I’ve known Kim and Roo since we were students together in the Creative Writing Department at the University of British Columbia in the 1970’s. It was clear then that they were the real deal, and already writing pretty sophisticated poetry – though they snort at the idea now. We see each other rarely, but I’ve always felt a kinship because of those early days of tiptoeing – then leaping – into the writing world.
Roo Borson, poet and essayist, has published over a dozen books and has won the Griffin Poetry Prize, the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, and the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry. She has also co-written ‘Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei,’ a Pain Not Bread poetry project, in collaboration with Kim Maltman and Andy Patton. A forthcoming volume of prose- poetry, ‘Box Kite’, is a collaboration with Kim Maltman under the pen name Baziju. A native of Berkeley, California, the daughter of two doctors, Borson did her undergraduate degree at UC Santa Barbara and Goddard College and later received an MFA from the University of British Columbia.
Kim Maltman, long time partner/spouse of Roo, was born in Medicine Hat and achieved undergraduate degrees in Math and Chemistry with a PhD in Physics from the University of Toronto. He is a professor at York University in the Mathematics department and a particle physicist, as well as being a poet. He is author or co-author of more than 6 volumes of poetry.
Picture the poet, a solitary figure, brushing hair from her eyes as she gazes out the window at the street below. Or maybe she stares at rolling hills and grazing sheep. But she is always alone, for isn’t it in this deep communion with Self that poetry lives?
‘We have no interest in the primacy of the individual voice,’ says poet/physicist Kim Maltman. We are sitting at the dining table in a Toronto house that he shares with poet and life partner, Roo Borson. ‘I remember reading a review of Roo’s that singled out a line as being ‘classic Roo Borson’ – but I’d written it.’
Their collaboration goes back to the mid 1970’s when they – and I – were in the University of British Columbia’s Creative Writing Department. It was at these hands-on workshops that they got in the habit of offering suggestions and adding lines, re-structuring each other’s work. The poetry workshop was led for a brief time by Pat Lowther. After a couple of sessions Lowther disappeared – forever. Her body was discovered in a creek near Squamish. Police arrested her husband, the lesser-known poet, Roy Lowther, and he was convicted and sentenced for her murder.
The same Roy Lowther who offered me my first-ever publication in his journal, Pegasus.
Roo would go on to win the Pat Lowther Memorial Award for poetry in 2005.
‘We have different product lines,’ Kim explains with a hint of a smile. ‘The Borson line; the Maltman line; and various official collaboration lines.’ Notable amongst these is the Pain Not Bread project – a ten year enterprise where the pair worked closely with painter/writer Andy Patton, a collaboration that resulted in a book of poetry published by Brick Books in 2000: Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei.
I ask about the process of this collaboration. Did they write on their own, then show work to each other for feedback and additions?
For the most part, no. Or not exactly.
Kim says: ‘The rule was not to let the piece get an established voice, but to put it out there (for the other two to look at) quickly so that it would really be a joint creation, starting from fragments.’
Roo isn’t so sure. ‘I’d disagree,’ she says, ‘though Kim believes this to be true. As I do in my own work, I take the writing as far as I can, then hand it to the others.’
‘As far as you can,’ Kim reminds her, ‘means you get stuck, or that you are unsure if the idea is good.’
Roo agrees: ‘Then we sit and talk about it.’
The Pain Not Bread collaborators worked off a variety of source materials, mostly traditional Chinese poetry in translation. Kim and Roo went so far as to study written and oral Chinese, though Roo claims to have forgotten it all.
How did they use this material?
‘You fuzz up your eyes looking at the source text,’ Roo says. ‘It replaces your habitual vocabulary and replaces it with another vocabulary.
Kim adds: ‘It was a structure to move us from our usual tendencies and bad habits.’
Both poets agree that the process of writing Introduction to the Introduction to Wang Wei was ‘addictive’. Roo goes on to say: ‘We began to craftily mimic each other. Andy has poignancy; Kim takes abstractions almost as if they have a sensual tangibility – and I do images.’
