This is a remarkable conference, held in a remarkable place. I’m struck by the efforts people made to get here, from all over Alaska and across the USA. Here are a few photos of this wild place:
Heading to Homer, Alaska tomorrow for Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference, where I will be teaching: http://sites.kpc.alaska.edu/writersconf/
Next off to Anchorage for this reading, hosted by UAA Low-Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing and 49 Writers, with Joan Naviyuk Kane and Ismet Prcic:
Oddly, I was just about to join the Writers’ Union of Canada, in anticipation of the publication of my first non-fiction book, when Hal Niedzviecki’s editorial, “Winning the Appropriation Prize” was published.
I’m a strong supporter of free speech, especially at this historical point, where we live next to Trump-held territories in a time of false news and deliberate spreading of misinformation. I celebrate the right to offend, to provoke, and to challenge, as so many of the comics, journalists and writers working around the world today are doing, often at considerable risk to themselves.
But speech that is free is just the lowest common denominator of a free society. We all have the right to babble freely of our hatreds and fears, to post them and to spread them. It happens minute by minute. Beyond that freedom, each of us must ask herself questions about the work we bring into the world. Is it true? Is it ethical? Where does the balance of power lie? What is the intention, the goal, behind the work, and will the work itself move us toward that goal, however incrementally? Is it appropriate for its intended audience?
This is not self-censorship; this is editing. It is what writers do, and fail at, and resolve to do better.
I celebrate acts of radical imagination, engaged witnessing, and cross-cultural exploration. As so many writers do, I look beyond my own limited encounters with the world. I am writing a historical novel set in France, England and America of the 1600’s, not an era in which I have any first-hand experience.
Hal Niedzviecki’s piece should not have been published by the Union. It was not a call to celebrate imagination, or the extraordinary empathy that can come from deep study of that or those we don’t know, be it human or animal or tree. This was about appropriating the stories of a particular group when we as a society have barely begun to acknowledge and measure the harms, let alone make amends. It was published not on a personal blog but within the same newsletter that also called for reconciliation and celebration of the work of indigenous writers. The cognitive dissonance was jarring.
That term, “appropriation,” is meant to provoke the very people, indigenous writers of Canada, that so many of us settlers wish to approach, at this moment in history--
Canada’s 150th—with open hands, listening hearts, and a true spirit of reconciliation. Mr. Niedzviecki was free to speak in a public forum that represents all writers; I feel misrepresented.
Although I don’t know the circumstances of his resignation, I don’t wish for anyone to be fired; I wish, always, for dialogue. None of us are disposable; we must find ways to speak to each other across the chasm. That said, the public response (much like Trump’s election) has been, if anything, more disheartening than the original article.
I would like to reflect on the extraordinary interview Hal Wake gave with Joy Kogawa last week at Green College. Joy spoke of her new book, Gently to Nagasaki, a quest for forgiveness she undertook in the name of her beloved father, a sexual abuser of children. Such a difficult quest! But Joy spoke with clarity about that road to forgiveness, that road that requires love to surround truth, to be twice as big as the truth. Without that, truth leads to vengeance, and there is something in us all that lusts for vengeance. Beware. Sometimes it is useful to take a vow of silence, of listening, before beginning the work.
Dear writers, dear writers, what is our union, our obligation to take care of, listen to and cherish one another? What will become of us all in the age of anger, in the age of lies, in the songs of despair sent up across the planet? For this I know: we are being called upon at this point in time to do our best work, to see as clearly and compassionately as we can, to speak freely and with the greatest care.
Thank you to Kits Beach Magazine for the interview, and for supporting the work I’m doing as Poet Laureate—along with the remarkable Poetry Ambassadors— around food, poetry and community. Kits Beach has taken an interesting approach of not being on-line, so I have no link to share, but thank you to Li-feng Fang for the photo.
I’ve been reading through the many (many!) submissions to Sustenance, and they are so diverse, so wise and lush, so true to the spirit of our city, such necessary nourishment in these fractured times. The Poetry Ambassadors have gathered incredible selections from their various communities, pieces that astonish. And now as I move through the open submissions, I keep reading and finding pieces that make me say to myself, Yes! Yes, we must include this one, and this. This, too; I’ve never read anything like this before.
