Tuesday, May 25th, 2010
How beautiful a London street is then, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally, and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all round them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley. But this is London, we are reminded; high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light—windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars—lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondences; or more suffusedly the firelight wavers and the lamplight falls upon the privacy of some drawing-room, its easy chairs, its papers, its china, its inlaid table, and the figure of a woman, accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea which—She looks at the door as if she heard a ring downstairs and somebody asking, is she in?
—from “Street Haunting”
Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010
When I met Anne Simpson in 2008 at the Vancouver International Writers Festival, she mentioned to me that she was working on a book of essays. So when a chance to review the book presented itself, I was delighted. (My review is here, at Prairie Fire.) The Marram Grass is a deeply thoughtful and richly textured book - both metaphorically, and literally, thanks to Gaspereau’s beautiful design. Here are some of Anne’s thoughts on writing it.
Q: You’re well-known as a poet and novelist; The Marram Grass is your first book of essays. What attracted you to the form? What, in particular, distinguishes the essay, as a genre, for you? What can it offer to a writer, and to readers?
A: I had questions that I kept circling around, and these questions were complex, and layered with other things that interested me, which is also how my poetry works, I think. To answer the questions, I had to find a way to ground myself, literally, by using the ground of the places near where I live.
And I don’t know if I was attracted to the form of the essay: it was more that the form chose me. And then it invited me to move around, so I could explore various avenues. But I don’t know if I understand what distinguishes the essay. Everyone who writes an essay reveals something different; its magic is that it is so flexible a form. A person can fool around within it.
But all I know is that my questions wouldn’t leave me alone—and, of course, I’m not done with the questions just because I finished the book. The curious thing is that I didn’t structure this book: I didn’t have an idea that one essay would lead to another essay. It was as if the questions kept leading me and leading me, until, finally, I came to the issue of empathy at the end. Every writer comes to this idea, I think, in one way or another. What I didn’t know is that the book was forming itself unbeknownst to me, and that, in fact, this was exactly where it was supposed to end up. The book opened out into the idea of community.
What can the essay offer to a reader? Well, I don’t know, exactly, but I know the writing of an essay is a way of thinking something through, and so the reading of an essay must be a similar process. However the writer expresses his or her ideas in an essay, it is an invitation to the reader to accompany the writer. It’s the beginning of a conversation.
Q: The range of reference in these essays is extremely wide and rich. Can you tell us something about the reading you did? Was it different from or similar to the kind of reading you do when you’re writing poetry or fiction?
A: The reading for this book was very different than it has been for other books I’ve written. When I do research for fiction or poetry, I’m something of a scavenger (I need to know one or two things and go back to writing, and then I surface again, and find out another couple of things, and so on). In the case of Marram Grass, I not only read widely to try to figure out my answers, which were never really answers, I also audited a course – one term in length – through which I could study the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas. At a deeper level, though, I was still living with questions that had come up in two colloquia held at St. Peter’s Abbey in Saskatchewan – on Nature Writing and Wilderness Thought – in which I’d participated. Because the conversations had been so deep and thoughtful in those colloquia, I wanted to respond in kind.
I think if I write another such book – possibly one on creative communities – I may not include as many references to secondary sources. But this book simply voiced itself this way.
Q: The essays in The Marram Grass frequently juxtapose concrete descriptions of nature against more abstract passages of philosophical speculation. Reading them, I felt invited to participate in a sort of balancing that reinforced the central premise of the book – that metaphor schools us in the ability to hover between apparent binaries, to tolerate ambiguity and the unresolved, and in doing so, to deepen our understanding of “the other.” Thoughts?
A: I know I do this in my long poems: I have to move between one thing and another, and this oscillation is the way I find out what I’m trying to say. So, too, with Marram Grass, I guess.
And I’ve been influenced by Jan Zwicky’s Wisdom & Metaphor. The very form of her book is married to its content. Throughout that book, the left page of the text poses a challenge to the right page of the text. It’s not that the right page answers to the left page, it’s that meaning springs between the pages as the reader reads. Zwicky is actually giving evidence of the metaphor at work. But I didn’t know I had done something similar until you asked me this question.
I think that I also wanted to show that the operation of metaphor reflects the possible, and that this can indeed operate in the world: we can open our imaginations, foster empathy, and develop and enrich community. So I wanted to move back and forth between fiction and reality, as in the essay, “The Dark Side of Fiction’s Moon,” in order to reveal this.
Q: The line drawings in the book are fresh and lovely. For me, they echoed and reinforced its arguments and are integral to the whole. At what point did you decide to include them?
simpson1 [Note: if you press the link, you'll see one of Anne's images.]
