Unseen, yet Heard: A Review of Lizzie Derksen’s Accomplice (2017)
“Accomplice” is a powerful word, mostly because of its potential: it insinuates, involves, complicates, and befriends—choose a verb. Accomplice (2017), Lizzie Derksen’s most recent chapbook, forces readers to interrogate the accomplice and to revise their own role in the relationships they hold. The accomplice, like the cricket on the collection’s cover, is often unseen, but heard resonating throughout the collection.
I struggle to understand certain parts of Derksen’s poetry because, as I see them, I am not able to, or (more importantly, perhaps) even supposed to, empathize completely with them—what is my role, other than to bear witness? A forced complicity, in my role as accomplice, if you will. This statement is not a negative criticism, but rather an inquisitive observation. Many of the poems are distinctly personal: as a reader, I am clearly the outsider to a joke—and maybe I should be so. I am the unseen cricket all over again, voicing ignored frustrations. The experiential and private nature of these poems offers refreshing, yet ambiguous insights: “Am I confusing?” (1), the speaker poses at a certain point, to an unnamed “you,” present throughout the collection, to be sure, but also to the reader. As a reader, personally, I do not belong entirely to this space created: I read this collection in the position of a clueless accomplice, and not that of a negotiator—always reaching, trying to locate the cricket by the sound of its chirps.
Before delving deeper into the chapbook’s content, however, its peculiar form deserves mention. Readers, in thinking of form, need to first acknowledge that this collection is self-published, and self-publication is highly compelling because of its lack of screening: while Derksen may have sought help in putting together her chapbook, no editors belonging to publishing organizations were present to open and/or close certain formal doors. Visually, one could divide the work into three distinguishable parts. From “accomplice” (1) to “Sask” (9), the form could be called “familiar,” if not traditional, since the poems are read vertically, though the style vacillates between minimalism and prose poetry, and minor details, such as capitalization and punctuation, are inconsistent. The second part (11-16), however, forces an horizontal reading of the poetry, as the writing is rotated 270 degrees; moreover, the cricket encapsulates this section, with an image of its upper half opening this central segment, and an image of its lower half closing it. Again, this section varies in style, yet these poems—and perhaps not surprisingly so because of the cricket’s explicit presence—are the most relatable and powerful to the outside accomplice: it incites an empathetic response, of course, but also orders a physical complicity in that the reader must manually rotate the chapbook to read its contents. Finally, form-wise, the last section reverts to a model similar to the first. Otherwise, as rare as using literally and seriously the phrase “without rhyme or reason” may be in critical discourse, readers must consider the saying with respect to Derksen’s poetry, as it seems to follow no set structures or rules, but instead relies chiefly on bursts of emotion and flares of potent imagery—à-la-Emily Dickinson, one could say.
On the topic of imagery, and returning to content, Derksen’s Accomplice, while at times challenging for the outsider, features some evocative and provocative images that reel in even the most distant of (ignorantly, maybe) complicit readers. In the collection’s titular poem, “accomplice” the speaker claims that they are “not jealous but… do not want to be / an accomplice” (2), surmising the dilemma: in opening the chapbook, readers become accomplices, whether or not they wish to be, and, in writing, so has the author. A sense of lifestyle, of lived experience permeates the poems: readers share in the problematic reality that “all winter we had not been young” (8), that of being “cricket-gut green, / [with] the flood of grief welling up over the brim” (9), and of finding “something inside [them] that will shrink and harden” (14). The unknown pain, like the cricket’s seemingly innocent chirping, resounds relentlessly, chipping away at an idealized sanity. For some, this chapbook will forcefully surface overfamiliar emotions: “You look up and the sentence in the book / you are reading appears on the wall” (24); for others, conflicting sentiments will dawn: “just my delicate treatment / just their mounting conviction” (25). In either case, readers may choose to embrace the empowerment offered by the role of accomplice, or refute it and enact their own agency.
An especially powerful piece, in my opinion, is “in a restaurant” (13), in which the collection opens up to include the outsider/viewer—the voyeur—and establishes a more relatable narrative to the accomplice. The details of this captured moment are particularly striking: “a Dutch woman in her forties” (13) sits across a man “whose work boots are visible beneath the tablecloth” (13). The situation is of a silent conflict, of a repressed dynamic, of helplessness—it is an active story of stasis, reflecting the contentious ambiguity of the chapbook as a whole. Most readers have been at this restaurant, on one side of the table or the other.
Lizzie Derksen, with this latest chapbook, adds to her clandestine, yet invigorating productions: she has been part of the poetry, fiction, and film scenes in Edmonton for some years now, and these works are all interrelated. Her short film, Cricket (2017), and the presence of the cricket in this chapbook, speak to that fact, assumedly. While I would caution Derksen to add some sort of preface in her collection to prepare readers for what lies in wait with respect to their immediate reading, I certainly applaud the originality and character behind these few pages; poetry, speaking generally, has recently become such a form of polemical grandeur that readers lose their personal connection to its personality—and on that note, chirp, chirp.
