Tag Archives: banff

The last month of the year

the winter gardens at the People's Palace, Glasgow



The cold breath of the last month of the year is blowing now, and it’s almost, but not quite time to find out the edges of this last year and to gather it in, and see what it amounts to before looking up to (shh) face the year beyond.


The Millions have started posting their Year in Reading series, something I look forward to, even if I’ve not read nearly enough of those spoken about. I’m starting to think how many books I will have finished by the year’s out – I think about 32? Which is a good number I think, because that will be my age in the middle of June next year, if nothing intervenes.  I’m going to start thinking about what books spoke to me most – but I might keep quiet on that, lacking any great insights, and favouring for now they unuttered over the analysed.


I’m thinking too of how this time last year I was in Banff, in Canada, on the Creative Futures residence at The Banff Centre. I’m so incredibly grateful to have had exposure to those woods and mountains and sulphuric streams and icefields and lakes and stress and friendships and too much delicious food and walks and drives in the dark and in the hills. It took a long while for that experience to settle (if it has at all) but I think I can say truthfully that On the Edges of Vision came out of that time, though I wrote it several months later, having scrapped the stuff I was working on all those days in the the Leighton Colony, looking out at the snow and the pine martens and the pine bark. Lists and lists and riches. None of it settles, I suppose. None of it can be made neat. It sits in a dark place, crackling like a fire, fuelling my work right now.


Yes, it’s been a productive, book-filled year, and it is not over yet. I’ll start (hopefully) on edits for On the Edges of Vision right before Christmas, so I’ll be typing away. I’m also working on another project, interweaving flash and a longer narrative. Who knows where that will go, but where there is fire there is energy, so -.


Have you started to gather things in yet? Or is it too superstitiously soon? Or are you in a frantic rush for the holidays? Or are you reading (please say yes, and what)?


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Dark comes down


I’ve been back now a while from the shimmering cold of the Rockies. And now, here, we are stepping gingerly towards Christmas. But the chance of a snowy feast day seems slender. Outside right now the bare rowan and beech trees in the communal back green are a sharp crossing place of brown and black branch, with no snow, no dusting or freezing, sealing in or making more beautiful. There is no mysteriousness. Only the wind and the rain subsiding a little after days of howling and lashing. Only the wet slates and the tenements tholing the thinness of the day.

I went searching for a wintry poem, but all of them seemed built for a winter with snow. With something calming and sweet in the goosedown of white. So, instead, I found this slightly solemn verse:

I find one stark scene
cut by evening cries, by warring air.
The muffled hiss of blades escapes into breath,
hangs with it a moment, fades off.
Fades off, goes, the scene, the voices fade,
the line of trees, the woods that fall, decay
and break, the dark comes down, the shouts
run off into it and disappear.
At last the lamps go too, when fog
drives monstrous down the dual carriageway
out to the west, and even in my room
and on this paper I do not know
about that grey dead pane
of ice that sees nothing and that nothing sees.

– from ‘Winter’ by Edwin Morgan

A Scottish poet finds what it is about Scottish winters in the south of the country at least that makes them their own particularity. Fog, cold, rawness, a sense of light leaking away, of voices muffled by damp and the dark, oh the dark, the spirit of the winter. Not the brilliance of Rocky mountain snow, for all its harshness, bringing something consoling with it. None of that.

That’s not to be gloomy. It’s just that here, it’s hard to fling yourself out of doors. Even when there is snow, it’s usually here only briefly. A wonder of small wet petals as it falls. So we take our smaller spaces, and we lean into the wind and rain, holding out coats tight. Inside we look out on nothing comforting, and must find cheer in a little clementine, held up against the grey. In a warm drink and familiar songs on the speakers.

Last night I stayed up writing poems about fortune for my first long collection. All my poems are winter-dark poems, small, foggy, raw. Some lines I dreamed of falling asleep, and they’ve gone too like breath after speaking, white then nothing at all. Today I’ll work on The Library of Endings, starting it over from scratch. It too is a winter book, slipped into a place where summer is a squib and hail common in June (it hailed here too in May, so it’s not that fantastical).

I’ll write of a consoling, snowy winter and harsh narrow lives within it, I’ll live the real Scottish winter, going out into the rain.

