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

Friday, February 27, 2015

“Writing the World”: Conversations with Writers at the Elizabeth Bishop Festival

One of the afternoon events at the Elizabeth Bishop Festival in Great Village, N.S., on 8 August 2015, is a conversation with four exceptional writers: John Barnstead, Binnie Brennan, Carole Langille and Harry Thurston. This conversation will be moderated by yours truly. We will be profiling all these writers as the winter and spring progresses. This post features Halifax writer and musician Binnie Brennan.
Binnie Brennan (http://binniebooks.com/) has written three books of fiction, Like Any Other Monday, published by Gaspereau Press, and Harbour View and A Certain Grace, both with Quattro Books. Her short fiction has been published in several literary journals, including Existere, The Adirondack Review, and All Rights Reserved. Binnie is a graduate of the Humber School for Writers, where she was mentored by M.G. Vassanji and Alistair MacLeod. She is a long-time member of Symphony Nova Scotia’s viola section, based in Halifax.

Her debut novel, Like Any Other Monday, is a fictional portrait of the young comedic genius and vaudeville star, Buster Keaton. Her interest in Keaton has an Elizabeth Bishop connection. Bishop left an unfinished poem “Keaton” about which Binnie has written for The Keaton Chronicle (Vol. 22, Issue 3, Summer 2014), the newsletter of the International Buster Keaton Society Inc.

Binnie was a regular artist-in-residence at the Elizabeth Bishop House, where she not only spent time writing,
but also sharing her knowledge and enthusiasm about Buster Keaton during one of the well-attended “Afternoons with…,” that were held at the house over the years. 
Binnie is in the centre in blue. Note the dining room table now covered with edibles.

Here is a link on this blog to Binnie Brennan’s “First Encounter” essay about Elizabeth Bishop: http://elizabethbishopcentenary.blogspot.ca/2010/04/first-encounter-x-happy-birthday-eb-by.html

More festival profiles will follow. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

“Painting the World”: Conversations with Visual Artists at the Elizabeth Bishop Festival

One of the afternoon events at the Elizabeth Bishop Festival in Great Village, N.S., on 8 August 2015 will be a conversation with four exceptional visual artists: Emma FitzGerald, Carol Laing, Joy Laking and Linda Rae Dornan. This conversation will be moderated by writer and Mount Allison Fine Arts professor Anne Koval. We will be profiling all these artists as the winter and spring progresses.

This post features Portaupique, N.S., artist Joy Laking (check out Joy’s website: http://www.joylakinggallery.com/).

To say that Joy loves to paint is an understatement. For forty-one years she has painted Nova Scotia and captured her view of the world on watercolour paper and in oil and acrylics. She is inspired by all of  the beauty that is Nova Scotia.
Joy’s studio paintings are developed from on location paintings, photos and actual objects and flowers. Sometimes an idea is thought about for a number of years before a painting is started. The actual painting may take several weeks. In all cases the reality in the painting is Joy's. She happily changes or moves objects within a painting.  Strong compositions and a wide range of tonal values are a constant in all of Joy’s paintings. Her watercolours make full use of the white of the paper and her oils and acrylics are full of rich colours.

One of her most recent paintings of Great Village gives a vivid sense of what this winter has been like in Nova Scotia:
In addition to her studio paintings and when ever possible Joy paints on location. It is an exhilarating challenge to set out, find a subject and complete an entire painting in four to seven hours. These paintings are loose, spontaneous and depict the tides, the lighting and the moment. Besides painting on location throughout the Maritimes, Joy loves the landscape and history of England, Italy, Spain, France, Greece, Japan and all of South America.

Joy was one of the principals involved in organizing several events during the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary in 2011: a Paint Great Village Day in June; an exhibit of Bishop inspired artwork at the McCarthy Gallery in Truro, N.S., in July; and the Elizabeth Bishop Centenary Arts Festival in August. She has been a member and supporter of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia for many years.

