Maybe Memory is Just Part of the Event: An Interview with Elee Kraljii Gardiner

Former PRISM poetry editor (2014-15) Rob Taylor sat down with Vancouver poet Elee Kraljii Gardiner to discuss her debut poetry collection “serpentine loop“.  A “serpentine loop” is a figure which skaters etch in the ice with their blades, and it serves as a central motif for a book which explores the sport of figure skating – its beauty and risks – alongside the author’s beauty-and-risk-filled path from childhood to adulthood.

Boundary for the Married – Elee Kraljii Gardiner

Approach an electric fence with caution—
a blade of sweet grass extended
between thumb and forefinger. Lay the tip
of green upon the wire: it dances

when the line is hot. Forget about touching metal
with bare hands, closing the circuit with your body.
Register the thrum of this green blade as pleasurable
warning. Every so often a heartbeat will gallop loose

and threaten the collusion of crickets
the patience of funnel spiders. Commotion,
while electrifying, is short-lived and for better or worse
we do not forget. The bite of the wire on an open palm

will remind you your job is to stay clear, to respect
the divide. How long you carry the imprint depends
on the intensity of the charge and your impulse to stay.

from serpentine loop
(Anvil Press, 2016).
Reprinted with permission.

Elee Kraljii Gardiner, focused, w/ blurry books. Photo Credit: Paul Joseph.

The poems in the second section of serpentine loop,”Push Off”, drawn from your childhood in Massachusetts, are filled with details (the digger with “his orange T-shirt written with sweat”, the childhood skates “Grey as cygnets”) which seem to be pulled straight from very clear, precise memories. It was hard, as a reader, not to see the precision in these remembered scenes as mirroring the precision of skating figures – repeating and repeating specific movements and shapes until they were mastered. Of course, that might just be my mind doing its things. Could you speak a bit to the role of precision (of line, or image, of memory) in your poetry?

As a kid I was fascinated by what is left on the ice after the movement ends. Skating perhaps functions for me in a way memory does. We watch the skater’s body articulate movement and when she leaves the ice all that is left is the trace of her line. Maybe memory – as it is warped by years, changing attitudes, awareness – is the line, just part of the event. The poems I wrote are an echo of things, a trace of an idea or occurrence that either happened to me or that I imagined so intensely it might as well have.

More generally, do you feel a connection between your experiences figure skating and writing poetry? Did that earlier training on the ice inform how you approached, and learned about, writing poetry?

Being around creative people who become better at their craft the more they tap into themselves is great training for being human, nevermind being a poet. In skating, not only is it important to connect with emotion and expression, it is imperative.

There used to be a part of competition when I was little called “Interpretive.” Skaters heard a piece of music for the first time while they were on the ice in a group and then they were sequestered in a locker room while each person took a turn creating a spontaneous, reactive program meant to demonstrate their instant creative response. It’s just like what we do in Thursdays Writing Collective writing to/from/off fast prompts.

The poems in serpentine loop relish the use of specialized languages and terminologies. First and foremost the language of figure skating (with its five-page, small-font glossary at the back of the book), but also military (“Who You Are By What You Recognize”) and sewing (“Costume Maker, 1960”) terminology. How do you think the use of these specialized languages influences the way your poems are written, read and interpreted? What effect, if any, do you hope it will have upon the reader who may (or may not) feel outside of the terminology?

My mother was a skater and surgeon but my father was a philologist and classicist whose idea of fun father-daughter time was to diagram language root systems. He brought me the words. Aren’t all of us always outside some language? Isn’t being a human a constant act of translation?

Yes, of course. And I think you make the right choice to embrace that outsider-ness, rather than skirt around it. Still, I wonder if you had any trepidation about writing about your sport, specifically? Some themes, and some languages, translate better than others, and I find writing about sport (especially less popular sports) to be particularly tricky. I’ve shied away from writing about the sports I play and coach because I haven’t been able to find a language or context through which to crack them open and have them speak to more universal themes. You’ve certainly pulled that off here, but did it take you a while to approach writing about skating? Did your mother’s fame in the sport have an effect on when/how you chose to write about skating?

