Tuesday 16 September 2014

Twenty good places to write

Willapa Bay Artists residence

Writer Anne MacDonald forwarded this list of twenty writers residencies to me. I think these are all American, but there doesn't seem to be a stipulation that the writers must be American. I've never been to any of these, but I'm eyeing the Washington State one with interest.

Saturday 28 December 2013

Nothing a little polyfilla won't fix

I always thought it was important for me as a writer to have my own house. I wanted the security and the settled-ness that would free me to let my writing explore the unsettled. I set my mind to this goal when we lived in Regina in the early 90s and houses could be had for less than $20,000 (mind you, those were usually sinking into the prairie gumbo). The one we eventually bought was about 700 square feet and could be had for monthly payments (spread out over 25 years) of $400. I had my "office" in a cramped corner of the bedroom. The walls had very little insulation and some winter days, if I pulled out the desk, I saw frost on the wall. Still, it was my place and I wrote two books there. These little houses in Detroit, scarred by bullet holes, are being made over into places for writers. I would think they'd be haunted with stories.


write a house

Sunday 17 February 2013

Harold Rhenisch's place

Harold Rhenisch's place

Harold Rhenisch in Iceland
If you look up "prolific" in the dictionary, you'll find Harold Rhenisch's picture there. Or you should. He's written four books of creative non-fiction, fourteen collections of poetry, a novel, and numerous chapbooks. He's written short stories and plays and acted as a translator and editor. Harold's The Wolves at Evelyn: Journeys through a Dark Century (Brindle and Glass, 2007) won the George Ryga Award for Social Responsibility in British Columbia Literature. His love of the land, especially the BC interior, resonates in his writing. You can read more about Harold here. 

Klaustrid Artist’s Residency

The residence is in the upper right corner of the building. 
The Skriðuklaustur Cultural Centre puts out a call every year for artistic, literary or scholarly projects that will be created and presented onsite in North East Iceland, 35 kilometres outside of the nearest town, Egilsstaðir. It is an old monastery site, at the head of the old mountain pass to the south. There is all the isolation one could wish for, plus a comfortable one bedroom studio in the corner of a sprawling house and museum with a complex historical past. 

From March 25 to April 21, I will be working there, on a project about the builder of the site, the Icelandic writer Gunnar Gunnarsson, but, really, it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about being indigenous and about forms of writing and word-wrighting that preceded literature by thousands of years and do not take part in its projects. In 1940, Gunnarsson toured Germany on a reading tour, as part of the Nazi puppet organization, The Nordic League, as the culmination of decades of work advocating for a Unified Scandinavian State as a counterbalance for what he saw as the growing, and dangerous, dominance of German and French affairs in Europe. At the end of the tour, he had a personal audience with Hitler, a fact which likely cost him the Nobel Prize, three times. The house was built by Fritz Höger, the architect who Speer beat out in the competition for chief architect of the Third Reich. That’s complicated. Or, really, it’s very simple.

In his 1940s tour, Gunnarsson read a prepared, poetic speech about the landscape of

Iceland. More than anything, it appears to have been an attempt to use his great literary fame to keep Germany out of Iceland. The house was built for his return to Iceland after almost thirty years in Denmark. He intended it to be a model farm, in the German manner, to teach modern farming methods to the Icelanders, so that they could gain financial independence from their Danish overlords. The high wages that the British and American Navies were paying for labourers put an end to this somewhat out-dated dream, and Iceland entered the modern world without him. This is my story, too. I was raised in that dream, although in Canada, not Iceland. That is my country, though.

Of all the writers in the world, there can’t be more than a few of us who grew up in the

German Nordic and agricultural dream that was swallowed up by the increasing brutalization of Nazism and the horrors of the Second World War, and of all of those, perhaps only one who is both a poet, who can read between the lines of Gunnarsson’s speech, and an experimental, cross-genre nonfiction writer, who can write about the innovation that was Gunnarsson’s fiction, that wasn't really fiction but a skillful form of political agitation eighty and even a hundred years ahead of its time. What poet couldn't love this country? 