If one person didn’t like something, then it wouldn’t make it under the Pain Not Bread umbrella.
Andy Patton emails: ‘The work was very difficult but working with them was easy. In some sense, it was as though “Roo” and “Kim” disappeared, until we were through working for that day, and there they were again.’ Patton goes on to quote from one of the poems in the book:
from Breath (An Introduction to Du Fu)
…The range of meanings
is not important, so long as we can get together
every week or so,
make these protests against our own characters,
and, like teasing feathers from an ancient pillow,
find out what it is that might be in our minds.
Back to the question of the solitary artist. Kim shrugs off the concept: ‘It’s about making the work better; not being ‘close to my heart.’
How interesting then, to read Pain Not Bread and sense how intimate the writing feels, how close to the ear and eye. And yes, heart, the collaborative heart.
Working with others ‘allows you to have access to more skills than you alone possess as a writer,’ Roo emails. ‘Working with Kim and Andy, and/or just Kim, means that my written world is larger than it would otherwise be. More tonal avenues. More ways to move.’
I ask Kim: ‘ How does it feel to have one foot in the science camp and the other in poetry?’
Neither odd nor awkward, he claims. ‘I’m out on the fringe of science,’ and his research field of theoretical particle physics is ‘hyper – metaphorical in approach.’ Metaphor is how one can begin to understand difficult concepts. Like string theory, I’m thinking. Pulling up Kim’s York University website I learn that he is interested in: ‘…the consequences of the Standard Model of particle physics for few-body nuclear systems and low-energy particle physics and dynamics.’ I recall something he said earlier, about how poetry enters the mind: ‘You have to sit with it and let its meaning happen.’
Glance out the window at laundry flapping on the clothesline in their backyard in the Oakwood/Vaughan Road area. Such a relief to visit an unrenovated house, no need to go on about the new kitchen cabinets and gas fireplace and shiny bamboo floors. If I squint, it’s not hard to fall back into time, late 1970’s. By then Roo and Kim and I were living in Toronto, at different ends of the city, and we’d meet at readings of the Harbourfront Reading Series organized by Greg Gatenby. This was before the famous International Authors Festival got up and running. Our faithful group consisted of Greg; the featured author(s); novelist M.T. Kelly; poet David Donnell; me – and Kim and Roo. After the reading, the gang would head to the Hayloft bar to toss back beers and chips, and to talk about literature and our nascent projects. Baby writers in those days, we all went on to win some pretty tasty awards.
My hosts’ latest project is a book of prose poems that will appear with House of Anansi Press in 2016. Box Kite is composed by Kim and Roo under the pen name Baziju. Unlike the Pain Not Bread project, this work is not intertextual nor does it riff off source material. They took turns working on the pieces, Kim picking them up at night after Roo was asleep, and the next morning they’d ponder the results together, followed by ‘further Roo-trials during the day and further Kim-trials the subsequent evening.’ One might launch a piece that was simple but, as Kim explains, ‘We wanted the work to open up and become rich and unwieldy so we banged our heads against things, waiting for a weak spot to open.’
Often they’d read aloud, ‘punching new openings in existing pieces … the structure finally yielding and producing a functional opening only because of the pressure of the collective onslaught.’ This is Kim talking, or rather writing, a day later. The duo shares an email address, and one learns to recognize phrases and quirks of language.
‘Kim and I have very different minds,’ Roo points out. ‘I’m scattered and he’s totally focused. I’m never super-focused and I can work on a poem for two minutes, go off and do a bunch of domestic duties and emails, then return to work. Kim needs long stretches of time to go in deeply.’