I wasn’t nervous about writing about skating per se. Skating is a motherlanguage, so I react to/with it the way the daughter of an immigrant might to her mother’s natal culture. It’s my norm. By writing about it I can highlight/distort/question it from arm’s length. I can’t write about the sport with total knowledge as it is now; I don’t follow it closely enough. But it formed me. Luckily, I have a sister who is a professional skater and is hooked into the skating world. She fact-checked, reminded me of ideas or words, triggered memories.

serpentine loop, as a collection, is very skillfully crafted. Though it contains discrete parts, including some which are far removed from the world of skating (“Boundary for the Married” is one such example) the whole book builds in meaning, culminating in the long poem “Final Flight”, which resonates widely and deeply – in ways otherwise unimaginable – because of all we’ve read and learned in the proceeding poems. In this way, it reminded me of another Anvil Press title, Jennica Harper’s Wood, which adeptly brought disparate parts together as a coherent whole. Could you speak a bit about how the book came to take in its final form? Did you present it to Anvil this way, or did it take shape in the editing process? Was there discussion of leaving out poems/sections not clearly or immediately tied to some element of skating?

The form developed last. I had most of the material and a miasmic notion of what I wanted. But working with editor angela rawlings was crucial. She was boundless, inquisitive, suggestive, respectful. Her conversations grounded the text and let the form become. The actual figure of the serpentine loop guides the reader through different areas of thought (these I leave to the reader to imagine, but an obvious one is child-mother-crone). Equally important to me was to translate the notion of the change of edge in the figure (skate blades have two edges and you are always on either the inside or outside edge) into a literary experience. When the figure is skated it creates an encircling shape. A fundamental question in the collection is: how do we include and exclude people?

As I mentioned in my last question, in reading serpentine loop it felt to me that the whole book was inside-and-outside-edging toward the long poem “Final Flight,” about the 1961 plane crash which killed 73 people, including the entire US National Skating Team (which your mother had been a member of before retiring five years later). It felt as if everything we’d learned up until then about you, your mother, your family, and all the rigour that goes into struggling to excel at skating, parenthood, relationships, life, etc. – all of it was building an emotional context in which to fully appreciate (and be devastated by) the immense loss caused by the crash. Could you speak a bit about writing that poem? When did it come along in relation to the other poems? Had you always thought of it as closing off the book?

It’s a horrible thing to write about. My mother and her friends are pushed to relive it every year as a “fact” of the sport’s history. To lose that many friends and colleagues at once so spontaneously is a trauma I cannot imagine. The only way I could think to write it was to look at the facts and then witness the shards of grief my mother knew. As I wrote it she shared more of her experience than I had ever heard. When she and Dick Button (the US Olympian, historian of the sport, TV announcer and definitive authority on skating) read it and accepted the poem with the spirit in which I offered it, I was relieved, grateful. At the very least I didn’t want to re-hurt them. When they thanked me for writing it I was proud. It had to go at the end of the book because of the way it grapples with (im)permanence: what do we take away? How do we continue?

Elee, hiding in her natural foliage: Thursdays Collective Anthologies

Before publishing serpentine loop, you edited numerous poetry anthologies, most recently V6A: Writing from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (co-edited with John Asfour). All of these anthologies were in some way connected to your work at Thursdays Writing Collective (TWC), through which you’ve run free, drop-in creative writing classes in Vancouver since 2008. What did editing those books, and running TWC, teach you about your own craft – both in writing individual poems, and in assembling a collection as a coherent whole?

Every author should take a copyediting and production class. We need to know our skills, what’s under the hood of the galleys, how to change the oil, how to fix things! Because I was aware of what the steps would be and what potential stress fractures can occur with timelines, edits, etc., I had a very smooth time of it. My experience with considering sequence and frame with the TWC publications made all of this familiar and fun. Also, I know how easy it is for things to slip by or get messed up so I haven’t been too anxious. I’m happy to say I have not noticed a single problem in the text, although there must be something, surely.

serpentine loop‘s 37,000 ft pond ice

Anvil Press allowed me to interact with the form, the shape, the everything of the book so that it feels as if serpentine loop rose out of my chest. Not every author has that relationship to the object their name is on. The cover image was snapped by Joan Naviyuk Kane (who also contributed a quote of support on the back) as she flew over Nunavut. I think it looks like a close-up of pond ice but it is from 37,000 ft in the air! The scale is so deceptive. We inverted it (thanks, designer Derek von Essen!) because we liked the slightly creepy, not-everything-is-alright feeling it produced.

