Author Archive

May contain peanuts

2016-07-26-20-36-57

I wrote last week about how languages are presented in other languages in novels and wandered into thinking about translation and philosophies of. As it turns out Michael Hofmann, the translator of some of Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s work, does have quite a bit to say about his ideas on translation. I’m under strict post-travel austerity measures right now, so apart from $5 bags ‘o’ random and the $1 shelf in front of the thrift store, it’s the library for me. Luckily they had a copy of Where Have You Been?, Hofmann’s latest collection of book reviews and essays.

I immediately liked his style, full of half-sentence starts and general fuckyouitiveness:

“Last thing. My title, Where Have You Been?…isn’t it also the constant clamor or refrain, bandied from book to reader, reader to critic, critic to book, in an endless farce of ill timing? And vice versa too, of course. Where increasingly everything is global and blogal and instant and on demand, where the things we think we want talk to us (or at least the things that have been told to want us), isn’t it odd and lovely and even a little reassuring that there’s so much itinerant lostness about?”

Which comes out especially in “Sharp Biscuit,” an essay on translation and his all-in approach to the English language:

“This is translation not quite as autobiography but maybe as ‘autography’: turning out my pockets, Schwitters-style, a bus ticket, a scrap of newspaper, a fag packet, a page torn out of a diary. The words are not just words; they are words that I’ve knocked around with; they reflect my continuing engagement with Lowell, with Brodsky, with Bishop, with Malcolm Lowry, words that have had some wear and tear, there is fade in them, and softness, and history, maybe not visibly so for every reader, but palpably, to some.”

“Chocolates carry warnings that they may have been manufactured using equipment that has hosted peanuts; why not translations too? But then not just ‘has written the occasional modern poem’ but also ‘likes punk’ or ‘early familiarity with the works of Dickens’ or even ‘reads the Guardian’ or ‘follows the Dow’ or ‘fan of P. G. Wodehouse.’”

And then this, which raised for me a slightly separate issue:
“Even if you use eighteenth-century vocabulary, chances are you won’t manage a single sentence that would have passed muster in the eighteenth century….Meanwhile, your twenty-first-century reader reads you with what—his eighteenth-century parson’s soul? On his Nook?”

Now here’s a thing I’ve mostly held off talking to other editors about for fear of seeming sloppy or insufficiently interested in the details, which is, you know, editing’s whole deal. I read anecdotes editors tell about using Google Maps to spot a gaff in the author’s rendering of the outer suburbs of Sarnia and I tend to think, “Good on ya…I guess.” And in mystery editing in particular there seems to be a hard line drawn between made-up settings (Louise Penny’s Three Pines) and real (Sara Paretsky’s Chicago) in terms of what we’re supposed to be letting authors get away with. Lots of mystery readers read for setting, and I understand that impulse to do right by them. But even in a town I know down to the last shortcut (and I’ve edited books set in places I know well), I’m simply not going to hold you to every turn in the road, every plant in the ditch. You may have lost your pursuers in taking that side street that is in real life a cul-de-sac, but you have not lost me. In part because do we take this to its logical extreme and ask ourselves how many murders can really happen in one quiet seaside town before everyone simply moves away and they shut the place down? No, no we do not. That was great, give us more!

Historical fiction is another potential bonanza for an editor of a certain frame of mind. I have called authors on various glitches in historical accuracy, leaving notes along the lines of “My quick internet search tells me stainless steel was not widely available until ——. Do you want to adjust this?” But even then, in the back of my mind, I’m sometimes thinking: “Killjoy.” Because more often than not, really, really, that stainless steel is not affecting my engagement with the story one iota.

Several years ago I got to work on a fascinating book called Eva’s Threepenny Theatre by Andrew Steinmetz. The book was in part about where fact leaves off and fiction picks up, where family lore and memories bleed into misunderstanding and invention. The manuscript had gone through many incarnations before it got to me, and the precise balance of fact and fiction had shifted and continued to shift as we readied it for publication. (In trying to find the right way to describe it in marketing materials we eventually settled on “a fiction about memoir.” ) At a certain point in the process Andrew and I decided I would cease asking him which aspects of the story were real, as in from his life, and which were weren’t. In the book the narrator’s mother dies of meningitis and without asking myself why, I had become convinced that this was among the details drawn from Andrew’s life. So that when at the book launch I was introduced to his mother I assumed it must be his stepmother. Yet there were some nagging similarities in their faces. Eventually I pulled him aside and asked.
“Oh, you thought that one was real, huh.”
“I did.”
“Ha.”

Frankly I loved that someone would off his mother for the sake of the story. That’s the spirit.


Languages pretending to be other languages

I’ve been reading some fiction in translation lately and it’s got me thinking about how authors present and represent other languages in the language they’re writing in. I’m thinking in the vein of Cormac McCarthy and his Border trilogy, which I’ve always found contained exactly the right smattering of Spanish qua Spanish, in among the conversations that are understood to be taking place in Spanish but are being represented by English.

It’s something that’s come up for me occasionally in my editing work, too. In my experience there’s a certain amount of killing of darlings to do, to tamp down superfluous foreign flare on the way to finding the right balance of authentic and comprehensible, so that what you end up with are windows into an actual exchange in that language without leaving the reader behind or waylaying them with too many translation exercises.