Flashback: A few years ago I’m tramping up the hills behind the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley, California- Roo’s home town. Camera in hand, I have a task to perform. Roo’s family house, built by her grandfather, burned down in the Oakland Hills firestorm of 1991, and she’s held off checking what has become of the place, perhaps because it’s too painful to contemplate. She has written about visiting the site soon after the disaster, how the chimney, made of brick reclaimed from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, stuck up intact, surrounded by rubble. I continue to trudge upwards in midday heat, past Arts and Crafts style houses, haciendas, and countless eucalyptus trees – trees which have a tendency to explode in high heat. Roo left Berkeley in her late teens, but was here for free concerts by the Grateful Dead in Golden Gate Park and Grace Slick singing White Rabbit.
Finally, there it is, a hideous yellow monster house built to the edges of the property line. Snap photos. Press ‘send’.
Today, Kim tells me that a ‘serious criminal’ now lives in the house.
I ask to see the pair’s writing space and we head upstairs to a small room equipped with desk, an old IBM Thinkpad, and an easy chair next to a side table littered with books.
‘I’m on my own a lot,’ Roo says. ‘More than I’d like.’ This is spoken in a matter of fact voice, not plaintively. I think of how many writers live, yearning to be alone yet feeling lonely when they are. She plunks down on the easy chair, demonstrating where she sits to read, to think, to work.
‘Any trouble getting motivated?’ I wonder.
‘Not really. I’m frustrated all the time, so I’m motivated to make the poems go better.’
I ask which poets they read these days and who they read when starting out. Michael Yates, professor at the University of British Columbia, introduced them to poetry in translation, notably Platero and I by Juan Ramon Jimenez, a work which opened up the possibilities of prose poetry, and Tomas Transtromer, Swedish writer and recent Nobel Prize winner. Roo emails later how Transtromer’s poetry ‘is built around stunning, unsurpassable symbolic imagery.’ This discussion of influences and touchstones continues via email. Kim and Roo both speak of the New Zealand poet, James K. Baxter, whose work Roo reads for – ‘his intimacy and spirit, expressed in astonishingly perfect formal music.’ Kim notes Alice Oswald’s Memorial, ‘an exceptional intertextual cross-cut through the Iliad, with an amazing use of repetition and large scale structure.’
Roo reads widely. ‘Unlike some poets, who only read certain schools of poetry,’ Kim notes.
Roo concurs. ‘People have narrow ears.’
Even when working on the ‘Borson product line’ Roo counts on her partner’s immersive feedback. She’ll slip the work -in-progress into a folder at the edge of the dining table and wait for Kim’s response. This can take weeks, or even months, due to his heavy teaching and research schedule. He’ll ‘ponder’ the draft and at some point, as he describes the process – ‘I’ll feel I have a line of entry into it.’
‘Doesn’t it drive you nuts that it takes him so long to get back to you?’ I ask, thinking of the way I hover over Tim as he reads my latest attempt.
Roo shrugs. ‘I’ve learned I have to leave it for as long as it takes. By the time the poems get to the pile I’ve worked on them for a very long time.’
Kim adds: ‘I’ll write new parts and rearrange, and she does the same for me.’
Roo agrees. ‘And I’ll put two of his poems together and make it one. We’re doing this all the time.’
Kim likes to speak of the ‘voice’ of the poem and he doesn’t mean the writer’s voice, or not exactly. Nor any character’s voice within. It’s something that belongs to the DNA of the poem, its language and syntax and sensibility. ‘I have to have a sense of this (in order to work on Roo’s piece) and it can be hard to find.
‘This whole voice thing is harder for me to know about,’ says Roo. ‘I feel my way through images, whereas Kim feels his way through voice.’
Back downstairs, she disappears for a moment into the kitchen and returns with a plate containing a loaf of banana bread. We dive in.
As we sat around the rectory-style table in crumbling Brock Hall at the University of British Columbia all those decades ago, I recall the way Roo would lean forward on her chair during the workshop sessions, elbows on thighs, clutching the weekly worksheet. She’d be frowning as she sought to pin down what a particular poem was getting at. She’d press on, puzzling it out, then say something off-kilter so that we’d all laugh. Kim, beside her, hair down to his shoulders and bearded, sat upright on his chair, arms folded in front of his chest and when he talked, it was often out of the corner of his mouth, his brain working too quickly for speech.
