Improvisation as Narrative: Some Thoughts on Michael Ondaatje’s Coming Through Slaughter

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Coming Through Slaugher
Michael Ondaatje
House of Anansi
ISBN: 0-88784-051-5
156 pgs

As a poet and a trained fiction writer, I generally greatly enjoy where lyricism and narrative meet and illustrate the world to us. Not to mention, I am a large fan of jazz from it’s origins a long the shadier streets of New Orleans through to the free form work of men like Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman. When I discovered that Ondaatje had written a book that had all three elements (jazz, lyricism, and narrative) I placed it on my must read list.

Coming Through Slaughter is a novel set in the early years of the 1900s in the Big Easy, exploring the life of trumpet player Buddy Bolden. It is a fictionalized exploration of his life, his art, and his descent into mental illness. The structure of the book is far from the run of the mill in terms of novel structures. It operates in glimmers or riffs that explore the world around Bolden and his experiences in tight highly focused moments. These moments are not always through his viewpoint and offer a continually evolving sense of story from the multiple viewpoints or instruments as the narrative unfolds.

As such the novel operates as a jazz improvisation would. It switches leads, hands off rhythms, changes tempos. The story is interesting enough in Coming Through Slaughter. But the manner in which that story is related to the reader is the single strongest attribute of the book. We’ve seen a great many fictionalized biographic novels about musicians over the years and many damned fine ones. But Ondaatje as poet pulls in the feeling, sound, and structure of what it means to be an artist like Bolden. By using the principles by which the protagonist constructs his art we see the type of picture that an artist like Bolden would have crafted his world from. In short, we see a more accurate and heartfelt representation of the subject manner than a simple and conservative novel structure would use.

Ondaatje’s novel explores the connection between creativity and self-destruction of the artist and does it from such a personal level that the audience connects in ways that makes the entire enterprise of reading the book more heartfelt. Rather than being an observer to the events, the reader is immersed in them, experiences what the manner in which these lives are lived. There is no need long explanations as to what the characters think or feel. Ondaatje shows us these moments. There is much here to show poets how to write fine poetry. In short, writers (both poets and fictioneers) should know about and explore this work. There is something true and pure and strong in this work that shows us an alternative to the bland “telling” nature of many below average novelists and poets. Experience lies at the heart of this work and I strongly encourage those with a passion for writing and/or reading to see where the intersections of lyricism and narrative can take us.

Wonder what Buddy Bolden sounded like? Above is a sample of Wynton Marsalis performing some of the legends work.

On the Receipt of One Cardinal Feather: the Weariness of Testifying and the Weight of Colonial Voices.

About a month back, Creator was kind enough to have given me the gift on a single cardinal feather. After a tough meeting, it came a welcome and powerful message that I spent consider time pondering and deciphering. Suffice it to say something as simple as it reminded me to take pride in who I am, remain rooted to the place I call home, and to sing proudly into the heart of the grey and cold winter that Biiboon has blown in. Creator brings us gifts when we need them most, often quite far ahead of the trials that await us.

Little did I know that the Boyden issue would arise in the coming weeks and even less did I realize that the events would lead to a torrent of emotions and realizations that would make the gift all the more clear. As a writer of Lenape heritage that has been fortunate enough to have received multiple Aboriginal Arts grant for my work and having received a good amount of support for multiple communities in Canada and the US for my work, the issue with Joseph Boyden and his appropriation of identity and voice, rested heavy against my soul. I’ve struggled with my identity to be sure over the majority of my life and the issues that Boyden’s great lie has perpetrated raised every bit of my thoughts over the years to the forefront.

I am a pale-skinned member of the Moravian of the Thames First Nation that has lived the majority of my life in urban centres such as Windsor, Peterborough, and Indianapolis. My father’s family comes from Bucktown, my mother grew up Generally speaking, I’ve been welcomed by members of my Indigineous very warmly as well as those at local Friendship Centres. Over the course of my life, however, there has been a surprising number of non-natives that consistently have questioned and degraded my connection to my ancestry and family. They have said that status is a lie and may for my family to not pay taxes and so on. This has not come from my Indigineous family, ever. Generally speaking only from non-Natives when they hear me mention some part of my heritage. Because of this, for many years, I went silent about my heritage. My early writing plays out with this knowledge. It had dealt very little with my Indigenous roots (despite holding a Indigineous Studies degree from Trent University) and instead spoke about my time in Detroit and Montana as safely constructed white male. I hid, did not sing out into any season, because fighting about who you are with others is among the hardest things you can do. It tears at you in ways that no words can clearly express.

