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Filling the Gaps, Minding the Gaps: the Unconventional (Mostly) Small Town Girls of CanLit

An amazing recommended reading list by Robin Durnford, whose new poetry collection is Gaptoothed.

Book Cover Gaptoothed

My latest poetry collection, Gaptoothed, is about my own bashful, lusty Wife of Bath smile. Yet it is also about gaps in identity, memory, history—flaws, holes, spaces and absences, that when looked at from a certain angle, become powerful instruments of poetic expression. The collection, released by Gaspereau Press this past spring, is also about gender, girlhood, and the unconventional and vulnerable girls who too often fall through the cracks—or gaps—in a system that was never built to help the likes of them. The collection is dedicated to my late grandmother; she was supposed to be one of forgotten, cast-aside girls, but her tremendous wit, her razor-sharp tongue, her vitality made her unforgettable. The book is about the beauty of the one-of-a-kind that tells you off for not noticing sooner.

The books listed below have filled in the gaps for me over the years on a literary landscape that so often seemed full of holes—that still seems to be short so many vibrant and vital stories and poems and voices.


Book Cover Monkey Beach

Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson

This is not a poetry collection, but Eden Robinson’s prose has music to it ('80s music at that), and this story is all about what it means to grow up a tomboyish girl—Lisamarie—in a rough town you can’t help but love as the town itself hasn’t seen much love from the outside world. Robinson’s Kitimaat—500 miles north of Vancouver, in the middle of the wilderness, on the edge of the country and continent—reminded me of the town I grew up in on Newfoundland. Like Kitimaat, Stephenville was a million miles away from everything and everywhere seemed more important; a complicated place where indigenous people are in a constant struggle for identity and voice. And yet the stories that have been carved out of these edges are some of the country’s most beautiful, original, horrifying, like Monkey Beach/Monkey Beach itself. 


Book Cover Who Do You think You ARe

Who Do You Think You Are?, By Alice Munro

People seem too cool for Alice Munro these days, perhaps since she won the Nobel Prize, and I have to confess it took me years to get beyond the annoyance of her grand dame CanLit reputation (why are we like this?) to actually read her work. But what I discovered, as has often happened to me, is that I was an idiot. 

Who Do You Think You Are? is a brilliant collection of short stories about another small town girl, in this case Rose, who must carve out an identity for herself at a time, as now, when WASP-y Canadian society is hellbent on misunderstanding her or worse. Rose was always a girl who should have fallen through the cracks—she is poor, from the wrong place, and the first chapter is titled “Royal Beatings.” There is a scene in “Wild Swans” where you know that she will not let this happen: Rose is on a train heading for Toronto when a United Church minister puts his hand up her skirt. In the scene that follows, we witness Rose fumbling around with her desire and ultimately following it toward a complicated sexuality still overdetermined by the Canadian patriarchy, yet ultimately her own.


Book Cover Anne of Green Gables

Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery

A cliché I know, but I’m an island girl, an easterner who grew up on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I (sometimes) have red hair, an independent streak, and while I’m not an orphan, I traumatically lost my Dad (who was gentle like Matthew of Green Gables) while I was still young. Even though I haven’t read this book for decades, and my friend tells me it’s all about the Christian messaging, it definitely shaped me and Gaptoothed. When I was a young girl, I kept a diary in the tone of Anne, which began, “I’m in the depths of despair.” It was lost on the ferry coming back from Prince Edward Island some time in the mid-80s.


Book Cover A Really Good Brown Girl

A Really Good Brown Girl, by Marilyn Dumont

I first read Marilyn Dumont as a young PhD student at the University of Alberta. I’ll never forget reading these words from “The Devil’s Language” for the first time: “I have since reconsidered Eliot/ and the Great White way of writing English/ standard that is.” I didn’t know much about my own Indigenous heritage then—because of the insidious racism on the island and the erasure of Mi’kmaq women from the settler family stories—but I loved the stubbornness of her voice, the refusal to be stereotyped, the determination to speak boldly in her own language, her mother’s language: “of the voice that rocks you and sings you to sleep/ in the devil’s language.” The gap left by so much lost language in this country in unfathomable, but in poems like these the depth of the loss can be expressed, the spirit of the words recovered. 


