In the last PTWAE (were you listening?), I mentioned that I would write about inspirations for poetry. & here is one…the true & not so true lives of the real & imagined…
The subject came up because of a feature in Jacket 2 in which Pam Brown writes about Mina Loy. I first encountered Loy in a friend's loaned copy of the Lost Lunar Baedecker & was fascinated by the imaginative work. I continue to be interested in the lives of the artists, writers, musicians, playwrights, dancers, etc who lived in Paris between the wars. Brown interviews Carolyn Burke, who penned a biography of Loy. Loy had a very rich life. She painted, cavorted with Italian Futurists, designed lamps, wrote poems.
Biographies have been sources of inspiration for many poets. Basing poetry on biographical elements of people's lives offers rich possibilities for play & exploration, to explore the tensions between what can be invented or extrapolated & what must be kept, between the authority of public information & the arbitrariness of fact. Here are a few Canadian poets who have worked with real & imagined characters:
In Hooked (Brick Books, 2009) Carolyn Smart writes in the voices of seven notorious & famous women, including Elizabeth Smart, Zelda Fitzgerald & Unity Mitford. I had never heard of Mitford & was struck by her adulation to Adolph Hitler. Nor had I heard of many of the women. Smart is versatile & skillful, switching from voice to voice. One of the characters portrayed is the murderess Myra Hindley, who, thanks to Smart's imaginative portrayal speaks from beyond the grave. To hear Smart read in these voices is also a lovely experience as she becomes these characters. . In fact, the book has been staged as a play.
In Glenn Piano by Gladys Priddis (Book Thug, 2010), Jason Dickson creates a story within a story, even including flowery romantic & pensive poems by said Gladys.
in the bentleys (University of Alberta Press, 2006), Dennis Cooley writes in the voices of characters from Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House & recreates the Prairie landscape of the book.
Earlier his Bloody Jack (Turnstone Press, 1984 & new edition published by University of Alberta Press, 2002) takes on the character of Manitoba outlaw and wrestler John Krafchencko. This is a haunting book that contains poems in Krafchenko's voice & the voices of others, newspaper articles, interviews, letters from Jack's "jipsylady, Jamaica" & even tongue-in-cheek(cheeky) reviews of the book. "In this book Cooley is toying with us, if he is not, in fact, merely playing with himself." (L.A. Wynne-Smith, "Subversive Only in a Hyphenated Sense" Times Literary Supplement (July 12, 1984).
an excerpt from "fit to be tied"
look the guy can really dangle I grant him that he comes chargin
in here hot to trot like the hairy arm of Satan chugs in like a
armoured dildo in broad daylight he comes lopin in here the
tongue hangin out caught up in those pecker dildoes of his hes
the song & dance to get on their good side he sure can put up
a good front." p. 71 of the Turnstone Press edition
In Types of Canadian Women And Of Women Who Have Been Connected With Canada Volume II (Gaspereau Press, MMVI), K.I. Press responds to a previous volume, an illustrated biography from 1903, which contained photographs & dull biographies:
"The pictures grabbed me first, but the biographies drew me in. They were so boring, yet there were phrases that suggested what wasn’t being told. Some of these women had been to war zones or lived through rebellions or performed heroic feats that were alluded to in a single phrase. What if, I thought, their biographies told just the good parts? I looked for the book’s promised Volume II to no avail, instead finding a librarian’s note in the catalogue: ‘Volume II never published?’ I knew I had to write it.” K.I. Press
here's a wee excerpt from one of the poems, DAUGHTER OF WITCHES:
"We might as well be witches. We came from Scottish burnings, rituals in Irish bogs, being sent onto the sea alone from England, sucking cock in Normandy. We came to where the men are tied to trees, tied down with animal sinew and smothered in furs, tied on a tether so long sometimes we hang them kitelike in the black skies, waiting." p.81.
In Seeing Lessons (Wolsak & Wynn, 2010), Catherine Owen inhabits the voice of British Columbia photographer Mattie Gunterman, not only thru poems but also thru letters and journals. The book also depicts the BC landscape & society as it was in Gunterman's time & in ours, "the chandelier bones of the owl found/mummified in a BC Packers plant" ..."Even in sleep I could not touch it/this inhabitant of our past when our minds/grew forest thick, concealing things long enough//for them to nest deeply, fossilize in silence[...]"from Dislodging Socrates in Coastlines, the first section of the book. Owen was inspired to write about Gunterman after reading that Gunterman's large body of work was destroyed by fire. This aroused her curiosity & imagination.
here's an excerpt from "Bull's Eye: the Letters & Journals of Mattie Gunterman":
"March 4, 1908
Well my Hat, it appears as though you and Harry cleared out to Revelstoke just in time, our once bustling lovely Beaton is just a husk."
The end of the book contains a note (real or not?) from Henry Gunterman Jr. Here's a wee excerpt:
"In Catherine Owen's Seeing Lessons, it feels like I have laid out the photographs again. I am looking at them over Catherine's shoulder, through her eyes, and learning things I did not know."
Another who has been inspired by the real is Rob Winger in Muybridge's Horse, a poem in three phrases (Nightwood Editions, 2007). Winger takes on the true story of photographer Edward Muybridge. [I've written at length about this book in Ottawater.com issue four.]
Others have also taken on fictional characters, such as Alice from Alice in Wonderland, which was the subject of Stephanie Bolster's White Stone, the Alice Poems (Signal Editions, 1998). Alice is transported out of Wonderland to a beach, to Memphis & to the underground mythical world of Persephone. Alice Lidell, the person upon whom the Alice tales were based, is also explored.
from PORTRAIT OF ALICE WITH PERSEPHONE
it is the going underground that preserves the body,
so though Persephone is ancient
and Alice long ago became antique
each could pass for sixteen.
Speaking of Greek myths, I am excited about the upcoming book by Anne Carson, Antigonik (New Directions, 2012, which shall retell / translate Sophokles' Antigone. & I consider translations, a form of retelling, even if fidelity to the original is attempted. I enjoy Carson's sensibilities, knowledge & poetic ear. Her translation An Oresteia (Faber and Faber, 2009)
offers three different versions of the tragedy of the house of Atreus: Aiskyhlos' Agamemnon, Sophokles' Elektra and Euripides' Orestes.
here's an excerpt from Elektra in Elektra's voice:
That day tore out the nerves of my life.
far too silent the feasting,
much too sudden
My father looked up and saw
death coming out of their hands.
Those hands took my life hostage.
Those hands murdered me. [page 97]
& while we're on the subject of the Greeks, a local example comes to mind, not of the Greeks, but of a work that takes on a real or imagined character, in this case Odysseus' dog, Argos, from the Odyssey, beautifully rendered by Ben Ladouceur in The Argossey (Apt. 9 Press, 2009). these poems are touching, funny, daring & speak of grief.
the bees sit on my nose
in mustard columns
attracted by its sweetness
or darkness of heat
they don't sting, wise
to how I am not
or how that aliveness