Precipitations

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No. 6 County Road, Picton

If you could bottle up a storm, what would it look like? Would it be cloudy white, with swirls of purple? Or ink-black, with raw seams of lightning that would shock your hands if you touched the surface? This image is rather dire, but I welcome it because I depleted my stock of images last year when I finished my book. What would keep this storm in? A wax seal? A cork? There is something plugging up the top of my head. Otherwise, why these headaches, these surges of resentment? Usually I’m not capped tight. But what is usual for me? My life has not been usual for a long time.

It’s the end of summer and J. calls me. He’s applying for non-teaching jobs, even though he’s one of the most caring teachers I know. I’m in Picton and go out onto the front lawn and sit in the dry grass. We’ve both just finished a 2-month teaching contract for international ESL students where we rolled around campus like marbles on high speed, flicked here and there by long hours and endless prep. But it has ended, and I’m staring out at fields of snowpea shoots where I’ve come to write for a week. We’re exhausted in a way that sleep can’t solve. J. has been teaching for longer than I have, 5, 6, maybe 7 years. There is impatience in his voice, prickling up like the sun-bristled grass. We make enough to pay bills, but it’s not enough. When we hang up, I seethe from room to room, from the studio to the front living room of this lovely farmhouse, carrying the rough drafts of the first new poems I’ve written in months. They’re full of sheds and dirt roads and it feels fake because I didn’t grow up in the country. What’s with all the fucking fields? I write at the top of the page. If I’m not from here, then where am I from, and didn’t I try to answer that in my last book? But the question has shifted. If I’m not from here, then what do I love? 

I don’t sleep well when I’m not in my own bed, but I think it’ll be different when I go to visit my parents later in September. After all, I used to live there, used to have mountains pinned to my back. I slept in the upper floor of the one-bedroom loft-like apartment my parents still live in. They bring down a single mattress from storage and set it up next to my dad’s workbenches and easels. The apartment has no doors, no privacy, yet I’m comforted to be there. I’d forgotten my family’s penchant for old wood furniture and their makeshift, minimal ways. In the bathroom, my mom has suspended two antique frames over the bathroom mirror, draped green ivy over it so it feels tropical. I remember we’ve always been a family that has cobbled our living from odds and ends, things other people discarded.

I wonder who this ‘Phoebe Wang’ is whose name is on the cover of my book, who gets invitations asking her to read at festivals. I must go in her stead. It has never been a name that as felt like it fit properly. It’s an amalgamation– the first name Greek and abstract, the surname an approximation, often mispronounced. My Chinese middle name I never use, wouldn’t recognize it if someone did. I make up a personality for this Phoebe Wang– cheerful, helpful, respectful. I see her clothes hanging in my closet, navy lace and sheath dresses, and when I do a reading I alternate each dress like costumes. Performance anxiety is the best diet– I’ve lost close to 10lb this year thanks to sleeplessness and hyperactivity. I didn’t even know I had 10lbs to lose. I buy dresses at consignment shops, because all year, clothes don’t fit the same way. I feel like a life-size doll, applying lipstick and wearing another woman’s clothing. I move my limbs onto the stage, smoothly, like I’ve had lots of practice.

When I still lived with my parents, I’d visit houses my friends rented, crashed on couches after parties, envied their mismatched furniture and the bric-a-brac texture of their lives. They were fully immersed in it, while I was hovering somewhere between land and the upper stratosphere, waiting to land. I couldn’t accept my long walks, looking into lighted windows, as any kind of practice. Now I buy two, large smoky black Japanese bowls. My apartment sat mostly empty for the first year I lived in it until I found the kind of old wooden tables and shelves I wanted. My parents took us to galleries and they’re still the spaces I’m most comfortable. Seeing my parents’ white walls, I realize they curated my childhood, down to the typefaces. Aspiring to minimalism, though, is like aspiring to a vanishing point. No wonder I wonder about whether or not I’ve disappeared. Viewed from a certain angle, even the longest strand of noodle is a mere dot. I must be careful not to view my life this way. I must turn my head.

