Archive for the ‘Blog’ Category

Time, Mandela and me

Friday, December 20th, 2013

On top of all the public news coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death – the jetloads of political leaders converging, the grief and celebration for his life, the debates and high-profile spats – there are also myriad small, private connections.

For me, it was the memory of that day after his release from prison in February, 1990. A day of fat, fluffy snow clumps falling slowly in northern Alberta. I was watching the international coverage of his first public speech and also watching out my window. We were separated by half a planet. Here, a winter morning; there, the hot red sunset of Cape Town’s summer. Here, a quiet garden; there, tens of thousands of people cramming the streets.

And it struck me intensely at the time: how could such different experiences both be called the same ‘now’? It made me think about time, how we call it ‘a dimension’ which is intimately linked with space. But what kind of dimension? It partakes of all the spatial ones – the singleness of point, the rolling border line of change, the three-dimensional artifact left behind.

This all led me to a long poem, Words Selected and Imposed on Time, which like any other artifact got left behind as time moved on. But the other day I got it out to re-read, and was quite stunned to realize something we all know but always forget: we just don’t know how it will all turn out.

When I wrote the poem a decade and a half ago, we did not know that South Africa would abandon apartheid, that the man on the podium would be elected president of the country five years later. We didn’t know whether the country would collapse into complete chaos or slide easily to a happy conclusion, or – what we might have guessed but really didn’t – would go through great struggles to find its way. We only knew we were on the cusp of change, that there was a huge energy gathered.

Looking back, we forget that, at any moment, we didn’t know what would happen in the future. We impose a kind of certainty on the past. (Surely, at some level, everyone knew the Allies would win the Second World War. And wasn’t the internet obvious?)

Poets know no better ‘how it will all turn out’ than anyone else does. In this sense, poems are not at all timeless – they are indeed an artifact of a moment. They tell us how we felt when…

Poet control freak meets e-publishing

Friday, December 14th, 2012

Okay, so it’s a control thing.

Poets like me really, really care about how their work looks on a page. Don’t mess with my line breaks, buddy.

Now e-publishing should be a big sparkly gift box with a bow on it for poets struggling to get their books out beyond the corner store. But we’re looking the gift horse in the mouth and complaining about its teeth.

Case in point: for years, I’ve written a poem every Christmas for friends and family. The staff Christmas lunch. How the dog might feel about the season. Christmas baking. Solstice turning points. Whatever subject I can find in the barrel. This year, I had the bell-bright idea of putting a dozen of them together as an electronic chapbook to sell as a little fundraiser for the Edmonton Poetry Festival’s school program.  Easy-peasy, I thought. A little formatting, maybe a day or two, and we’re up and away like Rudolph’s sleigh.…

However, I ran straight into E-pub and Mobi and their sisters. To you, dear reader, it may seem like an unfettered good that you can read text in point sizes bigger than Santa’s hat, or on eensie-elf cell-phone screens. But you’ll bugger up my line breaks. I’ve seen books of poetry in electronic formats and it ain’t pretty.

However, I did discover iBooks. (We’re talking early November here. Remember, I thought a day or two?) “Woo-hoo,” I thought. I could manage this – how many photo albums and stuff have I done in iPhoto? Could it be that different? And the program promised me the possibility of making the pages look pretty. Like everyone else, I have a few artsy shots of Christmas tree needles that accidentally came out better than my usual snaps. (Actually, they are pictures of a rosemary bush, but don’t tell.)

“Jump in,” the program seemed to say.

It was like jumping into a vat of Christmas pudding.

Three days later, the basic structure still eluded me. There’s a table-of-contents thing that I should have started with. The format is set up to do books with chapters, but poems make awfully short chapters. I had managed to set it up so the pages only open in landscape format.

But eventually, slowly, I got to the point where it did look nice enough. “Up we go,” I told the cat.

Then I discovered that it’s easy, sure enough, to upload free books. If you want to sell them, you have to get involved with the U.S. internal revenue service. Well, “IRS” may partially rhyme with “Christmas”, but the acronym invokes Clauses that I, for one, would rather not get involved with.

On the other hand, free books don’t make a great fundraiser. I turned to Regina McCreary of Human-Powered Design, a lovely girl who helped me get the sleigh back in gear – a human Rudolph without the red nose. Things hung around in Apple’s cyber-space for a while, but here, a mere twelve days before Christmas – Ta Da! My Twelve Poems of Christmas is up.

Of course, since iBooks only works on an iPad, you can only read it if you’ve got one of those gadgets. That’s the Apple control freak coming out. And you still have to read it in landscape format so it looks the way I want it to. That’s the dictatorial poet in charge.

