Wednesday 27 May 2009

After the Stegner house

Dam along the valley west of town, walking distance.
View north from the buffalo paddock at Old Man On His Back, about 80 km Sw of Eastend.
Views from Jones' Peak (a ways west of town) looking west along the Frenchman valley.

Beaver work, Frenchman river near the Stegner house.
The Frenchman river back of the Stegner house.
Mary-Lou's down there now. Maybe you can read/see more from the Stegner house here:

Friday 22 May 2009

Re: Collected Works of Billy the Kid

Ondaatje's Rat Jelly was one of the books that turned me on to being a writer. And I spent a lot of time with In the Skin of a Lion, which I love. I'd read the Billy the Kid book years ago, but reading it again now, after the novels, in the light of what I'm looking for, this book does everything right. It goes for the story, it invents the story, it accepts the story, it turns the mic over to a multitude of voices, it refuses (while evoking) the myth of its subject, and it does all this without for a second letting the language sag or lapse or seem forced or somehow laid on from any source other than what is exactly right for what it's doing. What a triumph.

Tonight I read from 14 Tractors, a Stegnerish book, at the Stegner house. Fun!

Thursday 21 May 2009


I'm a writer who feeds on where he is at the moment of writing. This has happened for so long I've lost touch of whether I write like that because it's important or I think it's important because I write that way. Yes to both, I suppose.

This comes up again as I work at the Stegner house in the Frenchman river valley of SW Saskatchewan on material about Hillsdale, the Regina subdivision where I lived through my teen-age years and where I live again now. It's been dry work--partly because of the stage I'm at (preliminary exploration of approaches, voices), partly because I'm physically distant from the phenomena of the place.

Meanwhile, yesterday I turned to revisions of material I wrote out here at the Stegner house two years ago. Material full of wind, river, cottonwoods, swallows, light, town, etc.--most of it written out among those things. Damned if I didn't feel twice as alive as a writer, now that I was zipping along that more immediate connection between word and world.

Or maybe the difference is that my literary buddy Stan Still is in Eastend, and not (yet) in Regina.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Re: Kerrisdale Elegies

I wanted to see what George Bowering did with what R.M.Rilke did with his famous Duino Elegies. In Bowering's case it's Kerrisdale, a district of Vancouver. I wanted to see (not wee, as I just typed) what Bowering made of his district since that's, broadly speaking, what I'm trying to do with a district of my own.

Bowering's often a McFaddenesque figure in writing, by which I mean a writer never unwilling to play or stick his beak where it's not supposed to go (A Magpie Life, being the title of his autobiography). Kerrisdale Elegies, which includes a visual echo of Rilke's Duino castle on the cover, seems more serious in tone. Pretty straight lyric material. But it works. Just a while ago I read about two lines from his "Elegy Four" then turned to my notebook and blasted through about 4 pages of stuff to do with my life in Hillsdale, just following one thing with another. After a while I couldn't remember what it was in Bowering's text that set me off and I went back to it to look. Must have been this: "my father's voice". It was all kinds of stuff I got into, though, not just father.

Hillsdale, as I just observed in my notebook, was what all of us made--dad and mom and me and my three sisters.

Yesterday in the Leader-Post was a story about the first family to move into the new subdivision south of the Regina airport, almost an exact parallel, fifty or so years on, to the experience of the first Hillsdale family. I think I'll try to interview those folks.

Re: Wolf Willow

Anyone wanting to understand southern Saskatchewan could read Wolf Willow. (Reading it in the house Stegner remembers in the book, well that's all right too.) South Sask or not, anyone wanting new forms of knowing any particular place cou learn much from this book. And in the coincidence department, this entry: Stegner cites a passage from the Chekhov story "Gooseberries", the next story I came to when I picked up my Chekhov last night at bedtime.

Otherwise, I read some Hill yesterday, as in yours truly, a section from a book-to-be (I hope) called Natural Cause: The Stan Still Poems. Added a couple of pieces from the StanSlush pile (itself many many pages long), flipped the order of pieces a bit, tried to push on some bits here and there, enjoyed the usual range of responses from Oh my God to Hey, not bad.

But Wolf Willow. When he returns to Eastend in the early 50s, more than 30 years after leaving it, Stegner is troubled, uneasy, sensing he hasn't quite found his re-connection to the place, despite its obvious familiarities. There's a smell he can't put his finger on. He literally sniffs around until he realizes it's the common wolf willow, and now he's released into a bloom of memory and reflection.

Sunday 17 May 2009

Re: Jeremiah, Ohio

Well here's a coincidence. Just now, out in the backyard, I read a chapter of David W. McFadden's An Innocent in Ireland telling of an encounter with tourists from Ohio, and earlier today I'd been reading Adam Sol's Jeremiah, Ohio. (You didn't get your hopes too high about the coincidence, did you?)

I think there's an Anansi thing going on: Sol's book reminds me of Ken Babstock's Airstream Land Yacht. Similar store of surprises, snappiness, poems that rollick you along until you've had a blast even if you're not quite sure what happened.

