but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on
(“Roblin’s Mills [II]” Beyond Remembering 157)
but they had their being once
and left a place to stand on
(“Roblin’s Mills [II]” Beyond Remembering 157)
So Al Purdy once wrote of the pioneers who came to settle in Prince Edward County. And so, in like manner, this A-frame cottage that Al and Eurithe built on the shores of Roblin Lake may come to provide “a place to stand” for the writers-in-residence who spend some time here.
The Al Purdy A-frame Association was incorporated as a registered charity to restore and preserve the A-frame cottage not as a museum but as a living retreat for Canadian writers and, in so doing, to accentuate the significance of this place and raise public awareness of Al Purdy’s importance as a literary and cultural icon. The A-frame Alumni Anthology will provide an archival record of those writers who came here for a time to reside in the space that Al and Eurithe created—a record of the thoughts and reactions, the poetry and prose that resulted from their sojourn here.
In Residence: July and August, 2014
The arrival at the A-frame of the inaugural writer-in-residence, Katherine Leyton, on July 1, 2014 – Canada Day, Al would have approved – was captured by a film crew. Brian Johnson had decided to make a documentary about Purdy and the A-frame project. It is wonderful to have that time captured and you can watch the film, Al Purdy Was Here, on iTunes.
A review of the documentary describes Katherine as “a spirited young feminist who finds herself conversing with the ghost of an old-school male.”
Katherine hosted the Summer Purdy Picnic, and completed her community project How Pedestrian – a video project in which Katherine asked friends, neighbours and strangers to read a Purdy poem as a way to make poetry more accessible to the general public. As a finale to the project, Katherine did a presentation at Active Arts Studio in Rednersville along with jazz artist Gerry Shatford.
A-FRAME EXPERIENCE STATEMENT
Looking back almost five years later, I can say with confidence that the A-frame played a vital role in launching my writing career. Before that summer I spent living at Al’s and roaming the green and golden fields of Prince Edward County, I had spent years struggling to put together a collection of poetry while I worked several bartending jobs to support myself, only left with small snatches of time to write before or after brutal, 12-hour shifts, as my roommates banged about our small apartment. I realize now that I was writing at the time with no support from the literary community and little feedback. No room of my own. I was right at the edge of completing my book as I headed to the A-frame, but I was burnt out and demoralized about the project. The Purdy residency gave me the time, space and financial support to be able to focus on my writing, which led to the completion of the manuscript for my book, All the Gold Hurts My Mouth, which was published in 2016. It also gave me an immense boost in confidence in my voice, leading me to experiment more, and resulting in some of my favourite poems in the collection. The A-frame board gave me – a total unknown – a chance, and I will forever be grateful to them for it. I also immensely value the connection the residency encouraged with the local community, which nourished my mental well-being during my time in Al and Eurithe’s house and created what I expect will be a life-long feeling of connection to the area. Finally, to have had the chance to learn so much about Al Purdy and the many writers he welcomed into his house – and to have been a part of that in some tiny way – was both inspiring and an honour. In sum, my time there – writing in my very first dedicated writing room, having the time to read Al’s books and listen to his records, running and swimming at sunset, making notes about my work over coffee on the back deck overlooking Roblin Lake each morning, and generally thinking about nothing but poetry for two full months, day in and day out – was nothing short of magical.
Katherine at the A-frame
Since her time as the first writer-in-residence at the A-frame in 2014, Katherine’s first collection of poetry, All the Gold Hurts My Mouth, was published by icehouse poetry (Goose Lane Editions) in 2016. The book won the 2017 ReLit Award, was a finalist for an Ottawa Book Award, and received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly. Her nonfiction has been published in Bitch, Hazlitt, The Globe and Mail, Arc and This magazine, among others, and has been nominated for a National Magazine Award. For the past few years she has been working as a scriptwriter for a television production company, was Reviews Editor at Arc Poetry Magazine, and taught narrative nonfiction at Algonquin College. She is currently at work on a book of narrative nonfiction about the sexism and social disenfranchisement she experienced during pregnancy and early motherhood. Born and raised in Toronto, she has lived in Rome, Edinburgh, Montreal and Sicily, but now calls Ottawa home. She lives with her husband and son, and is currently expecting her second child.
Link to her website
Link to Twitter:
Link to her book:
(Note: this poem was written during my time at the A-frame and was published in my 2016 book, All the Gold Hurts my Mouth)
LETTERS FOR YOU
I watch them coast from the fields
in the evening, windows down.
We lock eyes when I’m out running
and I plead, turn to see if a glance
is in the rearview.
Their bedrooms are elaborately
simple; I’m a girl in them.
Sauvage, that’s what you called me,
but it’s how I think of you, and it’s the opposite
of their want, which can be fed.
Cruel though, how their damp sheets
promise a forgetting.
We tried to do it
by moving away
from our past and into a house together.
While you sleep
I walk around the empty rooms
with a blanket over my shoulders,
hoping to recover someone.
Not in the dining room.
Not in the study.
So I shed my clothes
and climb on top of you,
trying to find her.
You made observations
from your jacket:
how grave I was in my pretty hat,
how you’d always imagined
Anna Karenina looked like me.
I parted my lips but didn’t say anything.
Don’t be strange, you said.
Be strange, you said.
Back inside my mouth
fell open for your cock
like a string puppet’s.
We stayed up
making purple-black flowers
bloom down the side of me.
We hoped the neighbours
would call the police
to stop us.
Someone, stop us.
in that other direction.
When you moved inside me,
we were astonished.
I think of it now as a grip
we could not remain under.
Here, there, a beauty returns—
one of yours—
I turn away from it.
From Phil Hall:
THE SECOND ANNUAL PURDY PICNIC
I had been to visit Al & Eurithe a few times at the A-frame. We had shared cold-cut lunches, & I had lent my ear in Al’s study, over his books, toward what he was showing me, & saying: Roderick Haig-Brown, was it? Yes. They were very kind to me, Al & Eurithe.
I went once with Stan Dragland, too. Al & Stan & I in the writing shed, mulling it over. And after Al died, Stan & I went again, no one home, the Voice come to stone, the water no different…
To return – to the second Purdy Picnic – holy smokes! To see all the work, the repairs – it gives my head a shake! To be on the other side, the outer side, of the rope across the doorway – as in say Dickens’s home – but there’s no rope here!
To stand on the back porch & read to Al, about Al, because Al, because Eurithe – an honour, tinged. To see Katherine Leyton, the first poet-in-residence at the A-frame, thriving there, a quickening in the sepia rooms!
I loved all that. A catch in the throat. I could not be funny. I was too grim for a picnic.
I read: “a standing ovation / the wind in the dry corn.” I read: “the toadies & liars who
swagger in government now.”
Doug Gibson was there, dear Doug, & a newborn named Saul was on a blanket.
Learning to kick. And there were real old country songs sung. Like in the worst bars.
Al smiled. Stone smiled.
The Al Purdy A-frame may be one of the very few places in Canada where—thanks to
Eurithe’s generosity, thanks to all of the organizing by Jean Baird & many others, thanks
to the ground work – that A, lived in again – may be where our pride in this country & its
literature gets to find asylum now from these rushing indifferent years.
The writers who get the privilege to live there a month or so will surely find in it the
solace & rescue that a safe-house has always meant. A picnic sounds so innocent, but it is a grand collective rescue that has been performed.
Starting with this A, standing by it – let us arise & go. I mean pass the potato salad.
In Residence: September to November 2014
Sue Sinclair and Nick Thran applied to do a shared residency. The Selection Committee said, Why not? Applications for residencies are made far in advance, partly for reasons of organization but mostly to meet timelines for some of our funders. Between the time that Sue and Nick accepted the residency offer and their arrival, they were now three—Sue, Nick and baby Abigail were our first Purdy Poetry Family. And thanks to the generosity of Brick Books, the A-frame also acquired a washer and dryer.
Nick and George Bowering did a co-reading and general discussion about the residency program at the Trenton library. Nick read a Purdy poem that he thought was one of Purdy’s best. Later, Eurithe Purdy said she had never heard the poem before; it was one of the many Al never read in public, always preferring to read the “acorns.”
A-FRAME EXPERIENCE STATEMENT
I will look back upon those three months as one of the special times of my life. Three seasons (September-November), new fatherhood, a harmony between daily responsibilities and creative ambitions – it felt outside of time.
I think, during those months, I was too eager to hitch my writing wagon to Purdy’s own poems and biography. But I understood the residency, in part, as an act of Eurithe’s and Al’s hospitality. The first section of my 2015 collection, Mayor Snow, was my attempt to be a good guest.
From Nick’s Final Report, early 2015:
Each day one of us would take the morning to read and write while the other minded Abigail; and then in the afternoon, after lunch together, we’d switch roles. The house, with its two clearly divided sections, was big enough to accommodate this dance. I think people forget sometimes that writers have families. I can’t think of any other residency in Canada that could have accommodated our situations so perfectly. The time there was a real gift to both of us.
Well, I suppose there isn't a more Purdy-esque way to finish off the (almost) three months here than completing my poetry manuscript at two in the morning, then having to go pee outside in ten below (pipes indoors froze) while the dogs across the way howl and I hear the sound of the whole damn lake freeze over. Brought an empty jug out this morning and just tapped it on the ice for good measure. Admit defeat, but with a smile on my face. Was fun bringing Abigail out here and doing the work/family dance. Exhausting in the best ways. Had pilgrims. Met Eurithe. Had a film crew and their drone. It was even fun sporting this winter-worn solitary Purdy costume for the last few nights, as the family made off for more insulated climes.
Nick’s notes from the Guest Book:
This place casts a spell.
Give yourself to it.
Nick Thran is the author of three collections of poems. Since the residency at the A-frame, he has served as writer-in-residence at the University of Calgary (2015-2016), and moved from Montreal to Fredericton; where he is a stay-at-home dad, an editor for Brick Books, and a Saturday clerk at the local bookstore. He is working (slowly) on a book of prose.
The aspen, the maple and the willow gathered one morning for coffee.
“I don’t know how to properly measure my limited hours
against the excess of love that I feel for my fellow aspen,”
lamented the aspen. “There’s just this constant sense of having
let down my own kind.” “My husband is unreachable,”
said the maple. “He is too many tiny, stacked logs.
A part of him is always away in some fire or the other.”
“The plight of the ant makes me weep,” said the willow.
“And the plight of the grass. And the nasty things humans
will sometimes call one another as they glide by in canoes.”
Their conversation sounded like a day would sound in its entirety.
They pressed their foreheads together at night and otherwise
did not touch, though something was surely going on
under the soil, among roots that only the most agile bugs could see.
How many days passed like that before our family arrived?
How many years? Morning. A pot of hot coffee.
At the edge of the lake, three trees.
from Mayor Snow (Nightwood Editions, 2015)
Excerpt from review by Jacob McArthur Mooney in Quill & Quire:
Nick Thran is a poet who makes trouble. He makes trouble both for language and the power relationships language mirrors. Thran works under the umbrella of James Tate, alongside surrealist post-Tate troublemakers on both the southern (Patricia Lockwood, Tony Hoagland) and northern (Alice Burdick, Kevin Connolly) sides of the border.
It’s provocative, then, that his third book opens in quiet residence at Al Purdy’s A-frame house in Ameliasburg, Ontario – home turf of the persona-centered Canadian “place and nature” poetry that Thran and his fellow weirdos have inoculated us against. It’s a meaningful opening for Thran, given his established cosmopolitan reputation.
“Only the Barns,” a representative highlight, takes an Ameliasburg barn for its physical aspect (“wind-worn wood”), its connotative aspect (“The barns don’t do impressions of stones or their maternal groves of trees”), and the aspect that can only exist in a Thran poem (“And after the last words have been uttered in the dusty, federal air … broadcast the insides of the barns”). Further into the opening section, a snowy conversation with a peer ends this way: “My friend is myself. I’ve inherited this. / We’ve been talking the same way for eons.” Quickly, Thran begins to play with Purdian masculinity and its language…
D.G. Jones’s observation that Purdy’s poems are about “how to live without power” flavours Mayor Snow. Politics, fatherhood, humiliation, and love are all “things that have happened” to Thran’s speakers. Mayor Snow moves away from Earworm’s shrugged shoulders into a grumpy meditation on powerlessness and responsibility. Despite Thran’s troublemaking instincts, the book centres on questions of resignation: how to live with dignity, how to be happy, and how to get by. What could be more Purdian than that?
In residence: September/October/November 2014
Sue Sinclair resided at the A-frame with her husband, Nick Thran, and their daughter Abigail, who was six months old at the time.
I have sat down to write this statement and my heart is pounding. The heart pounding has to do with reliving the extremis of childbirth and the first months thereafter, the disruption of every habit of mind, body, feeling that had been me till then. One thought about identity is that we are an assemblage of stories, but sometimes I feel more like an assemblage of rhythms. And childbirth is a form of arrhythmia. My rhythms have always been tentative, unsettled, but not to have them? How can I say it in a way that is “ugh” enough—the “ugh” feeling of really having your heart skip a beat, literally missing a beat, so you feel like you’re falling out of your body, out of time, imagine that. Nauseous. Neither day nor night felt convincing, the light was always a little off, no gesture felt natural, no room of the apartment felt thoroughly inhabited. I want to say this because the A-frame was where [sic] I regained a sense of rhythm, a pace that was at least partly internal to me. My daughter didn’t need me any less, but I was getting the groove; meanwhile, the residency legitimized the part of the day where I handed her over to her dad and wrote – and the force of my gratitude for this space is part of what’s making my heart pound now. There was no question of sleeping through the night, but the days had a shape, the world felt real again. And, of course, the work itself was partly about working out rhythms, feeling for the pace that would sustain a given poem.
When I think about this time, I picture the big single-paned window at the back of the house, and the two chairs that sit there, Eurithe’s & Al’s. The wasps buzzing at the glass. I was afraid of the wasps at first, as I suspect I may have been afraid of Al; he seemed so big. Literally a pretty tall man, and a massive presence in CanLit, who looms large on the level of anecdote, both literary and local – Wanda down the road told me that he had been known to cycle naked on his stationary bike while blaring bagpipe music. I love this tall tale, the neighbourly intimacy, but on the other hand it and many of the other tales I’d heard presented a larger than life “character” who existed at a distance from a person like me, who thrives on intimate self-disclosure. I didn’t know how I’d talk to that man – who has little to do with the real Purdy, obviously, but was the fictional version I had encountered. Being in his house helped me imagine other sides of Purdy. Partly because the A-frame felt like a natural space for being a small family in; it fit somehow. Partly because Eurithe was a presence there – the seat next to Al’s by the picture window, by the wasps, for whom I had developed affection by the end. I developed a more intimate relationship with the fictional Al as time went on. It was as though we had been immersed in daily life together, which is often curative for me when it comes to social anxiety. Doing the dishes, brushing my teeth, nursing my daughter, hanging up the laundry – I did all these things in Al’s belated presence. In fact, I did them in his intimate space, which made him more vulnerable to me than I had hitherto imagined him to be.
Final Report Entry:
[Living at the A-frame] was bliss till the pipes froze and maybe even then. [My family and I] drove from Ameliasburgh (I prefer this spelling to “Ameliasburg” and love that there is apparently debate about the matter)…from Ameliasburgh to Montreal weekly to teach a class and I do not recommend the commute, though the A-frame was worth it. Now my commute is down to five minutes on a bike, thank goodness.
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
Sunsets. Scotch. The local librarian. The constant presence of the CBC. Mice. Al Purdy: Essays on His Works. Yours Al (film). Fires (indoors). Fires (outdoors). Wanda. Evelyn. Boyce. Books & Company. The Selected Poems of Al Purdy. The shore. The porch. The house. The trees. Watching the day plug itself in every morning at the window.
This place casts a spell.
Give yourself to it.
—Nick Thran, Sue Sinclair & Abigail Thran
Heralding from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Sue fulfilled undergraduate studies at Mount Allison University and the University of New Brunswick, and completed her MA and PhD in Philosophy at the University of Toronto on the subject of beauty and ethics. In 2012 she was writer-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick and, in 2013, served as the inaugural critic-in-residence for CWILA. Sinclair's first collection of poetry, Secrets of Weather and Hope (2001), was a finalist for the 2002 Gerald Lampert Award. Mortal Arguments (2003) was a finalist for the Atlantic Poetry Prize. Her third collection, The Drunken Lovely Bird, won the International Independent Publisher's Award for Poetry and Breaker was a finalist for the Pat Lowther Award and the Atlantic Poetry Prize. Heaven's Thieves won the Pat Lowther Award. Currently, she lives, writes and directs creative writing (insofar as creative writing agrees to be directed) at the University of New Brunswick in Wolostoqy [sic] Territory.
Secrets of Weather and Hope (Brick Books 2001)
Mortal Arguments (Brick Books 2003)
The Drunken Lovely Bird (Goose Lane Editions 2005)
Breaker (Brick Books 2008)
Heaven's Thieves (Brick Books 2016)
I rarely speak of small-town Ontario, home of my earliest self,
the heat-soaked fields now buried, silos and all,
deep in my amygdala. In those days there was nothing prescient
about the willows, and the clouds’ reflections in the water
failed to precipitate the mirror stage. I caught crayfish,
pressed leaves, and pushed deeper into the landscape,
ticking off a litany of butterflies in my child’s guidebook,
believing so fully in the names that they stopped
being names, just swirled in my mind like the patterns
I’d learned to see under my eyelids when I pressed
my fists to them. The grass, in those days, did not grind its teeth,
the sky did not crumble to the touch. Then it ended.
We moved when I was six, and it was as though my old self
walked straight into the river and disappeared.
Now I’ve come back, faulty compass and all,
to learn what’s left of that life, that self, to hear what,
if anything, the herons, frogs and centipedes have to say.
What I really hope to find, though, is what I remember,
a world all glimmer and inflection, tactfully veiled
even to the bare self I imagine I was—the veil itself
marvellously receptive to the touch. No new language
can entirely undo that dream, such is the power
of those early myths, the fixed blue sky,
the untapped maple. I stumble now, aware of my utter
visibility, perceptible from every direction,
where before no imaginary eye presided. Or was it rather
that I was seen in my every atom by every atom,
a form of seeing was the lingua franca of the day?
I’ve rarely spoken of that place because I didn’t want it
to be speakable, thought I’d have to admit it was all less
seamless than I hoped. Which it must have been,
yet surprisingly refractory to anything I try to say.
I write just to feel it resist—the grass pays me no mind;
each tiny clitoris of the clover waits to be stroked.
That’s what I remember, what I want to remember:
the preverbal landscape pressing up against language and
the days before I felt it so pressed.
All day, the willow’s leaky
Flies crawl on the burlap bag
over the horse’s head.
The barn’s shadow lies across
the field like a farmer’s suit
laid out on his bed.
We step out of the car
into the farms-and-fields childhood
we wish we’d had.
The toad’s muddled back,
lumpen pelt: just the right measure of ugly.
The June bug’s whirr
reminds us of the distance between here
and anywhere else we’ve been.
“…a poet who looks long and hard at the world to draw existential meaning. Her studious gaze is insightful, even–dare I say it in this secular age–soulful.”
“In Heaven’s Thieves, Sue Sinclair offers us a gorgeous, authoritative, boundary-leaping meditation on beauty and incarnation. Sure-handed of music and chiselled of mind, realm-crossing and fearless, Sinclair’s poems live, think, and feel, by and in matter, about things that matter. Sinclair’s book, that is, informs, in the fullest sense. And equally, dazzles.”
“Sinclair’s Heaven’s Thieves is one part research project and one part meditation. It offers a nuanced and enlightening contemplation of what constitutes beauty and what it means to exist in this world. Sinclair is interested in quiet, resilient, complicated beauty. She is interested in the beauty of survival, the beauty of endurance, the beauty that dances between life and death, the beauty in the fragility of life, the beauty of incarnation, the beauty of embodiment, the beauty of how we exist in this world, or, as Sinclair puts it in the collection’s titular poem, “the beauty that’s willing to sleep its way out of a tough situation, / willing to not-quite-die for its cause” (“Heaven’s Thieves”). This beauty is both earthly and earthy, bound to the physical world even with all of its defeat and decay, and she renders this connection superbly.”
Honorary Annual Writer-in-Residence
Editors’ note: As Sarah mentions below, she does the APAFA bookkeeping in exchange for an annual week at the A-frame. The A-frame offers weekly residencies but except for academic or research residencies, we discourage one-week residencies because Sarah is right – one week is not enough time.
A-FRAME EXPERIENCE STATEMENT
This isn’t a complaint about the deal I struck: bookkeeping services in exchange for a week at the A-frame, but for this writer, one week isn’t good for much of anything. Apart from idling. A week of idling is ideal for clearing my head before getting on with the writing. Nonetheless, for five years I’ve optimistically packed a printout of my novel-in-progress to do a little editing, some non-distracted pondering over how to redeem the middle section, or finally settle on an ending. Anything to feel like less of a fraud wasting a privilege.
I suppose it doesn’t help that I always invite people to share the experience, at least for a few days. I feel the privilege of being in Al and Eurithe’s house needs to be shared with friends who will appreciate it. Maybe that’s a lingering consequence of my first week, in 2014, when on my second day a young couple driving home from a music festival in Montreal decided to detour through the County to try to find the place. He was an English teacher and a huge Al fan. Even though I kind of resented the intrusion, I invited them in to look around and told them they were welcome to sit on the stumps by the water for as long as they desired. He was more interested in seeing the outhouse and it gave him immense satisfaction to know it still existed. He kept saying how strange it was to be there, to see everything was exactly as Al had written.
Since Matti (the general contractor who oversaw the upgrade and restoration work) was continuing his initial work on the place, the next time he showed up I told him about the experience, which, in all frankness, I found kind of odd, being a Toronto person and not a dropper-inner kind.
“Pilgrims,” he called them. “They come all the time.”
It’s possible something of my annual weeks at the A-frame will seep into my writing eventually, however for now, I think it’s just fine for my main accomplishment to be sharing the magic. From what I know, that too is part of the history and tradition. And since one young visitor from two years ago still asks her mother weekly: “When are we going back to the A-frame?” I consider that a job well-done, even if my novel isn’t.
Sarah’s notes from the Guest Book
I sit in Eurithe’s bright green velvet chair, positioned by her, just so, to look down the lake. The placement was very important to her and should be honoured. 2014
Big event this week was noticing the freckin beavers started in on another tree. 2018
Sarah Dearing is the author of multiple short stories and three novels: The Bull is not Killed (Stoddart/Secker & Warburg 1998); Courage My Love (Stoddart 2001/Toronto Book Award 2002); and The Art of Sufficient Conclusions (Mansfield Press 2012). Having moved to Tweed from Toronto, she works as an arts administrator and freelance bookkeeper while poking away at a fourth novel. For the past five years, she has kept the books for the Al Purdy A-frame Association in exchange for a week each year at the residency.
The Blue Boudoir of Isabel Printz
Queen of the Castle
Access to the fort required submission to the whims of boys: those first explorations of humiliation and hierarchy, power and weakness, known as initiation rites. They were ridiculous and elaborate schemes as a rule – like poo in the dump and endure its collective inspection. She thought she’d rather stick pins in her eyes, take a banister sliver in her squiggler even, before contributing to her own degradation like that. Besides, she knew her brother would eventually take her when the others weren’t around, just to show off, and since they did everything else together, she didn’t understand why he wanted to keep her from the fort. He told her bears foraged at the dump, but she knew he’d protect her from them. She was too little, he tried. She’d hurt herself and then none of them would be allowed to go.
The truth of the matter was one of the older boys told him girls would either try to take over or tattle, and older boys always knew better, even when they didn’t.
The dump was little more than a gully created by rain and snow melt pouring into the lake, but it was just so convenient for tossing into, it became a dump. Some said a hobo started it with a blood-stained mattress, but that didn’t make any sense from what she knew of hobos: A hobo travelled light and owned nothing but a change of socks and underwear and maybe a harmonica to cut through the loneliness of the road. The fort itself was mostly just an organized section of the dump, the debris cleared away and some galvanized barn roofing fashioned into a lean-to shelter. Useful household items had been gathered up into the clearing and at its nucleus, a toilet. No one pooed there – no one dared – not because it was someone else’s discarded shitter, but because it had become a throne; its splendour arising from its dislocation and associations, and the sheer mystery a discarded mauve toilet could evoke. Mystery was the primo allure of the dump – not to diminish the draw of filth and danger – and a fort discovered smack dab in the middle by her brother surely entitled her to special entry status.
He took her soon after she refused to poo because he felt like going and all the big kids were out playing a big-kids-only game and he wouldn’t go alone. No one, not even the big kids, ever went to the dump alone. They said the hobo who started the dump built the fort too and her brother warned her to be on guard for his return. She could never tell a soul about it, he said, so she didn’t.
The unfortunate Crystal Bell, however, had no brother to extend such privilege so agreed to poo: on a blackened pie tin of the boys’ choosing, and for a week they recounted in delighted detail the sickly composition of the turds. She was marked forever as dirty and, by extension, poor and stupid and fair game for novel forms of cruelty dreamed up by all sides. Of course, Crystal was none of those things, but the lies stuck like flies to a Vapona strip and provided an unquestionable licence for meanness. One of the girls nicknamed her Crystal Smell and was rewarded with laughs all around.
“But don’t you all do it?” she asked.
“Of course not,” replied her brother. “We don’t want everyone going there, so we made up the rules. The older boys make the girls show them their titties.”
“That would be better than pooing.”
“Yeah, but you don’t have titties so you’re s.o.l.”
“Figure it out.”
Her name was Bella, Bella Printz, and her brother was Max. Even though the spelling was wrong, they thought the royal sounding surname made them special, but Bella did begin to worry about the rhyming potential of her given name.
The mattress reeked so the only time they used it was for truth or dare, the dares dreamed up by the boys for the girls always involving their bodies in some way, while the boys were challenged to feats of bravery. Spin the bottle also involved the mattress at times when the older boys cajoled the girls into laying-down kisses.
Bella and Max were too young for spin the bottle, but they liked to observe from a distance. One day, an older boy advanced the laying-down kisses to laying-on-top, making the girls uneasy, even Bella, so she wandered over to the throne, sat down and loudly proclaimed: “I’m the Queen of the castle and you’re the dirty rascals.”
Max rushed over and pulled her arm roughly.
“You’re not allowed to sit there.”
“Am so. I’m Queen.”
“No one made you Queen.”
The girls, grateful for an excuse to abandon the bottle stood up and chanted, “throw her in the keep” and “off with her head” and before she knew it, she was frog-marched into a discarded fridge and shut up inside.
