In Praise of Oneness

I had just arrived home after brunching with an out-of-town friend, and was looking forward to a whole afternoon and evening of working on my MA poetry thesis, when a gust of irritation blew into me. I climbed the stairs, looking for it like a small animal lurking behind bookshelves. I was tired of my cold room, for when the light fell to the other side of the house, it was shadowy and blue. The library would close too soon to make the trek outwards worthwhile, and I couldn’t quite bear the thought of the dreary graduate study rooms or the florescent lights of Robarts. I did laundry, made soup, watched the hockey game, and did no writing; writing would not come as long as this indescribable mood held me.

It wasn’t until I was in bed, exhausted but not sleepy, my thoughts crawling up the cold walls, that the source of irritation occurred to me: I am never alone, unless falling asleep. This has been the case since I began living in cities, I am surrounded by people all of the time. I cannot so much as peel vegetables without pairs of moist eyes sliding over me, or go to study and write in my department without interrupting other students sharing tea and confidences. In cafés, I politely ignore people at other tables talking on their phones and nervously jerking their bodies, in libraries, patrons’ glances jerk up as I walk by, newspapers rustle, someone coughs. In subways we are packed in like pieces of fruit in a basket, in public washrooms another young woman reaches around me for soap, in restaurants with high rents, diners’ tables are squeezed so closely together that they can hear each other’s tax woes and marriage problems and travel plans.

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The Fine Art of Commenting

Last night at almost 11pm I zipped down to King St. to hand off a load of marked papers for my patient professor. I might have been able to meet him early the next morning, but I couldn’t stand having the thick stack in my room another moment. I wanted my desk– and mind– clear for the next task. I didn’t wish to be reminded of the countless hours I had spent the past week, making comments in margins until my fingers cramped.

For the thousandth time, I reminded myself of how lucky I was to have my tuition subsidized this way. In lieu of paying for my masters’ degree, I was handed forty or so essays to grade a few times per semester, along with the obligatory steady stream of plaintive student emails throughout the term to answer in as placating tone as I could muster. And unlike other jobs I’ve held, TAing and grading is the kind of task in which I feel I can be completely myself. My two most prominent qualities– helpfulness and being opinionated– are assets when giving criticism on undergraduate student work. I can mark wearing yoga pants, or watching hockey, or both, which would not fly in other workplaces that are not my bed.

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The Writing Life

It’s nearly dawn and the first light has appeared above the old townhouses. I’ve pulled another all-nighter, inadvertently, not realizing how the hours were slipping past in front of my laptop. The fact that my days and nights have reversed, yet again, leaves me feeling out-of-sync with the world, and a strange sense of regret. I crawl into bed, at last tired enough to perhaps fall asleep. Closing my eyes, I try to calm my thoughts. But the poem I’d been struggling with since I returned home at midnight is still flickering at me like a cracked lightbulb.

If there’d been an invisible observer in my room, it might’ve looked to him or her like I was doing anything but writing. I answered emails, revised an old boyfriend’s artist’s statement, made suggestions to someone’s special fields reading list, looked through a recently-purchased anthology of new poets. I caught up on my favourite TV show, tidied my room, updated Twitter. Yet hovering in the background of my desktop, was the open word file with my most recent draft, and at my hand was my favourite pen. While I did everything else, the poem floated like amniotic fluid within me, waiting to take shape. In between emails and podcasts loading, I rewrote the previous stanza, eliminating a phrase, hoping to see my way through to the next stanza. Hoping some line would carry me through to another day’s of work, and make the whole exhausting effort worthwhile.

The poem itself was one I’d abandoned years ago, because of its difficulty. It was about a train trip I took at nineteen across the country from Toronto to Vancouver, a city I’d never lived in, to start university. The trip took three days and three nights, and I’d never done anything like it before. I’d never been so alone, nor embarked on a journey that truly felt like my own. Whereas flying to one’s destination often plucks you out of your familiar orientations, the mind is more accepting of how train journeys moves you through space, and of the ratio of time required to distance traveled.  The poem attempted to capture this sense, and at the same time wonder about the previous generations of Canadians who had also become enamoured of the west, and of my own parents’ journeys, which I had heard of so often they seemed to overshadow my own. No wonder I had left the poem unfinished. When I realized it had a place in my current project, I excavated my notes and began afresh.

