Causing a Scene
by Brenda Schmidt
Canada is a vast country of isolated urban centres, traditionally strung together by highways. However, distances have shrunk drastically with the advent of the internet: email, message boards, Bookninja. Now poets in Sault Ste Marie and Red Deer can hook up for serious discussion with those in Montreal and Toronto, novelists in Antigonish are mere keystrokes away from those in Vancouver.
Poet Schmidt, a veteren of the frosty north country of Saskatchewan and long-time Bookninja discussant, looks deep into her motivations for living so far out of a literary “scene” and wonders just why some people choose to live in relative isolation, as she does, while others would wilt like hothouse flowers if they were away from the bustle and schmooze of a major literary centre.
I could give you no advice but this: to go into yourself and to explore the depths where your life wells forth.
– from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet
What are the pros and cons of living in isolation? What are the pros and cons of living in “the scene”? I hadn’t given much thought to these questions over the past few years. However, within the space of a week around the launch of my second book this spring I was asked a question, not once, but twice, a question that has left me stranded in a well of pros and cons: why Creighton? (Creighton, Saskatchewan is the small mining town where I live.) Those two words first came from a well-connected Ontario writer, a writer who I imagine is well known in the scene. I reacted defensively, quickly dismissing the question as both insulting and irrelevant. After all, this scenester takes the time to communicate with me on a regular basis. We share work. We talk about all things related to writing. The second “why Creighton” came shortly thereafter and hit me hard. It came during an interview in northern Manitoba and, again, I went on the defensive. Why not? Why Toronto? I believe the internet has erased the distance. I am not isolated. Then during a radio interview I was asked if I was feeling any pressure to move closer to the wider literary community. No. I have no intention of moving to a larger centre. Regardless, after that interview I began to question myself. Are writers expected to flow to larger and larger centres to oxygenate their creativity and pump up their opportunities? How many actually make it to the heart of the scene? Why, when I think of both isolation and the scene, does The Wizard of Oz come to mind, that moment when he’s revealed for what he is? With these questions in mind, I sent out surveys to writers across Canada and beyond, hoping to gain a better understanding of what it currently means to live in isolation and what it means to live in the scene. The responses I received are enlightening, surprising and sometimes frightening. On the question of isolation and in lieu of answers to my survey questions, one writer simply pointed to Osip Mandelshtam and Ovid. Point taken. It’s true, I have not been arrested and exiled to Creighton. I have no idea what it means to live in that kind of isolation. How can I claim any sort of isolation when my survey was conducted by email, the respondents within such easy reach? Within hours I had responses from Ontario and British Columbia . I received responses in hotel rooms while on tour. I hit “get mail” minutes after watching the belugas at Churchill. Though I live in a mining town in northern Saskatchewan , in a place my Toronto friend jokingly calls a hermitage, a larger writing community is just a click away. Or is it? What does it mean to live in isolation?
(Montreal poet, fiction writer and editor) Jon Paul Fiorentino: For a writer, living somewhere without a literary community or support system of any kind would mean “living in isolation.”
(Toronto novelist) Sandra Campbell: As for isolation. I struggle with feeling isolated all the time and yet I live in the epicenter of a city of over 2 million people and I’ve family and friends within a moment’s reach.
(Red Deer, Alberta poet) Kimmy Beach: I think there are two kinds of isolation for writers. If you live in a small town where you are the only writer (who admits it), and there exists little or no possibility for groups, readings, etc, that is one kind of isolation. On the other hand, one could be living in a monstrous city lousy with writers leaning on every brick wall a la Kerouac and still be isolated. I know writers who never go to readings (and I’m talking about “real” writers), never show their work to anyone, and don’t join writers groups or attend workshops taking place just down the street. To me, that kind of isolation is more profound than physical isolation, a state for which many “in the scene” writers long.
(Antigonish, NS poet and novelist) Anne Simpson: Does anyone really live in isolation now? Even when I think of the most harrowing circumstances in which someone might have written in isolation–the record Shackleton kept in the Antarctic, for instance–I think he was kept going by the knowledge that he was in it along with others.