I did the opposite of Boyden. I hid my identity because it was hard to come to grips with. I hid it because the world around me would not accept me as who I was. I had to lie to save myself from the exhaustion of fighting. Being Indigineous is all too often a far harder thing to do. I used my skin to shield me. I am ashamed of that because too many of my family and friends couldn’t. I still feel it was wrong. Perhaps, worse than anything is the scars of doing so have left me with lingering questions about truths and who exact it is that I am and should be. Colonial society has a manner in which it can crush you even when you look the way it wants you to.

Time, distance, and a great thesis director helps. Before I graduated, Tony Ardizzone spoke to me during our time together about the importance of your culture and how I should be talking about that in my work and in my everyday. With Tony it was about honesty and not book sales. He did what a great teacher does, he saw something in me and my work that was not right, and gently pushed me that way. When I returned to Windsor a few years back I felt something well up in me. The manner in which we suppress things cannot the truth of ourselves from the surface. And so the writing, truthful for the first time, came to the surface and grants rolled in and I got a book published. I know it’s a bit of a summary, lots of work and study went into those events.

So Creator delivers the feather. So enters Joseph Boyden and his lies. And just when things were clear enough as a writer and as member of my Indigineous community now proudly walking amongst non-Natives the whole world becomes muddled again. Knowing that it is my calling my creator to sing, as a poet, as a writer, as a publisher, and as a proud Lenape I waited and judged the events of the APTN revelation about Boyden before speaking. And I spoke in the manner that I knew was most in keeping with our Lenape traditions. The idea that honesty is important, respect for our communities and land, kindness for all those that came before and had note been heard, and the necessity of sharing all this with the world. To remain silent, as I once had, did a great disrespect to my ancestors, my family, and creation itself.

The response to my words should have come as little surprise. Generally, well received by the Indigineous community my concerns about Boyden’s lying and appropriation of voice for his own financial gain and equally poorly received if not ignored by the non-Native community. I’ve been left with that cold hard feeling that reconciliation is a very long way off. The only way we are allowed to be who we are as First Peoples is to do so as non-Natives see fit. Initially, anger was my response. But that has faded to something worse, despair and self-doubt. No one listens to an Indigineous voice unless it matches their worldview. I know who it is that I am. Being surrounded by non-Natives who disrespect our heritage and our communities, ignore our voices and pleas even when it costs them nothing, .

You see Joseph Boyden is not about the non-Native community at all. It is not about you or anyone else being about find your “Dances With Wolves” ancestry. I’ve seen local folks and writers complain about this. It hurts. Particularly when I’m called “too-white” to be a “real Indian.” Because again they are stealing from others. Again they are telling me what it means to me, what it means to be Indigineous. It’s about the harsh reality that we are only worth as much as other non-Native writers feel our worth to be. When we speak out, we are belittled, ignored, or otherwise left powerless. We are returned to the margins of discourse, told that a man who lies about his heritage is ok because without him no one would know about us. It is so much as to say, the white guy gets it most right, don’t you worry about. Again, the despair. Why do I write? Why should I speak out? How important is it that I share my heritage?

Then there is the feather. It arrives. Creation speaks. And weeks late I still find myself asking questions of it. We all struggle, yes. Some with basic needs like clean water. Some with issues like alcohol and substance abuse. The struggles of our communities are numerous. By every measure mine is small. But at the heart of it all is the ability to speak and be heard.  We know if we talk about Boyden and are ignored we have little hope at being heard about jobs, or water, or foster kids, or the saving of our languages. Despite all this, Creator still calls to us. Leaves us messages of love and reminds us of the things we must do to lift others.