It’s just the way it is. Sorry. You could always just make a donation to the poetry festival.

On the publication of my first e-book

Friday, August 24th, 2012

Well, yes, I feel conflicted.

Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science is now available as an e-book. And I’m standing here with a mental balance scale tilting back and forth like a confused Statue of Liberty.

On the one hand, the beauty of creating with words is that they can be encoded in any form from papyrus to LED and then lifted from that coding to be resurrected in a human brain. It’s rather like DNA – information can continually start over in a new generation. Shakespeare’s words can be poured into the mouths of actors time and time again, costumed and re-costumed, re-imagined, re-rehearsed. We don’t have to pore over the pages of the First Folio to experience what the writer created.

Personally, I’ve never been a ‘collector’ of books. One copy of Alice in Wonderland is all I need. I used to get mildly exasperated at someone who kept buying me different editions of it for Christmas under the strange illusion that I’d like to possess more than one. I have enough books to squash on a shelf, thanks.

And yet, and yet … There’s another kind of continuity besides the constant reincarnation of words. It’s the way objects go on in time. Who wouldn’t want a chance to have that four-hundred-year-old First Folio volume on a table in front of her and turn its pages of a particular shape and heft and shade? It’s the one-of-a-kind pleasure of the plastic, visual arts – the way a painting or a clay pot is evidence of human craft and design, thought and muscle control.

Even if books have not been one-of-a-kind objects since the printing press began to turn them out in batches, they are still designed objects. They appeal to more than one sense; they are differentiated by weight and kinetic sensation and scent. But every book on my e-reader is the same weight and the ‘pages’ feel the same to my fingertips. The only sense I can apply is my over-worked visual cortex.

And even the visual cortex can’t use some of its basic skills when reading an e-book. Words may take shape in our restless heads, but it’s frequently nice to be able to nail them down on a page, to ruffle through them again and think “That bit was on a left-hand page about half-way down towards the back of the book….”

Yes of course there are search functions , and you can have sound files embedded in electronic documents and all that, but still… I’ll never think, “That bit came when the little bar on the bottom was about three-quarters of the way towards the end.”

Intersecting Sets – the print version – is a beautiful book. Designer Alan Brownoff has made it a little narrower and a little taller than the usual trade book dimensions. The royal-blue cover has the Mandelbrot set wrapped all the way around it – you’ll see the front on the e-version, but not the way it continues all the way around the spine and onto the French flaps. Nor will you feel the satiny cover, or see the elegant font chosen for the inside.

(It isn’t just me who finds it to be an elegant artifact. Alan has won a number of awards for it in the 2012 PubWest Book Design Awards and from the Association of American University Presses.)

The e-version is pretty good as e-books go. Some of the design features have been kept successfully. But it’s not the same and it can’t be.

So – tilt the scale one way – I’m glad to have an e-version out, glad people can order it from anywhere and not pay the shipping costs, glad that you can read it without the bleach and chemicals of paper, glad the DNA of my words can wiggle through the cyberworld to replicate itself without adding to the sag of bookshelves. Glad no-one is going to buy anyone collector e-ditions.

But I’m also glad to be on the threshold of this new world, with one foot in the old one. The days when a publisher would undertake to put my writing into a three-dimensional form.

With French flaps. Now that really tips the scale.

 

 

 

Another transit of Venus

Tuesday, June 5th, 2012

To mark the rare astronomical event happening today, here’s a poem. “Transits of Venus” appeared in my first poetry collection, Time Travels Light.

Transits of Venus

Vancouver airport. I have crossed this space before

leaving lovers – a small planet moving slowly

over a vast and polished floor, circled by strangers.

 

Beyond the lounge window, gray skies, gray tarmac.

Straight, white, painted lines plane off across

the wide-winged delta and intersect the arc

 

of the horizon. I watch a train of luggage carts

cut a tangent towards me, towed through a bubble

of silence – sound severed from me by glass –

 

and think of moon buggies, vehicles designed

to cross the surface of a satellite, exploring flat

gray plains, Mare Oscularum, Mare Incognita.

 

I am exploring the thought of leaving you –

you the men who stayed there on the Island,

you, the men who left on flights back east.

 

Transits of Venus occur perhaps too often

in my life. The inner planets, small separate

circles, cross the blazing surface of the sun

 

and then separate, depart to shine alone,

the wandering ones together only for a time,

contained by the bright circumference of love.


Math and trap doors

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

“Oh, yes,” I’ve been saying to my friends. “I’m just back from the Banff International Research Station for Innovative Mathematics and Discovery.” I feel like a kid impressing her classmates with news of a trip to Disneyland.

