- Children’s Books
- A Note on Teaching Poetry
- Other Writing
“An Infinity of Blues: Art as a Form of Attention“
Before I learned to write I learned to draw and, to some extent, I still see the former as a more nuanced and sophisticated version of the latter. Making art is a way of representing the world to yourself; of looking closer so you can see what’s really there. The eye as microscope; the page as time-machine. Sharpen the focus. Slow everything down. Then copy what you see as accurately as you can.
There’s a radical honesty required from both writing and painting because copying what you see, not what you are supposed to see, challenges convention. To write what you feel and think, not what you are supposed to feel and think is even more subversive. This is how art frees the constrained and vindicates the powerless. It turns the bystander into an activist.
I cannot remember a time when I wasn’t a bystander; when I didn’t feel apart from things, observing them. I suspect this is typical of anyone drawn to the arts. A person fully immersed in the world isn’t compelled to scrutinize it, but if something or someone has flung you out of the centre to the periphery you necessarily inhabit a space of exploration. This is frightening but also liberating, which is why we continue to make art despite loneliness, frustration, lack of response, and lack of remuneration.
Until I went to university, the visual arts were just as important to me as the literary ones, but then I moved into my head – a space even smaller and more cluttered than a library carrel – and writing took over. There no longer seemed to be any way paint and charcoal could represent the honey and vinegar of reality; only language, parsed into metaphor and allusion, quotation and dislocation, could build a second world with anything like the variety and terror of the first. Words have been my medium ever since. I have worked as an English professor, a creative writing instructor, a mentor, and an editor; written poetry and fiction for adults and children, scholarly essays and dissertations, and book reviews. For recreation, when I wasn’t hungrily devouring other people’s books, I played Scrabble and Boggle and did cryptic crosswords. I even read Roget’s Thesaurus for pleasure! I was completely besotted with language.
Part of this intoxication was childlike: I loved playing with the sounds and textures of words. And part of it was more adult and urgent: if I only learned enough, maybe one day I could write something true. Daily life hurt; it made no sense. But literature would save me, if only I could write my way in to the truth and then out again, to offer it to others.
(painting of my brother David, from a photograph taken by my sister Lisa)
Then in September of 2015, exhausted by literary disappointment and juggling family demands, employment, too many illnesses and deaths, I took a break from writing and went to art school. And in drawing and painting and sculpture I’ve recovered the joy of making stuff not as a path to “the truth” — which I no longer believe in — but as an end in itself. When a model is posing in the middle of a room and twenty people are working at easels in a circle around him you invariably get twenty versions of “the truth,” each dependent on the painter’s height, angle and acuity of vision, hand-eye co-ordination, native skill, learned technique, quality of pigments and brushes, knowledge of other painters’ work, emotional state that day, life experience …. In the art studio it is immediately obvious that everyone’s view is partial, as is everyone’s ability.
This is something writers too often forget, but remembering it would help us be more generous not only to others, but also to ourselves. There is so much vitriol among reviewers of Canadian poetry these days. Maybe it is fueled by the reviewers’ own frustration at trying to make work that is not only authentic to their individual experience but somehow revelatory of a larger “truth”, not merely well-crafted but somehow canonical. What if we relieved ourselves of that burden and acknowledged that the task is impossible, and that none of us will ever get it right? Would that make the poetic enterprise more enjoyable?
For me it has.
Studying the laws of perspective, gradation, and shading, mixing pigments to emulate the colour wheel, trying to understand spatial relationships — all of this is bringing me back to poetry with renewed faith and energy. I’m no longer worried that I’ll never write anything great, I just want to write something good. I can never capture everything I know about a person when I paint their portrait, but if the subject is recognizable and my own feelings come through, I’m happy. The past few years of incessant feuding in the Canlit scene and of my style of writing falling out of favour made me doubt that was sufficient. But art has always been my way of paying attention, and that attention connects me to the world and makes that world liveable. Without it there is just clutter and noise; conflict and appetite. With it, cobalt, pthalo, indigo, ultramarine. An infinity of blues.
LISZTS | 11 Canadian Novels That Classical Music Lovers …
https://www.ludwig-van.com › montreal › 2017/12/13 › liszts-canadian-no…Dec 13, 2017 – 11 good Canadian novels about classical music that both book lovers
I visited so many dear friends and met so many wonderful people on my mini-tour of the west coast, but the highlight of the trip was a pilgrimage to Cathedral Grove – one of the last stands of old growth forest on Vancouver Island. The fact that I was reading Richard Powers’ magisterial novel, The Overstory, during my travels, definitely contributed to the portentousness of the experience. Here’s a photo that may give you some idea of the sublimity of the Douglas Firs there, just outside Port Alberni.
I wanted something, I wanted. I could not have it.