"Matthew Cormier is a SSHRC Canada Graduate Scholar and PhD candidate in the English and Film Studies Department at the University of Alberta. He completed is MA in Canadian Comparative Literature and his BA in French Studies at the Université de Moncton. His research interests and publications chiefly concern postmodern, Acadian and English-Canadian fiction and poetry—particularly in relation to the digital humanities and affect theory—as well as current apocalyptic writing in Canada."
Accomplice is available for purchase here.
Getting a cup of coffee is not the honest ritual it used to be, sacred as a clean bra, or saying grace before a meal, or reading a magazine cover to cover. Such activities ground a person, more effectively even than religion. These days, coffee is decorated. It is too distracting to fulfil a person’s real need for a hot bitter sip, the caffeine shiver, the get up and mojo required to face every goddamn new day. Now getting a cup of coffee is an event, demanding the creation of a mood, demanding several decisions, demanding appreciation of the fern leaves and hearts, swans and dragons, snails and apples that unnecessarily appear in coffee cups, which themselves are much smaller than they used to be.
It makes me tired. And what is wrong with the world in which my son, graduated with a Master’s degree, can only find work making coffee? Not even making sandwiches and coffee. He stands in one place all day every day, behind a coffee machine that looks like a Camaro, and pours pictures in people’s lattes, which those people then cover with landfilling plastic lids and slurp while texting and driving.
And what is wrong with the world in which my son is dead? The unbelievable shit frequency with which I forget. Yesterday I walked into the fancy cafe where he used to work. I say ‘fancy’ with a box of iodized salt; I wouldn’t blame anyone for mistaking it for an industrial design studio with chandeliers in bad imitation of the decor at Versailles. I walked in for the first time since it happened, likely sporting a sour look on my face. I never have been able to pretend to like a stupid person or a stupid thing. What could be more idiotic than the establishment in which my son earned minimum wage for the last two years of his life? He always reminded me that it was minimum wage plus tips. Oh honey, hold the door. The place still made me sick. But he did all he could to calm me down about it, try to make me enjoy myself when I came to visit.
He invented a coffee design for me called the Jackson Pollock. Maybe I’m a hypocrite, but I got a kick out of it. I mean, the fact is that Blake could make one of those fern leaves in three seconds, and he made a point of taking about two minutes on my latte, allowing the brown foam to set a bit, then laboriously drizzling trails of white foam across the surface. Usually he ended with a big blob, slightly off-centre, whatever was left in the pitcher. Once he almost got fired for the appearance of my coffee, until I told the manager to calm his soul, I had studied art history in college, I was just fine with an abstract design. I’ll never forget the look on Blake’s face. His scalp pulled back so his shaggy bangs rose above his eyebrows, his wide were wide. He was mortified. I was damn proud of him. That was less than a year ago.
The worst part of Blake’s accident has been feeling that I have lost my partner in crime, my son, for whom I wanted the world and who apparently cannot even experience my indignation any more. The impact of the other car broke his collarbone, and they put a foam brace on him, even though he was probably already gone when the bones shattered, so that his corpse wouldn’t be deformed. Not that they told me any of this beforehand. I went in to see him and thought they must have made a mistake; he was just injured. In fact, he’d broken his collarbone in fifth grade; it was probably the same place. I was so relieved. I thought, Why in hell would they bother with a brace, if he was dead? He looked just like he had the first time around. The funny solemn way he would sleep with a little smile on his face and his hands folded over his stomach like an old man. The attendant at the morgue got flustered, and even as I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach, I was embarrassed. Christ. Blake, not my husband Bill, was the one who, I always comforted myself, would understand what I meant.
I walked in to the cafe, the only woman in the place not wearing ankle boots (more like sprained ankle boots, I always say to Bill), and ordered a regular latte from the girl at the till. She was new and I had to make a point of refusing to even consider any modifications, or a five-dollar scone with jam for another dollar. She was very kind to me anyway and had that sexy young girl’s bedhead; Blake would have liked her. I waited even longer than usual for my cup of coffee; I was grim but cheerful about it for twenty minutes, then I started to look for any sign of a legitimate problem. Nothing. The girl at the till was still happily taking orders. Men in dress pants and expensive sneakers were walking out as if they needed to take a pee, trying to balance recycled cardboard trays in one hand, reefing on their electronic car keys in the other, shouldering open the double doors. Blake’s cafe used to be the main branch of a bank, for crying out loud.
I peered around the topknot of the woman in front of me, probably a philosophy professor. The young man standing at the espresso machine was, in fact, moving very slowly because of his collarbone brace, which held his neck stiffly straight, like those snakey woollen scarves Blake and all of his friends were always winding around their necks starting the first of September. He couldn’t look down to see what he was doing, which was why he was taking so long to make every drink. Furthermore, he was sticking his ass out in order to put his eyes at the right level, which was causing a traffic disaster behind the bar. His hair was falling over his face, not improving the situation. I tried to see what he was doing, but the woman with the topknot stood firm.
