Winner of the 1975 Governor General’s Award for Poetry or Drama
When someone thinks of PEI literature, the first image to pop into their mind would be that of Lucy Maud Montgomery and her little redhead Anne. I’ve written on this blog many times before about the development and current state of PEI literature and how the last 25 years has really been a high point for writing in the province. There was very little early (pre-1950s) PEI literature worth discussing. Lucy Maud really was the grandmother of PEI writing and her contemporary Sir Andrew Macphail was the grandfather with his masterpiece The Master’s Wife. But, PEI lit as we know it now was really founded in earnest with Milton Acorn’s 1956 self-published mimeographed chapbook In Love and Anger. Acorn was a very different voice from his contemporaries; he was a working man’s poet. A World War II veteran with little formal education, The People’s Poet spent most of his life living off a Veteran’s Affairs pension due to war injuries. Some of his titles were best-sellers in Canada and he was a superstar in the world of poetry – even marrying Gwendolyn MacEwen for a short time. The 1975 collection The Island Means Minago, his only collection to win the Governor General’s Award, is Acorn’s most ambitions treatise on his home province and contains many of his signature poems.
The Island Means Minago is a very cohesive volume, both in terms of narrative and themes. It mixes narrative poems, lyrics, prose pieces, dramatic scenes, and photos to tell the story of his people. Right in the opening poem, Acorn’s love of his island is evident:
In the fanged jaws of the Gulf,
a red tongue.
Indians say a musical God
took up his brush and painted it,
named it in His own language
In terms of narrative, Acorn takes on a number of issues prominent in Island history (honestly, if you’re familiar with these items it makes this a much more enjoyable book): the absentee landlord problem from the 19th century and Island Development Plan that began in the 1960s that would be top of mind in 1975. Acorn uses these narratives to tie together the thematic concept of this book. It is no secret that he was a far-left socialist, and that is the lens through which the author writes. He lambastes capitalism, roasts the ineffective administration of the government for not representing the people, and takes up the cause of the proletariat.
As I mentioned, Acorn was the working man’s poet. He was a big personality and it is easy to envision him reciting these poems in a pub throwing back beers and shots of whiskey. His language is accessible and free of those 20-dollar-words too often used by MFA graduates. But, that is not to say that these poems are “simple,” quite the opposite. Acorn manipulates genre and form in fascinating ways, he often uses an isolated rhyme as a narrative turning point, he creates intriguing imagery while using down-home dialect, and he is very cognizant of the sound, the music so to speak, of his poetry by doing interesting things with repetition, dialogue, and syllable structure.
An element of this book that was interesting was the collection of prose pieces. Each of the three sections has one prose piece, with each being about 10 pages in length. It is hard to classify these parts – as I said, he does interesting things with genre. These three pieces are not prose poems, but they’re not exactly stories either. They’re something of a blend of history, storytelling, social commentary, and political treatise. These prose pieces were excellent additions to the poems because they provide some historical and socio-economic context and further entrench Acorn’s socialist themes.
Finally, the actual physical volume itself is an interesting specimen. It was published by NC Press, who according to the ads in the back of the book, published the paper New Canada, that reported “on the struggles being waged across the country for independence and socialism” and was also the leading publisher of books and documents from the People’s Republic of China. So, the strong leftist overtones shouldn’t be surprising.
I’ve said before that PEI has the most nationalistic literature and sense of identity in general in English Canada. This collection was one the flashpoints for this Island literary tradition. The Island Means Minago is a great example of Maritime and PEI poetry, an excellent collection of historical poetry, an interesting political exposition, and just an overall engaging read.
Deirdre Kessler is very well known as a children’s author. Her Brupp books and the picture book Lobster in my Pocket are quite well known. She has been a fixture at UPEI for many years, teaching creative writing, an unbelievably popular course on children’s literature (there are usually huge wait lists), and a course unique to our island – a course on Lucy Maud Montgomery. In my recent PEI literature seminar, I had the pleasure of spending an evening with Deirdre; she has many interesting insights into Maritime literature and, as a person, is a very fascinating character. After the class, she was kind enough to give all 10 of us in the class a personally inscribed copy of her poetry collection. Afternoon Horses is Kessler’s only poetry book. It is a very personal mix of the lyrical and narrative and is, above all, incredibly intimate and personal.