“She’s only little,” she heard Max say. “She won’t do it again.”
“She better not,” she heard one of the older boys say. “Or she’ll be banished.”
They let her out then and she looked at Max with a trembling lower lip.
“Don’t be a sissy,” he whispered.
The fridge was for traitors and those who stepped out of bounds, but most of all, it was for sissies: kept there until their shouts and banging became panicky. Kids who got locked in the dungeon, the keep, the brig or clink (depending on that day’s scenario) would try to hurry out of the gully upon release but its steep sides were slippery and covered with broken beer bottles and sharp rusty objects that could cut and cause tetanus, so they had to endure the additional humiliation of being taunted as they escaped, slowly, warily, usually in tears. Bella knew about tetanus because Max stepped on a rusty nail poking out of a board left on the lawn and their mother ran about in circles asking herself if he’d had a tetanus shot and cursing their father for leaving it there. She finally called their doctor who had a cottage up the lake and he certainly remembered that Max had had a tetanus shot but promised to check the wound anyway on his way into town.
“Did I have a tetanus shot too?” she asked, wanting to make sure they were equals in this. “If I step on a rusty nail, will I be okay?” Her mother assured her she had, that they both got shots and check-ups at the same time. They usually got sick at the same time too, but sometimes if Max alone was sick, she’d pretend, just to stay home with him and make sure he’d be okay. The doctor told Max the other term for tetanus, so whenever they picked their way to the fort after that, he would suddenly freeze beside a particularly nasty bit of garbage and thrust a locked jaw in her direction, drawing attention to the perilous nature of the exploration and thereby enhancing it greatly.
She was five that summer, so he – Max – would have been six; their mother’s generation of women having babies in an unrelenting succession of pregnancies until they ran, hysterical, to their doctors to have their wombs torn out.
Inhabiting an unusual four-year gap between Max and their two sisters were a pair of full-term miscarriages and the begrudging respect of their father for a period of abstinent mourning. Bella suspected she might never have been born if they had, so never felt properly sad for them on their “birth” days, though their mother would always get tiny cakes to mark the occasion: petite fours, with marzipan icing in pastel colours and a single silver sugar ball like a bb gun pellet on top. This excising of maternal grief elicited mixed reactions from her children, depending mostly on the quality and freshness of the cakes, and Max, channelling a piratical Popeye, would tease:
“You’re lucky to be alive.”
“You are too!”
He swatted away such accusations with the confidence that their parents would have persevered until they produced a boy child and occasionally tried to ally himself with their elder, more intentional siblings. But what with dead babies tucked in with the grace of God, gender, and too many years, the divide between the older sisters was not so easily spanned.
Bella rarely bothered with them, having Max as a more adventurous, age appropriate playmate. “Take your sister” their mother would say when Max asked permission to go somewhere, providing him with endless opportunities to pretend her presence was nothing but a chore.
When it rained, they pulled the cushions off the couch and draped a blanket or bed spread on top to make indoor forts. Consequently, their mother grew irritable when it rained and their father drove into town in his old grey Mercedes Benz with a hole rusted through the floor on the driver’s side. One of his d.p. friends had given it to him in exchange for shingling his roof and as far as swaps went, they thought it was pretty clever. He gave up nothing but time, which according to their mother, he had too much of anyway, and the car in lieu of cash caused a big argument between them which only increased its lustre in their eyes.
Mrs. Printz used codes like d.p. when she argued with her husband so her children wouldn’t know what they were arguing about. They tried to decode her themselves: dirty pea-brain; dud playboy, but curiosity eventually got the better of them and they’d ask their father what something meant since he was more inclined to use full insults when arguing.
“Displaced person,” he told them. “From the war.”
“Is that good or bad?” asked Max.
“On who says it.”
“Like hippie?” asked Bella.
“Yeah, like hippie,” he said and Bella, shining under a halo of correctness, waited for Max to guess.
“Like nig…?” he started, always testing, even if it meant casting a shadow to retain their father’s focus.
“No,” said their father. “You’re not to use that word.”
“It’s in Huck Finn,” Bella said. “If it’s in a book, why can’t he use it?”
“That’s an old book. The times are changing.”
“Is that what Bob Dylan means?”
Mr. Printz frequently drove the children into Goderich and dropped them off at the library for an hour or so to give Mrs. Printz a break. Bella loved the library: its grand gothic architecture on a miniature scale; the quiet inside; the sound of plastic wrapping creaking when she opened a book; and the smell. She always selected the maximum number of storybooks to borrow and felt very grown up presenting her card. Max quickly grew restless and bored but their mother’s rule was he had to come back with at least one book. Sometimes he tried to take out an adult book, just to test the librarian, and she good naturedly steered him back to the children’s section and helped him choose something on the solar system or wild animals or building things.
Trips into town happened only on weekends, when their father was around. Mostly they had to find something interesting to do, preferably quietly, at the cottage.
They found the crawl space off Bella’s room in the attic one rainy afternoon, and a good thing too, because they also found the sisters’ cat with a litter of six new kittens. Their eyes weren’t even open yet and they made tiny squealing noises more like piglets than kittens. Mrs. Printz had to rescue them in an elaborate procedure of removing the ceiling tiles from below and one of the kittens had worms burrowed into its head.
“Maggots,” she said with a crinkled up nose, from flies laying eggs when the kitten was just born and her head all soft and messy with blood. She took the kitten to the vet and Bella decided that day that’s what she’d do when she grew up: fix kittens with maggots in their heads. She convinced her mother to let her keep one of them for her own so she’d know all about being a vet by the time she was old enough and the kitten got the name Charles W. Squeezer. The W. stood for Winthrop. One of the visiting adults came up with it over many gin and tonics. Squeezer was from always getting caught in the screen door, being the littlest and oft left behind. That she had two boy names didn’t concern Bella; the name was right, and right is right.
Unlike her own name: Bella Priscilla Printz. She suspected her mother was drinking gin and tonics when she named her too, though she said it was because she was conceived on the Italian Riviera and she hoped a little girl called pretty, no matter the language, would grow up feeling good about herself. She would have felt better about herself without such a loaded name. Not right at all and in the league of a Crystal. She’d have felt better about C.W. Squeezer, or at least a boy name; a boy name might have allowed her into the fort without commands to poo, though possibly not Squeezer.
After storms, she and Max scavenged for driftwood up and down the beach: logs big enough to bridge an imaginary pit of tigers or smaller interesting bits that looked like miniature whales or beavers or fishes. The wood lay along the beach for miles, sometimes as far up the shore as where the snake grass grew. It was unpleasant in there, with dead fish the size of cats washed up, smelling like old pee, one eye staring or sometimes pecked out and usually half the flesh gone, but Max said the best treasure is always found in the nasty places where other people don’t go.
He was right, as both the dump and crawl space proved time and again. After the kittens, Bella found an orphaned bear in the crawl space, all mildewed and missing an eye and she rescued him and cleaned him up, sewed on a button for an eye that didn’t quite match and made him look unloved. She called him Mr. Bojangles after the sad song about the man with the dog that up and died, and made him a special place to sleep out of a shoebox.
One of the sisters laughed at him with his mismatched eyes and Bella thought it was about the meanest thing a person could do so she secretly cut off all the hair on her Sissy doll: the one that had long golden locks a girl could shorten with the turn of a knob and restore to glory with a depressed belly button and simultaneous yank. Max was blamed for the destruction, and though she was tempted to keep silent, would have for anyone else, Bella couldn’t let him be in trouble for her even though he had threatened to send Mister Bojangles to the Land of Misfit Toys; a place that always filled her with sadness at Christmas time.
Her mother couldn’t understand whatever possessed her to do such a thing so Bella told her the sister had laughed at Mr. Bojangles for not being right and they had always been told not to laugh at people, like when they called Crystal Bell Crystal Ball, or Crystal Smell now that she’d pooed. Bella knew she was right when her mother just sighed and made her apologize and promise to never touch her sister’s things again.
“Easy peasy,” she said, since she’d given up dolls by then. Her collection lay naked and dirty in the dump, the discovery of which had caused spooky rumours about dead babies and crazy ladies. The stories were too close to home to enjoy fully and Bella thought of telling everyone they were just her stupid dolls, but she never, ever, wanted to be known as a spoilsport who ruined a mystery.
Review of The Art of Sufficient Conclusions, Quill & Quire
Part fiction, part memoir, Sarah Dearing’s genre-bending new novel opens with the death of the protagonist’s father, then dips into themes of family history, sexuality, philosophy, and connection. The novel creatively explores the nature of art and notions of truth, tracing a non-relationship between the narrator and her father, a silent film actor in 1920s England.
Dearing’s compelling language and sure-footed narrative mark her as a writer possessed of great flair who goes straight for the marrow…
I devoured The Art of Sufficient Conclusions as if it were my first meal in days. I understood the protagonist’s quest as if every emotional extreme was a mirror of my own search for answers to life’s riddles. The experience of reading Dearing’s novel is like finding a long lost piece in a puzzle. It’s a healing, a cleanse, a transcendence, and a catharsis. Dearing moves beyond her father’s absence, and dives into the depths of herself.
In residence: April-June 2015
Prior to residency in the A-frame, Kath MacLean was involved in a variety of creative endeavours (poetry, performance art, film, creative-nonfiction, drama, and prose), had two books of poetry published, Kat Among the Tigers and For a Cappuccino on Bloor, and worked in various educational institutions teaching English, creative writing and, most recently, kindergarten. She performed in reading series and festivals across Canada and abroad.
On the first night I arrived, the sky was clear and it was truly magical with a full moon and swans splashing and dancing about on the lake.
“While at the cottage I decided to turn back the clock and come to poetry more authentically by experience rather than as an academic carefully researching my facts. This seemed to be what the cottage and Al (who one feels very much poking about) called for. The results helped shape a very different book than I’d first planned. My new poetry manuscript, based on the poetry of Nancy Drew, also is very much about the mystery and secrets I felt rising like waves in the A-frame. A reoccurring dream, ghosts, neighbourhood gossip, and reading selections from Al’s library, all contributed to this change in my approach to writing.”
Final Report Entry:
A story – What does a writer look like? That phrase shook the night awake, and woke me deep from sleep. I heard a bang against the bedroom window pane, noises on the front porch that could only be footsteps of the curious checking to make sure the door was locked, searching for an entrance, pacing noisily across the creaking porch. Something, then, tossed into the trees thumped to the ground. Time arched its back stretching the moment into long bones I feared might just break. I didn’t move from the bed. After experiencing many night visitors, I soon discovered that keeping quiet was the best defence we had to fend off potential Purdy die-hard-fans, curious folk looking for a poet (any poet), others admiring the lakeshore and quiet, who thought they’d use the backyard as their own personal playground. Don’t turn on the lights, don’t speak, and for sure, don’t open the door! At last we saw the glow of red lights winking over the gravel drive reflected in the glass. As suddenly as they joined us, they were gone. In the morning, I fished out an empty bottle of wine by the compost and found an oily smudge against the glass shaped like a nose. They were that close and I, frozen behind a blanket tacked to the wall to make a curtain, were lucky to have escaped them.
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
I moved in when there was still snow on the ground. How very cold it was in April. We couldn’t open the house until mid-month & without heat I struggled until it warmed up. Fortunately I had hot showers and a warm bed to look forward to on weekends in Toronto. It has been one of the coldest & wettest springs on record, but that has given me range – it helped me to understand the place & grow to love it.
It is healing & welcoming & and has helped me to refocus. My project changed quite a bit – finally I was able to give up a little of the particular academic and go deeper into myself as a poet. When I first arrived Al helped me do this. I heard him and felt him helping & encouraging me. Soon, however, he left me alone to do my own thing.
With roots in Toronto and particular interests in history, music and performance, Kath MacLean is a writer critically acclaimed across Canada. Previously a professor of English and creative writing at Grant MacEwan University and at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Kath recently returned to her roots in Toronto, where she now teaches kindergarten. She has won numerous awards for her work in all genres including the Anne Green Award for best multi-genre artist in Canada (2012), the New Muse Award, the Kalamalka Award (declined), the Bronwen Wallace Award (declined), Best of the Fest for her poetry video, Doo-Da-Doo-Da, and runner-up for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry (2012). She has served as writer-in-residence for the Canadian Authors’ Association, Kalamalka Press and the Mackie House. Her most recent book, Translating Air (2018), edited at the A-frame, relives conversations H.D. might have had with Dr. Freud during her sessions with him in 1933-34.
“I fell in love with Picton and area when I was 19 and always planned on returning. Living at the A-frame confirmed it for me. The place certainly is magical.” In fall 2019, Kath moved to Belleville.
For a Cappuccino on Bloor (Broken Jaw Press 1998)
Seed Bone & Hammer (CD 2009)
There Was A Young Man (Film 2009)
Doo-Da-Doo-Da (Film 2011)
Kat Among the Tigers (University of Alberta Press 2011)
The Language of Desire (Film 2013)
Translating Air (McGill-Queen’s Press 2018)
(‘Kath M.’; "snow in may; ‘moon and house’; ‘sun and lake’)
“Wolf is a Wolf” TC \f 1 "Wolf is a Wolf”
I did not understand his darkness,
Chthonian gloom, the howling wolf.
His metamorphosis nearly complete.
Mine? I could hardly walk. I had slipped
translating air, walking to Greece.
I did not recognize the myth then:
Pierre Vidal, his love, Lady Loba,
troubadours & poets. Ray
& his warning of pigs.
I looked up the words:
Lycanthropy, lycanthrope, lykos.
Chamber’s hinted at other connections:
feline, panther, lynx.
There were, I thought, certain omissions. Black
outs. My reluctance to shadow
his door. His shape
shifting. The image
When the moon was full, he wrote:
You have crawled into the sty.
True, I had been fast with pigs–
a little honey & wine I discovered
were mine as long as I wanted.
I did not want for long–
Understand I was,
I thought, the beginning.
The procession was lengthy. Maenads fed
his blood, mine, his love,
when it is so–
Together, we were more
apart than together,
I did not understand his darkness
or hold his fennel staff–
Wolf by another name is wolf:
Dionysus, Bacchus. I looked for light
to guide me, for some sign, an acknowledgement
all was right, all was good,
but slipping on air,
translated my way again to Greece.
Without his troubadours or poets, Ray feasted
upon the dead. The procession was very long.
I had blackouts, lapses–
A wolf is
a wolf I said.
Whispering in the dark,
I waited for the moment
translating air, stepping back, back–
my metamorphosis nearly complete.
“You Spoke of Grapes” TC \f 1 "“You Spoke of Grapes”
In my friend’s house
there are many rooms
with doors that open & close
I don’t want to explain the intricacies
of biology, or elucidate pathological
impulses, equations. I’ve never had
a head for algebra. I failed, was
a failure, you remember
Yet, I was not jealous.
How could I be?
He was a Satyr.
Everyone knew it.
& I, just a girl he carried
into the forest even then,
he did not complete the metamorphosis.
Padding through the woods tenacious, wild,
his flowering rod a shrieking mandrake knew
no bounds. Trees shook
& the forest, it seemed, submitted
to his whim. This was no Gothic illusion.
He was Gawd’s own God-damn country.
His mandrake adrift in leaves, in the sound
of their rushing free, I suffocated.
I was TREE.
Shaken. I shook in my friend’s house.
But even then, even then,
walls would not fall.
Doors opened. I was the one—
I was not jealous,
How could I be?
There was no naming this queer
quiver, this pulse,
& the mandrake shrieking
rooted in tree–
Here, where even the walls do not fall.
Trees shook, leaves rushed to escape the harlequin.
I was TREE–
But you spoke of grapes &
air & grapes &
I am starving–
“Kath MacLean is recognized as one of Edmonton's most eclectic poet-performers, her unique muse and creative delivery attract attention wherever she reads. Known for rich images, ‘breath-taking lyricism’ and musicality, her award-winning poetry, prose, and non-fiction is generating critical acclaim across Canada” (The Toronto Quarterly, April 20, 2011).
“MacLean’s poems glow in the dark. I’ll swear to that: her sense of line and sound, her wonderful Renaissance sense of conjunction and parallel. Her poems surprise themselves, as well as us, and that is a rare and beautiful accomplishment” (Robert Kroetsch).
In Residence: July 2015
Editors’ note: Laurie hosted the summer picnic, continuing the tradition of reading poetry from the deck. Her primary project was editing work for Settler Education published by McClelland & Stewart in 2016.
I was the A-frame’s writer-in-residence for the month of July 2015, and it felt rather like living in a museum or being mildly haunted. I knew the place before I got there, though I had never been there physically. I recognized the names on the road signs around the A-frame, the contours and contents of the house, the trees on the lot, and the view across the lake, all from Al Purdy’s poems. This prior knowledge – to know a place from the poems written about it – had a profound effect on me, as did a month of tactile interaction with the things of that house. I read Purdy’s marginalia and saw his pen marks in the portion of his book collection that’s contained in the A-frame. I listened to selections of his extensive record collection and saw which albums were most frequently played. I thumbed through the enormous stores of magazines in the writing shed and saw old issues of Brick magazine, for which I’m now the publisher. I was alone for stretches of my time there, but very rarely did I feel lonely.
1) I thought quite a lot about Eurithe while I was there. I kept thinking about what life was like for her in that house. Both minding the place and writing in it gave me the feeling that I was embodying both Al’s and Eurithe’s roles at once. I came to care very deeply about that house, that plot of land, that stretch of shoreline, those trees. That tenor of care for that house and that plot is just as important, and just as prevalent, as that tenor of hospitality we hear more about.
2) A few days into my time at the A-frame, the Stanley Cup pulled up in a boat next door to the Purdy place. The Chicago Blackhawks won that year, and Andrew Shaw crashed a bridal party’s preparations by showing the cup around to the people there and taking some pictures with it. I reckon Al would have been kind of excited to see that.
3) There is an interesting record collection in the A-frame, which I wrote about while I was there: https://lauriedgraham.ca/2015/07/23/als-records/
Laurie D. Graham grew up in Treaty 6 territory (Sherwood Park, Alberta), and she currently lives in Treaty 20 territory (Peterborough, Ontario), where she is a poet, an editor, and the publisher of Brick magazine. Her first book, Rove, was nominated for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best first book of poetry in Canada. Her second book, Settler Education, was nominated for Ontario’s Trillium Award for Poetry. Her poetry has also been shortlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize, won the Thomas Morton Poetry Prize, and appeared in the Best Canadian Poetry anthology. A collaborative chapbook with painter Amanda Rhodenizer called The Larger Forgetting was published in the fall of 2018.
Link to her website: lauriedgraham.ca
[both from a long-poem manuscript called Commuter]
That summer’s birdcalls were new to you.
The guidebooks’ useless English syllables:
drink your tea, oh sweet canada canada canada.
You played your recordings for bird people
and non-bird people, stalked the songs in your dreams,
found the tones between keys on the piano.
One weekend there were men across the lake
straddling bikes, buffing chrome, squirting
lighter fluid on nightfall. In the morning, walking past
trailers and bikes and Duke of Earl on a loudspeaker,
your gaze thrown metres—eons—up the road,
you remember that the birds are right to hide from you.
The beat of your shoes on gravel, on asphalt,
on sand. The horses you can’t hear over the revving
and are showing ribs. The killdeer. The deer deer.
The wild carrot blooming. The wild grape.
The other society up in the trees
as you sit down alone at your table.
Coyotes howl in the farmyards. Red squirrels trim
the pink of evening and the cicadas broadcast.
The mosquitoes try to learn the insides of my ears.
Property lines faltering, sod laid down all the way to the water
faltering. The western half of the country has caught fire;
they think it’ll burn all summer.
I check the branches of the saskatoons
after the waxwings feast.
I keep returning in my mind to the towns
of my parents and grandparents.
The mosquitoes browse.
The loon is convivial and far away.
The spider’s tendril flies from the edge of the bowl in firelight.
Thunderheads spin the far dark.
Cattle and coyote and the chest hurling itself up the road,
down the road, stuttering back to the fire.
Blood in the ears each night like a train.
Mosquitoes dancing in search of.
Thunder quakes through water and limestone,
rings the lake and degrades.
At first light the birds will confabulate a jungle.
Red mite crossing the back of a ladybug that circles the rim of the bowl.
---Of her role as a poet, Laurie says: "More and more I think the poet’s "job" is to figure out how to live as an invested, attentive, conscientious, sensing being and to take notes while you’re doing that."
---Margaret Atwood says of Laurie’s writings in Settler Education and elsewhere: "A tone-perfect elegiac meditation on the impossibility of engaging with painful history and the necessity of doing so."
In residence: June 2016
Dr. Nicholas Bradley is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at the University of Victoria. His first book of poetry, Rain Shadow, was published in 2018.
from “At the Wellington Hotel”
That June, I had my eye on a marathon in October, and I was determined to get in shape. The unpaved byways of Prince Edward County were good for running, and even the main roads were fairly quiet, with wide soft shoulders for refuge when trucks roared past. In the late afternoon, when it was finally starting to cool down, I would set off through farmers’ fields. My regular route of about twelve kilometres concluded with a dash through the village of Ameliasburgh. After nearly an hour, at dusk, I would rumble by the old Methodist church, trying to pick up speed for the last burst back to Gibson Road. Once I reached the public library, then it was all out along the dusty home stretch.
None of this would have made any sense to Al Purdy, in whose former house I was staying. As far as I know, he was not given to exercise as I think of it. Partly it was generational; he was too old to have been caught up in the running boom of the ’70s. And partly it was constitutional. When he bent an elbow, it wasn’t to work on his biceps. The athletic pursuits that captured his attention, hockey and football, were manly games, not solitary acts of discipline or self-punishment. He did describe long-distance running in his novel, A Splinter in the Heart, but the ascetic sport is hard to reconcile with his familiar image. Running, I imagine, would have struck him as both faintly effeminate and decidedly Puritan, neither quality a virtue in his eyes.
I never met Purdy, but I have encountered many people who knew him, including a few who knew him quite well. If I were to write a biography of the poet, I suppose that I would interview his surviving friends and acquaintances, his fellow-writers, his publishers, his cronies. That would close some distance between Purdy and me, but not enough. The hours I have spent in the archives have narrowed that impossible gap, but also left me with innumerable questions. Sometimes I flatter myself by thinking that I have read as much of Purdy’s unpublished writing as anyone not named Al. I have watered the flowers at his grave. I lived in his house. For a month I slept in the room where he once slept. (Not the same bed, I hasten to say.) But how can I know what it was really like to be Al Purdy when he was writing the poems we remember? Without the poetry there would be no Al Purdy Library, no Al Purdy Lane, no quotation on the wall of a room in the Drake Devonshire Inn, the fancy new hotel in Wellington. But without the person, there would be no poems. “Like a small monk / in a green monastery.” I told the hotel manager that it was from “The Last Picture in the World,” a poem about life and death.
Purdy may not have travelled very far while he was sequestered in his writing shed, but in a sense he was pounding out the miles, putting in the work. Hunting and pecking at the typewriter, or plodding down the road. One letter at a time; one foot in front of the other. Is one kind of progress like another? One form of commitment, of devotion? Reading Purdy’s poems, I want to open a window onto the moment of composition, his struggle with a poem or his elation when he knew that he was onto something good. But there is no entering the poet’s mind, no leaving one’s own. In Ameliasburgh, I was stuck being myself, but it occurred to me on one run or another that immersing myself in Prince Edward County was perhaps the closest I could come to knowing Purdy—even if that immersion took a virtuous, unPurdylike shape. If I found that connection to place on county roads, or in the view from the lakefront dining room at the hotel in Wellington, then so be it. Purdy doesn’t have to like the fact that I enjoyed my extravagant meal there. He doesn’t even need to know.
I never ran that marathon. Several weeks after I left Prince Edward County, I injured what I thought was my hip but what was actually, according to my physiotherapist, my groin. (The very word is embarrassing. Al would have guffawed.) By the end of August, I couldn’t even make it to the end of my street, and I had to abandon my plans. Only recently have I been able to run again for more than a few miles. But the speed is coming back, slowly and unpredictably, like a poem. For a few minutes the other night I felt quick again, and I remembered those evenings when I raced along County Road 19 through drowsy, shuttered Ameliasburgh, the competition nowhere in sight.
Final Report Entry:
I was the A-frame resident in June 2016. The month rushed by: it was an immensely productive period of research and writing, and I am grateful to have had such a peaceful place in which to work. Much of my time was spent reading and writing. I have ongoing projects involving Purdy’s letters and his unpublished and uncollected poems, and I was able to make progress on this work. But I also had specific tasks to complete. I photographed the A-frame’s bookshelves to create a visual record of Purdy’s remaining books, and I took pictures of dedications and marginalia in certain volumes. I also documented the personal possessions in the house and the writing shed that are of possible scholarly interest. I made three trips to the Queen’s University Archives in Kingston to consult documents in Purdy’s literary papers, and I visited Trenton High School, which has an excellent collection of local news clippings pertaining to Purdy’s life. I also travelled through Prince Edward County and some of “the country north of Belleville” so that I could see for myself some of the locations about which Purdy wrote. I also tried to meet as many local residents as possible, and I had interesting conversations about Purdy with librarians, booksellers, and neighbours. Most memorable of all were my visits in Ameliasburgh and Belleville with Eurithe Purdy, who was extremely generous with her time and her memories of Al. My month at the A-frame was an extraordinary experience on which I will draw for years to come as I continue to study Purdy’s career and works.
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
We had a wonderful, comfortable, and too short time here. The days go by quickly. Summer has come to the County in the last week—all of a sudden it’s hot and humid and the roads are busy. The geese in the front yard here [are] all grown up. Best of luck to the next writers, and thanks to Eurithe.
With an academic focus on Canadian and American literature, the literatures and cultures of the west coast and the environment, Nicholas Bradley holds degrees from the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto and currently teaches in the Department of English at the University of Victoria. In Nicholas Bradley’s own words: “1I am a poet, literary critic, and scholarly editor… My most recent book is Rain Shadow, a collection of poems published by the University of Alberta Press in 2018. In 2014 I published an edition of Purdy’s correspondence with Earle Birney, We Go Far Back in Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947–1987. Since then I have been studying Purdy’s correspondence with other poets, his library, his manuscripts, and his unpublished poems, with a view to developing a comprehensive critical understanding of his life as a writer. I often teach Purdy’s poems in courses in Canadian literature, and my time at the A-frame has allowed me to share with students a richer sense of the life that gave rise to the poems.
