No Supposing How Good Hypotheticals Is

Hypotheticals

Poetry

By Leigh Kotsilidis

Coach House Books October 2011, 96 pp. $17.95 CDN

Reviewed by: James Onusko

Poetry is not for all readers, even the most erudite and sophisticated of them, have often intimated that reading poetry is very challenging. In the end, this is true. Reading and trying to make sense of poetry, particularly excellent poetry, is no mean feat. However, I think that most readers who spend some time engaging with Leigh Kotsilidis’s poetry will find it both rewarding, stimulating and satisfying. The slim collection of poems is organized into four parts including: I) Evidence; II) Variables; III)  Falsifications; and IV) Conclusions.

Kotsilidis’s poem’s have appeared in several journals and have been anthologized in a handful of publications. She was a finalist in both 2009 and 2010 for the CBC Literary Awards. Leigh’s talents are not contained to writing great poetry. She is a co-founder of littlefishcartpress. She also works as a graphic designer and lives in Montreal, Quebec.

What the author has done is use some of the core beliefs of modern science to question meaning and truth through powerful language. No genre is as taut and meaning-filled as poetry and Kotsilidis uses this to full effect. Hers is the type of poetry, like so much of the best, to be read aloud. Furthermore, I do not believe that she is offering any bold pronouncements marked by finality. In her best poems she is offering up a conversation; an invitation to enter a dialogue that views the world with wonderment and constant questioning. Science is presented more as an ongoing search based on hope vis-à-vis seeking a final destination that will guarantee unquestioned certainty.

In this poem, Chest Wounds, Kotsilidis’s skills are in full display as she explores some of her major themes:

First there is a flutter.

Not wings or eyelashes,

but a flap of unhinged skin.

 

What gapes? What gasps?

Not wound, windpipe, or gash,

but lesions of men on a gauzy path.

 

Blades clank, clash, until shafts

sink in –  a slowing, a lag, a yawn

as brains spawn panic.

 

Men stop, drop in their spots,

roll shirts into cotton batting,

tighten ponytails into tourniquets,

 

contort their torsos and limbs

into rocks resembling the dead.

When certain their enemy has fled,

 

toss their losses to the wind.

Not as seeds, words or hymns,

but overripe cherries, split to pits.

Unfortunately, as with all poetry written in the last 40 years or so, much of this collection will go unread. I find it fascinating and contradictory in many ways that many critics and observers argue that the majority of people no longer have the attention spans to read like we did collectively, say a century ago, yet literature is much more accessible than in the past. An interesting exercise it to try reading some literature from the early nineteenth century, and you will be struck by how long the paragraphs and sentences were in most texts. Epic poems are almost impossible to find in the twenty-first century. In this context, it would seem that post-structural poetry would be welcomed by readers in that most contemporary poems are rarely more than a page and many collections can be read in a handful of hours at most.

Kotsilidis’s poetry is the kind of writing that provides an opportunity, a gateway, to returning to poetry as a reader. She has chosen to tackle some of our grandest questions and infuses the writing with humour, questioning and compassion. There is not a lot to criticize in this collection. At times, I believe she could have lengthened certain poems and explored certain paths even more than she does. I can appreciate the open-endedness of some of the poems and I understand that that is precisely the point at times. Additionally, she includes some excellent introductions where she offers anecdotes from other writers such as John Hutchins and I think she could have done this even more as in all instances they fitted brilliantly with the rest of the poem.

This is a beautiful collection of poetry. While many readers, particularly those that do not read a lot of poetry will find it challenging, at times, to read, I believe that everyone who picks up the collection and decides to be open to it will find it well worth the effort. Kotsilidis is a brilliant writer and we should all hope that there is far more to come from her in the near future.

*A copy of Hypotheticals was sent to me to read and review. It was not purchased.

Visiting With Jodi Aoki

Jodi Lee Aoki, Trent University archivist and author of Revisiting “Our Forest Home,” kindly agreed to respond to a few questions abour her recent book featuring the letters of Frances Stewart. In our discussion, she talks about some of the challenges of writing about nineteenth-century life, how Stewart continues to resonate with her in her daily life, and some of her possible future writing plans.

JO: Can you tell us what the most challenging aspect of compiling and editing these letters was for you?

