A Chat with Gail Bowen

Bowen jacket WinnersI get to play host and ask Gail Bowen all the questions I’ve been storing up for years when Gail launches the latest book in the Joanne Kilbourn series, The Winners’Circle. The launch is at 7pm at McNally Robinson on Thursday, Sept. 14, co-presented by the bookstore and the Winnipeg International Writers Festival as part of their collaborative fall literary series. Come out and join the conversation.

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Duke Ellington in Winnipeg

With the Jazz Festival in full swing, I asked jazz history buff Brian Chipney to wax eloquent on the Duke Ellington band as it was on Nov. 6, 1940, when it first played in Winnipeg. We don’t know all the tunes the band played on that date but fortunately the concert they played in Fargo the next night was recorded in its entirety, an amazing snapshot of the Ellington band at what many regard as its peak.


Duke Ellington band playing in Fargo, ND, Nov. 7, 1940. Photo credit: NDSU

Now, what to say about Brian? Brilliant…. handsome…. debonair. These words don’t begin to describe Brian Chipney. They don’t even resemble Brian Chipney. In fact, they have nothing to do with Brian Chipney. But he does play pretty good soprano saxophone and has read a couple of books about jazz. He also thinks Johnny Hodges was the best soprano saxophone player who ever lived—all the qualifications needed to talk about the Ellington band.

Brian Chipney is in his tenth season as producer and performer in the Thursday evening jazz series, “Jazz at the Station” at Resto Gare on the corner of Provencher and Des Meurons, where some of Winnipeg’s finest French cuisine can also be had. On July 27th Brian’s trio will be on hand with special guest Brad Shigeta (former trombonist with the Duke Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington) to celebrate the official tenth anniversary of jazz at Resto Gare.

Here follows my e-conversation with Brian.

CM: The Duke Ellington band of 1940 has been described as the greatest band that ever was. Do you agree?

BC: I think labeling anything as the “best ever” is a fruitless exercise. The choice is always going to be subjective, dependent on the qualities one is looking for. And those qualities can vary wildly from one person to the next. For example, some would maintain that “best” band was the early Count Basie group, the band with Lester Young, Dickie Wells, Buck Clayton, Sweets Edison, and of course the All-American Rhythm Section of Basie, Freddie Greene, Walter Page and Jo Jones. This Basie band frequently used a loose framework to showcase the various soloists. It swung like crazy and was tremendously influential on other bands, probably even more so than Ellington’s. Duke’s was more of an arranger’s band, generally more tightly structured than Basie’s. Can we say that the Basie orchestra was “better” than Ellington’s? It’s all a matter of opinion.

I think what we CAN safely say is that the Ellington band might have been one of the most UNIQUE big bands ever. It had a remarkable collection of solo voices and an arranger (Ellington himself) who consistently framed those soloists in brilliant fashion. The Ellington band could play any sort of style, from smooth, danceable ballads to roaring swingers. It could also create subdued moods that were beyond most bands. Certainly Ellington was also one of the great composers in jazz. So, fabulous music, brilliantly arranged, and featuring some of the best musicians ever. That’s a pretty winning combination! The Ellington band was arguably at its peak in 1940 and 1941 thanks largely to the presence of the great tenor saxophone soloist Ben Webster and Jimmy Blanton, a young man who was instrumental in making the bass a viable solo instrument. Is all this enough to make the Ellington band “the best”? I don’t know, and I don’t think it matters. Any way you look at it, this was without question ONE of the best bands of all time. We’re fortunate in the Fargo recordings to have a complete and unique record of one night out of many in the life of this group. To the guys in the orchestra this was just another gig, but the recordings give us a wonderful snapshot of the Ellington band in its prime.

CM: The Ellington band hit Winnipeg at a pivotal moment in its history. Trumpeter Cootie Williams had just signed on with the Benny Goodman band and had left the Duke. How important was Cootie Williams to the Ellington band’s sound as it was in 1940?