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A temporary workspace

My alma mater has asked me to visit and do a reading. I can’t believe how much they are paying me to do this. They want me to speak for 45 mins but there’s no way I’m going to read poems for 45mins because I’m not Anne Carson or Bishop or Plath returned from the dead. I make a Powerpoint presentation of pictures of my parents when they’re young and my sister and me in the backyard holding vegetables and the island my mom grew up on. Memory is a strange thing– the more you spend looking back, the faster the time goes. Afterwards, the students ask me incredibly intelligent questions for almost an hour. One of them says she notices that the predominant colour in my book is white and asks what this could mean. When the visit is over, the two profs and the TA take me to dinner in a French restaurant. I want to be good company, worth their time– not the shy woman I usually am, but one that tells funny stories about their publisher or bizarre anecdotes about other writers’ eating habits. My mom has stories– she told one of my boyfriends about seeing the Jackson 5 on the subway in 1971. I’d never heard it before. Then I realize that my mom’s stories are my stories, that all I have to do is to keep talking about my family, which is easy to do because they are always flipping through me, squares of coloured light against a white background.

In Calgary, S. drives down to see me. This is the first time I’ve been put up in a big hotel. A young concierge with a lilting voice informs me I need to put down a $100 deposit for the keycard, preferably on a credit card that won’t be charged, otherwise, it’s $200 cash. I don’t own a credit card and am almost cashless, because of Picton and the Vancouver trip and barely having worked since August. If I go to the festival office, I can pick up my reading fee, but in order to get to the office, I need the keycard to get up the elevator, and before I can have my keycard, I need to pay the deposit. This is one of those income stalemate situations that writers are frequently in. Thankfully, S. texts me that he’s arrived and has parked outside. Thankfully, he has a credit card and the stalemate with the uptalking concierge ends.

With S. here, I feel more like myself, but I’m a poor festival attendee with him around because we’ve known each other forever and instead of drinking late with writers at the hospitality suite or going to other events, we roam around downtown Calgary glimpsing our friends’ art in the big office atriums, we get tired of eating out for every meal and drive back to his arts co-op in Edmonton. The drive is a long relief, and I realize the reason why people don’t feel landlocked in the Prairies is because the eye can travel across fields for 100 miles and it’s like an ocean, an ocean of cadmium yellow and lemon yellow and ochre, as if Van Gogh had mixed his palette here.

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White is the colour of a blank piece of paper and of canvas. It’s the colour of snow and to me, comfort, as I’m a winter child. Though it’s also a menacing colour, as the poet David Harsent claims. It’s the colour that is the absence of history, the erasure of specific ethnicities so that a dominant culture can rush in to fill the void with white pom-pom hats, white latte foam, white sugar, white plastic bags. Here, it says, you can be a part of something new so long as if you give that up, that looking backward, that nostalgia for land that was never yours, that vanishing point of blame.

Others, I know, share my design aesthetic. While taking our students to an outing to Kensington Market, J. & I walk along a beautiful, tree-lined street and play that old game of which-house-would-you-live-in? Both of us point to the white painted bay-and-gable house with black trim. Severe. Meticulous. Orderly.

I’ve worked three different colleges this year. Sometimes people mistake me for a student, other times for faculty. Sometimes I get complimented on my English, my lack of accent. Last week, I watch the picketers circling the building, thinking, that might’ve been me. One of my favourite students, an older Spanish woman who has returned to school for social work says, “Phoebe, I’m losing momentum.” She comes to see me every week. She says the problem with Canadians is that they’re too passive, too uncomplaining. She wonders why capitalism has co-opted us. Usually I’m helping her with syntax, or research, or even her résumé, but today we look at OPSEU bulletins and I show her how to find updates about the strike. Next week I’m going to show her how much our college president makes. Reading his whitewashed emails every few days makes me so furious I can hardly swallow. I’m part of a generation of teachers that has come to accept that full-time work will be nearly impossible until I’m at least 40, and even then… when did we accept this? How did our bones and our bodies accept it? Like sleepwalkers laying down in a fallow field, or like small animals falling into ditches?