I visited Gunnarsson’s house, and thought at first that with my past there is no way I could write there. Other people could, but for me, with my complex and troubled German past, the pain would be too deep. I knew too much about what I was looking at. Then I realized that I need only confront it head on, to heal it. That’s my project. It will be a mix of prose, history, criticism, landscape work, visual poetry built on Icelandic runes, spellcraft and maps, poetry built on Old Norse, and photography. English is a much evolved form of Old Norse, while Icelandic is Old Norse itself, scarcely changed over time. There is magic in those old roots of language, and old technologies, such as the technology of the line, which is a technology of balance and will, that shows up in the rope, the halter, the fence, the thread, the skein, the net, the sweater, the scythe, and soon — a deeply physical magic, at any rate. The Old Norse vocabulary in English, with its ability to move from verb to noun and back again, and the Anglo Saxon that followed it, and those old technologies, will be central to my task. When I first visited Iceland, I knew I had come home. What is one to do with such knowledge? Go to the monastery in the Northeast, perhaps, and make the old ways new.

When I first came to Iceland, I had just finished my second tour of the Northern Camino, the via regia, the old Salt Road between Frankfurt and Leipzig, straight through the darkness of the German forest. The man who set out east the first time became a pilgrim, unintentionally, and then never came back. I went back to find him and bring him home, and did, except, irony of ironies, he was the one, an East German now, who came. Harold, the Canadian writer, who first started out, was left behind in Buchenwald. The book about that is still in the writing, nearly done. It’s in two versions, the completed third part of Faust, and a series of pilgrim’s tales and gardens, of both light and dark magic, still in the writing. Before I publish it, I want to see how the parts talk to each other. Luckily, on my way home I landed in Iceland.

I’m not going to Skriðuklaustur to find a congenial or challenging space in which to write. Writing comes as a gift, and I have learned to be open to it. I’m going there so that my new self, which is the same as the oldest one I bore before literacy tore me away from the world, has a chance to breathe and grow stronger in its own place, among its people in all their complexity — the trolls and elves and the humans who speak its language. The price for this journey has been that I lost Canada. I don’t live there anymore. It’s the strangest thing. I have a renewed and deepened tie to my land, the Okanagan of the Columbia Plateau, and the Plateau itself, but Canada? I lost that in No Man’s Land, when I realized that there is a story, an old story, that I know it intimately, and it is not being told. It has been given to me from the past to tell, and it is vitally important that I tell it. No one else can. And it must be told, to heal a great darkness and to keep something important alive. I’m stepping out into the unknown, and yet, I feel that I know it well. I just have to let the words for it come. I expect Klaustrid to be an experience of my body, and I intend to listen.

Monday 4 February 2013

Alix Hawley's Place

Alix Hawley is one of those writers I read and burn with...I don't want to say envy, but if I'm honest, that's what it is. She's so damn good. How can I help but envy sentences like the ones in her recent story, "Tentcity," that was shortlisted for the CBC Canada Writes short story prize: "Would it help to imagine the mice were here all along? I think it helps. Let’s say they were always around, living frugal lives in basements and grey corners. Waiting for a signal to go forth and mousify the joint. ... Sometimes at night, I think you can hear their hearts all whipping along together like rotors. In the day, their squeaking sounds like phone music when you’re on hold. Which we are. I am."

Funny and brutally insightful, Alix's writing is sometimes hard to reconcile with the daylight Alix, so gentle and soft-spoken. Her collection of short stories, The Old Familiar, was published by Thistledown in 2008.You can read more about Alix here and here.

Banff Centre for the Arts

The Henriquez studio at Banff Centre
Now I think I made up the Banff Centre: the mountain rearing over the place like a tidal wave, the deer reclining nonchalantly on the path to the studios, the walk to town past the old cemetery with the springy gate. The multiple candy stores on the main street.

