Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Texas on my horizon

Having returned from the land of snow, chickadees and Benedictines, my thoughts are now turning to the lone star state, where I'll be next week. My stress levels are rising in anticipation: having reviewed the schedule of the AWP conference in Austin, it seems there are far too many sessions to attend all at once, and far too much going on in Austin to cover in the three days we have to be tourists before the conference starts.

Such heart-rending choices: one particularly cruel morning's simultaneous sessions include (among others):
Crazy Women: Writers Defying Diagnosis;
That’s So Funny: Irony and Meaning in Contemporary American Poetry;
From Rejection to Publication: Becoming A Resilient Writer;
Women Small Press Publishers on Publishing;
Blogs, Boards & Online Journals: Salons for the 21st Century; and
Symbol, Glyph, or Gimmick?: Repunctuating Contemporary Fiction and Poetry.
An interesting debate on TripAdviser's Austin forum, about where in Austin do you find the best barbecue? A matter I intend to give serious thought to, my curiosity having been whetted by "The Whole Hog", Jeffrey Steingarten's account of judging a bbq competition in Memphis, in one of my favourite food books ever, The Man Who Ate Everything.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

Call of the coulibiac

Cooked my first proper meal since my return last night: salmon coulibiac, which reminded me of my childhood favourite, kedgeree (my mother's super simple version: mix hot cooked rice, chopped hard-boiled eggs, canned or leftover salmon, parsley and a good spoonful of butter). This grown-up puff-pastried incarnation tasted even better - with lemon, dill and mushrooms to zip it up a bit. It was easy to make but it took me a long time, here in the land of a thousand distractions. Apparently the beauty of it is you can make it ahead and then put it in the oven when your guests arrive.

We had it with an aubergine/eggplant pasta casserole I'd hidden in my freezer, and followed with leftover chocolate mousse cake from Thrifty's.

Ok, so it was starch night at the hacienda, but on the other hand it was cold, wet and miserable outside. Starch keeps the rain out, I always think.

Here's what the source of the mystery bark looked like before Tracy turned it into art.


Sunday, February 26, 2006

A new week's news - TWUC, launches and lovely dogs

Drove up to Nanaimo on Saturday, in the always entertaining company of Peter Such, to a regional meeting of the Writers Union of Canada.

As ever there were lots of things to talk about. The digitalization initiatives of libraries is a looming concern: what will it do to our already slender income (according to our regional rep's research the average income for Canadian writers is $11,000 - well below the poverty line)? How on earth can it be done without violating an author's copyright? These initiatives place at risk the very channels through which Canadian writers have managed - by virtue of some very hard battles fought by our union members among others - to receive some reliable payments for their created works: copyright payments and PLR, as well as royalties; and publishers, whose sales and subsidiary rights deals will be jeopardized, have big concerns about their digital income prospects as well.

Writers were asked to consider doing something for Freedom to Read Week this week, February 26th-March 4th.

My lovely publisher, Oolichan's General Editor Hiro Boga, a writer herself (ambidextrous: she's published a novel and a poetry collection) was also at the meeting, so we got to talk shop for a moment or two. Peter had swiftly stepped in when I mused aloud about where I would have my book launch for Cartography, and so it will be at his fabulous home, sometime in April.

At the potluck meal which followed, our BC rep Marion Quednau demonstrated her finesse with some hand made perogies, which she'd bought on Terminal Avenue in Nanaimo. She says she likes them best boiled and then gently browned in butter till golden; her secret weapons are leeks and cumin, and of course she serves them with a dollop of sour cream. Lots of other good stuff: home smoked oysters, dolmathes, chocolate mousse cake. Enough ballast to set off back down-island through snow flurries which tapered off as we approached Victoria.

Looking forward to the BBC Afternoon Play on Monday - a broadcast of Rapture, the TS Eliot award winning poems by Carol Ann Duffy. Online for 7 days from broadcast.

And finally, I welcome back Anton the Orphan, who spent three weeks working with me as my personal trainer before I headed to the writing retreat, and who will be lodging here for another week while his current custodian is otherwise occupied. He is being fostered through a great animal rescue society called Animals for Life - it is a sort of animal shelter, but its shelters are all private homes. They have a charity shop in Sidney which you're advised to steer clear of if you have a weakness for kittens, as they keep a cage of them there which is always surrounded by animal lovers.


