Marilyn Bowering on the Writers’ Blog Tour

What am I working on? How does my work differ from other work in its genre? Why do I write what I do? How does my writing-process work?
These four questions were passed on to me by novelist and short story writer, Kathy Page, on the fascinating tour through writers’ minds called the Blog Tour. (You’d think a bunch of writers could have found a fancier name!) Kathy’s new work, Paradise and Elsewhere, is a book of dark fables that takes the reader through a beguiling, wickedly imagined looking-glass. Click on the links at the end of this post to get a sense of some of the other interconnections, fractal replications, blood-vessel colonisations and cranial crenelations going on in the Blog Tour sphere.

Xan's pic of Marilyn's hands Montreal
Photo by Xan Shian

All of the Answers at Once: A wander through the questions
One of the problems of being a writer is knowing when it is all right to talk about a work-in-progress. It may be superstition, but I’ve found the more I admit I am ‘doing’ something, the longer it takes to finish. Thoughts like these, along with various writing rituals, cluster thickly as mussels on a piling: every now and then it strikes me these are unnecessary and I scrape them away. Some people have trouble with this (try asking Sidney Crosby to stop his pre-game routine) but it is easily done. The most satisfying de-ritual of all is to incinerate letters, old manuscripts, treasure maps and spells– whatever you have: whoosh goes the past and opens up new space.  As a young poet I found and collected animal bones whenever I walked a trail or on a beach; but soon I decided that skulls and bones were best left where they lay. It wasn’t interdiction, like taking rocks from volcanos which is said to offend the goddess Pele, but that bringing bones indoors was, well, counter-intuitive.
And then, too, you find what you’re looking for.

I’d been brought up to ponder death: my small body and soul destined for the lake of fire. This now seems absurd, but as a child it was easy to imagine that a lie told to get a bigger slice of lemon pie led straight to the burning abyss; and if I couldn’t visualize this sufficiently on my own, there were religious authorities to help me.

I own an early 18th century primer, Emblems, meant for the edification of school-boys. Its illustrations seem like recollections of nightmares. What I was being taught, in part, was to develop a medieval mind-set. (Emblems was printed about 1710, but its spirit resides in the Middle-Ages.) Medieval mind-sets are commoner than ever these days; you can find them East or West; although why an age of brutal intolerance should be found attractive puzzles me.  It does promote an interest in dramatic imagery, though, which you can find in bloody display on YouTube. The rehabilitation of torture as a method of réal politic is among several reasons why the fate of children in war is a thread in the novel-in-progress I’m getting around to mentioning.

Emblem Death
Emblem VIII Book 5

Another influence on my childhood was the Apocalypse of the Book of Revelation, codified in the 19th century into a form popular with the religious right today. Paradoxically, the apocalyptic narrative’s headlong impetus towards Armageddon, which lies behind the religious right’s attitude towards the future– “Bring on the disasters, because we’ll be out of here” (via  the Rapture)– may be provoking its opposites of kindness and reverence towards all life, in harmony with the actual modeling’s of the world’s great teachers.

turkey 2 048
Mevlana’s Tomb

Likely I write what I do because I began consciousness concerned with survival of body and soul; and likely, too, I was influenced by the sound and pattern and imagery of Biblical story: they are great myths and I regret their fading from currency. Adam and Eve and the hunger for knowledge; the first jealous sibling murder; the Tower of Babel—what a badge of globalization; the beautiful stories of Joseph the Dreamer. These were riches added to the loving, story-telling extended family in which I grew: and if there are paradoxes in this account, it is because these threads– love and crippling beliefs– were woven in the same tapestry.

Raised in ambiguity, ambivalence, and with the ability to hold contrary beliefs at the same time, it was inevitable I would be a writer.

I use whatever genres I need to explore what comes up: not only fiction and poetry, but history, ‘fabulism’ and YA. I should point out that the most outrageous incidents are those that are true.

I’m working on a novel, The Swimmer’s Tale, that has changed its nature and length (getting shorter), as I’ve drafted it.  It combines elements of what I’ve spoken of here– marvels and horrors and a sweep of time–grounded in a present day journey of a young woman who wants a life of value in a world that crouches behind the protective rock of irony. The Swimmer’s tale begins in the sea and ends, for the protagonist Pearl, with her in a river.
I am lucky to live in British Columbia, home of great rivers: it is on ongoing fight to keep them that way.  No one would call me a political writer, but social and cultural and multi-cultural concerns are at the heart of my fiction. Nothing unique in that–but this novel-in-progress is also a fish-tale: and for my fish-love I am grateful to my father who introduced me to the thrill of trolling abundant waters.