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Belleville VIA station

My first royalty statement arrives in the mail, in a big 8 1/2″ by 11″ envelope as though uncreaseable. I’m still a couple of hundred in debt to my publisher, but I can fold up this information, tuck it away. I’ve made tremendous gains in the months of the book’s existence but having moved backwards for so long, it’ll take some time to be in the clear. In another six months, it’ll be my turn to be owed something.

There is something excessive about flying someone in from across the country to read for 15 minutes, but I find most things excessive, too much salt, too much sugar. By the end of this year, I’ll have visited nine different cities, including my hometown. I have set my clock forward, then backwards, while my career, after long years of stalling, now leaps ahead of me. All of the festival and event organizers whirl about whiteboards with pick-up times and have thought through every one of our needs. They hold the flaps of book covers open when I sign them. An older, award-winning poet tells me to go to everything, go everywhere, go to all the free dinners because “you’ll sit beside someone different every night.” I cannot even picture this. At the small party I had before I left, how I had just enough seating for everyone. When someone wanted to get up, they had to switch places with someone else.

With my festival gig money, I buy a new pair of Levi’s 501s and order a t-shirt from a band who stopped making albums in 2001. This was my uniform in my 20s, along with regulation black Converses and a black corduroy jacket, which I still own and which has holey pockets because my sister kept her drawing pencils in it when she borrowed it. This itself was a kind of costume that allowed me to pass among the crowd at hundreds of shows and concerts. In another of her long attempts to turn me into another version of herself, my mom has foisted upon me two black-and-white silk blouses, a striped t-shirt and a camel cashmere coat she found at Value Village. Wearing one of the blouses with the high-waisted Levis, I don’t look like my mom even though this is exactly her uniform, and I feel her lack of self-consciousness cloak me like a warm, wool hug. Don’t worry about that, she’d say, There’s bigger things to think about.

And another time, as I’m washing the dishes, she asks me: Where did you come from? You, yourself?

As if I could make something up to tell her.

Writing a book emptied me out. I’m like a raided vault, my bank of images empty except for the most dire– two lovers buried in ash, a crumbling aqueduct, a deranged leader. We came out of a debt, and we’ll go back into it, bandaged hand-in-hand. I hold that hand up and wait for the drops to form, for memory to condense. When I turn to a new page, white as a curtain, it isn’t completely vacant.

 

Self-portrait with antique frame

What to Grab Onto: A Newcomer’s Guide to Toronto’s Literary Huddle

Last week at the Coach House Wayzgoose I met a couple of the first year U of T MA in Creative Writing students, reminding me of how, just 5 years ago, my classmates and I finished our graduate department orientation in the early sun-dazed week of September and headed to another kind of orientation in bpNichol Lane.

Those first years of going to book launches in Toronto, I stood back as my more extroverted classmates approached their literary idols. I hovered as other writers beckoned to each other and cosily chatted by the bar. The venues were often loud, hot and crowded with various degrees of dampness depending on the time of year. Twenty dollar bills disappeared like burrowing moles. Being shy, soft-spoken, relatively unpublished and often too poor to purchase the new titles, I felt that any attempt to speak to writers and editors would be perceived as grabby and insincere. I conscientiously avoided everyone I recognized out of fear they might think I was warming them up for a favour.

But then, why move to Toronto, the self-proclaimed hub of Canada’s English-speaking literary world? Not many people are able to participate in that world, because of language barriers, distance, poor health, and so on. Here I was, young, able-bodied, well-educated– the main barrier to attending events being my own disinclination and over-sensitivity. Get out your eyeshadow, Phoebe!

5 years later, I still forget names and would prefer to stay at home with a new cookbook than to circle like a piranha in the gin-and-ink scented waters of the Toronto literary community. But I’ve found a few ways to fulfill my professional capacity as an up-and-coming poet while still having fun.