Joy has a number of exhibitions in 2015:
1. Fraser Cultural Centre, Tatamagouche, N.S., “Forces and Vagaries” with Steven Rhude (opening early summer)
2. J. Franklin Wright Gallery, Port Hawkesbury, N.S., solo exhibition (opening 17 July, 7 p.m.)
3. Main and Station Gallery, Parrsboro, N.S., "Painting in situ: seven artists, seven days, one environment" (opening 21 August, 7 p.m.)

You can find out more about The Elizabeth Bishop Festival at:

Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Art of Storytelling: Claire Miller at The Elizabeth Bishop Festival

As Nova Scotia (indeed, all of the Maritimes) groans under a great weight of snow, ice and a relentless winter, it is nice to think about summer and the activities of summer, including The Elizabeth Bishop Festival, which will take place on 8 August 2015 in Great Village, N.S. As I have begun to do, this post profiles another of the many artists and artisans who will participate in the festival.

Part of the citation for the Honorary Doctor of Letters bestowed on Halifax storyteller Claire Miller, by Saint Mary’s University in January 2015, reads: “Ms Miller is an accomplished Canadian storyteller who has been a true pioneer in presenting oral storytelling as an art form for 25 years.” It continues, “She has told her stories to over 100,000 school aged children” — that’s a lot of children, that’s a lot of stories!
The Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia is delighted to have Claire Miller as a featured artist at The Elizabeth Bishop Festival on 8 August 2015. As the degree citation observes, “Through the power of her stories, [Claire] stimulates the imaginations of children by telling them about their own region and cultures around the world.”

Elizabeth Bishop was a fine storyteller herself and she heard many stories growing up in Great Village, many of which found their way into her art. Having Claire participate in the festival brings this vital oral art form, so important to Bishop, back to the village. To learn more about Claire’s career, click this link: http://www.smu.ca/about/news/2015/claire-miller.html

Claire has been a member of the Elizabeth Bishop Society of Nova Scotia for many years and was directly involved in EB100 activities in 2011. She did a reading of Bishop’s story “In the Village,” recorded by Carl Anderson, which the EBSNS posted on its website. We now have it uploaded to SoundCloud and it can be linked to at this address:

When Claire lets us know her program she will present (a program for all ages), we will share her description. Her storytelling session will take place in St. James Church during the morning of the festival. Whatever stories Claire chooses to tell, you can be guaranteed that she will stimulate your imagination! For now, we just want to let you know of this wonderful opportunity to hear one of Nova Scotia’s most beloved storytellers — and to remind you about the festival, which we’ll keep on doing until 8 August!

We have also added an EB Festival page to the blog, a place where we'll collect all these posts and add other information.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

February House Redux

Elizabeth Bishop's childhood home put me up the last week in February for several years. Precious days for thinking, reading, writing, and walking — sometimes out to a high frozen pasture to look down on the spire of Saint James' Church, other times through waist-deep thick-crusted snow, up to the cemetery where Bishop's grandparents are laid to rest. That's where I was coming back from one day in February, 2007, just in time to catch Janet Baker before she headed for Truro. She'd left me a copy of February House, hanging in a plastic shopping bag from the back door latch. "I wanted you to have it for the week — I know you'll enjoy it," she said. It's the story of a brownstone house that once stood at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn, where a motley group of writers, musicians, and artists, including Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Paul and Jane Bowles and W. H. Auden, lived for a time in something between a boarding house and a commune. Anaïs Nin named it the February House, because so many of its inhabitants had birthdays then. Later that week we'd be gathering to celebrate Auden's hundredth birthday. I'd heroically refrained from putting "Carriages at One" at the bottom of the invitations, as Auden used to do.

Who are we? Friends. Some of more than thirty years' standing, others meeting for the first time. There would be a menu for each of us, its cover photograph taken at the famous writers' conclave in the back room of the Gotham Book Mart (which would be locking its already-once-relocated-doors forever a month thence). Auden contrives to slouch on a high stool well above all the rest, while Elizabeth Bishop stands stiffly next to Marianne Moore and stares off left at something Randall Jarrell is also taken by, -- something, perhaps, behind our right shoulder as we look in on them by sixty odd inches and back on them by sixty odd years.