Still it turns internal to the personal. I’ve thankfully received support from some in the non-Native . They know who they are, as do I, and Creator. Perhaps this is post is a partial appeal for those that haven’t and partially a reminder of thanks to those that have. It is a plea to listen to Indigineous voices, real Indigineous voices. Ones that make you uncomfortable, ones that speak with honesty and respect. Listen with kindness. Not every battle is just your battle. I was silent once. I can no longer be. Creator has called me to speak and I owe that duty to others before, around, and after me.

To Ponder in One’s Time Apart: A Brief Review of and Thoughts on Campbell McGrath’s Shannon

Let’s start here. I met Campbell McGrath during my first semester at Indiana University – Bloomington. He was in town to do a master class with my fellow MFAers and doing a great deal of talking about his most recent collection at that time, Seven Notebooks. He took time with some of early work as a poet and sitting with me on a cafe patio overlooking Bloomington’s square he offered me advice on my work in terms of lyric consciousness that I, without any hesitation whatsoever, will say transformed me as a writer and helped me to propel my work in the direction it still holds today. McGrath ended that week-long visit with a reading that included a reading from his forthcoming work, Shannon.

Shannon is an epic poem set during the Lewis and Clark Expedition. The narrative follows wceggdunlca8rphoz66abhhs4ri12vqgoobrgbrkx0gjmb1tsgn63p3bam61ycim7tpw2yziatkeqk4wnnictofdjrwii6afg4fm0glhq5idkycbwtzawmsmq7pkthe youngest member of expedition, George Shannon, as he gets separated from the rest of the men after going after some lost horses. After a couple of weeks, he finds his way back to the expedition, but his experiences were actually never documented by Shannon or his more famous bosses. The idea here is that a young man given to wander becomes lost on the high plains of pre-America Sioux land and thus must encounter both internal and external portions of the universe worth pondering. No doubt it was attractive as a young poet that had just graduated from a stint and a degree in Montana and was trying to piece together a notion of being a writer and being a man. There was something in the work that spoke to my individual experience at the time. Perhaps still something I am trying to work out years later.

Nearly a decade later, I finally got around to finding a copy of this work and getting into what McGrath crafted, filling in the cracks of history with this epic. My return to this work was definitely spurred on in large part by my own personal work with the “Lester Ashagi and the Hunted Party” epic I’ve been at work at on-and-off for the last year or so. One tends to return to one’s roots and look for similarities when one researches new work they are crafting. So in to my life returns Shannon and McGrath, and neither failed to provide the sort of work I was looking for.

The work is fundamentally a mediation. One that searches for the place of young and intelligent in a raw open world that is both very alien and familiar, but also shows decided moments of cruelty and violence. There is a familiar loneliness that pervades Shannon, a anticipation of a return of those that we rely upon, that occasionally happens for some. He contemplates the manner laws can be placed onto land and people that know nothing of them, the role of God in the way that nature creates and destroys, and notions of that same divinity among ants. This type of material is nothing surprising in McGrath’s work, I’ve genuinely come to love it over the years with his other books. His does it well, reaches out at the right levels with the right lines of diction, and engages readers in the ways that good poets do.

McGrath also hits concrete moments in his work as Shannon walks us through his thoughts by way of the very concrete world around him. His loneliness is apparent through the physical world around him.

“far-off two-note whistle of bird-song/high-low, not alone in the silence/not alone, breathing, eyes in the night/to keep me – Pollux, Regeuls, Aldebaran”

In a work that is so driven by the inferiority of the narrator, it is important to have these touchstones. These anchors enable the things that Shannon is working through to have an anchor in our physical world. This is the closest thing that poetry can offer to a picture, a postcard, of a voyage beyond the familiar, welcoming context of the world as we know it. Here is what the quintessential American pilgrimage into the transformative west looks like when it is done right.