The collection is broken down into four sections, but the poems really fall into two categories: poems about family and poems about travelling. Deirdre’s poems about her family are some of my favorite of recent PEI literature. The second section, “Blueberries in a green bowl,” is the strongest part of the book – with the first poem, “The names of things,” being my favorite of the whole collection. I think this section was so strong because of the author’s experience as a children’s writer. Writing for children requires getting into the heads of those little people; understanding children is the essential to producing good writing for or about children. In the poems of “Blueberries in a green bowl,” the children, especially a nephew of the author, are the star.
The collection takes the reader through the landscapes of PEI, Tasmania, and various remote areas of the Western US and then you’re invited into the kitchen of the Kessler family. In recent years, PEI poets have mastered what I call “the local narrative.” Poets like Kessler, Brinklow, Ledwell, and Morrow have published books (all from Acorn Press) of personal and accessible, yet literary, narrative poetry. The poems are not simply stories “chopped” into verse; they have a distinct poetic rhythm and flow. All-in-all, Afternoon Horses is an attractive, fun, and satisfying volume of poetry. I hope that another volume of poems from Deirdre Kessler appears in the near future.
The Ledwell Family is an artistic juggernaut on Prince Edward Island. Jane Ledwell wrote an excellent collection of poems, Last Tomato, and is known as one of the Island’s finest poetry editors. Patrick Ledwell is a very talented comedian, a playwright (Come All Ye), and now a respected writer (I Am an Islander). Danny Ledwell is a painter whose work is gaining popularity (the cover of this book is one of his paintings). The patriarch of this brood is Frank Ledwell, PEI’s second Poet Laureate, beloved story teller, and legendary English and creative writing professor at UPEI. The bulk of Frank Ledwell’s collection of writing is very PEI centric; Crowbush, The North Shore of Home, and Island Sketchbook all explore life on the Island, especially rural PEI, while Dip & Veer is a lyrical collection that reflects on Alex Colville’s art. The Taste of Water is a diverse mix of poems that is completely steeped in “islandness.”
The poems in this collection are a mix of the narrative, pastoral, and lyrical. Reading Frank Ledwell properly requires an understanding of his style of writing. Many of his PEI contemporaries, like John Smith and Brent MacLaine are masters of technical subtlety and eclectic metaphors; Ledwell is not. His poetry is like Bon Jovi, whereas John Smith is like Rush. Rush’s music is esoteric, difficult, and almost distant in its complexity. Bon Jovi, while not the most “artistic,” is still fun to listen to and highly entertaining. If you are looking for a demonstration of technical prowess, Frank Ledwell is not going to deliver. If you want to read poems that are written in “down-home” language that are accessible, fun, and convey clear and unambiguous stories and feelings, then The Taste of Water is your book.
The poems in this book are largely selections from poems Ledwell publicly read during his time as Poet Laureate. Poems like “The Sweater,” “Jean Finding Things,” and “Lasagna, April ‘06” tell tales of what life is like on this little island. Family ties, communal dinners, and the comfort of Condon’s Woollen Mills’ sweaters are among the topics of Ledwell’s writing. These poems, as well as the rest of the 71 page collection, wrap themselves in the red soil of PEI. And, whether some think of this as a positive or a negative, the poems are written in a straight-forward way that anyone can enjoy.
This small, beautifully designed collection is a must have. It is the kind of book that every Islander should proudly display on their coffee table. This was Ledwell’s last book before his 2008 death. Acorn Press did a fantastic job designing this book – with the exception of a weird font that does something strange with lower-case t’s. The Taste of Water, combined with Jane Ledwell’s Last Tomato, and Patrick Ledwell’s I Am an Islander would make an excellent gift to anyone that wanted a taste of Island literature.
