The Year in Book(stores)s

2007 was a great year for reading. It started off at Yaddo where for six weeks I dined every evening in the Yaddo Authors Library. It was sometimes difficult to follow the thread of so many different dinner conversations going on at once between so many brilliant writers, painters, film and video makers and composers. Not least of all because we were surrounded on four sides by floor to ceiling shelves of books of Yaddo authors past and present dating back a hundred years. These humbling and motivating surroundings enabled a frenzied period of writing and reading impossible to sustain in the outside world.

Yaddo Authors Library

Over the course of the spring I had occasion to travel to New York, Boston, Montpellier and Toronto for various different reason reasons. These cities are home to some of my favourite bookstores so I stocked up. In New York, in additions to the prerequisite trips to the Strand, a friend in publishing snuck me into his place of employ to peruse their impressive book room. I made out like a bandit. Bliss. In Boston/Cambridge the MIT Press bookstore and the Harvard Co-Op are favourites, in Montpellier Rivendale is an old friend and in Toronto, though Type is new and exciting, Pages can’t be beat.

I don’t know what they’re talking about in the media when they say: summer reading. It was a long hot slow loud disruptive unproductive and generally aggravating summer chez nous. There were lots of days when I couldn’t work at all. My idea of “not working” is reading. Does that count as summer reading? When there’s too much heat, humidity, construction and/or neighbour noise to read, I go for a walk. My idea of going for a walk is walking to the bookstore. One of the highlights of the summer was the move of S. W. Welch bookseller from the Main up into Mile End. If you’re trying to find me and I’m not home, look for me there: 225 Saint-Viateur West.

I also bought lots of new books in the fall on account of every single person I know in Montreal came out with a new book. For a few weeks in September/October there were launches and/or a readings 3, 4, even 5 nights a week. Happily, many of these events happened in bookstores. Nothing I love more than a bookstore jam-packed with people buying books and drinking booze. Some new favourite bookstores: Port de Tête Bookstore at 262 Mount-Royal Avenue East and the Drawn & Quarterly bookstore at 211 Bernard West.

running short on shelf space

The fall brought some exciting new writing projects my way. Each shifts the direction of my reading slightly. For “Tributaries & Text-Fed Streams” I am brushing up on my hypertext theory. For “in absentia” I’m delving into short French fiction. And I continue to be obsessed with very short English fiction. I’m happy to report that I’m working on a collection with Conundrum Press for fall 2008. So in addition to all this reading, I’d better get some writing done too!
. . . . .

les huit quartiers du sommeil de Montréal 1990-2006

a new web map writing project by J. R. Carpenter

les huit quartiers du sommeil de Montréal 1990-2006

I moved to Montréal on the night train. I’ve lived in eight neighbourhoods since and each has had a different quality of sleep. There are eight hours for sleeping in, four quarters in each hour, many more quarters in each city. Some quarters never sleep, or so they say. Others seem to be built for dreaming in. These are les huit quartiers du sommeil de Montréal 1990-2006: Car Crash Sleep, Bamboo Blind Sleep, Waterbed Sleep, Louvered Door Sleep, Purple Parakeet Sleep, Break and Enter Sleep, Gondola Sleep and Greek Sleep.

To navigate these neighbourhoods of sleep, take the night train to Montréal (warning: this method may take 16 years). Or do a Google Maps search for J. R. Carpenter les huit quartiers du sommeil de Montreal 1990-2006 and view the user generated content (warning: this method may return variable results). Or follow a direct link to the Google Map of les huit quartiers du sommeil here:

A Note on the Type: I wrote the text of les huit quartiers du sommeil during a bout of insomnia at Yaddo, January-February 2007. Thanks everyone at the Yaddo dinner table for listening to the thunks and whirrings of this text coming to life. Thanks CALQ for helping me get to Yaddo. I built the Google Maps and HTML versions of huit quartiers in Montréal May-July 2007. Thanks Sandra Dametto for the brilliant idea, and thanks Michael Boyce and Lisa Vinebaum for the careful readings. The aerial photographs are totally copyright you, Google Earth. Thanks in advance for having a sense of humour. The other images were found using Google Images and then altered using Photoshop filters until they looked like something I would do. Except for the street maps, those I drew by hand as you can probably tell. Merci Daniel Canty, your English is better than mine. Et merci Stéphane Vermette pour tous.

