Monday, September 30, 2013

Poetics check

"Poetics" in my title serves the same purpose as "reality" does in the expression "reality check." The hoopla around David Gilmour's opinions, as well as some reading I've been doing (because I've been too sick to teach) and a wonderful workshop last weekend with Sandra Birdsell, have prompted me to ask a whole series of questions around storytelling in the twenty-first century. 

Last weekend, eight other fiction writers gathered around a table in the SWG offices for a fiction workshop the Guild had arranged with Sandra Birdsell.  We were a varied lot--some of us writing for the first time, some of us published; some of us writing romance, others memoir or realist fiction.  But I've always found variety a good quality in a workshop.  What you find there are writers--but also readers.  And with a leader as skilled as Sandra, you learn from her commentary on everyone's work, as well as from the reactions of your classmates.  It was a rich afternoon, well worth being inside on a sunny, albeit ridiculously windy day.  What I heard about the opening chapter of Soul Weather was that I really needed to get to the story earlier--to that moment of tension that Bob Kroetsch used to say lets the reader know why the story begins here.

This piece of advice arouses in me all kinds of conflicts.  Does any of you know a general rule for how many pages into a novel the tension needs to begin?  Mine is about halfway through the first chapter.  But this is because I've got lots to do in those early pages.  I need to explore the character's relationship with her world--the one she's not quite at home in.  I also want to give the reader some sense of her MFA ceramics project.  I want them to inhabit her body as she throws a tea pot, to understand the pleasure of craftsmanship, which is particularly physical for a potter.  It's the need to do these things that brings the internal conflict in.  When I write novels, I'm a story-teller, not a poet writing in a different form.

I get that, though I sometimes strain against it.  But what has happened to the novel of ideas?  If I look at the novels that I have loved--from all of Austen's work, to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, to George Eliot's Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda, to everything Woolf wrote, to writers like Kazuo Ishiguro and Carol Shields and Jane Urquhart--I do not have the sense of the story exploding out of the gate with a crack and hundreds of pounds of horse flesh behind it.  In fact, sometimes--with Woolf, for example--you don't understand why the story is being written until about 3/4 of the way through when everything that has gone before suddenly coheres to create a hologram of the world you've been immersed in.  Rather, what captures the reader is the narrator's voice and the character's or characters' complexity that makes you curious.  In these novels you feel as if your hunger to understand the human condition is going to be assuaged.  Or to put it another way, you're willing to be led; you don't need to be pushed.

So here's the first question in my reality check.  I've described the poetics of the nineteenth-century and the modernist novel.  Post-postmodernism, are the poetics suddenly transformed into conflict, violence, and trauma, the sooner and more relentless the better?  While I was sick, I read Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which certainly contains quite a bit of violence and trauma.  Yet the difference between that an the unsatisfying, unnamed novel I read earlier this fall was craftsmanship and vision.  There isn't a single gratuitous scene in Gaiman's brief novel; his style is spare or descriptive as the moment requires.  But what he's given us is a powerful teleological myth about how and why evil and discord come into the world running underneath the coming of age story at its centre.  In the earlier novel, a wife had put her husband through misery with a separation of at least a year, only to shrug her shoulders and say she hadn't really been in love with the man who had replaced her husband.  And he accepts that.  End of story.  No reflection, no accountability.  Just lots of violence and award nominations because violence, apparently, announces the seriousness of a piece of fiction.  Poetics check:  I sound like an old fart.

My second meditation on the poetics of fiction came, of course, courtesy of David Gilmour's problematic comments about what he teaches and why.  After I finish batting him about the head with a helium-filled balloon, I'd like to remind him that art is not a mirror, that in fact one of the qualities that many of us value about a painting or a story or a piece of music is that the artist has found a way of introducing us to and immersing us in the viewpoint of someone quite unlike ourselves, and has enlarged our humanity--not simply confirmed something we already knew.  Gilmour's sexism doesn't disturb me as deeply as does his wholesale blindness to difference.  It's unimaginative, to say the least.  Even the Greek philosopher Terence once said that the work of art allows you to say to yourself  "I am a human being, I consider nothing that is human alien to me."

