rob mclennan on Elizabeth Smart

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Literary genealogy can be such a tricky thing. What does it mean to attempt to trace anything as nebulous as literary parentage or forebears? Sometimes it’s a matter of discovering a particular writer’s work that presents a permission to do our own work in a particular way, or even the simple permission to be able to begin to produce our own work at all. Other times, it is far more specific, and far more personal: a mentor, perhaps. This is far easier for some. My early years included a number of encouraging figures, writerly and otherwise, but no-one emerged as the mentor I was so desperately seeking. Early encouragement for my own literary scribblings emerged from Eastern Ontario poets Henry Beissel and Gary Geddes, and later, Ottawa poets Diana Brebner, Marianne Bluger, Mark Frutkin and Michael Dennis, all of whom helped the possibility of my writing more often, but not in any way did they help with the possibilities of the what or even the how. Would these be instead midwifes, or does that confuse these metaphors of literary mothers and fathers?

As we begin to write seriously, most of us seek out examples of writing that by itself encourages, engages and offers something from which we might learn. From the work of Vancouver writer George Bowering, I learned a particular kind of curiosity that expanded out across genres and formal considerations, and a critical and editorial generosity towards others. From San Francisco writer Richard Brautigan, I learned lightness, patience and a particular kind of whimsy. From Toronto poet David Donnell and Winnipeg poet Dennis Cooley, I learned how breath shapes the line, and the line-break. The late Toronto poet bpNichol, among a number of others, helped me learn to be fearless. Still: how do we decide on our particular branches of lineage, and why does it matter? As British writer Jeanette Winterson writes in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Knopf, 2011):

Adopted children are self-invented because we have to be; there is an absence, a void, a question mark at the very beginning of our lives. A crucial part of our story is gone, and violently, like a bomb in the womb.

Self-invented, as Winterson writes. There are important parts of my story still missing, and the mind can’t help but crave something to fill in the gaps. I am constantly seeking. When I look back through my own work there were the traces of permission I received as an early teenager, reading and rereading the highly religious novels of Ralph Connor, pseudonym of the Rev. Dr. Charles William Gordon (September 13, 1860 – October 31, 1937). The son of a Presbyterian minister from Scotland, his novels on my immediate geography gave me a permission to write on and even from our shared landscape of Glengarry County, even through his highly moral and outdated prose, and the contemporary indifference to literature that surrounded my growing up. To read Glengarry School Days (1902) was to engage with specific locations within a mile or two from the McLennan homestead, a century before I had even arrived.

It was most likely after I moved to Ottawa from the farm at nineteen when I discovered the work of Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart (December 27, 1913 – March 4, 1986). I was immediately struck by the lyric and passionate prose of her infamous novel By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept (1945), and began to read as much of her work as I could find, from her two works of prose and the multiple volumes of her journals, to stunning biographical works on her by Rosemary Sullivan and Kim Echlin. Michael Ondaatje even produced a short film on Smart, on her later years in Toronto. It was this, but perhaps more than this. I spent my twenties exploring a number of paths, including as much writing as I could get my hands on, and an exploration of self that I could distinguish from where I had begun, in my rural Ontario space. Some six decades apart, Smart and I were born to the same city, and my attraction to her and her work involved not only her passion but her perseverance, having raised four children solo, abandoned by family and lover, somehow managing to continue writing throughout (although never as much as she wished). Wild and wilful from an early age, she was born to a prominent Ottawa family, and her first novel emerged from the doomed love affair she had with the married British poet George Barker, with whom she had four children, and received not a speck of support (Barker eventually fathered fifteen children with five different women, and never, through the entire process, left his wife). For Elizabeth Smart, it is very easy to let her work be overshadowed by her biography, but to hear the prose of her heart does away with all else. From the opening line of the novel:

I am standing on a corner in Monterey, waiting for the bus to come in, and all the muscles of my will are holding my terror to face the moment I most desire.

My twenties in Ottawa were spent exploring various internal and external spaces, from the library shelves to the late night taverns of this sleepy government town, this capital city. Elizabeth Smart showed through her example that this could be a place from where writing could emerge, even as I saw far too many artistic peers fall into the culture of government service and, whether quickly or eventually, abandon artistic expression altogether. From such an overpowering constraint, only the exceptional emerge: Elizabeth Smart, Tom Green, Paul Anka, Alanis Morissette. There are certainly others, all examples of those who could neither be categorized nor contained. The confines of Ottawa is a geography Elizabeth Smart abandoned early—giving birth to her first child, Georgina, at Pender Harbour, British Columbia, before her decades living in the United Kingdom—away from the interference and absolute judgment of her mother, who would never forgive her for writing and publishing such a scandalous book. Leaving town in the 1930s, she would never return to live in our capital again. When By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept first appeared, her mother managed to convince Canadian officials to seize and destroy what few copies made their way into Canada. Even two decades later, when the book was rediscovered and reprinted, finally making a name for her in both Canada and the United States, her mother renewed her brutal disappointment to Smart in a letter.

Oh, the scandal, the scandal. I loved Elizabeth Smart for being an outcast, and for thriving somehow, despite all the difficulties that came with her relationship with George Barker, as well as her unforgiving mother. I loved her for unapologetically feeling and writing out her passions and romantic fervours, despite what obvious entanglements these caused the whole of her life. I loved Smart for the example of her daring, her grand gestures, and her stubbornness, especially during a period of time that would have harshly judged a single mother raising four children. I loved that she was for a long time the highest paid copywriter in England, well-known for her quick wit, and her quick copy. I loved her for being able to write her own story, and having the willpower to repeatedly get up again, every time someone or something else knocked her down.