Emblem Earth
Emblem VI Book 5

Even the book of Emblems isn’t all dark: threaded through the castigations and fear-mongering are strands of gold like this:

I love the Sea; she is my fellow-creature,
My careful purveyor; she provides me store:
She walls me round; she makes my diet greater;
She wafts my treasure from a foreign shore….

Some other stops on the Writers’ Blog Tour

Kathy Page
Matilda Magtree
Alice Zorn
Pearl Pirie
Julie Paul
Sarah Milan
Steve McOrmond
Susan Gillis
Anita Lahey
Barbara Lambert
Maria Meindl
Sarah Mian
Ryan Pratt


Recently, the filmmaker Anna Tchernakova asked me, for a project she’s working on, to think of three objects from my childhood bedroom that were so essential that if I had them again, I’d be able to re-create the room. We moved many times when I was a child, but the room I think of first is the one that has been in my mind when I’ve been writing the poems in Soul Mouth (Fall 2012).

The house was set in an orchard and we lived there with my grandparents. I shared the bedroom with my brother, and so my personal space was restricted. My three objects were a ukulele, a blackboard (and chalk) I carried everywhere so I could draw, and a white ‘comforter’ covered in tiny roses.  I heaped the comforter over my head whenever I wanted privacy—mostly to tell stories to an imaginary friend or to negotiate encounters with some of the peculiar people who turned up at my grandmother’s house. (One of these was a very old lady, dressed in voluminous black, who carried an ear trumpet: I’ve not seen anyone like her since!)  It hadn’t occurred to me, until I heard ME answer the same question with descriptions of his pets (a canary, a budgie and a white mouse) how clearly the objects represented fundamental traits.

Almost by definition, the books loved in childhood are slow books: we love to hear them over and over; and when we’re grownups may return to them not only to read to our own children, but for reassurance. Poems and stories kept in memory, fairy-tales, and bed time stories are part of this repertoire: I still love to be read to and I know I’m not alone in saying that being read to by my husband was part of how I fell in love.

Books about childhood, or rooted in childhood, can be powerful.  A Slow Book choice in this category would be the Swedish-Finnish author, Tove Jansson’s, The Summer Book. Focused on the relationship between six year old Sophia and her grandmother, the story unfolds over a number of summers spent on a Finnish island. The limits of the landscape and volatility of the weather add to the clarity of a portrayal of the girl and her family following the death of the child’s mother. Images of old age; childhood fears; life and death and the sea; and especially the passionate nature of Sophia make for a book that is both pure and unsentimental. I’ve read it three times. I know that child—I miss her.


It’s the celebration of my grandparents wedding anniversary in 1960. My mother sits across from me at the long table in the restaurant. Her face is half turned away and she is smiling. Her ears are bare but there’s a single rhinestone strand around her neck. The emerald engagement ring she always wears, matches her green eyes. Her dress has cap sleeves, a sweet-heart neck, a fitted bodice and the narrow skirt of the dress is darted to the waist seam. The material is jacquard: blue and black velvety leaves; and she’s sewn the dress herself. Her shoulders are straight, and the way she’s turned means I can see a slight gap between dress and skin where the back zipper starts from a low scoop. She wears high-heels; the stockings shine when she stands up and moves away. I don’t want her to come any closer to me—although she will, and I’ll have to pretend I don’t love her as much as I do. Her beauty and grace, her refinement, are anomalies in this family of goofs, jokers, story-tellers, Newfoundlanders—and  the happiness this vision brings me wakes me up in the middle of the night more than fifty years later. I look again: I was wrong about her ears: she’s wearing small pearl screw-ons—but she never gets them even and she never keeps them on for long.

Re-inventing Marilyn

Ever since I first wrote about Marilyn Monroe in a series of poems set to jazz for the BBC in the late 1980’s, the subject of  her life and work have kept connecting and re-connecting to mine. I’m at work, these days, on a libretto for an opera based on some of the Marilyn poems; while looking through materials in my files, I came across a review I’d written in the early 1990’s for a (then) newly revised biography of Marilyn Monroe by Maurice Zolotow.  It was published in the Globe & Mail. I’ll post it here.

