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Six Books on Six Trails

A recommended reading list by the author of the new book Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity.

Book Cover Imagining Imagining

I read like Dylan Thomas, “all the time with my eyes hanging out.” I read at the breakfast table, in bed, in chairs, couches, coffeeshops, the bath (once as a teenager I tried to read in the shower) but I also read while walking. I did used to read paper books while on a stroll, but now I listen to audiobooks and podcasts. In my latest book, the essay collection Imagining Imagining I write about the revelation that the Walkman was to fifteen-year-old me: your head is an amphitheatre—the sound is inside! And your life can have a soundtrack whatever you’re doing. In the collection, I also write a lot about walking, mostly in parks and conservation areas and often at night with my dog. There’s an intimate pleasure in listening to books as one walks. The voice speaks only to you. What it is telling you colours your surroundings. It’s a narrative soundtrack, mood music in words. Certain places become associated with certain events in a story or certain ideas discussed in a podcast. And these may pile up to become sedimentary auditory formations. This particular bend in the path is where the narrator of Zoe Whittall’s The Spectacular meets a friend and also the place where Tristram Shandy’s father winds the clock and where Ornette takes a solo in Lonely Woman. Infinity, identity and misophonia meet under the bridge. The lawn bowling field evokes David Chariandy’s Brother as well as Bianca Stone and Dorothea Lasky speaking about The Shining and Carl Jung. With this idea in mind, I’d like to recount walks in six different places along with the writer and their work I was listening to during the time I was writing the essays in my new book. It’s a literary trail map, a walking footnote.


Book Cover Disfigured

Disfigured: On Fairy Tales, Disability, and Making Space, by Amanda Leduc

Dundas Valley Conservation Area, Merrick access. Dundas, Ontario

I slip off the trail and enter a pine wood. The sap scent. The needle-filtered light. Since some time ago, these trees were planted in rows, it feels uncanny, like I’ve entered a fairy story. And that fits perfectly with Amanda Leduc’s insightful exploration of fairy stories and how they represent disability and the other, how they've slipped into our consciousness like a frog into our bed, without us even knowing. I love how Leduc manages to interrogate the assumptions in the tales while maintaining a sense of mystery and wonder about the essence of these stories and the possibility they hold for inclusion.


Book Cover A Minor Chorus

A Minor Chorus, by Billy-Ray Belcourt, and David Naimon’s Between the Covers podcast interview

Churchill Park. Hamilton, Ontario

It’s 2am and I’m in Churchill Park again. It’s only 500m away from my house (just past my writer-friend Christine Miscione’s home) yet I can feel the change in temperature as the cool comes off nearby Cootes Paradise through the trees. Somewhere I can here quiet laughter from the park swings as a young couple play. Often there are deer over the fields but not tonight. The moon is large though and the clouds move quickly. David Naimon’s podcast Between the Covers is a favourite and a big inspiration for my book. His many insightful long-form interviews with writers that I know and writers that I come to know is something I often listen to as I walk. Tonight, he interviews Billy-Ray Belcourt and ties it in with discussions of Ursula K. Le Guin. They talk about alternatives to the hero narrative and Le Guin’s “Carrier Bag Theory,” and how Belcourt reimagines the novel in light of his Indigeneity and Queerness. This is a conversation and novel I return to.


Book Cover The Xenotext

The Xenotext Book 1, by Christian Bök, and Anthony Etherin’s Penteract Podcast

Christie Wildlife Area, Dundas, Ontario
Great Blue herons lift off over the lake. A thousand red winged blackbirds chirrup in the long rushes. My dog Happy swims back to shore, a stick in his mouth, ready for me to throw it back into the water. We'll do this for 45 minutes, then we'll hike back up the hill, over the bridge and through the trees. This is the second or third time I've heard Anthony Etherin and Christian Bök speak on this podcast, always about something fascinating. They're both masters of constraint-based writing (Anthony writes remarkably complex poems that are also anagrams or palindrome and maybe sonnets at the same time.) I've been thinking about Christian's Xenotext project where he's created a poem to be encoded by an organism's DNA and that will be transmuted as it is passed on to its RNA and then "write" the original sequence into its progeny's DNA. There's somewhere in the process where it makes the organism glow (as the poem puts it) faerie red. The idea is that this lifeform (an extremophile—one that will survive extreme conditions like the heat-death of the sun) will exist beyond human life. What can a poem look like? How do we communicate with the future? What is human legacy? How is our fate enmeshed with other organisms? All these ideas as well as Christian's persistence with this complex project amaze and inspire my thinking.


Book Cover There is No Blue

There Is No Blue, by Martha Baillie, 
Old Martin Rd Trail (Ancaster, Ontario)

The between places. The once-were. This old road winds between two forests and, just past a horse farm, ends in the bend of a country road. Martha Baillie's last book, Sister Language, written in conversation with her sister is a virtuoso back-and-forth, an inventive work and a touching testament to the complex relation between two remarkable sisters. This new work astounds with how suffused it is with sorrow, love, kindness, and inquiry, grief woven deeply into the entire narrative. This together with the understanding, love, bone-deep tenderness and a kind fundamental respect Baillie demonstrates for her family and their humanity is very powerful. The nuance and insight with which she expresses her experiences is energizing as is the unspoken through line of how she—how any of us—must make a life, find their way to meaning, understanding, and somehow find a resilience born of—what else could it be—love.


Book Cover Straggle

Straggle: Adventures in Walking While Female, by Tanis MacDonald, and her Watershed Writers Podcast

Christie Conservation Area (Dundas, Ontario)

Stacked picnic tables ready for the winter, boats piled on the shore. The empty conservation area has a haunted feel, as if the voices of what were are present yet inaudible. It's like a de Chirico painting. Metaphysical BBQs and swimming areas open for ghosts alone. I'm here, late fall, it'd be dark except for the rising moon. I'm aware that, me and my sheepadoodle, can only walk alone in this country conservation area because of our privilege. I've been thinking the social context of walking, of being in the world, after reading Tanis MacDonald's Straggle. I'm white, male and ablebodied. MacDonald with insight and charm, naturally and conversationally weaves feminist and disability issues into her essays; they arise out of her experience and considerations of others. Watershed Writers her podcast series explores writers and their relationship to our region, inexorably defined by our connection to its water. Happy leaps out of Spencer Creek and shakes. I, now, experience even more of a connection to water.


Book Cover Imagining Imagining

Imagining Imagining: Essays on Language, Identity and Infinity, by Gary Barwin

Baseline/Richmond Urban Forest (Ottawa, Ontario)

These works and these walks contributed to my new book which itself speaks about walks, family, the nature of reality, grief, dogs, the self, the future, music, trees and language, letters, and story. If I had to pick a hike for my own book, perhaps I'd choose the forest that doesn't exist anymore but that once grew near my home as a teenager in Ottawa and where, late at night, I'd prance down the trails playing tin whistle and pretending I was an elf, or perhaps, play my tenor saxophone and imagine I were a Jewish John Coltrane, playing the powerful and unknowable music of being human with the full dramatic commitment of my adolescence.

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