This past December would have been her one hundredth birthday, and I’d been months hoping to celebrate her centenary, somehow, but was waylaid through circumstance. Perhaps it was entirely appropriate that I was, my wife and I caught up in the fact of our new daughter’s birth. We were and are distracted and waylaid, and happily so, especially knowing we each have the force of will to return to creative work when we’re able, writing out what we can’t help but write. Elizabeth Smart would certainly understand.


rob mclennan is the author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. He won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014), as well as the forthcoming poetry collection If suppose we are a fragment (BuschekBooks, 2014). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books, The Garneau Review (ottawater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds), Touch the Donkey (touchthedonkey.blogspot.com) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

Sophie Littlefield on Nadine Gordimer

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I’d been planning this post for a while, and had already chosen Nadine Gordimer as my “literary mother” before her death last weekend. I’m not ordinarily a procrastinator, and when I examined my reasons for putting off writing this piece, I realized it was due to a sense of guilt which I have been carrying around for nearly thirty years.

I was encouraged into a “useful” major when I went away to college, despite a childhood spent buried in books. I started writing fiction the day I read my first chapter book (what a revelation, that you could break a story into as many parts as you liked!), but settled for attending lectures by famous authors at the Midwestern university where I majored in Computer Science.

Elliott Holt on Alice Munro

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An Open Letter to Alice Munro

Dear Alice,

It seems impossible that you don’t know me. What I mean is that I know your work so well—intimate, is the only way I can describe my relationship to your stories—that I feel like I know you. I consider you a kindred spirit and a teacher. I’ve reread your stories so many times that I know I’ve learned more from them than I have in any writing class. I once spent an entire day deconstructing “Friend of My Youth,” diagramming its structure, its story within a story within a story, to try to understand how you pulled it off. When you won the Nobel Prize, I actually cried with joy. And all day, after the Nobel committee made the announcement, friends emailed and called and texted: “You must be so happy that Alice Munro won!” My adoration of you is so well documented that people were congratulating me on your win, as if you were a member of my family.

Annie Liontas on Aglaja Veteranyi

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Our story sounds different every time my mother tells it.—Aglaja Veteranyi, Why the Child Is Cooking in the Polenta

My literary fathers tend to stick around.  The late Gabriel Garcia Marquez lived a long, wild life, even if it ended in unjust and heartbreaking—yet poetic, inevitable—dementia.  My literary mothers die untimely and tragic deaths.

Susan Harlan on Isak Dinesen

 

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A Farm in Africa

(Isak Dinensen hangin’ with Marilyn Monroe and Carson McCullers)

I don’t remember exactly how old I was when I read Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa for the first time, but after that initial encounter, I kept coming back to it. Sometimes I just open to a page and read a passage, like some people read the Bible.

Dorothea Lasky on Many Literary Mothers, A Violin Case, And A Woman on the Subway

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I first started writing poems when I was 7 because I couldn’t sleep and needed something to do and poems were the things I could write to, to an unnamed friend in the nighttime (sometimes her name was Molly, sometimes her name was Blue, sometimes she was people I knew). 

But when I was 14 and 15, I gave up on poetry. I don’t think it was that I had lost the word. It was as if I simply closed the door to the voice that spoke to me. I had severe depression and had lost the ability to care if I talked to my unnamed friend in the night anymore. I think she stopped caring about me, too.

Cynthia Cruz on Helene Cixous

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Helene Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing

Let us go to the school of writing, where we’ll spend three school days initiating ourselves in the strange science of writing, which is a science of farewells. Of reunitings.

I will begin with:

This is what writing is. 

I’m not sure how I came across the book. Maybe I saw it displayed in a small bookshop in the city and fell in love with the cover. I’m not sure. It is as if, by magic, or, more probably, as though my own terrible need for guidance, for a mentor, conjured the book into my life. However it appeared, it appeared in my life around ten years ago, perhaps longer. In any case, Cixous’ voice, her words, the power of her intellect fused with her passion drew me in immediately. I began teaching from the book as soon as I found it.

Kip Wilson on Banana Yoshimoto

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Not Alone in This World


Banana Yoshimoto, a Japanese author born in 1964, was integral to my birth as a writer.

When a friend thrust Yoshimoto’s Kitchen in my hands soon after its translation into English, I read the first pages with great interest, intrigued by the crisp, clear writing. At the time, I was pursuing my doctorate in German Literature. I’d spent years studying great works by Rilke, Goethe, and Kafka, and I loved it, especially Rilke. But as I continued to read Kitchen, I saw myself in its main character, Mikage, like no other.


Meghan McCarron on Karen Joy Fowler

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Karen Joy Fowler’s latest novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, created an almost moral dilemma for reviewers. (And now, me: If you wish to be surprised by the novel, skip this paragraph). Fowler does not reveal the narrator’s sister’s identity until a quarter of the way through the book, when readers learn she is a chimp. The literary move elegantly advances the novel’s central argument: we are only glancingly different from animals we treat as profoundly other. 

I knew what Karen’s novel was about; as I read, I thrilled watching her walk a high wire of suggesting and concealing key information. But when the reveal came, I was still surprised. Not that I should have expected anything different. Everyone who knows and reads her agrees: Karen Joy Fowler is tricky.