Monday, May 23, 2016

Awake in the Moment: Ore interviews visiting author Lorri Neilsen Glenn

Ore Samples aims to bring some of Canada’s finest, critically-acclaimed professional writers north to connect with local readers, local literary, visual and performing artists, and anyone engaged with and invested in the vibrant local arts scene. The 2016 lineup is stellar.

The second of the series, set to take place this Thursday, May 26 at the Flin Flon Public Library, features a visiting author well-known and highly-regarded across Canada for her writing and teaching; she has led writing workshops internationally as well. Lorri Neilsen Glenn is the author and editor of over a dozen collections of poetry and creative nonfiction. Former Halifax Poet Laureate, she works with writers of all ages and backgrounds. She is currently working on a mixed-genre manuscript about Red River women. She is The Pas Regional Library’s 2016 Writer in Residence in The Pas, Manitoba.

Lorri Neilsen Glenn took the time to entertain a few questions ahead of her visit. Conversation starters, if you will.

“I think of the infinite number of encounters and stories we are made from, the poverty of language to gather them all, and the forces of a culture that render them invisible. The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas pares ethics down to the simplicity and power of a face-to-face encounter: we are responsible to each other.” This quote is from your powerful essay “Marking the Page” in In This Together: Fifteen Stories of Truth and Reconciliation, an anthology edited by noted historian Danielle Metcalfe-Chenail and published this spring. Can you give us some insight into how your writing and your life as writer have been shaped by this way of thinking?

Lorri Neilsen Glenn:
It’s about witness. It’s about stripping away names, being present with others before our human impulses to judge and to categorize take over. That’s difficult to do, especially when we’re schooled from birth to sort, label, and in many cases, control. It’s a radical act to approach anyone or anything as they are without cultural baggage, theirs or ours. It’s also difficult.

I’ve always been fascinated with a basic tension: language allows us to name and to communicate, but it will always and forever be inadequate, and that’s okay. What happens under and beyond and behind written language is, to my mind, the real stuff of life. Yet the experience of those moments, the life stream beyond the word, if you will, slips away. What we experience remains in our bodies and, to some extent, our memories, but these, too, change – become written over, re-remembered, recast.

In that particular essay, I’m reminding myself how entire cultures – in this case indigenous peoples – have become invisible for several reasons: the over-valuing of the printed word (and thus the under-valuing of oral knowledge and tradition), the political power and control exerted by colonialist recorders (journal-keepers, historians, newspaper owners, among others), and the absence of the voices and stories of half the population -- sometimes because of centuries of suppression that have made women’s silence the norm, but equally, I’m sure because no one considered them important enough to include. Imagine the histories we’d have – passed along through written and oral language, artifacts, art, song, and other ways– if everyone had a hand in deciding what to include, how to create them, what matters. This is where being response-able to one another can make a difference – seeing one another as equally human, our stories equally valuable.

“Driving triggers memories.” This evocative sentence begins “The Art of Losing,” an essay from your book Threading Light: Explorations in Loss and Poetry. Currently you’re working on a manuscript about Red River women. How has your memory been triggered and your work influenced by your return to Manitoba and your visits to the places where these women lived?

Lorri Neilsen Glenn:
As I drove up from Winnipeg earlier this month, I stopped at Riverside Cemetery to visit Peggy Wemyss’ grave (the writer Margaret Laurence). That spot is a draw for me – the birds, the river, the plain beauty of it all. I picked up a couple of pinecones and drove west to my mother’s grave in Strathclair. A few years ago the caretakers had removed the peony bushes in the cemetery so I brought along some sage seeds. My mom loved small acts of defiance, and she loved to read, so I also left the Riverside pinecones by her grave.

In Dauphin, my old high school is still there, but angle parking on the main street has disappeared, along with the dime store where I used to buy 45s. Our old wooden house is now covered in vinyl, and all the trees around it are gone, as are, I’m certain, the butts below the bedroom window, evidence of my failed attempts at smoking.

Western Canada, especially Saskatchewan and Manitoba, is saturated with memories for me. I was born here, went to school here, and taught here.

The day before I’d headed west to Strathclair and Dauphin, though, I’d driven north of Winnipeg along River Road to Selkirk. For the last few years, I’ve visited the area trying to map old stories and landmarks over the Selkirk of today. I have no body memory of Selkirk at all, yet that’s where one whole side of my family came from. I have cousins there I didn’t know I had. Now any memories triggered when I go to Selkirk come from names and locations mentioned in history books, stories I never heard growing up or read about in my high school history books.

My great-grandmother was from Red River and died in a fire on a lake steamer off Warren Landing in 1908. Her death has set me off in a years-long research project that keeps turning up fascinating detail about women’s lives in the 1800s.

Now, in The Pas, I’m lucky to be serving as Writer in Residence at The Pas Regional Library. I’ve met wonderful writers in this community. When I drove in, though, I was startled to see my old house by the river is gone – it’s been torn down to make a park. But since I arrived, I’ve learned ancestors of mine lived here, including the Reverend Henry Budd. And early in June, I’ll be headed for Norway House for a reading and workshop and to see other ancestral connections, mostly Swampy/Muskego Cree– several generations back. This trip has turned out to be a potent mix of both memory and discovery.

You will be giving a one-hour workshop “Awake in the Moment: Writing with Spirit” on May 26 at the Flin Flon Public Library starting at 6 pm prior to the readings and performance at 7. Free to participants. All welcome, no experience required.

In smaller communities such as this, it can be daunting to attend a workshop for the first time as it makes your interest in the writing process visible to others in the community. Do you have any tips for first-time workshop participants? Do you have any tips for all participants to help them make the most of the short time together?

Lorri Neilsen Glenn:
That’s a difficult question. It assumes outing yourself as a writer – or being interested in writing -- is something shameful, embarrassing, or unusual. Is it our Canadian tendency to be self-deprecating? Is it fear of being mocked? Is it tall poppy syndrome – Alice Munro’s famous line, “who do you think you are?” I do understand it, though – as a child growing up in small towns in Western Canada, I learned everyone either knew (or fabricated) others’ business. (I’m not sure that’s only a small town phenomenon). And when I was young, I assumed, as many did, that writers came from “out there,” important cultural centres, “real” places such as Toronto or New York.

Now we know that’s not true. And you’re a great example of this, Brenda – look at all your creative accomplishments in writing and painting, all produced in a small town.

Many beginning writers believe their stories aren’t worth telling, or their ideas aren’t unique. They long to write, but are self-conscious or fearful. It takes courage to write, but courage is a muscle we develop. I think it was Maya Angelou who reminded us there is no agony worse than bearing an untold story. Being of a certain age, I look at stories as legacies we leave our families—and now, doing my own research – I regret not asking about my grandparents’ stories. 

The workshop in Flin Flon is only an hour long, but I hope people will join me in activities to develop our perceptions and to open up the ordinary moment. I don’t put people on the spot, but I always ask them to engage, to consider the ideas.

When we write from experience, from the heart of our lives, from the force of our thinking, we figure out who we are.

And – back to your earlier question about being responsible to one another – writing invites us to respond to what’s around us, and it teaches us how connected we are to each other, and to the world’s larger stories.