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Poetry Talk / The works of Ellie Sawatzky and Isabella Wang
November 5, 2021 @ 6:30 pm - 8:30 pm PDT
Friday, Nov 5th at 6:30pm, Massy Arts and Massy Books present an in-person literary double-launch: Isabella Wang’s “Pebble Swing” (2021, Nightwood Editions) and Ellie Sawatzky’s “None of This Belongs to Me” (2021, Nightwood Editions).
At the event, both authors will read passages from their works, and talk to the audience about their literary production. The launch will be hosted at the Massy Arts Gallery, at 23 East Pender Street in Chinatown, Vancouver.
Click HERE to know more about the event, and register to attend.
Following, Massy Books and Massy Arts invited Sawatzky and Wang for an exclusive insight into their works, asking both authors to analyze each other’s poetry in an intimate essay that revealed their perception of their writing process, and literary themes.
Click HERE to purchase Ellie Sawatzky’s “None of This Belongs to Me”
Click HERE to purchase Isabella Wang’s “Pebble Swing”
Ellie Sawatzky on “Pebble Swing”:
poems that witness time through the hourglass
by Isabella Wang
The colour of plum blossoms taints my dreams.
Light turns the wallpaper.
Time falls in gradients down the hourglass—
Tlick… Tlock… Tlick… Tlock…
The mechanic heartbeat
of a petal falling.
In my dreams, the deceased shadow
of a country laid to rest.
I, Isabella, was born to a cradle full
of tempest rains, the white flower in blooms.
The rhododendron an explosion of blooms
where a dog peed last winter—pink before, now blue.
A parcel arrives wrapped in blue flax paper
with the word coda.
The silhouette of the bird shudders, then falls
from behind closed shutters.
Souvenir from my mother’s trip to Africa:
seven ivory elephant figurines.
Tell me, does it hurt the ground more or the tree
if you are to extract it by its roots?
Pebble Swing (2021, Nightwood Editions)
These are the first two parts of five “Springtime Ghazals” by Isabella Wang.
A ghazal (pronunciation: “guzzle”) is originally an Arabic form consisting of syntactically and grammatically complete couplets. Traditionally, there is a word or phrase that ends each couplet, and an intricate rhyme scheme. The last couplet includes a proper name, often the poet’s (“I, Isabella, was born to a cradle full / of tempest rains”).
There is a spiritual quality to the ghazal form that I love, something prayer-like, and I love the way Isabella plays with this form throughout her beautiful debut, Pebble Swing. The form itself, and what Isabella does with it, speaks to the subject matter she is addressing in these poems, and in her book as a whole.
In what ways do we honour tradition, in what ways do we break from it?
What can we create in the space between where we have come from and where we end up?
These poems are self conscious, anxiously witnessing their time as it passes through the hourglass, praying for a moment of pause, a soft place to land, but the poet was born to a “cradle full / of tempest rains,” spring already in full swing, the seasons already pressing through their relentless cycle.
The second poem begins—a dog’s pee might have the power to change the colour of the rhododendron blossoms; a hopeful package arrives. It ends—a living elephant becomes a trinket, crosses continents; a tree is extracted by its roots. These poems bloom and slump like blossoms, rise and fall like daylight, each time hoping for a different outcome, a kind of magic that might save them from the inevitable.
The last couplet gives me chills:
“Tell me, does it hurt the ground more or the tree / if you are to extract it by its roots?”
Where we come from, where we end up, the meaning of country, home, belonging—all of this is explored with a kind of quiet desperation, followed by surrender.
Essay by Ellie Sawatzky
Isabella Wang on “None of This Belongs to Me”:
the lyrical and transformative terrains of collective wakefulness
by Ellie Sawatzy
Built first, hilltop. We moved in before the snow,
bunk beds in the loft where Bram and I would sleep
until our new house had walls, heat. Blue
light from the fishtank, tetras and pink-fleshed frogs
swimming back and forth through the night.
The tank and satellite TV were everything we needed,
our mother in the kitchen kneading
bread. Wild rice from the neighbours, first snow
falling on the green tin roof. Our father worked nights
at the hospital, Mother sipped coffee while we slept.