We were learning how to be what we wanted to become.
—Ann Ireland, Text & Photos
James Cook, 1728-1779
An overwhelming rain beats down and, mainmast snapped,
Cook turns again toward the islands.
Already there has been much grumbling in the villages,
against the gods, their appetite for pigs and women and plantains,
much talk as well about the iron nails from their ships,
and how such things of value are to be
desired and gained.
It is the beginning of the end:
the little Eden of aloha and blood sacrifice,
of stone tools and of plenty will not long survive.
Seen from here it passes in an instant,
even the time of the navigators is no more than the
blink of an eye, like the life of the mayfly we make of
all of history one immense and telescoped distortion —
island upon island —
Midway, now, halfway across the ocean, waterless, eroded,
yet it seems immutable.
In portraits of the time, Cook sits like that.
It is the great colonial age.
England, the European powers, vie for dominance.
They see time as flowing past and through them,
and think to fasten themselves to the fabric of it —
like enormous, beautiful gemstones,
no longer in fashion.
An age of “Destiny,” of corpulent aristocrats, for whom the
mountains and peninsulas and islands will be
named, and re-discovered, earnestly debating,
in ornately panelled rooms,
honor and glory,
notions we can hardly bear to speak of any longer.
Only death, the figure of it, seems quite real.
Cook, returning to the beaches of Kauai — sprawled out
beneath the fury of descending wooden clubs —
astonished, suddenly outside of time —
the man who, as the god, struck,
cries out, revealing himself,
and the murmur runs though the crowd,
Night after night on the kibbutz
they berated me for staying out late, watching the moon.
Drink your milk, they said —
in the morning you’ll have to work. All day
you’ll be picking melons and apricots,
you’ll be hungry. Only houseguests and poets
can afford to be as lazy as you!
Night after night they berated me.
And night after night, my cup of milk shining,
I came out anyway.
Drink your milk, I said.
In the morning you’ll have to work.
All day you’ll be picking melons and apricots,
you’ll be hungry. Only houseguests and poets
can afford to be as lazy as you.
—Roo Borson, from Water Memory (McClelland and Stewart)
Jilong was every shade of grey in the rain. Red-grey, yellow-grey, green-grey, grey. It had been raining all the way from Hualian, where there were mudslides. In Hualian we’d spent the night in a hotel decorated with red velvet and imitation stained glass, overlooking an intersection which shrieked the whole night through with gunning motorbikes and small trucks blaring out presidential campaign ads, live, through loudspeakers, handheld or mounted on their roofs. And now the rain-soaked sea, the blocky cement structures of the sugar towns, a cement-coloured crescent of wet beach, this or that hillside grotto of cycads, ferns the size of small houses — each time the train was swallowed up in a tunnel the world went black, swaying and rocking, only to be resurrected again the next moment. Now, at last, all this was behind us and, now heavy, now light, now drenching, now middling, the rain continued….
A map we’d picked up at the station had shown several hotels, and we’d made our way now to the nearest of these. A sailor took a swig from a mickey-sized paper bag as I squeezed past in the narrow corridor which served as a lobby, and into the tiny elevator. Passing by an open door along the way, I caught sight of one of the other guests, a young woman talking on a cellphone. Our room-to-be had an actual porthole for a window and beautiful, mildewed wainscoting, which gave off an odd air of dampness and chill. And so for the second time I passed by the young woman, who sat perched in her miniskirt on a matching circular bed, still talking softly on her cellphone, and rode back down to the lobby to return the room key and decline the room, and then we slogged our way again through the rain, dragging our luggage up and down over the labyrinthine series of pedestrian overpasses.