Christmas doesn’t always look like the Christmas cards. but even so, we’ll have its warmth. And maybe a robin outside, flitting back in the labyrinth of twigs, a tiny smudge, that size of luminescence like a throbbing heart.

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Polaroids + impossible places

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I’ve had a chance to scan some of my Impossible Project pictures – a little bit wonkily and imperfect, which I think I like better than having them as they are in real life.

The above image is Peyto Lake, just off the Icefields Parkway in Alberta. It is in real life light-leaky and streaked. I have a more true-to-colour version but why not this reality rather than the smoother one?

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The Athabasca glacier, and the sun dominating everything, washing away all the blues and whites. I’ve been thinking of how my conception of my time in Banff – now at an end – will be held together by these photographs. By the work that I did while there – though most of that was early drafting of the third ms, and so will be erased in necessary corrections and deletions. All I’ll have is my limited perception, filtered through digital pixels and the hard, blocky, colourwarped images on Polaroid.

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(Bow River, frozen one morning near the Hot Springs marsh)

Of course, I’m lucky enough to have experienced Banff with others, so we can meet up and compare memories. Still, that’s bittersweet, isn’t it. We say we put things behind us. The past is in our blind spot, though it is all we have time to consider.

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(the Arthur Wheeler hut, image melted on the hut’s woodstove)

We can alter, we generally do alter what happened. A consolidated emotion comes to dominate what was a series of ups and downs – ambiguity is more frightening when it curls off the past like a mist. We want the solid, and not to have that – takes a certain bravery.

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Here are the woods on the way to my studio, though they were never that colour, never sliced with a thin white line (which is a digital glitch, not present in the physical photo). The woods were never like this, and they are like this, purples and light on snow, with animals in the treetops, with nothing captured here.

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(fireplace in the Wheeler hut where the other image was burned. A book, an empty or full cup of something)

Whatever I’ll remember, or whatever others will share – in a few weeks, in a few years when we meet again – there are these spaces. The Banff Centre’s official slogan is ‘inspiring creativity’, but for me I think it’s ‘leaving room’. I could get waffly here – oh, go on then. Think of the different sorts of room I could mean. Space – being a void, a scary thing. Room to think. Room as containment. Ambiguous room with no clear measure. Imperfect, capable of warp and glitch. And I am glad of it.


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Open Studios at the Banff Centre



On Wednesday the Creative Futures crowd opened their studios to the public, and on Friday the wonderful themed residency, Dizziness of Correspondences, opened theirs. I’ve decided to fuse posts and showcase a little of what was shared.   The first up was my studio – a collection of works posted on the walls and on top of the piano (excerpts from Flesh of the Peach and some concrete poetry on a landscape theme), and some origami poems:


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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)


These required audience interaction, of course. Some of them opened to reveal lines of poetry, another invented past lives, and one cursed the user with various Greco-Roman spells. I had a realisation a few days ago that I want to make a chapbook on fortune and magic using some of these origami patterns alongside flash fictions (such as Boy Cyclops, also on this theme).


I also read two extracts from Flesh of the Peach. though in this picture you can only see some of who came to listen – the whole place, as with every studio, was packed:



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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)


I had been horribly nervous beforehand. An Australian writer who is staying at the Banff Centre, Mary-Rose MacColl, passed on some excellent advice – ‘fall into the reading’. I took it to mean diving into a very temporary meditative state, just focusing on the text itself and not getting tangled up in the presence of the crowd. Afterwards, several people came up to me with kind words and requests to read the novel, and I had a drink and got to enjoy everyone else’s studios.



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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)


Here’s Playwright Stef Smith at her studio, having given a short performance with two others, as well as reading a poem dedicated to the Banff Centre experience. It went down very well with the audience. In fact, her poem is going to be featured on the Centre’s radio station come January. Links to that later.


Next up was David Cooper‘s exhibition.


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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)



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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)



I really love David’s pictures of mountain landscapes – hopefully he is going to have a show in Glasgow some time in the next few months.


Lastly, Karen Vaughan‘s studio, showing her photographs and screen prints. Unfortunately, there are no pictures (unless anyone has any they’d like to forward on?). But the work was excellent (as you’ll see if you click through her name to her website), and the venue perfect for the after-party. This only ended after all the alcohol was going (not that long, with so many people), and we all went out to the on-campus bar, Maclab, to round off the celebration.