In terms of my (decidedly not innocent) purposes, here's what the Sol offers:
- a brave, wide range from the ordinary on up/down
- formal regularities I've never considered
- the longpoem push he calls a "novel in poems"
- the character (of Jeremiah, in his case)

Saturday 16 May 2009

Re: Paterson

I've always wanted to drive a '58 Chev. Dad had one, and I used to sit in his lap between Herbert and Swift Current, pretending to steer, but that's not the same. Some day, I hope, I'll drive one for real.

Opening Paterson today was a little like taking that wheel (for real). Here, it seems, is a text right where I want to be:

"Paterson is a long poem in four parts--that a man in himself is a city, beginning, seeking, achieving and concluding his life in ways which the various aspects of a city may embody--if imaginatively conceived--any city, all the details of which may be made to voice his most intimate convictions" ("Author's Note").

":a local pride"

"For the beginning is assurdly
the end--since we know nothing, pure
and simple, beyond
our own complexities"

and the famous
"no ideas but in things"--

and so on, all live leads to/from my Hillsdale material. I didn't know until today that we can see some bp in Williams, some similarities of longpoem poetic, including the explict and ongoing working out of how the poem we are reading can be written.

So, the beginning of that and more McFadden, a chuckle per page. Also Kerrisdale Elegies to see how Bowering wrote his city district (the Rilke elegies less useful for my purposes here but of course always instructive for intensity of vision).

Re: Reading An Innocent in Ireland

Last night, sipping a scotch and digesting my meal of Alberta beef and Saskatchewan mushrooms, I laughed like crazy reading David W. McFadden's An Innocent in Ireland. Here's a voice I can use, I thought: innocent, apparently without intent, alert, ever-willing to assemble truth from imagination as much as observation. And as I say, funny as hell.

I knew McFadden a little when he was one of my teachers in Nelson in '81-'82. He'd show up for class, often late, with his briefcase, which he'd set on top of the table. He'd reach in and pull out a book, and start talking about whatever came up at that moment. (I remember thinking it was like a circus act, in a happy way: a small car would appear in the ring, and one clown after another would emerge from it.) It was always fun, as I recall, if a little frustrating for anyone who preferred more systematic approaches to learning.

I've said many times that most of what I know as a writer comes from my three teachers in Nelson: Wah (the materiality of language itself), Wayman (naming the conditions of ordinary life as directly as possible), McFadden (imagine, fool around).

Thanks, Dave.

Friday 15 May 2009

Re: Page and Chekhov

The Chekhov, an edition of his stories edited by Richard Ford, is just for bedtime reading. P.K. Page's Brazilian Journal might, I thought, give me some useful ideas, but the voice seems too plain, the approach too straight.

Since I'm on about books I brought, I mention Steveston, 30+ years old and counting, still the model--one of the best ones, anyway--for how to write a place. Rivered writing, rivered place.

That's going to be a challenge for Hillsdale: no river. But streets, maps, crossroads, tiny schools my children attended 35 years after I did, ideas, photo ops, people who moved in 50 years ago when the area was brand new and still live there, and so on. Steveston can teach us how to find form, how to know a place with an open, language-based kind of knowing.

The original schoolhouse here in Eastend, the one Wallace Stegner attended, still stands but hasn't been used, even for a museum or anything, in years. Two-storey, square, red brick. 1918-20 it was a flu hospice, I guess you'd call it.

In Hillsdale, I'm older than any building.

Thursday 14 May 2009

Re: Reading The Martyrology

Usually at these retreats I write up a storm (instead of sit through one, as I did yesterday, snow and the wind so strong). This time I'm at some other stage, mainly reading from a box of books I brought. I brought books I thought might help me find ways into/out from under/through the Hillsdale material. I brought books.

The first five Books of The Martyrology offer ways to be fully present to self and place and always, of course, to language. Fully present to the present and to history. I suppose I wouldn't be considering this Hillsdale material of mine if I didn't suspect it would work (drive my writing, even walk it around the old corners). Reading bp I'm more convinced than ever. Profoundly playful as it is, the M nevertheless gets personal (painfully so at times), gets historical, gets right here, right now, always with "the precision," as Book 4 famously announces, "of openness".

Wednesday 13 May 2009

Town, night, wind

The wind blew so strongly, for so long, that the traveller had to give up reading the wind as another episode in his travel book. The wind blew through his book, in other words--all night, not just this one--becoming its own book.

The wind woke the traveller up. In bed, in the middle of the night, surely at least halfway through this night of wind, the traveller opened his notebook and wrote town, night wind.

Tuesday 12 May 2009


The Frenchman River runs a stone's throw--even a smallish stone, hucked half-heartedly--back of the Stegner house in west Eastend. Last night, around dusk, I watched a beaver the size of my right rear tire swim a four-foot sapling to the old railroad bridge and out of sight beyond.

This morning, I read this passage in Stegner's The Big Rock Candy Mountain: "Beavers swim right out in the river under the railroad bridge".

I love the haunting.

But auto-geography--does anyone know who coined that term?

Tuesday 5 May 2009

Loco Log

April 30

west bound at Belle Plaine, 10:54 am

still, facing west, east of Ernfold, 12:10 pm

eastbound, west of Redcliffe, 3:27 pm

May 1

still, facing east, Calgary, 2:17 pm

eastbound, Herbert, 7:30 pm

eastbound, Chaplin, 7:52 pm

and a few more we couldn't read even after buying binoculars in Calgary.