Five Sudden Goats: Rocky Mountain Poems (Alfred Gustav Press, 2016)
Greening the Maple: Canadian Ecocriticism in Context (A collection of essays edited by Soper and Bradley, University of Calgary Press, 2013)
“Poetry, Science, and Knowledge of Place: A Dispatch from the Coast.”
Sustaining the West: Cultural Responses to Canadian Environments (Edited by Piper and Szabo-Jones, Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015)
Rain Shadow (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2018)
“Seaspawn and Seawrack: Jack Hodgins’s First Books: A Review Essay.” BC Studies 180 (2013-14).
We Go Far Back in Time: The Letters of Earle Birney and Al Purdy, 1947–1987 (Edited by Nicholas Bradley. Harbour Publishing 2014)
On Being Archaic
But there is no going back in time
“On Being Human”
Tuesdays and Thursdays
I meet my classes
and each time surmise
again that each student
is half as old as their teacher,
while they, I imagine,
watch him step cautiously
into the room, one foot
dangling in a private,
middle age beyond
Each time we talk
about poems written
before any of us
was born, that some of us
love, and that none of us,
I worry, understands.
And I remember
my teachers, ancient
men and women
in their fifties and forties
(and sometimes younger)
who taught me the same
old poems, who must
have fathomed the rift
between us. And maybe
they disliked or feared
it as well, and maybe
they saw with clarity
how little I knew
and banished the thought
so we could continue
our game, throwing
from third to second to short
to first without the yips
getting in the way.
We size each other up
from across our field,
none of us able to say
just the right thing,
and now and then glance,
as the hour passes,
Tuesdays and Thursdays,
through the window
at metrical lines of rain.
“Rain Shadow is a collection of poetry that explores the fraught relationship between the natural world and humans yearning to connect with something greater than themselves. The poems range through destabilized lives and landscapes, fathoming presence and absence, transformation and oblivion. They outline the major questions of our time as the poet crisscrosses western Canada and the Pacific Northwest. Witty, playful, serious, and heartsore, Rain Shadow seeks to understand the space in which people and nature are inextricably entwined.” —University of Alberta Press website
“Bradley describes and appeals to massive elemental forces and beings, like earthquakes and avalanches, bears and killer whales.... Figurative language and wordplay, often subtle, appear throughout the collection....Some of these poems celebrate wildlife and wildness; some highlight the uneasy and destructive relationships we maintain with our fellow earthlings.” —Kelly Shepherd
The poet’s haunting voice floats through existential thoughts, alternating between the abstract and the visceral.... In a time when the effects of climate change ravage our natural landscapes and the disconnect between citizen and cosmos seems ever widening, the poems are prescient.... Bradley sketches scenes ever on the edge of disaster, where all life is precious and profound, and rests in the shadow where little rain falls and true growth is a struggle, not to be taken for granted." —Amy Clark
In residence: July 2016
Academic and creative writer, Ian Williams spent one week at the A-frame cottage. His first novel, Reproduction, has received extensive and merited praise nationally and internationally, winning the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
“I can't find any reports or emails about, say, the time Ben Ladouceur dropped by with his parents and I mentioned that his father had the same name as a character in my novel. I told him that things don't end well for Edgar.”
Ian Williams, born in Trinidad but residing in Brampton, Ontario, since the age of nine, holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Toronto and is currently a professor of poetry in the Creative Writing program at the University of British Columbia. He was the 2014-2015 Canadian writer-in-residence for the University of Calgary’s Distinguished Writers Program. He has held fellowships or residencies from the Banff Centre, Vermont Studio Center, Cave Canem, Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts, and Palazzo Rinaldi in Italy. He was also a scholar at the National Humanities Center Summer Institute for Literary Study.
His poetry collection, Personals, was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize and the Robert Kroetsch Poetry Book Award. His short story collection, Not Anyone’s Anything, won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award for the best first collection of short fiction in Canada. His first book, You Know Who You Are, was a finalist for the ReLit Poetry Prize. CBC named him as one of ten Canadian writers to watch. In 2018, he became a trustee for the Griffin Poetry Prize.
Ian Williams’s novel, Reproduction (Random House 2019), a finalist for the Toronto Book Award and the Amazon First Novel Award, won the 2019 Scotiabank Giller Prize.
You Know Who You Are (Wolsak & Wynn 2010)
Not Anyone’s Anything (Freehand 2011)
Personals (Freehand 2012)
Reproduction (Penguin Random House 2019)
I’m going to ask you a few questions
to verify your identity if that’s all right with you. How many
seizures did you have over the last twelve days? Diabetes
in the family? Diabetus? Sugar? Glucose fructose? Honey
Would it have been easier to have loved and lost
or to never have loved at all been loved at all when you were
entering renal failure? Can you trace the etymology
of renal? I’m looking for one word. It falls from the sky.
Not manna. Rhymes with sane. Try. Not pain. Miss Otis regrets
she’s unable to lunch what did you have access to your account
without that information.
Do you feel well enough to continue
as yourself or do you still feel like a concept? Did a firefighter
place a wooden hanger between your teeth to prevent you
from chewing through your tongue? Was it a wire hanger?
No guff. I can update your records if you like. Any aspartame
in the family? Trans fats? Any Sweet’n Lo talkers? I know I asked
you that. What isn’t redacted from your memory by Russians
apart from your dog? The name of your first pet. Which died.
Is it he or is it it? Who died?
“Williams' beautifully-wrought book imagines reproduction in all of its life-giving and destructive forms: babies are born, cancerous cells multiply, and familiar patterns of aggressive behaviour repeat across generations. … The book’s capacity for levity only lends a sharper contrast to its tragic moments. The same disheveled teens and early 20-somethings who write embarrassingly bad song lyrics and worship Radiohead are capable of horrific forms of violence.”
“The startling brilliance of Ian Williams stems from his restlessness with form. His ceaseless creativity susses out the right patterning of story, the right vernacular nuance, the right diagram and deftly dropped reference – all in service of vividly illuminating the intermingled comedy and trauma of family.”
“If you’re asking who is Ian Williams, I can tell you […] that his work is inventive and clever. I can tell you that his obsession, as his title suggests, is, indeed, ‘you.’”
“[Williams] blends personal emotion with historical tension, tradition and modernity, ordinary and magical so seamlessly…. I’m so happy to find another shining star above Canada’s poetry horizon!”
– Griffin Prize Judges’ Citation
“Ian Williams writes challenging poetry. His poems address the crisis of young, black masculinity in cities, paint starkly urban portraits of life and break open stereotypes. Sly humour laces through this collection, and Williams is adept at playing with language to change meanings in unexpected ways. For him it's easy to turn the word go into gone.”
—web-blurb for You Know Who You Are from Wolsak & Wynn
Williams’ sprawling tale traces the ties that bind a cross-cultural chosen family in the author’s hometown of Brampton, Ontario. Jury members praised Williams for his “masterful unfolding of unexpected connections and collisions between and across lives otherwise separated by race, class, gender and geography.”
—“Williams Wins Giller” CBC website
In residence: July 2016
Sadiqa de Meijer, with writing sensibilities embedded in several cultures and languages, worked on a forthcoming collection of new poems while at the A-frame.
I was the A-frame’s writer-in-residence for July 2016. It was a month of writing, reading and daydreaming in dusty and comfortable rooms, walking the flat scrubland along Salem Road, and welcoming my family back after their days at the beach. The integration of those elements was wonderful, and I commend the A-frame Association for being entirely accommodating of writers with children, as well as generous towards me in dealing with a medical condition. Like a few other poets, I have doubted my line of work in relation to my financial and parenting circumstances, and sometimes more existentially in the sense of whether the writing of it [sic] makes enough of a contribution to this world. That undercurrent of struggle fell away for a while at the A-frame; the feeling was that poetry mattered there – it was in the history of the place, its visitors (Purdy pilgrims stopped by three times during that month), and of course in the existence of the residency itself.
What I did wrestle with, while there, were the elements of racism and misogyny in Purdy’s poetry. The books on the shelves added silently to that internal conversation. From the bed, each morning, I saw multiple white, anthropological perspectives on Indigenous and tribal cultures—no books that I found were in the voices of the subjects. I felt a tension between these facts and my own presence. I’m of mixed race (with tribal cultures in my background), an immigrant, a woman, and of course a writer, and in the space of the A-frame’s books someone like myself [sic] seemed not to exist; yet I was there, invited and welcomed and working. This felt, I confess, like an instance of progress.
The work that I did at the A-frame – the early beginnings of a poetry project that took inspiration from Bishop and Plath – is complete at this writing, and will appear in 2020 as The Outer Wards. I see within it a clear instance of influence by Purdy’s work, which I was also reading at the A-frame; lines from a poem called “The Imaging Department” (below), that are in conversation with the opening stanza of his poem “The Dead Poet”:
I studied the ceiling’s
print of hands, naïve and bright. So someone had been there,
attempting a signal, in this room of leaden aprons and electric noise,
radio reporting a larger city’s traffic. Dear mother,
I wished you were my country again, when my ears didn’t ring,
when my eyelids were still knitted shut—
There was a sense of validation that came with working in Purdy’s space – because the residency is paid, and because poetry pilgrims visit the house – but also because, I believe, a residue remains of all the conversations and writing that took place there, which hold poetry as essential. This is a gift, passed on from Purdy and the place that he and Eurithe Purdy created, that I gratefully hold on to.
Final Report Entry:
While we were in the living room of the A-frame one warm afternoon, there was a sudden thud on the big picture window, and another followed almost immediately, so that the effect was like a single heart-beat: lub-dub. Outside, we found two small songbirds, grayish blue with green streaks, dead. I thought I’d read in one of Purdy's poems that the birds, upon the building of the A-Frame, would have to change their flight paths, and I searched for the fragment but did not find it [probably “Interruption” in Wild Grape Wine—ed. note]. It did seem like an instant when time warped, as if the structure had just been raised that month. We laid them to rest under a willow tree.
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
John and son from Chrysler ON, J. a retired English teacher & a carpenter. Gave his class the day off once to go and hear Purdy read. A. P. was “gruff and kind of fierce, exhorting the students to say something.” J’s teenage son said the A-frame was still very sturdy. I forgot to ask them to sign here. SdeM.
Today some folks came by and took pictures of the A-frame while I was writing. They were gone by the time I stepped out. SdeM.
Sadiqa de Meijer’s poetry, essays and short fiction have appeared in a range of literary journals. Her poetry collection Leaving Howe Island was a finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award, and a portion of the manuscript won the CBC Poetry Prize. She has enduring interests in questions of place, belonging, and memory, as well as the life and work of Dutch Jewish writer Etty Hillesum. Her poem ‘The Imaging Department’ won Arc’s ‘Poem of the Year Award’ in 2019. Her new collection, The Outer Wards (Véhicule), will be published in 2020, as well as alfabet /alphabet (Palimpsest), a prose memoir of her first language. Born in Amsterdam, Netherlands (her parents a mixture of Dutch, Pakistani, Afghani and Kenyan), Sadiqa came to Canada at age 12 and subsequently, after graduating from Queen’s University, resides in Kingston, Ontario.
Leaving Howe Island (Oolichan 2013)
The Outer Wards (Véhicule 2020)
alfabet / alphabet (Palimpsest 2020)
Formation of a Dragonfly
beetle thing, found
in the campfire ashes
at sunrise. We perch it
on a stalk, ask after its name.
From a hole
in its back,
of damp fabric;
and rise to cruciform.
appear at their apices.
The new legs are barbed
with hair. Blunt
to a slender curve.
Cockpit head. The thorax
darkens with pigment. A pattern
of parallel lines
expands from the abdomen’s
side to front,
and a line of is it yellow?—
yes, bright yellow—
draws along a spine
that is, of course,
no spine. A wind
stirs the skin of the lake.
There was a mother,
earlier, but none of this
“In Sadiqa de Meijer’s Leaving Howe Island, poem after poem sings with an accuracy and freshness, a power and a delicacy, which leaves one breathless. … Musings on family, childhood and belonging unfold in a series of snapshots that astonish us with their clarity and mystery, their transformative power.”
“A voice of authority and grace.”
“Sadiqa’s poetry is taut, spare, incredibly evocative…and unerringly sharp. Tinkering seems a self-deprecating word for the kind of precision work that obviously goes into Sadiqa’s poetry, but a tinker is, after all, someone who makes useful objects out of the stuff of everyday life, and that’s an accurate description of the poems in Leaving Howe Island.”
“This is very attractive poetry. de Meijer has only one voice—a startling clear, pensive and considered voice—but she has lots of hats. These anecdotal poems seem relaxed until you try to stand in front of one of them, these poems move forward, constantly, and with the force of a train.”
“The Outer Wards, Sadiqa de Meijer’s new collection, explores questions of maternal love and duty—and the powerlessness that comes with the disruption of that role through illness. “I was awake. / The hour was wrong,” de Meijer writes, and her poems track, in visceral and tender detail, the distraction, exhaustion, exhilaration, and fear of child-rearing through crisis. For de Meijer, the experience was also a crisis of language, and the struggle to find new terms for her state. Addressed, in part, to a child she calls “my grievous spectacle, / my dearest unpossessable,” The Outer Wards is everywhere marked by a joy in words—their quick-fire turns, sumptuous sounds, and nursery-rhyme seduction.”
In residence: September/October/November 2016
Ben Ladouceur came south from Ottawa to reside in the A-frame cottage for nearly three months, spending much of his time working on a collection of poetry entitled Mad Long Emotion.
I learned to drive a car specifically because a previous A-frame tenant told me I would starve and die in the A-frame if I didn’t have wheels. It remains the case that most of the driving I have done in my life took place in the County. That same previous tenant told me about a beautiful and very little-known beach in the County, which often I drove to, with whatever paperback I was reading. Once it got too cold to sunbathe, I went there for walks, and took visitors there. It was a great find.
Final Report Entry:
At the A-frame, I got a lot of work done on my second poetry collection, which has now been published by Coach House Books. I played around with fiction experiments. I knit a scarf. I welcomed friends who worked on poems, novel manuscripts, film storyboards, photograph collections, thesis chapters, and office emails. I got a long, hard look at myself, “away from it all,” and learned a lot about my capacities: for failure, for company, for silence, for cold. I came to a definitive conclusion regarding my belief in ghosts. And I came away from my residency with new and more sustainable creative priorities.
Guest Book Entry:
Hello! Welcome as many others have already clarified, this is a great place to get shit done.
I was here 3 months – a very long time. Too long, says Eurithe. I made time pass with lots of guests – poets, mostly, but also a couple filmmakers, an academic, an editor. All of these people found this space productive. I set something of a “let’s work instead of having fun” tone, and that went over well. The scenery, the silence, the reputation of the house – all these things will work in the favour of any artist who comes here hoping to get down to it.
I admit I am not a writer-alone-in-the-woods type. I find people helpful. Thankfully the office shed was furnished, by Eurithe and a pal of hers, during my stay here. Solitude, embodied, enshrined. If you’re not done creating, but your guests are – excuse yourself and enter that space, or at least, don’t hesitate to. You’re the resident.
Only a handful of things I learned here relate to the craft of writing. I hope you find the same. My contributions to the house include guest bedsheets, a can opener that works, the jigsaw puzzles, and a bunch of tapes for the VCR. If you don’t like the movies that I’ve left then A) what’s your problem? And B) go the VV in Belleville or the second hand store next to Timmie’s on the main road in Picton. VHSs are $1.00 both places.
The next door neighbours (to your right if you’re facing the lake) will meet an ounce of friendliness with a pound of generosity.
Go to the secret beach on a weekday. Go to Point Petre, Little Bluff, Lake on the Mountain, Kin Cafe in Bloomfield. Go visit Books & Co, in Picton! A welcoming & humungous bookstore that I will miss. November person, leave wood for April person. OK that’s it. Lots of love, XOXO.
Ben Ladouceur, who lives in Ottawa, has established himself as an exceptional Canadian poet with chapbooks from several presses, writings in a variety of literary journals and anthologies, widespread readings, and the publication of two trade books, Mad Long Emotion and Otter, which was named National Post Best Book for 2015 and received nominations for numerous other awards including a Lambda Literary Award, and the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award for best poetry debut in Canada. In 2018, he received the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for emerging LGBTQ writers, and in 2019, his short fiction was featured in the Journey Prize Anthology. He is poetry editor for Arc Poetry Magazine.
Three Knit Hats (In/Words 2006)
Nuuk (In/Words 2008)
The Argossey (Apt. 9 Press 2009)
Alert (AngelHousePress 2009)
Dust and the Colour Orange (In/Words 2009)
Mutt (Odourless Press 2011)
Lime Kiln Quay Road (above/ground press 2011)
Impossibly Handsome (Ferno House 2013)
Poem About the Train (Apt. 9 Press 2014)
Otter Coach House Press 2015.
Mad Long Emotion Coach House Press 2019.
In Prince Edward County, the lake hugs the land. Parts of the land contain lakes. Some of these lakes are so small, they grow and shrink in accordance to the rainfall. I often stood at the edge of one such lake, which touched the backyard of the house I was in. A neighbour told me the lake was much fuller the previous year. The same rocks were there, near the lip, but submerged. Now it was the end of a too-dry summer, and the rocks were plain to see.
I was there to complete a residency at the Al Purdy A-frame. There were stipends and readings and literary pilgrims. There were fires to keep alive. There were wasps in the walls to organize the slaughter of. There were plenty of blankets. I wore flannels, aviators, baseball caps, good boots. I grew a beard for the first time. It felt best to keep my bedhead haggard. I was going for a certain look: serious, heterosexual, writerly. I was not certain why, at first. Was it an attempt to fool the nearby folks of the County? This was the countryside; people thought differently. But if this was my motivation for looking straight, then why did I not hesitate to mention, when asked, the queerness of my writing, nor to introduce my partner as my partner during his visits? For whom was I dressing?
The ghost, I realized, eventually. The previous owner of most of the things I sat in, looked at, or drank out of. It was difficult to sit in such a way that I wasn’t facing him. Even lying down didn’t work; he had built the roof above my head. I was at the A-Frame to wonder things. One thing I wondered was, what would Al make of my partner’s odd weekend visits? Of how there were two men, but just the one bed? This ghost would not mistake me for a heterosexual. Would he, in the least, find me serious, find me writerly? There are people who conflate these three notions. They are often men, often old, often haggard, often ghosts. Was Al amongst them? I posed this question to the ghost. Being mouthless, he didn’t answer. I kept a closed notebook on the bedside table. I wondered if I had always made any concerted effort to keep my notebooks closed.
In my first month, the same neighbour who told me about the lake’s water level told me that Al hadn’t built that roof after all. It was his wife Eurithe who did much of the heavy lifting, according to certain lore. One afternoon, Eurithe brought over furniture for the writer’s den, carrying heavy chairs and desk drawers with strength that I thought was scientifically impossible for a person in her nineties to exhibit. She also brought artworks for the walls, including a dream-like painting of family friend Margaret Atwood.
The only novel I read there was The Handmaid’s Tale. In that dystopia, homosexuality is called “gender treachery.” The guilty men are hung in pairs; the guilty women are repurposed as vessels for babies. Atwood used to drive to the A-frame, way back when, for the parties that took place there. At least once, Al and other poets went outside and peed on her car. Then they teased her about it. Perhaps the men around her took her seriously; perhaps they found her writerly. No matte – really, truly, none. Now she’s won most of the things a writer can win, authoring so many books that she thinks little of burying one. My partner has a poster of 100 classic novels you’re supposed to read before you die. The Handmaid’s Tale is the only Canadian book on the list.
One night during my residency, I knocked the Atwood painting off its nail. I caught the picture mid-air and immediately determined that Margaret was the ghost for me. Hers was the gaze I would muster a sense of, on the back of my head, or on my laptop screen as I wrote. She was alive but she had still left a ghost in that space. I would leave one too, however small, however seriously taken.
It became November. It got colder, outside and inside. There is a big overlap in content between clothing people consider straight-looking and clothing that is practical in the autumn, in the winter, in the countryside. My flannels kept me cozy. When there was sun, my baseball cap kept it out of my eyes. Leather boots lasted me through numerous hikes. My mind wandered to other wonders pretty anti-climactically. Like an odd smell, the ghosts disappeared into me and my ordinary. The costumes became clothes. I wrote poetry with the “me” and the “you” both male and all over each other, as ever. My beard itched so I shaved it off and slept better that way. In the other room, my bathrobe fell off the hook. I hung it right back up. I was alive and warm.
“Ladouceur writes deftly about sex and love and friendship and queerness, about history and memory and distance, in lines that are…rich with imagery and unique turns of phrase. … One of the easiest ways to kill the magic in a poem is to be too coy about mixing concrete detail and abstract imagery, or “high” and “low” diction. The power in Ladouceur’s work is in the way he steadfastly refuses to do this; every image, moment and person in these poems is given equal weight, and the way he works them together is both seamless and skillful.”
“Ladouceur's poems are slick and inventive. There's a paradoxically thudding elegance to a line like "We wrote letters, until we didn't." He also shines in a more conventional poetic register, with an almost (and perhaps ironic) biblical tone: ‘When winter arrives / the mosquitoes will expire / and material will cover the bodies of men.’ Otter is a startling debut and a dense, rewarding read.”
“Ladouceur’s poems read like an offering, a confession and declaration. These are explorations of love, sex, friendship, life, and death. Readers are invited to tumble into bed, stay the night, and savour these poems over breakfast like a lover.”
“Desire and dieffenbachias: new poems from the award-winning author of Otter. Mad Long Emotion wants to talk flora to fauna like you. Loosestrife shoos away humans and green carnations flirt with handsome men. Numerous species, both spiny and spineless, prove as invasive as desire: from Great Lake lampreys to hydraulic triceratopses, we’re all just looking for love.”
—Coach House Press blurb
“He is all one could hope for in a new writer: someone with chops and fodder, someone fully formed and bent on risk.”
—Dayne Ogilvie Prize jury
SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1Rob Taylor
Residence: April-May 2016
Rob Taylor arrived at the A-frame as an accomplished young poet from the Canadian west coast with an impressive resume of books, chapbooks, poetry awards, nominations and projects under tow.
Our stay was likely similar to those of many others, though our having brought a baby along with us added some complications. Jean Baird, the A-frame Association board, and the local community were incredibly supportive from – and even before – day one. Between my application for a residency and the start date, my wife, Marta, became pregnant, her due date falling one week before my residency was set to begin! I contacted Jean to inform her I would need to decline my residency, but instead of accepting my “resignation,” she quickly rescheduled our stay for a time when our son would be old enough to travel, and made sure that we would have the basics for caring for a baby (crib, play mats, etc.) waiting for us when we arrived in Ameliasburgh. Jean, with the help of Anne Preston, put us in touch with local residents who enthusiastically offered to walk Lucas for a few hours here and there, to give me the opportunity to do focused work (and for Marta to take a well-needed break!). Because of their collective efforts, my residency went from not happening at all to being one of the most productive stretches of writing time in my life. Alongside a number of short stories, I completed the final edits on my second full-length poetry collection, The News, and wrote fifteen new poems, many of which were collected in the chapbook, The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake. This residency showed me how alive the written word can be in the world in both creating and enriching one’s community. I left re-energized that my life and work held purpose I had been under-appreciating.
Final Report Entry:
One of my family's favourite activities was hosting visits from Al’s wife, Eurithe (a more formidable woman I have never known!). Eurithe would stop by weekly throughout our stay to chat and, most importantly, play with baby Lucas. During our residency we were able to help Eurithe return certain Purdy family items to the A-frame: unpacking and arranging the family China and a wide swath of Al’s own books, for display. Al’s books, which were added to the existing A-frame library, were the first written by Al to be returned to the A-frame (they had been boxed up at Eurithe’s house in Sydney, BC). Talking with Eurithe about writing, publishing, and her and Al’s travels was an absolute highlight of our stay. As was convincing Eurithe – then 91 years old – not to climb up the TV antenna to sweep the roof, then hoisting myself up there to do it instead. To live in a historic house is one thing, but to live and laugh and reminisce and clean and weed and garden with the woman who, with her husband, made the house historic was, quite simply, a gift.
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
Alright I’ve stalled long enough. Oh it’s hopeless! My son learned to crawl here. We awoke to otters and turkeys and herons, loons and cormorants and thirty-four (34!) goslings. I’ve never smelled anything like that front yard full of lilacs. Just stood there in the dark some nights taking it in. I’m fairly convinced I’ve never been happier. Oh how I envy you, reading this at the start of such a good thing. Thank you, Al. Thank you, Eurithe.
Rob Taylor heralds from the west coast where he lives with his wife and children in Port Moody, British Columbia. He is author of three poetry collections, including The News (Gaspereau Press, 2016), which was a finalist for the Dorothy Livesay Poetry Prize. The manuscript for The Other Side of Ourselves won the Alfred G. Bailey prize, and individual poems, stories and essays have appeared in more than sixty journals and anthologies. He is also the editor of What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Nightwood, 2018) and guest editor of The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2019 (Biblioasis, 2019). Rob and his family stayed at the A-frame for two months in the spring of 2016. A chapbook of poems Rob wrote while at the A-frame, entitled The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake, was published in 2019 by 845 Press. He teaches creative writing online at Simon Fraser University.
Splattered Earth (2006)
Child of Saturday (2008)
Lyric (The Alfred Gustav Press 2010)
The Other Side of Ourselves (Cormorant Books 2011)
Smoothing the Holy Surfaces (The Alfred Gustav Press 2012)
The News (Gaspereau Press 2016)
Łazienki Park (The Alfred Gustav Press 2017)
“Oh Not So Great:” Poems from the Depression Project (Leaf Press 2017)
What the Poets are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation (Ed. Taylor. Nightwood 2018)
The Green Waves: Poems from Roblin Lake (845 Press 2019)
Best Canadian Poetry 2019 (Eds. Jernigan, Lahey and Taylor. Biblioasis 2019)
If you need to talk you light a fire
then I stop and come outside
and we set aside at least an hour
to watch the wood unwind
until its heat becomes our thoughts
against the night, its flames
one another’s faces.
Our son is nearly nine months old.
He rages through his days,
hellbent to crawl. Slips backward
under couches, tables—howls
from the bottoms of those wells.
Some mornings, in his crib,
before he cries we hear him
rocking back and forth on palms
and knees, practicing escape.
Seventeen years together
without a fire pit. All those hours.
Now how a silent minute glows.
I lower him exhausted in his crib.
You angle wood into a tower.
No moon tonight, the lake and trees
The shadow of your body—
cradle of our self-cradling son—
bends and sparks hello,
that pin of light inside the letting go.