The next minute, she swooped in to take a compostable cup from the counter, turned around, and almost crashed into me, spilling her coffee. She looked down at her duffel coat and back up at me. What did she expect? I stood in the same place the whole blooming time. Not my fault if she didn’t consider the fact that there was a line of people behind her. I stepped out of the coffee that was spreading all over the floor and looked over to check on the handicapped barista’s progress.
He was standing up straight, half turned towards me and the redhaired woman like he wanted to know what the problem was. He looked about the same height as Blake and he had the same bony wrists and faded ballpoint pen reminders Blake always had scribbled on his hand. I could only read one, something about picking Mom up at four o’clock. He was wearing one of Blake’s t-shirts, the green one I kept throwing out because it had bleach stains. It was in even worse shape than I thought, a big rip, one of the sleeves hanging off. At the back of his neck, his hair puffed over the top of the foam collar, as if it had been growing over it.
I stepped back and bumped into the person standing behind me. The barista reached for the velcro that fastened his brace and turned around.
Above the stray chest hairs poking through above the ratty neckline of the green t-shirt, Blake’s collarbone looked like a shiny red goose egg. A sharp white piece of bone was sticking through the skin and blood was trickling down into the fabric. It was already crusted with blood, the red stains were turning brown. He was trying to stand up straight, but he looked like a marionette doll someone had jerked around too roughly; his chest seemed to be caving in while his shoulder was dropped and thrown back.
He was looking somewhere past me. There were beads of glass stuck in his stubble, in the oval shapes that only surprise a person who’s never seen a shattered windshield, and his face was evenly covered in blood, like someone had painted it, except where it had been washed away by the tears trickling out of his eyes, which they never blinked at all, and snot coming out of his nose. There was glass in his eyelashes that I always teased him should have featured in a mascara ad.
He was looking for someone. I tried to think of something to say that wasn’t stupid, but before I could speak up he made a funny little nod and the shard of bone in the goose egg poked out farther. From somewhere on my left, the philosophy professor reappeared.
Blake pushed a compostable cup toward her and opened his mouth. Pieces of his teeth sprayed out and bounced off the counter. It was like some clumsy person spilled a cupful of dry rice. The redhead professor leaned in toward him, smiling, elbowing me. I just stood there. He didn’t look at his mother once. He gestured, modestly, at the coffee he had made to replace the one she’d spilled and oh god he told her it was an abstract design.
Yesterday, while I was wiping tables in the calzone place where I've been picking up mid-day shifts, I opened a copy of Avenue magazine that someone had left lying there and saw a review for our book. So that is official.
Above, you can see the cover image. To be entirely honest, I don't like it; on the other hand, when did you last hear an author raving about the perfect symbiosis between book cover and book? The point is that, in this day and age, it will be printed on real paper.
Now. The book launch for Project Compass will be held on October 30, 2017 at Riverdale House in Edmonton from 7-9 pm. I would love to see you there, participate in a giddy hug, and scrawl my name in your copy.
Perhaps you remember the hints I dropped (back in March) about a secret project I was working on. Well, things have come together very quickly, and I am proud to tell you that Project Compass, a collaborative novel I wrote in company with fellow Edmonton writers Matthew Stepanic, Kristina Vyskocil, and Bob Strong, is going to be released next month. October.
What is a collaborative novel, you ask? Think of the film Night on Earth by Jim Jarmusch, or any day-in-the-life of x-locale story. It's like that. Much like a movie director, Jason Lee Norman, editor at Monto Books, dreamed up the idea for this four-strand rope, convinced us that it was a good idea, and then wove our stories together. All four of us authors wrote a novella-length story set on a particular day (summer solstice, 2016) and in a particular place (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada). Each one of our four protagonists focuses their narrative and physical journey on one compass point of the city (North side represent!) and as the longest day of the year progresses, they begin to converge in the North Saskatchewan river valley that runs through the middle of Edmonton.
I wrote my portion of this novel over this past spring and summer. I rented an office and wrote the first draft by hand, in pencil on lined loose leaf. It was the most difficult writing experience I've undertaken, but I know the story is the best I've written. There's an excerpt below, which I hope will intrigue you.
Pre-orders for the book are open here and now: http://www.montobooks.ca/http/wwwmontobooksca/shop/books/project-compass
It is three o’clock in the morning on the longest day of the year.
In your dream, you are singing Schubert and you and I are still the same person, elastic, joyful, and promising. It is your graduation recital from the Victoria Conservatory. You are twenty-three.