That is just what McGrath does right with Shannon. He does not seek to colonize the great vastness of the American plains with an eastern voice. He lets it speak for itself and to consider the implications of the expedition and those that will surely follow. Shannon, although part of the great colonial exercise of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, does simply force his will upon the land itself. He instead uses the experiences he has with the land to work through quintessential aspects of his own psyche and nature. He moves through the unfamiliar without the need to steal nor name. The voyage is one of self-discovery, one that lets us see a man, if not an every man, in spite of the grandiose history that surrounds him. Here is an epic that illustrates that cracks in history are often the most important, the most telling of work, that modern poets and writers can craft meaningful material from. Shannon is some fine work, an epic worth engaging with to understand the manner in which we approach the land and how the land can change us. It is an illustrative poetic voyage that allows us to ponder one’s time apart.

Notes on New Work: Sandwich Sonnets and the Windsor Group of Seven

A few months back, I was commissioned by Windsor Poet Laureate Marty Gervais and the City of Windsor to create some new work that explores the city’s oldest neighbourhood. The work is part of a larger project that brings together seven well-know Windsor-based poets to write poems about our history and share the stories of the physical space our city now inhabits. The works are being completed for the upcoming celebration of Canada’s 150th Anniversary.

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Sandwich in its old school sepia best

For those that don’t know much about the city of Windsor, we are the middle-sized Canadian city directly across the Detroit River from the legendary Detroit, Michigan. Sandwich is one of the smaller towns and townships that were amalgamated into Windsor over time. It was both a mission to the Huron Nation as well as the largest and first non-Indigineous town on this shore of the River for Canada/Britain. History is an ongoing and all-consuming aspect of the neighbourhood. For a city like Windsor that isn’t exactly know for preserving its past, Sandwich stands out in this regard. Among the treed residential streets and the well-intact commercial district you get the sense of our city’s origins. It’s a fine place to understand where it is we as a city come from and the places where we can go. It’s a great place to celebrate in poems.

Those that have read my first book, Big Medicine Comes to Erie, will know about my preoccupation with this region’s history. The poems in that work explore the arrival of my ancestors, the Lenape people, to the area as well as many of the key events in this areas recent and distant past. To say there is a great breadth of history here would be an understatement and a half. We are one of the oldest colonized portions of Canada and prior to that this land was home to the great Huron nation and the Neutral nation. My ancestors were part of the successive waves of refugees from America’s Wars of Greed and Colonization and the collection focuses in large part on what that border means and how the land itself shapes the individuals that come to inhabit it. It is personal with a clear dedication to a collective past.

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Vintage Postcard looking towards Sandwich from Assumption Church

So when it came to craft some new work, I had to choose something that was both different from the work I’d just wrapped with BMCE, reflected some of what that collection had done, and charted new ground in terms of my own personal poetics. So what I came to was a series of sonnets, little songs if you will, about Sandwich and the history of its people. This history is unique and there is a lot there over the 300+ years I researched into the area. What comes out is work that cuts across the many generations of those that came to inhabit that physical space. Truthfully, my biases do place a good-sized emphasis on the indigenous voices and little on the expected suspects one writes about when they write about Sandwich. Yet, I feel the current working drafts I have for the pieces reflects well the important, lesser-know portions of Sandwich’s history. From a public hanging to mimegwesi along the river to the furrows of Louis Gervais’s plow through never churned land, these a glimmers in specific times for the area. Sandwich is a critical part of Windsor today and the history of the region. These are songs for that place.

The anthology, that has yet to have a working title, will be brought out in 2017 by Black Moss Press. It will also feature the work of Marty Gervais, Carlinda D’Ailmonte, Peter Hrastovec, Dorothy Mahoney, Mary Ann Mulhern, and Vanessa Shields. Each poet has focused their work on a specific neighbourhood of the city. Each adding their unique lyric take on our collection history and our shared land. Look for more about these commissioned works in the coming months. 

Why Political Prizes Don’t Matter

Let’s start here: When I heard that Bob Dylan received a Nobel Prize in Literature I thought it was an Onion piece. Sadly, it wasn’t. I’ve enjoyed Dylan. My first published poem was actually an homage to his Nashville Skyline album set on the highways of Missouri. He is a first rate singer-songwriter that shares a lineage that goes back through Guthrie and Seeger clear to the working class roots of pastoral America. Dylan relays the experiences and rhythms of American through the instruments and music of his work. He sings his lyrics, turning voice to instrument and throughout much of his post-1970s career has accompanied that voice-as-instrument with large and well produced fellow musicians. As a poet I must tell you I have no concern for what key or register my work is crafted in. Sound matters, true. But not in the sense that I must understand the progression of a G to F#.