What comes up more frequently in the fiction I edit is how to accurately but smoothly represent dialect, broken English, or accents. In terms of how much and how frequently to keep the flavour of characters’ speech patterns in the reader’s mind, my sense is that it’s often less than initial instincts might suggest. There are parallels here with narrative detail. Smoking and eating are ones that I see over and over again. Once you’ve established that a character is smoking or sipping a coffee, we only need to see them sip and inhale every so often. It’s more about setting the activity in motion.

One of the most challenging (but definitely interesting) language issues I’ve encountered in my work came in the midst of editing A.J.B. Johnston’s novel Crossings, the third in his Thomas Pichon series. In the first two novels Thomas was living his life in France, in French, represented by English for the purposes of these English-language books. But by the third book he was on his way to London and this meant learning English, represented by English, but distinct from his French which was also being represented by (better) English. John and I picked away at this over multiple rounds of edits trying to get his character’s progress happening at a believable pace. I think we got it right in the end, but it had the effect of making me hyper-aware, for a while at least, of how other authors were doing this and then how it was being taken through a second layer of language anytime I was reading a book translated into English from its original.

I was reminded of this while devouring two of Peter Stamm’s novels this week. With Switzerland still on the brain (it’s still summer; I’ve promised myself I’ll return to Earth/Canada by the time the leaves have turned), I searched again and finally found exactly the list of books I’d failed to find before my trip, ie. a mix of Swiss writers, travel writing and books set in Switzerland. One of the Swiss authors on the list was Stamm, whose name really should have been familiar to me already, from Tim Parks’s book Where I’m Reading From (one of the best book-books I’ve read this year), which includes, among several essays on translation, one on Stamm’s work. But like foraging for mushrooms, or whatever, an author’s name can be completely forgettable if I encounter them when I have nothing else in my brain to attach them to, only to appear everywhere once I’m actually looking for them.

I have more to say on Stamm, whose work I found mesmerizing – almost to the point of feeling cottony – and whose preoccupation with people walking away from their everyday lives is very appealing, but what caught my attention right away was how often the issue of translation comes up in his work. Which makes sense, of course, what with all those official national languages going on in every Swiss person’s midst. In the first book I read, On a Day Like This, the main character, Andreas, has a German language tape playing in his car:

The tape had kept on playing. When Andreas next heard it, a woman was speaking with strange emphasis.

I hurt myself. You hurt yourself. He hurts himself. We hurt ourselves. You hurt yourselves. They hurt themselves.

He took the tape out of the player. He got out of the car, and walked to the men’s room to wash his face. He dropped the cassette into a garbage bin that had thank you written on it in four languages.

But of course on a German tape all of that little exercise is in German, and I’m curious about the translator, Michael Hofmann’s, decision to translate it into English. I wonder if it gave him pause or if he has a particular philosophy on foreign language flare.

Incidentally, I was delighted to see the garbage bin with thank you in four languages make another appearance in my second Stamm, All Days Are Night. I don’t often binge-read a single author, or even read two of their books in a row, but when it turns up little things like this I wonder if I should do it more.

Alright, I’m halfway down too many rabbit holes at once now, but before I abandon them all, I’ll add this New Yorker essay by Lauren Collins, which was waiting in my mailbox when I came back to Victoria from Lillooet last week. It’s a very funny piece about trying to learn French after moving to Geneva and the experience of finally understanding her husband in his first language:

I don’t know whom he’s talking about, or why she’s incapacitated. He seems to be saying quoi a lot. Even as it dawns on me that I may have pledged lifelong fealty to a man who ends every sentence with the equivalent of “dude,” I’m taken by an eerie joy. Four years after having met Olivier, I’m hearing his voice for the first time.

(Ooh. And I’ve just realized she has a whole book coming out next month, When In French. Noted.)

After reading that and then having a very jumbled but very welcome Facetime call from my Swisses yesterday, I’ve resolved again (AGAIN) to tackle this French business. I will prevail. Welcoming any and all suggestions for French tutors in the area.


My book-sale haul

Unlike the annual delivery of hay for my mother’s horse, which it took me years to realize was not coincidentally falling at the same (goddamn) time as my visit home every summer but in fact precisely scheduled for this, the Lillooet Library book-sale and I are just on each other’s wavelengths. I roll in, sweaty, dressed in my summer best (think: someone’s shambling uncle on safari) and the sale assembles itself in the Rec Centre hallway. Like magic.

The thing is, although I talk a good line about loving well-established bookstores, in terms of the sheer thrill of the find, a rainsoaked pile of books on a sidewalk is still the most enticing to me. The book sale is a solid step up from a pile on the sidewalk, but it still involves browsing through 1980s fad diets, economics textbooks, outdated guidebooks, and a whole lot of Louis L’Amour. And I mean all of that in a good way. This year I also noted an unusual number of books on socialism. Another idealist forced to downsize, I guess.

