I love experiments with genre for the most part as in French novellas like Blais’ Three Travelers that read like long poems or Mike Blouin’s latest I Don’t Know How to Behave which blends reportage with screenplay and other tactical genres to create a powerfully engaging narrative loop da loop.
Books that combine genres as with these two texts, both offering essays & poems, are a little trickier. Mainly because, as a reader, I am quite particular as regards the genres I read at different times of the day (I am OCD Crow recall…:) and, desiring to read poetry first thing in the morning, I don’t want to encounter an essay yet, nor do I really enjoy my reading of essays in the early afternoon interrupted by the distinct reading mode often required by a poem.
Despite this resistance, I still relished both of these vastly divergent (or are they) memoirs.
(& yes I have cast away my original format of shines, stumbles and echoes entirely, and replaced it with an organic elaboration instead of the works at hand)
1/ Amber Dawn’s How Poetry Saved My Life: A Hustler’s Memoir (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2013)
The title, the cover image of the tough-lovely author, all very enticing. Courage is crucial for a writer, being vulnerable before their material, regardless from where it emerges, but craft is essential. I initially associated Dawn with a spoken-word circle and thought perhaps many of these pieces would be from the “here’s my blunt woes” rant school. Instead, pleasantly, I read that Dawn was inspired at first by Kate Braid’s book Inward to the Bones, along with other published poets, and then saw that the initial piece in the memoir is a glosa called “Oral Tradition,” based on lines by Irving Layton (even better is her reverse or scattered glosa based on lines by beth goobie). Phew says what some would sneer at as my elitist self and others understand as the relief underpinning the realization one will be reading a writer with some literary education (and I don’t care where it’s found, the streets or an institution or family.) And then the fourth page in, oh glory, the wonderful insight-line, ” Grief is an underdeveloped language and so your body is tasked/with mourning.” I am there.
Of course the content is powerful, full of feminist, lesbian, sex-worker rage and also longing, which makes it complex and ambivalent at times and thus very real. But what interests me more is how something is told because that is the sign of art being made. And yes there are regular injections of art here to keep the most discerning reader hypnotized, from the boyfriend dilemma of the essay-story, “Melhos Place,” to the anaphoric trip-trop of the early lyric, “Sex Worker’s Feet,” and the poignant essential critique of the problematic grief rituals in our culture, especially for the liminal, the rejected, titled “How to Bury Our Dead”
: “Our lives are worth the fruit baskets and raisin cakes. We are worth calla lilies and pink roses. We’re worth stone markers and scattered ashes. Hymn and song. Wine and ritual. Surely we’ve all earned hours of storytelling. And most certainly, our lives are worth the tears.”
Could be accused of sentimentality but the pure impulse and the knowledge of rhetorical power here saves all utterly.
I felt the book could have been organized differently than Outside, Inside and Inward – maybe I thought the distinctions were unnecessary or that some narratives in Inward like “The One Thing that could have kept me in Fort Erie, Ontario,” might have served more as frontispieces as it isn’t really important to the reader when per se the writer composed the section (“the past couple of years” Dawn explains in the preface) but how it satisfies a narrative arc. Even the occasional didactic moments didn’t end up bugging me (“It took many women to teach me this lesson: how love can open you…”) as the textured interplay between the styles works and the subject matter is so rare in terms of its public expression and therefore vital.
2/ Shawna Lemay’s Asking (Seraphim Editions, 2014)
Initially, what could be more different than Dawn’s memoir of sex-work in various locales and a rise into lesbian consciousness? Lemay’s essay-poems mostly take place in art galleries (and not on the stairs, naked :), suburbia, the library and at cocktail parties where the author ponders paintings, the state of contemporary poetry and her life as a wife and mother. Her work is also relentlessly poetic, literary, and meant to be read on the page, not as a rallying cry but as a sigh into beauty over a cuppa tea.
But that doesn’t mean Lemay’s experiences are always safe and comforting while Dawn’s are constantly trembling on the edge. Again, it is craft that conveys the importance of the material to the reader. Lemay’s technique is to be much more densely textured but still retain, for the most part, a lucidity. Her goal is to express beauty and to bewail those who spurn the topic, those for whom beauty has become “unfashionable…problematic, suspect.” Both Lemay’s and Dawn’s books are in a sense texts of mid (or nearing mid) life re-assessments, Dawn’s unfolding from the years of sex-work and her emergence as a writer and political being, Lemay’s of her place as a “seer” poet and obsessive ekphrastivist (to coin a term) now that she has been doing this for “decades” through bouts of “inadequacy…questioning…struggle.” Her fragmentary directives in “To a Young Poet” (“I would advise you to write your own manifesto…I would advise you to comb your hair”) along with her bursts of querulousness about whether her or any art will survive, books will endure, whether she can keep speaking to the ostensible silence (the whole ache for/fear of awards behind this anxiety),and the “shabby neglect and betrayal” (Compensations) one suffers, are all signs of this era in an artist’s life.
Having thrilled to Lemay’s previous collection of solely essays, Calm Things, I was a little disappointed in Asking, just a tad. I think because the pieces seemed less focused in their structure throughout the book: Conversations almost wholly strong, Writing Prompts (how I resist that last word!) mostly grabbing me in the aforementioned Young Poet piece and the sharply honed “Seven Remembered Still Lifes,” “It must have been Weird” an interesting query about how the internet has altered our attention span for art, and the final section, “Conventions of Ekphrasis” getting slightly repetitive as one starts to feel more the author’s passion than our own engagement as readers (always a risk with obsession!). Ahhhh, the delicious sensation of stroking this book’s encaustic-feeling cover though, and looking at its juxtaposed lavish bloom and eroding chair.
More books should be written like Dawn’s & Lemay’s that serve as passageways for exploration, attention and transformation in whatever realms their authors move.