Also, angela rawlings’ “keep your eyes on this” guidance was very reassuring and helpful.

It’s rare a debut collection breaks the 100 page mark, as yours does (though just barely). This book has been a long time coming (oh, how we’ve waited, Elee!) and you’ve had time to accumulate work. Still, as serpentine Loop revolves around a handful of central themes, my guess is that many of your poems were set aside as outliers from those themes. Is there, perhaps, another manuscript already waiting (or near completion)? I think of Kevin Spenst, who teased us with that first book for many years, and now has two books out in two years, both from Anvil – all that built up material finding a good home. Now that serpentine loop is out there (in the “kiss and cry room”, so to speak), can you fill us in on what might be coming next, be it written or yet unwritten?

Well, thank you for waiting. Publishing can be glacial. One press held the manuscript for 18 months – agony! But Anvil was quick – we signed a deal and exactly a year later the book was back from the printers. I tithed poems out of serpentine loop as the form gelled and am delighted they allowed me enough pages to be able to include a glossary. I actually thought serpentine loop would come out after another manuscript I was writing. It’s a poemoir in long form about what happened to me when I tore an artery in my neck and a blood clot went to my brainstem. That manuscript got shortlisted for the Robert Kroetsch Award for Innovative Poetry last year. I’m also working on a collaborative poetry manuscript titled Nature Building with Andrew McEwan about Canadian identity and post-pastoral, post-lyric poetry.

I think that after a publisher has held a manuscript for 18 months, the should be morally obligated to publish it (though would you really want them to, at that point?). I’m glad serpentine loop found such a welcoming home, and look forward to the other manuscripts finding good homes (with publishers; in my hands) as well.

Thank you for asking me all these questions. Answering them allows me a visit with the work in a new way!

Elee hasn’t found a single error in the text of serpentine loop. Do you take that as a challenge? If so, or if you just want to read a darn fine poetry book, you should pick up a copy. You can do so at your local bookstore, or from the comfort of your home via the Anvil press website. Or, if you like your universe riddled with errors, from Amazon.

You can read more of Rob Taylor’s interviews here.

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Prism 52.4 Sneak Preview – “Mt. Misen” by Jordan Mounteer

PRISM 52.4 launches soon! To tide you over until then, here’s “Mt. Misen” by Jordan Mounteer, which won the 2014 PRISM international poetry contest and will be appearing alongside the work of seventeen (!) other poets in issue 52.4. Enjoy!

Mt. Misen

Miyajima, Japan

Blue-stemmed smoke lobbies at your ankles
for some safety from its own diminishing.

Next to the shrine incense smolders
and knots around the gentle clack of prayer

wheels turned by a grandmother in a felt coat
who will not meet your eyes. Every grief

is a refugee in transit, working its way on foot
with everything it owns. That’s how you must think of it

now, not homeless but as something unable
to return. Suddenly you are alone on stone steps

beneath a wooden torii gate, the right angles
of contemplation. A heavy shovel rests against its post

like a worn-down grin, suffering its black rust and
a crooked handle, rain-smoothed. Eastward the Seto Sea

is glaucoma as far as the eye can manage,
its origins wracked in fog: it is the same

with us, every proximity receding from its center
like weather losing sight of how far it’s come.

What there is of wind hiking up off the coast has become
a sort of exhaustion hammocked among the blood-shot

leaves of a maple. Circling the valley a hawk
gathers his arrogance on low-thermals, slanting

light into a kind of alchemy between his feathers.
The claimed steepness of his privacy. You’ve missed

something, the way old excuses for loneliness no longer work
after too many years of use: a wooden handle narrowed

down by the rough labor of your fingers, old age
thinning out our expectations of loss and function.


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Review: What Makes Olga Run?

What Makes Olga RunWhat Makes Olga Run? The Mystery of the 90-Something Track Star and What She Can Teach Us About Living Longer, Happier Lives
By Bruce Grierson
2014, Random House, Canada

Review by Rosemary Anderson

Olga Kotelko has stood proudly on the podium several hundred times and smashed more than a couple of dozen world records since she took up track and field eighteen years ago–at the age of 77. She aims to smash a few more before she’s done.  What is her secret? One thing for sure is it isn’t all a matter of genes. As author Bruce Grierson puts it, “Olga doesn’t come from a long line of Methuselahs.”