Unable to commit myself to a novel at this point in the term, I picked up the beautifully-crafted stories of Richard Ford in A Multitude of Sins, a book I began in Massachusetts on holiday.  I wrote here about their craftsmanship, but also whined, in old fart mode, that I had become tired of people behaving badly.  Last night, however, I read one of the later stories, "Charity," about a husband and wife who have become estranged and who are taking a short holiday to spend time together once again.  Unbeknownst to Nancy, Tom, a former police detective specializing in robberies,  is also thinking about making a fresh start to his life after he was shot on the job in an incident that killed his partner.  Except we don't have Tom's point of view:  we only hear Nancy's thoughts and the dialogue between the two of them, dialogue in which Tom's intentions become clear, as she attempts to understand the motives for his infidelity and the purpose of this trip.  I got to the end of the story and said, aloud, "Wow!" 

Because what we have at the end of the story is Nancy helping a little girl and a man in a wheel chair fly a kite, and here she finds some strength and triumph and joy of her own.  We have no idea whether she will accompany Tom as he attempts to find a new approach to life that isn't so complicated by his partner's death (which we don't find out about until at least halfway through the story, even though this is clearly where the story actually begins if you are simply looking at the chronology).  We're left, instead, with a powerful and visceral image of Nancy's strength and resilience and joy:  "The spacious blue bay spread away from her down the hill, and off of it arose a freshened breeze.  It was far from clear that she could hold the kite.  It could take her up, pull her away, far and out of sight.... And then, she thought, coming to the two of them, smiling out of flattery, that she would take the kite -- the rod, the string -- yes, of course, and fly it, take the chance, be strong, unassailable, do everything she could to hold on" (214).  What we have is a passionately reflective character making a choice that could go anywhere; her strength could take her back to Tom to help see him through his crisis, or it could take her into her own life as a public defender in a way she couldn't, at this moment, imagine.

 Earlier in the day, I'd been reading Mark Kingwell's Concrete Reveries for work on my poems, and he'd pointed out that in literature there are two kinds of lines:  the converging paths of Oedipus that give the sense that no matter what the character does, he or she will end up where the fates have decided, and the diverging paths of Frost's "The Road Not Taken" that provide choices.  While Kingwell was applying this to the narratives each of us makes in the city as we move through it, I'd like to apply it to stories.  What happens to the story where characters have choices?  What happens when they don't?  This chapter of Tom's and Nancy's story is certainly begun by a random event, but these two characters are trying to figure out what choices to make in response to that event, choices that will make their lives better or at least return them to some equilibrium.

I'd been thinking about things like mistakes and choices because I have also been reading Charles Baxter's remarkable set of essays, Burning Down the House.  In "Dysfunctional Narratives, or: 'Mistakes Were Made,'" Baxter talks about the kind of dysfunctional narrative in which characters are simply passive victims.  He suggests, cannily, that when writers free our characters to make mistakes "we release them from the grip of our own authorial narcissism" into "what Aristotle thought was the core of stories, flaws of character that produce intelligent misjudgments for which the someone must take responsibility" (15, 14).  He sees these misjudgments coming at moments of high tension when decisions must be made quickly.  It's not comfortable for the characters or the writer, but "for some reason, such moments of unwitting action in life and in fiction feel enormously charged with energy and meaning."  Readers love this:  "They love to see characters getting themselves into interesting trouble and defining themselves" 14).

Maybe what I'm responding so critically to is not simply the violence of a text, but to the way that violence is treated in the fictional world.  It seems to just "happen" to the narrator of the untitled book; it goes on around him, but there's little he can do or does do to change the outcome.  He's a passive observer.  I've tried to think about why I'm seeing so much of this.  Are TV and the movies turning us into voyeurs rather than into readers;  have we become the passive observer in someone else's life that we value more than our own?  Is it staring at the tabloids as we wait to check out at the grocery store?  Has 9/11 become such an enormous historical and cultural touchstone that our own lives look puny and indifferent beside it?  Are we waiting to become the victims of the next terrorist plot? 