(Waterloo, ON poet) Chris Banks: For me, isolation is a word not just tied to geography, but time. Really, isolation can evoke a whole range of subjects. ‘Living in isolation’, as a theme found in Canadian writing, is just a feeling of loss or exile; of being cut off from some forgotten or imagined better life: one’s home-town, the comfortable world of one’s childhood, a failed relationship, etc. It all just boils down to a deep sense of alienation and not being comfortable in one’s own surroundings.
I was invited to give my first public reading in Regina in January 2000 at the launch of Spring, a new magazine in which a poem of mine was published. To me the reading was really more of a test, an entrance exam. I wanted to know if I could stand in front of a crowd and read a poem. If so, I would continue to pursue publication. If not, I’d spend the rest of my days scribbling away in private as I’d been doing. To find out, we drove more than 1600 kilometres over icy roads so I could read 17 lines. While this place allows me plenty of space and time to write, I remain conscious of the distance between my initial steps as a writer.
Since then I’ve driven similar distances to attend readings by Christian Bok, Di Brandt, George Elliott Clarke, Lorna Crozier, Barry Dempster, Patrick Lane, A. J. Levin, Don McKay, Miriam Toews, Jan Zwicky and Fred Wah, just to name a few, but I’ve missed many others. Sadly, international greats such as Simon Armitage and Roddy Doyle, who recently stopped in central Canada, rarely make it out this way. Does that matter? After all, I still have access to their work. In the long run and as it should be, it’s the literature itself that influences my writing. My bookshelves contain the usual suspects. i.e. Homer, Joyce, Yeats. A newly acquired Oliver Sacks is leaning against an old Charles Darwin. On the shelf above, Freud, Jung and James. The likes of John Ashbery, J. M. Coetzee, Geoffrey Hill, Frank O’Hara, Robert Hass, Czeslaw Milosz and Wislawa Szymborska mingle with Canadian authors on my shelves. Perhaps I am isolated geographically but I am not alone.
This morning, when I was flipping through The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova, a book I ordered online after a Toronto writer told me Akhmatova is required reading, I came upon a photo entitled Slepnyovo, 1913, taken 12 years prior to the banning of her poetry in the Soviet Union. In it the poet, lit naturally from the left, sits in a lounger, legs pulled under her in a way I find eerily familiar. I left the book open to that page, hoping at some point I’ll figure out why the photo affects me so. All day she has faced me, her eyes looking to the light. Now and then I look in that direction, but I cannot see its source. I wonder if she saw what was coming. I wonder how isolated I’d feel if the publication of my poems was banned, if my work was denied an audience. I expect my writing life will continue to be mundane in comparison, the isolation simply a welcome sense of space where the looking that is necessary for writing is allowed. As far as I’m concerned, that is the biggest pro. What are some other pros of living in isolation? What are the cons?
Anne Simpson: I think that what comes from living on the fringes of the country is that a writer has to find a space for herself or himself that allows for originality and eccentricity. This happens in a city too, but I have noticed something very different here in Nova Scotia, than, say, in Ontario. Pressed to the edges, we’re all a bit like cormorants: sharp-eyed, a bit awkward, cunning, resilient.
(Toronto novelist) Andre Alexis: The pros of writing in isolation: silence, silence, more silence. I need silence to follow things to their proper end, to hear the voice I’m channeling.
The cons: no one to tell you to “stop picking your nose and write, you lazy bastard”
(Halifax poet) Zachariah Wells: Pros: I think it’s detrimental to get too wrapped up in what goes on in the world of contemporary writers. By living in relative isolation, a writer can tune out a great deal of the interference that results from being on committees and juries and teaching classes, for example. I can’t support myself as a writer and no one else seems willing and able to do so, so I’ve always had to work a dayjob. I’ve always opted for work that has very little to do with writing and writers. This kind of work gives me the mental space required to leave a lot of the b.s. behind and gives me time to think and sometimes even read! Most of the writers I know who teach literature or creative writing are always complaining about how little time they have to read and write. Which makes me wonder why so many writers follow this kind of path. Regular contact with people who don’t give a shit about the writing world helps also, I think, to keep things in perspective. If one spends all one’s hours engrossed in the concerns of writers, editors and publishers, one tends to get an inflated sense of the importance of these activities and one tends, I think, to write stuff that might appeal to one’s peer group but have little relevance to an educated intelligent reader who is not a writer. And for me, witness my first book, living apart has been a goldmine of inspiration. I think if I was really heavily involved in the writing world all the time, I’d only be able to write satire…
Cons: If one takes it too far, one courts obscurity. Much as I do what I do simply because I love it, when I think I’ve done something reasonably well, I want to share it with other people, both people I know and strangers. If I lived in complete isolation, this would be, practically, very difficult to accomplish. I think of the writing life as being very much like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, who must spend time in his mountain cave with his animals, but then must periodically climb down and walk through the market. Some of the greatest writers (e.g. Kafka, Dickinson) avoided the public eye during their lives. Perhaps this was beneficial to their writing, but as a result it’s only through a combination of luck and the solicitude of their friends and family that we’re able to read their work today. I’d prefer not to leave such things to chance.