BC: Cootie had become so much a part of the Ellington sound by 1940 that bandleader Raymond Scott even wrote a composition called “When Cootie Left the Duke”! The parting was amicable though. It came out in later years that Ellington had actually helped Williams negotiate a good salary with the Goodman band. Interestingly, Cootie himself said that his time with BG was his most enjoyable in music … lots of solo space with a disciplined, well-rehearsed orchestra that played fabulous arrangements. And Cootie starred with the Sextet that featured Charlie Christian. As Williams liked to say, that Sextet would romp! But back to the question at hand… Ellington was known for writing to the strengths of his players. Williams was a unique voice, a player who could play powerful open-horn and who could express a variety of emotions through the use of the plunger mute. He was a wonderful musician and was certainly a large part of the Ellington sound. We have to remember too that the Ellington band had a great deal of stability. By 1940 his main soloists had been together for a number of years. The band had achieved a unity that was truly remarkable. Williams was I think the first of these stars to leave the fold. At the time it must have seemed to some to be an insurmountable loss. But history has shown us that Ellington, like any bandleader, would bring in new players to replace those who had departed. In Duke’s case, he’d figure out what the new man brought to the table and would then write to that man’s best qualities. Williams himself came to the band as a replacement for Bubber Miley, one of the first great growl trumpet players. Miley was featured extensively on early Ellington classics like “The Mooche” and “Black and Tan Fantasy”. Ellington credited Miley with a large part in creating what would become known as the Ellington sound. Cootie Williams became a master of the mute, but he started using it because he had to fill the role Bubber Miley had previously played in the band.

The replacement for Cootie Williams was Ray Nance. Nance wasn’t to my mind anything like the equal of Cootie Williams as a trumpet player, though he certainly wasn’t a bad player. But Nance did other things that Ellington could make use of. He was a good violinist, which naturally gave Ellington a new colour to work with. Nance was also an entertainer, someone who could go down front and entertain the fans with a vocal and a little dancing. In fact, his nickname in the band was “Floorshow”. We should keep in mind that it was Ray Nance who originated the classic trumpet solo on the Ellington recording of “Take The ‘A’ Train” …. which Cootie Williams would replicate when he rejoined the band years later!

As time went on, other key players would leave the orchestra. Blanton took sick. Ben Webster went out as a single. Barney Bigard decided to stay in California. Joe Nanton died. Johnny Hodges left to start his own band, taking trombonist Lawrence Brown with him. And on it went. But Ellington persevered. The band might slump for a time, but Duke would find other unique voices to feature and inevitably things would pick up again. Many of the men who’d left would ultimately return, so that Hodges, Brown and even Cootie Williams would one day be back in the Ellington band.

CM: The Winnipeg Tribune referred to the band as, “the first nationally famous colored band to appear here.” and the Free Press called it, “the most original negro dance band in the states.” Can you talk a bit about how Ellington dealt with the bewildering complexities of race in the music business?

BC: If we go back to the early years of the band, Ellington achieved some of his first great success at the Cotton Club in New York. The Cotton Club featured a southern motif. The floor shows at this whites-only establishment played up the “savagery” of the Negro race, often with a jungle setting. It was all designed to titillate the well-healed customers who journeyed to Harlem, playing to the racial stereotypes of the time. But this milieu was important to the sound of the Ellington band. Duke arranged much of his music to fit into this setting, featuring growling brass and moody saxophones. It gave the band an identity, as Ellington became known for this so-called “jungle music”. He’d go on to feature plunger trombone and trumpet for the rest of the band’s existence, though naturally the players changed over the years. Bubber Miley was his first great growl trumpet star, and the wondrous Cootie Williams was with Ellington for many years. Joe “Tricky Sam” Nanton was the all-time master of the plunger trombone. So, we see the Ellington band in what was basically a racist setting, but Ellington managing to turn this into a positive.

Life on the road for a black band was, shall we say, not fun. The day-to-day indignities must have been crushing, but that was the reality of the time and one had to find a way to function. Ellington was not a confrontational man. He was able to use his status as a star to isolate himself and his musicians to some degree from the travails of the road. Before the war, the Ellington band traveled from city to city in its own personal train cars. The cars would be left in a rail yard in each new city the band appeared in and the men lived in them. They were thus assured of decent accommodation and good food, two things that black men traveling through America could seldom count on in the 1930’s. This luxury made a tremendous impression on other musicians. Ellington was fascinated by trains and composed some remarkable “train pieces” over the years, like “Happy-Go-Lucky Local” (later ripped off by the saxophonist Jimmy Forrest and made into a hit under the title “Night Train”). Again we see Ellington taking the racial restrictions of the time and turning them to his advantage.

Ellington was indeed very conscious of race. He certainly knew that he was a black man moving through a largely unfriendly America. As many black musicians said, the fans would cheer you while you were on the stand but many of them wouldn’t dream of shaking hands or associating with you socially. Ellington celebrated his race in his music. He composed an extensive series of tributes to black performers over the years; eg. “Black Beauty”, “Bojangles”, “Portrait of Bert Williams” and many others. In 1943 he made perhaps his first major musical statement on race with the debut of “Black, Brown and Beige – A Tone Parallel to the History of the Negro in America” at Carnegie Hall. Decades later he wrote a revue called “My People” in which he addressed the positive contributions Black culture had made to society. Ellington stated repeatedly to other musicians that he considered this Black culture to be the inspiration behind everything he played and wrote. But of course Ellington was an entertainer, one who came of age at a time when “rocking the boat” could not only end your career but potentially your life. While his heritage was of paramount importance to him, Duke largely refrained from making overt political statements. But it was all there in his music.