Here’s what I got:

Giants of Geology: The Story of the Great Geologists by Carroll L. & Mildred A. Fenton (Chapter 1 is called “Fluids and Exhalations” and starts “Sunshine still fires the Grand Canyon’s walls, but they and the turbid brown river now are far away. We sit in the cool north light of a library, scanning maps that recall those early days when the whole occidental world was no more than a fringe surrounding the Mediterranean Sea.” I can’t wait.)
An Introduction to Existentialism by Robert G. Olsen (Because I meant what I said that time about being on the cusp of getting this nailed down.)
The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse (because summer)
Wobegon Boy by Garrison Keillor (see above)
Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (I have trouble passing up a Penguin classic)
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee (While I love book books, bookshop books have sometimes disappointed me in the past. I’m hoping this one will come through.)
Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C.G. Jung (because a new Swiss friend is a Jungian analyst and so now my interest is piqued)
An Area of Darkness and India: A Wounded Civilization by V.S. Naipaul (on their own merits but also because a receipt from 1981 for a night’s stay at a youth hostel in Istanbul and a page of handwritten notes on inseminating cows fell out of one of them and so how could I not?)
The Jade Peony by Wayson Choy (am I the last person in BC to get around to reading this?)
Moosewood Cookbook (because my last one fell by the wayside in the not-divorce)

All that for five dollars. It’s true, I probably will spend my dotage shuffling to rummage sales in a mothy fur coat. One could do worse, right?


Que sais-je (not that much)

Although I don’t travel so often, in my years of occasional blogging I’ve developed a bad habit of stockpiling material for mammoth “My Trip” posts and then never quite finishing them. This one’s a messy beast, but here it is.

On a bit of a whim I decided to visit a friend in Fribourg, Switzerland, for a month and so got to spend time in one of those ridiculously functional neighbourhoods that make everything in North America seem slap-dash by comparison. The commuter train goes by at reassuring intervals. State of the art appliances wait in the kitchen to streamline your meal prep, while upstairs the German washing machine works quietly (and more thoroughly, it would seem) on the little project of your dirty clothes. Adults with reassuring jobs like therapist and architect come home for lunch and wheel their bikes into the communal bike shed at the head of the lane and greet their children in somewhere between one and four languages. (Overachievers.) Birds chirp. In between flurries of work I ate cheese and used the reassuring little yellow arrow signs to guide me on walks on the system of trails and farm tracks and back roads that brachiate off in all directions and can, in theory, get you anywhere you want to go in this country.

And of course I read, although I had taken a chance and packed no books since I’d been promised use of a library card once I got there.

Reading on vacation in places where they don’t stock many books in your language has, in my experience, made the books I do get stand out much more. On a two-month trip to Argentina several years ago, I ran out of reading material a few weeks in and I remember waiting anxiously for the Buenos Aires book fair where, after much deliberation, I bought Paul Auster’s Moon Palace, Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and a Penguin edition of Lolita with Nabokov spelled wrong on the spine. On a shorter trip to Germany a few years ago I bought a copy of The Lower River by Paul Theroux and vividly remember reading it by the bad bedside light in the Munich studio apartment where we were staying. (That apartment was also devoid of any coffee-making accoutrements, which meant I was, probably for my own good, forced to go to the bakery two doors down and order “ein kaffee” every morning of our stay. Actually, the procuring of coffee in foreign places has been its own sort of subplot to the procuring of English-language books for me, although I don’t get a whanging headache from not reading, just sad and irritated.)

My neighbourhood library in Fribourg was La Biblioteque cantonele et universitaire. What caught my eye when I first walked in were the many shelves of pastel spines near the front. These turned out to be a French series of books called Que sais-je, well known to everyone I asked later but completely fascinating to me. Here is what je sais so far: Published by Presses universitaires de France, since 1941, each volume is 128 pages, and they are updated when the information becomes obsolete. If the subject itself becomes obsolete, they stop issuing it, but it keeps the number. The range of subjects is what’s really impressive and because, in the library at least, they are arranged by number and not subject, you get runs of beautiful little juxtapositions like English Grammar, Puberty, Contemporary Japan, Inflation. I have to admit the latest cover design for the series is not to my taste, but the ones from the 70s and 80s are pretty satisfying. The series title was inspired by Michel de Montaigne. Funnily enough my barrier to reading more Montaigne so far has been the fact that his work only ever seems close to hand in gigantic, thousand-page omnibus format. I’m still looking for him in something more Que sais-je sized.

After about ten minutes of gazing at the pastel splendour I remembered that my reading level in French is somewhere closer to board book and began hunting down some English. The English shelf was small but mighty. I had expected the kind of selection you’d find at an airport, but instead immediately saw eight or ten titles I’d been meaning to read. I ended up choosing Edmund de Waal’s The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts to start with. (On a day trip to Bern a couple of weeks later I found a bookstore with an entire English-language floor complete with dedicated English staff and a well-stocked corner of “Keep Calm and Blah Blah Blah” paraphernalia, and happened to see a copy of The White Road with the alternate subtitle “Journey into Obsession,” which I like less.)

de Waal is a potter and the book combines his research (both archival and on the ground) into the multiple origins of porcelain, which has an interesting, convoluted history in that it was invented and reinvented in different locations around the world, with different secret recipes and techniques. The combination of travelogue, research and memoir of artistic process made a good companion for my stay, although in hard cover at roughly 500 pages it wasn’t exactly something I could pop in my pocket while going about my flaneurial routine. (I know, I know: e-readers. Shut up.)

