Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Frances Boyle : Remembering Barbara Myers

Ottawa poet, essayist, critic and mentor Barbara Myers died on May 10, 2020 and will be much missed in the writing community.
          For me, she was almost like a much-admired and emulated older cousin, who did All The Things, and made me want to do them too. She served (for eight years) on the Arc Poetry Magazine board, she attended the Banff Wired Writing program the first year it was offered, and travelled to Chile for the first writing retreat Susan Siddeley organized at Los Parronales near Santiago; she attended the Dodge Poetry Festival in New York State, and was a long-time volunteer at Ottawa’s literary festivals. In large part because of Barbara’s enthusiastic reports and her warm encouragement, in time I went on to experience each of these.
          Somewhat incongruously, I first got to know Barbara not through poetry but in a fiction writing class at the Maritime Writers Workshop in Fredericton. When we were back in Ottawa, I was invited to join a fiction group that Barbara was part of, and our friendship grew from there.
          Short stories were my main focus at the time, but I was interested and very impressed that Barbara was a member of the Fieldstone Poets, and had already published in literary magazines and anthologies, had garnered several awards, and had a chapbook of her own. When Stephanie Bolster moved to Montreal, she entrusted Barbara to take over as facilitator of an existing poetry class, the Wellington Street Poets. I remember Barbara explaining to me at the time that she saw teaching as service, as almost an obligation: she said it was her turn to give back because she had gained so much from poetry.
          When I turned my hand to writing poems, one of the learning opportunities I sought out was Barbara’s weekend workshop at the former Bridgewater Retreat Centre. Later I joined the gatherings of the Wellington Street poets. Each session with Barbara was very much focused on craft.  We learned about tone and diction, about ekphrasis and anaphora, were encouraged to write ghazals and glosas. But Barbara also wanted us to work with mindfulness, and very often urged us to take a poem deeper.
          Later still, I was privileged to engage with Barbara for several years as a member of the writing group sometimes known as the Other Tongues and, for a wonderful six months or so last year, when she joined the Ruby Tuesday collective until her worsening health prevented her continuing.
          As a mentor and peer, Barbara’s approach was supportive and gentle but she could also be (as one poet friend said) “tough in the best of ways”. She would often follow up after group sessions with an email to provide further thoughts on a poem that had been workshopped, and to offer encouragement. She was involved in many collaborative projects, as contributor to the Fieldstone Poets’ publications and as editor on chapbook anthologies for the Wellington Poets and the Other Tongues.
          Barbara was a true student of poetry who deeply researched schools of poetry, and writers she admired, and wrote in a variety of forms, always attempting to reach deeper and more nuanced understandings. She was the one who told me about the Modern and Contemporary Poetry course that Al Fireis at University of Pennsylvania offers online. She studied with Don Domanski and A. F. Moritz and expressed great gratitude for what she had learned from each of them.
          Her background as a journalist informed her writing, as did the research skills she employed as a writer/researcher on two of the most important federal government commissions of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, and the LeDain Commission on non-medical drug use. She was keenly interested and highly engaged. Her poetry explored philosophy and spirituality alongside current affairs and science, with the personal and the physical always at the fore. She deftly brought to life family scenes and youthful situations from her upbringing in Halifax, juxtaposing them with heady philosophical concepts such as the nunc stans (eternal present) and intimations of ecological catastrophe.
          Barbara published only one trade book, Slide (Signature Editions, 2009), which was a finalist for the Archibald Lampman Award. Barbara launched the book at the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and I remember her pride at sharing the festival stage with Karen Solie who she greatly admired. In reviewing the book, Brenda Leifso noted “it’s rare to find a new book so grounded in and formally reflective of philosophy” but which “surprises and startles with unique and well-executed use of images and senses”. Leifso also observed that Slide seeks “to capture the formlessness, ever-presence, ever-motion and ultimate un-capturability of the human experience and consciousness, memory and future: ‘sliding back    into / your spine, your blood / always the same age / they ever     you ever were.’ ”
          Ronnie R. Brown said in reviewing Slide that it is “a collection filled with well-crafted, well-honed poems written by a thoughtful and mature poet … Myer's images are unique and sparking” anda strong and ambitious first book that will take your breath away over and over again” Don Domanski said “The intensely crafted beauty of this work illuminates and makes more brilliant the already shimmering answer to what it means to be human.”
          Barbara read widely and many topics and themes fascinated her. Poems in Slide about Marilyn Monroe "in full colour/arcs of blue red green radiance/ a rainbow blooming from a raindrop's/ reflected light.", about Barbara’s observances of ceremonies while traveling in India where “things are too humble to be boundless / but absence stretches out forever”, and about the “near and silent past” of the graveyard that lies underneath the MacDonald Gardens park in Lowertown were samplers of what she had intended to be longer sequences.  She had been working on a new book for several years and, while her long illness prevented her from completing and sending out the manuscript, I am hopeful that her later writing, including poems I was privileged to see in workshops, might ultimately appear in book form.
          Barbara reviewed many books for Arc, as well as writing about poetry for the Globe & Mail and other publications. She was seen as gentle but could be uncompromising in defending the things she believed in. A community activist, she was part of a citizen’s group that successfully protested the practice where numerous buses would lay up, engines idling, along King Edward Avenue where she lived.
          She was a proud mother and grandmother and an equally proud Maritimer, with Nova Scotia often the setting of precisely-detailed and evocative poems. She loved to laugh and expressed herself with joy and occasional silliness. She was a good friend, and in particular shared many adventures in poetry with her companion-in-writing Margaret Malloch Zielinski.
          One of our last exchanges was a few months ago, just after my new poetry book came out. Barbara asked that I mail her a copy. I offered to drop it off instead, so we could catch up in person but she replied that she wasn’t ready for visitors “yet”. I had no idea that she was so near the end though it doesn’t surprise me that, even very ill, she remained interested in what her friends were doing, and reached out with generous-hearted support.
          Referring to Slide, Don Domanski also said “Our lives are made richer because these poems exist, because their elegance and strength becomes part of us.” Many lives were made richer because Barbara Myers was in them, and I am certain that the elegance and strength of her words – and her person – will remain part of me.