les huit quartiers du sommeil de Montréal 1990-2006
. . . . .

pieces came together

This is my last night at Yaddo. It’s too soon for elegies. It’s bloody cold here at the moment, but these lines from Jane Mayhall’s poem “Balland of Playing Tennis With Theodore Roethke at Yaddo” and this photo I took of a Yaddo backwoods radiator graveyard are somehow emblematic of my contradictory thoughts on leaving. Am I sad to go? No. Am I glad to have been here? Absolutely. Did I get a lot done? How should I know? Things have accumulated. I’ll look at them later.

… And pieces came together
in the unifying decree of
the holt melting
Yaddo sun.

. . . . .

Is this place haunted or am I just tired?

No way Yaddo is as haunted as Wyoming, but still, some strange stuff has been going on around here. For one thing, none of us can sleep. That’s the good news. For the longest time I thought I was the only one showing up at the dinner table out of sorts. For a month now I’ve been stumbling through surreal somnolent conversations feeling like the odd-man-out but now I see that none of us are quite ourselves.

One guy here reminds me of a much calmer version of a friend in Montreal. He says, if he appears calm it’s only because he subdued from not having slept in five nights. I was envious of the composer for having the composer’s cabin all to himself, with no neighbours to walk on his ceiling, but then he gave quite a convincing impersonation of the heating system that wakes him up every two hours and I did my best rendition of the acetylene torch sound the pipes in the wall by my bed make every time the guy in the room above mine opens his faucet. Now the composer and I are pals. Until one of us gets some sleep anyway. The guy in the room above mine says he was out walking in the woods late one night last week and an animal bigger than a fox and smaller than a German Shepard ran across his path. Then the PA system the Saratoga Race Track come on and played some off-to-the-races type music. In summer Race Track fanfare comes though the Yaddo woods loud and clear, but the stands and stables are all empty in winter and no matter how fantastic a sentence one finishes, one never hears the roar of the crowds.

I have heard screams on three late night occasions, a woman screaming in the woods back behind Pine Garde. The screams do not sound like they’re from pleasure. One hears about all the illicit sex that goes on at artists’ colonies. I imagine that during the summer season the bat-infested mansion is a carnival fun house of screams and moans. In this small cold season of close quarters and hot dry rooms, whatever sexual indiscretions may or many not be transpiring, they are most discreet. Some guests live nearby enough to arrange for conjugal visits. Others drink. Ping-pong is fun for a few minutes. Generally, most are too insomnia-exhausted to think up more imaginative uses for excess night hours. That’s where the ghosts come in. They see their opening and they go for it. My friend Daniel C. wrote in an email yesterday:

“I have a theory about sleeplessness in castles: that is the way that the ghosts insure their reality – keeping us awake to wonder at their presence.”

All four Trask children died young, but none appear to haunt Yaddo. Their mother, Katrina, took to wearing shapeless white dresses after, attempting, perhaps, to get a head start on her haunting of the place while she was still alive. Many guests have claimed to hear other guests claim to see Katrina’s ghost. Mostly it’s past guests themselves who haunt Yaddo. When my friend Camilo was here he said:

“I believe that I got Sylvia Plath’s room, I kept on thinking about her cold dead body when lying in that cold, cozy bed and hoping to have an extraordinary encounter with her mythological phantasm.”