A couple of my favourite passages:

“My friends were in London with jobs, writing, partying, getting on with careers and affairs, and I was making dishes, unglazed, rough oatmeal brown on the outside, and green on the inside, pots to disappear into the landscape. No one bought them. No one liked them. This is usually an artist’s trope – as in no one liked them except, say, Peggy Guggenheim – but in my case they were genuinely unlikeable because they had that killer factor for objects. They were needy. And once you recognise neediness in an object, it is difficult to live with. The fluidity of your life with it curdles.” (94)

About a year in Tokyo:
“For the first time in my life, I could make pots without anxiety. I had no need to sell them, or exhibit them or explain them. And I was amongst others, in a cheerful studio with students and retired old men, and commuters dropping in for an hour to work on a tea bowl before starting their long journey back home on a train. There was a substantial contingent of elderly women making containers for flower arrangements. We had a little show in December and complimented each other.

“My pots relaxed. I picked up a bottle I’d thrown in porcelain, and squeezed it gently. Picked up its pair and did the same, placed them next to each other so that the gestures met. They looked better together. It made sense.” (153–4)

This book also reminded me, and I don’t know why I have to keep relearning this, that I tend to get more out of reading about the work habits and process and careers of artists who are not writers, possibly for the basic reason that less of it is tangibly relevant. I can read a book like this or watch something like Jiro Dreams of Sushi (and have in fact watched it an alarming number of times) and come away feeling absolutely solid in my decision to keep plugging away at writing poems, even though it isn’t particularly for anything and isn’t ever progressing at a particularly impressive gait. With biographies or writers, much as I do enjoy them, I am constantly playing the game of comparing my progress to theirs. Wait, he was how old in that year?

With a library at my disposal I was a little slower than usual to check out the local bookstores, but when I did I found something interesting (to me), which was that good portions of them were organized by publisher. This is something I haven’t seen much of anywhere else. I didn’t investigate too deeply, but I suspect it has partly to do with the amount of literature in translation that’s read in Switzerland. Maybe it also reflects a trend in French publishing. Fribourg is a French canton and so I assume along with domestic publishers, a fair amount of its reading material is coming from France. Likewise, I suppose in the Italian and German speaking parts of the country there’s a mix of domestic and imported translations which all lend themselves to this style of familiar, easy-to-spot formatting and design. This is just a working theory. In any case, I discovered a number of other series, including Folio and Le petit mercure.

About that French. I believe it improved marginally over the month, and if nothing else my listening skills improved so that I was able to calmly receive what someone was saying to me in French rather than panicking, clinging to the random words I knew, and not listening all the way to the end. With my friend Véronique I discovered a threshold of overlap that worked quite well. She spoke about 80 percent French to me and I spoke about 80 percent English to her and if I do say so myself we covered quite a bit of interesting ground in our conversations. Which were admittedly a bit beer-addled.

But in fact having someone apart from store clerks and waiters to practice another language on at all – ie. meeting people in my travels – was itself very new for me. As a not-so-outgoing person, either alone or with (usually) not-so-outgoing travelling companions, I tend to return home with the same number of friends I had when I left. But this time I was visiting someone who had his own friends and Fribourg being a not-so-big city, sometimes I would even see someone I knew in the street and they would say hello. The first time this happened I almost fell over. It also meant that once I had fairly mastered Fribourg (as someone with no sense of direction I was able to drag this out over a couple of weeks) there were people who wanted to help me explore the rest of the area. I was dropped off a trail heads, invited onto balconies for beer, given an all-day train pass (my idea of heaven), taken on a hike that ended at a hilltop restaurant serving (so I’m told) the best fondue in the canton. Then, so that I could go home properly educated in both national h0t-cheese dishes, a little raclette party was held just before my departure, and I got to witness the marvel of engineering that is the raclette machine (google it. And yes, they all look like prototypes). I was sort of an overgrown exchange student now that I think back on it. That people would want to indulge another grownup with that much hospitality was baffling and much appreciated. Thank you, mes Suisses!

And then I came home, in one of those very long against-the-time-zones days that seem like they shouldn’t actually work mathematically. After train-flight-flight-skytrain-bus-ferry-bus it was somehow still light out when I got to Victoria, so I dropped my bags in the hallway and went to the library just before it closed. Then I took myself out for sushi and spread all my books out in the booth. I’ve been on a literary critcism bent lately, possibly working up to someday soon writing some myself, and this week am sifting between a few in that vein: John Leonard’s Reading for my Life, Adam Kirsch’s The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry, and an older one, Ursula Le Guin’s Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places.

When I got up the next day a little voice on Twitter told me that the poems I’d had accepted by Ryga magazine before I left were now online in the journal’s latest issue, which you can find here, if you like. Four of my five are travel-related so that seems fitting.

You can also see more trip photos here, on my mostly un-bookish Instagram page.