Now that the semester is over, I hope to return to discussing books very shortly – starting with a review of Island by Alistair MacLeod in the next week. In September, my academic focus is going to be shifting full-time to the study of islands (with the end goal of earning my MA); my concentration is going to be on the arts industry of PEI, Newfoundland, and Iceland, with a focus on publishing and its interaction with commercial, political and economic forces. So, over the summer, I will be reading lots of island related books, concentrating on PEI literature (a new passion of mine). Here are some upcoming books I plan on reading and reviewing over the next couple months (some are not Canadian – don’t panic):
• I am an Islander by Patrick Ledwell
• Growing Up with Julie by Gerry Steele
• Afternoon Horses by Deirdre Kessler
• Her Teeth Were Stones by Judy Gaudet
• Causeway by Linden MacIntyre
• History of Prince Edward Island by Duncan Campbell (a late 19th century history)
• Song of the Dodo by David Quammen
• Pulling Strings by Godfrey Baldacchino
• A Geography of Islands by Stephen Royle
• … and many more, hopefully.
I have become very fascinated in the last year with the idea of literary “canons,” particularly national and regional canons within Canadian literature (potential PhD topic maybe?). As of late, in my book collecting, research for school, and both required and pleasure reading, I find myself constantly coming back to the questions “Why was this worth reading?”, “Why was this worth publishing?”, “Will this be read 50 years from now?”, “What constitutes enduring literature versus Tom Clancy-esque garbage?” (for the record, I enjoy Clancy), and finally, “Should this be part of a provincial, national, or language-wide literary canon and who gets to decide that?” My view on what makes up an English, Canadian, Atlantic or even a PEI canon has evolved.
In my years of both formally studying literature and reading for fun, I developed a way of approaching literature – which many of my undergraduate classmates disagree with when I bring it up. I see a piece of writing, be it a novel, poem, collection, play, or whatever, as the recorded intersection of a number of variables, but primarily and invariably geography, history, and psychology. Could Mordecai Richler have written Duddy Kravitz, St. Urbain’s Horseman, or Barney’s Version if he hadn’t grown up in the ghettos of Montreal in the post-holocaust world? No. Would Matthew Lewis have written The Monk without the backdrop of the French Revolution and the seedy underbelly of England’s Hellfire Clubs? I would argue no. Many English professors of mine over the years have told me that “an author and their writing must be separated!” I disagree with this with every fiber of my being. Who else could have written The Diviners other than Margaret Laurence? Who else could have written Adventures of Huckleberry Finn other than Sam Clements? One of my favorite English professors, after I told her my geography-history-psychology approach, nodded approvingly and added “true, and each time we read something, we re-evaluate those things on multiple levels.” (This comment gave her extra “awesome points”).
Why have I rambled on about canons and approaches to literary analysis? I’m getting to that. In Island Studies, there are three fundamental attributes to island life: totality, intimacy, and monopoly. Small islands – small enough to produce a culture of insularity (i.e. “islandness”) – produce sociological conditions like no other geographical location on our blue rock; in turn, this produces a unique body of literature and literary culture. Islands act as a living-lab, allowing someone (me) to closely examine the interplay of geography, history, and psychology in literature. Social science methodological approaches can be applied to literature without sucking the fun out of reading. That is why I love islands and, especially, island literature.
On a closing note, consider this. A coworker recently asked me, “What do you considered good writing? [in terms of books I read]” I pondered for a moment and said, “I can’t define ‘good’ writing, but I would define ‘bad’ writing, as a book that could have been written by anyone, at any time, in any place. That kind of writing lacks a soul, and ‘soul’ is the key ingredient to good writing.”
Shortlisted for the 2013 APMA Best Atlantic-Published Book Award
PEI has probably the most nationalistic sense of identity in Canada, but yet our literature has had trouble getting past that annoying little red headed girl from Avonlea. What is PEI literature? The answer to this question can be applied to the wider world of Canadian literature. PEI literature is simply writing by someone with a “connection” to the Island – be it growing up here, moving here, studying here, or spending any significant amount of time here.