“ SEQ CHAPTER \h \r 1County Roads”
Driving to deepen your sleep, as my step-father
does to feel awake against Coquihalla winds. Driving
whatever direction, each stop a meeting place
of four empty fields huddled against the evening.
This morning, your mother holding you at the front door,
you waved goodbye to me—stretched and folded
four fingers to your palm. It was your first word,
that opening and closing. I responded in kind
and the three of us stayed there, amazed, passing goodbyes
back and forth, until you looked away. Later,
we watched a flock of terns circle a flooded field, a storm’s
gray gauze only one hill over and whipping its way.
Tucked against my chest, your eyes followed
the reeling white birds. Now I take another corner,
rattle through an ambush of potholes. You don’t stir.
It’s the motion, I know. The speed and turns and vibrations.
And also, I tell myself, your being just the right distance
from me. Facing the rear windshield, the night curling past,
curving backward, rewinding almost, and me
always a foot behind you, a foot ahead of you,
unzipping and zipping the darkness around us, the road
endless, your dreams buzzing like morning glories, turning,
retching, folding, opening, closing, driving, driving.
- Carbon Monoxide Public Safety Billboard, Belleville, Ontario
Red-eyed anachronism huffing between hutches.
My son asleep in an adjacent room. Ten minutes
till he’s scheduled to wake. The oven hums,
fire hisses its demands, hot water tank clicks off,
then on. The snow, unwelcomed, comes and comes.
I double-check—the goddamn thing’s a pest deterrent,
its screams beyond our human range. The traps
we set are subtler than when coal oil lamps
lit this room, and roadkill rabbit hit the menu.
Now teapots cluster under glass. Each life is twinned—
what happens and what could. I rush and open wide
the door, imagine poison pouring out.
Snow blusters in the entry. Five minutes,
then I’ll lift him warm into the day.
One arm around my neck, he’ll stretch and sigh.
Later I will mop the melt, head down,
someone else’s story massing silently outside.
“Luminosity, the ability to make mundane objects glow while holding onto their “thing-ness,” is a difficult poetic skill to master. Rob Taylor has managed to do just that in The Green Waves – and with Al Purdy relentlessly peering over his shoulder, no less.” —Michael Mirolla
“[In his collection, The News, Rob Taylor’s] 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’.”
“The poems of Oh Not So Great are the result of a years-long project designed to create for physicians a doorway to empathy with patients who suffer from mental illness. As it turns out, they open that door wide for us all. Here are people speaking from deep within the isolating world of depression, their stories transformed into poetry by Rob Taylor’s considerable talent.”
“[Oh Not So Great’s] integration of Art and Science has resulted in a book that has surpassed its original conception to act solely as a tool for enhancing empathy in physicians.”
In residence: May 2017
Doug Paisley is a performer and songwriter with six albums to his credit, most published by No Quarter Records; he has worked with numerous well-known artists including Garth Hudson, Bazil Donovan and Leslie Feist, among others.
The A-frame seemed so little changed from when Al Purdy was living there: his scribbles in the margins of books; in the kitchen, envelopes of seeds for planting labelled by Al Purdy with their various attributes and shortcomings. I was like Goldilocks in the three bears’ house and the bear could return at any moment. I found a cassette with a recording of Al Purdy and his wife and some friends talking about mundane things like travel details for an upcoming reading. It was like curating a private museum that could only serve one visitor at a time, very personal and peculiar.
Final Report Entry:
I was there in the shoulder season. It was a bit cold, risk of flooding, most of the neighbouring houses were empty. I took the same walk down the road everyday and stubbornly brought out the patio furniture in spite of the season. I sat by the fire and tried to settle in but I never really did. The place where I felt the most comfortable was the writing building beside the house. The whole property felt imbued with Purdy's presence, especially the writing room but somehow that was the place where I could hunker down and feel I had a right to be there. Even when I was sitting in the house I could feel the writing room just a few steps away and it’s [sic] presence gave a combination of a thrill and a comfort. Not knowing the area I did feel a bit isolated and imagined how the Purdys would have felt establishing themselves there. As a promise and as a warning it seemed to say, this is what poetry will get you. Surprisingly, I had a number of visitors in the short time I was there, a journalist from Toronto, a painter from down the road, a fellow musician and a few people I didn’t know. It must have been a beacon on the map and a destination for many people back in the day and I’m glad it still is.
Guest Book Entry:
stayed here for a week in May
cold, rain, sunshine, returning birds
did what every writer hopes to do with their heroes:
peer past the lines on the page a little bit
found a little less of Al than I’d hoped
a little more of myself than I’d hoped
a sweet story of a couple by a lake
if I could’ve greeted myself at the door I’d say:
Try on the leather coat
check out the cassette tapes
stay off the wifi
the writing room door locks from the outside
Thank you to Eurithe and everyone who made this possible
Doug Paisley May 13, ‘17
Doug Paisley is a songwriter and performer from Toronto whose music has been described variously as country, folk, bluegrass, alternative, traditional American and a blend that is beyond all those categorizations. Since his residency at the A-frame he has had some poems published in an Al Purdy tribute anthology Beyond Forgetting, Harbour Publishing (2018) and released an album Starter Home (2018).
Doug Paisley (No Quarter 2008)
Digging in the Ground (EP Download 2008)
Constant Companion (No Quarter 2010)
No One But You / If I Wanted To (Heavenly, UK 7″ 45 RPM 2011)
Golden Embers (EP No Quarter 2012)
Strong Feelings (No Quarter 2014)
Until I Find You (EP No Quarter 2014)
“Transient” (on The Al Purdy Songbook 2018)
Starter Home (No Quarter 2018)
While You Were Out
Thought I should leave you a note
I was here while you were out
I could tell by the furnishings and the magazines
You’d been gone a long time
I answered the phone, it was for someone else
I even saw your tombstone in the cemetery
I found your leather coat behind a door
Put it on
Sat down on the porch to smoke
I began to creak like an old club chair in your coat
Later in a photograph of you in the yard
I saw a sapling at the fence line
I turned to the window and the trunk reaching out of sight
When it got dark I locked your door and went to bed
What was I afraid of?
I had a dream about a boat in a marsh
That I nearly missed
There was something I had to do
A pump was thumping behind my head
The shoreline was flooded and water was up against the side of your house
How nice it would be not to worry about that anymore
Some friends were stopping by
Before guests arrive I’m always tense
Like a fugitive
Maybe that’s what makes gossip dreadful
When you’re gone people can only talk about you
A poem written in the [A-Frame] writing building on old paper and an old typewriter;
printed in Beyond Forgetting, Celebrating 100 years of Al Purdy from Harbour Publishing 2018
“Paisley uses the language of physical space to communicate interior spaces. He stitches needlework scenes that sit uneasily in embroidery hoops—quaint on the surface, a shadow cast across the sides. … Gracefully navigating the intersection of folk-rock and country, the gentle-voiced songwriter turns detailed images of domestic tranquility and promise into reflections on disappointment.”
“Paisley is born of a songwriting tradition that doesn’t eschew or even temper sentimentality, and his work recalls the great country-folk songwriters of the late twentieth century, lonesome troubadours intent on chronicling their self-inflicted heartbreaks: Townes Van Zandt, John Prine, Blaze Foley, Lyle Lovett.”
In residence: May-June 2017
Andrea Bennett spent her month-long stay at the A-frame in a very creative state-of-mind-and-body, revising her poetry manuscript and managing to produce several new writings, all the while beginning to prepare for the arrival of her first child.
I was at the A-frame for a month, spanning from mid-May to mid-June 2017. I wrote nineteen new poems while I was there, and edited many of the manuscript’s older poems. Almost as important as the new works I was able to create, though, was the time I was able to spend mulling the manuscript over in my mind. The spring I spent in Ameliasburg(h) was quite rainy, but I took a walk through the town, down Purdy Lane, past the cemetery, and around the reservoir every day the sun shone. Sometime after returning from one of these walks, I was soaking up some afternoon sun on the wooden loungers on the back deck when the shape of my second manuscript began to form itself in my mind – I gained a sense of how the poems could come together, how they’d form a narrative, and how I’d treat them in the manuscript.
While I was at the A-frame residency, writer Erika Thorkelson came to visit, taking the train in from Toronto. We read parts of the A-frame anthology and thought about what the energy of the house was like with us in it, versus what it would have been like while Al and Eurithe were living there. We had no raucous parties, no shouting matches – but we did talk about stories we might pitch, and we probably bickered about pop culture. I spent a lot of time thinking about inhabiting a creative space that had been inhabited very differently before my short time there; I liked to read, in the guest book, about all the other youngish writers who’d recently completed residencies there. Alongside the first generation of A-frame writers, I read the second, and felt honoured to be part of it.
I was pregnant with my first (and probably only) child, and my partner and I took a rental car from Montréal, stopping for groceries in Belleville, over to the A-frame in Ameliasburg(h). My partner then went home and returned the car. I’d meal-planned for the first two weeks and bought groceries to last me – simple stuff like beans on toast, carrots, frozen gluten-free pizza. Being pregnant, however, I found myself intensely craving some kind – any kind! – of dessert, something I hadn’t foreseen while meal-planning. I google-mapped the closest convenience stores. I thought about taking a cab I couldn’t afford to go to Belleville, just to get a Mars bar. And then I had what can only be described as a stroke of genius: there is a sort of pioneer village in Ameliasburg(h), [the Ameliasburgh Heritage Museum] and it was sure to have some kind of candy, and even the weird rock candy on sticks would do at that point. I took a walk, maybe ten minutes from the A-frame, over to the pioneer village, and there it was, candy, in all its glory. I bought fistfuls and went home happy. I’m sure other writers will have more substantial things to share, but my beat is the banal happinesses and sadnesses that make up daily life, so this one’s suitable for me.
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
I can’t believe how quickly this month has passed. It rained a lot in May and early June, so I spent much of my time in the bright green velvety chair in front of the picture window, watching the garden and the goslings grow. There was a hummingbird & a heron that visited almost daily. …
I had an amazing, memorable time here. I was 10 or 11 weeks pregnant when I arrived, and 14 or 15 weeks along as I’m leaving, and I’m so much closer to having a draft in hand of my next (fingers crossed) book. I hope your time here is as peaceful & productive as mine was!
Originally from Hamilton, Andrea holds a BA in English and French from the University of Guelph, and an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia. She has resided in various Canadian locales including Quebec and the West Coast, has been awarded several research and travel grants and, along with the A-frame, has held residencies in the Wallace Stegner House and Wildacres Retreat. Andrea has won the National Magazine Gold Award for essays and been a finalist for several other writing awards; she has had poetry and prose published in a variety of periodicals including CV2, Fiddlehead, Grain, This magazine, The Malahat Review, The Atlantic, the Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and several others. She has also written travel guides for Montréal and Québec City (Moon Travel), a book of essays, Like a Boy but Not a Boy (Arsenal Pulp Press), and a book of poetry, Canoodlers (Nightwood Editions). Currently, she is an editor and designer for Talonbooks and a designer at Prism international.
Canoodlers (Nightwood Editions 2014)
Galina Petrovna’s Three-Legged Dog Story (The Borough Press 2015)
Two Cousins of Azoz (The Borough Press 2017)
Montréal (Moon 2018)
Québec City (Moon 2019)
Like a Boy but Not a Boy (Arsenal Pulp Press forthcoming 2020)
Every year, winter comes with a shock. Every year a year further from the time before I existed, a year closer to the time I’ll no longer exist.
The human-to-be isn’t upside-down, as she’s supposed to be. Right-side-up is wrong. Her head knocking at my ribcage as if it might swing open onto the world.
This year the shock of winter took the leaves from the trees while they were still green. This time last year there was no human-to-be. This time this year she is and she is not. She may shock to the world, still green. She may turn.
(Published in Grain magazine. 46.3, 2019)
“We don’t often label ourselves voyeurs. We attempt to distance ourselves… Bennett’s poems allow readers to experience this badge in a raw and honest way, one that is familiar and welcoming rather than shocking.”
“[Canoodlers] is an odd delight – graceful, singular, freewheeling, yet intractable… bennett’s sensuous, observational wit and sharp, salted humour infuse the poems.”
“Andrea Bennett's Canoodlers circles around connection and disconnection, with poems that work to forge social meaning or uncover its lack. ... Underpinning these poems lies an anxiety they try to mask or alleviate. Sometimes that anxiety bubbles to the surface: ‘Dearly beloved, Don Cherry has better conversation skills than my stepfather, and my mother doesn’t love me anymore.’ Bennett’s poems take startling emotional risks in order to draw in and wrap arms around their readers.”
“Canoodlers is a personal study of contemporary North American culture, appropriating the language of marketing and pop culture, twisting and repositioning phrases that have become clichéd. These poems render the familiar unfamiliar and question how relationships function – families, friends, lovers – in contemporary suburban Canadian life.”
In residence: July-August 2017
James Arthur, a writing instructor at Johns Hopkins University, spent a productive summer at the A-frame finishing his second book of poetry; he was accompanied by his wife, Shannon Robinson, and son, Henry.
Meeting Eurithe: My family and I spent two months in the Purdy A-frame during the summer of 2017. For me that time in Ameliasburgh was one of intense immersion in my own writing: I finished a second book of poems more quickly, more boldly, and more joyfully than I expected. I also embraced the uncanny experience of living in close proximity to another writer’s life and legacy, since you can’t spend two months in the A-frame, surrounded by Purdy’s things, without feeling that you’re living inside his life as well as your own. I never met Al during his lifetime and I don’t believe in ghosts, so I won’t say that I felt Al’s presence inside the A-frame, but I thought about him all the time.
My wife often wrote at a coffee shop in Belleville, and we’d enrolled our son, who was six, in a YMCA day camp, also in Belleville – so for long stretches at a time I had the A-frame to myself. I got used to pacing around from room to room, talking to myself, trying to feel and speak my way into each poem; that’s really the only way that I can tell whether a poem’s any good.
The first time I met Eurithe Purdy, I was deep into one of those private conversations. She and Steven Heighton came by to introduce themselves, and one of them rapped sharply on the screen door. It gave me such a scare, I swore loudly, and though I’m sure I didn’t use any words that Eurithe or Steven hadn’t heard before, I felt mortified, especially because I was there in Eurithe’s own home, the home she’d built, and because Steven was so gracious.
That’s the only time I’ve ever interacted with Steven Heighton. But I did see Eurithe again: a few weeks later she and A-frame organizer Michele Lintern-Mole accepted an invitation to come by for dinner. A tornado was supposed to blow in, but we cooked burgers on the grill anyway, and over dinner my wife and I peppered Eurithe with questions about things around the house: the frog statuette, the records, and Al’s long leather coat; we’d moved the coat out of the small second bedroom, our son’s bedroom, because the sight of it hanging there in the darkness was giving him nightmares.
I especially wanted to know about the D.H. Lawrence bust that Al had kept on his writing desk, and which by the time of my residency had migrated to a table in the front hall. Had someone given the bust to Al?
“I don’t know,” said Eurithe. “That’s just a piece of junk that he picked up somewhere.”
In a way, that is what’s so uncanny about living in the A-frame: everything around you seems potentially charged with history and subtext, but mixed in with the Purdy memorabilia are objects that probably were of no special importance to Al or Eurithe, and also there are things that other residents have left behind. As an outsider you don’t really know what’s what, so you make your own meanings, and the history of the place continues to grow and change.
The tornado never did show up, but by the time we’d finished dinner there was heavy rain. Eurithe and Michelle didn’t have raincoats or umbrellas, so they had to dash to their car in improvised ponchos that we made out of garbage bags from the kitchen.
Almost from the time we arrived in Ameliasburgh, I felt wistful about the fact that eventually we’d have to leave, making way for someone else; I knew that eventually my son would not remember the A-frame clearly or at all, and I wasn’t sure when, if ever, we would be back. But I kept notes, and I wrote, and I still think about the place.
Final Report Entry:
I was working on my second book, The Suicide’s Son, during the summer of 2017, when my family and I spent eight weeks at the A-frame. While in residence I wrote 12 new poems, some of them three or four pages long, which made them longer than anything else I’d written (or longer anyway than anything I’d published.) In the 20 years that I’ve thought of myself as a writer, I don’t believe that I’ve ever had a richer, more rewarding period of artistic activity than I did in Ameliasburgh, and I’m not even completely sure why that’s so.
Some of it is that the house is cozy and quiet, and at least for me, at a far remove from all outside pressures; I almost never thought about all the weeding that I’d have to do when I got home to Baltimore, and it seemed as if my teaching responsibilities existed on a different planet. But still, that doesn’t quite convey what it was like to spend a summer in the A-frame. On my best writing days I didn’t feel like myself, or even like a person at all; I forgot everything except the blank page, and when I reached for the words, they were there. Sometimes I worked in Al’s shed, but I did my best writing on the couch in main room, where I could stretch out, change positions, take in lots of natural light, and occasionally doze off for an hour.
We did have some visitors at the A-frame: Purdy pilgrims came by every two weeks or so, and talked about how much Purdy’s poetry had meant to them. One woman became so overwhelmed by the idea of the place that she cried. Another pilgrim insisted that there was a longstanding custom of visitors writing their names on the walls inside the A-frame. If that’s a custom, no one told us about it; we couldn’t see anyone else’s name written on the wall, so we didn’t let her do it, but she was happy to sign the guestbook instead.
I’d like to close by saying how especially grateful I am that the APAFA allows writers in residence to bring their families to the A-frame, since it would have been quite hard, and perhaps not feasible, for me to spend two months away from my wife and son. On weekdays throughout my residency my son was at the YMCA camp in Belleville from early morning to late afternoon – but all the same, the residency was for us a time of intense family togetherness, with weekend excursions to Belleville, Wellington, and Picton. As counterintuitive as it might seem, I think my wife and I wrote more deeply, more productively, because all three of us were there together.
I don’t know of any other place like the A-frame. I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to add my own pages to its story.
Guest Book Entry:
Aug. 11 2017
I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone by, even though everyone else who’s written in this book warned me of that. I was here with my wife (fiction writer Shannon Robinson) and our son Henry, aged six. Mostly I kept my nose down, trying to finish my book – I’m done! very exciting! – but Shannon and Henry did a lot of exploring. If you’re here with kids, there’s a great playground in Wellington just next to the site of the Saturday farmer’s market and we all loved the Rodeo in Picton, which took place in late July. We also loved getting to know Ken and Evelyn, the neighbours to the east: kind people. They took us around the lake a few times on their boat. Everyone kept telling us to have lunch at Lake-on-the-Mountain – Ken and Evelyn’s son is cook there – and we never did, but for hearty comfort food check out the Bourbon St. Pizza Company and the Boathouse, both in Belleville. Surely part of the residency is finding your own writing rhythm, so I won’t presume to give you too much advice on that front – but for me, the couch in the front room (i.e. the room to your left as you enter the A-frame) was a comfortable place to work, and I found that I did my best, most inspired writing when I stayed immersed, day after day, as disconnected as possible from Facebook, email, etc. There are so many fascinating books here, when I arrived, I imagined that I’d be able to delve into all of them, and I of course ran out of time. But I recommend Reaching for the Beaufort Sea, if you haven’t yet read it. Happy writing!
Canadian-American poet James Arthur (born in Connecticut; grew up in Toronto) is the author of The Suicide’s Son (Véhicule Press 2019) and Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press, 2012.) His poems have also appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, The New York Review of Books, The American Poetry Review, The New Republic, and The London Review of Books. He has received the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, a Hodder Fellowship, a Stegner Fellowship, a Discovery/The Nation Prize, a Fulbright Scholarship to Northern Ireland, and a Visiting Fellowship at Exeter College, Oxford. Arthur lives in Baltimore, where he teaches in the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
Charms Against Lightning (Copper Canyon Press 2012)
Hundred Acre Wood (Anstruther Press 2018)
The Suicide’s Son (Véhicule Press 2019)
it’s true sometimes I cannot
stop myself from spilling
unpetalling apple blossoms
raiding a picnic
making off with napkins I’m nothing
until I happen
flipping an umbrella outside-in
throwing its owner
into a fumble
pelting the avenue with sleet or dust
at times downtown
riding over galleries of air
so full of high excitement howling
I borrow an old woman’s hat
and fling it into the road
arriving with news of the larkspur
and the bumblebee
at times embracing you so lightly
in ways you don’t even think of
In Al Purdy’s House
It is strange, living in the house
of a writer who has died. I use your cutlery,
your typewriter. I read your autobiography
while lying in your bed, trying to imagine Roblin Lake
and this lakeside piece of land
as they were sixty years ago, when you and Eurithe
built the A-frame by hand,
with no experience of carpentry, using salvaged lumber
and whatever materials you could find.
Critics seem to always talk you up or talk you down,
casting you as the forerunner
of all Canadian poets who were to follow,
or else as a roughneck and a clown.
For me, it’s enough that you were many times demoted
during a war you found unreal;
that you lived and wrote according to an image
you had in mind;
that you called your house A drum for the north wind,
a kind of knot in time.
Your mother’s good china
is still here, asleep inside the hutch. History,
your personal history, hangs around the record player,
which I haven’t dared to touch―
but this year there’s been so much rain,
Roblin Lake has climbed up fifteen feet on the grass,
making an island of the short peninsula
you and Eurithe added to the shore.
Standing at the window near the kitchen,
watching a single sailboat pass
back and forth across a distance
that couldn’t be more than a mile from end to end,
I feel a collapse of distinctions
between the real and the unreal,
between what has already
taken place, and what is happening right now,
as if time had been doubled over into itself,
like a sheet of folded steel.
Cottage country becomes backcountry,
as houses along the shoreline
blink out and disappear.
I know better than to make myself at home
in a house that isn’t mine.
Soon, I’ll leave the keys
on the counter, turn the lock
on the inside, step out, and close the door.
Maybe because I’m left-handed
I made my way through your collected poems
back to front,
so I ended with the love songs of a young man―
poems for women
you seduced, or thought you might seduce―
and I began
with your regrets, the many places you visited,
and your elegies for friends
who during my backward progress
came to life one by one.
“In Arthur’s view, we are animals marked by the power of language, both damaging and salvific. For all our willful distortions of our experience and transference of suffering, we can recover enough to see the truth of our condition and speak to it honestly, and this has direct benefit to others who can hear that honesty. In language, there is discovery, and the possibility of salvation. This condition, though it can put us at cross purposes, makes all the difference to Arthur, who writes “I’d rather be dead than be a creature / of any other kind. I walk upright, practicing / the song of my species, by speaking”
“The poems in James Arthur’s new collection, The Suicide’s Son, convey a mastery of resonance and form while dealing with topics that feel relevant and real. There is irony and playfulness, as in “Drone,” narrated by the drone itself: “I am a poetry that celebrates power.” This gleeful declaration is immediately undermined by the sinister: “I bomb air. I bomb breath.” Arthur often establishes an idea, then pulls the rug out from under us to reveal a deeper and darker underside.”
“Nostalgia is considered. Parenting is a recurring theme. Materialism as default spirituality is a sub-theme. Rootlessness ebbs and flows, all while the cogs and underpinnings churl and grind each poem into solid object that transcends the quotidian. These words are ordered to last. … Clear and true, honest and enlightening, James Arthur is a master craftsman approaching culmination.”
—D. M. O’Connor
In residence: August 2017
Oana Avasilichioaei is an accomplished poet, translator and performance artist. Among her many achievements, she won the 2017 Governor General’s Award for ‘French to English’ translation for Readopolis, her translation of Bertrand Laverdure’s Lectodôme.
During my time in the County, I developed a kind of routine. Mornings I would work, often sitting by the big window wall in the main house with its view of the yard and lake, reading, researching, writing. After lunch or mid-afternoon, I often took a break, swimming in the lake, walking to the village, or going for a drive in the County to some local farm market, a beach, an antique shop, or even to one of the region’s many wineries. Afternoons, I would often work on the deck, in the warm fragrant air, keeping company with the many loons that seemed to like relaxing on the small point that juts out into the lake at the end of the yard. Evenings I would make supper (sampling some of the region’s delicious produce and great wines), then settle into some reading to the great concert of crickets and frogs unfolding outside.
Partway through the month I spent there, on August 21, 2017, there was a solar eclipse (it was a total eclipse for a large part of the USA, but a partial one where I was in the County). The day before, my dad had emailed me his step-by-step instructions (accompanied by images) on how to make a homemade solar filter through which to see the eclipse (he’s an engineer and very handy with homemade inventions).
You take a piece of glass (from a small picture frame for instance), clean it thoroughly, then tape up the margins with masking tape on both sides of the glass (this will make it easy to hold later). Then you take an ordinary candle and holding about 30%-40% (his instructions included this exact percentage) of the candle flame up to the glass, you quickly move the candle up and down the glass for 3 to 4 seconds, then hold it away from the glass for 4 to 5 seconds, then repeat. Slowly, the glass will get covered by the candle’s smoke. Once the glass is completely black (you only smoke up one side of the glass), you test it by looking through it at the sun for a few seconds. The sun should look like a dim round disk and have a faint reddish glow, but if it’s still too strong, you smoke up the glass some more. Once you’re done, you can add some more masking tape to the margins and take note not to touch the smoky side of the glass because it rubs off very easily. It’s now ready to use. Later, after you’ve watched the eclipse, you can remove the tape, clean the glass and put it back in the picture frame or wherever you took it from.
So on August 21, I made my solar filter (as per these instructions), and spent the afternoon out on the deck with my notebook and some local beer, periodically watching the eclipse, which according to my notes occurred between 1:14 PM and 3:50 PM. The elements seemed to reverse, the air cooled, the sun looked like a moon crescent, the birds went very quiet as the normally bright afternoon light dulled, became somewhat ethereal.
Final Report Entry:
The month spent at the A-frame in the late summer of 2017 was extremely productive. I went there to work on sections of my book Eight Track, which is a transliterary exploration of traces and track/tracking (including physical tracks, audio signals, speech tracking, animal imprints, and systems of surveillance). The calm and solitude, the comfortable surroundings, and the legacy of the house were all very conducive to writing, reading, and thinking, and I was able to advance my book project a great deal.
Oana Avasilichioaei, based in Montreal, with roots in Romania, is a poet and translator whose work explores history, geography, public space, textual architecture, multilingualism, translation and performance. She interweaves poetry, photography, sound, and performance to explore an expanded idea of language, poetics, historical structures, borders, and orality. For many years, she has worked as a freelance editor and commercial translator (French to English), provided manuscript consultation services, and taught English and Creative Writing at Dawson College. She founded and curated the Atwater Poetry Project (2004-2009), and has won the A. M. Klein Prize for Poetry, the Grafika Grand Prize for typography, the Governor General’s Literary Award for translation and QWF’s Cole Foundation Prize for translation. Avasilichioaei has been writer-in-residence at Green College, UBC (2009), University of Calgary (2010-2011), CAMAC Centre d’Art, France (2014), the A-frame (2017), and the Audain Visual Artist in Residence at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver (2018).