Just as I sighed into my duvet and cleared a little space in mind, a line jumped in to fill that vacuum. I repeated it to myself. It sounded good. It was the next line, the line I’d been struggling to hear. It had come to me like a gift, like so many gifts had come before, in the same way many others had snuck their way into my inner ear. I repeated again, hoping to memorize it, so that when I woke I would still hear it. I was truly exhausted now and didn’t want to get up again. I’d turned off the space heater and the room was getting cold. But to run the risk of forgetting it– I’d wake in agony, contemplating having to confront the poem again and feel and crawl my way through to the next stanza. There was no help for it. Like I had done many times before, I hauled myself out of bed, angry and annoyed. Did tax attorneys feel the need to do the same when a thought struck late at night? Or a veterinarian? A cable-repair service person? With these ungrateful thoughts, I opened my laptop again and re-awoke it, cursing the chosen profession that allowed me so little rest. Few people understand how physically taxing writing can be. And why should they? These complaints don’t fit in with the popular images of what a writer, or even a poet, are. They are best not expressed. No need to stultify or scare friends and family who encourage the writer much like a crowd might buoy up a long-distance runner from the sidelines.

I looked at the lines that I had repeated to myself, now having form on the screen. Yes, it was the right number of syllables, and it worked. There was no sound of applause or congratulation, no banners or prizes for this small triumph and this private work. Only the quiet of the room and the grace of the morning light.

Recipes for Summer

The first summer job I had was busing tables in a Thai Restaurant, though by the end of the summer I was taking orders too. I would work the lunch shift from noon till two, constantly refilling glasses of ice water at tables of civil servants on their break, walk home, and return as the dinner rush was starting. It was the summer our house was sold and I was back in Ottawa after my first year of university on the west coast. I had wanted to stay in Vancouver. I was disconsolate at seeing the same shabby streets, and I hardly saw the rest of my family. Never before, it seemed, had we all worked so much– my sister as a cashier at an art supply store on Bank Street, a coveted position for a high school student, my dad as the in-house framer at the rival Loomis & Tooles further towards the Glebe, and my mother setting up her little tables of jewellery nearly every day at the Byward Market.

After my lunch shift, I sometimes walked to meet my sister on her break in one of the food courts frequented by the government workers. We took to having glasses of chardonnay late at night when I came off my later shift, trying a different wine each time, trying to memorize the ones we liked best. Or one of us– my sister or myself would visit my mother so she could use the washroom or find an iced coffee. My dad would help her tear down after his shift at work. When I came home at eleven my mother had my dinner still warm for me, the stove light on through the warm July evenings. We were like weights attached onto the ends of a mobile, spinning around a shifting axis.

It had taken me a few weeks to find that job, after a friend of a family friend had heard someone’s daughter was looking for work. I was paid a pitiful wage, but had a share in the night’s tips that increased as the weeks progressed. The wait staff were all Chinese, though the impatient head cook could yell in several dialects– Hakka, Cantonese, Mandarin. The head waiter, a younger man who I later found out was a filmmaker, almost never smiled and was constantly correcting me. Halfway through the summer he abruptly did not appear again, and it was assumed he was involved in some film project. The second in command, a middle-aged man with a chipped look about him, spoke to me in Cantonese. He was often so busy with mixing drinks, adding bills and taking phone orders that I soon began conveying orders to the kitchen, written on slips of paper, and carrying out blue dishes of curry fragrant with basil, rice, ginger chicken.

In an old coffee burner, the urn was filled with the outer leaves of lemon grass stalks and filled with water. It was flicked on at the beginning of the night, and served in teapots with tiny, thimble sized glasses. Like the giant pot of yellow chicken curry on the stove, it was never empty. I was allowed to help myself to as much as I wanted to eat of it, and I dipped bowls straight into the thick coconut milk. I learnt all kinds of tricks in the kitchen, where I loved to linger. When a patron sent back her soup one night as too salty, the chef poured a little out and topped with hot broth. I finally acquired a taste for spicy food, mellowed by coconut milk. Each week or so one of the kitchen staff– a university-educated woman from mainland China make the paste for green curry in a small hand-blender. Lemongrass, basil, garlic, ginger, lime leaves, coriander, fish sauce, soy sauce, basil were whizzed together into a fragrant cacophony. When an order came up, the chef tossed in beef or chicken or shrimp into a sizzling wok, a generous spoonful of the paste, and then coconut milk until it bubbled and thickened.

Tonight, as my rice settled down, I stirred in pieces of basa fillet into leftover curry. And more basil– you can never add too much basil. Bok choy from the Korean market that let go of its water, easily. It is important not to let the fish overcook, but simmer very gently until it makes a little bit of broth. I tell people now that I’m quite particular about my Thai food because of that summer job. But maybe it’s actually something else I’m particular about. When you take your first taste of summer, the flavours should not be overwhelming. The flavours of discontent and delight should slowly magnify against the dulling effects of the heat. Later you cannot remember anything except the empty places it filled inside you.

I Will Never See the Sun

I have always preferred to change trains at St. George rather than at Yonge whenever possible. This morning as I walked up its slippery stairs, I thought of how it was the station I exited during my year working at Whole Foods, when I first moved to Toronto and ran out of money and worked almost forty hours a week, unrecognizable from the many other immigrant and working class people in low-paying jobs. Then I used to change trains to go up to Downsview when I went back to school and finished my degree at York. Now I’m a funded grad student, exiting onto St. George, looking quickly for bikers before crossing and pressing the elevator in the grand old Jackman building. I have, it seems, a Toronto story; and St. George station would be one of its backdrops. I’ve been fortunate to come such a long way, through the turnstiles.