While all these things happen--the bombings at the Boston Marathon and the attack on the shopping mall in Nairobi--we will lose our own lives to our own indifference if we don't expect our writers to reflect--and reflect on--the things that happen every day:  joys, mistakes, false steps, choices that lead us somewhere we couldn't possibly have expected.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Theme and Variations

I have made a terrible mistake.  I wanted my students in the fiction class to get some sense of the genres of fiction that accompanied the rise of the novel in the late eighteenth century, so I have taught Pride and Prejudice as an example of a Bildungsroman:  after all, Elizabeth Bennet exclaims after she has evaluated and re-evaluated Darcy's letter "Until this moment, I never knew myself!"  If that doesn't demonstrate the beginnings of development and self-knowledge, I'm not sure what does.  The second novel they're reading is Hawthorne's Blithedale RomanceThere's my mistake. But I wanted to them to understand that an early source for the novel was the romance, and I hope to begin seducing them into liking the novel by telling them stories on Tuesday.  Nevertheless, they're going to struggle with Hawthorne's language and his wonderfully decorative style that makes everything from a rock to a veil, from a hand-netted purse to an exotic flower into a symbol of something in the idealized and yet fallen universe of Blithedale,a community based on the ideas of Charles Fourier which were tried out at Brook Farm, a community Hawthorne briefly joined.

Of course, if I'm going to teach them about the romance, my first task is to turn to Northrop Fry's Anatomy of Criticism, to take advantage to the patterns he saw in his encyclopedic reading.  (I once had lunch with Fry as a very pregnant graduate student and was treated to the breadth of his knowledge and his kind sense of humour.  I thought I needed to eat more!)  The romance for Fry is the mythos of  summer.  He tells us "The essential element of plot in romance is adventure" that involves the hero in a quest in which he will fight with the villain, perhaps winning, perhaps not, in order defend the values of his culture.  His reward is the bride; his accomplishment is a golden age or at the very least the renewed fertility of a wasteland.  If I'm lucky, when I give my students Fry's "recipe," they will recognize the elements of the genre fiction they read, and we'll be able to put Blithedale Romance  on a continuum between the Arthurian romances and "Wife of Bath's Tale," and Lord of the Rings or at least a Robin McKinley novel or Star Wars.  The themes and variations on the romance are legion and they remind us what fun it is to take a pattern and twist it slightly in one direction while pulling it a little out of shape in another.

I suspect there is something inherently pleasurable in the theme and variations.  Bach used this form for his "Goldberg Variations"; Brahms wrote brilliant variations on a theme of Hayden.  Many final movements of symphonies use the theme and variation form.  They ask "How far can I get from the original impulse and still be on the same road?"

But think of the potential for parody and critique in the theme and variation.  In last Saturday's s Globe and Mail, there was a piece on Reconciliation Week and an exhibition at the Belkin Art Gallery at UBC called "Witnesses:  Art and Canada's Indian Residential Schools."  The illustration is a painting by Lawrence Paul Yuxwelptun  that shows a young girl standing in front of a piece of Haida carving that reads both as her cultural background and as the halo from an icon or the painting of a Madonna.  Here, the variation (young Haida woman who is not serene) on a theme (Madonna) is a critical reference to the religious residential schools that mis-shaped the lives of too many innocent people.  Clueless is a brilliant send-up of Jane Austen's Emma--as indeed are all the films of Austen's novels in one way or another.  Blithedale Romance starts with the founding of the golden age, but its heroes are either too introverted or too pig-headed to defend the world they've made.  Taking one woman as bride leads another woman to suicide:  antebellum America, Hawthorne seems to suggest, is not fertile ground for the idealism of the romance.

Perhaps one of my favourite variations on a theme is the many incarnations of Sherlock Holmes.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories were so popular that when he got sick of writing them and killed Holmes off at the Reichenbach Falls, the British public demanded that Doyle find a way to bring him back.  The Holmes stories cover a period between 1880 and 1914, when Holmes is recruited to help uncover a plot during the First World War.  The Second World War saw Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Holmes and Watson in the movies which first recreated in their Victorian setting.  But when Twentieth Century Fox stopped making the movies and Universal Studios picked up the rights, the two friends were turned into Nazi hunters.  Holmes is the ever-brilliant, unswerving reasoner who can work his way through the knots of any crime or plot, the man we want brought back to help us out of an historical, political, or social quagmire.  How many other versions can I think of off the top of my head?  There's the wonderful BBC twenty-first-century Holmes, where our technology fits right into to Holmes's way of thinking.  There's Robert Downey Jr.'s very ironic Holmes.  More recently I've been watching, rather too avidly, "Elementary," where Lucy Liu plays Watson, who has become an addictions counselor and Jonny Lee Miller plays a very twenty-first century Holmes who has enough respect for Watson to teach her some of his methods.  Moriarty, meanwhile, has been uncovered:  she is no less than Irene Adler, Holmes's lover, whom he thought was killed by Moriarty.  Miller plays Holmes as a rude, abrupt, slightly ODC slightly hyperactive addict with an impressive tattoo. Either I can't figure out what this says about the kind of genius we need now--or the kind of genius that is given to us--or I'm enjoying the kinds of puzzles Holmes is faced with so much that I'm able to ignore how the writers see the twenty-first century.  Maybe this is the delight of the theme and variations:  you can take pleasure in the playfulness and skill without always wondering about the principle that determines the new shape and emphasis.