The Dictator’s Garden (Pressdust 2003)
Abandon (Wolsak & Wynn 2005)
Close Your Eyes (Delirium Press 2005)
We, Beasts (Wolsak & Wynn 2005)
Occupational Sickness (trans. Nichita Stănescu, BuschekBooks 2006)
feria – a poempark (Wolsak & Wynn 2008)
Expeditions of a Chimæra (with Erin Mouré, Book Thug 2009)
The Islands (trans. Louise Cotnoir, Wolsak & Wynn 2011)
The Thought House of Philippa (trans. Quebec writers with Ingrid Pam Dick, BookThug 2015)
The United States of Wind (trans. Daniel Canty, Talonbooks 2015)
Limbinal (Talonbooks 2015)
Readopolis (trans. Bertrand Laverdure, BookThug 2017)
The Faerie Devouring (trans. Catherine Lalonde, Book*hug 2018)
Eight Track (Talonbooks 2019)
You admitted that something had to be done. You knew that action was needed. You stood in a line. Strove to avoid the traps the pitfalls. You were whimsy for desire. Feverish for application. You seemed to stand to attention without standing to attention. Cautiously almost imperceptibly you began looking for signs, for marks. Any trace could be significant or artifact, you thought. Any marker a ligature between story and accident.
You were singular but perhaps not alone. Singular in an assemblage of singulars. You signed. With your own particles molecules breath. Until you became the story inside the story. The account inside the narrative. Accountable to. An abandoned signature.
In the rock the outrage lay deep. In the strata the frozen hurricanes of bio matter. Your throat a sudden gorge. Profound abyssal. Function displaced by. You intended to keep going but then stumbled. Fracturing a concept as you let yourself go. Using it to break your fall. The boundary between the container and the contained sometimes so fragile so flimsy. The membrane allowing the permeating in the spilling out.
You seemed to stand your ground even when the ground was soft and questionable. You were transience itself. A wayfarer. You thought nothing of leaping into the most contentious charts. Such was your duty you thought. All dark humour and sinewy muscle all grit and resilience you were. You questioned the consensus while mapping
the consensus. Risking discomfort unease. You didn=t mind some discernment. In fact you sought it out. Opacity of. The audible in the inaudible. Stretched in between was your realm.
You marked the downfall by how you squandered language numbers. Then swore you never would again. The beeches and the poplars were melodic rescuers you believed. The blinding sheet white of the water.
You inhabited a certain periphery you liked to think. Acted on the outskirts of the congregation. Listened for the static beneath the surface sought to bring it out. Dimensions scattered and coalesced. Reassembled and disbanded. A thickening on your palette as you scanned traced. Once you had been outlaw. Unfactual unverified. Radiating directions that possibly led to nowhere and which in arriving became somewhere.
You knew your smallness was profound elemental. The universe so vast it escaped. Though cellular you agitated. Tried to do your. Molecule by molecule the universe needed motion. Stasis meant death absence of life. Though infinitesimal you had responsibility. Just like any other. So you carried on.
To call your peg and rope geometry rudimentary or revolutionary was always a matter of perspective. Theodolite in hand you thought yourself a kind of pioneer. You beat the angles into bounds marked out grids of square footage. Until triangulation changed how efficiently raw earth could be turned into land that is owned and governed. The cold burn of metal on a living membrane. In your wake canals roads and rails followed. You a shape-shifter a measuring eye drawing out the paths of others.
Witnessed angled measured marked claimed. Such was the series of your actions. Repeated over and over again. Over days months centuries.
(Eight Track Talonbooks 2019)
“Avasilichioaei’s poems wind around a core of Grimm-esque fable, as she presses words into uncommon functions. In this book’s dark core ‘the muse, stuck in a bone, is gnawing her way out.’”
“The wilderness we are returned to here [in We, Beasts] is the one formed by language on the edge of wildernesses long gone – the liminal space of fairy and folk tale, where we stare back at the animals we try to deceive ourselves we no longer are. Voice drifts into voice, language into and out of language."
“We, Beasts is a confusing delight, deliberately so, but its pleasures are many, its disturbances part of the pleasure. With each new book, Oana Avasilichioaei demonstrates that she is a poet of profound exploration, one of the ones we need to pay attention to.”
“We, Beasts reminds that what is interesting about us is that we are beasts. When humanity’s ‘vault at ease / in her stained apron // rooster // into its // barbarity,’ we are only at ease because the barbarity is in the service of humanity, whereas other barbarity is in the service of barbarity. When a home ‘knocks on the door of itself / enters inside and forgets itself,’ it is as if assumed and static versions of home dismiss our power to live in the world as if it were home. The unknown requires not only translation, We, Beasts argues, but also care that those translations do not become memes in the service of power for tyrants ‘fond of taming / tasks that can be named.’ Perhaps inspired by a recognition that much of the world is transformed into language that keeps us dumb (without language) to the complexities of places, the child says, ‘oh mama, unchild me from this child voice.’ Avasilichioaei exposes the lies in language, in stories, yes. Perhaps it is advice for adults too.”
“It is in the distortion of the record that her metaphysical musings about the nature of the poempark, the intersection of language and environment, – or perhaps, language as environment – find their surest expression.”
“Avasilichioaei’s free verse sees the old ways with new eyes and listens to language with unaccustomed ears.”
“Abandon is filled with the richness of a country’s history. The poet melds the legends of Romania with its new reality in her vivid and insightful poetry. Dragons rub shoulders with Mountaineers with bad teeth. Women wash carpets in the river, and builders wall women into Monasteries. This is a rich collection and a very promising new voice in Canadian poetry.”
Each morning the first thing I do is to read some poetry before going downstairs to the daily paper’s prose. A lot of the books I have tried lately do not dis-resemble the latter enough. But the work (and play) of Oana Avasilichioaei has raised my hope for the future of our art. We do not really need poems that tell us what the poet saw and how he can make figurative language to give us his view of those things. We do not really need language that is passed over the counter by its baker. Ms Avasilichioaei is environed by language as she is by any world she enters, and when you read you don’t read her version – you are too busy negotiating the pleasant difficulty of her pages. If you run into one another from time? Well, what a nice thing to experience first thing in the morning. This poet offers no Frostian conclusions, but possibilities leading in all directions. Judith FitzGerald was right when she wrote that you can’t really read the poems, but you can sure experience them– – and if you do not want poetry to lull you, you will want that experience.
In residence: October-November 2017
Autumn Richardson arrived at the A-frame as a co-founder (with her husband) of Corbel Stone Press, running it from their home in Broughton Mills, Cumbria, England. Autumn’s writing interests often focus on nature, the environment, history and mythology.
I was visiting Eurithe for lunch at her home in Belleville. We were discussing the A-frame, and I was sharing how astonished I was to be encountering so much wildlife in its environs; wild geese, kingfishers, hawks, herons, frogs, snakes, deer, coyote. There were countless butterflies and songbirds, including monarchs and chickadees, as well as murmurations of starlings. I asked her if there might be owls in the vicinity, as I was listening for them each evening, but so far hadn’t heard one. She told me that in the entirety of her time living on Roblin Lake she’d never heard nor seen an owl. We wrapped up lunch and Eurithe kindly drove me back to the A-frame. As I began to cross the wood-slatted walkway towards the front door, I paused, and turned to my left. There, watching me silently from the low, shadowed, lichen-enshrouded branches of an old apple tree, was a barred owl (Strix varia). I backed up slowly, towards Eurithe, who was still at the top of the hill examining shrubs in preparation for pruning. I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing, and I couldn’t wait to share it with her. In all her time at the A-frame she’d never seen an owl, and now one was waiting at the front door. After Eurithe left I observed the owl until nightfall. When dusk was just becoming darkness, its shadowed outline vanished from the tree. It had remained for nearly four hours, gifting me this precious, indelible memory.
My primary reason for applying to the A-frame for a residency was to have the necessary time and solitude to complete my first full-length poetry collection. When I arrived one of the first things I did was create a document entitled '18 Poems', in homage to Tomas Transtromer's 17 Poems (though I soon afterwards remembered that Dylan Thomas's first collection was entitled 18 Poems–fantastic company both). This became my goal for the next two months – to complete 18 poems, both from editing the material I had brought with me, and through the creation of new work. Happily I achieved, and even exceeded my goal, with several new works written in situ. The manuscript I completed at the A-frame went on to become the collection An Almost-Gone Radiance, which was published the following year, and several of the poems written whilst there have since been published in both Canadian and international literary journals.
I can't express how valuable this residency was for me. Offering writers the opportunity, within this hectic and demanding world, to focus without interruption upon the art of poetry, is an immense gift. I'm incredibly grateful for the time I was given, and for the beauty and warmth of the space itself. I realise that being visible in the community is also important, but more important is dedication to the work itself. I fear this is not often recognised, and writers are expected to socialise or attend too many events. Nevertheless, I did experience several memorable exchanges with other poets and writers during my stay, and I’m deeply grateful to have met such kind, generous and supportive people, including Eurithe Purdy, John Steffler, Susan Gillis, Phil Hall, Stan Dragland, Steve Heighton, Mary Huggle and Michele Lintern-Mole.
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
I arrived after travelling for more than 30 hours, from almost-winter in BC – a blizzard erupted as I drove through Fernie – to sultry hot temperatures in the 30s here in Ontario. So far, every day, sun, humidity, heat. Leaves are turning; birch a pale amber and sumac bright bloody fuschia. It is astonishing here. There is so much life. Geese float on the water. Cicadas thrum. Monarchs float down from the sky like embers. There are Northern Leopard frogs rustling through the sun-scorched grass and brown fallen leaves. Distant coyote-chorus in the night. The trees: poplar, willow, cedar and sumac predominate. This is a time of abundance. How different it will soon become as winter inexorably arrives and the leaves, and the geese, the frogs and the insects–each will vanish, leaving only silence.
A snake, swift on its belly, head up, tongue scenting, muscling through the undergrowth, through leaves, avidly seeking, and the smaller ones, frogs and insects, fly and leap before it. Large coffee-coloured squirrels shimmer in and out of branches, everything is sepia, copper, shadow. How do I translate the dialects that surround me? I am mute, here, in this place of incessant orchestrations. An almost-invisible flurry within the above-and-below worlds; distress, anger, alarm, coaxing, desire. Each of these gestures and croaks, syllables, calls, notes, are comprehended with perfect acuity by all here. Except myself.
The house has become a home to me, its wooden walls, wooden floors, its stone fireplace and large windows with screens to let in the sounds and perfumes of the night. And the geese beyond, and the chickadees, crows, woodpeckers, and others that I’m unfamiliar with, are a constant chorus, along with the wind-scrape through leaves, the water-murmur of waves. The landscape is heat-scorched, brought to early autumnal colours; the sumac, some of it blood-red-pink, some still green, leaves hanging, curled, limp and crisping. I am surrounded by woods which are all the colours of a coyote’s back. And the pale shimmering remains of corn fields, and leaning driftwood barns. These are my days. These are the pages.
I’ve been here at the A-frame for two months & have experienced three seasons – as I depart, the first day of snow. It’s been an incredible blessing to be here, to have the time to sit & listen & open. The work has flowed. With immense gratitude to all who’ve made this possible. I hope this space & landscape is as supportive and as beautiful to the next writer who arrives.
With warmth—Autumn Richardson
Autumn Richardson is a poet, editor and publisher. Her poetry, texts and translations have appeared in literary journals, pamphlets, anthologies and exhibitions in Canada, the UK, Ireland, Norway, Mexico, Brazil and the USA. In 2009 she co-founded Corbel Stone Press with British artist Richard Skelton – an independent, literary, cross-media publishing house focusing on ecology, natural history and mythology. She is the co-editor of Reliquiae, a biannual journal of poetry, short fiction, non-fiction and translations. She has been awarded several residencies and exhibitions both in Canada and internationally.
Her first full-length collection, An Almost-Gone Radiance, was selected as a Scottish Book of the Year (2018) by The Scottish Review of Books. It comprises a sequence for the wilderness landscapes of northern Ontario; the Sierra Nevadas, Spain; the Burren, Ireland; and the Cumbrian uplands, UK. She has also published a book of found-poems and translations, Heart of Winter, based upon the journals of polar explorer Knud Rasmussen. Her latest collection, Ajar To The Night, is forthcoming with Scarlet Imprint in Spring 2020.
Field Notes (with Richard Skelton, Corbel Stone Press 2012)
Memorious Earth (with Richard Skelton, Corbel Stone Press 2015)
Heart of Winter (Corbel Stone Press 2016)
An Almost-Gone Radiance (Corbel Stone Press 2018)
Ajar to the Night (Scarlet Imprint 2020)
Scars, glacial drift, bog-
cotton, dwarf willow.
Nameless lakes–cold has stripped
all colour from their waves.
There is no compassion here, except
that which I carry for small things
yet still I throw lines into water
to lure what may feed me
bones onto flames to see the art
that carbon makes.
What I see there:
this day is a momentary haven;
an interval between longer notes.
Pines are shifting into crows;
the wolf is a deer’s viscera;
each is becoming another’s
vision, another’s gait
and so I drink the trees–
soon my salts will feed
the next short sharp life.
When the Deities are Tended, Morning Comes
I see the curvature
of the earth, its great bent back
wind-scathed rocks and juniper
crouched into stone.
Stars roost in high darkness.
All here bend to the elements
and so do I–
leaning into fire, tending coals–
this is the altar and I offer
the sun’s cells
excised from cedar
and birch, joints of driftwood
‘become the heat of my blood
the sap of my lips’.
enters the cavities of my body
the pores of the forest
mingles with the violet notes
of coyote, who comes in close.
Still threading through
the below-world, that darkness;
rich pit from which Elk surfaced.
From which Caribou ascended
Soon followed by Wolf.
She climbed up a ladder of roots
to pursue both into a world of light.
Through the Grasses
Thick slab of yellow sun through
brown dry-bone winter hills–
smoke hills antlered with early
growth; willow, spruce and ash.
grasses I sink
past rhizomes and mycelia
into the low cellars of earth
then further still into its warm
circulating veins; lava-rich, larval.
In a pupa of yellow coals
I sacrifice my old lives, old coats.
Become a smoked offering.
Leaned and shaven by light
I lift to a thin road– a pale
scar of a road uncurling into far
Give up longing and you will arrive.
All that I thought had meaning
I’ve unpacked and left by the river.
Skin, throat, bitten by cold
as I gather branches–
a restorative labour
a return to the hand’s
The sun is marrowless.
It offers a brittle brightness
but no desire.
Inside there is fire, and
Wild geese also, and wind.
The gifts of here:
exhalations from rain-
long-bodied pines bent
low over water
the one sudden barred
distilled my awareness
its own stirring feathers
its citrine eyes.
“It is as if Autumn Richardson has learned the secret incantations of ancient and elemental things, understood the languages used by wood, stone, fire. [An Almost Gone Radiance] is a spell-book drawn from the most primeval sources. Our own transient humanity is placed in a vaster context, yet through her words we also feel drawn closer to the stark, strange truths of our dark and beautiful world.”
“Key to their work [Autumn Richardson & Richard Skelton] has been the development of the list-poem, which, at its most fundamental, magnifies the act of attention and the facility of language – through naming – to refer to things, places, to life itself. The texts they assemble frequently contain material drawn from a variety of sources: pollen diagrams, dialect glossaries, cartographic records, archaeological tracts – but their repurposing of this material as art is deeply humane, aimed at drawing the attention towards the lost, forgotten or overlooked. It celebrates the poetry and beauty that such attention can reveal, and gently urges each of us towards a more intimate relationship with our natural surroundings.”
“Heart of Winter is a beautiful and poignant series of found poems by Autumn Richardson, assembled from the notes written by ethnologist Knud Rasmussen and botanist Dr. Thorild Wulff during the Second Thule Expedition – a journey charting a little-known area of the far north-western coast of Greenland, from April to September, 1917. Some of Rasmussen's journals were afterwards edited by himself, and published as Greenland by the Polar Sea in 1921.”
“Memorious Earth addresses highly debated issues of environmental histories (and futures) in upland Britain with an understated poise and perspective. … Richardson and Skelton take on the role as etymological archivists of absence: their salvage work attempting to re-enchant and anima(la)te a seemingly empty landscape …”
—Rob St. John
In residence: November 2017
Steven Heighton, an internationally-respected Canadian writer, a frequent visitor to the A-frame in years-gone-by and a long-time friend of Al and Eurithe, returned for a brief sojourn at the cottage in the fall of 2017.
I’m an impostor here. I was never an official A-frame writer-in-residence. In various ways I’ve helped Jean Baird, Howard White and Eurithe Purdy over the last decade, and I did serve on the A-frame selection committee for its first five years or so, but my time as resident-writer amounts to a seven-day stint at the end of the 2017 season, after the last official resident had left.
Winter came a month early that year. A ferocious cold snap froze Roblin Lake solid, the night temperatures dropping to minus 18. Like Boris Pasternak’s famously frozen protagonist, I wrote wearing fingerless gloves, huddled beside a fire I had to keep going at all times (this was before the heat pump was installed). The world outside, taking its cue from the lake I sat staring out at, seemed shocked into stasis by the premature cold; there was no one on the roads and the neighbouring houses looked deserted. I was offline the whole time and the phone rarely rang.
Maybe I was sampling that state in which writers like Al used to compose their work, vanishing into it for hours or days at a time, not constantly exiting to check texts, email, Facebook, or to skim the internet . . . I can’t help feeling we’re just fooling ourselves if we think we can create – when writing in a distracted, discontinuous way, as I do most of the time – work of the same verticality and vision as we might have done.
Final Report Entry:
On my last visit to the A-frame, to stay overnight and have dinner with Brian Brett while he was in residence there last September , Eurithe Purdy called from Belleville. It was around ten pm. I was opening a third bottle of wine. Crossed signals, apparently; she’d thought Brian was supposed to invite her out to the A-frame to eat with us. I could tell by his sheepish replies and long silences that she, on her end of the line, was not happy with the miscommunication (which might well have been my fault).
Brian hung up grinning, chuckling, shaking his head. “Well, Steve, she got us. Oh, she got us good. She says to drink up tonight and she’ll see us bright and early tomorrow.” Further chuckling and head-shaking. “Eight a.m. She’s rented a machine to pressure-wash the front and back decks. Ever heard one of those things fire up?”
Thoughtfully, she arrived not at 8 am but at 9. I ended up on deck detail for the morning and afternoon. And because she was there, cheerfully overseeing the work, while Brian continued to laugh and joke about being bested, I loved every minute of it.
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
Nov 18-26, 2017—Arrived while Autumn’s embers were still cooling in the fireplace &, no, this not a mere Romanticism – I mean Autumn Richardson’s fire was still going, the embers rakable & restartable [sic]. The fireplace has been inhaling splits (splits, not spliffs) of ash (I think?) & maple ever since. (How does ironwood burn? I would like to find out.) Geese marshalling on the lake – yesterday an armada of hundreds, maybe a thousand, covering half the lake – squalling continuously as if psyching themselves up before the long flight south. Today, only dozens.
The secret beach is worth visiting & then some (see Katherine Leyton’s directions, in her entry, Aug 31/14). I saw it while an audacious west wind was flinging combers ashore, yesterday @ sunset—how I would have loved to body surf the bigger ones. Next summer, I’ll hope. Gorgeous.
Yesterday morning I started work on a song & wrote verses with great excitement, sure it was going well; by evening, as I drank a Fuller’s Porter & stared balefully @ my laptop screen, I realized that, save for a few salvageable lines, the thing was plausible and specious shit. And why is it that even after 30 yrs of writing, this arc, from naïve excitement to slumping abjection, is still so much a part of the process? Well, Al might have a theory. At any rate, I know he would understand—because he once told me (warned me, I suppose) that such was the case. And so now I imagine Al’s shade watching me shake my head as I stare @ the screen, & I see him grinning around his toothpick, nodding sharply, his eyes wry & dubious behind the shaded glasses.
So – write shit & keep going every day, write shit & revise it or delete it & write more & say “onward” or “unward” or whatever & keep going, because that is what matters, the work, & loving the work, & hating it sometimes & saying yes to the hate too. Failure saves us. Head down & proceed. That is the lesson of the A-frame for me.
A thousand thanks to Al, Eurithe, & Jim for the gift of this retreat.
Steven Heighton’s most recent books are The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep, a novel that has been optioned for film, and The Waking Comes Late, which received the 2016 Governor General’s Award for Poetry. His short fiction and poetry have received four gold National Magazine Awards and have appeared in London Review of Books, Granta, Best English Stories, Poetry, Best American Poetry, Tin House, TLR, Agni, Best American Mystery Stories, Zoetrope, London Magazine and five editions of Best Canadian Stories. Heighton has taught at the Banff Centre, the Sage Hill Writing Experience, and at Summer Literary Sessions in Russia and the Republic of Georgia; he has served as writer-in-residence for McGill University, Queen’s, Massey College, Concordia, the U of Ottawa, and (now) Athabasca University. He is also an occasional reviewer for the New York Times Book Review. Currently he is completing a nonfiction account of the Syrian refugee crisis on the isle of Lesvos in 2015 and a children’s book on the same subject. He is also recording a first album of songs for Wolfe Island Records. Heighton was born in Toronto, growing up there and in Red Lake. He holds a BA and MA from Queen’s University and lives in Kingston, Ontario, with his family.
Foreign Ghosts (Oberon 1989)
Stalin’s Carnival (Quarry 1989)
Flight Paths of the Emperor (Porcupine’s Quill 1992)
The Ecstasy of Skeptics (House of Anansi 1995)
On earth as it is (Porcupine’s Quill 1995)
The Admen Move on Lhasa (House of Anansi 1997)
The Shadow Boxer (Knopf 2000)
The Address Book.(House of Anansi 2004)
Afterlands (Knopf 2005)
Patient Frame (Anansi 2011)
Every Lost Country (Knopf 2010)
Workbook: memos & dispatches on writing (misFit 2011)
The Dead Are More Visible (Knopf 2012)
The Waking Comes Late (House of Anansi 2016)
The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep (Hamish Hamilton 2017)
An American bodyguard foresees his death
Do I love my country less than I pledged,
since I haven’t yet brought the tent top down
on this circus? Head clown, I and the men
code-call him, in small font, or else imPOTUS—
though so far he seems all too robust. True,
top-story status beats any blood tonic
or drug; the powerful never kick the bucket
without a shove. But if some fanatic
does attempt to off him (snipe him, stab him,
body-bomb him), my Navy SEAL-trained nerves
will trigger a textbook-expert tackle—
not of the perp, you understand, but the Oval
Officer himself. I’ll cloak him like a flak
vest of flesh, pin him down behind the podium,
block bullets with my skull, spine, sacrum,
who knows, while gamely the band finishes
“Hail to the Chief” and streamers go on showering
the crowd, their cheers sharpened to screams
as I bleed out, locked in his trembling arms.
CHRISTMAS WORK DETAIL, SAMOS
Eid milad majid*
In the olive grove on the high ground, facing west
into rain, we dig graves for three men drowned
in the straits—Syrians, maybe, dispossessed
of everything by the sea, so there’s no knowing
for sure. This much you can say for any grave,
it’s landlocked. And these men will lie a decent
distance uphill, out of sight of the beach
where on Sunday their bodies washed ashore
in plausible orange life-vests (ten Euros each)
packed with sawdust, bubble wrap, rags. These rains
haven’t softened the soil, yet digging up here
feels only right; the waves that buried them
terrified them first, and we guess, again,
that they—like the ones the crossing didn’t kill—
were from desert towns, this sea inconceivable
as the Arctic. And each cardboard casket,
awaiting its patient passenger, looks
almost seaworthy after the cut-rate raft
they fled in, and which, deflated, washed in
later, silent, as if shyly contrite.
It seems we’ve failed them, despite the safe graves.
In a grove this untended the ground is brined
bitter with black fruit rotting, and on islands
nowhere is far enough from the waves.
*—Arabic for Happy birth feast, or Merry Christmas
“In North America today, there are few novelists like Heighton, an award-winning poet and essayist who also writes carefully plotted literary adventures... [He has] inherited a post-Conrad tradition, which extends from E.M. Forster to Graham Greene to John Le Carré... literary practitioners and epic storytellers. The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep is a novel about big, global forces and small, intimate moments... Heighton is as attuned to the micro-politics of the village as to the macro-politics of Europe and the Middle East... His focus is sometimes hermetic, sometimes global, and he balances violent passages with lyrical descriptions of intimacy... The novel is full of beautiful asides. It’s also full of memorable characters whose friendships are fraught and rich... For Heighton, there is no place that’s removed from history; there are only people who dream of living in such places.”
“Steven Heighton writes with a beauty and a precision and a soul that’s always astounded me. He captures the shock and trauma of war [in The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep] in a way that only a novelist at the height of his powers can. And he captures mid-leap that act of giving oneself completely to another in all its fragility and fear and grace that only a poet at the height of his powers can.”
“The Dead Are More Visible features Heighton at the top of his game. The language here is powerful, not a word misplaced, not a word wasted… Throughout the eleven stories, Heighton (and, through Heighton, the reader) inhabits a wide variety of bodies… the scope is impressive, particularly since no matter how far Heighton departs from his own experience (in terms of sex, age, geography, sexuality, sobriety, or class), his narrative voice is fully convincing and irresistibly compelling… There is a gravitas in this collection reminiscent of J.M. Coetzee… [Heighton] is a master at suddenly shifting his readers' perspective, making them see things anew… When I get to the end of a story like "Nearing the sea, Superior," I believe profoundly and right from my core: fiction matters.”
“A highly evolved work [The Waking Comes Late] from a writer who, “in the early evening of a life”, is a master of form and sound... From one of Canada's finest lyricists, here are beautiful, wise poems glittering with music, echoes and subtle rhyme.”
“Steven Heighton continues to top his own oeuvre with Patient Frame, a sharp framing and reframing of an ever-widening poetic gaze that captures its subjects, detail after exuberant detail, at thirty images a thought.”
In Residence: April/May 2018
Primarily a writer of non-fiction and magazine editor, Tim Falconer used his time at the A-frame to work on his upcoming book about the Dawson City Nuggets and Canada’s love affair with hockey and to explore Prince Edward County by bicycle.
