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Sunday, January 29, 2017

Literature Matters - III: Solitude, Mistakes & Creativity

Edugyan (far left), Kamboureli (centre) and Solie (right)
The third annual Literature Matters – the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature Lecture Series featured Karen Solie, and Esi Edugyan, both renowned, multiple award-winning writers. Solie is a poet, and Esi Edugyan is a novelist. Smaro Kamboureli, the Avie Bennett Chair in Canadian Literature, moderated the program.

Karen Solie is the author of four collections of poetry. Her third collection Pigeon won the 2010 Pat Luwther Award, Trillium Poetry Prize, and the Griffin Prize. Her most recent, The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out (2015) was shortlisted for the Trillium Book Award. She was the 2015 recipient of the Writers’ Trust Latner Poetry Prize and received the 2016 Canada Council for the Arts Victor Martyn Lynch-Staunton Award.

Before the program commenced, the organisers had prepared a slideshow that was presented on the screen of the Isabel Bader Theatre’s stage. It contained extracts from both the poet’s and the novelist’s works, all remarkable in their pithy observations. For instance, the following lines from Solie’s poem from the collection The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out.

My unknown presence
was my weapon. I waited for him
to initiate the next stage
of our lives.

Solie’s subject was On Folly: Poetry and Mistakes. She began her talk by quoting from Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus (also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam), most famous work The Praise of Folly, where the humanist theologian and one of the pioneers of the Protestant Reformation asked: What is more foolish? The poet or the poetry? Solie’s tongue-in-cheek answer: People are generally happy when they see a tradesperson – a plumber or an electrician; that is not often the case when they see a poet.  That, she added, had to do with more people agreeing that they hate poetry than on what poetry is.

In a talk that was peppered with quotes from many poets and writers, Solie made the case that follies and mistakes are integral to creativity and that everything that a writer does is no more natural than other things in the world. A writer’s responsibility, therefore, is to remain open, vulnerable, and basically write down everything that’s inside the head on paper.

Solie observed that the definition of word folly has evolved to become narrower; in its pristine sense, it also meant delight, fakery, a dwelling place, in addition to failure or a mistake. She said fear is a necessary ingredient for good writing, and that fear, too, had many shades and connotations, just as mistakes are essential to creativity. During the Q&A later, she said that fear for her is the fear of being terrible in the many ways that one can be terrible.

Solie said poetry is about ‘and’ not ‘or’, and quoted Meena Alexander’s poem Question Time

We have poetry
So we do not die of history.
I had no idea what I meant.

Solie answering an audience question as
Kamboureli and Edugyan listen
Esi Edugyan is a renowned novelist, whose second novel Half-Blood Moon won the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize for Fiction, and the Ethel Wilson Award for the USA’s Hurston-Wright Award and the Anisfield-Wolf Prize for Fiction. It was shortlisted for many other awards including the Man Booker and the Governor-General Award. In 2014 she published her first collection of a nonfiction book, Dreaming of Elsewhere, a meditation on the relationship between home and belonging.

The subject of Edugyan’s talk was The Wrong Door: Some Meditations. She began with the example of the proverbial person from Porlock, who disturbs Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Romantic era English poet, while he was penning Kubla Khan (A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment).

The story goes that Coleridge, in an opium-induced haze, was writing a poem that apparently was flowing naturally and was practically getting itself written, was disturbed by this person from Porlock, who had mistaken knocked on Coleridge's door. By the time this person left, the poem has evaporated from his mind, and mere fragments were of it left.

Edugyan said every writer needs a metaphorical wrong door that intruders may knock on to disturb someone else and leave the writer alone to create. Every writer fears the sudden, thought-scattering disturbance that ruins her work. She said solitude and silence are essential requirements for a writer because only through silence can she cut out the external to hear the internal.

Losing a thought or an idea because of the din that surrounds a writer is commonplace, especially in these days of social media distractions. Edugyan quoted Rebecca Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost) where she traces the origin of the word ‘lost’ to the Norse word los. Solnit says, “The word ‘lost,’ comes from the Old Norse ‘los,’ meaning the disbanding of an army, and this origin suggests soldiers falling out of formation to go home, a truce with the wide world. I worry now that many people never disband their armies, never go beyond what they know.”

We must go away to allow ourselves to perform miracles, Edugyan observed. She said even though the writer writes for everyone, she should accept that not everyone will like what she writes and that the role of art and creativity is to depict the world faithfully, even if it is unsavoury. Edugyan also emphasised the significance of privacy. She said that the role of privacy in creation is being redefined constantly, especially in this post-privacy world, a writer should realise that public intimacy turns into banality, and loss of privacy has the greatest ability to destroy the artist. Silence, she said, exists beyond the spectacle and words are within us waiting to be made whole.

A brief Q/A followed the readings, where both Solie and Edugyan stressed the need for solitude. Solie spoke of the eternal conundrum: We don’t write to please people, and yet, we want people to read what we write. Edugyan spoke of the adverse effects of being a celebrity on the process of creativity.

Read about the previous two Literature Matters here:

Literature Matters – II

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