Uncovering unspoken voices. This has been a consistent theme in my lifelong work as psychotherapist, author, artist and social activist. 87 years old, I was born in 1929 at a time when women were expected to keep silent about anything other than the mundane workings of domestic life. Alcoholism, divorce, single parenthood, suicide were taboo topics in my own life and in the social realm, and I wanted to find a way to give these issues a voice. In my new book, Laundry Lines, A Memoir in Stories and Poems, the central story, ‘Weave and Mend’, explores the generational impact of family secrets.
In my quest I am guided by writers like Audre Lorde and bell hooks who challenge languages to reveal the voices silenced in patriarchy (women, sexual orientation, race, class, poverty). Reading Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” in The Cancer Journals lifted me up from a sense of loneliness - “maybe I am a crazy, whiny, dissatisfied, unfulfilled woman”- to a feeling of belonging to a (small) group of women “warriors,” to use Lorde’s words. I was encouraged to keep on delving/thinking/writing about my own experiences in the face of disbelief, ridicule, and worse, indifference.
I am also encouraged when contemporary authors write about the buried past, as Sean Arthur Joyce does so movingly in Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Canada’s Home Children in the West.
Courage and determination and a sense of not-alone are one thing. But how to speak the unspeakable and transform my silence into language and action in an act of self-revelation? I remember how my first “speaking out” was in paint and clay during an illness which left me profoundly weary and with a brain that felt like sludge. Art “work” was scary. I was disobeying a family injunction not to trespass on my artist sister Jane Champagnes’s territory. Jane was an accomplished plein air water colourist and the author of Painting the Ontario Landscape. I remember that my hand shook and my stomach squeezed. But I did it!
Even now, when beginning to “speak” I am happiest shaping clay. Some artists begin with an armature, a skeleton shape, build on that, adding and taking away until it resembles what they “had in mind.” I can do this, although it feels like an already formed idea, with less room for invention. I prefer to begin with a lump of clay, removing small pieces and shaping until a form emerges. What appears is “developed” with care, adding on and taking away until whoever I am in that moment is there in the clay. An image open to interpretation … with no need for words. I am satisfied.
Words are a last movement into full consciousness and are necessary when I want to reach out, speak to, and perhaps be heard, by a wider audience. The process of sculpting and writing, always self-revelatory, is much the same for me, except that finding and winnowing words is more difficult. Occasionally I begin with an idea, do research, build a framework, flesh it out so that ideas, opinions—even feelings—are communicated as clearly as I can.
Usually I begin with images, feelings, and physical sensations that call out to be expressed (and that feel like a formless, restless mass of discomfort and/or excitement). On the page there are too many words. Editing is ruthless as this “wonderful mess” is pruned and pruned, and pruned again to find the right word, shape the line breaks in poetry, listen to the rhythm, alter sentence structure, punctuation, read out loud for cadence and accessibility. As my editor Anne Champagne reminds me, “You must be prepared to give away your darlings.” Collette is even more ruthless when she advises, “You are not an author until you can judge your own stuff’s worth, without pity, and destroy most of it” (Casual Chance, 1964). I cannot do that by myself. For me, it is critically important—and a great gift—to work with editors who understand your “voice” and can challenge you in ways that fit your style and what you are trying to accomplish.
Clay is my artistic home place but I am also rooted in family storytelling that stretches behind to jongleur and ballad and ahead to thinking that I will find a way to tell the untold stories I yearn to be heard.
Over time, whatever story I am telling, poetry, with its intense focus on the moment, became the best way for me to step outside the truth/fiction divide and to make consciousness heard and visible. And poetry can make the kind of impact that narrative seldom achieves. As Emily Dickinson says in a letter: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it. Is there any other way?”
Repression and silence can be survival strategies but, as Lorde said, eventually, “the piece inside you that wants to be spoken out … one day will just up and punch you in the mouth.” Staying with and writing the fine lines running amongst silence, visibility and vulnerability is scary, exciting, and when the writing “works,” I know of no greater sense of exhilaration and satisfaction.
As an adult educator, author, poet and artist, I know that we all learn and express ourselves through images, storytelling, movement and sound. To express “life’s long fact fiction dance” as fully as I can, and, so that what is on the page appeals to readers at many levels, my books incorporate image, prose narrative and poetry. The workshops I lead experiment with images, music, movement and song, as well as spoken and written word. With Lorde, I don’t trust words to say it all. I want the whole circus!
Ann Elizabeth Carson’s most recent book, Laundry Lines, A Memoir in Stories and Poems (Inanna Publications 2015) continues her exploration of the silenced voices in our society. Previously with York University and a retired psychotherapist Ann Elizabeth is a poet, author, sculptor and feminist honoured at the 2008 Luminato Festival as one of Toronto’s Mille Femmes who have made a contribution to the arts. Ann Elizabeth’s work has appeared in various publications from Maine to Vancouver and in four previously published books: Shadows Light, My Grandmother’s Hair, The Risks of Remembrance and We All Become Stories.
A Toronto native and long-time summer resident on Manitoulin Island, Ann Elizabeth writes, sculpts and reads from her work in solo and collaborative events in Toronto and on the Island. She leads workshops in how the arts create a new perspective on how we see ourselves and our world, and in the ways memoir is expressed in visual images, music, dance and words.