Some bits of writing news: I received in the mail the latest issue of Canadian Literature with my poem, “Yard Work”. I sent it a year ago, and revised it heavily at Banff, so it’s with mixed feelings that I reread it in its published form now. You can see Issue #206 here if it pleases you. Incidentally, I ended up sitting next to the outgoing poetry editor at the journal, Larissa Lai, who was on her way to be the writer-in-residence at Guelph. I recognized her vaguely from a brief introduction years ago, and waited until the flight was almost over and both of us had exhausted our reading material before speaking to her in case I was a bother. At this stage for me, any exchange with an older, asian and female poet also working in academia is so precious to me, and I’ve been a fan of her poetry and criticism for years.

I also had a poem longlisted for the inaugural Geist Magazine’s Jackpine Sonnet Contest, which alas I did not win a prize for, but it was still a fun contest and for a poem I wrote in half a day, I was happy to be included to such good company. I had one of those rare instances where the poem seemed to come out of its own accord.

Finally, I have my little bird poems coming out in Diaspora Dialogues’ TOK 6 anthology in the spring. I picked up earlier volumes of this anthology when I first moved to Toronto, and this is an organization under the visionary helm of Helen Walsh, with a deft staff as well. The launch should be at the Gladstone Hotel on April 21, and I’ll follow up with that date. I’ve been asked to read and to be on the panel. I’ve never sat on a panel before; it was with a lot of trepidation that I accepted. I have always started shaking even at the thought of lots of eyes upon me, but reading in front of people will be good for me, like getting a vaccine or taking vitamins. You only choke or wince for a moment, and then hopefully your body absorbs the good stuff.

Poets-in-residence at universities are often under-used resources; this year Ronna Bloom is at U of T. This morning she gave a workshop titled “Writing with History”, specifically for Medievalists seeking another way to enter into dialogues with their material and with the past. I make a brief mention to Bede in one of my poems so I felt beholden to sign up. The Lillian Massey building is on the corner of Bloor and University, and I felt purposeful walking up its stone steps. She led a generous workshop, and almost everyone shared their exercises. Particularly one exercise in which she had us imagine having a favourite meal with an author yielded writing that was full of detail, smells and tastes, evoking lots of good-natured chuckles. I felt I had more workshop experience than most present, so held back, preferring instead to listen. I’ll definitely try inviting another ghost for dinner. Often I used these in-class writing exercises to dredge up some old failed or abandoned poem, and attack it again from a new angle. I plan to send her my short pieces, about bringing Sylvia Plath my mother’s roast duck with cherry jam, for use if she wishes if on the Poet in Community site.

What a lot of name-dropping I’ve been guilty of in this entry! Today my creative writing workshop also met our new facilitator, Michael Winter, who loosened us up immediately and gave us permission to do lots of things with our writing that perhaps we imagined we weren’t allowed to. It feels solid and gratifying to start up the workshop again in the new year. What a lucky girl I am. Now, if I only needed less sleep, I could prepare my submissions to the Hart House Literary Contest, revise poems for the Writers’ Trust Bronwen Wallace Contest, finish my “Portage” for the Malahat Long Poem contest, put together an application to Blue Mountain residency retreat, and throw whatever pages I have left over at the Summer Literary Seminar in Montreal.

Some Solstice Notes

I live in an old house; my room is on the third floor. In the winters the floors are so cold that I dread having to step on them in the mornings. I’ve just discovered that old liquor bottles make excellent hot water bottles, especially the flat green St. Remy’s brandy bottles. I have one tucked in the small of my back, which has been aching from weeks of sitting at my desk marking and spitting out termpapers full of words like “implicate”. This time of year always feels harried to me, a blur of  deadlines that make me wonder what the point of taking time off for holidays when the weeks beforehand are a frantic snowballing of sleep-deprived, nutrition starved and over-caffeinated owlish stress, usually culminating in a nervous collapse. I look up, and it seems the end of fall has flown by my window, to a soundtrack of Buke and Gass and J. Tillman, and my friends & roommates have new haircuts and new life-landmarks that drive home how the months have somersaulted by. It’s the peak  of winter; after the holidays and New Years, the days thankfully extend again, hours of light stretch out, spring seems like a faint speck of light that our eyes squint to see, that gradually enlarges until the groundhog can look for his shadow.

