one of the overriding themes at the Ottawa International Writers Festival this spring is the subject of place in writing.
at the Prairie Scene literary event the other night David Carpenter
Connie Gault, Alissa York and Dianne Warren discussed place in their writing with Laurie Brown. For three out of four writers, it seemed that that old adage “write what you know”was firmly in place in their writing. Only Connie Gault seemed to suggest that one could write what one imagines. The consensus seemed to be that being part of something, some place and writing about that place strengthened the writing.
At the poetry reading on Sunday with Pearl Pirie, Gillian Sze and Lorna Crozier, hosted by Sandra Ridley, the question of place came up once more, the idea that having a sense of place gave a writer a sense of comfort, but also questioning that comfort, wanting to move towards the edge of things and away from the centre. Sze spoke of feeling in between, being from Manitoba, being the child of immigrants, and now living in Montreal. One poet, Pearl Pirie explained that her work tends to stay away from a specific place. Even her poems about Lanark County tend to be an amalgam of different places and her imagination.
I have to say I related most to what she said on place. Another poet who read this week was Mike Blouin who launched his genre bender, Wore Down Trust. While place was evoked in the characters of the author, Johnny Cash and Alden Nowlen, the sense of placelessness is strong. all three men are drifters, searching for something, possibly the truth, whatever that means.
just before the festival, rob mclennan launched his most recent book, Glengarry, a poetry collection about his roots. nothing utopian about the recollection here either, but still home, a sense of this is where i come from and this is where i’m going.
Monty Reid is doing a series of chapbooks about the garden, not a specific place, although Reid is growing a garden at his new home now, but still a sense of being rooted in the landscape is likely there. or maybe not. i have read but one of these chapbooks so far, from Laurel Reed Books and where the hell is it? lost somewhere on my shelves.
Pearl Pirie’s recent chapbook is Between Stations published by obvious ephiphanies press in Japan and these poems are about trains, or perhaps even “trainness,” evoking that feeling of about to arrive but not quite there yet, not reaching the tangible. poems that were published in Fukushima, yes, that place, of the nuclear plants and tsunami and quake destruction. Japan where survivors must feel devasted, without their homes, families dead.
what will be written about the recent Alabama tornadoes, 300 people killed, many people without homes.
my own writing is not about home, never has been about home. As a child i kept my suitcase packed and i saved money from my allowance starting from the age of 8, money for university and to leave what was supposed to be home.
this week long festival celebration of place and home has made me think of my own writing in terms of that subject. my first published chapbook Eleanor (above/ground press) takes Eleanor from 12th Century Acquitaine and England to current day possibly Ottawa, although never mentioned. in Welcome to Earth (Book Thug) an alien discovers light, water, blood, mud. no specific place mentioned. in Ursula, a limited edition chapbook i published via AngelHousePress, Ursula is a drifter who wanders through urban streets while spouting prophetic visions and believing herself to be Saint Ursula. Kiki, my unpublished long poem is rooted in Montparnasse in the 20s and 30s, set in its cafes and nightclubs and in Kiki’s hometown of Source de la Doix in Burgundy, but Kiki, herself comes across as a drifter, leaving for some small apartment in the wee small hours, not able to sleep, restless.
there is no Shangri-la for me. it is all like this, earthquakes, shadows, the moving dark, the knife edge, the life edge. i once tried to write a narrative love poem about Ottawa and it was abysmal. an abyss. i can enjoy these works that rhapsodize over home, but i can’t understand them, not really. i have had to find home in people not in places. home is the people i love and my own body, my mind. i have to be able to find comfort even when the ground is shaking, even when the wind is blowing the trees rootless. and in literature and art and music, i am not looking for home. i am looking to be shaken.