CM: We only know a few of the tunes the band played at the Winnipeg date. But happily we have access to almost the whole concert in Fargo the next night. What strikes you about the Ellington “book” as it was on display at these two concerts?

BC: To be honest, I don’t think there’s anything especially remarkable about what the band played. It’s primarily a selection of pieces recently recorded for Victor along with older Ellington hits that had already become staples of his book. There are also a few current pops scattered into the Fargo set list (eg. “Ferryboat Serenade,” “Call of the Canyon”), the kind of things all bands played to satisfy the dancers. A number of the pieces on the Fargo recording are extended beyond what could fit into the limits of the 78 rpm records of the day, but again many bands, certainly the jazz oriented outfits, would do the same thing. One thing that’s of some note is that Ellington wasn’t afraid to program something like “Ko-Ko” into his dance sets. This minor key blues has become a favorite of jazz scholars. There certainly weren’t many other bands playing pieces like that in 1940!

CM: The local Tribune reviewer commented that, “no band ever was so much the voice of one man.” How did Ellington mould the band into a tight unit that expressed the sound he wanted?

BC: Excellent question Catherine! But I’m not sure that “tight unit” is exactly the right phrase! The Ellington band was long known as one of the loosest bands around. Cootie Williams in later years said that one of the things he enjoyed about playing with Benny Goodman is that the band was disciplined and well-organized. He contrasted that with the Ellington band, which could be remarkably sloppy at times. Critic George Simon also remarked on the fact that the Ellington band could be wildly inconsistent … terrific one night and disinterested the next. But there was method to Ellington’s seeming lack of discipline. He wanted the band to be relaxed and loose, feeling that this was the best way to get the kind of results he was looking for. Clearly it worked for him. The result was a virtually uncontrollable band of prima donnas, but you can hardly say it was a mistake considering the decades’ worth of classic recordings Ellington produced.

This isn’t addressing the real point of your question though, which is why did the Ellington band reflect Duke’s own personality so thoroughly. I think the answer is fairly obvious … Ellington composed much of the music his band played and arranged a great deal of it himself. There weren’t many other bandleaders at that time who could make that claim. As a result Ellington had unparalleled control over the sound of his orchestra. Of course Ellington did use outside arrangers from time to time, but he certainly had long since established the sound and style of the Duke Ellington Orchestra.

CM: Ellington’s long musical partnership with composer/arranger Billy Strayhorn was still in its infancy when the band played Winnipeg in 1940. Looking at the tunes played in Fargo, and the few we know they played in Winnipeg, do you see Strayhorn’s influence at work? 

BC: The answer is…. not really. But that’s part of what made Strayhorn such a good collaborator for Ellington … he was willing and able to submerge his own musical personality in order to keep the Ellington sound uppermost. And we shouldn’t forget that it WAS the Ellington sound! There are times when I read about the Strayhorn/Ellington partnership and am astonished that the author makes it sound as though Strayhorn was somehow carrying Ellington; that Strays was the guy with all the talent and Duke was riding on his coattails. By the time Strayhorn joined the organization, Ellington had long since established his own unique world of sound. Strayhorn no doubt studied Duke’s work and absorbed his methods before making his own contributions. Of course I don’t want to minimize Strayhorn either. No question he had better training than Ellington, who was self-taught as an arranger/composer, and I’m sure he was able to show Duke a few things of his own. But by and large Strayhorn seems to have been content to fit into the established Ellington style without calling attention to himself. Some of the guys in the band used to say that they could tell Strayhorn’s work apart from Ellington’s. Perhaps Strayhorn was using some different harmonic ideas or voicing the sections differently. But you’d have to be pretty intimate with that music in order to tell the two men’s work apart. By 1940 Strayhorn hadn’t had a lot of time to start making his own contributions, and even if he had one would be hard-pressed to figure out exactly what they were. So no, I don’t hear Strayhorn’s influence in the 1940 Fargo recordings … but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t there to some degree!

CM: It’s clear from the local reporting of the Winnipeg date that the Ellington band was still very much regarded as a dance band, though the crowd that just wanted to listen was increasing. How did the necessity of playing for dancers affect Ellington’s writing and the band’s style?

BC: Playing for dancing was the primary job of all big bands in 1940. Though there had been occasional jazz concerts since about 1936, big bands on one-nighters like the ones Ellington played in Winnipeg and Fargo in 1940 were mostly concerned with pleasing the dancers. There were occasions when bands would take part in stage shows in theaters, at which time they could trot out certain material that might not be suitable for terpsichorean interpretation. But the bread-and-butter of the big bands was and would remain the dancing crowd.