Now for the Dizziness of Correspondences! I can’t possibly talk about everyone – there are 15 people on the residency – so I’m just going to show a few people here. You may have noticed the photo credits under each picture here are all to an Amy Dryer, and she is our first Dizzy person:




(photo credit: Amy Dryer)



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(photo credit: Amy Dryer)


Amy is a visual artist as well as a photographer. Her paintings were begun outdoors – in some pretty cold weather – and then brought in to be finished and abstracted.


Elsewhere, unreadable writing marks the abstraction of thought. Her overall project as part of the residency was to explore the breaks in communication which happen with a mind suffering from dementia. Perhaps my favourite part was her sound installation, which consisted of her voice reading out a script which across three recordings grew more and more echoey and distorted.


Here’s work from Ryan Mathieson‘s studio:






Bright, bold, distorted, eye-wrecking, dizzying – I can’t really do it justice in these photos. But here, anyway –


IMG_2702 (shown in photo: David Cooper)



Ryan and I did an art swap – I gave him one of my Impossible Project Polaroids, and he gave me two light-streaked photographs of the dark woods, which I intend to have framed as soon as I can.


Veronica Slater is next: marvellous colour and shapes (you can see I’m not an art critic, but I was entranced by her work, so maybe that’s enough):


IMG_2693 (shown in photo: Ryan Mathieson)



As we meandered around looking at all the art it was fun to bump into various artists and talk about their impressions and their own pieces.






Beautiful crimpied ceramics with impressions from maps made on the outer sides. Veronica is based in the UK, and I hope I’ll be able to see more of her work quite soon.

UPDATE: I have another artist I’d like to feature here, who works in fabric and performance, Maria Flawia Litwin:



Maria was working outdoors a lot while on this residency, going out into the National Park to film her art, interacting with the landscape on a level both tender and destructive (to her art, I should say, not the landscape)


This is a video of the destruction of one of Maria’s earlier pieces – an unravelling of wool which, on snow, looks like blood and tissue.


In this, Maria is covered in a woolen cocoon, and in this guise wanders over and through the landscape, sight marred, having to touch everything to find her way. I hope I’m doing her work justice – again, I insist that the only way to really experience this is in person.

It was a fantastic and overwhelming afternoon – art should be overwhelming I think. Challenging and shaking and wrecking you. I hope I’ve managed to share a tiny bit from the two residencies and days, and inspire you to seek these artists out. Click on their names for a start, leave comments and questions here.


Thank you very much to the Banff Centre for providing the setting and means for the whole thing, and to the landscape and the people most of all – audience and artist, artist-audience, who made this something truly special.


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Hoodoos + cursed origami





I’ve been laying low, preparing for the Creative Futures open studios at Banff. But today I went with some others on a longish walk on the Hoodoos trail. The Hoodoos are tall pillars of rock, left outstanding after glacial erosion. I didn’t get a great picture of them, but imagine over-tall thin termite mounds and that’s something close. It was down to about -26c today. As you can see above, the Bow river was steaming, pretending to be as warm as a bath.





All this cold weather is terribly aging. By the time I got back, all the hair on my face had frozen white, including my eyelashes. But there was a diamond glint in the air from condensation freezing, and everything was ridiculously beautiful in the light mist and cold, golden light. A good thing that I had this walk to distract me, because today’s the day. Performance time.


The cursed origami is really part of a distraction item I made – either for myself or for everyone who is going to visit my studio. I made about 6 different kinds of fortune teller (perhaps you remember making them at school?) where instead of picking a colour, counting out the letters, and opening up a fortune, people will receive, alternatively, lines from Sappho (I’ve been reading Anne Carson’s translation), bits of vague prophesy, and curses extracted from Greco-Roman sources (and tamed a bit, because I don’t want to terrify anyone).


Other than weird paper goods, I’ll be showing the Polaroids I took while here, some concrete poems, bits of flash, and I’ll be reading from Flesh of the Peach. The other Scots will have their doors flung open wide too, so after I get my part over and done with, I’m going to enjoy listening and looking at their work.


