The Symposium on Manitoba Writing: A Family Reunion, a Funeral, a Vacation, a School


The Symposium on Manitoba Writing, presented by the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, May 9-12, 2012, at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg

By Ted Landrum 

Literally, a symposium would be a cordial and polite, yet not entirely sophisticated, drinking party, animated by artful speech and debate, occasional jokes and musical entertainment and ­­– being traditionally furnished with stone couches sloped for drainage ­– some share of divertingly ergonomic gymnastics ranging from restrained discomfiture and political agitation to moments of sagaciously salacious world-begetting charm.

And this describes, closely enough as I recall it (a fortnight ex post facto), the recent Symposium On Manitoba Writing; particularly if we allow for the prudent substitution of generous thermae of coffee (and handy flutes of ruby red grapefruit juice) for the more potent amphorae of wine many lovers of words might have hoped for, in spite of vigorous post-colonial misgivings over the lingering effects of Dionysian influence.

If it had been up to me (a ludicrous notion), I would probably not have allowed such a thorough substitution of beverages, especially for a rhetorical event as rare and celebratory as this was. I nevertheless enjoyed copious servings of enthusiastic, even transporting, literary discourse and walked away with a sober headful of transformed appreciation both for the intense complexity of the local literary community and for the worldly yield of “Manitoban Writing”: a potent field which—as ex-Winnipegger Marta Dvořák suggested in her opening keynote (penned at the Sorbonne, where she teaches)—although it may be compassed geographically, and named in a rooted vernacular, is far more heterogloss—which is to say both radically and eccentrically plural— and more noisily contentious than an idle drifter such as myself might have first imagined simply by scanning the (bookshop) horizon, or reading between the lines of the local (bus) map.

As Tanis MacDonald argued, speaking on a century of “feminist texts” (in paper session #10 of the Symposium), even the region’s most liberating stories and poems have more creative and critical impact for those who know the places and traditions they speak of. But, as I think she also suggested, such impact is ultimately not restricted to local knowledge. To give an extra-literary example (exposing my own regional in/experience), it would have helped me to know, on confronting the cover art of Rhubarb #30 (featuring a painting by Les Brandt), that Patricia Beach has little relation to Sylvia Beach; no relation, that is, outside that special beach-like province of playful imagination where one is allowed to strip away aspects of the local while at the same time revealing its universalizing features. But don’t trust me. Trust a local poet, Sarah Klassen. Although it’s not one of the marvelous Monstrance (Turnstone, 2012) poems she read at the symposium, her poem Bird says as much from another shore: “I think it means to lift my spirits / lure me from my place / on the beach, reading, / lost in thought.” (Rhubarb #30).

Manitoba writing takes its readers (wherever they may be from or to) both as near and as far as they’re willing to go. For they are ultimately human stories which speak to what it is to be a vital, imaginative yet mortal being, both in and out of place – that’s at least a five-fold feat (if I’ve counted right), and one which nearly every Manitoba writer I’ve had the pleasure to read has helped me keep an open, and meaningfully troubling, question.

But, again, you needn’t trust me. Trust Alberta novelist and critic Aritha van Herk, who argued in her closing keynote that Manitoba literature knows its place; but that this knowing art entails a practice of restless effacement, which through some “secret effulgence,” obtains “a power beyond its placement.” Just when she said this I flashed back two full days, all the way to the first session of papers down the corridor, to the brilliant bolt of lightning that must have struck Manuel Portela way off in Portugal while translating a Dennis Cooley poem on the verge of dancing off the page. (You had to be there to see it.)

In the same opening paper session (in which the bolt of lightning exploded Cooley’s dancing poem), I was stunned out of my chair by Maureen Scott Harris, reading excerpts from her great uncle’s real world farm diaries against passages harvested from Robert Kroetsch’s Seed Catalogues. She describes the strategy as Enkroetschments. But these both drew me in and blew me away, across other boundaries, sacred and profane. Through her verbal restraint and potent delivery the human places and events expanded to an epic scale. I thought of Hesiod’s advice to his foolish brother. I imagined archaic scraps of papyri with hard boiled facts listed on one side and ribald poetry scribed on the other. And when the release of humour came near the end of her talk, I remembered Woody Allen’s satirical essay “The Metterling Lists” (in Getting Even, 1966), in which simple laundry lists take on all the potency of a hypnotic dream worthy of Freudian analysis— down to the final sock: “I am at a dinner party with some friends [a symposium] when suddenly a man walks in with a bowl of soup on a leash….”  I’m sure this is not where Maureen Scott Harris is heading, but it’s one of the many places “I” went. In order to get back on track, I’ll cite a swatch from what I take to be an Enkroetschment in progress, from the close of an entry marked, “Day 3: … As I reach the grid road the land flings itself open in front of me, huge and strange / Who knew it was a pleasure to feel so small?” (CV2 winter 2012).

Yet again, as Aritha van Herk suggests, the strategy of effacement yields power beyond displacement. Read Victor Enns’s Boy (2012) and Jennifer Still’s Girlwood (2011), for example, and learn again not only what a marvellously frightening, impossibly exhilarating and utterly humiliating experience it might be to be (and no longer be) a child, but also how great the difference between a boy’s and a girl’s coming-of-age can be. Add to this difference what a reader learns from a gutsy coat-swinging two-named “girl” in Méira Cook’s A Walker in the City (2011), and what she might have in common with Rosanna Deerchild’s “girl” playing crossroads chicken on a borrowed bike in “Crazy Horse is a Girl” (in This is a Small Northern Town, 2008). Fearlessly risking bad drivers, rehearsing traction, they both know feet don’t always “reach the ground,” they both know ghostly forefathers figured in stone, and they both know how language lets other selves – of other ages, other genders, other cultures and other places – speak, strive, live.

I have to say that I enjoyed the full diversity of voices, and apologize for responding mainly only to a few anglophone poets, because I feel comfortable responding to these voices. But I was most moved and more profoundly challenged by the Aboriginal poets, storytellers and scholars, both by their powerful individual contributions and the obvious rapport they have with one another: Emma LaRocque, Duncan Mercredi, Marie Annharte Baker, Katherena Vermette, Niigaanwewidam James Sinclair taught me much in a single afternoon. And, almost as equally, I enjoyed all the Franco-Manitoban voices I was able to hear, especially the performances given by Bertrand Nayet and Marc Prescott.  And there were several readings I regret missing due to the necessity of having simultaneous sessions. One I tried to make by jumping sessions midway through was a reading by Addena Sumter-Freitag, but there must have been a change in the line-up, and in that one moment only, I failed to be in more than one place at a time.

I feel quite privileged to have been able to attend this symposium, which seemed at times like a family reunion, like a funeral, like a vacation, and of course like school. I urge everyone with an interest in the region’s literature to check out the website for a summary of the event and a list of its prestigious participants, and hope that the promised booty of podcasts, videos and papers will be available soon.

One Comment

  1. Posted June 18, 2012 at 3:08 am | Permalink

    Inhabitation is an architectural commentary. The health of a people criticism. Dwelling in the texts of poets is good medicine, well taken as given.

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The Readings Report

Ted Landrum

Ted Landrum (b. 1968) is a legal alien living happily at the epicentre of the continent (in Winnipeg’s Exchange district). At least since 1989, he has been engaged in rehearsing architecture in a variety of ways including verbal poetry, drawings, models, films, collaborative performance art, parade floats, group costumes, landscapes and, of course, viable buildings large and small. Most of all, he has enjoyed teaching architecture as a performative, poetic and critically heuristic art. Ted is working on a collection of “archi-poems” called Midway Radicals.