When did she sleep? She sewed quilts, CBC and frogs
for company. Mornings, the pines sent blue
shadows down the driveway, and Bram too, blue
superhero of himself, garage door open to the snow. Need,
want—we didn’t know the difference. A frog
floating belly-up after half-swallowing a fish. Snow
to bury their bodies. We didn’t know Bram was sick, sleepless
above me, needing insulin. I wasn’t afraid of nightfall
yet. Radio’s low murmur, my mother’s even breath all night
on the other side of a bookcase. Salamanders stenciled blue
and pink in spraypaint on the concrete floor. Asleep,
awake, my mind scurried with colour. Mother’s needle,
a quilt she called “When the Geese Come Home…”. Snow—
so much we couldn’t go to school. Simon Says and leapfrog
off the futons. Finally, winter’s grip slipped. We squatted frog-
legged on the shore, possibilities tossing under ice. Night
came slow. Our new house a skeleton wearing snow
like pearls. Sawdust, cedar. Coin smell of earth. Then Bram’s blue
veins straining in the hospital. Bram needing
so much, Mother refusing sleep,
and me, I felt lucky. I got to watch more TV, sleep
deeply a while longer. Sneak up on snakes and frogs
by the lake, still guilt-free, needless
to say, unworried about what might sneak up on me. Night
half-swallowed by morning. Black sky bluing
at the edges, warm breath over the garage, snow
dissolving like sleep. Dust, boxes of mice. Night-
hawks hunting, frogs keening in weeds. Blue
evening, animal needs exposed, and so many months until snow.
“None of This Belongs to Me” (2021, Nightwood Editions)
I have long admired the elegant intricacies of the sestina — being a lover of form myself, and whenever I read a sestina, I am so mesmerized by the musicality of its rhyme and flow, and both the beauty and the abilities of this form to move me tremendously.
To be moved by the sestina is to embrace the gift of an immersive, embodied experience.
How can you not, with the verses of Ellie Sawatzky’s “Garage Sestina”?
The sestina permeated the French, Italian, and Portuguese poetry traditions, growing in increasing popularity over the course of the 16th century. Recognized as a nuanced, complex form, the heart of the sestina pulses along a carefully curated schema of words that are introduced at the end of the first six lines of the opening stanza, and repeated in an alternating scheme throughout the middle and end words of subsequent verses.
In “Garage Sestina”, Sawatzky’s syncretic combination of the repeated words, “snow,” “sleep,” “blue,” “frogs,” “night,” and “needed” measure beautifully a rhythmic heartbeat that is at counterpoint to the careful, meticulous pace of her mother’s own sewing and needle.
Together, their love and care thread a quilt-like narrative of the working middle-class experience. Stitch by stitch.
Across the lyrical and transformative terrains of the snowy form, it is as if the sestina itself, upon hearing Sawatzky’s voice, has opened its eyelids to the slow poignant hours of dawn. And there is lots to be seen in this poem.
While outside, the snow builds up and thaws, the interior evocations of the home with frogs, walls, and heat, awakens the act of reciprocal making as a form of care gifting and solidarity among the nuclear family’s collective wakefulness.
Because no matter how careful and rubric-conformed a stitch or sestina might appear, Sawatzky’s kitchen and living rooms — within the formal structures of the poem — divulge a space that wants to recognize the lived instability of sickness, grief, and melancholy, much like the variegated fibers of the snowy weather.
While the dad “worked nights / at the hospital,” out of care and responsibility for strangers and his loved ones alike, the poem’s own music works by resisting sleep, in order to be awake to see.
The result is as poignant as “Garage Sestina” is formally innovative; with the pivots of Sawatzky’s end repetitions, these lines prompt the night air” to give breath to her homophonetic variations of “knead,” “need,” and “needle.”
Like snowflakes “falling on the green tin roof” of the family’s homely abode, these recurring words echo each other, but every one and their usages remain distinctively unique.
Essay by Isabella Wang