Part of me suspects “the scene” is merely a utopia. My scene, if I can call it that, is mainly internet based. I communicate with writers in Regina, Toronto and Winnipeg by email on a daily basis and with many others less regularly. I also spend four weeks per year at the Saskatchewan Writers/Artists Colony at St. Peter’s Abbey, chatting at meals and during the evenings with writers and artists from across the country and the US. Is that a scene?
Frankly, only one person in my circle of writer friends refers to “the scene.” He lives in Toronto. No one else I know has ever used those words in my presence. Does the term apply to an inner circle of writers who have somehow been earmarked for success? Is the scene typified by parties where the powerful writers and editors stand in the centre of the room, the others revolving around them, caught in the gravitational pull? Or is it more like a cattle auction, the writers herded into the centre ring, agents and publishers bidding all the while from the periphery? I don’t know, but I think both scenarios are highly unlikely. I want to know what living in the scene means. I want examples.
(Toronto writer, critic and editor) Darren Wershler-Henry: The idea of “the scene” is problematic, because it assumes that there is one circle that predominates. Canada is a small country in the sense that if you’re determined to be a writer of the non-Unabomber variety, you’ll meet a lot of other writers very quickly, but you’ll never meet them all and you’ll never fully grasp the specificity of the localities and social groups that inform the production of each of them. Being a writer is like living in the middle of a complex Venn diagram of overlapping circles. One circle describes the writers that are your close friends and confidantes; another, the press of presses that publish your work; two or three more, the readings that you attend and perform at; a larger one, all of the writers in your local municipality (inside which will be other circles you occasionally visit); another, the writers you correspond with by email; another, the national writers you see occasionally (all with their own little network of nodes and circles) … and so on. Each circle has a relatively high degree of geographic/historical/temporal specificity and can vanish relatively easily, just as new ones can appear relatively easily.
Jon Paul Fiorentino: I’m not quite sure what living in the scene means but there are active literary scenes in most Canadian cities. Here in Montreal we have a long standing spoken word scene that has its roots in the Vehicule poets and the Foufounes scene. In Toronto there are amazing reading series like Lexiconjury, Artbar, and I.V. Lounge. These events allow writers to practice their social skills. This is especially important for poets–the trekkies of literature.
Sandra Campbell: I have lived and worked in downtown Toronto for more than twenty years but throughout my writing life I’ve been so busy with the divergent challenges of writing and earning a living that I’ve had no time to connect to the scene. In fact, I’ve never even had time to worry about it. I must confess I’m not even sure what the scene is. I’ve not ever worked in the publishing industry, and my sole inside connection to media is TVOntario where I worked as a public educator in the 1980’s. So I’m an outsider, through and through, in spite of my geographical location.
Andre Alexis: The “scene” is other writers. It’s necessary when you’re starting out. The scene is where you get your support group, the writers who’ll provide the competition, inspiration, frustration, etc. Although it’s done in privacy, writing is, essentially, a social act that has its origins in a society and an environment.
When you get older, it’s important to stop caring what others think, to begin the process of processing the information you already have. The “scene” is a liability when you know what you’re doing or what you want to do.
