"I am 3/4ths Canadian, and one 4th New Englander - I had ancestors on both sides in the Revolutionary war." - Elizabeth Bishop

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

“The reading circle — listening to Anne Simpson” – by Suzie LeBlanc

Nine pairs of legs, most of them crossed. One woman’s feet are naked. The closeness of her bare feet, despite the cold outside, brings intimacy to the room. Most feet are still, some moving a little, softly caressing the faded flowery carpet

I also feel everyone’s backs resting on the backs of chairs and the sofa, relaxed, as Anne Simpson reads a passage about “sinking into chairs.” The comfort I feel from everyone in the room, and from the room itself, makes me realize how vital, healing, warm and welcome it is to be in good company listening to someone read. Her reading is an extension of her speech. She begins by talking to us and, seamlessly, her voice launches into reading. Her voice, now with words and rhythms a bit more formalized, stems from the same place, the same discerning mind. We listen in a living room that doesn’t belong to anyone in particular anymore but where reading, writing and contemplating belong to all who visit.

Suddenly I am reminded of being in a similar small circle of legs, feet and chairs in a convent outside Montreal. After a concert we gave in their chapel, Alex (my accompanist) and I are invited to sit with the nuns in a circle while we talk about music, flowers and this and that. It is comforting to be there, in the quiet and circular serenity of 14 rocking chairs.

Left to right: Janet Maybee, Suzie LeBlanc, Mary Ellen Sullivan, Sandra Barry, Anne Simpson, Jill MacLean, Harry Thurston, Linda Hargrave (photo taken by Paul Kellogg -- at the Elizabeth Bishop House, Great Village, N.S.

Today, I am aware of everyone’s toes pointing towards the middle of the room, toward each other. It’s as though our feet are anxious to converse as well. Why am I attracted to everyone’s feet, instead of to their facial expressions? I’m finding our feet so expressive. They are not engaging in fascinating and inspiring intellectual pursuits, but they are eager to meet and commune, almost to touch. If the chairs came a little closer, our feet would touch, and we might giggle and talk less. If we were children, how quickly our feet would have touched, and after a laugh, moved on to another game.

The reason for our gathering was to listen to Griffin Poetry Prize winner (and winner of many other prizes) Anne Simpson, and it was a treat. She chose wonderful excerpts from The Maram Grass, a few poems from her collection Is, and an excerpt of her novel Falling, which made me want to read the book instantly so I bought a copy.

How lucky we were to be in this intimate and informal setting, able to ask questions about the writing process, or how it is to have your work read out loud by someone else, or about the role of the weather, or place, in a novel. Are these things peripheral, or essential to the unfolding of the story? How can they help to connect us to the world we are creating? We talked about connecting disparate things in poetry to create surprising and compelling metaphors, and about how scientists also create by connecting disparate things, and how these two worlds are more related than people realize. I can’t remember everything that was said but it was a very rich afternoon.

At the end of the day, we were treated to an unusual spectacle when a pileated woodpecker began carving a large living space in the dead tree in front of the veranda. He was very close to us and we watched him work for a long time before he flew away, or took a break.

The creature in question (photo by Suzie LeBlanc)

Sandra Barry has been organizing these afternoons at the EB House for years, inviting different artists to share their work. It was my second time and I strongly recommend going. This is the type of unique event that happens in a place like Nova Scotia, organized by generous and devoted people like Sandra. It is why I love living here and I wish I could attend more often. They replace the family and community life so many of us have lost in our frenzied pursuit of careers.

Checking things out (photo by Anne Simpson)

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