Saturday, February 25, 2006

Last moments at the writers and artists colony

So, Tracy explained about the Thursday night party which ended the 2006 Winter Colony. As she was in Saskatoon reading from the works of Al Purdy, she missed our final group reading, alas, although she was there in spirit, having composed a sonnet which she printed on wood shavings, glued to bark strips, and left in her place: we were well impressed. And we had studio presentations from our awesomely talented artists, Cherie and Frances, which were just breathtaking.

Here are some snaps of those gifted souls who shared their musical stylings with us.

Brother Kurt happened along and gave us some good old favourites.

Mari-Lou brought a new classical guitar and a Leonard Cohen songbook to her hermitage and we got to hear the results of her cloistered toil. She's promised us a full Beatles repertoire next year.

And Terry O'Flanagan - who thought he had come to St Peter's to re-build the college entryway - became part of the colony, and all the more so (was it the snappy cowboy shirt? the Johnny Cash numbers?) that last night.

On to the next and final morning. I heard tell there was a food cellar at the Abbey, and I asked our Colony Coordinator Anne if I could have a look, and so this is what I got to see before I left.

Imagine a whole room full of potatoes!

And then there was the canned goods collection. Who could not be comforted by all those big, beautiful jars of food? And all of it grown on the Abbey's farm. Fabulous and delicious.

Home, home in the rain

Actually there is no rain here in Victoria (--but--gasp-- it snowed for about ten minutes this morning!!). Quite a change from the biblical deluge we were experiencing when I left two weeks ago. I returned from St Pete's on Westjet - the jokes were not quite as good as on the outgoing journey, and the trip felt endless. Saskatoon to Calgary, Calgary to Kelowna, Kelowna to Victoria. Luckily it was pretty clear all the way and I got to look down on the snowy world before stepping back on the green green grass of home. My taxi driver kindly advised me to put on my coat before leaving the terminal: very cold, he said, only about 4 degrees. Hah, I said, recalling the -30something low we had in Muenster last week.

Here's a cold cat I met at the Abbey. It had a lot to say; I suspect it was telling me the many words for snow in its language. I have more photos to download.. after which I will tell my version of events of our last evening's entertainments: you can read Tracy's while you're waiting.

I rushed home to find my very good pal Jennifer had dinner on the plates and waiting for me, so I don't have to remember how to cook for a little while yet. She's here from Calgary to work further towards her Feldenkreis practitioner certification, and she's their webmaster too. And she makes a mean chicken dinner.

After dinner I rushed out again to Mocambo to hear Tom Wayman read, and it was worth the trip: he's endlessly entertaining. I bought his latest book, My Father's Cup, which includes some powerful poems about his parents. While there, Wendy Morton broke the news that she's been successful in her campaign to city council to get a Victoria Poet Laureate position in place.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Closing Time

Almost done the 2006 winter colony, and counting down to this evening's final readings and (thank you artists) studio visits. We have scaled the chip mountain and made our contributions to the local economy. We have written and read and walked and skied and skated and scrabbled. We have exchanged the obscurest trivia and the easiest recipes; blogged and emailed and even pinned writings to our doors. And tomorrow we return to reality.

Wednesday's afternoon highlight was a visit to St Peter's Cathedral, with live commentary from Fr. Demetrius. I'd heard about the paintings by Berthold Imhoff from people who'd been there before, and they were something to see in the streaming sunlight.

Spent the past three days wrestling with terza rima. Fiendish, I call it. Paul Farley calls it "the very devil of a form" in his review of George Szirtes' book, Reel. But it was an invigorating work-out, and although I'm still grappling with a final sticky rhyme (--any suggestions for rhyming "novel" with other than "grovel"??) I might be fool enough to attempt it again sometime. Some other imaginary time when I have the luxury of three days to spend on nothing but sifting three way rhymes for iambic lines. **11:21 Update - since I can't figure out how to include hyperlinking in comments - Thanks Ariel: hovel it is. I love Rhymezone too but I must say that after this exercise I have developed a renewed passion for my poet-centric Poet's Manual and Rhyming Dictionary, which gives masculine, feminine and triple rhymes, and makes it fairly easy to work out half rhymes.

Hoping I experience again the miracle of St Peter’s and weigh in at home to discover I haven’t gained (or lost) an ounce despite two weeks of feverish chip consumption, daily cocktails, lashings of gravy on everything, and a respectful sampling of each and every dessert on offer. And only two hours of badminton in the balance. But I like to believe that all those hours spent out on the lane to the cemetery, ungloved, with a palmful of peanuts, feeding chickadees and braving incipient frostbite, have some counter-calorific effect.

And so, as that classic British football ballad has it,
Here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go-o…
(rep. refr.)

