LITERARY WRITING - BY JANE LEDWELL /
5. HOMEGROWN PUBLISHING /
b. Women publishing/publishing women
Painter and writer Elaine Harrison
started her own publishing company, Elaine Harrison and Associates, and through her publishing and distribution brought the public stories by Antoinette Gallant, Olive O'Brien, and Emily LaViolette
. Harrison's company never flinched from publishing texts whose focus was extremely local. Harrison's own finest poems reveals her intense identification with the local. In one, the poet's speaker evocatively tells readers, "I am an Island that dreams." Her poems encourage women to express themselves artistically, to express themselves fearlessly.
Woman in Backyard
The house behind her
is old and gray
not a lick of paint on it
no curtains at the windows
the rickety foundation is
just boulders thrown
together anyhow with pieces
of dented tin stuck in the
openings where cellar windows
But she sits there among
the green weeds in the backyard
with red hens feeding all around her
and the morning sun shining
down on her neatly parted
white hair, she has a strong
beautiful face and long
And there spread out before her
is her cloth of glory a patchwork
quilt of red yellow and blue like the sea
all kinds of shapes flying in
all directions with lovely flowers
growing all over it that had
brightened the long winter
days in the old house.
She looks down at her work and
touches lightly the yellow flowers
in the corner lying on her lap.
--- Elaine Harrison
from Voices Down East
Elaine Harrison's "Woman in Backyard" emphasizes the importance of one woman's artistic expression through quilting. Harrison contrasts the carefully made, colourful quilt with the poorly kept, ramshackle house. By focussing on the joy the woman takes in her quilt and its flowers, Harrison quietly transforms the quilt into an expression of the richness of the woman's internal life as well as a testament to a life circumscribed inside a house through the "long winter days." The quilt is identified very strongly with the landscape the woman is described in, especially considering Prince Edward Island's landscape is frequently described as a "patchwork" of green fields and red soil. Harrison's poem so neatly sews its pieces together that it becomes difficult to distinguish woman from landscape from quilt: they are all one fabric.
The most unflinching voice of all in Island publishing soon became Libby Oughton, who became owner of Ragweed Press in the early 1980s. Ragweed Press had been founded by Harry Baglole as a reaction to Central Canadian presses' evident lack of interest in "regional" or "local" stories. When Oughton became Ragweed's publisher, her potent feminism and dogged determination to establish a successful Island-based publishing business created the most welcoming climate that had ever existed for Island women writers.
In 1982, in the wake of an extremely successful Island Women's Arts Festival, Oughton's company oversaw publication of an important anthology called Island Women: Our Prose and Poetry. Before selling Ragweed and leaving Prince Edward Island, Oughton eventually realized her longtime dream of setting up a press devoted entirely to publishing women's writing. Gynergy Press, an imprint of Ragweed, continues to publish feminist and lesbian writing exclusively.
Throughout her tenure at Ragweed, Oughton wrote frequently about the challenges of being a woman business owner and a woman artist. (Many of her inspirational statements were published in Common Ground Magazine, an Island-based publication dedicated to women's news and views, edited through most of its history by Anne McCallum. Common Ground provided yet another space for publishing Island women's writing.)
I believe that artists are vital to influencing how we see ourselves and how we interpret our world. And isn't it strange when you look at the arts throughout history? Look at the visual artists, the painters. Look at the architects, the composers and musicians, the writers? Do you see many women in the list? Very few, I bet! But did not women paint, compose, write and play music, write and act in plays, write novels and poetry, exercise their very creative minds? They are beginning to be heard and seen now. So what happened? Why are the lists of artists so predomin[ant]ly male? Where is our women's artistic history?
These are probably enough questions to begin this article. I find just writing them down makes my fingers get furious. . . .
Of all the books published, only about 1 out of every 5-6 is by a woman. Is this because we write [less] "well" or because we write "differently" and thus have a hard time getting published, because most publishing houses are owned by men who may subtly or not-so-subtly censor our writings?
Not wearing my pinstriped suit and tie, I knocked on the door of the office that said Loans--Commercial. The man behind the desk said, "What do you want? You're in the wrong department. This is commercial loans." I did not know whether to break into tears, or become violent at all the implications his tone implied, "I want to borrow money to buy a computer for my company," I said. "What company are you representing?"
"No," I said. "You misunderstand me. I own the company."
I want to see the creative energy of women everywhere now--whether they stitch, paint, write, make up stories for children, write only in diaries, sit in the late night hours at the piano composing tunes of their own, or compose symphonies, choreograph ballets, become chefs, make films, write all the soap operas. I want our creative visions and interpretations to be seen and heard. It seems important to me, to you and to our families that we find a different way to live on this earth, interact with each other and care for each other.
--- Libby Oughton
Libby Oughton's own poetry is also exceptional. Her book Getting the Housework Done for the Dance
, for instance, offers the best examples of experimentation with poetic form of any book published by an Island woman in the 20th century. Her poem, "the fullerbrushman calls," below, provides an excellent example of the flexibilities and possibilities free verse allows. The poem contains several voices, and the form of the poem helps communicate the differences among the primary voices. The speaker of this poem, for instance, refers to herself as "i" (without a capital letter) and her thoughts are structured with short lines but minimum punctuation. Oughton takes advantage of the Modernist technique of reproducing a "stream-of-consciousness." The "fullerbrushwoman" has speeches that run like prose and have capital letters and punctuation. These grammatical inconsistencies are not errors. They represent deliberate choices the poet has made; she wants her writing style to help express the characters of the two women.