Get to know your own cohort first

It’s easiest to talk to other emerging writers if you’re also an emerging writer, no matter what age you are. Support others who are at the same stage of their careers as you by going to their events and mentioning their work to editors and they’ll do the same for you. Writers who only talk about their own work all of the time quickly get a reputation for being self-serving.

Stop dressing like a student

You don’t have to show up at a bar for a casual reading series in a full suit. Although one young poet who always wore a quiet blazer and tie to every event did so because I believe he’s more comfortable that way when he meets older writers and asks them for a coffee. Many people go to events after work and don’t have time to change, so it’s common to see a well-dressed, pin-stripped crowd in various shades of black. You might feel out of place if you’re in a bedazzled hoodie, especially if you’re already a self-conscious person to begin with.

Find a Pretext

I met many more people when I edited Echolocation during my second MA year, as I needed to email publishers and editors for review copies, ad-swaps and myriad other small requests. When I met them face-to-face, it was great to be able to thank them for their help. I’m also much more comfortable promoting organizational interests than I am my own. However, people can see your skills when you’re involved in some way in the literary community. Help with a reading series, offer to read submissions for a literary magazine, volunteer at a conference, etc.

Ask writers out for coffee (or to the zoo)

I don’t do this often, but it’s how Elizabeth Bishop met Marianne Moore. Proof enough that it’s a perfectly socially acceptable way to exchange information and to ask a writer about their particular area of expertise– maybe you want to know more about organizing a literary festival, holding a workshop, running a reading series, and that writer has experience doing one of those things. Offer to meet close to the writers’ home or workplace at a time convenient for them– after all, they’re the ones giving you their time.

Bring Cookies

Cookies are always appreciated, anywhere you go. Host Jacob Mooney frequently feeds Pivot Reading attendees with delicious oat-coconut clusters. I once brought a tabouleh salad to our program director’s house, and a tiny woman loved it so much she asked me for the recipe. That woman, I found out later, was the poet with 3 published books who has since become a dear friend. So bring cookies really means, remember that you have other interests outside of writing. When utterly star-struck, I’ve found refuge in talking about travel, families, babies, dogs, baseball, raw salads, etc. If I had talk all the time about the status of my manuscript I might bash in my own head with a pint glass.

Pace yourself

You don’t need to meet everyone every night at every event. The fall/spring book launch seasons last longer and longer each year, and it’s impossible to meet everyone and if you try you’ll end up forgetting half the names. Allow people to get to know you. A thank-you to someone for hosting the event, a quick chat over a festival book table– over the years these interactions add up and people begin to recognize you and your contributions to the community. Think about their point of view, having lived and worked in Toronto for decades and each year seeing new writers move to city. The famous coldness of Torontonians is mostly a sense of efficiency and even protectiveness. Is it worth it to learn your name if you’re only going to leave in a year or two? Be less in a rush. Act like you’re here to stay.

Come early/Stay late

Do one or the other, not both. Hosts and organizers appreciate first-comers as it means there’s less chance of someone walking in late during a reading. You can get a seat and talk with other early birds. Other people prefer to come late, after the first rush of the crowd or if they’re coming from another event. After the readings, the crowd thins, everyone’s on their 2nd or 3rd drink and starting to unbutton things, the organizer can finally sit down, and some of the best conversations take place on the patio as well as some of the most memorable moments. What will be yours?

You aren’t the only winner

A month ago, my poem “Regional Transit,” won Prism Magazine’s poetry contest, judged by Ken Babstock. Another poem I’d entered, “The Hydro Men” had been shortlisted. I felt all the things I should feel: wonder, disbelief, pride, shock. I felt something else, as well– a feeling of having beaten the odds.