I toss the name off as if I could actually tell a Gaussian distribution curve from a Faustian one. This airiness conceals the huge alarm I felt that first morning, walking into a smallish classroom with the Banff mountains like bright, attentive students beyond the picture windows.

I was here through the kind invitation of Robert Moody. A mutual friend had introduced me to him when I needed to find some illustrations for my new book, Intersecting Sets: A Poet Looks at Science.  When he finally read the published book, he thought I might be interested in coming to a particular BIRS workshop on “Mathematics: Measure, Maker and Muse of the Arts.”

The invitation to Banff thrilled me, but it also tipped me through a trap door in my psyche.  I would be surrounded by people who negotiated the academic environment easily. The list of participants detailed their various affiliations, but I had to be categorized as ‘independent.’ That sounds a lot sturdier than I felt. University had been a very scary place for me four decades ago. All my fellow students seemed to know so much more than me, to be so much more sophisticated than a kid from Outer Scarberia. I never seemed to have the right answers in class, the right clothes. And at that time I was only coping with the English program – a language I could supposedly understand – not the dense math language of symbol  and equation.

So here I was. Nor could I just sit at the back of the class and absorb. At some point I was going to have to stand up and wring myself out. I’d have to talk to them. By the time I actually did so, my brain was melting jelly.

I intended to talk about metaphor, how it is an underlying mode of thought, not just a decoration, and applies to all realms of creation. Fortunately, writers can read bits of what they’ve written, and at least those sentences are coherent. I got through the outline of what I meant to say. But, in the discussion afterwards, when David Mumford asked a question about how we might teach metaphor better, I could only look at him and think, “A Fields medalist is asking me a question. What the $%@# do I say now?”

I gave some feebly irrelevant response. It was only afterwards, when the neural jelly was starting to re-set, that I thought, “For heavens sake, Alice, that whole chapter of the book is about how we can teach and learn metaphorical thinking!”

Even though this Uriah-Heep ‘umbleness had taken over my brain like an evil twin, I did manage to shake its cling aside during the week and step into that Magic Kingdom where information and ideas make their click-click-click combinations.  A number of talks concerned the area of stylometry in visual art. How can you use mathematics to identify features – brushstrokes, textural fluctuations – to decide whether a painting really is by Van Gogh or if it belongs to his Arles period? It may sound like a question that’s only interesting to art historians, but it also goes to the heart of making art. A painting is a physical object created through muscle control and repetitive modes of thought. How stuck do we get as artists into relying on our habits? Can we ever shake those patterns up at a fundamental level?

(Could I ever really write a decent haiku?)

As the week went by,  an effervescence of topics led in all directions, crossing like Venetian canals. James Wang  told us how his group has built a website to compare their computer-generated rankings of a photograph’s aesthetic quality with how much people actually like the photos. The work of trying to create computer versions of human thought is fascinating in and of itself, but in his preface to the main talk, James casually mentioned his earlier work on identifying the gender of the handprints in ancient cave paintings.

(You mean all those beautiful drawings were created by men and women? It wasn’t just a guy thing?)

Craig Kaplan showed how you can use a famous math challenge, the Travelling Salesman Problem, to create an algorithm that will draw half-tone pictures. (How does a brain assemble lines and dots into images?) Luke Wolcott used extracts from his thesis as the lyrics for a musical composition, using the phrase ‘you have to stay in this universe.’ (Mathematicians are always being told they ‘have to stay in this universe’ when they’re solving an equation. Don’t we all?)

We looked at the math of Persian mosaic designs and shoved round tables together to create large versions with blue tape. We looked at the exhibits being designed for the new Museum of Mathematics in New York and tried to twist the puzzle pieces brought by mathematical sculptor George Hart back into their neat cubes.

Now that I am home and the mountains are no longer looking over my shoulder, I have slammed the trap door shut on my evil twin and am thinking how rich the intersections of thought make us. I would answer David Mumford’s question properly now.

We don’t ‘teach’ metaphor any more than we teach people to breathe. We put a pile of different things together and encourage them to find the points of contact and the relationships between those points. It doesn’t matter whether we are in a schoolroom, a seniors’ centre or a gathering of eminent mathematicians. We just play in order to develop metaphor’s basic ‘muscle memory’ in the brain. We put a poet in a room with mathematicians, a mathematician in the room with poets.  We take ourselves to Disneyland – not the Disneyland of pre-programmed rides and candy floss, but the Magic Kingdom of collision, of discovery, of our human handprints on rock.

A poem for the Year of the Rabbit

Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

turning point

“Turning Point” is a poem originally written for the last Year of the Rabbit, in 1998. Our hopes don’t change.