Poetry is not music. Sure, poetry contains music. But unlike Dylan’s work, work in which music is the driving factor and language a lesser role in his process and his form, poetry has it roots and essence elsewhere. The words matter and it is those that are constructed and written and to a lesser extent performed that is focus of the poet’s works. Music compositions have their focus on melody and rhythm not the words. Hence why Miles Davis and John Coltrane can construct an entire piece of work with no spoken or vocalized words. Literature places words as essence at its forefront. Music places instrumentation at its, even when vocals are its focus, it is still first and foremost music. Music is not poetry. Music is notes and intonations. To misunderstand this this can happen. But it shouldn’t be when you are on a critical award granting committee supposed to be giving praise to the bests in their field.

I seriously doubt, and hope, that the Nobel committee will never see clear to award Oliver Stone the Nobel Prize in Literature. Because movies are not literature and music is not poetry we should disappointed by the announcement. It shows that those given to handing out awards have become disconnected from the craft they propose to celebrate and make proclamations as to the best in show. After a day like today, with an announcement made by what was supposed to be the pinnacle of art and the humanities, we should realize that for those that work so hard to carry on the tradition of our literary crafts that the powers-that-be continue show their disconnect from our heritage and our work. We must work without hope of award. Because the gatekeepers don’t understand the work of others around them and we have no one to turn to understand or craft but ourselves. Political prizes like the Nobel should not matter to us because they say so little of our craft and even less of the countless poets that toil without hope of seeing the praise heaped upon those that are undeserving of recognition in a field they do not work in.

The Swagger of William T. Riker

Let’s start with an observation. Smooth-talking bearded men who flip their legs over chair backs to sit in them shouldn’t be given commands of starships. Bad things happen and generally speaking the ship gets busted up something fierce when they call the shots. Yet, in the grand spectacle of mishaps such as these, none of these absent minded failures hold much of any consequence. Because crashing and burning is one thing. But having the confidence to brush it off as a necessity of doing business with him is quite another. This was the style of command incumbent in a man with solid posture, a finely trimmed beard, and a confident grin that could turn any green slave woman into so much clay on his own hand. This was Commander William T. Riker, second-in-command or “number one” of Captain Jean Luc Picard’s Enterprise.

            The observation is important. I made it, more or less, as a sophomore in high school. It came in a life moment that could have seen me stay on my quiet fan-fiction reading self 1900047-star_trek_iand would have left me as clueless about women and socializing as Data was about emotions. Star Trek: The Next Generation had been on the airwaves for nearby half a decade before I made that observation and I had been watching it on pretty much a weekly basis the entire time. Observations like this bring on slow creeping waves of enlightenment. Such was the case with of the nature of Commander Riker. There was nothing really overly successful about this guy, he simply charmed his way into doing exactly as he wished despite the overall effects he had on a starship and crew he had entrusted to him. Not once did his captain or fellow crew seemingly get mad at the guy for anything from dangerously breaking Starfleet laws to severely damaging or destroying the Enterprise every time he was given command.  But, let’s not focus on the man’s faults. No one else around him seemed to do so and for good reason: His swagger.

            William Riker exuded confidence in the way that let you know that absolutely everything he did was done with half the effort most folks put into things and about one third of anything resembling caution. Things like observations were for people (and aliens mind you, this is Star Trek) who weren’t Riker. They were meant to be made about him. Perhaps at that age I imagined myself to be like him as I aged. Romancing things up with all the wrong aliens on every planet you stopped at, being admired for my skills as a musician, and always being protected by wiser more cautious people in their jobs so that I could carry on in the one and only manner I could see fit. Basically Riker’s swagger comes to down to a belief that the entirety of creation had been laid before you to do exactly what one wished to do. The brilliance of it all was that nothing, not the fractured smoking hulk of his starship’s hull on a remote planet’s surface, the death of numerous red shirts, nor the near constant violation of the United Federation of Planet’s supremely important prime directive, ever lead to anything that would combat this view of creation. Here was a man that supremely believed in himself about all else. His belief so much so that even the universe agreed with him and never bothered to punish him for simply being himself.

