Words will be wanted

I was so ready for this. For this weekend. A festival of women writers called “Growing Room,” put on by the ROOM journal collective.

I’ve been happy in our move, I can certainly count the ways I like Tsawwassen, but I was unusually excited about the opportunity to be in the middle of writers again. Never mind that I wouldn’t know anyone. Or would have to plan and plot my getting there on a map. I was reading at the launch of ROOM’s latest issue (below) on Saturday evening, since it contains a creative non-fiction piece of mine (“Notes Toward an Autobiography”). Why not spend the day at panels and workshops? Why not spend the next day too? Just to hear the familiar vocabulary of writers’ talk. Just to hear them read, even complain, about their work.

Why not indeed? And a rich two days they were. A highlight: a panel on writing about trauma with Evelyn Lau, Christine Lowther, and Sonnet L’Abbe. Another: a panel on “rewriting the stories we tell about our bodies” with Lorna Crozier, Francine Cunningham, Nilofar Shidmehr, and Juliane Okot Bitek.

And a workshop with Betsy Warland, author most recently of Oscar of Between–a Memoir of Identity and Ideas, and earlier, Breathing the Page: Reading the Act of Writing, which I bought and began “breathing” on the train and bus ride home. (Betsy Warland was as lovely in her teaching as I was warned she would be.)

Two days in the public air of writing. Which I don’t need a lot of, but sometimes need desperately. There I was, among some of the tribe, and I felt at home.

Not insider though. And I mean this less as a but than in addition to, for everything good about the weekend is secure. But every person, a new acquaintance. And me on the edge of many of the issues and/or controversies current in Canadian literature, some brought to the fore in a panel on literary gatekeeping and accountability, for example. I simply know too little about them.

“I have felt on the outside since being a very young child, for a number of reasons….Being an outsider inspired me to create new options for myself as well as others.” Betsy Warland, interview ROOM 39.4

Lately I’ve been bumping into this notion of the writer as outsider–on the edge of things, more observer than participant–in the autobiographical statements of various writers. I can relate. Outsider, of course, may be true for many people; perhaps everyone has their “at home” and their “out of place.” But especially artists and writers, it seems, often have this sense of themselves. Often it’s the motivation to produce something that reaches toward others.

“I’m feeling ‘old’ at the festival,” I told my Vancouver daughter, who put me up for the night. Old as in age, but also oldly different in the world of experiences I’ve inhabited. A world which seems, on the surface at least, to not have that much currency.

Daughter took the role of comforter, as she sometimes has to. “Just write from what you know and who you are, Mom,” she said. And Betsy Warland, who understands outsider, and “between,” reminded us to sustain ourselves by tenacity, to make “lack” (whatever it may be) “a generative force.”


It came together for me when Lorna Crozier quoted the Irish poet Eavan Boland:

“I want a poem/ I can grow old in.”

Oh me too!

I looked up the Boland poem. The line goes on. “I want a poem/ I can grow old in. I want a poem I can die in.”

Whatever the outsider place, this said to me, others too are in that place. Others growing old(er). And words will be wanted. I’ll keep looking for them as a reader. I’ll keep on writing them.  


Last week we spent a couple of days in the Waterloo area with my brother, street photographer Al Doerksen, and sister-in-law, artist Agatha Doerksen. First up was the opening of Agatha’s stunning new show, “Off the Wall,” at the Red Brick Cafe in Guelph. The first pieces in this series were inspired by layers of peeling posters in downtown Toronto. Agatha gathers material life wherever she finds it–lists, wallpaper, bits of text, buttons, old photos, and much more–which she then maps and collages in new arrangements. These “remnants and discards” of daily life are variously re-layered, re-configured, revealed, perhaps covered again, perhaps painted upon, but thus preserved. The result is sometimes whimsical but more often–to my view–boldly provocative, and deep. Here’s “A Single Leaf,” one of my favourites in the show. If you live in the Guelph area, do stop by to view the exhibit, or see more of her work at the Art by Agatha page on Facebook.13645115_830262967108427_4770586795850250156_n


The opening itself had a layer of unexpected drama when one of the largest pieces was stolen the day before the opening. CBC told the story.

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Hand in and not leaving


“Nativity” by Brian Kershisnik. Used by permission.


This Advent I’m instructed and cheered by “Nativity,” a painting by Brian Kershisnik. A detail of the painting, framing Mary and Joseph and child, appeared on the cover of The Christian Century and I was immediately struck by the curious crowding-in angels and then by Joseph. Oh my, yes, Joseph with his hand to his face and a “what in the world have I gotten myself into?” look. At least that’s what I see in the gesture. I recognize that look, that question. It’s one I’ve had rather too often in the last while about things I’m “into.” Such as this stage of life –getting older, that is– and the current writing project and the book-juror assignment I’ve committed to for the months ahead. Anguished hand to face for matters one can’t change, and for matters to which one has said Yes. Continue reading