In defense of Sheherazad

Friday, August 27th, 2010

A group of fundamentalist lawyers in Egypt, oddly called “Lawyers without Shackles” wants to shackle Sheherazad. They’d like to purify the salacious passages in The Thousand and One Nights, that glorious phantasmagoria of narrative that has endured for centuries.

I immediately want to spring vehemently to Sheherazad’s defense. After all, she was one of the inspirations for my own Office Tower Tales about the tricky relations of power between men and women. Every writer draws on the immense roiling cauldron of literature as a source of inspiration. To censor a work is to remove it from a treasury that belongs to the world, not to one small stone-walled cellar.

But then I took a breath. It’s too easy to think of this containment effort uniquely in terms of contemporary Islamic fundamentalism and forget that 19th-century translators also tidied up the Arabian Nights for the tender ears of Victorians. They put Sir Richard Burton’s fuller, frolicking version on high shelves behind glass doors, out of the reach of children. (Not that the average child cold have made sense of Burton’s ornately twee diction anyway.)

In fact, oh modern parent, I’d challenge you to read Sheherazad’s story of the porter’s dalliance in the house of three beautiful sisters to your nine-year-old without a bright blush. I’m glad there was a version my mother could read to me without prompting innocent questions about pussy.

The issue of censorship is too big and complex for a blog item. Of course I defend our right to the uncensored versions. But I have this much in common with people who want to control what we read: I agree that stories and art are powerful. They can change how we think. The tales we tell ourselves over and over condition our brains, and sometimes we should be careful what stories we tell.

However, what these poor shackled lawyers don’t quite get is that removing the sex from The Thousand and One Nights actually removes its morality. Oh, perhaps you might eliminate the porter’s dalliance without too much harm – it’s an elaborate anecdote leading to a shaggy-dog pun. But in the rest of the narrative, the sex is central.

King Shahrayar and his brothers witness graphic episodes of infidelity on the part of their wives. They are deeply wounded, hurt almost to the death, and become convinced that women are irretrievably false. The King’s solution is to punish the whole gender – he’ll marry a new bride each day and send her to the chopping block right after the wedding night. He’s not going to be betrayed again.

Sheherazad realizes this embittered monarch has to be stopped. His violence is unhinging society. So she offers herself as a bride; her armament is story. She artfully keeps the king interested – he won’t have her beheaded until he finds out the end of the tale the next night … and the next … and the next.

When I first read the Bowdlerized version of the Arabian Nights, I couldn’t figure out why the king was going around killing wives one after the other. He didn’t seem to deserve any kind of redemption. I felt  a sensible woman would have taken a knife into the bedchamber rather than a narrative and helped society as well as herself by finishing him off.

The moral of the complete story is that women are sexual beings, that sexuality can bring harm and destabilization as well as delight, but that female sexuality cannot be controlled by male violence. In one significant episode, part of their process of embitterment, the king and his brother meet a sleeping demon with his head in the lap of a beautiful young woman. The demon keeps her in a locked glass box at the bottom of the sea, but she shows Shayrayar the rings from 98 men who have made love to her when she carefully moved the demon’s sleeping head from her lap. She invites the king and his brother to make that number up to a nice, round one hundred lovers. In this case, cuckolding the violent demon is almost a commendable act. He is ‘the enemy of mankind,’ says the young woman. This episode really convinces the king that women will get around any locks or controls put on them.

It is Sheherazad — wise, good and merry — who solves the moral conundrum posed by this episode.  Through her storytelling, she inhibits the possessive aggressiveness of men (“the enemy of mankind’) and puts the sexuality of male and female into context so that social cohesion can be restored and maintained.

The attempt to clean naughty bits out of the Arabian Nights has an air of faint silliness, like to trying to keep the princess in her glass box.  Sheherazad’s complete narrative, on the other hand, shows us that we need to encounter sexuality, understand its power and keep it in its place. Otherwise, we risk the kind of world where a husband who murders women can somehow become a suitable and accepted hero.

Is that really a story for any child to grow up hearing?

Sister act

Wednesday, April 7th, 2010

A fat box arrived in the mail last week – my sister’s book, “Closed Adoption Policy in the 1960s: Exploring the construction of motive through fiction” by Carol Major. It’s the result of her doctorate in creative writing, published by a company that selects PhD theses and prints them up for sale mainly to university libraries. Someone is going to pick up that academic tome and fall into a wonderful novel.