This spring, Canadian poet Colin Fulton posted his research regarding the ethnic identity of poetry prize judges and winners in Canada for major contests such as the Griffin Poetry Prize, Governor General’s Awards, CBC Poetry Prize, Bronwen Wallace Awards, Malahat Review Prizes and Trillium Awards. His findings confirmed what I had already known since I began writing poetry as a teenager– that the odds of winning a contest as a person of colour are very limited. Fulton’s research cascaded across social media, and I could’ve chimed in, but I’m always curious to see, whenever diversity and ethnicity are being discussed in Canada, whether writers of colour will be asked for our thoughts and experiences. Too often we are not.

It’s true that many of these prizes are judged blindly. It’s true that literary judges have implicit cultural and aesthetic biases. It’s true that the category of “white” is inadequate– that someone’s mixed, hybrid or racial background isn’t always visible, or visible in the same way. However, the issue is more serious than why writers of colour aren’t judging and winning contests, it’s why so few of us are writing at all.

When Evelyn Lau was nominated for the  1992 Governor General’s Award, at the age of 19, for her poetry, my parents pointed her out to me as someone to aspire to, an unusual role model as Lau battled drug addiction and ran away from home. To my parents, she was an example of what could be achieved by a Chinese-Canadian woman with talent and hard work. Unlike most immigrant parents, they put no pressure on my sister and I to enter professions that would guarantee us an income. They wanted us to be creatively satisfied in the way they’d never been satisfied. They encouraged our painting, drawing, music and writing; we attended an arts high school and took arts degrees. But their support and encouragement wasn’t enough, though I couldn’t say then what it was I lacked.

Thanks to my parents, I have more ambition and self-esteem than they ever had, as well as the will to network and self-promote, and to find supporters and a community of peers. I have already received more recognition for my creative work than they ever did. I take none of this for granted. I cannot afford to.  Unlike many of my peers, I didn’t see reflections of myself in Canadian writing, I didn’t read books written by Asian-Canadian writers until I was in university, nor did I have writing teachers or mentors who were of colour.

I have often wondered about the importance of visibility; after all, my ethnic identity is a category that has been arbitrarily created. What is “Asian”? “Of colour”? “Minority?” These terms fail to capture the often contradictory positions of both shame and privilege, doubt and power. Therefore, what I share with other writers of colour is the experience of having our identity determined by reductionist terms, by an empty signifier of stereotyped traits and characteristics. I cannot address my racial category, because it is addressing me.

I closely track the work of other writers of colour in my peer group for reasons I also cannot clearly articulate. There was one other Chinese-Canadian student in my high school creative writing class, who went onto a Ph.D in Latin poetry at Iowa; in English Honours at UBC I was one of four Asian-Canadian students (I know exactly where each one is now working) and hungrily read the work of Larissa Lai, Madeleine Thien, Rita Wong, and followed the music columns and blogs of Doretta Lau, who later graduated from the MFA program at Columbia and published a short story collection. In Toronto, I confessed to another poet that it felt isolating to be one of the few people of colour in the room at events.

This sense of isolation may seem misplaced. I count among my friends some of the most talented poets of my generation, many of whom have won or been nominated for prizes such as Bronwen Wallace, Matrix Lit Pop, Malahat Review poetry prize, and Trillium. For me to claim that their prizes resulted because of racial and cultural biases would negate their hard work and rare gifts. Nor can I blame the judges for following their personal tastes and preferences, or for looking for writing that reflects their own cultural touchstones and experiences. When I’m present at festivals, events, awards ceremonies, I feel I’m there in the double, both to cheer on my friends, and also to be a presence, to be visible. It’s an eerie feeling.

Another reason why it’s so uncommon to see people of colour at certain types of literary events is because literary success is like the success of a barnacle clinging to the good graces of society’s shucked shells. It’s not the kind of success that most immigrant or Asian parents want for their children, who instead excel in the more lucrative fields of business and medicine. But who is writing the stories and depict the images of that success and struggle? What is most worrisome to me about the lack of diversity in literary publications, prizes and grants is that those images are hardly being depicted and read.

