Dawson Daily News Print and Publishing Festival

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If spring is a slow burn, summer is a bright flash in the pan, and we are right into it: days without rain, the ground dry, a thin and persistent layer of dust settled on everything. It’s hot and busy as locals hustle to make their money, plant their crops, and take in the weddings, concerts and festivals happening almost every weekend.

Last night was the beginning of the Print and Publishing Festival, which was once a symposium held at the same time as the Riverside Arts Fest, in August. Now, all grown up, it is a 5 day festival featuring readings, workshops, lectures, demos, and printmaking. I’m excited to be hosting a spoken word open mic in honour of the festival, tonight at The Westminster Hotel. If you’re in town, I hope you’ll come have a listen or maybe even share your words with us. I’ll be reading 3 new poems and trying to keep a lid on the raging impostor syndrome that’s reared its ugly head in the past few days. Wish me luck!

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Book Review: The Break and If There Were Roads

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I somehow managed to read not one, but two books in the last month: a book of poetry and a novel! I’d like to review them both here for you today.

Book Review #1

The book: “The Break” by Katherena Vermette

What it’s about: A Metis woman is up late one winter’s night, nursing her baby, when she sees an attack taking place in “the Break”, a barren strip of land outside her house. She calls the police to report the crime: it takes them hours to arrive, and they seem skeptical of her story. The novel is structured as a series of shifting points of view, all giving the reader pieces of the events leading up to the attack, and the days following it, detailing a history of trauma, healing, and family love.

What I thought: This book is both powerful and heartbreaking. Although the story is set up in such a way as to make it a compulsive read, I found I had to put it down frequently. There is a lot of recounting of abuse, making it very intense and possibly triggering. That being said, Vermette showcases an incredible resiliency in the characters of First Nations women. The deep and constant love that holds these women together is beautiful. I found myself frustrated, though, that they had to be so strong, time and again, in the face of repeated abuses. It made me angry that this isn’t just fiction: it’s a reality for so many, and in that sense, it’s an incredibly urgent and important book.

From the opening pages: “I’ve always loved the place my girl calls the Break. I used to walk through it in the summer. There is a path you can go along all the way to the edge of the city, and if you just look down at the grass, you might think you were in the country the whole way. Old people plant gardens there, big ones with tidy rows of corn and tomatoes, all nice and clean. You can’t walk through it in the winter though. No one clears a way. In the winter, the Break is just a lake of wind and white, a field of cold and biting snow that blows up with the slightest gust.”

Book Review #2

The book: “If There Were Roads”  by Joanna Lilley

What it’s about: The poems in this collection are largely a meditation on place: the places we’ve come from, the places we’ve been, the places we are now. Notions of home, a tension between solitude and connection, and a sweeping geography–from Scotland and England, across Canada and into Yukon, thread through these poems.

What I thought: I really love Joanna’s poetry. She has a way of taking ordinary moments and making them into something special, so that I begin to look at my own ordinary moments differently. Her poems are accessible, too, something I value in poetry. Much of this book resonated with me: from what it’s like to travel alone, to ideas about home and ghosts and animal welfare, and of course, her writing about the north. I often found myself pausing in recognition, her poems leading me deeper into my own ideas about the world.

From the book: 

Bare-faced

She needs large skin
to smear her self back on
each morning after a shower,
smoothing it with her lifeline,
her fingertips, twisting her hand
to reach between her shoulder blades
which are not the nubs of atavistic wings.
They’re the bones that will be most
ambiguous when unearthed,
collapsed onto shifted ribs.
She is a woman in all the right places,
a man everywhere else.
She is brazen, bare-faced.

Putting Myself in the Way

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When I first came to Dawson City twelve (!) years ago, I was struck by the different birds I saw. A sparrow wasn’t just a plain old sparrow anymore: it had a bold black and white striped head, and a beautiful song belted out from tree tops. Ducks were more than just mallards. Tiny, bright yellow birds flitted among the willows. I felt a desire to know them, to name them, and so my love of bird watching began. I got myself a field guide and a better pair of binoculars, and over the following five or six years, I became a bit of a bird lady.