Just when I thought I’d tried everything to shake my insomnia, yesterday afternoon I hit upon my new favourite miracle-cure: really loud punk rock music. I made a play-list of songs so aggressive they compelled me out into the freezing afternoon and propelled me around the lakes very fast twice. This tuckered me right out. Then I went to bed with drunken dead old Truman Capote. In his 1948 novel, Other Voices, Other Rooms, the lakes and mansions are so much more haunted that Yaddo’s… but maybe he caught his haunt as a guest here. This is the last passage I read before drifting off to sleep last night:

“Drowning Pond. That was the name colored folks gave it. Slowly old creek-slime, filtering through the limestone springs, had dyed the water an evil color; the lawns, the road, the paths all turned wild; the wide veranda caved in; the chimneys sank low in the swampy earth; storm-uprooted trees leaned against the porch; and water-snakes slithering across the strings made night-songs on the ballroom’s decaying piano. It was a terrible, strange-looking hotel. But Little Sunshine stayed on: it was his rightful home, he said, for if he went away, as he had once upon a time, other voices, other rooms, voices lost and clouded, strummed his dreams.” Truman Capote, Other Voices, Other Rooms

Despite this haunt-ridden reading material, I slept quite well. No water-snakes strummed my dreams and, I went and checked, the Yaddo mansion’s wide veranda has not caved in.

. . . . .

privacy being of the utmost importance

I wonder if Jonathan Ames is any relation to Elizabeth Ames, first Executive Director of Yaddo, who’s house I’m living in at the moment. Jonathan Ames’s novel, Wake Up, Sir! is set at an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. He calls his not even thinly disguised Yaddo The Rose Colony. Katrina Trask loved roses, as manifest in rose colours, carvings, windows and sconces all over the mansion, and, of course, Yaddo’s famous rose gardens, open to the public in season.

“The track and the colony were on Union Avenue, and separating the two was a stretch of dense forest, and in the middle of these woods was the rather secretive entrance to the Rose, privacy being of the utmost importance for artists, since you don’t want the tax-paying public to know about the creative process – how much napping and procrastinating are involved – because otherwise what little funding there is would be cut immediately.” Jonathan Ames, Wake Up, Sir!

Apparently the entrance to Yaddo was originally just south of the track on Nelson Ave. It’s now east of the track on Union. Opps! Pay no attention, tax-paying public. You didn’t hear that from me.

. . . . .

frozen in time

We were given a tour of the Yaddo mansion yesterday. It’s closed in the winter, mostly because it’s impossible to heat. We tramped through the great hall, the dining hall, the few fabulous rooms, and the plethora of servants quarters, where most of the writers are housed. The beds wrapped in ghostly plastic, our high-spirited pretend-haunted voices echoing down the empty corridors, our breath chasing, gauzy white as one of Katrina Trask’s gowns; all fifty-five rooms frozen in time, we were just plain frozen.

“One can imagine the whole scene; the chill in the countless rooms, the dry fountain in the atrium, the baptismal fonts and the throne chairs covered with sheets.” John Cheever, A Century At Yaddo

Whenever I quote Cheever on Yaddo I feel compelled to balance things out with a word from my friend Camilo, a past guest of Yaddo, who may well terminate our correspondence once he figures out that I’m pillaging his old emails for raw material. I can’t resist. Camilo, like me, is not an American and his descriptions share some of my semi-detached pot-colonial train-wreck fascination with the American Empire:

“The mansion itself, which we visited today, is an impressive scenario of ghostly splendour and opulence. It is a most intriguing and enticing space, tinged with history and everywhere you turn there is another famous name. The people who come here are the cultural “over-achievers” of this country and you hear places like Yale and Harvard being thrown around, but really a good and affable environment, where you meet wonderful people and put on the pounds like a criminal.”

Speaking of over-achievers, here is Flannery O’Connor circa 1948 in Katrina Trask’s “Tower Room” which many people think of as Truman Capote’s room. I was in it yesterday (see above photo) but no-one calls it J. R. Carpenter’s room.