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Wednesday, February 22, 2006

From candles to homestyle cooking

Thanks to dear prairie expat poet Nancy - she's here in Saskatchewan in spirit, and certainly by email - for pointing me to a lovely UK poetry site, Poetry PF where I saw some familiar names and faces, and lots of good poems.

But dropping out of the virtual clouds and back to earth where we're enjoying balmy -10c weather with sunshine and heaps of ornamental hoarfrost... who'd visit Muenster without stopping for a sniff at the Canadian Prairie Candles shop? Just the place to thaw your frozen nostrils on a fine winter's day. They have a staggering selection of scented votives, very reasonably priced. Among the dozens of seriously intoxicating flavours we investigated today were Let It Snow; Plum Spice; Wedding Day; Blackberry; Freshly Mown Hay; Bailey's Irish Cream; and (oh yum) Banana Nut Bread. We have long admired their custom made grain elevator candles, but it's worth noting they're writer-friendly in there, so if you want something different for your book launch, talk to them about having a candle made from your book cover.

And my, we do enjoy an annual trawl of the treasures at The Muenster Consignment Centre. This year we spotted, among the everythings, a reading lamp whose stand was a glow-in-the-dark fist; a couple of old flip-down toasters (working) suitable for use in a hermitage; red cowboy boots; a siwash (Cowichan) sweater; an old painted cowboy lunchbox. We did not buy it all, because as the saying goes, if you have everything, where do you put it?

The Muenster Family Restaurant is only open till 4 on weekdays, but its kitchen is blessed with Shirley, one of the former cooks from St. Peter's Abbey. She made Kathleen, Mari-Lou and me a dandy brunch today, eggs as we like 'em and lovely bacon and hash browns, with a generous hand on the coffee pot. The lemon-poppyseed muffins were warm and wonderfully lemony. Across the room we spotted fellow literary diners Paula Jane and Kimmy; from the oo-ing and ah-ing going on during their soup course, they were having themselves a noteworthy bowl, and we left them tucking in to some very special cheeseburgers with crinkle cut fries and gravy.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Soups and Sales

After last night's massive snackathon - jalapeno havarti, pita with red pepper feta, asiago cheese and tzadziki dips (thank you oh thank you Kimmy) - and a nice buncha grapes - we were treated to a reading by the erudite and entertaining Myrna Kostash, who graced us with a sample from her memoir-in-progress - and a visual nod to Saint Demetrius.

A couple of days last week we dropped our pens and headed into Humboldt to re-stock the chip supply and do a little shopping. We decided to lunch in town, and took ourselves to a prairie gem, the Prairie Perk. Land of latte, but they make a fine brew. I had their cafe breve on my last visit: and what a wonderful substance it was. A close relative of cappuccino, a mountain of thick creamy foam surmounting an excellent roast. Satisfying in every way, not too big: not too small. The box of Mexican chocolate perched discreetly on the countertop augers well for their hot chocolate, which they promise is the best in town.

But it was their soup of the day that's earned my slavish devotion. Sopa Poblano, which seems to be a Latin cousin of leek and potato soup, a smooth suspension of potato with a well aimed bolt of green chile to finish. This recipe looks pretty close; I can't wait to experiment at home.

Right next door to Prairie Perk was the real reason for our visit: our cherished clothing store, The Cottage Boutique, which obligingly holds its Winter Blow-Out Sale around the same time as our colony each year. There is much rejoicing on both sides when the writers waft into town and stagger out again adorned and laden with those understated beige bags.

Here's a little bit of a poem - a ghazal of sorts - from a previous year, commemorating a visit with Lorri and Maureen, which will be in the new book:

Winter Sale, Humboldt

Holding the door for each other, we file in
and blossom in three directions.

When you reach into the unknown
hangers click an abacus along the rack.

Colour pulls our hands into its field:
some treasure lies camouflaged in there.

The door chimes and opens, chimes and closes:
shimmering breath of a room of women.


Monday, February 20, 2006


Were ever so many chips consumed by a single group of people over a 14 day period?

We have been glorying in the crunch of many flavours. Three years ago we discovered an outstanding number at Extra Foods in Humboldt, President's Choice Rosemary-and-something, but it has vanished from the shelves, along with the end of its name, and is sadly mourned.