            Perhaps that’s what leads to me this point here, the point where I could sit and participate in this whole writing enterprise. To the extent Riker’s leg-drop chair sit, his often over masculine bravado, and the quotidian contouring of the universe to him that is essentially what I must suspect lies at the heart of conceiving of myself as a writer. There must be a reckless abandon to the manner in which we move forward remaking our world. In that recklessness there must also be some aspect of William T. Riker because observation is all too fundamental in the way we envision ourselves in this life.

Kicking at the Roots with Dick Hugo’s Montana of Yore.

So the last time I posted there, I had definitely started in on little bit of “look at my roots as a writer” action by talking about Richard Hugo. And lo and behold, I’ve found myself returning to him a lot more this week. The collection of poems I’m working on, “Devil in the Woods,” is based structurally on his 31 Letters and 13 Dreams collection, so that without doubt helps in this current affinity for his work. I’m still working with a good deal with Heaney and Ortiz and Harjo, but Hugo is haunting me. So much so, I have to share this film with y’all.

Honest, this one of Montana PBS’s finest here. It’s a real retro piece that showcases the type of Montana that my extended family and many of those that I shared my time out there always talked about. More importantly though, it helps you get a better sense of the man and his work that is Richard Hugo. If you daydream about the great American or already have a affinity for Richard Hugo and his work this an hour well spent.

The Thing with Essays on Craft

Let me begin by saying this: Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town is one of the most important books that I’ve ever encountered. For those that aren’t familiar with either the collection or the individual essay, you should know that Hugo was the most important poet to come out of the Montana in the last century and the work that he did in establishing the University of Montana MFA program as one of the preeminent western writing programs was legendary. For me, the essays in that collection really got me to understanding on a more mechanical level what goes into crafting poems. The processes that I was running to work out my amateurish first attempts at poetry were starting to take on a cognizant form because of those essays.

It is said that to be a writer one must also be a reader. Which is absolutely true. I can tell you that as an editor at Urban Farmhouse Press,  I can generally tell a poorly read writer in the first few pages of any manuscript. They tend to lack an engagement with the works of both their peers and ancestors. They do so in every manner from their syntax, their narrative control, to their choices of images. This lack of engagement hurts them in so much as we understand literature and all of human experience relies upon some conversation with the world around us and before us. To read means you get a window in those common spaces between our differing experiences of them.

So we should all agree that we need read other work, but what kind of work, exactly? Easy answer is all of it. Trust me, it helps. But essays on craft occupy a certain interesting and important part of our repertoire as readers/writers. They afford us the more technical observational point of view of how many of the best works of writing that are crafted. You can read say, Richard Hugo’s “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg” and really enjoy it and decided that this is a manner in which you would like to write. You might even try and to copy Hugo’s meter and line breaks and try to come up with something and maybe even manage something that sounds close enough. But the fact of the matter is that every move in that poem is an embodiment of the psyche that went into creating. You need to understand work on a more fundamental way.

To understand how his work is properly crafted, you must under Hugo’s process and the acts he brings to it.  To do so, read his words about the act of creating, the thought process(es) it took to set about building his poems. You can’t necessarily learn the totality and the knowledge of the writer through their essays, but you can learn their process. The process matters. The other parts, the metaphors, the lyricism and the like, that comes from you as the poet or writer. Many of the best writers we’ve had have recorded a least notes on their craft if not essays or entire books on the subject. Seek those out.

