn photographing a woman splayed in a bay window seat.  (The photographer whose image we see is rather kinder to her than her pornographer:  we only get the suggestive pose of a knee so that the image we see isn't entirely objectifying.)  Its layers are disturbing:  even while the pornographer (dressed in very clubby flannel trousers and sweater) believes he's "an artist" capturing the woman, he in turn is subject to surveillance.  Any domestic, tranquil associations you might have with window seats are undone by the woman's pose.

The most powerful group of images were the war photographs:  they reminded me, like the images of the Spanish Civil War I saw with Veronica in New York City this spring, how powerfully photographers bring fractions of the truth back from the front.  There were, of course, some of the remarkable photographs from the Vietnam War.  But I was most moved by a collage of photographs taken in Rwanda superimposed upon a body; the collage in turn had captured events from the life of this man, so that his story was superimposed upon his corpse.  What better way to say that every time someone dies in war stories also die?  What better way to make the victims human?

In the midst of all this, there was a photograph that made me laugh out loud.  We see the back of Queen Elizabeth II while she watches one of her ceremonially dressed servants throw a soccer ball for two of her beloved corgis.  My first reaction was "How sad!  She doesn't even play with her own dogs."  The didactic panel told us, though, that photographs in this series only pretend to be celebrities.  How it takes the hot air out of celebrity-hood.

Across from the Walker is an immense sculpture garden with a glass fish by Frank Gehry, several sculptures by Henry Moore, trees full of wind chimes (how do you photograph sound?) that are so out of context on a busy Minneapolis street that they surprise you, a huge spoon with a cherry--and lots of work whose provenance I don't know.  What was delightful was how people played among the art, reclining in a huge swing, dancing among plinths, mugging for one another's cameras, even a pair of lovers sleeping.  They were living among the art, finding their experience made richer and more imaginative.

I'll upload some photographs when I get home, but I needed to get the words down tonight while the images were still fresh.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Literature and the environment II: the Minneapolis Zoo

Bill and I are in Minneapolis, and he suggested we go to the zoo this morning.  While zoos aren't quite my thing (animals in captivity tend to make me sad), compromise on holidays is.  It was fabulous, partly because it's a huge, really humane zoo and makes an important contribution to animal conservation.  Each didactic panel tells you how the animal you're looking at is doing in the wild.  I couldn't help write.

This is how we meet nature:
our hands against the glass,

ranks of us in limegreen daycare T-shirts
almost down to our fragile knees.
We believe the sea otter is drawn
to the reach of our curiosity,
can imagine him,
Ernest Borgnine-faced, curious
about us, the sparkly new barret,
the stuffed parrot, the proud ball cap.

Our hands against the glass,
we try to reach beyond distortions:
the African penguins who fly through water
fetch up as questions:
Are they three inches or nine beyond our grasp?
Is that feathers or fur, a tail or fin
they shake with glee as they surface?
(Is it glee?)

This is how we meet nature:
learning to see, to find the patience
without  words
for the colour and texture of snow monkey fur
slowly groomed in the sunshine.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Aesthetics and the Environment

First, before I go all theoretical, let me say that I want stories from you.  What kind of story will become clear as we go.

In my work on Virginia Woolf's use of form to engage readers in a kind of meta-reading of her novels and essays, I have suggested that the reader's attempt to discover what her form means creates a kind of "hinge" between an autonomous work of art and the world we live in.  It's the place where we are the most active and engaged interpreters of her work.  Ever since Kant, in his Critique of Judgement, talked about the disinterestedness of the beautiful, philosophers and lovers of art have tended to see a work of art as living autonomously in its own world, unsullied by politics or our daily cares.  To some degree, this is supported by the way we experience art:  we go to art galleries and concert halls--places we don't normally frequent--to look at paintings or hear music.  Because most of us don't use paint or song to communicate in our daily lives, we'll easily accept the assumption that a Mark Rothko painting or a Beethoven string quartet have an autonomy that separates the work of art from the daily concerns of our lives.  But literature has always been problematic, because language is inherently social. 

We'll accept that T. S. Eliot isn't trying to effect social change in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."  At the same time, we suspect that Dickens, in The Christmas Carol, is making some claim on our hearts and is hoping to change our behaviour and perhaps even our attitude toward the poor.  He's trying, in short, to challenge the distinction between the "deserving poor" and the "undeserving poor" that unfortunately lingers in government policy even today, about 150 years later.  My examples, you will realize, are a set up:  they were chosen to be emphatic.  Dickens was writing novels, which is often seen as a "less autonomous" form than poetry, which can be completely autonomous.  (There's a whole line of thinking I won't follow here.  Can poetry be autonomous because so few people read it, or do so few people read it because it seems so divorced from their daily lives?)  Dickens was also writing a good fifty years before Henry James actually used the phrase "the art of the novel," implicitly suggesting that the novel was an art, not a kind of aesthetic reportage. 

For my work on Woolf, I've been reading a wonderful book by Gregory Jusdanis called Fiction Agonistes (Stanford University Press, 2010).  Jusdanis has (at least) three  observations about fiction that relate to this question of the environment.  First, he argues that "Only autonomous art can be oppositional" (55; italics in original).  It's art's autonomy that allows it to call our present situation into question.  Its autonomy is also its freedom.  The artist cares about whether the work is well-made and accords to her or his vision, not whether it tows an ideological line.  Second, "Art is metamorphosis, the craft of making changes.  It imagines the impossible and inconceivable because of its endless potential" (55).  In other words, a craftsperson like Atwood can terrify us in Oryx and Craik by posing a vision of the world quite different from our casual sense that while the environment is changing, we'll adapt.

Third, Jusdanis has borrowed from the Greeks the concept of "parabasis."  There's a point in a Greek tragedy where the members of the chorus take off their masks and speak to the audience, citizen to citizen.  Novels find a variety of technical ways to do this--by using frame narratives that forge a link between the work and the world, or by discussing the making of art within the novel itself, so that this issue of art's role is foregrounded.  But I suspect that there are moments in many novels, poems, or essays, that, the author's intentions aside, seem to speak directly to us.  

As Katherine Arbuthnott and I have worked on our SSHRCC grant proposal, I've come to learn two important things about literature and the environment.  First, it's fairly easy to change attitudes, and I think that in general our attitudes about the environment are changing.  Here in Saskatchewan, we only need to think of the farmers whose fields are so wet that they're unworkable, or about the string of unusually humid days we've had this summer.  We know we need to do something about the environment. 

But the second things I've learned is that what we need to change are behaviours, not simply attitudes, and this is much harder.  This is because our goals are sometimes in conflict.  While the part of us that is influenced by ethical, normative goals recycles, the part of us that has hedonic goals (we do like to be comfortable), would prefer driving in our airconditioned car to taking public transit. 

So help us out.  Help us figure out how the texts we read might help us to be environmentally responsible.  Tell us stories about reading something that changed your attitudes.  What was it about the novel, graphic novel, poem, essay, article, that spoke to you, citizen to citizen?  Better yet, tell us a story about how something you read changed your behaviour. 

You can tell your stories here, as a comment, or you can email them to me at Kathleen.Wall@uregina.ca

Or you can come talk to us at Profs in the City, Tuesday August 2 at the Neutral Ground Gallery on the west side of the Scarth Street Mall.  We'll be talking about our work between 12:15 and 12:45.