Before my stay, I had worried about loneliness because my wife was working in Toronto and I’m a person who craves social stimulus. But my fears were unfounded. I enjoyed my time alone more than I expected and it turned out there were lots of diversions. I have a few friends in Prince Edward County and was able to get together with some of them. For example, I invited two authors – Wellington resident Geoff Heinricks, who interviewed Al Purdy for his book about making wine in the County called A Fool and Forty Acres, and Run Over author Douglas Bell, who lives in Belleville – for dinner one night. Another writer who dropped by was Michael Barclay. I’d gone to his reading in Wellington to promote Long Time Running, his new biography about Gord Downie and the Tragically Hip. At the event, he mentioned that Purdy was one of Downie’s favourite poets. So I invited Barclay and his wife Helen, both of whom I know a little bit, to drop by the A-frame the next day. They loved it, as all visitors seem to.
Weird connections like that kept happening. A few days later, a friend in Wellington texted me to say that Stew Jones wanted to visit. Stew is an artist and a few years ago he’d promised that he would donate a painting of the A-frame that the Association could auction off at a fundraiser. But he’d never seen the place. So he came and took several photos to work with. As it turned out, Stew is also a partner in Wellington’s Midtown Brewery and he brought a growler of beer with him. We sat on the deck and had a long and enjoyable chat.
Final Report Entry:
The smell of old books hit me as soon as I walked into the A-frame. That seemed perfect. Then, like most writers lucky enough to do a residency there, I imagine, one of the first things I did was look at the bookshelves. I’d been tipped off to check out the W.B. Yeats poetry. They were just old paperback editions, but they were full of Al Purdy’s notes in the margins. Then I spotted a copy of The Stanley Cup Story, a 1964 book by Henry Roxborough – a title I’d been looking for because I was working on a book about how Canada fell in love with hockey. That’s when I knew for sure that the A-frame would be a good place to work.
I arrived when there was still snow on the ground and left a couple days after what felt like the first real summer day (spring was fleeting that year, as it often is in Ontario). At the beginning, I spent most of my time in the A-frame portion of the house, close to the fireplace. But as it warmed up, I spent more time in the addition, in front of the big picture window, or on the deck. The writing, reading, ruminating and recharging went even better than I had dared hope and I enjoyed exploring the County on my bike.
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
This place is a gift for any writer fortunate enough to stay here. … I knew this was going to be a great place to work as soon as I looked at the bookshelf and found a book I needed for my research. … And my fears of loneliness were unfounded as there were many distractions: a few friends in Wellington; other friends visiting the area; a couple radio interviews; a reading in Picton; and a trip to Kingston to visit the Queen’s archives and see a friend’s band. I also enjoyed exploring the area on my bike. Inevitably, it all happened too fast and there’s still much more I want to do. But I leave happy and thankful.
April 19 - May 12/18
Tim Falconer, born and raised in Toronto, studied mining engineering and English literature at McGill University (Montreal) and journalism at Carleton (Ottawa). He is the author of four non-fiction books and a veteran magazine writer. Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music made The Globe and Mail’s ‘Top 100’ (2016) and was a finalist for the Lane Anderson Award. His previous books are about activism (Watchdogs and Gadflies); our love-hate relationship with the car (Drive); and end-of-life ethics (That Good Night). He is also co-author, with Dr. Alex Russell, of Drop the Worry Ball, a book about parenting in an age of children’s entitlement.
He taught magazine journalism at Ryerson (Toronto) for two decades, was a mentor in the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Non-Fiction program at King’s College (Halifax) and served as a faculty editor in the Literary Journalism program at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.
The project he worked on at the A-frame in the spring of 2018 is an historical non-fiction book about Dawson City’s 1905 Stanley Cup challenge and how Canada fell in love with hockey. It will be published in the fall of 2021.
A former writer-in-residence at Berton House in Dawson City, he returns to the Yukon as often as he can from his home in Toronto.
Watchdogs and Gadflies (Viking 2001)
Drive (Viking 2008)
That Good Night (Penguin 2009)
Drop the Worry Ball with Dr. Alex Russell (Collins 2014)
Bad Singer: The Surprising Science of Tone Deafness and How We Hear Music (Anansi 2016)
From Klondikers: Dawson City’s Stanley Cup Challenge and How Canada Fell in Love with Hockey
Just 20 years old, Weldon Champness Young was already a veteran with the Ottawa Hockey Club when he went to the Russell House hotel for a formal banquet in March of 1892. The evening was hosted by the Ottawa Amateur Athletic Club (OAAC) to celebrate the end of his team’s season. More than 75 people had gathered in the hotel dining room to honour that success, and by the end of the night they’d have even more to cheer about.
At 10 p.m., J. W. McRae, president of the OAAC, began the formal proceedings. Then, Philip Dansken Ross, the publisher of the Evening Journal and past president of the OAAC, gave a toast to the Governor-General, Frederick Arthur Stanley. Unable to attend the banquet, Stanley sent something better. His aide de camp, Lord Kilcoursie, delivered the surprise by reading a letter from His Excellency: “I have for some time past been thinking that it would be a good thing if there were a challenge cup which should be held from year to year by the championship hockey team in the Dominion.” And he’d already asked a former aide, who was now back in England, to order such a trophy.
The guests at the Russell House applauded enthusiastically. The delight at the promised gift was celebrated by hockey people: players, league officials and other hangers-on. Still, their excitement over a trophy to recognize the country’s championship team was indicative of the growing ardor for the sport. But not even these insiders could have imagined what the Cup would come to mean to Canada.
By 1890, hockey made it to the prairies. Local businessmen, and an 18-year-old Jack Armytage, launched the Victoria Hockey Club of Winnipeg that year. A multi-sport athlete, Armytage was a trainer and kept himself and his teammates in excellent shape with rigorous drills. In 1895, his Vics toured Ontario, Quebec and Minnesota and won four of five matches. After Winnipeg beat the Montreal Hockey Club 5-1, the teams went to the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association clubhouse for the post-game festivities. While there, Armytage spied the Stanley Cup in a trophy case. He was determined to win it.
In February 1896, the Vics hopped on an eastbound train, accompanied by a handful of their hardcore fans. They were going to play Montreal’s own Victorias for the Stanley Cup, in a Valentine’s Day match at Victoria Rink. (Sure, two teams named after the Queen meeting each other in a building named after the Queen sounds like a royal parody, but it was just an indication of Canada’s devotion to the monarch.) Few Montrealers gave the challengers much of a chance. Fans liberally placed bets that the westerners would get schooled by the hometown squad. The 2,000 or so in attendance included 25 Manitobans who “gave an excellent exhibition of Western lung power” in a vain attempt to match the volume of the locals.
The fans back in Winnipeg were no less excited. The phones at the offices of the Manitoba Free Press rang furiously as people called the newsroom to get the score. Hundreds of others had congregated in three of the city’s hotels – the Manitoba, the Queen’s and the Clarendon – to await game updates, sent via telegram.
Only a few years old, the Manitoba Hotel was the city’s poshest. That’s where John Tait, city manager of the CPR Telegraphs, disappointed the fans by announcing, in his distinct Scottish burr, an early Montreal lead. Unfortunately for the team, the goal was ultimately disallowed. Eleven minutes into the match, the fans cheered: Armytage had scored. A second goal followed nine minutes later. In the second half, there was a long, worry-filled wait when nothing at all appeared to be happening until word came in that Winnipeg cover point Fred Higginbotham had broken his suspenders, leading to a delay until someone could find him a new pair. Finally, Tait announced the final score: 2-0 for Winnipeg. There were triumphant cheers and gleeful handshakes all ’round. Meanwhile, back in Montreal, supporters of the western Vics made their way to the Windsor Hotel to collect at least $2,000 in winnings for their well-placed wagers.
After the traditional dinner with the host team, the Vics headed home in a private car on the CPR train. As a brass band played “See the Conquering Heroes Come,” the players climbed into open sleighs waiting for them. The Cup sat in full view in the lead sleigh as the procession—including the band and the fans—made its way along Main Street to the Manitoba Hotel, creating the first Stanley Cup parade.
A crowd of several thousand greeted them at the hotel. After speeches by the mayor and club president, the players and dignitaries made for the Manitoba’s smoking room where they filled the trophy with champagne. Drinking from the Cup would become a ritual that subsequent winners would gleefully follow.
Losing had been a bitter blow for the Montrealers. A Free Press story claimed the Victoria Rink’s caretaker “was so worked up over the defeat that he shed enough tears to almost fill the big trophy.” The eastern Vics issued a challenge in mid-November and on Christmas Day, the former champions travelled west for a return match scheduled for December 30. Lord Stanley had appointed two Ottawa men as trustees of the Cup: P.D. Ross, the newspaper publisher who’d been at the 1892 banquet, and John Sweetland, a doctor and the Sheriff of Carleton County. One of their responsibilities was to appoint referees. When he wasn’t playing, Weldy Young often reffed matches and was someone both teams could accept. So the trustees asked him to travel to Winnipeg to handle the game.
He started the match a little after 8:20 p.m. and before long it was hard to hear his whistle above the crowd noise. The play was fast and close and exciting. The home team thrilled its fans by storming out to an early lead, firing the first three goals. But Montreal roared back to go ahead in the second half. When Winnipeg scored late to tie it up at five goals apiece, the eruption impressed even the Montreal seven. “I have played many exciting championship games, but I never heard such a wild burst of cheering as went up when the score was made even,” one member of the team said later. When Montreal scored again, it put “a damper on the crowd but they could not restrain a cheer for the fine work of the visiting team.” The final score was 6-5 and as the Daily Tribune observed, “Winnipeg is in mourning for her lost Valentine, her Stanley Cup.”
The audience was far larger than just the crowd in the rink. The CPR and Great North Western telegraph companies had arranged to provide detailed coverage of the game with direct wires to the arena – the first time this had been done for a hockey match. The Manitoba Hotel had promised that “every move of the puck will be announced.” Several hundred people made the rotunda reverberate with cheers, and groans, as they followed the play in only slightly delayed real-time through frequent CPR bulletins.
“Merritt has just stopped a hot one.
Grant has just had a run down the rink and made a shot on Winnipeg’s goal, which was well stopped by Merritt.
The play is very fast – and just 8 minutes more to play.
Merritt has stopped several hot ones.
Montrealers are keeping the puck at Winnipeg goal and raining shot after shot.
Winnipeg on the defensive. Montreal is playing the best game.
The Winnipegs are wakening up.
Another shot on Winnipeg goal was beautifully stopped by Merritt.”
In Montreal, the Victoria Rink was hosting the skating club’s first fancy dress carnival of the season and the Daily Star had set up the one-metre square Star bulletin booth in the centre of the ice. A brass gong sounded with each new telegram, which came so quickly that five Star employees struggled to keep up.
Although Winnipeg’s reign as Cup champions lasted for less than a year, a team from outside Montreal had finally won the trophy and fulfilled Stanley’s desire to create a national honour. Westerners had proved themselves to be just as good at, and just as passionate about, the game. Enthusiasm for the sport was exploding, and Stanley’s gift mattered. Best of all, fans in two different provinces – and anywhere else in the country where people were interested – were able to experience the same game at the same time thanks to the telegraph. These play-by-play transmissions brought Canadians together through their shared love of hockey.
“In his journey to understand why, exactly, he can’t hold a tune – while having the ears and taste to appreciate great singing and songwriting – Tim Falconer takes us on a deeply absorbing journey into the worlds of brain science, singing coaches, music psychologists, ethnomusicologists, and into his own keening, music-loving heart. Bad Singer is a fun, fascinating, beautifully written, and strangely moving tale of a melodically-challenged man who yearned to sing. And it has much to say about the mystery of how music moves all of us, good and bad singers alike.”
— John Colapinto
“[Drive] will be the cheapest – and one of the best – journeys you will ever take. If, as they say, the best reads involve both actual and personal journeys, then Tim Falconer has written a classic on a topic that is a major part of our lives, our addresses, our politics, our literature, our music, our obsessions, our stupidities, our vanities – and even our sex lives. Just turn the page and head out. No key required.
— Roy MacGregor
“…this fascinating survey of the automobile and its effect on society [Drive]… is a fun book about a serious topic…It’s written in an accessible, breezy style, giving the reader more than enough time to check out the scenery as the topics roll by: sex, music, literature, film, brand loyalty, safety, pop culture, racing, city planning, the freedom of the road, road rage and the entrapment of our car culture.”
— George A. MacLean
“Falconer has done right by his readership – provoking thoughtful reflection on a deeply emotional and divisive subject that remains controversial. Anybody who has spent days at a time caring for an elderly relative in a hospital will appreciate this lucidly-written text [That Good Night] which seeks to comfort those facing death with the knowledge that they are not alone.”
— Chris Morgan
“Falconer’s most significant point is that technology has plopped some new problems on a very old doorstep. Except in cases of sudden death, our lives today have negotiated conclusions…He hits all the bases, but focuses on the ethical considerations, alternating chapters between talks with an ethicist and stories of people who have had to deal with death…Falconer shows us, through the stories of five imperfect people’s battles with the ultimate cliché, the value of tackling this particular taboo before it tackles us.”
— Bert Archer
“This [Watchdogs and Gadflies] isn’t a how-to book for activists (though it does include practical examples) so much as a why-to and who-does, and it is powerful not despite but because of the fact that he personalizes the issues and humanizes the activists engaged in them… Ultimately, this is a quietly subversive book, persuasively optimistic and pro-activism, and all the more Canadian for it.”
— Tom Snyders
“The author of this engaging well-written book [Watchdogs and Gadflies] describes a number of sweeping changes in Canadian society that have been inspired, if not actually implemented, by activist citizens who aren’t afraid to fight for what they think is right…while his interview subjects are remarkably intelligent and articulate, he refuses to be seduced or intimidated. Instead, he describes their positions and personalities with understanding, concision and objectivity.”
— David Colterjohn
“Falconer is a gifted interviewer, and his sketches of activists are penetrating… This [Watchdogs and Gadflies] is an informative and entertaining book. It stays with you, provokes questions and inspires respect for the efforts and sacrifices of activists.”
— Tony Dalmyn
In residence: June 2018
Maria worked on and finished editing her short story collection, My First Friend, while staying at the A-frame.
Many people may be happy to have a famous poet or writer around, but few, if any, would bother with an obscure one. The Purdys, however, invited many then unknown poets such as Ondaatje to stay, to discuss, to exchange, to learn, and to eat with them. During my five-week residency in 2018, I kept thinking whether Al Purdy could have imagined that one day an emerging writer from Iran would stay in the house he and his wife, Eurithe, built with their own hands? Perhaps.
Tiptoeing within his walls, writing in his shed, reading his books and magazines, and watching the spectacular view from his window, I felt such a privilege to be so close to someone so amazing, to experience Canadian hospitality at its best, and to learn about a remarkable part of Canadian culture and history.
A sense of his presence in the house, a spirit watching over me, reassured me to organize my thoughts and to keep writing and revising until I finished a collection I had been dragging along for a few years. Shortly after, the collection was longlisted for the Iowa Short Fiction Prize. That is why I am convinced that this residency goes beyond facilitating artists’ work, and in some way makes it possible for Al Purdy to continue to contribute to Canadian literature.
Final Report Entry:
I don’t have a specific story, only praises. The A-frame experience was a one-of-a-kind experience. It is not everyday in my life, when a dream I didn’t know I had came true: to be invited to live and create at the house of a great poet. It made me consider how I can make this possible for others.
Guest Book Entry:
I am in his house.
I sleep in his bed
Write in his shed
Drink from his cup
Very kind to me, they are, almost too kind,
The poet & his wife
His name is Al,
In my very eventful life, hardly ever have I experienced such kindness & generosity, never from someone so far.
P.S. Kept looking for any poetry from Iran among the books.
An Ottawa-based writer, storyteller, and arts educator, Maria Saba was born and raised in Iran. She holds a Ph.D. in Theoretical Chemistry (University of Toronto 2001) and has published three books and over a hundred articles, interviews and stories in Canada, Iran, USA, Australia and Europe. Maria’s short story collection, My First Friend, was longlisted for the Iowa Short Fiction Prize, and the title story, published in Scoundrel Time won the Editor’s Choice Award and was nominated for the Pushcart Prize (2017). Her novella, The Secret of Names, was longlisted for the 2020 Disquiet Literary Prize. Maria has served on various arts and literature juries and is the recipient of grants in English literature from Canada Council for the Arts, Ontario Arts Council, and the City of Ottawa. She attended Banff Writing Studio (2016) and residencies at Al Purdy A-frame in Ameliasburgh and Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Ireland (2018). Currently, Maria is working on her debut novel, There You Are.
Vis and Ramin (Naghmeh-yi Zendegi 2010)
Three Persian Love Stories (Gardoon 2011)
Zar in Iran va Kishvar-ha-yi Digar (Naghmeh-yi Zendegi 2011)
“My First Friend” Scoundrel Time 2017
The Secret of Names (forthcoming 2020)
To Set the Record Straight
Reader, I am writing this to set the record straight. So far all you have read is the lies that enemies of our town have spread about us.
We live in the Town of Happiness. We have all we want. Everyone is happy here. We do not tolerate anything that makes us sad. That is the only rule, and it is the law. True, we have guards who watch over our people and report on those who break the law, or seem likely to. We have shot and buried hundreds, who stood in the way of our happiness, but always out of respect for the law. We encourage, we nurture, we provide all that is necessary, but there are those who choose to turn their back on us, and we are left with no choice but to do what is right.
In this town there used to be a poet, who took a year to write a very long poem. During that year the town people fed her and clothed her and overlooked her strange moods, which bordered on despair, in the hope of having a nice, happy poem about themselves and their good lives. After the long year, we gathered in the town square and waited for her to read the poem. On a pedestal, she recited verse after verse about a group of townspeople in chains, who laboured up a hill to turn a huge rock over because of a carving on it that read He who turns me over shall know my secret. After turning the rock, they collapsed from overexertion and anger. They’d found only the same inscription on the other side.
We shot the poet and banned poetry. Taking a year to write a poem, and an allegorical one, is a serious offence. Our people don’t need poetry, which causes confusion. We are honest and straight forward. That is the kind of people we are. Don’t listen to the lies you hear about us. Come and see our town for yourself. You will be smiling, that’s a promise.
“‘My First Friend’ is the story of Manisa, a young girl living in Tehran. Manisa is visited by a stranger when her parents leave her alone in their apartment for the first time. Their conversation seems ordinary, but the subtext reveals otherwise. The story is a devastating look at the emotional toll of an authoritarian government, and the way innocence and violence sit side by side. The power in the story resides not only in the accurate portrayal of a child’s point of view, and Manisa’s poignant connection with the stranger, but the reader’s understanding of what will come next.”
In residence: June/July 2018
Jeffrey Aaron Weingarten holds an academic teaching post at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, and, among other matters, pursues an interest in the relationship between Canadian history and its literary representation by national and local writers. Immersing himself in Al Purdy’s world was a natural adventure for him.
It has been almost two years since I stayed at the A-frame, and I think of that experience often. First and foremost, I think back to my undergraduate self: the unsteady third-year student in Sam Solecki’s Canadian Literature class, where Sam regaled us with stories of his friendship and work with Al Purdy. Sam introduced me to Al’s writing, and I was instantly enamoured of his work and person. I loved his writing and, after reading Sam’s edition of Purdy’s letters, I loved his life.
To think back to that time in my life – 20 years old and often feeling very small – I don’t think I could have imagined spending two weeks in Al’s house. I couldn’t have imagined pulling up and seeing Eurithe Purdy on the front lawn, planting trees with more gusto than anyone I know. She put her gusto to use, with mud all over her hands (“City boys,” she told me when I offered to help, “don’t usually like getting their hands dirty.”). I couldn’t have imagined giving local lectures and then folding that work into my first book. And I sure as hell couldn’t have imagined reading the last draft of my book at Al’s desk, double-checking quotations using his edition of Lawrence’s Collected Poems and staring at the coffee stain he carved into that beautiful table.
When I was 20, nothing seemed possible, and yet everything was ahead of me. I want so badly to travel back to that 20 year old and tell him how much quiet time he would get to spend with Al’s ghost. Touching his books. Playing his records. Eating burgers on his couch. Going for a jog, only to give up halfway because of a heatwave and no shade, resorting to hitchhiking back to the cottage with the help of a Canada Post driver. Writing at Al’s desk. Drinking his wild grape wine with Steven Heighton. Reading on Al’s couch. Sitting on his deck. Swimming in his lake. Looking at the church spire (God’s belly scratcher) across the water. Or: that embarrassing evening when I would sneak into Al’s closet and see if his full-length coat fit me (it didn’t; way too short on the arms). I wonder what my younger self would say to my older self about all of that. I hope my younger self would listen and catch something everyone should know: we can be hopeful about dreaming and experiencing irreplaceable things in life. No one should learn such a wonderful lesson only in retrospect.
Another thing I wish I’d known: learn to love the quiet. My time in Al Purdy’s cottage was probably the last time I will have so much quiet time to myself for the foreseeable future, because my daughter – our first child – was born the same year I stayed at the A-frame. Clio (appropriate name: the muse of poetry) visited that cottage in utero. My pregnant wife and I attempted to swim across the lake, but we both chickened out three quarters of the way. Later that night, we sat together by the enormous living room window and watched the fireflies flicker while Clio kicked up a storm (Clio still kicks up a storm; not inside of my wife’s belly, but rather at my back, against which she vehemently asserts herself in the middle of the night). But before my wife joined, I had a week alone at the A-frame. It was entirely my own time. Time to think and write. Sometimes, loneliness is nice, though the novelty wore off more quickly than I expected. I wonder if, as a new father, I might enjoy the silence more now. I can’t say for sure. I enjoyed it enough then, but it wasn’t long before I was pining for my wife’s charming ability to furnish every room with words.
A quiet memory sticks most with me: my last morning at the cottage, waking up early (5am). It was not quite light, but the world was very visible, shaded with that vague, shy, gray-blue that fills the world right before sunlight crawls from the horizon. I silently put on my swimsuit, stepped along the deck, the grass, and then the brief rocky shore. The water was so still. A perfect mirror of the entire world above it. I waded and tried to disturb nothing. The only ripples along the surface came from me. Subtle, consequent splashes along the shore. It was all so calm. The only animal moving was me (to borrow a line from a John Newlove poem). I ventured waist-deep, the point past the trees, where I could see the sun starting to rise. I tried to stand as still as possible for as long as possible. This was the quietest, stillest moment of my entire life; the only noise was light resting on water. Who can forget such a quiet moment? (When I asked Eurithe Purdy once, “what was it like to be married to Al?” she laughed and said, “Well, it is definitely much quieter now that he’s gone.”)
All I know now is noise. Colleagues stopping me in the hall to say hello. Faculty meetings. Students talking before (and during, and after) class. My daughter playing and learning to say her first words (“baby,” “bottle,” “broccoli,” “berry,” “butter,” “book”; this alliterative theme plays out every day in our home). Her cries. Her laughs. The “ba-ba-ba!” she exclaims when squirrel spotting. Even her expressions are noisy. And then my wife, furnishing the room. My wife reading to her and trying – patiently, lovingly, and sometimes in vain – to rationalize with a determined youngster who can’t help but kick her father in the back.
And then I always think: thank God for the quiet and the noise.
Final Report Entry:
Week 1 of my A-frame residency was centered primarily on preparing my talk at the Wellington Public Library, where I presented a paper on Al Purdy and his generation’s contributions to the writing of Canadian history after 1960. For much of Week 1, I wrote and edited this talk, which was well attended by members of the P.E.C. community. The talk was presented in Week 2 of the residency (July 4).
When not working on the talk, I made a point of exploring P.E.C. with the hope of finding people who met or knew Purdy as part of my research for my upcoming book, Sharing the Past (UTP 2019), which is a detailed history of Canadian poetry’s development as a historiographic genre since 1960. Meeting locals at the Ameliasburgh pioneer village and surrounding shops gave me a great appreciation for Purdy’s character and his reception by locals from in and around Ameliasburgh. It was informative to find out how largely Purdy’s character loomed in the P.E.C. region—many recalled meeting him or seeing him or hearing about him. To some, he seemed a brash, somewhat withdrawn eccentric, where others portrayed him as a good-natured intellectual.
During Week 1, I documented some of my trip via Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to help draw attention to the A-frame and its history.
During Week 2 of my A-frame residency, I presented my talk on Al Purdy’s poetry and life writing at the Wellington Public Library. Approximately 12 people attended the event, which ran about 2 hours. The remainder of my week consisted of writing and editorial work – I have drafted acknowledgements for the A-frame Association in both Sharing the Past and Ad Astra (the latter book is a collection of letters from the 1960s onward exchanged amongst poets, including Al Purdy). During both weeks, I worked about five or six hours a day on editorial work and writing, and so I was able to complete a substantial amount of work on both books during the two-week period.
The A-frame had some visitors during Week 2. The award-winning poet Steven Heighton stopped by the home over the weekend with Eurithe Purdy, and we shared a morning reminiscing about Al and the building of the A-frame. Eurithe also dug up an old bottle of Purdy’s wild grape wine, which Steven and I sampled. It was surreal to sip something Al crafted himself, and my introduction to Steven led us to concoct an essay he plans to write on his personal library, which will be included in a manuscript about authors’ libraries that I’m co-editing with Dr. Jason Camlot (Concordia University). The brunch with Eurithe and Steven was one of the highlights of the trip.
The time spent in the A-frame was time spent with Al’s ghost. There were many feelings I had while sleeping in what was his and Eurithe’s home; I often found myself wondering what I would tell my younger self, the 19-year-old who first read “Wilderness Gothic” in undergrad, about the experience. I expect it would have floored the younger me to know that, in 14 years, I’d be setting up shop and finishing the final edits on my first book at Al’s desk, next to his typewriter and coffee stains.
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
15 years ago I read “Wilderness Gothic” in Sam Solecki’s CAN LIT class. It was, I think, the first poem of yours I read, and now I’m writing this to you with a view of “God’s belly scratcher.” We so rarely get to meet the poets that mean the most to us, and being here is probably as close as I’ll ever get to meeting you. It is little, but it is little enough (I stole that line from John Newlove, with whom you first fought here in the kitchen).
I’ve never grown so attached to a place so quickly, but here we are. Here I am. I could never have imagined 15 years ago that I would be here, spending my mornings sipping coffee from your mugs in your study, while I write the last lines of my first book.
But it is the life I feel in this place that sticks with me. It is so full of life here; I can feel it in every room. Even in the lake.
I’m so grateful to have been here, to have met Eurithe and hugged her and had brunch with her (she says you made an excellent spaghetti sauce). It has been an unforgettable experience to spend time with your space and aura and ghost.