But don’t always stop with their own words. There are plenty of smart folks out there writing important essays about the reading of other’s work. I’m thinking here of writer’s like Wayne C. Booth (Rhetoric of Fiction) and Tzvetan Todorov (Poetics of Prose) although there are countless more, but these expert readers of literature are absolute treasure troves of the mechanical knowledge of crafting fiction, poetry, or non-fiction. They point out the details you often miss in your readings, the details that make work dazzle, the parts that your work needs to have to be what you need it to be. To be a good writer you need to be an excellent reader. Essays on craft and about craft are must for every one who writes. So the thing with essays on craft is, well, read them.

Competing Mythologies: Comparison is not Inclusion

So I was reading along in this fine copy I recently picked up of Ralph Gustafson’s Sequences when I came across his poem “At Moriane Lake” and was struck by something that I just haven’t been able to let go. The poem opens with the line “Canada, a country without myths.” Right away, I was thrown into an argumentative stance with what followed. To me, this country has always had myths. It has them because myths don’t come from the proclamations of poets. Poets may and should channel them.

Before I go on let’s just clear up a few thing. This book is from 1979 and without doubt the country and our collective psyche has to have changed, at least a little. Well, enough to come to the idea that we have mythologies as country. And snag a constitution, close residential schools, and the like. What those myths are I’m not exactly willing to try and pigeon hole here. So, suffice it to say that since Gustafson opened his poem with this line, I really don’t buy that Canada (then or now or anytime between) doesn’t have it’s own mythologies. Secondly,  I generally enjoy Gustafson’s work and don’t really want to use this post as means to bash the man or his work. It’s fine. A lot of it is quite good and I do encourage you to read it. But, this line and this poem and having some thoughts on it, bears importance to where I am at as poet and a writer. It does so because I think the issues at the heart of the poem speak to a major problem in literature that still would exist today.

That problem is a preoccupation with the sort of Western Cannon of humanities. Yeah, I would hope that anyone reading this post has had some experience with various contemporary writers and critics illustrating deep concern with fact that the vast majority of our scholarly tradition of literature comes out a male dominated voice from a handful of European regions. Spend time in a college English class and I’m sure you’ve heard it. And it is a problem and in so many ways this particular poem illustrates the depth to which this problem is nestled into our conscious history of writing in a place like Canada.  That is because after Gustafson tells us we have no myths, he then goes on to illustrate that we do in fact simply recreate myths in our everyday lives.Which is a worthy enough meditation. But the problem is that the poem illustrates the argument using examples that specifically originate from the European tradition. This leads us back to that first line and perhaps nicely adds to his statement about our lack of myths. This happens because in using imported myths from a colonial heritage as the standard bearer for myths themselves, he refuses to permit any room for other myths. Simply put, other myths cannot exist because they are not these myths. Without European heritage, the country itself cannot lay claim to a mythology.

For me this is a clearly a major problem. After a quick read of Big Medicine Comes to Erie, you would see that myths and images and histories are not rooted extensively in that European tradition. This is because those myths and images and histories speak to me as a writer and as a person. Granted, my work comes out a place that is over three decades later. But I’ve witnessed this exclusivity of canonical mythologies on a regular basis while completing both my undergraduate work in English Literature and during some of my workshops at the graduate level. It was bad enough that it I was once asked point blank by a fellow workshop member “Who would care about a group of poems written about a mythological curling bonspiel in Manitoba.”  And maybe you as a reader wouldn’t, just like this individual, care about the work of said collection. But there is room for it and I discourse that is contemporary literature. I (and a number of other workshop members) believed it was worthy of attention as there was a great amount of the work that leaned heavy on Ojibwe and Cree mythologies. Mythologies that I had found lacking at the classroom level in the English departments I found myself studying in. I saw great purpose in adding these underpinnings to writing. Others clearly saw it. But still and in turn,  I had felt push back from certain portions of my writing communities. This person was just one of many.

All of this leads me to this point: that myths arise organically from the places that people live and these myths are important. Belief in some extended literary heritage that traces all sources of “critical” knowledge back to white men of European descent does not change that. I think about Gary Snyder here, applying Japanese form to America subjects. I consider the work of Simon Ortiz, Peter Blue Cloud, Joy Harjo, Leslie Marmon Silko, James Welsh that all drew upon mythologies and images that don’t find their roots in Europe. These are all important, critically so because we are all nothing without our stories. I’m arguing for inclusion of these heritages in our writing tradition because it is part of what we are as a collective society. I don’t wish to be cast in the image of the ancient Greeks.