I used to spend an afternoon sitting on a sandy spot of riverbank, my binoculars in hand. I watched the bank swallows skim bugs; watched a common merganser teach her ducklings how to dive; once saw a bald eagle defend its catch from gulls. Hikes to the Moosehide Slide, or on the trails in Tombstone Park, always included my binoculars, swinging around my neck. I started writing a bird column for The Klondike Sun, and friends would come to me with their bird queries: “What’s this little brown bird I see at my feeder? The one with the stripes?” Bird watching was a part of how I came to define myself; when people saw an interesting bird, they thought of me.

On a trip to Mexico, weeks pregnant with Aedan, my friends and I went on a bird watching tour. We rose at dawn to be collected by our guide, and went out on a boat in a mangrove swamp. We saw something like fifty different species of bird that morning. Four or five different herons, frigate birds, cormorants, ibis, scarlet tanager, vermilion flycatcher, to name just a few. It was one of my last great bird outings, before having kids.

After having kids, birdwatching was one of the first things to go.

It’s hard to wear binoculars with a sleeping infant carried on your chest. And toddlers are not known for being quiet, or sitting in one spot for hours so mama can watch the birds. I let it go, like I did writing, reading, and hiking. I wasn’t sure if or when I’d pick it up again; a casualty of the intense early years of parenting, I suppose.

Lately though, like the other passions I let fall by the wayside, I feel an eagerness to get back to it. These past few weeks, with the spring migrants making their way through, I’ve had some exciting incidental sightings: a sharp tailed grouse displaying in our yard, its wings held out to the sides, thrumming; a bald eagle gliding over the driveway where we were playing; ducks, so many and varied ducks in the ponds we pass on our drive to town. The ducks were the tipping point for me. I just could not stand that I didn’t know them, that I couldn’t name them. I decided then and there to put myself in the way of bird watching again.

I’ve been putting myself in the way of poetry again, too, looking for poems just as I look for birds. Making sure to read some poetry every day. Committing to working on new poems, to writing down the ideas and lines that come to me, following different threads like I follow a bird sighted in my binoculars. In the past month or so, I’ve organized a poetry reading with Whitehorse poet Joanna Lilley. I’ve read at an open mic and have committed to read at two more in the coming months. I’m working on some poems to complete the chapbook manuscript I’ve been thinking of for the last year. If I let my vision go soft-focus, if I leap just a second before thinking, I find that I’m pulled in the direction of poetry, of a writing life.

Two days ago, out for a walk in the woods with Colm and Charlotte, what I think was a boreal owl flew over head, a pair of robins in pursuit. I wanted a closer look, but of course, I didn’t have my binoculars with me. The following day, as we got ready for our walk, I took my binocs off the hook by the door. I dusted off the glass, and slung them around my neck. Where we rested, while the kids threw rocks, I watched a yellow rumped warbler move from tree to tree, spotted a say’s phoebe (a bird I’d never seen before). It was exhilarating! It struck me how easy it is to pick up again. How easy it is, now that I don’t have to wear all the babies, to take the binoculars with me. How easy it is to sit and observe not just my kids, but the birds, too. I just have to open myself to it, to the birds all around me, the inspiration all around me.

To practice birdwatching, poetry, running, whatever it is, requires effort and discipline, yes. It is a choosing, every time, to do that thing over not doing it. But I’m also learning that it’s a matter of repositioning, if that makes sense, like an adjustment a chiropractor would make, so that things align again. The more I do this, choose these things, the more I put myself in the way of my passions, the easier it will be to get swept away by them.

 

A Poem for World Poetry Day

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I thought I’d share a poem today from a collection I’m making my way through, Witness, I am, by Gregory Scofield. The poems deal with the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada, amoung other things.