One of the primary impacts this made on all big bands was in the area of tempo. One had to keep the music danceable, and that meant staying mostly within a certain range of tempos. Some bandleaders made use of this limitation to create certain effects. For example, Tommy Dorsey was well known for playing a flag-waver during a dance set, an up-tempo piece that was too fast for all but the most determined jitterbugs. This would cause the dancers to stop twirling and crowd around the bandstand. Dorsey would then follow this up with a slow romantic ballad or two. The contrast would always have the desired effect of getting the kids (much of the audience for the big bands consisted of young people; this was after all the pop music of the day) snuggling happily away. No doubt many bandleaders engaged in similar practices. Certainly when programming a set any good leader would have to include a range of tempos, as well as perhaps remembering to throw in a Latin number or two (eg. “Caravan” or “Pyramid”) so that dancers could show off some of their fancier steps.

It’s interesting to see how tempos changed over the years. When Bix Beiderbecke recorded “I’m Coming, Virginia” in 1927 with the saxophonist Frankie Trumbauer it was considered a ballad. Listened to today, the performance is a rather jaunty medium tempo. Ballads did get slower over the years, though when we listen today to bands playing their slower numbers for dancers they don’t seem all that slow. Again, one had to keep it danceable. If you didn’t, chances are the public wouldn’t come out to your dance dates. We sometimes like to think of Ellington creating great art for its own sake, but if you wanted to keep your band going you had to please the people. Particularly during the heyday of the big bands, that meant pleasing the dancers… playing tempos people could dance to, playing a selection of current popular hits, featuring a vocalist because people would rather hear the words instead of listening to abstract “jam sessions”. All bands were subject to these limitations. The amazing thing is that so much music of lasting worth was created, sometimes because musicians like Ellington would push the boundaries from time to time, respecting their audiences enough to challenge them occasionally instead of keeping the music simple.

One might get the impression that playing for dancers was an imposition on the bands. I’m sure it was at times (Artie Shaw for one hated it), but many of the great bandleaders preferred playing for dancing to playing concerts. There was feedback from the dancers, an energy that the musicians picked up on. As the bands would dig in and start swinging, so would the dancers. This often had the effect of inspiring the players. It was a synergy, something that simply didn’t exist in the same way with an audience seated in a concert hall. Much of the music Ellington created was written with the dancers in mind.

One limitation that playing for dancing imposed on Ellington and others was the need to keep a constant tempo going. One could sometimes play games with the dancers by going fast/slow or slow/fast within a song in the same way that Dorsey did it within a set, but in the main once you started a given tune the idea was to keep the tempo settled from start to finish. When Ellington began writing extended concert pieces he was able to make use of more variety in this area.

An interesting aspect was the way Ellington began writing these extended pieces so early, even at a time when playing for dancing was still the primary function of the band. In 1940 it was still a three-minute world, the approximate length of one side of a 78 rpm record. In 1931 Duke recorded his “Creole Rhapsody”, a piece that extended over both sides of a 78. Shaken by the death of his mother in 1935, Ellington recorded “Reminiscing in Tempo”, a twelve minute piece which covered four sides. It’s a mark of the respect Ellington enjoyed that he was permitted to record something so personal and outside the mainstream. A piece taking up two sides of a record was still a great rarity; a four-sided composition by a so-called “popular performer” may well have been unprecedented. By 1943 Duke was well and truly embarked on his extended pieces, premiering “Black, Brown and Beige” at the first of his annual Carnegie Hall concerts. It’s disappointing but instructive to note that critical reaction to each of these early extended compositions was less than positive. Even respected writers fell into the “it isn’t jazz” trap. Perhaps it wasn’t, but then who said it had to be? And how did they define what jazz was? I suppose anything so different from Ellington’s standard output invited these puzzled reactions. Success can be a prison, as the public and the critics bridle when a performer explores new directions. Often, once you’ve done something people like, they’d prefer that you simply give them more of the same…. until they tire of it and tune you out. Having an extended career in show business is always a tricky balancing act, keeping the public happy while at the same time exploring one’s creative urges. Duke Ellington was continually creative right up to end of his life while carving out a legendary career. He was truly one of the towering figures in the history of music.