I’ve had two independent residencies at the studios there. The first time, I wanted to revise the stories for my book. Holed up in my boat—yes, a boat suspended in the air in the woods—I ended up writing four new ones in two weeks. The second, in a cabin complete with piano, I started the novel that is now nearly finished. I do dream of the place now (two children later). Territorial dreams.

Banff put my writing into gear. It has a rough magic. Maybe it’s the altitude or the quiet or the feeling that the whole place supports you, full as it is of great artists and goings-on. I admit to having become a little weird for those weeks, sunk into my own mind, stuttering and foggy when I had to speak to anyone.  But it let me not speak to anyone, and I needed that. 

I write in my dad’s shed now when I get the chance.  Sometimes I come out of there stuttering. 

Friday 18 January 2013

Sean Johnston's place

When I first met fiction writer and poet Sean Johnston at Okanagan College where he teaches English and Creative Writing  and edits Ryga: a Journal of Provocations, I could tell he was the kind of writer I most admire: impatient with the distraction of self-promotion and obsessed with the integrity of his writing. Workman-like and prolific, Sean writes with a voice that, as Mark Jarman says, seems "laconic and lowgear" but with a "seething momentum." His work reminds me of what Hemingway once said about his own: it's like an iceberg, with only a fraction showing above the surface, the rest, a dark bulk moving dangerously  below. Sean is the author of The Ditch Was Lit Like This (Thistledown, 2011)All This Town Remembers (Gaspereau, 2006), A Day Does Not Go By (Nightwood, 2002), Bull Island (Gaspereau 2004) and A Long Day Inside the Buildings (Jackpine Press, 2004)You can visit Sean here.

The basement in Saskatoon

I write in two places, wherever I am: at my desk at home and at a doughnut shop a 20-minute walk away. These days my desk is in the basement up against the studs of an unfinished wall at our townhouse in Saskatoon, and the doughnut shop is the Tim Horton’s at Cumberland and 8th.

My desk is always messy with papers and books and bills and newspapers. There are piles of paper I can’t throw away on the floor around it. I listen to music, often, though it has to be old; I don’t want a new lyric to get in the way when things are going well. Sometimes I listen to nothing, sometimes the washer or dryer working in the basement with me. When things are going well it’s a simple routine. I write on the computer in the morning, beginning with typing revisions or passages from my notebook, then adding to that. In the afternoon I walk to the coffee store with some printed bits of my work and my notebook. I buy a coffee and a muffin and sit and work in the closest thing to a corner seat I can find. The walk and the overheard conversation is essential, whether I incorporate it or not.

My success depends upon the routine, since I work from no outline or overall plan. I used to, just like I used to try to keep my workspace tidy, but I’ve found the best way for me is to work on small scenes and bits of dialogue without a conscious organizing principle. The fragments always cohere in the end; there is always a tidy stack of paper that tells someone’s story. And it’s usually populated by people I’ve overheard on their coffee breaks—not necessarily their words, but their concerns.

Tuesday 18 December 2012

Nabina Das longs for Sangam

We can't get enough of Sangam House, the rural retreat in India that I've written about before. Here's my co-Sangam fellow, Nabina Das, writing about it in Prairie Schooner.

Tuesday 9 October 2012

Bowen Island retreat

Rivendell Retreat Centre
Bowen Island Retreat

The Federation of BC Writers is starting their "first annual retreat" at Bowen Island this fall. It's to be held at Rivendell Retreat Centre on Bowen Island.  I've never been there, but it looks like a good place to write. The retreat is a bit short, three days, from November 22-25, but the price isn't too bad, even for non-members, at $335, including meals. This is what the Federation says about it on their website: "A self-directed time away is being offered for ten hardy souls who simply want to work on their own projects, without any instruction, in a remote yet accessible location.
Ben Nuttall-Smith, author, teacher, and Fraser Valley Regional Rep for FBCW (http://www.bennuttall-smith.ca), and Pandora Ballard, author, publicist, and Tri-Cities Area Rep for FBCW (pandoraballard-publicist.intuitwebsites.com), will be writers-in-residence for the weekend."