Print Culture

Leslie meets Presley

Wonderful things have been happening for Red Deer poet Leslie Greentree. In
February, she handily won a clap-off at Calgary’s CBC Poetry Face-Off
to advance to this month’s national finals. And just weeks ago it was
announced that her second collection of poetry, Go-Go Dancing for Elvis
(Frontenac House), shares this year’s prestigious Griffin Prize
shortlist with Di Brandt’s Now You Care and Anne Simpson’s Loop.
The Griffin Prize winner ($40,000 richer) will be announced in June after an
evening of readings in Toronto. “I’m getting nervous in spite of
myself,” says Greentree. “I mean, Ondaatje and Atwood are on the
Griffin board and they’ll probably be in the audience.” There is
no small irony in this admission, because level-headed Greentree gives off
all the signals of being impervious to nervous energy. Her dynamic reading
style, which wowed Calgary, is comfortable and controlled and her poetry is
cast in a deceptively carefree and, as others have noted,
“conversational” voice. One poem drawls, “I thought I loved
the cordless screwdriver/but this is something else altogether/I hold my
shiny new electric drill/listen to its high-pitched whine/it is fairly
leaping in my hand/tingling though my arm my shoulder/waking all my
bones….” The diction is everyday without being Wayman-esque, there
are few breathless metaphorical suspensions, acerbic wit and generosity of
feeling walk hand-in-hand. “The first time I wrote a poem in that
‘Let me tell you what happened to me on Wednesday’ kind of
voice,” Greentree says, “I remember thinking, ‘This
doesn’t sound like poetry.’” Writer friends convinced her
otherwise. As for the spoken word, her first poetry reading came at the
launch of her first book, Guys Named Bill, in spring 2002. Standing in front
of 150 people jammed into Calgary’s Memorial Park Library for Frontenac
House’s annual “Quartet” of poetry books, Greentree quickly
realized how much she was enjoying herself, how naturally reading came to
her. Don’t get the impression that Greentree has blundered her way into
the limelight. Frustrated by attempts at short fiction and poetry, she hit a
turning point five years ago when she began organizing readings by local
poets at the Red Deer Public Library. Greentree was soon involved in a
writing group comprised of Joan Crate, Kimmy Beach and Blaine Newton.
“It’s a remarkable, wonderful group and I owe them a lot,”
she says. “We edit each other’s work very thoroughly and get
blunt criticism in a very safe, trusting environment.” They often end
up arguing with each other over advice, she continues, drawing out multiple
viewpoints on her work that prove invaluable. Rather than melding occasional
poems into a collection, Greentree began the Go-Go Dancing for Elvis
manuscript with a strong plot in mind and crafted each poem
accordingly—to impressive results. The book is threaded with subplots
and recurring characters, from the Darryls who deliver pizza and sell
hardware to the “beautiful sister” who dances for an Elvis
impersonator. Greentree has grown so enamoured of narrative that for the past
year she has concentrated on writing short fiction. “I’m trying
not to look too far ahead,” she says, in response to the recent flurry
of accolades. “It’s partly self-protection, I suppose, but
I’m really trying to enjoy and savour the process of what I am doing
each step of the way.” The life of Di Another Griffin Prize nominee is
former Edmonton resident Di Brandt, now teaching at the University of
Windsor. Her fifth poetry collection, Now You Care (Coach House), bears
witness to environmental wreckage and the underlying political forces that
are daily disfiguring our landscapes, cities, bodies and relationships.
It’s also a lyric appeal for closer attention to signs and wonders, to
the stories told in the details: “the blackbirds are angry:/give them
back their seeds.” The voice in these poems is by turns intimate,
playful, enraged, mournful, sarcastic and hopeful, calling us to mindfulness
and care. In “Zone,” the first of two sections, Brandt makes
direct reference to polluted southern Ontario—“the heart of the
dream/of the new world”—using macabre images of mutilation and
dismemberment to characterize the wanton destruction of its natural habitat.
The poems in the “Heart” section are warmer, more elegiac, though
filled with the same terrifyingly insidious imagery: “your/new arms
between sutured elbow and/wrist sings the knowledge of pavement.”
Formally, this fifth collection signals both a departure and a return for
Brandt. The stanzas are generally shorter, the lines more clipped than in her
earlier work, but in the “Heart” series we glimpse the run-on
line we associate with Questions I Asked My Mother and Agnes in the Sky. Now
You Care celebrates without romanticizing, and warns without preaching. It is
a timely, beautiful collection from a writer who continues to take important
risks in her thought and poetry. ABA gold Edmonton authors cleaned up at the
Alberta Book Awards gala in Calgary last Saturday: Glen Huser’s
Stitches won for children’s literature, Marty Chan’s The
Forbidden Phoenix won the drama prize, Tim Bowling’s The
Paperboy’s Winter won best novel, and the short fiction prize went to
Jacqueline Baker’s A Hard Witching. Around town, Elizabeth McLachlan
launches her much-anticipated nonfiction work Gone But Not Forgotten: Tales
of the Disappearing Grain Elevators (NeWest Press) on April 22 at 7:30 p.m.
at Audreys Books. Meanwhile, Marty Chan launches his first young adult novel,
The Mystery of the Frozen Brains (Thistledown), on May 1 at 11:30 a.m. at
Greenwoods Bookshoppe. V

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