This year, at least, I’ve cut out many of the bad habits that usually accompany my late night roamings about the house, when everyone’s asleep, such as ramen noodles and cigarettes. Instead, I knit– secret santa and baby shower and birthday gifts, picking up the needles whenever I’m stuck on methodologies and thesis statements. There are some satisfactions that are too small to share and yet are like shining beads to my day, such as being able to drop stitches down to a row where I’ve neglected to M1, and being able to reproduce the extra stitch so it looks exactly like all the others, without having to rip rows back. Or a cup of lemon sorbet accompanied by coffee, with a spoon of cocoa powder in it.

This year, too, I have access to an “office”, affectionately named by the graduate students in my department. In the carrels, under the bright fluorescent lights, there is the consolation of other pairs of eyes and ears, willing to compare the advantages of the various campus libraries, or to commiserate over the required bibliography course, or the endless marking, or countless other indignities. I am amongst kindred here, not just my cohort.

I’ve often been mistaken as a masters’ student in the years I was out of school, and now that I’m in a program it seems some necessity has been met. Though the glamour of being a grad student quickly dulls. Under the relentless workload, it at times feels more like an exercise in time management than one of intellectual rigour. Buried under a stack of midterms, I officially felt like an academic when I found myself puzzling about when I was supposed to have time to do my own research, with so many comma splices to correct? Did I really want five more years of these kinds of lessons in hoop-jumping and meeting of expectations I had no say in setting up? Asked whether I would continue onto my doctorate one lunch time in the graduate lounge, the whole room went quiet.

Quietly, incidentally as the snow that fell all day today, pages of new poems accumulate. Generations of poor but vivid young scholars also shivered in various attics and garrets and rented rooms, their little flames flickering beside hoary windows. But their lights burned onward. And winter, it would end.

Listen to Buke and Gass’s Tiny Desk Concert at the NPR Site.

Summer Notes

CIRCLING THE WHITE TENTS, their flaps still tied shut, I peer around the corners looking for the vendors. It’s almost ten, and the sun’s already evaporated the morning coolness of my bike ride down to Queens Quay West. The astroturf is springy beneath my thin shoes. The speedboats bob in the marina. I hear the streetcar rumble past on the aging rails. For a minute, I stand still and look out over the water toward the Island, where a white sail here and there glides effortlessly across the harbour. But I’m not sailing this morning, and in a few hours the market will be teeming with children and tourists — there’s lots to do before then.

Toting my clipboard and bag of pan-ties, balancing my coffee, I lift the edge of the large world cafe tent and crawl inside. It smells of cooking oil and sesame. Piled behind each food booth are huge pots and pans, scrubbed clean, boxes of plantains and tomatoes, and folded aprons. The long grills have a primitive, unpretending look. When they’re hooked to tanks of propane and piled high with chicken pieces that have marinated all night in secret family recipes, I’m reminded of the directness of the act of cooking and satiating hunger- heat, grilled meat, paper plates piled high.

I note a dripping faucet, a table skirt that’s come loose, a greasy sneezeguard. A few sparrows bob in, arcing under the strings of twinkly lights. All around me is the evidence of last night’s late rush, tired staff hurrying to get their counters wiped down so they can snatch a few hours of thin, breakable sleep. A can of coke, half finished, rests behind the till. I hear voices outside the tent, and the ropes start to come undone. It’s the operations staff, come to do their morning clean-up. They speak in mostly spanish, and smile and joke around when they see me inside. “Did you sleep here?”

My radio’s still quiet. I walk out and see Eva and Julios, who sell wind-chimes, a Chinese couple who are always on time and who are always laughing, a Sikh vendor who everyone calls Uncle and who has three booths of shawls, belly dancing skirts and woven handbags. I ask how last night’s business was, spend a few minutes chatting with each of them. From all corners of Toronto, they’ve driven in from Markham and North York, Mississauga and Scarborough through the early weekend streets. After living in the city for two years, it’s only now, with this summer job, that I feel like I have gotten to one of Toronto’s hearts. Everyone asks me how I like working here, they know their other vendor neighbors can be irate and demanding, impatient when they need an extra table in their already crowded booth, difficult when it’s raining and miserable out, sleep-deprived and irrationally attached to their stall locations. But I know I’m doing ok when the corn vendors pass me a cup of their famous soup on a wet Sunday afternoon and wave my coins and protests away.

I help some of the jewelry vendors- Dolma, Emanuella, Jian – move their tables out of the now unlocked tents that the operations staff, Vincent and Adrian are tying back. Out of the corner of my eye I can see Omar leading in the cars of the world cafe vendors, and the Grounds crew, Doug, Ryan and Tom, striding across the site in dark blue shirts. I start to hear the event production coordinators on my radio channel – Nicole, Ruple, Karisma, Adam, Scott, filling the air with their requests for 20’s and timetables. All the names that took me weeks to learn. I wonder at what point I will start to forget them. On which fall day as I am biking to class will the last face fade from my mind, even as I try to grasp onto it, and the echo of the applause on the sun-lit harbour.