Day to Self

In the way of books talking to one another it seems entirely appropriate that the book I gave up on this past week was mentioned in the opening pages of the book I picked up to replace it. Just a couple of days before the giving up, I was raving to a client who had asked if I liked Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” books. Yes! I did! I loved them. I loved that someone could talk about cleaning out his dead father’s house, bagging up garbage, vaccuuming, assembling meals in between, for upwards of a hundred (or maybe it was two hundred) pages and keep me fully invested the entire time. Then I got to book 4, Dancing in the Dark, and for whatever reason just did not have it in me this week, this month, this year, for such detailed descriptions of teenage boy brain. I didn’t out and out hate it, I just couldn’t muster the will to keep going. When I’m not happy in my reading life I get very snappish with the outside world. I’ll catch up with Knausgaard again in book 5.

What I picked up to replace it was Sixty, Ian Brown’s account of his sixty-first year. I have to admit that while diaries of writers are compelling to me in the way that Knausgaard has been, for the drama and the discoveries to be found in the everyday, a big part of the appeal is what they might offer in the way of instructions on how to live as a writer, more specifically. In the same way I (and I’m sure I’m not the only one) mine those giant Paris Review interviews with established authors for that one mundane habit or philosophy on first drafts or choice of writing instrument that will crack the whole thing open and make it seem repeatable.

But more immediately, when it comes to diaries, I’m also hoping they’ll teach me how to write in my own diary again. We’ve been seeing less and less of each other in the last ten years and even though I know there are bigger worries in the world, this still bothers me. When I read Heidi Julavits’s The Folded Clock last fall it dawned on me, around the hundredth page, that she had begun each entry with the word “Today.” Which might seem natural enough, but in the moment of realization struck me as the answer to the diaring drought. Of course. Begin that way and the rest will just burst forth onto the page. I haven’t written a single new entry since then.

Brown doesn’t claim to be a diarist. He’s in it for a year, to investigate his own aging process and see what the world looks like from this particular vantage point. He acknowledges that the finished product has been edited down from the original, but I was pleased to see that it still managed to include enough of the flotsam of daily life to avoid feeling overly focused on plugging away at one theme. It’s messy without being mundane. It’s also very funny, in an alarming sort of way.

On the morning of his sixtieth birthday: “And just like that, standing there in the darkened kitchen at sixty, having been the sort of person—the kind who thought he was twenty-one when he was forty—strikes me as a terrible error. O you fool, I think, you did not realize upon what quiet foot The End approacheth. (My mental cadence takes on the rhythms of the Book of Common Prayer when I get anxious.)” (p. 6)

On money woes and retirement savings: “But then I think: why does it have to be lavish? In a few years I’ll be grateful if my anus is still in one piece.” (p. 127)

Having to wait for service: “‘Don’t you realize I’m dying?’ I want to shout at the obliviously texting twatwipe behind the bar. ‘Every second takes me closer to the end!’” (p. 139)

He also spends time thinking about solitude, which is sort of the unsung specialty of diaries. One of my favourite entries was his synthesis of the ideas of British psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott on the importance of parents allowing their children solitude: “without requiring that you be aware of their needs at the same time; they neither abandon you, and make you afraid, nor hold the gift of solitude over your head, reminding you of their own.” (p. 206)

*

A few Christmases ago I went down to the basement at my parents’ house and retrieved the box of my childhood/teenage diaries with the idea of finally rereading them. I started keeping them when I was eight and continued fairly consistently until around fourth-year university, so about thirteen years. The first two years, and I think I speak unbiasedly here, are gems. I’m not saying it wasn’t mostly the usual friend drama and lists of favourite things, reports on dinner and what my sisters had done to annoy me that day, but there’s also a lot of trying on of voices, and it’s easy to follow the struggle between the different types of books I was reading. An avalanche of Britishisms (at one point I wrote, in all earnestness, “I reckon.” Jesus.) would follow an Enid Blyton binge. There was a tendency in some early nineties middle/YA fiction to centre a story (usually a series) on a rigid set of personality types and I can see the mostly stifling effects of that in my diaries too; the subtext being the question of whether I was a Kristy, a Claudia, a MaryAnn, or a Stacey, an Elizabeth or a Jessica Wakefield. My sense is that this approach to characterization is mostly considered passé now, and probably for the best.

But what’s most interesting to me now is discovering that my need for what sometimes seems like a ridiculous, impractical amount of solitude goes back a lot further than I remembered.

I find it first in the midst of a cramped little rundown of my first week in London. After the giant toystore (Wed.) and before Buckingham Palace (Fri.): Thurs. – Day to self.

Let’s be clear: I was ten, on my first trip abroad, in the almost 24-hour company of my mother and grandmother, making the rounds of family friends. When we went up to Lancashire I would be allowed to take the bus from Colne to Leeds with Emma, who was then twelve, received a slightly more robust allowance and had a shopping list going at all times for her next trip to town. But never, never was I alone. Yet there it was, however out of touch with the reality of travelling as a fully chaperoned ten-year-old, my first written record of a now well-established need for hours unobserved.