The Nelson Literary Agency’s FAQ offers no-nonsense advice: “Here’s the dirty little secret about publishing. It’s just like any other career–network, network, network.” I guess this means writers should do their best to plug themselves into the scene. I recently read a story in The Manitoban, the University of Manitoba’s student newspaper, about the newly established Burns Family Creative Classroom in Winnipeg, a place where writers can go to build a social network. It seems isolation has been identified as a barrier to good writing and this place offers writers a ready-made scene. Winnipeg has no shortage of writers and readings. I spent a couple days there in May during a week that was loaded with events and I met a lot of people. Needless to say, that was a great thing. However, I can’t imagine what it would be like to live there and have to choose which readings to attend, which books to buy. With limited funds and limited time, how does a writer decide? Are there potential ramifications? As it was, I had to choose one event over another. For those writers living in larger centres, spring and fall launch season must be exhausting. Does the scene produce other side-effects? I want to hear about the pros of living in the scene. What are the cons?
(Ottawa poet) Chris Jennings: I guess the pros are self-explanatory for a writer who wants to publish. Publishing is a business and businesses smooth on schmooze. I actually get emails – I have no idea how I got on this list – announcing a monthly ’schmoozerama’ for people who have or want careers in publishing, producing, and broadcasting in Toronto. I want to say it’s easier to attract attention, but it’s also easy to be ignored.
(London poet and editor) Todd Swift: Living in the scene – as I do in London, and have done in Paris, Budapest and before that Montreal – has many pros. You are part of actively defining the cultural movements that unfold around you, through various events, chance meetings, even conversations in passing; you get to meet many brilliant fellow writers, and can hopefully learn from their mistakes and triumphs, you get to taste the tang of the zeitgeist. The cons are that most such communities are deadly in terms of the infighting and politics of the shuffle upwards.
Sometime in my early teens I read Lust for Life, Irving Stone’s biographical novel about Vincent Van Gogh, first published in 1934. Strangely enough, the book left me feeling hopeful, no matter how badly my paintings turned out. Shortly thereafter, a distant neighbour loaned me his copy of Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon, a nonfiction book on bull-fighting. He knew I liked to read and write, but he had no way of knowing how that book would affect me. I remember sitting on my bed, stunned by the gore and stunned by the fact that this writer had gone all the way to Spain to learn to write. He said that in the book. Did that mean I’d have to travel? At the time I knew nothing about Hemingway other than what I found in the book, but that was far more than I knew about any other writer. As the years went by I picked up on the writers’ penchant for travel. I learned that some writers chose to exile themselves from their own countries in order to gain perspective and write. Need they have gone so far? After reading Disobedience, the Griffin-winning collection by Alice Notley, an American who has been living in Paris for more than a decade, and considering her interviews online, I’d say yes. Can this sense of distance be achieved in small town Canada/America? Why or why not? After reading A Complicated Kindness, the Governor General’s Award-winning novel by Miriam Toews, a Winnipeg writer living just 35 minutes from her childhood home, I’d say yes. A glowing review in the New York Times backs me up on that one. Regardless of the great difference in the number of kilometres each traveled, in their work both Notley and Toews manage to go the distance.
Chris Banks: I think those writers who live abroad who still see themselves as some sort of ‘writer in exile’ are deluding themselves. Still, there is plenty to be said for distance and its ability to give you a fresh perspective on your writing. That certainly was the case when I spent a year living in Seoul , South Korea .
Can you achieve a sense of distance in small town Canada/America? Absolutely. I remember the American poet Larry Levis once wrote something about how, if one looks at a shopping mall, the eye starves. I think if you spend any amount of time staring at a suburban strip-mall, you can’t help but ask serious questions about your surroundings.
Darren Wershler-Henry: Again: Romanticism and Modernist machismo. The real reason everyone went to Paris in the late 20s was because so many interesting writers had moved there. Exile my ass: it’s about community.
(Berkeley, CA and Windsor, ON poet) Anne F. Walker: I think the luxury of a foreign culture is the continued difference that forces one to reconsider how the self exists in society. One probably can find that anywhere.
(Victoria, BC poet) Rhona McAdam: I think it depends on the writer. I enjoyed my time away from Canada: it made me feel more Canadian in some ways, because I could create my own Canadian expat identity in Britain, where there isn’t a clear sense of what a Canadian is.
Then there’s the fate of the book to consider. I covet time alone with my writing. Only in that time do I find a way forward. That may sound rather twee, but it’s true. It’s possible, even probable, that I would’ve seen the way sooner if there had been someone to point it out. While isolation is essential to my writing process, what about publication and distribution? Am I doing the book a disservice by living so far from the larger writing community? Have I denied it readers? How much does a book’s success depend on a writer’s isolation?