In What Makes Olga Run? you might say Grierson has put Olga on yet another sort of pedestal, with his tale of the daily discipline and grinding routines that keep this 95-year-old woman from West Vancouver at the pinnacle of fitness for her age.

But this book is in no way a polemic idealizing a lithe old woman. Grierson masterfully navigates the dangerous waters of neoliberalism, which would have each of us in full control of (read: “blameworthy for”) our ideal fitness–or lack thereof – and thence whatever shortcomings of beauty and health that may afflict us.

Still, Grierson does admit to his own deep yearning to discover Olga’s secret. He used to be fit: “not Olga-fit, but fit,” he writes.  At around age 20 he had developed a running addiction that continued well into his forties. Then, at the ripe age of 47, he hit a wall. “Age flooded in all at once.” When Grierson met Olga, he was overcome by a burning desire to learn everything possible about her current habits as well as the habits she developed in her youth. “And could those habits be wrenches to fix the mistakes the rest of us are making,” he wondered, “before it’s too late?”

The book takes us on a fascinating journey of research and discovery as Olga submits to multiple tests to help scientists unravel the mystery of her physical and mental resilience. From a healthy-aging study in Vancouver to muscle tests in Montreal, DNA profiling in California, and brain scans in Illinois, a complex picture emerges about how we may be able to slow–and even, occasionally, reverse–the process of aging.

Insights are shared gradually, creating a satisfying degree of suspense while generally mirroring the chronology of the author’s own discoveries about Olga. We learn about her telomeres and genes, her brain agility and muscular activity, her quirky sleep and massage regimens, and the challenges of her past.  As each new gem of information is revealed, we are invited to examine it in the light of our own past and our own potential.

This is a book of hope, never judgment, and is as much about mental agility as physical fitness. It describes, for example, a community of Catholic nuns in St. Paul, Minnesota, noteworthy “for being not just extraordinarily long-lived but extraordinarily spry and sharp. Many of the School Sisters of Notre Dame have been centenarians–a group that ought to have a coin-toss chance of serious cognitive impairment. Yet in this particular convent, evidence of dementia is almost entirely absent… As a group, the sisters have a lot in common with Olga.” The book is liberally spiced with such tidbits, which are teased apart and mined for whatever lessons they may be able to offer up.

What Makes Olga Run? convinced me that age alone is no reason to give up on one’s dreams. Decades ago, I was a strong rower–I beat anyone and everyone who would race me. I dreamt of rowing in the Olympics but it turned out there was no chance of that because, back then, only men rowed in the Olympics. A while back, a friend asked me what had become of that dream. Did I just give up and forget about it? Well, yes, I did give up on it, but I never forgot it. Reading about Olga inspired me to do a little investigating. It turns out there are plenty of opportunities these days for men and women of literally any age to take up rowing and, yes, to compete if they so choose. Needless to say, I’ve signed up.

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Meet the Editors: Rob Taylor, Poetry Editor

rob headshotAt PRISM international, we like to interact with our dear readers. So over the coming weeks, we’ll be introducing the delightful new editors to you.

First up is Rob Taylor, Poetry Editor and ultimate frisbee champion.

What do you do for PRISM international?
As the Poetry Editor, I curate the poetry content in each issue of PRISM. I work with an editorial board of devoted UBC MFA students to review submissions and select the best. I also take a lead role in ensuring that poetry and poetry books are discussed on the PRISM website, through interviews, reviews and ephemera. Most importantly, I am in charge of the office’s whiteboard markers, which come in a brilliant array of colours and are under constant threat of theft, loss or misuse.

What do you look for in submissions? What sort of things turn you off to a submission?
Simply enough, I look for great poems. For me that starts with poems which give some kind of pleasure immediately on first reading. It could be a line, a rhythm, a sharp word choice, or the whole lovely thing. And they don’t have to be warm, flowery poems – “pleasure” to me comes from engaging with skill and intellect, to whatever ends. But I need something right away, some twinkling that triggers my curiosity and signals me to reread.