—Jeff Weingarten 2018
PS: Is it true, as the old woman in town says, that you used to cut to the front of the line at the post office? With a beer in hand at nearly every instance?
PPS: I figured out how to best the raccoons at long last.
PPPS: Woke up at 5 AM today to swim in a still lake on my way out of town. You can watch a perfect sunrise if you swim 50 metres out from the shore. This morning, the moon and the sun hung in the sky. Thanks, Al.
So long now—
Jeffrey Aaron Weingarten holds a B.A (English and History) from the University of Toronto, an M.A. and a Ph.D. (English Language and Literature) from McGill University; currently, he teaches Language and Liberal Arts at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. His first book, Sharing the Past, was published in 2019 by the University of Toronto Press. He is also the author of over three dozen papers, articles, and reviews, and is currently at work on three new book projects: John Newlove’s Selected Letters, Learning to Learn: A Guide for Students, and The Promise of Paradise: Essays on Libraries.
Sharing the Past: The Reinvention of History in Canadian Poetry since 1960 (University of Toronto Press 2019)
Writing Samples (excerpts):
“My Odd Case of Writer’s Block, or, How I Spent Six Months Writing One Paragraph”
By Fall 2016, I had finished nearly all of the writing for my recently released book, Sharing the Past. One thing remained: I had to complete a paragraph that I’d been agonizing over for nearly six months. It was a deceptively simple statement: I needed only to admit to my reader that I didn’t know everything. Let me explain.
The primary point of Sharing the Past is to show that creative writers – freer and typically more willing than academics to write experimental and deeply personal histories – have found the means to write histories that are (as I say in the book) both “intellectual” (based on factual events and sources) and “felt” (made emotionally powerful by the sharing of intimate, often familial, connections to those events). David Zieroth writes about his grandfather’s experience in Canadian internment camps, Louise Halfe writes about the devastation wrought by residential schools on her family, and Andrew Suknaski writes about the struggle his family faced as it joined the massive waves of Eastern European immigrants during the early twentieth century. The stories are big and small: focused on large historical events, but seen through the affective lens of a familial experience. Many readers have connected to these “big and small” histories in ways that they have not connected to the scholarship of conventional historians focused on “big picture” stories (e.g.: tales of the political elite, memorable policy, large-scale events). I make that distinction with greater care and context in my book, but, for now, let that basic contrast suffice.
One thing many of the writers in my book have in common is that their personal approach to history compels them to acknowledge, in one way or another, that their histories are, by virtue of their subjectivity, open to corrections and/or expansions. “My family’s story,” these writers often seem to say, “is just one of many possible perspectives on history.” In other words, no one can really claim to know everything about the past. It is brave to write as passionately as creative writers do about history and then to acknowledge, simultaneously, one’s limited ability to write the past fully and accurately. There are, I say throughout the book, so many ways to tell a story, and each author I discuss acknowledges that plurality of approaches.
So here was my conundrum in Fall 2016. I was writing a scholarly history of history infused with my own feelings and beliefs, and so it became clear that I was trapping myself in a corner: I was praising authors in my study for their candid admissions that their knowledge about history has limits, but I was not sharing with my reader that same humility. The issue became more complicated as I began to write about experiences far removed from my own: I was writing about leading Canadian authors of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 1970s like Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier, and about Indigenous authors publishing since the 1980s like Louise Halfe and Joan Crate. The broader the reach of my book (eras, cultures, figures, et cetera), the more I felt it was necessary to say something about my own limits as a scholar. I began to feel hypocritical because of my omission. Every one of my authors happily celebrated that they could not know everything about the past … why was it so hard for me to write a paragraph that said something so obviously true of my own historical writing? Of course I don’t know everything! Of course my book is open to correction! Of course more could be said than I say! So why couldn’t I just say that? …
“When I started my first full-time job”
When I started my first full-time job, I was really struggling to imagine how I’d teach courses and content about which I cared very deeply. My big loves as a teacher are history and literature, and these are sometimes pretty easy to teach in a university English or History department: really, you’re just preaching to the choir of students in the room, many of whom are already interested enough in these disciplines that they’ve chosen them as majors, minors, or specialties. In the college system [as it exists in Ontario, Canada—editor’s note], though, my students are rarely “English” or “History” students (in fact, in five years of teaching, only one student identified as a humanities student). Instead, they are vocational learners pursuing expertise in a craft, trade, or business. How do you teach or motivate a business student to make a sophisticated and passionate argument about Virginia Woolf or the Magna Carta? I think the answer is: you don’t. You help them teach themselves about the importance of such things.
I’ve worked with many faculty at various institutions who privilege essays above all other evaluative tools. Even some colleagues in vocational institutions have been drawn to the essay; perhaps the draw is the consequence of habit (they have traditionally used essays), example (essays were used to evaluate them), or any number of other factors. Regardless, the essay is a lovely and powerful assignment, but it doesn’t always click with vocational learners.
“Tell yourself a different story: an essay on surviving the job market”
The first story I told myself about my career was also the only story I told myself as a graduate student. The story went like this: I belong in a tier 1 university, tenure-track, where I’ll be a star academic and the first academic working in my field to achieve a broad reading audience. While this felt like it was just my story, I also knew how familiar it sounded to other graduate students in my program and elsewhere.
It was easy to stick to that one magnificent story, because it seemed to me at the time like there was no alternative to it. For many graduate students, it often feels this way partly because of how frequently they see, modeled right in front of them, only one image of success: their mentors and colleagues. Some of us went to grad school, in part, so we could emulate the lives and careers of professors who got their jobs decades or even just a few years ago, when the stories available to them were much different than the ones available to the new generation of PhDs entering the market. And so I couldn’t help but tell myself just one story: their story.
Now, though, I know that surviving the market means becoming a better storyteller – or, at least a more flexible one. Imagine many different versions of yourself, your career, and the best use of your expertise. Tell yourself a different story.
Tell yourself a different story about what you deserve and where you belong.
Maybe I needed a healthier perspective during grad school. Okay, I definitely needed one. That is to say, maybe both then and now I didn’t and don’t deserve anything specific or belong anywhere in particular. Maybe the story I should have told myself back then is that, once finished with my Ph.D. in English Literature, I’ll possess skills that are essential to achieving success in any market. Not just teaching and academia, but any place of employment.
How many of our students and friends coming out of Ph.D. programs know that a vast majority of employers agree that their three most desired qualities in every job candidate (in any market across North America) are the ability to write well, communicate effectively and professionally, and show the capacity for innovative creative and critical thinking? At the very least, communication skills are almost always considered a universal asset.
Remember this: while many companies will concede that their recent hires offer field-specific expertise, those same hires tend to lack the ability to communicate clearly and effectively, and, for those employers, that ability is far more useful than field-specific knowledge. Hence, humanities-based Ph.D. graduates have become increasingly desirable candidates in most workforces. I always caution my students (especially those who seem hesitant to take my communications courses), that their superiors can certainly help them with workplace-specific knowledge, but statistically it is a near certainty those superiors cannot help them become a better writer.
You have other skills. No one in job markets outside the academy will care all that much that you discovered some obscure passage in an archive, but they will care that you can work under pressure, fearlessly speak in public, co-ordinate large-scale projects, establish and stick to long-term plans, and act as mentor, leader, and the authority in large and small group settings (i.e.: as a teacher or teaching assistant must do).
And so here is where [sic] the story can change for humanities’ students. Do you see this new narrative budding? You’re not just one of many brilliant Ph.D. graduates vying for tenure-track jobs; now you’re quite possibly one of the only effective communicators catching and holding the attention of an employer who values your unusual potential and promise.
The more time that passed after completing my Ph.D. in 2013, the more I realized something important: the story where I belonged in a tier 1 university was a destiny story. It was comforting, at first, to believe I was meant for something. Destiny, I later realized, is a narrative bear trap. And it prevented me from considering, until much later, the possibility of working outside of the university. …
“Sharing the Past is an unprecedentedly detailed account of the intertwining discourses of Canadian history and creative literature. When social history emerged as its own field of study in the 1960s, it promised new stories that would bring readers away from the elite writing of academics and closer to the everyday experiences of people. Yet, the academy’s continued emphasis on professional distance and objectivity made it difficult for historians to connect with the experiences of those about whom they wrote, and those same emphases made it all but impossible for non-academic experts to be institutionally recognized as historians.
Drawing on interviews and new archival materials to construct a history of Canadian poetry written since 1960, Sharing the Past argues that the project of social history has achieved its fullest expression in lyric poetry, a genre in which personal experiences anchor history. Developing this genre since 1960, Canadian poets have provided an inclusive model for a truly social history that indiscriminately shares the right to speak authoritatively of the pa
“I teach many of the poems discussed in Sharing the Past. With impressive readings of Al Purdy and John Newlove, in particular, J.A. Weingarten’s arguments are lucid, careful, and persuasive.”
“Weingarten contrasts Canadian poetry since 1960 with the fiction that usually dominates our understanding of this era. While novels often use the parodic strategies of what Linda Hutcheon calls ‘historiographic metafiction,’ many Canadian poets take a more personal and partial approach, finding in ‘the familial past’ a way out of uncertainty. Weingarten begins with Al Purdy and John Newlove, who ‘demonstrate to centennial-era writers that a sophisticated history obliges their admission of epistemological limits.’ After discussions of both canonical (Margaret Atwood and Lorna Crozier) and unrecognized poets (Barry McKinnon and Andrew Suknaski), Weingarten concludes with an account of the ‘subversive potential’ of Joan Crate’s Pale as Real Ladies: Poems for Pauline Johnson”
“Sharing the Past answers a series of essential questions about the most important cohort in Canadian poetry since the Confederation era: Who were they? Why was history so integral to their project? How did they help to invent Canadian history with their poetry? Weingarten’s survey of this transnational generation presents a sophisticated model of excellent research, sharp analysis, and thoroughly contemporary methodology. This book represents a major step forward in bringing twentieth-century Canadian poetry into focus, effectively calibrating ongoing discussions with new considerations of decolonization, skeptical historicism, and new media theories.”
In residence: July 2018
Laura Clarke spent much of her time at the A-frame engaged in writing and revising some new poems and short stories and in the early stages of writing her novel Luciferins.
It’s been a few years since the residency for me, and my various records of my experiences have vanished. I remember writing quite a bit in the cabin logbook and taking photos of the pages, but they have been lost to time/the cycle of constant broken phones, along with any photos taken there. I also wrote a daily log of my experiences on my computer, but those files were also lost when my old computer crashed. Here’s what I remember: night swimming in the lake with my poet friend Phoebe Wang when she came for a visit; visiting Al’s grave at the nearby cemetery and being greeted hello and goodbye by swarms of fireflies; being fooled by the bronze bust of a woman in the graveyard for the entire duration of the visit, to the extent that I waved at her and kept wondering what she was up to; sitting outside on a deck chair and writing with my morning coffee during the prime days of summer; two foxes trotting along the empty road at dusk.
Final Report Entry:
I really enjoyed the physical space of the cabin itself – the protection and privacy of the trees in the backyard, the nearby lake to go for a swim when I needed a break, the smell of the writing shed, the many different places to work throughout the cabin and the property. Not to mention the living history of the cabin itself, being able to putter around each room and look at the books and knickknacks and everything else that makes up a life lived by writer [sic]. I enjoyed exploring the history of the Purdys’ life through their objects and the space they created. I didn’t make much use of the writing shed because I prefer to work outside when the weather is nice, but I can see it being the perfect place in the spring or fall.
This is from my original report on my stay from two years, wherein I describe working on both the poems I came to the house to work on and a then-untitled novel. I talk about how moving between two projects, and specifically two genres, allowed me greater productivity than I had ever experienced before. The report was particularly interesting to read because I was in the beginning stages of the novel I’m currently knee-deep in right now (now called Luciferins), and I can see how helpful it probably was to be surrounded by nature while beginning a novel about rewilding! Many of the poems I wrote while at the cottage no longer exist in their current forms, though some do. Most have been expanded into short stories for the collection I am currently close to finishing.
Guest Book Entry:
- many robins hopping on the lawn
- 3 foxes on the road at dusk
- 2 horses by the side of the road
- rabbits, also at dusk
- herons & Canada geese, the goslings growing up before my eyes
- & raccoon & squirrels! & skunks!
- something lying flat on the lake that disappeared as I swan closer – hopefully a turtle!
I was here for 3 weeks, a stay short but probably just right given I don’t have a car or the ability to drive. I will miss sitting out on the deck chair writing & reading – as I am right now. I found myself working outside often, swimming twice a day, trying to run down Salem Road once a day too. Thank you to the books, birds and records that kept me company while I was alone here; to my writer pals Chrissy Mirnery [###] and Phoebe Wang, who each made the trek to visit me here; to my dad, who drove me here and back even though I’m a 33 year old adult woman; to Al, for making this a magical, productive place. AND a place that instantly feels like home; to Eurithe for creating and maintaining such a sanctuary; and to Michele & Jean & everyone who works so hard to keep the A-frame going. I was very productive here, working on both my novel and new collection of poems, while also reading about 6 books! I’ll miss drinking a coffee and sitting in the green chair looking out at the lake every morning. I visited the graveyard 3 times, left my offerings for Al, and was only fooled into thinking the bronzed bust of a woman (near Al’s gravestone) was a real human being once. I didn’t go on too many trips, but I enjoyed going to the bookstore in Picton and Sandbanks Provincial Park when Chrissy visited with her car.
Don’t leave the screen door open for even a second or you’ll be tormented by mosquitos and flies (in the summer, that is). I had one local writer who hadn’t been here in years – Chris – drop by, along with a group of pilgrims from Guelph.
Farewell A-frame – hope to visit again – perhaps one of my friends will do this residency & I can be the one to visit (this is my second time here – I visited Ben Ladouceur w/ Catarina Wright & Ted Nolon – all poets – last fall).
Don’t make me leave!
OK, time to go. Thanks
Laura Clarke, who lives in Toronto, is the author of Decline of the Animal Kingdom (ECW, 2015), which was included on the Globe and Mail and the National Post’s Top Books of 2015. She has published poetry, fiction, interviews, book reviews and criticism in a wide range of newspapers, magazines and literary journals, including the National Post, Hazlitt, Toronto Life, PRISM International, The Antigonish Review, Riddle Fence, Grain and The Puritan. In 2013, she was honoured with the Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers from the Writers’ Trust of Canada. She will be the writer-in-residence for the Tartu City of Literature International Residency Program in Estonia in 2020. Currently, she’s working on a novel and short story collection.
Decline of the Animal Kingdom (ECW 2015)
Laura Clarke (photo credit Britney Townsend)
Writing Sample (excerpt):
This is the intro from the novel I’m currently working on, which takes place in a near future where the City has begun an aggressive urban rewilding program – lush mushrooms overrun parks, owls hunt during the day, and hawks leave strange gifts of dead rabbits on sidewalks. After a memorable tarot reading she receives as a child, the depressed narrator becomes obsessed with the devil, tracking his appearances across historical accounts, art, culture and religious texts. Her interest in religion and mysticism draws her to one of the futurism cults emerging that promise immortality and happiness.
I knew I was born with the devil inside me because nothing I did could ever fill me up. When the devil gets inside you, he doesn’t cause your head to spin around or compel you to vomit up pins and speak in tongues. He just sits there, his emptiness seeping out everywhere, into your bloodstream, into your hair follicles. Sure, you might devour pins and a whole range of household items to try to fill the bottomless pit. You might speak in tongues in order to hear some sort of echo in the void.
Demons were once considered physical entities that dwelled in the body, not spirits that afflicted the soul. Their favourite place to live was the bowels. The record of items vomited up by possessed people is astounding: hair, stones, coals, feathers, pins, small creatures. Martin Luther claimed to be tortured and tempted by Satan most when on the toilet. Tortured, tempted, afflicted, though not possessed. Nuns were more likely to be possessed, while monks tended to be obsessed – in deep tumultuous conversation with demons who did not breach the skin. Women’s bodies were brewing with more fluids, were colder, wetter and moister than men’s, their skin membranes more easily breached by an intruder – more porous, more receptive.
This sounded right to me.
I was 30 and my extremities were almost always cold. Like Martin Luther, I spent a lot of time on the toilet.
I regularly abused laxatives and Adderall and Ativan, along with every socially acceptable street drug available. Socially acceptable meant no meth on purpose and no heroin. I snorted whatever was passed to me under moonlight, sunlight, fluorescent light. Party drugs were cut with worse and worse shit year after year. We carried our overdose kits in our beach bags and backpacks diligently, but each month the doses were stronger, the tranquilizers crushed into the mess of chemicals intended for increasingly larger exotic wildlife. I’d try to tell myself to say no to drugs from strangers, but most weekends I’d find myself in someone’s apartment snorting a thin white line of something while thinking oh well they’re not a stranger anymore. For those brief moments, I would be released from my uncontrollable bad thoughts, which were focused primarily on a) my fear of vomiting; b) how much better my life would be if I hadn’t had the operation when I was 12; c) the inevitable total environmental destruction of our planet that would happen within my lifetime despite the microcosm of sanctuary the City had managed to create; d) all the repulsive sexual encounters I had ever partaken in; and e) stabbing those I loved with a kitchen knife while sleepwalking. I didn’t trust myself even though I had no history of sleepwalking. For this reason I refused to carry a pocket knife for protection, even on Wednesday nights when dead animals littered the sidewalks and streets and parks in huge quantities, when the whole city smelled musky and fungus-y and like sweet rot, when the human energy reached its most feral point of the week.
I grunted through 75 pushups a day. I meditated. Weekly acupuncture. I learned to bench press my father’s exact weight from around the time he was dying, my secret memorial to him. I formed muscles I didn’t know were possible. Weightlifting, according to the philosophy of the boutique gym I joined, was the perfect activity for people who suffered from a Sisyphus complex (they enjoy lifting incredibly heavy things and putting them back in the exact same place for no reason at all).
I ran half-marathons, diligently completed indoor rock-climbing exercises, jumped rope while my best friend from high school who was now a fitness instructor yelled at me to jump higher. All my friends from high school were fitness instructors or motivational speakers or drug dealers. I was a librarian. I often wondered why I myself didn’t choose any of these lucrative paths, all of which were highly sought out positions in the burgeoning new world order, since I did drugs, exercised and stared in the mirror yelling motivational slurs to myself for at least five minutes every morning. For some reason, I had failed to parlay any of these practices into a career.
The extremes of healthy and unhealthy didn’t cancel one another out as one might imagine; the result was more of a doubling or tripling of the self. My body became increasingly wiry and cold and porous to the outside world – that said, I still felt more obsessed than possessed. The lifestyle and exercise blogs I read urged me to turn my routines into ritual, but how did one spearhead such a transformation?
I used to contemplate whether my body or mind was the greater prison. With the assistance of the organization, I realized it was the balancing act that wore me down. Always self-flagellating the physical container to sharpen my mind towards holiness or dulling my brain with pharmaceuticals to live briefly within a hotly radiating temporary reality. My whole life all I really wanted was to be was an animal rolling in the mud.
“Equal parts love letter, death threat, elegy, and inter-office memo, Laura Clarke’s lush, zoological debut [Decline of the Animal Kingdom] recalls us to the feral darkness at the heart of our daily transactional order, as we stream, google, multi-task, and “live-tweet (our) way to extinction.” At times comically direct, at others torqued by the pressure of spiraling syntax, her language bristles throughout with an ardent intimacy laced with dread. “I don’t eat meat,” confides the speaker of this snarling twenty-first century bestiary, “but I love to wear it / and wrap it around blue cheese for shark fishing at dawn.”
— Suzanne Buffam
“Clarke’s mischievous, fabulist debut collection [Decline of the Animal Kingdom] blurs the lines between the literal and allegorical as she employs a lens of anthropomorphism, an edge of misanthropy, and the slow unravelling of personae into disparate states evoking something between grace and madness. The stark, spare language of her poetry, which utilizes a variety of forms, belies its complexity . . . Clarke’s successful balancing of calculated loathing and euphoria makes for a fierce piece of performance art.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Decline of the Animal Kingdom investigates modern constructs of domesticity, freedom, wilderness, and artificiality to paint a portrait of what it means to be human, animal, or both in a society saturated with dog boutiques, trophy hunting, retro taxidermy, and eco-tourism. With brief forays into Algonquin Park and the heart of the 1980s jungle, the book largely draws its energy from the urban landscape, where the animals that interact with the environment have permanent effects on the land and human psyche. A wild deer wanders into the downtown core; the Galapagos and the ethics of conservation invade our Xbox; a mule grows weary of his unrewarding office job and unfulfilling relationships. Exploring the victories and defeats of an urban existence complete with 9-to-5 office angst, the claustrophobia of domestic partnerships in bachelor apartments, and party-and-pick-up culture, Decline of the Animal Kingdom is Laura Clarke’s love letter to the city of Toronto, and to extinct animals and office misfits alike.”
In residence: August 2018
Jeff Latosik came from Toronto for his residency in the A-frame and liked the place well enough that he decided to stay in Prince Edward County. He now resides in Picton.
The night is very different from the day at the A-frame. For people used to city life, the quiet and space appeals very much, but then suddenly you’re there realizing you haven’t had much experience with being that separate. It gets dark gradually and then it is very dark. Al’s jacket hangs in his bedroom as well, and a sideways glance is really all you need to feel that his presence is there.
On one of the first nights I spent at the A-frame one of my blue tooth speakers ran out of battery power. It was in my duffel bag. I didn’t realize that the speaker talks when it’s low on batteries (“critical battery, please charge”). So I was sitting in the dark reading and a “human” voice perked up in the other room. I had no idea it was the speaker. I froze.
Is this not the exact type of thing that would happen to a poet staying at a residence for poets? The speaker was not merciful and only spoke its directive once every minute or so, so I spent a lot of time walking around the house, freezing, and then building up the courage to continue trying to figure out what was going on.
Final Report Entry:
The A-frame was great! I actually couldn’t believe it when I got there and Michele showed me around. It was a beautiful day and drive. I hadn’t been to a cottage for many years and hadn’t gone swimming anywhere for several summers. As many people have noted as well, it was something else to see a life devoted to poetry fully realized.
I had gone there with the idea to read a lot, but I found myself writing more than I thought I would. Al’s writing room was a great space to sit in and once you’re sitting in it, it’s not too many more steps to trying to start a new draft of something. The place brings writing out of you, whereas most places tap it down or pat it on the head.
Since I’ve left the A-frame, the experience has stayed with me in many ways. I see Al’s example as being this thing you can turn to as a potential – for a life writing poems to be fully lived on its own terms. Because the world has so many other ideals that it’s hard to measure a life writing poetry against, it’s good to have one to then measure those others against as well [sic].
Guest Book Entry (excerpt):
Aug 24, 2018
Writing this on a beautiful evening. Neighbour has a large fire going that makes loud sounds, but other neighbours compliment the fire.
Talked to Norm today and learned he built many of the houses in Ameliasburgh. Ha, I can spell that now. My regret is that I didn’t go to the car show (not a car guy) but Norm explained they basically had this polo/jousting (I know that’s not how you spell it) thing that sounded amazing.
Lots of kids sang in the karaoke that weekend that moved across the lake very well, it almost seemed like it was in front of us. Sounds move so well across Roblin, and I don’t really care what they are – this is a far cry from Toronto.
I learned a lot about Al from the pilgrims/neighbours/Norm/Paul Vermersch/etc. but mostly from looking through his books. They were Al’s internet.
If you’re reading this w/time here, take a look through the books. We’re not any kind of writer particularly – we just find our own particular writing room and work from there. Thanks Al … —Jeff
Jeff Latosik has published three collections of poetry and one chapbook. Tiny, Frantic, Stronger won the 2011 Trillium Book Award for Poetry and was a finalist for the Gerald Lampert Memorial Award. Recent work has been published in The West End Phoenix, Poetry Magazine, and Arc. A native of Mississauga, Latosik grew up in Toronto and now lives in Picton, Ontario – a short distance from the A-frame. In Picton, he spent time working in a local market (Agrarian Market) and frequenting the lumber yard and various hardware stores. He now works as an online Writing Instructor at Humber College and Instructional Designer for SafeStart, a training company in Belleville. Having moved into a century home, he had to learn to become handy and renovated the house to include a guest suite. This required a year of continuous work as well as asking many friendly neighbours for advice. He hopes one day to complete his degree in Counselling.
Tiny, Frantic, Stronger (Insomniac 2010)
Safely Home Pacific Western (icehouse 2015)
Helium Ear (Anstruther 2016)
Dreampad (M & S 2018)
- Jeff Latosik at rear-deck doors
- Jeff Latosik at laptop
There’s A Cool That August Keeps
You have to stand
in a lake
in a town that happens quickly
and sink down
beneath the gossip of the currents
where the clam
just hasn’t spoken
and all that’s left is root or sand or stone.
When your legs are halved by seaweed
they’re no longer your own.
This last half-frozen bit of December
Summer won’t say it is
how all seems so bright
The town has stories.
They reach down
and pass sugars to each other
otherwise it’s just some wood
collapsed and filled with the holes
of well-meaning intentions.
I was told something that I should believe.
And it was clear and that meant true
often someone died for it.
But it had a seaweed life
and carried what it wasn’t
all that we said we’d never do
but then we did.
I wonder what would happen if you knew
and how it really was a mercy
while the flowers were out.
“The tender, humanistic poetry of Jeff Latosik can feel deeply refreshing at this particular moment. It houses an optimism that isn’t interested in naiveté, but rather wiping away the casual cynicism and pessimism that often sets the tone for so much of the discourse that surrounds us. This wiping comes as forgiveness: forgiveness of former selves and of each other; forgiveness not as denial of past or present problems, but forgiveness as acknowledgement that most of us are just trying our best day-to-day, and forgiveness that no one knows what that means. Reading Dreampad, his latest collection, I found myself rooting for team Humanity and for the first time in a while being able to imagine how it was possible for us to not fuck this all up.”
“This is a mature book [Dreampad] (and a long one) marked by its unity both of voice and of persona. The writing is consistently strong, and I mean that pedantically. Latosik constructs poems that would have made every stereotypically gruff newspaper editor happy with their economy. The voice seems colloquial, but he punctuates familiarity with diction that reflects the technical language of his subjects. Similarly, while the voice is generally discursive, bursts of rhyme or elevated sound disrupt the illusion of conversation, like the unexpected end-rhyme in “The Home Checklist”:
‘No powerline static
Minimal landscaping of the greenery required.
For that matter, no attic.’