You are wearing a blue dress you sewed yourself out of satin; it has the puffy sleeves and unflattering waist of women’s formal wear in the eighties; still, you are radiant. This is one of the happiest days of your life. Graduation recitals are long solos for each Vic Con student. You are the only one singing this afternoon and you picked the repertoire, the kinds of squares that will be served at the reception, and the venue. Most of your classmates used the Anglican church or the conservatory’s concert theatre but you asked that art gallery downtown if you could sing in one of their big, skylit rooms. They wheeled in a baby grand for your accompanist, and when you toured the room yesterday, it was perfect. But overnight they hung a new show so now you are singing against a backdrop of large-scale nudes. Your parents, flown in from Edmonton, are sitting in the audience. A paper cone full of flowers lies on the folding chair beside your mother, ready for your father to give it to you as soon as the recital is over. You sing the last bars, with the big interval you have been practicing for seven months, and then—you are still counting—there is a single beat of silence in that airy room. For the first time, the applause can only be for you. You wonder if it’s possible that you will actually become an opera singer. That and having children are the only things you want to do.
A month before you finished your diploma in voice performance, one of your instructors told you to think about videotaping your recital. Therefore your father borrowed a camcorder from your mother’s sister’s husband. It is set up on a music stand in the aisle beside your father’s seat, recording your beatitude as the applause renews itself and your instructor comes up to present you with a bouquet of carnations, beating your parents to the punch. They don’t mind. Your father is a teacher and he respects this teacher’s privilege over his own as a mere and sometimes dubious parent. But he is not dubious now. He is having the same revelation as you. He is ready to concede that the family history he plans to write might begin with the birth of his own mother in a hamlet in German Poland, go on to describe her youth and courtship with his father in the Lutheran choir, her escape with five small children from Russian soldiers, her loss of her son, the author, age two, when the pillow he was swaddled in was thrown into a baggage car, the family’s voyage to Canada, their settlement in Yorkton, the potatoes she peeled to feed a family of twelve, the stroke his brother had at fifteen, his own graduation from teacher’s college, your birth—and end with a modest account of his daughter the German-Canadian alto’s promising career. Your mother is in awe of you, and when she congratulates you she giggles nervously, making you believe your recital is a mystifying joke to her. No, the mystifying joke is your mother, the little girl who lived to play football, feeling a silly laugh bubble in her throat when she tries to say she is proud of you. You start to turn away from her, abruptly incensed by how awkward it is to juggle two bouquets, and feel yourself falling through the floor.
You are sitting bolt upright in bed, awake. This is your old bedroom. It looks as it did before you left for Victoria, the gold-coloured shag carpet, the ivy plant you pinned to the walls, the record player in the corner, the polyester bedspread, though the room is still dark. You are fifty years old. You are sweating.
"On the other hand, it's easy to "freeze" into irony and into a daily existence lived reflexively. This, I think, is the real danger of our historical moment, and not priestly pride (though we shouldn't overlook the dangers of religious fundamentalism). Moreover--though I may not be a neutral bystander here--ardor and irony are not symmetrically comparable. Only ardor is a primary building block in our literary constructions. Irony is, of course, indispensable, but it comes later, it is the "eternal finetuner," as Norwid called it; it is more like the windows and doors without which our buildings would be solid monuments, not habitable spaces. Irony knocks very useful holes into our walls, but without walls, it could perforate only nothingness."
born in a manger
like a calf with a velvet ear
Laura and I made this video over a year ago. I've delayed posting it here, partly due to self-consciousness, partly because "gate" had been submitted to one of those heartbreaking CBC contests. Now that Accomplice is out, and with it the print version of this poem, it seems like a good time to release an audio-visual presentation as well. We filmed the video in Dylan's parents' attic in front of their projector screen, hence the poetic mood lighting.
to the first Open Apartment of the year (because I think we all feel that the year really begins in September). Bring yourself and whatever you've been reading or writing, if you'd like to read aloud. I will make tea, coffee, and possibly cake. Also, you can meet our puppy, and I'll read some poems from the new chapbook.