Irremediable rock of refusal, this world thick with bird song,
tender with starfish and apples.
How calming to say, “Turn right at the second corner,”
and be understood,
and see things arrive as they should at their own destination.
Yet we speak in riddles–
“Turn back at the silence.” “Pass me the mountain.”
To the end we each nod, pretending to understand.
This poem has been humming away in my mind all morning, as I emptied out the vegetable bin to make soup and then scraped the whiskery carrots, peeled the single ancient turnip, scoured dirt from layers of leek. Then I got distracted and repaired the malformed right hand of last night’s quick portrait, moved a few stacks of books to another, even dustier, bookcase, reheated my coffee for the third time, all the while reassuring the very patient dog that yes, we were going to go for a walk as soon I finished a few more tasks, as soon as it stopped raining, as soon as the courier came to pick up a letter…
What is our destination? the dog never asks. For him, the walk is the destination, every moment an encounter with a sensory world that fills him with gratitude and excitement. But this poem insists that I ask myself what my own destination is. It asks the question with the title and answers it in the very first line, a line that still gives me chills every time I read it.
I wanted something, I wanted. I could not have it.
What is that something that drops away mid-sentence only to be resurrected as it? A lack the speaker cannot even articulate. Not a particular object of desire, just a wanting. A wanting that thrums through human consciousness and complicates every moment of existence, a pulling-away from what is towards what might have been or could yet be, if only things would arrive as they should – that is, not as riddles but in the fullness of their being. But we are told immediately that such yearning is irremediable.
Irremediable. Six mellifluous syllables bashing themselves against a single obdurate one: rock.
Our bones would not shatter on that rock if we could just dwell in this world thick with bird song, tender with starfish and apples. And what a fabulous expanse of that world is conjured by the unexpected juncture of those starfish and those apples! Oceans and orchards, nature unconfined and nature tamed by human intervention. Nature without us and nature including us. Nature that arrests our senses and stops us in our tracks just as bird song does. Nature that, at the same time, remains mysterious, speaking a language we don’t understand, because our human narrative is paratactic – we go forward, always forward, aware of time and space, negotiating the territory.
Turn back at the silence, says the dog, kindly. (All dogs are Buddhists, like Hirshfield herself.) But I, like the “I” of the poem, still want what I cannot have. Not just being, but understanding.
April 6, 2019. https://susangillis.blogspot.com/2019/04/susan-glickman-reads-jane-hirshfield.html
It begins like a tiny pebble in a shoe or a grain of sand in an oyster. An almost imperceptible but persistent irritant. Until it isn’t. Until it’s rubbed me so raw that I find myself asking Why is this damn thing still here? To answer that question, the question of why I am snagged on something I am not consciously thinking about, I must write a poem.
By writing a poem, I discover what significance that thing holds for me and how it is linked to many other events, objects, feelings, dreams, ideas, and so forth – a deep and wide network of associations. Was that network built prior to my paying attention or does it arise during the process of writing a poem? I don’t know. But paying attention to one’s obsessions is its own reward, whether or not the poem that evolves proves to be a pearl or remains a dull and lumpy grain of sand
Susan Glickman grew up in Montréal, but after many travels landed up in Toronto with a husband, two children, a dog, and an old house that always needs fixing. Formerly an academic, she now works as a freelance editor and is learning to paint. She is the author of seven books of poetry from Montreal’s Véhicule Press, most recently What We Carry (2019). She has also published four novels, three children’s books, and an award-winning work of literary criticism: The Picturesque and the Sublime: A Poetics of the Canadian Landscape (1998). The children’s books and her novel The Tale-Teller (2012) have all been translated by Christiane Duchesne for Les Éditions du Boréal, the novel appearing as Les aventures étranges et surprenantes d’Esther Brandeau, moussaillon (2014).
Photo credit: Toan Klein.
How did you first engage with poetry?
I was enchanted with poetry from the moment my parents began reading Mother Goose to me, and I started making up rhymes before I could read or write. I loved the sounds of words as much as I loved their meaning and I loved their rhythm as much as I loved their sounds. I don’t think we read much contemporary – or even modern — poetry in high school, but I bought a copy of Leonard Cohen’s Selected Poems 1956–1968 at a school bookfair when I was sixteen, and my head exploded.
Then, in university, I had the great good fortune of studying with Denise Levertov, who became my mentor and my friend. Everything I understand about open form — about writing to express the inner rhythms of thought and feeling, about the line break and the breath — I owe to her, and to the practice that began with her. Living in Greece the next year, when I was nineteen, introduced me to modern Greek poetry and that also made me more interested in experimenting outside closed forms. I sometimes go back to those forms, however. I especially love the knotty logic of sonnets, because they help me tame big emotions