One wonders if the Marilyn Monroe phenomenon will last, and if so what our descendents will make of her. Her talent was to project, on film, a spirit and beauty of heightened reality: many people have called it transcendent. Even the soggy revelations of recent years about her marriages, her relationships with the Kennedys and the sordid circumstances of her death, have not dimmed the public adulation. It seems, in fact, that her insecurities and weaknesses have only added to the image of a goddess at bay. It also makes no difference that her beauty was largely man-made, involving enormous expense and trusted attendants. In some curious way, Monroe’s working class origins, inflexible ambition and instinctive intelligence made her a touchstone of truth. This, I think, was part of the bond with her third husband, the playwright, Arthur Miller. She also invites compassion, which is, of course, one of the finer aspects of love.

Maurice Zolotow’s “Marilyn Monroe” originally issued in 1960, two years before her death, remains the best existing biography of the actress. We may now doubt some fo the claims of Monroe’s naivety, but Zolotow knew her, and the book has an authentic ring. His fascination with his subject is obvious, the inexplicable and mysterious nature of her appeal; but it doesn’t make him uncritical of her astonishing narcissism. Above all he makes her appear human.

Zolotow quotes the director Billy Wilder, to whom Monroe once gave a lift in her black Cadillac convertible, as follows: “I didn’t realize what a disorganized person this is until I see in the back of the car. It is like she throws everything in helter skelter because there’s a foreign invasion and the enemy armies are already in Pasadena. There’s blouses laying there and slacks, dresses, girdles, old shoes, old plane trickets, old lovers for all I knew, you never saw such a filthy mess in your life. On top of the mess is a whole bunch of traffic tickets. I ask her about this. Tickets for parking. Tickets for speeding. Tickets for passing lights, who knows what. Is she worried about this? Am I worried about the sun rising tomorrow?”

Zolotow foresaw for Monroe, because of her paradoxical and conflicting desires, a future alienated “from the common stream of humanity” and of “essential loneliness.” He compares her to Garbo who was able to accept a solitary life saying that it is this with which Monroe must come to terms. Here he foresees her tragedy. For there was no coming to terms with the need for human contact and for love that consumed her. Perhaps it is the scale of this need which continues to draw a world-wide outpouring of love, adultation and pity nearly thirty years after her death.

A Portrait of a Turkish Family, a memoir by Irfan Orga

Some of the best books I’ve found have turned up in library discard sales: there’s a cart of these near the front door of most of the libraries in my area. For a dollar or two you can buy whatever the library has decided no longer belongs on its shelves. How-To books, children’s books, thrillers and mysteries predominate: but there are occasional gems.

I don’t know how A Portrait of a Turkish Family ended up in the bin at the Bruce Hutchison library—it hadn’t come from the stacks, so was likely a gift from a Library Friend. Tucked inside it was a flyer from the English language Turkish Daily News, and there’s a Turkish lira price sticker on the back. My edition is a reprint (Eland Publishing, London, 2004) of the original 1950 Gollancz publication. The front cover quote, from Robert Fox(The Daily Telegraph) sums it up: ‘This book is a little masterpiece.’

Irfan Orga’s memoir, set in Istanbul, begins with his birth in 1908 into a prosperous and cultured family and ends with the death of his mother in 1940. In many ways, the story is his mother’s: her struggle to raise her children through a series of tragedies which starts with the death of her husband, Irfan’s father, along with hundreds of thousands of other Turkish men, in the First World War all the way to—well, I won’t explain what happens : but the family’s story reveals the impact of national and global social and political events on the most intimate details of their lives and relationships as seen through the eyes of an alert, articulate and desperate boy. Irfan’s ability to draw character, evoke place is astonishing: the writing, on every page, is clear and beautiful. Some of the scenes—the grandmother’s visit to the Hamam; the young Irfan’s circumcision, are very funny; and others of poverty and cruelty and despair are so painful that I’m loathe to remember them. Over all circles Irfan’s determination to be honest in his portrayal, to do so with general sensitivity but unsparingly of himself. His tone and accomplishment make me think of a concert violinist and the depth and meaning it is possible to convey through sound: this book resonates.

There’s no point in my sounding like a puff piece: so I’ll quote a paragraph to give the flavour. What I can’t do—and what makes this a slow book read—is to convey the reach and range of the book: it’s grasp of the story of a country, a people, and a family as they undergo profound change (remember this is the period of the end of Ottoman culture and of Turkey’s westernization) makes this a reading experience during which you want to pause and rest and reflect on your own experiences and ideas, and to consider how they are altered through the lens of Irfan Orga’s account.