Sunday, September 3
2:00 - 5:00 pm
the Arts Hub building on 118th
I mail off a stack of Accomplice copies, more than I expected to (thank you). I interview for a job I don't really want, and don't get. A friendship ends--and with the very woman who gushed over Cat's Eye with me. During daylight hours I am sad but soberly relieved; at night I have nightmares in which she lets me know I won't get away with this. Dylan's parents buy a 1980 Dodge camper van christened "Mr. Copperbottom" by the lovely man selling it. We pack it up with a box of books, two plates, two bowls, and the bag of cat food. Simpkin, Dylan, and I drive off, heading north. In Grande Prairie, Mr. CB's carburetor dies. We lurch into a liquor store parking lot and set up domestic bliss, the three of us for one last night. We draw the curtains, expecting to wake up to a cop knocking on the window. In the morning a young man with huge, meaty hands and blunt, dirty fingers tows us up to a mechanic's shop in Dawson Creek. It looks more like a truck graveyard than a place any vehicle might drive away from. Long grass smothers at least twenty chassis rusting behind a building so dilapidated the sign is no longer legible. The mechanic's name is Little John; when we meet he is wearing a t-shirt that says "I apologize in advance for my behaviour tonight." We want to run away, but when John starts working on the van, he wraps his arms around the engine, tugging on levers and letting the flaps on the carburetor flutter against his cheek while Dylan guns the engine. He is delighted with the carburetor, which, he announces, is royally fucked up. This will be interesting, he says, and rubs his hands together. Dodge parts are like gold in Dawson Creek, he says, but lucky for us he has a buddy who works in the scrap yard. Miracle of miracles, Buddy has a Dodge carburetor just sitting on the shelf, gathering dust, and he can bring it by in the morning. Meanwhile, Little John says, we're welcome to camp in the yard. Hell, he says, one guy was there for a month while John rebuilt his engine from scratch. Dylan makes pasta and tomato sauce on our two gas burners across from the bed. We draw our curtains and try to read, but around five o'clock, restless and irritable, we decide to walk downtown to find a cafe/bookstore called Faking Sanity. We drink coffee, eat carrot cake, eavesdrop on the knitting group, and leave with Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, a copy of Franny and Zooey to replace our tattered copy, and a collection of plays by Sam Shepherd, who has just died. The skies in Dawson Creek are magnificent. When we get back to the van, Simpkin is gone. For the first time, we notice a hole in the floor left when we uncovered the engine. We search the truck cemetery and call his name until it gets dark, then leave a bowl of food out and try to sleep. I am convinced he will come back during the night, and jump onto our bed as soon as we open the van doors. He does not come back; the rattling of the food dish that we hear all night is every neighbourhood cat except Simpkin feasting on the bait meant to coax him home. We cry all morning. The scrap carburetor works, though for the rest of the trip, Dylan has to be careful not to flood the engine, especially when backing up. On the day we leave Dawson Creek, Little John's shirt says "Dick's Taxidermy: Stuffing Beavers Since 1978." We spend the night at Liard, taking mushrooms and wrinkling in the hotsprings. Two days later we make it to Dawson City, where our friend Joanna has been working all summer. We park the van next to her trailer in the Bonanza Gold RV Park and for the next two weeks, make a vegetarian dinner together every night, go on long walks, and explore Dawson. Dylan introduces everyone to his wife, which makes me extremely happy. (Something has anchored, surely and safely, since we got married; or it is as if we were two rowboats lashed precariously together and now we have finally reached a proper ship. We board gratefully and attend to our new positions as crew.) We go to the free store, adjacent to the dump, and retrieve a small brown plate, three books, and a men's dress shirt. We go swimming in a dugout, take the ferry (free, 24-hour, provincially-funded) to West Dawson and walk down the beach to a wrecked riverboat while the Perseids flicker overhead. We admire Dawson's pickup trucks, modified in myriad ways and with unprecedented pioneer style. A week in, Joanna mentions that there are still two puppies left unclaimed from her new dog, Lupin's, litter. It is suppertime, and beginning to rain, but we all set off down the highway to the Yukan Rental yard when a charismatic young French-Canadian man emerges from the one-room shed where he lives to call a pack of Dawson mutts. Though I don't want to live in a shed, Dawson makes it painfully obvious that the civilized south draws arbitrary and bourgeoise lines around how people are allowed to live their lives. Lupin is soon embroiled in a familial dispute with his siblings and mother, who hadn't expected to see him again. One of the puppies jumps up and licks my face. He looks like a black lab. The French-Canadian insists that his grandmother was raped by a wolf. Like most dogs in Dawson, he's mostly bear dog. Dylan, who has been on a westerns kick, names the dog Ranger, and I tack on Charlie, for Steinbeck's dog, and Yvonne, because my sister Grace thinks Yvonne of the Yukon is as good a title as any. I get a three-day job washing dishes in the hippy cafe where Joanna works and feast on free kale bowls and miso soup on my lunch breaks. Dylan works on a new screen play, reads Annie Dillard, and takes the dogs on long walks. I finish War and Peace. Both of us start writing grants for a September 1 deadline. On our last night in Dawson, Joanna leads us and all three dogs up into the woods in West Dawson, to a cabin where a band called Power Duo from Prince George is playing a bonfire show to about 20 skids and 17 dogs. We stick out a little, too-recently showered, but everyone loves the puppies. No one looks at a cellphone. A beautiful girl with a round face like a renaissance painting debates the most desirable interval between showers with a man named Louisiana Josh. The girl across from us passes around a deconstructed caesar (a bottle of Clamato and a bottle of vodka, which she monitors to keep at roughly equal levels); but Dylan and I have decided to stop drinking for a while. I don't miss it much. We drive four days home, stopping in Dawson Creek to look for Simpkin one more time but no luck. Edmonton is frenetic, self-absorbed, and rich, and we are uncomfortable surrounded by new cars and new clothes. Our apartment feels huge and luxurious as a Japanese bathroom. I start going through closets and cupboards, trying to figure out exactly what we have and if we need it. We take Ranger to the FAVA summer barbeque, where Dylan wins 6 passes to the Metro Cinema, Laura shows a short film she made on one roll of Super8, and I show off the green lace sweater I finished knitting in the van. I plan the first Open Apartment of the year. Hannah comes upstairs for breakfast and we eat the jam I made from highbush cranberries in Dawson. We borrowed a sieve from the owner of the hippy cafe to strain out the seeds.