Frances Boyle is the author of two books of poetry, most recently This White Nest (Quattro Books, 2019). She has also written Tower, a novella (Fish Gotta Swim Editions, 2018) and Seeking Shade, a short story collection (The Porcupine’s Quill, forthcoming 2020). Frances lives in Ottawa. For more, visit www.francesboyle.com.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Talking Poetics #19 : ryan fitzpatrick

When it works, it goes something like this:

1. I start with a question or a set of questions, a discomfort, a hunch. Sometimes it has to do with the way people are talking to one another. Sometimes I want to respond to an event, the conditions, something in the world.

2. I prototype. Maybe I do something that’s worked for me before. Maybe I cop an approach from someone or somewhere else.

3. The prototype settles into some kind of processual container that helps me think. I serialize that container until it hits some kind of limit.

4. I take that serialized mess and try to comb it into something that has a shape or an arc, not necessarily narrative, not necessarily dialectical, but where it makes some kind of slant sense as a thread of thought.

Ultimately, this is meant as a messy kind of way to look to poetics as a mode of thinking or even research, to do things that “academic” research methodologies can’t. This is probably always the way I worked, though it didn’t completely make sense to me until I was doing academic research in an intensive way. Poetry isn’t magic, but it might be utopian, making allowances for different ways of thinking. I think that’s important even if I get annoyed sometimes with other poets who lean a bit too hard on that sense of possibility.

I’ve always been resistant to writing a poetics statement like this, because the thing we sometimes call craft is still bound up with a sense that there are right and wrong ways to write. We carry around all these truisms (show don’t tell, use only necessary words, etc.) about how to write a poem that maybe we picked up in an MFA workshop or on the not-so-hard streets of Poetryworld. They’re things we swallowed for our own good – and they are useful, don’t get me wrong – but all of it could be replaced with a more exploratory practice related to the way poetic form shapes thinking. Which isn’t anything new, but it is something we need to remind ourselves of.