To review the Yaddo pre-history: After fighting in the American Revolutionary War Battle of Saratoga Campaign in 1777, Jacobus Barhyte builds a tavern on this site and runs it successfully for the rest of his life. The Barhytes are buried on the grounds. 1856, Dr. Richard S. Childs moves the tavern and builds and ornate Italianate Late Victorian Queen Anne Villa on the site. By 1871 he’s in financial ruin and the villa sits abandoned for ten years. 1881, the Trasks rent the Childs place for a summer get-away. In her Chronicles of Yaddo our benefactress Katrina Trask writes:

“One morning in the late autumn of 1881, I sat in the desolate hall of the hideous old house which we had rented and occupied for five months… It mattered not at all that there were no comforts, not even running water; that the broken locks, open doors and every possible inconvenience tried our patience – if we allowed ourselves to think about them; all that was but as the dust of a high mountain road…”

Katrina’s longwinded, for a poet, but you get the idea: it was a hideous house. It burned down in 1891. An accident? Or a stroke of luck… Either way, the Trasks rebuilt immediately, completing the present mansion in 1893. The fireplace in the great hall sports a Tiffany mosaic of a phoenix rising from the ashes.

The Latin inscription reads:

flammis invicta per ignem Yaddo ad resurgo pacem

Our mansion, as I like to think of the present house, was modeled on Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. One problem with building an Elizabethan English country house in upstate New York is how much colder it is here. And hotter! In the summer, writers toil away to the whirr of electric fans like in the olden days, or, like how we do in Montreal, without any air conditioning.

I doubt I’m cut out for the social strain of a high summer season stay in the mansion, but I know I’ll apply one day. I’m just too curious a person. No matter how small a garret I am granted, no matter how loud it is, no matter how hot the days and bat infested and debauched the nights, and no matter little work I get done, I’d like join the fray just once so I can write about it after. I’m sure there’s a story lurking in every corner. Take this still life, for example. At least a thousand words.

. . . . .

casual elegance

Last night a dear friend from Montreal, who now lives near Saratoga, swept me away from Yaddo for the evening, Cinderella style, though we drove in a late model Volvo rather than a pumpkin-turned-carriage. Snow boots for glass slippers we slipped into The Gideon Putnam Resort and Spa, quite happy to have found the place, as most of what Barbara had by way of directions was: It’s in a sort of forest. Hmm… We now know it’s in the Saratoga State Park, near the Roosevelt and Lincoln Mineral Baths, golf, tennis and much more! There was an auction going on in the Georgian Dining Room, so we ate in the bar. From our corner table we surveyed the formal wear waltzing by. Most of the women wore evening dresses that differed slightly from one another in the amount of sequins and/or bare flesh shown. One woman walked by in a plain black paint suit. That’s me, Barbara said, That’s what I’d wear. I looked around. I haven’t got here yet, I said. Our Cinderella story shifted into an Eloise at the Plaza adventure as our small square table quickly became littered with cocktails and their accoutrements. Our waiter asked if we were from The City. Yes, we said. Montreal, we said, knowing full well he meant New York. I ordered a Manhattan, to further confuse him, and I told him I was at Yaddo. He said he’d wound up at Yaddo one night at 4AM and drunk out of his mind. That’s some crazy castle they’ve got, he said. They prefer to think of it as a mansion, I said. Since we now had Yaddo in common our waiter took a liking to us, took to slipping us glasses of Chardonnay pilfered from wandering wait staff trays intended for the formal wear clad headed for the auction in the Georgian Dining Room. Barbara and I giggled and gossiped our way through a lovely meal and made it home before her Volvo turned into a pumpkin. We’re thrilled to discover that, according to the postcards we swiped on the way out, The Gideon Putnam Resort and Spa is known the world over for its casual elegance and historic charm.

In “A Century At Yaddo,” the America novelist, short story and travel writer Eleanor Clark wrote of “the usual evening jaunts into Saratoga” during her stays at Yaddo between 1936 and 1951. There was a stable with saddle horses for hire on a side street on the other side of Union Avenue. “I used to ride from there when I could get the few dollars together, and was astonished the first time, on reaching a straight stretch of field of a mile or two, somewhere over by the Gideon Putnam, to have my steed turn on the instant into the equine equivalent of a bullet, headed for the horizon and impervious to bit, reins or human panic. I stayed on, having had a similar experience in Mexico with a horse trained for the movies… My present mount, I learned on slinking back to the stable, was neither a wicked beast nor an aspiring movie prop, but a recently retired race horse just doing his duty when the terrain called it to mind.”
. . . . .