Jabba the Hutt,
where are you now,
my little household god?
Why did you run,
little love sponge,
My friends, the book is done. After innumerable setbacks, hiccups, frustrations, garden paths, consultations, and fuck-ups, there is a box of 100 nearly-perfect green poetry books sitting in my office and I would like to send you one.
If you, dear soul, pre-ordered one of these books back in the winter and have long since given them up for dead, I am nevertheless putting your copy in the mail this week.
If you'd like to order a book now, in full assurance of the physical existence of the item you are paying for, click on 'Shop', above, and you'll see a listing for this modest collection of poems.
They're some of the best I've ever written. I'm so pleased I finally get to share them with you; it's been too long.
On Tuesday, June 13, at approximately 7:15 pm, Dylan and I got married in our livingroom. Nine people whom we care about very much and a lovely wedding commissioner named Jody gathered around us while we made our vows. I cried, and then had to go lie down with Simpkin for a minute in the other room. Anna and Eliot were our witnesses. Dylan made potroast and I made a rhubarb crisp. It was very warm in the apartment. Anna brought a tiny plant which I managed to repot before the ceremony started. Laura brought a bouquet of flowers as big as a child. Gwen and Trevor brought champagne. Lauretta brought some of the teacups she received as wedding shower gifts over 50 years ago, and she also brought the typed-up story of that wedding shower. Ashleigh ordered pizza for August and Al. There was a bottle of wine from 1988 (Dylan's parents bought it when he was born), which might have turned into vinegar at any point during the interim 28 years, but instead became a divine elixir. Laura read from 1st Corinthians. Anna read from bell hooks. Gwen pronounced a Celtic blessing. Trevor quoted Sonnet 116. Ashleigh read (on my request) two stanzas from "The Country of Marriage" by Wendell Berry. Alley-Oop got a little drunk. I wore my strappy blue shoes. Kaylin came after work and gave us stick and poke tattoos on our fingers. (We cannot stop looking at them.) Laura read from East of Eden. Dylan said these things. And I said this:
As everyone here already knows, I started to love you reading your reports from Missinippe. They were full of your courage and honesty, your understanding of other people, your romanticism, and beautiful sentences--and reading them, I was exhilarated. I found something so important in them I realized it would be be easy to drop everything else. My life had become disconnected from the world and I was lonely and I didn’t know how to be loved by anybody. I did drop everything, much to your confusion, and we have become something extraordinary and volatile and capable of much more good together. You are brave to marry me.
I know that both of us take what we are doing seriously. We both know that loving another person is difficult and profound, and that building a life together is a kind of monumental work, so I have a few things I will promise you.
I promise to speak to you as truthfully as I know how.
I promise to assume the best of you, and to do whatever I can to enable you to be an artist and a good person.
I promise to work for the life that is honest and happy for both of us.
I promise to take care of you.
I promise to share everything I have with you.
I promise not to keep scores.
And I promise to give you the freedom to love and be loved by people who are not me, and to respect all of your relationships.
I love you on a literary, epic, primal, and cosmic scale, and I am so honoured and happy to become your wife.
We go to California in April, but something feels off.
For one thing, we can't really afford to be there. Paradoxically, we spend way more money than usual. It's almost as if we're trying too hard to have a good time. We see Sigur Ros in concert. I eat grits for the first time, also biscuits and gravy. We go to a Warriors game in Oakland, where I see Steph Curry in the flesh, even if we're too far up in the stands to identify much more than his number, his floating three-point shot. We make an extensive tour of Motel 6 rooms. Laura and Tom are along with us, the four of us splitting two queen beds along gender lines. For five American dollars, I buy a large piece of upholstery from an art supply recycling store, planning to make a bed cover out of it. I take pictures of Laura. We drop off some more of Evan's IMAX film at Fotokem, and enjoy how glamorous it all is through Laura's eyes. We go to the beach. Driving through rural Oregon, we see a kind of poverty and despair I've never associated with "American life." On our way home, a blizzard traps us in the mountains for an extra night. It shouldn't be so stressful but it is. We're rushed and broke. The mountains loom black over us, the mountain town we stay in has a gothic, murderous energy.
Back home, it's difficult to regather ourselves. Part of it is that the things I'm working on are all long-term projects in their final, grinding stages. Part of it is that we seem, vaguely, to have misplaced our priorities. I don't organize Open Apartment. I drink more than I need to. I avoid looking at my credit card statement. I dread writing, dread showing the day's progress to Dylan. I wonder why pursuing creative work full-time (with two nights a week pouring beer at the Empress) feels so hollow and abstract, so disconnected from our real needs. There's no question that my work has taken me away from most other aspects of living this winter. I've barely even been cooking. And I've struggled to maintain a belief in the worthwhile nature of what I am doing, even as I've immersed myself in a world of patterns on a screen and imaginary money. Our culture does not take very good care of freelancers.