JLA: Definitely the fact that many of the archival documents are copies or extracts which were made by recipients of Frances’s letters and passed on to other family members and friends contributes to an extremely complicated set of raw data. Trying to decipher originals from copies and identifying the anomalies in text between the originals and copies was time-consuming. Choosing the content for Revisiting “Our Forest Home” was also complicated by the fact that I did not have access to some original letters which Ellen Dunlop, Frances Stewart’s daughter, published in the 1889 and 1902 editions of Our Forest Home; these letters may no longer exist. An important distinction between the Revisiting edition and Ellen’s earlier editions is that not all letters are represented in all three publications; the earlier publications include letters which were outside the scope of my project around the originals, and the Revisiting edition includes letters which Ellen may not have had access to. All three editions contribute in significant but different ways to the telling of Frances’s story.

JO: Why do you think it’s important for readers to revisit an era that has a great deal written about it?

JLA: If I flash-forward 200 years and look at all the ways in which our lives intersect, how each member of a community contributes to the community and to community development and how we all do influence the governing decisions of our leaders, I can see that it is the complex interweaving of all the lives of a population, of both women and men, which constitutes the essence of human experience. For this simple reason, it is important to consider the writings of nineteenth-century women as an incredible resource for furthering our knowledge of the period in general – the women did not live in isolation from husbands and brothers who were more commonly associated with having authority and power. The personal narratives of Upper Canadian immigrant women – and men – contribute meaningfully to the historical canon and have the potential to constructively extend a founding consensus which has tended to endorse the white male gentry renditions of the historical past.

JO: You’ve worked with these letters for years Jodi, what did you discover about Stewart that you hadn’t known before, in your writing and editing processes?

JLA: I became increasingly aware of the depth of Frances’s feelings of sadness at being parted from her loved ones in Ireland. These feelings permeate all her writing; her stoic acceptance of her situation in the New World seems to be intricately tied, at least in part, to a sense of duty which she had come to embody.

JO: Did you find yourself identifying with Stewart by the end of the editing and writing process?

JLA: I wouldn’t say that I identified with Frances, but I do think that I got closer to seeing who she was. There are so many opportunities for research in these documents. What is intriguing is that, at the end of the day, the writings of Frances Stewart will continue to be what they are, just what their author meant them to be, regardless of the meaning which we impose on them. We can never really “know” her.

JO: Was this project something you would undertake again Jodi?

JLA: I would. It was fascinating to become so involved in the letters. I sometimes look out across the Otonabee from my work-place at Trent University and try to imagine Frances walking along the river between her daughters’ houses in her later life. Frances continues to be of great interest to me.

JO: Were there any other books that you used as models in crafting this one?

JLA: I pored over many books which deal with immigrant writings before I decided how I wanted to present the letters in Revisiting “Our Forest Home”. A few books which were especially helpful were: A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: The Journals, Letters, and Art of Anne Langton, edited by Barbara Williams; and three books edited by Carl Ballstadt, Elizabeth Hopkins, and Michael Peterman: I Bless You in My Heart: Selected Correspondence of Catharine Parr Traill; Susanna Moodie: Letters of a Lifetime; and Letters of Love and Duty: The Correspondence of Susanna and John Moodie.

JO: Is there anything in nineteenth-century Canadian literature (fiction or non-fiction) that is of particular interest to you Jodi?

JLA: For my research on Frances Stewart, the many books published by Catharine Parr Traill and Susanna Moodie were especially of interest as they helped to provide context for visualizing Frances’s life. Travel literature of the period, including writings which cover the explorations of Canada’s North during the nineteenth-century/early twentieth-century, is also of immense interest to me.

JO: The book is shaped by a feminist perspective. Was it important to you to frame it this way?

JLA: This is an interesting question for me. I guess I’ve never really thought of myself in a feminist framework. Framing this book as I did came absolutely naturally to me; it wasn’t conscious. This does make me a feminist, doesn’t it!

JO: How has the book been received by Frances Stewart’s family?

JLA: Some Stewart family descendants attended the book launch and were very supportive of my project. I had met with a few members of the family while doing my research and they were very helpful in ironing out many elusive details. I heard from some who have read the book and they expressed that they enjoyed it and appreciated that I had undertaken this project. I am grateful for their support. I’ve always felt a responsibility to the family to do the best job I could to represent Frances accurately.

JO: Do you have any plans to write or edit another book in the near future, Jodi?