Time to go and get ready/take some long deep breaths.


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The Cabin in the Woods




A group of four of us from the Banff Centre went out to the cabin in question, above. We had to snowshoe two kilometers in along a trail, and the building, which belongs to the Alpine Club of Canada, has no electricity or running water. Lit by gas lamps on the wall, water boiled from fetched snow, an outhouse by the wood shed and two great fire stoves to heat the place.  It was perfect.






There’s something about the word ‘rustic’ that I don’t like: the way it smooths over the sense of harshness – a sense of dishonesty. Or it’s more that I can’t imagine someone who lives in a place like this year round calling it ‘rustic’ without a lacing of irony.






So say  instead the cabin was perfectly rough, self-contained – what was needed was there, and what was not needed, or could be fetched, was either there or was no – absent, external.






Beams held up the ceiling and the loft above. The stair had a rope banister. There were benches by the fire, places to hang your soaked socks to dry. Within this sufficiency there were also flourishes, like the model parrot in a pirate’s hat which sat above the fire. And the board games for the drawn-in nights.



There’s no denying it wouldn’t be an easy place to live for long, but I could have stayed a week.  I felt very peaceful – after a late night, disturbed by an intrusive animal (after a foam cooler box, as teeth marks showed in the morning), I woke up earlier than everyone else, and built up the fire and watched it until it was light enough to read, then read until everyone else got up, many hours later.






It’s a kind of intense peacefulness that envelopes you as you sit watching a fire you are keeping lit, with no one else around. And there is the silence too of people sitting beside you on the bench by that fire, with nothing much to say and a book in their hands too. Heightened silence, but easy at the same time. I would like that every day, but that’s not to be, until I have the chance to build my own house, if that ever happens.



Until then, I’ll gather these things for The Library of Endings. I’ll make the trip useful, or I’ll try. Writing as a way to lay out the walls, to re-create and contain what is fleet like this. I look at the pictures for now, taking a breath. How many months more will this place last so crisply, sense-rich, in my mind?





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I’ve been off away the past few days – first on Sunday to Lake Louise. I’d like to have one of those old Canadian Pacific  Railway paintings of the lake – it being a kind of arena of magnitude and textures and all kinds of whites and blues. I suspect that each image would include the Chateau Lake Louise, a thing not exactly to my taste. To me it looks a little like a cross between a prison and a yellowed wedding cake left out by some giant Miss Haversham. But beyond that, the landscape is something else.




It seems to me in the face of things like this – a wall so high that it stuns you, makes you pause – that art will never be sufficient. I suppose that’s why I try to focus my attentions on the smaller, fragmented, unlikeable, un-magestic. Or when I try to write of place, I do it with an acknowledgment that my perspective is limited to the limitlessness. Two little blue-green eyes squinting through white to rock that is older than humanity. Silence. Or taking what you can and stretching them until they break, break down. And in the space you hope others will find what you could not or could not bring yourself to write.

Up beyond the wall and the lake is the plain of the six glaciers.




I like the sky best here – though it made me dizzy. Always while I’m here in Banff I’m struggling with the task of making – how to make when I am struggling even to be. To exist without a sense of vulnerability, incorrect response. English is a language where ‘to be’ is writ into everything. There is a mountain. There is a glacier. Without another verb, the thing cannot. Be. ‘There, mountain’ is not possible without being a sentence fragment. But I’m always on the verge of fragments with this – white, ancient, and myself – small, shaky, falling over in the deep snow. So how can I settle myself long enough to make. Writing is. Writing escapes. I take a picture. It is insufficient. It just about is, and that’s all.






Perhaps my perspective is more limited than others. Perhaps my approach is through the deep snow, where others see a path (or make it themselves). Sometimes I laugh and dust myself off. Sometimes this is not a metaphor and at other times there is no is, just pages of failing, and shaking my head at my foolish self.



But for now I think, for me, it is a necessary imprecise process. that there is no make, only try – whether I knock myself for six doing it or not, that is all. I’ll fail and fail to make. I’ll make myself a missionary of my own failure and bittyness, weird takes.



Tomorrow I’ll be back again, perhaps in a lighter mood, with photos of the second trip I took. Off to be uncertainly still, for now.


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