“Here’s a good one,” I told my mother the day I found that, and read the entry to her. This launched its gradual dissemination into the lives of our pets, and then inanimate objects. The dog, tuckered from a hike, snoozing on the couch, paws in the air: day to self. Stray dessert fork found out on the lawn after a birthday dinner: day to self. The button that leaps off its jacket, the bathroom fixture that comes off in your hand – all merely in need of a few hours away from the pack.

Introversion is having a moment right now, and although I welcome the new level of acceptance for my end of this Myers-Briggs business – and with it the more nuanced understanding that an occasional desire to command coversation might not be in total opposition to the visceral exhaustion brought on by interaction with other humans, when talk feels a lot like being bashed between two cymbals – it feels double-edged. I catch myself googling “is introversion overrated?” (This turns up mostly articles about extroversion being overrated, so I guess we’re not quite there yet.) Still, I wonder whether we will one day move on from this paradigm and remember the days when we were simple and used extro/intro to explain all kinds of things that can’t be or at least do not require labelling.

But I remain baffled as to where I even learned that initial shorthand: day to self. Or that shorthand was somehow called for. I’d like to think it’s an inborn mode but more likely it came from whatever I was reading at the time. In any case, when I encountered Philip Larkin’s diary poem “Forget What Did” just a few years ago, I was immediately home.

*
Six or eight years ago, when I was still living on the east coast, my dad called one day to tell me he’d found a box of stuff with my name on it that seemed to have been tampered with:
“I think someone might have gone through your books,” he said. “Your journals.”
“Well, I’m not too worried about it. They’re pretty old.”
“Oh no,” he said. “These ones seem more recent.”

I’m not entirely convinced he didn’t have a picnic lunch next to him there on the basement stairs, making an afternoon of it, amid the mouldering National Geographics, cat carriers, ski poles, and horse tack.

His own diaries (he calls them daybooks) have always been fair game for perusal on the coffee table, open to the current day:
cloudy, 10 degrees
egg sandwich
Sue & girls back from coast

Or, more recently, after having his knee replaced: troubled night. (No living that one down.) His reports run alongside lists of jobs he needs to get done and things he wants to look into. To do and what did on the same page. It really has its appeal and whenever I’ve reread a more fraught passage from one of my own books I think maybe I should just calm the fuck down and stick to the basic goings on. I know people who keep journals for specific aspects of their lives: books they’re reading, hikes taken, flora and fauna. And although I’ve taken long breaks from diaring I come back to it sort of as an extension of talking to myself. In some scattered (and frankly mostly cringe-worthy) way, it’s a rehearsal space and demands a narrative voice, even one that wanders back and forth between note-taking and complete sentences. Subject-wise I think I have to be all in. Because what ultimately stops me when I take these breaks, aside from the usual life distractions, is the nagging question of what gets in and what gets left out. Ie. what if I am not a reliable narrator of the only life I can reliably be counted on to narrate?

Having dipped into some of my later journals, from my university years, what’s most disappointing is that there seems to be no reflection of what I remember being very distinct periods of time, of obsessions. One of my strongest university memories is of the months before my friends and I launched a cross-country cycling trip to raise awareness about climate change. All through that winter we got up early and did weight training (in retrospect probably pointless), then made enormous breakfasts, and then after classes worked until what now seem like ungodly hours researching policy, planning our route, and creating our campaign’s website. (Dear Diary, I once knew HTML!) But almost none of that is in my journal from that year. Possibly that should be heartening, to see that nostalgia can’t really make its way into the day by day. Maybe in another twenty years I’ll find something telling in those months, like that day to self, hiding in the weeds of all the alarming confessions in those first diary pages, what feels now like a bit of prescient knowledge about my way of being in the world. And that’s what will probably get me back to keeping a diary again – the pre-meditated curiosity about what my 56-year-old self might make of my 36-year-old way of presenting myself to myself. It’s not the worst reason, I guess.


If I’m permitted one act I can save

Oops. Got a bit distracted there for a couple of weeks. It was probably inevitable (for me) that a grand statement of intent would be followed more or less immediately by total lack of follow-through. However, in that time I paid my taxes, did my bit for the 2016 census, and finally put my application for BC health coverage in the mail and thus basically feel like I accomplished a lifetime’s worth of adulting. All the forms!

Doing my taxes meant reviewing where all the money went and down that rabbithole I discovered that as of May 4th I have been back in BC for a year. This also means most of my books (and some assorted other flotsam) have now been lurking in a dark storage unit in Bayer’s Lake, NS, for an entire year. That guilty thought and then an essay I read recently by champion reader and book-book author Michael Dirda, “The Guest Room Library,” got me thinking about what my own guest-room shelf* would contain, come that glorious day when I scrape together the postage to ship those 500-odd pounds cross country.

Thinking about the books I most often recommend to people I realized that there is definitely a common thread, though it took me a few tries to pin it down. If pressed I think I would have to categorize it as a sort of “seize the moment but let’s please not read too much into this”-ness. What tends to happen when I recommend my favourite pick-me-ups, though, is that I say, “This is hilarious, read it now, it will snap you out of whatever you’re in,” and then the person comes back and says, “But she DIES at the end!” or “How could a parent DO THAT?” So yes, I guess a certain fuckyouitiveness governs my guest room shelf. Here’s a starter kit:

Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple. This book snapped me out of a dark gloom last winter.