Here are links to two 1940 performances by the Duke Ellington Orchestra

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RDtBsBX7KoY Ellington in Fargo featuring Ben Webster on “Stardust”. Four minutes of inspired improvisation. The debt to Coleman Hawkins is obvious, but we all have to start somewhere! Webster was also learning a lot by listening to his Ellington section-mate Johnny Hodges. By 1940 Webster was well on his way to synthesizing his various models and becoming one of the great tenor saxophone voices of all time. Webster especially liked this recording from the famous Fargo date and got a copy on an acetate disc from Jack Towers, one of the men who recorded the dance. He’d play it for friends for the rest of his life. Whenever a copy of the acetate wore out, Ben would contact Towers and get a new one!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e7onbib31S0 “In A Mellotone”. Ellington live in Chicago a few months before playing Fargo. Cootie Williams was still in the band and is featured to advantage here along with Johnny Hodges on alto. This shows off the kind of casual virtuosity that was everywhere in the big band era. And what a wonderful loping tempo! This must have been a real pleasure to dance to. And yet it’s a great piece of music that stands on its own merits, an example of how the need to create music for dancing was no hindrance to creative minds like Duke Ellington’s.



When God was Flesh and Wild

Haverluck cover flesh 3Storyteller/artist Bob Haverluck uses stories, art and music to inspire community groups in their engagement with issues of conflict and violence against the earth and her creatures. His stories and drawings spring from a deep encounter with the Bible but they go to some pretty wild places. If the prophet Jeremiah mated with the entire cast of Monty Python, the miraculous child of this union would be someone like Bob.

His book of stories and drawings, When God was Flesh and Wild; Stories in Defense of the Earth, has just been published by Liturgical Press. He’s launching it at McNally Robinson Bookstore on Wednesday, May 31, at 7PM and he’s bringing along some actor and musician friends to help him out. Should be a unique evening.

See more info here: http://www.mcnallyrobinson.com/event-15753/Bob-Haverluck—-Book-Launch#.WRI2SVLMyi4

I’ve known Bob a long time and I’m delighted that he agreed to have a conversation with me.

CM: Welcome to portage and slain, Bob. Tell me about what you’re trying to do with these stories.

BH: I thought—you being you—that you were going ask me why I thought the Bible was a hell of a murder mystery. And I wasn’t going to tell you. But now I am.

Predictably, it begins with a murder. We are there at the edge of the garden when Cain pulverizes his brother Abel’s head with a rock. Cain, our mythic ancestor, murder weapon in hand. The smoking rock. Murder solved. But wait, even with Cain sidelined, other bodies begin piling up. Killing after killing with music in the background, compliments of the first maker of musical instruments, the grandson of the first murderer. And the murderers keep coming. Until, as the story goes, Love itself comes down from heaven playing hide and seek in the form of some kind of beer drinking shepherd. Soon, he is nailed to a man made tree in a little forest of man made trees. One more carcass like the rest.

Even before then, the careful reader begins to feel increasingly uneasy. And long before it all ends the reader realizes that she, he is implicated…and has something red and sticky on their hands. Something like a victim’s blood.

Like you said Cathy, I’ve known you for a long time. But I didn’t know you weren’t going to ask that question about the Bible as a murder mystery. And I knew you back when you were Howie Morenz and played forward for the Montreal Canadiens. You were five foot ten then, had black hair and could skate like Barbara Ann Scott. “But things aren’t like they used to be,” to quote the mayors of Sodom and Glockamorra.

CM: Um…Let’s get back to firmer ground, shall we? Now, is there really that much comedy in the Bible?

BH: Okay, Okay, you done give me other questions and I will try to circle round and answer them without the use of mind altering drugs or references to your earlier lives. Such as when you went by the name of Bridie Murphy.

Clever boots Cathy, you ask questions about why I am busy reading and writing the Bible as a comedy. Taking Northrop Frye’s course on the Bible as a romantic comedy (1967-68) did help get things going. In part the comedy aspect is perhaps a quirk, a kink in my nature nudging me. Maybe, it is because as I read scripture I see it is about re-reading the world in ways that see the world as often haywire, upside down. Mary’s Magnificant singing the Christ child into the World is about a world downside up. Red Rover Red Rover, we call Samson over: “with the jawbone of an ass, he ass ended them.” Much of this is a donkey’s business, the stuff of comedy when it is not bloody tragedy. So the Hebrew Christian scriptures themselves invite, no, demand a comic, no, a tragical comical reading . Yes?! Of course they do, don’t be silly.

CM: Uh, Bob, could we get back to—

BH: Okay, Okay. You ask me, “what are you trying to do with these stories?” To best live wisely as part of this watery animally earth, methinks, we need to have a better sense of our many companions. Among them are many aunts and uncles, sisters, brothers found in the great spiritual traditions who knew we have a peace treaty with the earth. Wild and crazy many of them.

I’m betting that we can well rejoin with our kin with the help of parable-like stories. Why? The round about comic business of confronting the ruling orders’ destructive “common sense” with nonsensical ways of being and doing may well entangle us with our greater kindred. The stories might even help us better realize our kinship with feathered, hairy, bark encrusted or ten miles long and home to turtles, cat tails and frog choirs. If the stories help that happen, I’ll buy beers all around or my name isn’t Macbeth, Thane of Cawdor.

