I’m honoured to be included in a new anthology of writings by women of French heritage called, Heliotrope: French-Heritage Women Create. Assembled by Franco-American scholar Rhea Coté Robbins, the volume is being published in recognition of the 20th anniversary of the Franco-American Women’s Institute (FAWI) and includes the voices of more than 100 women, including novelist Annie Proulx, fiddler Donna Hébert, Susan Poulin (aka Ida LeClair), and myself. The anthology is just part of FAWI’s ongoing mission promote the contributions of French heritage women, both by looking back to the brave accomplishments of previous generations and looking forward to capture North American French culture as present, vibrant, and continually evolving. It’s great to be included, and I can’t wait to learn from the other contributors through their work.
It’s the third day of my residency in Fredericton’s garrison district. I feel so fortunate to have been given this week to work on new writing. My residency partner, Allison Green, and I have talked about the value of working in public, when so much of making art is solitary. To be able share the process of making work with people, rather than only the product, is really quite special, an experience I would recommend to any writer.
We’ve already received well more than 100 visitors, who are drawn in by Allison’s beautiful work, the little colouring table we’ve set up for younger visitors, or my own odd display of provocative questions and comments about the theme of my residency, “Come From Away.” The expression is commonly used in the Maritimes to describe people not from here, and this week I’m exploring just how the phrase is used.
I’ve been particularly impressed by the number of people I’ve met who live here in Fredericton, many of them who have lived here for a long time, who have told me that they are still “from away,” that they don’t have any “locals” in their social circle, and that they don’t feel like part of the community. I’ve been thinking about what effect it might have on a place for many of its inhabitants to feel excluded in this way.
I’m not talking about how being called a CFA might make someone feel, although that issue is certainly relevant. When I participated in a recent conversation on Maritime Noon about the expression, “Come From Away,” people seemed to keep circling back to whether the label might be hurtful or unwelcoming. But now that I’ve had the chance to think about it more deeply, I’m less interested in the phrase’s emotional impact than in its practical consequences.
I’m not sure they would be measurable, or even observable. But I think about how my own from-away-ness limits my participation in local life. I feel confident that there are events and conversations happening in town all the time that I have no way of knowing about — and in which I would not feel entitled to participate even if I had the opportunity, because it’s not my place to do so. If we multiply this experience by every person “from away” in town, how much of the population is not participating in the life of Fredericton? How many of us are living our lives as though we’re guests in someone else’s house?
People, like me, who have moved here from other places are attracted to Fredericton (and New Brunswick and the Maritimes) by the fact that it has a strong sense of place and of its own heritage. Having coming from a place that is similarly rooted in the past, I have empathy for people whose families have been here for many generations and who would want their connection to that heritage to be honoured.
However, whenever white people in North America talk about heritage, we need to proceed with caution. When we claim a place as our own — especially as more ours than someone else’s, and especially a place located on unceded or ceded aboriginal territory — it is an erasure. It erases the realities of aboriginal peoples and their ancestors, whose generosity, wisdom, and blood, has made possible our survival on this continent. In fact, it even erases the realities of our own ancestors, who came here as foreigners and had to struggle to make this their home. We need to keep in mind that the past extends into the distance as infinitely as the future. Along a timeline that stretches that far, no one is more at home than anyone else.
When you conceive of heritage as a connection to a particular group of settlers who arrived at a particular moment, you wall off the past so that it belongs to a single group of people. And in so doing, you also wall off the present and the future. You make heritage a closed loop.
The Montreal scholar and writer Sherry Simon compares the preservation of heritage to a process of translation, “through which objects and memories are selected, salvaged, preserved, and recontextualized for new viewers.” I like this comparison because translation implies a desire to communicate. It also implies imperfection, compromise, perhaps even confusion, within that communication.
I wonder, if we approached “heritage” from this standpoint, as an opening, or a conversation to which we all contribute, whether notions of here and away would fade into the background. I wonder how it would contribute to truth and reconciliation process if white Canadians began to reframe their notions of history and heritage with an eye to “the bigger here and the longer now.” I wonder how “come from aways” would contribute to the future of Fredericton if they no longer felt that they lived somehow outside of its present.
Please continue to leave your comments here, or better yet, please come down and visit us at the Barracks to share your thoughts in person.