postcards from yaddo

I read about this thing on the Internet where people take days off. The week ends, apparently, and the people just stop working. Sounds crazy, but I thought I’d give it a try. Since I got here I’ve been working on a series of very short stories. Very short stories are sometimes called postcard stories. So I took the day off today and wrote postcards. Nine of them. All bearing the same picture…

The Yaddo Mansion, of course. All the postcards for sale in the Yaddo office are in black and white. Black and white makes everything look older. Especially old stuff. Sepia makes old looking old stuff look even older.

This look isn’t for everyone. I hope Yaddo sold colour postcards back when Elizabeth Bishop was a guest here.

“Postcards come from another world, the world of the grandparents who send things, the world of sad brown perfume, and morning. (The gray postcards of the village for sale in the village store are so unilluminating that they scarcely count. After all, one steps outside and immediately sees the same thing: the village, where we live, full size, and in color.)”

Elizabeth Bishop, “In the Village,” Questions of Travel, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965, page 52.

. . . . .

Pine Garde

Yaddo has always been called Yaddo. Well, ever since our benefactress Katrina Trask asked her four-year-old daughter: “What shall we name the place, Cuckoo?” And she said: “Call it ‘Yaddo,’ for it makes poetry! Yaddo, shadow – shadow, Yaddo!” That was in the 1880s. The Corporation of Yaddo was founded in 1900, but it was called Pine Garde until the spring of 1922, that is, until both the founders, Spencer and Katrina Trask, had passed away. In the fall of 1923 Elizabeth Ames was named Executive Director. She set to work preparing the mansion and estate for its first artist guests. Yaddo as we know it today opened its doors in June 1926. Elizabeth Ames lived in the mansion during guest-season and in town the rest of the year until April 1928 when a house was built for her on the grounds. They named it Pine Garde after the original title of the Corporation of Yaddo. It’s my house now, for a little while anyway. That sun porch… that’s my studio. Pas mal, pas mal du tout.

. . . . .

happiest days

A few days before I left for Yaddo my friend poet Todd Swift reminded me that Sylvia Plath was once a guest at Yaddo. Ariel was among the first books I sought out in the Yaddo Authors Library.

These poems, written in the months before she stuck her head in the oven, send a chill down my spine. Take these lines from Lady Lazarus:

Dying / Is an art, like everything else. / I do it exceptionally well.

In distressing contrast is the handwritten inscription inside the front cover, which can’t be real as the dates are all wrong:

The talented but notoriously unstable poet Robert Lowell wrote the forward to this edition of Ariel. In early 1949 Lowell was a guest at Yaddo, and quite happy about it too, until he got wind of a rumour that long-time Yaddo resident Agnes Smedley was a Soviet spy. He believed this to be true in part because the New York Times said it was. In an elegantly savage harangue Lowell demanded the dismissal of Yaddo director Elizabeth Ames. One of Lowell’s biggest supporters in this campaign was fellow Yaddo resident Flannery O’Connor, though she had also been very happy at Yaddo until the communist controversy arose. February 14, 1949 she wrote:

We have been very upset at Yaddo lately and all the guests are leaving in a group on Tuesday – the revolution. I’ll probably have to be in New York for a month or so and I’ll be looking for a place to stay… All this is very disrupting to the book [Wise Blood] and has changed my plans entirely as I won’t be coming back to Yaddo unless certain measures go into effect here.

Smedley, though a committed communist, was not a spy. Ames stayed on as director. Lowell had a nervous breakdown. O’Connor was invited back to Yaddo, but never returned. She finished writing Wise Blood in a room in a NYC YWCA, which, she noted: “smelled like an unopened Bible.” Yaddo’s copy of Wise Blood, sadly, is not signed. I took it back to my studio anyway, to remind myself to stay away from political plots hatched by unstable poets lest I wind up demoted from Yaddo to the Y.
. . . . .