The photograph, btw, is of our last visit to Rowan's Ravine for the year.  Only one other extended family was there, and the women collected down by the water to talk together.  I get tired of having my mug in the blog fingerprint on FB.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Ambivalent Light

On Wednesday afternoon, with no pressing preparation for Thursday's classes I allowed myself the freedom to go home and read on the bench in our front yard.  It was a magical fall day, full of light that shone through the tall red grasses I had put in a planter with begonias this year.  Not needing to prepare for Thursday, I was beginning to read a book on trauma edited by Cathy Caruth that I will use in my winter term class on the Canadian novel and its tendency over the last ten years to revisit moments of historical trauma, violence, or loss.  Caruth points to one of the paradoxes of trauma:  that it is a kind of after-image that its victim revisits later, rather than at the time of the event.  Thus, the "truth" of the event is illusive as its shadow or after-image, which Caruth takes to be "not so much a symptom of the unconscious, as it is a symptom of history" (5).  I had made myself a low-tech latte and sipped it as I looked through these glasses at the light, thinking about the traumas of history occurring right now, in Syria, for example, where children who have been traumatized or moved to refugee camps will never be able to challenge the way these years have forced them to view the world and their lives.  The red grasses continued to glow and rustle.

On Saturday, I spent most of the day in a board room discussing the unsustainability of the Saskatchewan Book Awards.  A reluctant participant--I wanted to be outside!--I nevertheless found it a valuable discussion and thought we came to some agreement about what we could and could not go on doing with our limited resources.  Bill had dropped me off, since parking downtown is troublesome, and I was delighted at 4 to walk down Rose, across Victoria, and then through that very mixed neighbourhood south of Victoria and north of College, jogging to catch that lovely little park between 14th and 15th where people were playing baseball.  I stopped at the beds to look at airy sprays of white flowers I couldn't name, and watched the sunshine come through the corn and sunflowers at the south end.  Fall days have a certain kind of potential in them, as if they are the perfect time to begin a new life.  I could easily imagine myself at 24, settling into one of the lovely old apartment buildings (lovely from the outside, anyway) to become a writer.  Except at 24, battered in a whole variety of ways, I would have had no sense whatever of how to begin the first sentence.  That golden light suggested perhaps that it's better to begin this  next year at 64, when I will have some tentative idea about what I'm doing.  The clear light of spring perhaps has its limitations; perhaps it's the hazy slanting light of fall that reveals honest complexities and complications you might otherwise not notice. 

There's something about early evening light in the fall that makes me feel domestic, makes me imagine that we have all taken to our houses with a new sense of comfort, houses that smell of bread; houses where soup is on the stove and there's a line of newly-preserved fruit in its jars on the counter.  All cliches.  How to get beyond the cliche to express the powerful feeling I have in such light.  I think of the work of Winnipeg artist Aganetha Dyck, who once created the most startling, comforting, discomforting installation of buttons that she had canned.  The heat of the canning process had made the buttons expand and soften: they were extraordinarily beautiful.  Yet there's something perverse about canning buttons, taking the domestic out of our clothing and putting it in jars.  They might capture the fact that while the light speaks to me of deep comfort, I know at the very same moment that it's not something shared, universal.  Someone is eating a frozen dinner alone.  Another person isn't sure eating is worth the trouble.  In another household, eating is a time of family squabbles and argument.  Yet that same light shines through the windows in all of those houses.

Today, Bill and I went for a walk along the creek west of Elphinstone.  The trees, as you will have noticed, have just begun to turn.  At the same time, under the bridges was the most playful graffiti, reflected in the water.  We startled three yellow-shafted flickers, and they flew their golden underwings against that startling blue sky, dropping light as they rose.