In July I’ll be participating in the Fredericton Arts Alliance Artist in Residence Program. This year’s residents have been asked to address the theme “New Ground,” to explore notions of place and home. These are frequent concerns in my work, but being new to Fredericton, this theme is especially resonant for me at the moment, and I look forward to concentrating on them during my residency.
I’ve decided to spend my residency exploring the phrase “come from away,” which is used by Maritimers to describe newcomers from other places — “newcomers” being a relative term; it may take generations to lose the “come from away” origin label. Being a “CFA” myself, I want to better understand what this phrase means: Where is the boundary between “here” and “away”? How long must one live in the Maritimes to be from “here”? Is there anything people who are “from away” have in common? What are the characteristics that separate Maritimers (or New Brunswickers, or Frederictonians) from we others? During my residency, I’ll invite visitors to teach me about their conceptions of place and home, and I’ll then use their input to develop new poems. I’m excited to learn and to work. (I’m also excited to share the residency space with New Brunswick textile artist and sculptor Allison Green!)
If you’ll be in Fredericton July 25-29, please come visit us at the Soldier’s Barracks, off Queen Street. If you’d like to contribute your ideas about what it means to be “from away,” feel free to visit my residency page and add your comments anytime.
My reviews of a handful of new Canadian poetry titles are up now at the Montreal Review of Books. This issue’s poetry coverage includes new collections by Carmine Starnino, Joshua Trotter, Ilona Martonfi, Margo Wheaton, and Michael Prior.
My first goal in writing poetry reviews is always to encourage other people to read poetry. I would respectfully disagree with William Carlos Williams, who said, “It is difficult to get the news from poems”; I think there is plenty of news to be gotten from this crop of new titles.
It’s been a year of upheaval for me and my family. There hasn’t been much space for writing, and so I’ve been relieved to get back to work this fall. I enjoyed reviewing Dao Strom’s hyrid memoir, “We Were Meant To Be A Gentle People,” for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
This is my second review for LARB. In the spring I had the pleasure of reviewing Maggie Nelson’s beautiful new memoir, The Argonauts. I didn’t get the chance to post about it at the time because I was in the midst of a cross-country move with my family. Both books ask fascinating questions about identity, family, and storytelling, and filled my head with possibilities.
In November, I set the goal of writing 50,000 words in conjunction with National Novel Writing Month. I chose to focus on some non-fiction and biographical material that had been simmering for a while, and the discipline required to produce such a quantity of material was a great way to get back into the swing of writing. I’m relieved to have reached my goal, and I look forward to a productive and creative 2016. More posts soon…
Tomorrow I’ll be part of a conversation about the ties between Vermont and Quebec on Vermont Public Radio’s noontime call-in program, Vermont Edition. The program will explore many of the same themes as my solo show, Piecework: When We Were French: the long history of migration across the border; the cultural similarities between Vermont and Quebec, despite the obvious linguistic differences; and the push and pull that Franco-Americans feel toward their ancestral homeland. I’m looking forward to being part of the discussion. Hope you’ll tune in — or call in to say hello!
You can tell by the date of my last post (or I can, at least) that updating this site hasn’t been at the top of my list of priorities in recent months. But in the spirit of Patti Smith, I’ve been working: on new prose and poetry, some early sketches for a new play, my #hoems, and some very important and inspiring reading. I’ve also been parenting on a fairly full-time basis, which has defined the rhythm of my days absolutely. Other than a few book reviews here and there, I haven’t been sending my work out into the world on as regular a basis, unless you count fulfilling orders for the DVD of Piecework: When We Were French. I produced the DVD so that my solo show would outlive my ability to tour with it, and I’ve been happy to watch it do that, setting out one envelope at a time, destined for mailboxes back home in Vermont and in more exotic locales, like Paris and North Dakota.
With the start of a new year, it was a special pleasure to be the subject of a profile by Ottawa literary maven rob mcclennan in Open Book Ontario, and especially to answer rob’s questions about my work, past and present. It’s always clarifying to be asked a few clear and bracing questions. I can only hope I matched rob’s clarity with my answers. Talking about my work made me look forward to the year ahead. I hope to have more updates for you soon!
It has been a long, rugged ride, but the DVD of my solo show, Piecework: When We Were French, is finally available! You can order your copy through Paypal or, if you prefer snailmail, you can use this old-fashioned printable order form.