So maybe, to get more nuts and bolts, I can talk about how I worked through a suite of poems in my next book Coast Mountain Foot (forthcoming in 2022, probably). The poems started as an attempt to write during my bus commute up and down Burnaby Mountain by tapping short-lined pieces into the notes app on my phone. The size of the lines was driven by the restrictions of my phone, but were also informed by the short lines of Robert Creeley. I wrote a few of these and shelved them after realizing that tapping out these poems set off my motion sickness. I came back to them a few years later out of a desire to cobble something together out of all my stray pieces of work. The form of these Creeleyesque bus pieces allowed me to be attentive to the spaces around me. I joined the pieces to a joke I had been making that I wanted to write a book that voiced all my complaints about Vancouver, reversing the gesture of George Bowering’s Rocky Mountain Foot, where he complains pretty vociferously about Calgary. Instead, the poems gave me a chance to reflect on both cities, their approaches to urban development, and what it was like for me to shuttle between them literally and conceptually.

When I started writing the poems, they looked something like this:

          A century wide
lot to renovict.

Crisis neighbours
normalize streets.

Stand each fa├žade up
to make a block.

Provided history
is hetero,

art is only

art a buckling
garment factory.

Suspension bridge
between bungalows.

Collapse frames
each owner;

instead supports
no teary hold.

Even though this poem ended up in the manuscript (along with a few more like it), after a while I found this style obscured my thinking in a way I didn’t want. I like this poem. It has a nice swing from couplet to couplet, but my problem is precisely this dependence on parataxis that carried over not only from my earlier work, but from other poems I was writing concurrently for another project. The tightness of the parataxis limits how I can write through the things I was thinking about: the problems around heritage homes, the celebratory vibes of Calgary’s Wreck City, the way these crash against the renovictions that were an epidemic in Vancouver at that moment.

My solution, worked out over weeks of writing, was to maintain the parataxis, but loosen it, stretching images and observations out so that the poems could carry more of the things I was trying to be attentive to. This is maybe a roundabout way to say that I started writing lyric poems, but I don’t like the way that just snaps me into a genre category instead of acknowledging that the lyric carries a set of formal possibilities too. The newest poems in the manuscript look something like this:

          Walking down
West Georgia
on the north side.

Across the street,
Telus’ window
celebrates Pride

by celebrating
their expansive
LTE network:

“Love is
the greatest

A block down
another slogan
courtesy of Westbank

across from
the VPL’s
central branch:


Is this
the best
we can do?

Our relations
and affects
just grist

for the
ongoing millwork
of value generation?

I turn
the corner
at Beatty,

heading to
Anahita’s reading
at 8EAST

(an art space
in Chinatown
formerly Selector’s Records).

They’ve changed
the B.C.
history mural

to something
more Indigenous

That’s great, but
what happens
to this piece

when the
new VAG
goes up?

Will they
build up
around it

like the
King Edward
Hotel in Calgary?

A “cornerstone
for the development
of the East Village.”

Folded into
Studio Bell, near
the new library.

What culture
this society?

Whose blues
gets sung in
an emptied space?

This poem trades the terse abutments of the first poem for the leisureliness of the walk (something that has a very specific history in Vancouver poetry). Other poems written like this trade the walk for the coffee shop window, the bus ride, or the bed of my Mount Pleasant garden suite. The decision to stretch out the angular shifts actually makes the angles seem to disappear. The kind of aggressive specificity that gets papered over in the first poem’s suggestiveness is very upfront here, making it clear, I hope, when the shift from Vancouver to Calgary happens, allowing the content, rather than the form, of the juxtaposition to be the focus of the poem. The poems of the manuscript play between the formal poles set up by these two poems, teasing at the possibilities of putting together the pieces of urban life that seems so fragmentary or contradictory even when we understand that the systems and places we live in are connected.

What I hope I’m making clear here is the way that form and content lead one another through a kind of open-ended decision making. Writing, for me at least, needs to find ways to be intuitive and improvisational within a form-oriented process, though maybe that’s only because every time I try to plan things ahead of time, I write myself into a ditch.

ryan fitzpatrick lives and writes in Toronto. He is the author of two books of poetry: Fortified Castles (Talon, 2014) and Fake Math (Snare, 2007).