Under the Cover: Michelle Elrick's then/again, or "Write Home"

June 2, 2017 by Michelle Elrick

Michelle Elrick's latest,  then/again (Nightwood Editions), is a poetic account of rediscovering the place or places that have been "home," and likewise a rumination on what "home" means. In this Under the Cover, she talks about her multinational blanket fort project, Notes from the Fort, and how it inspired then/again.

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I once attended a workshop for writers led by Betsy Warland and Ross Laird on social media and how to build a dynamic, engaging, online presence. I’m sure I learned many practical things that day, yet the moment I remember most vividly occurred after lunch, as the sun slanted through the west-facing windows and Betsy paused in the midst of her presentation, held up a blank sheet of paper and said, “This is my homeland.”

I’ve long been fascinated with the concept of home and have struggled to give it meaning, both as a word and as a place. My ancestral stories are of emigrants, homesteaders and frontiersfolk. My own parents travelled great distances before finding each other and settling down in Abbotsford, British Columbia to raise their family. My young adult life followed its own migratory route between houses, cities and provinces as I set up homes in more than twenty postal zones in far fewer than twenty years. This transient lifestyle, coupled with my family’s migration stories left me feeling somewhat rootless. My interest in home, as a writer, has come from these experiences and stories, yet when I set down to write a book about home, these stories didn’t seem to fit.

To look back and tell a story of home is to deny one of the most fascinating realities of places—that they are in flux. Doreen Massey writes about this in her book, For Space, when she says, “you can never simply ‘go back,’ to home or to anywhere else. When you get ‘there’ the place will have moved on just as you yourself will have changed.” Returning home, whether through a physical journey or an imaginative one, is to have a new encounter with that place. I began to think about form: what if I were to write places rather than write about places? Suddenly, I was after a form that would preserve the evolving nature of my relationship with place, tracking and documenting the strange as it becomes familiar; a poetry that would enter on high alert and leave in a daydream; a poetry so engaged in the immediacy of encounter that there would be no room for explanations of cause and effect; a poetry akin to a snapshot, or to the sound of bell.  

The poetic moment is, for me, an epiphany. then/again emerged as a book that tracks that poetic moment between myself and places. As a way to begin, I headed out on the road with a suitcase full of blankets and began building forts. The project, called Notes from the Fort: a poetic of inhabited space, took me to sites in Reykjavik, Salzburg, the Moray Coast of Scotland, the banks of the river Seine and my hometown, Abbotsford. The fort itself was a visual translation of my personal home mythology and caricatured several prominent images from of my ideas of home—a collage of crocheted doilies, a quilt printed with my lineage from the Elrick family tree, a blue velour blanket embroidered with the floor plan of my childhood home, all my favourite hiding places marked ‘x’. Once constructed out on the land, each fort fluttered and billowed, flaunting home as a wildly temporary, changeable structure. From within each fort, I wrote. To honour the shifting, ever-evolving nature of place, I confined my writing to the present tense. I lived for those brief moments as a homesteader in a new land, on lookout for the poem.

 

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There are countless things to notice in any new place. Reading back on my notes from these forts I was able to see certain images, moods and settings repeat themselves. I began to cut and paste, collaging these thematically linked phrases of raw, poetic material into the beginnings of the seven long poems that make up the bulk of then/again. The sea rose as a frequent image with a mood of mesmerizing vastness, isolation and disconnection. I reworked these sea poem fragments into the long poem “a sea” and created a poem about the dual nature of our techno lives—living, as we do now, in both physical and digital spaces at once.

Yet there was another landscape I knew I needed to explore if I was to get close to a true account of home: memory. Revisiting a past house in my memory I seldom get the dimensions right, but I can feel the place from a deeply personal point of view: exaggerated, warped and whimsically unreal, yet carrying with it the remembrance of what it felt like to be me, there. Certain homes I remember as always full of sunshine and laughter, others silent but for creaking boards under tentative, tip-toeing feet. Following the lead of Italo Calvino in his book, Invisible Cities, I began to write these past houses metaphorically, aiming to sound the resonance they had left, rather than merely describe their appearance or what went on within them. And so, the Lipton house “is full of water,” the Matsqui Hotel is “attended by a young, white ram,” and St. Moritz “has negotiated a means of weeping” — all emerged as descriptions of houses that sit somewhat askew in my memory, caught in the web of circumstances, losses and joys that came to be in relation to a house.

When I think about the journey that writing this book has taken me on, I find myself back in that sunlit afternoon, staring at the bright, white page in Betsy’s hand, knowing that for all the travel, migration and wandering that made me wonder so deeply about home, finding it has been a matter of the page. 

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Michelle Elrick’s new book, then/again, was published this Spring by Nightwood Editions. She lives and writes by the North Atlantic.

 

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Thanks so much to Michelle for recounting her experiences with space and memory (and those gorgeous photos, too!), and to Nathaniel at Nightwood for making the connection. For more Under the Cover, click here.


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