With apologies for being unable to write the Turkish names with correct orthography:

“When the summer of that year was upon us we did not even have dry bread in the school and the old women used to take us to a place called Fenerbahce, where grew many big sakiz-agaci (gum trees), where the small red, resinous berries grew in thick clusters. We used to throw stones into the trees, sometimes being lucky enough to knock down the berries into the long, wild grass. These we would scramble madly for, knocking each other down to find the berries to eat them avidly, like little animals. They had a sour taste but were curiously satisfying and we used to fill our pockets, taking them back with us to the school to eat during the night. At other times we would go to Fikir Tepesi, where we would pull and eat kuzu-kulagi (sorrel), helping the younger amongst us to choose the right grasses. We would search at Kalamis for bayir-trupu (small white radishes), which gave us a raking thirst. And many times I remember eating the almond-blossom from the trees, stuffing the blooms into my ever-hungry mouth. Once in a sea field, bounding one side of our gardens, soldiers were pulling broad beans and throwing the green stalks to the edge of the field, the edge nearest our palings. We put our fingers through and took the stalks, sucking them afterwards with great relish.”

Descriptive passages, such as this, are anchored in event and character and in the matter-of-factness with which a child copes with circumstance. “It became the custom amongst us to carry salt and red pepper in little bags concealed about our person and if we were ever lucky enough to find potato peelings or raw aubergine skins, we would wash them at the pump, expertly mix them with the contents of our little bags and eat them when we were desperate with hunger.”

If ever the thought drifts through your mind that people create their own destinies and it is lack of courage or intelligence or both that govern ‘success’ this book should put an end to it. Irfan Orga’s work reminds me, in its combination of scale and particularity of Tolstoy, and in the acuteness of his eye of Laurie Lee. This book is a great legacy.

Research and Memory(1): a small project in recollection

Photo by Kate Williams

 I’ve fallen into the habit, when I travel and research, of taking photographs of the rooms I stay in. I like the stories they tell me—tales I will likely never get around to writing—and the objects in these rooms bring back time and place for me in a way nothing else can. Sometimes, too, I make little sketches in my journal: these also fix the moment in mind although this may have more to do with the attention it takes to draw them. I don’t believe I have ever tackled a room. Landscapes more often: the particular curve of a bay, or perhaps a field, buildings, a church. I think, in the case of the photos, that the objects in them act as reservoirs of thought, not unlike the much more disciplined practice of those Rhetoricians Francis Yates talks about in The Art of Memory who had only to contemplate objects previously stored in a constructed mental space to recall –well, almost any thing they wanted, including entire books.

Recently, I came across an image of my work space, taken in 1988 by the photographer, Kate Williams, for an article in Monday Magazine. Although the same floor space exists in my house today, it has been transformed into part of a larger room. For me, the photo is a time capsule, a section of personal history and I’ve decided to examine objects in that photographed room, from time to time and in whatever order they strike me, and see what I can find.

The View Out the Window

It makes sense to begin here, with the forest pressing close to the glass. The trees are Douglas Firs and cedars, and mixed in with them the alders that line the stream banks at the bottom of a steep drop about twenty feet beyond the window. In winter, after heavy rain, they become markers in the middle of a rapids-filled river. Since the photo was taken, several of the trees—some now over a hundred feet tall—were taken out after sections broke off during a storm. Most wind storms come from the south-east; but over the last few years we’ve noticed a change: a shift to warmer winds from the south-west, to which the trees aren’t habituated, and resulting greater tree-damage.

If the wind is from the north-east, it is cold; the cats come indoors and we have to watch that the pipes don’t freeze.

When this was my work-room, I’d watch the birds in the branches eating pine-nuts, and it was here that I noted the first of many annual visits from a nut-hatch.  ‘Noted’ doesn’t quite cover it as it hammered for hours at a knot-hole in the house siding. I could see it from upstairs when I leaned over the balcony. I don’t see how it could have been the same bird, but ‘someone’ returned every year to embark on the same useless project. I used to worry that the time it wasted could have been better used to build a nest.

I still look out at the forest when I work, but from the other end of the house and at a desk with a three-ways view: south and north to the trees, and west to a fern-strewn hillside. A small current bush grows tightly against my window and for some reason, it attracts small birds. In summer, especially, feeling watched, I’ll turn and find one examining me at eye-level.