It isn't that I've decided writing and film are not important, or that my work, my projects (many of which will finally be completed and fully realized this summer) are a misuse of my time. But I have been using my work as a way to excuse myself from the realities and concerns of my life, and no wonder the result has been lethargy, confusion, aimlessness, pleasure-free excess.
Now the summer has broke on us, in all its heat during the day and storms in the evening. We have a new focus. I reread a book by Ben Hewitt that explores how misplaced the West's definition and pursuit of wealth has become. (I cannot recommend it highly enough.) We make a budget. Dylan cuts my hair, banishing the mullet once and for all. The society that I lease my office from announces that it has to give up its space at the end of June. Ashleigh asks me to play violin on some of her new songs. I remember that I'm good at making bread, that for all the money I've been spending, I've abandoned many of the pursuits that actually make me happy. I start planning a film about our summer.
We go out to Laura's family's property for the first time in over a year. We make plans to leave Edmonton for a while, to do other work and try other ways of living. Laura uses our apartment to shoot her first short film. One day we receive a box of fancy cheese from Canadian cheese makers, an obscurely-motivated but lucky-for-us Canada 150 promotion. Skye and Jenna are finally able to print Accomplice. We spend an evening working on a puzzle and watching I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, the Wilco doc, at Jord's place. I take my road test and fail it twice, and finally master the hill park and book another test for tomorrow morning.
"It is a largely unacknowledged truth that the contemporary American life is lived under a guillotine of fear. We fear disease, poverty, terrorism, loneliness, and death. We spend a lifetime seeking security because we are told the world is an insecure and dangerous place; that peril lurks around each corner. We spend so much of our time believing those fears and trying to abate them that we don't even stop to consider whether our anxieties might be misplaced. We don't even wonder if perhaps the things we fear are, at least in part, the tragic outgrowth of our misguided attempts to create an artifice of security. We have disease because we have allowed our food to be commoditized and thus subject to the profit-borne whims of corporatism; we have poverty because we have believed the lie that money buys security and because we have created a system that unjustly allows money to beget money; we have terrorism largely because we have meddled and assumed the righteous stance of American exceptionalism; we have loneliness because we no longer need one another; we have death because it is inevitable and we know this, yet because we have come to see ourselves as separate from nature and its laws, we believe that death is something to be vanquished."
- Ben Hewitt
Hello my friends,
Writing briefly to all of you who preordered Accomplice--we've missed our hoped-for release by a couple of weeks, but that's only because we've been trying to suss out printing this book on a RISOGRAPH printer owned and operated by Jenna Heinemann and Skye Olson. This is an exciting opportunity because:
1) it's a unique manufacturing method with an aesthetic that lends itself very well to our book design
2) I would rather pay Jenna and Skye than a big printing company
3) we have more control over certain design elements--i.e. we can, if we want, riso the inside pages and silkscreen the covers
4) printing with Jenna and Skye makes this a five-woman collaboration--if we can make this work, it'll be something of which I'm pretty proud
With any luck these books will still be mailed out to you shortly. Thanks for your patience!
It is 3:50 on Saturday afternoon.
It is two hours before I have to leave to go to the Empress and twelve hours before I will be home in bed, asleep. I am 26. The birthday cake in the fridge is half gone. Our livingroom walls are painted green. Winter is back. Dylan is going to cut his hair. War and Peace is not as bad as I thought. My grandma is in the hospital. My mother is back from Florida; she loved it. The fridge is humming. Ashleigh is on sick leave. Venture Publishing is seven months late, paying me. Peter's new album is finished. Laura is finally taking Video Kitchen at FAVA. Fear is still the most useless and damaging thing. The Steinbeck biography is just as good as I hoped. I am a terrible drunk. My friends are kind and almost unbelievably generous. New York University is not going to let me into their creative writing program. Kyle is living one door down from Shawn. Sigur Ros is playing a show we are going to in April. Kyanite is an ideal transmitter of energy from one being to another. Abstract: The Art of Design is pretty good TV. 3b drawing pencils are ideal for writing stories. The March page in the Maxim calendar is not as good as January. Simpkin is chiller by the day. It is important for us to be deliberate and choose better symbols for ourselves. Dylan and I are going to get married in October.
"It occurs to me that in my adulthood I've vehemently espoused the idea that "being an artist" is not a state of being at all. I've ridiculed that idea, called myself in bohemian moments of unproductivity a poseur. Just having produced art--in my case, mostly, having written things--is what makes an artist, and is the point of the "creative life." As if the whole shifting plasma of thoughts, feelings, interactions, and experiences that finds its nexus in my body was nothing but a production line, and if I was serious at all I would be looking at weak links to eliminate.