When we got home, Bill put on music for me to cook by, something he often does.  Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong brought their own kind of gravely playful light into my kitchen as they sang "Autumn in New York"--my favourite Vernon Duke song.  I hadn't realized how much light their is in the lyrics:  glittering crowd and shimmering clouds in canyons of steel and gleaming rooftops at sundown.  I can hear the light in their voices.

Sunday, September 8, 2013


During the first week of the term I had to straighten out my course outlines, which involved a fair amount of anxiety about whether the plans that make sense on paper can be realized in the classroom--in spite of the fact that I've been teaching now for 37 years.  I've had to deal with graduate students and arrange meetings and do the and paperwork that's part of being the new Graduate Chair.  In spite of the fact that I was tired (my beginning of term anxiety sometimes makes it difficult to sleep), my classes on Thursday seemed fine:  I have found that a good way of introducing students to some of the theoretical issues we'll deal with during the term is to ask them to apply those models to something they know more about than I do.  So in the fiction class, where I want them to think about genre as well as the techniques of fiction, I introduced three models for describing a genre and then let them talk about the genre fiction they read.  In my class on Britain in the Sixties, we considered how difficult it would be to create a coherent yet honest narrative history of the present moment, and they talked to me about the technology they carry in their pockets (I do not even have a cell phone) and the way that influences their social and intimate relationships with people, and then considered the other things that go into history:  events, ideas, important people.  Besides being the experts, they could clearly see that writing a history is a vexed undertaking.

So in light of the chaotic and anxious week, what did it mean that I was "hungry" to work on the little quilt above?  The basket blocks are about 4 inches square and the setting triangles are made of dozens of different fabrics.  I'm still not sure why I invited such chaos into my workroom, but I did have fun.  This might be partly because you cannot over-think a project like this.  Although you might start out organizing those little setting triangles by colour and contrast, eventually you run out of options and just start putting things together.  And because there are so many fabrics and so many colours, they work.  (Though that's largely because they are reproduction fabrics and they all have the same amount of grey in them:  there are no bright colours that stand out.)

While I worked, I thought about human hungers.  I thought about how often they are antidotes.  Overwhelmed with work, we are hungry to be lazy; in the middle of masses of detail, we want to do something large and crazy like play baseball; finding we are at the end of our bank-account of self-restraint, we want to find a way to feed ourselves and turn to chocolate or caffeine or sugar.  I have often thought of desire as a social wild card.  Think of African American's hunger to be equal, to have equal opportunity, and all the social questions that raises.  Think of women's desire for equality, which I find eroding in startling and unnerving ways.  Think of sexual desire and the many, many ways it challenges the social contract.  I've just finished reading Austen's Pride and Prejudice, which explores how desire shakes up the class structure and the authority of Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  I hope soon to watch Victim, a Sixties film with Dirk Bogarde in which Bogarde plays a closeted lawyer who attempts to challenge a blackmail ring that is terrorizing gay men.  The film not only made Bogarde's career (though sadly he did not let the world see his long-term, stable, and loving gay relationship), but is credited with provoking the British Parliament into begin questioning its laws against homosexuality.  Desire can sometimes open the gate to equality.

But I also wondered how often our hungers are our own.  I've watched with some curiosity while New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, concerned about the epidemic of obesity, attempted to enact laws against over-sized sugary drinks. People railed against a politician who attempted to tell them what was good for them, a politician who attempted to rein in their desires.  The freedom to satisfy your own hungers seems to be an inherent part of who we are.  Yet I also know that companies do research on getting the balance of salt, sugar, and fat just right in order to make some foods more addictive.  Are we always agents of our own desires?  Yesterday I was certainly seduced, in part, by the whole discourse of comfort and creativity that infuses the world of quilters:  what speaks more to the idea of comfort than a quilt, particularly a quilt made of fabrics that look like those popular in the mid nineteenth century?  Is that idea part of my own history, my own aesthetic, or is it something that quilt magazines have convinced me of?   I am also aware of how beautiful so much advertising is, particularly for cars, and the way our leaning toward that beauty is often a leaning away from what might be ethical, practical, affordable, or environmentally responsible.

These are all questions I have no answers to, and in any event my own answers would not be yours.  Our desires, like our sense of beauty, are at best particularly our own.  At worse, they urge us to eat and spend mindlessly.   Yet they can also be a source of deep satisfaction and even social change, a prompt to think through what matters to us.

My apologies for craning your neck.  While my camera knows how to get a face in the right orientation, it hasn't learned that quilt baskets have a right side up.