The real father of contemporary PEI literature is Milton Acorn, the People’s Poet – almost everyone has at some point read or heard “I’ve Tasted My Blood.” In the decades after Acorn appeared on the scene, PEI underwent a poetry renaissance. Native born and “from-away” writers like Richard Lemm, Brent MacLaine, John Smith, Frank Ledwell, David Helwig, Hugh MacDonald, Steve McOrmond, David Hickey, John MacKenzie, Anne Compton, Dianne Morrow, and Joseph Sherman among others have given PEI a rich, deep, and colourful poetic canon. But, there has been a dearth of fiction from the province. Only in recent years have novels and story collections from Island writers started to take up significant shelf space. Some of PEI’s poets and local playwrights have produced fiction, Hennessey and Lemm for instance; plus many new fiction writers have immerged – Steven Mayoff, Hilary MacLeod, Orysia Dawydiak, Finley Martin, and Valerie Compton to name a few. Riptides is an anthology of short stories from new writers on PEI, some of whom had never been published prior to this. This anthology represents a turning point in PEI literature – it is a collective cry of over 20 new fiction writers saying “there is more to our writing than Anne.”
It is very difficult to review a book with so many writers, in so many genres, and so many styles. Many stories in this book are very memorable and will give outsiders a great glimpse into Island life. There are many highlights though, so here’s a brief recap of my favorites. “The Nothing” by Melissa Carroll is a gritty comedic story of life in small town west Prince County. “The Candle Party” by Orysia Dawydiak, probably my favorite now looking back, is a heart-breaking story of illness complicating a marriage. “Dust” by Shirley Limbert tells the story of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. “Final Farewell” by Helen Pretulak is a reflective story of family set in Chernobyl several years after the tragedy. And, the last one I’ll point out, “Watermelon” by Island poet Beth E. Janzen, is the story of the everyday foibles of family life as seen through the eyes of a young girl at a lake side picnic. This is not an exhaustive list. I adored at least 15 of the 23 stories.
Riptides is edited by one of the elder statesmen of PEI literature, Richard Lemm. He instructed the PEI literature seminar I just completed where we read this collection. What impressed me most about this book was just how “real” the stories were. There were no pretensions, no writers trying to imitate Ralph Waldo Emerson, and no writers trying to find the mystical in the mundane (which as you all know, really pisses me off). The stories go from Alberton to Charlottetown to Toronto to Poland to Ukraine. This first anthology of “new” Island fiction is just as diverse as the “new” Prince Edward Island and is a must read for any Islander or anyone who has wondered what makes us tick.
Riptides is published by Acorn Press and can be found at most independent bookstores or online at Indigo and Amazon.
Winner of the 2012 PEI Book Award for Poetry
I was initially introduced to this book in my Contemporary PEI Literature course when we read a selection of five poems. What Really Happened is This is the award winning poetry memoir, and second collection of poems, by PEI writer Dianne Hicks Morrow. I was greatly intrigued by the idea of a poetry memoir and didn’t know what to expect. These poems were, for the most part, very sad; but, I do not mean that in a negative way. Instead, I mean that Morrow has opened herself up in an incredibly close and intimate way and is bearing her soul to the world during a very personal and traumatic part of life. Being a “memoir”, one cannot separate “poet” and “speaker” – the result was a heightened emotional connection with the writing.
The poems “Belonging” and “What Really Happened Is This” get to the core of what Morrow is trying to do. Both poems are very personal and easily to take to heart. “Belonging,” a look back at Morrow’s feeling of fitting in and the difficulties that that can entail in Prince Edward Island, is very reflective and introspective. She looks back the little things that helped shape her, contemplates being an “Islander,” reflecting on the minutiae of human existence. And ultimately, as I’m sure happens with most people, trying to figure out where one “belongs” simply leaves more questions.
The title poem, “What Really Happened Is This,” is a longer multipart poem and it is by far the highpoint of Morrow’s collection. It is absolutely heart-wrenching and will leave you pondering long after you’ve finished the book. It juxtaposes two powerful images that most people with severely ill loved ones probably go through: the person that you grew up with and love and the person who is connected to machines, surrounded by doctors, and away from home praying that they can return to who they used to be. The whole collection, but this poem in particular, really draws the line from personal tragedy to memory to reality and back again.