JLA: I’m very interested in nineteenth-century Upper Canadian history. Currently, I’m looking at other women besides Frances who immigrated to the Peterborough area early in the nineteenth century. Peterborough has a rich legacy of women’s writings from that period. I’ve recently given a paper about six European settler women who arrived in the Peterborough area between 1822 and 1837. I’m interested in understanding how these women coped when they found themselves, separated from their families and loved ones, forging out new lives in the bush in an unknown country. I’m aiming through this lens to glimpse the ways in which female lives intersected community development in the colony. The authors’ representations of their lives in their writings are intricately mixed with nostalgia and memory of their lives in the homeland and this is an intriguing area for me.

Jocelyne Stone Shares

A good friend and emerging author here in Peterborough has agreed to share some of the challenges and small triumphs that she has experienced in her nascent work. More specifically, I asked her to offer us what she has gained from a current critiquing course. She was a first reader for an International Writing Competition, Whispering Words. She writes both junior and Young Adult fiction. She has had her work reviewed by Canadian publishers, but nothing has come to print, yet; that will soon change. I am certain you will find this piece as thoughtful and revealing as I have.

On Being a Writer

By: Jocelyne Stone

Anybody can write, but it takes hard work and a whole lot of patience to write well. Sure you need to add some imagination and maybe even some talent, but if you don’t put the effort into making your craft better, honing your writing skills, the chances of you making a career out of writing is almost impossible.

I’ve been writing, seriously writing, now for four years. During that time I’ve taken many writing courses, been to many seminars and belong to a wonderful writing critique group, Critical Ms, created from a mix of extremely talented writers—both published and not.

Aside from whatever I’d learned through high school or University English classes, when I took my first writing course I knew nothing. Over the first few courses I began to get an understanding of the concept of a story—setting, plots, characters, point of view (POV), and narrative style. Then I started to learn the importance of scenes, and how to write dialogue.

As my knowledge grew, so did my writing—I started to get better at it.

Currently I am taking a critiquing course offered by Sam Hiyate—the co-founder and literary agent for The Rights Factory. Had I started out taking this course in the beginning of my writing career, I think I would have gone home crying and packed it in. It’s not that Sam or the others in the class are mean, but it’s definitely not a course for the faint-of-heart. In fact, I don’t think any critiquing class is.

For those who may not be familiar with a critiquing course, the process is fairly simple. You bring in a piece of a certain size, share it with the class by reading it aloud and then sit back while the class picks your work apart. The critiquing at times can be gruelling; being told your favourite scene is actually flat and does nothing to move the story along—well that sometimes hurts.

On the flip side you can also be told there was one phrase or sentence that really stuck with them, or that one of your scenes was gripping from start to finish. Those are the moments that make your heart sing, or at least that’s the case with me.

My goals or what I hope to gain from my writing courses now are completely different then what they were when I first started writing. My goals in the beginning were simple and truth be told very vain. I wanted to be told I was a good writer and that what I was writing was brilliant. Now whenever I want this to happen I ask my mom for her opinion! She is by far my biggest cheerleader and in the writing world it’s important to have cheerleaders!

I like to think I’ve matured, if only just a little! So my goals have shifted a bit. Now I want to know if my characters are likeable.  Does their story arc follow them from beginning to end? Is my voice, or rather the voice of my character clear? What is my pacing like? Is it too fast, too slow? Is my POV consistent? Am I showing and not telling?

Sam’s class is probably the fifth critiquing course I’ve taken over my career thus far. At the end of this course I hope to have a finished piece that is publishing-worthy. In most other critiquing courses this would be a lofty goal, but Sam’s class is different and I write for children. (This comment is only made in regards to children’s books generally having less words. The argument about which genre is more challenging to write is a whole article in itself.)

In other critiquing courses I’ve taken you share your work twice, perhaps three times, over a twelve week period, depending how many people are in the class. In Sam’s class there are only six of us and each week we are required to bring up to twenty new pages. This is a fast pace but it helps keep me on track. The other benefit is the other members in the class get to know my story and characters more intimately resulting in a better overall critique.

What is extremely important to remember is what others say about your work is their opinion and an opinion doesn’t make it right. In most cases if the critique pertains to the character arc, the flow or change in POV, then the advice is worth listening to, but even then not all the time.

There is a fine balance to knowing what to listen to and what to shut out. This process is much easier to do when you have a strong idea of the story itself. The less sure you are about the outline of your story the more difficult it is to distinguish helpful from harmful.

The critiquing classes I’ve taken have far out-weighed the monetary costs. I’ve learned, stretched and grown as a writer. Rules of thumb I’ve gathered over time; be honest but show respect, critiques should be constructive not cruel, and most importantly, if ever there’s a disagreement tie goes to the writer.