Oughton's poem tells a feminist story of a woman who is seeking her independence by taking on a new job -- a job that we know by the poem's very title has been traditionally a man's role. Oughton's poem amplifies the situation with such poignancy that a reader knows that the fullerbrushwoman's fears of "having to send [things] back" can be read as a metaphor for having to turn back from the brave path she is forging in her new life.
the fullerbrushman calls
these days i live with a country horizon
where hardly anyone visits but last Saturday surprised
by an afternoon knock
i opened the door and a woman
in worn k-mart clothes said slowly
a speech she must have practised for hours
as a carful of kids
pressed windows to watch in awe
mom really using those words
Hello. I'm the fullerbrushman. Remember us? Fine quality pro-
ducts brought directly to your door. We have just about every-
thing the little homemaker could want. Everything from
brushes to our new line of health products with that fuller
quality you've learned to respect. Are you the lady of the
house and could I take just a moment of your time to show
you . . .
please come in
Oh thank you, thank you. I get so nervous. I've just started
doing this. My old man ran off I've got a lot of kids to feed and
had to do something. Everytime I got a job usually waiting on
tables at night so at least some of the kids were in bed, I'd just
get so tired up day and night and have to quit and I hate the
welfare. Now I'm trying to do something on my own. So I
started going door to door in town but they don't seem much
interested in my products. Too many stores I guess these days.
So I'm trying out here. And it's so hard to go up and just knock
on someone's door but country people are a little nicer don't
you think and that woman up there in the trailer at least
looked at my catalogue. Can I show you? There's no obligation
none at all. Here. I've got this pen for you as a sample. Look. It
has my name on it. See? There. Of course it's not a brush is it
eh, like we used to get when I was little but if I could just sell
something, then I can get fancier samples you've got to buy
them you know. Oh I didn't mean to talk so much . . .
she shows me page by page by page
a careful speech for each item and i pay
attention to household cleaners herbal teas
brushes for my toilet
and to a woman's first (and bravest) step
i choose a few small things
and the carpet sweeper
and when i do
her hand trembles as she writes it down
(it's forty-nine dollars) in a whisper
she asks if i'm really sure
while one finger traces the spelling
m u l t i p r o e l e c t r o s t a t i c
Wish they'd call these something simple but I wouldn't want
to write it wrong. They might not accept my order. It could
take a week or two but as soon as it comes I'll bring it right out
will you be home. You don't have to pay now I'd never take
money without giving customers their things. Nobody's
ever bought one of these before. O thank you, thank you. Bye.
Today she drove the thirty miles
from her home only to find me out
and my niece here who says
with the saddest face i've ever seen
Oh I'm so sorry. I should have called but your aunt ordered
these products and they just came in this morning and I didn't
want to keep her waiting will she be back soon? I really want to
give them to her. I should've called . . .
She phones and makes the trip again
unpacks the treasured sweeper
demonstrates exactly how it works
for half an hour every detail is explained
how to get the smallest cat hair off the rug
and how useful the packing box will be --
then spends ten minutes cleaning the brush
am i satisfied it is worth the money?
yes yes yes i say
and with the softest smile she lifts her head
Oh I'm so happy, so glad. All today I was sick to death with
I might have to send it back.
--- Libby Oughton
from New Poets of Prince Edward Island
Oughton's poem "lilacs" describes in poetic form some of the feminist poetic values she helped encourage in other women through her publishing ventures and her activism. The speaker of the poem suggests that instead of using poetic form to obscure the details of her life story "paring her poems into skeletons / to hide in her closet," she should tell her story as she tells it to her intimate friend: with all its details and its unprotected joys and sorrows. "Write it that way," she says, and the gift of her insight brings a return of the unprotected, unhidden beauty of new lilacs.
she brings me her poems
years of a woman's life
closed into files and drawers
she is hesitant nervous
to expose her secrets to me
(who is supposed to know
how words flow together)
she has moved and removed
words stanzas phrases
pared her poems into skeletons
to hide in her closet
when i ask how what really happened
here or here the whole story tumbles
from her lips filled with such love
and sorrow for her lovers friends
children and neighbours
write it that way i suggest
a slow shy grin covers her face
she jumps up from my kitchen table
returns with her arms full of the season's
first lilacs ‘here i almost forgot . . .
I brought you
--- Libby Oughton
from Getting the Housework Done for the Dance
The importance of Libby Oughton and Ragweed's commitment to developing and publishing Island women writers was reinforced in 1999 when Rachna Gilmore
was awarded the Governor General's Literary Award for Children's Literature (Text) for A Screaming Kind of Day
. Ragweed had published Gilmore's first children's book, My Mother Is Weird
, in 1988, when Gilmore was living on Prince Edward Island.
Prince Edward Island women continue to play an important role in publishing. In the 1990s, Catherine Matthews (who had edited The New Poets of Prince Edward Island for Ragweed and had been a member of the poetry performance/self-publishing group The Secret Swarm) spearheaded publication of the poetry journal blue SHIFT. Alice Anna Reese provided much driving force behind the self-publication of a TWiG (The Writers in Group) anthology. Deirdre Kessler's Indigo Press published occasional volumes, including two biographies of important Island women: Mona Wilson and Wanda Wyatt. Laurie Brinklow's Acorn Press published "books about Prince Edward Island, by Prince Edward Islanders," including Jean Halliday MacKay's The Home Place.