I’m grateful for every one of these submissions. I know it will be exquisitely difficult to make the final selections. I’ve already requested a length extension from Anvil!
Thank you to all who submitted, and please keep doing the work of connecting, of reaching out, of taking gentle, sustaining care of yourselves and those in the circles around you.
Five days into our week visiting the Big Island in Hawaii, I was chagrined to learn just by chance while leafing through a local magazine that the sunscreens my family and I were using are toxic to corals. Corals, I learned, are incredibly sensitive living organisms, and the vast majority of sunscreens contain these toxins. Among the worst is Oxybenzone, one small drop of which can kill corals in an ocean space the size of six Olympic-size swimming pools.
At this point, I had already switched to wearing a thin t-shirt and shorts while snorkeling, as the sunscreens were not protecting me from getting nasty sunburns in any case. But had I known they were toxic to the very marine ecosystems we were delighting in visiting, I never would have worn them. I just made a donation to the Coral Reef Alliance (CORAL), a charity working all over the world to protect coral reefs. The Coral Reef Alliance has earned a four-star rating from Charity Navigator, the top rating possible, for sound fiscal management, accountability and transparency.
Corals are essential even for those who don’t have the transformative experience of swimming in the undersea gardens where they flourish. Hard corals provide a barrier to human coastal communities, protecting land from rising sea levels. Soft corals produce chemical compounds which have been isolated as effective treatments for human diseases, cancer in particular.
Being underwater, swimming among blue and yellow tangs, seeing moray eels peeking out of caves, being accidently bonked into by a surfing sea turtle as we body surfed—these were gifts we will cherish. The sea and its living creatures, too, are to be cherished and protected. For this World Poetry Day, I have written to the sunscreen companies to ask them to remove oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate, and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor from their products. I would be grateful to any who treasure these underwater worlds and would take a few moments to do the same, and to spread the word about sunscreen toxicity.
Neutrogena (the sunscreen I used) has no email contact, but their customer service number is 1-800-582-4048, and they were responsive when I called and stumbled my way through the coral-killing chemicals. I will post on their follow-up.
Banana Boat (the sunscreen the kids used) was hard to find. They have a form where emails can be sent, but neither an email or phone number to actually speak with someone directly. However, I learned that they are owned by Playtex Products (not the tampon company) a division of Edgewell Personal Care—they manufacture all the Banana Boat products. U.S. Consumers - Toll Free: 1-888-310-4290
Canadian Consumers - Toll Free: 1-800-387-1300
Again, I will update about the results as I am contacted, and again, I would be grateful for others to join me in spreading the word to those who swim and might use sunscreens that there are safer choices, like using a hat and clothing, or these s sunscreens: http://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/
I leave you with a few lines from one of my poems
What We Heard About the Sea
…remember how it felt to live here,
but we are tourists now. Cold gold
light in water, we touch the brittle fingers
of black coral, feathered tongues of barnacles,
even the great wings of manta rays
that swoop over us….
For those who want more poems about the sea, please read Sue Goyette’s marvelous collection, Ocean:
Happy World Poetry Day to all.
Congratulations to all the finalists for the B.C. Book Prizes. A special shout-out to Poetry Ambassadors Juliane Okot Bitek and Adèle Barclay, both shortlisted for the (drum roll, please!)
Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize
by Juliane Okot Bitek
Publisher: University of Alberta PressFor 100 days, Juliane Okot Bitek recorded the lingering nightmare of the Rwandan genocide in a poem—each poem recalling the senseless loss of life and of innocence. Okot Bitek draws on her own family’s experience of displacement under the regime of Idi Amin, pulling in fragments of the poetic traditions she encounters along the way: the Ugandan Acholi oral tradition of her father—the poet Okot p’Bitek; Anglican hymns; the rhythms and sounds of the African American Spiritual tradition; and the beat of spoken word and hip-hop. Writer Juliane Okot Bitek is a PhD Candidate with UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues in Vancouver. In 2004, her short story Going Home won the Commonwealth Short Story Contest and was featured on the BBC and CBC. More
If I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You
by Adèle Barclay
Publisher: Nightwood EditionsIf I Were in a Cage I’d Reach Out for You is a collection that travels through both time and place, liminally occupying the chasm between Canadiana and Americana mythologies. These poems dwell in surreal pockets of the everyday warped landscapes of modern cities and flood into the murky basin of the intimate. Amidst the comings and goings, there’s a sincere desire to connect to others, an essential need to reach out, to redraft the narratives that make kinship radical and near. These poems are love letters to the uncomfortable, the unfathomable, and the altered geographies that define our own misshapen understandings of the world. Adèle Barclay‘s poems have appeared in The Fiddlehead, PRISM international, Matrix, The Pinch, and others. She is the Interviews Editor at The Rusty Toque. More
by Rob Taylor
Publisher: Gaspereau PressThe news can mean many things, but first and foremost in this collection the news is We’re having a baby! Starting in the fifth week of his wife’s pregnancy, Rob Taylor wrote a poem every week as they travelled toward their child’s birth. His poems anticipate the astonishing and yet commonplace beginning of a human life, but they also explore how a baby’s arrival streams into both the incessant chatter of the world’s daily news and into that other sort of news that literature carries; what Ezra Pound called news that stays news. Rob Taylor‘s first full-length collection, The Other Side of Ourselves, won the 2010 Alfred G. Bailey Prize. In 2015 he received the City of Vancouver’s Mayor’s Arts Award for Literary Arts as an emerging artist. More
by Anne Fleming
Publisher: Pedlar PressIn poemw, the third finger of the left hand hits ‘w’ instead of ‘s’ and makes up a new kind of poem, the sort-of poem, the approxi-lyric, the poem that doesn’t want to claim poemness. Poemw are about daily things—graffitti, hair, sea gulls, second-hand clothes—and rarer things—dead crows, baked mice, ski accidents, Judith Butler. They’re jokes-and-not-jokes, cheeky, goofy. Tender. Anne Fleming has an MFA from UBC and teaches at UBC Okanagan in Kelowna. Her first book, Pool-Hopping and Other Stories, was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award, the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize, and the Danuta Gleed Award. Her fiction has been commissioned by CBC Radio, and widely published in magazines and anthologies, including Toronto Life magazine, The Journey Prize Stories, and The New Quarterly, where it won a National Magazine Award. More
Sleeping in Tall Grass
by Richard Therrien
Publisher: University of Alberta PressA cycle of poems, Sleeping in Tall Grass takes an unsparing look at a painful, sometimes abusive, yet strangely redemptive family story enfolded within the body of the Canadian prairie itself—at once physical, historical, and metaphysical. These intensely personal poems reflect the complex relationships between sound and space, language and silence. Treating time as more layered than sequential, they reflect a process of organic composition distilled from Therrien’s iterative observations and utterances. This is writing that reaches “into the very grain of existence”—a sonorous re-presentation of the human presence on the dispassionate but eternally giving plains. Poet and editor Richard Therrien was born and raised on the Canadian prairie. He has published across North America and currently works and lives in North Vancouver. More
I’m so pleased to be speaking about the Sustenance Anthology Project at the B.C. Farmer’s Market Conference tomorrow. It’s not every day I have the opportunity to read poems to farmers! And the line-up of speakers, on subjects from slow meat to how to run a profitable farm on three acres, is impressive.
Conference Details here:
And don’t forget to get your tickets for Savour Our Neighbourhood’s 4th Annual Fundraiser for the Mount Pleasant Thursday March 9th, with local craft beer, wine, and local fare, and a very important fundraiser for families: https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/savour-our-neighbourhood-2017-tickets-29795459020
What a week! I saw the amazing cover for The Dog Lover Unit this week. I signed off on the legal edits, the proofreader’s edits, and some last corrections of my own, and submitted everything very late last night. I was approached about an exciting new project involving dogs. Also this week, I interviewed the executive chef of The Blue Water Café, Frank Pabst, for our Sustenance anthology, talking with him about his unsung heroes menu, and how he works to bring sustainable seafood from the ocean to the table. And yesterday, in my official role as Poet Laureate, I met with Syrian refugee families to invite them to be interviewed (with a translator) for Sustenance, and to share with them the fundraising we were doing. At one point, when I was feeling a bit shy, a Syrian girl of about ten held my hand and pressed her cheek to mine so her mother could take our photo. She had arrived to Canada seven days ago, and chattered in a mix of French, English and Arabic. “I go to school!” she said. “I like school!” That, my friends, is what it’s all about.
Photo Credit: Benjamin Fieschi-Rose