While Gustafson likely meant to empower Canadian literature and writers, he made his attempt at this with a clear comparison and selection of myths and heritages that left out ones that had risen organically from the land around him. That fellow workshop member was working in the same line. They had run a comparison of myths and found themselves wanting for the ones they had always found comfort in. Perhaps they felt them superior. Perhaps it was because it was the only manner in which they could conceive the world around them. The hope here is that you find a reason to explore our or your myths, the ones that have risen organically from the land and spaces and people are you. Don’t rely entirely upon a cannon we have had thrust upon us. We indeed are mythic everyday. We just not need Odysseus, Philomela, or Oedipus to see it.

Rail Jumping: Working Two Genres at Once

One novel, one poetry collection, and grant writing. In the midst of a heavy writing season here at the old homestead, (albeit a very urban homestead, but I generally like the idea of a homestead, so let’s call it a homestead) and I’ve doing some interesting mental gymnastics here. Maybe not gymnastics, but more a sport of some sort. Switching between dedicated fiction writing and then back to this more glimmer or lyric sense of the world is a little jarring. Maybe it comes from the fact that all three are projects that are more or less vastly different in content and focus. But it’s worth talking about the rail jumping for a second.

First off, for those that aren’t already in the know, I’m busy working on a historical fiction novel set in 1849 around this region. Currently the project is called “The Waters that Divide.” It follows a series of fictional events that follow the burning of the Jesuit Mission on Bkejwanong (Walpole Island) that draws the characters into circumstances that could break the relative peace of that region. Thanks to the support of the Ontario Arts Council on this manuscript, I’m getting pretty close to a complete first draft of work. There’s been a lot of research poured into this one, more so than usually,  because not only do have to world build in historical fiction, you have to do well at getting things accurate. It’s all a delicate balance for the writing, basically what is overboard and what isn’t enough information or homages to the era, all stuff that feels way off in this manuscript so far. It’s early though and getting the first round of this down is success enough. But this is and has basically been my day job. I’d better be getting this right.

Next up is the poetry. This is the stuff that’s been carrying the bulk of my work. With that first collection coming out with Black Moss Press this fall, I’m gearing up to get both some new work in as well as start to fill out and polish up  “Devil in the Woods” is the collection that needs to be finished up. It got started with some funding from the Ontario Arts Council’s Writers Reserve Program and now is being supported by a Canada Council for the Arts Aboriginal Arts grant to get finished up. The collection is a homage to both the great Richard Hugo and to my time in Peterborough, ON. A series of letter poems and prayer poems are told from the viewpoint of an Ojibway guy with initials J.W.. His letters are addressed to famous Canadians and look to engage the breadth of the Canadian experience with a Indigineous perspective. The prayer poems are an important tool to look more personally at J.W. rather than solely as a letter writer. Basically, looking to start shopping the finished manuscript in mid 2017 to late 2017. The Lit magazine circuit should start seeing these very soon.

The new work is another proposed poetry collection that will be submitted to the Writer’s Reserve Program for the fall. Not going to really say much on this one. Let’s make it a surprise for the all the recommenders on the list this year. Let’s just say it’s new work at this time. These two are my part-time job, but they are starting to eat more and more into that novel writing. I mean, they definitely should be starting to gain momentum and take time as the “Waters that Divide” project is starting to wind down. Eventually they will flip-flop time wise. I’ve got a fall and winter ahead of poetry.

So, I’m jumping the rails of fiction to get on the poetry line again. And this is good. Although jarring because at one moment I’m plugging away in 1849 in Sandwich or Amherstburg or Bkejwanong, then next it’s contemporary Central Ontario, then off to that third mystery location. But all of this good mental exercise. If only because when I get stuck, I can just hop the line to the other project. The three can and do feed each other in unexpected ways. Downside is less rest for the brain. So yeah, writing this year has so far been a train that I know I can’t stop. And that romantic in me can’t help but loving train travel.