A Commonplace of Hills
a non-fiction work-in-progress

I’ve lived in the middle of the Sooke Hills on Vancouver Island, at one end of the Sooke basin, on and off over a period of thirty-five years. During that time, I’ve been aware, with more or less intensity, of the landscape that surrounds views of the sea, trails along the beach, and framing the distant vista of the Olympic Mountains. I’ve hiked various hills in East Sooke Park and climbed Mt. Maguire numerous times. I’ve driven up, and admired the view from, Mt. Matheson. What I had never done until I began this project, was to explore the hills that are hidden by dense second growth forest, or are a little further away from the main road.

It’s clear that this period of relatively untouched landscape—an in-breath after the logging a hundred years ago of the first growth forest—is about to end. Some of the more visible of my nearly invisible hills are beginning to sprout subdivisions. Areas once only accessible to logging, are becoming parks and attracting tourists. I have a sense of something precious that’s been at my fingertips and is about to be taken away.

I began thinking about these hills with a view to climbing them and writing about them several years ago. It began with the above awareness of what I could not see yet lived so close to, and with an observation made from my house just above the Sooke basin (the harbour), that the hills form a rough series of concentric circles with the harbour at the centre of the ‘bowl’. I thought it would be interesting to consider the hills from the point of view of geometry. Others have done this in other places and found (apparently) meaningful connections between landscape features.

I bought several large scale maps and drew lines from the tops of the hills and saw that I could connect these points to form pentagons and decided that this was the shape that would determine the order in which I tackled the hills. So far, so whimsical, although because I was living in the countryside where it was possible to watch the night sky, and likely because I was sleeping beneath a skylight that gave me a window on the heavens, the pentagonal star-shape seemed an appropriate way to try to read the land: as above, so below, as is said in philosophy and metaphysics.

I drew up a list of hills (ten originally), and while I was still thinking about all this, a First Nations acquaintance told me stories of the hills being used for refuge after confrontations with Europeans in the first decades of the 1800’s; and then in order to hide from American First Nations Bounty Hunters, and to protect First Nations women during the 1850’s local Gold Rush. I began thinking about the hidden cultural history of the hills apart from records of European ‘discovery’. Later on, I learnt that the hills are still used as refuge, or as hiding places, and that sometimes people also need to escape from them as well as flee into them.

Because of the heavy forestation and isolation, the geological history and composition and to some extent the flora and fauna of the hills was also not commonly known, although this too, through the use of new mapping technology is changing. This is an earthquake region: and there have been, historically, vast alterations in the shoreline regions at the foot of these hills from earthquakes and tsunamis. One of the world’s great earthquakes (estimated at 9 on the Richter scale) took place here in January 1700. It is a landscape that sits at the edge of a fault, and slippage and landscape fluidity are part of its nature.

Other aspects began to interest me: for instance, the alteration in the nature of my village from a pioneering farming, fishing and logging community, to a tourist based bedroom community for an urban population. The original settling families, of which there are a few remaining, hiked, camped and explored these hills as a matter of course; in the early years of the 20th century there were climbing, hunting and skiing clubs and even lodges in the area. Most of these have vanished, nearly out of recollection. Nonetheless, my first hikes were made after making contact with people who still knew and climbed the hills in the old way– without much in the way of trails, and with few signposts.

By this point, I found that for reasons of seasons and weather, and because of the changeable physical abilities of me and my climbing companions, and for various other unpredictable causes, I had to let go of my detailed original plan and just see what happened. I have softened the conceit of making geometrical and other connections in favour of describing what I find. I have discovered that each hill not only comes with its own geology, topography, plants and animals and history, but with a relationships to the others; and often with people who live in or explore them, all with stories of their own. I will still, when I am done, make a drawing of the climbs in triangle groupings—just to see.

The list of hills has been added to and subtracted from: some remain inaccessible to me but others have popped up to take their place because someone knows the way and will take me, or an access to private land has been obtained or denied. Illness, accident and dispersal have played their part in changing both what I thought the book could be, and me as its author. I have not finished the climbs (two to go) and may or may not be able to: either way, that will be part of the story, too.

Since A Commonplace of Hills is a work-in-progress, I’ll post an inspirational photo of my path-finding friend, Alan Danesh.

Alan Danesh on Mt MacDonald, as Alpine Guide