A Forest That Merits Much Visiting

Revisiting “Our Forest Home”: The Immigrant Letters of Frances Stewart

By: Jodi Aoki  (Editor)

Dundurn Press, Jun 2011, 288 pp. $35.00 CDN

Reviewed by: James Onusko

 If you seek new vistas into the nineteenth century, and in particular, how some immigrant women in Canada coped with the vicissitudes of everyday life, then Jodi Aoki’s edited collection of Frances Stewart’s letters will not disappoint. With skill, profound thoughtfulness and empathy, Aoki allows readers to come to know Stewart as a complex woman with very real flaws and many strengths.

Jodi Aoki has been an integral part of the Trent University’s Archives for more than 20 years. She holds an M.A. in Canadian Studies and lives in Bethany, just outside of Peterborough. She has written articles and presented conference papers on nineteenth-century social history with an emphasis on the immigrant writings of women in Ontario.

Frances Stewart is part of a larger group of women, from nineteenth and early twentieth century Canada, who have left a lasting imprint on Canadian literature. The works of Susanna Moodie, Catharine Parr Traill, and E. Pauline Johnson continue to allow us to view this critical time in Canadian history through lenses not often offered. Stewart’s letters, certainly seeming to have an eye to a broader readership than just family and friends, are a link to a time that becomes increasingly distant, in many ways, from contemporary Canada. The letters are often filled with tenderness, longing, and profound sadness. However, Aoki provides us with letters that display Stewart’s keen wit, humour, pure joy and an ability to persevere through some very challenging life experiences. Despite her ‘alien’ status in the Canadian bush, Stewart’s spirit seems unwavering at most turns. It is inspiring to me that it was ongoing female friendships with family members and friends, that seemed to sustain Stewart the most through her most trying times. Make no mistake, this is a gendered story, and one that remains woefully under-represented in the ‘our’ Canadian historical record.

In this poignant excerpt, an aged Stewart, within weeks of her death, writes to her granddaughter:

Dear Birdie, do you know I am very apt to go to sleep when I am writing or reading and I am always vexed at being so lazy. And so my letter has been neglected but I can’t help it. My eye was sore but it is nearly well today and now it is so near dinnertime that I must pull all my papers and pens away as I am rather more inclined to eat than to write just at present but I hope you will write to me soon again. I have not had a letter from Illinois for a long time. I think Fannie Hay had one from Mama. And now dear Goodbye.

Believe me your very fond

Grandma F. Stewart

I did not find much fault in Aoki’s collection, although an overarching criticism is that I would have liked to read more from her own hand. The author’s introductory pages, to the different phases of Stewart’s life, range from three or four pages to a dozen. This context is wonderful, and twelve to fifteen pages of this, linking Stewart to broader Ontario and national narratives, may have helped many younger readers, and others not familiar with the histories of this period, to fit Stewart into these wider streams. There is a larger discussion of class that Aoki broaches, but does not delve into with great depth. Granted, Stewart did not seem to give this much thought in her writings, but more of Aoki’s analysis of class as an analytic category would have been welcomed. The visual images of the Stewart family, artifacts, and so forth were also relatively scarce. A lengthier section of these representations, higher image resolution, larger in size, and on glossy paper would have been an improvement. The book’s imagery did bring added texture and fullness to the words of both Aoki and Stewart. Finally, I would have liked added discussion within an international context from Aoki. Linking Stewart’s experiences to a possible transnational experience of American, Australian, and other colonial ‘settlers’ of this period, even briefly, would have added nuance and even more substance to an already excellent collection.

In the final analysis, there is so much more to like about this edited collection than dislike. Aoki’s book will be of interest to a wide range of readers. Students of early Ontario history will find a rich collection of social history focusing on women, families, and immigrant settler lives. General readers will find it accessible and compelling. It is a wonderful antidote for those who have grown tired of vanilla-filled political histories, and the re-tellings of ‘great’ men in nineteenth-century history. While this collection does not focus on the experiences of immigrant men in Ontario, I welcome this. As other feminist historians have argued for more than a generation now, that story has been told more than enough, and can be found in myriad publications. I will be filled with dismay with the next announcement of the upcoming publication of a ‘new’ look at the ‘extraordinary’ Sir John A. Macdonald volume that is likely sitting on the keyboard of some aging anglophile. Scholars and the curious general reader alike, will find much to relish in this edited collection that provides a wonderful opportunity to connect to a past that will speak to those among us who leave our homes, at times with much to risk, yet so much to gain.