On subsequent readings, the poem needs to prove layered and nuanced enough to consistently release new bits of pleasure and induce new bouts of curiosity, every reading encouraging another, accruing pleasure and good thought along the way. As Robert Frost put it, “A poem begins in delight and ends in wisdom,” to which W.S. Merwin added “And it will never end in wisdom if it doesn’t begin in delight and continue in delight.” Both ring true to me.

As for what turns me off: not following the submission guidelines, and bad breath.

What is your favourite thing about working for PRISM? 
Other than the whiteboard markers? I’m going to cheat and give two: working with my colleagues (they are a swell group), and having the opportunity to bring excellent poems and poets to our readers.

What do you write? What writing project are you working on now?
First and foremost, I’m a poet. My first collection of poems, The Other Side of Ourselves, was published by Cormorant Books in 2011. I’m currently working on a second book of poems and a first book of short stories.

I also blog, run a Ghanaian poetry website, and co-coordinate Vancouver’s Dead Poets Reading Series.

Do you have any strange rituals/habits that help you with your writing process?
I write and read best in the far back corner seats of Vancouver’s city buses, and on a couple occasions have gone for bus rides solely to get some writing done.  Also, not really strange, but I go for lots of walks and runs to build a rhythm in my body that matches the one I’m trying to build in my mind.

If you could have dinner with one writer, living or dead, who would it be?
A living one, for sure. Can you imagine the smell otherwise? Bad breath would be the least of my turn-offs.

I don’t believe there is a strong correlation between how delightful someone is in their writing and how delightful they are in person, so I’m happy to leave my love affairs with certain authors on the page. If forced, I think I’d pick a cookbook author so I’d be sure that at least the food would be good. Jamie Oliver seems pretty dreamy…

Rob Taylor lives in Vancouver with his wife, Marta. He is the author of the poetry collection The Other Side of Ourselves (Cormorant Books, 2011) and the chapbooks Smoothing the Holy Surfaces and Lyric (Alfred Gustav Press). His poems have appeared most recently in The FiddleheadGeist and Alive at the Center: Contemporary Poems from the Pacific Northwest. Rob is the co-founder of One Ghana, One Voice, Ghana’s first online poetry magazine, and one of the coordinators of Vancouver’s Dead Poets Reading Series.

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“There I go, rising”: Maya Angelou performing her poetry

Maya AngelouLike readers and writers the world over, we at PRISM international is saddened by the passing of writer, teacher and generally phenomenal woman, Dr. Maya Angelou.

But, like all artists who create, Maya Angelou has left behind enough of herself in her words. So in this week’s e-phemera, I’ve rounded up some recordings of Maya reading from her work.

But beware: you may weep. I certainly did…

From the excellent, here is a Maya Angelou reading her children’s story ‘Life Doesn’t Frighten Me’, which she said is for “all the children who whistle in the dark”.

And here is a reading of one of her most celebrated poems, ‘Phenomenal Woman’.

Maya Angelou was the first African-American and the first female inaugural poet. Here she reads ‘The First Pulse of Morning’ at Bill Clinton’s inauguration in 1993.

If you want some life advice, listen to ‘Note to Self’, a letter  that Maya wrote to her fifteen-year old self at the age of eighty-three.

A fitting note to end on is ‘And Still I Rise’.  “Does my sassiness upset you?” she asks. (No, it does not.) “And, naturally, there I go rising.”

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Tuesday Prompt: Dog Days

Photo by Elena Shumilova

It must have been difficult to go for a walk with me as a child; I would constantly stop to pick worms and slugs off the pavement to bring them to the relative safety of the grass verge. I made my mother do it, too, something that she very often reminds me of. That wouldn’t happen now, though I do sidestep any bugs rather than stamping on them, and am regularly beseeched by friends to catch spiders, insects and—once—a mouse. But I don’t pick up sidewalk slugs any more. My mother is grateful, and the slugs are probably relieved, too.

But it’s interesting to think of how we change as we grow, and that is what has led me to today’s prompt. This can be used for fiction or poetry—it’s up to you to decide. Write a page about a nine-year-old child walking home from school and seeing an injured dog on the roadside. How does the child react? How does he or she feel? What action is taken? Then skip ahead half a century and write another page about the same character, now fifty-nine years old, walking home and seeing another injured dog. What does your character do now? How has their reaction and action changed?

After you’ve written both pages, consider what has happened in those fifty years to have changed your character… And this where your story is.

Good luck!

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