I had the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with Mrs. Morrow and discuss her writing. She is very passionate about poetry and PEI writing. Her reading from this book really added a depth to the personal character of the poems. Every poem in this 73 page collection is a work of art – with the two I discussed above being the highlights. They physical book itself, published by PEI’s Acorn Press, is quite attractive and would look great on any bookshelf. What Really Happened is This is a quick, touching, accessible, and memorable read.
Winner of the 2009 Atlantic Poetry Prize
Winner of the 2010 PEI Book Award for Poetry
When I was an English lit student at UPEI one of my favorite professors was Brent MacLaine. He has a genuine passion for literature that is infectious. Shades of Green is his third collection of poetry and at this point in his writing career his most successful, winning both the Atlantic Poetry Prize and the PEI Book Award. MacLaine’s writing is very reminiscent of poetry from the early part of the 20th century and the Confederation poets; many of his poems are homages to the Earth and very heavy on exploring nature. This book is the most visual and vivid of all of his collections. The way he uses the descriptions of colours, sights, and sounds in all of these poems, with both rural or urban settings, is intoxicating.
The poems are fairly traditional in structure and for the most part follow the time tested style of classic lyrics and odes. As you progress through the book you are taken through the landscapes of Prince Edward Island, examining mostly rural life (farming, wild life, etc.), and also walked through urban jungles. The urban poems are interesting, the tone is very similar to the rural ones, as I read these pieces I felt as if the author was trying to apply rural sensibilities to the big city. This was very well done.
The book is punctuated with beautiful semi-abstract oil paintings, which I think were done by MacLaine himself but don’t quote on me that. My favorite piece is the title poem which opens the book, “Shades of Green”. The first stanza draws you right in, especially if you read it this time of year:
First seen is last year’s green,
unsheathed by melting snow –
a dead blade stabbing into memory,
a tarnished green. Museum green.
Brent MacLaine is definitely one of PEI’s best contemporary writers, along with his co-worker Richard Lemm. Shades of Green is a great representation of both landscape poetry and Prince Edward Island as a whole. He writes with a painter’s eye; I think anyone who loves the rolling green landscapes of PEI would enjoy Shades of Green, not just the usual readers of poetry.
This book first caught my eye because of the author’s last name, Anne Compton being the author of the award winning poetry collection Processional. After I read the synopsis though I knew this was a novel I had to read. Goose Lane has a history of putting out really good historical fiction and I am always especially interested in this genre when it is set in Atlantic Canada. Tide Road, Valerie Compton’s first novel, takes place over the course more than 60 years, mostly in rural eastern Prince Edward Island. This story really captures a time in Maritime life when things seemed to be much simpler. Compton has created a memorable cast of characters that indiscreetly grow on the reader.
This novel’s style and tone would probably be best described as subtle. The author uses punchy sentences, short chapters, and a non-linear timeline in her writing. Details are worked in so smoothly and the narration is so quiet that before you know it, the story of this tormented family is exposed and branded into your mind.
Tide Road revolves around Sonia, the matriarch of a large family. We accompany Sonia through her time as a lighthouse keeper, a new mother, a widow, and beyond. Sonia’s life is shrouded by the disappearance of her oldest daughter Stella and this underlies most of the narrative. Sonia is a tortured soul. Whether it is at the hands of her family, herself, or her past, Sonia seems to be confronted with some psychological trauma around every turn. She is a tough character but also very sympathetic.
This was the first historical novel set in PEI that I have read. Valerie Compton definitely knew her way around rural Island life during this period when she sat down to write this. The detail she gives on managing the lighthouse is really interesting. As a resident of this province, there was something very familiar in this book; yes, the times and technologies have changed but ultimately the relationships that people share in this type of place hasn’t really changed at all. Tide Road was a great read and Sonia will haunt you long after you put the book down. It comes out March 4 and you can pre-order here.
When someone now asks me what my favorite book of poetry is I am going to have to say The Good News About Armageddon. I originally bought this book a few months ago because of the cover; I think it has one of the most eye catching cover designs I have seen. Unbeknown to me, the author, Steve McOrmond, is originally from PEI, therefore peaking my curiosity even more. The opening poem, the title poem, is perhaps one of the best poems I have read from any poet of this generation. This collection brings together thoughts that are both accessible and highly literary, examining the world around us with a painter’s eye and musician’s ear.