We'd be having smoked salmon puffs, chicken satsivi, mushroom pie and cucumbers in sour cream, birthday cake and flummery — a spread Auden's companion Chester Kallman would (I hope, anyhow) have found acceptable, if not by his standards lavish. We'd be reading some of Mr. Kallman's poems, too, that afternoon. After all, he wept over "The Moose," as James Merrill wrote to Bishop, and she wrote back that she could weep herself, just thinking of it. It would be a day for him, too.

After lunch we settled back to read to one another. "If you really are concerned about love, I'd suggest you go and read Auden. If he doesn't know something about that subject, I just don't know who else does," Bishop claimed in 1966, so we started with Auden's "Some say that Love's a little boy" and "Lay your sleeping head, my love." A bit earlier, on 21 December 1965, Bishop wrote to a friend: "Hardy's 'Her Apotheosis' is similar to that poem of Auden's about the matron having lunch at Schrafft's, etc.", so we read those two. Scott MacDougall read from Hannah Arendt. We read poems from Kallman's books Storm at Castelfranco and A Sense of Occasion. And as we read, a companionable warmth welled into a shared happiness that has loomed larger as the occasion has receded. It has become something akin to that "sweet sensation of joy" we all share for those few moments in "The Moose". Is it wrong to hear in Bishop's "where if the river/enters or retreats/in a wall of brown foam" echoes both of Auden's "But when the waters make retreat/And through the black mud first the wheat/In shy green stalks appears" and of Kallman's "Evening. Who calls? The light/Is walking on the waves; the light retreats./A word advances and repeats"? Is it a mistake to hear Auden's "drowned parental voices" somewhere in the back of the bus with Bishop's "grandparents' voices"? No. On that particular afternoon, at any rate, that bright February afternoon, with the extra bottles of Vouvray for once entirely forgotten in the pantry until hours after we'd parted, we felt — we all felt — that the bus climbing from the narrow plain and later returning under a sickle moon the blue broke in a fleece-white ribbon along the beach in Kallman's "Little Epithalamium" was, just for that day, the same one entering Bishop's New Brunswick woods, with its moonlight and mist caught in them like lamb's wool on bushes in a pasture. Certainly it was the same moon, the moon that "looks on them all", as Auden wrote in "A Summer Night". Just as in her "Invitation to Miss Marianne Moore," Bishop refashioned the strict sapphics of Pablo Neruda's “Alberto Rojas Giménez viene volando," so in "The Moose" she loosened the strict AABCCB rhyme scheme of Auden's sestains, while echoing the epiphany of his opening stanzas in almost final lines of her own.

The party has been looming larger, too, in the years since it was held. There were lovely thank you notes. One said "It was as if New York's Russian Tea Room had relocated to rural Nova Scotia." Another friend wrote "My head is still 'fizzing' with the talk and the wonderful readings. The memory of it will always be vivid. One of the things I so loved was all the laughter--the house shook and it so loves that kind of conviviality and connection." Several folks sent photos — mostly of the food, actually… Elizabeth Jones wrote to share the connection she had discovered between Oberon's last speech in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Auden's "Lay your sleeping head, my love." Folks I met again when we returned the summer after for the unveiling of the Bishop plaques at the Great Village pergola confirmed what I, too, had felt -- something about that February afternoon had partaken, to some slight extent, at any rate, of the shared communality and commonality Auden describes so memorably in the prose of his introduction to Anne Fremantle's 1964 anthology The Protestant Mystics, and in his poem "A Summer Night". Perhaps not quite his "Vision of Agape" — visions being too serious a word — but the feeling of the sight of a door left unlocked "because someone might need to come in", the feeling of the sight of a book in a plastic shopping bag, left because someone thought you'd like it, hanging ever-so-slightly agape from a yet-to-be-used latch.