Book Cover Collected Works of Pat Lowther

The Collected Works of Pat Lowther, by Pat Lowther (Editor: Christine Wiesenthal)

Pat Lowther was pushed into the gap when she was murdered by her husband on her way to a poetry reading at Vancouver’s Ironworkers Hall in 1975, a year after I was born. I didn’t even realize it until years later, but the spirit of Pat Lowther haunted me throughout my time in Alberta, before I ever read a word of her poetry. At the time, my PhD supervisor, Dr. Christine Wiesenthal, was working on her award-winning biography, The Half-Lives of Pat Lowther, just as I was finding my voice as a poet after the early death of my own father. It was not until later, when I read Lowther’s work, especially the poems in A Stone Diary, that I discovered a kindred spirit who was following her own path, stone by stone, before being taken down: “At the beginning I noticed/ the huge stones on my path/ I knew instinctively/ why they were there/ breathing as naturally/ as animals…”


Book Cover Lullabies for Little Criminals

Lullabies for Little Criminals, by Heather O’Neill

Montreal is now my city, too, and so as I go about my business, I always feel like I am on watch for Baby. As I raise my son here, I want to know about kids like Baby and not close my eyes to those, like her, who go unseen on the streets or fall through the system. I’ll never forget listening to CBC’s Canada Reads as the Winnipeg musician John K. Sampson put up such a passionate defense of Lullabies, and by extension created space for all the kids like Baby, against a panel member who said the book was too "negative" and "trashy", an attempt to extend the erasure of the forgotten ones by middle-class white Canada. Through O’Neill’s baroque and honest descriptions of her city’s impossible—and impossibly lovely—streets, I felt like I knew the real Montreal even before I came.


Book Cover Sôhkêyihta

Sôhkêyihta: The Poetry of Sky Dancer, by Louise Bernice Halfe

As with Marilyn Dumont and Pat Lowther, I first encountered Louise Bernice Halfe in Alberta, but I recently taught her poem, “Residential School Bus,” to teenagers in Montreal, and I could see the effect she was having on them right away. After reading her moving descriptions of the “yellow caterpillar bus” swallowing the “little brown” children in order to take them off to residential school, I could see that some of these students were seeing their country as if for the first time. The unspeakable gaps left behind by the residential school system was finally sinking in. Halfe, a residential school survivor herself, has said that writing poetry about her past exposed her, rendered her yet more vulnerable even as it healed her in other ways. Her willingness to be visible, to give visibility to so many little kids with their “stained faces in the windows” is a gift to us all.


Book Cover Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant

The Selected Stories of Mavis Gallant, by Mavis Gallant

The strange thing about Mavis Gallant’s career is that she seems more popular outside Canada than inside, and you’re hard-pressed to find any evidence she even existed in her native Montreal where there are entire buildings dedicated to the muraled faces of Leonard Cohen—who can be seen from the splendid windows of Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts—and even Mordecai Richler, not far from St. Urbain Street. And this is despite the fact that she wrote a whole short story collection called Montreal Stories. To be fair, it was her Paris stories that made her famous, and so I suppose some of the oversight in such an oft-petty country is understandable. But it must be said that Mavis Gallant could, objectively speaking, write circles around both men. Just one of the sentences in her best work, such as “The Other Paris,” is packed with such elegance and wit that I trust that in the long run her literary skill will make her as visible in her own country as she is around the world.


Book Cover Cat's Eye

Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood

Like many other Canadian women, I have been disappointed with the tone deafness of Margaret Atwood’s Twitter feed as of late, but I do feel I owe her a shout out for the many novels and stories she has written that deal with women’s experiences honestly and unsentimentally. First among these would be Cat’s Eye, which was the first novel I had ever read that described the reality of how nasty girls could be to each other. The youthful experiences of the artist Elaine Risley left an impression, a reminder that the struggle to be heard often starts not with men but with other women—many of whom have been relentlessly socialized to exclude those who do not conform to accepted standards of femininity. Too often artists are the first to fall onto the painful social trash heap, especially in high school.


Book Cover Merrybegot

Merrybegot and Red Ledger, by Mary Dalton

I would be remiss if I did not mention at least one of the many talented writers from my island, the literary greats that have made the work of a new generation of Newfoundland writers possible. Newfoundland, like Ireland, is one of the few places in the world where being a writer is a cool, sexy thing to do. Mary Dalton is the grand dame of Newfoundland poetry, presiding in this role from her professorial perch in St. John’s like a North Atlantic Athena. She is a formidable force, and I’ll never forget the first time I gave a reading in St. John’s, at a tiny used bookstore on Duckworth Street, and when I looked up, there she was, generous, unrelenting. There can be no doubt that in collections like Merrybegot and Red Ledger, linguistically sensitive, even delicate, Dalton made it possible for a girl like me to speak with my own accent, even if my own is a bit rougher and salty-tongued than Mary’s. Writers like Dalton created space for a gap-toothed poet like me, from the middle of nowhere, to say something, to fill in some of the gaps.


About Gaptoothed:

Gaptoothed steps into the voided spaces and fissures that disrupt our sense of identity and obscure our connections to a world that otherwise seemed our own. Chronicling the alienating effects of the death of family members and her disorienting unmooring from her Newfoundland home, her culture, and her history, Durnford’s autobiographical poems inhabit gaps that left so much of her experience unnamed, unspoken, and missing. While confronting significant matters like death, adolescence, gender inequality, and the instability of history, Durnford retains an ear for language’s wildness, resulting in poems as vigorous, playful, and brash as an open-mouthed laugh.

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