It’s a bit odd, really, being a poet with a sister who writes novels. (“Are there any more writers in your family?” asked one magazine editor nervously after the publication had accepted pieces from me, my father and Carol.) I guess I have to admit that I felt apprehensive when she first took up writing a few years back, as though she was treading on my turf. After all, she had been the vivacious, popular one with great hair. And right away she was writing better dialogue than I did.

I figured I had two things insulating me from competition. One, that’s she’s down in Australia and so would be sending her work into quite a different market. The other was that I had a fifteen-year head start on her in terms of publishing books while she had been bringing up a family.

I didn’t realize that I had another publishing advantage – that I was writing poetry instead of novels. Poets whine a lot about the difficulty of finding a publisher. I had to start a publishing company with friends to bring out my own first book. However, though poetry may be marginal in terms of readership, it is paradoxically a little easier to publish it. Nobody expects a book of poetry to sell more than a few hundred copies, so nobody has big expectations. My early books could be published by tiny optimistic presses from Victoria to Fredricton, until I was taken in by the University of Alberta Press.

But novels – they’re fatter, financially more demanding to print and market. Printing five hundred copies doesn’t seem to be an option. The stakes are higher, the expectations steeper. Carol’s novel was taken up promptly by a leading agent in Australia and shopped around to the big publishing houses. But it didn’t quite fit anyone’s season, anyone’s niche. “We’re not sure how to market it,” she was told. They didn’t think they could sell the fifty thousand copies that would make it worth their while.

And yet, when I opened that box last week, I sat down and read the whole story all over again, absorbed in its characters and lyric description. It’s the story of a woman coming to terms with the fact that she gave a child up for adoption. Carol has caught that cusp of time in the early 70s when a tectonic shift in social attitudes took place. A whole institutional system had existed to find babies for nice families and coerced girls into giving up those babies in order to be ‘good’ and self-sacrificing. Then suddenly, the card house of social attitudes collapsed.  Carol makes this story real and vital.

I’m over the sibling rivalry. I would even cheerfully give up my head-start; I wish my sister had been able to write much sooner. She has been caught in a different tectonic shift: the massive financial upheaval of the book-publishing industry in the early 21st century, which feels it can’t afford to gamble (even if every new title is inherently a gamble.) So we end up with the winner-take-all fractal phenomenon described by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in which one book will account for a massive percentage of sales.

We need more than the literature of best-sellers, and perhaps the technological upheaval in electronic book publishing will allow that to happen. I’m moderately hopeful that, just as my indie musician friends are connecting with audiences in different ways, novelists will be able to do that too. Then readers will be able to find the wonderful other books like Carol’s. But for now – get your university library to order in a copy of “Closed Adoption Policy in the 1960s.” Don’t tell them it’s a novel. Sneak down and read it over lunch.

A poem for Valentine’s

Saturday, February 13th, 2010

For centuries, poets have been instructing their poems to go off and carry words and feelings out into the world, hoping they will find kindly readers.  ”Go little poem,” (or “book,” or “song,”) is a common phrase that goes back to the literature of ancient Rome. In the Middle Ages, such an ’envoy’ often apologized for the poem’s inadequacies and asked for the reader’s forgiveness.

I like messing around with traditional forms like the sonnet. For my Valentine envoy, I imagined my poem as one of those small Voyager spacecraft, travelling out beyond the boundaries of the solar system. An alien intelligence, finding one of them, would surely realize right away that it was an artefact made with purpose.

And, of course, the poem is for my dear Valentine, David.

Valentine Envoi

 Go, little poem, into the space between

planets, across the unbounded page

inscribed by stars. A tiny, ticking machine

of levers and polished surfaces –

clear evidence of intent, design.

 

Let the aliens who intercept it

learn the virtues of this love of mine,

his kindly constellation. Let them share

my wonder at the dense relationship

of soul and smile, within the dear,

dear boundaries of skin. Go little ship

of space beyond the gravity of time,

and — beating always — prove

that there is, indeed, a god

of love.

 

 

A Christmas poem

Tuesday, December 8th, 2009

Where did I put it…

It must be here, somewhere,
under the remnants of wrappings,
bows, December’s red-and-green frenzy.

The cat thinks it’s hiding in the needles
of the Christmas tree, can be poked into motion
like a tremulous ornament.

The dog thinks it must be in the food cupboard -
has sniffed its ginger tail, caught a whiff
of soft cinnamon paws.

But none of us can find this little, still creature.
Perhaps if I looked outside, in the trees’ woven basket,
looped with the moon’s silver ribbons?

But no, I keep fumbling through the frantic shine
of credit cards and hunting in my handbags.
Oh, where have I put it this time?

 

by Alice Major, who hopes you can find
the Christmas spirit

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