Archive for February, 2012

Borrower’s Card: Buenos Aires Public Library


A few years ago my partner and I spent a couple of months in Argentina. The idea before we left was that we would spend the first month in Buenos Aires and in addition to sightseeing would also each get some work done, before touring around for the second month. Unfortunately, the apartment we rented turned out not to be so well equipped for productivity. The only potential work surfaces were the high kitchen counter, an old Singer sewing machine (the kind built into a cramped little table) and a cabinet ledge. All the chairs were either too short or too tall. Jordan made do, but eventually I moved on to try cafés. The problem with those was that the Spanish that had felt so fluent at home began to seem a bit lacking once we encountered people who weren’t asking us specific questions for which we had rehearsed ready answers. The location of the baño, for example, or whether our cash was in pesos or dolares. Whiling away an afternoon at a café meant tripling the number of times I’d have to order something only to be answered with a question that didn’t ever seem to have anything to do with coffee or milk or foods you might want to have alongside. The added stress of this meant I wasn’t getting that much written out of the apartment either.

Late in the month I finally hit upon the rather obvious idea of working at the public library. The branch nearest our apartment was at Guemes and Uriarte streets, 
and one afternoon I went and found it, a grey, vaguely tubular 
corner building that from the outside wasn’t particularly welcoming, apart from having the library’s coat of arms painted above the door. On the whole, it seemed a little indifferent to patrons, or at least to one who needed to have her hand held and be coaxed in, preferably in English.

Once inside, I liked it immediately. It was a smaller branch, with just one large room, but it felt established, with dark wood armoire-type 
shelves with plants on top of them, both full-grown ones and little upstarts
 in water glasses. Of course I wasn’t there to read any of the books, but I was pleased anyway to see a large section dedicated to local Lituratura 
Hispanoamericana. On top of one shelf was a bust of Sarmiento, who was Argentina’s 
seventh president, and who, I later discovered, modernized the country’s postal system and railways, and promoted education for women and children – all things I support. That day he seemed to be glaring at a disorganized corner of the room where there were stacks of books waiting to be shelved or discarded.

I chose a big table toward the back. There was an awkward moment when the librarian on duty tried to give me a piece of paper that I assume was a request slip and I responded with a series of muttered nos and thanks yous and a helpless shrug that I hoped translated roughly as “Señor, if you hadn’t guessed it already I am incapable of reading even the picture books in your fair country.” But then I settled in and, miracle of miracles, wrote for a while.

Around three a bunch of kids in school uniforms arrived and made very good use of the request slips. There was a window open near me and I would catch an occasional whiff of cigarette 
smoke from the street, and see the whale backs of buses going by. April is fall in the southern hemisphere, and when we arrived it felt strange to be experiencing what to us was unusually warm spring weather when everyone around us was buckling down in anticipation of winter. That afternoon, though, I remember feeling a bit more in step with the season.

I only ever went the one time before we decamped to explore some of the rest of the country, but have always thought that if I went back I would make the Guemes y Uriarte branch my headquarters. I need to believe there is a successful writing vacation still out there waiting to be had.

(“Borrower’s Card” has turned out to be a highly irregular feature on memorable library visits. If you like libraries too, you can read the first one, on the Lillooet Public Library, here, and the second, on the West Vancouver Memorial Library, which I wrote as a guest-post on Kerry Clare’s blog Pickle Me This.)


“Elizabeth Bishop & The New Yorker”

This is one of a few books that were published last year to coincide with the centenary celebrations for American (but really Nova Scotian) poet Elizabeth Bishop (1911–1979). I’m extremely fond of The New Yorker, and of Bishop, but even so was pleasantly surprised at how readable the correspondence was. Bishop had a pretty enviable relationship with the poetry and fiction editors there (first Katharine White and then Howard Moss) and the majority of her work was published first in the magazine’s pages.

This first excerpt, from May 13, 1948, appealed to me for editorial reasons. The New Yorker was and still is known for maintaining a truly mighty house style guide. Bishop herself acknowledged how well edited a publication it was. Nevertheless, it would appear the editors themselves kept a reasonably good sense of humour about stylistic issues:

Dear Miss Bishop:
Our style expert says we can’t grant two of your requests on the proof of The Bight. The italic subtitle is against the style of the magazine, and the lower case “g” in the fourth line from the end is, he says, against English and would look monstrous. I don’t know what “against English” can possibly mean, and personally, I like things that look monstrous. But these two details would, it seems rock the foundations of the magazine, and I hope you won’t mind our leaving them the way they are.
Cordially yours,
William Maxwell

This second excerpt is from a letter Bishop wrote to Howard Moss, July 7, 1972, concerning the proofs for her poem “The Moose.” The poem is one of my favourites and Bishop’s letter concerns the existence of one of my favourite places, the Tantramar Marshes outside Sackville, New Brunswick:

“Tantramar Marshes” – well, the NY-er couldn’t find it on the map, and neither could I (I used one). Nor could the Harvard Library map room. However – I know I’m right, and they used to be called that, at any rate. I had it firmly in mind, but couldn’t prove it, when I finished the poem, and the next day I went to Bermuda for the week-end. This is uncanny. In the bookshop I saw in Hamilton, the first book that caught my eye was a very crude Canadian re-print of a Methodist minister’s travels in Nova Scotia and Bermuda, in the early 19th century … It had page-headings, one of which was “The Tantramar.” (This was just a day or two after I’d been going crazy in Cambridge trying to find some reference to them … and didn’t know whether I could use the word or not – and I like it a lot.) Well, the missionary crossed the marshes and his horse sank in them and he sank, and they had to be pulled out, etc. – and apparently at that time there was even a place called “Tantramar” – it probably comes from the time of the Acadians, a French corruption … (Frank Bidart, who was along, went back and bought the book for me – it was much too expensive – like an angel.) So – I do think that’s all right.


Faber & Faber poetry series

Whenever I’m in bookstores browsing the poetry shelves I find myself drawn to newer Faber & Faber titles. Partly because I respect their list quite a bit, but also because I find the current cover design to be just about perfectly suited to my tastes. I finally decided to do a little investigating to see who was the brains behind the series design and here’s what I found out:

The designer is Justus Oehler at Pentagram. The font is Eric Gill’s Perpetua, and the size used varies to suit the length of the title and poet’s name. There are only ever three colours, and I have yet to see a combination I didn’t think worked. The concept was inspired by an earlier design by Berthold Wolpe, who was Faber’s in-house artist for many years. I see a few different paths of research I’d like to follow from here, but those are the very basics.

My latest dip into the Faber list is Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Casual Perfect, which I hope to have time to finish and write a bit about soon.