After tea, a hot shower, and some desultory television in a second (this time, mercifully acceptable) hotel called The Kodak, whose sewing kit I still carry with me, we made our way downstairs to the hotel restaurant. What we wanted was a bowl of rice, a green vegetable, possibly some bean curd, above all to avoid having to venture out again into that pouring rain. The menu, when it finally arrived, however, spoke more of the hotel’s elevated image of itself than of the contents of its dishes, being one of those composed almost entirely of gracious yet curious literary allusions, most of them unknown to us, and only a handful bearing names into which words we recognized for food had been allowed to slip. Among these was a dish called Xishi Doufu.
This (leaving aside the doufu for the moment), although also an allusion, was at least one that we recognized. Xishi: legendary beauty of the Warring States period. Favourite concubine to the last, doomed King of the state of Wu, so bewitching that, languishing in her company, he allowed his whole kingdom to be overrun and lost. Rice, a vegetable, and Xishi Doufu it would have to be then, although why Xishi, and what this doufu that now bore her name might turn out to consist of, we would have to wait and see.
Often when I think of doufu, I remember the novel A Small Town Called Hibiscus by the Chinese writer Gu Hua. The novel is set in a poor village in Hunan during the sixties and seventies, a period of great upheaval throughout the country. It makes frequent and lavish references to an incredibly tender bean curd, a bean curd which in fact turns out to be not exactly bean curd, but a ‘bean curd’ contrived out of the sweepings of rice powder gathered from the storeroom floor. The bean curd vendor, Yuyin, has been declared a “rich peasant,” dispossessed, and forced to make her living selling bean curd on the streets. Throughout the novel, numerous servings of this ‘doufu’ are dolloped out, steaming hot, into bowls, and doused with chili oil and green onion. Each appearance in the novel made me famished — so much so that, ever since, every unknown bean curd dish appearing on a Chinese menu makes me once more long for it.
At the end of Gu Hua’s novel it is 1979, and Yuyin has, at last, been rehabilitated. Her tormentor, Wang Qiushe, has gone mad and wanders the streets, calling out endlessly for yet another revolutionary political movement, long after the era of such movements, and the devastation they (and he) have brought to other peoples’ lives, has passed. I thought again of Yuyin’s doufu as we waited (patiently, and for some time — like the King of the doomed state of Wu, we joked) for our order to arrive.
And now before us stood a dish of Xishi Doufu. The cubes so white they seemed almost translucent, so delicate they registered even the slight shocks of the waiters passing, unobtrusively as always, near our table. The tremulous cubes slid away at the touch of the serving spoon and, upon being lifted with chopsticks, would pause a moment and then break in half.
Often since then I have thought of that dish, though in my mind it is now hopelessly entangled with the doufu of Gu Hua’s story. Thus, on occasion, when I come upon doufu listed in a restaurant menu, I find myself not only remembering the town of Hibiscus and the doufu of those revolutionary times, but wondering whether I might not, like the legendary last King of the once great, now long-vanished state of Wu, be living through the last days of some great tragedy I am as yet completely unaware of. Perhaps this is why the story of ordering Xishi Doufu in the restaurant of The Kodak Hotel, in the port city of Jilong, on the northeast corner of the island of Taiwan, has stayed with me, and why I am now writing it down — to (as Gu Hua says in his postscript, reflecting on the times he lived through) “comfort, encourage, mock and explain myself.”
—Baziju, from the manuscript Box Kite
Ann Ireland’s most recent novel, The Blue Guitar, was published by Dundurn Press in early 2013. Her first novel, A Certain Mr. Takahashi, won the $50,000 Seal-Bantam First Novel Award and was made into a feature motion picture called The Pianist in 1991. Her second novel, The Instructor, was nominated for the Trillium Award and the Barnes and Noble’s Discover These New Writers Award, and Exile was shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award and the Rogers/Writers Trust Award. She is a past president of PEN Canada and coordinates Ryerson University’s Chang School of Continuing Education, Writing Workshops department. She lives most of the time in Toronto and part of the time in Mexico.