Though this idea has freed me up to try to work even when I don't feel inspired, I wonder whether it has cheapened the experience of (or the search for) inspiration. I also wonder whether feeling like an artist--enjoying that heady and visceral experience of individuality, of total concentration combined with free association, the pleasure of synthesis, of making something--was and perhaps should be again my primary goal, reason for writing at all. Just that I enjoy it. Just that I find life, and find life meaningful in it.
I wonder too if this detachment from notions of inspiration and process has made me consider my inspirations less sacred, caused me to betray them or default on them at the last minute. The deadline might scare you into sitting down at your desk, but does it produce the best ideas or the patience and pleasure required to see them through?
I have been so scared to stop working lately."
- journal, February 25, 2017
"My soul is not a little white bird. I haven't any soul, nor much of agonized ambition any more. I shall go ahead, but I wonder whether that sharp agony of words will occur to me again. I wonder whether I shall ever be drunken with rhythms any more . . . I shall write good novels but hereafter I ride Pegasus with a saddle and bucking pads, and martingale, for I am afraid Pegasus will rear and kick, and I am not the sure steady horseman I once was."
- Steinbeck, letter to Dook, February 25, 1928
Here is what I have been working on:
The first draft of the collection of short stories about Caronport is finished. I wrote 7 of the 10 stories this year, after I got a grant from the Edmonton Arts Council to complete the first draft manuscript. There is a stack of typed pages sitting beside me as I write this. I'll submit it to the EAC this month, then use it to try to find a literary agent.
The stories are about two children, Esther Spellicy and Sheldon Knowles, and their parents. When I started it I thought it was about the kind of childhood embarrassment that verges on mortification, but now I see it is more about the kind of childhood loneliness that comes with seeing the land and the adults around you too clearly. The stories, in their tentative current order, are called:
The Jehovah's Witnesses Episode, which is about the time that Esther mobilized a gang of children against members of a cult
The Green Dragon, which is about the Knowles's minivan
Thrift, which is about trying to save things
Highs Below, which is also about trying to save things
Christian Internet, which is about sex and having career goals as a woman
Ess, which is Jesus's take on Esther Spellicy
Mrs. Knowles, which is about the time that homeschooling failed Sheldon and his mother
Mopsy, which is about hating a little girl and how that feeling is memory-warping and transfers onto things it shouldn't
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree, which is about drafty attics and escapism
Foxes Have Holes, which is about the flat land
The poetry chapbook that I've been working on with Hannah Braun and Kaylin Put and written about here and made available for pre-order here should be going to print within a week or two. A little later than I'd hoped (we were shooting for a March 15 release), but so close. We're going to print a few hundred copies, that will be for sale online, as well as (hopefully) through a couple of boutiques in Edmonton, and possibly distributors in other cities--I've got my feelers out. As soon as the books are done, there will be a poetry house show and release party at Arts Hub. Here's Kaylin in my livingroom a few weeks ago with the completed cover illustrations. I can't believe how beautiful this book is going to be.
The short film formerly known as BUILD GOD, which I've written about here and here. I'm working on a second cut right now, which will bring the length of the film down from 30 minutes to 20 or 22 minutes. When the second cut is finished I'll be submitting it to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts for review, though I'll still have quite a lot of post-production to do. Most importantly, I'll finally be ready to start working with Mary Wood of Feverfew, who will be composing the score. There's a great deal of work ahead of me on this little movie, but I am thrilled with how it is developing. I'll be releasing a trailer later this month.
I've just started working on something I can't talk much about. It's a writing project, the biggest one I've ever done, and I think it will consume most of my time from now until the summer.
"not dirt for dirt's sake, or grief merely for the sake of grief, but dirt and grief wholly accepted if necessary as struggle vehicles of an emergent joy--achieving things which are not transient by means of things which are."
- Ed Ricketts, from an unpublished essay quoted in John Steinbeck, Writer by Jackson J. Benson
I think a lot about the moral responsibility of writers and other artists, and how we are supposed to contextualize ugliness and pain. More and more I see that ugliness and pain are part and parcel of beauty and joy and attempts to sanitize beauty and joy seem more and more misguided. No wonder we are so anxious, wondering why our incredible prosperity can't be cleanly snapped off from the messy, tragic history that created it. But also: no wonder we are so frustrated and devastated by dirt and grief, as if these ugly things appeared out of nowhere and had no purpose, no connection to the life we want.
In this massive Steinbeck biography I'm reading, Benson compares Steinbeck's version of non-teleological thinking with his friend Ed Rickett's, a Monterey biologist who was the model for Doc of Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday. While Steinbeck's worldview was mechanistic (grief and joy must be accepted together because both demonstrably exist in the world), Rickett's was more mystical. He seemed to believe that acceptance of grief was necessary in order to make any meaning of it. Conversely, humans, confronted with a world in which grief and joy are intertwined, can only find meaning in joy by acknowledging the cost at which it comes:
"where there is refusal to accept the hazards of grief and tragedy, as occurs more frequently than not, I should expect to see the struggle belittle rather than deify, since whatever is has to be taken and accepted in order for development to proceed."