CM: Aha. Right. Now, in Genesis, it seems that God gives humans dominion over the fish of the sea and all the plants and creatures of the earth. Your stories and 50 odd, I choose my words carefully, odd drawings and four stories argue that “dominion” is not at all as it seems to many.

 BH: Dominion? Sure dominion, a lover’s dominion…attentive to the beloveds’ ways, wants, well being. We have a paradox here and a pair of ducks and every kind of creature kin attended to. This understanding has both its yeas and nays and neighs in the Hebrew and Christian scriptures’ mélange of stories, myths, historical dramas, poetry, teachings, songs and parables. My stories play among the clusters that see humans as essentially inseparable from the well being of the rest of creation. We are tragic and comical creatures in an often tragic but ultimately divine comedy.

CM: I see. Well, I don’t really, but let’s just suppose I do for the moment. Aren’t you afraid no one will take you seriously?

BH: The push to comedy comes from my sense of the world, of life and of scripture’s own frutata of delights and sorrows, sweet, sour and savory. Inside, outside, all around the town, there are pulls and pushes in that direction. As proposed in the book’s introduction, comedy at its best is serious about the rights things. But not all the time. Much of our life is being serious about the wrong things most of the time.

Also, living in a cultural era much wired to irony, comedy has a certain tactical function. However, recognizing that irony must ultimately feed upon itself, unless it has a standpoint outside itself that discloses, exposes its deserving targets. (Knew my old philosophy lecturing on comedy in Hegel and Kierkegaard would get a rerun. Or my name isn’t Jean Paul Sartre, Thane of Glamis.)

CM: I could swear I was in control of this interview when we came in. Oh well. Can you pick a drawing from When God was Flesh and Wild and comment on it?

BH: No. Or to phrase that differently, yes. The cover drawing for the book might work for us here (see above). Years ago in an article for Border Crossings entitled “Why a Pig”, l did a drawing of Jesus kissing a pig. The fish, like the pig is not a bad metaphor for the losers, the write-offs, those made least by the ruling order which the Christly Jesus insisted on identifying with. They were often called the “anawim” meaning the dirt, the poor, the shit. This drawing also opens the story “God is Flesh and Wild” which rightly precedes the story “Little Sparrows see God Fall”. Jesus’ baptism in the wild river in the company of turtles and trout is portrayed. It sees Jesus’ time in the wild place as playing out the child lying down with the lion and lamb, bear and cow (Isaiah). Jesus is understood to be initiating and bodying forth the anticipatory enactment of the peaceable “kindom”. This christly booze artist—who is later infamous for hanging out with, identifying with, the sex trade workers, squeechy kids, and petty civil servants, all restless for a world downside up—here smooches with one more creature of no stature. A wild thing, here a representative of all that is not domesticated. Not within the dominion of “domination”. What this disturber of the false peace does in the world of nature, he will do in the social political economic and religious realms. Lovingly embrace the untouchable, the hidden away good possibilities of a peaceable commonwealth.

Sweet, soon soured. Now, to portray the seeming rule of death. But how? In this drawn place perhaps a “gotcha” fish hook could say it? So there it is coming up from the side. As sure as bad bad Good Friday needs come before the Sunday of eastering forth. Or my name is not Haverluck, Thane of Burnam Wood and supplier of rubber gloves to her Majesty the Queen.

CM: Let’s drink to that—but pour me the first glass.

After Light Shines

After LightCatherine Hunter’s novel, After Light, is a brave, big-hearted book. It’s also the best book I’ve read so far this year.

Hunter made her name first as a poet but has also published several slender, clever and genre-bending mystery novels. (See the July 16, 2014 post below.) After Light, at 442 pages, is a more ambitious book and probably her most personal yet. The character Frank Garrison is based on her father, who fought in the Canadian Army during World War II and was blinded as a result of wounds sustained in Holland after the D-Day invasion.

The story takes up a lot of territory in both time and space. The action runs from 1916 to the present and ranges through Ireland, New York City, Toronto, Winnipeg and Holland. Time slips back and forward but Hunter handles these flashbacks deftly so that the reader is never lost.

After Light is the story of the Garrison family and of how betrayals, small and large, reverberate down the generations. Life is hard for the Garrisons. A girl is forced into marriage with an older man; a boy’s artistic ambitions are stifled by poverty and war; a father’s PTSD blights the life of his family; a child experiences a life-changing disfigurement. The tragedy of these characters is that, in their attempts to overcome these circumstances, they take actions that seem to solve an immediate problem but have dire consequences down the road.