Stylistically, it’s an interesting parallel to the book’s themes. The language is transparent until it’s not; a peripatetic, associative series of thoughts is allowed to wander until it finds its mark, as in these lines from “The Natural”: ‘When we think of the place we’re meant to be / doesn’t it all seem to unfold so effortlessly?’
“‘With a poem, you’re trying to say the unsayable.’ As poetic manifestoes go, this one is fairly typical of Toronto’s Jeff Latosik: the language is straightforward, but the statement contains layers of meaning and ambiguity, and is conveyed in a concatenation of apparently opposed ideas. It’s an approach Latosik has been honing since his 2010 debut, Tiny, Frantic, Stronger (which won the Trillium Book Award for Poetry), and extends through his third collection, Dreampad (McClelland & Stewart). His work has an ability to surprise, both in its depth of implication and surface oddness (those moments, in the poet’s own words, when a squid appears in a poem about baseball). Or, as in “Cats” from Dreampad, in the juxtaposition of ‘porcine diarrhea and condo developers, / two things that wouldn’t have otherwise / explained each other, but in this case they did.’ Unlike other media, Latosik contends, poetry is perfectly situated ‘to bring things that are strange into the realm of understanding.’ It’s a heady project he’s set himself: a poetics predicated upon notions of ambiguity and complexity, yet with the ultimate goal of drawing his material in stark relief, while simultaneously communicating something essential about the human condition.”
—Steven W. Beattie
In residence: September 2018
While residing in the A-frame, Mark worked on several short stories and a young adult novel; as well, he encountered at least one of the ghosts who seem to dwell about the space.
While working in Al’s office, the once-soggy outbuilding which is just desk, bookshelves and muted lighting, I heard a sound. A knocking on the walls. I had been typing furiously, descended into a moment of unconscious go after a long stretch of dumb staring (I decamped to the office each afternoon for a motivating change of scenery), and the sound almost broke my concentration. But I ignored it.
Had something tipped on the bookshelves? Was a tree branch rattling against the outside wall, despite the lack of wind?
At a third round of knocking – one that caught me waiting for it – I stood and peeked into the office entranceway, assuming by then that squirrels or birds must have got inside. But the only thing there was the enormous framed print of Al Purdy’s face leaning against the wall. (Moved there in anticipation of making the entranceway a sort of mini-museum.)
So it was just Al.
When I returned to the desk and the knocking resumed, I understood. I didn’t deserve to be here, was an imposter, and Al was calling me out on it. I apologized. Aloud, to no one. (No one I could see.) I explained my situation. No published books but years of toiling at it. And now so close. And this opportunity would get (and has got) me over the hump.
It was a strange and sincere confession to a ghost I’d never met in person, only through the conversations I’d read in books and his poems. The poems were saucy but welcoming. The conversations had one thread: carry on, believe, but don’t bullshit. I guess that’s exactly what I was doing, and once I’d explained as much to Al Purdy’s ghost the knocking quit.
Final Report Entry:
My three weeks at the A-frame were productive, welcoming, and memorable. While at the A-frame, I was focused on drafting a YA novel, completing three new chapters and polished four others. I also took the time to do final edits on the drafts of several short stories which have been in the works for some time. At least four of these stories were completed and two others received new frameworks for completion.
The A-frame facility is truly a homey, idiosyncratic source of creative inspiration. To wake to the misty lake, to wander evenings under the watchful gaze of Al and Eurithe from their many photographs – it was to feel the pull of the work. It is unique to spend three weeks alone in an abode that really feels like someone else’s home – that still holds in its walls the spirit of the Purdys – and therefore the A-frame will stay with me, just as its timbres have found their way into my writing.
Guest Book Entry:
I’ve been writing a kids novel – and the spirit of the place has been absorbed into the narrative & the built world. When I say spirit, I mean it. One night, I was in the writing shed & and deeply focused on the task at hand; and I heard a persistent knocking on the opposite wall. It may have been the late hour or the weeks of isolation but I had a little chat with Al about my path here & many thanks for the chance. It’s like being in someone’s home, a caretaker – though in this case of an idea is a pretty special one. Steve sums it up best in his entry – I’ll just say that for me being able to do the work is a privilege & the rest is a bonus.
I endorse the secret beach, the Acoustic Grill in Picton, & frequent chats w/ the horses on the corner. Plus the beavers & the herons Company, along with D.N. & Al’s copy of Vineland.
Best wishes to those who come after.
& thanks to Al, Eurithe, Jean & Michelle.
Mark Jacquemain is a writer of short fiction and novels for both adults and young readers. Born in North Bay, Ontario, and with a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing from the University of New Brunswick, his work has been published in numerous magazines and journals in the USA, the UK, and Canada. In 2015, he was featured in Oberon's Coming Attractions, an anthology showcasing top young writers. His work has won the Timothy Findley Award and been nominated for the Prism International Fiction Award, the David Nathan Meyerson Award, and a Pushcart Prize. Since his time at the A-frame he has completed a YA novel slated for publication in the coming months.
“The Ghost.” (Prism International 2010)
“Porcupine.” (The Fiddlehead 2015)
“Friday the 13th, Port Dover.” (The Fiddlehead 2016)
“Angels.” (The Fiddlehead 2016)
“Immortal Jellyfish.” (Southwest Review 2016)
“The Habit.” (Litro 2017)
“Island.” (Electric Literature 2018)
Coming in to freshman year the thing we were told about Mr. Lesnick – Homeroom, Science – is that there’d been an Instagram account a few years back called “Mr. Lesnick is a pedophile.” Supposedly, a Grade Eleven did it, this kid Matt. He was expelled, obviously. We never saw the account, it got taken down like right away. But we all heard about it and knew exactly why someone would do it. Like the fact that Mr. Lesnick always wears shorts, even in winter. Or how he jams his thumb between our shoulder blades on our way out of class and says, “Stand up straight!” or “Heads up!” or “Wimp!” There’s also his licence plate: “L. Nick.” And once during Track and Field Mr. Lesnick picked up Jake Grey and threw him over his shoulder, like he was roughhousing, just one of the boys. Except the whole time Jake Grey, from where he was bobbing in mid-air, was mouthing, “What the whaaaa?” and all the other Grade Nine boys’ jaws hit the floor.
And there’s his name: Lance Lesnick.
But he is a super easy marker. And at the end of term, with all our assignments done, he let us go into the woodshop – this tiny room at the back of his class with a band saw, scroll saw, sander, and drill press and do what he thinks is the funnest project, for no marks: mouse-trap race cars.
It is pretty fun, actually.
The problem is, even though some of us are sort of into it, some of us aren’t. Jacqueline, who’s supposed to be in our group, is just sitting on the desks at the back of the class with Sara Wu and Cheyenne – their own group – talking about a selfie Sara Wu got from this boy “Cute Kyle” she met on March Break in Niagara Falls. Which we’d already talked about all day yesterday. And it isn’t really fair that we’re doing everything and Jacqueline’s doing nothing. And Yasmin – who’s the kind of a person who’s like boom boom boom, wants to get stuff done (she’s a highland dancer), she keeps sending us over to be like, “Uh, Jacqueline?”
“Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m coming,” Jacqueline says. “I just need to get my shoes from my locker.”
This is her excuse: she can’t wear her flip-flops into the woodshop. But, really, she just wants to keep talking about “Cute Kyle,” and it takes us going back three times before she finally actually goes to her locker. And when she finally does Cheyenne comes over and says, “You know, you should maybe go easy on Jacqueline. She’s kind of going through some stuff?”
“What does that mean?” we say.
“I can’t tell you. It’s not my place,” Cheyenne says.
It’s so a Cheyenne thing to do. Why bother saying anything? But Cheyenne likes having it over us. She’s always dying to know something we don’t so she can brush us off like, “It’s not my place.” It’s why she’s so big on inside jokes – like this time she and Destiny ambushed Paige. Cheyenne doesn’t like Paige for some reason. There’s this thing Paige does where someone says a word and she right off starts singing a song that has that word in it? So Cheyenne and Destiny kept sort of casually saying the word “uptown” until Paige started in with the “Uptown Funk” and then the two of them laughed their faces off, while the rest of us were going, “Okay, what?”
It’s not one hundred percent Cheyenne’s fault. She has OCD. She’s like actually on medication for OCD. And her family’s weird. Her dad’s super creepy. Like L. Nick level creepy. He’s this short guy with a buzz cut and he loves hunting. He has these guns. One time we were in Cheyenne’s basement and he came downstairs and he was literally carrying a bunch of guns. We were like, “Oh my God, this is where we get shot.” There’s a cubby under the stairs where he keeps the guns; the door’s locked, but there’s this other, mini door that you could get into, if you really wanted to.
Plus her mom has this weird monotone voice.
So, you know, she doesn’t have it great or anything.
But even if that explains it, we were still irritated when Cheyenne said what she said about Jacqueline “going through stuff.” So we go back into the woodshop and tell Yasmin. And Yasmin’s like, “Yeeeaaah, okay.” Cause the thing is Yasmin and Jacqueline used to be close, but aren’t anymore. Jacqueline would get in these moods and, at lunch, Yasmin would hurry her off to the bathroom, and they’d come back acting all mysterious, and never talk about it. It seemed like they really understood each other; but lately Jacqueline was pretty much talking to everyone, and making Yasmin feel like chopped liver. So Yasmin says, “Yeeaaah, okay, I guess she’s writing her notes, again.”
And then, all skeptical, she says that Jacqueline’s been writing these suicide notes.
We weren’t shocked, or anything. Jacqueline’s a pretty insecure person. She has body image issues, for sure. She’s been dress-coded for tube tops and cut-offs cut to the back pockets and she always jokes about how fat she is. All of us do, but you can tell Jacqueline really thinks she is fat. But she isn’t.
So when Jacqueline finally gets back with her shoes, Yasmin acts huffy, but the rest of us say nothing. We let her stand there looking at our mouse-trap race car going, “What do you even want me to do?”
Then Mr. Lesnick shuts his laptop and says, “Okay, let’s see what you got.” He comes over and has us test our cars on the floor. Ours goes halfway across the room. “Okay, okay,” he says, in his nasally voice. Yasmin stands there slouching, sort of proud but not wanting to make a thing of it. And Mr. Lesnick sticks his thumb in her back and says, “Get that chin up!”
Period two is gym, with Mrs. Janetti. Mrs. Janetti’s this tiny blonde lady who always has her hair in pixie-dos. She’s the kind of teacher parents think is “good for us,” cause she talks sweet and won’t let us stand around. But she has a dark side. The day after her husband dumped her she turned up to school in stained jeans (she should’ve been dress-coded) and when the Grade Eleven boys started setting up the volleyball nets on their half of the gym, she made a gun with her hand and picked off Mr. Van Schubert and his student teacher, who we called “Mr. Handsome.”
Plus she never gets tired. She has us do laps, burpees, squats, and bends, and does them with us every time, and chirps us after. Once, just to prove she could, she did the whole warmup again, by herself, in double time, and, after, chirped us again, not even short of breath. Usually, though, if we’re looking droopy she makes us do the warmup again. Which is why so many of us get our parents to write us sick notes.
In the change room we always talk about how much we hate Mrs. Janetti. Except on Fridays, when Mrs. Janetti lets us choose between basketball and dodgeball, and we talk instead – sort of lobby each other – about which to do. It gets pretty ugly.
Today, Sara Wu and Cheyenne are trying to get everyone to pick dodgeball cause then they’ll get knocked out and just stand against the wall, cause they’re exhausted. (Plus, you can’t fail dodgeball.) And all this time Jacqueline just sits on the floor by herself, staring at her phone, letting out these sighs. We look over but ignore her. She sticks her phone in the rip in her jeans and lets out this even-more-dramatic sigh, and we ignore her even harder. So she says, “Maybe I’ll write another note.”
Sara Wu, trying play it off like a joke, says, “Same.”
But the rest of us are uncomfortable cause Jacqueline’s notes aren’t just a joke. Kids make that joke all the time, like when they say something stupid or drop their phone. “Oh my God, I’m going to kill myself.” Then there’s the girls who say it for attention; but at least some of these girls say it for attention cause they’re sad. And then, obviously, some mean it. Jacqueline’s probably somewhere between just wanting attention and wanting attention cause she’s sad. But knowing that doesn’t make it any easier to know what to do about it.
So after Sara Wu says, “Same,” some of us ask if Jacqueline’s okay and all she says is, “Who told you? Was it Yasmin?” And because we insist no, she assumes it must have been Cheyenne and turns and gave Cheyenne this die-stare
Cheyenne says, “No…I told them it wasn’t my place.”
But already Jacqueline’s up and out into the hall.
We vote for dodgeball. After warmup we all try to get hit so we can stand at the wall and talk about Jacqueline and Cheyenne. (Cheyenne keeps hissing from down the line, “What are you guys saying?”) We are so “lame” that Mrs. Janetti pairs us with the Grade Eleven boys and does boys vs. girls. The boys are like joyful about it. Scrambling around, all sweat-shiny and b.o.-smelling in the pinnies they’d been wearing for floor hockey, snatching up the dodge balls. At one point that kid Ryota has so many he has to hold one in his teeth. And some of them – like Sam Couvrette and Jordan Kloostra – are taking these huge run-ups before they launch them at us. And, yes, we want to get hit but not pelted in the bare legs. Or to have to listen to Sam Couvrette and Jordan Kloostra’s hyena laughter. A couple of us try to fight back – Destiny tells Sam Couvrette to quit being a “dickhead” – but this just riles the boys up more, gets them strategizing “Come on, girls!” Mrs. Janetti shrieks. “You going to let these dummies win?”
“Who’s the dummy?” yells Jake Grey.
“You are,” Sara Wu says, from the wall (cause they used to be wheeling but weren’t now).
And even though she’s out, Jake Grey crosses the line and throws his ball at her. It comes in on the bounce and she has to do a little tap step to avoid it.
By lunch, Jacqueline has already posted an unflattering pic of Cheyenne on Instagram that says, “Thanks a lot, FOUR BY FOUR,” referring to Cheyenne’s kind of chubby thighs, which she’s super sensitive about. We fill Paige in on the way to the caf, and Paige – who’s a big girl, and fun, but also very temperamental – says, “I’m so sick of that bitch.” And even though Cheyenne hadn’t really done anything wrong this time, it did feel like a last straw. So we come up with this plan. At our table, beneath the mural of PM Diefenbaker (that makes him look like an old cat), we space ourselves out just enough that it seems like there’s no room for anyone else to sit, and wait for Cheyenne. (Sara Wu says she went to find Jacqueline and apologize, but Destiny saw her in the upstairs bathroom talking to Sara Zilinski.) There is room. Any of us could squeeze a little closer to let Cheyenne in. But when she gets there we don’t budge. She goes around to the other side of the table and Paige makes a face at us like, “Don’t any of you let her,” and says, “There’s no room. You’ll have to sit over there.” Cheyenne checks her phone for a sec, like delaying, like maybe there’s been a mix-up; and some of us start making faces like, “This is mean, let’s let her sit.” But still no one budges so Cheyenne has to go sit with Sara Zilinski and the purple-haired manga-reading girl, Emma Raskob.
It’s the most drama we’ve had in a while. But, since Cheyenne isn’t sitting with us, there’s no drama at all for the rest of lunch, which is nice. Even though that can get kind of boring.
Third period, speaking of drama, is Drama with Mrs. Lahay-Hopkins.
This is when it happened.
If it had to happen, we were glad at least to be with Mrs. L-H when it did. She’s basically our favourite teacher. She’s rounder than Paige and kind of crazy. She’d make a very embarrassing mom. But she cares about us. Not in a fake way so our parents think she cares, like Mrs. Janetti. And not in Mr. Lesnick’s bully way. Mrs. L-H may not know what our elementary schools were or how many siblings we have or what our parents do for work. But she makes us do scenes that sort of pull out our feelings. Most of the boys want to turn it all into a joke and Mrs. L-H knows how to give them some rope on this. She can laugh her face off with the best of them – she has one of those bouncy, silent laughs that turns into wheezes when it slows down. But she also got Jake Grey doing a scene about his dead labradoodle and got Sam Couvrette so fired up he admitted in front of the class he wished he was back at his old school in Windsor, where his dad lives. She also, almost every class, makes us lie on the floor of the stage and then does this thing where we imagine a blue light coursing through our bodies, healing us, making us beautiful and powerful, which gets us so relaxed we almost fall asleep, but not quite.
The only thing about Mrs. L-H is she’s a tree-hugger. Which is fine, except sometimes she gets sidetracked into these mini-lectures, like, “You realize the mess the world’s in is really your problem, don’t you? We’ll all be gone and you’ll have to deal with all the hurricanes and Florida being underwater” and blah blah. Which can be a huge downer. During mime, she wants us to “bring the beauty of nature to life.” During tableau, she keeps suggesting we create waterfalls or rainforests or, like, the Painted Desert. So, just to kind of get her going, we did a tableau of an iPhone. It was brilliant, really.
When the lockdown announcement starts we’re doing monologues so we’re on different parts of the stage and there’s a lot of random scurrying out from behind curtains, Mrs. L-H meeting each of us with her mom-eyes to keep us calm and thinking it’s probably just another drill.
That’s what it feels like, at first, squeezing in the costume room – which is windowless and smells like dried glue and dust – another drill. Twenty-four of us, huddled in there, the ballroom dresses and pirate cloaks tickling our necks. Twenty-four, plus Mrs. L-H, plus a Grade Twelve who’d been hanging up his paintings in the hall outside the theatre (for Art Night that night), plus his parents. Mrs. L-H whistles at us to shut up, but it’s awkward being cramped in there in the dark, so close together, breathing on each other. It makes us giggly and claustrophobic and eerie-feeling. Everybody’s face blue from their phones. The secretary Mrs. Martell’s voice repeating the lockdown chant over the PA: “Emergency, emergency, initiate lockdown.”
It doesn’t feel real. It’s like our fourth lockdown of the term. It feels no worse than the time Mr. Shackleburg – English – moved us into the middle of the front row where anyone could see if we were making spelling mistakes. It feels no worse than that.
So some of us are trying on hats from the hat bin. And Jake Grey and Ryota, who are sitting at the back near the swords, are staring at their phones and laughing. A joke goes around that if this is a long one we’ll die of carbon dioxide poisoning (if there’s even such a thing), or b.o. Even twenty minutes in – way too long for a drill – we’re all, more than anything, just annoyed. We’re used to being annoyed at school. Or stomach-pain-hungry. Or so bored we’re like dead. Tests that are freaking simple. Lame assignments we’ve already done before. Having to ask permission to go to the bathroom – and, if Jake Grey or Sara Wu or whoever’s already gone to the bathroom, having to wait. Even if we have an actual emergency, with our tampon.
Then, on top of all of that, now we’re in a closet in the stuffy dark with Jordan Kloostra’s farts. That Ryota kid’s weird soy sauce breath (not supposed to say it). Legs all rubbery from standing. Mouth dry, back itchy. Running out of stuff to look at on our phones. A text from Yasmin, who’s not in Drama and is on the second floor in Math: Why is it taking so long? From Emma Raskob: Hear anything? And kids whispering and wondering the same stuff. What’s happening out there?
So it’s kind of a relief when Yasmin texts she heard someone attempted suicide in one of the portables.
Some kid tried to kill himself. Portable 7.
Who was it?
Heard it might be Chris Sneyd.
I hate that guy.
A relief, even though we feel bad about it.
But the lockdown chant keeps going.
And a few minutes later Sara Wu sees a Tweet that says there’s a gun on the property. Or at least a knife. Then we all see this, except Jake Grey and Ryota.
Mrs. L-H shushes them.
We text Yasmin: Hear anything about a weapon?
Sara Z says air rifle.
Some of us know an air rifle’s different from a real rifle and tell the ones who don’t and calm them down. It’s just an air rifle. It’s just a suicide.
Then – all of us calm again, annoyed again – someone sends a screen shot of cops in SWAT gear walking by what looks like the smoking area near the portables.
Sara Wu shows the picture to Destiny.
Cheyenne shows it to Jacqueline.
Somehow Cheyenne and Jacqueline have ended up squished together. They seem sort of in a truce. Maybe cause it’s the only way to be right now. Maybe cause Mrs. L-H’s “shut ups” have gotten actually angry and the “Emergency, emergency” is starting to claw into our brains. Maybe all the suicide talk.
“What’s SWAT doing here?”
“‘Cause of the gun.”
“I thought it was a suicide.”
“They’d come for that, too.”
“I just got a text that says it happened in the football field.”
“Then why were the cops by the portables?”
“I don’t know.”
“Maybe they came around that way.”
The Grade Twelve, says, “Quiet.”
His parents – a badgery-looking man with a beard and a pretty woman with a shaved head – seem confused. Like thinking this can’t be happening and if it is this can’t be the best way to deal with it.
Paige leans close – her chin all fuzzy the way the light from her phone’s shining – and shows us texts that say:
A woman cop yelled ANOTHER ONE IS RUNNING BACK IN THE BUILDING.
Not a lie.
My friend heard it.
“Shit,” says Sara Wu.
“What does it mean?” says Paige.
And then all of us are thinking maybe it isn’t just a suicide attempt.
Maybe it’s more than that.
And wondering how sturdy the costume room door is. And worrying – but also super thankful – that Mrs. L-H’s big body is leaning against it.
And thinking about our moms, our little brothers.
Thinking about crashing out of there, running out the side doors.
“What’s it mean?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.”
“Jesus, shut up!” the Grade Twelve says.
Mrs. L-H muscles into the middle of us knocking Jordan Kloostra into the Grease rack. “All right, everyone, we’re going to try to keep quiet,” she says, in that voice that makes us drop our guards during improv. And we do quiet down.
For a minute there’s just the chant and the hard-to-breathe air and our phones.
Then Cheyenne whispers, “Uh, guys?”
“It says shooters,” we whisper.
“There’s no shooters,” says Mrs. L-H. “We don’t know that.”
But the texts and Tweets say: Five shooters.
“That can’t be right,” Mrs. L-H says, staring at her own phone.
“Shit, guys, we’re on the news.”
“What are they saying?”
“Nothing. ‘Diefenbaker in lockdown.’”
“God, I can’t get through to my mom.”
“No, phone calls right now, Cheyenne.”
“Oh my God, Ray Jon is tweeting about us. The rapper.”
Stay strong, Diefenbaker, his Tweet says, help is on the way.
Instead of making it sort of cool, though, this just makes it way more real.
“Oh my God,” Jacqueline says, but she doesn’t say why.
But soon we all read it: Shots in the guidance office.
Then, from Sara Zilinski upstairs: Someone says a math teacher was shot.
“Oh my God,” Jacqueline says again.
That’s when the chant stops. The silence is horrible. This horrible not-silence.
“Is it over?” says Jake Grey.
“Shut up!” says the Grade Twelve.
“It’s not over,” says Mrs. L-H. “It’s on a loop. It must have stopped on its own.”
“Unless someone stopped it,” says Sara Wu.
“Like who?” says Paige.
“I thought it was a suicide,” says Cheyenne.
Without the chant, we can hear things. Noises through the vents, bodies shoved against the costume racks, voices leaking from phones. We listen for someone coming.
“Jesus,” says Jacqueline.
Paige says, “Do you hear that? Do you hear that?”
There are other sounds muffled by the door. Faint poppings, scattery footsteps.
“Let me out of here,” says Sara Wu, maybe not sure she wants it.
Destiny cries, “Let us out!”
“Just quiet!” barks Mrs. L-H, all her cool gone. “Quiet now!”
Other sounds: wild thrown voices, slapping steps approaching fast, a crazy rattle like someone’s working the theatre door.
“Now, now!” cries Destiny, meaning we don’t know what. And Paige staggers to the back of the room and Jake Grey whines, “When’s it going to be over?”
The chant starts up, ten times louder.
Jake Grey asks again, raising his voice over it.
From the back, where she’d fallen into and sunk right down in the hat bin, Paige hisses at him, “FUCKING SHUT UP!”
She looks insane. She’s wriggling to climb out of the hat bin, face flushed like a bawling baby’s. She gets to her feet finally and shushes us all like a freak. “Shush, shhhhh, shush-shush-shush, shhhhhhhhhhhhh!”
We all shift to one side of the room, away from her.
“What?” she hisses. “What? What what?”
And then, so quiet it’s almost a mime: “ARE YOU FILMING ME?”
Things might have got weird then. Weirder. We might have broken out into who knows what. We might have shoved each other against the door like shields.
But the chant stops again. We listen, like holding our breaths. It’s one of those times when you’re fully, truly, you know, there. Like wide awake. The principal, Mr. Hardwick, speaks into the P.A. saying it’s over this time for real. Still no one moves.
Then we’re sort of laughing and shoving hard against each other to get out.
“Be safe,” Mrs. L-H says as we pass into the cool air of the theatre, “be safe.”
We burst into the hall, all of us as one. Cheyenne, too. The school pouring out around us, gathering in groups, sharing theories.
Later, we get another version: some kid – maybe that Chris Sneyd – shoplifted from the convenience store across the street, got caught, and ran back into the school. That’s it.
But when we come out from the dark we don’t know any of that. We’re getting it wrong, and sort of guess it, and stop talking. We go looking for friends, call our parents. We’d been stuck in the costume room so long we’d missed Fourth Period altogether and the home bell’s gone and some of us run to get our buses. But some of us just walk, to nowhere really, maybe wondering what it would have been like.
This is how it is. Near Guidance we see Owen Mawbey and ask how he’s doing. We don’t know Owen Mawbey that well, we’ve never really given much thought to him being happy or sad or anything. But we stop when we see him standing there by the water fountain ‘cause he looks sort of dazed, and say, “Hey, Owen, you okay?”
He looks up like he doesn’t recognize us and then shakes his head. “Yeah, yeah,” he says. “I’m okay, I’m good. But that was crazy. I heard one of them had a glock.”
“Jacquemain’s language is poignant and economical to the point of being heartbreaking. When Joe [in “To the Island, Once More”] describes his mother’s “lazy breaststroke,” or how she chats about lemonade but not his father, or the graceful way she laughs while leaning away, we feel his love and admiration for her, but also his frustration. Though they are not given a word of direct address, what we imagine to be the callouses and the tender spots of Joe the adult inform how we read Joe the child. We can imagine him remembering this place, and these summers, with an exhilarating and immediate sting, as if, as for White, there had been no years.”
Mark Jacquemain’s foreboding tight stories remind me of Denis Johnson or David Foster Wallace, deft voices and serious pleasure, whether covering fathers and wives, motorcycles and taverns, baseball and beach towns, or a mouse in an oven mitt that causes a kitchen fire. The writing and tone is matter-of-fact and fascinating.
—Mark Anthony Jarman