(La Ronge, SK novelist) Harold Johnson: Define success. If the term relates to sales, then isolation may have an impact. Sales require salesmanship. Writers cannot easily promote in the traditional sense and remain in isolation. Readers like to meet authors face to face, like to hear the voice behind the words, like some intimacy with the wordsmith. However, with the internet this dynamic might change to where an author might be able to self promote from home. Highspeed internet via satellite is now a reality at my cabin. I have the potential to research Brazilian law from a remote site in northern Saskatchewan. Tomorrow is today.
Todd Swift: The writing of poetry can often take place in isolation – as for its success (is this measured in sales and prizes as it all too often is these days?) it is harder to get readers and even publishers interested in a truly isolated figure (and there can be good reasons–Jeffers was an unfriendly misanthrope; Baron Corvo an ungrateful paranoiac).
Darren Wershler-Henry: Little, if at all. Part of being social involves meeting editors and publishers who will not only consider actually making your work available to an audience, they will also tell you that you’re not the genius your fevered brain has convinced yourself you are if you live in isolation. Again, there might be some small advantage from a marketing perspective (”written alone in the frozen wastes of the Arctic Circle !”) but like all novelties, this too will pass and you’ll actually have to go speak to someone or do some research to find something else to write about …
This spring I was chatting with a writer who went to a novelist’s book launch in Toronto. My jaw dropped when I heard the number of people who’d attended. It was just after my Flin Flon launch and my numbers weren’t nearly as impressive. To appease myself, I did some creative math, comparing city populations to the number of attendees. In fact, I had to travel 5,850 km in Manitoba and Saskatchewan in the span of two months to expose myself to a potential population approaching, but not closely, that of Toronto’s. I won’t mention the amount of money spent on gas and hotel rooms. Now the car needs new tires and an oil change. I need some sleep. Every now and then I think about that novelist’s launch and wonder just how much a book’s success depends on a writer’s place in the scene.
(150 Mile House, BC poet and novelist) Harold Rhenisch: Lots. Because it gives you access to festivals and interviews; because it allows you to network. Networking from an isolated position takes time and money. As a writer, I travel about 20,000 kilometres a year, by car, annually. I’m away from home about 6 weeks of every year. Even so, I turn down many chances to network, such as Word on the Street in Vancouver, because at 6.5 hours distance it’s just too far.
Again I’m reminded of the radio interview. I wonder if deep down I do feel some pressure to move closer to the scene. It seems like everywhere I look there are reminders of my lack of proximity to the larger writing community. Even the course description for Simon Fraser University’s Writing Studio, which contains “serious” and “busy” and other current catch words, asks, “Are you longing to move beyond the isolation of writing?” What does that mean? No doubt the question is meant to reflect a longing the course designer considers quite common among the target group. As I focus on the words “move beyond,” I can’t help but see myself as a donkey on which someone is trying to pin an imaginary ideal. Yet, at the same time, the words draw me forward. I click to check out the fees, still wondering what the question means and if the course would turn what I hope are tales into undisputable truths. One such tale goes like this: most writers seem to believe writers must live near major centres such as Toronto and New York to further their careers. I want to know if writers believe this and why.
Harold Rhenisch: Nonsense. What does ‘furthering a career’ mean? If it means to be connected to networks, it sure helps. If it means learning to write well, then it’s no help whatsoever.
Jon Paul Fiorentino: I believe that people who want to work in the publishing industry should move to where it is. But writers can write from anywhere.
This is my 20th year in the boreal forest, atop the Canadian Shield. The place figures largely in my first two books. Though I love this place, I’ve never felt settled. I long for the plains. I miss the weather, the sky and the people who shoulder it all. There are times I’d like to meet writers for coffee and talk shop in a way that can’t be approximated online. I want to see the shrugs, the sneers. I want to hear the laughter.
The internet has opened the door for me as a writer and has left me standing in the doorway, neither inside nor outside of the scene. I never imagined I’d have the pleasure of sharing ideas with so many writers. As I see it, the internet has placed isolation and the scene on opposite ends of a teeter-totter. Now, with the weight of each being more even, neither one is grounded, neither one is left swinging helplessly in the air. I asked the writers how the internet has changed or redefined what it means to live in isolation and in the scene.