She is Spitting a Mouthful of Stars
(nikâwi’s song)

She is spitting a mouthful of stars
She is laughing more than the men who beat her
She is ten horses breaking open the day
She is new to her bones
She is holy in the dust

She is spitting a mouthful of stars
She is singing louder than the men who raped her
She is waking beyond the Milky Way
She is new to her breath
She is sacred in this breathing

She is spitting a mouthful of stars
She is holding the light more than those who despised her
She is folding clouds in her movement
She is new to this sound
She is unbroken flesh

She is spitting a mouthful of stars
She is laughing more than those who shamed her
She is ten horses breaking open the day
She is new to these bones
She is holy in their dust

 

 

Adjustments

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It’s so easy to type out “I’m going to take myself seriously as a writer”, but it’s another thing entirely to actually do that. I’ve filled out the forms for daycare, and today I’ll drop them off. There is a wait list. It could be months before I’ve got even those eight hours child free per week. And already, those eight hours don’t feel like enough.

So what’s a gal to do in the mean time? It’s limbo, but I can’t sit on my hands while I wait. I have to continue to make things happen, in little ways.

My word for 2017 is “practice”. I’d intended to write every day, and for almost two months, I did. Sometimes it was only a few sentences, or journalling. Sometimes a poem or a blog post. It felt largely aimless, but I was doing it. And then I fell off the wagon. It’s been a couple of weeks since I’ve written daily, but I’m trying to find my way back. This is what my writing life looks like. This is what being a writing mother looks like. You get into some kind of routine, and then everyone gets sick and it’s all you can do to make it to a seven pm bedtime and you pass out wedged between two stuffed up, coughing babies.

This morning, when the ache in my lower back became unbearable, I determined to get up and write morning pages. Charlotte turned towards me, wanting to nurse, so I nursed her, willing myself to stay awake. It took me four attempts. Four times I made my way out of bed in increments, stepping lightly down the stairs, getting to the bottom and hearing her cry for me. Once I got all they way to the kitchen, began to write in the bright light glaring off the glass table top. I’m doing it, I thought.

Then I heard her creaky voice over the baby monitor: “Mama, are you? Mama, are you? Mama!” Heard Paul try to shush her. Heard her insistence for me. I slammed my journal shut, my feet heavy on the stairs. I sat down hard on the edge of the bed, determined not to nurse her.

“Go to sleep, baby,” I whispered, patting her back with a firm hand. And she did. And she stayed asleep, and I wrote two more pages and then I turned on my computer and I fiddled with two poems. And when they all woke up I felt so accomplished. This. This is what I’ll do. I’ll be the mom who wakes up an hour, two hours before her kids in order to write. I’ll do this for years, until they don’t need me so intensely anymore. Or at least, I’ll do it for the rest of the week.

And what of the rest of the time, when I can’t be writing? I’ve been thinking of this, too. I read as a writer, closely, with more curiosity. I don’t read just to finish a book, which is how I used to do it. I glean little bits as I go, about form and style and also just ideas, information that I squirrel away for the future.

In her essay “Upstream”, Mary Oliver writes “Attention is the beginning of devotion”. I’ve been turning this over in my mind for weeks. She writes of attention to the natural world. Of giving our children and ourselves the freedom to inhabit wild places and to notice every detail, to fall in love and cherish the world.

And then yesterday, this blog post from Shawna Lemay on how to live more poetically. She writes:

How to live more poetically? Cultivate elegance, a tender heart, an attentiveness, a generous integrity.

There it is again: attention. I’m well aware that attention to my daily life is not my strong suit. If I could be wandering green fields and forest streams all day long, I’m sure I could be a little more attentive. But my job now, as a writer and a mother, is to find a way to bring attention to the runny noses, the toy battles, the endless chatter about dragons, the complaints over dinner. The sweet moments, too, but they aren’t as common as I’d like. Or maybe I’m missing them. This, too, is a practice. It’s all practice, and I must come back to it again and again, a thousand times, until it’s like breathing.

Little tweaks, little changes here and there. Adjustments to my day, my outlook. Just as I’m getting discouraged, I have to remind myself: come back. See what can give, apply a little pressure until it clicks. Make space and see what happens.