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson. This one did the job this past winter. (Apparently the complete absence of winter weather was not quite enough to prevent the winter blahs. I stand corrected). Both it and the Semple novel feature AWOL parents, so if that strikes you as decidedly unfunny I guess take a pass.

The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford. A family favourite.

Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant. “I would not say no to a tortoise.” (I would also not say no to intel on when Jessica Grant is publishing a new book. Where’d you go, Jessica?)

Rare Birds by Edward Riche. Birding, the tourism industry, diving gear, go.

Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Wolfhounds, emerald rings, spontaneous/immaculate gender-reassignment.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Because Thursdays are a bitch.

Unfortunately the words that first come to mind to describe this preference are ones I find grating: zany, madcap? Both feel safe, a bit sanitized, and don’t account for the measure of bleakness I apparently feel compelled to push on people. Absurd I like more, particularly for its connection to existentialism which I am always just a few short minutes away from buckling down and studying properly but mostly just toss into conversation and then run. I would say it’s fiction that’s about grand gestures that might not mean anything at all, approaching life as a lilypad-to-lilypad business rather than sitting still long enough to make a plan. Not so much lack of responsibility but lack of interest in investing additional layers of meaning – a letting be.

And to continue the soundtrack vein, I’ve been revisiting the Weakerthans this week. Remember the Weakerthans? They get it. If there were such a thing as an absurdist love song, “Manifest” might be it:

*Utterly fictional. I have no guest room and am known to be a really disappointing host.


Soundtrack to messing about with other people’s words

I had some things I was going to say about dialogue today, but in thinking about talking, I got distracted by this question: Why couldn’t I have chosen work that would allow me to listen to whatever I want? I know people who listen to podcasts all day long and perform billable tasks at the same time. There isn’t a single thing in my workday that can be done to the accompaniment of someone else talking. Even most music is out. I love the image of ploughing through a task with headphones on, you know, like the programmers in The Social Network. But that is not my lot.

I can’t recall the context now but one of my sisters once told me she liked to imagine me lighting into a new manuscript to the opening scene in Pulp Fiction,including both the restaurant robbery and “Miserlou.” I was delighted. Mostly, does this mean she thinks I’m a little bit cooler than she usually lets on?

In fact, most of the time I’m not listening to anything. Or rather I’m listening to the manuscript I’m working on as I read it, in my head. But there are certain stages of the process when I can loosen the grip on silence a bit and for that I have a couple of playlists that I add things to a few times a year when I realize I’m in a rut. The first consists of classical, most of it admittedly fairly pedestrian:

Schubert, Trout Quintet (Jeno Jando, Kodaly Quartet, Istvan Toth; conducted by me, with gusto)
Bach, Goldberg Variations (Glenn Gould)
Bach, Cello Suites (Pablo Casals)
Grieg, The Complete Piano Music (Einar Steen-Nokleberg)
Fanny Mendelssohn, Das Jahr (Lauma Skride)
Handel, Messiah (London Philharmonic. No really, not just for Christmas.)

The other list is jazz. I went through a stint this winter of trying to bolster my jazz situation. I wish I could say it was due to some nobler inspiration, but really I was just watching Homeland at the time and wanted more of whatever Carrie was listening to while skulking in her car. Here’s what’s stuck:

Brad Meldhau, Highway Rider (I also have a few of his early albums, but this is more … outdoorsy or something.)
Oscar Peterson, Night Train (except for “Hymn to Freedom,” which just derails me from anything else I’m doing)
Charles Mingus, Mingus Ah Um
Bill Frissell (with Ron Carter and Paul Motian), Eighty-One
Bill Frissell, Blues Dream
Keith Jarrett, Koln Concert (old fave that’s been in steady rotation most of my life)
Keith Jarrett (with Gary Peacock & Jack DeJohnette), Up for It

Lyrics are allowed in when I’m typing up my notes (and for the most idiot-proof of inputting tasks). With every project I reliably hit a weird little lull I can’t quite explain somewhere in between typing my editorial notes in note form and turning them into real live sentences. I’ve usually been with a project for a couple of weeks straight at that point and I’m keen to get it to the author and I’m SO CLOSE. For making this happen I rely on Jay Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne album. Every time. For whatever reason, those first few seconds of “No Church in the Wild” snap me into instant productivity. I feel I should account for this, tell you that I hear those lyrics and what they’re saying about women, or on the other hand apologize, to those who care more, for this album being kind of ancient by now. Sometimes typing up notes just wants what it wants.


What I’ve been thinking about when thinking about blogging (and only thinking about it)

When I look over my dayplanners and scraggy little notebooks for the past couple of years there are probably a hundred notes to myself to write a blog post. Or to write “three blog posts this month” if I was engaging in a particularly ambitious spree of planning and self-improvement at the time. It’s not just that I think I should do it; I’ve missed the writing. So what’s been the holdup? It’s just a goddamn blog. What have I been thinking about while studiously not writing anything?