Todd Swift: The Internet is its own scene, and does enable many people from more remote regions to become part of a global network. The literary website I am poetry editor for, nthposition, receives thousands of poems from Mumbai to Saskatoon, each year. However, the net is not yet fully respected by many established – and establishment – critics, publishers and poets, which limits its impact. At the end of the day, nothing beats having a published book launched at a reading at a place like Bob Holman’s Bowery club, or Shakespeare & Co. That’s the scene.
Anne F. Walker: The internet is a huge change. Through Bookninja I can engage with people on conversations about Canadian literature while away. Since I really care about CanLit, and understand things more through conversation than books, chatroom forums are a vibrant way to connect to a community that is important to me. Also, sites like The Danforth Review access me to reviews and interviews that I would not be able to find much outside Canada .
(Ottawa poet and editor) Susan McMaster: Letters again. Writers write letters, and it’s wonderful, but most of us have become too busy in the last 20 years, with family, jobs, politics and causes, financial stuff, etc. etc. E-mail has given letters back to us. The internet has given me a way to find out about writing and writers worldwide. I LIKE it (after I learned not to spend all day every day puddling around in its tidepools).
If a writer could achieve a perfect balance between isolation and life in the scene, what would that life look like? Where would that life be lived? I received Todd Swift’s responses from the UK and Anne F. Walker’s responses from the US on the same day I was checking out a piece of land in the heart of the Coteau Hills in southern Saskatchewan, overlooking Luck Lake. That’s where I’d like to move. There I was daydreaming about Harold Johnson’s isolated cabin and having internet access via satellite. I was thinking about house-sitting in Toronto during the spring or fall one year, and in Vancouver, Montreal, or London the next, so I could take in my fill of book launches and get a glimpse of the scene, returning to the hills to write prior to smog alert season. Then I’d head off to St. Peter’s Abbey for a couple weeks. I think there’s a balance to be had and that’s the balance I seek.
(Sault Ste Marie, ON poet) Meredith Adolph: The overall culture in less densely populated areas is one that moves at a slower pace, which can have a good effect on the mental space of a working writer. For those who draw strength from natural surroundings, of whom I am one, the greater amount of personal- and green- space can only contribute to the writer’s quality of work and life. It allows you to go very deeply into your own work.
It strikes a stark contrast to the writing life of my grandmother, who taught school in tiny Northern Ontario communities fifty years ago. She wanted desperately to become a good writer and worked at it her entire life, but went without the resources and support network that writers need to develop their craft. And so, her stories were terrible. Now, aspiring writers in Shining Tree and Copper Cliff can have their voices heard in the discourse of Canadian literature with the help of a computer in a public library. Even for a self- confessed techno-grump, that’s remarkable.
(Regina poet) Tracy Hamon: The scene provides a venue to discuss the writing, perhaps to give readings, even emotional and physical support to writers. The scene usually supplies a crowd for readings, and helps to promote writers, but at the same time can sometimes limit a writer to that one genre or movement for which they become known. In a way it can label a writer, not always for the good.
Kimmy Beach: Two words: “Google Me.”
Recently, I came upon the Gleitman chalice/faces figure in Jan Zwicky’s Wisdom & Metaphor. As I looked at the white chalice and then refocused to look at the two faces, enjoying the predictable gestalt shift, I wondered if an overall picture of the writer’s life would look much the same. Does this discussion have anything in common with the figure-ground phenomenon? Isolation could be the practical chalice and the scene, two perfect faces almost nose to nose, violating personal space. Or is it the other way around? It does sound as if the scene is central. Indeed, it could be the chalice surrounded by the faces of isolation. Either way, I’d like to think it, like the Wizard, is nothing but an illusion. I’d like to think that living in isolation and living in the scene are one and the same outline of a writer’s life, only perceived differently. Perhaps the life a writer leads is a reversible picture, the contours, those lines we choose to follow, giving relevant shape to a life in isolation or a life in the scene. After all, no one can focus on both at the same time.
Brenda Schmidt is the author of the recently released More than Three Feet of Ice (Thistledown Press).