In most of the poems in this collection the narrator seems at odds with the world around him; whether it is through some kind of sensory perception, like TV images, advertisements, newspapers, other people, or internal factors, the reader really feels that the voice behind these poems is uncomfortable in his own skin. McOrmond makes several references to current events, both political and cultural, that really shine a mirror up to our times. While the narrator does seem the uncomfortable character, he is none-the-less an observant one.
The language and rhythms in this collection are beautiful. The author’s verse take on a life of their own and jump off the page. As you read them you almost feel as though you are mentally singing the poems; this is an art that has been lost on many contemporary poets. McOrmond also does a fine job of blending the narrative and the lyric. This is another trend in contemporary poetry but many poets fail to pull it off. The extended poem “Strait Crossing” is an especially good example.
This is a must read for everyone, not just poetry fans. Steve McOrmond and the folks at Brick Books have done everything right with this one: amazing cover art, great quality in the physical book itself, brilliant title, and of course great poems. I foresee many pieces from this collection being anthologized and added to university and high school reading lists: the title poem, “The Tunnel, the Light”, “Test Pattern”, and “I’d Like to Thank the Academy” are a few examples. The Good News About Armageddon is definitely one of the top books of 2010.
Winner of the 2001 Governor-General’s Award for Drama
Winner of the 2001 Canadian Author’s Association’s Carol Bolt Award
I bought this book last year when I was working on collecting some of the plays that have won the Governor-General’s Award for Drama; I had no idea what it was about or anything about the author. I wanted to read another play this week and when I was going through my shelves the front cover caught my eye: a group of fisherman standing on an ice shelf. When I read the back of the cover and did some research this play really gained my interest; it is the true story of a group of sealers in 1914 who were stuck for 2 nights out on the open ice during a fierce snow storm. Kent Stetson, to my surprise, is a PEI-born dramatist who for a period of time ran the Charlottetown independent film company Points East Productions and did extensive work for the National Film Board. The Harps of God is, again, to my surprise, a verse drama. The is an incredible piece of dramatic art that really pushes the boundaries and experiments with both dialog and staging.
The play opens with a group of Newfoundland sealers on the ice in a hard blowing storm. We soon learn that the two ships that are in the area both think the other has picked up the men but they cannot confirm with each other as one ship has had its wireless transmitter removed to save money. As the story progresses their situation deteriorates more and more as the members of the crew start dropping like flies. These sealers circumstances force them to face a lot and naturally brings up and explores a variety of themes. Faith is the most important of these in my opinion; this idea of faith takes two different avenues: God and family. During the time on the ice when things seem to be at their worst the men start questioning their faith, the existence of something bigger, and why this could happen. Family is examined earlier in the play when there is some conflict amongst fathers and sons and the family tradition of sealing. The idea of breaking this tradition is seen almost as blasphemous as turning your back on God.
The dialog in this play is authentically Newfie. While it does take a few pages when you sit down to read this to fully assimilate the language, it really does make this piece what it is. It has all of the characteristics that you would expect of the Newfoundland fisherman: the letter H is often missing, the word ye instead of you, and just all around unorganized sentences. In addition to the speech the other element Stetson uses that makes this play unique is the actual staging of it. The set that would be used for this would consist of at least a two level, extremely wide, ice float. There would have to be a lot of work put into the sound department because of the unique wind noises that would be needed and fire would also be needed on the stage as well. Done right, on a large stage for instance, it would very impressive looking but I do not think this play would work well on a small stage community theatre. One of the earliest premiers of this play was actually done outdoors on a beach during a foggy and misty evening.
I have read a fair bit of Canadian drama but I haven’t ever really read a piece that blew me away. This play definitely did. The language and writing was poetic; molding a verse drama is a very big risk in contemporary theatre but the rhythm this creates combined with the dialog creates a play for the ages. The themes are eternal: faith, human survival, capitalism, and class divisions. The staging is experimental and incredibly vivid. I love literature of the north and The Harps of God will without a doubt take its place in that canon. Reading this play was an experience and I hope, at some point, that I will have the pleasure of seeing this produced.