“You piss me off!” this woman said to me. She sat across from me last week at the Charlottetown Public Library, and stopped me in my tracks to say in the middle of this writing workshop that she didn’t buy into that notion that writers have permission to “lie” or to enlarge upon the truth to spin a narrative in poetic form. My message had been clear, I thought. My position was that it’s the author’s work — do what you wish with it. If the story cries out for a better ending, then find it. I made it clear this was different than journalism. I have always told aspiring writers the importance of paying attention to the world, and taking a good hard look at it, and listening to it. And if it’s journalism, then you need to be accurate and knowledgeable and report what you see and what you hear. If it’s art, then write what you imagine that you see and that you hear. Therein lies the difference. Added to this is what Canadian poet John B. Lee advises: writers can lie to tell the truth. It’s what American novelist William Faulkner says: “The best fiction is far more true than any journalism.” Even Eleanor Roosevelt weighed in on this. She wrote: “The reason that fiction is more interesting than any other form of literature, to those who really study people, is that in fiction the author can really tell the truth without humiliating himself.” Or what about Ralph Waldo Emerson who says, “Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures” Oh, well, this Charlottetown woman, who had worked for the Charlottetown Guardian, wasn’t about to give me an inch with this piece of advice. She wasn’t about to listen to Faulkner.
And so I headed back to Hugh MacDonald’s that night a little chastised, and even bewildered at her response. This was really the first day of three days of giving workshops and reading in Prince Edward Island. The trip to P.E.I came by way of an invitation by Islander poet Hugh MacDonald, the province’s poet laureate. He asked both me, as poet laureate of Windsor, Ont., and John B. Lee, as the poet laureate of Brantford and Norfolk County to give some writing workshops and do some literary readings. We were also joined the very talented Hamilton poet Marilyn Gear Pilling and League of Canadian Poets president Susan McMaster. We drove all over the island doing these readings and workshops. We read in Charlottetown, Summerside and Montague.
What saved that first day for me, after this furious woman verbally assaulted me was Margot Maddison MacFadyen. She was also at the workshop. And when she returned to Hugh’s house on the Montague River, about an hour out of Charlottetown, she read some of the most engaging poetry I have heard. One of those poems involved the life of Mary Prince was a Bermudian woman, born into slavery in 1788 at Brackish Pond, now known as Devonshire Marsh in Bermuda. Her autobiography, The History of Mary Prince (1831), stands as the first account of the life of a black woman to be published in the United Kingdom. According to Wikipedia, it is “a first-hand description of the brutalities of enslavement, released at a time when slavery was still legal in British Caribbean colonies, it had a galvanizing effect on the anti-slavery movement. But here is a poet — MacFadyen —borrowing the voice of Mary Princeand carrying me into this 18th and 19th centurylife of this woman. Where did she get the permission to borrow a voice of this slave woman? Well, it certainly didn’t bother the likes of such veterans as John Lee, Marilyn Gear Pilling, Susan McMaster and Hugh MacDonald as all whom offered guidance and help with the poem. MacFadyen read the poem with sureness, and its cadence mesmerized all of us. With the exception of a few specific phrases out of sync with that time period — caught by the keen editorial eye of John Lee — the work rang true. John was also the perfect critic to examine MacFadyen’s work. After all, he wrote the highly successful Tongues of the Children. This book, the 1995 $10,000 CBC Tilden Award winner, is a series of lyrics about slavery and the history of blacks in Upper Canada. And the voice that he uses is borrowed from that time, from those who lived through it.
MacFadyen’s work in the same way brings to life the challenges and difficulties faced by Mary Prince in her battle to end West Indian slavery.
The other work that caught my attention earlier that day was a piece by Shirley Limbert who wrote about being in London during the “Blitz” when the Germans bombed Great Britain in the Second World War. Shirley was at the workshop and read this compelling work. Here is an excerpt:
… it seems as if everything is different
every night we go to the local shelter
the sound of coughing in the dark
frightened eyes, snuffling whispers
the feel of harsh wool blanket
I listen to the sky-borne pulsing
the warning siren wails, the guns pop, pop
mother’s hand tightens on my arm
a baby cries
somewhere the clacking sound of rosary beads
an old man grunts
then the first ear-splitting bang
they’re over the road now
when we open the front door tomorrow
there will be a whole new landscape
yesterday two houses gone completely
rubble everywhere and firemen’s hoses
old missus Brown’s shop
sliced off at the end of the road
like a piece sliced off her bread
on our way to school we stand and laugh
at her corsets hanging on a nearby tree
her bed at a crazy angle halfway down the stairs
and missus Brown’s dog’s
little red collar forlornly
on a hook by the empty doorway
I can hear the sound of Mary’s mum
crying for her husband missing in action
someone’s covered up the old man
with missus Greenaway’s good blanket
covered even his face
I guess they did it while mother
kept me occupied with prayers
‘gentle Jesus meek and mild
keep safe from bombs your little child’
and what about keeping safe my friend Peter’s
big brother who limps around now
should I pray for them to find his leg
when they dig in the rubble each morning
would the leg be any good now?
I’m so tired, I wish the bombs would stop
I hear mother tell someone she thinks the bombs
are following us about
she says that it’s because
we’ve been bombed out of two houses
they must be keeping an eye on us
she laughs when she says it
…but I don’t know
The trip to P.E.I., sponsored by the League of Canadian Poets and the Canada Poetry Tours (Canada Council for the Arts) began when I got on the train Sunday morning at 5:30, and disembarked at Brantford, and from there, John and I set out for Charlottetown. We made it as far as Levis, Quebec, an old river town on the south shore of the St. Lawrence, with its neo-Gothic and “petit bourgeois” architecture. Quaint little village. Don’t be misled by the initial offerings of fast food chains and mini-malls. Head for the river. There you will find this village. It was here that General Wolfe mounted his attack on Quebec City. It took three months of shelling the coastline before British troops mounted their invasion…Sunday night we sat down by the harbor and ate salmon. We could see a shimmering Quebec City across the St. Lawrence, and the next morning we took the ferry there, and walked about the old city. We set out at noon and drove to Moncton, N.B., and again set out early for Charlottetown. We arrived late afternoon. Hugh MacDonald and his wife, Sandra, live a few miles outside of Montague, and were waving to us as we approached their driveway at the end of a dirt road that led down to the river.
Over the next three days, we drove all over the island doing these workshops, meeting with local writers, and hearing the stories of people who lived there. We heard some of the most charming stories. That’s what I was searching for. I told these aspiring authors there is a story in all of us — we need not look any further than ourselves, our own backyards. The morning after I told this to a group of poets, I strolled along the beach at Montague when the tide was out, and found a young man digging for clams. He was a commercial clam digger, and wielded a clam hack or spading fork with a short handle and clawed the red soil of the beach toward himself to open up and expose the clams. Next to him was a pail that he continued to fill. This was David Richard, a man in his early 20s. I didn’t have to go far to get this story. Just down the beach.