Paul Vermeersch, host of the night’s launch.
With the International Festival of Authors on the horizon, it seems logical for presses to launch their wackiest and most unique books to grab readers’ attention. On October 21st, 2013 I attended the Wolsak and Wynn launch at The Steady where they were celebrating the release of some uncommon titles. Gregory Betts launched his new book This is Importance: A Students’ Guide to Literature, which is a collection of some of the most hilarious phrases that Betts came across while marking his students’ papers. Since Betts focuses a lot on Canadian Literature in the classroom, the excerpts often circulated around seminal Canadian writers. One student wrote of Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women, “everything in society is unacceptable, especially the ‘sexy’” and my favourite academic insight was “the alphabet has been a major influence on many poets.”
Following Betts, JonArno Lawson read from his new book Enjoy It While It Hurts. The night’s host Paul Vermeersch described Lawson as the Shel Silverstein of the new generation. I have read and re-read Where the Sidewalk Ends at least a hundred times and I was delighted to find that Lawson is continuing the tradition of illustrated poetry that is as philosophical as it is whimsical. Lawson read from the “Shade Garden,” which is comprised of poems about plants that resemble people, from “Quarrelsome Quips,” a collection of three-line rhymes, and from his “One-Liner” section. My favourite “Quarrelsome Quip” was about his grandmother: “She who curses God Almighty / Drinking liquor in her nighty / She’s no flighty Aphrodite” and it demonstrates the ease with which Lawson combines rhyme with adult themes. Lawson’s playful yet profound one-liners (“People who hate people love people who hate themselves”) also hit home with the audience.
The last reader of the night was past Puritan contributor Catherine Graham. She read from her new poetry collection Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects, the cover of which is a dazzling testament to the art of typography. Catherine’s work in The Puritan was greatly influenced by the poet Dorothy Malloy. Graham told the audience that Her Red Hair Rises with the Wings of Insects is a tribute to both Malloy and P.K. Page, whose family happened to be in attendance.
Graham read three poems from her collection, “Cloak,” “The Queen is Not Welcome Here,” and “My Skin is My Robe.” When she was finished, the audience demanded “one more!” and she shared a final piece called “There is a Stir Always.” “Cloak” was a very rhythmic piece that took the second-person point-of-view, a voice which seems to trouble a lot of writers, but which Graham utilized effortlessly. “Cloak” and “The Queen is Not Welcome Here” both dealt with mental illness in a way that was dignified and penetrating. In “Cloak,” Graham writes, “Now let’s pretend you’re mad again / committed to a door with no handles,” the second line demonstrating the poet’s ability to represent madness in its nuances and not in its absurdity. In the “Queen is Not Welcome Here” Graham inhabits the persona of a woman suffering with dementia. “I hear the pomp and circumstance playing outside the chair-jammed door” and here the first-person brings the reader into the psyche of someone lost in the debris of their own crumbling reality. My favourite line was from “My Skin is My Robe”: “My bones will be with a cut tree no longer expanding its’ rings.” The image of death here is delicate, beautiful, and haunting. I agree with Paul Vermeersch when he said that Graham’s poetry just seems to be getting better and better.
On October 22nd, 2013 I attended the launch of another Puritan alumna, Jennifer Lovegrove’s Watch How We Walk published by ECW Press at The Piston. Watch How We Walk tells the story of an (ex-) Jehovah’s Witness named Emily and the novel oscillates between her ten year-old perspective and her struggles as a twenty year-old adult. Lovegrove also grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness, but the book is definitely not an autobiography.
In the first excerpt Lovegrove read, Emily is searching for a boy who knew her sister Lenora ten years ago. She traverses numerous record stores only to end up at an acrobatics gym. Lovegrove is very good at occupying the point-of-view of the “outsider” and her careful attention to detail—the nervous mannerisms and the circumlocutions of a sleep-starved mind—really made the character come to life. I hope that Lovegrove records an audiobook of Watch How We Walk because her reading of stream-of-consciousness passages was so sincere that I felt the character was actually telling me the story. Sex, religion, and self-harm come together in the novel in a dynamic way that forgoes the one-dimensional scrutiny of organized religion and focuses on the individual experience of a young woman enduring incredible pain. Lovegrove is a poet-turned novelist and as Michael Holmes (Lovegrove’s editor) joked, and this book is one of the incredible examples of a poet being just as good at writing fiction.