A: I suggested to Andrew Steeves, one of the publishers at Gaspereau Press, that I could do some drawings back at the beginning of this project. Then I promptly forgot that I had to deliver! So while I had some of the drawings in a little sketch book from times that I’d been away – at the Elizabeth Bishop House in Great Village, NS, for instance – I had to scurry around and do some more right sketches at the last minute. It was a challenge. But Gaspereau is such a wonderful small press: they do a brilliant job of solving design issues, like the incorporation of the drawings with the text.
Q: Who were your inspirations or models for this book (if you had inspirations)? What essayists do you admire?
A: Actually, some of them are Gaspereau Press writers. I’ve mentioned Jan Zwicky. And, of course, Don McKay’s essays are very fine. Tim Lilburn. Anne Carson. Robert Bringhurst. Trevor Herriot. I could go on…
Q: What was the biggest challenge in completing the book?
A: Writing to a deadline is always a big challenge for me. Thinking doesn’t fit a schedule. On the other hand, I usually work to a deadline quite well; something about the pressure seems to help me finish a manuscript.
Q: What was the biggest reward?
A: I wrote this book as a kind of homage to my adopted province of Nova Scotia. It has been home for me and for my family, for over twenty years. So it was a labour of love.
Q: What are you reading now?
A: I just finished Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. And I’ve been dipping into Averno, by Louise Glück, along with How to Read a Poem, by Edward Hirsch. I’ve also been doing a little research for a new novel, so I’m reading Les Stroud’s Survive! Essential Skills and Tactics to Get You Out of Anywhere – Alive. I’m never entirely happy unless I have a novel, a book of non-fiction, and a couple of poetry collections on the bedside table.
Q: What is your next project?
A: A novel. But oh—the projects I’d like to do! I think writers all need about nine lives, don’t you?
A winner of the 2004 Griffin Poetry Prize for her second poetry collection, Loop, Anne Simpson has also been nominated for the Governor-General’s Award. Four of her six books have been selected as Globe & Mail Best Books. Her second novel, Falling, won the Dartmouth Fiction Award and was longlisted for the IMPAC Dublic Literary Award. She teaches part-time at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, NS.
Monday, October 26th, 2009
Photo: Jill Krementz
“I’m eight years old. My mother and I come out of our apartment onto the second-floor landing. Mrs. Drucker is standing in the open doorway of the apartment next door, smoking a cigarette. My mother locks the door and says to her, “What are you doing here?” Mrs. Drucker jerks her head backward toward her own apartment. “He wants to lay me. I told him he’s gotta take a shower before he can touch me.” I know that “he” is her husband. “He” is always the husband. “Why? He’s so dirty?” my mother says. “He feels dirty to me,” Mrs. Drucker says. “Drucker, you’re a whore,” my mother says. Mrs. Drucker shrugs her shoulder. “I can’t ride the subway,” she says. In the Bronx, “ride the subway” was a euphemism for going to work.
I lived in that tenement between the ages of six and twenty-one. There were twenty apartments, four to a floor, and all I remember is a building full of women. I hardly remember the men at all. They were everywhere, of course - husbands, fathers, brothers – but I remember only the women. And I remember them all crude like Mrs. Drucker or fierce like my mother. They never spoke as thought they knew who they were, understood the bargain they had struck with life, but they often acted as though they knew. Shrewd, volatile, unlettered, they performed on a Dreiserian scale. There would be years of apparent calm, then suddenly an outbreak of panic and wildness: two or three lives scarred (perhaps ruined), and the turmoil would subside. Once again: sullen quiet, erotic torpor, the ordinariness of daily denial. And I – the girl growing in their midst, being made in their image – I absorbed them as I would chloroform on a cloth laid against my face. It has taken me thirty years to understand how much of them I understood.”
- from Fierce Attachments
Vivian Gornick, critic, essayist, memoirist, feminist. Her latest book is The Men in My Life.
Her revelation that she had made up some of the conversations in Fierce Attachments created a stir on Salon. Her response is at NPR.
Thursday, October 8th, 2009
Drawing by Janani Sreenivasan, 2006
I think essayists write for the sake of preservation; in order to find solutions to problems, in order to remain intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually awake amidst the full rumbling fury of the world. “An essay that becomes a lyric,” Plutarch once wrote, presumably about his own formally wayward work, “is an essay that has killed itself.” A prose line can stave off this death for as long as the seams of its syntax hold. And when they fail to hold, a run-on can seem less a sloppy piece of grammar than a desperate act to stay alive.
from The Next American Essay, John D’Agata
John D’Agata is the author of Halls of Fame, a collection of essays published by Graywolf Press in 2001, and the editor ofThe Next American Essay, an anthology of innovative modern American nonfiction. His forthcoming books include The Lifespan of a Fact, a meditation on the Yucca Mountain Project in southwest Nevada, and two historical companions to The Next American Essay. He has taught at Colgate University, Columbia, and the California Institute of the Arts and is the editor of lyric essays for Seneca Review.