There are whiffs of Yeats and doom-laden Irish mythology here. It can be no accident that Hunter named the matriarch of the Garrison family Deirdre, who, in the legend, avoids marriage to the aging King Conchubor by fleeing with her lover Naoise. Escape, for both Deirdres, sets off a chain of sorrows.

But this is not a dreary book. The story telling is compelling. The writing is well crafted but not showy. Alongside the frailties of her characters Hunter places the healing and transformative power of art. It is this transcendent vision that you’re left with at the end of the book.




Get the Podcast

owl bookplateI enjoyed guesting on Carmelo Militano’s P.I.  New Poetry show on CKUW 95.9 FM. (And I learned that those initials in the show title stand for “Private Investigator”, entirely apt for my appearance.)

Here’s the link to the podcast:


Please also consider subscribing to the podcasts of the show. Carmelo has a relaxed interview style and is good at taking the conversation down whatever road or alley looks most inviting. It’s a spontaneous exploration of the writing process.


A quick note to say that my guest gig on Carmelo Militano’s CKUW show described in the post below has been postponed a week. The new date is Sunday, May 22, 4:30PM on CKUW 95.9 FM

Chatting with Carmelo

antique head bookplate singleCampus radio stations like CKUW offer programs that you won’t find on commercial radio. For instance, Carmelo Militano hosts a CKUW show every Sunday afternoon from 4:30 to 5:00pm called P.I. New Poetry. Carmelo’s guests are poets and writers, mostly from Manitoba, but also from other parts of the country. While poetry is the main focus, other genres are given due consideration. It’s a half hour of conversation about writing and what could be more interesting?

I’ll be one of those guests this coming Sunday, May 15, should you want to tune in. That’s P.I. New Poetry, 4:30pm CKUW 95.9 FM

What’s With the Cane?

Cathy&Cane3440 copyAs the winner of the Michael Van Rooy award for Genre Fiction at the 2016 Manitoba Book Awards, I get temporary custody of Michael Van Rooy’s silver-headed walking stick. The award is named in memory of Michael, author of gritty and gripping crime fiction, brandisher of walking sticks, a larger than life presence on the Manitoba writing scene who died too soon at the age of 42.

It’s my honour to keep Michael’s cane safe until the next winner comes along in 2018.

fullCoverFront Armour 1

My thanks to the Manitoba Writers’ Guild and the Association of Manitoba Book Publishers for sponsoring the Manitoba Book Awards that do so much to encourage Manitoba writers.

See the other winners here:


Now for those tap dancing lessons.


The Tanka of Debbie Strange

Poet and photographic artist Debbie Strange uses the Japanese minimalist forms of haiku and tanka to explore her responses to the landscapes she encounters. Last month she launched Warp and Weft, Tanka Threads, a collection of tanka triptychs that editor M. Kei calls “primal poetry with a pagan heart”. A recent interest unites her two passions; at the launch she presented a slideshow of her photographic and artwork images into which poems from the collection were embedded.

Here’s an example.

going back

Debbie Strange makes her home in Winnipeg after having lived in each of the four western Canadian provinces. She is a member of the Writers’ Collective of Manitoba and the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, as well as several haiku and tanka organizations. Her short form writing has received many awards, and has been translated, anthologized and widely published internationally.

Debbie’s photographic images have been exhibited and published, and she is currently working on a collection of haiga (haiku with art) and tanka art.

Warp and Weft, Tanka Threads, was published through Keibooks by M. Kei. Find it at these retailers:

McNally Robinson Booksellers in Winnipeg

Keibooks via atlaspoetica.org


Read my e-chat with Debbie Strange below.

CM: I know a bit about haiku but nothing about tanka. Can you explain the conventions of tanka composition?

DS: Many Westerners were taught to write haiku in grade school, and most of what we learned was based on the misconception that haiku must be written in 17 syllables! Although tanka is not as well known in Canada, this form is also often thought to be based on syllabic count (31 in this case). The confusion stems from the fact that Japanese sound units differ from English syllables. If you would like to read a selection of my haiku, please visit the featured poet archive of the Mann Library, in Cornell University, Ithaca, New York:


The term “short song” is commonly used to describe tanka, and this well-respected Japanese lyrical form has been written for more than 1300 years. A basic description of contemporary tanka is that it is generally composed of five unrhymed metrical units or poetic phrases, using approximately 20 words or syllables that are arranged in a rhythmic short/long/short/long/long pattern. The poems often contain juxtapositions of the natural and the human world, and each line must be able to stand alone, or perform a critical function. Tanka allows more metaphor and simile than haiku, and tanka often have a turning point which belongs equally to the first and last halves of the poem, and which builds to the last line, with only one clear grammatical break. Individual tanka are usually untitled, with little or no punctuation and capitalization, and few articles. That said, modern tanka is still evolving, and so are the “rules” of writing these quintains!