Most recently I’ve been thinking about the backlash against personal essay collections and the notion of “confessional” writing and whether it is self-indulgent. I’ve been reading a lot of personal essays lately, in collections by Roxane Gay, Meghan Daum, Lena Dunham, Anne Fadiman, and others, and putting aside the question of why the confessional or the personal should be pereceived as problematic in the first place, I’m reading them because I’ve found in them writing that is eloquent and honest. This is something I think is an accomplishment, fundamentally artful, and what I read for, in all genres. There’s nothing easy or particularly indulgent about it.

This week the presence of the “I” in book reviewing is being debated over at The Walrus magazine. So I’ve been thinking about that and how the expectation that you begin a piece of writing at a distance from yourself on the day you are writing, like getting the cab to drop you off a few blocks from the party, can be mighty stifling. Specific to book reviewing, what is this idea that we not speak about what informs our reading? This is not, to my mind, quite in the same league as the problem of the interviewer who won’t stop talking about themselves.

I’ve also been thinking about well-respected authors I know who are incredibly uncomfortable about and even disdainful of the idea of sharing anything of their private lives in their published work, let alone on the internet. Their voices are in my head whenever I begin to write something that reveals even the most salient details of my life. What I’m belatedly coming to realize, though, is that it’s important to be selective in what you take as life lessons from people who aren’t willing to reveal anything about their lives.

Then I’ve been thinking about other bloggers. The bookish blogs I like best are the ones that combine readings and thinking about literature with something of the writer’s daily life. Kerry Clare at Pickle Me This and Mary Beard at A Don’s Life are two of my favourites. Both are very open about using blogging to hash out their ideas along the way and are not shy about doubling back, changing their minds, revising their positions on things, or, you know, occasionally talking about bathing suits if that’s what happens to be top of mind that day.

I’ve been thinking about all the things I’ve talked myself out of writing anything about because I wanted to appear focused and on topic. The other day I went through the entire archive of my blog before I stopped writing it in the fall of 2014. Granted, this was not an especially arduous task since between announcements about getting poems published and reviews of books I’d edited and so on, I had really only ever written maybe twenty-five thoughtful posts that had taken me any length of time. It’s not nothing, but it’s not much. Right away, though, I became very annoyed by the tone in these posts. Who was this chipper camp counsellor type? It took me a while to grasp that the effort of not saying too much about myself and not tackling any of the broader issues swarming around my reading (mostly for fear about being out of my depth) was making me annoying, even to myself.

On saying too much: While I haven’t been blogging, I’ve been in a long in-between time–in the soup, as I like to think of it. A couple of years ago the relationship I’d been in since my early twenties ended and even though I’d always been adamant about it not being a marriage, when you live with another person for a decade it will tend to take on almost all of the trappings of a marriage. In short, it’s been weird. I’ve also moved six times since then, and if you don’t have a solid writing practice going, moving is a sure way to not establish one, in my experience.

On a less strictly logistical level, one of the things that changed after this breakup was the direction of my reading, which I didn’t quite know how to talk about because I was very determined not to be confessional. Just as an example, did you know that in the world of mystery/crime writing, the majority (I think I can safely say this) of sleuth-protagonists are single? The female cohort has interested me most. Some of them are what you might expect if you have a poor impression of “cozy” mysteries with self-described plucky, headstrong female sleuths (whose adventures are usually financed by hefty inheritance funds). But then there are protagonists like Claire deWitt (Sara Gran) and V.I. Warshawski (Sara Paretsky). They are smart, often cranky, and running their own show–albeit sometimes badly. Being a single person who is self-employed, I am a walking, talking sole proprietorship. And in mysteries, lately, I have found a reliably inspiring vein of reading that speaks to this experience.

What I’m going to be blogging about for the next while:

My reading and what informs it. Maybe I’ll get out of my depth and one of the voices in my head will manifest as a real live person on the internet telling me I’m wrong. Anything’s possible.

Book editing. I’ve been editing books for thirteen years, but save email conversations with other editors and notes to authors on how to improve their work, have not written (or presented or anythinged) much on the subject that occupies my brain most of every day.

Genre fiction. As I’ve tried to articulate here before, I find the perceived divide between genre and literary fiction problematic and would like to pick away at that more.

Physical books. I’m not going to chastise anyone who prefers e-readers (I would have once!), but I do continue to find the physicality of paper books interesting, in terms of the coincidences that happen when books are in the same room together, borrowing other people’s books, marginalia, the random things that fall out.

And, you know, there’s going to be some personal minutiae along the way, so settle in or shuffle off, as you wish.


The Antigonish Review no. 179

Came home from a few days at my friends’ farm, loaded with treats, and found the fall issue of The Antigonish Review had arrived in my absence. I have two poems in this one, “The Open Season” and “Snorkelling.” But what I was most excited about was the cover, featuring my pal Fenn Martin‘s ceramic work.

(So…I have succumbed to the lure of the smartphone and with it the lure of their built-in cameras and behold, the world of dorky little kitchen-table tableaus. I’m just going to let it run its course.)


Fall Haul (from the other side of the desk)

I got all organized this spring and submitted a bunch of poems to journals. Now the responses are coming in. Pleased to report that in the next while I’ll have three poems coming out in The Fiddlehead, two in The Antigonish Review, and one in The Malahat.