But we live in the present, and here are, I believe, our locally available firmest favourites, in alphabetical order. In short, we like 'em all (but Miss Vicky's could really be our chip of choice).
Doritos Dillicious Taco Chips
Lay's Dill Pickle Chips
Lay's Plain Salted Chips
Miss Vicky's Lime and Black Pepper
Miss Vicky's Sweet Chili and Sour Cream
President's Choice Parmesan and Garlic
President's Choice Roast Garlic
Tostitos Hint of Lime
Though we have been going mainly dipless, we surely did enjoy our revered blog guru Tracy's home made salsa while it lasted. And it must be clearly and definitively stated that although Brenda would never normally eat such things, she showed real class when she invested in an armload of chips for the troops one snowy afternoon at the Humboldt IGA.

The gin drinker in me quietly wishes to point out the perfect harmony I discovered between Lay's Dill Pickle Chips (or Tostitos Hint of Lime) and a large G&T with lemon.

As the colony progressed, things got more and more excessive. We augmented our chipping with some dipping into other food substances, aside from smoked oysters. Mari-Lou once again demonstrated her elegant way with roast garlic (plus brie plus jalapeno dip) on french bread. Annette offered us some healthful options: green grapes, shrimp rings; and chipped in with Bernadette to assemble some mighty nachos. And last night we were the grateful recipients of a hit and run appetizer strike from the kitchen, when an artfully presented tray of hand-piped tuna and egg salad materialized in the lounge at the appointed hour (thank you Brother Pius!)

Of course, there is also nothing like a good bowl of popcorn, which we enjoy thanks to the colony's air popper and the tireless efforts of those who know how to aim it.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Dessert Island

Well: now that the gravy situation has been smoothed out, we can focus all the more clearly on what follows our savoury. I have long suspected some unidentified Great Desserts of the Fifties cookbook has provided the backbone of our meals here. Let me pay tribute.

Our first night we were met with an outstanding bread pudding - more of a bar, really - just chewy enough, with fruit, probably apples, huddled somewhere in the sweet middle. We've had raisin delight, butter tarts, chocolate wheat puff squares, rice krispie squares, a chocolate-cornflake concoction, almond crunch made with cornflakes and coconut (there's not much you can't do with breakfast cereal, one of us astutely observed between bites). There were gooey chocolatey coconut drop cookies, which one colonist identified as hermits (very fitting). And an absolutely heavenly rhubarb crumble, freshly crisp and perfectly sweet.

But let's be honest: what can round out a simple chicken dinner (with gravy) better than a tub of chocolate and vanilla ice cream that you scoop out yourself and eye through the meal until it has just that perfect gloss that tells you the moment of ice cream bliss - the happy balance of smooth and soft but still frozen - has been reached and it's time to apply the spoon.

On the other hand, yesterday's lunch triggered something...


O red mystery, o berry
of the world’s branch.

Powder of my childhood
lunchbox, a fingerdip surprise
for snack time, cherry dust
in a tupperware nest...

Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Gravy Train

Horrors. Something was amiss in the kitchen... the first few days of colony we were gravyless, desolate. Two roast dinners came and went without a drop to drown in. Nought but a few tears moistened my roast potatoes on Sunday, and we quietly despaired amongst ourselves in parched mutters. However, glad to say things have righted themselves since and our universe floats once more in its happy sea.

As fate would have it, when I was at the AWP conference last year I picked up a copy of Poetry International 9 (2005), which we've all been browsing and which - wouldn't you know it - includes a recipe-like poem called Gravy, by Barbara Crooker, which tells us to:

Scrape off bits of skin, bits of meat; incorporate
them in the mixture, like a difficult uncle
or the lonely neighbor invited out of duty.

Thus inspired, and still rejoicing after dinner, I reached for the gravy dish myself last night:

Gravy and More Gravy

Who’d want to live
in a world without gravy,
which makes all things
equal on the plate,
which gives potatoes
a smooth ride, which
comforts the meat
it came from....

Friday, February 17, 2006

Smoked Oysters

So. The poets (and prose writers and artists) gathered together last night at the writers and artists colony at St Peter's Abbey admired the Fanny Bay smoked oyster dip (made from oysters I bought while last staying at The Cottage at Fanny Bay) and here is the recipe, which I tweaked as follows: instead of one tin of oysters, I used two. I added a dollop (couple of tablespoons) plain yogurt, a squeeze of lemon, a bit (half tsp) of minced lemon rind.

Instead of fresh, I used dried minced onion and dried parsley leaves, and as it sat for about an hour before we ate it, everything had time to soften up nicely I thought. It all seemed to go down equally well with french bread or chips.

I don't think the Fanny Bay smoked oysters are as oily as other tinned commercial ones I've seen, so you might want to drain the oil off those if it looks like you'll be swimming in it.

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