Publications and prizes create what Sarah Kendzior has called a “prestige economy“, in which recipients of book contracts and prize money may not benefit in a significant way financially, but often receive other benefits, such as speaking and teaching positions, requests to serve on prize and grant juries, and so on. I myself have served on a grant jury, when the organization had a mandate to promote cultural diversity. As long as a tolerant society can point out instances of where writers of colour are also benefiting from the prestige economy, it can claim to be diverse and open-minded. As a result, I can never be quite sure whether or not I’m being included or excluded because of my ethnicity, which drains away at that sense of assurance and self-esteem that writers of colour already lack. That state of nauseous uncertainty is perhaps the most toxic element of categorizing writers on the basis of their ethnic backgrounds.

The situation won’t remain as dire. I’m seeing signs of change in classrooms, conferences and at events. The generations of immigrants that worked so hard to secure financial stability for their kids can now afford for them to pursue the nebulous rewards of a prestige economy. I have also discovered that my muddled thoughts about moving through the half-tone landscapes of Canadian culture and giving flawed examples to the next generation of immigrant students makes for good poetry. Even the prize-winning kind.

This was my view

Lobster boats coming into the harbour

Lobster boats coming into the harbour

This was the view during two weeks in December I spent on holiday in Dipper Harbour, a small fishing community on the Bay of Fundy east of Saint John, New Brunswick. I’d watch the lobster boats come in on early afternoons while editing, and a few hours later darkness would catch the sky in its big, embracing net. More than once my hosts would boil up lobster over a propane-fueled stove on the patio for an early dinner. More than once we drove along the highway to visit a vast, interlocking web of family– uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews. We were offered home-brewed wine and a seat by the wood-burning stove, and I saw firsthand how news travels amongst the clan, from person to person, so everyone knows everyone else’s business.

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Review of Helen Guri’s Match

The first book review I wrote was on request. Helen Guri asked me to review her debut with Coach House, Match,  in the fall of 2011. It’d barely gotten the attention it deserved, though things were beginning to seethe– CWILA formed around that time, pointing to the dearth of reviews of women-authored books in Canadian publishing.  I was still in school, finishing my MA degree, and by default, Editor-in-Chief of echolocation, a tiny literary print journal put out by the graduate English department. Like so many of the tiny university literary journals, was run entirely on volunteer time, university grants and departmental neglect. All but two of the previous years’ staff had graduated. I’d offered to set up its new blog and found myself conducting the whole set-up. Lesson here? If I name it you might assume I’ve actually learnt it.

In June 2012, Match was nominated for the Trillium prize, and yet still hadn’t been reviewed. My review appeared in echolocation‘s Fall 2012 issue, and soon after it was reviewed in Lemon Hound, then Event and Arc Poetry in early 2013.

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Match by Helen Guri

Helen Guri, Match, Coach House Books, 88pgs, $17.95

I may be giving away the punchline before you’ve heard the joke when I reveal that Helen Guri intended Match to consist of love sonnets, where the love object is a blow-up sex doll and the sonnets bear only a vestige of its formal conventions. Guri divulged this to a recent audience, and my memory may be inaccurate– it’s possible that I extracted from her preamble the explanation that validated my own reading of Match. This experience of craving verification for our assumptions, however, lies at heart of Guri’s novel-in-poems.

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On the making of chapbooks and other spare change

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Last night, I put on my oxford heels to read with four poets at the Odourless Press fall launch. With nearly every fiction writer in town at the Writers’ Trust gala, the evening felt like a tiny cushioned drawer, intimate as a library of rare tobaccos. Occasional Emergencies is a 12 poem series of mostly-ekphrastic poems, published in a first edition of 5o copies with Bardia Sinaee‘s Odourless Press. Bardia only gives me one at a time; ridiculous to think that he’s sold out already. If you want a copy, best to pester him at bardia at odourless dot ca. I trust that he’ll do a better job of packaging and mailing out than I could, and at the same time, you can also order the crisp pamphets by Spencer Gordon, Stevie Howell and Jeramy Dodds, and the longish chapbook by Mat Laporte (who runs the chapbook press Ferno House with his compadre Spencer.)

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