CM: How did you come to write haiku and tanka? Had you written other kinds of poetry before?

DS: I have written poetry and songs since I was a child, only beginning to share my work after joining the Writers’ Collective of Manitoba in 2000. I entered their annual contests, and I was fortunate to receive a few awards for free verse poetry, fiction, and non-fiction over the years.

In 2013, via social media, I discovered a thriving Japanese short form community, and instantly fell in love with haiku and tanka. I began focusing exclusively on these forms, and I practice writing them and creating haiga and tanshi (small poem) art on a daily basis. The example of my tanka art reproduced above contains a prairie tanka sequence which was first published in 2015 in Ribbons, the Tanka Society of America’s journal.

Since I narrowed my writing focus, opportunities to publish have expanded beyond my wildest imaginings. This is completely astonishing to me, and I am grateful every day for the amazing turn in my writing life!

If you are interested in discovering more about my published work, I invite you to visit my blog archive and Twitter feed:



CM: Tell me about your new collection, Warp and Weft.  The title encourages the idea of threads. Can you describe the threads running through the book and present some of the poems?

DS: Warp and Weft is a collection of over 200 individual tanka, written in both traditional and modern styles, and presented as themed triptychs.

In sorting through my published tanka, I was interested to find that although the works had appeared in a variety of journals, there were recurring themes, phrases and word choices. There was also a nearly equal division between light and dark moods.

Each triptych in this tanka collection contains poems taken from different publications, but sharing a common thread. A word or phrase from the last poem in each triptych also serves as its title. The work is arranged so that readers shuttle back and forth between the light and dark tanka fibres. Poems tracing my family history are woven into the book’s underlying fabric.

The following selections were inspired in part by my experiences in Manitoba’s Whiteshell Provincial Park (Bannock Point), Riding Mountain National Park, Steep Rock, and by my love for our Canadian winters!

the altar of air

on sacred stones
scarred with lichen
we listen to the chanting wind

in the highlands
we are standing stones
toward each other
f r a g m e n t e d

tobacco bundles
tied to jackpine bones
prayer fragments
hanging deliverance
in the altar of air


a blue fan
unfolding in the distance
so many hills
we meant to climb before
they became mountains

of this blue life
by the hour glass
my furrows deepen

we replay
our lowest notes
over and over
these blues wailing
through harmonica bones

turning season

winter winds
play an aeolian harp
of barbed wire
a lone coyote and I howl
at the long night moon

lying in sage
on limestone cliffs
sunning myself
with ribbon snakes
emerging from hibernation

mercurial wind
in this turning season
my body
a weather vane tilting
in a new direction

filling up winter

a lullaby
of snow fluttering
against the tent
unzipping our cocoons
we emerge into winter

ice dancing
between frozen waves
on winter’s lake
silver blades carve initials
in the diamond dust of snow

in my open hands
the slow drift
of our memories
filling up winter

CM: Are you working on any other projects at the moment?

DS: I have a haiku chapbook called A Year Unfolding to be published in November 2016 by Folded Word Press.

I also have work forthcoming in More Grows in a Crooked Row: Tanka Conversations with 15 Canadian Poets, edited by Angela Leuck, as well as in Wild Moons: The Canadian Tanka Anthology, edited by Angela Leuck and George Swede. Hopefully these two publications will help to further the tanka cause. It would be wonderful if more people in Canada discovered the joys of writing and reading tanka!

Thank you for the interview, Catherine, and for this opportunity to discuss my creative processes.


Authors for Indies Day 2016

bookstore b and wPlease come out on Saturday, April 30, and buy a book or two at your favourite independent bookstore in honour of national “Authors for Indies Day”.

Don’t know what to buy? Doug Whiteway—better known as C.C. Benison to mystery fans—and I will be at “Whodunit”, 165 Lilac St., April 30 from 11:00AM to 3PM. Doug and I look forward to chatting with you about our favourite mystery writers, our own books and anything else that fellow lovers of mystery and crime fiction care to shoot the breeze about.

This is the second year that writers from across Canada will be out in their neighbourhood bookstores on “Authors for Indies Day”. The idea is to shine a light on those stores that care about Canadian books and Canadian readers. They hold readings and in-store events and host writing and book groups. So much more happens in these places than the word “store” suggests; they foster community in many small but important ways. We value them but we can also take them for granted. That’s what “Authors for Indies Day” is about. The Canadian writing community gets to spend a day raising awareness about the stores that have given us so much.

So come out on Saturday. We’ll have a blast.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/41346951@N05/17157662649″></a&gt; via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;