The DVD is the culmination of almost a year’s worth of work (not including, of course, the show’s life previous to that), the sweat of a small but determined creative team, and the generosity of more than a hundred fans and friends who lent their support to my Indiegogo fundraising campaign earlier this year. Thanks to the success of that campaign, we were able to shoot a live performance of the show at Montpelier’s Lost Nation Theater back in March, and over the summer, Vermont filmmakers Jeff Farber and Paul Gittelsohn patched our footage together to represent the spontaneity and intimacy of live performance on film. The final product reminds me of a concert film: it gives a taste of one night in the show’s life without attempting to replace the live original. I look forward to sharing it with you and to hearing what you think!
I have been following admiringly the Ottawa Poetry Newsletter’s occasional series On Writing. Amanda Earl’s piece on using poetry to shepherd herself through a major health crisis lingered with me for weeks, and I identified with Faizel Deen’s thoughts on the writer’s isolation. Mostly, I have coveted the opportunity to contemplate why I write, too.
My young son makes most contemplation difficult these days. I started to write about writing in brief bursts, as thoughts occurred to me, trying to trace my writerly lineage and articulate where I came from as a writer. But always my son intruded, figuratively where not literally. And so I let him. I started from the present rather than the past, from his words rather than my own.
I’m proud to say that my essay on writing (and parenting) is #11 in the series, and is up now on the Ottawa Poetry Newsletter.
I’m happy to announce that, after almost 9 months of planning, fundraising, rehearsing, filming, and editing, the DVD of Piecework: When We Were French has finally been sent off for duplication. In just a few weeks, the duplicated copies will be in my hands and ready to be distributed to donors, supporters, and eager audiences far and wide.
I think this means I have reached the point in the summer when I can put my feet up, have a margarita, and give myself a small pat on the back. I wish this point had come in June, or even July, but the primary thing I have learned from my forays into film is that it is a time-consuming medium to produce (the word “tedious” has been used by others). Every minute you see on a screen represents hours, if not days, of production time, and this modest little video has voraciously gobbled up most of my year.
Nonetheless, I am excited to share the DVD with you soon. In the coming weeks, you’ll be able to order copies from this site, on-line or by mail. You will be able to order the DVD alone, or a special resource package for libraries and community groups that will also include a signed copy of the show’s script and a study guide with resources for further exploration of Franco-American history and culture. Check back here for details! In the meantime, to whet your appetite, here is a sneak peek of the DVD cover image, designed by Clare Talbot.
As this project is now drawing to a close, I’ve been thinking about the cycles of beginnings and endings that are so much a part of a creative life. Arts work is very much project-based. This is true not just for artists themselves, but for those who work in curating, presenting, and funding organizations as well. I’m sure it’s true to a certain extent for engineers, landscapers, scientists, and other professionals, too. Lately I have thought admiringly of our neighbourhood butcher (yes, we have one) and teachers and caregivers, and marveled at all those of you in lines of work with a greater sense of continuity. I wonder what the challenges of such continuity might be. I wonder what work is like when not defined by a constant process of invention, exhaustion, and reinvention.
As an artist, I always feel like a consummate beginner. I never know how to do a project when it begins — learning a part or writing a review, producing a DVD or even creating copy for a freelance client. I learn by doing, gradually, mostly feeling like an idiot along the way, and just when I begin to feel a sense of mastery, the project is finished. I look back at the path I blazed and think of all the ways it would have been easier if I had known where I was headed to start with. I experience endings with a kind of confused wonder. No matter how strong the final product, it’s almost never exactly what I intended to make, and I’m usually left feeling more perplexed than satisfied.
What a puzzling way to spend one’s time.
This is what I like most about theater: as long as a show is open, it is being developed, changed. It lives and breathes and continues to teach me, and there is never a definitive version it, no matter how many times I perform. The painter, sculptor, musician, the filmmaker — any artist whose work produces a final product — must resign herself to the permanence of that object, must accept it as the conclusion of a long conversation she’s carried on with her materials. With theater, that conversation feels more open-ended, and while there is always a closing night, there is never a sense that the process, the conversation, has been supplanted by any single version of itself.
Of course, I have violated this proposition by putting Piecework: When We Were French on DVD, and that is perhaps why I am struggling a bit with its completion. To me, the DVD is not the definitive version of the show. It is a representation of a single performance, an example of what can happen when an audience and I get together and share in the characters and their stories and our collective sense of the human experience. I really do look forward to sharing that with you. Stay tuned for more news soon.